House of Commons
Monday 24 January 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
The Secretary of State was asked—
Standards in Public Life: Local Authorities
The Government champion high ethical standards in local government. On 14 January, I supported the important Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) to disqualify sex offenders from local office and, before Christmas, I met the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to reaffirm that we will shortly be responding to the Committee’s report on this important issue and will set out further steps to improve the system.
I am sure that you of all people, Mr Speaker, would agree that standards of politicians at every level are not always observed. On Wyre Forest District Council, a local councillor has been sanctioned for not the first, but the fourth time, for standards breaches. In this case, it was the leader of the Liberal Democrat group, but I think that we would all agree that frequent offenders who see sanctions as an occupational hazard of being a controversial councillor come from every political party. It is three years since the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on local government ethical standards were published. Can the Minister confirm if and when the Government will legislate to implement their recommendations and that any legislation will equip councils with more robust sanctions for serious or repeated breaches of the code of conduct, an example of which could be a ban for six months?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and for his recent letter on the matter, which I shall respond to shortly. I am actively considering the recommendations set out in the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and will respond shortly. It is of the utmost importance that local authorities have the right tools to make the system work.
Last summer, the senior Conservative councillor in my Angus constituency was unmasked as being behind an anonymous anti-SNP Twitter troll account, and for peddling misogynistic commentary on the appearance of female politicians, with flagrant attacks also on local councillors and parliamentarians. Conservative bosses in Scotland have mandated that he goes on a social media course, thereby paving the way for him to stand again in the May Scottish council elections. Does the Minister think that this is an acceptable way for Scottish Conservative councillors to behave?
I am afraid that I do not know the details of that case specifically. Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is raising a very important issue, what I would say is that he looks at the recommendations in the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I think that he will find some things there that will address the situation to which he refers.
Standards, such as openness and honesty, are indeed important, and I do hope that the Prime Minister will soon agree to that. Despite the language and rhetoric of levelling up, the reality is somewhat different in our communities. How can we have local authority funding in the north of £413 per person over 10 years and spending of just £32 per person and it be classed as levelling up? The Secretary of State is quickly getting a reputation for himself in the Wirral as the Minister for closing down, laying off, and hollowing out, with libraries, leisure centres and public sector workers facing the chop? At what stage does he intend to get a grip and level up local government finances?
I am not sure whether that is a question specifically on the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The hon. Gentleman will know that the provisional local government settlement was published and that he and I have had discussions about that, which show that there is a significant increase in core spending power.
I start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) about openness and transparency. Last week, the energy company in which Warrington Borough Council bought a 50% stake collapsed. My constituents are rightly concerned that £50 million of public money was invested in a loss-making company. Will the Minister meet me to look at what steps we can take to protect local services and what lessons we can learn from governance in local authorities.
New Homes for Social Rent
Since affordable housing delivery is a devolved matter, I can speak only to the figures in England. The Government are determined to deliver social housing to help vulnerable families and tackle homelessness. Since 2010, we have delivered over 154,600 homes for social rent across England.
In Wales, the Welsh Government are delivering new social housing at an accelerated rate, year on year, with an 18% increase in the last year. There were 20,000 new affordable houses built in the last five years, 65% of which were social rented, and another 20,000 will be built in the next five years, all of which will be social rented and at a low carbon specification. Unfortunately, in England the opposite is the case, with affordable house delivery falling, so will the Minister say what conversations he has had with the Welsh Government Minister, and what lessons he can learn on delivering the much needed increase in the affordable and low carbon social housing required?
It is a fine invite for more conversation, but I do not think we need to learn any lessons from other devolved Assemblies. We are doing a fine job in England—not just building more houses for social rent but building more affordable homes, with £11.5 billion invested, and also making a significant amount of progress when it comes to decarbonising new homes.
Support for Town Centres and High Streets
Reviving our high streets and town centres is an absolutely essential part of levelling up. Our £3.6 billion towns fund includes support for 101 town deals and 72 future high streets fund projects. We are also providing support to local leaders through the high street taskforce and by introducing new planning flexibilities.
History, heritage and high streets—these things mean so much to the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Tears were flowing in the mother town this weekend after a fire ripped through the Leopard in Burslem. The Leopard pub has been standing since the 18th century and is where Josiah Wedgwood and James Brindley met to discuss building the Trent and Mersey canal.
In Tunstall we have empty high street shops, which are in a desperate state of neglect, with landlords all too happy to let them sit empty and uncared for. Will my hon. Friend outline to the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke how the levelling-up White Paper can empower local councils and people to hold absent or rogue owners accountable for damaging the hearts of our community?
I know that many of my hon. Friend’s constituents will be desperately sad about the fire at the Leopard; I was also sad to see the footage of it burning.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his leadership and hard work on regeneration. His ten-minute rule Bill on rogue owners is being closely studied in the Department; Kidsgrove is benefiting from a town deal; Tunstall library and baths are being regenerated through the levelling-up fund, and the local council is refurbishing the town hall. However, there is a lot more to do, and I am keen to continue my conversations with him on this important issue as we look to future legislation.
The Secretary of State has not really proved very successful so far. Since the Secretary of State took office, the Chancellor has blocked any new money for levelling up, the Transport Secretary has halved bus funding and scrapped our trains, and while the Secretary of State is moving 500 civil servants into smaller cities and towns, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is taking 65,000 of them away. In April our nations and regions stand to lose billions unless he does his job. South Yorkshire alone will be short-changed by £900 million if money that once reached us via Europe is now blocked in Whitehall. That is money for skills, new infrastructure, apprenticeships and science.
“It could be deployed in our NHS, schools and social care”—
those are not my words but those used by the right hon. Gentleman in the referendum. Will he keep his promise that no part of this country will be worse off? Or should I ask the Chancellor?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to the fact that we are moving DLUHC staff to the great city of Wolverhampton. As I walk to my office in the morning, I walk past previous Labour Ministers looking radiant and John Prescott looking something, and I remember that they could have done this, but we are the party that is actually doing it and getting on with moving civil servants out of London. As for the hon. Lady’s wider points, she will have to wait for the contents of the White Paper. As well as the UK shared prosperity fund, matching those funds from Europe for each nation, we have the levelling-up fund, the community ownership fund and the high streets fund. Other than that, we are barely doing anything.
Thanks for that—I will ask the Chancellor.
That is not actually what I asked. I asked the Minister to guarantee that no part of this country will see its funding collapse in just 10 weeks’ time. It is absolutely great to see investment going into Newark, but what use is that for someone living in Barnsley or Bolton? Can he not see the problem? Money has been flowing to Cabinet Ministers’ constituencies and to key marginals, and still he refuses to come clean on how those decisions are being made. This weekend it became clear that the only way to get money out of his Department is to be at the beck and call of the Chief Whip. How can any community have confidence that they have a fair shot at getting some of their money back from his Department if he will not release, in full, the information he holds about how these decisions are being made?
It is true that levelling-up funds have been going to the constituencies of Cabinet Ministers—[Interruption.] I am sorry; I mean shadow Cabinet Ministers. Levelling-up funds have been flowing to—[Interruption.] I will admit at this Dispatch Box that money is going to the shadow Leader of the House, the shadow Education Secretary, the shadow Health Secretary, the shadow Culture Secretary: guilty as charged of levelling up those places, and on that we do agree.
I have been urging Bradford Council to prepare a levelling-up fund bid for the town of Bingley in my constituency which I very much hope will be looked on favourably by the Government. When will the deadline for the next round of bids for the levelling-up fund be, and what will the criteria be?
The next round of bidding for levelling-up funding will open in spring and we will set out the conditions for funding in due course.
The towns fund is a limited beauty contest. All town centres, such as Crownpoint in Denton and Houldsworth Square in Reddish, matter. Twelve years ago, those town centres had hanging baskets and planters, the street furniture was beautifully painted, and our main town centre park, Victoria park, had bedding plants. All those things have gone as the councils have faced 60% cuts. How are we going to get some civic pride back in communities such as Denton and Reddish?
That is a serious point, so let me address it in the consensual and serious way that it deserves. The rise of online shopping is posing major challenges to our town centres. That is why we are bringing forward the future high streets fund and the billions of pounds of funding that I mentioned. I also draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to things such as the community ownership fund, which helps to save these vital local assets. But of course we recognise that there is more to do, and more to think about in terms of how we change these town centres to help them adjust to a new world in which people will continue to spend more money online. We need to make them places where people work and live as well as just shop.
Increasing Home Ownership
As a Government we are determined to level up opportunities across our country, and that starts with building the homes that our people need. That is why we are helping millions of people into home ownership. Since 2010, Government-backed schemes have helped over 756,000 households to purchase their own dream home. Last June, we launched our new flagship First Homes scheme, providing homes discounted by at least 30% for first-time buyers, with a priority for local residents and key workers.
First Homes is an excellent initiative that could deliver homes in my constituency for local first-time buyers at even below half price. Will the Minister accelerate their delivery through section 106 agreements, pilot their delivery on public sector land in my constituency, and rename the policy from First Homes to “Half-Price Homes”, because then people would understand it much more clearly?
My hon. Friend, who is a doughty campaigner for home ownership, teases me. He wishes me to call First Homes “Half-Price Homes”. Perhaps that will become the shorthand name for this project. Perhaps even, in time, they will be known as Hollinrake homes. As to his other questions, we are already commissioning First Homes properties on both public and private sector land through our two early delivery programmes. We are aiming to deliver 1,500 of them before April 2023, and we certainly want to accelerate the programme so that more people are able to achieve the dream home that they want and deserve.
The whole nation breathed a sigh of relief when the Government’s planning-by-algorithm so-called reforms were ditched, so when will the son of planning-by-algorithm come out? My constituent Heidi has kept a small hairdressing business going throughout the pandemic, but she is not eligible for Help to Buy, so will the Minister look at introducing more schemes that would help people like her? We also want things that will preserve suburban character, because all the build-to-let things going up locally, up to 60 storeys high, are destroying everything that people liked about Ealing and Acton.
We certainly want people such as Heidi to achieve the home that they want. Through Help to Buy, right to buy, right to acquire, help to build and a variety of mechanisms, including our 95% fixed-term mortgage guarantee, there is a multiplicity of ways in which we can get people on to the housing ladder. The hon. Lady also asks about our planning reforms, and I can tell her that she will be hearing more about those in due course.
I am sure that the Minister would agree that by far the best people to decide how many homes we want and where they should be are local people. Would he therefore agree with me and the town of Malmesbury in my constituency, which raised the point that the neighbourhood plan, which this Conservative Government brought in, is currently being trumped by the so-called five-year housing land supply figures, which are handed down by central Government? Will he give me a hint as to whether greater importance will be given in the forthcoming housing White Paper to neighbourhood planning, thereby allowing local people to decide how many houses they want and where?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because it gives me the opportunity to make it clear that it is for local communities to determine how many homes they want and need in their vicinity. Local housing need numbers are not an end point; they are a starting point. It is for local authorities to determine what constraints they may face to determine the numbers of homes that they need in their area. They then agree those numbers with the Planning Inspectorate to set a sound plan, and that is then the number that the local authorities build toward. Local authorities that fail to set an up-to-date plan leave their constituents at risk of speculative development, so it is for local authorities to set the numbers and make their plans.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for the brief, tantalising preview of what is to come. The levelling-up fund is allocated according to objective criteria, including value for money, strategic fit, deliverability and the characteristics of place. I am therefore delighted that places such as Rotherham, Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne have already secured funding through our levelling-up funds, which include the towns fund, the levelling-up fund itself and the previous local growth fund.
A bit more tantalisation here: how can the Government’s levelling-up allocations possibly be equitable and transparent when the Government’s own index of multiple deprivation indicates that the constituencies of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care—numbers 254 and 268 of the 310 on the index—received £27 million and £14.5 million respectively, while an area in the top 0.5% of the index, which includes my constituency, where my constituency office is based, received nothing? The question is: is that equitable, transparent and fair? Will the Secretary of State or a Minister meet me and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), to discuss our concerns?
It is certainly equitable, transparent and fair, and should the hon. Member wish, there is an explanatory memorandum on gov.uk, which would take him, as it would any hon. Member, through the process by which funds have been allocated. I should say that the whole Liverpool city region received £37.5 million through the levelling-up fund, but I would be delighted to talk to him and the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) to ensure that future bids can land carefully, safely and successfully.
In Newcastle, we have been waiting seven years—seven years—for real-time integrated bus information of the type that Londoners take for granted. Now we hear that the £3 billion bus improvement funding is less than half that, and much of that is going on zero-emission buses, meaning even less money for our bus improvement plan, which includes real-time information. Will the Secretary of State commit to levelling up bus transport in the north so that we are no longer under-served, overcharged and underinformed?
Having spent some of the happiest months of my twenties on buses in Newcastle, I can absolutely sympathise with the hon. Member. It is the case that her constituency received £20 million from the levelling-up fund, but I look forward to working with her, the North of Tyne Mayor and Newcastle City Council to see what more we can do to improve public transport.
I welcome the £11 million from the levelling-up fund that has already gone to Rother Valley, including £4.5 million to transform Maltby, and I am glad that Rotherham Council is again putting in another bid for Rother Valley to get another £9 million for Dinnington High Street. Can the Secretary of State tell me what future funding pots will be available for other parts of Rother Valley, so that the whole of the constituency can be levelled up, especially the likes of Thurcroft, Swallownest and Kiveton Park?
My hon. Friend is right that there has already been significant investment in Rotherham. Of course, one of the beneficiaries of that is the shadow Defence Secretary, whose impassioned advocacy on behalf of his constituents has not gone unheard; however, there are a number of communities in Rother Valley. The community ownership fund, which we will be expanding, is just one route, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to take it with me to ensure that the villages and communities that he serves get the services they deserve.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that smaller and rural local authorities often do not have the capacity to deal with complex application processes? What steps will he take to address that concern?
My right hon. Friend is right. He represents, I think, the largest, and certainly the second-most attractive constituency in Scotland, which covers three excellent local authority areas. There are excellent local councillors in all of them but, essentially because they lack the economies of scale, we need to work with those local authorities to ensure that, from Lockerbie to Moffat, the communities that deserve investment secure it.
I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that the success of levelling up will depend in large part on how much money is available and how it is distributed. I do not know whether he has had a chance to look at the recent research by Teesside University, which shows that over the past seven years the amount of money coming through EU funding and the local growth fund has been £2.1 billion a year, while the amount for the next few years from the shared prosperity and levelling-up funds is projected to be only £1.5 billion a year—a significant cut. In addition, the cuts in his own Department’s funding have hit the poorest local authorities the hardest, so when he produces his levelling-up White Paper, will he produce a comprehensive list of spending per head by region for each Department and show how the policies he is advocating will change those funding levels for the benefit of the poorest areas, which have suffered most in the past 10 years?
I would gently contest the argument that the poorest areas have suffered most in the past 10 years, but the Chairman of the Select Committee makes an important point about transparency in the allocation of funding, and I look forward to working with him to ensure just that.
Given current media speculation about the allocation of levelling-up funding, and given that I am a Member of this House who has unfortunately had to vote against the Government on several occasions recently, will the Secretary of State reassure me on whether there is any point in North West Leicestershire reapplying for levelling-up funding? Does he agree that, were Coalville to be successful in the next round of bidding, it would demonstrate that the Government are not engaging in pork barrel politics?
My hon. Friend, like me, abjures the whole idea of pork barrels. What we both believe in is allocating funding on the basis of merit and need. I can assure him that he has been in the same Division Lobby as me more often, I believe—although I stand to be corrected by the Whips—than the deputy leader of the Labour party, the shadow Defence Secretary, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, the shadow Culture Secretary or the shadow Social Care Secretary, all of whom have benefited from levelling-up funds. If a requirement for Government funding were voting with the Government, I fear that the deputy leader of the Labour party, my dear friend, would have lost out. However, I am delighted that her constituents in Ashton-under-Lyne have benefited from our funding, because we are committed to levelling up and uniting the country, irrespective of political colour.
Analysis of levelling-up funding published recently by NPC—New Philanthropy Capital—found that, despite strong public support, homelessness is not being properly addressed. It found that communities with the highest concentrations of black, African and Caribbean communities fared poorly, and that four of the most deprived communities missed out entirely. Both the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) have sought to make a supposed joke of this, but I do not think it is laughing matter that while poorer communities have missed out, the constituencies of at least three Cabinet Ministers, which are considerably more affluent, were successful in their bids. Beyond the jokes and the spin, does the Secretary of State honestly expect the House to believe that the Government have acted equitably rather than defaulting to the usual approach of pursuing narrow self-interest?
I cannot see how it would be in the narrow self-interest of the Government, if operating on partisan lines, to have given the hon. Gentleman’s constituency £18 million for transport improvements from the levelling-up fund. These are not jokes; these are serious matters. We work with people across this House, including and especially in the Labour party, to ensure that funding goes where it is required. Lying behind the allegations made by him and others is a suggestion that somehow civil servants would conspire with Ministers deliberately to favour constituencies on the basis of political colouration.
My new opposite number, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)—I offer her my congratulations on her elevation—recently wrote to me to ask whether we would make transparent the basis on which we allocate that funding. We have: it is published on a website called gov.uk. Google can sometimes be helpful to all of us.
Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s earlier comments, I am sure that he would never accuse a fellow Tory MP of misleading the House. Will he therefore comment on the veracity of the specific remarks made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) about threats made to Tory MPs to withdraw investment from their constituencies and release negative press stories as punishment for supporting a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister? Will he outline what investigations he intends to undertake to look into the abuse, or possible abuse, of levelling-up funds?
There is no evidence of any abuse of levelling-up funding. If anyone has it, I hope that they will bring it to the House’s attention. As for any suggestion that someone may be on the receiving end of lots of negative press stories for voting against the Government, as someone who is solid, 100%, totally behind the Prime Minister and yet also on the receiving end of a plethora of negative press stories, I can tell the hon. Member that there is no correlation between the two.
On every single criterion, my Gosport constituency should qualify for levelling-up funding, but our recent bid for funds was unsuccessful. Quite simply, we have a small council that lacks the resources to compete with the big guys for the funding, and there is also a strong feeling that our south coast location could disadvantage us. If, as the Secretary of State said, impassioned advocacy is a recipe for attracting funding, can he please give me a glimmer of hope for the future? Will he tell me that the levelling-up White Paper will also offer us hope, and when it will be published?
Few people put more passion into their advocacy than my hon. Friend. While in levelling up we must have a proper focus on the midlands and the north, other parts of the United Kingdom, including the area around the Solent—Gosport, Portsmouth and Southampton—also require investment. I will work with her to ensure that that investment is forthcoming.
Increasing Devolution Across the UK
The Government are committed to ensuring that devolution works across the United Kingdom. We hope to deepen and extend devolution within England.
Unfortunately, the levelling-up fund is already being used to bypass the devolved Governments, and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 could enable UK Ministers to overrule the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments’ policy decisions. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that riding roughshod over devolution will force the people of Scotland and Wales to choose between a return to direct rule by Westminster and controlling their own future through independence?
I appreciate the point and the way in which the hon. Lady makes it, but it is the case that a number of constituencies in Scotland received money from the levelling-up fund, and that money was allocated on the basis of bids supported by Scottish National party MPs and championed by Scottish National party-led councils. I enjoy working with the Scottish Government to ensure that we can work collectively together. Whatever our views on constitutional questions, the fact that we can work together on such issues is a credit to those Ministers in the Scottish Government who want to take that pragmatic approach and to her parliamentary colleagues who champion funding for their constituencies.
Freeports are one of the ways this Government are levelling up across the devolved Administrations, and I am delighted that there is to be at least one freeport in Wales. Can the Secretary of State update the House about ongoing discussions with the Welsh Government and when we can expect the Welsh freeport bidding prospectus to be published?
I can confirm that we have had very fruitful negotiations not just with the Scottish Government, but with the Welsh Government. I want to place on record my thanks to Vaughan Gething and other Ministers in the Welsh Government, and I hope that we will be able to make an announcement shortly about the process by which we will allocate freeports in Wales. At the moment the proposal is for one freeport in Wales, but I recognise that both south Wales and north Wales have significant potential for freeports in the future, and there are few better advocates, in particular for Anglesey, than my great hon. Friend.
The current Tory leader in Scotland and two former Tory leaders in Scotland, alongside every single Tory MSP, are calling for the Prime Minister to resign after their Scottish branch office leader was sneered at by the Secretary of State as just a man “in Elgin” and the Leader of the House decried him as a “lightweight”. In view of this, can the Secretary of State clarify how the self-declared Prime Minister of the Union will increase devolution while Scots calling for his resignation believe he is actively harming the Union?
I am terribly sorry but I did not realise or appreciate that saying someone came from Elgin was an insult as far as the SNP is concerned; in my view, it is a compliment.
Increasing Housing Supply: Local Communities
As I said in a previous answer, building homes is key to levelling up, and that is why we announced an additional £1.8 billion for housing supply at the last spending review, delivering £10 billion-worth of investment since the start of this Parliament and unlocking over 1 million new homes. However, it is important that local communities have input to the planning process, and we recognise that as part of our planning reforms the planning system must be more engaging and much more democratic.
Many people in social housing have been able to exercise the voluntary right to buy scheme for tenants of social landlords. However, in so-called rural locations, many are excluded, including many thousands of my own constituents. Would the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me and other MPs with constituents in similar situations to find a way forward that both enables people to own their own homes and ensures that the level of housing stock for rent from social landlords is maintained?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. We are committed to enabling tenants in social housing to acquire their own home through right to buy or right to acquire, and we have helped nearly 2 million tenants to become homeowners—dream-home owners. I am aware that there are some particular issues in some particular rural areas, and I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues to discuss how we can ensure that those people have the opportunity of home ownership, too.
The Minister will know—and you will know, Mr Speaker—that I am a fan of One Direction, and Harry Styles in particular. If it is true that Harry Styles is looking to buy a £10 million property in the west country, he will join the thousands of people who have been hoovering up our homes to make them second homes. The pandemic has turbocharged the housing crisis in the west country, so will the Minister look seriously at ensuring every west country family can have a first home, not just have a region full of second homes for those who can afford one?
We are determined to make sure that there are homes available to buy for the people who want them around our United Kingdom, including in holiday hotspots such as the west country. That is why we have brought forward new policies such as First Homes, why we are closing the loophole which allows some people to abuse their second home and holiday let properties, and why we want to build more homes in those places to ensure people have the opportunity to own and enjoy them.
Infrastructure for New Homes: Sittingbourne and Sheppey
The Government support local authorities through both central funding and developer contributions to deliver the infrastructure that new development demands. In 2020-21, Swale Borough Council secured over £3.7 million of developer contributions and we are providing Kent County Council with £38 million from the housing infrastructure fund to support road improvements, which will unlock 8,500 homes in Swale.
I am always grateful for any money that Swale Borough Council gets, but of course those particular funds are designed to ensure even more homes can be built, and that would do nothing to reduce congestion on roads in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, or to increase the number of secondary school places available to local people, or to make it easier for those people to get an appointment with a GP. What Swale needs is fewer houses, not more; so would my right hon. Friend consider placing a moratorium on housing targets for Swale Borough Council and local authorities in Kent generally until the problems I have highlighted are resolved?
As I said in a previous answer, it is for local authorities to determine the number of homes they need and to set those numbers accordingly. We want to make sure that where development takes place infrastructure is available to support it. That is why we have the HIF—housing infrastructure fund—to which I have referred and the new home building fund, with a significant amount of money for infrastructure. It is also why we want through our planning reforms to look carefully at how infrastructure funding can be provided, so that it is provided up front and new developments benefit from the schools and clinics and kids’ playgrounds that they need, and new communities get bang for their buck.
West Midlands Combined Authority: Further Devolution
We commend the West Midlands Combined Authority under the leadership of Andy Street for its ambition to secure further powers for the region and will be saying more about our plans to strengthen local leadership in the forthcoming White Paper.
The Mayor of the West Midlands and I disagree on much, but I think he buys into my argument that we should be the green workshop of the world, and I agree with him that delivering on that requires radical devolution of resources and powers in at least 12 different areas, from skills to energy regulation. Has the Minister read the submission from the combined authorities—the Mayor and the seven mighty authorities of the west midlands—and, crucially, when the levelling-up White Paper is delivered, will he deliver on it?
I am glad to see this wonderful outbreak of consensus. I have read the exciting proposals put forward to us but I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the White Paper; however, I will say that Andy Street has continued to bring forward very exciting and interesting ideas.
Church of England: Real Estate
We welcome and encourage the steps the Church is taking to make more of its land available for affordable housing. Since the Archbishops’ debate in March 2021 and the publication of the report from the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community, my officials have engaged with representatives to consider how we can provide support for that, and that is expected to continue.
The Secretary of State will know that the Diocese of Gloucester has been doing a lot to help implement the important report from the Archbishops, “Coming Home”. I particularly want to thank Bishop Rachel and all involved for their work in funding the national housing executive and delivering projects such as St Aldate’s and Hardwicke. The Secretary of State will however also know that housing is a complicated issue for the Church and the draft legal reforms on ownership are stuck with the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops’ Council, so what more can my right hon. Friend do, perhaps in conjunction with the Second Church Estates Commissioner, to make sure that the Church of England lives up to its leaders’ social mission and helps provide more space for homes for some of those most in need?
I am tempted to quote from the Gospel, John 14:2:
“In my Father’s house are many mansions”,
and it is certainly the case that we want to work with the Church of England to unlock more land and support its drive to secure greater access to affordable housing. I have recently been in touch in particular with the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, and I know he will be taking forward further conversations in order to achieve the goals he and I and the Second Church Estates Commissioner share.
Levelling Up: Active Travel
Active travel is central to levelling up the nation’s health, air quality, social connectedness and prosperity. The Government committed £710 million of new active travel funding at the spending review and are establishing active travelling to support places. The White Paper will discuss transport’s contributions to levelling up, including of course active travel.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He knows of course that travel accounts for nearly a third of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, with the majority coming from petrol and diesel vehicles. In my constituency of Bath the council is working very hard to get to net zero by 2030, and active travel is a key part of that. So in the upcoming planning reforms will the Secretary of State include the 20-minute neighbourhood principle, which ensures that people can access services and goods within a 20-minute return walk?
That is a very good principle—I completely agree with it. For those who do not follow our proceedings with the same intensity as top political commentators and all the rest of it, active travel refers to walking and cycling. I completely agree with hon. Lady. What we want to do is create communities where people can walk or cycle to all the facilities and amenities that they need. That is one reason why I am such a great fan of the work of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and the developments for which he has been responsible, as they embody that principle more effectively than the work of almost anyone I know.
Grassroots sports clubs and facilities are crucial to levelling up in some of the most deprived parts of Ipswich, whether it is a BMX club in Gainsborough, a boxing club in Nacton or Ipswich Vale Exiles FC: Maidenhall and Chantry. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that that is something that will be acknowledged in the White Paper and that when it comes to the second tranche of the levelling-up fund there is a possibility for it to be a grassroots clubs and facilities fund to back levelling up in such an important way?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is the case that the levelling-up fund and the community ownership fund are oriented towards ensuring that cultural and sporting activities can be supported. I should remark that just over a week ago I had the pleasure of visiting Bury where, through the community ownership fund, we could give the fan-led consortium the resources needed to take Gigg Lane back into its ownership. Only a few days later, the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) defected to the Labour party. Once a Shaker, always a Shaker, I was told in Bury, but there are some people who are steady on parade and there are some people who shake it all about. I think in Bury we prefer those who are steady on parade, rather than those who wobble under pressure.
And Gigg Lane has the finest playing surface. We now go to topicals, with Paul Blomfield.
On Thursday this week, it is, as the House knows, Holocaust Memorial Day. My hon. Friend the Minister for Levelling Up Communities will lead a debate on that day. It is important that we all recognise that the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust are absolutely invaluable, not just in challenging the unique evil of the holocaust and the poison of antisemitism but in reminding us that we need to be vigilant against prejudice of all kinds: anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and any prejudice that is based on religion, ethnicity or any of our protected characteristics.
I certainly endorse the comments by the Secretary of State in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day.
The latest figures for Sheffield from February 2020 to April 2021 show a 46% increase in the number of private renters claiming housing benefit, because wages are simply not keeping up with rising rents. Some 28% of private rentals in the city contain category 1 hazards, which involve serious risk of harm, compared with just 4% of social housing. As the cost of living crisis deepens and energy bills rise, what are the Government doing to alleviate pressure on private renters and when this year will the Secretary of State publish the rental reform White Paper?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is the case that there are a number of people in the private rented sector who are not getting the deal that they deserve, both regarding the level of rent and the decency of their homes. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on that.
The building regulations set out the minimum energy performance standards. They do not prescribe the technology that is required—they just set the goal—which allows builders and homeowners the flexibility to innovate and select the most practical and cost-effective solutions appropriate to any development. Obviously, our intention is to go further. We have had the part L uplift, and building regs will move towards the future homes standard for 2025.
Would the Secretary of State give the House a clear and categorical assurance that if he cannot ultimately extract enough money from industry finally to fix the building safety crisis he will not allow the Chancellor to raid his Department’s budgets, including funding already allocated for new affordable homes, to make up the shortfall?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to update the House on the conversations we had with developers last Thursday. Those conversations were cordial and constructive, but we were also clear about the obligation developers have. I am confident that they will meet it.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. As he will know, protecting the green belt is a firm manifesto commitment. Certificates of lawful use are intended to confirm that an existing use of land is lawful from a planning perspective. If there is any doubt about the lawfulness of the existing use, local authorities should reject the application and consider other ways of ensuring that progress is made. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further.
The latest figures from Shelter show that women are 36% more likely than men to be in a constant struggle to afford housing costs or be in arrears and that under this Government nearly two-thirds of people in temporary accommodation are women. Can the Secretary of State not see that the Conservative cost of living crisis, the damaging cuts to universal credit, and the failure to give renters security in their homes are forcing even more women into homelessness?
What we do see is that Government funding during the covid pandemic has meant that, as the English Housing Survey tells us, 93% of people are up to date with their rent. With regard to helping people, our renters White Paper is coming forward. We will be doing things like banning no-fault evictions and they will help renters regardless of gender.
We absolutely will consider that. I know there are innovators in my hon. Friend’s constituency who are leading work in that precise area, so I look forward to working with him and those in his constituency to achieve just that goal.
Yes, and let me consider it.
Again, I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his question. I will certainly consider the specific points he makes, but that is exactly what we want to do. Through the planning reforms we envisage, we want to ensure that developer contributions are made much more quickly in the process so that the sort of infrastructure he talks about is provided, and to ensure that greater land capture value is collected to ensure that those services can be provided to a greater extent.
I absolutely will do that. Although the White Paper will include a number of proposals to help to reduce health inequalities, as Professor Michael Marmot’s report and work—alongside the all-party group’s work—have demonstrated, significant work is required to be done on everything from obesity to cramped housing in order to deal with those issues.
Almost a year ago, the Minister for Housing, who has responsibility for planning, wrote to Liberal Democrat-run Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council to say that it does not have an up-to-date local plan and to ask it to do more to get it updated. In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), the Minister said that part of the problem is that areas become open to speculative developments. One way to strengthen the position is by having a neighbourhood plan, as in vanguard places such as Market Bosworth. The problem is that they are being ridden roughshod over. Will he look to strengthen the role of neighbourhood plans in future, and failing that, in the meantime, will he encourage Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council to get its plan sorted and up to date?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. We certainly want to extend and expand the use of neighbourhood plans in constituencies such as his—in Hinckley and Bosworth—and he is right that I have written to the council to encourage it to get on and update its local plan. It is nice to see that there are a couple of Lib Dems on duty here, because they ought to hear that there is nothing liberal or democratic about exposing a local community to speculative development. That is what the people in Hinckley and Bosworth face and I am very keen to make sure that my officials work with Hinckley and Bosworth to get that plan in place.
Under the Conservatives, home insulation rates have plummeted, emissions from homes are higher now than they were in 2015 and UK homes are the least energy-efficient in the whole of Europe. To help struggling families with the spiralling cost of energy bills, will the Minister finally copy and paste Labour’s plan to retrofit every single home with a special scheme to help low-income households?
The Government have a number of plans to help with the decarbonisation of homes for people with low incomes. A good example would be our social housing decarbonisation fund, which already has £1 billion committed to it from this year.
Will the Secretary of State take steps to make sure that when we build very large new housing developments, it is easy for new residents to get into their local surgery or new health centre?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We absolutely need to make sure that easy access to infrastructure and public services is part of significant housing developments, and I look forward to working with him to ensure that that is true in South West Bedfordshire and elsewhere.
In my city of Norwich, we have had less levelling up and more vital services simply levelled. Will the Secretary of State stop fobbing us off with insufficient, ad hoc pots of money and ensure that sustainable, long-term funding is given to my city and county councils, the real engines of any levelling-up agenda?
We do provide sustainable funding. The hon. Gentleman will know that the provisional local government finance settlement made available an additional £3.5 billion to councils. Norwich City Council had an increase in cash terms of up to 4.8% compared with last year, giving it a total core spending power of up to £18.6 million. Norfolk County Council got an increase of up to £55.5 million and the core spending power of South Norfolk District Council was at £15.7 million. If there are further conversations that he would like to have, I am very happy for him to write to me.
Compared with communities across the country, Basingstoke has built 50% more new homes over the past two decades. Local residents want to make sure that we have homes for our children and grandchildren, but we believe that Basingstoke has been doing far more than that. What advice can my right hon. Friend give my local council on how we can make sure that future projected house-building levels reflect the very special circumstances in my constituency?
I commend my right hon. Friend and her council for all the sterling work they have done to build the homes in Basingstoke that people need. The important thing is for people to make sure that their local plan is up to date and that they agree a sound plan with the Planning Inspectorate, based on the constraints that there are, to get the number of houses they need. I am very happy to work with her to make sure that that is so.
The Secretary of State cannot fail to have noticed the number of questions in this session that have centred on the White Paper. Councils around the UK want to know what the timetable is, what the criteria are and when it will be published. Inverclyde wants to apply for this levelling-up funding. Will he help me? Does he want to visit Greenock, so I can show him the projects?
I have spent many happy hours in Greenock and am looking forward to many more. I imagine that time there can only be enhanced, whether in Cappielow or anywhere else, with the hon. Gentleman. The key thing about the levelling-up fund is that constituencies across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland, have benefited. I look forward to working with him and others to ensure that—[Interruption.] As a Morton fan, he will appreciate that patience is a virtue.
The forthcoming levelling-up White Paper is an opportunity to undo the imbalance in investment in active travel networks between towns and urban areas, which get the lot, and villages, which get very little to connect them. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a meeting between me and one of his Ministers, together with members of Potton Town Council and Sandy Town Council, to talk about their active travel network?
The Secretary of State will be aware that Warwickshire County Council is keen to have some sort of county unitary deal, but he will also be aware that Warwick District Council and Stratford-on-Avon District Council recently voted for a combined council—probably with the intent of a unitary one as well. Should it not be down to not the councillors or the Secretary of State, but the public to decide the future of local government across our country?
I welcome the moves across Warwickshire to consider how services can be delivered even more efficiently as part of the economic success story that is the greater west midlands. In particular, I commend the leadership of Izzi Seccombe, the leader of Warwickshire County Council. The fact that she and her group continue to be re-elected with ever greater levels of support indicates that she is in a strong position to help bring people together across the constituency.
Volunteers who serve on our parish councils do an amazing job. In rural communities such as mine, there are significant challenges to attending meetings, such as transport, adverse weather, work and caring responsibilities. In the pandemic, we have seen that the virtual or hybrid format works well. Moving forward, will the Secretary of State look to allow parish councils to sit in virtual or hybrid format to increase and widen access and to help them work to the best of their ability?
If during the pandemic we had not allowed councils to meet virtually, not only would we have impaired the effective working of local government, but we would never have known about Jackie Weaver and the country would have been the poorer for it. I commend the work of parish councils and others. I am strongly in sympathy with the view that hybrid meetings should continue in order to ensure the maximum amount of efficiency. There is a case for saying that certain significant local authority meetings should occur with all councillors present, but I want to proceed with the maximum amount of consensus to reflect the maximum level of efficiency and in particular of sensitivity to those who serve in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, where the rurality and dispersed nature of representation are important.
Tonga: Volcano Eruption and Tsunami
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if she will make a statement on the eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha‘apai volcano and subsequent tsunami in Tonga.
I am saddened and shocked by the situation in Tonga, and my thoughts are with all those caught up in the appalling devastation caused by the volcanic eruption and tsunami. My thoughts are also with the family of the British woman, Angela Glover, who died following the tsunami. We are supporting her family and are in contact with the local authorities.
On 15 January, a series of eruptions from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha‘apai underwater volcano were heard and felt across Tonga. Shortly afterwards, a tsunami hit the islands, including the main island of Tongatapu and the capital Nuku‘alofa. There were reports of waves between 5 metres and 10 metres high, and the eruption caused waves as far away as Peru. The explosions have left Tonga covered in a layer of thick volcanic ash. New Zealand and Australian defence forces conducted surveillance flights, which reported catastrophic damage on Atata island, Mango island and Niniva island. Full details of the humanitarian impact are still unknown, but there are estimates that up to 80,000 people will have been affected.
The UK is providing vital humanitarian support: working closely with our Australian and New Zealand partners, we have provided 17 pallets of supplies, including 90 family tents, eight community tents and wheelbarrows, specifically requested by the Tongan Government. That support is en route to Tonga on Australia’s HMAS Adelaide and is expected to arrive the day after tomorrow. The Royal Navy ship HMS Spey should arrive in Tonga on 25 January. Supplies to be delivered by HMS Spey will include bottled water, sets of personal protective equipment and first aid kits, and we are looking at further support.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies disaster relief emergency fund has released £345,000 to the Red Cross Society of Tonga to support its response in assisting the affected communities. The UK is a significant donor to the DREF. More generally, since 2015 Tonga has received more than £25 million of UK aid through our core funding to multilateral institutions. The UN is deploying a crisis expert to co-ordinate the response, and the UK is funding that deployment.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. The Tongan Government have called the eruption an “unprecedented disaster”. A volcanic blast visible from space, more powerful than an atomic bomb, it has affected 85% of Tongans through not just the eruption itself, but ash, which now poses a threat to drinking supplies and public health, and the tsunami that swept away their homes and washed Lisala Folau out to sea. He said:
“When I was in the water I remember going under eight times. My legs are disabled and don’t function as well”.
He clung to a log for 27 hours and, miraculously, survived.
Tonga may be a long way away, but it is a Commonwealth partner and ally and a long-standing friend. The Tongan high commissioner has asked me to convey their thanks to the British people for their support. I hear what the Minister says, but she will know that none of the money going to Tonga is new. Why have we not promised any new bilateral aid, since we have not given them a penny this year? Does she regret the decision to cut aid to our Commonwealth partners more generally by £500 million, and does she accept that the aid cut leaves us responding to disasters such as this with one hand tied behind our back? Under our presidency of COP26, attention was rightly given to the vulnerability of small island developing states such as Tonga. Does she agree that unless we help Tonga to recover fully from this crisis, it will struggle to put in place the necessary mitigations for the even greater climate crisis?
Will the Minister also answer the following questions? What conversations has she personally had with Tongan counterparts? She mentioned supporting one family, but are there other UK nationals needing support in Tonga? Can she clarify the role of HMS Spey in further operations, especially given Tonga’s zero-covid approach? Finally, I note the drift and delay in the Government’s response to the crisis. It took nearly a week for any kind of an announcement—an announcement made by press release. I tabled named day questions that were due last Friday, but I have yet to hear back. Is that indicative of what happens when development is relegated from its seat at the Cabinet table?
Tonga and the UK have deep historical ties and are both Commonwealth members. Tonga is a low-lying state, extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, as the hon. Lady points out, and to natural disasters. We are working with other Commonwealth members, including Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, to support Tonga as it recovers from this damage. It is absolutely right that we should work hand in hand with our partners.
The hon. Lady asked about communications. As she knows, connectivity has been affected throughout Tonga, including the undersea cable. Repairs to that cable are due to start towards the end of this week, but I am told it will take up to two weeks to restore it. In the meantime, the satellite telecommunications have been invaluable. As the hon. Lady will know, our high commission in Tonga reopened just last year, and our high commissioner has been using her satellite phone not only to communicate with the crisis centre in Wellington but to give support to British nationals. As for our ongoing support, the 17 pallets requested by the Tongan Government have been sent, and, as I have said, HMS Spey is on its way and due to arrive shortly with, for example, water and urgently needed health supplies.
I cannot comment any further, because we are continuing to monitor the situation and work with partners to assess the full need—which is also why the United Nations crisis management is so important, and that is what we are funding.
No one could fail to be moved by the pictures of the devastation in Tonga that has followed the tsunami, but there are good links between Tonga and our country, not least through some of the fantastic Tongan rugby players who are playing here—including Malakai Fekitoa, who has set up a relief fund that has already raised £50,000. Malakai plays for the Wasps in Warwickshire, and the club has said that it will donate 20% of its ticket revenues from the match that will take place this weekend. Will the Minister join me in applauding the rugby community for coming together and supporting Tonga in the way that it always would?
I absolutely do pay tribute to those rugby players for all they are doing to raise funds for this urgent situation, and wish the Warwickshire Wasps well in all their matches. I do not know how they intend the money they are raising to be distributed, but I should be more than happy to make contact with my hon. Friend and perhaps put him in touch with the DREF so it can ensure that the money reaches those who need it on the ground.
I call the shadow Minister, Catherine West.
Like many others, Opposition Members have been shocked by the scenes and personal stories coming from Tonga, and, with communications difficult, I fear that there is still bad news to come. I know the whole House will join me in expressing our complete solidarity with the people of Tonga, and passing our condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the tsunami and the volcanic eruption.
Tonga and the United Kingdom have deep and abiding relationships, not just in respect of education, culture and the armed forces, but across both codes of rugby—including rugby league, which I know you will appreciate, Mr Speaker; it is not just rugby union that has the civic society reach. I understand that it is at Coventry that the Wasps play, but let us leave that one there. It is fantastic to hear that clubs are joining together across civic society to help out with the crowd funding for this terrible disaster.
It is right that the UK is stepping up to the plate to offer support. I commend the high commission for the work that it has already undertaken to support the people of Tonga, working closely with the Australian and New Zealand defence forces to deliver aid speedily. It is so important for things to be done speedily in the Pacific. That support will clearly need to be maintained to ensure that Tonga can rebuild and recover in the short to medium term, and, given our close links, we should continue to do that. Our support should not be just a knee-jerk reaction now; it should be sustained.
I have four asks of the Minister. First, which additional assets, if any, are being deployed to Tonga or are under consideration for deployment once the Spey effort has concluded? Secondly, may I press the Minister on the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) about the need for rebuilding in the context of the cuts in development aid? Thirdly, what is the medium to long-term strategy for the region? What conversations has the Minister had with regional partners to ensure that there is a co-ordinated and sustained approach? Finally, what specific assessment has been made of the impact that the eruption and tsunami will have on the covid effort specifically, and of how the UK can assist in health protection?
These are difficult days for the people of Tonga, and our response in the House has the potential to be of great relief and comfort to them in their hour of need.
I absolutely recognise the rugby league contribution in Tonga. In fact, I have fond memories of attending an international rugby league tournament in Hawaii in the 1990s, when I first saw the Tongans play—but let us return to more serious matters.
HMS Spey will arrive in Tonga tomorrow, 25 January, but we are considering further support. The deployment of the UN crisis expert will help to co-ordinate that response, which is why we are funding it.
On official development assistance budgets, we maintained our rapid response capabilities in close coordination with the Australian Government, and that means that the support we are providing is tailored to the needs of those affected. Since 2015, Tonga has received more than £26.9 million of aid, as I mentioned, through multilateral organisations. That includes the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and others. Indeed, more than £300 million in aid has been provided to other, similar Pacific island states.
With reference to the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), can we go one step further and consider whether Six Nations rugby games could hold a special collection for Tonga that could then be match-funded by the British Government, so that everyone would have the chance to contribute in a sport to which Tonga has contributed so much itself, and the Government can play their part too?
I would be more than happy to discuss with my hon. Friend how rugby fans can help the people of Tonga.
And this year we have the rugby league world cup, which Tonga is meant to be playing in, so we need to give it what support we can.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on asking the urgent question. The House is united in our sadness for the people of Tonga, and we want to see what we can do to assist the efforts that have been outlined today. I am very struck by the suggestion that the Six Nations could make a contribution or hold some sort of fundraiser. I told the Scottish Rugby Union that we would be very strongly behind that to help the Tongans in their time of need.
I acknowledge what the Minister has outlined about the aid that has been requested and is on its way to Tonga, but we really must reassess the cuts that have been made, particularly to the emergency disaster relief fund—from £500 million to £35.4 million. We cannot do more with less, and under this Administration we have seen a deliberate and wilful cutting of capacity to deal with climate change, international development and emergency responses. I urge that we continue our long-term engagement with Tonga and the wider world, and get those budgets back up to the levels they need to be at for the challenges ahead.
We remain a world leader in international development. In 2020, we were the world’s third largest donor. We have rightly been looking at how that aid is best used, which is why during the conference of the parties and in the run up to it, we announced that more funding from the UK would go towards international climate change. That is particularly important for supporting small island developing states in their adaptation and resilience programmes. It is also why it is so important that we work towards delivery of the $100 billion climate finance goal. In Glasgow we also announced the global goal on adaptation and the Glasgow dialogue on loss and damage, and that will help better coordinate financial support when there are extreme impacts such as this. We are leading in our work on climate change through COP and through our ODA.
I am reassured by what the Government are doing in sending aid to Tonga. It is one of the longest-serving members of the Commonwealth and a real friend of the UK. The islands are largely covid-free and there are some concerns that aid workers are isolating on arrival and food is being quarantined, and that is delaying the relief operation somewhat. What discussions has my hon. Friend had on urgently speeding up the process so that the people of Tonga can be helped as fast as possible?
That is an excellent question. Covid-19 has had little effect on Tonga directly, because strict border controls have meant no cases in the community, although there was one case in quarantine on 27 October, which was contained. However, the border closures have deeply affected the tourism industry and impacted the economy. That will be something for ongoing discussions between Tonga and those who are seeking to provide support with humanitarian aid.
It is all well and good to talk about how much money is being given to Tonga, whether in aid or through climate adaptation finance, but the fact is that Tonga is expected to pay more than $18.5 million in debt repayments this year, with a lot of it going to China, and the International Monetary Fund lists Tonga as being at high risk of debt distress. In my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on small island developing states, I met the Jubilee Debt Campaign earlier today to talk about how SIDS struggle to access comprehensive debt relief. The existing G20 schemes fall well short of helping SIDS. What can the Minister do to ensure that we do not give to Tonga with one hand and take away with the other?
The hon. Lady rightly raises the impact of Chinese debt. China increasingly seeks long-term strategic influence in Pacific island countries. As the Foreign Secretary stated last week, Russia and China are working together more and more to assert their dominance over the western Pacific. It is estimated that no fewer than 44 low to middle-income countries have debts to Beijing that represent in excess of 10% of their GDP. The UK is working and will continue to work with international partners, including to help countries avoid loading their balance sheets with debt that they cannot afford.
I thank the Minister for her statement and echo the words from throughout the Chamber about our solidarity and support for the people of Tonga. I welcome the fact that we are working closely with our close allies in Australia and New Zealand to support the people of Tonga and very much welcome the Minister’s statement that the UK is redeploying military assets to provide humanitarian support for Tonga. Does my hon. Friend agree that this situation shows the importance and strength of the Commonwealth? We pull together and really help out when partners are in need.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Commonwealth is an incredibly important partnership. In fact, the Foreign Secretary was in Australia only last week. In this instance, there has been great support from Australia and New Zealand and from the Fijian authorities, who intend to send a cargo vessel with items requested by the Tongan authorities, which is expected to arrive on the 28th of this month.
How can the Minister possibly claim that the UK is leading in this kind of response when the severity and frequency of natural and climate disasters is only increasing yet the UK budget for response is falling significantly and dramatically? Will she confirm whether the costs of the HMS Spey will also be counted—we might say double-counted—towards NATO’s 2% target for military spending?
We should be praising our Royal Navy for its very swift action. It is remarkable that HMS Spey is due to arrive the day after tomorrow. We should be deeply grateful to members of the Royal Navy for all they do to support people in trouble around the globe.
Tonga is a long-standing friend and partner to the UK, not least through its membership of the Commonwealth, and the UK has a long and proud tradition in respect of disaster relief. Will my hon. Friend confirm that those involved in the delivery of relief, including our excellent Royal Navy, are working to deliver it as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend asks a good question. We are endeavouring not only to deliver relief as quickly as possible but to deliver the supplies that the Tongans themselves have identified that they need. That is what will happen with the first pallets, which are due to arrive the day after tomorrow, and then with HMS Spey when she arrives.
My heart goes out to the Tongan people. Many of us were saddened by the shocking scenes and the devastation brought about by the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha‘apai volcano and the ensuing tsunami. Our international development budget cuts and the cuts to emergency and disaster relief are widely documented, and the poorest communities around the world lament them. Will the Minister ensure that we give the maximum possible support to our friends in Tonga and that that support is sustained into the medium to long term and does not cease immediately after the current crisis has ended?
As I have said, we remain one of the largest donors—in fact, the third largest donor—of international development aid in the world. We are giving the support to the Tongan people that they are requesting at the moment, and it is right that, right now, we focus on the emergent needs. Sadly, we know that full recovery from incidents such as this can take some time, but that is why we are working with the UN, and with our friends in Australia and New Zealand and others in the region.
The tsunami and the effects of the volcano eruption brought back painful memories for many of us who lost friends and relatives in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, so we know the pain that many are suffering. We wish Commander Proudman and his crew on HMS Spey the very best for their mission there, but will the Minister look seriously at the long-term consequences of this? The UN estimates that 60% to 70% of livestock-owning households have seen animals perish on the islands. The agricultural sector in Tonga accounts for 65% of the country’s exports. When the Minister is looking at what medium and long-term support we can offer, can we also include ensuring that some of the poorest farmers in the world—the poorest farmers in Tonga—are getting the support that they need to get back on their feet?
As I have said, in addition to the immediate needs, we are also looking at further support. However, we do already give significant funding to Tonga and other Pacific island countries. We tend to do that through our core funding to multilateral organisations, including the World Bank, the Green Climate Fund and the Asian Development Bank. Indeed, we estimate that, since 2015, the Pacific island countries have received more than £357 million of UK funding through those organisations. It is often best to work with partners through that type of organisation to make sure that the best long-term support is given.
Covid-19: International Travel
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on international travel.
It is less than two months since the first cases of omicron—the most infectious variant to emerge since the start of the pandemic—were confirmed in the UK. Thanks once again to the nationwide army of medical staff and volunteers and the huge public response to our booster programme, today, with more than 137 million jabs administered, including nearly 37 million boosters, Britain is one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, and omicron is in retreat. Thanks also to the decisions taken by the Prime Minister, we have managed to turn the tide on the virus in remarkable time, while keeping our domestic society one of the most open in the world. Today, I can confirm to the House that our international travel regime will also now be liberalised, as part of our efforts to ensure that 2022 is the year in which restrictions on travel, lockdowns and limits on people’s lives are firmly placed firmly in the past.
From 4am on 11 February, and in time for the half-term break, eligible, fully vaccinated passengers arriving in the UK will no longer have to take a post-arrival lateral flow test. That means that, after months of pre-departure testing, post-arrival testing, self-isolation and additional expense, all that fully vaccinated people will now have to do when they travel to the UK is to verify their status via a passenger locator form.
We promised that we would not keep these measures in place a day longer than was necessary. It is obvious to me now that border testing for vaccinated travellers has outlived its usefulness, and we are therefore scrapping all travel tests for vaccinated people, not only making travel much easier, but saving around £100 per family on visits abroad, providing certainty to passengers, carriers and our vital tourism sectors for the spring and summer seasons.
Let me explain to the House how this will work in practice. For now, we will maintain our current definition of “fully vaccinated” for the purpose of inbound travel to the UK. That means two doses of an approved vaccine, or one dose of a Janssen vaccine. We will go further. The measures for those arriving in the UK who do not qualify as fully vaccinated have not changed since last March, so the time has come to review that position, too. Today, I can announce that passengers who do not qualify as fully vaccinated will no longer be required to do a day 8 test after arrival or to self-isolate. They will still need to fill out a passenger locator form to demonstrate proof of a negative covid test taken two days before they travel, and they must still take a post-arrival PCR test. This is a proportionate system that moves us a step closer to normality while maintaining vital public health protections.
For kids travelling to the UK, under-18s will continue to be treated as eligible fully vaccinated passengers, which means that they will not face any tests at the UK border. Today I am pleased to confirm that from 3 February, 12 to 15-year-olds in England will be able to prove their vaccination status via the digital NHS pass for international outbound travel. Again, this should help families to plan holidays for February half-term.
Reconnecting with key markets not only boosts the UK economy but will help the hard-hit aviation sector to take back to the skies, so I can also confirm that from 4 am on 11 February we will recognise, at the UK border, vaccine certificates from 16 further nations, including countries such as China and Mexico, bringing the vaccine recognition total to more than 180 countries and territories worldwide.
One consequence of covid and of rapidly changing infection patterns across the world has been a border regime that, while necessary, has at times been complex, confusing and very difficult to navigate. That has been a challenge for many people who have been travelling over the past two years, so we will also simplify the passenger locator form, making it quicker and easier to complete, and from the end of February we will also make it more convenient by giving people an extra day to fill it out before they travel. Although the option for a red list of countries will remain in place to provide a first line of defence against future covid variants of concern arriving from other countries, we are looking to replace the managed quarantine system with other contingency measures, including home isolation, provided that we can develop new ways to ensure high levels of compliance. In the meantime, our contingency measures remain available. As the House knows, there are currently no countries on the red list. However, I must make it clear that those contingency measures will be applied only if we are particularly concerned about a variant of concern that poses a substantial risk—one that is even greater than omicron.
The UK Health Security Agency will continue to monitor threats and will maintain a highly effective surveillance capacity, monitoring covid infections overseas. But I can announce that, over time, we intend to move away from blanket border measures to a more sophisticated and targeted global surveillance system. I also commit us to developing a full toolbox of contingency options to provide more certainty on how we will respond against future variants. The Government will set out our strategy, including how we will deal with any future new strains of the virus, next month. We will continue to work with international partners, including the World Health Organisation, to help all countries to achieve a level of genomic sequencing to monitor variants that is much closer to our own world-leading capacity.
We are moving into a new phase of the fight against covid. Instead of protecting the UK from a pandemic, our future depends on our living with endemic covid, just as we live with flu, for example. We will set out our strategy for that transition in the spring. But as we navigate our recovery, and as we return to more normal travel next month, our advice to all eligible adults who have not been vaccinated stays the same: please get jabbed as soon as possible, and if you have had two jabs, please get boosted. I have recently been speaking to many of my opposite numbers around the world, and they have made it clear to me that regardless of what we do, they are very likely, by this summer, to require that people have had the booster jab. So my advice to anyone who wishes to travel this year, including during the summer, is: do not leave it too late to get your booster as you are very likely to be required to have had it by the third country that you are flying to.
We already have one of the most open economies and societies in Europe, with the result that our GDP has outpaced that of other G7 countries. With the changes announced today, we have one of the most open travel sectors in the world. Of course we know that covid can spring surprises, but everybody should now feel confident about booking holidays, business trips, and visits to families and friends abroad. Be in no doubt: it is only because the Government got the big calls right—on vaccination, on boosters and on dealing with omicron—that we can now open up travel and declare that Britain is open for business. Today we are setting Britain free. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. The aviation industry is a critical part of the economy, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the UK, but the Government’s haphazard approach and their refusal to grant it sector-specific support have caused it real damage. The UK’s aviation sector has experienced a slower recovery than any of our European counterparts and had more than 60,000 job losses by summer last year. It is baffling that the Government did not do more to support it as a strategic sector and potentially attach conditions for transition to net zero, as countries such as France and Germany did.
Too often, the Government’s indecisive and chaotic approach to each wave of covid infections has failed to keep the country safe while causing uncertainty for the travelling public and for business. Each time a new variant has emerged, the Government have taken a different approach to border controls and restrictions. We all want to see safe international travel and the protection of public health, and that is precisely why the public finally deserve to hear in full how Ministers intend to develop a comprehensive, easily understandable plan to ensure that that can happen in the months ahead. We must avoid the sheer absurdity of the Secretary of State announcing one set of restrictions before promptly scrapping it and announcing a completely different regime. Businesses and the public should have clarity about what changes the Government will likely make in the event of a new variant and not have to wait until 5 pm on a Saturday night for new measures required on a Monday morning. That is why it is welcome that the Government will finally produce a plan to allow the travel industry and the public the certainty that they need. Labour recently outlined its plan on the action needed to learn to live well with covid and protect lives and livelihoods and help avoid harsh restrictions in future waves. That is critical when it comes to the travel industry.
As the Secretary of State said, it is inevitable that another variant of concern will emerge. With omicron, the Government’s plan was upended, proving that it was simply not fit for purpose. They must learn lessons and outline a framework to guide future decision making and detect future variants. Therefore, when the Secretary of State publishes his plan, will he include the data that will guide the approach to future variants and detail the economic, wellbeing and equality impact of each scenario? Given that only last week the Health Secretary said that testing will remain part of our walls of surveillance, does he agree that we should build up the UK’s sovereign capability to ensure that we always have a supply of tests when we need them? Has he considered the merits of a surveillance system to detect possible future variants?
Last month, the Secretary of State confirmed to me that he would raise my concerns and those of the Competition and Markets Authority about the PCR market with the Health Secretary. Will he update the House on what progress he has made in cleaning up that market for future travellers? I would also be grateful for his confirmation of whether the passenger locator form will be available in other languages in the future.
The announcement is also a visible reminder of another stark truth: in an era of global international travel, no one is safe until everyone is safe. In the UK, we have learnt that lesson the hard way. If we are to break the endless cycle of new variants, we must vaccinate the world, yet Ministers simply have not met the commitments made last summer at the G7 to get the vaccine rolled out to other parts of the globe; instead they cut the overseas aid budget. Will the Secretary of State outline what steps the Government are taking to deliver on those measures committed to at the G7?
Living with covid cannot be just an empty slogan with no plan. That is why we need to properly prepare and protect our lives and livelihoods in the future. It is time that Ministers finally gave passengers, industry and communities the security and stability that they deserve.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for—I think—welcoming the statement. I understand that she has not been in post for very long, but she will be aware of how her predecessors simultaneously called for us to tighten up and close the borders while relaxing and opening them, often on the same day or a few days apart. I understand that she has recently come to the post, but, if she does not mind my suggestion, there is one thing that she can do current day. She may be able to speak to her Welsh Labour governmental counterparts, who are a constant drag on opening up aviation. I hear that she is very keen that we move ahead with today’s plan; I hope she will be able to assist by persuading them to move a little more promptly.
The hon. Member quite rightly says that we need a toolbox to respond, as I mentioned in the statement. She is absolutely right about that; we do need a toolbox going forward, which is a question not just for the UK. This morning I was talking to the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, who co-chairs a World Health Organisation body working exactly on the global response. One of the most important things to stress in my statement, which might have been missed, is that we believe the time is right to move from individuals being checked as they come over our border—as we know, whatever the variant, eventually it gets in, as every country has found—to a global system of surveillance that is every bit as good as what we have here. “World leading” is applied often in the UK, but we genuinely have a world-leading version of surveillance, through the amount of coronavirus testing we can do with genome sequencing, and we are helping other countries through practical applications to catch up.
The hon. Member also asked what the Government are doing to honour the bid we made at the G7 and elsewhere on coronavirus. I gently point out that the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed by Oxford, has been used in more arms than any other vaccine in the world—I think I am right in saying that about 2.5 billion people have been vaccinated with it. That is a huge contribution, in addition to COVAX and all the other donations that we have made and will continue to make.
I am pleased to hear, I think, that the whole House welcomes the plan to unlock and to set Britain free.
Not only is today’s announcement another example of our living with covid; this is also a landmark day for international travel, a sector that has been absolutely decimated over the last couple of years. Today’s news is surely the evidence it needs to show that people should now feel confident to book with certainty. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State ensure a culture across Whitehall so that if there are bumps in the road, international travel will not be the sector that has to be made an example of, and so that we continue to support international travel and all the fantastic people who work in it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we have learned more about the pandemic, as it becomes endemic, it is quite right that our response should be different—a moment ago I mentioned shifting from individual testing at the border to a global system of testing—so I do give him that commitment. We are now looking to work with a new toolbox that will help to set out a framework. We will of course always act quickly if we have to, but I believe that the days of having to go back to big lockdowns at the borders are past.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Once again, though, we have an announcement on coronavirus restrictions being made to the press before Parliament. While the Government, and particularly this Secretary of State, are desperately trying to save the Prime Minister’s skin with announcements such as this or the removal of plan B restrictions generally, Parliament is repeatedly cut out of the loop, as the Government throw out policies to placate their base.
However, we have reached the omicron peak a little earlier than projected. Indeed, today in Scotland nightclubs can reopen, while the caps on indoor events, table service requirements for venues selling alcohol and social distancing have also been removed. However, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, the revised requirements that he has announced will apply to England only. What discussions has he had with colleagues in the devolved Administrations about the measures in his statement, and how did they factor into his decision? The devolved Administrations were consulted very late on previous changes to travel regulations and not given adequate time to look over the data and announce a decision simultaneously.
The Secretary of State proposes to remove the requirement to test on arrival, but he will surely accept that regular lateral flow testing is still imperative in identifying and tracing cases more generally, and allowing everyone to travel safely. What representations has he made to his colleagues to ensure that LFTs remain free on request for everyone, regardless of income? Can he also tell us a bit more—it has been asked about and I do not think he answered—about what mechanism will be put in place to monitor possible new variants, now that testing is no longer in place?
Finally, the aviation industry is still in the same position on the sector-specific support promised by the Government nearly two years ago. The impact of covid on travelling patterns and customer behaviour will not end with today’s statement, so what plan does the Transport Secretary have to fulfil the promises made to the sector at the start of the pandemic for real, targeted Government support? The job retention scheme was not enough for the 3,000 people in my constituency who lost their jobs, or for those who faced fire and rehire by companies such as Menzies Aviation and British Airways.
I just want the hon. Gentleman to know that, through the UK Health Security Agency, the four chief medical officers were involved in studying the data and reaching this conclusion. I also spoke this morning to a member of the Scottish National party Government, Michael Matheson, about these measures, so there has been that communication.
The hon. Gentleman asked, as he often does, about the support. It has now reached £8 billion for the aviation sector. We have had not just the job retention programme but loans, in addition to assistance to those on the ground. I ask him to look a little closer to home, because both Edinburgh and Glasgow airports have criticised the SNP Government for refusing even to meet them. They have said that that is in stark contrast to the proactive approach of the UK Government, and the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association has said that the industry has been “sacrificed” by the SNP, so I do not think we want to be taking too many lectures about support. Support comes from getting airlines back in the sky.
There has been nothing particularly unusual about the constantly changing rules in England—that has been replicated all around the world—but one thing that has been consistent throughout is the World Health Organisation’s advice that travel restrictions and border closures are not necessary because they do not prevent the spread of this virus or variants, so I welcome today’s statement. Of course, many of our popular holiday destinations in North America and in Europe will continue to require testing of people from third countries, so what discussions is the Transport Secretary having with other countries to encourage them to take the sensible approach that we are taking here in England?
I am in constant contact with my equivalent numbers around the world. We are having frequent conversations, in particular with G7 countries—we are, of course, chairing the presidency of the G7—with which I speak regularly. The biggest thing that could happen elsewhere is for them to reach our level of booster protection in particular. Our 37 million booster jabs have provided us with a wall of protection. Once that is available elsewhere, that will help to get international travel moving even faster.
I warmly welcome today’s announcement. As the Secretary of State knows, the Transport Committee has been unanimous in calling for this for some time. Could he explain, though, why he is keeping the passenger locator form? It is a massive irritant to people. It is much longer than the EU form and is very complicated. I hope he is not keeping it because he is relaxing the rules for the unvaccinated. That would be very unfair on the vaccinated. Will he reassure this House that, given what the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has said—namely, that compared with domestic health measures, these onerous testing requirements and draconian travel restrictions have been shown to have absolutely zero impact on the spread of covid and omicron over the past two years in this country—the Government will never resort to this policy again?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I also heard him making approving noises while I made my statement. He will want to speak to his Front-Bench colleagues, who, unlike Government Members, have consistently wanted us to go further and faster on closing the borders. We have tried to balance it against the critical nature of our island status as a nation.
The right hon. Gentleman asks a very good question about the passenger locator form and why we are keeping it. Members may not be aware that it is our only way of distinguishing between those who are vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated when they use e-gates to come into this country. A lot of work has been done to automate the e-gate so that it reads the passport number, refers back to the passenger locator form and knows whether that individual has had to take a pre-departure test—which people who have not been vaccinated have to take—and, indeed, whether they have to take a day 2 test. It is there for a critical reason. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the complexity of the passenger locator form, and I committed in my statement to going back through it and simplifying it, which is much easier to do now that we have the status of fully vaccinated people not requiring any tests at all.
My sincere thanks to the Government for these measures to reduce significantly the testing requirements for international travel during covid-19. As the Secretary of State has correctly mentioned, other jurisdictions around the world will require British travellers entering those countries and territories to do testing. Will he continue to monitor those testing companies in this country that, frankly, have been ripping off many customers and providing appalling service? One example affecting a number of my constituents is Chronomics. People have paid a lot of money to it and have waited in many cases more than a week to get test results back.
I absolutely commit to doing that. The system of testing is run by our colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care, and I share the frustration that the public have, as I know do colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care, that on occasions these companies have in some cases not behaved appropriately. The vast majority of the time, it should be said, they have provided excellent private sector provision, without which we would not have had capacity within the NHS, but I share my hon. Friend’s concern, and I know that colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care are on the case.
It is right that the Secretary of State said in his statement that the border at times, while necessary, has been
“complex, confusing and very difficult to navigate”.
That is fair. I highlight that, on a visit to Heathrow airport with the Home Affairs Committee last year, we heard about the frustration and the lack of engagement with the industry and trade unions by the Government on the regimes they were bringing in. Will the Secretary of State comment on the long-term plans to fully engage with unions and the industry to keep the border safe?
The right hon. Lady is clearly right to say that it was complex, confusing and difficult, as I mentioned in my statement. That was by necessity in many cases: we had to act over a weekend, and we had to change the law in a matter of four hours with the mink variant, I recall. That has necessitated a lot of discussions. I want to let her know that I have been in constant contact with, for example, Heathrow and the airlines. The aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), is doing that day in, day out, and we commit to redouble our efforts with them. Today is a watershed moment. Those are not my words, but those of Airlines UK, which has said that this is a real opportunity for the industry to get back on its feet and back into the air.
When it comes to international travel, Her Majesty’s Government can obviously control only so much. I warmly welcome the excellent Secretary of State’s announcement today, which puts inbound international travel in the best place it has been for two years. I am especially grateful—as he knows, I raised this issue in the House last week with the Prime Minister—as are many of my constituents with half term and Easter plans, that 12 to 15-year-olds will be able to prove their vaccination status via the digital NHS pass from 3 February, as the Secretary of State said in his statement. Can I ask him how practically that will happen, given that under-16s are currently barred from accessing the NHS app at all? What about young people who have had one jab and a recent infection? How will they be able to prove that status? Some practical examples, please.
On the NHS pass, my hon. Friend is right that 12 to 15-year-olds have not been able to access it up to now. They will be able to access that in time for half term. So they will be able to show their status or, indeed print it out in advance. Up to now, they have had to call 119 and order it. That system will change, which I know he will be pleased about.
The situation of people who have had a jab and then caught coronavirus and are then potentially in a position of natural immunity will continue in the short term to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, but we recognise that is an issue. I have spoken to the chief medical officer and the chief exec of the UK Health Security Agency as recently as today on that issue, and the ideal will be in a February review to move more towards a system of being able to accept natural immunisation. There is more work to be done on a technical level before that can happen.
The Secretary of State is totally right that covid can spring surprises—in new variants, more often than not. There is one way we can ensure fewer new variants, and that is to vaccinate the world, but we are a long way away from that. In low-income countries, just 10% of people have had two doses. What discussions has he had with Cabinet colleagues to ensure we live up to the 100 million doses that we have pledged to COVAX? Only 30 million have actually been deployed, and we have only six months left.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we are not safe until everyone has been vaccinated and boosted, as well. I do not think any country in the world can claim a better record on this, not least because, as I mentioned, we have invented the Oxford jab, in part thanks to money that the taxpayer and this Government put in. That has gone on to vaccinate 2.5 billion people, many of them in developing nations, with the huge advantage of not having to cold-freeze the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at minus 70°. We are also committed to providing those vaccinations to the COVAX programme. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady on progress towards that target, so that she can have more detail.
My right hon. Friend’s statement is welcome and is likely to encourage more families to book trips abroad and the like. What assurance can he give me, following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) about the resilience to be guaranteed by the Department of Health and Social Care and others, that, as families take up the opportunities to make bookings, families with children—I declare an interest—under 12 will not see their youngsters left behind at the gate because they have not been able to prove what it is that they need to prove?
Some pretty good reassurances is the answer. It is obviously the case that something worse than omicron could come along. We very much hope—and the chief medical officer and others suggest—that, over a period of time, although not necessarily in a linear fashion, this should become more and more endemic. As for what we accept when people come here, under-18s are exempt. As for flying out, we are making it easier, with 12 to 15 year-olds being added. The message to my hon. Friend, to his constituents and to the whole House is that I hope to expect no surprises between now and the February half term, and enjoy your holidays.
I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State, but he will know that other countries still have testing requirements for travellers from the UK. I know that that question has already been raised. He will know that, if testing is to be valid for international travel, tests must be conducted by private testing firms, which are often based in the UK. One of my constituents has written to me and said that she paid £150 for a single test. In response to a previous question, the Secretary of State said some empty words, which I have heard several times. Is there a concrete plan of action from the Government to crack down on this overcharging?
It is, as the hon. Lady knows, a competitive testing market, in which many different organisations offer to test people. The market, of course, ensures that prices are being driven down. In fact, we have an exact test on this, because for a while in Wales, under the Welsh Government, only NHS tests were allowed to be used, which meant that Welsh people had to pay more for their tests, rather than doing it privately. I do not think that she means to attack the private system, but she is right that it is wrong for people to be ripped off. The Competition and Markets Authority is looking into it and, as I have said, my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care who look after this side of things are also working to make sure that the system is not being abused. Removing the necessity to have tests removes a large part of the need for that marketplace as well.
Throughout the pandemic, Labour has flip-flopped, calling for a pause on international travel, then opposing all and any restrictions. May I thank my right hon. Friend for ignoring its game playing—[Interruption]—and for his unalloyed support for international travel and a truly connected global Britain?
Opposition Members do not like the question because it is true. Everyone has witnessed it. Their Front-Bench team has flip-flopped on one side, then the other side; one way, then the other. As it turns out, it is important to follow the evidence, and when the evidence says that we should unlock and do away with these tests that is exactly what we have done. [Interruption.] One would think that the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), who is shouting from a sedentary position, would welcome the data-driven, spreadsheet-based approach to this issue.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. My former colleagues in the travel industry will certainly welcome it. But how did we get here? Billions of people are protected by the vaccine developed in Oxford; we have had a successful vaccine programme here; and so many people have now been boosted. We are now the freest state with travel restrictions and we are coming out of lockdown nationally. Does that not show that we have great leadership from our Prime Minister and our Government? But why can we not bring it forward a bit from 11 February?
My hon. Friend got a question in there at the end. He is absolutely right about everything he said before the question. I would add that we lead the league table not only in being unlocked as a nation, but in growing as an economy because of the difficult decisions we made at the right times to make sure that 37 million people got the booster in their arm and we are able to keep ourselves unlocked, and that of course includes setting Britain free so that people can travel. In answer to his question about timing, it takes a little bit of time to put these technical changes in place and, indeed, to bring all four nations with us in the process. The good news is that it will be ready for the half-term break.
As someone who represents a very international constituency, where people regularly fly not just for holidays but for business and family reasons, I warmly welcome these changes. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that this shows that we as a Government have made the right decisions when it comes to this virus, and that our country is fully open and ready for business?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is never going to be easy tackling a global pandemic—there is no rulebook or textbook that tells us what to do—and some things we will have got right, while other things we have had to learn along the way. Two years in, I think today is a momentous moment, as Airlines UK has said, because it is important that we are able to unlock the borders and that people are able to travel again to do business and, most importantly, to see family who many people will not have seen for a very long time because of the prohibitive costs, so I am sure the whole House will welcome today’s statement.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During this statement, Lord Agnew has resigned at the Dispatch Box in the other place for the Government’s “woeful” and indefensible oversight of covid fraud. Have you had any indication of the Government’s wish to make a statement on their woeful oversight of covid fraud, Lord Agnew’s resignation and the dying days of this Government, who are currently in the cones hotline phase of their demise?
The short answer is no, but in fairness, it is obviously not a point of order for me. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard that and will want to clarify the position—it is rather unusual for people to resign at the Dispatch Box—so we will leave it at that for now.
High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Grant Shapps, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Michael Gove, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, and Secretary Alistair Jack, presented a Bill to make provision for a railway between a junction with Phase 2a of High Speed 2 south of Crewe in Cheshire and Manchester Piccadilly Station; for a railway between Hoo Green in Cheshire and a junction with the West Coast Main Line at Bamfurlong, south of Wigan; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 228) with explanatory notes (Bill 228-EN).
Fire Safety Remediation Charges (Recovery and Enforcement) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Daisy Cooper presented a Bill to introduce a moratorium on recovery and enforcement action by freeholders and managing agents relating to service charges increases, fees or demands for payment in respect of leaseholders’ share of the costs of fire safety remediation work; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March, and to be printed (Bill 234).
Business of the House (Today)
That, at this day’s sitting, notwithstanding paragraph (2)(c)(i) of Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business), business in the name of Ian Blackford may be entered upon at any hour and may be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours; proceedings shall then lapse if not previously disposed of; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) will not apply.—(Steve Double.)
[9th Allotted day—Second Part]
Cost of Living Increases
I beg to move,
That this House notes there is a cost of living crisis hitting homes across the UK; regrets the UK Government’s current plan of reductions in certain benefits and tax rises coupled with rising costs of the UK leaving the EU; is concerned that the UK has the worst levels of poverty and inequality in north west Europe and the highest levels of in-work poverty this century; and calls on the Government to take immediate action with a package of measures to boost incomes and reverse rising poverty, including reinstating the £20 universal credit uplift, introducing a Real Living Wage of at least £10 an hour, introducing an energy payment for low income households, and matching the Scottish Government’s Scottish Child Payment for families across the UK.
Normally, during an Opposition day debate the Tories will berate Opposition parties for not dealing with the issue of the day, crying distraction and somehow suggesting that the discourse in this place of those on the Opposition Benches is focused solely on the interests of the SW1 chatterati, not what matters most to our constituents back home. However, today of all days, not least in the light of what Lord Agnew has just done along the corridor, that seems somewhat ironic, given that the Tories themselves are engaged in a civil war and are besieged by paralysis, with a Prime Minister who might be in office, but is certainly not in power. Let us be clear that we have a British Government and Prime Minister who are so focused on saving their own skins that they are neglecting to get on with the day job; indeed, they are overlooking the biggest issue of the day: the cost-of-living crisis.
The impact of the cost-of-living crisis is far-reaching, but as constituency MPs, we know that it is certainly impacting the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, and yet this British Government indulge in navel-gazing, while our constituents are stuck in the middle of an economic tornado. Simply, the Tories are more focused on saving “Big Dog” than on saving our constituents’ money from spiralling energy bills, and more focused on Operation Red Meat when our constituents can hardly afford red meat, as inflation causes the average supermarket shop to skyrocket.
Like most Scots, I think that the Prime Minister is utterly unfit for office and should have resigned long ago.
The hon. Gentleman just spoke about the Government navel-gazing and having the wrong priority. Does he therefore agree that Nicola Sturgeon has absolutely the wrong priority? She was on TV again yesterday, saying that she is going to kick-start yet another campaign for independence, at a time when we should be focused on the economic crisis, the energy crisis, affecting all our constituents?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have great respect for him, and I only wish that that was extended to him by the Leader of the House, who I think said he was a “lightweight”. The reality is that the people in Scotland have voted in successive elections to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands, to ensure that the likes of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, who are posted missing, do not have the economic levers that are causing such distress just now.
The hon. Gentleman made reference in his previous comments to the impact on constituents of the cost of living. I therefore ask him to take this opportunity to tell the Labour Front Bench that Andy Burnham’s Greater Manchester clean air zone, a tax on business and jobs in my constituency emanating from the Labour party, should not come into place—it should be scrapped. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman joining me in our joint campaign to improve the standard of living for constituents all across the country.
Gosh, that could have been a career-ending one for me there. At the moment, it appears that the Labour party and the Conservatives are getting on quite well. The fact that a Tory MP can cross the Floor to the Labour party suggests that the back channels between both parties are relatively good at the moment. I am sure that those can convey whatever message to Andy Burnham that the hon. Gentleman wishes.
As I was saying, if Scotland were independent, we would not have the likes of Boris Johnson and his ilk anywhere near the levers of economic power. In many respects, however, revelations about Downing Street being turned into a frat house during a deadly pandemic are just the latest in a long litany of bad decisions by a Prime Minister Scotland did not vote for. So I must confess that I find myself somewhat baffled and wondering why being economical with the truth in this Chamber is the tipping point for Tory MPs on the Prime Minister.
Why did Tory MPs not see the Prime Minister for what he really is when he compared Muslim women wearing the hijab to looking “like letter boxes”? Why did they not see him for what he really is when, talking of the war-torn Libyan city of Sirte, he said it could be the “new Dubai” and that all that had to be done was
“to clear the dead bodies away”?
Why did Tory MPs not see him for what he really is when he unlawfully shut down Parliament, misled the Queen and tried to run the country like a tinpot dictator?
The fact is, this Prime Minister should resign because he is morally bankrupt—he always has been. But if we do not tackle the cost-of-living crisis now, frankly, it will be many of our constituents who are bankrupt. [Interruption.]
I see that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who has managed to come to the Chamber rather than touting for a second job, wants to intervene. If he wants to intervene on the speech, he is welcome to do so, otherwise than chuntering from a sedentary position.
I am wondering when the hon. Gentleman was going to get on to the subject of the debate, which is the cost-of-living crisis.
I find it rather ironic to take lectures from the hon. Gentleman about getting on with the job. He was touting for plenty of jobs recently, so that is rather a sticky wicket for him to be on. If he bears with me for a moment, we will get on to the substance of the matter. I look forward to seeing how he votes on the motion tonight and what he does for his constituents in Shrewsbury.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was everywhere; he was all over the airwaves. Indeed, if Rishi’s slick Instagram graphics could be used as a currency, we would probably all be millionaires, just like the Chancellor himself. However, it is clear that the Chancellor does not have a plan for the biggest issue of the day: soaring costs. He talks endlessly about his plan for jobs, but it is clear that his only plan for a job is moving next door when the Prime Minster is forced from No. 10. But I guess we can all console ourselves that at least when he does take over Lord Brownlow will not have to worry about WhatsApp messages looking for a tap to pay for an expensive new wallpaper.
Spending £840 on a roll of wallpaper gets to the very heart of why this Government are so detached from the economic reality of the everyday lives of our constituents. Inflation is rising at a frighteningly rapid pace: this month it rose to 5.4%, the highest in almost 30 years, since March 1992, when it was 7.1%. But we have not reached the summit yet: Paul Dales of Capital Economics has said that inflation is now expected to hit 7% by April.
These abstract figures have a very real impact on people in difficult financial situations, and they often under-represent the true effect of rising inflation, as highlighted in an excellent Twitter thread by Jack Monroe, which I commend to the House. Monroe wrote:
“This time last year, the cheapest pasta in my local supermarket…was 29p for 500g. Today it’s 70p. That’s a 141% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.”
That rise becomes a pattern for many essential household items. The cheapest rice was 45p for a 1 kg bag; today it is £1 for 500 grams.
May I ask a quick question? Can the hon. Gentleman recall which of the following schemes rolled out since March 2020 he did not approve of: the job coaches or kickstart schemes; the restart schemes; the lifetime skills guarantee; the holiday activity fund; the household support programme; or perhaps we should just remember the furlough schemes that protected the jobs and livelihoods of millions of people throughout the United Kingdom? Did any of those schemes not help the Scots?
It is on the record that the SNP supported a number of those schemes. For example, the furlough scheme was hugely important, certainly at the beginning of the pandemic; about 13,000 of my constituents were involved in that scheme and it was something the SNP called for. However, we profoundly disagreed with the Government winding the scheme down too early, and there was such a lack of clarity on that; I know personally many constituents who lost their job in the intervening period from the Government saying it would be wound down to then extending it. The Government could have continued with a number of other schemes, too. We know fine well that as we come out of the teeth of this pandemic the economy is incredibly fragile, and my criticism, which I would reflect back to the hon. Gentleman, is that so many of these schemes were wound down far too early and that has led to the difficult financial pressures many of our constituents feel right now.
I was telling the House about some of the rising costs our constituents are facing in their average supermarket shop. Canned spaghetti was 13p and is now 35p, a price increase of 169%. These price changes will force more people towards food banks, and more people towards having to make that horrendous decision between heating and eating.
On top of the increasing price of food bills, energy prices are surging, delivering yet another devastating blow to families who are already struggling. Household energy bills were the biggest driver of inflation after Ofgem, the energy regulator, lifted the price cap on domestic gas and electricity. That meant that gas bills rose by 28.1% in the year to October, while electricity climbed by 18.8%. National Energy Action estimates that there are already 4.5 million fuel-poor households in the UK, which is nothing short of a disgrace, and if the cap rises, as is predicted, the number will rise to 6 million. Only two weeks ago there was an Opposition day debate in this Chamber and I was highlighting the rising cost of energy to Ministers, yet still, two weeks on, no action has been taken; indeed, if press reports are to be believed, a meeting between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister on this issue was cancelled last Wednesday because they were both so busy courting Tory backbenchers. When I met with Age UK and Age Scotland after their snap survey, it was revealed that 96% of their respondents were worried about their energy bills.
Again, these statistics have real-life consequences. I have heard far too many stories of people in my constituency moving their beds into their sitting room so they will only have to heat or light one room over the winter months. That an image not of Victorian Britain but of 21st-century global Britain.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point about the poverty faced by people in this current cost of living crisis. The all-party parliamentary group for terminal illness last year produced a report that pointed out that the energy costs for people diagnosed as terminally ill double when they are at home. When people are struggling anyway, that is an absolutely damning statistic for people with a terminal illness, yet the Government have failed to move on bringing forward faster access to benefits to support them. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is just a disgrace from this Government?
It is. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who very ably chairs the all-party group for terminal illness. It is one of the things that really sticks in the craw of many of us. My hon. Friend highlights some of the very real struggles facing people with a terminal illness. The idea that the biggest issue of the day—the cost of living crisis and spiralling energy bills, which people who are terminally ill are struggling with—is being overlooked at the expense of things like “Fizz with Liz”, and the Chancellor and the Prime Minister courting the Tea Room really is an absolute disgrace.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way; he is being generous with his time. On energy bills and the cost of living, does he agree that one of the great losses to these islands is the fact that the Government prevented more land-based wind turbine arrays which would have brought down the cost of energy significantly as the cheapest provider of electricity? That would have made a significant difference to energy costs.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that it is important that we invest in renewable energy. That is why we on the SNP Benches are fully committed to that. It is only a shame that the official Opposition have such a bizarre fascination with investing in nuclear, but perhaps he will reflect on that.
The current Tory austerity policies do absolutely nothing to relieve the suffering of people who are impacted by the cost of living crisis. In the last year alone, the British Government cut the £20 a week uplift to universal credit. Indeed, they refused to extend the £20 uplift to the 2.5 million disabled people on legacy benefits. That is subject to proceedings in the High Court at the moment. The Government battled against extending free school meals to the poorest children in society. We learned only at the weekend about the allegations that the then Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) personally threatened Members of this House who dared to vote for that with the withdrawal of funding from their constituencies. The Government scrapped the triple lock for pensioners who already have one of the worst pensions in the OECD.
All of that is important, because those cuts only deepen and cement the inequalities in our society. They will impact the lives of the poorest people we represent for decades to come. The British Government must reflect on that. When people fall into destitution, it is other parts of the state, almost certainly councils, that have to bear those eye-watering costs. We know that destitution is bad for the economy. It is not good for the economy for people to be unable to afford their weekly food shop or heating bills. Let me be especially clear to the Government that a proliferation of foodbanks is not a sign of the big society; it is a sign of bad policy from people who think that spending £840 on a roll of wallpaper is somehow normal.
My hon. Friend is making a number of excellent points about the damaging nature of UK Tory policy. Does he agree that the benefit cap is one of those problems as well? Is he happy today to put on record the SNP’s support for the Poverty Alliance “Scrap the Cap” campaign?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, absolutely. The SNP has stood on successive election manifestos with a commitment to scrap the cap: both the benefit cap and the welfare cap. I am only disappointed that the SNP had to lead the charge against the welfare cap in a vote only a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps when people in Scotland are considering who best serves them, whether it is Westminster or the Government they elect in Scotland, they will reflect on that. My hon. Friend makes a very good point.
It is imperative that the Government bring forward solutions to address the cost of living crisis and lift millions of people from experiencing poverty this year, just as we have set out in the motion. The Government must introduce an emergency package to boost household incomes and reverse rising poverty levels across these islands. We want the Chancellor to launch a multi-billion-pound Brexit recovery fund to mitigate the worst, and growing, costs of Brexit.
Those solutions should go hand in hand with other suggestions to tackle rising energy prices. We need a one-off payment to low-income households, which could be identified by way of the council tax reduction mechanism. We must increase and extend the warm homes discount, delivered through customers’ bills and funded by the UK Government. We need the child payment, as seen in Scotland, to be rolled out right across these islands. We need the April benefits uprating to better reflect inflation rates and to reinstate the £20 a week uplift to universal credit which so many of our constituents described as a lifeline.
There is no shortage of suggestions to Ministers for how we can alleviate family income pressures, but there is, I am afraid, a shortage of urgency and energy on the part of a Government distracted by their own internal wrangling. I have a huge amount of respect for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but the fact that, on a day when we have another debate about the cost of living increase, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is nowhere to be seen raises a lot of questions about what he is doing.
In contrast to the cruel policies in Westminster, the Scottish National party Government have committed to relieving poverty wherever they have the power to do so. That is why we have doubled the Scottish child payment, rolled out 11 benefits—seven of them brand new—extended free school meals and are working actively to reduce poverty and inequality, and all the while Westminster undermines those efforts. However, the constitutional reality is that, with limited tax-raising powers, no borrowing powers and 85% of welfare spending still controlled in this place, those policies can only go so far when they are continually undermined by Tories and Tory Governments whom Scotland did not elect.
Since being elected four years ago, I have stood in this Chamber warning the Government about the impact of their policies that make life so much harder for my constituents in Garthamlock, Craigend and Easterhouse. When I make those pleas, it is not from a purely dogmatic or ideological point of view. I do so because every Friday morning at my surgeries I meet people who, because of the way life has panned out, rely on the safety net of the social security system, to which we all contribute and which is frankly no longer able to cope. I appreciate that a Tory MP in the home counties probably does not have much care for, or cause to interact with, the Department for Work and Pensions on a daily basis.
It is interesting listening to the number of fiscal policies mentioned that are so terrible and have led to the United Kingdom’s recovery being so poor. Can the hon. Gentleman then explain why every economist predicts that the United Kingdom economy is expected to show the highest growth and bounce back of any nation within the G7?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that the UK was one of the worst hit by coronavirus, perhaps due to the bungling of this Government in the initial days in locking down far too slowly.