House of Commons
Wednesday 24 November 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we start today’s business, I want to say something about the presence of babies and very young children in this Chamber and the parallel Chamber, Westminster Hall.
It is extremely important that parents of babies and young children are able to participate fully in the work of this House. That is why, to give one example, we have a nursery. The advice given yesterday to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on the authority of the Chairman of Ways and Means, of which I was not aware until last night, correctly reflects the current rules. However, rules have to be seen in context and they change with the times.
This House has to be able to function professionally and without disturbance. However, sometimes there may be occasions when the Chair can exercise discretion, assuming that the business is not being disturbed. I accept that there are differing views on this matter. Indeed, hon. Members who have babies have contacted me with a range of views.
There are also likely to be some consequential matters. Therefore, I have asked the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), if she and her Committee will look into this matter and bring forward recommendations, which will ultimately be for the House to take a view on.
Thank you. I am taking no points of order on this.
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Rape and Sexual Violence in Conflict
It is grotesque that sexual violence and rape is used as a weapon of war. It is wrong that it is treated less seriously than chemical warfare or landmines. That is why we are working to build a new consensus with friends and allies across the world to condemn it as a red line.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that having women themselves around the policy-making table is crucial for entrenching change? What will she be doing to support more women into those sorts of roles in countries where sexual violence is a reality for so many?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are restoring the development budget for women and girls back to its previous levels, and will shortly be allocating funding for such projects. She is right that we need to ensure that we are using all the talents available on parliamentary benches around the world, and I am delighted that we now have a record number of female Conservative MPs in this House.
Women in the Workplace
To help, support and protect women in the workplace, we intend to build on existing legislation by extending redundancy protections for women after they return from maternity leave, introducing neonatal leave and pay, and introducing one week of unpaid carer’s leave. We are currently consulting on measures to increase the availability and uptake of flexible working.
Earlier this month, I met Kate Seary and Mhairi Maclennan, the co-founders of Kyniska Advocacy, which they set up to campaign for zero tolerance of abuse of women in sport. The growing and welcome professionalisation of women’s sport means that this is no longer just a sporting issue, but an issue of fairness and dignity at work. Does the Minister agree that sports governing bodies have a responsibility to ensure a safe environment for female athletes, and what action are he and the Government Equalities Office taking to ensure that the governing bodies are meeting these responsibilities?
The Sport Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston)—is doing a lot of work to ensure that women in sport, and other people, are not getting abuse in their workplace.
Last week I met Stuart and Daphne Anderson at Farnless bison farm in Sedgefield. They are concerned that the rules of succession for tenancy unfairly discriminate against women, affecting their ability to work in the farming industry. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue and ensure that he is clear about those concerns?
As the Minister knows, pay inequality is an intersectional issue—cutting across gender, ethnicity and disability. The Scottish Government are committed to requiring listed public authorities to extend gender pay gap reporting to disability and ethnicity pay reporting, and ensure that these are included in equal pay statements. They will also be required to develop an ethnicity pay strategy, alongside their existing strategies on closing the disability and gender pay gaps. Will the UK Government consider following suit?
Diversity and Freedom of Belief: Public Institutions
I regularly discuss these important issues with other Ministers, as does the Minister for Women and Equalities. Freedom of belief and speech are vital pillars of our democratic society, and no one should be silenced for expressing their legitimately held opinions. Freedom of speech in universities is already protected by law, but there is no effective enforcement mechanism. The Government are therefore taking steps, in line with our manifesto, to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England.
My hon. Friend may be aware that John Cleese recently felt that he needed to pull out of speaking to the Cambridge Union following the revelation that it had blacklisted certain people from speaking. Although the union’s president has now rowed back on the claim that a list of banned speakers exists, will my hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing to promote freedom of speech and belief in our universities to make sure that students are exposed to a range of views even though they may themselves disagree with them?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, John Cleese was quite right to highlight this issue. However, it should not be up to comedians to educate students on core values such as freedom of speech and freedom of belief; the universities themselves should do that. Those that seek to bully, harass and intimidate others because of their views risk undermining our precious freedoms. Such behaviour should not and will not be tolerated on university campuses. That is why we have introduced the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities and ensure that individuals can seek redress.
Across the United Kingdom, women in public institutions are being hounded for the belief that sex matters in life as well as in law. I have in mind the case of Professor Kathleen Stock at Sussex University, but there are many other women suffering the same fate who do not have such a high public profile. What support can the Minister offer to such women?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for bringing that question to me. She is absolutely right. I have been appalled by the disgraceful treatment of Professor Kathleen Stock. I think that we, as a Government, should do more, and I am personally looking into what we can do in terms of workplace harassment and bullying, which a lot of that behaviour falls under. I hope that I will be able to work with the hon. and learned Lady on this issue more closely.
Health and Care System: Women’s Experience
Improving our understanding of women’s experience of health and the health service is a key priority for this Government. That is why in March this year we launched a call for evidence asking women to tell us about their experience. We had nearly 100,000 responses, which we are working through now and which will form the baseline of England’s first-ever women’s health strategy.
Yesterday this House passed a UK-wide ban on virginity testing through the Health and Care Bill, but banning virginity testing will only work if hymenoplasty is banned alongside it. Will the Minister use her good offices to ensure that the Government introduce amendments in another place to ban hymenoplasty and then encourage other countries around the world to stop these practices worldwide?
I am sure that all Members across this House will welcome the Government’s amendment yesterday to ban virginity testing. The evidence for a ban on hymenoplasty is mixed, so the Government have convened an independent expert panel to review all the evidence and look carefully at the issues, and that will report back to Ministers before Christmas.
It is HIV Testing Week in Wales, and yesterday I joined the Terrence Higgins Trust at Fast Track Cardiff and Vale to do my own free home testing kit. In Wales, everybody can get access to a free HIV test at home through Frisky Wales, but in some areas of England free home testing is not available to everyone. Will the Minister work with her Cabinet colleagues to follow where Wales leads and ensure that everyone in England can get access to a free HIV test kit if they wish to?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. Free testing is available across the NHS in England, and same-day test results are often possible. I will look at the specific issue of home testing kits, because it is important that everyone who needs a test has access to it.
One of the times that women most engage with healthcare services is when they are pregnant. My constituent Michelle, a qualified midwife, has contacted me, talking specifically about the importance of retention in midwifery and highlighting the crisis that she says there is. What is my hon. Friend doing to make sure that qualified, experienced midwives stay working at the frontline where we need them?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Maternity care is a top priority for the Government, and earlier this year NHS England announced a £95 million recurrent funding package to support the recruitment of 1,200 midwives and 100 consultant obstetricians. Maintaining both the skill mix and the numbers is key to retaining experienced midwives, who often have to take the pressure when there are staff shortages.
I am sure the whole House has been appalled by recent reports of racism in cricket, a sad reminder that racial discrimination still exists within sport. There can be no place for it. Sports bodies must take robust action to tackle this behaviour. The Government and our sports councils are committed to ensuring that sport is inclusive for everyone, and will be watching; where action does not go far enough, the Government are prepared to step in.
It seems to me that we have an opportunity here to tackle hate crimes by raising them to the status of aggravated offences. Clearly, training and resources would have to follow that decision, but, while we can all say the right things and be quite correct in what we say about absolutely opposing Islamophobia and antisemitism, unless we do something concrete, we may have this problem for a lot longer than we think.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right: we must ensure that laws are constantly updated and reviewed. That goes for the offline world, but also the online one; I am sure he will be aware of the work we are doing, with cross-party support, on online safety to tackle the important issues he raises.
Ethnicity Pay Gap
We are considering the range of views and experiences outlined in responses to the ethnicity pay reporting consultation, further soundings from employers and the conclusions of the independent report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and we will respond formally in due course.
Unlike the gender pay gap, there is no legal requirement for companies in the UK to publish their ethnicity pay gap. Research from the TUC has shown that black workers earn 12.8% less on average than their white counterparts, and the gap widens to almost one quarter less when comparing workers with degrees. The Labour party, the TUC, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the CBI are all calling for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting. Can the Minister tell the House when the Government will follow suit and rectify this harmful practice?
As I said, we will respond in due course. In the meantime, voluntary reporting by employers exists and we have seen it increase over the past three years. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck, and that is what we are working through with consultation across the board.
Public Sexual Harassment: Legislation
Public sexual harassment is appalling, and we are committed to tackling it. As set out in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy, we are looking carefully at where there may be gaps in existing laws and how a specific offence could address those, while also engaging closely with campaigners.
Some 66% of young women and girls experience public sexual harassment, which has a huge impact on their confidence, their self-esteem and their mental health. It makes them feel unsafe and uncomfortable wearing, doing or saying things in public spaces. Therefore, we should make public sexual harassment a specific criminal offence. Will the Minister meet me and campaigners who want to see that happen, and look at a way forward on this serious issue?
I can assure the hon. Lady that we are taking the views of campaigners on board, and I and other Ministers meet with them regularly. As I have said, we are looking at whether there may be some specific legislative gaps, but it will always be a pleasure for me to meet her.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue on behalf of young women and girls in his constituency. Drink spiking and needle spiking are horrific and frightening offences, and we are taking steps, led by the Home Secretary herself, working with Maggie Blyth, the chief of police leading the response to violence against women and girls across police forces, to ramp up our response and tackle them effectively.
The Minister says that spiking is frightening, but it is actually assault and often leads to further violence. The Government must look urgently at improving forensic provision in healthcare so that we can identify the perpetrators and boost public awareness of the risk of that horrific crime. How will she work with the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to tackle the threats of spiking?
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the prevalence of spiking, which is why the Home Secretary is leading on action, via the Home Office and with other Government colleagues across the board, to ensure that we have an effective response. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) to the specific funding that the Home Office has put into the safety of women at night fund, which provides drink spiking detection kits and specific training for security staff so that women and young girls going out at night into the night-time economy can feel safe to have a good time, as we all want them to.
Conversion Therapy Ban: Faith-based Settings
There is no place for the abhorrent practice of conversion therapy in our society. Our proposals will ensure that LGBT people can live their lives free from harm, will stop under-18s making irreversible decisions about their future, and will protect freedom of speech and choice.
The national LGBT survey found that 51% of conversion therapy happens in religious settings and Government-commissioned research found that adult victims often undertake religious conversion practices voluntarily, so the Government’s proposal to allow informed consent for conversion therapy will permit that abuse to continue and risks introducing consent defences to other forms of abuse, such as domestic violence. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether a conversion therapy ban will cover non-physical conversion practices in religious settings, including prayer? Will she remove the dangerous consent loophole?
What is important is that we ensure that people are not coerced into conversion therapy, but it is also important to protect freedom of speech, the ability of adults to consent and the freedom to express the teachings of—[Interruption.] I hear Opposition Members asking whether freedom of speech is a good thing. Yes, it is.
Autistic Children: Educational Support
Education settings are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children, including those with autism, under the Equality Act 2010. The “SEND code of practice” sets out detailed guidance on meeting children’s needs. Through the new autism strategy, published in July, the Government set out our vision to make life fundamentally better for autistic people by 2026, including in education.
A recent report from the National Autistic Society said that a quarter of autistic children can wait more than three years to receive the extra support they need. Does the Minister agree that that is an equalities issue? What conversations will he have in the Department for Education to ensure that schools and councils get the funding that they need to carry out special educational needs and disabilities assessments and make the right provision?
As an Education Minister, of course I want every child to fulfil their potential. I am committed to speaking to and working with children, families, parents, carers and SEND experts, including the National Autistic Society, which I met this week as part of a stakeholder roundtable. I am always happy to listen to the voices of sector leaders and I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
I am delighted that Katharine Birbalsingh has begun her new role as the chair of the Social Mobility Commission. By expecting high standards and not indulging in the soft bigotry of low expectations, she produced fantastic results at the Michaela Community School and gave children the best chance in life. We want her to bring that same attitude to the commission and be a loud champion of equality of opportunity by focusing on education, employment and enterprise, levelling up opportunity and unleashing the full potential of our great country.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling disparity in our healthcare, which is particularly important when it comes to maternity care. I ask the Minister to speak to her colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care about Tameside Hospital, where there is a desperate need for capital funding in a new maternity unit and antenatal clinic. The current unit is located in the Charlesworth Building, which was built in 1971 and is poorly insulated, so sensitive clinical equipment often overheats. The capital funding bid badly needs support and I hope that she will work with me on it to deliver better healthcare for the women of High Peak.
Maternity care is a top priority for this Government, and we are making progress. Since 2010, we have seen a 25% reduction in stillbirths and a 29% reduction in neonatal mortality. On the new maternity unit at Tameside, I understand that the Acorn birth centre opened last year and has been well received locally, but I am happy to discuss further improvements with my hon. Friend.
This morning, we learned that domestic abuse-related crimes have doubled in the last five years, but the number of prosecutions has fallen every year in the same period. A few minutes ago, the Foreign Secretary rightly lamented violence against women and girls across the world. When will she get a grip on the catastrophic situation facing many women and girls in our own country?
This Government were the first Government to pass the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill to set out for the first time on the statute book protections for women and girls and other victims of domestic abuse. This is a sweeping piece of legislation, and we are working at pace to drive actions to increase prosecutions across the entire criminal justice system, backed up by a significant investment in our courts to address the backlog.
I regret that the Minister does not appear to have seen the figures from this morning. If she had, she would know that her Government’s measures are not working. I thought she would mention additional measures that are required: increasing sentences for stalking and domestic murder; introducing new defences for victims; stopping the social security, family courts and migration systems from failing victims; and making serial abusers subject to special supervision. Labour has called for all of these measures. When will the Conservatives enact them?
I can tell the hon. Lady that the Conservatives are already enacting the vast majority of that long list she has just recited. As I said, we are the first Government to put domestic abuse legislation on the statute book. I would invite her to attend Home Office questions and address the Home Secretary directly to hear about the vast amount we are doing to protect women and girls in this country, which is a personal priority of the Prime Minister.
Building trust between different communities and the institutions that serve them was a central theme of the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. We will respond to the report shortly, setting out our plans for building back fairer, and I can assure my hon. Friend that his concerns will be at the heart of our response.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that very important point. I do not have the Ministry of Justice figures to hand, but what I can do is get one of my colleagues in that Department to write to her with a more specific and comprehensive answer to her question.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv. [Interruption.] I do not think we need any more interruptions. If Members listen to this next bit, it might help.
I wish to make one further point. There were many reflections on Sir David Amess’s decency and kindness at the very moving requiem mass held yesterday. I sincerely hope that those qualities of kindness and decency are reflected in our proceedings today and in the future.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Thank you, Mr Speaker. This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. [Interruption.] Thank you very much. Immediately following Prime Minister’s questions, I will attend the welcome home march-in to thank all those involved in Op Pitting, our evacuation from Kabul. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I, too, will be attending in a few minutes’ time.
Nikki’s seven-year-old son had 37 seizures a day because of a brain disease he suffered from. He has had surgery now, but it is a struggle every day to get him to stay in school. Nikki is supporting the Acquired Brain Injury Bill because she believes that the Government need a cross-departmental strategy for supporting those who have an acquired brain injury, whether that is rugby players with concussion and dementia, women who have been beaten in the head by their partners, children who have suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, or soldiers who have been in explosions. I really hope that the Government are going to back the Acquired Brain Injury Bill, but above all we need a strategy to help 1.4 million people in this country. Will the Prime Minister give us that?
I thank the hon. Member for raising this vital issue and for his personal commitment to this cause. I can assure him that we are studying his proposed Bill and working to ensure that people do get support for the acquired brain injuries that they have received. What we can certainly pledge at this stage—I hope this will be of some use to him and the many who care about this issue in the way that he does, as I am sure Members do across the House—is that the Department of Health and Social Care will lead on the development of a cross-departmental Government strategy on acquired brain injury and other neurological conditions. I will be very happy to share details with him shortly.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise flooding, and she is right about short and long-term solutions. That is why I am proud, among other things, to have helped to instigate the Thames Tideway Tunnel, with the biggest super-sewer in the history of this country, which will help to deal with what happens in London when the Bazalgette interceptors overflow and to deal with flooding throughout the city.
No, because if the right hon. and learned Gentleman looked at what we are proposing and if he supported what we are proposing—it is fixing something that Labour never fixed in all its years in office. We are saying to the people of this country that we will disregard their home as part of their assets if they and their spouse are living in it. No. 2, you can have a deferred payments agreement if you move out and are living in residential care. Most important of all, by putting the huge investment we are making now in health and social care, we are allowing, for the first time, the people of this country to insure themselves against the otherwise potentially catastrophic costs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Even if you are not one of those people who suffer from those afflictions, we are taking away the anxiety from millions of people up and down the land about their homes.
Order. I do not think we need any further shouting. Yesterday, we had a very good example of the House at its best, in the cathedral. Please, let us show some respect. I want to be able to hear not only the Prime Minister, but the Leader of the Opposition. Shouting each other down does not do you or your constituents any good. We need to hear the questions and I certainly need to hear the answers. And if anybody does not like it, please leave now.
It is not a complicated question, so let us have another go. The Prime Minister used to say that nobody would have to sell their home to pay for their care—it is in his manifesto, right here. On the basis of that promise, he then put up tax on every working person in the country. Has he done what he promised and ensured that nobody will have to sell their home to pay for care, yes or no? It is not complicated.
No, it is not complicated, because what we are doing is disregarding your home as part of the assets that we calculate. If you go down to £100,000, that is the beginning of where we will ask you to contribute, but your home is not included in that. Labour has absolutely no plan. It has spent decades failing to address this. Only a few weeks ago, Labour Members failed to vote for the £36 billion that will enable us to fix this and to help people up and down the country—not just to fix the social care problem, but to pay for people to live in their own homes and receive the care they need in their homes. That is what this one nation Conservative Government are doing. Why will the right hon. and learned Gentleman not support it?
The Prime Minister has had two opportunities to stand by his manifesto commitment and he has not taken them. [Interruption.] He says he just has, so let us test this in the real world. Under the Prime Minister’s plans, a person with assets worth about £100,000, most of it tied up in their home, would have to pay £80,000. They would lose almost everything. How on earth does the Prime Minister think that they can get their hands on that kind of money without selling their home?
I am going to have a third go at trying to clear this up in the befuddled mind of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because it is important. The fact is that the Labour party has totally failed to address this. It has not had the guts to fix this in all its time in office. It is something left over from the Attlee Government and we are fixing it. Let me repeat for the third time: your home is disregarded. No. 2, even if you have a second—if you are in residential care, you have a deferred payments agreement. No. 3, we are allowing you to insure yourself for the first time against catastrophic consequences by capping it at £86,000. He stood on a manifesto to put the cap where? At £100,000!
The question was really simple, and it is the question that all his Back Benchers are asking. If you have a house worth about £120,000 to £140,000, how do you find £80,000-plus without selling your home? It is common sense.
Strip away the bluster, strip away the deflection and strip away the refusal to answer the question and there is the simple truth—and this is why the Prime Minister will not address it: people will still be forced to sell their home to pay for care. Why do they—[Interruption.] Look at the vote the other day to see the answer to that question. People will still be forced to sell their home.
It is another broken promise, just like the Prime Minister promised that he would not put up tax; just like he promised 40 new hospitals; just like he promised a rail revolution in the north. Who knows if he will make it to the next election, but if he does, how does he expect anyone to take him and his promises seriously?
Yet again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises the rail revolution in the north: three new high-speed lines and £96 billion—[Interruption.] Again, nothing like it for a century. Just for the advantage of hon. Members, I did not even know this—I was in a state of complete innocence about this last week—but it turns out that he actually campaigned against HS2 altogether. He said it would be “devastating” and that it should be cancelled. I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that HS2 runs through my constituency as well, and even though it has been very tough for my constituents, I took a decision that it was the right thing to do for the long-term interests of the whole country. How can they possibly trust that man?
I think the Prime Minister has lost his place in his notes again. The only thing he is delivering is high taxes, high prices and low growth. I am not sure that he should be shouting about that.
It is not just broken promises; it is also about fairness. Everyone needs protection against massive health and care costs, but under the Prime Minister’s plans, someone with assets worth about £100,000 will lose almost everything; yet somebody with assets of about £1 million will keep almost everything. It is just like the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto all over again, only this time something has changed: he has picked the pockets of working people to protect the estates of the wealthiest. How could he possibly have managed to devise a working-class dementia tax?
I think I have answered that question three times already. This does more for working people up and down the country than Labour ever did, because we are actually solving the problem that Labour failed to address. We are disregarding your housing asset altogether while you are in it.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about jobs and working people. Let me remind him of one key statistic that people should bear in mind. He talks about the economy, and now, almost a month after furlough ended, there are more people in work than there were before the pandemic began. That is because of the policies that the Government have pursued.
There is no getting away from it: working people are being asked to pay twice. During their working lives, they will pay much more tax in national insurance, while those living off wealth are protected. When they retire, they face having to sell their home, when the wealthiest will not have to do so. It is a classic con game—a Covent Garden pickpocketing operation. The Prime Minister is the front man, distracting people with wild promises and panto speeches, while his Chancellor dips his hand in their pocket.
But now the Prime Minister’s routine is falling flat. His Chancellor is worried that people are getting wise. His Back Benchers say that it is “embarrassing”—their word. Senior people in Downing Street tell the BBC, “It’s just not working.” Is everything okay, Prime Minister?
I will tell you what is not working, Mr Speaker: that line of attack. I just want to repeat the crucial point: we are delivering for the working people of this country. We are delivering for the people of this country, we are fixing the problems that they thought could never be fixed, and we are doing things that they thought were impossible. Let me repeat: there are now more people in work in this country—jobs up, with their wages going up—than there were before the pandemic began. That is because of the policies that this Government have followed. Whether it is on rolling out the vaccine, which the House will remember the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposed; whether it is on investment, which he opposed—[Interruption] He did; he did not want to invest in the vaccine taskforce, I seem to remember. Or whether it is making the strategic investments that we have made, if we had listened to Captain Hindsight, we would have no HS2 at all. That was what he stood for. If we had listened to him, we would all still be in lockdown.
I totally agree with my right hon. Friend, who is right about this and many other things. That is why our transition to green jobs is supporting 440,000 new green high-wage, high-skill jobs across the UK. The breakthrough agenda that we endorsed at COP26 will, I believe, support between 20 million and 30 million jobs across the world by 2030—and I think that that is probably a gross underestimate.
I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will wish to join me and the rest of the House in welcoming the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Lord Wallace, to the Gallery today and thanking him for the sage words of his sermon this morning.
The past few weeks have shown this Tory Government at their very worst: a Tory sleaze and corruption scandal on a scale not seen since the 1990s, Tory cuts and tax rises that will leave millions of people worse off, and a litany of broken promises, from HS2 to carbon capture, social care and the triple lock on pensions. And who can possibly forget the £20 billion bridge to Ireland that evaporated into thin air?
At the centre of it all is one man: a Prime Minister who is floundering in failure. I ask the Prime Minister: with his party falling in the polls and his colleagues briefing against him, has he considered calling it a day before he is pushed out the door?
I think that what the people of this country want to hear is less talk about politics and politicians. They want to talk about what the Government are doing for the people of Scotland—and what the Scottish Government are doing for the people of Scotland, which is not enough.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about infrastructure investment. I can tell him that if he waits until Friday, I think, or later this week, he will hear about what we will do with the Union connectivity review to ensure that the people of Scotland are served with the connections they need, which the Scottish nationalist party has totally failed to put in.
That certainly was not an answer to the question that I asked, but we are used to that. I did not expect the Prime Minister to take responsibility because he never does, but this is not just about the chaos in the Conservative party; it is about the state of the United Kingdom under his failing leadership. While the Prime Minister spends his time hunting for chatty pigs and staving off a leadership challenge from the Treasury, people in the real world are suffering a Tory cost-of-living crisis. Brexit is hitting the economy hard, but the Prime Minister cannot even give a coherent speech to business. The Prime Minister’s officials have lost confidence in him, Tory MPs have lost confidence in him—the letters are going in—and the public have lost confidence in him. Why is he clinging on, when it is clear that he is simply not up to the job?
I might ask the right hon. Gentleman what on earth he thinks he is doing, talking about party political issues when all that the people of Scotland want to hear is what on earth the Scottish national Government are doing. They are falling in the polls—[Interruption.] Yes, they are. Their cause is falling in the polls, and considering their manifold failures on tax, on education, on all the things that the people of Scotland really care about, I am not surprised—and I can see some agreement on the Benches opposite.
Yes, we will continue to fund some BTECs where there is a clear need for them, but I must stress that we have to close the gap between the things that people study and the needs of business and employers, and that is what T-levels are designed to do.
I rarely agree with the Prime Minister, but last week, when he said that COP26 showed that we could end our reliance on fossil fuels, I did agree with him. That, however, prompts the question of why his Government are pressing ahead not just with the Cambo oilfield, but with 39 other oil, gas and coal developments, which would amount to three times the UK’s current annual climate emissions.
I do not want to hear an answer that is about all the things the Prime Minister thinks he is doing on cars and cash and trees. I want him to tell the House whether he will leave those fossil fuels in the ground. Will he cancel those projects, and does he recognise that if he does not, he will need to ask forgiveness not just for losing his place in a speech, but for losing the future of our children?
Not only are we powering past coal towards the ending of fossil fuel reliance in our energy generation by 2024, which is absolutely stunning, and we are ahead of countries throughout the world—I am glad the hon. Lady is praising me for that, although, as she knows, the Cambo oilfield is a matter for study by an independent regulator—but what we have also done, and led the world in doing, is stop the financing of overseas hydrocarbons. That is a fantastic thing, which the whole world followed.
As my right hon. Friend knows, there are some very interesting and potentially very lucrative sources of minerals such as lithium in this country, whose exploration, discovery and reuse we are encouraging. As for the tax point that he rightly raised, we will ensure that we support freeports as hubs for the processing of those critical minerals here in the UK.
In 2014, my constituent’s three-year-old son Freddie Hussey was killed by an unsafe trailer. Every year, 30% of people who take the B+E test fail it, and now the Government are abolishing it, thus unleashing thousands of untrained, untested, unsafe drivers on to our roads. Why are the Government breaking their promise to grieving families to make towing and our roads safer?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for raising this with me, and I am very sorry to hear about the tragic circumstances of Freddie’s death. We want to free up B + E licensing time so that we can get more people qualified as HGV drivers, but that cannot compromise road safety, as she rightly says, so we will review the legislation and its consequences at regular intervals.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for his question and I will do my utmost—he has invited everybody, and I hope that a lot of people will be going to Lincoln. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will have listened carefully to what he had to say.
I was personally very disappointed when we could not get approval for the Valneva vaccine in the way that we had hoped, and I know how disappointing that was to colleagues in Scotland. I will certainly ensure that the hon. Member gets the relevant meeting. What we are doing is investing massively in this country’s vaccine capability across the country so that we are prepared for the next pandemic, and I very much hope that Valneva will be part of that.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend, and indeed the House and the country, that cases such as the very sad one that he raises are extremely rare. We are putting in more money to gather evidence for claims such as one that he describes, but I want to repeat what is perhaps the most important message that I can get across today, which is how vital the vaccination programme is, how safe it is and how important it is that everybody who is eligible gets their booster when they are called.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. Clearly, one of the consequences of our approach on critical national infrastructure in the National Security and Investment Bill is that we do not want to see undue influence by potentially adversarial countries in our critical national infrastructure. That is why we have taken the decisions that we have. On Bradwell, there will be more information forthcoming—[Interruption.] What I do not want to do is pitchfork away wantonly all Chinese investment in this country, or minimise the importance to this country of having a trading relationship with China.
The Prime Minister will be very pleased that Shrewsbury Conservatives are doing everything possible to help Neil Shastri-Hurst, the excellent candidate in North Shropshire. He will also know that the No. 1 issue affecting Salopians at the moment is the £312 million that we have secured for the modernisation of our A&E services. This has suffered terrible delays over the past eight years, leading to a worsening of our A&E services for local patients. Will he do everything possible to help us finally get it across the line so that we can provide safe A&E services for all the people of Shropshire and mid-Wales?
That is one of the reasons why we are now investing £36 billion more in our NHS to help cope with the backlog and the extra winter pressures, particularly on A&E. It is also a reason why the booster programme is so vital, because we do not want those beds filled with covid patients and we do not want delayed discharges either.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman asks that question, because I can tell him and the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) that we will be including support for tidal stream to the value of £20 million in the upcoming contract for difference auction—[Interruption.] Come on, that is not to be sneezed at. I have met representatives of Scottish tidal power. What they are doing is fantastic, original and inventive, and we want to support it.
I have been out campaigning with our excellent candidate in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election, Louie French, and the responses on the doorstep are very good—[Interruption.] The Opposition know nothing, as usual.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to implement our 2019 manifesto by implementing policies to ensure that we build up better for the whole country, including London, as that is what the electors in Bexley want?
Yes, I will. I have happy memories of many years of campaigning with my right hon. Friend in Old Bexley and Sidcup. We are delivering on our agenda for the people of London, putting 20,000 more police out on the streets and making sure they get to outer London boroughs, too. We are also making sure that Londoners do not suffer from the crazed outer London tax that would see motorists penalised by the Labour Mayor for driving into their own city.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising FareShare and I thank it for what it is doing to support people this winter, and indeed at all times. My experience is that businesses do an amazing job of contributing to this effort. Iceland is one company that springs to mind.
We are addressing the supply chains night and day, and we are seeing some of the problems starting to ease. They are the result of the British economy and the world economy coming back to life, which frankly would not have happened if we had listened to the Leader of the Opposition.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was bang on when he spoke on Monday about ending the unfairness of our high energy-intensive industries paying more than is paid overseas. We know that he is a friend to steel in Scunthorpe, so will he continue to do all he can to ensure that my world-class steelmakers are on a fair footing?
I thank my hon. Friend for everything she does for steel and for Scunthorpe. I can tell her that I do believe British steel has suffered, as a result of decisions taken years and years ago, from unfair energy costs—we need to fix it. This Government are getting on with making another of the long-term changes we are instituting: we are putting in the nuclear base-load that this country has long been deprived of.
The Prime Minister cheered all of my constituents up when he came to south-west Hertfordshire and said that we were going to have a new hospital. Sadly, even though the money is there, the local management of our trust have blocked it; they are going to refurbish Watford’s hospital and not give us a brand-new hospital on a greenfield site, which is what we want. Will the Prime Minister meet me and some of my constituents to unblock this and tell the NHS that it needs to build a new hospital for Hemel Hempstead?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I do remember the issue being raised with me when I was with him. I will be very happy to secure a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who I am sure will be able to unblock things, one way or the other.
I just want to remind the Scottish nationalist party that they are there to represent the people of Scotland and to deliver better services—better transport and better healthcare. The hon. Gentleman talks about transport, so I will tell him what I said to the leader of the SNP in Westminster: what we are delivering is the first thoroughgoing review of Union connectivity, so that we look properly at all those roads, the A75, the A77 and the A1—all those vital connections for the people of Scotland that have been neglected by the SNP and that this Government are going to fix.
I am absolutely delighted with the half a billion-pounds Start4Life funding that was announced in the Budget. My right hon. Friend knows from personal experience how important those early years are, whether we are talking about parenting advice, access to healthcare or age-appropriate theme parks. Does he agree that rolling out family hubs to 75 local authority areas is a great start? Will he confirm that it if it a successful programme, the Government’s aim is to roll it out across the whole country?
I thank my hon. Friend very much and she is totally right in what she says about Start4Life. I am just looking to see whether my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) is still in her place. She has vanished, but I want to thank her because she has championed this for many, many years. My hon. Friend is right to say that investment in kids’ early years is absolutely crucial. That is why this Government have begun Start4Life and, yes, if it works, we will roll it out across the country.
Bulb Energy: Administration
As many people in the House will know, when energy suppliers leave the market, the regulator, Ofgem, runs a competitive supplier-of-last-resort process. Last week, Bulb informed the Government and Ofgem that it would be leaving the market. Ofgem has advised that the supplier-of-last-resort process is not viable for Bulb because of the size of its customer book. Ofgem has, with my consent, applied to the court to appoint energy administrators. If appointed by the court, the administrators will continue to operate Bulb under what is called the special administration regime, which is set out clearly in legislation.
We will update the House once the court has made its determination, but I wish to clarify a couple of points. First, a special administration regime is a temporary arrangement that provides an ultimate safety net to protect consumers and ensure continued supply. The special administration regime will keep bills at the lowest cost that it is reasonably practical to incur while ensuring that the market remains stable. The House should understand that we do not want the company to be in this temporary state for longer than is absolutely necessary. Supplies remain secure and credit balances will be protected. Finally, all domestic customers in Great Britain are, of course, protected by the energy price cap, which remains firmly in place.
It is right that the Secretary of State has been forced to come to the House: 18 companies have gone bust since he last came to the House in respect of this issue, in September, and reassured us that there was nothing to worry about.
I have a series of questions. First, what is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the scale of costs the taxpayer faces as a result of the Bulb bail-out? That was not clear from his statement, but this is a taxpayer bail-out and the public deserve to know. Will he level with people about the costs that bill payers are going to have to pick up from all the other companies that have failed since September? How much will bills increase as a result?
Secondly, we are now in a position in which companies have banked profits but losses stretching to hundreds of millions incurred by those same companies are being borne by taxpayers and bill payers. So many companies going bust in just two months—something not happening anywhere else in the world—points to a systemic failure of regulation. Firms took risky bets and were allowed to do so, and the Government and Ofgem significantly deregulated the conditions of operation in 2016. Will the Secretary of State now take responsibility for this clear failure of regulation? Does this not suggest that there needs to be a proper review of the regulation of the market?
Thirdly, there is a global dimension to gas price rises but the truth is that we are more exposed as a country because of failures on onshore wind, solar, energy efficiency and gas storage, which is just 2% of our annual demand compared with 25% in other countries. Will the Secretary of State admit that Government inaction over the past decade has left us more vulnerable?
Finally, on the cost-of-living crisis, with further energy price rises coming, why are the Government making the situation worse with cuts to universal credit, by raising national insurance and by refusing to bring some relief by cutting VAT on energy bills? With businesses being hit, too, where is the support that he indicated was coming more than a month ago for energy-intensive industries?
We have seen a failure of policy over a decade, a failure of regulation and the Government making the cost-of-living crisis worse. Is not the truth that this Government cannot be the answer to this energy crisis because it is their crisis? It is businesses and families who are paying the price.
On a point of fact, the number is actually 22 companies, not 18, and I refer back to that—[Interruption.] No, that is the figure. That shows the incredible resilience of the systems that we have in place. We have the supplier of last resort, which has worked very effectively, and, as I outlined in my statement, we also have the special administration regime, which was designed precisely to deal with situations such as the one we are now in.
On regulation, Ofgem has launched a review of the retail market and how it operates. I will be directly involved in that and will study it very closely.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the global market and the situation we are in post covid; he and his party predicted record levels of unemployment and recession, and of course they were completely wrong—they were absolutely wrong. We are growing the economy stronger than any other country in the G7. We are also creating jobs and creating investment, so the right hon. Gentleman’s prophecies of doom were completely misplaced, and he is completely without any firm arguments over our response to what was a global pandemic.
What action has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that, in future, there will be more UK domestic gas to replace unreliable and expensive imported gas, and what action is he taking to expand the capacity of our generating system for the days when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine?
My right hon. Friend will know that this is the first Government in about 25 years or more who are firmly committed to nuclear power. He will understand that the Cabinet expenditure—the long-term commitment to nuclear power—will not necessarily bear fruit in a week or a month, but for the first time, we have made a very dramatic 100% commitment to increasing our nuclear capacity. That answers his point about security of supply overall.
In terms of gas, I am pleased to announce that I and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), are driving the North sea transition deal. The key to that is transition—about trying to transition to net zero while securing jobs and security of supply from gas in the UK Continental Shelf. These are things of which we are apprised.
In 2018, there were more than 70 companies in the energy retail sector, but now there are fewer than 30—a reduction of 60%. Bulb is the 23rd company to go bust since August, a statistic that, somehow, the Secretary of State seemed to be happy about when he was at the Dispatch Box earlier. When are this Government going to get a grip on what is now a cost of living crisis and an energy supply crisis? As energy bills soar, the Treasury gets extra VAT, extra income on fuel duty, and, on top of the £350 billion-worth of oil and gas revenues from Scotland that it gets to squander, an extra £1.1 billion more that it predicted this year alone, because gas prices have increased, so when will it reinvest some of that money to support consumers and the sector?
Bulb was the seventh largest company, with 1.7 million customers. What is the plan for coming out of special administration, because the Secretary of State has still not told us that? When EDF, Scottish Power, Octopus Energy, Utilita and Good Energy all say that they cannot afford new customers, what will happen with these customers? Can the energy companies actually refuse to take new customers, and what discussions is the Secretary of State having on that?
The Secretary of State says that the energy cap is here to stay, but what will be the effect on consumers in fuel poverty when the cap invariably goes up by £400 to £600 in April? It is a disgrace. The Government have allocated £1.7 billion of taxpayers’ money to develop Sizewell C to final investment stage. Why not invest that money in energy efficiency and renewable energy and do stuff that actually brings down energy bills, rather than committing consumers to a 10 to 15-year contract for nuclear and six years on top of that? When will they get a grip on energy policy as a whole?
This is where the hon. Gentleman and I disagree. We are firmly committed to nuclear power; he is against it. We can do two things: we can commit to renewables, as we are doing with our 10-point plan, and commit to 40 GW of offshore wind. I hope that he recognises that we are committed to tidal for the first time in many decades—that is something that he should appreciate. He should also remember that we have the warm home discount and lots of mitigations protecting the most vulnerable customers across the winter and in the next few months.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to making sure that this temporary measure is indeed temporary, and I encourage him to make it as short as possible. I also welcome his commitment to the ongoing use of the price cap, but I urge him when the price cap legislation comes up for renewal in the next 12 months to think very carefully about reform in order to make the price cap much more fit for purpose. At the moment, it is not doing what we need it to do. We have companies going bust and an ongoing problem with the loyalty penalty, which was, after all, one of the key reasons for introducing it in the first place.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that Ofgem, as I alluded to in my statement, has already launched a consultation on precisely the issue of the retail price gap. It will be driving that forward and I am sure that his input will be welcome. We have had lots of mitigations to protect the most vulnerable consumers, but we clearly need to have a discussion about the retail market. Ofgem is leading that discussion and my Department is supporting a closer look at the retail market.
The Secretary of State mentioned the particular arrangements for Bulb customers, but constituents who have been moved from other energy suppliers that have collapsed—there were 21 when I mentioned this issue at business questions last week—are now facing long delays in being set up with suppliers of last resort, so they do not know what their bills are going to be, they face accumulating debt and they may miss out on the warm home discount. What are the Government doing to address that?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s attention to detail on this issue. One of the problems is that gas prices have dramatically increased across the world and we have to cope with that. What is he doing to ensure that we increase the supply of gas so that the market then reduces overall prices?
The House should understand that we have a security of supply. For example, in 2020, 50% of the gas was from the UK continental shelf, 30% was from Norway, 18% was essentially shipped and 2% came from interconnectors. That is a diversity and security of supply that other countries in the EU and on the continent frankly do not have. My hon. Friend will also appreciate that the supplier of last resort process and the energy price cap have protected consumers considerably through this difficult period.
Hundreds of my constituents have been in touch with me over the last few months as their energy suppliers have collapsed. As the Secretary of State said, 22 suppliers have now collapsed. We are moving back to an oligarchy of energy companies that are increasing their profits, while the supplier of last resort is socialising losses. What is he going to do to fix the broken energy market? This winter we are going to have a perfect storm of rising wholesale prices and collapsing companies. How is he going to resolve that, so that people do not end up in fuel poverty?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation; I do not think that we are going back to an oligopoly, as he said. I have always maintained that competition is essential in this market. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) alluded to, there has been a huge mismatch between the wholesale price and the retail price cap. The retail price cap is there to protect consumers, otherwise we would have seen a huge increase in consumer prices and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would have been under even more pressure.
I have been on something of an energy nomadic experience over the last few months. I started with Avro Energy a few months ago, but that went bankrupt and I was converted domestically to Bulb, and I am now in the support scheme within the space of three months. There was a 12% energy price rise at the last round, in August. Who knows what it will be in April next year? The policy of trying to sell ten pences for sixpence does not last very long. What we are going to see over this winter is the Treasury—that is, the taxpayer—making up the difference for these spot prices versus the reality of what energy is being sold for to domestic users. Will my right hon. Friend please see the vision that the only bridging energy supply, of which we have a lot domestically, is gas? We all want net zero sometimes, but it is not going to happen tomorrow; it is going to take a generation to get there. We have a domestic supply that can bring us the two key planks of energy: security of supply and affordability. Domestic users and the industry need that immediately.
I have two points in response to my hon. Friend. First, I am not embarrassed about the retail price cap. It has protected consumers effectively and we are proud to maintain it. On the security of gas, I could not agree with him more, but he should be addressing his comments to other Members of this House, who want essentially to shut down the UK continental shelf. We had a North sea transition deal precisely because we recognised that the transition would take a number of years.
The fact that another energy supplier has gone under is causing huge anxiety for constituents everywhere, who will be equally concerned that the supplier of last resort process has not worked in this case. Will the Secretary of State reassure them: how many other energy suppliers is he concerned about this winter and how many customers would that represent? If this process is not working, is he considering a Northern Rock-style energy company to take on customers of companies that have gone under, given that the process has not been working in this case?
As I have maintained, there are two forms of remedy to deal with this sort of situation: the supplier of last resort, and a special administrative regime. In the particular instance that is the subject of the urgent question, it was felt by Ofgem, not the Government, that the supplier of last resort mechanism was inappropriate, and we are therefore looking at the special administrative regime, as I said in my statement—but both the structures are working.
This will be a worrying time for Bulb customers, who will be concerned not only about the continuity of their supply, but about the protection of the payments that they have already made. Many of my constituents were with Avro and have been in touch with me, concerned about whether the payments that they have made by direct debit will be translated into future payments. Will the Secretary of State give them some reassurance that their payments have been and will be protected?
The Secretary of State keeps on saying that it is all working, but to be honest, it does not feel like it is. I do not think that I have ever seen such an example of Government complacency at the Dispatch Box as bad as this. The truth of the matter is that millions of people are worrying about what their bills are going to be, businesses are going to struggle and 22 companies have gone under. How on earth is that, “Yes, it’s all working perfectly”? Will he please answer one simple question, to which taxpayers will want to know the answer: how much is the Government bail-out going to be in the end?
I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s latter question. There is no Government bail-out; the poor, failing companies have not been bailed out—I want to reiterate that. If he knows anything about the energy market, he will know that over the last few years, six or seven companies have exited the market and were dealt with through the supplier of last resort process. The stresses of this particular gas price situation—which, I remind hon. and right hon. Members, quadrupled in the last six months—meant that there was more pressure this year, but the system and structure of the supplier of last resort process and the special administrative regime are working.
The Kettering parliamentary constituency generates enough renewable energy from wind and solar to power all 45,000 local homes, and is one of the greenest constituencies in the whole country. If we are to reduce our exposure to volatile international gas prices, is it not crucial that we do more to diversify our source of supply?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend will be happy to realise that that is exactly what we are doing through the 10-point plan, with commitments to offshore wind, solar power, nuclear power and other technologies. It is a huge imperative for us—and for me as Secretary of State—to ensure that we have a diversity of supply.
Bulb was the seventh largest energy supplier in the United Kingdom. How much bigger does a supplier have to be before it is too big to be allowed to fail? What are the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues going to do to ensure that the cost of this market failure is not borne by ordinary families, who are already struggling to pay their fuel bills this winter?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about Bulb. It was a very large company, which is precisely why the supplier of last resort was not felt to be an appropriate mechanism in this instance. [Interruption.] Hon. Members chunter from a sedentary position. The solution is the special administrative regime, which I outlined—I hope, clearly—in my initial statement.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made various references to nuclear power and it is great to hear that there is a mix and a commitment to nuclear power. How long is it since the latest round of commissioning of nuclear power stations that the last nuclear power station was commissioned and how many more are planned in the future?
Being a close student of the energy White Paper, as I am sure he is, my hon. Friend will know that we have had a commitment to invest in one more large-scale nuclear project before the end of the Parliament. He will also know that we have committed to small modular reactors. I was very pleased to go to Sheffield to make that announcement only last week. Nuclear is clearly a big part of our energy mix and will help us in the future.
The Government’s headlong rush to net zero is already showing through in people’s fuel bills and levels of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom. Despite what the Secretary of State has said about licences to help through the transition period, we will still be reliant for 50% of our gas on outside sources, which does not give us energy security. At the same time, we have enough gas under the ground in the UK to keep us totally supplied for the whole country for 150 years, which could help the levelling-up agenda in the north-west of England, and help my constituents who currently find themselves at the end of a very expensive pipeline and are very vulnerable. Why are the Government not prepared to exploit the resources that we have to deal with fuel poverty and fuel security and to help the levelling-up agenda in poorer parts of England?
I do not apologise for the net zero agenda. We saw big strides at COP26. We could have gone further. That is an area in which we are showing leadership and that is something we should be proud of. On, as the right hon. Gentleman put it, exploiting gas resources, we looked at fracking. There were issues with regard to the Richter scale, earthquakes and that sort of thing. People objected to that and we imposed a moratorium. But I am very happy to discuss this issue with him if he wishes.
The UK Government are responsible for families facing a cost of living crisis due to the triple whammy of rising gas prices, looming tax rises and cuts to universal credit. Thankfully, in Wales, our Labour Government are providing an additional one-off cash payment of £100 for vulnerable households to support them in paying their fuel bills this winter. This Government are more concerned with bailing out energy companies like Bulb than supporting the most vulnerable. Will the Secretary of State do the right thing and follow Wales’s lead in supporting the most vulnerable in fuel poverty?
Supporting the most vulnerable is exactly what we are doing through the warm home discount and the extension to it. That is exactly why we have maintained the energy price cap, which many of the companies have protested against. We are always mindful to protect consumers and to protect the most vulnerable.
The Federation of Small Businesses has found that 77% of Scottish businesses have seen an increase in their overheads since this time last year, and fuel costs make up a huge proportion of that. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the likelihood of these costs being passed on to consumers, who are also paying higher prices at the tills because of inflation and Brexit?
One word that the hon. Lady did not mention was covid. As a consequence of covid, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put £400 billion into the economy to support the very businesses that she refers to. Many, many of the businesses in Scotland have been supported by that.
Just since the Budget, several companies have gone under. Will the Secretary of State inject some urgency into this matter and look again at the suggestion, now that the Treasury has the freedom to do so, to lift the VAT burden both on households and on small businesses, so that we could have an immediate lift that will happen in this country regardless of what is happening to global prices?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that matters to do with taxation, VAT and all those things are subject to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s departmental policy. She will also know that there is urgency about this. I speak to Ofgem every day. We monitor the market extremely closely. We are looking at how the supplier of last resort process is working—it is working reasonably well. As I have said, we are looking at the special administration regime with regard to Bulb.
This is not happening in other countries. If this is evidence of the system working, I would hate to see it if it was not working. The Government have ruled out any bail-out from the Treasury. Will the Secretary of State give the same undertaking that customers will not be forced to pay huge bills in order to pay for the Government’s failure of regulation?
I would like to point out that an energy price cap such as we have does not occur in other countries, so consumers here are being protected. Many of those who are actually bearing the brunt of this crisis are the very firms that, for whatever reason, have had to leave the market. The structure is working. It is protecting consumers, and companies that have fallen foul of these very high prices have been forced out of the market.
Transport for the North
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the future of Transport for the North.
Transport for the North is a sub-national transport body. Its statutory role, as set out in legislation, is to provide a strategic transport plan for the region and to provide advice to the Secretary of State.
Since 2016, in addition to these statutory responsibilities, Transport for the North has co-cliented the development of Northern Powerhouse Rail alongside the Department for Transport. As this important programme moves into its next, more complex, delivery stage, it is right that we have a single, clear line of accountability to the Secretary of State. This has been an important lesson learned from the delivery of other major infrastructure projects. Therefore, Transport for the North will transition from co-client to co-sponsor, continuing to provide statutory advice and to input on the strategic direction of the programme. The details of this arrangement are currently being worked out between my Department and Transport for the North.
Transport for the North’s advice was carefully considered, alongside a range of other evidence, when developing the integrated rail plan. Any changes to Northern Powerhouse Rail’s delivery does not impact Transport for the North’s statutory function, nor the level of core funding it will receive this financial year to carry out those functions. Nor does it alter the Government’s commitment to levelling up the north or the fact that the integrated rail plan commits £96 billion to improving rail infrastructure across the midlands and the north—the largest single Government investment in the history of British railways.
I thank Mr Speaker for granting this urgent question and thank the Minister for his response.
Sadly, though, I am far from reassured that cutting Transport for the North’s responsibilities and funding are not just spiteful reprisals for TfN advocating strongly on behalf of the north for a new high-speed, fully electrified Northern Powerhouse Rail and for the eastern leg of HS2. I thought there was broad consensus, informed by Lord Heseltine’s 2012 report, that rail infrastructure investment is a central part of the levelling-up agenda. Levelling up, in turn, was meant to be a central part of the Government’s strategy to increase overall UK economic growth. Treasury rules were meant to have been changed. The Prime Minister has repeatedly promised not one but two high-speed train lines: the eastern leg of HS2, which would have benefited areas to the east of Leeds, including Hull; and Northern Powerhouse Rail. Now regeneration of great cities such as Hull and Bradford will be held back for another 20 years at least, with poor connectivity, slow speeds and inadequate capacity for passengers and freight.
By removing Transport for the North’s responsibility for developing Northern Powerhouse Rail, Ministers reduce scrutiny and accountability and show no interest in working in partnership with the north. So much for devolution. When challenged, Ministers have decided to stop the criticism by gutting the powers of Transport for the North and centralising to Whitehall responsibility for rebranding the TransPennine route upgrade as Northern Powerhouse Rail. This Government are taking back control to prevent levelling up.
I, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and many other MPs across the north want answers to the following questions. When did the Secretary of State decide that Transport for the North’s advice on the integrated rail plan would be ignored and that it would not be provided with the full details and impact assessments of the integrated rail plan? What will be the fate of Transport for the North if it continues to advocate for a genuine Northern Powerhouse Rail line? What implications do the changes to TfN have for the wider levelling-up agenda and prospects for boosting UK GDP growth? Finally, how can the north now have a genuine say in its future?
Regrettably, the right hon. Lady’s comments seem to stem from a confusion about what Transport for the North does. The last time she and I debated its role in this Chamber, she argued that her inability to secure improvements to the toilets at Hull station was why Transport for the North needed more money. I therefore gently remind her and hon. Members across the House that Transport for the North is not, nor has it ever been, a delivery body. Its statutory function is purely to develop a strategic transport plan for the north, in the same way Midlands Connect does for the midlands, and it therefore remains unchanged.
What has changed is that, as we are now moving into project delivery, the Department for Transport will assume the role of sole client for the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme, with responsibility for instructing both Network Rail and HS2 Ltd. Establishing that single client, answerable to the Secretary of State, is consistent with the Northern Powerhouse Rail delivery model endorsed by the board of Transport for the North in January 2021. We will take on board lessons learned from other major projects about the need for clear accountability.
The right hon. Lady might want to stand in this Chamber and talk about process and minor technical changes to delivery models, but I know what her constituents and mine, also in the north of England, want this Government to talk about: getting on with delivering the changes people want to see. We are investing £96 billion in the railways of the midlands and the north, the biggest investment the Government have ever made in the rail network. It will slash journey times, double or in some cases even triple capacity and, crucially, it will do all that 10 to 15 years earlier than the original plans.
When the right hon. Lady’s constituents in Hull start to see the doubling in frequency of trains to Leeds, for example, they will not be worried about co-clienting or co-sponsoring. They will see a Government who are getting on with the job of levelling up this country and delivering the transformational transport improvements we were elected to deliver.
May I first declare an interest, having been a member of the Transport for the North board for a period of time and having been involved in setting up the subnational transport bodies? I confirm exactly what my hon. Friend has just said: Transport for the North is not a delivery body. What my constituents want to see is more progress in the delivery of our rail improvements. We have seen huge progress on rolling stock changes in the north. Next month we will see a doubling of the frequency of the service from Harrogate and Knaresborough to York, thanks to the work of North Yorkshire County Council and Don Mackenzie in particular. Will my hon. Friend just confirm that there will be a focus on delivery of the investment plans and accountability mechanisms for those charged with that delivery?
My hon. Friend, a former rail Minister himself, makes an important point. We must ensure there is clear accountability to Ministers for delivery of these projects, in the same way that there is already clear accountability for projects being delivered through the rail network enhancement pipeline and other schemes across the country. I completely endorse what he says. Transport for the North will remain an important partner for us to work with, and we look forward to receiving further advice from it, but the delivery model is best done with the Department for Transport as the sole client.
How dare the Minister stand there and talk down my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) for her question? She knows exactly what this means for people in Hull and for people in the north of England. The funding that was promised has not been delivered. The powers that were promised to the north of England, so that our metro Mayors, our council leaders and people in the north would finally get control, are being snatched away by this centralising Government, and we know exactly what it means—so let us have no patronising from the Government Front Bench on that.
We all know exactly what this is. We have seen it with the Electoral Commission: when it comes up with an answer the Government do not like, it is attacked. When parliamentary standards bodies come up with an answer the Government do not like, they are attacked. When Transport for the North comes up with a plan the Government do not agree to, it is to all intents and purposes scrapped.
I begin by asking the Minister to point now to where the money will come from and where the plans will be developed for new transport projects, bearing in mind that the integrated rail plan is a plan for 29 years. If no new schemes come forward in that period, residents in Hull will see very little investment. What are the practical implications for the staff? How many people who currently work for Transport for the North will be TUPE-ed across to the new organisation?
We know this is a Whitehall power grab, and we also know what it will mean in practice: no new projects, just more smoke and mirrors. Last week, the Transport Secretary said he was spending £96 billion in the north. That is not true. It is around half of that coming to the north of England, and that is over 29 years. What does that mean in practice? It is actually £100 per person a year, when the transport spending gap between the north and London is £400 per person a year. That is not levelling up. To be clear, we are not demanding that London gets levelled down. We are asking for the same.
We want to know that this is not a centralising power grab, because, if it is, we will not stand for it. What will the Minister do now, while he has a final chance to put the record straight, to convince us that this is not about robbing people in the north of the investment they deserve or a centralising Whitehall ministerial power grab, and finally to promise that the 29-year plan will not be the last word on transport investment in the north of England? If it is, the Government will have failed again.
Dear oh dear. It is clear once again from what the shadow Secretary of State has said that Labour want to stick to the outdated plans that would give the east midlands and the north nothing for 10 years. Our plan delivers the same, similar or better journey times to almost everywhere, with eight of the top 10 busiest rail corridors in the north and midlands benefiting, and it starts delivering those improvements 10 years sooner.
Labour wants to focus solely on the biggest cities in the north, ignoring smaller towns and communities that link them. Under the original plans, which Labour is so determined to stick to, places on the existing line such as Doncaster, Huddersfield, Wakefield and Leicester would have seen little improvement to, or even a worsening of, their services. Our plan means that those great northern places will receive the infrastructure projects they need to link them up with local, regional and national services that run alongside them.
In Government, Labour failed to upgrade our railways. Our infrastructure tumbled down the world rankings. On top of that, the Leader of the Opposition cannot even decide whether he supports HS2. Labour does not have a plan to deliver for the midlands and the north; we do.
I thank the Minister for all the efforts I know he has put in during his time in the role to getting the very best package possible. I stood at that same Dispatch Box, promising the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) on very many occasions that Northern Powerhouse Rail would go all the way from Liverpool to Hull. Can the Minister set out how the integrated rail plan delivers the commitment I made within the journey times that she anticipates—and how much sooner it will now be delivered, compared with if we had had to build a second, parallel rail line?
I thank my hon. Friend and predecessor for his comments. As he will know, the Prime Minister was very clear and we were clear in our manifesto that we would commit to Northern Powerhouse Rail, with an initial focus on the section between Manchester and Leeds. The integrated rail plan expands that initial focus to between Liverpool and York. That is the core investment. Alongside it, many of the upgrades already being delivered as part of the rail network enhancement pipeline will continue—for example, upgrades to the Hope Valley line, improving journey times to Sheffield—but we will continue to consider other investments in our rail infrastructure alongside that, to deliver the transformational benefits that we all want to see to communities across the north of England.
The undermining of Transport for the North is just the latest act in a pattern of centralisation and Whitehall-think emblematic of this Administration. This Government do not like transport policy being run by Holyrood, so they cobbled together a Union connectivity review over its head—although it must be said that before the review is even published, the bridge over the biggest undersea munitions dump in Europe, the Prime Minister’s pet project, has been dumped. This Government do not like transport policy being run by the Mayor of London, so they are starving him of funding. Now the Government do not like transport policy being criticised by Transport for the North, so they are slashing its funding and removing many of its responsibilities.
Why does the Minister think this Government know better than the people and elected representatives of the north of England? Last week, the Secretary of State said that a whole 75 staff from the DFT have moved to Leeds. When will the rest follow to the north, so that the people at the top of the Department truly understand the rundown and under-invested transport network that they are responsible for? Will the Minister guarantee that devolved Administrations will not be subjected to such attempted power grabs and undermining in future?
The hon. Gentleman talked about devolution. As he will know, 60% of the north is now covered by mayoral combined authorities and metro Mayors thanks to the historic devolution settlement by this Government. Indeed, this Government established Transport for the North.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about Department for Transport staff based in Leeds. I am delighted that, in the past year, we have established a new DFT office there. Last time I visited, 70 staff were working there. I am pleased to confirm that, as of today, the number has gone above 100. I look forward to visiting again to welcome even more staff in the coming months.
We should take no lectures from Opposition Members who, in 13 years in government, did not lay a single mile of electrification in my area, downgraded northern routes, ploughed money into the south and left northerners rattling around on decades-old Pacer trains. I say to the Minister that we are grateful to have received our restoring your railway funding for the Brigg line, because if someone misses that last train on a Saturday they have to wait a week for the next one. Can he look closely at the business case that has been submitted on that? Will he also agree to work with us on the Goole to Leeds line through town deal funding? Can he tell us what improvements there will be to East Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire—the Humber—from the trans-Pennine upgrades?
There was quite a lot in that. I am sure my hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that the restoring your railway fund announcement will be separate from the integrated rail plan, so we have more announcements to come on that along with the rail network enhancements pipeline, which will also be published separately. The £96 billion is not the total of our investment in the north but the core pipeline for the north of England. He will also be pleased to hear that the investment in the trans-Pennine route upgrade will double the number of services from Hull to Leeds, among other benefits.
The eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full with a city centre stop in Bradford were promised many times. Now we hear that the Government have, in effect, dismantled Transport for the North by removing its powers and staff. A letter was sent from his Department to TfN late last night, but that does not change the fact that it did not approve the Government’s approach—the Minister should show us the minutes. What we have seen is a mishmash of broken promises and a silencing of the Government’s critics. How can the north have a say in its own future? Can he define exactly what a co-sponsor is and what its powers are?
It is important to say that we are not abandoning Transport for the North staff. We thank them all for the work that they have put into developing options for Northern Powerhouse Rail. The TUPE discussions are ongoing, so we hope that those staff can join the growing number of Department for Transport staff based in the north of England. The Government remain committed to HS2 and to Northern Powerhouse Rail. The plan that we set out last week explains how we will deliver the benefits to communities across the north sooner than ever expected.
There are some excellent measures in the integrated rail plan that will be transformational for the economy across the country. In the plan, some money is set aside—I think £100 million—to look at the feasibility of other measures. Will the Minister consider asking Transport for the North to look at an improved direct connection between Bradford and Manchester? It currently takes about an hour to travel that 40-mile journey, so it would be transformational for Bradford and Manchester and across the north.
The £100 million announced in the integrated rail plan is specifically to look at how we can get HS2 trains most effectively from East Midlands Parkway to Leeds. We have not ruled out the construction of the full eastern leg at this stage; we are looking at whether it is the best long-term solution.
On Bradford, my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore) continue to remind me of its importance. I am just over the border from the Bradford district, so we are keen to see what we can do to support it. I spoke to the leader of Bradford Council the day after the publication of the integrated rail plan. We are keen to continue working with Bradford and local stakeholders to deliver benefits to that area.
Following the Minister’s words about Bradford, the whole city of Bradford and my constituents are angry. Some 530,000 people have been failed. Although I welcome the question of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) to focus on Bradford, the truth is that the Government have stripped it of £30 billion of growth in the next 10 years. It is the fourth-youngest city in the country. I also hear on the grapevine that the Government have held on to the IPOSs for Leeds because there might be a U-turn. My question is simple: when will he U-turn on the NPR?
The hon. Lady asks when I will U-turn. We do not intend to U-turn for all the reasons set out in the integrated rail plan. To spend billions of pounds investing in the existing rail route from Manchester to Leeds, and then to spend £18 billion more building a brand-new line, simply did not make economic sense. We will reduce journey times from Bradford to Leeds from about 20 minutes to 11 minutes, and we will continue to work with regional stakeholders to deliver benefits[Official Report, 25 November 2021, Vol. 704, c. 6MC.].
My constituents are not interested in quangos, but they are interested in actual transport infrastructure. The Minister knows how unhappy and disappointed I was with the announcement regarding Bradford, the scaling-back of Northern Powerhouse Rail and the lack of a station stop in the centre of Bradford. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Government will think again about that. Given the huge disappointment to Bradford in that announcement, I urge him to go away and think about what additional transport infrastructure could be delivered to the Bradford district. I urge him to start with the Shipley eastern bypass.
My hon. Friend continues to be a doughty champion for Shipley. As he will know, alongside the £96 billion announced in the integrated rail plan, we are spending more than £7 billion on road investments and more than £5 billion on buses and cycling initiatives. I am sure that his campaign for the bypass has been heard by other Ministers in my Department.
The integrated rail plan gives nothing to the north-east and will create economic imbalances across the north, giving us all less and at a later date. If the Government were confident of their position, there would have been a ministerial presence at this morning’s meeting of Transport for the North. Instead, TfN seems to be meeting the same fate as anyone else who dares to speak the truth about the Government. Can the Minister confirm exactly what powers he is grabbing from Transport for the North and how many people are set to lose their jobs?
My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I am a strong proponent of better transport links and infrastructure for my constituency, so I make a plea to him: whether it is in Transport for the North, Midlands Connect or any other organisation that is strategic or involved in delivery, could Lincoln figure more than just occasionally on a map?
My hon. Friend continues to make a passionate case for Lincoln. As he will know, many of the investments that he has campaigned so strongly for are the responsibility of other Ministers in the Department for Transport, but I am sure that they have, once again, heard his pitch.
I say to the Minister that there is no evidence that the Department for Transport can deliver on time or on cost, so why has the change to the delivery mechanism taken place? The cuts that we saw last week will have a serious impact on the economy across the whole of the north of England. Rochdale wants to trade with Hull, Newcastle and Sheffield, but the Government’s plan does not allow that to take place.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the change from co-clienting to co-sponsorship. As he will know, Crossrail, which has yet to open, was a co-cliented project, and one of the major lessons we have learned from that project being massively over-budget and delayed is that co-clienting does not work on major infrastructure projects. There need to be clear lines of accountability to the Secretary of State for Transport—he needs to be solely responsible for these projects to Parliament, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and others—and that is why we are going for a sole-clienting model. It is one of the lessons we have learned from the Crossrail debacle.
I welcome the improved connectivity from Kettering railway station to the north as a result of Government investment in our railways. We have recently had our twice-an-hour service to and from the north reinstated, after it was taken away by the Labour Government in 2010. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the connectivity from Kettering to and from the north will be further improved with the complete electrification of the midland main line?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Kettering is one of many parts of the country that will benefit much earlier and more significantly from the plans we announced last week than from the previous plans. He continues to campaign for further improvements in his constituency, and I am keen to continue working with him to ensure that we deliver those benefits, such as the midland main line electrification, as early as possible.
It is quite simple, is it not? The Government are slashing Transport for the North because they are slashing transport for the north, abandoning the much-promised ambitions for an integrated transport infrastructure that our economy needs. Will the Minister tell me who will set out the plans for our northern transport future, or do we not have one?
Last week, the shadow Secretary of State described £96 billion, the biggest investment in our railways, as “crumbs from the table”. I think we need to focus on what we are delivering, not the amount of money we are putting in. We will continue to work with Transport for the North, as the statutory transport body in the north advising on our plans, and we look forward to continuing to have a positive relationship with it.
Way back in 2016, when I was thinner and probably younger looking, I helped a young man by the name of George Osborne set up the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. As part of that, I actually worked with those at Transport for the North in their Manchester Piccadilly offices, and I have to tell the House that I found them partisan, specious and entirely obsessed with Labour party politics. Does the Minister agree with me that what is happening here today is the Labour party finally realising that it does not control the whole of the north of England, and there is more than one way of getting something done?
I am delighted to see my hon. Friend in the House, alongside many other Conservative MPs elected in 2019. I am surrounded by far more Conservative MPs in the north of England than I used to be when I was first elected in 2010, and it is a real pleasure, because people such as my hon. Friend bring real expertise to this House. We want to work with Transport for the North in the same way that we work with Midlands Connect and other sub-national transport bodies across the UK, but as we move into delivering the benefits of these investments sooner, we need to have the Department for Transport as the sole client delivering these projects.
In February 2020, I asked the Prime Minister about this issue, and he told me:
“We will make sure that we have Hull fully as part of our vision for High Speed North”.—[Official Report, 11 February 2020; Vol. 671, c. 729.]
So why were the strong recommendations from Transport for the North for electrification of the Hull to Selby line completely ignored?
No one’s advice was ignored. For 20 months after we launched the integrated rail plan, following the Oakervee review, in February last year, we have taken a range of evidence from the National Infrastructure Commission, Transport for the North, Midlands Connect and stakeholders across the region. As we have worked through those plans, we have been clear that we will deliver benefits to people across the north of England sooner than the original plans. I think that the £96 billion we have announced—an historic investment in railways across the midlands and the north—is something of which we can all be proud.