Wednesday 24 November 2021
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind hon. Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the estate, which can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered energy intensive industries.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I am grateful to have secured this timely debate. As we continue to emerge from the economic hit of the covid crisis and as financial activity builds and grows, energy prices are noticeably higher and our constituents are feeling the pinch. We have seen domestic suppliers go bust, and jobs and product affordability have been threatened by the cost of energy to businesses. The short-term issue of price volatility is exacerbated by longer-term issues of energy production and energy efficiency.
Today, I will set out the issues facing industries that rely on the intensive use of energy, not least the ceramics industry, for which the Potteries are internationally famous. It is worth remembering that to be the world capital of ceramics, Stoke-on-Trent needed to be not just a city of pots and clay, but a city of pits. The energy requirements to fire ceramics at extreme temperatures are intense, and it was local coal—as well as clay—that fired kilns historically.
Times change and coal firing is now, thankfully, a thing of the past. The last such firing was literally a museum piece, organised by the fantastic Gladstone Pottery Museum in my constituency at the Sutherland works of Hudson & Middleton in 1978. It is a good thing that coal firing is a long-lost practice. We should not over-romanticise the scenes of smoke billowing from hundreds of bottle kilns, which came at the human cost of debilitating industrial illnesses such as miner’s lung and potter’s rot, but neither should we look to close the industry down or leave it to wither on the vine, as the last Labour Government did, when massive household names, including Spode, Tams and Royal Doulton, were lost during their time in office.
The ceramics industry was born out of the innovation of Josiah Wedgwood and, while some processes from that time survive, the industry has continuously been one of innovation, with producers often competing to deliver even greater efficiencies. Just as the ceramics industry has had to adapt and adjust from the use of coal to the use of gas and electricity, it is currently adapting and innovating to the ongoing shift from gas. We should support it and other energy-intensive industries in doing so.
As a whole, the energy-intensive industries of steel, chemicals, paper, glass, cement and lime, industrial gases and ceramics contribute £38 billion annually to UK GDP, according to figures from the Energy Intensive Users Group. The group notes that the industries provide 200,000 jobs directly and support 800,000 indirectly. Those are not jobs that we should lose to international competitors with lower environmental standards than our own, lower ambitions for carbon reduction or higher interventionism.
There is an urgency to ensuring that energy-intensive industries survive in the UK, due to the real and present danger of the volatility in world energy markets. It would be a tragedy if short-term price pressures were allowed to undermine British industry just at a time when order books are recovering strongly from covid and firms are looking to take on more skilled staff. Just as there is a need to keep industrial jobs in Britain, we need to make sure that the existing orders for goods stay on the books of British firms.
Competitor countries are providing support and are ready to seize the market share. Worryingly, that includes competitors with less exposure to world energy markets and scant regard for enforcing environmental protections. In ceramics, it is worth being clear what that risk is.
The renaissance of the ceramics industry since 2010 is a great British success story, with the sector’s gross value added doubling in real terms from 2009 to 2019, according to the House of Commons Library. Ceramics is particularly important in the midlands economy. Some 60% of direct employment in the sector is within the midlands engine, and most is concentrated in the Staffordshire Potteries, focused on Stoke-on-Trent. The sector’s products encompass everything from crockery to electrical components, bricks to agricultural filters, sanitaryware to armoured plating, tiles to prosthetic joints, and pipes to works of fine art.
I have previously visited Ross Ceramics in Newstead in my constituency, which has expertise in the manufacture of complex geometry ceramic cores, which are used in the casting process of jet engine components for aerospace and other industrial uses. It is world-leading engineering. Far from being an industry of the past, modern manufacturing in advanced ceramic technologies is securing the future of skilled employment on good wages in and around north Staffordshire, but firms that usually face one third of their total production costs from energy are suddenly finding that two thirds of costs are from energy.
The industry has long militated against price shocks by buying energy in advance, but many were stung by the pandemic, finding that they had excess energy at a time of restricted demand for ceramic production, and taking a loss on selling back that energy. Things have now boomeranged completely. Firms that had held off from buying energy early for this winter—for fear of further lockdowns hitting demand—now face severe financial difficulties. Firms with full order books operating at 100% capacity have none the less had to contemplate shutting down early in December, out of fear that it will be cheaper to pay employees not to work than to incur the costs of the necessary amount of gas and electricity to fire products at 1,000°C or more.
I note that Portugal, a direct competitor for tile manufacturers, has recently introduced a 30% reduction in the network access tariff for the ceramics sector. That is just one example. Many countries around the world have taken such steps to support energy-intensive industries that have high costs. The industry’s electricity prices in the UK are some of the highest in Europe and are becoming uncompetitive. Additionally, although many of our manufacturers use electricity to generate heat, others who could switch to decarbonise are deterred from doing so by the high cost of commercial electricity on top of the capital investment that would be needed.
I am encouraged that the Government’s industrial decarbonisation strategy of April this year recognises the dangers and undesirability of simply offshoring production, or ceding it to competitors, as a route to getting the UK’s overall emissions down. Of course, the Government have devised the energy-intensive industries exemption scheme, which is great for businesses that qualify for it. Unfortunately, many of the industries in Staffordshire are excluded at the first hurdle from what the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has dubbed the “sector-level test”. Specifically, that means businesses within NACE codes 23.41, 23.42 and 23.43, which cover household ceramics and ornaments, sanitaryware and insulators. Those codes need to join other NACE codes in the ceramics sector that, thankfully, are within the eligibility criteria—namely 23.20, which covers refractory products; 23.31, which is ceramic tiles and flags; 23.32, which is bricks and so on in baked clay; 23.44, which is other technical ceramic products; and 23.49, which is other ceramic products.
If we see the industrial decarbonisation strategy as a herald of the Government’s intention for a serious investigation of the longer-term measures needed to support industry as it transitions to lower-carbon energy, we need to look at how the parallel doubling of public research and development investment can benefit energy intensive industries. That will be necessary to improve efficiency, to encourage a move towards more electric firing and to develop hydrogen as the solution for the larger high-powered kilns where electricity is not an option.
There is a pressing need for an investment strategy for R&D in the energy transition for the midlands engine ceramics cluster, which is just as important as those in London and the Oxford-Cambridge arc who have for far too long received disproportionately high public R&D funding. Public R&D funding is particularly needed in a sector such as ceramics, given the high number of small and medium-sized enterprises—as much as 97% of the sector, according to the British Ceramic Confederation. Even firms that do pass the sector-level test for the energy-intensive industry scheme have difficulty passing the business-level test, due to the smaller-sized enterprises typical of the sector—even firms with worldwide brand recognition.
When certain qualification thresholds for energy-related assistance are set at tens of millions of pounds per work site, the ceramics industry loses out. A sum of £1 million per site would be more realistic. The use of NACE codes could, as has already been demonstrated, target lower thresholds at the ceramics industry for its particular characteristics and configuration.
I know that the Government recognise their responsibility to step up to the plate. Only this Monday, the Government announced £9.4 million to back a trailblazing hydrogen-storage project near Glasgow, helping to create high-skilled jobs. Last week, the Royal Navy issued a market exploration notice to seek hybridisation of the fleet, seeking private sector expertise for a public sector commission to reduce emissions by 20% to 40% by 2030.
The week before that, the RAF announced that it had secured a Guinness world record, no less, for the world’s first successful flight using only synthetic fuel, in partnership with Zero Petroleum Ltd. There was also confirmation this month of the highly significant £200 million Government investment in the Rolls-Royce small modular reactor—an exciting development that could create 40,000 jobs and secure many more in the supply chain, including at Goodwin International in Stoke-on-Trent, which leads the way in British precision engineering.
Sources of intense energy with low to zero carbon emissions are one clear way forward for heavy industries. Another is carbon capture and heat capture. The Minister will know that Stoke-on-Trent leads the way with a district heat network to use deep geothermal energy to heat our city and save thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, benefiting residents, education providers and businesses alike.
We can go further; I know that our local industries want to go further, but they need support to do so. Keele University, in our neighbouring borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme, has not only worked with EQUANS, part of the ENGIE Group, to generate and store energy from wind and solar on campus; it has also worked with Cadent Gas to demonstrate that hydrogen can be blended at up to 20% into the natural gas network, with no adverse effects for users. The consequent reduction in carbon emissions is obvious, but with hydrogen being six times as combustible as natural gas, public reassurance on safety will be paramount.
Fortunately, Keele and Cadent found in their year-long trial that it is safe to use a 20% hydrogen mix, saving 27 tonnes of CO2 emissions in the process. Rolling that out to the domestic market nationally could remove from the atmosphere the equivalent emissions of taking 2.5 million cars off the road, all without changes to current gas heating and cooking appliances. For any new fuel source tested in private homes and campus buildings, as happened with the Keele-Cadent trial, there is a need to research the effects on ceramic and other industrial production, not least because glazes can respond very sensitively.
The hon. Member is making a good speech. Does he agree that it is high time the Government changed the regulations on hydrogen blending to allow that to happen in the gas network? At the moment, the gas management safety regulations do not allow any blending above 2%, which is contrary to the Government’s own hydrogen strategy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I know that the Government are looking at that. Further trials at scale are being looked at—in Newcastle, I believe—to be undertaken by Cadent. I am sure that that will lead to further changes and to developments of hydrogen mix within the industry.
As I was saying, it is important to do that testing for energy-intensive industries, not least because glazes can respond sensitively to firing conditions, such as temperature and humidity. For that reason, I am glad to say that certain offshore production lines have looked to return to Stoke-on-Trent from locations with different climatic conditions that simply do not create the pristine quality of ceramic goods one gets from Stoke-on-Trent. I have been pleased to discuss with Cadent the importance of fully scientifically trialling and testing the impact of hydrogen mix, and I know that Cadent has been looking into this further with Lucideon, which leads the industry in ceramics research and material science.
I have argued for several years that we need an international research institute—a ceramic park—based in Stoke-on-Trent to institutionalise the myriad projects and advances, not least the work of Lucideon, to develop hydrogen kilns, which I am pleased to say recently secured UK Research and Innovation funding. What we need now is a dedicated research facility as a base for those projects for the industry, with Lucideon as the anchor. Glass Futures in St Helens is one example of what might be achievable by learning from another energy-intensive industry.
I am sure that the British Ceramic Confederation will have engaged with the Minister about its ambition for a similar world-leading centre of excellence for the world capital of ceramics. Indeed, as the BCC will point out, the sector has been working on recycling waste heat for decades, such as by pre-heating spray dryers with exhaust gases or heating spaces via heat exchangers on tunnel kilns. This is not a sector that wants to waste anything, and where it is economically viable, energy and carbon efficiency has been invested in for decades.
I should note that one such improvement comes from switching from intermittent to continuous kilns. One of the dangers of today’s very high energy prices is that kilns may need to be shut down completely and then restarted, which is far more complicated and dangerous than it sounds, with wide-ranging consequences. However, innovation must continue. That means supporting the development of new technologies, providing incentives for large-scale investment in proven technologies, and creating a regulatory framework that supports decarbonisation alongside the international competitiveness of UK industry. Some of the new technologies are almost there, but there are issues to overcome. For example, we have to overcome tar build-up or moisture content, depending on the fuel innovation; resist corrosion for acidic kiln exhaust gases; and avoid emissions of nitrogen oxides.
The need to produce and distribute hydrogen on a large scale must be fully researched, not least because hydrogen is also being touted as a fuel of the future for everything from JCBs to trains, including the freight trains that will bring the fine white china clay into the Potteries and will hopefully take more products out in the future. The Government want demand for hydrogen to be high, so they must ensure that the market conditions are right for a ready fuel supply. Interestingly, I note that as part of the Government’s industrial fuel-switching competition, BEIS funded a £3.2-million project led by the Mineral Products Association and Hanson UK to trial a mix of 100% net zero fuels, including hydrogen, meat and bone meal and glycerine, for commercial-scale cement in Lancashire for the very first time this September. Let us see more of those sorts of trials covering more of our energy-intensive industries.
In conclusion, I am happy that we have a Government who have enabled manufacturing to resurge in the UK, particularly the British ceramics sector. Modern and advanced manufacturing is a key provider of high-skilled, well-paid employment across Stoke-on-Trent—not just in ceramics, but emblematically so, as it is the world capital of that industry. We are on the cusp of very big advances in low-emission energy, and we need to seize the opportunities without taking our eye off the ball of the short-term dangers of price volatility in traditional fuel markets. Energy-intensive industries are spread right across the country, and are crucial to realising the higher-skill, higher-wage economy that will level up opportunities. I look forward to the Minister’s response detailing how the Government will meet the challenges ahead.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this debate and on a very good opening speech, in which he has talked about the ceramics industry. I hope that his speech demonstrates the call for greater Government support for energy-intensive industries, including steel, which I will be talking about today, representing Llanwern steelworks and Liberty Steel in Newport East. I hope that shows that this is a truly non-partisan, cross-party campaign that we can all agree with.
I declare an interest today as a proud member of the Community and GMB trade unions, which—along with Unite—so ably represent steelworkers in my constituency and across the UK. Those campaigning unions, along with the industry trade body UK Steel and hon. Members of different parties, have long banged the drum about the need to reduce eye-watering energy prices, which hold back our steel sector. I make no apologies for doing so again today, as this is an issue that has not gone away; in fact, it has got much worse over the last year.
Even before the pandemic hit, industrial energy prices were hitting our steel producers to the tune of £50 million a year. In the five years that UK Steel has been monitoring the costs, they have cost the UK sector £0.25 billion more than what is paid by French and German producers. UK steel producers—we always quote this fact, but it is worth doing so again—still pay 86% more than German competitors and 62% more than those in France. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said earlier, wholesale prices are now at record highs, with electricity costs peaking in October. To put that into context on the ground, energy costs for medium-sized steel rolling mills in south Wales and across the UK have almost quadrupled over the past year. One manufacturer said to me that it was paying £130,000 a week, which has now gone up to over £500,000 a week in some cases.
There is nothing inevitable about this, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) said in Wales questions last week. Other countries have acted swiftly to ensure that energy costs are less of a burden on steel producers. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned the Portuguese Government. The Spanish and Portuguese Governments have taken decisive steps, including reducing the extraordinary profits made by energy companies, cutting special electricity tax rates for steel, and introducing a minimum 30% reduction in network charges for industrial users. Although every economy and every country is different, such steps represent Governments making a tangible show of support for their steel sectors—an example that the UK Government should follow.
The reasons why we support our steel sector fall into even sharper focus following COP26. Indeed, there was welcome acknowledgement at the summit that the world cannot decarbonise without steel—whether it is for use in wind turbines, electric cars, energy-efficient buildings, infrastructure and much more. That is why it was all the more disappointing that nothing of note for steel was in the Budget, which UK Steel rightly called a “missed opportunity” and a “triumph of complacency”, particularly on support to help the industry to decarbonise. For example, there was nothing on industrial energy costs, even though we know that the move towards decarbonisation will require even more energy-intensive methods of steel production.
I asked the Prime Minister about this last week but did not get much of an answer, so I will put the question to the Minister: what is happening with the clean steel fund that the industry was promised? It was absent from recent announcements and last month’s net zero strategy paper, and when my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) raised the issue in the main Chamber recently, he was referred to the industrial energy transformation fund, which is two years older than the proposed clean steel fund. It really feels like the Government do not know what is happening to it, and its absence risks adding to the growing gap between what is needed to decarbonise the sector and what is available in support.
We have also heard little from the Government on improving the procurement of UK steel—a move that would support jobs and livelihoods, benefit our economy, provide value to the taxpayer, and lower our carbon footprint. The latest Government data on how much steel is sourced for the UK includes only 160 tonnes of British steel, which is somewhat lower than the estimated 800,000 to 900,000 tonnes that the forward-looking pipeline indicated. It is not good enough, and it is about time the Government took steps to ensure the maximum economic value of public money to be spent on steel in the coming years.
It is worth saying again that the Government talk the talk on net zero and industrial strategy, but it is really not worth anything if steel is not at its core, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) will agree. When the Community union launched the “We Need Our Steel” campaign, the “We” it referred to was not just our world-class, highly skilled steelworkers, or communities such as mine, with industry at their heart, and all those in the supply chain. It also referred to government at all levels harnessing the potential of steel and using it to build back the economy after the pandemic, and to power a green industrial revolution.
My hon. Friend is giving an excellent speech. It appears that some Members on the Government Benches seem to see steel as a sunset industry. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It is at the cutting edge of innovation. New alloys are being developed all the time. We need to emphasise the fact that this is a future-facing industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for opening this very important debate.
On top of fierce international competition, the recent volatility of energy prices means that energy-intensive industries are facing significant challenges to remain competitive in the global market. That is putting thousands of jobs and livelihoods at risk. That is why we need to take action now.
UK electricity prices for extra large industrial consumers in the second half of 2020 were higher than for any European Union member state. My hon. Friend will be aware that the steel industry, much like ceramics, is heavily reliant on vast amounts of heat to produce high-quality consumer goods and materials. With China now dominating the market, accounting for 53% of production, more needs to be done to protect the quality British steel we make here from crippling high costs, which will potentially exclude us from the very industry that we created.
The British steel market needs the Government to remain committed to it. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) is absolutely correct to say it is a future-facing industry. We need the Government to remain committed to this future industry to protect the generations of families who have worked in and around it. Sadly, the number of people working in steel has already declined by half since 1990. We need to buck that trend if we are to deliver on our 2020 mandate. Sectors such as steel are vital to the Government’s levelling-up agenda, with modern technology and infrastructure increasingly dependent on steel for components for everything from wind turbines to electric cars. Consequently, it is essential that we support these industries as they struggle to respond to higher energy prices.
The Port Talbot steelworks is located in the constituency of the hon. Member for Aberavon, just on the doorstep of Bridgend and Porthcawl, and hundreds of my constituents are employed there, much like their families before them. The jobs, and the people, need to be safeguarded.
The Government currently provide compensation to energy-intensive industries for higher electricity costs associated with low-carbon energy emission reduction policies. Between 2013 and September 2020, that provided the steel sector with £480 million. Nevertheless, the steel sector is calling loudly for further support from the Government. The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) highlighted the UK Steel electricity price report of February 2021, which estimated that electricity prices would cost UK steelmakers an additional £54 million, compared with production costs in Germany. For the past five years, the cost is £254 million. These are clear danger signals. We are teetering on the edge and we need urgent action.
I would strongly welcome more targeted Government support for hydrogen technology within the steel sector, to help our green transition to cleaner and more affordable energy. I was delighted to see the Chancellor’s announcement in the autumn Budget of £140 million to establish the industrial decarbonisation and hydrogen revenue support scheme, and the £240 million in the net zero hydrogen fund—but more needs to be done, working in conjunction with the steel industry.
I would welcome a commitment to work with international partners that are world leaders in exploring hydrogen technology, such as Sweden and the United States, to explore potential areas of co-operation. Investment in the green hydrogen-based steel demonstrator project via the clean steel fund requires more clarity, which I hope can be provided today. We ought to prioritise green hydrogen in the net zero hydrogen fund, with the goal of commercialisation.
Looking ahead, I firmly believe hydrogen is key to achieving the Government’s ambitious net zero strategy and to building a green economy, and that such technologies will be crucial for the future development and protection of our steel sector. Now that we have taken back control of our own laws, including those on state aid, we can and we should go further. Finally, more support for transition to a hydrogen-steel economy should be considered as vital in how we respond to the current major challenges to the steel sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this very important debate.
Manufacturing is the backbone of the British economy, but it is a backbone that has been dangerously damaged in recent decades. By failing to back our manufacturing sector, successive Conservative Governments since 2010 have only succeeded in offshoring jobs. As a result, they are ripping the heart out of our local communities, while also offshoring our carbon emissions. The Government’s No.1 priority should be to do whatever it takes to support and regenerate our manufacturing sector.
Steel is the cornerstone of that manufacturing sector, and it will continue to be so for decades into the future. Steel is the homes that we live in, the vehicles that we drive and the offices that we work in. Steel will build the smart cars and the wind turbines that power our economy forward. The Government appear to believe that steel is a sunset industry, but nothing could be further from the truth. The steel industry is a hotbed of innovation and pioneering technology.
Tata Steel is the largest private sector employer in my constituency, and the company is absolutely determined that there should be a future for UK steelmaking, while also recognising the importance of decarbonisation. It recognises that for UK steelmaking to enjoy a prosperous future, the industry needs support and partnership from the UK Government, first by working with the industry to manage a pathway to net zero on both public and private investment, but also by the Government levelling the playing field in order to ensure that the industry is competitive against its European counterparts.
Let us be clear—the current energy spike has played havoc with energy-intensive industries.
The hon. Gentleman is making a first-class speech. I was brought up in Sheffield and lived there for 20-odd years. I know what he is talking about and he is completely right. I am not going to make a speech, but I want to congratulate him.
I thank the hon. Member for his kind words.
Let us be clear—the energy spike has played havoc. November 2021 prices peaked at 50 times the 2020 average, at £2,000 per megawatt hour. The monthly average wholesale costs are 50% higher than in Germany. These extraordinary electricity prices are leading to smaller or completely eliminated profits, and thus to less reinvestment and even pauses in production for some companies. Higher electricity prices also act as a disincentive for investment from international steel companies, with the UK being seen as a less favourable investment environment than other places.
The potential for a widening price gap between the UK and our European competitors means a loss of market share, both in the UK and in key export markets. That is why it is utterly self-defeating for Ofgem to recommend that network energy prices rise even higher. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has rightly called for the steel industry to be exempt from this price hike; let us hope that Ofgem, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Minister, who is in his place today, will take heed of the Committee’s recommendations.
Other European countries have taken quicker and more expansive action than the British Government by offering support to energy-intensive industries. As has already been mentioned, the Portuguese Government have announced a minimum 30% reduction in network charges for industrial users. The Italian Government have pledged over £4 billion to eliminate renewable levies on gas for industry and electricity for small and medium-sized enterprises. In Spain, we have seen tax cuts and the temporary reduction in extraordinary profits made by energy companies, including extending the existing suspension of a 7% power generation tax through year end. They will also cut their special electricity tax from the current 5.1% to 0.5%.
What we need to see in this country now is the provision of 100% compensation for costs of carbon in electricity bills, through a carbon price floor and a UK emissions trading scheme, up from the current 75% allowed for under EU state aid rules. We need to provide 85% compensation for the capacity market fee and an 85% reduction in network costs, in line with France and Germany, as well as full exemptions for the renewable levies or the introduction of additional compensation.
The Minister will point, of course, to the energy-intensive industries compensation fund, but that was half a decade ago, and the gap I have just described exists after that fund is taken into account. We have had enough of warm words; we must now commit to levelling the playing field for our steel companies. It is the least British workers in industrial communities deserve. What a contrast between the Government’s dithering and Labour’s bold and ambitious £3 billion steel renewal fund. In that fund, we pledge serious investment while the Chancellor had absolutely nothing to say about steel in the Budget. It is a dereliction of duty and makes a mockery of the Government’s so-called levelling-up policies. Tragically, successive Conservative Governments have failed to support our steelworkers and their families and communities. What a contrast with our party and our steel unions, which truly grasp the central importance of the steel industry to the past, present and future of our country. Let us hope that the Government will at some point recognise the need to unleash a modern manufacturing renaissance, with steel at its heart.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this debate, Ms Nokes. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing the debate. I know he is as passionate about the ceramics industry as I am about the steel industry.
I want to lay my cards on the table and make three clear points. First, steel uses a lot of energy; we understand that. That means we are on the frontline of the energy price rises. Secondly, we will never not need steel. I am sorry to anyone who has heard me say this a hundred times already, but no one in this country can go a single day without steel. We need it for everything we do, from infrastructure to defence and from healthcare to the wire in the tyres of my trusty old Škoda parked underneath Parliament. Thirdly, of course we must find ways to make steel that consider the environment, but we must never completely rely on other countries to make steel for us. We will have no control over the quality or the environmental issues that come with that, and it would be foolish and immoral to ship steel from other countries.
Between 5 o’clock and 6 o’clock last Monday, steelmakers in Scunthorpe paid an eye-watering £2,080 for a megawatt-hour of electricity. The average cost of electricity prices in 2020 was £35 per megawatt-hour. That volatility is crippling our daily operations. Site managers have to shut down or delay key processes to cope with the spikes in energy prices. It is unfortunate and I know this is a collective challenge for energy-intensive industries, but the cost of energy is now higher than the cost of labour and this is not merely a market blip that will come and go.
I recognise that this is in great part caused by global circumstances beyond our direct control. I believe in a free market, but when it comes to steel a free market does not really exist. Steel is made in every G7 country and, quite bluntly, one way or another those countries have consistently found creative measures to support their steelworks because they want to maintain a steel-making capacity. We were already at a disadvantage when the energy price spikes hit us and that has highlighted the extent of other nations’ support for their energy- intensive industries.
I also want to directly challenge anyone who has the incorrect view that steelworks constantly need bailing out. They do not; they need a level playing field, but it could not be any more firmly the other way round. Steelmakers in Scunthorpe are survivors and thanks to our local talent, we have kept our heads above water for decades. We need to be on a fair footing with our European competitors and we will thrive. The Treasury has said it wants
“an attractive and internationally recognised ecosystem across both regulation and tax”
for financial services. I want the same for steel. That is why I was delighted to hear the Prime Minister in his speech on Monday acknowledging that we must end the unfairness that UK energy-intensive manufacturing pays so much more than our competitors overseas. The Prime Minister has historically been supportive of steel. I know for a fact that he has a keen understanding of the industry and clearly understands the threat of high industrial energy costs and the burden of the incredibly high policy costs that UK energy-intensive industries continue to face. So I ask the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister to continue the conversations they are having with the steel industry in these really tricky times, to help it to step forward into a greener and more sustainable future.
I know that since taking over his brief my hon. Friend the Minister has engaged regularly with our steelworks, which I thank him for, and I also know that he has been assiduous in understanding this issue. So I hope that he will agree with me that as a sovereign nation we have the ability to legislate and support our steel industry in a number of ways. Our neighbours and competitors in Europe have started taking action. As the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) outlined, in Italy the Government are temporarily removing renewable levies; in Spain, the Government have suspended power generation and consumption-related taxes; and in Portugal, the Government have put forward a minimum reduction in energy charges.
Meanwhile, our policy and network charges still continue to be much higher than those of our main competitors, so I urge the Minister to look urgently into abolishing the carbon price support mechanism, which is a tax that is not faced by our competitors; cutting down the network costs and capacity market fees; providing support for emissions trading scheme costs; and reassessing existing renewable levies applicable to steel. I understand that the renewable levies are there to encourage businesses to move towards environmentally friendly practices, and to some extent they have succeeded, but the cure should not be worse than the disease. Of course, we also need a green steel deal, as businesses transition to better, greener technologies, and British Steel has laid its cards on the table with its low-carbon road map announcement. I remain hopeful that my hon. Friend the Minister and the Business Secretary will be the ones to seal that historic deal.
There are few industries in this country that are more closely associated with an area than ceramics is with Stoke and steel with Scunthorpe. As fellow MPs in manufacturing constituencies, I am sure that many of my regional colleagues share the sense of duty to protect those industries and the communities built around them. I genuinely hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to make some progress on this issue.
First of all, I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing this debate and I commend him on his frequent contributions on energy-intensive industries. We are very fortunate that we now have a formidable group of Stoke MPs who work as a team and bring forward issues, and get results as well, which I have noticed in the main Chamber. I commend them for that.
Sustainable energy and greener energy debates are becoming more regular and I believe that it is important that we move with the times, which can start with ensuring that energy-intensive industries have the correct means to progress. Just this morning, probably coincidentally, but none the less importantly, I had the opportunity to meet the independent networks association. Its chief executive is Nicola Pitts and it is one of the UK’s leading independent utility network owners and operators, driving industry collaboration and innovation to shape the future of the UK’s energy and water sectors. It is in the business of ensuring that we can be more energy-efficient with electricity and the use of water, both for the industrial sector and for healthy homes—I chair the all-party parliamentary group on healthy homes and buildings. I commend that organisation.
I had a quick look through the early-day motions before the debate progressed and I noticed that three particularly promote the issue of heat pumps. I commend early-day motion 675, which the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) has put forward; early-day motion 677 on Home Energy Scotland; and early-day motion 681 on Invinity Energy Systems. That tells me that there is a great interest in the issue, not just from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South but from everybody else here in Westminster Hall today and perhaps even among those who were unable to attend the debate.
The UK should take great pride in our energy-intensive industries. Our main businesses of that kind are dedicated to food, pulp and paper, iron and steel, and basic chemicals. The UK’s manufacturing and industrial sector accounted for 60% of total consumption, along with another 16% for chemical manufacturing. The UK industrial sector is made up of some 35% electricity and 39% natural gas, according to Gazprom Energy.
I will give an example not from my own constituency, but of a company that many of my constituents work in. I refer to the recent work done by Bombardier Spirit AeroSystems in east Belfast. It received approval to develop a new £85 million project to develop energy from waste through an EFW gasification plant in the constituency of my Democratic Unionist party colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). It is a tremendous idea and I am sure that it is one that the Minister is well aware of. If he is not, perhaps he can get more information on it. It gives an example not only of what we will do in Northern Ireland, in my neighbouring constituency, but of what can be done elsewhere.
That £139 million plant can process 120,000 tonnes of refuse-derived fuel, comprised of non-recyclable fractions of commercial and industrial waste per annum, to generate electricity and heat. Although I appreciate the extreme finance that firms will need to advance to this level, the benefits are much more energy efficient in the long term. When it comes to the net zero carbon targets, this is one that we should be aiming for. It is crucial that we take the future into consideration when discussing greener energy for our industrial firms. The Full Circle Generation facility in Belfast has aimed to process 140,000 tonnes of waste per annum, but it takes an initial 400,000 tonnes of rubbish for the facility to operate at full capacity. It is particularly exciting, innovative and futuristic; it is something we should be looking at.
The cost aspect is giving large firms little incentive to switch to cleaner energy strategies, but there must be more discussion between the BEIS Minister and the firms so that they can meet in the middle, because there needs to be a compromise sometimes. Perhaps the Minister could give us his thoughts on how that could be achieved. Additional funding must be allocated to help energy-intensive industries decarbonise. That is essential in ensuring that we meet our 2050 carbon zero promise set at COP26. As stated earlier, energy-intensive industries make a great contribution.
We must support our energy-intensive industries within the UK if we want to encourage global firms to come here. We want to see that happening, too. Perhaps the Minister, in his response, could give us some idea of whether we have attracted many firms to come here and invest. I think we have, but it is always good to put it on the record and say what we have done. I have recently been made aware that an industrial firm that set up in China is considering coming back to the United Kingdom because of the price of containers. That is a step forward, although we all know of small businesses in our constituencies—I have many—that are threatened with difficulties because of that price structure. However, we must do more to entice other firms to come back to the UK. One way we could do this would be by taking a lead role in green firms, giving them the funds they require to make this happen. That would also improve local job opportunities for those who aspire to work in the manufacturing industry.
I call on the Secretary of State to ensure that priority finance is given to large industrial firms to give them that jump start in creating greener energy-intensive industries. The cost is a crucial aspect, and I would argue that it puts firms off improving their energy efficiency. There are small but useful steps that the BEIS Minister can take and, given our recent promises at COP26, I do believe these should be taken accordingly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing such an important debate at such an important time. I wholly agree with and endorse much of what has been said so far.
One of the key starting points for energy-intensive industries—the focus of this debate—is having affordable energy, but we must have reliable energy too. One of my concerns is that the energy mix we get in the coming years must be reliable, not just in its provision—there are obvious concerns with wind turbines and solar panels—but in the costs. We ought not to be susceptible or vulnerable to these massive price fluctuations that can jeopardise businesses.
I do have a broad interest in the nuclear sector, as a north-west Member of Parliament. Much of the UK’s nuclear industry is based in the north-west of England, and the Springfields fuels centre, near Preston, is not too far away. Warrington is also a key centre. If we go down the small or advanced modular routes, the leadership scene in Rolls-Royce, in Derby, will also provide very powerful growth within the UK. If we can capture the market early on and have that manufacturing and intellectual property side in the UK, we can then sell further afield.
I agree entirely. It is welcome that the Government have renewed their focus on nuclear organisations, and that groups of colleagues within Parliament are increasingly giving that focus to the nuclear sector. I appreciate that is not universally appreciated, but the narrative and strength of argument is building up for the sector. If we want to have energy-intensive industries, we need that strong foundation of reliable energy. Even if it is a little more expensive than some alternatives, that certainty of production is immensely important, because if a business is going to invest, it has to have that confidence in the first place.
When we discuss levelling up, we have to think about the energy-intensive industries in the north of England and the midlands from ceramics to the steel industry, glass and chemicals. We have to think of levelling up as focusing in a significant sense on manufacturing—and heavy manufacturing—that requires that intensive provision of energy. It would be a positive thing if the Government set out more clearly their support for those sectors. I was concerned with the Cumbrian coal mine, which was going to produce metallurgical coal for the steel industry, but that has been challenged, not because it is going to produce thermal coal, which is a different type of coal used for different reasons. We have to have that clarity and be able to support the industry when it needs it.
We have had a trend over many years of offshoring manufacturing and allowing other countries, perhaps with lower environmental standards than ours, to take our manufacturing industry. If we are looking at COP26 and the agenda that so many countries around the world focused on and championed, we have to recognise that in recent years we have been exporting manufacturing, therefore manufacturing jobs, carbon and other emissions for domestic consumption. We do not have the emissions in the UK, but we are still creating those emissions overseas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) captured the sense very well when she talked about free markets. We all ought to champion and support free markets, but we ought to be cautious when other countries around the world do not champion free markets and do not have the same appreciation of a level playing field that we do.
I welcome the Government’s direction of travel. I wish they would be even more supportive. There will be many more ways, especially listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, to make it more competitive to invest in energy-intensive manufacturing in the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), who is a doughty champion of Stoke. He is Stokie born and bred and boasts regularly that nearly half of Stoke-on-Trent North was built with his family line, so I look forward to seeing Brereton Place soon when I am out campaigning on the trial.
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
I also want to give a shout-out to my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) who gave an absolutely outstanding speech; one of the best I have heard since I became a Member of this place. I hope that a lot of those asks are taken up by the Government and acted on.
The city of Stoke-on-Trent is absolutely steeped in its ceramics, not just in its history but in its future. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South talked about Lucideon, one of the leading UK advanced ceramic manufacturers which was recently awarded £18 million with the Ceramics Manufacturing Group, which is looking at how we can have new and exciting ways for this technology to work, alongside the traditional industries. I have companies such as Steelite, Churchill China and Burleigh, which are still making their world-leading products, which we can enjoy in this place if we go into Portcullis House or the Members’ Dining Room. It is a shame that when I go into Government Departments when I am turning or when I visit a Minister, I do not see a Stoke-on-Trent mug. I am absolutely dumbfounded when I visit a Minister and see that they do not have Stoke-on-Trent ceramics in their office.
One of the things the Minister should take away from this is to ensure that we properly procure Stoke-on-Trent’s world-leading ceramics in every single Government Department, because it sends a message that a UK Government are backing UK production.
I commend my hon. Friend on making an excellent speech, as they all have been today. With sovereignty we can stand on our own feet and insist on a level playing field in energy, which never existed in the EU, and promote our own manufacturing on a proper basis.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. As a co-Staffordshire MP, he has absolutely championed our world-leading ceramics manufacturing in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, as well as being a doughty champion for the coal industry. A lot of ex-miners in my community always wish to pay their respects to him for all the work he did for them.
Turning to covid-19 and the energy price rise, if we take Steelite International as an example, 99% of its turnover comes from the hospitality industry. In April 2020, as covid-19 forced us into our homes and away from pubs, restaurants and cafes, Steelite lost 95% of its turnover overnight. Despite that being hugely damaging to Steelite as a hospitality operator, it failed to qualify for the rates relief offered to hospitality businesses as part of the emergency package announced in 2020, and it was classed as a manufacturer.
The ceramics industry is crucial to the hospitality sector and should also benefit from the 50% one-year business rates discount announced recently by the Chancellor. As a company that depends on hospitality, Steelite was one of the businesses hit hardest by the pandemic, and now by gas prices. Gas prices have risen rapidly across Europe in 2021, but the UK has been exposed to considerably higher prices than elsewhere, with prices rising to five times what they were this time last year.
Many ceramic companies forward purchase their gas and electricity. However, during lockdown when demand for the hospitality sector drastically decreased, gas that had been forward purchased was not used. That meant companies had to sell it back at a loss, making many reluctant to forward purchase again due to uncertainty over future lockdowns and levels of demand. As a result, the ceramics industry has been left particularly exposed to the current exceptional gas prices. On average, gas is roughly 10% of the cost of manufacturing a plate. However, companies have been exposed to gas costs five times of what they were last year. Companies should, of course, aim to build in some resilience in their processes, but this kind of market fluctuation is beyond anything they could have reasonably planned for. For large manufacturers, it could add as much as £500,000 to £1 million per month to production costs. It is simply impossible for ceramics companies to continue to swallow these increased costs, especially at a time when orders from the hospitality sector are still not up to the previous levels in 2019.
Costs will need to be passed on to customers. However, while we are still recovering from the hangover effects of the pandemic, customers are looking to cut costs, not increase them. Passing on extra costs to customers risks encouraging them to turn to cheap imports from abroad, where Governments have taken decisive action to support intensive industries. Spain has introduced tax cuts, including extending an existing suspension of a 7% power generation tax until the end of the year and cutting the special electricity tax from 5.1% to 0.5%. At the end of the day, we must take action and protect these industries. I hope the Minister will take away everything that has been said, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on bringing forward the debate. At the outset, he rightly highlighted the energy supplier crisis. I am sure he agrees that the Government need to do more about this crisis. He highlighted coal and the bygone days of coal, and certainly that should be a reminder to Government in terms of the lack of support that was given when the coalmines were shut down. It still has a legacy, and it is a legacy that lives on in my constituency. It is something that cannot be repeated, and that is why we need a just transition commission for the UK Government, like the Scottish Government have. We need that support as we move from a reliance on fossil fuel towards renewable energy.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South is a vocal advocate for the ceramics industry, and he should be commended for that. I hope the ceramics industry has a strong future because we need to retain all the manufacturing that we can. Support like that is welcome, and hopefully the Government will listen. The key thing is that there needs to be support for decarbonisation. Other Members spoke about tariff reductions and reducing energy costs. Energy is too high at the moment, but the Government really need to be helping industry decarbonise, and proper investment and support from Government is required. That should put some of these industries ahead compared to those elsewhere. That is where, for me, the investment needs to come from Government to help them decarbonise.
We heard from the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who is clearly a big advocate for the steel industry. I was pleased to visit the works in her constituency, and I repeat: investment is needed to help the steel industry decarbonise. That is the future. We talk about clean green steel, and that is where Government investment is needed.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis), who is not in his place, also spoke about the steel industry and highlighted the fact that there is not enough money in the UK Government’s hydrogen strategy by comparison with members of the EU. I agree with him that more needs to come from the UK Government in terms of the hydrogen strategy.
We heard from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who has also always been a strong supporter of the steel industry and a strong advocate in this House. His key message to the UK Government seemed to be that it is not a sunset industry, and I agree. In fact, that message was so strong that he said it twice—in an intervention and in his speech—and I agree: the UK Government need to support the steel industry.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) is another advocate for the steel industry—I am kind of repeating myself here, but investment in clean green steel and decarbonisation is important. I commend her for being the only one who got something out of the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday other than Peppa Pig, so congratulations on that.
We heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always turns up at these debates and always makes a useful contribution. Again, he highlighted the importance of manufacturing and Government support for decarbonisation.
What I took out of the speech by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) was that nuclear energy is indeed more expensive. He is an advocate of nuclear energy, but it is more expensive. We are talking about taking away tariffs for renewable energy, but nobody is talking about taking away tariffs for nuclear energy or addressing the eye-watering costs.
That inflexible reliability that comes from nuclear energy means that, while we talk about the wind not blowing, the amount of base-load it pumps on to the grid means having to curtail other, renewable energy sources, because nuclear is so inflexible. So no, I do not agree. That is the problem: nuclear is the wrong energy to mix with renewables, and it really is not the future.
I was talking about tariffs and the cost of nuclear energy. There is £1.7 billion in the Red Book just to develop Sizewell C, before we get to the final investment decision. Think what that £1.7 billion could do for the steel industry, the ceramics industry or decarbonisation—and that is only to get to the final investment decision, before the Government then rush to spend £20 billion on the capital investment for Sizewell C. Then that will be added to our electricity bills under the RAB—regulated asset base—model, for the 10 to 15 years of construction of the nuclear power station, and then a 60-year contract thereafter. So do not let us talk about taking away levies for renewable energy; let us look at what nuclear energy will cost us. I urge the Government to spend that money more wisely, rather than on nuclear energy.
Finally, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who is obviously another advocate for the ceramics industry, made an interesting point about the lack of ceramics from Stoke-on-Trent in this place. I suggest to him that he make an investment: buy a lot of mugs and pottery and donate it to this place. That will help the industry and promote it here.
I am coming to the end of my remarks, and I do not want to be too flippant, because this is a very important debate. We need to see support for ceramics and manufacturing, and we need to look at how we decarbonise. Carbon capture has been mentioned. I urge the Minister to reconsider the disgraceful decision to make the Scottish carbon capture cluster a reserved cluster. That should have been given the go-ahead and it should have been one of the track 1 clusters. It incorporates carbon capture, hydrogen production, which has been mentioned as part of the future of decarbonisation, and direct carbon capture from air. It is a really important, innovative cluster and it should have been given the go-ahead. Why was it not selected? I want the Minister to answer that. Equally, I would like to hear what proper investment will be made available to help and support the manufacturing sector to decarbonise.
This has been an excellent debate, involving Members on both sides of the Chamber. It has focused on the two things that are absolutely essential for energy-intensive industries. The first is how we deal with the present spike, as it is called—although it is, in fact, a dome—in energy prices, how they affect energy-intensive industries and what action might be taken to alleviate their suffering as they attempt to cope with, and continue to plan their activities on the basis of, those unprecedented price rises. This time last year, gas was 39p a therm, but it is now well over 200p a therm. That is an enormous, fivefold increase in the price of gas, and that of course runs through into electricity prices. It is absolutely crucial for energy-intensive industries to have a stable price environment, and it is essential for their future plans and competitiveness that they have knowledge of what the future environment might be.
Secondly, the biggest challenge for the future, as mentioned by hon. Members, is how we decarbonise those vital energy-intensive industries so that they continue to produce in and for the purposes of the UK. We should not export energy-intensive production but decarbonise it, so that it continues to operate in the UK as effectively as it has done in the past. In that context, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) pointed out that steel is not a sunset industry but very much an industry of the future. Our efforts to decarbonise such industries should not be seen as a means of closing them down or of removing elements of their activities because they are sunset industries and others can decarbonise. Our energy-intensive industries need to be decarbonised so that they continue to play a central role in future production.
We have heard excellent advocacy this morning. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing the debate. He is one of several Members present from Stoke, home to the crucial ceramics industry. I also congratulate Members on both sides of the Chamber on their strong advocacy on behalf of the steel industry and on their clear understanding of what we need to do about energy-intensive industries.
It falls to me to remind Members that energy-intensive industries are not just about ceramics and steel. A little while ago, the Government helped energy-intensive industries with energy prices by exempting them from some levy costs. There was a list of 70 different sectors that are energy-intensive industries, including the manufacture of malt, the weaving of textiles, the casting of iron, the manufacture of batteries and accumulators, the manufacture of corrugated paper, rubber products, plastic products, technical ceramic products, cement, metal packaging and electronic wires, and metallurgy. Those are all energy-intensive industries across the country, not just in certain parts of the country, and they need our support on current prices and the need for decarbonisation. What I can say about prices right now—I think everyone present will agree—is that we absolutely have to tackle the harm that they are doing to energy-intensive industries, and the difficulties that such industries are experiencing.
One thing that we should all be clear about is that absolutely nothing has happened so far in this country in relation to the price rises. The Government appear to be caught like rabbits in a headlight and waiting for the price spike to go down the other side, so that they do not actually have to do anything. As I have mentioned, this is not a price spike. It is a possible future sea change in energy prices, and it needs to be approached on that basis. It is not sufficient simply to hope that this will go away in a while and things will return to normal, because they probably will not do so, and we need to have Government action to ensure that there is a regulated price arrangement for energy-intensive industries that protects those industries from high prices and the volatility that we are seeing on world markets. There are several ways in which that can be done. As far as I can see, however, the Government have not even looked at any of those things. Indeed, as hon. Members have mentioned, a number of other European countries are doing things in order to combat the price spikes, or price dome, that we are seeing at the moment, none of which are being followed by the UK Government.
There are also issues arising from the fact that a number of energy-intensive industries had a bad deal with energy prices before the present price spike. From my frequent conversations with my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon and for Newport East (Jessica Morden), I know that UK steel has a cost price far greater than comparable steel production in France and Germany. That is partly because those countries do different things to assist their industries that we do not do in this country, concerning things such as distribution costs and the joint commissioning of procurement of energy packages. The Government would be well advised to look at such things, both now and in the long term, in order to get the stable environment for energy prices that we really need for energy-intensive industries.
At the same time, we also need to get serious about the support that we need to provide for the decarbonisation of energy-intensive industries. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon mentioned Labour’s £3 billion steel renewable fund, which is a fund not just to stabilise prices but to take steel well down the road towards decarbonisation by changing things such as electric arc furnaces, hydrogen production for the introduction of energy for steel generally, and a host of other things. They need to be replicated in those other energy-intensive industries with Government support, so that they can decarbonise in good time and good order and keep their production going across the country in a way that we need for the future.
That is a substantial task for the Government, both in the present and in the future, and very little has been achieved so far. I am sorry to have to say that, because it is so important that we get our act together right now and for the future, given the absolutely vital role that energy-intensive industries play in our country’s economy. I look forward to hearing from the Minister whether his Government have had a change of heart and are, perhaps even at this late stage, deciding to do something about price rises and the decarbonisation of energy-intensive industries for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on an important and timely debate. I have already spoken to Members about the issue. We have had a good, constructive debate that has got to the heart of the challenges. Members have recognised the challenges that we face both globally and domestically, as well as the long-term and short-term objectives that we are trying to meet, and they are right to highlight the issues on behalf of their areas and the companies and organisations in them. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South eloquently articulated the challenges. They are noted and we in the Department continue to work through what might be possible. I hope everyone in the Chamber acknowledges that there has been a substantial amount of support for energy-intensive industries in recent years.
We accept that energy-intensive industries are important, as all manufacturing is, for the United Kingdom. They are hugely important to the regions represented in this room, from the north-west to Lincolnshire, from my neighbouring county of Staffordshire—so ably represented by many of its MPs here today—to Scotland and Wales. We know that hon. Members here today attach great importance to the issue, whether it be steel, paper, cement, lime, chemicals, or any of the nearly 70 sectors that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) read out a number of.
I cannot avoid pointing out ceramics, given that that is the genesis of this morning’s debate. Colleagues in Stoke-on-Trent South and beyond have been eloquent champions for the future of the ceramics industry. We are glad to see its continued renaissance and we hope that will continue in the years ahead. It is a great British success story and we want to ensure that that continues.
More broadly, it is vital that we put energy-intensive industries, and manufacturing as a whole, on a sustainable, resilient and reliable footing—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). That is important for the communities represented here and for levelling up in general.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) has been extremely welcoming and helpful to me in my first few weeks as a Minister, and I am grateful for his time. However, I will gently disagree with him on the point about manufacturing. Although I accept that manufacturing has had challenges for many decades—I have seen that in my own part of the world—we have seen an increase in jobs over the past 10 years, and it is important to note that. Energy-intensive industries and manufacturing have faced a particular set of circumstances in the last year with the real challenge of coronavirus. We are very glad to see that moving on, but a set of new challenges, as articulated by colleagues, face those industries. We can overlay that with the long-term transition plan to try and ensure that we walk more lightly on this earth and that the industries leave less of a legacy on this earth.
We know that the industry faces a set of unique challenges. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) highlighted, we cannot get far without needing steel. We need ceramics and many of the important high-tech industries that we rely on. Glass has a hugely important part to play in our transition. Those are the key building blocks that we need to understand and then formulate policy around in the coming years and decades.
I am two months into this role. On a personal level I have tried to take an interest in the role—of course I have tried to take an interest. I should have taken an interest in the role, given the amount of paperwork that I have had to read in the last two months! I have met users of the energy-intensive sectors. Last week I was with the chemicals sector and I visited a steel location. I look forward to coming to see ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent at the earliest possible opportunity.
In my contribution I referred to Shorts Bombardier—Spirit as it is now—and the £85 million project it is trying to develop in Belfast. Has the Minister been to see that project or talked to Shorts Bombardier Spirit to ascertain what it is doing and what could be replicated elsewhere in the UK?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He anticipates some of my speech. To pick that up now, there is an incredible amount of work going on across the four nations of the United Kingdom. I am looking forward to coming to Northern Ireland as soon as I am able. We are currently trying to organise a visit, and I am keen to talk to him further about the example that he highlights.
The Minister mentioned the chemical industry. Does he understand that INEOS at Grangemouth is part of the Scottish carbon capture cluster, and at the moment INEOS is one of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide in Scotland? The Scottish CCS would obviously alleviate that problem. Will the Minister look into that, promote the Scottish carbon capture cluster and take it away from being reserved, as it is classed at the moment?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I do acknowledge the challenge of the Grangemouth plant and the excellent work that goes on there. I have spoken to INEOS on several occasions since taking up my post. He and his colleagues have contributed to the carbon capture and storage debate actively and noisily over the past few weeks. He knows that an initial two sites have been announced and the intention is to have four by 2030. The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) has articulated that we want to continue to work with the Scottish cluster to see what is possible there.
I want to touch on a number of points that individual Members made. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South rightly highlighted—along with many Members—the challenge of energy prices. We acknowledge and accept there are challenges with energy prices. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe highlighted price spikes noted in just the past few days. From conversations I have had, this debate and wider discussion within industry, we know that there are challenges. I thank colleagues, unions, industries and trade bodies for articulating that in recent months.
There is significant price volatility, which it is important to acknowledge. Prices have spiked and started to float down over recent weeks. I hope all Members would accept that in the past two years alone we have had very low prices and very high prices. We are at a particular place in the market at the moment.
Will my hon. Friend comment a little more on those lower prices? Although we might have seen lower prices, we are still at a significant disadvantage in the steel industry compared with competitors in the EU. Although he has made an important point, it does not negate the issue we are talking about.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is right to point out that there two factors here. One is the volatility and how the price has moved and the second is the compactor. The latter point is well made by colleagues from all parties. I know hon. Members will acknowledge that we have provided more than £2 billion of support in under a decade in price-release schemes for energy-intensive industries. I accept that there are significant concerns about the position we are in and where we are seeking to go. I hope that that will be acknowledged and contextualised within that reality.
When formulating where we do or do not go in future, I hope hon. Members will accept that the situation is extremely complicated. We have a very diverse group of energy-intensive industries—more than 70 sectors—as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test highlighted. We have a range of exposures, challenges around efficiencies and hedging strategies. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) pointed out the challenge of hedging strategies in recent months. Other forms of mitigation might be possible.
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I have to make progress. If I have a moment at the end, I will happily give way. This is a diverse sector, but we are seeking to see what may be possible. Announcements will be made in due course, should they be possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South made a very good point about eligibility criteria. He is aware—it has been referenced already in the debate—that a review is under way at the moment. A consultation ran between June and August. There were more than 30 responses, and we will make further announcements in due course. He is absolutely right to highlight the longer term, as other hon. Members have done. The Prime Minister mentioned that point in his speech on Monday. He highlighted the importance of manufacturing, of energy-intensive industries and of making sure that electricity prices over the long term are in place, so that the viability and competitiveness of those industries are ensured. He highlighted nuclear. I know there are a range of views in the room about nuclear, although happily the majority of us seem to be in favour of making progress. I hope we can do so in the months and years ahead.
I want to give my hon. Friend a couple of minutes at the end of the debate to wind up, but I have a couple of points on the long term. Obviously, we are in a long-term process of decarbonising our electricity grid. That continues and will have a real impact over the long term for energy-intensive industries, and elsewhere. There is a lot of work under way, a lot of schemes, a lot of funding and a lot of Government subsidy that has already been announced, such as the £315 million industrial energy transformation fund, £40 million of which has already been awarded, including to steel companies such as Celsa, to brick manufacturers, to glass and to metal casting. The second stage will close on 6 December.
With the £96 billion investment in the railways—we have a debate on the headquarters of the Great British Railways to come—will the Minister do all he can to ensure that Severfield steel in my constituency gets its fair share of the contracts, whether that is for bridges or other infrastructure projects?
I thought I was about to be asked about the headquarters of Great British Railways. We are of course seeking to find an equitable distribution of support across the country.
On ceramics, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South will be aware of the establishment of a global centre for advanced technical ceramics, which is good news. We are also supporting some transformation in glass and there is extensive ongoing work on decarbonisation options, including in steel. We are working with trade bodies at the moment and look forward to announcements in due course.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the Chamber. I am grateful to all Members for their constructive contributions. The Government are aware of the strength of feeling in the communities represented here and more broadly. We acknowledge the importance of those industries for the regions and for our country as a whole. We look forward to working with you all in due course over the coming months to see what is possible on these important issues for our country.
I thank the Minister for the great interest he is taking in these sectors. I hope to welcome him very soon to Stoke-on-Trent.
These jobs are so important for levelling up across the country. They are skilled, well-paid employment opportunities. As a number of Members have said, it is vital that we see a level playing field on energy. We have seen huge competition from Europe, which subsidises a number of markets, and from China, which puts huge subsidies into many of these sectors. We need support to make sure we have a level playing field. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) noted, there is no level playing field at the moment—there is not a free market in these sectors—and we need to address that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said, the costs are beyond what many of these industries can reasonably plan for. We need action and support to make sure that we have a level playing field, so that these sectors continue to build on their strengths and that we continue to see these important jobs and industries in the UK. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his kind words about Stoke-on-Trent, which is ably represented here.
I also want to touch on the importance of levelling up in R&D investment. There is increased investment in R&D now, with a doubling of R&D spending in the UK. We need to see more of that being spent in the midlands, in the north and in Wales. A huge proportion of R&D spending has been in the south and other parts of the UK. We need to spread it out across the country, particularly for the energy-intensive sectors such as ceramics, which need that support to transition and to decarbonise, to secure those jobs for the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered energy intensive industries.
Great British Railways: Headquarters
I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Members are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate, either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of York’s bid to host the headquarters of Great British Railways.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank the City of York Council for its time and effort in preparing York’s case and for providing me with the updated details in advance of the debate.
Earlier this year, following the Williams-Shapps rail review, the Government announced their intention to create the new public body, Great British Railways. Billed as a modern-day successor to British Rail, Great British Railways will take on the responsibilities covered by Network Rail, as well as further responsibilities from the Department for Transport and the Rail Delivery Group. The new body will bring the ownership and management of the railways under one structure, with the organisation responsible for collecting revenue, running and planning the network and setting most fares and timetables.
On 4 October, the Transport Secretary announced that he was looking for a town or city to host the new headquarters of Great British Railways and, in doing so, become the home of the railways. In the next 10 minutes, I hope to persuade you, Mr Efford, and the Minister that York has always been and should remain the home of the railways, a fact that should be recognised by locating the new headquarters of Great British Railways in our great city.
York was first connected to the railway network more than 180 years ago and quickly became one of the best-connected cities in the UK, having direct rail access to more than 150 towns, cities and villages, representing a third of the UK’s population. To accommodate that, at the time of its completion in 1877, York station was the largest in the world; to date, it remains one of the most impressive.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing the debate. He has my full support. Does he agree that, with the National Railway Museum based in York, the city is already at the centre of our railway heritage, and that it therefore makes sense to make York the home of our railway future, as well as our past?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, based on which I consider that he might have had sight of my speech, because I will come on to that point. He is absolutely right: we have to link the past with the future. York has an amazing rail heritage and the railway museum is at the heart of that. I will touch on that further. York has an amazing opportunity going forward and I want to touch on some of the sites—the York central site—that really can deliver for York, but also for our future rail centre.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way and for securing the debate. Does he agree that it is about not just the past, but the future? Indeed, York has the engineers, the operators and the skillset needed for advancing digital rail in the future—the very skills that are needed by Great British Railways.
I thank the hon. Member—I was going to call her my hon. Friend—and neighbour. I think she might have seen my speech as well, because I was going to touch on skills. She is absolutely right that the skills in York have been developed not only through the Network Rail centre, but through our colleges and universities, which are at the forefront of the future. That is why York, for me, is undoubtedly the first choice for the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways.
York has always been an important staging post for those travelling between London and Scotland, which is reflected in its prominence on the east coast mainline. It also has another role as the interchange between the east coast mainline and the trans-Pennine line, connecting northern industrial heartlands, such as Merseyside, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire with the east coast, the east of England and the north-east of England. If, as I believe to be the case, the Government are truly committed to levelling up and spreading prosperity to areas outside London and south-east, then they should look no further than York.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the headquarters of the Great British Railways needs to be at the centre of the country in order to be able to service the whole country? Does he agree that Derby is almost at the centre of the United Kingdom? It has 200 rail-related companies and the largest train manufacturer in the country. I have been campaigning, even before this competition starts, for Derby to be the centre for the Great British Railways headquarters.
It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I am not going to agree with that, but I understand that she is putting her case forward, as she always does extremely well. I will continue to argue that York is at the centre of the country when we talk about the United Kingdom. If we are talking about connecting and keeping the United Kingdom together, then York plays a key role in delivering that and stands out as the perfect choice.
We are talking about the centre of the railway network in the north. If, as I believe, the Government are serious about strengthening the Union, through the creation of a Great British-wide body, then York, near to the geographic centre of Great Britain, is the perfect choice.
It is not just York’s rail connectivity that sets it apart, but its central role in the nation’s wider rail industry. In 1975, this was recognised by the opening of the National Railway Museum, as has been mentioned, at a site adjacent to York station. It is home to such iconic locomotives as the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman. The museum attracts over 700,000 visitors per year from around the world, with plans for further expansion in the coming years.
There is much more. York’s skills base in rail and connected industries is unrivalled. The industry employs 5,500 people in the city, some 10% of the national total and two thirds of all rail jobs in the Yorkshire and Humber region. It also lies at the centre of the UK’s largest rail cluster, being ideally located between Doncaster and Sheffield to the south, Leeds and Huddersfield to west and Durham and the Tees Valley to the north. Over 100 relevant companies, with 9,500 employees, are based within one hour of York.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case for York to host the Great British Railways headquarters and I strongly support his arguments. He is commenting on skills. For me, the reason why York is such a strong contender is the breadth of its skills base, whether it is in rolling stock, engineering, planning or, particularly, the digital future. That expertise will enable the Great British Railways to hit the ground running and be more effective as a result.
I could not have put it better myself. I completely agree with my hon. Friend: it is about the skill base and the digital future. We have that wider skill base, which I will elaborate on further, but it strengthens York’s case and makes it, for me, the only choice.
The region boasts no less than 13 leading rail education providers, including Selby College, which has partnered with Siemens to deliver apprenticeships for level 3 rail engineering technicians. York College is the home of the Yorkshire and Humber Institute of Technology, which delivers high-quality technical education with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.
York is also home to Network Rail’s training centre, which provides professional development for existing employees as well as training the engineers of the future, as was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). Indeed, Network Rail already employs more than 1,000 people in York across every discipline. In 2014, it opened the country’s biggest rail control centre in the city, and I suggest that the same vote of confidence in York should be made by its successor organisation.
The home of the railways should have an eye to their future. That is where York stands out. The city and the wider region are home to a dynamic mix of businesses and academic institutions, working together on the latest innovations in rail. The University of York is a pioneer in the field of rail auto—I cannot say it.
Automation, yes. I thank my hon. Friend for putting me right on that. The University of Leeds is currently developing the new state-of-the-art Institute for High Speed Rail and Systems Integration. That work was enabled by collaboration between key sectors in the fields of railway engineering, signalling and software development, many of which are based in York or have major offices there. I hope I have persuaded you, Mr Efford, of York’s credentials as a railway city and perhaps the UK’s pre-eminent railway city.
There is another reason that York would be a sensible, if not the best, choice for locating a major public body in the form of the Great British Railways. As the Minister will know, York is currently home to one of the country’s largest brownfield sites, which is also a regeneration project. It covers some 45 hectares of disused track and railway depots, adjacent to York station and right in the heart of the city. York Central promises to be of a similar scale and ambition to the highly successful redevelopment of King’s Cross. The project promises to provide more than 2,500 new homes and, crucially, 112,000 square metres of high-quality commercial office space. Work has already started on clearing the site, following a successful bid for £77 million of Government funding for the enabling infrastructure.
As the Prime Minister would say, this is an oven-ready proposition for Great British Railways, providing a unique chance to build the new headquarters on a city-centre brownfield site in which Network Rail is a major partner and landowner. Surely there is a certain appeal about this: the new Great British Railways being based on a regenerated railway site. That the site happens to be located next to the National Railway Museum, one of the north’s major and main interchange stations, and the offices of several major players in the national rail industry makes it an option that is impossible for the Government to ignore.
The hon. Member makes a very powerful case for York. The location of Great British Railways would also be next to the rail operating centre, which is the flagship of digital signalling and contains advanced skills. Is that not why this particular location is so important for the future of our railways?
Absolutely. The location is perfect, with the brownfield regeneration site that interlinks with the Network Rail headquarters and all the skills around there, as we have touched on. Those new skills are so important to the future of our railways. That is what we, as well as the region, can deliver in York. The location is ideal, but this is also about the skills that the whole region can deliver. That is so important and it is what makes the case for York so strong.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is there not another reason to consider York? In addition to its proud history, its strategic location and the concentration of the rail industry within the city, is not York simply a fantastic place to live for those who will relocate to wherever the headquarters of Great British Railways ends up?
I am bound to agree with that, as someone who lives and works on the edge of York, as many people in this debate do. We all know what a fantastic place York is to live and to work in, which is surely a huge attraction when we need to attract the right skills to this new headquarters. York provides that attraction; there is absolutely no doubt about that.
As we have touched on, there are also universities, including the University of York. The number of people who initially study at the University of York but ultimately stay to live and work in the city or just around the city tells its own story. Great British Railways will need to attract people with skills, and York has that attraction, without a shadow of a doubt.
I bow to my right hon. Friend’s knowledge of history, but yes, absolutely—the precedent is there. This issue is also about the future, as we have said. Nevertheless, I entirely agree with him.
Despite York Central being an important and distinguishing feature of York’s bid, that bid is not dependent on an individual site. City of York Council has put forward several other existing city centre office buildings that it regards as viable options. Such is the compact nature of the city centre in York that Great British Railways can expect similar levels of connectivity and business engagement wherever it is ultimately located in our great city.
To sum up, York is most definitely the right choice for Great British Railways for four main reasons. First, there are the existing Network Rail facilities, the strong connectivity, the rail heritage and the availability of a range of convenient city centre sites. Secondly, it has a skilled workforce, accounting for over 10% of the workforce of the national rail industry, as it is located at the centre of the north-east Yorkshire rail cluster, which is the largest in the UK. Thirdly, it has a leading status in training and innovation, driven by local businesses, colleges and universities. Fourthly, York’s position at the heart of the UK rail network makes it an ideal national administrative base. However, even more than those reasons, there is York’s potential contribution to the Government’s goals of strengthening the Union and levelling up in the north of England, especially given its strong links to Scotland, the north-east of England, Manchester and all parts of Yorkshire.
I understand that this process will be a competitive one, and that other rail towns and cities are being quick to make clear their interests, and I will admit that I am probably biased, as many Members are about their constituencies. Nevertheless, I think that York’s case is extremely strong, and I know that it would be a source of great pride for our city, which has been so prominent in English and British history, if its next chapter could include the status that comes with being officially recognised as the home of the railways and of Great British Railways.
Thank you very much, Mr Efford, for calling me to speak. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, especially in a debate on a subject that I know you will follow with great interest in the future.
I have learned a great deal today. Before I respond to the various points that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) made, I thought that I should respond to a couple of other points. I have had a history lesson. I did not know that the Treasury was moved to York by Edward I. Obviously, this Government have moved part of the Treasury to Darlington, so it must have been a good idea then that we are repeating now.
I have also heard a great deal about the merits of Derby from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). She says that it is in the centre of the country, but if you were to take England and put a pin in the middle, you would find that the best place to put Great British Railways would be the village of Hellidon in my constituency. I am not convinced that there will be a great campaign for such a development, but I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions so far. I know my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer is a tireless advocate for his city. He is to be commended for promoting an understanding of what a wonderful place it is.
I completely understand that York is a city famed for its rich railway heritage. The first direct train ran between York and London in 1840. By the 1850s, there were 13 trains a day between the two cities, carrying 341,000 passengers a year. As the centre of the railway network along the east coast, York played a major role in the management and development of Britain’s railway network. For more than 120 years, York was the base for the construction and servicing of steam locomotives and rolling stock.
Fast forward to today and some of the remaining buildings used during the construction and servicing of the locomotives and rolling stock have become part of the wonderful National Railway Museum, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight).
Today, York is home to Network Rail, LNER, Northern, Grand Central, the Siemens train servicing and cleaning depot, and many varied rail consultancy businesses, contractors and specialists, from signalling and electrification experts, to civil engineers and railway operatives, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has told me a number of times and I am sure, based on this debate, will continue to do so for quite some time to come.
Since 1877, York railway station has helped to transform the city, connecting York to the rest of the United Kingdom and the wider world. At one time, the biggest railway station in the world, it remains today an important transport hub for the north and the United Kingdom as a whole. During the autumn of 2019, there were approximately 20,000 daily passengers on London to York services, and there were more than 10 million passenger journeys from York station over the course of that year. From the very earliest days of the railways, through to the modern day, York has played an important part in the history and future of the railway in this country, and it will continue to do so. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for their contributions today to emphasise the importance of this great city.
Of course, there are other towns and cities across the country that have played an important part in our proud railway heritage and that right hon. and hon. Members are proud to represent. It is good to see one of them, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, here today.
The Government’s aim is to have a world-class railway, working seamlessly as part of the wider transport network and delivering opportunities across the nations and regions of Great Britain. The Williams-Shapps plan for rail, published in May this year, sets out the path to a truly passenger focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services; the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution, with new flexible and convenient tickets; and long-term proposals to build a modern, greener, more accessible network that delivers the Government’s priorities to level up and decarbonise our transport system.
Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of a new rail body, Great British Railways, which will provide a single familiar brand and strong unified leadership across the rail network, as was described by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. It will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares and the punctual and reliable services that passengers deserve, and it will bring the ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and the planning of the network under one roof. It will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability and ensure that its focus is to deliver for passengers and freight customers.
Great British Railways will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and a strong customer focus, and it will have to have a different culture from the current infrastructure owner Network Rail and use very different incentives from the beginning. As we have heard, it will also have to have a new headquarters. Indeed, Great British Railways will have responsibility for the whole railway system, with a national headquarters as well as regional divisions. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that the national headquarters will be based outside London, bringing the railway closer to the people and places it serves, and ensuring that the skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused way beyond this great capital city, in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up.
The competition to find the national headquarters will recognise towns and cities with a rich railway history and that are strongly linked to the network, ensuring that the headquarters will take pride of place at the heart of a new era for British railways. The Great British Railways transition team is in the process of designing the selection process for the national headquarters, and the Secretary of State is setting up a panel of experts to assess the various locations. We are, therefore, right at the beginning of the process and I hope that Westminster Hall will continue to see celebrations of great cities and towns and their railway heritage as the bids develop.
The Minister clearly understands and appreciates the value of York and all that it will bring. Does he agree that the partners, including the business community, City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council, will have an important role to play in signing off the bid?
I am afraid that I do not because it is an organisation that is yet to be set up. The legislation has not even gone through the House yet, so I am afraid that I cannot answer that question at this time. However, given that it will be a coming together of so many different parts of the railway, I would expect it to be a large number of people and for it to involve new jobs as well as existing ones being relocated. It will be a very important heart of our railways for the future.
As I have said, we are at the very early stages. I can probably say that it will be outside London, but that is about as good as it gets at this point in time, I am afraid. However, the Secretary of State will detail the criteria in the not too distant future. We hope to set that out before the new year, if not first thing in the new year. Clearly, a number of strong candidates will come forward once the competition is launched, and I truly hope that this will be a moment when, through these bids, we can celebrate the rich railway heritage of our country, its towns and cities, and its rich railway future.
I feel that I should come to an end at some point quite soon—at least in the next 90 seconds—so I will finish by saying that I look forward to building this new vision for British railways and to collaborating with the sector and communities at the launch of the Great British Railways headquarters. That launch will be one of the many steps we are taking to achieve the transition from the existing mindset of the railways, which perhaps does not put passengers and freight customers first, to the new mindset that we want to instil. I know from my mailbox and from conversations in the House that a large number of towns and cities are eyeing up a bid to have the Great British Railways HQ in their area.
I very much welcome the interest expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and his advocacy on behalf of his city. I thank him for his speech and his pitch, as it were. It is the first formal one I have received, and I know that it will have been listened to by all the partners involved. I will certainly make sure that it is made available to the panel when it is set up to assess the criteria.
Question put and agreed to.
Islamophobia Awareness Month
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. That is in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre on the estate or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
Before we move on, may I say a little about the process? Seventeen Back-Bench Members have indicated that they wish to speak. In practical terms, other than the mover and the Front Benchers, that gives each Member about two and a half minutes tops, and that is with no interventions—I am not saying that there should not be interventions. To be fair to everyone in advance, I should say that if we get too many interventions, that limit might even drop down. There will be a formal limit of two and a half minutes each after the mover of the motion has spoken, with 10 minutes each for the Front Benchers.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Islamophobia Awareness Month.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.
When I go home and look at my grandchildren, I see limitless potential that deserves to flourish and thrive, yet I find it heartbreaking that they must grow up in a world where racism is still present—they will be subject to racism purely because of their faith—and that I, as their grandfather, must stand up to talk about the rampant Islamophobia in our midst. This month is an opportunity for us all to tackle that insidious hatred, which manifests itself in hate crime, discrimination and loss of opportunity.
As I look around the Chamber, I am touched by the support of my hon. Friends from all parts of the House who have committed to rooting out racism, whichever form it takes. I hosted a drop-in event in collaboration with the Muslim Council of Britain and Amnesty International last week, and it was brilliant to see the cross-party support. I thank the many hon. Members present today for attending.
The information shared with us by the Muslim Council of Britain last week was very powerful indeed, and reflects the experience that many of us have heard about from our Muslim constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to take responsibility for engaging effectively with the MCB to tackle the issue?
Yes, I agree, and I will be making that point.
I had the privilege of visiting Europe’s first eco-mosque in Cambridge—a real trailblazer in the community. It highlights how effective the British Muslim community has been in tackling the climate crisis with a positive and inspiring message. I extend an invitation to the Minister. I cannot promise that a visit will be as thrilling as Peppa Pig World, but it is worth a visit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. Does he agree that there is more to be done to ensure that our children grow together in harmony, celebrating the differences that we share, which make us stronger when added to the similarities? That makes us communities. Furthermore, does he believe that one way to achieve that is to facilitate cross-community events that focus on young people of different backgrounds coming together to learn more, to understand more and, inevitably, to accept more about each other, so that we are better together?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I could not have put it better myself.
For 2.7 million Muslims, Islamophobia has distressing and real-life implications. A recent example is the far right peddling the narrative during the pandemic that British Muslims were super-spreaders of covid simply by practising their faith. As a result, Muslim communities suffered a shocking 40% increase in online Islamophobia during this period, according to Tell MAMA. The online safety Bill is an opportunity for the Government to better regulate online content, including harmful and racist material.
I thank my hon. Friend for accepting my intervention, and for all his work—and indeed that of other Members—on this important issue in the House. Does he agree that the issue is not just about online abuse, but that sports can play a role? I know he will go on to this topic, but with the Ashes ahead of us, surely now is the time to tackle Islamophobia in cricket, once and for all.
I thank my hon. Friend. Again, that is a point I will touch on.
I have no doubt that those of us who participate in this debate will be on the receiving end of further abuse. Social media platforms have a moral responsibility and a duty to protect their users. Here, a definition of Islamophobia will help establish a mechanism for accountability and improved regulation. I will return to the definition in a moment, but can the Minister outline what measures will be introduced by the Government to keep users safe online, and what steps are being taken to tackle far-right activity?
It would be a mistake, however, to see this as merely an online phenomenon. The Government’s own figures reveal, once again, that Muslims have been victim to the highest proportion of all hate crimes committed this past year. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) and I have written to the Conservative party chair over the surge in hate crimes against Muslims following the Liverpool attack. Time and again, we see the conflation of Islam and terrorism, which is wrong and perpetuates a harmful stereotype of Muslims.
Last week, Azeem Rafiq’s powerful and moving testimony about his experience in cricket shone a light on how easily racism and Islamophobia can go unchecked and be simply dismissed as “banter”. A series of attacks on mosques, including in Manchester and east London, demand serious action by the Government. Most recently, a man was convicted of terrorism offences after planning an attack on a mosque in Scotland. Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to better safeguard places of worship?
Crucially, we must remember that these are not isolated incidents. Home Office data supports this, showing that referrals to Prevent for extreme right-wing ideology have increased exponentially. Many of my parliamentary colleagues and I have pushed for an independent review of the Prevent strategy for several years. A coalition of more than 450 Muslim organisations has boycotted the Government’s review of Prevent in protest at the appointment of William Shawcross as its chair. Shawcross has openly expressed a hostile view of Islam and Muslims, including suggesting that—I quote—“Islamic fascism” was the biggest problem facing our society.
I want to put four questions to the Minister today. Will she outline why the Government appointed someone with Islamophobic views? Will she respond to the overwhelming discontent over Shawcross’s appointment? Will she explain why the Government refuses to engage with the MCB, the largest Muslim organisation in the UK? Who sits on the Government’s anti-Muslim hatred working group, and has she ever met the group?
The appointment of William Shawcross is just a symptom of something that must be addressed in this debate: the Conservative party’s Islamophobia crisis. In 2018, we held a general debate on Islamophobia, in which I delivered the Labour party’s position. Two years later, no meaningful progress has been made and the Government have failed to take any action on this issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does he agree that the Prime Minister likening Muslim women to letterboxes and bank robbers directly fuels Islamophobia—I have seen it myself, as a former hate crime worker—and that apologising for offence caused is not good enough? The Prime Minister must apologise for what he said and, more importantly, engage with the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims and take some real action, starting with adopting the definition for Islamophobia.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I agree. The APPG on British Muslims has worked tirelessly to create the definition of Islamophobia, which has the confidence of more than 800 organisations and has been adopted by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Green party and even the Scottish Conservatives, as well as the Mayors of London and Greater Manchester and hundreds of councils across the country. I applaud the aforementioned for taking that positive step.
Defining and naming a problem is the first step in rooting it out, but it seems that the Government cannot even bring themselves to use the term Islamophobia. How do they intend to deal with a problem that they cannot even name? In fact, I challenge the Minister to use the term Islamophobia today.
The truth is that the Conservative party has repeatedly shown it is in denial about this problem through its failure to accept the definition proposed by the APPG, its failure to conduct a truly independent investigation and its failure to appoint Government advisers on the issue. What concerns me is that the Tory party has an institutional problem. Frankly, it does not care about Islamophobia.
The Singh review revealed institutional failings in how the Conservative party handled Islamophobia complaints. However, the review failed to engage with any Conservative Muslim parliamentarians and, once again, it did not even acknowledge or mention the term Islamophobia. Given that the definition has such widespread community support, can I ask the Minister why the Government insist on reinventing the wheel?
All of this goes right to the top. We all remember the Prime Minister’s shocking comment about Muslim women and letterboxes, but what is less well known is the fact that his comment directly resulted in a 375% rise in hate crime against Muslims. To add insult to injury, the Prime Minister continues to ignore the issue. During last year’s Islamophobia Awareness Month, I wrote to the Prime Minister to urge him to take action and to meet with me and key Muslim organisations. More than a year later, I am still waiting for a reply. I raised the matter in the Chamber earlier this month, and Mr Speaker and I both agreed that it is totally unacceptable for the Prime Minister to simply ignore letters from Members, no matter the subject. The Muslim community in our country deserves better: it deserves an explanation and, frankly, an apology.
The theme of this year’s Islamophobia Awareness Month is “Time for change”, and it is time for change. It is time the Government changed their approach towards Islamophobia and tackled it head on. Whether we look at evidence from the McGregor-Smith review, the Lawrence review or the Lammy review, we are confronted with the unavoidable fact that Islamophobia has damaging consequences on the life chances and equality of Muslims across the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for making such an excellent speech on this really important issue, which affects so many of my constituents in Vauxhall. On his point about the Muslim community being affected, he will know that Muslims have suffered disproportionately throughout the covid pandemic, and yet they were the ones helping at mosques. Does he agree that it is really important that we have leadership from the top, including that apology from the Prime Minister?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree—that is exactly what we need. Perhaps, at the end, that is what I will ask as well.
At the heart of the APPG’s inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia was an attempt to do something about the nature, scale and impact of Islamophobia. As political representatives, we have a responsibility to listen to the voices of all in our communities and strive to serve them to the best of our abilities. Representing British Muslims requires more than just lip service: it requires commitment, leadership and, most importantly, action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I know the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), and I would consider him a friend. We speak regularly. I am disappointed that a debate on a very important subject has turned into the normal political attack on the Conservative party. To hear the sanctimony of an organisation that was investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for prejudice and antisemitism in lecturing this party on prejudice is something.
I would like to talk about the practical—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Dowd. We can talk about the definition of prejudice, but it is within ourselves. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton knows two people who work for me; one is certainly my best friend. I am a Conservative Back-Bench MP who does not see a difference in human beings because of their religion, faith or anything. I see the decency in people and that is what motivates me in politics. It is what motivates Shahbaz and Khalid. At least two Members opposite know those two people who have given years of service to my area and its community. To be tarred with what has just been said—the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton knows it is not correct.
I fight every day in my constituency to ensure that my Muslim constituents have the best possible representation. When we talk about Islamophobia, I would like Labour MPs to support me in practical policies to help with the various issues that affect the Muslim community. There are lots of important issues, but I will talk about just one. In my seat and the seats of the hon. Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Manchester, Gorton, just about every Muslim family is touched by a taxi driver who works there—families who are absolutely dependent on that income. When I contact the hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton and for Bolton South and say, “Let’s set up an APPG for taxi driving in Greater Manchester,” and they say, “No, we can’t do that for political reasons,” it is therefore extremely disappointing. We could actually put in place practical policies—
I have just made a 10-minute speech outlining the different problems that the Muslim community has been facing. The issue is not that the hon. Gentleman has two employees who are Muslim or that he has friends who are Muslim; the issue is that we have a Government who are failing to tackle this problem and the hon. Gentleman is a Member of that Government and needs to tackle the problem as well.
The issue is that Members of Parliament such as myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) and for Wycombe (Mr Baker) spend our days going out there and doing our very best to support the Muslim community in every possible way. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton has just made a generalised statement trying to slur every Conservative MP with a prejudice that is not correct.
Does my hon. Friend agree that on such a sensitive subject such as this, the highly partisan nature in which the debate has been opened, if watched by our Muslim constituents, will look not like people trying to tackle anti-Muslim hatred, but as if they, as a community, are being used as a political football for political goals?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I could mention all sorts of policies here, whether it is support for the self-employed, for taxi drivers or for anybody else in my constituency. I believe I should be working with other MPs in Greater Manchester for the greater good to support all our Muslim constituents through specific policies that address the issues that are at the heart of the challenges they face.
When you represent people who you know; when you have been part of a community; when you do everything you possibly can to represent people, to be their voice in Parliament and to address the issues—what more do Opposition Members expect? Prejudice is an issue that is addressed through the individual and through all of us behaving in a way where we welcome and take every opportunity to say that we value all our communities, and we especially value our Muslim community. We value every single person. Prejudice and racism are not addressed by a definition. They are addressed by an individual and by all of us coming together to make sure that people are not judged by anything other than their personality, their goodness, and their ability and desire to influence their community for the better.
I can tell everybody in this Chamber and elsewhere that my interaction with my communities is simply for that purpose. I am a politician who wants to make change and who wants to ensure that people are treated in an equal fashion. This Government’s levelling-up agenda is about equality of opportunity. Every single policy that we put in place is to ensure that that is the case and that people are not discriminated against on the basis of their background.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on securing this debate and on recently raising a point of order to state that the Prime Minister had not actually addressed his letter about Islamophobia Awareness Month last year and to urge him to better safeguard the lives of British Muslims. Sadly, that Government inaction comes as no surprise to those of us who continually raise issues of this nature. So I express my full solidarity with Muslim Members right across this House in their ongoing fight against Islamophobia.
Unfortunately, many of us are all too familiar with the vile torrent of abuse that MPs are subjected to, whether it be racist, sexist or misogynist, but we have some reassurance in knowing that society generally recognises the severity of these types of abuse. But for those who experience Islamophobic abuse, there is a feeling that the abuse they receive is not taken seriously. Islamophobia is relegated to the very bottom, despite British Muslims being on the sharp end of some of the worst racism. And it is no surprise that there is a growing sentiment of anti-Muslim hate, because the current party of Government have such a disgraceful track record on Islamophobia, as highlighted by the independent investigation into discrimination in the Conservative party.
I obviously have to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) that there is a certain amount of partisanship involved in this debate. In that vein, what does the hon. Lady think about the quote included in the report entitled “Islamophobia and the Muslim Experience” that 55% of Muslim respondents do not
“trust the leadership of the Labour Party to tackle Islamophobia effectively”?
If Government Members listen to what Labour Members are saying, they will realise that no one is disputing that there is Islamophobia in all parts of society. We are calling on the Government to take action in their own party and right across society; that is all we are doing.
I also want to point out that, as far as I am concerned, the Prevent strategy has contributed to the continuing prevalence of Islamophobia. That policy has embedded infrastructure of surveillance in Muslim communities, has increased police stop-and-search powers and has been inherently Islamophobic in its theoretical underpinnings. Although I initially welcomed the Government’s review of Prevent, they have now delayed the publishing of that review as part of the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act 2021. And to add insult to injury, the Government appointed William Shawcross to head the supposedly independent review, despite, as we have heard, his questionable actions as head of the Charity Commission in disproportionately putting Muslim charities under investigation.
Finally, I remind Members that 45% of religious hate crimes recorded by the police in 2020-21 were Islamophobic. That is an estimated 42,000 incidents of religiously motivated hate crime per year, which is approximately six times the number of recorded offences. And perhaps it is a reflection of how much Islamophobia permeates our entire society that a professional sportsperson had to share his painful experiences of being discriminated against during his time as a cricketer. Since Azeem Rafiq provided evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee this month, other professional cricketers have shared their stories of being abused due to their ethnicity or religion, and an independent commission looking into racism and discrimination in cricket has now been inundated with responses.
All of that is sufficient to show that the Government need to take action now. I urge the Government to give a comprehensive response to the letter by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton; to update Members on Government progress in defining anti-Muslim hatred; to listen to the needs of the community when it comes to the impact of the Government’s strategy; and to ensure that there are proper safeguards for British Muslims against further abuse and discrimination. That is all we are asking for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on securing this debate. He made a powerful speech and a lot of good points, but may I respectfully say that I think this was a missed opportunity? We have worked together on Muslim burials, on Kashmir, on Muslims and their efforts during covid, and on the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, so to come here and attack the Conservative party in the way that he has is a really missed opportunity. Making this a partisan thing does his argument no favours whatsoever.
I introduced a debate in this place on Islamophobia some time ago, and I talked about how, during the 2019 by-election in Peterborough, I came across a gentleman called Amir Suleman, who asked my opinion on the all-party group’s definition of Islamophobia. I was rather embarrassed to say, at the time, that I did not really understand or know a lot about it, but I promised that I would get back to the gentleman in question and would campaign and stand with him. I stand here two years later as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims.
I work incredibly hard, each and every day, representing my Muslim constituents and trying to promote the positive benefits that Muslims contribute in my city each and every day, whether during covid, or through business, society or politics. In the Conservative party we have many Muslim councillors. We have two Muslim councillors in our city cabinet, until recently we had a Muslim councillor who was Mayor of the city, and we also have many Muslim councillors there from the Labour party. We work together, and that is the spirit in which we should be coming together to tackle Islamophobia and promote the positive contribution that Muslims make. We do that in Peterborough; it is such a shame that we cannot do it in this place.
My hon. Friend mentioned that positive contribution. Does he agree that Muslim charities and mosques, especially in my constituency of Dewsbury, have been pivotal in helping the needy and vulnerable during the pandemic, while also helping to promote social cohesion between communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is very humbling to see Muslim communities in my city help not only people in their own community, but those from communities in my city. They make me proud of Peterborough. It did not matter what background people were from, whether Muslim, Christian or eastern European. In Peterborough, we come in different shapes and sizes. We come from different cultures, different religions and different backgrounds, but we stood together as one city. I cannot think of a better example to promote the message of what a positive contribution Muslims made than the one that my hon. Friend gave, or how we all came together as one city.
We have also had success resulting from that in tackling Islamophobia. We have had Muslim councillors elected by huge majorities in wards where many Muslims do not live. People are not seeing this as a Muslim issue; they are seeing it in a completely and utterly colour-blind way. I urge all Members to come to Peterborough and see how a city working together actually works.
We have lots of work to do in this House, and we should be doing it cross-party. We should be tackling the hatred that I sometimes see across the country. Violence, attacks—these are despicable things that need to be stamped out. We also need to see the perhaps more subtle elements of Islamophobia stamped out. I remember the investigation by The Sun in January 2018 that showed that people with typically English-sounding names were given lower quotes than those with typically Muslim-sounding names. We can work together on this. I hope that the rest of the speeches by Opposition Members in this debate highlight that, and say how we can all work together to tackle Islamophobia.
Like many other speakers today, I have my scars. From being attacked by a racist gang in the park with dogs, as me and my brother ran away, having our clothes ripped from us, scared; to the audible gasps of, “Why the hell would you choose to be a Muslim?”, my experiences are as real as they are painful. With a Polish mother and a Pakistani father, and proudly British, I feel fortunate to have grown up immersed in many cultures. I have, sadly, experienced overt racism and bigotry; unfortunately, I have also been where people speak in perceived safety, not realising that I am a Muslim.
When I was studying medicine at Cambridge, a senior surgeon spoke openly about terrorism and Islam. When I asked him kindly to stop, he was shocked. When I stated that I was a Muslim, he asked where I was from and proceeded to tell me that half my family were eastern European cleaners and the other half were terrorists, and that I should go and tell my family to stop killing people.
A taxi driver once told me, 20 minutes into a cab journey, that he would never in his life allow a Muslim into his taxicab. He told me that Muslims were taking over the world, that he had absolutely no desire to meet one, and that he would not allow his daughter to go and study at a university where someone wore a hijab. I told him to stop the car, that he had met a Muslim and that I would continue my journey on foot.
My mum, who is not a Muslim but married one and had two children who chose to be Muslim, is Polish and has blonde hair and green eyes. She has been spat at in the street, called dirty for walking with her children and, while we were growing up, had people shouting at her on the tube, telling her she had married a dirty—I will not name the name, because I do not want to give it a place in this place.
Many people tell me I should have used getting married as the opportunity to drop the Khan and call myself Rosie Allin in a bid to be accepted, and that I should hide all traces of Islam from my daughters’ names, so that they may have “an easier life.” Well, fear will not make me drop my name or my faith, and fear will never stop me fighting against Islamophobia. In this place we have a platform, but millions of people do not. We owe it to them to speak out, and to fight for change for our community and for our children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), who is my constituency neighbour, wanted to be here today, but unfortunately cannot attend.
When we have these discussions in this House, they present an opportunity for us to shine a light on an issue and to encourage all our constituents who have experiences like those of the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) to talk about them, and to raise them with us as Members of Parliament, so that we can have a much better informed debate, and to raise them with the police. Such discussions give them confidence that they do not have to suffer in silence or accept that kind of behaviour.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as well as accepting the passionate speech given by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) we also need to challenge ourselves, whenever and wherever we experience such behaviour? There are some fantastic videos of people on tubes and trams challenging people and calling them out. We all need to do that, in all our organisations, wherever we see this discrimination.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. If we want to build a better society and better communities, then we all have a part to play. If we can do one thing in this House, it is to give confidence not just to victims and potential victims but to everyone, so that if they see intolerance or discrimination they have the confidence to call it out and stand up for what is right.
It is very sad that in recent years we have seen an increase in Islamophobia and antisemitism. The words that we use here are incredibly impactful. When I was first elected in 2019, one of the first organisations to reach out to me was Tell MAMA. I had the privilege of meeting Iman Atta, the director of Tell MAMA, who spoke to me at length and incredibly powerfully about the experience of Muslims across the country, but also in my constituency. I have been fortunate to meet representatives from local organisations in Burnley, such as Olive High School, an independent Islamic school for girls. What all this showed me is that when we work together we achieve far more.
Last Friday, we held a local memorial service for Sir David Amess. I laid a wreath, alongside our council leader, who was representing the local imam, and Lord Khan, who is the first Muslim peer for Burnley, both of whom I consider to be friends. It sent a powerful and moving message to constituents in Burnley and people across the country that the more we can work together, the better.
Islamophobia is a scourge on society, and I hope that what we do in this place and the words that we use help people realise that we can find a better way of discussing things and finding solutions. Sometimes, we need to take the politics out of it. If we take the politics out of it, we can work cross-party, as we all do locally in our constituencies. The words that we use in the Chamber are very different from how we engage in our societies and communities. If we take a little bit more of that engagement and community focus here, we will find a much better solution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for securing the debate during Islamophobia Awareness Month.
I want to set something straight on the record. Bolton South East does not need the help of other MPs to deal with the issues of taxi drivers. I deal with them, meet them regularly and do not need to set up an APPG for them. I am interested to know why no Conservative MP in Greater Manchester ever wants to join an APPG on Greater Manchester, which is much wider. No Conservative MPs will join that. That was rather a silly comment from the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) in making that point. To repeat, my taxi drivers do not need any help from anyone else.
Returning to the topic of the day, I want to talk about international Islamophobia. In Myanmar, decades of hate speech and persecution culminated in 2017 with more than 700,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya people having to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh after a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing; and our Government did nothing about it. In China, close to a million Uyghur Muslims are believed to be interned in so-called re-education camps. There, too, Islamophobia is rife across the country and our Government have done nothing about it.
In India, with every passing year, Islamophobia has become more normalised and mainstream. Narendra Modi was a member of the RSS, a neo-Nazi group, and his Bharatiya Janata party is making India into an authoritarian, Hindu national state. Regular, unprovoked attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs have become routine in India, along with the destruction of mosques and the taking away of Muslims’ human rights.
Last month, the BBC reported that a video had gone viral on social media showing a terrified girl clinging to her Muslim father as Hindu mobs assaulted him. That is not a one-off. That kind of violence is overwhelming. I have never heard a word from the Foreign Office or Government Ministers on that issue. When they talk about wanting to deal with Islamophobia, I would like to hear from the Government.
In Europe, Muslims are being made the other. Constantly in France and other countries, every time there is a general election, they bring up the subject of Muslims, take women’s veils and bring in new laws that say that Muslims are forming a counter-society. Again, we hear nothing in this country from the Foreign Office. I would like our Government to do something about that.
I refer to my unremunerated chairmanship of the advisory board of Conservatives Against Racism For Equality. I begin by saying how proud I am to have the support of thousands of British Muslims in Wycombe, including Conservative councillors, who have been mayors of High Wycombe and chairs of the county council. I am incredibly proud of British Muslims in Wycombe.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and I put out a photo of us standing together against Islamophobia. Of course, as soon as I put that on social media, it was viciously trolled by Islamophobes. I am afraid that happens time and again, every time that I stand up for my British Muslim constituents. That is not going to stop me standing up for them and against Islamophobia.
I want to say to those Islamophobic trolls that it is categorically wrong to condemn innocent people collectively for the crimes of others, because sometimes that is what is done overwhelmingly. I am Christian and, with humility, recognise that over the course of 2,000 years, terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity. People have been tortured to death, murdered and persecuted, even today. We know from the campaign around LGBT conversion therapy that Christians still persecute others.
That does not mean that I am responsible for it, and I would not accept anyone else holding me responsible for it. It would be wrong and unjust of them to do so. All I am asking for is that British Muslims enjoy the same treatment: that they be judged on the content of their own character and behaviour. I am very proud of the contribution that British Muslims make to our society.
I turn briefly to the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia. I understand that the Government object to the use of the word “racism” because racism refers to race, not religion, and there therefore might be a conflict with the Equality Act 2010. I can understand that. The meaning of words does matter, and it is important that we get the definition right, but I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we have a real problem with Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hatred—whatever term we want to use—and we need to do something about it. Notwithstanding where some of the debate has been, I ask the Minister to meet the APPG officers and see whether we can find some way to work through the definition and pick up something that the Government can adopt. Finally, I ask her to engage with the MCB. I think it has some new leadership that I suspect she would very much approve of.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for securing it.
Today we have the opportunity to address and acknowledge Islamophobia Awareness Month and to reaffirm our collective determination to challenge and eradicate hate speech and discrimination, but we are also here to celebrate and champion the many thriving Muslim communities in all parts of the country. Newport West is one of the most diverse communities in Wales—a fact that I am very proud of—and its greatest strength is its diversity. From my visits to the Jamia Mosque on Commercial Road, the Islamic Society of Wales and the Newport Central Mosque in Stow Hill, which is at the heart of our city, I know the contribution that they have made to our local community. It is so important to acknowledge the key role that our Muslim communities have played in the last 18 months. From looking out for neighbours to providing food and support to people of all faiths and none, Newport’s Muslim community has shown that it cares, has a big heart and is committed to bringing our communities together. I am very grateful for the warm welcome that I have always received at our local mosques, and for the steadfast support provided to me personally.
Islamophobia is not just verbal or physical abuse; it is structural. In many ways, it is entrenched in our society, so we parliamentarians have a real responsibility to shed light on the problem and tackle it head-on. One of my team here in this place, Adam Jogee, is the first Muslim Mayor of Haringey. I have heard from Adam, who I know is watching the debate, about some of the experiences that he has had to face as a Muslim. The abuse he has had ranges from having his faith questioned on social media to being called “Jihadi Jogee”.
I agree 100% and I thank the hon. Member for his intervention.
It is completely unacceptable that abuse takes place on social media and that it is often elected representatives who engage in it. There are tangible things that the Minister can do, and I would be grateful if she outlined precisely how the Government plan to lead by example in the fight against Islamophobia. Has she met the excellent, new and young secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain? If so, when did they last speak? Lastly, I would be grateful for an update on the discussions with the devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland about the fight against Islamophobia. There are vibrant and thriving Muslim communities in all four countries of the UK, and the Government must stand up for all of them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton for his leadership and for calling this important debate. I thank all Muslim colleagues in this House and the other place for their perseverance. To the Muslim community in Newport West, in south Wales and across the UK, I say this: please be assured that I stand with you against hate, now and always.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on securing this important debate.
It is ironic that when we consider the word “Islamophobia”, we think about the word “Islam”. “Islam” means “peace”. “Salaam alaikum” means “peace be unto you”, and “Alaikum salaam”—the reply—means “unto you be peace”. It is deeply ironic that, as the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) said, we have the evil of Islamophobia out there. I, too, have seen some very ugly stuff that I never want to see again. Islamophobia exists.
In the short time available, I want to tell an anecdote. As a student, I was fishing about for a subject to make up my degree, and one of the subjects I chose, by great good fortune, was the history of Islam and Islamic culture. That was one of the best things that I ever did, because I learned everything about the life of the Prophet. I learned about the Hegira in 622. I learned about the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the hadith literature—I was talking to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton about this earlier today—the sunnah of the Prophet, and so on. In doing so, we met Muslims. They came to lectures. We worked with them. We ate with them and learned about food. It is a very simple thing, but when you know somebody and you like them, it is hard to hate them. I was very fortunate with my education. I think that we can build into education in the future a greater understanding of Islam, Judaism and other religions, which will make for a more tolerant society.
One of the things that came out of my lectures was the expression that we all know—that we are all the sons and daughters of Abraham. The similarities between Christianity, Judaism and Islam are there to be seen, and they are strengths that we should build on together. Wherever we are today as a nation, we will have to play to our strengths and really work together. It is a difficult world for us. That means mobilising everyone of all creeds and religions in this country. Therefore, stamping out something like Islamophobia can only help to build a better country for all of us.
Thank you, Mr Dowd; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on securing the debate, and thank the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for his reasoned contribution.
I had a speech prepared and I have ripped it up, because there are a few matters that I want to put on the record. I will start by saying this: if you want to tackle Islamophobia, you need to listen to the lived experiences of Muslims. Our contributions and lived experiences will help you to shape policy to tackle Islamophobia. I know what it feels like. I was nine years old when I was asked if my dad was a terrorist the day after 9/11. Only a couple of months after that, our mosque was burned to the ground in a suspected Islamophobic attack. Those are my lived experiences, and I know how that feels.
To be perfectly frank, I will not accept a debate in which we are told that we have to take the politics out of it, because the Prime Minister peddles dangerous rhetoric when he says that veiled Muslim women look like “letter boxes”. I am a Muslim. I know how that feels. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton said, attacks against Muslim women increased after those comments.
I am sorry, but I do not have enough time to take interventions. When people say, “I don’t see race. I don’t see religion,” they might not, but I do, because there are other people out there who ensure that I know how it feels that I am a little bit different from the rest of you. To be perfectly frank, I really do not care what party Members are in. The Scottish National party is in government in Scotland and the Conservatives are in government in Westminster. More needs to be done across all four nations to tackle this. The Scottish Government recently passed legislation that expanded the definition of hate speech and makes it easier to hold to account those who express prejudice in a threatening or abusive way. That is a step in the right direction, and the UK Government need to do more. We are saying, “Listen to our lived experiences. It’s not party political.”
This has been really difficult to speak about. I will say just one more thing: I am so proud of my identity. I am a Scottish Pakistani Muslim. In the month of Ramadan, you will find me fasting, and breaking my fast by drinking a cold can of Irn-Bru and eating samosas.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on leading it in the extremely effective and passionate way that he has. The statistics that the Muslim Council of Britain has published for Islamophobia Awareness Month underline the urgent need for greater education and awareness about Islam, the Muslim community and Islamophobia. They underline the need for those of us in positions of authority to speak out. Crucially, they underline the need for the Government to demonstrate leadership on this issue.
Muslims have just as much right to be safe and be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential as those of us who are not Muslims. Almost 50% of all recorded religious hate crimes are targeted against Muslims. Survey after survey shows Muslim adults held back from even getting interviews, never mind full-time work, and we know from the evidence that the MCB published that it costs more to live if someone is a Muslim. They pay more to insure their car, for example, and those with an apparently obvious Muslim name who seek a flat get fewer replies.
In Harrow, there are too many examples of Islamophobia, from casual graffiti in tube stations and men spitting at Muslim women wearing the jilbab in north Harrow to the Muslim woman from Harrow called a terrorist, a bomber, while travelling on the train. There are examples, too, of job discrimination against Muslims and in local politics, with—I say this gently in the context of what has gone before—Conservative councillors partly responsible. It is that day-to-day reality that needs to change.
In my experience, the Muslim community in Harrow is astonishingly generous. Harrow Central Mosque has helped to raise money for a primary school in need of new computers and an overhaul of the books in the school library. The Sri Lankan Muslim Cultural Centre, one of the contenders for best-run mosque in the UK, played a critical role during lockdown in helping to get food and clothing to those in need, and the remarkable Mahfil Ali community in north Harrow, as well as helping to run a soup kitchen, has been attending midnight mass on Christmas eve at its nearest Anglican church for the last 12 years. By any definition, that is a remarkably generous gesture of interfaith respect and love.
Muslims in Harrow walk the same streets as I do and shop in the same supermarkets. Their children play in the same playgrounds and they use the same public services as I do, so why should they not have the same opportunities as I and those who look like me do?
It is a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Mr Dowd. Although I do not agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) has said, I thank him for securing this debate.
A huge number of people, identities, cultures and heritages celebrate their day, week, month or whatever—in particular, the black community celebrates Black History Month—which is about the achievements they have made in communities and society. I want Islam to be recognised as a positive religion. I want us to look at the holy Prophet, peace be upon him, whose message had a profound effect and changed the entire Arabian society from warring tribes into people in the worship of God. He preached moderation and social reform. He advocated social reform on many levels, including gender and racial equality, religious freedom and education for all. His efforts to this day have allowed Islam to prosper. A huge number of people were the best medical advisers. For many years, Europe used the scriptures from Islamic scholars to base modern medicine on, so there was a huge advantage in what has gone on in terms of what Islam does.
In my local community, we have fantastic mosques that have provided food banks and events to support the local community. Also in my constituency, a very good friend of mine, Raja Khan, has delivered more than 250 tonnes of food to communities. This is about promoting positive Islam. If we are to get away from people who are anti-Muslim, we must show them what is positive about us and the positive things that we do. That is really what this debate should be about. We are not here to promote negative issues or go into victimisation mode. We need to be positive. We are no lesser than anybody else. We are British citizens and we are Muslims, and we are here to stay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on securing this important debate during Islamophobia Awareness Month.
I speak as a humanist and as vice-chair of the showing racism the red card all-party parliamentary group. I want a tolerant society in which we collectively advocate for people’s freedom to practise their faith or belief so that everyone may live in a fair and equal society without discrimination. Religious education and anti-racist education play important parts in that.
Being born and bred in Luton, my home town, I am proud to represent Luton South, including our significant and vibrant Muslim community. Luton’s hyper-diversity and the contribution of all faith and belief groups is our strength. We have to use our strong community cohesion to stand against all forms of discrimination and racism. As the hon. Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham) said, the scourge of Islamophobia has no place in society.
Conspiracy theories and tropes perpetuated by the far right seek to dismantle that community cohesion to threaten the safety of Muslims across Luton, the UK and the world. As we have heard, British Muslims are victims of the highest proportion of religiously motivated hate crimes. The Home Office hate crime statistics for 2020-21 show that 45% of religious hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales were against Muslims, with 22% of crimes targeted at Jewish victims and 9% at Christians, while 16% of offences were unknown.
Excellent organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, MEND—Muslim Engagement and Development —and Tell MAMA support and empower British Muslims. This year’s Islamophobia Awareness Month theme is “Time for Change”. As other hon. Members have said, it is an apt time for the Conservative party to change its approach by conducting a genuinely independent investigation of Islamophobia in the UK, engaging with the British Muslim community to root out Islamophobia wherever it occurs and accepting the definition of Islamophobia of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. I look forward to hearing what plans the Minister has in place for Islamophobia Awareness Month.
I express my solidarity with the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and with all Muslims in Bath and across the UK. I join him in calling on the Government to adopt the APPG on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia, as we Liberal Democrats have done.
British Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims have been subjected to the highest proportion of all hate crimes committed this year. The Government must take an active role not only to punish discrimination, but to ensure that it does not happen in the first place.
I have to say that I was a little disturbed by the—initial, at least—aggression of some Tory Members in this debate. It behoves those of us, like me, who have not faced discrimination because of our skin colour or religion to listen carefully to those with the lived experience and not to call it politics, but to recognise it as hurt that has been caused.
We need to listen to those who have lived that experience, to recognise it as hurt and not to call it politics. That is wrong, and I am ashamed, as someone from the white Christian community. I do not share those views, and I stand in solidarity with all Muslims who have faced discrimination, and with those who are perceived to be Muslim only because of their skin colour.
This month is about raising awareness of the discrimination faced by British Muslims and the hate that drives that discrimination. It is also time to celebrate the many contributions of British Muslims to our society in Bath and beyond, from politics and media, through sport and entertainment to local business and our community life.
I must mention Mr Diya Al-Muzaffar, who allowed people into his house on Pierrepont Street in Bath for prayer, where they still go today—it is the site of the Bath Islamic Centre and mosque. The Bath Islamic Society mosque offers interfaith workshops, alongside churches and synagogues in Bath, bringing interfaith communities together. The success of those sessions shows how we can join together to protect and support one another. It is a powerful reminder that there is so much more that unites us than divides us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) on securing this important debate and on his tireless work. We have been here before many times. Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon but one that has sadly entrenched itself into significant segments of our society. As the Muslim Council of Britain noted, 70% of Muslims have experienced religious-based prejudice in the past 12 months and just under half of all religious hate crimes recorded by police in 2020-21 were Islamophobic. I also highlight that abuse can happen to Muslims or even those perceived as looking like Muslims, such as turbaned Sikhs like myself.
I personally called on the Prime Minister to do more over two years ago, and asked for an apology for his derogatory and racist remarks describing already vulnerable Muslim women as looking like bank robbers and “letter boxes”. Those comments led to a 375% spike in hate crimes and, more widely, showed that to openly abuse Muslim women was acceptable. All that was without an apology, except for a half-hearted one during the heat of an election and only when pressed to do so. That is characteristic of the Government response—denial, delay and avoidance.
Given the increased prevalence of such Islamophobic incidents in the Conservative party, where is the independent inquiry into Islamophobia, as promised on national television by the Prime Minister and his now Health Secretary? In fact, when the all-party group on British Muslims, of which I am proud to be a vice-chair, agreed on a definition of Islamophobia, all major parties accepted and adopted it with one notable exception: the Conservative party. We cannot simply accept the unacceptable status quo. If we do, we fail millions of Muslims because, without action, this is the message that Muslim communities are hearing.
I hope that the Minister, for whom I have time, has come with more than just warm words, because the persistent failure of the Government, particularly the Prime Minister, has real consequences and fails the people of our country.
Every single day, people of Muslim backgrounds like me face discrimination and prejudice. I am never allowed to forget that my presence in Parliament, as the first MP to wear a hijab, makes many uncomfortable, from the regular mispronunciation of my name to being mistaken for other hijab-wearing women who work in Parliament, to being asked, even, if I am related to Shamima Begum.
Too often, we are cynically used as a focal point for people’s anxieties, as scapegoats for the failings of the political and economic system. It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that I constantly have to cope with a vicious torrent of abuse. Just to give hon. Members a few examples, this is the kind of material that I receive: “Vile and filthy religion…importing vile and filthy creatures like Apsana Begum”; “Muslims should be banned from public office…we can’t trust their allegiances”; “Muslims are the masters of lying. They are the bane of our Christian society. They do not belong and should be deported”; “Deport the Filth”; “Throw her and her family back to where they came from”; “Chop her hand off”; “This could be one of your last statements”. Those are not even, by any measure, the worst of what I receive.
All too often, Muslims live with a constant, persistent fear overshadowing our lives, especially given that the latest data shows that Muslims are the largest target of religiously motivated hate crimes. The rise of the far right, in particular, is a very present danger. I just want to pick up on the fact that Government Members have been talking about taking politics out of this. I wonder what they would say to what the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief reported—that institutional suspicion and fear of Muslims has escalated to “epidemic proportions” and that “numerous” states, regional and international bodies were to blame. Perhaps the Minister can address that point.
It is important to remember that, across the world, under the auspices of fighting terrorism and extremism, we see people of Muslim backgrounds facing persecution and the denial of basic citizenship rights, from the Rohingya refugees to the escalated harassment of Muslims in France, for example. The evidence is very clear. Islamophobia is on the rise. But there is hope and I am inspired by the history of anti-racist struggles in east London. I am proud to represent the constituency that I have lived in all my life and I pay tribute to the contributions of Muslims all across Britain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd, and to participate in such an important debate secured by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). Those people who pay attention to the parliamentary calendar might notice that we had a debate quite recently on the definition of Islamophobia. We are debating a not dissimilar topic today, which is important and welcome. We need to be much more focused and relentless in looking at this issue, and this debate today is part of that. The recent high-profile cases of racism in cricket are just one example of why that really matters.
I am a member of the APPG on British Muslims, like a number of other hon. Members here today. The APPG is a good example of cross-party work, which is really important: collective purpose is absolutely necessary when we are dealing with Islamophobia, given the significant harm and detriment caused to so many people, some of which we have heard about today.
We have heard powerful speeches today from several hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) is a strong woman. I am proud to be her friend and colleague. What she had to say today was really important; I am grateful to her for saying what she did. Tackling Islamophobia absolutely requires us to listen to the lived experience of those who are affected. It is absolutely not on for those voices to be minimised in any way.
There are other people whose powerful work in this area is making a difference. We heard about Tell MAMA, which supports real change and works closely with the Community Security Trust. Joint working between Muslim and Jewish bodies is really important. It is a shame that such work is needed, but it is assuredly needed. From what some people might describe as low-level discrimination or harassment—presumably, those people have never experienced it themselves—to very serious crimes, the way that Islamophobia touches lives is broad and ever evolving. We heard from the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton about his worries for his grandchildren and the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) talked about her own children. We heard about the online space, which is a bin fire of abuse and harassment, with anonymous trolls spreading bile and threatening people in a terrible way. The impact on women is greater, online as it is offline. This is not a straightforward issue, however, and it requires all of us to focus.
Somebody whose work we have heard about in this area—somebody who will deliver change—is Zara Mohammed, the new general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. The call from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for the Minister to discuss with Zara is sensible. Zara is a young, Scottish woman on a mission to deliver real, positive change. She is absolutely committed to pressing for action to deal with Islamophobia and improving lives. Part of how we can do that is to be open and encourage dialogue, to make sure that people are focused together. She was good enough to spend some time recently with me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), explaining the issues she is dealing with. I am grateful to her for that.
Of course, these issues reach far beyond this place. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton hosted some visitors earlier in the week, including Rahima Mahmut, whose work on behalf of the Uyghur Muslim community is so important. We owe her huge thanks.
It is also worth reflecting on the work that other groups are doing, including groups led by young people. In my local area, Kirsty Robson is a co-founder of Yet Again, a group of young people who work to prevent genocides such as that faced by the Uyghur Muslim population in China. There is the work of Never Again Right Now, another youth-led movement, spearheaded by the European Union of Jewish Students, including my colleague, Olaf Stando. It is international in membership, and calls out the treatment of those who suffer human rights abuses because of their religion. I note its campaign in support of Uyghur Muslims, calling for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing games.
I mention those groups in particular because solidarity is important. Tackling Islamophobia is not something that only Muslims should have to deal with and it is not something that is the responsibility of Muslims. We need to be open, all of us, to the fact that it is an issue everywhere. I have heard some comments today that make me think that I need to emphasise that point. I live in a fantastically religiously diverse community. I live in a country where there is a lot of work going into delivering fairness and social justice and stamping out racism in all its forms, but we do not have a magic wand. We cannot wish away the reality that Islamophobia remains and is an issue in Scotland just as it is everywhere else. We need to be alive to that and we need to be willing to work hard to deal with it.
The Scottish Parliament has a cross-party group working hard on this issue. It has been working with Professor Peter Hopkins and his team from Newcastle University, has conducted an inquiry and has adopted the APPG definition of Islamophobia. As we have heard, all parties in the Scottish Parliament have agreed to do that.
We need to define Islamophobia; we need to be clear what we are talking about and what is unacceptable, and we cannot do that if we do not define it. We need to be confident in our language.
It is welcome that the Scottish Parliament has got to that place. I am really keen to hear from the Minister the UK Government’s plans to look at this again and push ahead with this. I do not think they should get to keep kicking this into the long grass, particularly given the Prime Minister’s past comments, which are indefensible. The tone of some comments from Government Members today is regrettable. That is not the way we should conduct ourselves in here. Some of the eye-rolling and the language used was most unfortunate. However, I have to say that the contributions from the hon. Members for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham) and for Wycombe (Mr Baker) were eloquent and welcome. We need to see and hear more from the UK Government on this. We need to be mindful of the broader environment that we are in: there is a changing climate across in the world. We have a part to play here, using the platforms that we have, in making sure that we make a difference, because there has been a surge in respect of how the Muslim community is treated.
I conclude by returning to something the Minister said, which others have reflected on. She said that this is not political, or should not be, but her comments were. We need to take a step back from some of that. We need to accept that this is an issue for all of us in this Chamber and across the House; we all have a responsibility and duty to deal with Islamophobia. We will do that better if we can have discussions without raising the temperature in the way that it was raised, regrettably, today. I hope the Minister has something positive to say on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for securing the debate. I thank all Members who contributed to the debate and the many others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who could not make the debate but wanted to put on the record their commitment to tackling Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is a dark reality, with three Muslim grandfathers murdered here in the UK, while terrorist attacks in Christchurch, Quebec and multiple others around the world emphasise the serious nature of Islamophobia if left unchallenged. In the UK, Islamophobic hate crimes against Muslims and their places of worship have sadly become far too common. The latest data for 2020-21 show that 45% of all religious hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales were against Muslims, although a large number of cases are simply not reported to the police. Data from the crime survey of England and Wales suggests the actual number is approximately six times the number of recorded offences. According to the same data, Muslims were the most likely to be victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2017-18 and 2019-20.
That is not Muslims complaining about Islamophobia. That is the police collecting data on Muslims being attacked. One would think, when Muslims are the most likely to be the victims of religiously motivated hate crimes, that Islamophobia would be a top Government priority but, tragically, it is not. Islamophobia does not manifest itself only in hate crime. Islamophobia is not always a visible attack on mosques or Muslims. Someone does not have to vigorously hate another person to discriminate against them. Discrimination comes in many forms, including conscious and unconscious bias. Let me explain how.
When 15-year-old Azeem Rafiq is forced in a car to drink alcohol, that is of course a hate crime and an assault. Later, when he feels he has to drink alcohol to fit in, to be the best that he can be, to have an opportunity to progress, where is the hate crime then? He is in an environment in which he cannot be the best or achieve his dreams while adhering to the faith that he chooses to follow. Listening to his evidence at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, it was evident how much trauma he faced later on in life through being forced to be someone he was not just to fit in.
Many Muslims face similar barriers daily. A sizeable percentage of British Muslim women do not wear the headscarf, not because they do not want to but because they fear that, by wearing one, they may be attacked, or due to prejudice, will have lower chances of succeeding and reaching the top. They, too, feel that they have to fit in to avoid abuse, discrimination or their chances being limited. Their fear is not misplaced. A 2016 Women and Equalities Committee report found that Muslim women face a triple penalty. Some of the vilest vitriol I have received online is coupled with a picture of me wearing the headscarf while being at a place of worship.
As Muslim women, we often recall praise such as, “I am impressed to see how empowered you are as a Muslim woman”—as if being a Muslim was a barrier to empowerment and we even beat it through our archaic faith to become a symbol of success. Although this is often done unknowingly, it is done through people accepting a trope about Islam being a faith that is deeply misogynistic. Contrary to that trope, I want to put on record that as a Muslim woman, my empowerment as a women comes from my faith and the life and teachings of the Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him.
A report by the Centre for Media Monitoring that analysed media output over a three-month period in 2018, which comprised analysis of over 10,000 published articles and broadcast clips, found 59% of all articles associated Muslims with negative behaviour and over a third misrepresented or generalised about Muslims, with terrorism being the most common theme.
When such perpetuated tropes and false conspiracies about Muslims are allowed to develop, it enables an environment where people are otherised and demonised. Not everything I have mentioned is a hate crime, but it all can have an impact. Islamophobes and those who consciously or unconsciously discriminate against Muslims often use anything and everything that links to a person’s Muslimness as a factor for their negativity, be that religious practices, ways of dressing or customs, or even sometimes something that is not part of Islam, but is perceived as Muslim, such as a Sikh man wearing a turban. The reality is that Islamophobia is rampant across society, and purely basing Islamophobia on hate crimes like this Government wish to do deprives us of the ability to tackle the full extent of Islamophobia.
We have to tackle the environment in which Islamophobia is normalised. Today, a former England captain, Michael Vaughan, can ludicrously suggest a Muslim England Cricket player like Moeen Ali should go around in between test matches asking random Muslims if they are terrorists—as if he too was somehow liable—and still continue to be a mainstream pundit. The former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, can openly brand Muslims as antisemites and say that it is a nice change from a Muslim making a bomb or trying to kill hospital visitors, and still get invited as a mainstream guest on media shows. In fact, people like Trevor Phillips can generalise an entire community by saying:
“Muslims are not like us”,
that they will never fit in and are
“becoming a nation within a nation”,
without an apology or remorse, and get a special programme in their name on Sky News.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. On her point about institutionalised Islamophobia in certain parts of society—she mentioned cricket and the media—should we not be looking at the governing organisations, whether that is Ofcom in the media or the England and Wales Cricket Board, and seeing whether they are fit for purpose? I do not think they are in this regard.
I absolutely agree and thank my hon. Friend, because that brings me nicely on to my next point. In 2011, the former chair of the Conservative party, Baroness Warsi, said that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner table test”. A decade later in 2021, Islamophobia has now passed the mainstream media test. It has become normalised. In fact, it has become fashionable to demonise Muslims and gain from the political capital of hate. That is why it is so important to adopt a definition of Islamophobia to enable us to at least understand and tackle Islamophobia in all its forms.
The Labour party was one of the first parties to accept the APPG definition of Islamophobia. Again, last week, the chair of the Labour party and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton wrote to the Government urging them to rethink and adopt the definition. I welcome the intervention by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) on trying to do that in a collegiate way.
The Government’s record on a definition of Islamophobia is horrific. The Government refused the Muslim community a definition of Islamophobia, they then refused to accept a cross-party definition, and now two and a half years after promising a definition, they have failed to produce one. While the Minister may try to regurgitate the same old falsehoods about the APPG definition, I ask her one simple question. The APPG officers, before publishing the definition and in good faith, gave sight of it to Ministers. Since the definition has been published, can she tell me if the Government have ever reached out to the APPG to address any questions or concerns with the definition and in good faith try to come to a solution together on the matter? Have they even reached out, even once? The dangerous message that it sends to British Muslims is that this Government simply do not care.
When it came to the covid pandemic, this Government played with people’s lives; when it came to levelling up, they played with people’s future; and, again, on the issue of Islamophobia, they are playing with people’s lives. Minister, I urge this Government to show some leadership and good faith. This issue is far too serious to be ignored. As the theme for this year’s Islamophobia month suggests, it is time for change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It has been a very feisty debate, and it is quite clear that concerns about anti-Muslim hatred transcend party lines.
I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for securing this debate. I say to him that I am not afraid of using the phrase “Islamophobia”. We are not going to have a semantic argument, but there are good reasons why we refer to anti-Muslim hatred. It is partly to do with the APPG finding that the definition is not in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. If the hon. Gentleman wants more correspondence on why that is the case, I am very happy to provide it. I stand here not just as the Minister for faith but as the Equalities Minister. We must not allow those who seek to divide our diverse and multi-faith society to succeed. We are united here today in our determination to protect people and end discrimination.
I would like to use this occasion to remind colleagues about the tragic murder of our colleague and friend, Sir David Amess, whose funeral was yesterday. I attended it, as I think many others in this room did. He died at the hands of someone seeking to divide us all; someone claiming to act on behalf of Islam. However, if ever people needed reminding of the real values of Muslims in this country, they need look no further than the tributes paid by the Muslim community of Southend to the life of Sir David. His murder could have fanned the flames of fear and resentment, but instead of opening new fault lines between people, it was met with an outpouring of love and good will.
That is at the heart of what we are here today to discuss. The freedoms to say what we feel and to worship as we please are both fundamental to the character of this country. Those democratic values are reinforced by our staunch belief in equal rights and the rule of law. These are the principles that underpin debates such as this.
I barely have time to finish my speech, so I am afraid not.
No one in our society should be discriminated against because of their religion. In the spirit of remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), I will talk about the contributions of Muslims to our public life.
The UK is one of the best places in the world to live, no matter who you are or where you come from. It is full of opportunities. We have a large and thriving Muslim population who have made contributions to our country and society. The country’s first two mosques were founded in 1887, and now there are almost 2,000 mosques serving a Muslim population of more than 3 million. Wherever we look, we see Muslims enriching our public life, including as politicians in the Cabinet, as doctors and nurses keeping our NHS going, and as sporting heroes dominating on the world stage. Their prominence is testament to our openness as a country, and proof of something that has long been true: when someone lives in Britain they can become anything they want, whether that is Health Secretary, Education Secretary or growing up to win gold medals representing Team GB.
I now turn to the remarks made by hon. Members during the debate. I am afraid that I will not be able to cover all of them, but I will try to go through as many as I can. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton invited me to visit the country’s first green mosque. I will have a look at my diary and see if that is something I can accommodate. He also asked what we are doing to keep people safe online. He knows that we are progressing the online safety Bill. If there is anything specific he would like to mention, I would be very happy to take them forward on his behalf—it is a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport competency, but I am sure that we all can work together.
The hon. Gentleman also asked what we are doing to protect places of worship. I am told that we are funding, through the places of worship protective security funding scheme, quite possibly well over £100 million. Is that correct? It is quite a lot. I will confirm the amount, but we are putting several millions into the protected security funding scheme. I do not have the exact figure in front of me.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned his letter to the Prime Minister. This has caused quite a bit of confusion. The hon. Gentleman wrote to the PM and received a response from the party chairman. I often respond on behalf of the Prime Minister. I am informed that, after the hon. Gentleman made a point of order, the Prime Minister responded to his letter, so I hope that we can put that matter to rest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) made some really good points about individual action; it is not just about words or definitions. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) also made the point that this should not be a party political issue, and talked about the trust that people have in different political parties. This is not just a Conservative party issue, and people should not make it out as such.
I thank hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) for sharing her experiences of anti-Muslim hatred. I found them quite shocking and will come on to what the Government are doing to tackle that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) asked me to meet the APPG officers. He will be pleased to know that my office has already reached out to the shadow Minister’s office. We have not yet had a response, but I am sure that we will in due course and that we will find a time to meet the APPG. I am happy to meet its chair as well.
Although I admire the passion expressed by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar), I disagree with her fundamentally when she says that we should not take the politics out of the debate. We should take the politics out of the debate—in fact, we must. I grew up in a country where people did not take the politics out of the debate and can tell hon. Members now that when we do not do that and allow politics to infect religions, countries burn. As faith Minister, my approach will be to take the heat and the politics out of the debate. [Interruption.]
It was disappointing that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) used her speech to make partisan attacks on colleagues on the Government side of the House. She said that she does not have the lived experience of racism and that we should listen to those who do. I can tell her of my many lived experiences of racism at the hands of Liberal Democrats who made disgusting and vile comments, which I am sure she would be happy to apologise for. We should be able to have this debate without making partisan attacks such as hers. [Interruption.] I did not intervene on Opposition Members, so I will not give up my time to take interventions.
The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) made a fair point, which I accept. He said that it is fair to talk about action. I accept that he has made a good point that things have been slow. A commitment was made several years ago and we did lose momentum. We had a change in Administration, Brexit and covid, which, fingers crossed, we are coming out of. I think he will find a different change of tone and pace with me as faith Minister.
We all share the view that hatred of Muslims is a vile social ill. We have no time for people who seek to divide us. As I said before, we will not tolerate anti-Muslim hatred any more than we tolerate antisemitism or any other form of hatred, but the reality is that, despite this and our continued condemnation, stubborn pockets of prejudice exist.
Home Office figures show that 45% of religiously motivated hate crime recorded by the police was perpetrated against Muslims. The fact that Muslims—[Interruption.]
Order. Can we stop interrupting? We have two and a half minutes. The Member in charge is not going to get to speak and we may not even get to put the question. That is how serious this is. I have tried to be as honest and delicate as I can in this debate and give people the opportunity to speak.
It is shameful that Muslims can still face verbal or physical attacks and are made to feel like outsiders in their own country. Political parties are granted a rare standing in public life, and it is our job as politicians to demonstrate leadership and set an example for others to follow in everything we do, from our public discourse to our constituency surgeries.
To that end, it was incredibly disappointing that the hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton and for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) used their speeches to attack William Shawcross with defamatory remarks that would be actionable if made outside this Chamber. William Shawcross is an outstanding public servant, as is Trevor Phillips, who the shadow Minister mentioned.
On a point of order, Mr Dowd. I do not make this point of order flippantly. The Minister has just said that Mr Shawcross is a great man and she started her speech by using a trope about Muslims and terrorism, yet she is meant to be talking about Islamophobia. Shawcross has said that the Muslim faith is a fascist faith. How can she say that he is a person to lead a review that impacts on Muslims?
Debates such as this are symbolically important to show our shared commitment, but symbolism does not improve lives on its own. The Government have done a lot and we have some of the strongest legislation in the world for tackling hate crime, and it is working.
I will give a few examples. In 2019 a man who posted violent messages about Muslims alongside photos of him posing with a fake shotgun was jailed for four years. That year, two brothers attacked a group of men outside a Cardiff mosque: one was sentenced to five years and three months in jail, the other to 18 months in jail.
Our approach to discrimination is something that we should be proud of. In July, the European Court of Justice gave the green light to employers in the European Union to ban their workers from wearing hijabs or other religious insignia. We have taken control of our laws and are no longer subject to the ECJ’s jurisdiction. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that that kind of prohibition is thoroughly un-British.
I recognise that the debate is concluding, Mr Dowd, so what I will say in closing is that this is an issue that I am prepared to work on with all Members of the House, but what I will not do is be intimidated or bullied, and—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Body Image in the Media and Online
[Relevant Documents: Sixth Report of the Women and Equalities Committee of Session 2019-21, Changing the perfect picture: an inquiry into body image, HC 274; and the Government Response, HC 359.]
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in this debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if they are coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other space when you are seated, and when leaving or entering the Chamber.
I will now call Dr Luke Evans to move the motion and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for Dr Evans to sum up at the end, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government action on body image in the media and online.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I welcome the Minister to his role. This is the first time that I have formally met him to discuss this issue.
I will open with a description of an advert put out about a year ago by Dove, called “Reverse Selfie”. It starts with a young girl looking at her phone. On that phone, there is a picture of her. She may be in her late teens or early twenties. She starts to scroll backwards. She sees the comments underneath the photo suddenly disappearing, with all the “likes” going away and the comment, “You look amazing”, disappearing. Suddenly, the filter changes and so does her hair colour. The size of her face, including her nose, changes, and the blemishes on her skin all suddenly reappear. The process goes further. She puts the phone down, lies backwards and there is a picture of her family, which she has scrubbed off the back of the wall, and a picture of her favourite teen band. Furthermore, the image shows her makeup, including her lipstick, coming off. Finally, what is left in front of us is a girl no older than 13 or 14. The advert then finishes with the line:
“The pressure of social media is hurting our girls’ self-esteem”.
The advert is only a minute long, so if people have a chance I encourage them to look at it, because it encapsulates perfectly the kind of world in which we now exist, and the problem is getting worse.
Over the next few minutes, I will set out three points to address when it comes to debating this issue of body image and what the Government can do. The first is the scale of the problem; the second is why it matters; and the third, and most important, is what we can do about it.
There are so many statistics out there, but I will quickly go through the scale of the problem. Evidence from Girlguiding shows that two in five girls between the ages of 11 and 16 have seen images online making them feel insecure or less confident about themselves, rising to 50% for those aged between 17 and 21. Some 55% of girls aged between 11 and 21 say that these images make them feel insecure by showing unattainably wealthy lifestyles or expensive clothes, and 94% agree that more should be done to protect them from body image pressures online. Some 90% of girls agree that there should be stricter rules for online advertisers. The Women and Equalities Committee heard that more than six in 10 women feel negative about their bodies. Factors including diet culture and being bombarded with images of photoshopped, sexualised women have negative impacts.
It is not just women; it is men as well. Some 35% of men aged between 16 and 40 say that they are unhappy with how they look; 48% say that they have struggled with their mental health because of unhappiness; and two in every five men feel pressured to have the perfect body.
It goes further. Work by the Mental Health Foundation found that 85% of under-18s thought that appearance was either very important or important, but it led to one in five adults and one in three teenagers feeling actual shame about the way they looked. The Women and Equalities Committee report said that the triggers include social media, stereotypes and, of course, conventional media. Those are just some of the survey results that give a flavour of what people in this country feel like.
Why does this actually matter? Let us take the worst-case scenario. As a clinician, I have seen more and more men —but also women—with concerns about body image. At worst, they suffer with eating disorders. There are 1.25 million people suffering with anorexia or bulimia. There are also 1 million people, particularly men, who are using steroids to bulk up, to try to get those stereotypical big shoulders or tight abs. That was brought home to me when UK Anti-Doping saw my campaign about body image and came to me with evidence of how much of a problem it is causing. It is finding that people who are using drugs for aesthetic enhancement are then turning up to play rugby only to then be banned from the sport.
On eating disorders, there has been a 50% increase in the number of people accessing services since 2016-17. We are seeing the worst extremes, but this is the thin end of the wedge. Combine those factors with what we have just talked about—the way the nation is feeling—and we see that there is an obvious cause for concern.
This matters and I do not believe that social media companies are doing enough. Many have filters, educational content, and ways of trying to filter out some of the problems they face, but, fundamentally, we need to go further, because the problem is getting worse and it is young people who are bearing the brunt of it. Other countries have started to make strides in addressing the problem, most notably Israel and France, and Norway has recently said that it will look at labelling digitally altered images. There is a precedent, therefore, not only here but across the western world, to make a difference.
What can we do? I am completely aware that the Minister is from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and that this problem cannot be solved with one single hit, because there is a chain. It involves parental responsibility and educating our children to be aware of the content they are looking at. Of course, when people go on to a platform, they need to have the tools to protect themselves, the platform needs to take responsibility and show them due care to, and if things go wrong, a regulator, backed up by legal statute, needs to be able to deal with it.
For the purpose of this debate, I will concentrate on three solutions that I think could make a difference. I proposed the first one last year—namely, labelling digitally altered images. It is a very simple process and we already have a precedent for it, with “PP” appearing for paid product placement advertising on TV. This is in line with the health aspect of providing information about calories and content on food labelling. It provides parity for mental health by saying that the image is not quite as it seems. We already have a precedent in advertising, as well, with video game adverts stating, “This is not actual video footage”, and, of course, political advertising is labelled as such.
I often use this example when people ask what that means: if someone wanted to sell their house or rent a room, it would be absolutely justifiable to paint the walls, put out a new throw and change the lighting. However, what they fundamentally could not do is digitally alter the size of the garden, the roof or the living space. That is what I am asking the Government to look at. We are creating a warped sense of reality that drives young people to believe they can be something that they can never achieve. I am all for aspiration and people improving their aesthetics—I am a GP by trade and I welcome heathy, promotional sport and exercise and people taking care of their bodies—but not if that is a goal that they can never achieve.
Critics of my position often say, “Hang on a second. Isn’t that the nanny state?”, but I would say it is not, because a perfect market needs perfect information. Others ask how it would work practically. The online space already distinguishes between organic and commercial activity according to the number of followers and what accounts use in their content, holding them to a different category of rules. I am not asking for a bride with a blemish to suddenly be punished or banned from dealing with that. I am simply asking for digitally altered images where biceps are made bigger and promoted online—or indeed in magazines—to carry a label.
Of course, that is my wish as a Back Bencher, but we have the draft Online Safety Bill, and I credit the Government for grabbing the bull by the horns and including a world-leading attempt to try to deal with some of the perils of the internet. That is really important, but there are some difficulties. How do we decide what goes in? How do we build a framework? Where does responsibility lie? I am pleased that there is a framework that covers social media companies with a duty of responsibility.
What I am talking about is not illegal, and that means that interpreting what is detrimental is mired in difficulty. Although an individual picture might not be detrimental, we start to have a problem when we are bombarded with 100 pictures of people with abs and shoulders the size of a fridge. However, I see a solution. Clause 46(3) of the draft Online Safety Bill, which sets out the meaning of content that is harmful to adults, states:
“Content is within this subsection if the provider of the service has reasonable grounds to believe that the nature of the content is such that there is a material risk of the content having, or indirectly having, a significant adverse…psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities”,
with roughly the same wording in place for children as well. I put it to the Government that body image could well be a legal but harmful issue, and should be counted among the priority harms.
As I have said, the draft Online Safety Bill tries to cover a whole load of issues that are not related to body image. My final point and plea to the Government is about the thrust of the issue—what it all boils down to—which is the algorithm driving the content. I am interested in fitness, and I follow CrossFit on Instagram. If I log into my account, it sends me to hundreds of pictures of gents with their tops off, training harder than ever before. It is not an issue having the one image, but there is a real difficulty when hundreds of images are being driven to people. When I raise the issue with all the big social media companies and ask them how the algorithm works, the first thing I hear is, “That is commercially sensitive,” and therein lies the problem. If we do not know what the algorithm is driving to people, and if we do not understand it or have any clarity on it, how can we address the problem in the first place?
I am so pleased to see that Ofcom is in line to deal with the problem. I have met with it to see that it has not only the resources and the legal backing but the ability to punish companies, demand that they open up their algorithms and demand papers from them so that we can get to the bottom of this problem. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is indeed the Government’s intent, and whether or not algorithms will be included in the online harms Bill. While I have come to this from body image, it would help to deal with all sorts of other issues, be that fraud scams, self-harm or suicide.
I hope that in the past 10 minutes I have demonstrated the scale of the problem, why it matters—because the most vulnerable young people are the ones facing it—and some of the solutions for dealing with it. I look forward to the online safety Bill coming forward. I am aware of the Advertising Standards Authority’s call for evidence about body image and the Government may know that I have launched a petition called #recognisebodyimage to make sure that body image is recognised in UK law for the first time. I hope that might just make a slight bit of difference for the young girl or boy who enjoys spending their time on social media.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. We used to appear opposite each other on occasion, so it is nice to serve under your chairmanship now. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on tabling this important topic for discussion this afternoon and for speaking with such eloquence. The examples he gave were powerful and make a strong case for the need to do more in this important area for the sake of all our children and, indeed, many adults who suffer problems and issues as a result of images they see online. I take the opportunity to assure the House and, indeed, the public that the Government takes those problems seriously.
There are two projects under way designed to address exactly those issues, which provide useful platforms for doing more. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth touched on both. The first is the online advertising programme, which, as the name implies, is designed to address the content of paid-for online advertising, where some of the images he describes appear. As he said, the Advertising Standards Authority launched a call for evidence on 21 October that remains open until 13 January, so there are opportunities for people to make their views known. I hope that the ASA will be able to do more in this area in response to that.
In the coming months, the online advertising programme consultation will be launched and, again, that will be an extremely useful vehicle into which points such as the ones made today can be fed. That will likely lead in due course to further measures in the online advertising space. It is clear that there is a real opportunity through the programme to do more in this area. Given the call for evidence and the consultation in the coming months, the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth are extremely timely and very welcome. He has picked his moment with a great deal of good fortune.
There is not just the question of advertising but that of user-generated content, and that is in the scope of the draft Online Safety Bill, which my hon. Friend mentioned. It was published last May and I can see he has a copy of it in front of him, which is diligently tagged up. I am delighted he has been studying it so carefully.
As hon. Members will know, the draft Bill is currently going through a pre-legislative scrutiny process. A Joint Committee of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), is looking very carefully at it. The Committee has taken extensive evidence and will be publishing a report on or before 10 December, which may well address some of the issues. The Government are certainly in listening mode on the draft Online Safety Bill and we are ready to make changes, amendments and improvements to the Bill where there is a case to do so. There is scope for us to do more in this area. The Bill has a number of important mechanisms that will directly help address some of the issues that have been raised.
Let me pick up a couple of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth. First, he mentioned the importance of algorithms. As he said, this applies not only to matters of body image and the fact that he has lots of pictures of well-built men appearing in his timeline, for the reasons that he explained, but elsewhere. These algorithms drive all kinds of content, some of which is harmful. In fact, Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, explained how the algorithms promote content that is often harmful, or even hateful, to individuals for purely commercial reasons. The algorithms do that not through any exercise of editorial judgment, but simply to drive user engagement, and therefore revenue, for the companies concerned. It is a purely commercial, profit-driven activity.
My hon. Friend made a point about transparency. When they are asked to talk a bit more about what these algorithms do, the companies very often refuse to disclose what is going on. Therefore, some of the most important measures in the draft Online Safety Bill are to do with transparency. There is a transparency duty on the category 1 companies—the largest companies—to be transparent about what is going on.
There are also powerful information rights for Ofcom, whereby Ofcom can require the companies concerned to provide information about a whole range of things, including algorithms. Companies will have to provide that information to Ofcom, providing the transparency that is so woefully lacking. If they fail to meet either the transparency duty or the information duty, that is, responding to an information request, they can be fined up to 10% of their global revenue. In the case of the information disclosure duties, not only can the company be punished by way of extremely large fine, but there will also be personal criminal liability for named executives. There will be a big change in the transparency about algorithms and how information is provided.
In the context of the draft Online Safety Bill, my hon. Friend also mentioned content that is legal but harmful. There is clearly a strong case to say that material that causes either young people or adults to develop anxiety about their body image can potentially be harmful. Once we have passed the Bill, the Ofcom consultation process will define the priority harms, which will be the harms where category 1 companies will have to take particular care. They will have to lay out in their terms and conditions how they will address issues with priority harms. There is a mechanism through which representations can be made, and the argument can be made that matters concerning body image ought to included.
I am very grateful for the comprehensive answers that the Minister is giving. On that secondary point, will the consultation be coming back to the House of Commons to determine those priorities or will they be set out after a consultation that will be delivered straight to Ofcom for it to make its judgment?
There will be an extensive consultation run by Ofcom, both on the matters considered to be priority harms and on the codes of practice that go alongside those. The Bill, as drafted, will see those codes of practice and the list of harms come back to the Secretary of State, and there will then be a parliamentary procedure, so Parliament will have an opportunity to look at the list of priority harms and the codes of conduct to be sure that Parliament is happy with them. There are various debates about whether the mechanisms to do that can be fine-tuned in some way, but it will not just disappear into a void with no further interaction with Parliament at all. In providing evidence to Ofcom, there will be an opportunity for my hon. Friend and for people who are campaigning with such passion on this issue to make representations.
I join the Minister in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on introducing this debate so eloquently. Can I take the Minister back to advertising? I spent many years working in British advertising agencies in London. I was a little concerned about the advertising ban in the Health and Care Bill, which we have been discussing in the last couple of days. We have a world-leading industry, and I gently say to my hon. Friend and to the Minister that if advertising is labelled in this way—I am talking more about the traditional media than online advertising—then either the health warning is so small that no one notices it or it is large enough to have a lot of notice. At that point, certainly the larger advertising agencies will ensure that they do shoots to get what they want without any retouching. I urge the Minister to be cautious and protect our world-leading advertising industry, which sets higher standards than virtually anywhere else in the world.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, given that it is built on years of expertise in the industry. These issues require careful thought and there are balances to strike. We do not want to cause unreasonable problems for the advertising industry.
That is why the Government and various regulatory authorities are looking at this in such a careful way, with the call for evidence that is running at the moment, the consultations in the coming months on the online advertising programme and the consultation on the priority harms and codes of conduct that Ofcom will conduct in relation to the online safety Bill. Through those consultations, there will be an opportunity for campaigners to put forward their point of view on body image. Obviously, the advertising industry will have extensive opportunities to put its case. There will be opportunities for regulators and Parliament to think about how that balance can most appropriately be struck. We fully recognise that, as in so many areas, there is a balance to strike in ensuring we reach the right solution.
I absolutely agree on striking that balance. To address the earlier intervention, I hope that no one would ever see a label on these images, because companies would be socially responsible and choose not to doctor them. However, should those images be doctored for any reason, having that label—a small “p”, a small “b”, or whatever it happens to be—alerts the user to the fact that, when they are scrolling through hundreds of images, particularly on social media, all is not as it seems. I think that is a fair balance.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. His comment is probably directed as much at my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) as at me. Clearly, there are important points to debate.
In conclusion, the Government take the issue extremely seriously, not just in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport but across Government, such as in the Department of Health and Social Care and other Departments. We recognise that serious psychological harm is potentially being caused, particularly to young people but more widely as well. We want to ensure that reasonable steps are taken to avoid harm being inflicted.
I hope Members across the House, with opinions on both sides of the argument, will fully engage with the consultation on the online advertising programme and the call for evidence from the Advertising Standards Authority. I hope they will also fully engage, after the Bill passes, with Ofcom when it consults on the priority harms and codes of conduct. Some extremely important issues and arguments have surfaced on both sides in today’s debate. We look forward to debating the matter further in the coming months to ensure we strike that balance. We need to protect people who need protection, so that the internet is not an ungoverned, lawless space where anything goes, but equally we need to ensure that industries, such as advertising, are not unduly penalised or circumscribed. I am confident that the House, on a cross-party basis, can apply its collective wisdom and strike that balance. I look forward to working with colleagues to achieve that.
Question put and agreed to.
Bus Services: North-east England
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered provision of bus services in the North East.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair in this important debate, Mr Dowd. Bus services keep our local communities moving. They provide connections between our homes and communities and our place of work. They allow us to travel, to do our shopping and to attend health and other appointments, and they form an essential link to mainline train services for onward travel. They allow us to socialise safely. For those without cars, they are essential. For those of us with cars, they offer an opportunity to reduce car journeys and so reduce our carbon emissions.
Some 160 million bus journeys were made across the north-east immediately pre covid, and I would hazard a guess that most Members of Parliament will know the high level of concern from constituents when local bus services are changed. Earlier this year many constituents contacted me and their local councillors about changes to the No. 47 bus services from Chopwell to Consett, telling me how the changes had disrupted their journeys to work and other services. Of course, our bus services have faced a huge impact from driver shortages and, like the rest of us, from staff catching covid or facing isolation, causing short-notice cancellations, which all add to the problems.
Speaking of covid, our bus services, and in much of Tyne and Wear our Metro services, have been dramatically affected by covid-19. Those services continued to run throughout lockdown to keep key workers moving. They continued to run as we opened up, then closed down again, and as restrictions changed, to keep us moving, but at a huge cost and with a huge drop in usage. I am a regular bus user myself, as I travel to and from Westminster, around London and at home, and I have seen the fluctuation in bus usage. I say a huge thank you to all the staff who kept our buses, Metro and trains going for those of us who needed to travel, often exposing themselves to greater risk of infection. Their work is appreciated.
Those services, running economically due to low usage, could keep going only through the financial support from Government. The covid-19 bus service support grant ran to August 2021, and local transport authorities paid additional moneys for concessionary travel payments to bus operators, although concessionary usage had in fact dropped very significantly. On the Metro system, the same effect can be seen, with less usage of the system, meaning less income and increased financial pressure.
Why have this debate about buses in the north-east now? Bus services across my constituency face a very real threat. Still suffering from a reduced number of passengers, suffering again from driver shortages and now experiencing increased congestion on our roads, as many of us, even previous bus users, use our cars to avoid the risk of catching covid—
I did not mean to cut my hon. Friend off mid-sentence, because she is making a powerful and timely speech, but she brought to my mind the fact that my constituents in the outer west of Newcastle already have quite poor public transport links. They do not have access to the Metro, and a bus from Throckley, for example, can take an hour to get into the centre of Newcastle, whereas it takes 15 minutes to drive. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government are telling people to get back into the office, increasing the traffic on our roads even further, they should at the very least make sure that we have the funding in our region to support good public transport for all?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I certainly agree. Her constituency mirrors mine on the other side of the Tyne and we face many of the same problems.
As I was saying, we are still suffering from driver shortages, and we are experiencing increased congestion on our roads as many people, even previous bus users, use their cars to avoid the risk of catching covid. Congestion—even pre covid, and now—affects our buses and can reduce their reliability, which is so important to increasing bus usage, and also has an effect on our environment and air quality.
Earlier this year, the Government produced their national bus strategy for England, “Bus Back Better”. I will not comment on the title, but the strategy recognised that the deregulated bus industry, in which commercial operators were free to provide services that ran at a profit, and local transport authorities were left to subsidise routes that they believed were essential, has not served us well. Chapter 1 starts by saying:
“Buses are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to improve transport. Building a new railway or road takes years, if not decades. Better bus services can be delivered in months. Experience shows that relatively small sums of money, by the standards of transport spending, can deliver significant benefits.”
We therefore need to look after and improve our buses, as important links between communities and towns and the train system.
The strategy required local transport authorities to submit bus service improvement plans by the end of October this year showing how they would achieve enhanced partnerships with bus operators to bring about better and more popular services. In the north-east, Transport North East, which brings together Northumberland County Council, Durham County Council, North Tyneside, Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside, worked with the bus operators to submit its bus service improvement plan and set out a major programme of investment worth £804 million to tackle infrastructure and improve services, aiming to recover the ground lost during the pandemic and then to increase passenger numbers.
However, since the Government published the strategy and commissioned £3 billion to fund the bus improvement plans, the amount available has been cut to £1.2 billion—clearly a huge difference in funding, which calls into question the detailed plans submitted by Transport North East and other local transport authorities. As yet there has been no confirmation of how much funding will be allocated to Transport North East for the implementation of the enhanced partnership and the bus improvement plan. I hope the Minister will be able to update us on the timescale for allocating funding and on the criteria to be used, given that the funding available has been significantly reduced after bids had been developed and that plans were due to be implemented from April 2022—just four months away.
In the north-east there is a pressing financial issue threatening our bus services, which could see cuts to the local bus network of up to 20% of mileage from next April. Costs are increasing, for example, for fuel, labour and maintenance, particularly in the context of the shortage of drivers and the intense competition for them. Fare income is still down, due to reduced passenger numbers, which are estimated still to be at 75% of pre-covid numbers. Government funding to support the bus network in the light of that reduced fare income is due to end in March 2022.
Some bus operators are reporting that Government funding to support the bus network for the remainder of the financial year is inadequate and does not in any case cover the cost of their operations. Concessionary travel reimbursements have been paid by local government at pre-pandemic levels throughout the pandemic at the request of the Government. That will end in March 2022, and reimbursement will reduce towards actual levels of ridership, which is currently around 60% of normal rates, as this group of passengers remains uncertain about using bus services.
Nexus’s financial challenges arising from the Government’s decision not to extend covid-19 support for the Metro mean that its current forecast is to reduce expenditure on buses via the concessionary travel reimbursement by £7.5 million in the next financial year, which will inevitably mean a reduction in bus services, contrary to those positive plans developed for the Transport North East bus service improvement plan.
The Government’s confirmation that emergency covid-19 payments for the Tyne and Wear Metro, paid through the pandemic, will cease at the end of March 2022 has created a real problem. As a result, a major shortfall of £20.8 million is forecast in Nexus’s finances for the financial year 2022-23, largely caused by the impact of covid-19 on the passenger numbers of the Tyne and Wear Metro. That financial gap will need to be closed. Short-term savings from cutting Metro services would lead to the loss of yet more passengers, leading to an even bigger deficit and even more problems in maintaining bus services. Clearly, Nexus is looking at other measures, including cost savings, an increased levy on local councils in Tyne and Wear and the use of reserves, but the proposed reduction of £7.5 million in concessionary fare payments as part of the package will hit bus services really hard.
For bus operators, too, there are still real challenges. The bus recovery grant is set to end in March 2022, and bus usage has not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels due to reluctance from some former passengers to get back on the bus. As I have said, increased car usage creates congestion, and driver shortages lead to bus cancellations, all creating a challenging situation even before the loss of that £7.5 million. The end of that funding has been described as a cliff edge for our bus services, so I ask the Government to look again before the budget for the next financial year is set in January and to continue to fund emergency payments to Tyne and Wear Metro because of the direct impact on bus services in my constituency and elsewhere in the north-east.
I understand that Nexus, the joint transport committee and the chair of the Tyne and Wear sub-committee have written to the Minister, Baroness Vere, but what is needed urgently is a discussion about the situation to find a way forward that avoids the 20% reduction in bus mileage. That request has the support of businesses in the north-east and the leaders of our health, tourism and education sectors, who want to build a better and greener local economy for the future and have written in support of that proposal.
I ask the Minister whether she, on behalf of Baroness Vere, will commit to meeting Nexus, the other parties involved and me to explore a way forward. This is all very dry and technical stuff, but what it means is important for my constituents and people across the north-east. The bus service improvement plan submitted by Transport North East offers a real chance of improvement for the future of the bus services that we rely on. To repeat the quote from the national bus strategy,
“Buses are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to improve transport.”
My constituents need improvements to make sure that our buses offer a reliable, accessible and more environmentally friendly option for their travel needs. It makes a huge difference to their lives, so I ask the Minister again whether she can update us on the timetable for allocating funding for the bus service improvement plans, and how the funds will be allocated given the reduction that I have spoken about. Most urgently, my constituents cannot afford their bus services to be reduced by 20% or even more. The villages, small towns and communities across the Blaydon constituency, such as Chopwell and Kibblesworth and all the places in between, need to retain their vital links to our towns, our health services and our other essential services.
Any reduction in buses will make already difficult journeys impossible. We need additional funding to make sure that they continue to run and can improve. Without that funding, Transport North East’s positive plans for improvements will be undermined from the start. Again, I ask the Minister to agree to set up a meeting with Baroness Vere, Nexus, Transport North East and me to find a way of continuing the covid-19 support to Nexus. We need action from the Government to prevent this bus funding crisis from hitting our communities. We really cannot afford to miss the bus. Action is needed now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate. Many of us speak based on our experience of inhabiting two different worlds when it comes to public transport. I am sure you appreciate, Mr Dowd, that inside the M25 there is a plethora of public transport options: a frequent and reliable bus service, the underground, and black cabs and 24-hour taxis available in minutes. We also have access to a constant stream of real-time data.
Outside the M25, in my constituency, when I wait at a bus stop, the timetables are more aspirational than informative; the bus will arrive when it comes. Making plans that rely on the bus network in my constituency is what separates the optimists from the pessimists—that is not just about our choice of football teams. The only thing more unreliable than the buses is the Northern Rail coastal train on a match day—a most appalling service of two carriages, once an hour.
Independent analysis of the Government’s transport spending by the Institute for Public Policy Research North think-tank shows that the north has received just £349 per person, compared with £864 per person in London, since the Conservative party took office in 2010. Far from the northern powerhouse, shared prosperity or levelling up, northern England has been short-changed by the Government over the last decade to the sum of £86 billion.
Public transport is too important to fail. Whether moving people to support the economy, to shop on our high streets or to work, unreliable and expensive bus services can have a significant bearing on an individual’s life chances and living standards. We need a change in mindset from the Government. Buses, trains and metro systems are vital public services for strengthening and growing our economy—not secondary distractions if situated outside London. Regional transport services need to recover from the disastrous policy of deregulation and privatisation of the 1980s.
Decisions around the regulation and control of bus services should rest with local government and transport authorities—democratically elected and accountable to the public. These services should be run in the public interest, safeguarding vital routes, particularly in rural areas, rather than being run solely in the pursuit of profit, pricing people out from public transport and the life opportunities that good public transport links can deliver.
I am grateful to my former MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for securing the debate. Bus travel is particularly relevant to my constituents in the city of Durham, which has a small city centre surrounded by many rural former pit villages that rely heavily on an underfunded and insufficient local transport network. In villages such as Pittington or Waterhouses, services are essentially non-existent at times.
In particular, home-to-school transport has become a real issue for families, with schools struggling to subsidise costs due to funding cuts and rising costs. For some children in my constituency, school bus travel now costs an outrageous £90 a month. At St Leonard’s, for example, nearly a third of pupils can no longer afford the school bus and have had to seek alternatives, forcing many parents to rely on service buses, which are often unreliable, irregular, inaccessible or unaffordable. My office has received multiple reports of buses driving past stops because they are full, and of services that simply do not show up. One girl was quoted almost £900 per year for a school bus place, even though the stop was a three-mile round trip walk across dangerous roads and unlit wooded paths. Now she is forced to use a service bus, with frequent, unplanned cancellations that often leave her late for school or waiting in the dark for long periods. That has made her very anxious, and her parents have given her a rape alarm for the dark nights.
Headteachers have reported safeguarding concerns, such as bullying and inappropriate comments from adults that have led to police involvement. These problems impact on learning, with some people priced out of key educational opportunities. A headteacher in my constituency told me that talented students are having to miss extracurricular activities because they cannot rely on service buses to get home. The Government simply cannot say they are levelling up our region while children are struggling to get to and from school.
Unfortunately, the issues I have highlighted have a knock-on effect on the wider community. Increased demand around school-run hours is resulting in crowded buses and disruption to commuters, while many parents are now driving their children to school, causing more disruption to local residents and increased air pollution around schools such as Durham Johnston School and St Leonard’s. In more rural areas, there is no public bus and no car, but only an expensive school bus that eats into household incomes during this cost of living crisis.
I am immensely grateful to the headteachers and parents who work tirelessly for a workable solution. However, when it comes to local and central Government, it is like banging my head against a brick wall, with both refusing to take responsibility. When I raised the issue with representatives of Durham County Council, they told me that they agree with the principle of more support for school transport but they cannot do anything to help. I then took it to the previous Schools Minister, who told me that he sympathised but that he, too, could not help me.
I am now working with schools and bus operators to find a solution, but it is only right that we get some support from this Government, who talk so much about levelling up places such as Durham. Can the Minister outline the steps that the Department is taking, alongside colleagues across Government, to ensure that every child and young person in my constituency has an affordable and reliable route to school?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing this important debate.
The Government’s lack of covid-19 support for our Tyne and Wear Metro means that bus services will certainly be cut in our region by £7.5 million next year, and I will explain why. As Members will be aware, the Metro is the third most used light rail network in the whole UK, with pre-pandemic passenger levels of 36 million per annum. Reducing service levels is just not an option for the Metro, but because central Government will not step in and play their part, our councils are being asked to take the burden of £4.1 million of extra payments to keep bus services afloat and help Nexus balance the books. We all know how cash-strapped our councils are, but they are having to pay more and more to cover the gaps that the Government are ignoring and widening. The Government would be wise to remember that our constituents can see that this is happening. It is not exactly levelling up, is it?
Again, our local authorities are being told to bear the brunt of keeping our public services afloat. Most recently, we were given nothing in the Budget on transport, because we have not got a metro Mayor. Meanwhile, down the road, £310 million is being pumped into transport in the Tees valley. I wonder what we should take from that. Are the Government going to hold our area to ransom because we do not have a devolution deal? People in our region have a specific need for bus services, and constituents frequently write to me about the poor bus provision across Sunderland and Washington.
During a recent roving street surgery in Oxclose in my constituency, nearly every household raised the issue of the poor bus service—in fact, it was the issue that was raised most on the doorstep. That was true not just for that area but across the whole of Washington. The issue was also raised at a public meeting I held in South Hylton, which is over in Sunderland, and I have been contacted by constituents in Usworth Hall, an estate with no bus services at all. With commercial companies providing bus services, it is little surprise that, despite being necessary, non-profitable services continue to disappear as local authorities struggle to fill the gaps.
The point of public transport is to offer a safe means of getting places, even during unsociable hours. That is especially necessary as car ownership levels in the north-east’s left-behind neighbourhoods are among the lowest in the country, while rail services range from being limited to being non-existent for the majority of the areas that I represent. So there is high reliance on bus services.
However, as we have heard, bus provision is declining and the communities that I represent are literally being left stranded. Limited rail services for many communities in the north-east only heightens the need for immediate and good bus provision, especially with the Government snubbing rail improvement projects such as the much-needed reopening of the Leamside line, which I know a lot of people in this room support.
The Chancellor has often said that no Government could budget for a pandemic. Well, neither could Nexus or our local authorities, and the effects of the pandemic are still being felt. It is surely the duty of Government to support public transport in its recovery. This is not a Government without money, as was made very clear by the Chancellor’s Budget just last month, with its announcements of tax cuts on short-haul flights and champagne. The decision not to support the Tyne and Wear transport network is a political one, which will see residents lose out every day and the local economy lose out in the long run.
So why are the Chancellor and his team so scared of putting their money, which we know they have, where their mouth, which we also know they have, is? For all their talk about levelling up, they are making their intentions clear by their inaction. Therefore I implore the Government to listen to Nexus, local authority leaders and all of us here today, and to ensure that bus provision in the north-east sufficiently serves our constituents every day of the week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I start by wholeheartedly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate. From the many colleagues who are in the Chamber, we can see how much support there is for a debate on this very important subject.
Nevertheless, we should not be having this debate. I and many colleagues from the north-east have spoken many times about the lack of effective and convenient bus services in our region, and I have often spoken about the huge disparity between the cost of bus tickets in Newcastle and the cost of bus tickets in London. I have said it before and I will say it again, until it stops being true: for £1.55 in London, I can get up to two buses to carry me anywhere across the capital for over 30 miles; but in Newcastle, £1.55 will not even get me three stops up the West Road. If I want to go to beautiful Ashington, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), which is only 18 miles away, a single ticket will cost me £6.
More than that, while here in London we can see when buses are coming, in Newcastle, at Eldon Square bus station, there is a sign that says, “Working with bus operators to bring you real-time travel information.” That sign has been there for years—they have been working together for years—and we still do not know when buses are leaving from where. That has a real impact on the friction of taking a bus journey; it reduces the useability, functionality and accessibility of buses for my constituents.
As well as comparing with London, we also need to compare with the unfortunately often more convenient and cheaper alternative that my constituents have: the car. As we recently saw at COP26, we want to move away from car journeys towards more journeys on public transport. However, it is cheaper for a family of four to take a car into the centre of Newcastle to go and see the latest Peppa Pig film—I am sure the Prime Minister will approve of that, given that most of my constituents cannot afford the 700-mile round trip to Peppa Pig World—than it is for them to get a bus there and back.
In Newcastle, our buses are critical all the same. Many people rely on them to get to work or school, but the fares that they have to pay are prohibitive. The extortionate bus prices are part of the cost of living crisis facing my constituents and many others across the north-east. Can the Minister tell us when the Government will level down fares in the north-east?
My constituents are not even guaranteed a good service. As we have heard, our bus services are facing rising fuel and maintenance costs and labour shortages, leaving passengers to face enormous disruption. Pay disputes are potentially leading to industrial action across the region and, as we have heard, Transport North East estimates that there will be a 20% reduction in bus mileage from next April.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will share my frustration and disappointment that we still have really noisy, pollution-emitting buses running around our streets. We love buses, but we do not love the pollution, noise or impact on our environment, so much more urgent investment must be put into creating much cleaner, greener buses to drive around our very busy cities.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that intervention; she is absolutely right. As well as the challenge of climate change, the quality of air in Newcastle is of great concern to my constituents and hers. It is not rocket science—the technology is there to have cleaner, greener buses. The Secretary of State for Transport keeps on saying that there are thousands of such buses about to come on to our streets, but we have yet to see them in Newcastle. That is part of the investment that we need to see.
The promises of investment simply do not materialise for the north-east. Speaking of the most recent Budget, Lucy Winskell, the chair of the North East LEP, said that
“government has announced significant transport investment across the rest of the North but not in the North East.”
Whereas other parts of the country received hundreds of millions of pounds in funding, with some even receiving over £1 billion, the north-east lost out yet again.
Before deregulation in the ’80s, we had a transport network. Some of us are old enough to remember that people could travel across the region, from bus to Metro, on one transfer ticket. That system worked brilliantly, partially because we had control over our buses. When Margaret Thatcher privatised buses, she knew that an entirely private bus service would not be good enough for London. Why was that thought to be good enough for the north-east? We need control over our buses, which is the only way that my constituents and the people of the north-east will get a fair transport deal. As we heard earlier, the North East Joint Transport Committee recently published its bus service improvement plan, setting out a major programme of investment worth £804 million over three years. I want the Minister to tell us that she will be supporting that plan and the buses that my constituents deserve.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for arranging this important debate.
I live in Northumberland. For those people who mentioned the north and the north-east, Northumberland is something like 15 miles north of Newcastle. It is a rural area, but the south-eastern strip of Northumberland is heavily populated and always forgotten. We have to remind people that we are always left behind. People now expect to be left behind because of where we live. It really is not good enough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) mentioned prices. We live in an area of high social deprivation, where we might get a bus every now and again, and if we are lucky enough to get one we have to pay through the nose. We have just passed the Stagecoach phase; we are on to the deregulated buses if and when stage. I wish we were even somewhere near having a Metro. It is a case of isolation for many people. They cannot get out of the communities in which they live. To travel in my constituency, it is £1.55 for a minor route. To travel seven miles in my constituency from Ashington to Morpeth, it is £6.40. Imagine someone on universal credit or unemployment benefits of around £70 paying £6.40 to get from A to B. There is no cap on it. It is £6.40.
As I mentioned, it is about social isolation. I went through my constituency on a Friday trying to get into different surgeries using public transport. I travelled to North Blyth, Cambois and East Sleekburn, where the first bus service was at 10.14 am. We then travelled from there seven miles—one stop—to the local hospital. It took more than an hour. The return journey for anybody at the hospital, whether they work there or are looking to visit people, must be made before 12.46 pm, because there are no bus services after that. That is outrageous and unacceptable.
I do not have that much time, but this discussion deserves much more debate. I put on the record my thanks, and those of all my colleagues in the northern region, to the key workers and the transport workers, who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic. Many of them were exhausted before the pandemic and still are. We have huge issues, and we need more investment in bus services and integrated transport policy right through the region. We should not forget Northumberland as an area, but we need plenty of investment in the integrated transport plan and regional funding, because buses are a lifeline for many people in our regions.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate. Considering that more journeys are made on buses than any other form of public transport, we do not really give them much attention in this place. Perhaps it is because those who live and work in London are not aware of their luck in having an inexpensive and reliable bus network, unlike much of the rest of the country.
London successfully resisted the Thatcher Government’s deregulation of buses in 1986, but in the north-east we were not so fortunate. Thanks to the maintenance of regulation, London’s franchised services outperform the rest of the country, with Transport for London and the Mayor setting routes and fares, and therefore ensuring that buses in the capital are run for people, not simply for private profit. Under a regulated system, bus routes are not restricted to narrow, profitable corridors; people are provided with crucial and necessary services, which means that wider benefits are reaped in both social and economic terms.
By connecting people with each other and their schools, workplaces, shops and hospitals, we can build flourishing communities. Ensuring that we make the most of new industries also requires planning for bus service provision. For that joined-up thinking to work, re-regulation is required. Yet for all their talk about giving local authorities and people more power over their lives, the Conservatives have slashed funding for council services that pays for our vital services, such as buses. They have also continued to deny local authorities the powers they need to serve their communities.
In Middlesbrough and across Tees Valley we have, in effect, a duopoly of Stagecoach and Arriva, whose principal purpose and duty is the extraction of profits for their shareholders—ironically, in the case of Arriva, the German state-owned transport company. We are left with the situation where bus passengers in London can pay fares of as little as £1.55 to travel across the city with that money going back into TfL’s coffers, while for those in the north-east and certainly in Middlesbrough, £2 will get you about a mile and a half down the road if you are lucky.
The Tory 2019 manifesto also promised to match the money in the Tees Valley that would otherwise have been received from the EU shared prosperity fund. The reality is that we are losing out to the tune of £900 million, just as we have done over the past decade of Tory rule, as we have received well below the average in transport investment in terms of current and capital spending.
Last year, our region received the lowest amount of transport investment overall. Compared with almost £8 billion spent by the Government on transport in London, the north-east received around one-tenth of the amount, which works out at almost one-third as much per head.
We also have a problem with what Conservative politicians in our region are choosing to spend money on. The decision of the Tees Valley Mayor to purchase Teesside airport initially cost the taxpayer £40 million, but with a £14 million loss last year, it required a further injection of a further £10 million at the taxpayers’ expense.
At the general election, Labour brought forward a comprehensive plan to electrify all buses operating in England at a cost of about £114,000 per bus. A rough estimate of the cost of electrifying the 330 buses operating in the Tees Valley comes to under £38 million. Instead of obsessing about the airport, the Tees Valley Mayor could and should have paid attention to using the powers he has to re-regulate our buses and make them work for passengers and not private profit, and to decarbonising our fleet to improve the air quality of our communities and help us meet our broader climate commitments.
The Government talk a great deal about “taking back control” but that is really about them and corporate entities having control over people’s lives, not about giving power back to the people, as evidenced by the Government undermining Transport for the North. They brag about levelling up, but after 11 years of Tory Government, the reality is that the inequalities in transport provision and the betrayal of the north continue unabated. We see that in the disastrous integrated rail plan and the continuing failure to invest properly in bus services.
Bus services are massively important in my community and I urge the Minister to encourage her Mayor to break away from this failed deregulated system and embrace the success and opportunities that re-regulated and municipal services present to our local economies and communities, and that have been widely embraced in so many developed nations across the world. If we look across the channel, there are endless examples of how that has revitalised communities. I urge the Government to take heed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd; I hope to do justice to the points that have been raised. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate on the provision of bus services in the north-east. It is rather refreshing to hear all the support for buses. As a fellow northerner and a fellow rural MP, I, too, welcome the intensive interest in bus transport. As the Prime Minister set out in his 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, buses—
I am very grateful. The Minister is applauding the interest in bus service provision in the north-east of England. It will not have escaped her attention that the Opposition Benches are full of Labour MPs from the north-east, but there is no one on the Government Benches. How is that a commitment to transport in the north-east of England?
Let me talk about the commitment from this Government. Connecting people every day to jobs, studies and vital local services is absolutely why we value buses. The benefits are clear. They are at the very centre of our public transport system, and in 2019-20 there were more than twice as many passenger journeys by bus as by rail.
Covid-19 has had a huge impact here, as it has elsewhere, and the Government have provided an unprecedented amount of support for the bus sector, which the hon. Member for Blaydon referred to. Through the pandemic, more than £1.5 billion has been announced to date. That has been essential to keep bus services running and to get workers to jobs, children to schools and people to vital services. Without that support, bus services would have operated at a loss or would have stopped running entirely.
But we do not just want to go back to how bus services were before covid. There are huge opportunities to change the way that bus services operate and we want to make them better. That is why the commitment to buses is evident in the already mentioned “Bus Back Better” national bus strategy, which was published in March this year. It explains how we will see these services being more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper. The point about comparing and contrasting London prices with those elsewhere in the country has been made many times.
Our central aim is to get more people travelling by bus—to not just get patronage back, but increase it—but we will achieve that only if we can make the bus a practical and attractive alternative to the car for many people.
The Minister mentioned a number of issues, but one of the real problems is affordability. Opposition Members have mentioned this twice: it costs £6.40 to travel seven miles in my constituency, but travel in the capital is capped at £4.65 a day. The Minister is from the north. When she considers levelling up, she should do what is right for her constituents and mine and ensure that it is affordable for people to use public transport. Affordability is so important.
I do not need to be told that; I am quite aware of it. That is why the “Bus Back Better” strategy will look at how we make those fares cheaper and how we will adopt the London-style approach to fares across all parts of the country, but particularly in the north, which I also represent, as the hon. Member said.