Thursday 9 December 2021
[Derek Twigg in the Chair]
Electric Vehicles: Transition by 2030
[Relevant documents: First Report of the Transport Committee, Zero emission vehicles, HC 27, and the Government response, HC 759.]
I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. That is in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre on the estate or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of support for the UK’s transition to electric vehicles by 2030.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate and all those colleagues across the House who supported the application for it. The topic has attracted a lot of interest, as demonstrated by the many emails I have received from a wide range of organisations, including the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Imperial College London, UKHospitality, Energy UK and the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association. I also place on the record the report of the Select Committee on Transport, “Zero emission vehicles”, from July this year, and the Government’s response to it.
I welcome the Government’s deadline for the end of selling new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and she is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that, since battery production is limited by the availability of lithium, the switch to electric vehicles will not be accessible or affordable to everyone who owns a petrol or diesel car, and that consequently the Government need to invest much more in alternatives to private car use? Does she further agree that, as a start, the Department for Transport should swiftly agree terms with Transport for London for a medium to long-term funding solution that will allow it to be financially self-sufficient?
Today, we are talking about electric vehicles as part of the transition to net zero, but I totally agree that modal shift to other and alternative forms of transport is required, including for public health reasons. During lockdown, many people found that walking or cycling, if they could, was a far more pleasant experience than sitting in a car, yet the large number of cars on our roads makes such modes of transport unsafe and keeps many people from looking into alternatives.
Imperial College got in touch with me, as I mentioned, to tell me that it is leading research into alternatives to lithium use in batteries. I cannot remember what it was—perhaps something like sodium. I encourage my hon. Friend and any Member interested in the subject to get in touch with the research team at Imperial College to find out more.
The cut-off point of 2030 in the UK and countries across Europe sends an unambiguous signal of change. Petrol and diesel, made from fossil fuel, are on the way out, for the simple reason that we must limit global warming to 1.5° C as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest. There is no plan B. The transition from petrol and diesel-powered vehicles to vehicles powered by electricity is already happening. We are here today to raise the main issues we need to deal with to ensure the success of the transition. We have nine years from today to complete the transition—only a short time.
Like other Members present in the Chamber, I have made that leap and got my first EV. Like others, I believe that I am in a good place to contribute to the debate and to steer Government into making good policy choices for the next nine years, rather than not so good ones. To get the transition right, parliamentarians and Ministers must make informed choices, anticipating the consequences of our choices and welcoming scrutiny from outside and inside Parliament.
In the big debate on how to get to net zero, the Government have too often defended their inaction by saying that it is for the markets to make the transition work. I agree that Government do not have to deliver all the changes and investment, but they do have a crucial role to play in setting the right policy frameworks, from which the market and the private sector will take their cues.
While there is progress in EV uptake, substantial barriers remain, many of which have already been raised in Parliament. They include the high purchase price of EVs, the lack of charging points, and the fear of being caught short while travelling. They all act as a constraint and delay on the transition, with many people continuing with petrol and diesel vehicles. However, time is short, so today I want to dig down to address the structural problems that result in those barriers and delays.
The UK is actually in a good place to make the transition to net zero, and the transition to EVs makes sense only if they use zero-carbon electricity. As long as half of our electricity is made by burning gas, why should consumers switch to something that, from their point of view, is expensive, complicated and full of uncertainties? The consumer association Which? has found that just two in five drivers currently signal some intent to buy an EV. That must change. The first principle must be that all our electric power is made from renewables. That would be a big incentive to consumers to make the switch and take on the inconvenience, because they want to know that they are doing the right thing. It would be a terrible failing of Government if the people who commit to going electric find that their carbon footprint is nearly as bad as it was with their petrol or diesel vehicle.
Compared with many EU countries, Britain is wonderfully placed to produce power from wind and waves, but we need to upscale those technologies considerably. In 20 years, all our power—in fact, more than we need—could and should come from renewable energy. The Government must make that their first priority—no ifs, no buts. Renewable energy, and wind power in particular, needs to be 10 times larger by 2030. Will we be able to power all our EVs from renewables in 2030? The answer is a resounding yes.
Let me move to the challenges. Upscaling renewables has challenges, not least in upskilling the workforce to take up the new net zero jobs while those in the fossil fuel industries are going. That needs forward planning and co-operation with our higher and further education sectors. The upskilling of the workforce will include new jobs in the automotive industry and battery gigafactories. Further education colleges are open to and ready for the challenge, but the Government need to invest in vocational training courses at all levels.
The next challenge—it is a big one—is the national electricity grid. Increased production of electricity—probably at least threefold—will require power cables big enough to take the increased load. Our national grid was built decades ago for much lower electricity usage. Obviously, that problem is now owned by a private company. I leave solving that problem to the governing party that privatised it.
The national grid is a strategic network of cables bringing enough electricity to the edges of cities and towns, and then to the array of substations that feed streets in each community. A threefold increase in electricity usage is anticipated, with domestic demand increasing as gas is replaced by electric heating and cooking as well as EV charging, if that is done from home. In most cases, the existing 63 amps and 100 amps ratings should be sufficient; the real problem is in the grid. Every home will be using more electricity, but the grid will overload if too many homes are taking close to the maximum power. There is no hiding from the reality of the big investment needed in our national grid for the laying of big, new cables, building new substations and upgrading existing substations for the increased load.
The wait for grid investment is the single biggest delay factor in rolling out EV charging. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has undertaken analysis showing that between 689,000 and 2.3 million public chargers are required. I will go further. The Transport Committee has recommended that the planning Bill should
“make public charge point provision a requirement of local plans”
and that the electricity network must be assessed for weak spots. In 10 years, most vehicles on the roads will be EVs, and in 20 years nearly all of them will be, so when we put in new grid infrastructure, it needs to be enough for every car in the future, not just for those that are on the road now. It is disappointing that the Government have only partially accepted the recommendations of the Transport Committee, meaning that we will have to fight for every penny, that investment in the grid will come later rather than sooner, and that we are always going to be behind the curve. We need to plan ahead.
The biggest concern for current EV owners, some of whom are in this room, and future owners is how to charge their vehicles. Let me deal with home or near-home charging first. Imagine two different homes: the first is a home with its own off-street parking, and the second is a home with a pavement or more between it and its parking space, especially terraced housing or flats. In the first example, the charging can be done by the owner from their own electric supply; in the second example, the owner needs to use a supply offered by the local council, which in most cases owns the pavement and the road. We need a complete solution for both. It is obvious that for the home with its own off-street parking, the charging solution is in the hands of the owner: the Government do not need to get involved unless they want to subsidise the equipment. However, homes without off-street parking require Government and especially local government to play a key role.
As has been said by the Transport Committee and many others, the variation in EV charging prices is a problem. The price of electricity is about 20p per kilowatt for charging from the home. I believe that the price for the second group of owners who need on-street charging should be almost the same, but the current prices usually range from 30p to 40p per kilowatt. That is not acceptable: it is discriminatory against many of the people who need the most help and encouragement to move to electric vehicles. For us to achieve 20p per kilowatt for street or car parking charging, it will need to be run as a not-for-profit public service. That is the role of the local authority, but it will need funding, investment, and the full co-operation of National Grid.
On a positive note, providing that service will bring out the best in local government through decisions and actions taken in close consultation with, and with the assent of, the local communities that they serve. Councils up and down the country have declared a climate emergency and have committed to net zero by 2030. My own council of Bath and North East Somerset is fully committed to deliver a big roll-out of EV charging, but it cannot because the grid capacity is not there. I am delighted that the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders agrees that we need
“A national strategic plan delivered locally to uplift the number of chargepoints and ensure the right type of chargers are in the right places.”
In my own city of Bath, there are cars parked bumper to bumper on residential streets. In 10 years, every single parking space should have a charge point, a little bit like the old car parking meters we once had. There should still be some connections there. Let us put in this infrastructure all at the same time, at much better value for the taxpayer, rather than doing it piecemeal.
The final piece of the jigsaw for EV charging is away-from-home charging. How easy could it be to convert the current network of petrol stations to fast-charging hubs? Yes, it takes an hour or even a bit more to charge fast, but combined with a meal or a snack, it could be perfect. Once again, there will be the need for substantial investment in the grid, as fast charging uses a lot of electricity very quickly. I had a meeting with representatives of the Highways Agency a couple of years ago when they were planning for a new highways network. I asked them about planning for the laying of big cables, but they said that that was not the Highways Agency’s responsibility. I could not believe it: if we are planning to build new roads, we should surely bear in mind the fact that the cars on those roads will be electric and will need charging. If everyone knew that they could pull up into what used to be a petrol station and is now a fast EV charging station, the fear of being on the side of the motorway with a dead battery would disappear.
The Transport Committee has already begun scrutiny of the Government’s Project Rapid, their £950 million charging fund for strategic sites. It is clear that the levels of ambition and funding are well below what is needed. To use a driving metaphor, we need to be driving this transition at 70 mph and not going along at a pedestrian pace. The Liberal Democrats pledged a financial investment of £100 billion during this Parliament for the transition to net zero. We are way off that mark.
In conclusion, by 2030 we can become a country where fossil fuels are no longer used for private transport. To do that requires political leadership. That we need alternatives to car use, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) points out, and to bring in modal shifts and societal change away from our dependency on cars in addition to the EV transition, goes without saying. There is no planet B. Let us speed up and deliver the change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this debate.
I am pleased to be here today to speak on such a crucial and exciting topic and to see so many other hon. Members here to do the same. The UK Government have already pledged to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and hybrids by 2035—a fantastic commitment that will ensure we are striding towards our net zero targets. It is clear that carbon emissions must fall by 100% by 2050 to meet those targets.
The target for electric vehicles set out by the Government is ambitious, but ambitious targets will not be achieved without equally ambitious policies for our infrastructure, green economy and environment. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity but right now we are moving too slowly. At the moment, less than one in every 100 vehicles is an electric vehicle.
I am co-chair of the midlands engine all-party parliamentary group. In the midlands, where my Broxtowe constituency is, 39,410 new public electric vehicle charging points must be installed by the end of the decade. Urgent action is needed to speed up the installation of electric vehicle charging points across the midlands. Midlands Connect’s report, “Supercharging the Midlands”, suggests that electric vehicle use will increase by more than 3,000% by the end of the decade and that the installation of public electric vehicle charging points must be six times as fast to support the growing demand.
At present, 93% of electric vehicle owners have access to off-street parking and can install an at-home electric charger. However, one third of midlands households do not have off-street parking, so would rely solely on public chargers to power their electric vehicle. At the moment, less than one in every 100 vehicles is an electric vehicle. The action we need to take is to help local authorities to identify the best place to install new electric vehicle charging points and work alongside my colleagues in the Department for Transport to position the midlands as the best test bed for the accelerated delivery of charging points.
For constituents, the benefits of purchasing an EV are numerous. Unlike conventional vehicles, they have no exhaust pipe and emit no dangerous gases such as carbon dioxide or nitrous oxides, reducing pollution and improving air quality for local communities. They are also considerably cheaper to power: charging an EV in public costs approximately 58% less than filling a car with petrol, while at-home charging is even more cost-effective. It is important that those benefits are clear and are shouted about.
Given the midlands’ reliance on the automotive sector, securing a successful green transition in the sector is critical to the region. Electric vehicles represent a significant opportunity across the supply chain, led by original equipment manufacturers but supported by the expertise and engineering quality of our small and medium-sized enterprises. Success could be harnessed by exploiting the emerging resetting of international supply chains and encouraging substantial re-shoring. Bringing the manufacture of batteries firmly to the UK and specifically to the midlands would also be advantageous in the context of the UK-European Union rules of origin from 2027.
An integrated supply of battery-electric vehicles, supported by a gigafactory and local supply chain, would create the most value. Proposed initiatives include the west midlands gigafactory site in Coventry and Britishvolt’s facility at MIRA technology park in Nuneaton. Loughborough University Science and Enterprise Park also has plans for a gigafactory to be sited in the east midlands, but much work is still to be done to secure a green automotive future for the midlands.
Electric battery manufacturing could be worth up to £916 million gross value added in the midlands, reflecting a £24 billion electrification opportunity across the UK, and automotive opportunities across the midlands could be worth £2 billion GVA. We have significant automotive manufacturing facilities in the region, including Toyota, Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin, BMW and Tata Motors. The region is home to significant academic research and innovation in electric vehicles and batteries, and that includes the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre.
Batteries represent around 40% of an electric vehicle’s value and half the opportunity value of battery-powered electric vehicles. Opportunities are available in the components used to make a battery cell, such as the cathode, anode, electrolyte supply and final assembly, as well as in the supply of components such as cases, coves, bracketry and cabling.
It is clear that the potential benefits that lie with the increase in electric vehicles is huge. The Government have a fantastic opportunity not just to level up but to clean up by creating industries and opportunities around the manufacturing of electric vehicles, as well as ensuring that we reach our net zero targets.
Order. Before I call the next Member to speak, could I ask hon. Members to keep their speeches to around six minutes so that everyone will get a chance to have their say? The clock is working, to help you with that.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on securing this important and timely debate.
If the UK is going to meet our legally binding pledge to meet net zero by 2050, we need to step up the transition to a green economy and deliver more sustainable transport options. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Bath mentioned the importance of the national grid to EV charging. I was reflecting that we were the victims of the most appalling storm—storm Arwen—two weeks ago. It showed up a systematic lack of investment in the power grid system in the north-east, as many thousands of my constituents were left without the most basic of utilities—power—for over 10 days. I am trying to understand how my communities would have survived if we were solely dependent on electric vehicles. If we are going to facilitate the transition to a green economy, the Government need to get the basics right and climate-proof our power grid.
The basic infrastructure required to facilitate electric vehicles does not exist in communities such as mine in Easington, County Durham. There is a massive disparity between the capital and the rest of the country in terms of accessing charging points, with more public charging points in London and the south-east than in the rest of England and Wales combined. We also need to advance technology, because until we have wireless, accessible, on-street parking charging points, replacing conventional vehicles with EV vehicles is not a viable option for people living in built-up areas—in my case, in former colliery terraces or blocks of flats.
We are potentially falling into a trap when it comes to infrastructure, so the Government need to change their mindset and, rather than focusing on the one-to-one replacement of vehicles, create an affordable, frequent and reliable public transport network. That should be the foundation for creating a sustainable green economy.
I frequently complain about the Northern Rail failure on the Durham coastline that serves my constituency. The service is unreliable and dangerous, and I can see the potential of improved public transport. You might be wondering, Mr Twigg, what that has to do with electric cars, but the subject of the debate is electric vehicles, and it is important that we consider what the options are.
Despite often-repeated Government rhetoric about levelling up, the transport infrastructure gap in the UK is widening. Improved public transport can deliver employment opportunities. My constituency is very close to Nissan in Sunderland, and I accept that there are many jobs in the automotive manufacturing sector and in the manufacture of EV battery technology. Indeed, Nissan in Sunderland is Europe’s biggest and most efficient car plant. I should declare an interest as a member and chair of the Unite group in Parliament. Nissan provides employment for many thousands of people, including many in the supply chain in my constituency.
However, there are other businesses that could benefit from this technological revolution. Vivarail, for example, is the only domestically based manufacturer of battery-powered trains in the UK. It has a production site in my constituency. Its cutting-edge green technology and innovative, fast-charging battery-electric train has enormous domestic and, indeed, export potential. Vivarail showcased its clean, green and reliable service in Glasgow at COP26, hosting my colleague, the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who saw the fast-charging battery-powered train that was on show.
Many people want affordable and reliable green options, but making the switch to electric vehicles is difficult because of the up-front cost. We know that the long-term financial benefits of electric vehicles, which have been pointed out in the debate, include lower running and servicing costs, but there is an up-front barrier in making the transition. We need greater Government incentives until such time as entry costs for new and used vehicles fall.
One issue, which was highlighted by the Transport Committee, on which I have the honour to serve, is the cost of VAT. I raised that with the Minister in the Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee yesterday, and I am afraid that I did not get an answer. The current policy on VAT on charging points penalises electric vehicle owners who do not have access to private parking and their own charging points. Those without access are forced to use public charging points and pay four times the VAT. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs says:
“Supplies of electric vehicle charging through charging points in public places are charged at the standard rate of VAT”,
which is 20%. It goes on:
“There is no exemption or relief that reduces the rate of VAT charged.”
I know that the Minister is not responsible for tax policy, but will she raise that issue with Treasury colleagues?
This debate is far from simple, and a comprehensive approach is required. The transition to electric vehicles is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform public transport and create a cleaner, greener and stronger economy in places such as east Durham. If only we had an ambitious Government willing to seize the opportunity and spread the benefits more equally.
I again remind hon. Members that they should keep to around six minutes. I will call the Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister no later than 2.30 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this debate on such an incredibly important topic. I have to declare an interest: I am the owner of an electric car. I also called for the Government to move their target for phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles forward to 2030, so I was absolutely delighted to see that in the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan.
As an early voice in favour of bringing the target forward, I heard many reasons why it would be absolutely impossible to do so. They ranged from the availability of minerals to the higher cost of electric cars, the strain on the electricity supply, range anxiety and the lack of a public charging network. None of those challenges is insurmountable, although they are certainly big challenges, as the hon. Members for Bath and for Easington (Grahame Morris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) have set out. We have innovation in battery technology, and the hon. Member for Bath mentioned advances using silicon. Different models of car ownership, the Government’s plug-in car grant and smart charging regulations such as the ones currently before the House will all help to support the transition.
Today I want to focus on range anxiety and the public charging network. We trade a lot of facts and figures in this place, but I will focus on my own experiences as an electric car driver. I know that the Minister is an advocate of rolling out our EV infrastructure as fast as we possibly can, and I might have some ammunition to help her with that mission. I thought I would illustrate the issue using the experience of taking our electric car on holiday to Northumberland in the summer.
The first bit of advice I have for fellow Members, which is actually nothing to do with the public charging network, is do not go on holiday in a new car that has only just been delivered on the morning of your holiday, especially if you are used to driving a clunky old petrol-powered Land Rover and you have switched to an automatic electric MG. It does not do wonders for marital harmony, and nor does it make for a relaxing, stress-free break.
There were a worrying few moments when we thought we were going to have to reverse the entire way to Northumberland, which with a journey time of three and a half hours would have been quite a feat, but after a few minutes poking around with the controls, we did actually manage to start going in a forward direction, and we were off up the A1.
We pulled in at Ferrybridge services, plugged in and went for lunch feeling smug. This is easy! We can do this! We returned to find that absolutely no charge had been transferred to the car. Oh dear! Were we being silly, as the electric car newbies? No, the gentleman next to us—a veteran electric car user—was also having difficulty. The chargers were clearly out of order. “Never mind,” we thought. “Can’t work every time.”
So off we went to the next services at Wetherby. We plugged in to one of the chargers, and that charger seemed to be broken too. We phoned the charge point operator’s 24-hour hotline and they reset the entire system for us. They said, “It should be working now.” The only problem was that it was not. They said, “There must be a problem with the car.” Panic! We do not have enough charge to go forward, we do not have enough charge to go back and, lovely as Wetherby services is, I did not really want to spend my holiday there. So we phoned the car dealership, and lots of people were running round in the dealership in Portsmouth freaking out that the car they had sold us, which could be charged, now suddenly could not be charged.
Twenty minutes later, when one of the other chargers came free, I said to my husband, “Let’s have one more go.” We plugged in and it worked. So it was not us and it was not the car, but two out of three electric chargers at motorway service stations did not work. I just could not believe it—imagine if two thirds of the petrol pumps we tried to use at a petrol station were not working.
So off we went. There was not a charger at our hotel, so we tried to use the one in the local village next morning, except someone was using it. Our Zap-Map showed that there were three chargers in Hexham, so off we pootled. We found two charging points, both of them wrapped in thick black shrink plastic. Had they just arrived? Were they leaving? Who could tell? But we certainly could not use them to charge our car. We finally tracked down another one outside Waitrose, but that was not working either. So there were three chargers, and not one of them was working. We managed to find one in the end—the one in the village became free.
The next day we went up to Hareshaw Linn, with its beautiful waterfall. We had a lovely walk—I thoroughly recommend it. Waves of joy and relief broke over us as we arrived in the car park to find a charger that was free and that appeared to be working—but how did it work? It looked like a bollard. There were no instructions on it. I could not work out how to get the plug out or anything. All that was written on it was, “Please present a tag to charge.” Hmm, where was I going to find a tag, even if I had a description of what one was, in the middle of Northumberland national park?
The name Electro was emblazoned on the side, so we looked it up and called it on our phone. We gave it the number of the machine, but the company could not find it on its system, and neither could the app, so we could not use that one either. We then found a sticker—maybe it was BP Pulse—but the app would not take our debit cards so, again, that was a complete write-off. We did manage to find some charging points throughout Northumberland that did actually work on our holiday, so we did get around.
Then, on our way back, we stopped off again at Wetherby services—that place where we nearly spent the entire week. There was a queue of six cars to use the chargers. Assuming an average charge time of 20 minutes, we would have had to wait two hours just to charge the car, so we would have been there for two hours and 20 minutes or two and a half hours. That is almost as long as the entire journey, so off we went to the lovely village of Boston Spa, which I thoroughly recommend, and there we were confronted with an Engie EV charger. Again, to charge, we had to give our names, our address and our contact details before we could register to pay and charge. Can you imagine the chaos if that happened at the petrol pumps, Mr Twigg?
I do not want to give the impression that the unfortunate set of circumstances that I have described happens to us every day. We do manage to get around in the car. We normally charge at home and we do not have any issues, but as has been pointed out—
Order. Can I ask the hon. Member to wind up, please?
As has been pointed out, lots of people do not have the option of charging at home, so I have three asks: first, more chargers at key points, such as motorway service stations; secondly, a ban on using apps to pay for charging—people should be able to pay with debit cards; and thirdly, on service expectations around reliability, if people are taking their car out, they have to be able to have a reasonable level of confidence that they will be able to drive it home again. Those are my three asks for the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for calling this important debate. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) for outlining her experience and for her tenacity and determination to keep going. As a driver, and given some of the days of driving I have had with my four-year-old and six-year-old, I would have given up, so all credit to her.
My constituency of Vauxhall, just across the bridge here, contains some of the busiest and most polluted roads in the country. That has a massive and devastating impact on our fight to tackle the climate emergency, but also on the immediate health of my constituents. Air pollution has been linked to a litany of health problems, such as asthma and heart disease. Just last year, air pollution was ruled to be the tragic factor in the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. She tragically lost her life after two years of severe asthma attacks.
Electric vehicles will not eliminate pollution entirely, but they do have the potential to bring about a sea change in levels of pollution caused by cars and to make our roads quieter and healthier. Unfortunately, many of my constituents who are looking to get an electric car face so many barriers—a significant roadblock —in their desire to become greener and reduce emissions. Aside from the high costs associated with electric vehicles, people looking to switch are definitely let down by the infrastructure. As the hon. Member for Rushcliffe highlighted, the standards are simply not up to scratch. One of my constituents who wants to get an electric car told me that she fears that travelling a long distance and visiting family would be nearly impossible because of the current infrastructure. She told me about a motorway journey that she made and the fact that the charging points were out of service and she did not have the right socket for her vehicle.
People who live in a flat, as many of my constituents do, have concerns about safety and the reliability of charging their car overnight. Making travelling to and from the car a necessity excludes so many people who want to switch, such as the elderly, carers and so many others who would like to make the transition to cleaner cars. This would also have a big impact on our ability to meet our targets by 2030. It might be hoped that supply will meet demand when it comes to the infrastructure, but it is clear that demand has been hampered by the current unavailability of electric cars, so many people are not considering switching. If we are truly to see an electric vehicle revolution among car owners, we must build that infrastructure to the same standards that we expect for petrol vehicles, and drive up demand across the country.
We know that switching to an electric vehicle is not the panacea for transport’s contribution to the climate emergency or pollution. Like me, many of my constituents in Vauxhall make journeys by foot, active travel, bus and local transport. We are blessed to live in an inner-London constituency where we have eight tube stations and fantastic bus networks. Transport provision is not the same for many constituents up and down the country in rural areas. If we are to see them using public transport and not relying on petrol cars, we need to ensure that our public transport is properly funded.
That is the ongoing debate we are having about London’s public transport, which the hon. Members for Bath and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) highlighted was about ensuring that we have secure funding for Transport for London. We must continue to encourage people to use public transport and those who rely on petrol cars to use cleaner, greener vehicles, such as electric cars.
We must enable those who use cars to be at the forefront of a green transport revolution. So I have just one ask for the Minister this afternoon: how can she address the concerns of my constituents and outline measures to ensure that electric vehicles are more reliable, viable and cheaper, and that the infrastructure for them is available?
Thank you for keeping within six minutes.
First, may I say how pleased I am to speak in this debate? I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing it. I often take part in her Westminster Hall debates and I congratulate her on always setting the scene for them so very well. We do not agree on everything, but we agree on this and other issues. I am very pleased to participate in the debate.
Many of us are much more aware of our carbon footprint today and have come to realise that there are steps we can take to lessen the damage to our environment. One of the most prominent ways in which we can do this is by using electric vehicles.
My youngest son, Luke, bought a hybrid vehicle. He did not experience the problems that the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) has. Thank the Lord for that; such problems would be entirely depressing. His buying that hybrid tells me that the next generation are ready to get ahead. They are thinking ahead about how they can reduce their carbon footprint and improve their quality of life. I am very pleased to see that he and many others have grasped that. I think that more electric cars were sold in Northern Ireland in the last year than have ever been sold in the past.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate. I know that in the past the Government have set some funds aside for electric charging points and I know that local councils in Northern Ireland now have the responsibility for such charging points. That being the case, perhaps the Minister can give me some idea of how that system will work.
As I am sure all Members are aware, the UK has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Transport is currently the largest emitting sector in the UK economy, responsible for some 27% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions, with cars in particular being responsible for 55% of transport emissions. However, I do not believe that there is any logical way that we can expect people to travel in a greener manner if we do not provide them with the means to do so. I think that we are all committed to the net zero target, but we have to make sure that it is achievable, and we must reduce the angst that many people have—I probably have it myself, to be fair—that the charging points are in place.
Infrastructure is the key to getting this greener engine going. For example, in Northern Ireland there are currently 4,000 electric vehicles on the road, but only 337 public charge points. Some of the shopping centres back home have introduced electric charging points, but I would like to see charging points in the centre of towns, because that is where a lot of the vehicular traffic is. Also, the charging points must work, because that has been a problem in the past for many of my constituents.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that ultimately local councils are best placed to provide that infrastructure and to ensure that it actually works, because they are the ones who are accountable, whereas any private companies can just do their own thing? Does he agree that local authorities should run these charging points?
I thank her hon. Lady for her intervention and she is absolutely right. That is what I say when I talk about councils back home. The responsibility should lie with them, because they can specifically monitor their own towns and villages, not only across my constituency of Strangford, but across the whole of Northern Ireland.
In my constituency, there are only two electric charging points shown on the charge point map for a constituency of approximately 60,000 people, which is shocking. I know that the Minister back home, Nichola Mallon, has committed her Department to improving that situation greatly, and the quicker that happens the better. If it was not the responsibility of her Department but of the council, and there was some money for that, we could achieve some of our goals on electric charging points.
A report undertaken in 2020 by the Department for Infrastructure back home came to some interesting conclusions regarding people’s attitudes towards electric vehicles. Of those surveyed, 33% said they were unlikely to make an electric vehicle their next car buy and 42% would not even consider it. We have to address these attitudes. Why are those figures so high? Indeed, 64% of those surveyed said that they would be discouraged from buying electric vehicles due to the price and—guess what?—the need to charge them.
The hon. Member for Rushcliffe told a story about a nightmare journey from her home to her holiday destination, stopping on numerous occasions along the way. I agree that the education must be there for the UK to fully transition to electric vehicles by 2030, especially for the younger generations. Thousands of young adults and teenagers are doing driving tests and getting their first vehicle. We want to encourage the new generation to buy the cars; we have to enable them to feel confident to do so. That is why I encourage the Minister to engage with the Department for Education to ensure that the benefits of using electric cars are taught to young people. I think we can also address the generational mindset.
I referred to Minister Mallon, the Minister for Infrastructure back home. She has announced a new electric vehicle infrastructure taskforce for Northern Ireland. That is a good step. I welcome it and congratulate the Minister on that. It was announced at COP26—COP26 achieved many things outside the headlines. I encourage the Government to follow suit, and put more responsibility on local councils, as the hon. Member for Bath said, to be accountable for e-charging in their areas. That is the secret. That is the key. That is what we need to do. Having the necessary charging is absolutely essential to progress in our battle with climate change.
I recently made contact with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on a new-start logistics business in Newtownards, which is seeking funding to ensure that its entire fleet is made up of electric vehicles. I welcome that initiative, interest and commitment. We need to find funding for future-looking companies such as that one, and we also need electric charge points throughout the constituency to charge the fleets. It is as simple as that. Let us do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this important debate in our transition to net zero.
I want to start by talking about a significant zero-emissions capability. When defining that capability, the Government must look to the spirit of their decision to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030. Any vehicle that does not have the ability to run continuously, creating zero emissions, for a meaningful range is predominantly an internal combustion engine vehicle. To continue to allow the sale of such vehicles after 2030 is contrary to the Government’s own decision. Therefore, only vehicles with a chargeable battery and a plug should be included, not mild hybrids.
The only suitable metric to measure that is miles of continuous zero-emission range, which should be set at a minimum of 100 miles, to ensure that consumers realistically make journeys on electric miles. There is no fundamental technological barrier that impedes plug-in hybrids from delivering higher ranges today. It is merely how to optimise the battery size of a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle—or PHEV—to comply with today’s CO2 regulations.
We also need a zero-emission vehicle mandate, which is a target placed on car manufacturers to ensure a certain percentage of vehicles are zero-emission vehicles. Of course, the definition of that mandate is extremely important. California has had a working version of such a mandate and has in fact had a ratchet mechanism to get more lower carbon vehicles on to the road since 1990.
In the pure form of a ZEV, only vehicles capable of zero-tailpipe emissions should be included, so battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but, from a more pragmatic standpoint, plug-in hybrid vehicles could be included, but given a value reflective of how far they can drive on zero emissions. California includes BEVs—battery electric vehicles—PHEVs and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. If 20% of a vehicle’s stated range is electric, it should be a awarded a 20% value. That would be a reasonable level in the mandate.
How should that work in the UK? In simple terms, there is a crediting system within a ZEV mandate that attributes different credit values to different types of vehicles and, for the longest range vehicles, a super credit. The California mandate and the China mandate offer four times and six times for the longest range electric vehicles. As the UK looks at the design, we should learn from the others and not use super credits, as large super credits just lead to a surplus of credits and a dilution of the targets and therefore vehicles on the road.
There should, of course, be a reward for innovation that drives longer range and more efficient vehicles—the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) explained that better than I could—and we need to ensure that vehicles produced have a meaningful range so people will want to replace their diesel or petrol cars with an electric one. However, we should cap the maximum credit value at more than one credit but not as high as two credits. The average EV should receive one credit, which today is around 250 miles. That average can be recalculated annually, to reflect the state of the market and to manage credits.
The Government have announced that the ZEV mandate will start in 2024. Any target will need to be ambitious, yet achievable. Looking at the industry’s own projections, SMMT figures for its high uptake scenario for 2024 are around 35% of zero-emissions vehicle sales in that year. The industry could meet that target, but it needs incentives. Funnily enough, it happens to roughly correlate to the Climate Change Committee’s figure for 2024. That Committee recommends that 50% of new sales should be zero-emissions vehicles in 2025, meaning a steep gradient in the Government’s mandate.
A zero-emissions vehicle mandate is a supply-side tool, but a fleet mandate is the demand-side tool. The Government could look to create a fleet mandate to ensure that there are targets for fleet vehicles. The sector is around 55% of the marketplace in the UK and provides an important feeder to the second and third-hand market. Given that there is a favourable taxation treatment for this marketplace, a mandate could help drive uptake. The fleet mandate would need to be significantly higher than the zero-emissions vehicle mandate. We need to remember that fleet vehicles enter the used-vehicle market three to five years after becoming fleet. It will mean affordable, zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) touched on affordability. Everybody should be able to afford a zero-emissions vehicle by 2030.
On charging infrastructure, the Government have announced some significant funding to remove the barrier of connection costs. The charging points all need to work, though. This £950 million rapid charging fund is for strategic roads and motorway service stations, but it has yet to be rolled out. Connection costs is an issue at these locations, but the same issues exist everywhere. The Government can do more. For example, more can be done with our existing policy mechanisms without further grants from Government. One example is the renewable transport fuel obligation. The UK is falling behind other European nations when it comes to using this policy to drive down transport emissions.
The renewable transport fuel obligation seeks to reduce emissions from transport fuels and many other countries have already reformed their versions to provide revenue generation for a struggling charging sector. European nations have their versions of the RTFO, and California has a similar instrument called the low carbon fuel standard. The key difference is that Holland, Germany and soon the whole of Europe allow renewable electricity use in vehicles to count towards these reduction targets, as does the low carbon fuel standard. I call for the Minister to look at changing the RTFO, because it will drive that infrastructure through to renewable electricity production.
I will finish by talking about plug-in grants. The price gap between zero-emissions vehicles and internal combustion engines continues to reduce, but there is still a significant differential. Many people are asking for an extension to the plug-in car grant. I would support that, but I ask the Government to also look at an alternative: the bonus-malus. The operation of a malus or levy is placed on the purchase of new fossil-fuel vehicles, and this is used to fund a bonus or grant for zero-emissions vehicles, meaning that it is neutral for the Government and does not require state funding.
It is great to see you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this debate.
The UK’s transition to EVs looks like it is about to stall. Those are not my words, but those of the automotive industry. The Government have set a clear legal end date for the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030. By 2035, they want to see the complete switch to zero-emission sales. We have got nine years to go. We need much more urgent action than we are seeing. We are a long way from achieving what we need to. On the one hand, we see car manufacturers and the motor industry right behind the EV revolution, but the critical infrastructure supporting EV cars is, I am afraid to say, not as developed as it should be.
I want to look at what the industry has actually achieved and succeeded in. Against the 188 new plug-in cars registered in 2010, we are up to 300,000 for 2021. There is now the choice of around 150 zero and ultra-low-emission vehicles available to buy. That will double by 2025. In terms of production, BEVs are now up 64% to account to for 7% of car output in the UK. There is a growing urgency to deliver on gigafactories. The one in Coventry has to be secured, and I hope we will hear an announcement on that very soon.
While vehicle development and supply is good, it is the infrastructure system that we need absolute priority on. We talk about HS2 and the integrated rail plan, but there is nothing like the scale of ambition that we need for the charge point infrastructure for this country. We are one of the worst among the top 10 global electric vehicle markets, at some 16:1 ratio a year ago. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on electric vehicles, and the sorts of stories we heard from the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) are very much the topic of debate at our meetings.
Between January and September, just 4,000 new standard public charge points were installed, compared with 212,000 new plug-in car registrations. That is one new standard charger for every 52 new electric vehicles. As we have heard, there is huge regional disparity: in the midlands, as cited by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry), we need to install something like 11 charge points every day, but we are doing something like two a day.
So what do we need to do? According to a recent Savanta ComRes survey, the message is loud and clear from consumers. Some 37% of those surveyed were optimistic about buying a full EV by 2025. There is consumer demand, and we are getting many more EVs on our roads, but the survey also showed that the barriers faced by consumers are significant. Some 44% said that the lack of local charging points was significant barrier to buying an EV, while 38% were concerned about fears over charging access on long journeys, whether to Northumberland or elsewhere.
That is the main issue. The Government need to empower and assist local authorities and distribution network operators to develop urgent and comprehensive plans for integrated charging networks. They need to identify the sites, work with charging providers and tender for regional networks, ensuring that the mistakes that were made over mobile phone telephony are not repeated with vehicle charging infrastructure.
The Minister heard about the most pressing issue loud and clear from the industry just a couple of weeks ago: there needs to be a massive focus on infrastructure for charging and for manufacturing and recycling batteries. The Government’s rapid charging fund, with £950 million to rapid and ultra-rapid charge points, is welcome, as is the requirement for all new build homes to include EV charging points—although we should have been doing that for the last five years. That is something that the last Labour Government talked about. Sure, the current investment is welcome, but it does not go far enough. The SMMT estimates that a minimum of 689,000 charge points are required, although the real figure is more like 2.3 million. We need significant expansion in delivering binding targets and introducing regulation and enabling support.
One solution is interoperability or roaming platforms, which would allow the consumers of individual charge point operators to charge on other networks that are associated with that hub. We have only to look at the Netherlands, which is leading the way on that—it is really not rocket science. The Netherlands has been doing it for years.
Of course, we have heard about smart charging, and I appreciate that regulations are being proposed by Government. Finally, we need better battery technology; I just hope that the Government’s ambition is there to deliver on a gigafactory in Coventry.
We need incentives. While there is a clear appetite from consumers for EVs, we need to persuade more to get behind this market. As others have said, the Government should maintain the plug-in car grant. Lastly, we should also consider tax breaks, free or reduced costs for parking, generous long-term plug-in grants and reliable, fast EV charging points on the street.
In conclusion, it is not enough for the Government to simply ban new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. We have to have the scale of ambition and—as we are seeing with the rail infrastructure—a comprehensive plan delivered for EV charging, which needs to be delivered urgently to get the 2.3 million charging points that have been identified. Finally, we need to ensure fair pricing for consumers, so that all can access cheap and clean motoring, not just those with domestic charge points.
I ask Front-Bench Members to keep their speeches to about 10 minutes, so that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) has time to wind up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this important debate and on starting us off so well. She made many excellent points throughout her speech and referenced the excellent recommendations of the Transport Committee. I should say that I serve on that Committee, although that was not a self-serving comment.
There have been many fantastic contributions by Members from across the House and the debate has been, in the main, consensual. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) said that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, but that we are going too slowly. My colleague on the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), rightly spoke of the challenges facing the national grid and charging outside London, which I will come on to. The hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) spoke of a long journey, by the sounds of it, and the relationship strain of taking an electric car on holiday. I can certainly relate to that—not so much the holiday element, but the change in driving style required by an electric car. Mine has changed, my wife’s has not. No doubt I will get into trouble for saying that.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), a London MP, made excellent points about range of and the need for greener public transport, which I will briefly cover. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is always here and is always welcome, spoke of transport being the largest carbon-emitting sector and urged more urgent action, if I can put it like that. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) spoke of the ZEV mandate, which I will probably not have time to cover but which we wholeheartedly support. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), who always takes a keen interest in these matters, started out pretty starkly by saying that we have only nine years but also a very long way to go.
I declare an interest as an owner of an electric vehicle. Thanks in part to the Scottish Government’s electric vehicle loan scheme, I made the switch from diesel to electric this year. In fact, my family went from having two diesel cars to one electric. The bulk of my remarks will cover electric cars, but I will briefly talk about electric buses. Thus far, the Prime Minister’s pledge of 4,000 new green buses has been a pretty damp squib, it has to be said. The three years of the ultra-low emission bus scheme’s operation up to this year resulted in just 58 such buses on the road outside London. It will come as no surprise that London has more ULEBS-funded buses on the road than the rest of England put together. The successor scheme, ZEBRA—zero-emission bus regional areas—has not put a single new bus on the road, and thus far funding has been made available for only 335 electric buses. ZEBRA has been a total flop. The Prime Minister has zero chance of getting to his promised 4,000 buses by the end of this Parliament. In any event, 4,000 buses represents only 10% of the English bus fleet.
In contrast, the Scottish Government have promised to decarbonise more than half the Scottish bus fleet in the same timeframe. We are well into our second Scottish ultra-low emission bus scheme, which, for comparison, has resulted in the equivalent of more than 2,700 buses already ordered or on the road. Indeed, thanks to the Scottish Government’s SULEB schemes and McGill’s Buses, my own area of Renfrewshire has more electric buses on the road than anywhere outside London. These buses need passengers to fill them, and I am glad to say that, by the end of next month, those aged 21 and under will enjoy free bus travel, hopefully instilling some public transport habits into the new generation, helping to reduce car usage by 20% by the end of the decade. We see day to day what progress has been, and is being, made in rolling out the infrastructure we need to move to net zero, so when I look at DFT’s record, I have to say—not for the first time—that I am glad to live in Scotland under a Government with a serious agenda to change our transport options for the better.
Without a mass roll-out of public charging facilities, EVs will simply never be the choice for people for whom residential charging points are simply not possible, especially people who live in flats or multiple-occupancy buildings. The Climate Change Committee estimates that at least 150,000 charge points are needed, while others, such as the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, say that at least 700,000 are needed, but just under 21,000 are currently in use. There has to be a rapid acceleration of investment and a clear strategy for how that target will be met. At the moment, there is no sign that the scale of investment needed matches the reality of what is available. Once again, the Scottish Government are leading on the roll-out of public charging infrastructure, and doing so on the scale needed elsewhere.
According to the UK Government’s own stats, Scotland leads the UK in public rapid charging points, at around 70% per capita higher than average, and nearly double even London’s rapid charging network, and is second only to Greater London in all public charging points. That was not achieved by accident; it was the result of policy decisions taken over the last few years in line with the Scottish Government’s net zero strategy, which aims to transform the country to net zero by 2045, five years ahead of the UK’s current plans. That kind of bold investment in infrastructure needs replicating elsewhere in these isles if we are to collectively meet the challenges of the transition to net zero and the ambition set out by COP26. How that infrastructure is accessed, as has already been referenced, is also a real concern.
When the Transport Committee took evidence on public charging and the interoperability of the many different networks—some publicly run, some delivered by the private sector—the then Minister said that regulations to enforce interoperability were planned for before the end of the year. To date, we have not had those regulations, despite the consultation closing in April and despite the Minister’s promise to the Committee.
There is no sign of forcing operators to have common systems, which would give consumers a seamless experience, regardless of which provider they charge the vehicle with. We do not expect drivers of diesel or petrol vehicles to have to remember which card matches which petrol stations, and it should not be any different for EV drivers. Interoperability is standard in the Netherlands, as has been said, with a larger installed base of public charge points. There is no reason whatsoever why that cannot be implemented here. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point because, if that is indeed the case, the Government need to up their game and get those regulations drafted as quickly as possible.
Just over two years ago, I spoke in a similar debate in this Chamber and mentioned the success of electric vehicles in Norway. At that point, just over half of new cars sold there were EVs. This year, that proportion reached over 77%. So successful has their transition been that the debate in Norway is now not about how to get EVs making up the bulk of the new car market, but how to realistically phase out the remaining petrol and diesel cars on their roads.
That, it must be said, is in an oil and energy-rich, progressive and independent northern European country with the power to act in its own national and international interests without a Whitehall-type system to battle through. Norway shows that if the will and investment are there, the marketplace for cars can be transformed in a relatively short period. Therefore, while I may despair at much of the UK’s track record, the optimist in me—there is an optimist in me, somewhere—still believes that it might be capable of pulling it off, if the political will is there. Of course, that is a big if.
In yesterday’s debate on rail investment, I made the point that, compared with the capital, the rest of England was being badly let down on transport spending year after year. That mistake is being repeated in the roll-out of a public charging network. Again, as the hon. Member for Easington said, it is the north of England losing out, with the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber at the bottom of the league table, while London streaks ahead.
If the Government are serious about a national EV strategy, it has to be just that: national. If the Scottish Government can fund and support charge points from Unst—the most northerly island in these isles—to the Mull of Galloway at the very south of the country, there should be no reason for English regions to be left behind in the transition to zero emission vehicles. Norway has managed it, Scotland is managing it, and I hope that the Minister will seek advice from her counterparts in those countries and elsewhere on how to drive forward the transformational change needed over the coming years.
To conclude, on the vehicles themselves, it again seems that the UK is in the slow lane while others are powering ahead. If we are to change historical behaviours, we must have an appropriate balance between carrot and stick, but the Government keep shifting that balance before the market is ready for it. The Transport Scotland-funded low carbon transport loan gives potential EV customers an interest-free loan of up to £28,000 for new cars or £20,000 for used ones, and also covers electric motorcycles and e-bikes. Compared with the UK’s grant-only scheme, the interest-free loan scheme is delivering affordability to households who would otherwise be unable to make the switch to electric vehicles. It is also undoubtedly one of the reasons why take up of EVs in Scotland over recent years has considerably outstripped the rest of the UK, outside of London. That loan has also now been extended to include used EVs, which are now an important area of growth in the market.
The top three factors holding potential EV buyers back are cost, access to local charging points, and range anxiety. By rolling out zero-interest loans, the Scottish Government are addressing that first factor; by having so many charging points, they are addressing the second; and by ensuring that no part of the country is untouched, they are addressing the third.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I will briefly touch on some of the useful contributions by many Members from across the House, who have obviously taken the time to contribute to this forward-thinking, progressive debate on such an important subject.
I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing the debate and putting forward so many interesting ideas. I will also briefly mention my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel)—I hope to be able to go for a spin in his Tesla at some point soon—and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western). We also heard about the meandering experience of the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards). It would be remiss of me not to mention my former colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who made some important points, as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
Surface transport accounted for 24% of emissions in 2019 and remains the largest contributor to UK emissions to date. After a decade of failing to reduce the UK’s transport emissions, it is good that the Government are finally recognising the scale of the problem. I will touch briefly on the point made by my other former colleague from the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), on the 4,000 zero emission buses that are still missing from action. If we were to speak to Alexander Dennis in Falkirk or, indeed, Wrightbus in Ballymena, we would hear that not a single British manufacturer has an order for those buses on their books, so I want to know whether those 4,000 buses are apocryphal. We will not let this go until British manufacturers have those buses on their books. I do not want to find out that they are suddenly being given to China or another country when we should be supporting British manufacturing.
I am glad to hear, though, that the Government have adopted the Labour policy of phasing out sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030. However, why are hybrids allowed to be sold until 2035? Hybrids are highly polluting when they use their petrol or diesel engines due to their weight and poor fuel efficiency. They are, unfortunately, a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry, and the policy should be reversed immediately.
The Government have also announced that they will help smooth the transition to zero emission vehicles by introducing a zero emission vehicle mandate, which will gradually increase the level of vehicle sales required to be zero emission up to 100% by 2030. Labour fully supports the move, but when will the legislation actually be introduced? Will the Minister confirm whether hybrid electric vehicle sales will be included within that mandate?
Fully electric and hybrid vehicle sales have surged this year, with over a quarter of new vehicle sales being either hybrid or fully electric in 2021 so far, according to the SMMT. However, the UK’s charging infrastructure is falling behind, as we heard from the hon. Member for Rushcliffe. Overall funding for charging given out to local authorities has fallen from £15 million in the previous financial year, 2019-20, to £6.5 million in 2020-21. As many local authorities are not able to use those funds for the remaining schemes, it does need to be addressed, and addressed quickly.
Regional inequalities for charge points are also huge. If the Government are genuinely committed to levelling up, why are they doing nothing to address that regional inequality? The Government have promised a charging strategy by the end of the year, so where is it? Councils have rightly expressed serious concerns that there is no coherent Government strategy about what to build and where. We need urgent action to address regional inequalities, a quick ramp-up of charging, and making charge points easier to use and accessible for consumers. Can the Minister provide an update on this?
The Government have said very little on how the transition to electric vehicles will impact on fuel duty revenues. Does the Minister have a plan to mitigate the loss of that revenue? Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) said, Transport for London must have a sustainable long-term funding package, so that there is no delay to extending EV charging across the network in London as well.
Although it has been great to see surging sales of electric vehicles, they are still unaffordable for many consumers. Labour has a plan to fund interest-free loans for electric vehicles for low-income households and to trial a scrappage scheme for polluting vehicles. That would ensure that the transition to clean, green transport is possible for everyone, not just the privileged few. In contrast, the Government have repeatedly slashed the plug-in grant for electric vehicles. Again, what are the Government going to do to address the affordability of electric vehicles, so that low-income families are not left behind in the transition?
The transition is also an opportunity to create thousands of good, green, unionised jobs in the UK. If the UK is going to remain a hub for automotive manufacturers, we need to ensure that the components for electric vehicles can be built in the UK. Labour has committed to part-financing three battery gigafactories by 2025, but the Government have done little to encourage investment in UK gigafactories. We welcome some of the points made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry): they just need to be accelerated and extended as quickly as possible. That is important due to the new rules of origin requirements in the Government’s Brexit deal. If we want to continue tariff-free trade in electric vehicles with the EU, we urgently need to establish manufacturing capacity in the UK.
We also need to avoid a reliance on imported rare metals such as lithium and cobalt as global demand for them grows. The environmental implications of mining those critical minerals are a serious concern. Furthermore, the mining of those rare metals has highlighted the use of slave labour and the severe abuse of workers’ rights in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. That is profoundly tragic, and concrete action must be taken to address those concerns. We cannot go green while people are losing their lives to get those materials to us.
We would be able to ease the pressures on supply chains if rare metals such as lithium and cobalt, of which there is currently colossal wastage, were recycled quickly. That could be a quick win for the Government. Significant natural deposits of lithium in the UK could be utilised by ensuring that electronics can be easily disassembled and recycling—that needs to be an immediate Government priority. Unfortunately, there is a wealth of those materials in UK electronics, but they are not currently being recycled. That must change, and it must change rapidly. Will the Government do anything to encourage the urban mining and recycling of those rare metals? Are they considering new standards to require that electronics be easier to disassemble and recycle?
The transition to electric vehicles is a huge opportunity for cleaner air, lower emissions and thousands of good, green and unionised jobs, but the Government must think bigger when it comes to charging infrastructure, affordability and battery supply chains. The Labour party has serious plans to address those issues, and it is time that the Government listened. It is time for a green new deal for the UK—one that is real, supports the poorest, and boosts British manufacturing.
It is a pleasure to be part of the debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for raising this subject, and all hon. Members who have spoken for their enthusiastic and passionate contributions about electric vehicles.
I will outline some of the support that the Government are providing for electric vehicles, before running through some of the questions from hon. Members. We have committed £2.5 billion in funding for vehicle grants and infrastructure to meet a very ambitious carbon target. We anticipate that up to quarter of the 36 million cars and vans on UK roads will be electric by 2030. As we can see from the data released by the SMMT recently, the pace of the transition is really accelerating. Industry data shows that almost as many battery electric vehicles were sold in September as in the whole of 2019, and that nearly one in five new cars sold in November 2021 was fully electric.
The journey is not just about the vehicles, however. As has been said, drivers will frequently need world-class charging infrastructure to support the full range of journeys and vehicles in our electric future. Rather than leaving that to the market, this Government have intervened: the Prime Minister announced his 10-point plan for net zero, which will phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in the UK by 2030, as hon. Members have said. From 2035, all new cars and vans must have zero emissions at the tailpipe. In response to questions about the definition of hybrid, that definition is being worked on as I speak, and we will be able to update Members on those conclusions very shortly.
In October, the Government announced in our net zero strategy that we would introduce a zero emission vehicle mandate, which would come into force from 2024. The idea is to help the phase-out dates by setting targets for a percentage of a manufacturer’s annual new car and van sales in the UK to be zero emissions from 2024. Alongside our ambitious phase-out dates, we have also announced £1.3 billion to accelerate the roll-out of charging infrastructure, ensuring that drivers can charge where they need to and more easily than refilling a petrol or diesel vehicle. We are doing that through the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles.
Funding is available to support charge point infrastructure in homes, at workplaces, on residential streets and across the wider roads network. We have Homecharge, which provides £350 to homeowners to install charge points, and we have had about 230,000 householders take advantage of that. We have the on-street residential charge point scheme, which provides up to £13,000 per charge point to local authorities to install charging infrastructure, and the workplace charging scheme, which offers £350 per charge point. We have the local EV infrastructure fund, the charging infrastructure fund, the rapid charging fund—the Government are providing a wealth of support and building on the £1.9 billion from the spending review 2020, and we have committed an extra £620 million of this year’s spending review to support the transition to electric vehicles.
The Minister is being generous in giving way, and I am grateful for her listing all the investments and so on that have come through her Department, but has she had a chance to address the issues that I raised yesterday in a Delegated Legislation Committee, and indeed that the Transport Committee has raised, regarding the differential rate of VAT? Not everyone can have their own personal charging point if they live in a terraced house or a block of flats.
The hon. Gentleman makes a common-sense point. We are looking at this, and I will, as he suggests, speak with my colleagues in the Treasury to see what we can do. I do think that the Treasury is playing an important part in this transition, but we need to work more with local authorities. Members across the House should work with their local authorities and with me, because, with their leadership and action through local transport and planning policies, we can really help to support the local zero-emission vehicle uptake, and make sure that it is integrated with local transport strategies.
The Government will publish an EV infrastructure strategy shortly. That strategy will define our vision for the continued roll-out of a world-leading charging infrastructure network across the UK, and focus on how we unlock the charge point roll-out needed to enable the transition from early adoption to the mass market uptake of EVs.
I thank the Minister for her response. During my contribution, I asked her to say what relationship she has had with the Northern Ireland Assembly, Minister Nichola Mallon and the Department for Infrastructure. I want the funding that came from Westminster to come again.
I was going to mention this, but I did have the pleasure of meeting Minister Mallon in Belfast a few weeks ago. I also visited Wrightbus, not far from Belfast, in Ballymena. We are having those conversations with the devolved Administrations—supporting, providing funding and learning how we can collaborate best to ensure that the roll-out reaches all the UK.
The Minister mentioned the strategy. Presumably within that strategy will be interoperability. When is that issue going to be addressed? We were told it would be at the end of this year.
I will comment on Members’ queries now.
The hon. Member for Bath asked about energy provision. That is a matter for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as I am sure she knows, but making sure we have the clean electricity is vital. She will know as well that the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan sets out the commitment towards 40 GW of wind by 2030 and 5 GW production capacity for hydrogen. We have also passed the regulated asset base for gigawatt-plus nuclear power stations, so we are not shy of taking action on energy.
The hon. Member for Bath also referred to fairness. I think that is really important, because in this transport revolution we have an opportunity that we perhaps did not have 150 years ago, which is to ensure that everybody is involved, this time in charging vehicles. We are working with organisations such as Motability to make sure that the charging infrastructure can be used by all, including disabled people. This is about ensuring through the regulations we are bringing forward that people know where charging infrastructure is; that they can be sure the infrastructure will work; that they will not need to use a selection of apps, but instead can use contactless, for example; and that we have the interoperability across different providers to provide a really comprehensive network, as is needed as we transition from fossil fuel to a decarbonised transport economy.
Will the Government legislate for interoperability? Will they publish a plan showing the milestones of how many public charge points will be built every year between now and 2030?
I will take away that request, but I can tell the hon. Member that 26,000 public charge points are available and that of those 4,900 are rapid chargers. We also have a plan to install 750 kW as a minimum in all the 117 motorway service areas—and that absolutely includes the motorway services on the A1(M) at Ferrybridge at junction 41 and those at Wetherby at junction 46.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry). A couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute joy of visiting HORIBA MIRA in Nuneaton, where I saw the technology and innovation that is supporting not just decarbonisation but the connected and automated vehicles—they were was abundant with UK content, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) said—that the country will need to be at the forefront. The technology that I saw at Nuneaton will be critical to the transition, and the midlands engine is at the forefront of it. I am delighted that my hon. Friend came to the debate to talk about that.
I am running out of time, but I want to address the lack of driveways. We want to ensure that no driveway is no problem. We understand the need to roll out publicly available charge point infrastructure, and local authorities are key to that. We are therefore putting together a toolkit with advice and, most importantly, resources for where local authorities are struggling to deliver. My message to hon. Members across the House is to work with me and with local authorities, because they will know their local areas best. The Department wants to ensure that we have fair, accessible, affordable, reliable and transparent charging infrastructure right across the UK.
The Minister is being kind. I am afraid that she has not addressed the resilience of the national grid and its importance to charging. The BEIS Committee has just produced an interesting letter and report.
That is a matter for BEIS, which it is clearly taking seriously. I work continuously with colleagues in BEIS as well as those in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on clean air zones. I will leave it there to allow the hon. Member for Bath to wrap up.
I thank everybody for their contributions to the debate. As has been said, there is a lot of consensus. We agree with the Government that the 2030 target to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles is ambitious, but if we want to see the big take-up of electric vehicles, the Government need to do more to support that.
I thank the Minister for addressing some of the points made. What was missing was the national grid, which, as we have heard, is at the bottom of problems with charging. The entertainment prize for a good speech goes to the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), who described what it is like for EV owners on the road. The Government must be more ambitious about these gaps and get to the bottom of why the network does not work. That will need investment in the national electricity grid. As I said, the national grid is owned by a private company and it is for the Government to resolve the problem of how they work with it. However, that must be done, because local authorities want to do something—we all agree on that—but the block is the lack of infrastructure investment.
Finally, it is no use buying electric vehicles if the power that fuels them is not 100% renewable. The Minister talked about nuclear, but I believe that this country is well placed to make all its power from renewables. I hope that the Government will share that ambition with me.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Women in the Armed Forces
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings for the duration of the debate when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if they are coming on to the estate: you can have one very handily downstairs in Portcullis House, or you can have one at home—we are not fussy. Members are also asked to give each other and members of staff space when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Second Report of the Defence Committee, Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life, HC 154, and the Government Response, HC 904.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I thank the Liaison Committee for granting this important debate on the Ministry of Defence’s response to the Select Committee on Defence. By way of introduction, it was noted by the Defence Committee that recruitment targets had been missed yet again, and that yet again women had been over-represented in the complaints system. Our main concern at that time was to look at how this was compromising operational effectiveness and how it was impacting on the British military, so we agreed to look into the way that this was happening. As an ex-servicewoman myself, I agreed to chair that Sub-Committee. As a veteran, I also wanted to extend the scope of the inquiry to explore what challenges our female veterans face, given the limited information available on that topic.
Fully understanding the situation of women in the service necessitated us having access to servicewomen. That required the Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), to lift the defence instruction notice that would ordinarily bar us from speaking to serving personnel. This meant that our inquiry was groundbreaking—the first ever of its kind, collecting evidence from the ground up—and its findings represented a valid account of what it was like, and is like, to serve as a woman in the UK armed forces. It is thanks to the Defence Secretary that I am here today, announcing the progress made as a direct response to our inquiry.
We did not anticipate the quantity and intensity of the evidence we received. It was women’s stories, experiences and lives, and it made for sobering reading. Some 4,200 women contributed, including 2,500 veterans—some whose service spanned back as far as Aden, others who were recently discharged. Just short of 10% of all serving women contributed to the inquiry, so the Committee are confident in the results. We heard shocking evidence, ranging from gang rape, systematic bullying, and collusion and cover-up in the extreme, to ill-fitting equipment, the inaccessibility of sanitary products, and feelings of being second-rate to men and disempowered. From veterans, we heard about a lack of female-specific services, poor transitional support, and feeling as if their service to their country was never valued.
To summarise the findings, 90% of all women would recommend a career in the military, as would I—that was so pleasing to hear—but when things go wrong, they go disastrously wrong. Some 84% stated that they faced extra challenges for being a woman; six out of 10 would never make a complaint for fear of repercussions; and 62% said they had experienced some form of abuse in service, whether harassment, bullying, discrimination or physical or sexual assault. Only 16% of sexual abuse allegations had had forensic evidence taken within the 14-day window of opportunity. Some 55% said veterans services did not meet their needs, while 76% found the MOD was not helpful when they transitioned to civilian life. As a result, the Defence Committee made 34 recommendations to the Ministry of Defence.
I will touch on a few thematic headings, starting with rape and criminal investigations. Having heard harrowing evidence of sexual assault, poor standards of investigation and manipulation of power to deliberately disadvantage servicewomen from complaining or seeking justice, the Committee concurred with the recommendation of the Government-commissioned, judge-led Lyons review that rape cases should be heard in civilian courts. The MOD rejected that recommendation and will instead continue to hold such cases within the court martial jurisdiction under the principle of concurrent jurisdiction.
The MOD has offered a string of explanations for why that should be so. I do not feel that any of them offer a reasoning for this decision, and I ask the Minister again to explain his rationale for not agreeing to that recommendation. However, the mandatory placing of a female on all court martial boards hearing complaints of a sexual nature is most welcome, as is a single service central admissibility unit to oversee such complaints.
Turning to the chain of command, extensive evidence was received regarding how having to report a complaint of harassment, bullying or discrimination or a complaint of a sexual nature to their chain of command severely compromised complainants’ outcomes, resulting in most complaints going unreported. Those who do report are often re-traumatised, facing life-changing consequences. In some cases it was a commanding officer who was the accused, judge and jury.
We are extremely pleased that the chain of command will be removed from all complaints of a sexual nature, which will now be investigated by an outsourced investigation service. That will mean a woman who has been assaulted by her commanding officer will not have to report it to her commanding officer. However, I would like the Minister to confirm the independence of that investigation service. Will he also confirm whether this process will be afforded to complaints of harassment, bullying and discrimination? According to the MOD’s response, the chain of command could be involved in
“a small number of cases, where appropriate”,
so can he clarify when that would be applied?
We are pleased that the MOD will establish a whole service defence serious crime unit, a diversity and inclusion unit and a victim and witness care unit, and it will mandate that a woman sit on all court martial boards involving sexual complaints. Those are significant changes and all credit is due.
On equipment, we found that women were being sent to the frontline with body armour not fit for purpose, helmets compromised by hairstyles, and ill-fitting clothing. The MOD has already commenced work to rectify most of those issues and will undertake a six-month sprint to ensure that the recommendations are met as soon as possible—thank you.
Despite 59% of respondents being veterans, with concerns ranging from a lack of specific female veterans services, particularly relating to post-traumatic stress disorder following sexual assault and incidents of abuse to the inappropriateness of male-focused transition services, we felt the MOD’s response on this subject was rather weak, signposting us to a veterans strategy due to be announced next week. I look forward to reviewing the strategy in relation to the recommendations made in the inquiry, and hope it captures specific women’s issues. I would also like to highlight that the services offered under Op Courage are provided only by NHS England, and a disparity in the accessibility and availability of services remains between veterans living in England and those living in devolved nations, including many in my constituency of Wrexham.
On measuring success, the MOD, by way of acknowledging that there are problems, which it already knew, has already introduced initiatives, such as mandatory bystander training and the bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline. Although our evidence suggested that women were generally aware of those services, they made little to no positive impact on the ground. Can the Minister explain how the MOD plans to measure outcomes and positive change as a result of these and future initiatives?
On recruitment and retention, despite the raft of family-friendly policies already in place, such as flexible and alternative working patterns, our research found that most women were denied access to those schemes by their commanding officers on operational grounds. I am pleased that the MOD has produced a families strategy, and look forward to reading it in detail when it is launched next week. However, there is already a victims charter, which informs servicewomen about their right to take a criminal complaint to the civilian courts, and no one whom we engaged with was aware of the charter or their rights. Can the Minister explain how the MOD intends to ensure that servicewomen are aware of those options and rights, and how uptake will be monitored? I applaud the MOD’s ambitious target of 30% servicewomen by 2030, which gives people like me a basis on which to scrutinise and hold to account the MOD. It shows the true commitment of Ministers and the Secretary of State to servicewomen.
On culture and leadership, our evidence uncovered a culture of collusion, cover-up and manipulation in which intimidation and abuse of power were all too common. I am sure that the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff regrets using the term “laddish culture”, but that is exactly what we found—in abundance—across all ranks, services and command structures. That does not exclusively apply to men.
We are pleased that the MOD will undertake a pan-service culture audit, defence positive action plan, personal experience training and a review of the selection, education and training of lieutenant colonel ranks and above. We are pleased that there will be clear consequences for those who act unacceptably, with underperforming officers having citations placed on their personal records, and a strengthened procedure to make it easier to dismiss perpetrators of sexual assault. However, our evidence supports concerns that the MOD has a tendency to introduce many initiatives as a result of criticism but make little improvement on the ground.
The Committee’s inquiry came after a string of top-down studies—the Lyons review, Wigston, Gray and, latterly, Henriques. There was significant overlap with those reports, but it was not until the Committee’s inquiry, which gave servicewomen and veterans a platform through which to have their voices heard, that the MOD took action. It has been a catalyst for change. The problems faced by servicewomen and veterans have not arisen on any one Government’s watch, but it is this Government, the Conservative Government, who grasped that very uncomfortable nettle and were bold enough to make positive changes. It is time for a military levelling up, and the MOD has listened, has acknowledged that there are problems and, to its credit, is making massive strides to address them. However, there is still a way to go, and the devil is in the detail. I will continue to advocate on behalf of our servicewomen and veterans in my role in Parliament and as a member of the Defence Committee, which will undertake a review in a year’s time.
I thank all members of the Committee for their involvement and commitment. The 18-month inquiry has at times been harrowing and has required resilience. I specifically thank Lucy Arora, a Committee specialist, and my researcher Rachel Varley. Between us, we have heard and read all 4,200 pieces of evidence. However, the people who have made this happen—who have made the MOD listen, and acknowledge and address the suboptimal elements of military life—are all the women who contributed. It is they who made this possible, and they who have improved the lives of current and future generations of servicewomen. For that, I thank them.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I declare an interest as a patron of veterans’ charity Forward Assist.
I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), the only female bar myself on the Defence Committee. She has been steadfast in her efforts to get permission from the Secretary of State to make this inquiry possible. I also thank her for her excellent and sensitive chairing of our Sub-Committee, and for the subsequent publication of the report that we are now debating.
Before I make specific comments on our inquiry, I reiterate the point made in the report that the armed forces do and can provide women with fulfilling careers and opportunities. Indeed, 90% of women told us that they would recommend the forces to women. As our report noted, however, when things go wrong they go dramatically wrong, generally with dire consequences for the victim.
It is welcome that, of our 40 recommendations, the Government have accepted 37, but the rejection of our recommendations on complaints of sexual offences will come as a bitter and agonising blow to those women who shared with us their trauma. I want them to know that, despite the obstinacy of the Government, some of us will not stop fighting for them, to ensure that in the future no one suffers the same pain that they have.
As in many organisations that tend to police themselves, making a complaint in the armed forces becomes fraught with worries of being ostracised, stigmatised and shut out, and of career prospects being greatly diminished. Women have told us that it is well known that if they make a complaint there will be ramifications—not for the perpetrator, but for the complainant, the victim. Those statements are supported by the fact that the Service Complaints Ombudsman has never judged the military’s internal complaints system as efficient, effective and fair. Servicewomen are overrepresented in all complaints, but even more in complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Despite the MOD’s claim that women’s complaints are falling all the time, they remain at exactly the same level as in 2016. Of those who are brave enough to come forward to make a complaint, more than 90% said that they had suffered negative consequences, and that they felt uncomfortable and humiliated and wanted to leave the forces, such that in 2021, 89% of those who had suffered in that way did not make a complaint. We heard a litany of failings, from failure to investigate properly to witness statements not being taken; senior officers as perpetrators; loss of evidence; not being believed when making an allegation of sexual harassment or assault, or being pressured into not referring that to the police; and complaints taking up to a decade to be concluded and resulting in further bullying, harassment and discrimination.
I am not sure whether the Minister has—I sincerely hope he has not—had any direct experience of going through a complaints process, or spent time supporting someone close to him who has. If he had, he would understand the courage it takes to make a complaint in the first place, and how re-traumatising and utterly exhausting that in itself can be. For someone to find that no one believes them or, worse, that people believe them but are too scared, or too worried about self-preservation or protecting the organisation—above doing the right thing—is utterly soul-destroying. There can be no lonelier feeling.
When that takes place in a closed environment, away from a person’s home and loved ones, it can become utterly unbearable. If they are making a complaint about sexual assault or rape, it becomes intolerable. Every day is a sentence and filled with mental anguish and physical pain. Even though we always repeat the message—a true message—that it was not their fault, the shame and guilt will remain with the victim forever.
That is why I am deeply concerned that the Government have rejected our recommendation and our pleas throughout the passage of the Armed Forces Bill to remove cases of rape from the military courts, and that they refuse to accept the existence of military sexual trauma. That sends the wrong message and does not encourage the cultural change that we need. I am not sure what it is that the Government have against rape victims, but the figures for conviction in the civilian system are dire, at a record low of 34% between 2015 and 2020. In courts martial, that figure falls to 16%. It is clear that victims are being failed. While it is welcome that the Government have committed to service complaints of a sexual nature being outside the direction of command, it is simply not enough, as the hon. Member for Wrexham said.
The Government’s rejection, in their official delayed response to our report, was not convincing enough. The Minister’s response on Monday in the Chamber was equally unconvincing. I make a further plea to him today to make it crystal clear to victims, those serving and veterans why this Government do not think that when it comes to the most hideous of crimes, those serving in our forces can expect a lesser commitment to justice than civilians.
I end my comments by thanking all the women who came forward to share their trauma with us. It is their bravery that will drive me and others to keep pushing for change, because we owe it to them, every single woman serving, veterans and all who follow them.
It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, Dr Huq. It follows on from the statement that was made earlier. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) on putting together an incredible report and on leading the Sub-Committee, which provided some of the solutions that we are looking at here today.
I start by touching on the bigger picture, because we are rightly proud of our armed forces. One question we posed in this inquiry was to ask those who participated in it whether they would recommend joining the armed forces to others. The underlying answer was absolutely yes, but that does not disguise the deep and concerning problems that we are just starting to discuss here today.
It is worth outlining the important societal bond that our military have in the United Kingdom, which is arguably unique in the world. We recruit from the gene pool of the general public. If it is not attractive, does not reflect society or if we are not able to take advantage of the skill sets out there, we will not have a professional Army, Air Force or Navy. When we recruit, it is important that the rest of society sees how well we treat those who serve, whether they be reservists or regulars, and how well they are then looked after when they pack up their uniform for the last time, slide it across to the quartermaster and become a veteran. So, it is important that we look at the questions posed here and some of the concerning answers that have already been touched upon.
As we deal with these issues, my concern is that it is not the first time that they have been raised. We have spoken about the Wigston review and we had the Lyons report. This is not the first time that we are addressing these issues, but this is a comprehensive report. I hope that, in his response, the Minister will recognise why we need not just answers but to see the changes taking place, so that in a year’s time the Defence Committee does not have to undertake another report or call upon another independent study, as I had to call upon the Lyons report about justice only a couple of years ago.
The world is getting more dangerous; we are aware of that. The integrated review confirms the fact that the threats are increasing, and that there is an increased ambition for us to play a role on the international stage. To do so, we need to ensure that we attract the best. It is wonderful to see that every single role in the Army, the Air Force and the Navy is now open to both males and females. Whatever their sex, people can still do whatever role they want to do, whether they want to fly a plane or drive a truck or a tank. They are no longer prohibited from making their mark in whichever area they wish.
I will take advantage of the debate to say that this is probably the wrong time to be cutting the Army by 10,000, but ultimately that is for another day. In attracting the best, we want more women to come forward. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that the ambition for 30% of our armed forces to be female will be a challenge and a struggle; but if we answer some of the issues that we are dealing with today, that target will be a lot easier to secure.
I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham for doing such a superb job. The fact that we had more than 4,000 participants come forward to share their stories, some of them very harrowing indeed, is a testament to how important the inquiry has been.
I pay tribute to the MOD as well. Every time our Committee produces a report there is an obligation for the Department to reply, but rarely do we get a 40-page document of such detail. It is good to see that 33 of the recommendations have automatically been accepted. Others have been looked at with interest, but there are a couple that concern us that have already been touched on, and I will come to those in a second. As a summary of the work-life balance and the challenges facing women in the armed forces today, the report is an incredible outline of where we are.
Participating in some of the groups was very moving, but it is disturbing that our armed forces today are still subject to some of the prejudices and behaviours that I thought had disappeared long ago. I am very grateful to all those brave people who stepped forward and shared their individual stories.
The issues I have are, first, to do with flexible working. The Minister is aware that we now offer that, so that we can strike a better work-like balance, but it is subject to operational commitments. The studies of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham on the Sub-Committee show that although flexible working is there on paper, in practice it is not taken up. Does the Minister have figures on what percentage of the armed forces take advantage of that?
Secondly, I echo what has been said about the serious offences. When I was sitting in the Minister’s seat, it was my view to honour the reflections of the Lyons study. Justice Lyons said that it was better for the serious cases of rape and serious assault to be moved to civilian courts, where there is the expertise, understanding and appreciation of how to deal with those offences. The military courts do not have that experience. They do not come across such events frequently enough to make the wisest of judgments. That is why we wanted the report to go forward.
Again I iterate what I said in the Chamber today. It was very brave, when the Lords amendment came up at the beginning of the week, for my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham to vote in favour of supporting it, only to be punished by the Whips Office because she stayed loyal to the report and recommendations that the entire Committee supported. I hope that, in their wisdom, the Whips Office will recognise that it is a little bit churlish and silly to go down that road. She had no choice but to do that, as did others, and I hope we will see her back in her role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the very near future.
The issue of uniforms fitting is critical. We should be able to get that right in this day and age. I can remember when MOD ’95 came in. The Minister might recall from his own experience the big change that took place in equipment. It was quite a dramatic upgrade in what we had on the battlefield as infanteers. There was an awful lot more flexibility, but it was designed for men, not women, and that needs to change.
We need another revolution in how we are able to recruit and look after women in our armed forces. Historically, there have been some major changes—advances, even—not only in how the armed forces were seen, but in how they were perceived to operate. We had the Cardwell reforms of the 1870s and the Haldane reforms prior to the first world war. We now need another gargantuan step forward that embraces the offering that women bring to our armed forces. The statements that we hear frequently about global Britain, as outlined in the integrated review and the Ministry of Defence’s own mission statement, refer to our being a
“problem-solving and burden-sharing nation”.
Let us be that exemplar, and let us show how we mean to go forward in getting the best from our society and allowing them to serve our nation with pride.
I start by sincerely commending the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for her bold leadership throughout this inquiry, from its conception to the publication of the report. This is a bold and comprehensive piece of work that probably should have been done decades ago, and it was because of her commitment and drive that it took wheels and ran. I congratulate her on it and commend her for it, and I think many servicewomen and retired servicewomen will be extremely thankful to her.
The Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), made the important point that society watches how we treat service personnel, so it is important that we get this right and do not have another decade during which things do not go as they should for women in the armed forces. He also mentioned diversity. Diversity is important, not because it is part of a box-ticking exercise or somebody said it had to be achieved, but because it brings a fresh way of looking at a situation and a different perspective. That is why we need diversity across all walks of life, but particularly in the armed forces. The armed forces can and should be an exemplar for other parts of society.
I suppose that is disappointing that the Government took so long on this issue. By the same token, however, their response has been comprehensive—that is not usual—so there are positives to it. We now need to see how quickly they implement the changes that they have committed to making.
As the hon. Member for Wrexham highlighted in her opening remarks, the report uncovered really harrowing accounts of gang rape, assault by senior officers, bullying for refusing sexual advances, contests to bag the woman and sexual exploitation of women generally. The worrying issue of the complainant themselves facing consequences, as mentioned by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), is one that we need to take seriously. It will take quite a lot of effort to shift that culture, and it would be interesting to hear from the Minister how he proposes to ensure that that cultural shift takes place. That cannot happen, or at least it will not have the impact that we need, if women are still too worried about the consequences of making a report.
Since the publication of the report, we have seen a series of media reports detailing further accounts of serious acts of misconduct by members of the armed forces towards servicewomen and towards civilian women. To be clear, the culture and therefore the behaviour are determined by those at the top of the chain of command. They are the ones who set the tone. Senior officers—both male and female, unfortunately—are turning a blind eye to what is going on or, in some circumstances, even encouraging this behaviour. That has to stop, and things have to change.
When we heard General Sir Nick Carter remark a couple of weeks ago that although the Army requires a fundamental cultural shift to increase the number of female recruits, it encourages “a laddish culture” because
“ultimately our soldiers have to go close and personal with the enemy”,
I think many of us put our heads in our hands and thought, “What on earth is going on here?” His words demonstrate precisely the kind of prejudice that must be rooted out in order to stop unacceptable behaviour and restore confidence in the professionalism and values of our armed forces.
The Government must also formally apologise to servicewomen for failing to protect them from this culture of violence and misogyny. We need not only a formal apology, but urgent action. As I said, I welcome many of the plans in the Government’s response, and I acknowledge that 33 of the Committee’s recommendations have been accepted by the Government. It is also important to state that the current Defence Secretary has done more to root out misogynist behaviour than many of his predecessors, but without new provisions—we had hoped to see some new provisions in the Armed Forces Bill—progress will be limited.
The Government’s rejection of the Lords amendment that would have seen rape and sexual assault tried in a civilian court was a really disappointing blow to many of the servicewomen who supported it. Servicewoman A, who was raped while serving in the Royal Navy, stated:
“There were extremely serious failings in the handling of my case at court martial which ultimately meant it collapsed. This amendment will make the process independent. It will encourage more service personnel to report crimes. It will mean we have some protection from the appalling consequences we suffer when we report rape within our units.”
If Servicewoman A’s case had been tried in a civilian court, she would have been six times more likely to see justice. I wonder how she is feeling now about the rejection of that amendment. Why are the Government blocking it, when it is so reasonable and well considered? Are they concerned that visibility and awareness will increase as a public spotlight is shone on the issue? I believe that a spotlight would be beneficial. What is happening has to be out in the open before change can take place. I say to the Minister that it is not too late to accept this change, and we really should do so. Changes can still be made to the Armed Forces Bill, or we can change legislation at a later date.
I want to make some comments about young women in the armed forces. A freedom of information request by the Child Rights International Network shows a tenfold increase in the number of servicewomen aged 16 and 17 making complaints of rape and sexual assault. That equates to about one in 40, which is double the rate for their civilian counterparts. Despite that, there was no mention of these young women in the UK Government’s response, and no specific measures were included to tackle the violence they face. That represents a total neglect of the duty of care that all institutions have for those under the age of 18.
I am not convinced that the strategies outlined in the Government’s response go far enough to eradicate the permissive environment in the armed forces when it comes to bullying, sexual harassment and assault. This is not an overarching national action plan, such as the one that the Finnish defence forces are implementing; it is not the establishment of a dedicated harassment protection unit, as has been established in the Spanish military; and, sadly, it is not the transferral of rape and sexual assault cases from the military to civilian courts. It is not a radical overhaul, according to the Centre for Military Justice, which says that the Government
“stand accused of picking the lower hanging fruit over fundamental reform.”
Flexible working was mentioned by the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East, but it is dependent on operational requirements. Who decides what the operational requirements are? That makes it very easy to reject those requests. Will the Government make a formal apology to the women who experienced abuse and discrimination in the armed forces? How will protections be put in place for 16 and 17-year-olds? I hope the Defence Committee reviews the implementation, and I hope the Government also plan to do so.
Finally, I pay tribute to the servicewomen who have had the bravery to step forward and talk about their experiences. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham for bringing this issue into the sharp focus that it requires.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for all her work in delivering the report, and I place on record my thanks to the service personnel and veterans who contributed to this groundbreaking inquiry.
As the report highlights, the vast majority of our female personnel have fantastic, fulfilling careers serving our country and would recommend it to others. Last week, the Government promised some very welcome changes to make this experience even better. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) pointed out, the Government response to the report is comprehensive. It is great that uniform and equipment will be improved to make sure that helmets, armour and uniform fit properly. That is a fundamental change. I am also pleased that steps will be taken towards independence from the chain of command in the service complaints system. It represents important progress for female personnel to have their complaints of sexual assault dealt with by someone outside their direct chain of command. Among the other recommendations, I welcome the new set of policies on women’s health and the targets for increasing the inflow of women into our armed forces, although I have concerns that the current targets are not being met.
However, as the report emphasises, when things go wrong for women in the armed forces, they go dramatically wrong. The Government must act more quickly if they are to resolve issues of bullying, violence and harassment in the culture of our armed forces. The most serious aspect of the report is the level of sexual violence it reveals, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). Female service personnel are more than 10 times more likely than males to have experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months. The revelations were accompanied by shocking evidence, with many cases, disturbingly, involving senior officers as wrongdoers.
As a result, in line with the Lyons review and Labour policy, the report recommends that the most serious offences be tried in civilian courts. The Armed Forces Bill offered a number of clear chances to implement that proposal, but the Government voted against it again and again. The Minister was pressed repeatedly by Members from across the House in the debate on the Bill on Monday to explain that position, and I simply do not understand his logic. He claimed he was confident that the new serious crime unit and the service justice system are capable of dealing with all offences, citing the statistic that 1.6% of rapes reported to civilian police made it to court in 2020, compared with 50% of those reported to the military police. Not only are those percentages a poor comparison because of the size of the populations that they reflect, but the Minister neglected to mention that conviction rates in military courts are far lower than in civilian courts. Between 2015 and 2020, the conviction rate for rape cases tried under court martial was just 9%.
Even when there are convictions in military courts, offenders often get off on light charges. I met a serving member of the armed forces, who wished to remain anonymous. She shared with me her experience of sexual assault and the painful ordeal she had to go through in attempting to get justice. On the day of her trial, the charge was reduced from a criminal case to a disciplinary matter. In that instance, the defendant was convicted of misconduct through alcohol under section 20 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, despite the fact that the manual of service law explicitly states that section 20 should not be used for more serious offences. Worse still, the women involved are forced to remain silent afterwards for fear of bringing the armed forces into disrepute, or being accused of doing so.
The serving member was moved to contact me as she not only felt that the system had denied her justice but was “appalled” by the Government’s response to my parliamentary question on military sexual trauma, the existence of which the Ministry of Defence continues to refute. On 12 July this year, I submitted a parliamentary question asking what steps the Ministry of Defence had taken to ensure understanding and acknowledgement of that term, and it told me that it does not accept the term. In its response to the report, the MOD denies the existence of military sexual trauma once again.
The charity Salute Her—I have met representatives from it over the last few months, and the report commends it for its work and support—points to other countries, such as the US, that are already using the term to gather insight into the experiences of assault faced by women in the armed forces and to change policy accordingly. If this Government refuse to acknowledge military sexual trauma, the Minister will not be able to understand sexual assault in the armed forces fully, tackle it at scale or provide the support that victims need.
According to the report, nearly 62% of female service personnel and veterans have experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination, and nearly 40% say that their experience of the complaints system was extremely poor. However, instead of building real reform into the complaints system, the Ministry of Defence has attempted to apply a quick fix, giving itself licence to reduce the appeal period to two weeks. It has ignored appeals against that in proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill, and it has done so again in the response to this report. Fixing the complaints system is not just about making the process faster; it is about ensuring that women feel able to bring their complaints to light and guaranteeing that those complaints will be taken seriously.
Overall, we will never see the significant change that is needed to make women welcome in the military without addressing the culture that allows assault, bullying and discrimination to take place. After accepting the recommendations of the Wigston review, the Ministry of Defence is well aware that too little has been done to implement them; as the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), highlighted, only one of the 36 recommendations on inappropriate behaviour has been achieved. It is therefore a huge disappointment that the Ministry of Defence has rejected this report’s recommendation for an in-depth review of the implementation of Wigston next year.
Also key to the culture is ensuring that women feel they are fairly represented at all levels. However, according to the current trends for inflow of women into the armed forces, the MOD will not meet its 30% target, which is set out in the response, for more than 80 years. The mistake of wasting time, stalling on targets and letting the culture go unchecked must not be made again. Women remain in danger every day that the culture is not addressed.
I conclude with a few questions for the Minister. I would like him to explain how the Department will begin to understand and tackle the problem of widespread sexual assault and violence in the military, if it will not recognise that military sexual trauma exists. Will he tell the House why the Ministry of Defence has failed to implement many of the Wigston Review recommendations, leading to another damning report of this nature? Will he commit now to finally establishing a central defence authority with responsibility for culture in the armed forces?
I thank the Committee and our service personnel once again for this groundbreaking report. I welcome the range of recommendations accepted by the Government and I look forward to seeing many more women complete successful careers in our armed forces. However, if we are to tackle the serious issue of harassment, bullying and sexual assault in our armed forces, the Government can and must go much further.
I am pleased to respond to this debate and acknowledge the huge importance of the work carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). It was good to hear her speak in the main Chamber earlier.
We institutionally acknowledge that this is a groundbreaking piece of work, and we will use it as a positive lever, as I have said, to accelerate the necessary institutional change in support of all women serving in the armed forces. I note that the scale of the involvement of former and currently serving female service personnel was significant. The historical arc that their service represented, reaching back to Aden and going through to the 1990s and very recent years, was extremely useful. I hope that the report pointed out some positive improvements, but of course it also illustrated very clearly the huge amount of work that needs to be done. I reiterate that we see this as a very positive opportunity to drive change. That was why the Defence Secretary, when he was approached by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, was very keen that serving female personnel be allowed to give their testimony. He thought that that was a necessary factor in improving the utility and currency of the report, and we are very pleased to see the outcome.
I am grateful for the several contributions in the debate. As well as the speech from my hon. Friend, I was very pleased to hear from the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock). I will quickly address some of the questions before making some broader remarks.
I will address the issue of concurrent jurisdiction straight up. It was a common theme of today’s debate and was, of course, before the House on Monday night. Regarding some of the statistical analysis that has been done this afternoon, I think it will be useful if I point out that according to MOD figures, from June to November this year, there was a 50% conviction rate within the service justice system for rape offences. Over the past six months, of the 13 individuals tried at court martial for rape, six were found guilty and seven were found not guilty. That is why we have confidence in our conviction rate, but of course, we entirely acknowledge that it is too low, and that we must have a wholehearted institutional drive for better outcomes.
In the broader context, though, we regard it as important that we maintain concurrency as part of the service justice system capability. We are cautious, lest salami-slicing capabilities from the service justice system undermines the viability of the whole organisation. That is particularly the case because, as defence, we are expeditionary by design—designed to travel the world and war fight on behalf of the state—and we need an expeditionary justice system to travel with us. Of course, the numbers are very small and the scenarios often unique, but given that we are expeditionary by design and are sometimes required to operate in ungoverned spaces where there is no legal framework, we regard the ability to have an expeditionary service justice system as an important component, which we do not want to undermine by removing concurrency.
The Minister is aware of the yellow card procedures and what happens in an operational environment, and he is absolutely right that conduct in those environments needs to be dealt with from a different perspective. The issue that we are trying to shed light on is what happens here in the UK. It is not salami-slicing. As we have said, it is clear that there is expertise in the civilian courts, so let us shift those cases across to the civilian courts, which have the experience that military courts do not. Justice Ministers have called for this in the past, and we are doing so here today.
I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. Of course, the jurisdiction is concurrent, so the choice of where these cases are best heard remains with the civilian prosecutor. I am not saying that we should have an absolute approach to this: my point is that we need to retain concurrency because of the essential expeditionary nature of our work. However, in simple terms, the civilian prosecutor will always have the final say, and it is quite right that that is the case.
It might be because I am no legal expert, or because it is the end of the week and we are all a bit tired, but I am still not really clear. For my benefit and the benefit of those listening, will the Minister explain whether he believes that by not removing rape from military courts, victims will have more or less access to justice, and could he explain how?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. It is conceivable that a case being tried in the courts martial may actually be a better outcome for the welfare needs of a victim, due to the constraints around career sustainability or location. Clearly, I am not saying that that is a given; I am saying that the civilian prosecutor should have the final say, but it is entirely conceivable that not having a case taken out of courts martial and into the civilian system may be a better outcome for the welfare interests of the victim.
It is conceivable, but it is not very likely. I am sure the Minister is aware of Salute Her, the charity, which I spoke to yesterday and which was very involved in the report. We spoke about the fact that it has helped 600 victims of sexual assault and not one of them said they wanted their case heard in court martial. What does the Minister say to that charity on that point?
I would remind the charity that that is why we have concurrent jurisdiction and why it is entirely plausible. If cases would be better heard in the civilian context, they will be. That is a decision for the civilian prosecutor.
The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe he said that, ultimately, it can still be decided in civilian court, if that happens. Why are we keeping the courts martial if a case can ultimately be decided in a civilian court? Why do we have a two-tier system?
As I mentioned, and I think the hon. Member for Barnsley East agrees, it might conceivably be advantageous to the victim for a case to be heard in the courts martial, due to career considerations, geography or constraints about their career progression. It is conceivable that it might be better for their welfare. It is good to have that flexibility in case that scenario occurs. However, the bottom line is that the civilian prosecutor will always have the final say.
The Minister has spoken about the civilian courts and the increased number of convictions, which I think we all welcome. However, in her opening remarks, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) talked about victims’ reluctance to come forward because of how they would be treated. How does he propose to deal with that?
That is a very good question. We need to be much more public about the outcomes of cases of this nature in order to give serving women confidence. The Secretary of State is very clear about increasing the number of women on courts martial. It is about the whole package that will give women confidence that their complaints will be heard independently and credibly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham asked about the independence of complaints of a sexual nature, and I can 100% confirm that that provision is now in place. If a serviceperson makes a complaint of a sexual nature, it will be handled entirely independently of the chain of command by the single service secretariat. My hon. Friend asked how we would measure outcomes. We will do that by being very public about our statistical performance and our outcomes. I also welcome the fact that our progress will be entirely accountable to Parliament. I look forward to her scrutiny throughout the delivery phase of all this work.
You have not mentioned cases of harassment, bullying and discrimination. Are they going to be dealt with within the same process as you just outlined now? Going back to the further point about welfare, am I right in thinking that what you said is that rape cases should primarily be heard within the military jurisdiction because of welfare reasons? We know from our evidence and from visits to Salute Her that women are retraumatised during that process, and that actually only 16% of investigations regarding women who make an accusation of sexual abuse have any forensic evidence. How are you promoting and encouraging welfare by keeping it in that current system?
Order. May I just say that the Chairman of Ways and Means, Dame Eleanor Laing, is very hot on people not saying “you”? I know that we are discussing a very sensitive subject. I think the point has been made. Let us all try and avoid the word you in this room.
Let me be very clear: I am not saying that these cases should be heard in the military system. I am saying that it is right that we have the flexibility of concurrent jurisdiction. I am saying it is conceivable that, for the benefit and the convenience, and therefore the welfare, of a hypothetical victim, hearing a case in the court martial might be appropriate. However, that is, of course, entirely a decision for the civilian prosecutor.
My hon. Friend asked me about bullying, harassment and discrimination. That has not been removed from the chain of command. We still believe this it is about institutionalising a robust response from the chain of command. The chain needs to be part of the solution, not the problem. That is why we keep complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination within the chain of command system. That is right and proper, because a lot of this is solved by better leadership. It is not about entirely decanting these issues from sub-unit commanders; it is about ensuring that people step up and realise that it is a function of their own professionalism to be able to deal with these sorts of cases.
One way in which the Secretary of State has gone further than the Committee’s recommendations is by requiring career reporting in the formal reports on commanding officers to include their approach to these cases. If a commanding officer goes against or does not fulfil their duty, or receives a complaint from the Service Complaints Ombudsman about a grievance, that should be reflected in the career profile of a person in authority. That is important measure will ensure that, institutionally, everyone has bought into this and is part of the solution, not just the problem.
The hon. Member for South Shields also mentioned service complaints. I was pleased with her reference to Salute Her. I have visited Salute Her, and I acknowledge the important work that it does. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs will be commissioning important research into the experience of women veterans. We look forward to that being announced next week when we formally launch the veterans strategy. I know it will be of particular interest to Salute Her.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East mentioned the importance of recruitment and flexible working. I remember when he was Minister on the Public Bill Committee scrutinising the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act 2018. I will write to him with some figures. I do not have figures today, but I do have very positive anecdotal experience of talking to serving females about the benefits of flexible working. He should be very proud of the Bill he took through. Allowing people to drop the kids at school and then do a day’s work in a more flexible way, when operational requirements allow, is of significant personal benefit.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned diversity having value, rather than just being a box-ticking exercise. I commend that. As our new Chief of the Defence Staff referred to, this is not about wokefulness. It is about ensuring that we are a highly capable war-fighting machine that can deploy around the world to defeat the nation’s enemies. Diversity is a necessary precondition of that. We cannot afford not to be diverse, because diversity makes us more robust and, in this context, much more lethal.
That plays into the question the hon. Lady asked about how we achieve this cultural shift. It is all about leadership, ultimately. It is about a huge range of technical provisions, some of which I will mention in a minute, but the bottom line is that it has got to be backed up by leadership. Leaders need to be instilling this vision in their people. That plays into some of the questions from the hon. Member for Barnsley East. We are going to deliver this through good military leadership. I should mention that we have accepted 33 and partially accepted four of the Committee’s recommendations, and noted 13 points that are conclusions rather than recommendations.
Let me canter through some of the departmental and institutional improvements that we are getting after. The service chiefs have commissioned a policy review to strengthen the available levers for dismissing or discharging those who are found to have committed sexual offences or unacceptable sexual behaviour. We are developing a new sexual exploitation and abuse policy, which will look at the use of transactional sex workers, for example. We take extremely seriously the overseas context, which has been mentioned, so we are looking at what kinds of policy provision we can put in place for it.
We aim to build trust in the service complaints system and the service justice system through a revised approach to publication of successful service justice sexual offending prosecutions, alongside anonymised service complaint cases, so that women who are serving can see that those issues are taken seriously and that justice is delivered. As I have said, those cases will be taken outside the chain of command, and—this was mentioned in passing —we are very pleased to be delivering the defence serious crimes unit as a mainstay of the Armed Forces Bill.
As I have already mentioned, the Secretary of State is determined that there should be more female representation on courts martial boards. Broader than that, moving from the technical, legalistic provision, it is about ensuring that the broader cultural environment for women serving is satisfactory. We are doing a six-month review to accelerate existing work to deliver a range of new women’s health policies in the workplace, in response to feedback from serving women. The chiefs of staff are leading an urgent six-month review accelerating existing work to address uniform and equipment improvements, which was mentioned by a number of hon. Members. I am pleased to report that new combat clothing, plus a female optimised VIRTUS scalable tactical vest, which is basically, body armour—will be issued by summer next year. So we are cracking on and buying the right equipment for serving women as well as men who happen to be smaller than average. That is good news on body armour.
It is also important to note that we are putting broader lifestyle support measures in place. Flexible service was mentioned. Importantly, with regard to supporting family life, wraparound childcare is now being piloted, and the recent feedback that I have had from members of the Royal Air Force serving in High Wycombe is that it is an absolute game changer in allowing a spouse to work and dramatically improving family cohesion. We look forward to that being rolled out in due course. That is one of the important components of the family strategy that will be formally launched next week. All hon. Members will get a copy of it with a “Dear colleague” letter explaining some of the excellent details. Basically, it puts the service family at the heart of defence and delivers choice and flexibility.
I should say a word about trying to see the positives and reinforcing the fact that service life should be seen as a positive opportunity for women. It is not just about mitigating bad behaviour but about celebrating and reinforcing good behaviour and the amazing array of positive opportunities that come through service. That is all about leadership. As I said, an important component of leadership is how those in authority and leadership positions deal with complaints as well as ensure a work-life balance and inclusive leadership—in other words, acknowledging the needs of the family when possible—at sub-unit level. We seek to empower leaders to help us drive this institutional change. Of course we are trying to regulate bad behaviour, but it is also about inspiring leaders to be part of the delivery mechanism for positive institutional change.
We have an ambition of 30% female inflow, but the bottom line is that we will achieve that only if we have really positive female role models who attract female recruits. Recently, I was pleased to visit the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery. I spoke to a range of brilliant service personnel, some of whom had served for 18 years and others for three or four years, and they were unanimous in the message that they love service life. Of course some had critical feedback, and I was pleased to take note of that. They are the sort of individuals who will inspire more females to join and acknowledge that it is an excellent career.
I mentioned the veterans’ charity Salute Her. When we launch the veterans’ strategy next week, we will commit to better understanding the needs of female veterans. That will be extremely important, and we will track that.
I will conclude with role models. As a Department, institutionally we are there to ensure there is a robust and independent service justice system that gives women confidence that they can serve with dignity and thrive in every role—since 2018, every role in the armed forces is open to women. The bottom line is that this kind of institutional change can be brought about only by servicewomen themselves. The best accelerant of the change will be to have brilliant women at the very top of the military, driving forward institutional change and inspiring more women to join and serve. That is why our target is 30%.
I would like to mention three women in particular. The first is Major General Sharon Nesmith of the army recruiting and initial training team; it is people like her who will effect this change. It is also people like Air Vice-Marshal Maria Byford, who is chief of staff personnel and air secretary, and the soon-to-be Rear Admiral Jude Terry, who will be promoted to that rank in August next year. They are role models who will drive positive change. Their own careers show young women who are considering a career in the armed forces that women can serve and thrive in the Army, that they should join, and that they will have a great career and will flourish in the armed forces.
The final words of wind-up will come from a fourth role model, Sarah Atherton.
Thank you, Dr Huq. I want to finish on a positive note. I was on “Woman’s Hour” last week. Eight minutes after I had finished, I received an email, which said:
“Idiots like you push women to enter a very male environment and then moan when the normal biological functions take place.”
That is the attitude that we here are trying to remove.
On a positive note, I met a young—compared with me—commanding officer last week. He had read this report independently, from cover to cover. He had changed his leadership style, with good results from the personnel in his unit, and he was even empowered to challenge a two-star who had very loudly said, “I can’t get used to seeing women on ships.” The good thing was that the two-star took the challenge as constructive criticism. Change is happening.
I thank everyone for their contributions today, the Minister for his response, and the ministerial team and Secretary of State for their support throughout this. Of course, the MOD has made massive changes. It is a very old—probably the oldest—male-dominated institution, and I appreciate all that it is doing. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned being global leaders. Throughout the Committee’s inquiry, we liaised with the US, which has been undertaking a similar inquiry, and more latterly Australia. I am pleased that the Minister has gone further and is going to scope an international conference in 2022 to look at the progression of women in the military. The world is waking up to the fact that there are issues for women who serve.
We have many inspirational women in our military right now, of every rank, and they are all an inspiration to others. The inquiry has not been about wokeing up the Army, of which I have been accused. It is about taking a stand. Treating people differently because of their gender, in this day and age, is totally unacceptable. The inquiry is about promoting British values of justice, fairness and equality, and ultimately it is about operational effectiveness.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Second Report of the Defence Committee, Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life, HC 154, and the Government Response, HC 904.