House of Commons
Thursday 16 December 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency: Delays
The DVLA has introduced more online services, recruited extra staff, is using overtime and has secured extra office space.
I appreciate the efforts being made by my right hon. Friend, and I understand the various union issues involved, but it is clear from numerous constituents who have got in touch having been unable to get through to the DLVA—this also applies to the MPs’ hotline—that the delays are having an impact on urgent and severe cases relating to other issues. I am sure that Members across the House are experiencing the same thing. What is the timeline for ensuring that the DVLA provides the service it is tasked to do, which we very much need it to do?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the dual problems of the impact of the pandemic and the strike action through the year, which I am pleased to say is now resolved, led to a backlog, particularly of occupational licences—that was at 55,000. I am pleased to report to the House that that has now been entirely cleared and those are being processed in five working days. The rest of the work is now being processed much more quickly as well, and we expect the service to return to normal next year.
The Transport Committee has been raising concerns about the DVLA’s performance for well over a year and it does not seem to have approached the pandemic and its management of confidential and paper records as other Government agencies with similar challenges have been able to do during the pandemic. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the delays that are still ongoing, particularly for heavy goods vehicle drivers and those who wish to be driving HGVs, are only adding to the crisis in the supply chain and in lorries delivering essential goods?
The hon. Lady is right to be concerned about the backlogs that built up, but she is wrong to suggest that that still applies to HGV drivers. Those licences are now being turned around in five days for medical applications. There are considerably more applications than before the pandemic and that has led, alongside our 32-point plan, to more HGV drivers coming on to the road now. I have to stress that the unnecessary and lengthy strike at the DVLA came at the worst possible moment and it hurt vulnerable people. I am pleased to say that that strike has now collapsed, which is enabling the DVLA to get on top of the rest of the list.
I note what my right hon. Friend says, but my constituency is a major centre of the logistics industry and HGV drivers are certainly still experiencing problems. This problem has continued for years now. Can I urge him to redouble his efforts to ensure an improvement to the service?
As I mentioned, at its height, there were 56,000 applications. The last figure I saw last week showed that that was down to 9,000. There is a regular flow; it will never be zero because, of course, applications come and go. Medical applications are processed within five days and the only time that is not the case is when additional medical information is required. Those medical applications—the D4 forms—require checks from the DVLA to make sure that the information is correct, so the turnaround will never be faster than five days. If any Member has an issue with occupational DVLA applications, please let me know, because I will personally look into it.
TfL Funding: Discussions with Mayor of London
Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport regularly meet officials from Transport for London and the Mayor’s office to discuss a range of issues around funding for Transport for London. Most recently, Baroness Vere met Heidi Alexander on 2 December.
The move to plan B this week has seen bus travel demand in our capital fall by 9% and tube travel demand by a staggering 29%, leaving both still well below pre-pandemic levels. TfL’s financial problems are a direct result of the national effort against coronavirus. The failure to agree a funding settlement will not only decimate services for Londoners, but put at risk the entire country’s economic recovery. I therefore impel the Secretary of State to put aside any vindictive party political considerations and, in a spirit of magnanimity, do what is necessary today to save TfL from collapse.
I am afraid that I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of the situation. It does not seem particularly vindictive to pay out £4.1 billion in support of TfL as it rightly battles its way through coronavirus. It is not entirely correct to say that all the problems are related to that; the £13 billion of debt that it has is considerably higher than when the Mayor took over. Putting that aside, I am keen to continue to support TfL. The House will be interested to know that I had to wait more than three weeks for the Mayor to come forward with measures that he was supposed to provide us with in the middle of November.
Yet again, the Government seem to be engaging in a blatant act of political sabotage of London’s vital transport networks. This week, Londoners have listened to Government advice, done the right thing and worked from home to keep our NHS and communities safe. As a result, passenger levels have dropped by over a quarter, which has had a further colossal impact on TfL’s revenue.
All the while, Ministers continue to force a cliff-edge negotiation on TfL finances in what can only be seen as a political attack that will punish hard-working Londoners for simply doing the right thing. As we saw in last week’s Evening Standard, from transport trade unions to square mile firms, London is totally united in its opposition to these disastrous political manoeuvres. Will the Secretary of State do his job and finally meet the Mayor of London? Can he get around the table today and sort it out?
It is interesting that the Front-Bench team have taken their briefing directly from the Mayor of London. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not catch what I just said: the letter that I received with the measures that the Mayor had to meet, which were outlined in an agreement, arrived on my desk three weeks late. Not unreasonably, on behalf of the taxpayer, I went back to him and asked him to clarify some of those points.
The hon. Gentleman accuses us, as other Opposition Members have, of playing politics with this issue, which is completely untrue. Yesterday, I received a long and—I am pleased to say—quite detailed letter to clarify some of those measures, but where did I receive that letter? It was in the Evening Standard, not even on my own desk.
As the Rail Minister in 2018, long before covid, I remember that my negotiations with the Mayor of London resulted in a loan of more than £2 billion for TfL. I am aware of further loans and bail-outs since. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is simply wrong to say that TfL has not been supported by the Government?
My hon. Friend, a former Transport Minister, is absolutely right. There has been about £9.6 billion of waste in TfL finances since 2016. Crossrail is £5.2 billion over—it was on time and on budget when the Mayor took office; there is the pensions cost of £828 million; the failure to raise the fares while the rest of the network had to, which cost £640 million; and another £400 million of combined fare dodging. [Interruption.] The Opposition do not want to hear about the waste, but the Government have supported TfL and will continue to do so, but we will not support the incompetence of the Mayor.
Northern Powerhouse Rail: Stakeholders
We will build Northern Powerhouse Rail, including 40 miles of new high-speed line and electrification of the TransPennine route between Manchester and Leeds.
I thank the Minister for that response, but the reality is that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are refusing point blank to meet Transport for the North. The Secretary of State has claimed that the Government’s rail promises to the north are going to be fulfilled, so will he now commit to meet TfN to implement the plans contained in the northern transport charter?
The Secretary of State meets northern leaders regularly. The Secretary of State established the Northern Transport Acceleration Council. I am sure he will continue to meet all northern stakeholders. But the most important thing here is that we are getting on with delivering for the north, with over £17 billion being invested in Northern Powerhouse Rail.
In the north, we have been waiting six years for the so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail to improve connectivity between our major cities, yet in the integrated rail plan the Government broke their promise and ditched the line between Manchester and Leeds in favour of tinkering upgrades to existing routes. Northern Powerhouse Rail’s chief architect, George Osborne, last month accused the Prime Minister of lacking ambition and said:
“Levelling up, at the moment, feels more like a slogan than a plan”.
Minister, why do this Government keep on failing the north?
It is simply not true. Since 2010, we have invested over £29 billion in northern transport. There comes a moment when you have to move away from big fancy plans to actually delivering. This plan is going to deliver benefits for the north: £17 billion being invested in Northern Powerhouse Rail, with early benefits happening soon; and over £2 billion already committed to the TransPennine route upgrade. We are getting on with delivering benefits to passengers across the north.
After 18 years of Tory underfunding, privatising, fragmenting and running our railways into the ground, the priority of the last Labour Government was to invest billions of pounds to modernise our old, inefficient trains. Given the awareness around the climate crisis, the priority during the last decade should have been to electrify our railways, but it has been a lost decade. After abandoning Northern Powerhouse Rail, betraying our northern towns and cities, I was stunned to read reports that Government promises on electrification are being broken because the Treasury has decided to block the £30 billion needed to decarbonise our railways, even though it knows full well that over 10,000 km of rail must be electrified by 2050 to get to net zero. So can the Minister answer a simple question: how is he ever going to meet Government targets on electrification when the Chancellor is blocking the funding needed to get there?
Again, unfortunately, the Opposition are just getting this simply wrong. The integrated rail plan will kick off the electrification of more than 75% of the country’s rail network. If the hon. Member takes the TransPennine route through Church Fenton at the moment, he will see the overhead electrification cables being erected. The midland main line electrification will start before Christmas. I would just gently remind the Opposition spokesman that, in 13 years of Labour Government, they electrified only 63 miles. Over the past 11 years, we have already electrified 1,221 miles.
Restoring Your Railway Programme
Good morning, Mr Speaker, and merry Christmas to you and your staff. [Interruption.] Well, someone has to do it.
Through our restoring your railway programme—a £500 million fund—we remain committed to reopening lines and stations, reconnecting communities across the country.
Mr Speaker, a merry Christmas from me, too, to everybody.
Devizes is of course the jewel of Wiltshire. It used to have, according to medieval chroniclers, the finest castle in Christendom, until Cromwell pulled it down. It also used to have a very fine train station. Beeching closed it. The Victorians rebuilt our castle. I hope the Government are going to rebuild our station. Can the Minister tell us when he is likely to announce the successful award of restoring your railway funding to Devizes?
Can I thank my hon. Friend for his question and congratulate him on obviously being a huge champion for his constituency? His knowledge of the history of the railways in his locality and beyond is second to none. As he will know, we have now received the business case for that particular scheme, and we will be considering the next steps for a tranche of projects, including Devizes gateway, in the new year.
Happy Christmas from the Opposition Benches to you and all your staff, Mr Speaker.
Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), I am supporting the opening of the Barrow Hill line, which goes from Sheffield to Chesterfield through my constituency, hopefully with new stations at Beighton and Waverley. The real advantage will be if we can get people out of their cars on to the new line so that we avoid the congestion in Crystal Peaks and Handsworth in my constituency, and on the Sheffield Parkway. We have more chance of doing that if, rather than a heavy rail service going into Victoria that puts people in the middle of nowhere, we get a tram-train on the line going into the centre of Sheffield, which would have a much better chance of encouraging people out of their cars. Will the Minister seriously look at that option?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I actually know the project very well—I have participated in a deep dive on it—and I think he is completely right. There are now many more light rail and very light rail products out there, which would be very suitable for this scheme. The whole point of the restoring your railway scheme is to help people find the right product to deliver the right scheme for them in their locality. If he would like a meeting on this, I would happily meet him.
As well as wishing you a merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, I thank you and all the staff in this place for everything you do for us. May I extend that to the ministerial team and say thanks for all the evidence they have given to the Transport Committee?
With regard to restoring our railways post the pandemic, it is essential that we give passengers the confidence to get back on board. I welcome the proposals announced this morning to allow compensation to be easily applied for. Will the Minister consider looking at automated and automatic compensation to allow the money to come straight back into bank accounts even if passengers do not even know they were late?
I thank the Chair of the Transport Committee and wish him a merry Christmas too. I know for a fact that he is very interested in this subject, because he introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on this very point a while back. He has been ahead of the curve, and certainly ahead of the industry, on this issue for quite some time. Great British Railways will almost certainly be doing this sort of thing. We are trying to make sure that we go faster, so what he will have seen in the story today is our direction of travel. We want people to have every confidence when they return to our railway that, should they be significantly delayed, it is a very simple process to claim their refund.
The Government remain absolutely committed to supporting the roll-out of 4,000 zero-emission buses and achieving an all zero-emission bus fleet. This will support our climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and support high-quality green jobs.
Is the Minister aware that the north-east bus fleet is older than the UK average? Transport North East is preparing a bid for funding for 73 zero-emission buses. In this season of good will, will the Minister give her backing to that bid, to show that the Government’s commitment to levelling up transport is genuine? Will she also commit to expanding the roll-out of zero-emission buses across the north-east? People in Blaydon and the north-east need and deserve cleaner air and better buses.
I can certainly give the hon. Member an assurance that I am across the detail of that bid. I am delighted that 49 of the buses would go to Go North East, 14 to Durham County Council and 10 to Northumberland. Those will be in addition to the nine electric buses that are already operating in the north-east at the moment. [Hon. Members: “Where?”] The answer is between Newcastle and Gateshead on Voltra routes 53 and 54. We will have a further nine buses later this year.
Will Ministers make time to visit Equipmake, a fast-growing specialised manufacturer of batteries for electric buses— which began as a start-up at the excellent Hethel innovation centre in my constituency, and having outgrown those premises, has moved to Wymondham, which was in my constituency but is now in that of the Science Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman)—so that the Science Minister and I can explain to them just how at the cutting edge Norfolk is technologically and how much more it can do with the right support?
In February 2020, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet promised to deliver 4,000 zero-emission buses by 2025 as part of the Prime Minister’s “bus revolution”. After all, there can be no journey to net zero without green transport. Yet 18 months later, where are they? Is Santa going to deliver them? No major British manufacturer has even started production yet, nor have any orders even come in. The Department for Transport still seems unable to show how many are on order. Can the Secretary of State and Ministers confirm that the beginning of the release of funding for the ZEBRA—zero emission bus regional area scheme—contracts for building those buses will be given to British-based manufacturers? After speaking to them over the past few days I know that, given the unfolding omicron crisis and passenger levels again plummeting, they are desperate to have reassurances about their future and the future of tens of thousands of British jobs in their industry. Can the Minister enlighten us as to when, if ever, she expects the 4,000 zero-emission buses to be on the road? Exactly how many are in production now? How many are being procured right now?
As I said, we already have nine in the north-east and 50 operating in the country at the moment. We have 500 zero-emission buses being supported through the ZEBRA scheme, with £120 million of investment. A further 300 zero-emission buses will be supported through the all-electric bus city scheme and over 100 zero-emission buses have been supported through the ultra-low emission bus scheme since February 2020. In addition, £355 million of new funding was made available for zero-emission buses at the autumn 2021 Budget.
I wish you, Mr Speaker, the staff and all Members of the House a merry and safe Christmas, and a good new year when it comes.
Despite that answer from the Minister, the Transport Secretary confirmed to the Transport Committee that only 121 zero-emission buses are actually on the road in England, less than half of them outside London, since the Prime Minister made his 4,000 bus pledge. The Scottish order book, in contrast, is full to bursting. Will the Minister confirm how many of those 4,000 buses are currently on order from bus manufacturers, such as Alexander Dennis? When will any of those buses be on the road? When will all 4,000 buses be on the road? When will this Government raise their ambitions and horizons from their current plans to replace only 10% of the English bus fleet?
Affordable Bus Travel: North-east England
The Government are investing £1.2 billion of new funding to deliver better bus services in England, including across the north-east.
Despite having lower average earnings, my constituents pay much more for their bus journey than Londoners. Yet the Secretary of State refuses to confirm funding for our bus service improvement plan or to confirm funding for the Metro throughout the covid crisis, which means there is less money for our buses, which he also will not support during the covid crisis. We have had our application to reopen the Leamside line refused. We have had the HS2 eastern leg abandoned, which means there is no hope of getting high-speed trains in Newcastle. We have had the manifesto promises on the Northern Rail Powerhouse refused and they will not even help to paint the Tyne bridge for its 100th birthday. Why are the Government such a scrooge for north-east transport?
We are working with Transport North East as it develops its business case under the zero emission bus regional area scheme to introduce 73 electric buses and the necessary charging infrastructure. It will submit its final business case at the end of January.
Major Road Blockages: Climate Activists
National Highways continues to pursue legal action against individuals who breached its injunctions. Thanks to those injunctions, which I asked National Highways to pursue, 11 people have been prosecuted and will be spending this Christmas at Her Majesty’s pleasure.[Official Report, 5 January 2022, Vol. 706, c. 2MC.]
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who stop ambulances from reaching emergencies, those who block children from seeing their dying parents one last time and those who block vital goods from reaching their destination should face the full force of the law?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is unacceptable for people to disrupt other people’s lives by gluing themselves to roads. It is dangerous both for them and other users of those major roads; it is irresponsible; and it does not help with climate change, because all those cars are sitting there not moving, blasting out all the greenhouse gases that we are trying to avoid. That is why I instructed National Highways to take out a nationwide injunction, which they received. Two further cases, after the nine who were originally sent to prison, were committed to prison yesterday and there are further cases in the works. I very much hope that the message has been sent and received that this action simply does not work. I note that it has ceased to take place since the beginning of November as a result.
I welcome very much the national injunction on motorways and key strategic road networks. However, I understand that it is temporary. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could confirm that he is considering making it permanent. I also welcome the prison sentences that we have been handing out to many individuals. However, in most cases, it is because they have broken a High Court ruling. Does he agree that sometimes, actually, those sorts of fast punishments should be considered immediately, even if it is a first-time offence?
My hon. Friend is right to spot a gap in the law here, which is why the Home Secretary is introducing, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, legislation that would make the actual activity criminal. Instead, we have had to resort essentially to civil law. Through those injunctions, 130 activists have been served with 475 sets of injunction papers. We are seeing the fruits of that when they reoffend and the courts take offence to the fact that they have ignored the court injunction and continue to persist. Prison and unlimited fines are the upshot of that, but a proper law to cover this is coming and I invite the Opposition to support it.
Roads across this country are blocked every single day not by protesters, but by traffic congestion, at a huge cost to health, the environment and business. This problem will only get worse unless the alternatives to rising car use—walking, cycling and public transport—are safer, more convenient and affordable. Will the Secretary of State reverse his plans to raise rail fares by an eye-watering 3.8% next March?
I do not want to try your patience by switching to a rail discussion, Mr Speaker, but I will say to the hon. Lady, who knows a great deal about this subject, that Opposition Front Benchers do not want to build or maintain any roads in this country. Whether it is a bicycle or an electric bus—to go back to the previous conversation—they all require roads to drive along, so I suggest that she has a word with her Front Benchers and supports our plan for £24 billion for road maintenance and development.
I thank the Secretary of State for his commitment to legislation that will effectively stop people delaying, inconveniencing and obstructing people going to their work and elsewhere. There is a fine balance to be met between the right to protest and not obstructing or delaying people by what is happening. Will he confirm that the right to protest can still exist but not to the detriment of road users?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the right to protest is absolutely central to the way that we go about our democracy, but that does not provide people with the right to stop people getting to urgent hospital appointments, getting their kids to school and going about their lawful business. That is where we draw the line. It is why these injunctions have been used and, as has been discussed, we intend to put this into proper law as a criminal offence, rather than having to use the civil route.
Government guidance to local authorities on developing bus improvement plans includes advice on park-and-ride services, as set out in the national bus strategy.
In London, suburban tube station car parks are important park-and-ride facilities, encouraging people to get on the public transport network, so will the Government exercise their powers under section 163 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to prevent the Mayor from shutting down these facilities in Cockfosters and High Barnet and to ensure that these station car parks remain available for people to use?
The Secretary of State has indeed received a number of applications submitted by Transport for London under section 163 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to dispose of operational land at London underground stations. These are considered carefully on a case-by-case basis, but my right hon. Friend’s views have been heard very clearly.
Transport and Logistics: Labour Shortages
The Government have taken decisive action to address the acute HGV driver shortage, with 32 specific measures that have been taken. As Logistics UK, the main industry haulier body has said, this has reduced the crisis as we have started to see more HGV drivers on the road.
The Government may have taken decisive action in their own eyes, but it does not seem to be having the desired effect, because the temporary visas issued by the Government in the latter part of this year have failed to attract even 10% of the open visa spaces. Given that the rest of Europe also has an HGV driver shortage, will the Secretary of State accept that the UK Government need to make our visa package for HGV drivers more attractive to EU drivers in order to help quell the domestic driver shortage?
I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman actually highlights the problem, which is that the rest of Europe—indeed, the rest of the world—has a very significant HGV driver shortage. Simply trying to take from another part of the market that is already massively restricted is not the answer. We do not think that issuing visas is the right way forward. I know that the Leader of the Opposition called for 100,000 visas to be issued for HGV drivers. That is not our approach. These 32 measures are seeing vastly more people coming into HGV driving, with more than 1,350 more tests each week compared with pre-pandemic levels.
I have to say that we on the Labour Benches are not feeling the Christmas love from the Secretary of State today. Neither have we been invited to his last couple of Christmas parties, but we will wait to hear more on that. Perhaps, after the Sunday Times article, he should spend a little less time defending the rights of private airstrips where he can land his plane and a little more time sorting out the estimated 90,000 shortage of HGV drivers, which is holding our economy back. So here is some helpful advice: will he finally act to back Labour’s plans to appoint a Minister for the supply chain crisis, boost driver recruitment and retention, and secure agreement with the EU, particularly after the news on France today, to prevent future import controls at ports worsening the situation?
The hon. Gentleman attacks aviation, but Labour does not understand: the Department for Transport is about all forms of transport. We support all the different forms of transport, no matter what they are. He makes reference to the HGV crisis, not understanding that freight both by rail and by air is all part of that, and he does not seem to understand how cargo moves around the world. In relation to his point on the supply chain, which is a very serious one, I can confirm that I have spoken to my French opposite number, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, who has confirmed that although France is bringing in additional controls on movement to France, it will not include hauliers in those measures.
As announced in October’s spending review, during this Parliament the Government are investing over £5 billion in highways maintenance—enough to fill in millions of potholes a year, repair dozens of bridges, and resurface roads up and down the country.
I am grateful for that reassuring answer, but I am sorry to report that in High Wycombe there are all too many jarring potholes, and a number of our surfaces on important junctions are now breaking down to the point that they are dangerous to motorcycles. Is it not absolutely vital that councils are properly funded and equipped to keep our roads safe?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Potholes are a menace to all road users, particularly motorcyclists. That is why the Government are working tirelessly to remove them from our roads. The Government’s decision to provide local highway authorities with a three-year highway maintenance funding settlement will enable them, in line with good asset management planning, to proactively plan their maintenance and pothole repair programme more effectively. I am sure that that will bring results in Wycombe.
I thank the Minister for his answer. It takes an hour and a half by train to do the under 70 miles to Clacton, and we rely on our roads to prosper. We in Clacton often feel overlooked. I would like the Minister to come down to our sunshine coast, where he will see that we need better roads. Does he believe that transport links, particularly in coastal communities, should be the focus when it comes to levelling up?
Coastal communities such as Clacton are part of this nation’s soul, and this Government are committed to such coastal communities and to levelling up across our Union. I can assure my hon. Friend that this Department works closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that coastal communities recover from covid-19 and to help them to level up. Of course, that includes transport links.
The road across Hammersmith bridge has been completely closed since April, causing congestion, chaos, pollution and danger across Putney. Can the Minister confirm whether there will be funding in the Transport for London settlement for the repair and renewal of Hammersmith bridge, whether there will be funding for Hammersmith and Fulham Council and whether the Government will provide the additional funding to reopen Hammersmith bridge?
Mass Transit System: Leeds
The Government are committed to supporting and delivering a mass transit system in Leeds and West Yorkshire, and we will provide funding for the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to progress its plans.
As Leeds remains the largest city in Europe without a mass transit system, or indeed any kind of rail-based system, surely the Secretary of State should stop pouring money into feasibility studies when they have already been carried out and instead give my constituents in Leeds North East some clarity by telling the House just how much of the £100 million from the integrated rail plan will be spent on a mass transit system for Leeds and west Yorkshire. And will he tell us who will make the decisions on how that money is spent?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about Leeds being the largest city without a mass transit system. The integrated rail plan committed £100 million to start work on the mass transit system and to look at the most effective way to get HS2 trains to Leeds. However, it is worth noting that in addition to that, £830 million was allocated to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority through the city regional sustainable transport settlement in the autumn Budget, of which we expect £200 million to take forward the mass transit system based on the current proposals.
A14 at Kettering: Junction 10A Funding
The Government recognise the importance of the strategic road network in supporting local growth. National Highways has reviewed earlier work on a potential junction 10A on the A14 so that the project can be considered for the next road investment strategy. The review’s findings will be available in the new year.
Residents in Kettering, Barton Seagrave and Burton Latimer desperately needed this junction in RIS3 from 2025; otherwise, Kettering will simply grind to a halt. Will my hon. Friend be kind enough to secure for me a meeting with the noble Baroness Vere, the roads Minister, and North Northamptonshire Council, so that we can finally get this scheme included in the road investment strategy?
Our world-leading transport decarbonisation plan sets out the Government’s commitments and the actions needed to decarbonise transport, putting the sector on the pathway to net zero.
A merry Christmas to you and your team, Mr. Speaker. Considerable Scottish Government investment is going into electrification and new rail lines, but hundreds of millions of pounds are leaving the Scottish rail system every year to pay Network Rail access charges. Does the Minister agree that one of the top priorities for the new Great British Railways must be a review of the system in which Scotland’s railways pay a massive premium simply to run services?
East-west Rail Connections: North England
The Northern Powerhouse Rail project will deliver real benefits for passengers and communities, enhancing journeys and levelling up for a growing population.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The integrated rail plan contains many good things, but a significant improvement would be an improved direct connection between Bradford and Manchester. There are ways to do it without significantly increasing the overall £96 billion budget. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the opportunities?
My hon. Friend is a brilliant champion for his constituents, his region and the whole north of England. The integrated rail plan was designed to deliver improvements to Bradford sooner, but I am of course happy to meet him to discuss possible future investment.
Tram Service Suspensions: West Midlands
The Department for Transport has had several meetings with Midland Metro Ltd to discuss the suspension of tram services and the impact that has had in the west midlands.
When a similar problem occurred in Sydney with the same type of trams, built by the same company, CAF, the trams were off the tracks for 18 months. With the Commonwealth games due to begin on 28 July next year—I am sure we all hope they will be a huge success—the west midlands obviously needs a full and efficient public transport service. Will the Minister keep tabs on this issue and offer whatever assistance he can to ensure that the problem does not adversely affect the games?
We have been monitoring the situation since Midland Metro Ltd first informed us of the problem back in June. MML then informed the Office of Rail and Road of the failure and the intended repair method. At that point, the cracks, and the risk they posed to long-term service disruption, were highlighted as minor, but as things have gone on, the situation has obviously become more serious. MML is reviewing the condition of its trams and reopened a reduced service yesterday. I guarantee the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to engage with MML and ensure that people can get to the Commonwealth games and celebrate the fun that everyone can have.
A1: Peterborough to Blyth
The Government recognise the key importance of the A1 as a strategic north-south link across the country. Further improvements to the route, beyond those completed in 2009, will be considered as part of the National Highways route strategy process.
Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker! I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for recognising the importance of the A1, but it shuts down at least once a week in my Rutland and Melton constituency patch because of accidents. It is a core artery for our nation and for goods, not least our Christmas stilton. Will the Minister please meet the A1 working group of MPs, so that we can explain why it is so important to upgrade the A1 to full motorway standard?
I wish you and your staff a merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, along with the Opposition Front-Bench team, who will recall that I announced the integrated rail plan last month. Since then—last Thursday—Hitachi and Alston have been chosen for a £2 billion contract to produce trains in the midlands and the north; that will bring 2,500 jobs. Last Monday saw the introduction of a brand-new train service from Middlesbrough to London—the first in more than three decades. We are already delivering on the integrated rail plan.
The dualling of the A64 was first mooted in The Yorkshire Post in 1905, since when it has been promised and cancelled several times, despite being much needed. Its delivery would massively reduce the journey time between York, Malton, Pickering, Scarborough and Filey. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on plans to dual the A64?
I wish you and your team a very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.
Ahead of a tough Christmas, people across this country are paying the price of Tory inflation. In Dewsbury, for example, since the Conservative party came to power, the price of the commute into Leeds has risen more than three times faster than pay. Does the Secretary of State think that that is reasonable? If he does not—he failed to answer this point earlier—will he rule out the brutal 3.8% hike in rail fares rumoured for millions of passengers next year?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady mentions Dewsbury, because it gives me the opportunity to mention that it benefits much more from the integrated rail plan than the original High Speed 2 plan. She is right about inflation, but it is a global post-pandemic issue, rather than specific to this country. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a series of measures, including a big uplift in the living wage of 6.6%, which outclasses even inflation.
Rail passengers across the country will have heard that reply, and will know that the Secretary of State will not rule out the massive hike next year. It is not just rail fares that this Government are refusing to tackle. They have been told by the Competition and Markets Authority to tackle the scandalous PCR market, given that the Secretary of State requires hundreds of thousands of people travelling home this Christmas to take a test. Ministers claimed that many of those tests are available at £20, but the truth is that just 0.4% of those advertised on the gov.uk website are available at that price. Why has he refused to take the action that regulators have demanded, clean up this racket, and help families with the huge cost of travel this Christmas?
I agree that it is very important that private sector providers stick to the prices that they are advertising; like the hon. Lady, I have checked the site and have been disappointed when that has not happened. The site is operated by the Department of Health and Social Care; I will pass her comments on to that Department. I did, though, check the site last night, and found that I could buy PCR tests for the prices being advertised.
Of course I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I thank her for raising the topic.
Following the Chancellor’s U-turn on sector-specific support, the sector hardest hit by covid is aviation, with the UK sector’s uneven recovery being the slowest in Europe. Understandably, omicron may now wipe out Christmas travel, so does the Secretary of State agree that the sector needs support now, whether it through furlough, grants, or route development funds? We need to see that the Government understand the urgency of the situation, including by their extending the terms of the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme so that it covers aviation and travel businesses.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the aviation sector has benefited from approximately £8 billion of support from the Government’s cross-economy measures. We are just about to announce the third iteration of the airport and ground handlers business rates support scheme to help with fixed costs. We will continue to listen to the sector to understand how best it may be supported.
I wish my hon. Friend a happy birthday, and look forward to sharing his birthday cake later and discussing these matters. He is a persistent campaigner for better rail services for his constituents. The constructive manner in which he goes about his business on behalf of his constituency will pay dividends for him. Future services will depend on demand, but of course I will continue to work with him on how we can get the best out of our rail plans, including the £96 billion integrated rail plan, for Burnley.
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that when he meets and gets into discussions with Transport for London, hopefully today or tomorrow, he will take into consideration the effects of rising fares, reduced services and possible closure of lines on the environment, job opportunities and air quality for the people of London? Will he also consider the effects on the mobility of young and older people who have campaigned for years for the ability to travel around their city, which has a higher use of public transport than many other places around the world because of progressive transport policies?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we want to see this resolved, and we are in constant contact with TfL and the Mayor’s office. He is right to say that we want to ensure that TfL’s rail service, bus service and all the rest of it are there for Londoners, and those who travel into London, to use. We are well on the case, and I look forward to a resolution.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I know how tirelessly he works for his constituents impacted by HS2. In this case, the Planning Inspectorate found that Buckinghamshire Council had been supplied with adequate information, and of course it is important that these decisions are not held up indefinitely, but I will of course continue to work with him and local residents in affected communities to ensure that we get the right approach.
The bus recovery grant expires in mid-March, and with notice to traffic commissioners required for any potential withdrawal of services, that leaves operators in Cambridgeshire and across the rest of the country facing a really difficult cliff edge on 19 January. Notice periods are important, but given the exceptional circumstances, can the Secretary of State Minister give us any assurance that action will be taken to avoid those difficult decisions and protect vital services?
It is absolutely true that the bus sector has required enormous support throughout the pandemic, and this Government have stood by it so far. We are of course seeing how omicron is affecting it, and will return to the House to provide additional information to operators.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on standing up for his constituents. One of the benefits of the integrated rail plan, of course, is that it will benefit many smaller places across the midlands and north, rather than just the big cities. On the issue of safeguarding, though, I must ask him for patience. We have committed £100 million to working on the best way to get HS2 trains to Leeds, and we must wait for the outcome of that work before lifting any safeguarding.
York has not had a local plan for 67 years and has not had an upgrade of its local transport plan for over 10 years. I hear that the Liberal Democrat-Green council is now kicking proposals into the long grass. York Civic Trust is now grasping the nettle, but wants to know when the new instructions on local plans will be coming out, and what focus there will be on decarbonisation.
Absolutely, and my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Rutland and Melton. I know that she has been instrumental in brokering this agreement. It means that after 40 years, the people of Melton are much closer to getting the bypass that they want. The Government are showing support for the bypass through the housing infrastructure fund and the local authorities major schemes fund, and we look forward to receiving the final business case, so that we can conclude the approval phase and allow construction to begin.
The aviation sector has renewed its calls for Government support, as it remains one of the hardest-hit sectors and will continue to be one of the first industries impacted by travel rule changes—especially airports, which, as physical structures, have high overheads. Has the Secretary of State had any recent discussions with the Chancellor about what extra support could be offered?
I am pleased to report to the hon. Lady that we have indeed provided additional support—starting now—for those airport operators and ground handlers, who, in most cases, will have their business rates paid. I know that she sits independently, but as a Scottish Member of Parliament she might want to approach the Scottish Government. According to Scottish airports including Edinburgh airport, the approach taken in Scotland, where the Cabinet Secretary and Ministers in Scotland have refused to meet them, has been in “stark contrast” to the approach taken by the UK Government, where engagement has been “proactive”.
Like everyone else, Mr Speaker, I wish you and your team a merry Christmas.
Do Ministers agree with me that the proposed Beeching reversals could be transformational for some of our communities? Ferryhill station is an obvious example. The Stillington line could connect communities on Teesside with jobs and days out on the coast, but also with the newly introduced Middlesbrough to London service. That could not only stimulate economic growth but, more important, give hope to our young people. When will it be given final approval?
A merry Christmas to you and your staff, Mr Speaker, and a ho ho ho.
The integrated rail plan was fantastic news for the people of Ashfield. Not only did it scrap the eastern leg of HS2—which created havoc and devastation in my constituency—but it allows for the investment of £12.8 billion in the east midlands. However, my priority now is the Maid Marian line, which will bring rail services to Selston for the first time in 60 years. Will the Minister meet me to see what a good case I can put for the return of that service?
I am delighted that the Government have accepted my ten-minute rule Bill as part of the transport decarbonisation plan. The plan has mandated that all new homes and office buildings that were due to have car parking spaces should have electric vehicle chargers, and I think that that makes a great deal of sense. Can my hon. Friend update the House on the timing of the likely legislation?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she has put in, especially while preparing her Bill. The Government have taken this on board and regulations will be laid early next year, which will contribute to the additional infrastructure available for the transition from fossil fuel vehicles to the zero emission vehicles of the future.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, a former Rail Minister, for his question. It gives me an opportunity to thank all the rail workers who will be out over the Christmas period delivering £131 million-worth of value with more than 370 projects, including—because we need to get ready for the trans-Pennine upgrade—nine days of major work in Leeds and a number of days’ work at Manchester Victoria, as well as renewal work at Skelton, near my hon. Friend’s constituency. So a huge amount is being done.
I am more than pleased to ask a question. It relates to delays at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. I know the Secretary of State has indicated that giant steps have been taken to address the issue, but what discussions has he had with the Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure to address the 1.4 million applications in Northern Ireland that have been affected by backlogs which have also affected the UK mainland?
I am delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are, of course, in touch to make sure that the backlogs which have, understandably, built up during the coronavirus outbreak are being dealt with as quickly as possible. One of the best ways of doing that is digitising the services to ensure that more transactions take place electronically, online, and do not require pieces of paper to be sent around.
Covid-19: Government Support for Business
It is clear that omicron is much more transmissible than other coronavirus variants, which is why, as the Prime Minister announced on Sunday, we are offering every eligible adult a booster dose before the end of the year. To get more jabs in arms, we have taken the proportionate and responsible step of moving to plan B in England to slow the spread of covid-19.
The rapid spread of omicron means this is a challenging time for a number of sectors, including hospitality. The Chancellor will be speaking to UK hospitality representatives this afternoon to understand their concerns. The Government continue to offer considerable support to businesses that might require extra assistance into next spring, as part of the £400 billion of direct economic help that we have provided during the pandemic.
For instance, we have reduced the VAT rate for hospitality and tourism businesses to 12.5% until March. Eligible retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in England are also benefiting from 66% business rates relief until March. And at the recent autumn Budget the Chancellor introduced a further 50% business rates relief for eligible businesses into the 2022-23 tax year.
Businesses can continue to apply for the additional restrictions grant until March 2022, as part of more than £2 billion of discretionary business grant funding during the pandemic. Businesses can benefit from our extension to the recovery loan scheme, which helps small and medium-sized enterprises to build back from the crisis by providing guarantees to lenders on finance of up to £10 million. Firms are also protected from eviction until March 2022 if they fall behind on their rent.
Firms in the arts and culture sector, meanwhile, can access the £2 billion culture recovery fund, the sports recovery package and the film and television production restart scheme until the end of April 2022. And our £800 million live events reinsurance scheme is giving event organisers confidence to plan ahead. Furthermore, the devolved Administrations have received an extra £12.6 billion this year, including an additional £1.3 billion in the autumn Budget.
This Government are helping businesses in every region and nation of the UK during these difficult times. We are speaking to the most affected sectors, and we will continue to respond proportionately to the virus’s changing path to support jobs, businesses and individuals, just as we have since the start of this pandemic.
Forgive me for my Christmas eagerness, Mr Speaker.
I extend my best wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), the shadow Chancellor, as she recovers from covid at home. We know where she is, but where is the Chancellor? Why did he decide to proceed with a trip to California on Tuesday, when it was already clear that UK businesses were struggling to cope with what the Prime Minister himself has called a “tidal wave” of omicron?
Even if the Chancellor is abroad, California is not exactly a communications desert. They have television, and I have even heard that they have the internet, but it is still radio silence from the Chancellor. There is tumbleweed rolling through the Treasury, which says he is in communication with officials, but what about some communication with businesses that are losing bookings by the hour and watching their December profits vanish into thin air? Last night the chief medical officer advised the public to deprioritise social contact. Adherence to that advice will have a clear and direct impact on the hospitality industry, live music, theatre and other public events across the country.
The Government documents for plan B say that the decision on economic support will be made
“based on the data at the time.”
That time is now, so let me ask the Minister this: what measures will the Government take to ensure that those who have to isolate at home have proper sick pay that enables them to follow the rules? What will the Government do to help hospitality businesses affected by the chief medical officer’s advice to deprioritise social contact? Will any support also apply to live music, theatre and other events?
What are the Government doing to maintain supply chains, should they be affected by staff absences in the coming weeks? What is the Government’s response to the hospitality industry’s call to maintain the value added tax rates for that sector at 12.5%? Will the Government also allow local authorities to release any unused funds they may have from previous covid aid packages to support businesses right now?
The principle here should be that the level of support should match the economic restrictions in place. It is not about a blank cheque; there has already been enough wasteful spending from the Government in the past two years. Any package should be timely, proportionate and properly targeted and must guard against fraud. That is why it needs the full and focused application of Treasury Ministers and officials.
We are not in lockdown, but it would be totally disingenuous to pretend that businesses can trade normally when the Prime Minister has used a special national broadcast to warn the nation of a “tidal wave” of covid infections and the chief medical officer has told us to cut back on social contact. The Government cannot pretend that nothing has changed. This is not the time to abandon businesses, so will the Minister commit to announcing a package of support by the end of today—I mean UK time, not California time—that matches the situation that British businesses and workers now face?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. The Chancellor has been deeply engaged with business representatives throughout this pandemic and he will continue to be so. He was on a long-planned business trip to the United States, conducting Government business, and he will continue to engage today with other Ministers, with representatives of the hospitality sector and others, to hear their concerns about what further support should be required.
However, I will not be taking lessons from the right hon. Gentleman on some of these measures. Last year, when we put in place the bounce back loans, it was the shadow Chancellor at the time, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), who specifically engaged constructively with the Chancellor to agree the basis for those loans. We have continued to work constructively throughout on a range of interventions for multiple sectors. We put in a package of measures at the Budget offering additional support and as of yesterday the covid additional relief fund will provide £1.5 billion for those in the supply chain to deal with some of the additional challenges. Of course the Government recognise the additional pressures that these measures and this strain of the virus bring, and of course we will engage carefully and listen carefully to those business representatives this afternoon.
The Minister has talked about some of the costs that will be reduced. The problem with the reduction of Christmas cheer, especially in the hospitality and entertainment industries, is revenues.
If I listen to my publicans, restaurateurs and hoteliers, I know they will want to hear after the meeting this afternoon how their revenues can be lifted, how they can treat their staff properly and how the loss of revenue from those events that cannot be postponed will in some way be made up to them. That is what matters most in most constituencies, including mine.
I thank the Father of the House for his comments, and point out that there is £250 million of funds still to be given to businesses through the additional restrictions grants. Three out of four local authorities have between 5% and 40% of their funds unallocated. However, I recognise that this is a distinct new challenge, and that is why I and the Chancellor will be having meetings with representatives from the affected sectors this afternoon to see what more needs to be done.
The omicron variant is now present in all Scottish health boards, so I am sure the Minister will congratulate Scotland on being the first nation in the UK to vaccinate 50% of the eligible population with the booster jab.
On Tuesday, during the First Minister’s address to the Scottish Parliament, the Treasury sent out a press release indicating that more covid support was coming, but it later backtracked and pulled it. In response to those erroneous claims, the Scottish Finance Secretary has written to the Chancellor seeking clarification. When should the Scottish Finance Secretary expect a reply? Do we have to wait for the Chancellor to return from California? Does the Minister not believe that the Government’s flip-flopping and flippancy of the last few days has undermined the devolved Administrations and that assurances of funding must be provided right now?
Of course, the devolved authorities will secure £77.6 billion next year, which is £12.6 billion more than this year. Just yesterday, £430 million of additional money was agreed with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The hon. Member should contact the Finance Secretary in Scotland to clarify what he is talking about, because that money was allocated yesterday by the Chief Secretary.
Government policy has been clear that people can proceed with their Christmas socialising plans as expected. However, yesterday the chief medical officer said that people should limit social contact, which will clearly have a devastating effect on hospitality businesses. Can we have clarity about how people should plan their social contacts for Christmas?
Public health messages need to be clear and consistent, but last night the Prime Minister’s press conference was confusing and sowed turmoil in the hospitality sector. Another sector that is already hurting is small coach and bus operators, such as Stanley Travel in my constituency, who rely on Christmas and the new year for income to tide them over the fallow period of January and February. When the Chancellor comes back from his winter sun trip to California, will the Minister ensure that he does not forget the sector as we look at support in the coming months?
The right hon. Gentleman legitimately raises a point about the whole range of businesses affected. That is why the Government’s priority was to give local authorities maximum discretion in how to allocate funds. As the Chancellor has done yesterday, today and every day, he will continue to focus on the needs of the economy and businesses up and down the country.
I am reassured that my hon. Friend the Minister will take out his team on Monday. Like him, I took a lateral flow test this morning. However, is it not the case that when officials give advice, it has a massive capacity to herd the public into particular behaviours? Therefore, while the Government have formally allowed hospitality businesses in particular to stay open, the reality in my constituency is that fantastic businesses such as The Old Queens Head in Penn and Tylers Green have seen massive cancellations. What reassurance can he give me that when officials speak—particularly from podiums at press conferences—they stay within the bounds of the policy decided by Ministers, and that what Ministers have decided takes into account the broad spectrum of collateral harms that follow from, for example, encouraging people not to mix together?
It is really important that we follow the best advice to get jabbed, take those lateral flow tests and wear masks. However, where we possibly can, we should also continue to engage with our local communities and support our businesses at this difficult time. Of course, that means that judgments have to be made, and people must take responsibility for their decisions in the light of that guidance.
Small and medium-sized enterprises make up a significant proportion of the UK hospitality sector, and in recent days they have seen their footfall decline by as much as 40%, with one business I know of having had 79 cancellations in three hours. This comes at a time when businesses also continue to face high energy costs, supply chain disruptions and dropping consumer confidence. If we know this, it beggars belief that it is not clear to the Government. We have been meeting hospitality businesses since last week. Why is this meeting happening only today, and are the Government going to commit to come forward with a package of support that will give confidence for Christmas and the months ahead by the end of today?
I sympathise with my hon. Friend and good neighbour in having to deal with data that is changing extremely rapidly. We know from South Africa and southern Africa that things may be changing, perhaps for the better, but we cannot rely on that, so the cautious words of Ministers and officials and the measures that we passed earlier this week are absolutely appropriate. Does my hon. Friend agree that, at a time of change such as now, it is important that the House is convened to debate the issues and that we should seek an opportunity next week and the week after for us to meet again so that Ministers can update the House on the current situation and change what is required one way or the other, if that is necessary? The public expect that level of leadership.
I thank my right hon. Friend and neighbour for his question. As I think he will appreciate from his time in government, some of those decisions come from those above me. It is critical that we are clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it, and the basis for the decisions that we are making.
It is pretty obvious that during this crisis many workers have lost a lot of income, wages have gone down and living standards have gone down. For those who have to self-isolate or are sick and have to rely on statutory sick pay, SSP is wholly inadequate. Will he, in his consideration of business support, include an immediate substantial increase in SSP so that living standards can at least be maintained?
Boosted this morning, Mr Speaker.
Listening last night to the Prime Minister’s Downing Street conference, I could see why there was no statement to the House. No new Government policy was announced. Then Professor Chris Whitty answered a question from the BBC, and at a stroke, the chief medical officer changed Government policy and put this country—certainly hospitality, and Winchester’s hospitality bears this out from what I am hearing—into effective lockdown. May I ask—yes or no—whether what Professor Whitty said last night is now the policy of the Government, namely, that we should socialise carefully? What in practical legal terms does that mean?
On support, because advisers are now running the show—I bet none of them run businesses facing complete ruin as a result of what was said last night—the Treasury is going to have to do more. Otherwise, we risk wasting the amazing support that Her Majesty’s Treasury gave last year. We are going to have to do more, whether or not we want to be here and whether or not I think we should be here, or businesses will face ruin and thousands of people are going to lose their jobs.
I have been very clear that we should get boosted, encourage our constituents to get boosted, take the lateral flow tests, wear masks and engage in normal activity as far as we can. There will not be a legal definition of what every individual should do on an individual basis, but most people will use common sense, and that is really important. I recognise the core point that my hon. Friend makes. The sector will need engagement from Government, and that is why Ministers—not advisers— will be engaging with that sector this afternoon.
As the Father of the House said, we will all be receiving emails from businesses in our constituencies. One has written to me saying:
“As with most businesses, a hospitality business is not run from one day to the next. Plans are in place for staff, events and orders.”
These are businesses that were struggling already with accrued debt and a staffing recruitment crisis before omicron hit. Does the Minister agree that, if businesses are facing the same set of circumstances they faced when they received support from the Government, it is reasonable for them to expect the same level of support again?
We have put in a range of interventions, be that through loans, the furlough scheme, support through grants or support through reliefs from VAT and business rates. We will continue to look at what specific sectors are facing in these coming days and weeks, and we will act appropriately in light of those changed circumstances.
Clearly we are all going to have to live with covid for a long time to come. Businesses in my constituency report a double whammy: people cancelling bookings for hospitality and shortages of staff as a result of people testing positive for covid, doing the responsible thing and not coming in. Can my hon. Friend look at ways we can promote business and encourage people to take on short-term roles in the hospitality industry to cover these gaps? We need to provide incentives for business to continue.
The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) is right: the Government are trying to sing two different songs at the same time, and the result is a cacophony of mixed messages in everyone’s ears. This afternoon, the Chancellor needs not just to listen, but to act, because the taxes we are talking about are supposed to be taxes on business activity, not business inactivity caused by misfortune and Government mixed messaging. Will the Minister tell the Chancellor this afternoon when he meets him, albeit from California, that action is what is required now, not just listening?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to the meetings this afternoon, but a common theme has developed on both sides of the House of reports, including in my constituency, of pubs losing 50% to 60% of their bookings. Like the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), I have a local coach operator that reported losing £40,000-worth of bookings yesterday alone. While advisers press the panic button way beyond what this House voted for a couple of days ago, can my hon. Friend give me an absolute assurance that there will be a decision by Ministers after his meetings this afternoon that will give businesses the clarity they need on the support they will get in this effective lockdown?
What we will do is listen carefully and act appropriately. Just yesterday, we secured this covid additional relief fund to support the supply chain and city centre economies, but I fully recognise that we are in a very difficult and rapidly changing set of circumstances, and it is important that Ministers act and make decisions on the basis of that data and the evidence that is presented to this House.
While it is important that we have a swift health response, it is equally important that we have a swift financial response to support that health response in tackling the impact of covid. What steps are being taken to ensure that these decisions are taken quickly? It is not good enough simply to wait until the Chancellor can wake up, whenever that is, in California. When will the Government finally ever do anything to support those who have been excluded from any support at any time throughout this entire pandemic?
Clearly we have worked hard throughout to bring customised support to different sectors, with a range of grants, reliefs and direct support through furlough. The Chancellor was very clear from his earliest statements last spring that it would be impossible to protect every single job, but just this week we have seen unemployment at 4.2%, which is obviously considerably better than was anticipated. There is no complacency on behalf of the Treasury or the Chancellor, who is fully engaged in looking at what interventions are appropriate in addition to the comprehensive winter plan, which was laid out in advance to give reassurance over the coming six months. As I have said, circumstances have now changed, and we will need to look very carefully at the implications of that.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), I have had a coach operator on to me this morning, so may I urge the Government to look at the wider impact of what is happening? It is welcome that the Chancellor and his team are meeting the hospitality sector, but the closure or limited closure of that sector has a massive knock-on effect, for example, on coach operators and taxi drivers. Sadly, this is going to mean more online sales and another hit to the high street, so may I urge the Minister to ensure that the wider aspects of what is taking place are considered in the meeting later?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to the wider impact across related businesses, which is why Ministers will this afternoon meet a range of representatives, to ensure that the full understanding of the Government is grasped.
I simply say to the Minister that unless he acts today to help hospitality businesses they will not be there next year to be helped—that is the simple reality. People choosing not to go to hospitality events, following guidance not to go to the office, is having a big impact on the revenues of public transport operators—bus, coach and Supertram operators in Sheffield. Will he have urgent conversations with the Transport Secretary about extra help for those operators—already we have seen massive cuts to services—and give the money to the transport authorities so that it can be best spent in the interests of passengers?
I welcome the fact that the Minister and the Chancellor are meeting those in the hospitality sector this afternoon. There is no doubt that they are suffering because of some of the mixed messages we have heard in the past few days. The obvious places to help them would be by looking at VAT again, potentially reducing it back to the 5% rate until the end of March, and at the recovery loan scheme. As the Minister knows, the original schemes—bounce back loans and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme—did not require a forward viability test, whereas the recovery loan scheme does. It is very difficult for those in hospitality at the moment to demonstrate forward-looking viability for their businesses, so will the Minister look again at the scheme and look to reform it so that businesses can access this vital financial support?
As ever, my hon. Friend brings sensible and credible points to the Chamber on these matters. He is very familiar with the different aspects of small and medium-sized enterprise financing. The recovery loan scheme, operational until June next year, gives a 70% guarantee to lenders, but of course we will look at all those measures in the round, and I look forward to our meeting later today on other matters.
I am acutely aware, having a constituency on the edge of the west end, of the impact that the pandemic has had not only on hospitality and tourism, but on the culture, arts and live performance sector. Last night, it was reported that 12 west end shows were unable to go ahead because of illness among the cast, many of whom are self-employed. Will the Minister confirm that he or fellow Ministers will be meeting representatives of the theatre and live performance sector to discuss the impact of this latest wave of the crisis on their finances?
We will continue to engage with the sector. I just draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the £2 billion culture recovery fund; the emergency resources support fund, which gives up to £3 million of support to charities and £1 million to commercial entities in that sector; and the £800 million to the live events reinsurance scheme. However, we will continue to engage across different sectors of the economy.
Newcastle has a fantastic night-time economy and the Chancellor should visit, as it is a lot closer than California. Those businesses will be seeing a real reduction in footfall and trade, as will their suppliers directly, because of the omicron variant. What support is the Minister offering to them directly as a result of the omicron variant?
As I mentioned, there is outstanding support from the local additional restrictions grant, which local authorities have available. I would be happy to hear from the hon. Lady where Newcastle’s local authority is on the disbursal of that grant. As I said, we are meeting representatives from across the economy this afternoon and we will look carefully at what can be done.
Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, to you and the excellent House staff.
It should have been a very busy Christmas period, but hospitality, entertainment and linked businesses in my constituency, on top of trying to contend with soaring energy costs, are being hard hit. They are losing bookings and events after the Prime Minister announced his recent plan. Where is the Chancellor? Why did he not announce a corresponding support package plan for those affected? What support package can businesses in my constituency apply for to help them in these difficult times?
I have already set out a number of support measures that we have taken, which are ongoing through to next March, such as business rates relief, grants from local authorities, grants that we have already given and a concession on the lower VAT rate. Of course, I recognise the reality of behaviour at the moment. We have to assess that, look at the data and look at what the appropriate measure is. It is really clear: we have not shut anything down. What we have done is set out new conditions which people are finding it difficult to come to terms with. I understand that, which is why we have to work carefully with the sector to look at what sort of support we can bring in.
Sacha Lord, Greater Manchester’s night-time economy adviser, just said:
“100,000’s staff hours are being slashed up and down the UK, due to cancellations. A large proportion”—
of those staff—
“are on a living wage.”
He says that the silence from the Chancellor is “deafening” and it is, “Unforgivable and Unforgettable.” Does the Minister agree?
I just asked the Secretary of State for Transport about support for aviation and was given the Department for Transport’s greatest hits. The truth is that the aviation sector was hardest hit. Its recovery has been uneven and the weakest in Europe. It will need support. Measures already brought in, such as the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, will have to be extended for some sectors, in the same manner as CBILS. Thousands of jobs have gone in my constituency. Does the Treasury actually understand how serious the situation is?
Yes, we do, and that is why we have given £12 billion of loan guarantees through the covid corporate financing facility for the aviation sector. At the Budget, we put in the airport and ground operations support scheme to help with fixed costs over the next six months. Of course I recognise that the situation is having a significant impact on the sector and the Government will remain engaged to support where we possibly can.
A number of different things have happened this week in the Government’s messaging, but one significant thing was when the Prime Minister made his television statement on Sunday and told people to work from home if they can. Reinforcing that message has meant that, this week, an awful lot of people are not in the places that they expected to be, which has resulted in cancellations of bookings for hotels and restaurants. Rightly, reinforcing that message has had an impact that the Treasury needs to react to.
For more than a week, hospitality businesses and workers in Nottingham have been contacting me desperately worried about falling custom at what should be their busiest time of year. I have also heard from hair and beauty salons in my constituency that are facing cancellations and wondering how on earth they will get by on a reduced income when they are already struggling to pay back the loans that they took out to survive lockdown. Why do the Government not seem to understand the urgency of the situation and what will the Minister now do to help?
A few weekends ago, on Small Business Saturday, I was happy to host the first inaugural Ilford business awards. With about 1,500 nominations, it spotlighted the best businesses in Ilford. Recent research from the TUC, however, shows that 647,000 workers in hospitality, retail and entertainment do not currently qualify for statutory sick pay and many will be incredibly anxious about what that means, especially given the contradictory advice from Government scientists and the Prime Minister in the past few days. Why have the Government let down the industry so badly? What will the Minister commit to do to help to support those industries today?
I think I am now the sixth Member to mention the coach sector, and I hope the Treasury is listening to hon. and right hon. Members in that regard. Robert Black’s of Brechin has contacted me to say that bookings have been disappearing like snow off a dyke since the omicron situation developed. I have also been contacted by The Townhouse in Arbroath, The Stag in Forfar and many others, and I am not taking my staff out on Friday because I am following advice. There are booking cancellations right across the board. It is an omicron support package that we need—where is it coming from?
Despite the Treasury spin, last night’s Cobra meetings only confirmed that of course there is no money coming to Scotland; the money announced by the Treasury on Tuesday was pre-announced money. The Scottish Government have already acted to deliver £100 million of funding to support businesses disrupted by health advice in Scotland. They want to give more, but they cannot, due to the restrictions in place on devolved borrowing. Does the Minister accept that this aspect of the devolution settlement is hampering the ability of devolved Governments to act as necessary?
I am sorry, but I cannot accept that. The Government have given an additional £12 billion to the devolved Administrations, which also benefit from the reduced VAT, the recovery loans and the other UK-wide measures, and the additional £430 million that was agreed this week.
Two weeks ago, on a very frosty north-east morning, I met small businesses at my business forum. They told me of their concerns about what might happen over the Christmas period with covid-19. They included beauty businesses and businesses such as the Railway Tavern in Rowlands Gill in my constituency. Will the Minister please urgently address the need to support our hospitality and personal care businesses throughout this situation?
One thing is clear: we can trust the word of the chief medical officer more than that of the Prime Minister, as the Government sleepwalk into another covid crisis. In York, we have a significant hospitality sector. It is really struggling, as are many other businesses. What steps is the Minister taking with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, as the tax year comes to an end, to ensure greater flexibility for businesses so that they can have longer to repay money to the Treasury?
As ever, the hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. We have to look at the range of interventions and ways that we could support the economy at this time. She raises an interesting area for us to focus on, and I am sure that will be a substantive area of considerations with the Chancellor.
The music industry has been hit hard. The industry trade body LIVE—Live music Industry Venues and Entertainment—has concerns that while venues can technically stay open, they are haemorrhaging money and that will lead to permanent closures. Will the Chancellor maintain the current rate of VAT beyond March 2022? In addition to support packages, will the Government fix the insurance scheme for cancelled events to include pandemic-related cancellations?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Government worked very closely with the sector in the determination of the parameters of the live events reinsurance scheme—I was involved in it myself—over late summer. That £800 million scheme will give events across the country confidence, but I obviously recognise that that needs to be kept under constant review, as all the measures do.