House of Commons
Thursday 3 February 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
South Western Railway
Along with Department officials, I am in regular dialogue with South Western Railway about its service levels. I have also recently met all managing directors of the train operating companies, including the managing director of South Western Railway, to discuss service provision, among other key industry topics.
I am glad the Minister is holding meetings with South Western Railway, as Putney residents have faced dreadful service from SWR for years, with overcrowding, delays and the cancellation of trains. Currently, they are on a temporary timetable—a chaos omicron timetable. The Prime Minister announced in Prime Minister’s Question Time that that timetable would end on 19 February, but that seems to be news to SWR. Did he inadvertently mislead the House?
As I explained to the hon. Lady, my officials and I are in regular dialogue with SWR, working hard on the issue of services, because we absolutely understand that it is what matters to passengers right across the country. Services will be restored as soon as possible.
I very much welcome the news from the Prime Minister yesterday that services in Dorset and across the west country will be returned on 19 February. Will the Minister share with the House how we got to the place where an entire region of the United Kingdom—Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Devon—had its direct service to London completely severed and slashed in half, without MPs even being told about it?
I assure my hon. Friend that the Department continues to work closely with rail operators, as we work through mitigating the impact of staff absences on rail services. I assure him that the current temporary rail timetable is exactly that—temporary—but it is providing passengers, especially the country’s key workers, with certainty, so that they can plan as much as possible, with the confidence that we want. I really hope that as staffing pressures start to ease, alongside passenger demand increasing, we will see those rail services, which are key, starting to increase accordingly.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) a speedy recovery from covid.
Rail commuters in towns and suburbs across the land did their patriotic duty: they stayed home when asked by the Government at the start of the pandemic. They were told after that that if they did not go back to work, they were shirkers. Then, before Christmas, the Government asked them to stay home again. Now, on their return, they find that fares, including on South Western Railway, have risen by nearly 4%, on a reduced service. Do this Government take rail commuters for fools?
We absolutely do take passengers—[Laughter.] We absolutely do take passengers very, very seriously. I assure the hon. Gentleman of that, and I am not taking any nonsense such as the language he is using, not given the amount of support that this Government have shown to the rail industry throughout the omicron situation and the covid-19 pandemic more broadly.
Clearly taking its lead from South Western Railway, Southern has suspended all direct trains on the Brighton line into Victoria, meaning that my constituents along the south way have to change twice, which they calculate is adding about a third to their commuting times. That is completely unacceptable. Given the special funding arrangements between the Department for Transport and Govia Thameslink Railway, what compensation can be given to my constituents or, better still, what pressure can the Minister bring to bear on that company to provide a decent service again, at last?
I share my hon. Friend’s frustration and, as I said in response to earlier questions, we have been supporting the industry heavily throughout covid-19. During the omicron part of the pandemic, the industry has been handling staff absences, but this is absolutely about getting those services back up and running as soon as possible. I assure him that that is what we continue to focus on.
Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency
Online services continue to operate normally. The DVLA has introduced new online services, recruited extra staff and secured extra premises.
I know that this is reflected right across the House. One of those complaints came from Greta. Greta has ill health, she is disabled and she is reliant on her vehicle. Will the Minister intervene? Let us turbocharge this process, not only for my constituents, but for those of Members right across the House.
I assure the House that online applications are not subject to delays and customers usually receive the documents within two to three days. We strongly encourage customers to use online services where possible. I pay tribute to the DVLA staff who have worked overtime and provided extra resources and extra sites. I am pleased to say that of the 36 cases the hon. Gentleman submitted, 32 have been closed, and I am following up the remaining four.
Order. That is not related to the question about the DVLA. [Interruption.] One of us will have to sit down and I am not sitting down. I am sorry, but that is not even linked to the question. Supplementary questions must be linked to the original question tabled.
In my constituency there is huge dependency on the private car. Given the huge backlogs arising in the DVLA, and the similar backlogs at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, many young people are being deprived of their independence and find themselves isolated both socially and from work and education opportunities. In the light of this situation, the recent DVSA decision to close Whitchurch driving test centre is a hammer blow to people who want only to improve their quality of life. Will the Secretary of State commit to keeping this important facility open and thereby removing the necessity of people paying for double lessons and driving for an additional hour just to practise or attend a test?
I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss the matter in detail. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is working hard to increase driving test availability by recruiting more driving examiners, offering out-of-hours tests and asking all those who are qualified to conduct tests to do so. I reiterate my willingness to meet the hon. Lady.
International Travel Restrictions
On 24 January, the Secretary of State announced to the House that all testing requirements will be removed for eligible fully vaccinated arrivals.
Given the success of the roll-out and the welcome news that the plan B restrictions are ending and will end, with travel restrictions set to end on 11 February, will the Minister please assure the country that we will never again go back to travel restrictions of that kind? The latest travel restrictions seem to have had very little effect and the damage done to our economy was vast.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: thanks to the success of our roll-out and booster programme—the fastest in Europe—we are now in a position where we can live with covid and start to travel again. The Government are developing a more flexible model, including a contingency playbook to deal with future variants that will provide certainty to consumers and industry alike.
I thank the Minister for his response—he has definitely been on his Weetabix this morning, so he has.
My question is on a specific issue. As filling out a passenger locator form per traveller takes a long time, has consideration been given to providing group application facilities, whereby families can fill in their details as one and save themselves the stress of having to fill out multiple applications in a foreign country so that they can return home safely?
Condition of Roads
The Department is investing more than £5 billion over this Parliament in local highways maintenance—enough to fill in millions of potholes a year and resurface roads throughout England.
The Mayor of London is considering a daily charge of £2 to drive on Greater London’s roads that would slap more than 2.5 million people with a substantial new driving bill. My constituents, like those in many places in outer London, rely on their cars to get around because the public transport alternatives are inadequate. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Mayor should look at more creative ways to fix Transport for London’s finances instead of planning highway robbery?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: hammering motorists is not the way to do it. Transport in London is devolved to the Greater London Authority and therefore decisions on road-user charging are for the Mayor of London, not the Government. We will continue to work with the Mayor to help him put TfL on a sustainable long-term footing, but it is exactly as my hon. Friend said: creative solutions need to be put forward.
Last year, the Chancellor told people to enjoy National Pothole Day before the potholes were all gone. He then slashed the road maintenance budget by £400 million—enough to fix millions of potholes. Thanks to those broken promises, the roads Minister’s own community has become the pothole capital of England. The Government talk about levelling up, but in reality they cannot even level up the surfaces of our roads. When will the Minister get a grip, reverse these broken promises and deliver the funding that communities need to sort out the mess on our roads?
Actually, at the spending review, the Government announced £2.7 billion over the next three years for local road maintenance in places not receiving those city region settlements, which is enough to fill in millions of potholes a year, repair dozens of bridges and resurface thousands of miles of road. The three-year settlement will help local authorities plan effectively for managing their highway assets, tackling those potholes and other road defects across local road networks.
Rail Services: Yorkshire
The Government are committed to improving rail services across the north of England, and rail passengers in Yorkshire will already be benefiting from our recent £161 million investment in Leeds station. The recently published integrated rail plan outlines our ambitious £96 billion investment plan for the next 30 years.
I welcome the integrated rail plan, which is investing in the trans-Pennine route coming through my patch in Slaithwaite and Marsden, which the Minister has visited. As he knows, though, I have another line—a single track line—going through Huddersfield and Penistone to Sheffield. I have been supporting the levelling-up bid of my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood). Will the Minister continue to work with us so that we can get investment in this single-track line that will lead to real positivity for local connectivity in our part of the world?
My hon. Friend remains a real champion for his constituency. I can reassure him that the integrated rail plan confirms that the Government will continue to invest in smaller rail enhancements across the north and the midlands in addition to the trans-Pennine route upgrade, HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues to discuss this, perhaps on a future visit to his constituency—probably later this month.
I am delighted to confirm that we have shovels in the ground on the Midland Main Line electrification. The Secretary of State was pleased to visit those works just before Christmas. As part of the £96 billion integrated rail plan, we will be delivering benefits to passengers sooner than ever anticipated.
The Government continue to support the uptake of electric vehicles. About as many electric vehicles were sold in 2021 as the last five years combined, with one in six cars now having a plug.
I thank the Minister for her answer. In Cornwall, there is clearly an appetite to move towards cleaner and greener transport, and Cornwall Council is currently rolling out a £3.6 million project to install and operate EV charging points across the county. Despite that huge step in the right direction, given Cornwall’s rurality, it is limited in scope. Can the Minister help me to encourage towns, businesses and constituents in my Truro and Falmouth constituency to make use of the Government’s electric vehicle home-charge scheme, which provides grant funding of up to 75% towards the cost of installing electric vehicle charging points?
I commend Cornwall Council, and I also commend my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing to ensure that we have this transport revolution as we transition from a fossil fuel transport system to one that is decarbonised. Electric vehicle charge points are absolutely the way forward at home, at work, en route, and at destination. This Government are rolling out the charging points with local authorities, and I would be delighted to visit her constituency and work with her council to do so.
Modern Railway: 200th Anniversary
Railways are a product of Britain’s rich history of engineering innovation and the 200-year anniversary is a nationally important moment to mark and celebrate. The Department for Transport will work with the whole industry to make this a special event for workers and passengers alike.
Clearly, in York the 200th anniversary will be incredibly significant, with both the reopening of the National Railway Museum, which will be an incredible moment, and the opportunity it gives us to look not just back but forward at the future of rail. Will the Minister therefore work with us to promote the future of digital and civil engineering, and focus on those from minoritised groups and women, to ensure that they have their place in the future of the railway too?
The 200-year anniversary is an important one. I recall many visits to the National Railway Museum when I was a kid; we used to go on school visits there. On the hon. Lady’s point about skills, engineering and more diversity, yes, absolutely—I am really keen, as I am sure are all my colleagues on the Front Bench, to see more diversity in the railways.
What a wonderful way to celebrate that anniversary: setting up a scheme to help small stations in economically important towns such as Milford Haven in my constituency to access funding in a timely way to see an upgrade. The current process, whereby Network Rail works up a project and then it takes years and years of multiple rounds of appraisals—big money-spinners for the consultants—just does not work. Will my hon. Friend please look at that?
Rail Services: South-east London
Department officials are working closely with operators in south-east London, including SE Trains —Southeastern—and Govia Thameslink Railway, to ensure that a reliable and punctual service is delivered as passengers return to work. Performance on both SET and GTR has been at a good level throughout the pandemic, with some recent challenges on GTR, owing to a high level of driver absence, leading to a temporarily revised timetable.
The Minister will be aware that both Southeastern and Thameslink services in south-east London are running on a reduced timetable. With the restrictions having eased and growing numbers of my constituents once again needing to commute, that cut in services is beginning to cause overcrowding on not only trains, but local bus and tube services, as well as incentivising more people to jump into their cars. Can I get a commitment from the Minister today that those withdrawn services will be fully reinstated as soon as possible?
I understand the concerns of colleagues across the House when it comes to trains and passengers. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have assured other colleagues this morning, that we continue to work closely with rail operators as they mitigate the impact of staff absences on rail services. It is important that we work together to get people back to work.
UK Supply Networks
Ministers have been in frequent contact with transport operators and industry regarding supply chain disruptions.
The Road Haulage Association estimates a shortfall of some 85,000 drivers, affecting supply chains, retailers and the wider economy, while the Government’s short-length temporary visa scheme has been unfit for purpose, with only 200 visas having been issued. Given the scale of the problem, the industry is asking for a 12-month visa for heavy goods vehicle drivers. Will the Minister confirm whether that is being considered?
The Government have taken decisive action on the HGV driver shortage, with 32 short, medium and long-term interventions. We have more than doubled the number of tests available for HGV drivers in a normal week from 1,500 weekly appointments pre-covid to 3,200 in a normal week now. I am pleased to hear from industry bodies that their current assessment is that the shortfall in drivers is lessening.
That may well be the case, but one haulier has likened Brexit to
“death by a thousand cuts”,
as EU companies withdraw business due to each new round of post-Brexit bureaucracy, administration and delays. That is causing significant hardship for many UK and Scottish businesses; smaller ones, especially, are struggling to cope. After the UK implements import controls in July, the crisis will deepen further, with the current miles-long queues of HGVs on the A20 simply getting longer and longer. What are the Government doing to mitigate the damage they have inflicted with Brexit on the UK’s economy?
I know that the hon. Gentleman likes to blame Brexit for everything, but of course there are HGV driver shortages around the globe. On freight coming in and out of the UK, we are seeing similar numbers at the moment as we would normally. The checks that are due at the ports are on track in England. Of course, in Scotland, they are a matter for the devolved Administration. We are aware of some risks there, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments are working closely with the Scottish Government to find a resolution.
Closed Rail Lines: Restoration
We are committed to reversing the Beeching cuts and reopening railways through our £500 million restoring your railway fund. I was pleased to reopen the first such line—the Dartmoor line—in November 2021.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that restoring the Burscough Curves link, which would connect Southport with Preston and up to Glasgow via the west coast main line, should be a priority for the Government, both to demonstrate the levelling-up agenda and connect all regions of our great United Kingdom?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—and, it seems, yourself, Mr Speaker—that it would be a great idea. My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for the people of Southport. I know he applied unsuccessfully for the first round of restoring your railway fund money, but I am very committed to working with him on that to link up his community. I will arrange to meet him. I spoke to him about it this week and I am arranging to meet the Rail Minister on the subject.
I certainly can. Regarding the Skipton-East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership—or SELRAP—and the rail link between Skipton and Colne, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s unstinting support for the scheme and will set out our position on the projects in the rail enhancement portfolio very soon.
Good morning, Mr Speaker. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the residents of Levenmouth and East Neuk of Fife, who will see their rail link restored more than 50 years after it was abolished by his predecessor? Yet another Westminster cut reversed by Scottish Parliament as part of the transition to net zero. Does he agree that the glacial progress on reconnecting communities in England to the national rail network is hindering growth, compared with the Scottish Government’s record of delivering real benefits for the people of Scotland?
If we are really going to celebrate the 200th anniversary, it would be good to open even more lines. You will know, Mr Speaker, that not far from your constituency, the first person to be killed on the railway was a Member of Parliament and Minister when the Rocket was being trialled. We should remember that.
If we are serious about marking the anniversary and bringing the old lines back into use, will the Secretary of State look again at Yorkshire? We feel absolutely bereft. Here is this opportunity, with a Government commitment to raise standards and level up, at a time when the Government have smashed the integrated plan for Yorkshire rail.
Huddersfield massively benefits from the £96 billion plan—the biggest plan that any Government have ever announced on railway funding. By the way, it is bigger than the plan that President Biden just announced for railways in his package, even though the United States has a population that is five times bigger than ours. I would have thought that people in Huddersfield would be celebrating in the streets.
Fuel Duty Freeze
I regularly speak to the Chancellor about the impact of the fuel duty freeze, which has now run for 12 consecutive years, in no small way thanks to my right hon. Friend.
My Harlow constituents strongly welcome the fuel duty freeze, and long may it continue. When wholesale oil prices rise, the cost at the pump rockets. The RAC and FairFuelUK have shown that average profit margins for diesel have increased by 150% in the past two years, with petrol margins at the pumps more than doubling. But when the global oil price comes down there is a feather approach; the savings are not transferred to the motorist. Will my right hon. Friend introduce a pump watch monitor to ensure fair prices at the pumps for motorists?
It is genuinely true to say that there is not a more expensive Member of Parliament. The cuts—or the freezes—that my right hon. Friend has persuaded successive Chancellors to make are now accumulating a £1,900 saving for a UK driver every year. He is right that when oil prices go up fuel prices seem to track very fast, and when they come down they are much slower. I will pay close attention to his idea.
We have delivered approximately £8 billion of support for the aviation sector through the pandemic, and we are currently developing a strategic framework to help support the sector’s recovery.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Has he given any thought to how public service obligations could help support regional airports right across the UK, including in Scotland—such as Aberdeen airport, which serves my constituency—to recover from the covid-19 pandemic?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. May I congratulate him on his campaign and his support for his constituents’ campaign, particularly that led by Val Fry, to reintroduce flights to Aberdeen such as the easyJet flight from Aberdeen to Gatwick. I have flown from Aberdeen. I can see its importance, and I know that it is exceptionally important particularly for the offshore energy industry. We recognise the significant impact that covid-19 has had on regional airports. We will consider whether there are further opportunities to utilise public service obligations.
Having failed to secure a sector-specific deal from the Treasury, the industry is recovering much more slowly than our international competitors, and now we have the spectacle of an unholy row between airlines and airports on landing charges. With the new rules on slots, we have the prospect of planes flying empty or with half loads. Industry leaders tell me that the Secretary of State has been missing in action, but he has been busy shoring up the beleaguered Prime Minister’s whipping operation—we would like to thank him for that. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to step up to the plate when it comes to aviation?
The Secretary of State and all members of the Government have been in constant contact with the aviation sector, and it is through that that we have been able to tailor our response. We have given £8 billion of support to the sector. The airport and ground operations support scheme is on top of that, and there is the aviation skills retention platform. The Government wholeheartedly support the aviation sector, particularly in getting it flying again.
The Government have consulted on changes to penalty fares to ensure that deterrents against fare evasion are effective and fair. Fare evasion costs other rail passengers and taxpayers, who ultimately subsidise the journeys of those who deliberately travel by train without paying the correct fare.
I thank the Minister for her reply, but my experience is that ticket inspection falls very far short of 100%. As she says, the cost ultimately falls on other passengers and the taxpayer. What further steps can she take to ensure that the companies bear the burden of their inadequacies rather than the taxpayer?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is right to take this seriously. I can assure him that the Department continues to encourage train operators to prioritise revenue protection and ensure that revenue is maximised and fraud is prevented. He is right to say that it is the responsibility of train operators to follow Government guidance in relation to this.
Public Transport: Night-time Safety
The Government recognise the vital role that safe public transport plays in getting people to and from where they need to be at night. The Department works closely with transport partners on a range of initiatives to ensure safety on the transport network.
Many of my constituents feel vulnerable taking public transport at night, especially women and those returning home from late shifts at work. Will the Minister support Unite the union’s “Get Me Home Safely” campaign and the early-day motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), which calls for the extension of the employer’s duty of care to include safe transport home and policies such as making free night transport for staff a pre-condition for new liquor licences?
I thank the hon. Member for his interest in this important issue. We are already doing much on the transport network to improve safety, particularly for women and girls—for example, the rail to refuge scheme helps four people a day. We have also recently undertaken a review with our transport champions to look specifically at the safety of women and girls. I would be happy to meet him to understand how those proposals align with the recommendations from our champions.
Transport for London: Financial Settlement
It is for the Mayor to take decisions about how to balance the TfL budget. We are committed to supporting the system and have done so with hard cash—£4.5 billion and counting.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the current deal expires very soon. The Mayor was due to provide ways that he would balance the budget; I understand that he has not done so yet. Could my right hon. Friend confirm that in any arrangements that he makes with the Mayor of London, we will exclude the outer London charge for people driving into the London area and stop the Mayor introducing road pricing in London unless the whole country goes ahead with it?
My hon. Friend is a terrific champion of a fair settlement. It is the easiest thing in the world for someone to propose a tax that people other than their own residents pay, which is exactly what the Mayor has been pursuing with the boundary tax. It is not fair; we will oppose it—no taxation without representation.
The Government’s piecemeal funding for Transport for London is short-sighted and, yet again, will have an impact on thousands of jobs across the entire country. For every £1 spent on London’s transport infrastructure, 50p is spent outside the capital. We know that they have the money after yesterday’s news about the latest Government wastage—£9 billion blown on dodgy PPE about as effective as the Prime Minister’s Save Big Dog strategy.
Some 30 TfL projects currently support thousands of jobs around the country from Wrightbus in Ballymena in Northern Ireland to Bombardier in my constituency. That includes a £1 billion contract for building tube trains in Goole in East Yorkshire. Is it not time for the Government to save jobs across the country, stop rolling out the rhetoric and start investing in London’s transport infrastructure?
The trouble is, when someone writes that kind of passage in advance and practises it in front of the mirror, they potentially miss the announcement that was made in the original answer. We have now spent £4.5 billion propping up TfL to help out, rightly, because of the pandemic and, in addition, because of the decisions that failed to be made earlier, such as the four-year fare freeze and the concessions that go way above anything available elsewhere in the country.
Rockets and Satellites
My Department has passed legislation paving the way for space flight and satellite launches from UK soil, and we have already awarded £40 million of grants to kick-start capability.
I recently discussed the current rocket launch environment with Gravitilab, a dynamic Broadland company that provides microgravity testing and space access via reusable launch platforms. Its ambition is to provide that service in Norfolk. Space is no longer just for Governments and multinationals, so will my hon. Friend ensure that our regulatory regime recognises and encourages start-up companies and is made responsive to that fast-rising sector?
I gladly join my hon. Friend in celebrating the growing success of Gravitilab. I congratulate him on being an excellent advocate for it, Broadland and the space industry as a whole. The Government have put in place the most modern space flight legislation in the world. We will continue to review it to ensure that it meets the needs of the UK’s entire space industry.
Cycling and Walking
The Government plan to publish the second cycling and walking investment strategy in the spring.
I thank the Minister for the answer. I am concerned that the Treasury has clearly decided that £2 billion is all the ringfenced funding that will be allocated for cycling and walking, but the Department for Transport commissioned research several years ago that apparently says this £2 billion is only a quarter to a third of what is needed to meet the stated aims of the Government to increase cycling and walking by 2025. Can I ask if she will now publish this research, as a former Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), repeatedly promised two years ago?
I am delighted to confirm that we have now appointed Chris Boardman as the acting CEO of Active Travel England, which I will be meeting after this session.[Official Report, 7 February 2022, Vol. 708, c. 8MC.] Actually, the £2 billion is an unprecedented amount to be investing in walking and cycling over this Parliament. Our investment is already seeing results: levels of cycling increased by 46% in 2020 compared with 2019. However, I would like to put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for the work she does on the all-party parliamentary group on cycling and walking, which I look forward to joining.
I cycle for 10 hours a week, and on a narrow forest road I always cycle close to the kerb, because I am a driver too and I want to accommodate drivers. The advice in the new code that I should cycle in the centre of the carriageway is bonkers, isn’t it?
Bus Service Improvement Plans
At the Budget, we announced £1.2 billion of new dedicated funding for bus transformation deals. We will provide details of indicative allocations in due course.
Bus companies have suffered financially during the pandemic, and this cost is being felt by customers in downgraded services. Stagecoach has had to replace its coaches from Bedford to Cambridge with double-decker buses with no toilet facilities. This leaves older people, sometimes travelling to access medical treatment, without access to a toilet for 90 minutes. When will the Government give bus companies the investment they need to improve services?
Well, we are doing that at the moment. There is £1.2 billion of new funding, delivering improvements in bus services, fares and infrastructure in England outside London, and that is just part of over £3 billion of new spend on buses in the course of this Parliament.
I was delighted to see in the levelling-up White Paper yesterday that, thanks to this Conservative Government working with Conservative-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council and three Conservative Stoke-on-Trent Members of Parliament, we are going to receive a multimillion-pound settlement for bussing back better in our great city to make sure that we are better connected. Part of the bid does contain some funding for roads, particularly for widening the Waterloo Road, which does suffer from congestion, so will the Minister meet me and Stoke-on-Trent MPs to discuss why it is vital that this is funded?
In the north-east, we have an ambitious bus service improvement plan, but before we get there we have a crisis in our bus services as a result of covid-19. Can the Minister say what action he will take to prevent our bus services from being reduced as a result of the cliff edge in funding in March?
As I have outlined, over £3 billion of new spend on buses is coming along during the course of this Parliament. The hon. Member is quite right to draw attention to the bus service improvement plans, and we will be able to provide some information on indicative allocations for that by the end of February.
Buses are vital for many of my North West Durham constituents, but to put it simply, at the moment there are not enough of them and they are prohibitively expensive, especially for single-fare journeys. Will the Minister look closely at our bus back better strategy for the north-east to give us the funding and the buses we need for our communities?
Docklands Light Railway
The Government and Homes England are exploring potential opportunities and options at Thamesmead and Beckton Riverside with the Greater London Authority and Transport for London.
Thamesmead in my constituency needs levelling up. It has some of the worst public transport links in the capital. There are ambitious plans to extend the docklands light railway to Thamesmead, which are supported by Greenwich and Newham councils and Transport for London. Will the Minister look favourably at these proposals when they are submitted to the Government, and provide the necessary funding to finally put Thamesmead on the transport map?
With regard to extending the DLR, the scale of the opportunity from the potential options at Thamesmead and Beckton Riverside is being explored and the Government and Homes England are working together with the Greater London Authority and Transport for London to do this.
I would like to update the House on action we have taken against the behaviour of Insulate Britain activists. Last year I asked National Highways to seek injunctions against the so-called eco-warriors who have inflicted such misery on motorists across the country, and following the latest High Court hearing yesterday a further five immediate prison sentences were imposed as well as 11 suspended sentences against Insulate Britain activists for breaching these injunctions. That brings the total number of sentences and suspended sentences handed down to 31.[Official Report, 8 February 2022, Vol. 708, c. 10MC.] Gluing oneself to the tarmac and throwing paint on public highways, causing miles of misery, just is not on; it affects hard-working people and causes misery to them, costing the taxpayer money.
The Secretary of State will know that vehicle standards, including for e-scooters, are reserved to Westminster. I am hugely concerned about the impact of e-scooters on people living with sight loss in Wales as they cannot be heard and are very quick. What plans does he have to assess the impact of the already widespread and illegal use of e-scooters in Wales?
We currently have a trial programme for e-scooters, with 31 trials in operation, which is collecting the data that the hon. Lady seeks. I share her concerns, particularly about e-scooters sold through the private market where they are not legal to be ridden on the roads or pavement, or indeed in the public arena. We are looking at measures that will crack down on those while ensuring that those that have been properly insured and used through the trials continue until we have all the data.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter today, and I appreciate the incident on Sunday near Haddiscoe will undoubtedly have caused disruption to passengers, but I understand that work is going well and I am sure he will be pleased to know that services are expected to resume on Saturday morning. Network Rail recently outlined its long-term adaptation ambitions, which are now being considered at local level. Importantly, this will help build greater understanding of the key areas of vulnerability that are critical in the development of plans to mitigate and minimise impacts on passengers.
I welcome the new rail Minister, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), to her post. Last year the Prime Minister promised
“great bus services…to everyone, everywhere”,
with £3 billion of new funding to support that. Yesterday we learned the truth about the transformation funding—slashed by £1.8 billion. Why have the Government broken their promise and downgraded the ambition of communities?
I am really pleased that the hon. Lady has raised this, because I have seen her tweet and talk about it elsewhere and I want to inform her that she is inadvertently misleading. The figure is still £3 billion; the £1.2 billion is a part of that £3 billion and there are other elements of funding that have already been announced, including £0.5 billion on decarbonisation, and more money is on the way. So that is simply an incorrect figure that I ask her not to continue to repeat.
I can assure the House that I am not the one misleading anybody. We have it in black and white, in a leaked letter from his own official, who wrote to local transport authorities confirming the cut and saying
“the scale of the ambition across the county greatly exceeds the amount”
of transformation funding. Doesn’t that say it all: the ambition of this country far exceeds that of the Government? So will the Secretary of State come clean by admitting that vast swathes of the country will not get a penny in transformation funding and that he sold bus transformation but is delivering managed decline?
No, that is absolutely incorrect. We have just heard about this Government’s investment in Stoke. That is investment we are going to spread across the country. It is false to claim that that £1.2 billion is the total funding. It is not, as I have already pointed out. There will be £5.7 billion over five years for the city region sustainable transport settlement, for example, bringing more money in. I will write to the hon. Lady with a detailed breakdown, but I ask her to take into account the full amount of money being spent on buses—a record never achieved before by any Government, as far as I can see.
It is two years since the Prime Minister pledged 4,000 zero-emission buses, but that pledge is in tatters. Not a single bus has been ordered through the fast-track zero-emission bus regional areas scheme. In contrast, the Scottish Government have already produced the equivalent of 2,700 bus orders. No one in the industry—not a single person—thinks that the Prime Minister’s pledge will be met, and let us remember that 4,000 is only one tenth of the English bus fleet, while Scotland decarbonises half of its bus fleet. When are the UK Government going to get real on this?
The Government remain absolutely committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses and achieving a zero-emission bus fleet. I had the joy of visiting a place in Glasgow, when I was there for COP26, that is rolling out those buses, and this will support our climate ambitions, improve local transport for communities and support high-quality green jobs. Overall, we are providing £525 million of funding for ZEBs this Parliament, and the Government have provided funding for 900 zero-emission buses through existing funding schemes.
We will of course look into my right hon. Friend’s suggestion, but over the past two years we have provided over £1.7 billion in covid-related support to the bus sector. The recovery grant is worth more than £250 million to operators and local authorities, and has been supporting the sector as passenger numbers remain suppressed.
If the hon. Lady is exempt from levelling up, we need to have a word with the Mayor of London about it, because transport in her constituency is run by him, of course. On a serious note, I am very interested in that scheme, and I will speak to her about it offline.
HS2 Ltd takes its responsibilities to secure and maintain land along the line of route extremely seriously. I thank my right hon. Friend for taking the time to show me some of the specific problem sites when I visited her constituency. Where fly-tipping or littering occurs, HS2 Ltd must act to address it as soon as possible.
I thank the hon. Member for his question, but I refer him to the 31 trials currently ongoing throughout the country to identify how we can legislate in the safest possible way. We regard micro-mobility as an essential part of the transition towards a much cleaner community, but I will endeavour to meet colleagues in the Home Office to discuss matters of policing with regard to illegal electric scooters.
We would be very pleased to organise that meeting with my hon. Friend. I will set up a meeting for him with the Minister with responsibility for roads. As the House knows, we are spending £24 billion on roads and at least half of that is for their upkeep and maintenance.
That decision is yet to be taken, but in terms of the hon. Gentleman’s council and the money it is missing out on, it is disappointing to learn that in Chester the green bus technology fund, the low emission fund, the ultra-low emission fund, the all-electric bus city fund and all the zero-emission bus regional area funds have not been taken advantage of by his council. I really would encourage him to work with his council to make the most of the generous offers provided by the Department.
Airlines have had a tough couple of years, of course, but so too have passengers and travel agents in obtaining refunds from those airlines. This has been going for years. Reform is badly needed, with a regulator that has upfront powers to effect change. I am delighted to see the Government’s consultation. Can I ask the relevant Minister when we expect to see change implemented?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend him for his work on this and a number of issues. The consultation on consumer rights has just been launched. We will be running that and carefully considering the options that come out of it. We will be looking to make the necessary changes as soon as possible.
The Scottish Government are currently rolling out free bus travel across Scotland for anyone under the age of 22. Will the UK Government take a moment to congratulate the Scottish Government and tell us when they might deliver the same for young people in England?
Will the Secretary of State agree to an urgent meeting with me and representatives of the business community in North West Leicestershire impacted by the Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway route of HS2, to discuss the necessary changes to the route to enter Parkway station and any possible mitigations?
My hon. Friend remains a doughty champion of businesses in his constituency that will be affected by the proposals in the integrated rail plan. I would be more than happy to meet him again to discuss those proposals and the specific impacts on residents and businesses.
Further to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), south-east London is not served by the London underground, which means our constituents rely heavily on rail services. A station in my constituency where there has been a major redevelopment has seen a nearly 50% increase in footfall: there are 1.5 million entrances and exits a year. It is essential that capacity is maintained and increased on our rail services because of the lack of alternatives. May I impress that on Ministers who will make decisions on the franchise?
As I explained earlier, we are working closely with the rail operators as they mitigate the impact of staff absences on rail services. Obviously, as restrictions are lifted and staffing pressures ease, operators will reinstate services to meet expected increases in passenger demand. I think it is fair to say that no timetable is ever static. As demand patterns continue to evolve while we recover from the pandemic, timetables must be flexible.
I welcome the massive investment this Government are making in the east midlands. They are electrifying the midlands main line as we bring HS2 from Birmingham to Nottingham. However, to benefit fully, my constituents need better trains to Nottingham. Will the Minister support my campaign for more trains on the Poacher line so that my constituents in villages such as Radcliffe-on-Trent can have the regular train service they need?
My hon. Friend rightly points out the massive investment going into the east midlands. I am sure the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), will be more than happy to meet her to discuss the specific configuration of local services.
My constituents already face long waits for overpriced bus services without the real-time data that Londoners take for granted, and now we hear that there will be further cuts to bus services. We urgently need a bus service improvement plan. Why will the Secretary of State not urgently support one?
As I have mentioned a couple of times, we have the biggest ever programme of bus service improvements. We have gone out to local authorities to ask them for their plans, and we have funded them to bring forward those plans. They are now coming back with the first stages in the levelling-up White Paper. We will continue to deliver more on the bus agenda over time.
There has been clear interest on both sides of the House in investment in the future of buses, and we have a very positive bid from North Yorkshire County Council, working with local bus companies, to improve the services in Harrogate and Knaresborough. Will the Minister give me an indicative date for when we might hear of that bid’s success?
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 7 February will include:
Monday 7 February—Motion to approve the Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order 2022 and motion to approve the Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2022, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill.
Tuesday 8 February—Opposition day (12th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 9 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Thursday 10 February—Motion on UK-Taiwan friendship and co-operation, followed by general debate on the dementia research in the UK. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
At the conclusion of business on Thursday 10 February, the House will rise for the February recess and return on Monday 21 February.
The provisional business for the week commencing 21 February will include:
Monday 21 February—Remaining stages of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 22 February—Remaining stages of the Charities Bill [Lords] followed by remaining stages of the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 23 February—Opposition day (13th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the Official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 24 February—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 25 February—Private Members’ Bills.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.
Tomorrow is World Cancer Day, and this year’s focus is on closing the care gap and recognising global inequities in cancer care. Here in the UK, figures show that one in three people with symptoms are not receiving the life-saving care within two months of an urgent referral from their GP that they need. This is a record, and not the sort to be proud of. Given the vacancies and staff shortages across the NHS, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman what the Government are doing to bring cancer waiting times down? Will he ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to make a statement on, in particular, increasing early diagnosis for children with cancer?
While the Prime Minister is peddling far-right conspiracy theories in a desperate bid to deflect from his own rule breaking, working families are being hit with steep hikes in energy prices, low wages falling even further and a triple whammy of Tory tax rises. The right hon. Gentleman has previously demonstrated his socialist tendencies and expressed his support for our calls for the scrapping of the national insurance rise that will unfairly hit working families, but the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have not listened. In fact, this Government’s tax hikes for working people and businesses mean that we will have the biggest tax burden in 70 years. I wonder whether the Chancellor will be addressing that shortly.
As if that were not bad enough—this affects Conservative Members’ constituents as well—10 years of the failed Tory energy policy has left us uniquely exposed. Dither, delay and incompetence have created an energy price crisis faced by everyone, and the Government are choosing to leak their policies in the papers rather than coming to this House first; but perhaps it is wise to try and roll the pitch when all their announcements will do is push more costs on to working people further down the line. Labour’s fully funded measures to cut VAT on energy bills would save households £200 a year, and an extra £400 for the families and pensioners who need it most, without stacking up debt lower down the line. The Government have so far chosen not to support that plan, but it is not too late, given that our motion on Tuesday to introduce a windfall tax on oil and gas companies to pay for it was passed unanimously. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Chancellor will be announcing this as part of the forthcoming business?
It has taken the Government two and half years to come up with a 10-year plan to do 12 things. It will now take them until 2030 to deliver things that they first promised back in 2010: that is a gap of 20 years. Can the Leader of the House explain what the Government have been doing for the last 12 years? Whatever it is, it certainly is not levelling up.
While the Government are reaching into people’s pockets for their hard-earned cash with one hand, they are giving it away to fraudsters with the other: £4.3 billion-worth of fraudulent loans have been written off by the Chancellor, £3.5 billion has been spent on crony contracts, £300,000 went from the levelling-up fund to save a Tory peer’s driveway, and half a million pounds went on the Foreign Secretary’s flight to Australia. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that this is an acceptable use of taxpayers’ money? Can he explain when it became Government policy to waste taxpayers’ money on fraudsters, private jets and driveways?
While I am on the subject of the levelling-up fund, let me add that on 24 January the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), said that my constituency of Bristol West and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), the shadow Education Secretary, were among those that had received levelling-up funding. I have checked, and as far as I can see Bristol has received no funding and nor has my hon. Friend’s constituency. Will the Leader of the House please ask the Minister to correct the record?
We have all been horrified and appalled by the report from the police watchdog, published earlier this week, which uncovered the disgraceful conduct of some serving officers at Charing Cross police station: abusive, racist, misogynist and disrespectful messages routinely shared between officers. This is not just an issue in London, so what is the Home Secretary doing to overhaul police training and restore public confidence in our police forces?
This is a Government who have completely lost their grip. Working people are paying the price for a decade or more of dither, delay and incompetence. The Government are out of control, out of touch, out of ideas and soon to be out of office.
What a delight it is to hear from the hon. Lady every week, running through her socialist mantra. She is, of course, right to highlight the importance of cancer and cancer care, particularly the treatment of children. I am glad to say that treatment rates for cancer are now back to their usual levels. Since the pandemic began, over 510,000 people have started treatment for cancer. We have provided record taxpayer spending to tackle the backlog, with £2 billion this year and £8 billion over the next three years, to deliver an extra 9 million checks, scans and operations for patients across the country. I am very pleased that we can be in agreement that the right things are being done after the period in which we have been suffering from covid, which did lead to an increase in the numbers awaiting care.
The hon. Lady then mentioned far-right conspiracy theories, which seemed to be in relation to the Leader of the Opposition, so let me quote his own words. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said:
“I accept the conclusions reached by Ms Levitt QC and, in the interests of transparency and accountability I have decided to publish her report in full. In doing so, I would like to take the opportunity to apologise for the shortcomings in the part played by the CPS in these cases.
But I also want to go further. If this report and my apology are to serve their full purpose, then this must be seen as a watershed moment. In my view, these cases do not simply reflect errors of judgment by individual officers or prosecutors on the facts before them. If that were the case, they would, in many respects, be easier to deal with.
These were errors of judgment by experienced and committed police officers and a prosecuting lawyer acting in good faith and attempting to apply the correct principles. That makes the findings of Ms Levitt's report more profound and calls for a more robust response."
This is about the traditional understanding of ministerial responsibility. Somebody who is in charge of a Department—and the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in charge of the Crown Prosecution Service—must follow the Crichel Down principle of taking responsibility for what went on in his organisation and then apologise for failings. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has apologised similarly for mistakes that may have been made in Downing Street. I think that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and that the geese and the ganders should not complain, one or the other. They are perfectly fair and reasonable points of political debate.
The hon. Lady then came on to issues concerning the police, which are deeply concerning and there was an urgent question on this yesterday. We expect the Metropolitan police and the Mayor of London to implement the recommendations of the Independent Office for Police Conduct report as soon as is practically possible. What came out over the past couple of days is deeply shocking and is not what we expect of the police. In this Palace we are so lucky, because we see the police who protect us and we talk to them. They do amazing work for us, but then we discover that there are people in the police force, including ones who have been at this Palace, who let the side down desperately, shockingly and unforgivably. This must be rooted out, and the leadership of the Metropolitan police will have to ask themselves how they can put this right and have culture change, as we in politics have had to adopt culture change. That is fundamentally important, and I encourage the police to do everything they can to deal with that.
The hon. Lady also referred to questions relating to fraud and the bail-outs provided. It has to be said that £400 billion of taxpayers’ money was provided and 12 million jobs supported during the pandemic. The economy has got back to pre-pandemic levels, which is an enormous achievement and success. The policies that were followed were right. But fraud must always be cracked down upon, so the Government have stopped or recovered £743 million in over-claimed furlough grants and prevented £2.2 billion in fraud from our bounce back loan scheme, and the taxpayer protection taskforce is set to recover an additional £1 billion through investigations that are under way. It is really important that fraud is tackled and that, of course, is what Her Majesty’s Government are doing.
The hon. Lady then wanted to talk about matters pertaining to the Chancellor, but may I say that patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace, and Grace is a little girl who would not wash her face? If the hon. Lady reads the magic words on the Annunciator, she will see that all will shortly be revealed by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
May we have a debate on the levelling-up fund? We need to have great scrutiny of how these decisions are taken by civil servants and Ministers. My right hon. Friend has stood for Parliament in Shropshire and will know some of the problems we have in that rural shire county. Yet again, Shropshire Council has, unfortunately, failed in its levelling-up bid. May we have a debate on this so that our constituents are more cognisant of how these decisions are taken and so that there is more transparency?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for his distinguished constituency and has been for many years. Levelling up needs to be looked at in the round and regionally. Wolverhampton, which is near Shropshire, is receiving considerable support, which will benefit the whole of the regional economy. What is happening is the transformation of the country’s infrastructure, which will be fundamental to levelling up, with £600 billion. It is also about attracting further investment—private sector investment—into areas, and that will depend on how regions do better together and succeed, looking at it as a rounded picture.
On having a debate, a statement was made earlier this week by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), but levelling up will be a major topic of discussion for this House in the weeks and months to come.
We have missed the Leader of the House’s weekly “Newsnight” performance; after he shattered the relationship with the Scottish Tories and declared the Mogg republic, the Tory press office must have decided he had run out of his usefulness, but we look forward to seeing him back again at some point. Although we are grateful for the statement this week on the Sue Gray report, what the House really requires is a full day’s debate about all the issues contained in it, which should be led by the Prime Minister. We cannot simply leave aside a report that points to
“failures of leadership and judgment”,
excessive drinking and a cultural failure at the heart of government, set against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic. Sixteen events fell within Sue Gray’s remit, 12 of which are being investigated by the Met police. We cannot just leave that behind, perhaps for weeks. Members of the House must have the opportunity to properly consider all these issues, and our constituents would not expect anything else.
We also need an urgent debate about parliamentary discourse and how we hold Members accountable for the veracity and truthfulness of things said in this House. The thing that probably irks and frustrates our constituents most is when a Member says or claims something that is manifestly untrue and there is no way to have it challenged and addressed in this House. If a Member does raise an untruth in this House, he is likely to face your wrath, Mr Speaker. You are right that, according to precedent and to “Erskine May”, you must take action and ask that Member to leave the House, but “Erskine May” was written before the days of the internet, fact checkers and the current Prime Minister. You said that the matter may be reviewed and you suggested the Procedure Committee be involved. Does the Leader of the House not agree that a general debate, like the one we are having on standards this afternoon, could also be useful in addressing this? When untruths go unchallenged and MPs can say anything, regardless of its relationship with the truth, it can only have a corrosive effect on our democracy and on trust in this House. Surely the Leader of the House agrees that that cannot go on.
I think the hon. Gentleman takes the view that anything that is said that he disagrees with is not true. That is not right, which is why we have the forms of debate that we have. When people hold views strongly and somebody else stands up and thinks the other thing, they say, “That is not true”, but it is not a matter of truth; it is a matter of opinion, which is what we discuss in this House. It is not a matter of fact-checking; it is a matter of, “I think X, the hon. Gentleman thinks Y,” and both of them are views that people are entitled to hold. What we get from the Scottish National party constantly is the doubting of the good faith of the people they oppose, and that is quite wrong. That is the corrosive element of public life: the doubting of the faith and honesty of one’s opponents. I disagree with a great deal of what is said by those on the side opposite, but I do not question the honesty and integrity of what they say. I question the effectiveness of what they do, and that is the important difference between the Government and the Opposition sides.
As regards the Sue Gray report, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was here on his feet for two hours, I think, answering questions earlier this week and has said that the full report will be published when it is allowed to be published, after the Metropolitan Police have completed their work. That commitment has already been made—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman heckles—I hope Hansard heard it—that that is weeks away. If the police were not doing it properly, he would be the first to say, “The police aren’t doing it properly!”. He cannot have it both ways. It is being done properly and rigorously and, when it is done, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will ensure the full report is published. He comes to the House regularly.
Can we have a statement on value for money provided by local councils? Harlow’s Conservative council, elected as a majority for only the second time in the town’s history, is cutting council tax for residents by £55 and freezing it until 2025. That is possibly the highest council tax cut in the country. Can the Government send a taskforce to Harlow to learn how to cut the cost of living, as we provide an example that the rest of the nation should follow?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for highlighting the success of Harlow Council. It is amazing what good Conservative councils can do: we look at Westminster and Wandsworth, which for decades have been able to keep the council tax down when other socialist councils have kept on putting it up. Harlow should be held in light, not least for having my right hon. Friend to represent it, which he does with such distinction and panache. It is important to recognise that local council spending is the responsibility of local councils, and good, well-run councils—Conservative councils—are able to save taxpayers money.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench Business debates for next week. I understand there will be some time for the House to spend considering remaining departmental estimates—I believe it will be in early March—so hon. Members will need to be preparing to make applications to the Backbench Business Committee for time in those debating slots on the return from the February recess. I also remind the Leader of the House that we have date-specific applications on the stocks already, for Welsh affairs and St David’s Day for the first week in March, and for International Women’s Day for the second week in March.
Could we have a statement on the increasing use of off-road motorcycles for criminal purposes? We have a scourge of that in my own constituency; unfortunately the local constabulary, Northumbria Police, having been hit by severe cost cutting, does not have any equivalent motorcycles with which to apprehend those individuals. Can we have a statement from the Home Secretary about what can be done by constabularies around the country to cut down on that menace?
I am grateful, as always, to the hon. Gentleman. I have done quite well so far this Session in providing him with the debates he has asked for when he has given me long notice; I cannot promise to be able to do the same, but I always try, if possible, to make time available for the time-sensitive debates. Off-road motorcycling, which has been raised by others in this House, is clearly a problem, but the police must set their own policing priorities. The Government have provided the funding for, I think, an extra 11,000 police officers so far, with a target of 20,000 over the course of the Parliament. I encourage him to put further pressure on his local police force to enforce the law as it is. I do not think it is really for the Government to set policing priorities from the Dispatch Box.
Given that one of the principal benefits of Brexit is that we now have the ability to set our own laws, rules and regulations, may I have a statement from the Leader of the House on the reasoning behind the ending of the Regulatory Reform Committee on 20 May 2021, at the very time when it had the best opportunity to help to shape our regulations to make the UK economy a better place?
It is very straightforward: legislative reform orders, which went to the Regulatory Reform Committee, are going to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee instead, and it seemed more sensible to bring that together with the Select Committee that is in charge of the interests of business, is fighting for business and is economically involved, rather than having a separate and expensive Select Committee. It is a question of efficiency—a legislative reform of our own within this House to save the taxpayer money.
Yesterday afternoon, I chaired a meeting here in Parliament with the Russian ambassador, which was interesting, to put it mildly, and obviously we talked about the crisis in Ukraine. Lots of us in the House want to help the Government to put in place proper sanctions, if necessary, in a timely fashion. Before the Foreign Secretary fell ill with covid—we wish her well—she announced to the House that a statutory instrument will soon come before us that is to be legal by next Thursday. It would be much better were the whole House able to show support for that SI in consideration on the Floor of the House, so that we could make clear our support for the Ukrainian people and our desire to make sure that jaw-jaw is more important than war-war.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for Government policy in relation to Ukraine. Her Majesty’s Government have made it absolutely clear that should a further Russian incursion into Ukraine happen, allies must enact swift retributive responses, including unprecedented sanctions. It is obviously right that any statutory instruments that come to the House are considered fully and I note the hon. Gentleman’s request for a debate.
We have a debate this afternoon on the Standards Committee review and report, which my right hon. Friend will know makes copious reference to the independent complaints and grievance scheme that was established in the House across party lines only a couple of years ago. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to look at the ICGS and non-ICGS complaints systems together, to make sure that our constituents and those who want us to serve them can see what is going on and that there is full transparency?
In particular, my right hon. Friend might be aware that the introduction of the ICGS was really focused on changing the culture of this place, which meant training and proper induction for new Members and staff who come into this place, and it also meant exit interviews to find out why people do not stay. Those things are not happening; what can my right hon. Friend do to make sure that the system is properly in place and that the two different processes are aligned once and for all?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her work to foster culture change in the House of Commons and in the setting up of the ICGS, which would not have happened in the form in which it has without her energy and drive. It has been enormously to the advantage of the House of Commons. I am glad that the Chairman of the Standards Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), is present in the Chamber, because I am sure he will have heard what my right hon. Friend had to say. There will be a debate later and it is important that all views about how things can be done better and differently are sent into the Standards Committee so that it can produce its report. My right hon. Friend’s comments are extremely helpful and her experience makes them particularly valid—[Interruption.] I think the Chairman of the Standards Committee is indicating that he has taken them as a formal representation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for agreeing to the statement later this afternoon on affairs in Northern Ireland. The Leader of the House will know—I have already spoken to him—that events in Northern Ireland are teetering on the brink: we are not months, weeks or days but moments away from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive. That is of course very sad, but it is entirely predictable and has been predicted from those on the Democratic Unionist party Benches for the past 13 months.
Will the Leader of the House assure us that good governance and good practices will be put in place to ensure that Northern Ireland does not fall behind in any of its governmental matters; that more time will be set aside in this House to debate issues to do with and pertinent to Northern Ireland; that the daily affairs of Northern Ireland will not be set to the side in any way; that the British Government will take full and proper charge of affairs when and where they have to; that people from the Republic of Ireland and their Government will not be allowed to interfere in the internal mechanisms and affairs of Northern Ireland; and that the frictions that exist between GB trade and Northern Ireland—
It would be wrong of me to predict what is happening in Northern Ireland at the moment. We have to wait upon events, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the British Government take responsibility for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is one single and undivided United Kingdom, and Her Majesty’s Government have a responsibility for the best interests of the whole of our country. We recognise the serious difficulties that are being caused by the Northern Ireland protocol and its implementation, and the effect that it has had on Northern Ireland. Her Majesty’s Government are aware of the issues, but we are a Unionist Government who attach great importance to being part of the United Kingdom.
Last Sunday I marched with thousands of Derby County fans to Pride Park stadium to show support for Derby County football club, one of the football league’s founding members. Derby County football club’s administrators have agreed another month’s extension with the English Football League, temporarily staving off the threat of expulsion and liquidation. Every day is crucial, and I do not want to see us approach that deadline without a sale of the club having been agreed. Could we have a statement next week to update MPs on the issue, and in particular on how fans’ interests are being represented in these important negotiations?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this to the attention of the House again. She has already had an urgent question, and this is a reminder of how effective the procedures of the House can be in highlighting important local issues and what a fantastic champion she is for Derby County. I am not a football expert, as she knows. However, I can tell her that the Minister for Sport, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), and officials in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are in regular contact with the English Football League and the administrators about the club’s future. Ultimately it is for the EFL, the administrators and the club to resolve the issues, to ensure the survival of Derby County football club, but the Government have urged pragmatism from all parties to find a solution for the benefit of the fans and the community that the club serves. It is positive that the EFL has granted Derby County a four-week extension. That is a vital lifeline for the survival of the club, and the opportunity must be utilised to ensure that a suitable outcome is reached with the interests of Derby County’s fans in mind. Offering a debate may be difficult, however, because I have a feeling that my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip might not necessarily be a fan of Derby County, as it is a competitor football club to the one he follows. However, there are DCMS questions next week.
I want to thank the Leader of the House—surprisingly—for writing to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to try to secure a debate on the Government’s unlawful disability strategy. Will he commit to keeping us updated at business questions on the progress he is making on securing this important debate in Government time?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words. I take very seriously the points raised in business questions and I pass on all points to the relevant Secretaries of State every week after business questions to ensure that other members of the Government are kept informed of the issues of concern to the House. On the disability strategy, the Government are committed to a strategy that supports all areas of life and to taking action to create a society that works for everyone, so that we can build back better and fairer. It is important to note that the recent judgment did not quash the national disability strategy; it was made on technical grounds. The Government are very much committed to the strategy, which is one of the broadest packages of real practical action so far put together. I will, of course, mention further that the hon. Lady has asked for a debate, and it may be that the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee has some capacity.
I was shocked last week when the Leader of the House told us that he felt the Government were drifting towards a presidential style of government, rather than a parliamentary one. I draw his attention to the fact that yesterday I published my private Member’s Bill, the Prime Minister (Accountability to House of Commons) Bill. I understand that tomorrow might be oversubscribed, so I have decided not to move it tomorrow, but perhaps the Leader of the House could deal with this particular point. I am requesting that we have Prime Minister’s questions on a Tuesday and Thursday again, so that the Prime Minister is here twice. It will make Thursday a more important day and it will stop his officials sending him on silly photoshoots on days when he should be in this House. Would the Leader of the House like to support my Bill?
I am so sorry to hear that my hon. Friend is not proceeding with his Bill tomorrow, because I was going to be here to respond to it had we reached that stage of the debate. Sadly, the pearls of wisdom that I was looking forward to spewing forth will not be available. None the less, he makes an interesting point about whether PMQs was better on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I think, by and large, that the House likes having the longer time that is available on a Wednesday, but, obviously, the decision on when questions are taken is for the Government, and we listen to hon. and right hon. Members’ views.
There can be few things more valuable to us than the air that we breathe and how clean it is. In my constituency of Edinburgh West, we have a particular problem with two of the worst polluted roads in Scotland. It is why I currently have a private Member’s Bill, which will be heard shortly. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on how we, across the United Kingdom, reach the World Health Organisation guidelines on clean air and on setting up some mechanism whereby the Government here in Westminster can work with the devolved authorities to ensure that we have a national strategy—or perhaps he would like to support my Bill?
Clean air is very important for the whole of the United Kingdom and it is something that the Government are very committed to improving. As I have said in the House previously, it does seem to me that one of the great scandals of modern politics was the promotion of diesel engines and the nitrous oxides that they spew out, which was done by the last Labour Government in cahoots with the European Union and German car manufacturers, which has had a terrible effect on air quality in our major cities. None the less, the Government are very committed to promoting air quality. As for an immediate debate, I once again point the hon. Lady to the Backbench Business Committee.
My right hon. Friend is a great champion for us Back Benchers in getting information from Government Departments. Can he arrange for the Home Secretary, or a Minister from the Home Office, to come forward and give us a statement about what is happening to immigration correspondence? I received a plethora of emails this week. I shall quote from one of them, but they are all the same.
“Thank you for your emails of 30 November 2020, 8 January 2021, 5 February 2021, 5 March 2021, 7 April 2021,10 May 2021, 7 June 2021, 6 July 2021, 5 August 2021, 3 September 2021, 30 September 2021, 3 November 2021 and 1 December 2021…We apologise for the delay in replying to your correspondence.”
I will not quote all the letter because of time, but it goes on to say that it hopes to resolve this claim, which by the way was submitted in 2019, by September 2022. That is three years and three months for an individual awaiting on an asylum claim. Can we have a statement on what is happening about this, because it is unacceptable behaviour by the Home Office?
It will not surprise my hon. Friend that I will make no attempt to defend that type of delay. Members have a constitutional right to hold the Government to account and to get proper, full and swift answers. To get a recent reply to a letter dated 30 November 2020 is not a proper constitutional service. I assure my hon. Friend that I will take this up with the Home Office immediately after Business questions. None the less, I do think that getting people back to work in their offices will be tremendously important in clearing up this backlog, because working from home has had all sorts of unintended consequences.
The Leader of the House is right: we have our own opinions, but we cannot have our own facts. Facts are facts. One fact is that the victims of Jimmy Savile, through their solicitor, have made it quite clear that the smear against the Leader of the Opposition is groundless and should be withdrawn. This is a new low for the Conservative party. What makes Conservative Members think that they know better than the victims of Jimmy Savile?
With respect to the restoration and renewal of Parliament, I welcome yesterday’s announcement by the Commission, chaired by the Leader of the House, that it will take back control from the sponsor body and that all the figures that come out of the delivery authority and the sponsor body, on which I sit, should be published. Can he confirm that the figures for the delay, length and cost of decant are truly horrendous; that no work would be scheduled to start before 2027, although the building works need to be got on with now; and that we are talking of a decant in excess of 15 years and costs in excess of £14 billion? Will he therefore confirm that some of us have been proved right when we said that we should have got on with it years ago? Can we have an early resolution of the House so that we can resolve the matter, take back control and start the work now?
My right hon. Friend raises some very important points. The Commission has asked that the figures be made available to all Members as soon as possible. The figures now range from £7 billion to £13 billion for the cost and from 12 years to 20 years for the decant. It seems to me that if we were to have a decant of 20 years, we would never come back to this Palace and that £13 billion or possibly even £14 billion of taxpayers’ money is not justifiable.
My right hon. Friend is also right that it has gone on for too long. We have been waiting for years for the perfect scheme instead of getting on with what we ought to do. He says it would be 2027 at the earliest, which is correct in part, but realistically it would probably be 2031, because the northern estate would have to be ready for people to move into it. I am glad to say that, with much thanks to your leadership of the Commission, Mr Speaker, we have been getting on with things before restoration and renewal that have been taken out of the scheme.
The Elizabeth tower is emerging butterfly-like from its chrysalis day by day to reveal an exceptionally beautiful part of the Palace. The fire safety programme has been proceeded with, so there are 4,126 sprinkler heads and 8 miles of pipe that are an important part of protecting life in the event of fire and are some protection for fire suppression that would be beneficial to the building.
By and large, the cast iron roofs have been restored in a very big programme as it is thought to be the largest expanse of cast iron roof in Europe. We are also getting on with the northern estate. It is really important that we get on with things and do them at a proportionate cost. We cannot possibly be out of here for 20 years; I do not think any Member thinks that is reasonable.
I put on record my role as chair of the Threehills Community Supermarket, which will be Scotland’s first community supermarket. It opened its larder last week and the feedback has been positive. People using the service are on low wages or benefits. Will the Leader of the House undertake to place in the Commons Library a copy of the Government’s evidenced review of the systematic drivers of the need for food aid, which was due to be published by the Department for Work and Pensions 18 months ago, so we can facilitate an open and transparent debate on the serious matter of food aid provision?
May I congratulate the Threehills Community Supermarket in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and him on the work that he has clearly done to support it? The issue relates to the cost of living and what we have been doing to help people with their livelihoods, for which the rise in the national living wage to £9.50 in April, which will leave a full-time worker £5,000 a year better off, and the cut to the universal credit taper and the increased work allowance, which will give 2 million families an extra £1,000 a year in their earnings, are of fundamental importance. On the report that he is asking for, I will take that up with the Department.
I am sure that you appreciate, Mr Speaker, that the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport is a real jewel in the nation’s heritage crown—indeed, a cut above the rest. It is under threat, however, from Labour-controlled Sefton Council and Sustrans, which are trying to impose a liveable neighbourhood near the museum that would seriously inhibit access, particularly for elderly people and disabled people. Could we have a debate on accessing our great British heritage sites? If my right hon. Friend or you, Mr Speaker, want to donate a lawnmower to the museum, it would be gratefully received.
It must be a very great place if it has been honoured by a visit from Mr Speaker himself. It is one of the glories of our country that we have museums for almost everything. A lawnmower museum is a reminder of the pride that we take in having finely cut lawns. It is worth bearing in mind that until, I think, the 1860s, the cricket ground at Lord’s—Thomas Lord’s ground—was cut by sheep. It is therefore relatively recently that lawnmowers have been used to assist the tending of Lord’s cricket ground.
Socialist councils are an absolute menace. We know that Sefton Council is a particular menace to all good ideas locally. It is absolutely typical that it is trying to stop something that gives pleasure to people. I am glad to say that £850 million of taxpayer spending was announced in last year’s spending review to support world-class cultural and heritage buildings. We should take pride in and support our local museums, and—dare I say it—we should cut socialist councils down to size.
I am sure that the Leader of the House will be delighted to know that, following a campaign by the women’s parliamentary Labour party, the journalist Rose Stokes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Boots has announced that it is slashing the price of its morning-after pill from £15.99 to £10.99, removing the sexist surcharge that is attached to that medication. It is interesting to note that Superdrug is still charging £13.49, whereas people can get generic emergency contraception for £3.99 on the Chemist4U website. I am raising this because cuts to public health budgets and the fragmentation of the NHS have meant that it is more difficult for women to access contraception advice. May we have a debate about the report of the all-party parliamentary group on sexual and reproductive health in the UK, which made clear recommendations on proper funding and accessibility for women’s contraceptive health services?
The levelling-up White Paper that was launched yesterday will see Stoke-on-Trent become an educational investment area and get multi-million pound funding to bus back better, adding to the £56 million from the levelling-up fund, the £17.6 million Kidsgrove town deal, the £29 million transforming cities fund and the 550 new jobs from the Home Office. There are also the powers to compel rogue and absent landlords of high street shops to fill them and to increase fines when heritage and history is allowed to rot. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Burslem and Tunstall, which he has visited, deserve a future high streets task force?
I did indeed visit. I got to try some of Margaret’s famous vanilla custards at the Tunstall indoor market and she gave me supplies to eat on the train back to London. Stoke-on-Trent already receives support from the Government’s high streets task force, which announced its first tranche of bespoke expert support last year. It is staggering the delivery of its expert support to a total of 152 selected local authorities over the period 2021-24, but my hon. Friend is a brilliant campaigner for any cakes that are available.
Can we have a debate on banning rapists from football? This week, Scottish club Raith Rovers signed David Goodwillie, who was found to be a rapist by one of the most senior judges in Scotland in a civil court. The club has just reversed its decision, but it has caused huge trauma, upset and a devastating impact on the football community that supports Raith Rovers, including the women’s team, now renamed the McDermid Ladies, who will play on Sunday at 2 o’clock. Does the Leader of the House agree that rapists have no place in professional football, or any football, or any role in public life?
I would like to associate myself with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). When it comes to restoration and renewal, we should prioritise taxpayer value for money. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the works could be done more cost-effectively and to a perfectly decent specification, without the bells and whistles currently planned? Does he agree with me and my constituents that we should pursue this path?
Yes. The Commission was told that we could define how to meet lesser requirements at a fraction of the cost of the essential scheme. It has got far too expensive, it is taking far too long and we need to get on with doing what really needs to be done and to prioritise taxpayer value.
Public houses are an essential part of the fabric of the community up and down the country. However, I hear not just from my city of Cambridge but elsewhere that not only did they have a tough pandemic but they face a difficult challenge with food inspections that have become more complicated, with less experienced inspectors and extra costs. Could a Minister please address this issue? Perhaps the Leader of the House will note that it is the socialists who know the problems of business.