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Westminster Hall

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 8 February 2022

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Yazidi Genocide

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that Mr Speaker encourages everyone to observe social distancing and to wear masks.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Yazidi genocide.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for giving time for this important debate.

On 3 August 2014, Daesh launched a violent attack against the Yazidis in Sinjar, in Iraq. A few days after that attack, it also attacked the Nineveh plains, forcing 120,000 people to flee for their lives in the middle of the night. Daesh fighters killed hundreds if not thousands of men, abducted boys to turn them into child soldiers, and kidnapped for sexual slavery thousands of women and girls, 2,763 of whom are still missing to this day. In a reign of terror lasting more than two years, Daesh murdered, enslaved, deported, and forcibly transferred women and children, and imprisoned, tortured, abducted, exploited, abused, raped, and forced women into marriage, across the region.

It was not until the allied forces finally started to recover regions of Iraq from Daesh that the sickening scale of what was happening to the Yazidis and other religious groups became clear. That is why, in April 2016, the House of Commons voted unanimously to recognise the atrocities committed by Daesh as genocide. That was the first ever such determination by the House of Commons, and it was made while the atrocities were still ongoing. Since then, however, the UK Government have steadfastly refused to follow suit; they have hidden behind the defence that somehow it is not for Governments to determine what is and is not a genocide, and that only a competent court or a tribunal can determine that.

In my time in this place, I have taken part in many debates that have called on the Government to recognise what has happened as a genocide. That happened most recently a couple of weeks ago, when we debated the findings of the Uyghur Tribunal in a debate secured by the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani); the Government again used the “competent court” defence to avoid taking a stance.

I thought that it was appropriate to intervene, given that my constituency was mentioned. I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. There are five markers of genocide that that tribunal was able to expand on; and there is no denying that Daesh has the intent to destroy. Let me quote what Daesh itself has said:

“Upon conquering the region of Sinjar…the Islamic State faced a population of Yazidis, a pagan minority existent for ages in regions of Iraq and Shām”,

which is Syria.

“Their continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day”.

It is very clear that Daesh’s perverted view of the Islamic faith meant that it had to destroy the Yazidi. No doubt the hon. Member will agree with that.

I absolutely agree, and I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The point about intent is crucial when deciding on genocide; I will expand on that later.

What sets this debate apart from all the others that we have had is the conviction in Germany in November 2021 of the Daesh terrorist Taha al-Jumailly for crimes including genocide and crimes against humanity. Not only is al-Jumailly the first Daesh member to be convicted of genocide against Yazidis, but his conviction means that the threshold demanded by successive UK Governments—that only a competent court can decide what is a genocide—has now been met. By the standard that the Government themselves set, they are now in a position to formally recognise the atrocities carried out by Daesh on the Yazidi people as a genocide.

I will first look at how the UN defines genocide. Then, using harrowing eyewitness testimony from survivors, I will set out why what happened to the Yazidi people more than reaches that threshold. Then I will examine the UK Government’s long-held position on declaring a genocide, and show how the ruling of the Frankfurt criminal court must force them to fundamentally alter how they define genocide and what Daesh did to the Yazidis and other minority communities during its reign of terror.

The United Nations genocide convention has been in place for more than 70 years. It clearly mentions killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions calculated to bring about physical destruction, preventing births within a group, and transferring children to another group. When that is done

“with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”,

it constitutes genocide. There is irrefutable proof that what Daesh did meets every single one of those tests without exception.

Since the initial attack on Sinjar, Daesh has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Yazidis; we do not know the exact number—and may never know it, because graves containing the remains of Yazidi men and boys continue to be discovered to this day. In “They came to destroy”, the United Nations report on Daesh crimes against the Yazidis, the UN stated that Daesh

“swiftly separated men and boys who had reached puberty from women and other children…Following this separation,”

Daesh

“fighters summarily executed men and older boys who refused to convert to Islam...Most of those killed were executed by gunshots to the head; others had their throats cut…Other captives, including family members, were often forced to witness the killings.”

Daesh also attempted to destroy the Yazidi people by inflicting conditions calculated to bring about their physical destruction, including by cutting off food, water and medical assistance to those who fled to Mount Sinjar to escape the violence. In the summer of 2014, with temperatures rising to above 50°C, American, Iraqi, British, French and Australian forces had to air-drop water and other supplies to the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. Daesh shot at the planes dropping humanitarian aid and attacked the helicopters attempting to evacuate the most vulnerable in the community.

A favourite Daesh tactic was to separate children from their parents, with girls aged nine years and over being sold as sex slaves, while boys were sent from the age of seven to military training bases in Syria and Iraq. In “They came to destroy”, a 12-year-old boy told of his experiences at the hands of Daesh. He was taken from his family and sent to a camp. He said:

“They told us we had to become good Muslims and fight for Islam. They showed us videos of beheadings, killing and ISIS battles.”

He said that Daesh said:

“You have to kill kuffars even if they are your fathers and brothers, because they belong to the wrong religion and they don’t worship God”.

We know all too well the serious bodily and mental harm suffered by Yazidi women, who were subjected to appalling, barbaric treatment by Daesh, including rape, sexual violence, sexual slavery, forced sterilisation, torture, and all manner of inhumane and degrading treatment. Some may recall that on the day before our debate in 2016, the a 15-year-old Yazidi girl, Ekhlas, spoke to parliamentarians about her experience when Daesh arrived in her village. I will remind Members of what she said:

“There was knock at our door…My father and my two brothers were killed in front of me. They took me away from my mother. He grabbed my arm and my leg and then he raped me. He was 32 years old; I was 15. After they raped me, they took my friend and they raped her. I could hear her shouting, ‘Where is the mercy? Where is the mercy?’…Any girls over the age of nine were raped”.

That was as difficult to read as it was to hear, but the voices of that community have to be heard, regardless of how harrowing or sickening the detail might be.

Just one of those atrocities would be enough to meet the definition of genocide in the UN genocide convention, if it was perpetrated with the intent of destroying a group in whole or in part. In the case of the Yazidis, every single prohibited act set out in the convention was used by Daesh, and it was done, as the hon. Member for Wealden said, with specific intent to destroy the community. That can be seen in multiple publications by Dabiq, the official mouthpiece of ISIS, that have said absolutely that this assault was planned with the intent of destroying that community. Let us have no debate about Daesh’s intention, because that is very clear.

Does the hon. Member share my anxiety that the Minister may, in his response, refer to the terms of the UN genocide convention? We should alert him to the fact that the 2007 ruling of the International Court of Justice in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro says that when a state—not a court—learns of a serious risk of genocide, then it must act. We cannot keep relying on a defunct UN resolution when we have the ICJ’s 2007 case behind us, supporting the Government’s taking action.

I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution, which I am sure the Minister heard. I will come on to exactly what the Government have to do, and what they have so far failed to do.

It is beyond question that under international law, the Yazidi people—and other religious minorities in Iraq—were victims of genocide. One would hope that the Government would call these crimes exactly what they are, particularly given that back in 2016, Parliament voted by 278 votes to zero that this was a genocide. By any measure, and on any interpretation of the UN genocide convention, these atrocities clearly meet the legal definition of genocide.

For more than 50 years, successive UK Governments have said that genocide can be declared only by a “competent court”. Many of us have long argued that this was an absurd position for the UK to adopt, because there was absolutely no legal basis for it. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Wealden said, that position is contrary to the UK’s obligation as a signatory to the UN genocide convention, under which the UK has promised to act to prevent genocide the instant it

“learns of, or should normally have learned of, the existence of a serious risk”

of genocide.

It is a remarkable feat of political, moral and linguistic gymnastics to reach a position that says that a genocide can be declared only after the event, and only after a court has decreed it a genocide. I have always viewed that as both a legally and morally flawed position that is rooted more in an unwillingness to make hard choices, and a fear of economic consequences or the international strategic implications of upsetting a powerful ally, than in legal principle. It is also a position that our greatest and most powerful ally has diverted from in regard to the Yazidi and other minority communities. In 2016, the United States, under Secretary of State John Kerry, declared:

“Daesh is responsible for genocide”.

That was confirmed in 2017 by his successor, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that Daesh was “clearly responsible for genocide” by self-proclamation and deed. Having spoken to former State Department advisers, I know that those words were not said lightly, but came after serious, prolonged analysis and consideration.

The UK Government have had every chance to review and revise their flawed long-standing policy on genocide determination, but they have refused to do so, despite the fact that other states with a similar approach to genocide determination, most notably Canada and the Netherlands, have changed their approach in the light of the evidence. As recently as 27 May last year, the UK Government’s position was reiterated by Lord Ahmad. He could not have been clearer:

“The UK policy remains…that the determination of genocide should be made by competent courts, not non-judicial bodies. This includes international courts, such as the ICC, and, indeed, national criminal courts that meet international standards.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 May 2021; Vol. 812, c. 178.]

In November 2021, a competent court that meets international standards recognised that Daesh atrocities against the Yazidi people were genocide. When Iraqi national Taha al-Jumailly went on trial accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, he was not tried as a German national. His victims were not German, and his crimes were not committed on German territory; but under the principle of universal jurisdiction, German courts have the authority to preside over cases of genocide and crimes against humanity. Al-Jumailly was found guilty of purchasing and enslaving a five-year-old Yazidi girl and her mother. They were subjected to forced conversion and suffered great physical abuse, including battery and starvation. One day, to punish the child, al-Jumailly chained that little girl outside in the baking sunshine, and left her to die of thirst while her mother was forced to watch.

Following al-Jumailly’s arrest, the court in Frankfurt put the evidence of the Daesh atrocities under detailed legal scrutiny, and applied all relevant international and domestic law before finding him guilty of genocide. The UK Government therefore now have the competent court ruling that they have long desired. I can see so no reason whatsoever why the Government should delay any longer before recognising what Daesh did to the Yazidi people and other religious minorities as genocide. Will the Minister confirm what we all want to hear, and call this barbarism exactly what it is—a genocide?

Other hon. Members are eager to speak; I am extremely grateful to them for coming along this morning. I am sure that they will make the appeal that justice for victims and survivors should be first and foremost in our mind, and will call for the thousands of missing women and girls to be found and returned. I also hope to hear about plans to stabilise the region; an absence of genocide does not mean that Daesh and its hideous ideology have been banished from the region—far from it. There is a genuine fear that they could return at any time.

Finally, later this year the UK is hosting a ministerial summit on freedom of religion or belief. Today, we have an opportunity to show international leadership on that issue by declaring to the world that what happened to the Yazidi community and others was indeed genocide, and by standing in solidarity with the victims and survivors in saying—and meaning—“Never, ever, again.”

The debate will last until 11 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.27 am, so we have about 40 minutes of Back-Bench time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on securing this important debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it. I also thank the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) for her moving contribution.

I am glad that hon. Members here recognise the genocide perpetrated against Christians and the Yazidi people by Daesh, but I am disheartened by the fact that the Government have not yet followed suit. Almost two weeks ago, many of us contributed to the Backbench Business debate marking Holocaust Memorial Day, in which we again committed to learning the difficult lessons of the holocaust and of genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Exactly a week before that, many of us urged the Government to at least assess whether there has been a genocide of the Uyghur people. It is disappointing to be highlighting another instance of the very worst actions of mankind in hopes of Government recognition. It is devastating that such events continue in the modern world at all.

By not acknowledging the plight of the Yazidis as a genocide, the Government are failing the victims. This House voted unanimously to recognise it as such in 2016. This is not an argument of politics or about the technicalities of international law; it is an argument of morals, and of what we are willing to sit by and silently watch continue. In the past year or so, women across the UK have been incensed with rage at the murder of women at the hands of men. The Government voiced their support for those British women, and condemned the violence and abuse suffered every day by thousands across the country. Does the Government’s responsibility to promote and protect women’s equality stop at the UK’s borders? Is women’s equality elsewhere not our problem to worry about or make determinations on?

Where there are wide-reaching campaigns of persecution, such as Daesh’s against Christians and Yazidis, women and girls face the most inconceivable and haunting horrors; we have heard about some of them. We cannot even begin to imagine those horrors, no matter how hard we might try—the trauma of forced sterilisation, rape, sexual mutilation perpetrated against children, lives destroyed before they have even begun, women abused and raped in front of their children, and women sold like cattle from man to man, time and again. There are still 2,763 women and children missing, and they have been missing for seven years. What contribution have this Government made to finding them, rescuing them or even finding out if they are alive? It is not enough simply to condemn these atrocities. The Government will not even use the word that defines them—genocide. Imagine, as a survivor, how that must feel.

There needs to be recognition of what survivors have lived through, and of what many did not survive. We all remember the headlines from those early years of conflict—the frequent news stories of British citizens leaving the UK to join Daesh in the conflict, or of those who joined Daesh but remained here at home. The UK is not entirely removed from these crimes against humanity in ways, we might argue, we are from other conflicts. Have the Government made any assessment of how many British citizens had a hand in these crimes?

No colleague here will need reminding of my final point. Unfortunately, the UK has its own issues that it must address when it comes to religious intolerance. There is a risk, whenever issues such as this come back into the public spotlight, that everyone of the same background becomes tarred with the same brush. Islam is a peaceful religion, as most are, when they are observed as they were intended to be. The word “Islam” means peace and submission. We must not let those who subvert its teachings to justify terror and atrocities stoke fear of religion, or fear of those of the faith. These atrocities are not committed in the name of Islam, but in the name of control. We cannot allow Daesh to retain control of this narrative.

I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for setting the scene so well. He illustrated the issues, which are painful to listen to; I find it incredibly difficult, but as I said to the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) before the debate, we want to ensure through this debate, our Government and our Minister that the issue of the Yazidis and Christians who were horribly mutilated, abused and kidnapped, and whose lives changed for ever because of the evil intent of Daesh/ISIS and radical Islamicists, is not ignored. Today, in this House, we have a chance to remind the world of what happened and ask our Minister and Government to take forward our pleas on their behalf.

In 2017 or 2018, I had occasion to visit Iraq with Aid to the Church in Need. It was before Mosul fell. I remember being on the plains of Nineveh, which the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to. We became very conscious of where the saints had walked, according to the Bible, and, secondly, where Yazidis and Christians had at one time lived in peace and harmony with their neighbours. The people we spoke to told us the stories that were happening and the change in their lives. That reminded us clearly of the suffering and pain.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, I am, very sadly, all too familiar with the issue of genocide and ethnic cleansing. There is not a day when we are not reminded of where that is taking place across the world. We have had debates in this Chamber about the Uyghurs, and our debate a few weeks ago reminded us of other atrocities across the world. We have a prayer time in the morning when we remember all the places across the world where many have evil intent and the innocence of families—women, girls, boys and men—is abused by evil people.

Today, we need to state that it is critical that Her Majesty’s Government recognise a genocide for what it is. We hope that that might help bring dignity to the victims and aid the prosecution of the perpetrators. I am a great believer—you probably are as well, Mr Hollobone—that when this world ends, the next world will come. There will be a judgment day for the people who carried out these most horrific and horrible of crimes. I would love to see them getting their judgment earlier—in this world, rather than in the next. I would expedite that if it was humanly possible, because those people who wander the world and commit awful crimes seem to think that they are above the law. No, they are not, and this debate aims to hold them accountable in law. Again, we are eternally grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute for securing the debate.

In April 2016, the House voted unanimously to recognise Daesh’s crimes against the Yazidis and other religious minorities as genocide; that followed similar motions in the House of Lords—a combination of the two Houses together. However, the Government’s long held position, that they should wait for a ruling from a court or tribunal before declaring a genocide, prevented recognition of the crimes at that time.

As the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned, on 30 November, in a court in Frankfurt, Taha al-Jumailly—hell will never be full until he is there, that is for sure—became the first member of ISIS to be convicted of genocide against the Yazidis. The landmark ruling fulfils Her Majesty’s Government’s requirement of a competent court ruling on genocide. Following that, a letter was sent to the Prime Minister, asking whether his Government would now recognise the crimes. So far, there has been no response to the letter. I ask the Minister—I say this respectfully, as he knows—to remind the Prime Minister that it is time to respond to the letter so that this House, through today’s debate, can see what is happening.

The UK would not be alone in recognising the genocide; in fact, it would join some of our country’s closest allies. The USA was the first country to recognise the Daesh genocide, under the Obama Administration. In 2016, both Canada and the Netherlands also recognised the genocide, after a report was published by the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh, entitled “‘They Came to Destroy’: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis”.

It is horrible to recount what has happened to a group of gentle people who have a religious belief. We in this House, including all those who have spoken in the debate and all those who are present, speak up for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs and those with no belief. We believe in the freedom to exercise one’s religious belief and that human rights are so important and need to be retained. That is why we are here today to make this plea on behalf of the Yazidis.

There is a strong legal justification for the UK to recognise this horrendous act as genocide, and it is time that it did. The reasons for the urgency can be summarised as follows. First, it is important to acknowledge what has happened. The act of genocide is a deliberate attempt to destroy a targeted group of people, and Daesh/ISIS set out to do that with vengeance and cruelty. In acknowledging what has happened, we have a duty to protect the victims and ensure that there are safeguards to prevent future atrocities.

It is important to remember that this is not a historical event, but a situation in which action is still needed to help the survivors. Tens of thousands of Yazidis are still living in tent camps, unable to access Government funds to rebuild their towns and villages, which were destroyed by Daesh. I know that the issue is not the Minister’s direct responsibility—it is the responsibility of another Minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—but what can be done to help those families get back to their homes and build their houses, villages and towns so that they can try to restart their lives, ever mindful of the horrible atrocities carried out against them? Some 2,700 Yazidi women and children are still missing, having been kidnapped by Daesh. Many are believed to be held in al-Hawl and al-Roj detention camps, trapped with 60,000 former Daesh members and fighters. We need little imagination to recognise and imagine the horrors that women and girls suffer daily in those camps.

It is important to recognise this as a genocide because it is important to prosecute the perpetrators and put them in jail—if the death penalty were still available, we should give them that for what they have carried out. It is very clear in my mind what they have done, and I recognise their brutality and murderous intent. It is time for them to take responsibility for their actions. The prosecution of those who carry out such crimes provides justice for the victims and sends a strong message to the perpetrators of other genocides that the international community, including here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, are watching and will hold actors accountable for their actions. Prosecutions will also allow for the seizing of assets—yes, hit them where it hurts, in their pockets—used for the conduct of genocide. The removal of assets prevents ongoing atrocities and aids reparations for surviving victims. Ultimately, victims need money and finance when they go back to rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately, prosecution has been slow. So far, only one member of Daesh has been prosecuted with charges relating to genocide, in a criminal trial in Germany. The UK has prosecuted nationals who have returned from Iraq and Syria after joining Daesh. I welcome that, by the way, as a clear statement and clear action, but all 40 of those individuals have been prosecuted under anti-terror legislation, with no reference to crimes related to genocide or the sexual exploitation of women and children. Will the Minister respond on that?

Recommendation 21.b of the Bishop of Truro’s review of Christian persecution recommends that those at the FCDO

“champion the prosecution of ISIS perpetrators of sex crimes against Yazidi and Christian women, not only as terrorists.”

I am ever mindful that some parts of the Bishop of Truro’s report have not yet been acted on, but I thank the Government and the Minister for the conference that will take place in July this year to highlight all the issues. The Government have been a driver in this, and I give credit to those who have tried hard to make things happen. On the issue of recommendation 21.b, I ask the Minister to give us some thoughts. Her Majesty’s Government have pledged to adopt all recommendations of the Truro review by the summer of 2022. That is coming soon, so in the next three or four months we want to see that happening. To meet that recommendation, the UK needs to expand prosecutions against former Daesh members to include those crimes.

Finally, it is important to recognise genocide, as part of our international obligation to prevent future genocides. The hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) was here earlier; for the record, I should say that I greatly admire her fortitude and courage in speaking out for the Uyghurs and doing the same again here today on behalf of others. That illustrates our frustration as elected representatives: we recognise evil and the evil intent of people, but we expect—I say this with respect—our Government and Minister to do something about it, after the pleas we make on behalf of those who have suffered.

The UK is a signatory to the 1948 convention on genocide, which governs the steps that states must take to prevent genocide from occurring and to punish perpetrators after the crime has been committed. Today, in the debate, we need assurances so that we are confident that our Government and our Minister are taking every step possible to ensure that the perpetrators of those evil crimes will go to court and be subject to whatever the judgment of the court will be.

Her Majesty’s Government’s approach of waiting until a court or tribunal has ruled on genocide prevents the UK from doing more to stop genocides from occurring before they happen. With real grief in my heart, I look to the Government and the Minister to recognise the words that we are saying, although words in no way encapsulate what we are trying to say—words barely describe the issues. I know that the Minister understands, because he is of the same mind as me and as others present who find what has happened grievous to listen to, and more so when considering what we need to do.

In recommendation 7 of the Bishop of Truro’s report, he asks the Government to

“Ensure that there are mechanisms in place to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide…and…be willing to make public statements condemning such atrocities.”

I have mentioned the report a couple of times—the earlier recommendation and this one. We look to the Government’s commitment that the adoption of all the recommendations will be finalised and concluded by the summer of this year. We need to have that assurance.

This is my last paragraph. The international obligations are important, as they help prevent future crimes. Sadly, the genocide against the Yazidis by Daesh is not unique. It is terrible to recall what happened, but we also recognise that genocide has been carried out in other parts of the world. Religious or ethnic minorities are at risk, including of genocide, in many situations.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and other speakers, and I look forward to the contribution from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who would contribute to a debate such as this even if he were not shadow Minister. I also look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), my friend and colleague from the APPG, who understands these issues well.

We have a duty to speak up for the Yazidis and Christians and that is what we have done, in a compassionate way that matters to us. We look to the Minister and our Government to ensure that there is accountability for what has happened to the Yazidis and Christians in northern Iraq and elsewhere. There must be accountability, recognition of genocide and completion of the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for securing today’s debate, for his advocacy on the issue, as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Turks and Kurds, and for setting out clearly the steps our Government can take to correct a wrong.

I am an ethnic Kurd and speak Kurdish—something I share with the Yazidi Kurds in Iraq. In 2014, I watched as thousands of Yazidis were dislocated from their homes and I felt really helpless. I wrote to my MP, and tried to get their voices heard and recognised. I am proud to be here as a voice for the Yazidis and to support colleagues in this debate.

I was pleased when a debate finally took place in the House in 2016; this is not the first time the issue has been brought to the UK Parliament. In April 2016, the voice of the House was expressed clearly when it voted 278 to zero to recognise the atrocities committed by Daesh against the Yazidis and other religious minorities.

Unfortunately, the Government did not listen then, deeming that it was up to a credible court to make such a designation. As we heard from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, the criteria have been met as a result of the conviction in Germany. I am keen to hear from the Minister the steps our Government will take in response. Too often, sadly, it feels as though these discussions are treated as symbolic—merely a gesture to be made. That approach completely fails to acknowledge the duty imposed on states under international law, the role that developed nations such as the UK should play, and the real stories behind the genocide.

By recognising genocide, we are not just making a statement. We are taking practical steps to support those affected by the atrocities committed. In the case of the Yazidi genocide, the stories from victims should compel all of us to act. Daesh did not seek only to eradicate the Yazidi people; they sought the utter destruction of a community, its culture and its dignity.

Article 2 of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide sets out the prohibited acts that constitute genocide. One such condition is:

“Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

It is on this that I will focus the remainder of my remarks. By subjecting women to organised sexual violence and enslavement on such a massive scale, Daesh undoubtedly sought their physical destruction. Rape, mutilation, forced sterilisation—these are just some of the things Daesh subjected Yazidi women to. This was not just violence and it was not an act of war: it was an attempt to systematically break the spirit of a people and bring about their physical destruction.

We have heard harrowing accounts of Yazidi women and girls from other hon. Members. I will share a testimony from a girl captured by Daesh at just 12 years old. She said:

“We were registered. ISIS took our names…where we came from and whether we were married or not. After that, ISIS fighters would come to select girls to go with them. The youngest girls I saw them take was about 9 years old. One girl told me that ‘if they take you, it is better that you kill yourself.’”

This girl was just 12 years old when she was captured. She was held by Daesh for seven months and was sold in that period four times. She was not thought of as a child, as vulnerable; she was treated as a commodity to be traded for the gratification of ISIS men. Daesh had so low a view of the value of Yazidi life that they stripped away all basic humanity and treated these women as mere goods.

Recognising the Yazidi genocide is not a gesture. It is not symbolic. It is an acknowledgement of how these women suffered and a commitment to help them. We know that thousands of Yazidi remain missing, yet we do nothing. We know the humanitarian crisis is ever growing, yet we do nothing. We can no longer stand by and look the Yazidi people in the eye and do nothing. Recognition is not an end point; it is not the conclusion of our responsibilities. It is the start of properly understanding the events that took place and of playing our part in ensuring that they never happen again.

The Government must act now and take steps to call this what it is: a genocide. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing his views on the criteria that have been met and what our Government will do.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for securing this important debate and for his important work with the all-party parliamentary group, championing this issue over recent years. As we have heard, the Yazidis are a religious minority primarily residing in northern Iraq. Yazidism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions and has survived many genocides throughout history; a figure of 74 genocides has been quoted by the Yazidis themselves.

In August 2014, Yazidis were attacked by Daesh, who then controlled significant amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria. In addition to the attacks against the Yazidis, Christians, Mandaeans, Turkmen, Shabaks and other minorities were also targeted. There was mass slaughtering that wiped out entire villages, forced conversions, thousands of young women sold into slavery and raped and young boys trained as child soldiers. Figures from last year estimate that there were some 200,000 displaced Yazidis, with thousands of women and girls missing, still in Daesh captivity. It is estimated that more than 5,000 were killed, although the actual number is uncertain, as is the number captured or missing. Unquestionably, the treatment of this minority is an atrocity and something that we can all unite in calling out. We can also all unite in our opposition to Daesh, and in sympathy with the plight of the Yazidis.

However, the question is, what can be done about it? What can we do to help, and how can we hold the perpetrators of this violence to account? We have already heard quite a number of constructive suggestions, but so far, very few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Recognising the atrocities as genocide, and as crimes against humanity, is therefore a first key step.

In 2016, a UN human rights panel and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, described the actions against the Yazidis as constituting genocide. A further UN investigative team in 2021 concluded that there was “clear and convincing evidence” of genocide. As we have heard, in April 2016 this Parliament unanimously voted—278 to nil—to recognise the Daesh atrocities against the Yazidis, and others, as genocide. As we know, the UK Government did not recognise it as genocide, instead standing by their policy that determination of genocide is a matter for a competent court to decide, rather than Governments. Competent courts include the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and national criminal courts, so it is significant that the German court found a Daesh fighter guilty of genocide on 30 November 2021—the first genocide conviction of a Daesh fighter in the world.

The UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant works to prepare evidence to support national authorities’ efforts to bring prosecutions. It has identified 1,444 potential perpetrators of attacks against the Yazidis.

While usually a state only has jurisdiction if crimes happen on its soil, or are committed by its nationals or against its people, the Germans, as we have heard, used the principle of universal jurisdiction—a principle that came into existence following the second world war, as some crimes were considered so grave that they could be prosecuted universally, irrespective of where they took place. That verdict by a competent court must surely now lead to the UK’s recognising the crimes as genocide. I add my voice, and those of my party, to calls for the UK to do that.

There is so much more that I would like to see the UK Government do. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis now live in displacement camps, and have for seven years. Without a timeline to close those camps, there is no end to the misery and displacement in sight. Kris Phelps, of the British charity War Child—one of the few international non-governmental organisations still working in the Yazidi camps—said:

“Yazidis feel betrayed by their neighbours, forgotten by their government, and the provision of aid is dwindling…It’s really striking to see the surge and ebb in attention the Yazidis have received”.

UK aid should be supporting those desperate and largely ignored families but, as we know, UK bilateral aid into Iraq has all but dried up. We ask, therefore, that the UK Government provide more bilateral aid and improve funding to the United Nations Development Programme’s funding facility for stabilisation, providing some basic services in Iraq.

On top of that form of abandonment, the UK Home Office has so far not taken a single Yazidi refugee. That should be contrasted with the UK Government’s having spent £8.4 billion on military operations in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. More needs to be done. The UK must work with international counterparts to help trace the thousands of missing Yazidis, and to advocate for and better fund the full provision of the Yazidi survivors law, which passed in Iraq in March 2021.

Perhaps the Minister can explain why the UK Government still do not have a whole-of-government atrocity prevention strategy, or why they do not designate the destruction of cultural heritage as an early warning sign of atrocity crimes—something that happened in the Yazidi case—in line with the requirements of the UN framework of analysis for atrocity crimes. It is not good enough. Atrocities are becoming more commonplace across the globe, and there appears to be a rising sense of impunity among the perpetrators. Only one person has been convicted following the atrocities committed against the Yazidi people.

I hope that the Minister will step up to the mark and show willing for the UK to take the lead in rectifying those wrongs. A good starting point is with the recognition of the crimes as genocide. Then, perhaps, the UK Government could press for the use of universal jurisdiction to be replicated by Governments around the world in such cases. We need to improve legislation globally and avoid loopholes through which perpetrators can escape justice. More support from the UK Government must be provided to Kurdish and Iraqi authorities to help them improve their judicial systems. We also need to tackle questions of immunity of senior Syrian officials to make sure that nobody stands above the law. In short, we need firm action—not lip service.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for securing this important debate. Many horrors, atrocities and human rights abuses have been committed during the war in Syria, but the genocide against the Yazidi people carried out by Daesh between 2014 and 2017 must rank as one of the worst.

Human rights and international law must always be our guiding principles as Members of Parliament. Only by standing up for human rights and the rule of international law can we in the UK have any moral authority in the eyes of the world; only by standing up for those values can we transcend the push and pull of sectarian politics. When it comes to the horrific situation endured by the Yazidi people, the Labour party, including myself, believes that the UK Government must do everything in their power to ensure that there is justice for the victims. The UK Government must recognise their duty to stand up for human rights in this situation.

In an ideal world, the determination of genocide would be made by a competent court with full access to all necessary evidence. Unfortunately, as hon. Members present will appreciate, the world is far from ideal. There are many situations where the international courts are unable to make that determination, either because of questions relating to the jurisdiction of the court or because the process has been blocked by a party to the proceedings. In such cases, when the preferred legal routes to recognising genocide are blocked, it falls to Parliament to take action as a last resort. In this case, that action is to recognise what happened to the Yazidi people as genocide.

The definition of genocide is very important, both as an assertion of the truth and as a crucial step to establishing international mechanisms for accountability. As the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have mentioned, in 2016, the House of Commons voted 278 to zero that IS, or Daesh, was committing genocide against the Yazidis, Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria; yet the Government did not accept that expression of the will of the House, instead arguing that the matter of genocide should be decided by a competent court. So, while the Government have condemned the atrocities against the Yazidis, they have not done the one thing in their power that could really help the situation.

In fact, I argue that the Government’s long-standing policy that any determination of genocide should be made by competent courts, rather than the Government, is unhelpful to the victims of the genocide and the international pursuit of justice. As my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) stated, recognising the genocide of the Yazidi people would be a practical step in helping the victims.

Without the events of 2014 to 2017 being defined as genocide, Daesh fighters are currently predominantly prosecuted for offences other than genocide, with terror-related offences the primary offence used in prosecutions. It is really important that everyone understands that prosecutions for terror-related offences serve only to undermine the true severity of the crimes perpetrated against the Yazidis. While Daesh fighters can be partially held to account via the mechanism of terror-related offences, a formal recognition of genocide would allow for greater justice for victims of genocide.

We saw moral leadership on this matter in Germany in December 2021 when, for the first time, a Daesh member was convicted of genocide against the Yazidi community. Germany’s use of universal jurisdiction in that case can and should be replicated by other Governments, including our own.

I would like to explain why it was indeed a genocide. As is well known, between 2014 and 2017 Daesh committed the most heinous atrocities against the Yazidi community in Iraq. In 2016, a UN human rights panel and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, described the actions of IS, or Daesh, against the Yazidis as constituting genocide. In 2021, a further UN investigative team concluded that there was “clear and convincing evidence” of genocide against the Yazidis.

It is worth noting exactly what the UN said in its report and why it chose to use the word genocide.

“ISIS has sought to erase the Yazidis through killings; sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm; the infliction of conditions of life that bring about a slow death; the imposition of measures to prevent Yazidi children from being born, including forced conversion of adults, the separation of Yazidi men and women, and mental trauma; and the transfer of Yazidi children from their own families and placing them with ISIS fighters, thereby cutting them off from beliefs and practices of their own religious community”.

It is now known that around 10,000 Yazidis were either killed or captured in August 2014 alone, out of which 3,100 were murdered by gunshots, beheaded or burned alive. Perhaps one of the most horrific aspects of the Yazidi genocide was the way in which Daesh systematically separated the women to rape, sexually mutilate and sterilise, while many children were sent to training camps. Sexual violence against the Yazidi women captured by Daesh occurred on a horrific scale; it was the systematic use of sexual violence as a tool of genocide. Around 7,000 women were sold as sex slaves, or handed to jihadists as concubines. Girls as young as nine were sold off to Islamic State fighters, routinely raped, and punished with extreme violence when they tried to escape. Children were killed as a means of punishing their mothers for resisting.

There is no doubt that the atrocities perpetrated by Daesh, including massacres, enslavement, conscription and rape, have inflicted communal and individual trauma on the Yazidi people. A study published in 2018 by BMC Medicine found that more than 80% of participants, mainly Yazidi women aged between 17 and 75, met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. The rates reached nearly 100% for women who had survived captivity.

There is nothing that can undo this unimaginable suffering and the trauma it has caused for the survivors of the Yazidi genocide, but by showing leadership and formally calling the genocide by its name, the UK Government could establish or strengthen international mechanisms for justice. Crucially, it would be an honest and true reflection of the events that occurred on the ground. For the survivors of the genocide, who still live with unimaginable trauma, the recognition of genocide for what it is might perhaps do something to lessen the emotional weight of the injustice.

I would like to conclude by saying that when it comes to human rights, there is no left or right, only right and wrong. I put the following questions to the Minister: first, would he reconsider the Government’s decision not to declare what has happened to the Yazidi people as a genocide; and secondly, will he do all in his power to help those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from the Yazidi genocide to get justice? The Government must and should recognise the massacre of the Yazidi people at the hands of Daesh. It is morally and ethically the right thing to do. It is genocide.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for securing this debate in the time apportioned by the Backbench Business Committee. I pay tribute to his work as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The Minister for the Middle East, North Africa and North America would have been delighted to take part in this debate as part of his responsibilities, but he is travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. While I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not the Minister with responsibility for this area, I do recognise the decent and honest conviction and the passion that he brought to the debate.

I am also grateful for the contributions from all other hon. Members, and I will try to respond to many of the points they have raised. I would like to acknowledge the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), as well as the two Opposition spokesmen, the hon. Members for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), for their contributions.

It is without doubt that the Yazidis have suffered immense pain and loss through the abhorrent crimes that Daesh has inflicted on them, some of which have been highlighted in the most harrowing terms today. The UK Government are steadfast in our support for the Yazidis and other religious minorities whose human rights have been so brutally violated by Daesh. We are committed to ensuring that the voices of those murdered, persecuted and silenced are heard, and that justice is secured for the survivors.

Nearly eight years ago, Daesh launched a brutal offensive against Sinjar—a region of northern Iraq. It killed up to 10,000 Yazidi people and forced thousands to flee their homes. It subjected them to torture, sexual violence and enslavement. Thousands of Yazidis, among Christians, Turkmens and other minorities, suffered unimaginable violence. The impact of these crimes resonates to this day.

Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority populations have dwindled as so many people have fled conflict and persecution. Amnesty International reports that 2,000 Yazidi children who were captured by Daesh have faced horrendous physical and mental trauma and now require urgent support from the Iraqi Government. Nearly 3,000 women and girls remain in captivity and 200,000 Yazidis remain displaced, living in camps without basic necessities. A wave of recent suicides among Yazidis grimly illustrates the mental health crisis they are facing. We condemn in the strongest terms the atrocities committed by Daesh against all civilians, including Yazidis, other minorities and the majority Muslim population in Syria and Iraq.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute described the Government’s policy. It is the long-standing policy of the British Government that the determination of genocide should be made by a competent court. Whether or not that determination is made, we are committed to robust action. In 2017, the UK was instrumental in the adoption of UN resolution 2379, which established the UN investigative team to promote accountability for crimes committed by Daesh. Since then, a huge amount of work has taken place to gather evidence to map the appalling crimes of Daesh. The UK Government have contributed nearly £2 million to the team, and we continue to champion its vital work. Above all, Yazidis and all other Iraqis deserve a safe and secure future, which is why we remain a leading member of the global coalition against Daesh, supporting the Government of Iraq to ensure that Daesh can never recover and repeat its appalling crimes.

Every hon. Member has asked about the UK Government’s position on the recent ruling of genocide in Germany. I will start by saying we condemn in the strongest terms the atrocities committed by Daesh against all civilians. We note the conviction in the German court on 30 November of a former Daesh fighter for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against a Yazidi woman and her daughter. We are closely following the case and the review. Following the proceedings in the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court, the Federal Court of Justice is reviewing the case. As a Minister who is not within his portfolio, I am hesitant to comment further on ongoing legal proceedings.

To reduce the risk of a Daesh resurgence, it is essential to build a more stable and inclusive Iraq. The UK has designated Iraq as a human rights priority country. Work to promote and defend freedom of religion or belief in Iraq is at the centre of that strategy. We believe passionately that the freedom to choose and practise a religion or to have no religion at all is a universal human right that everyone should enjoy. We are standing up for those who face religious persecution and those denied the right to practise their faith or belief freely. We continue to press the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to promote freedom of religion or belief and to improve the lives of religious minorities.

In my contribution, I asked what would be done to enable Yazidis and Christians to return to their villages, towns and homes and to rebuild their lives, jobs and communities. It is important that, if they wish to return, every encouragement is given for that to happen. I understand that it is not the Minister’s portfolio, but I would be grateful if he could answer that now or perhaps give us an answer later.

I hope to cover that in the rest of my contribution, but if that is not the case, and the hon. Gentleman taps me on the shoulder afterwards, I will ensure that I write to all present in the Chamber.

The Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government must ensure that religious minorities are protected and included in decision making that affects their lives. As part of that, we meet frequently with religious minorities to show support and advocate against the insecurity, discrimination and inadequate public support they experience. His Holiness the Pope’s historic visit to Iraq last year sent a welcome message of peace and reconciliation to Iraqis of all faiths and reminded us all of the importance of dialogue and understanding between religions.

We are also supporting the most vulnerable people in Iraq, including the Yazidis, with humanitarian aid and stabilisation support. We have provided more than £270 million since 2014 in humanitarian support, including emergency food, shelter and medical care, in addition to money through the UN development programme to restore vital services, including hospitals, schools and water networks in areas that are home to Yazidi and minority communities, such as Sinjar and Sinuni.

It is also vital that we ensure that the Yazidis’ cultural identity, memories and practices are preserved, and we are supporting this through the work of the British Council’s cultural protection fund. That fund is helping the AMAR Foundation—a wonderful charity—to record and teach the unique music of the Yazidi people, helping to preserve it for future generations. That includes setting up a women’s choir in one of the camps for internally displaced persons. That cultural protection fund is also supporting the University of Liverpool’s work to preserve Yazidi culture and identity through filming their oral histories, festivals and rituals. We are funding Yazda, a non-governmental organisation, to provide much-needed mental health and psychosocial care to female survivors of sexual violence and conflict.

These projects offer a lifeline, but much more can be done by the Iraqi authorities and the international community. Last year, the Iraqi Parliament passed the Yazidi survivors law, a hugely positive step that officially recognised Daesh crimes against Yazidi and other minority groups as crimes against humanity and genocide. That law promises compensation and rehabilitation measures to support the survivors of Daesh atrocities. The UK will continue to press the authorities on those measures, and we are working with a range of organisations to support the law’s implementation. The Government of Iraq must fully deliver on their promises so that survivors can begin to rebuild their lives and return to the places that they call home. That includes funding for Iraq’s general directorate for Yazidi survivor affairs through our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative.

I will conclude by again stressing our firm resolve to help Iraq build a future in which all groups can thrive and prosper. I commend the courage of the Yazidi people in continuing their fight for justice; their recovery and rehabilitation remains a priority. I commend every Member who has contributed today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who was in the Chamber earlier. We will continue to work with the Government of Iraq to secure accountability and justice for Yazidi survivors and the other communities that suffered so dreadfully at the hands of Daesh.

I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), to the hon. Members for Wealden (Ms Ghani), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), and to the Minister for what has been an interesting and informative debate. I am glad that the issues of the missing women and girls and of bringing stability to the region have been raised, but the crux of the debate was always that the threshold the Government set themselves has been met. The competent court threshold has been met, and by any standard and any definition, genocide has been established.

I am so disappointed that the Government still will not call this out and call it what it is. I understand that the federal court in Germany is reviewing this case, but across the world, this genocide has been recognised, and we should be taking a lead on this matter, not hiding behind an appeal to a German federal court to block us from doing what we know is the right thing. We wrote to the Prime Minister on this issue, but we have had no response; I would appreciate it if the Minister could raise this with the PM and tell him that we would still appreciate a response. As the hon. Member for Enfield North said, recognition is not an end in itself: it is the start of a process of righting an historical wrong, and we have a moral responsibility to call this what it is. This is a genocide.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the Yazidi genocide.

Sitting suspended.

Grit Bins

Before we begin, Mr Speaker would like to remind hon. Members to observe social distancing and encourage Members to wear masks.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of grit bins.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I appreciate that for many observers, especially those in places such as London and the south-east, the provision of grit bins may not sound like a major issue, but in my home in the High Peak, things are bit different. Buxton, for example, sits 1,000 feet above sea level. As a result, we get a lot of weather. On average, temperatures here are at least 3° cooler than in London, and we can get snowfall as late as April and May—known locally as lambing snows. In November, Storm Arwen struck, leaving many homes in the more remote rural areas of the High Peak cut off, many roads impassable and some homes without power for as many as five nights. Just over a week ago, I was door-knocking in Harpur Hill when I got caught out by Storm Malik, which again left many without power.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in places such as High Peak and Hyndburn and Haslingden, severe weather affects residents? The provision of grit bins is key around schools, for example, where severe weather can cause severe delays for people who are trying to get their children to school. Getting grit bins in the places where they need to be is something that local councils really need to focus on.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic champion for her constituents in Hyndburn. I will talk about schools later in my speech.

As I said, I was caught out in the middle of Storm Malik. A number of local residents who were waiting for the power to come back on were surprised to find their local MP on their doorstep, checking up on them while looking like a drowned rat. All this weather, along with the beautiful landscape of the Peak District and the poor quality of many rural roads, means that grit provision is of particular importance in my constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. In my constituency of Congleton, the provision of grit bins is an issue not just in the very extreme weather that he mentions, but each winter. Residents of Mow Cop, in my constituency, which has very steep gradients up to it, are concerned about safe access in icy weather and concerned that the roads are appropriately gritted—not least because many of the residents are elderly, and we need to ensure that access for emergency vehicles and emergency home deliveries is secured.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, particularly about the impact that this issue has on the elderly.

Grit bins are a big issue in my constituency, but unfortunately local provision is frequently not up to the task. In High Peak there are multiple tiers of local government: Derbyshire County Council, High Peak Borough Council and a whole plethora of town and parish councils. Typically, parish and town councils take responsibility for providing and maintaining grit bins in High Peak, with varying degrees of effectiveness. However, Buxton, Glossop, Hadfield and Padfield are not parished, and therefore they fall between the tiers of local government on grit bin provision.

Does the hon. Member agree that district nurses and community care workers sometimes put their lives on the line as they attempt to make their way into housing developments to look after their patients? Those areas may have no grit bins because the gradient is half a degree less than that specified in legislation. The legislation prevents grit bins from being put into the estates where they should be, and they must be extended to areas where those with health needs live. It is important that nurses who need to visit constituents have access. Councils back home, in agreement with community groups, make grit and grit bins available on estates, where the local people themselves disperse the grit. There may be some ways of doing what we do in Northern Ireland.

It is always a pleasure to give way to the hon. Gentleman. I will talk in a few moments about access for emergency services and health care, and the impact of grit bins.

As I was saying, large parts of the High Peak are not parished and fall between the layers of local government. Unfortunately, High Peak Borough Council and Derbyshire County Council are in a long-running dispute about who should take responsibility for new grit bins in those areas, leaving places such as Buxton, Glossop, Hadfield and Padfield at a disadvantage compared with the rest of the High Peak. Given the often extreme weather that we face in the High Peak, the failure of those two councils to resolve this dispute is deeply disappointing.

As co-chair of the all-party group on local democracy, which represents town and parish councils, I declare an interest. I agree with my hon. Friend that those most local councils are of utmost importance. In my community, it is not just about the split between district council and county council; we are a unitary county. I have had two successes with getting grit bins in: in Chapel Drive in Consett, and in George Street in Dipton. However, places such as Leadgate, Burnhope, Consett and Tow Law—former pit villages that are often described locally as having their own micro-climates because they are so exposed on the tops of hills—also need provision as quickly as possible. Does he agree that the issue is not just the tiers of local government, but the assessments made by those local authorities, whatever level of control they have?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is a fantastic champion for the people of Durham.

This winter, I have received a huge number of complaints from constituents who have been unable to go to work, take their children to school or even attend appointments to see their doctor, because of the lack of gritting on their streets. They have even been unable to leave their home safely in bad weather.

This is particularly acute on new build estates, where no grit bins have been provided. Given the huge scale of house building in Glossop and Buxton, this problem will only grow. On Scotty Brook Crescent in Shirebrook, a short walk from my Glossop home, local resident Kim Price and local councillor Paul Hardy have been trying in vain for over a year to get a new grit bin installed, but without success. Similarly, on Carr Road in Burbage, local resident Greg Windows has been leading calls for a grit bin on his estate. Greg told me how he and his neighbours live in constant watch for bad weather and are forced to park their cars on the main road at the top of the estate whenever snow is forecast, for fear of being left stranded.

Back in November, when we had Storm Arwen, an ambulance became stuck in the snow and ice on Victoria Park Road in Fairfield. Local residents were quick to respond and cleared the road with shovels, digging out the ambulance. While this demonstrates the generous community spirit of the people of High Peak, it also highlights the failure of the local councils to engage constructively with each other to deliver an essential service. The councils’ failure has a long-term cost measured in broken hips, as residents slip on untreated ice. Leaving people stranded and unable to go about their lives also puts a significant strain on their mental health and wellbeing.

For the reasons that I have set out today, hundreds of people have signed my petition urging Derbyshire County Council and High Peak Borough Council to get around the table to resolve their dispute and get on with installing new grit bins in Glossop, Buxton, Hadfield and Padfield.

My hon. Friend is making an important point about grit bins. Does he agree that it would be helpful for the Minister, in responding to this debate, to consider the provision of grit bins within a highways authority’s overarching obligation? Section 41(1A) of the Highways Act 1980 states that highways authorities

“are under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.”

That is an overarching obligation that should surely apply, whether or not grit bins are provided.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In High Peak, we boast some beautiful scenery but also some of the most difficult rural roads, which are often closed during bad weather. It is the duty of the local authority to do everything it can to keep those key links open.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I want to use this opportunity to call on the Government to consider whether legislative changes are necessary in order to try to clear up the ambiguity of responsibility for utilities, such as grit bins, in two-tier authorities.

In my local council area, one big issue has been that councillors are asked to use their local grant allocation to fund this, when funding should come from the local authority. Councillors Doug Oliver and Mike McGaun, in the Lanchester ward, have been told that if they want to get grit bins for Burnhope, one of the villages in my constituency, they will have to use their own funds from their allocation to provide grit bins themselves. That creates a problem between areas that really need them and those that do not. It should not be down to local councillors to provide them, because such services should be provided at a council or national level.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A number of my local councillors are also stepping up to the plate and helping to provide those grit bins. Councillors such as Nigel Gourlay, Linda Grooby and Kath Sizeland are all excellent local champions for their areas.

Developers have a role to play in installing basic amenities when they are building new developments. As the Government look at reforms to the planning system, I hope they will consider placing a duty of care on new developments to include those basic facilities.

There are many different areas that we can consider when it comes to grit bins, so I look forward to the Minister’s comments. In the meantime, my message is clear: Derbyshire County Council and High Peak Borough Council have got to stop the games and the finger pointing. They have do the right thing, get around the table, resolve this petty dispute and start providing more grit bins for the people of the High Peak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) for bringing such an important topic to the attention of the House. He is a fantastic advocate for the people of High Peak, which is an area I know well, as it is just over the hill from where I grew up. I was on holiday there last summer. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty, with fantastic communities, but not one where anyone would want to be stuck on an ungritted road with a steep slope. My hon. Friend is quite right to bring this important issue to the attention of the House. I was haunted by the image in his speech of the ambulance stuck in the snow, which is exactly what we all fear.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for North West Durham (Mr Holden), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their important contributions. As several of them pointed out, the Department for Transport has overall responsibility for the approach to gritting. I am sure Ministers in that Department will be playing close attention to our debate.

In terms of current requirements on local government, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out that the Highways Act 1980 includes the requirement

“to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.”

It would be impossible for central Government to mandate exactly how often every single road in the country should be gritted, but Members of Parliament play an important role by highlighting where there are problems and where particular roads should be gritted more often.

I am sure the issues around Leadgate, Consett and Burnhope in north-west Durham, and around Mow Cop, which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned, will now be firmly on the radar of those local authorities, who, I hope, will take appropriate action. Normally, local authorities tend to focus on A roads and busier B roads, but there are always particularly important roads that do not fit under those headings.

In areas such mine, with new-build properties going in, does the Minister think it could be appropriate for the council to stipulate as part of the planning consent that grit bins must be provided? I am thinking particularly of Meadow Rise in Consett, where my Delves Lane councillors Michelle Walton and Angela Stirling have had to provide a new grit bin from their own resources. If that had been part of the planning consent, they would not have had to do it. Does the Minister think that the Government could nudge councils in that direction?

That seems an entirely appropriate point for my hon. Friend to raise, and his local council will want to take it into account in its plan-making process, as would any council, particularly in a hilly area. It is for local authorities to decide whether grit bins are provided and, as a result, most do. As hon. Members have pointed out, the responsibility is divided between parish, district, borough and county councils. Although county councils can provide grit bins, the functions are typically delegated to other councils, such as towns, districts and parishes.

There are different ways to address the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak has brought to the House this morning. One is through greater devolution of power, and he will know that Derby and Derbyshire is one of the first areas with which we are seeking to negotiate a county deal to provide significantly greater local control over transport spending and policy. Derbyshire has a huge opportunity as part of that. Of course, my hon. Friend’s constituency looks as much to Greater Manchester as it does to Derbyshire and the east midlands, and we must be conscious of that in the negotiations, but clearly there are opportunities to improve local transport and local roads through that exciting devolution deal process.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister. I just want to put on the record that I certainly welcome the levelling-up White Paper and some of the announcements in it, including the discussion of a county deal for Derbyshire. Also mentioned was the green light for enhanced bus services for Derbyshire, which is another big positive, and I know the Minister is playing a significant role in that. I want to put that on the record.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. There are two potential solutions in the White Paper to the problem that my hon. Friend raised. The first is the devolution deal process that we have just talked about. The second is the plan to improve power at the very local and neighbourhood level. It is obviously not for central Government to mandate whether Glossop or Buxton should have a town or parish council. Personally, I am a huge fan of parish councils and recognise the work that they do in my constituency and, indeed, across the country. It is ultimately a decision for local people, but it is none the less a decision that we might make easier for people to take.

Under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, local electors throughout England can petition their principal council—the district, in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak—for a community governance review to be undertaken. Principal councils have responsibility for undertaking community governance reviews and deciding whether to give effect to the recommendations made in them. In making that decision, principal councils are expected to take account of the views of local people. The final decision to create a new parish council rests with the local authority, although the decision can be subject to a judicial review if campaigners are not happy with it.

As my hon. Friend will have spotted, the levelling-up White Paper outlines how we will go further through our plans to remove barriers to community organisation and neighbourhood governance, supporting community leadership to take root and thrive. We will review the effectiveness of neighbourhood governance in England, including the role and functions of parish councils, with a view to making them much quicker and easier to establish. I hope that will be helpful to people in Glossop and Buxton. We will make it easier for local people and community groups to come together to set local priorities and shape the future of their neighbourhoods. That will include further exploration of the models of so-called pop-up parishes and community improvement districts that were recently recommended by the Kruger review, and further details of the plans to review neighbourhood governance will be set out in due course.

At the end of his speech, my hon. Friend raised an hugely important point about the role of developers in providing facilities for local residents. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham raised this point too, and the hon. Member for Strangford told us about an important and innovative way that communities are doing that for themselves in Northern Ireland. I could not agree more about the central role of providing essential neighbourhood infrastructure with all new developments. My hon. Friends will have noted the continuing turn towards a brownfield-led and urban regeneration-led model of development in the White Paper, which we have been pursuing particularly strongly under the current Secretary of State.

The Government are clear that local authorities are best placed ultimately to make decisions on local planning matters. The national planning policy framework requires local authorities to set clear policy requirements for infrastructure and affordable housing through plans. Those plans should be informed by appropriate and proportionate evidence, including on infrastructure needs and costs, which need to be taken into account. It is important that new housing always comes with the infrastructure needed to support it. In this House we all know that it is a bugbear for people when that does not happen, or when it has not happened appropriately.

Contributions from developers play an important role in delivering the infrastructure that new homes and local economies require. Local authorities can obtain contributions by charging a community infrastructure levy on new development, or through section 106 obligations. Those vehicles have some issues we might seek to improve on.

The levelling-up White Paper sets out the important role of the planning system in the Government’s wider mission to level up the country and regenerate left-behind places. Hon. Friends will have noted the ambition to produce a transformative King’s Cross-style regeneration in 20 different places around the country using the formidable experience, expertise and sweeping powers of Homes England to get central Government back into the business of providing powerful support for urban regeneration, a business they should never have got out of in the first place.

I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment to levelling up. I know he has put a huge amount of work into it. I also welcome the discussions that he has already started to have with Durham County Council on a county deal for our area. We have started to see Government offices moving out of London and into the regions, and I know Durham is keen to engage in that space. Will the Minister comment on any discussions he has had, and will he engage further on that possibility?

Mr Hollobone, you rightly point out that it would be wrong of me to stray too far from our key subject of grit bins. None the less, I am extremely enthusiastic to pick up on my hon. Friend’s point about the Places for Growth programme, with the Treasury move to Darlington, the Ministry of Justice move to Wrexham and my own Department’s moving of a significant number of people to Wolverhampton. Those are hugely important investments in regeneration.

Returning to the core issue of grit bins and public safety, at the end of his speech my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak made an important point about how all new-build developments should come with that type of infrastructure. We are thinking about how we take forward the idea of an infrastructure levy, which would be an improvement on the section 106 and community infrastructure levy processes, to ensure that we have more developer contributions and much more flexibility about how the money is spent so that we can really pick up on all the different types of neighbourhood and community needs that hon. Members have raised this morning.

To conclude, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak and all hon. Members who have contributed this morning. The underlying theme of our discussion is that for too long a lot of the decisions that impact on local communities in our constituencies have been taken from far too far away, whether they are decisions about transport that are made in Whitehall and could be made in each of our shires, or decisions about grit bins that could be provided at the neighbourhood level through empowered local communities. If we change the rules, we can create more opportunity for people at the parish and neighbourhood level to do things for themselves.

On the subject of grit bins, I am sure my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be interested in our debate today as he considers how winter maintenance might be improved further. I conclude simply by saying that although the issue of grit bins is a narrow one, and while various hon. Members have had the opportunity to highlight deficiencies in local provision, the issue strikes at a wider issue of power and decision making in this country. That is what our levelling-up agenda is all about: transferring control over important decisions from Whitehall to the local level through powerful devolution deals in places such as County Durham, Derby and Derbyshire, and also to the neighbourhood level through our changes to parish and neighbourhood legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Leamside Line

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Before we begin, I would like to remind Members that Mr Speaker encourages us all to observe social distancing and to wear face-masks.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential merits of reopening the Leamside Line.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all Members in attendance. I can say that there are colleagues here today just as passionate as I am on this subject, and I look forward to hearing their contributions. It is important to emphasise from the outset the unity on this issue in the north-east from those on all sides of the political spectrum, and from the business community, the transport sector, local authorities and the general public.

I would like to outline the vision for the Leamside Line. It has three key purposes. The first is local: it would allow for an expansion of the Tyne and Wear Metro through the South of Tyne and Wearside loop, which would connect Washington’s 70,000 residents to the system. The second is regional: it would open up passenger rail services for the whole Leamside corridor and its population of 124,000 people, from Ferryhill to Pelaw. It connects that population, and the 1 million people with indirect access to the line, to Tyneside, Wearside, Durham and Teesside. It would revolutionise transport across the region. The final is national: it would support east coast main line capacity for passenger and vital freight services, as well as national rail connectivity. Those three aspects form the overall strategic ambitions for the reopening of the line.

I am incredibly happy to have secured this very timely debate, following a huge event on Friday 4 February 2022, in which I visited three strategic points along the line to visualise where it will one day run, along with colleagues who are present today, local authority leaders, and representatives from: Transport North East, led by Tobyn Hughes; the Northern Powerhouse Partnership; the North East local enterprise partnership; and the North East England chamber of commerce.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this really important debate. I was pleased to join my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) at Follingsby in Gateshead to show the unity on proceeding with this line, which makes excellent sense for all kinds of reasons.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for joining us, although it was freezing. We were in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who was unable to join us but did have representatives present.

The next location we visited was in my patch, in Washington. It was in the shadow of Penshaw monument, near the magnificent Victoria viaduct, which stretches over what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of Wearside. The viaduct was built in 1838, and it shows the scale of the engineering skill, the genius, the hard work and, through its beauty, the hedonism that characterised the region at that time, which was the powerhouse of global Great Britain. It is a shame to see such a feat of engineering go unused. It is incredible, however, to learn that with minimal reinforcements, the viaduct will be ready to take rail services, some 200 years after it was built.

The last time a train crossed that bridge was in 1992, when the line was mothballed after serving for around 30 years as a diversionary route for the east coast main line. It even took the Queen’s train across the Wear. However, it had been in infrequent use since 1963, when the infamous Beeching cuts were made, and Washington station has not been used since.

Washington was a very different place at that time. It was populated mostly by families who were dependent for work on the many pits that dot the area, or the chemical works. In 1963, when the rail link was taken away, a Government White Paper proposed that Washington be developed as a mark II new town, in order to stimulate faster progress and raise the scale and quality of the region’s urban development.

Washington was developed as a series of villages near-equidistant from Sunderland, Newcastle and Durham, and new industries, especially the automotive industry, thrived there. Hon. Members will be aware that Nissan is in my constituency. We should be careful not to romanticise or become overly nostalgic about how life was then, but there was a determined national policy and vision for the development of the town, and properly funded public services made the town prosperous. Graeme Bell, who worked on the town development corporation in the 1960s, wrote in 2019:

“Our brief for Washington New Town was to create ‘a town in which people want to live’. So simple, so complex. We started with the consultant’s masterplan which envisaged a place where the car was king. … a grid of dual carriageways with grade-separated junctions was to criss-cross the countryside to enable the 50,000 planned population to travel between home, work and play. This was to be Los Angeles-on-the-Wear!

A fore-runner of the design for Milton Keynes, the idea was that by taking the traffic out of the built-up areas, car-free spaces could be created where families and particularly children could safely walk to school, play and socialise. Within the grid were also to be factories and offices – jobs that were crucial to the success of Washington – and shops and parks, so residents wouldn’t need to travel great distances to live a good life.”

Those who live in Washington, or live and work around Washington, can see that vision of how it was intended to be. The latter part of the vision, however, was dismantled as industries such as the pits and the chemical works were decimated, and policies led to the loss of the good public services that fulfil the needs of modern life. The story of how we moved into that situation is one that we all know well.

Washington is now home to a number of areas identified as left-behind neighbourhoods, where social infrastructure is lacking. Residents have markedly worse socioeconomic outcomes than the residents of other equally deprived areas. The all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods notes that “steady bus service decline” and low car ownership,

“combined with rail closures have led to these places being disconnected and cut off from essential services and amenities”.

This Chamber recently heard about the major cuts to Tyne and Wear bus services in a debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). Those cuts now seem inevitable as covid-19 funding unwinds. With our local authorities being told to bear the brunt of keeping our public services afloat, I worry that residents dependent on those services risk being stranded. Meanwhile, 40% of households in left-behind neighbourhoods have no car; in England, the average is 26%.

Those circumstances make things even harder for residents of Washington, which, as I mentioned, was built at the dawn of the automotive age. The design of the town, combined with the current insufficient provision, means that the demands of modern society are not being met. Residents are being left behind; like populations in other towns across the country, they have to get out to get on. Great jobs, especially in the car industry, are on the doorstep, but they are highly competitive, and not all of them are accessible to those who live closest to them. Young people often find themselves having to move to neighbouring cities for good jobs, and that creates a de facto brain drain. For those who do not make it out, do not drive and cannot make the 40-minute bus journey into an education centre, opportunity is therefore stifled.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this really important debate. She expresses very eloquently the real problem for people in our area: if they do not have a car, their chances of getting the employment that they really want are cut massively. By not providing public transport and not agreeing to Labour’s plans, this Government are strangling opportunity for people in the north-east.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments; she is right.

Leamside is the solution to these transport and connectivity problems. I welcome the sentiment behind the Government’s “Levelling Up” White Paper, published last week; it aims to level up the left behind, but the sentiment simply did not translate into tangible, real-world differences on the scale needed to level up the places that colleagues here and I represent. Connectivity matters. It is all about access. For the communities up and down this stretch of line, it is about access to education, jobs, business and leisure. It aids and expands access to economic benefits, health options, educational assets and cultural capital.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate. I am the Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central—not only the place, but the mainline train station of the same name. Does she agree that the Leamside line would give people from across the region access to Newcastle institutions, such as Newcastle College and Newcastle University, and that it would also give those institutions access to the wider region? The interconnectivity of which she talks is so important economically, and in creating a critical mass of energy, innovation and skills that will allow our economy to thrive.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: the connectivity works both ways. This is not just about people being able to get out of Washington; it is about people across the region being able to come into Washington and see everything that Washington, Sunderland, South Tyneside, Durham, Gateshead and the whole region has to offer. This connectivity will mean that people from further afield can come to those places and access the cultural capital that we have to offer, as well as leisure and employment opportunities.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. Does she agree that the Leamside line is important as a core piece of transport, but needs to be part of a joined-up picture? There are fantastic job opportunities on the line, but there need to be buses to connect them, and there needs to be a holistic solution.

I agree. That is why this debate links so well with the debate on buses that we had here a few weeks ago. We need the extra connectivity. The scheme is all very well for people who live near the Leamside line, but lots of people do not. They will need the whole passenger transport network to connect and link up.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said, the reopening of the line would benefit the whole region; that is indicated by the presence here of non-Leamside line MPs. The line would give young apprentices who cannot afford a car access to Nissan and the International Advanced Manufacturing Park; it would enable workers to get to the two massive Amazon sites along the line; and it would give access to Doxford International Business Park and Integra 61 in Durham. All these employment centres provide over 25,000 jobs, and are growing.

As the hon. Lady will know, my constituency has received massive investment—Treasury jobs, the Darlington Economic Campus and a whole host of other civil service jobs. Does she agree that reopening the Leamside line would open up those job opportunities to her constituents, who could travel to Darlington?

I agree. People should be able to reach the jobs easily, wherever they are—and not just those who can afford a car. Often the car comes after the job; people need to be able to get to the job first.

Leamside is not only a solution to a problem, but an opportunity for the whole north-east. Every journey on the Metro by a commuter, shopper or tourist adds an average of £8.50 to the economy. Think of the boost that Leamside would give to the South Tyneside and Wearside Metro loop, even without the wider Leamside line. There are three benefits to this line, and the Metro is just one. This is a win, win, win, as I constantly say. It would mean that people lived and spent money in these local communities. It would change the socioeconomic future of the whole north-east. As Henri Murison said, it is vital for the whole northern powerhouse.

Levelling up the left-behind takes money, but it is question of priorities. Where our high streets are struggling, it is because the local economy is struggling unaided. Where our communities are declining, it is because the services that bind them together are being allowed to fall into disrepair. Where chances for generations of young people are being slashed, it is because the barriers to opportunities are allowed to continue to exist. These are political choices, but they can be addressed and reversed, just as the mothballing of the Leamside line can be reversed.

Before 1992, the line was used for freight purposes, which helped the east coast main line. The Minister will know that the Leamside line has the potential to extend capacity by some 50% on a vital, but highly congested, stretch of the east coast main line—the artery that links the north to Scotland.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. Does she agree that the Leamside line has the potential to provide resilience to the east coast main line? For a long stretch, there are just two tracks, and if anything goes wrong there, the connection between England and Scotland is effectively stopped.

I absolutely agree. As someone who has travelled up and down that line for almost 17 years, I know that when something goes wrong on that stretch and trains are stuck higher up the line, the trains cannot get to Newcastle. The whole thing then falls apart, as all of us who travel down that line know.

There is a comprehensive need for the Leamside line to be reopened—for national, regional and local purposes. Again, I stress the north-east unity—the Minister will hear that unity today—and the joint voice calling for the Leamside line to be reopened. When I took my seat in 2005, I quickly got to grips with this campaign, its importance, and the word “conurbation”. Washington is one of the largest conurbations in the UK without a rail or rapid transit link—I constantly mention that small fact.

I have presented five petitions to the House over 17 years, sent countless letters to the Department for Transport and the Minister’s predecessors, submitted evidence following a call for evidence on light rail, and recently co-sponsored three bids to the restoring your railway fund with the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), so it is fair to say that this means a lot to me. I am very proud of the cross-party nature of this campaign, both at local authority level and here in this House.

Where are we now? Leamside has featured as a significant element of previous local and current regional transport plans, including the 2021 North East transport plan and Transport for the North’s statutory advice. While the disappointing integrated rail plan in effect ruled out Government investment in the Leamside line for east coast main line purposes, the case remains strong.

I appreciate that the integrated rail plan indicated that the reinstatement of the Leamside line could be part of a devolution deal, but I believe it absolutely should be part of any forthcoming devolution deal. The hon. Member for Sedgefield and I discussed this with the Minister when we met earlier. However, until that deal is on the table, I do not want to see those promises used to kick the can down the road. I want Government co-operation in making the Leamside line a reality in the meantime. That means listening, as working with others, and, ultimately, financially helping with the steps needed to get there.

The north east joint transport committee has taken on the Government’s feedback, and is developing the umbrella strategic business case in phases. It has secured £100,000 in funding and is commissioning a strategic outline business case for the Metro loop element of the line.

We are taking matters into our own hands; the north-east is taking steps to achieve its ambitions, but it can only take itself so far, because our local authorities continue to be starved of cash. A project as significant and game-changing as the Leamside line will eventually need to be funded by central Government. Let us not beat about the bush: this is a very expensive piece of infrastructure, but it is needed and very much wanted.

I hope this debate shows the weight behind the will for the reinstatement of the Leamside line. I hope that, ultimately, the Government will listen to the north-east and match their rhetoric on levelling up with their commitment. The north-east is making inroads on reaching its ambitions. We hope that the Government will work with us to realise the potential of the Leamside corridor communities, secure a better future for the north-east, and future-proof national infrastructure by supporting the reopening of the Leamside line as soon as possible.

The debate will continue until 4 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 3.37 pm, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister, and then Sharon Hodgson will have three minutes at the end of the debate to sum up the proceedings. In the meantime, I hope to get everybody in. We have just over 45 minutes, so if Members could moderate their speeches, everybody will be able to contribute. We will have an excellent example to start us off with from Peter Gibson.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. The debate raises a hugely important issue for the connectivity of communities across the north-east, and I am pleased to see so much cross-party unity from the north-east. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate, and commend her on her efforts campaigning for the Leamside line.

I am proud to have been elected on a manifesto that promised to level up all regions of the UK, realising and releasing the full potential of places such as Darlington. Levelling up is already bringing huge benefits to the north-east, but levelling up must be for everyone, as the hon. Lady said. If we are to ensure that local people can access those new opportunities and that investment can continue to reach communities such as mine, we must ensure that we improve transport infrastructure across all modes of transport, but especially through improvements to rail. In Darlington alone, we are seeing progress with £105 million invested in Bank Top station, but we must not stop there. The reopening of the Leamside line has huge potential benefits to further boost connectivity across the whole region and bring even more investment to our area.

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of what is, to some, one of the most infamous episodes in this country’s railway history: the Beeching cuts. The north-east has not escaped the legacy of those cuts, which led to further decimation of our railway lines, and we are still feeling the impact on our railways and the connectivity of our region. I am proud that this Conservative Government are seeking to reverse that wrong, and I want the Leamside line to play a role in restoring our railway links to their former glory.

I want to emphasise the importance of the points that my hon. Friend is making. The Darlington station changes are vital to another project, the Weardale line, which he and I support as well; they will also play into what we are looking at for the wider north-east, which is an expansion of capacity across the region, particularly with Leamside for freight capacity. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about seeing the entire thing as one package, with Darlington playing a vital role in that?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention: he has raised some of the points that I was going to mention. The connectivity of our region is pivotal to Darlington, given our important connection to the railway, and he is absolutely right that the debate about how we move forward has to be a whole-region debate.

The 21-mile stretch of the Leamside line, from Gateshead through South Tyneside to Sunderland and County Durham, would open up potential to create new jobs and housing, as well as environmental benefits through taking hundreds of cars off some of the region’s main commuter roles, easing congestion and improving air quality. The Leamside line will help deliver public transport that is fit for purpose, getting people to where employment opportunities are and opening up communities that are currently disconnected to new investment opportunities. The area of County Durham that would be served by the Leamside line has the lowest car ownership per person, meaning that there is public reliance on public transport. It is not right that those people should become further disadvantaged because of matters outside their control. The reopening of the Leamside line could play a part in levelling that playing field and open up opportunities to communities in the rest of the north-east.

In November, I warmly welcomed the Government’s £96 billion integrated rail plan for the north, which will deliver better transport links and spread prosperity and opportunity decades sooner than planned. Reopening the Leamside line would undoubtedly complement that wider package of improvements to rail in the north and midlands. It would take our planned improvements to the east coast main line further by helping to speed up journey times, linking the north-east to the rest of the UK rail network and delivering much-needed east coast extra capacity.

While we have the Minister here, I want to say that we should not just restore the Leamside line. I would also warmly welcome the restoration of the Darlington to Weardale line. Reopening that line would have huge potential to improve local connections and boost business, employment, education and leisure opportunities for my constituents. I am pleased to see that receiving real consideration and look forward to the Government’s feasibility study into the scheme.

I note that we are once again debating reopening a railway line that will better connect areas of the north-east to Darlington. Indeed, I might go as far as to say that it seems that all rails lead to Darlington. It would be remiss of me not to point that out, as it is further evidence that Darlington is the true home of the railways and a clear choice for the home of Great British Railways.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this important debate. I do not propose to go over all the reasons why it is so important to reopen the Leamside line—she has eloquently covered that—but we need a degree of realism and honesty about why we are in the current situation.

The reopening of the Leamside line has cross-party support, cross-business support and cross-community support. The North East Combined Authority, representing local authorities south of the Tyne, and the North of Tyne Combined Authority support it, along with Transport North East. I congratulate Transport North East on its 2021 to 2030 transport plan, which sets out a comprehensive and ambitious plan for the region’s transport. It talks not just about rail, but about other modes of transport as well, which will not only lead to economic benefits for the north-east but improve the air quality in the environment in which we live. The only people who do not support the plan are the Government, who left it out of their integrated rail plan, announced towards the end of last year. In doing so they said that the project could be part of a city region deal that they hoped to negotiate sometime in the future. I suggest that that is part of the Government’s wider agenda on devolution—it is jam tomorrow so long as regions agree to tinker around with their governance structures.

In the levelling-up White Paper, which I read over the weekend, there was a very good history lesson on the origins of the Venetian city state. One of its main themes was leadership, but I would argue that we have leadership in the north-east in the ambitious plan being put forward by Transport North East and the united support of the political leadership across parties and businesses. The only thing missing in support of that plan is the Government. Instead, we have the vague ideas that were talked about in the levelling-up White Paper last week of devolving powers without resources, or resources being devolved but having to be bid for from central Government. That is not proper devolution; it is a different control mechanism from Whitehall.

Instead, there is the inefficient and expensive Beeching reversal fund. From the two examples that have been awarded so far in County Durham, its only main benefits seem to be to provide expensive press releases for local Conservative Members of Parliament or to fund rail consultants. People’s expectations are raised, and we know from some of the examples that they will never be met—it is not achievable.

Let me give the finest example of that, and I am glad that my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) is here to hear it. It is the proposal to extend the Tyne and Wear metro system to Consett. The feasibility study has so far cost £50,000. The price tag for delivery given in that study is £640 million, and it will rip through either my constituency or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). That price tag is more than the entire £500 million that has been allocated to the Beeching reversal fund. If that were not bad enough, the Lib Dem-Tory council in County Durham is committed to push the project on to the next phase, spending more money and employing more consultants, knowing that it will never be achieved.

Does the right hon. Member agree that that is plain to see the support of the Labour-led Gateshead Council for the project between Consett and the Tyne, as well?

They have clearly not read the report. If the hon. Gentleman tells me that any Government are going to provide him with £640 million of public money for a railway to Consett, he is deluding himself. That is not going to happen. The point is to be honest with people. I know that he came out with that flippantly when he did not think he would get elected as the Member for North West Durham, but he did and, therefore, he feels he has to follow through. It is not going to be achievable.

I object to the fact that the public are being deluded, and that more public money has frankly been wasted on highly paid consultants. The hon. Member for North West Durham referred earlier to the Weardale line, which is another example of similar amounts of money being suggested. That line will not be achievable, because the amount of money being argued for will not be forthcoming. Why not just be honest with people?

The strategy is clear: throw around all these projects to give the impression that something is happening when it is not. We have a real example with the Leamside line where, if the Government concentrated on putting in the money, it would create benefits. The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) is right that it would improve his constituency and those on the east coast main line, due to capacity. However, I wish he would not argue about the new timetable for the north-east coast line, which would mean that an hourly service would be introduced from Chester-le-Street. The hon. Member and the Tees Valley Mayor complained that that would reduce the number of trains to Darlington. I am sorry; we need an hourly service and that needs to be addressed. It would be addressed if we got the project.

My job as the Member of Parliament for Darlington is to stand up for the services that reach my constituency, just as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would fight if the services in his constituency were reduced. I have no hesitation in continuing that fight for the services in my constituency.

I have no criticism of that, but he speaks up and gets the entire thing shelved for six months. That means that my constituents do not get the hourly service from Chester-le-Street that they were promised. That shows how logic has gone out of the window in arguing for the overall benefits on the east coast mainline, not just for one particular town that happens to have a Conservative Member of Parliament.

Order. This is a debate about the Leamside line. Four other Members seek to contribute to the debate. I am sure Mr Jones is almost finished and will conclude his remarks with reference to the line we are debating today.

I will, but these issues are important, Mr Hollobone. Since 2010, the north-east has had the second smallest increase in transport funding, at £17 per head. The Institute for Public Policy Research report of 2019 showed that transport spending in London was seven times higher than that in the north-east of England. We need a degree of honesty from the Government. Why do they not trust the elected representatives of the north-east to set priorities, and why not be clear why they are not reopening the Leamside line? That is a clear political decision.

If we are to believe the rhetoric on devolution, it should be about listening to the united voice of the political and community leadership in the north-east and agreeing the funding for the Leamside line. The Government can come up with as much smoke and mirrors as they like to argue why they are not funding it. The ultimate reason lies in the Government’s political will to do it.

It is an obvious pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I repeat my congratulations to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. Members tend to focus on their own areas, as we have seen in the last stretch of the debate. My speech will therefore start at the bottom of the Leamside line, which goes from the Newcastle area to Ferryhill in my patch, its most southerly aspect.

Opening the Leamside line in full is an important part of demonstrating to the population that the Government are serious about levelling up, especially in the north-east. Since right hon. and hon. Members from across the parties will cover their various constituencies, I will focus on mine. Reopening the Leamside line is an integral part of delivering on the levelling-up agenda. It has been a key long-term aspiration for the north-east and boasts cross-party support from MPs, councillors, businesses and partnerships. As mentioned earlier, it just needs the last piece of the puzzle: backing from Government.

On the surface, levelling up is about providing investment in infrastructure to areas that have been chronically underfunded, which I will cover shortly. However, as discussed in the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods—I am co-chair, and the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West is an officer, as are other Members—it is about creating pride and trust in our local heritage and the places where we live. The north-east in particular can boast of its historical importance to the industrial revolution as the home of the steam train and a huge provider of the coal this country ran on. The Leamside line is of such historical importance to the local area that reinstating it would not only provide transport and opportunities but would bring back to life such an important part of local history and pride. Passengers would be able to travel on a line that was once the true artery of the area and carried the very coal and minerals that made the area so successful in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The first section of the line opened as early as August 1838 between Washington and Rainton Meadows. By the 1840s, it was providing passenger services to Darlington and Gateshead. It was then included in the original east coast main line from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh and carried both passenger and freight services. The line’s main source of revenue, as with most of the early railways, was mineral traffic, principally from the Durham coalfield. The line was linked to many private colliery branch lines and wagon ways.

When the present east coast main line began to take a quicker route through Team Valley and Low Fell, the Leamside line—or the old main line—continued to be used for passengers and freight. It served open mines nearby, and the area swelled with smaller lines and sidings to accommodate the amount of mineral being moved. By the 1920s, Ferryhill station, in particular, was said to be one of the busiest goods yards in Europe. During the second world war, its tucked-away location hid it from the luftwaffe and made it a safe space for storing the coal so desperately needed by wartime Britain. It was used as a diversionary route when the new main line was blocked—we still have that opportunity now—to ensure that the important direct line from Scotland to London was always clear.

Unfortunately, from the 1940s, parts of the Leamside line began to close. First, passenger services at Ferryhill and Leamside were withdrawn, and then stations began to close in earnest. While Ferryhill continued to carry coal and other freight into the 1980s, its usage had greatly declined by that time due to the gradual demise of the Durham coalfields. The Leamside line was mothballed entirely in the early 1990s and reduced to a single line. However, even though it was closed, hope was always present that the Leamside line would reopen. The land is safeguarded from development, with no sales of land attached to the line.

Proposals to reopen the line were put forward in the early 1990s. It is an important cultural landmark for the area, recognised by local communities, local leaders and partnerships alike. Its reinstatement would bring pride of place, an appreciation for the north-east’s heritage and a feeling of being heard in the north-east for those who currently feel cut off from investment and Government attention.

The second reason why the Leamside line needs to be reinstated is the most easily quantifiable reasons of local growth, increased employment and increased private investment. This is the version of levelling up more commonly discussed, and it is sorely needed in the communities along the Leamside line. The former coalfields in the south-east of County Durham are characterised by above-average levels of deprivation, with as much as one third of the population living in areas in the 20% most deprived nationally. Ferryhill lies within the top 10% to 20% of the most deprived areas, according to the 2019 index of multiple deprivation, and the north-east has a lower life expectancy than any other region in England, with Ferryhill lower than that average still.

The North East local enterprise partnership strategic economic plan identified that the local economy has the potential to grow significantly further and into different sectors over the coming years. However, that growth will not happen on its own. It will rely on better local transport connectivity provided by an improved and expanded network, enhancing access to labour markets, education and skills. Unless this is tackled head-on, the region risks falling further behind other areas of the country as local economic inequalities continue to grow, and the regional productivity gulf could widen as the benefits of investment elsewhere, such as in HS2, take effect.

Currently, the growth of the local area is heavily constrained by the east coast main line. It is the sole rail artery linking the north-east with the rest of the country, yet between Northallerton and Newcastle there is only one track per direction, so it is very much a bottleneck for traffic and growth in the area. The route is already at capacity. No extra passenger or freight services can pass through the area unless the infrastructure is upgraded, and alternative relief routes become necessary.

If we focus on the Ferryhill area of the line served by the Leamside, in my constituency the current situation is pretty dire. Nearly 35% of the population have no cars or vans, and they rely on infrequent and slow buses. These people find leaving the local area and expanding their opportunities very difficult. Individuals cannot access jobs, children cannot access schools, and businesses cannot access labour and resources. The lack of suitable rail transport is suppressing the opportunities of the people along the Leamside line’s mothballed track. That could change with Government approval for the line.

By diverting freight from the east coast main line and utilising the full extent of the Leamside and Stillington routes, capacity could be lifted by up to 50%. That would mean more resources moving into the area from the rest of the country and more passenger services so that people can travel. The line would also open up travel within the locality. People could see their friends, take their children to sports clubs further afield or do a bit of city centre shopping. Those things are taken for granted in other parts of the country.

Luckily, our separate but related bid for Ferryhill station to be rebuilt got initial bid approval, and we are awaiting on the outcome of stage 2, the strategic business plan; we are particularly optimistic about the outcome. I hope the Minister will indicate when the separate bid might be cleared. Does she agree that, although it would be discrete, a successful Ferryhill reopening would be a natural fire-starter signal for the reopening of the Leamside line?

Ferryhill’s reopening enjoyed great enthusiasm from the Minister’s predecessor, and I hope she will come to share that enthusiasm. Ferryhill’s reopening should be made the most of. Ferryhill is an intrinsic link between Teesside and Leamside in the north. It would be brilliant for both ends if the shovel in the ground at Ferryhill signalled something larger and really transformative.

In summary, will the Minister advise us when approval will be given to proceed with the Ferryhill case, which would link the base of the Leamside to Teesside? Can she provide us with clear direction as to what specific actions are required to progress the IRP’s recommendation that the Leamside would be

“best considered as part of a future city region settlement”?

Whether it is for passengers or freight, capacity or resilience, hope or opportunities, or even just the need to provide low carbon transport options, there is a clear and obvious economic and cultural need for Ferryhill station to be the fulcrum between Teesside on the Stillington line and Tyneside and Wearside through the Leamside line. We need the Government to recognise that as a critical part of levelling up. Let us build back our north-east transport infrastructure to make its future as impressive as its past.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this debate. She is a tireless campaigner for the Leamside line, and the entire region is grateful for her work.

In Durham we hear a lot from the Government about levelling up. The term has been used so interchangeably by members of the Cabinet in reference to every scrap of funding or half-baked policy that is thrown our way in the north-east that it has pretty much lost all meaning. In Durham, it is spoken about with increasing irony and frustration, with the words “So much for levelling up” becoming more and more common every time the Government over-promise and under-deliver.

Levelling up should be about more than delivering one-off funding or a few insecure jobs. It should be about transforming the infrastructure of our left-behind regions and improving our schools, homes, roads, railways, economies and so much more, so that the communities we live in—those we are proud to call home—can deliver to a person in the north-east the same quality of living and the same life chances as someone in a more affluent region has. Investment in our transport systems, including our railways, is integral to that.

Transport infrastructure has been underfunded in the north. That is not my opinion; it is fact. In 2019-20, transport spending was more than £560 higher per head in London than in the north-east, while transport investment was almost £380 higher per head in London. The levelling-up agenda was meant to right those wrongs and make up for the years of deprivation and underfunding. That is why I and many of my colleagues in the region are frustrated beyond belief at the Government’s continued refusal to invest in the north-east’s transport infrastructure by reopening the Leamside line.

There are few issues that I and my neighbour, the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) agree on, but on the reopening of the Leamside line we are in complete agreement about its benefits for County Durham and the wider region. In fact, the campaign is supported by virtually every politician in the north-east, regardless of their political party, as well as by our region’s major employers and business groups. That is because the economic and social benefits of reopening the line are clear.

Reopening the line would create more capacity for rail freight, taking polluting lorries off the road. In turn, that could allow more longer-distance passenger services to operate from Durham station on the east coast main line. It would drastically improve connectivity across the region, with the potential to bring rail services to Bowburn, Belmont park and ride and West Rainton in my constituency, creating new public transport links with major employment centres such as Nissan and transforming the economic opportunities for people in County Durham. Reopening the line could also be an integral step in attracting thousands of jobs to County Durham. I have heard at first hand from stakeholders in Bowburn of the benefits of the Leamside line for the Integra 61 site and the surrounding villages, and I am happy to rasie their support today.

Although the Government agree that the plans have

“good potential in terms of transport and socioeconomic benefits”,

they believe that

“the overall cost of the reinstatement remains prohibitive”.

Even though the entire project would cost just £600 million and bring new levels of connectivity to the north-east, it is deemed to be too expensive by those in Government. Do Ministers understand how insulting that is to our region when HS2 is projected to cost at least £80 billion? In the north-east, we are all too often treated as second-class citizens and as less deserving of investment.

Order. If the hon. Lady is generously giving way, she needs to resume her seat. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am keen to have a debate across the Chamber, of course, but there are still two hon. Members who have yet to contribute, and he has already done so. Hon. Members need to be mindful of that.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Can she outline to the House why the last Labour Government did not deem it necessary to reopen the Leamside line?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. [Interruption.] Yes, there were probably a number of reasons, to do with the preceding Government and some of the rules that were in place. All I can say is that my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West has been fighting for years and years.

We were unpeeling the mess of rail privatisation and the underinvestment in the system, which led to things such as Potters Bar. We did get major investments, including the improved electrification of the north-east main line.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. In the north-east, we are too often treated as second-class citizens and as less deserving of investment. Yes, the plans would cost money, but the best things do. I believe that Durham deserves the best and our county is worth investing in. I only wish the Government thought the same. Sadly, Ministers seem to find it easier to let the north-east down than to level it up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for bringing this debate to the House today.

Like other Members, I was very proud to be elected on a manifesto of levelling up. The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was right to say that my election in 2019 was a slight surprise, but if he had spent more time on the ground rather than grandstanding down here in Westminster, he probably would not have been as surprised. He would have understood the issues affecting local people in my constituency, and he would not have seen such a massive decrease in his share of the vote at the last election.

I am very supportive of the Leamside line, which is vital to the levelling-up agenda for the north of England. Alongside education and employment opportunities, transport and transport infrastructure are really important parts of the agenda. I am here to support the Leamside line because it is vital for the whole north-east, particularly because it would help to improve capacity on the east coast main line. It may also play into one of the schemes in my constituency, the Weardale line, which was supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson). We are looking into extracting minerals from Weardale—lithium exploration is currently under way—and the Leamside line could enable direct rail transit and avoid the need for freight to trundle through the constituency of the right hon. Member for North Durham via road. Instead, it could go via rail, bypassing all the issues. There is a broader strategic aspect to the line, particularly with the gigafactories opening around Nissan, which I was happy to visit not long ago with the Prime Minister.

The Leamside line is important for access to the local area as well, as hon. Members have said. It is about capacity, but it is also about enabling people in our communities to move readily between them and to access employment and education opportunities that are not there at the moment. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and others have said, enabling greater freight service use would also help with the reliability and greater frequency of services—perhaps even the services to Chester-le-Street that the right hon. Member for North Durham mentioned.

The Leamside line has to be part of a wider transport plan. That plan cannot just be about rail; it has to be about road as well. That is why I am delighted to support the A68 changes that have been proposed in a levelling-up fund bid by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland. I hope that, down the line, we will also be able to support the A693 upgrades for the right hon. Member for North Durham.

I will address a couple of broader issues that were raised about levelling up the country. It is vital that we look at all sorts of schemes. If some hon. Members had spent the two decades since they were elected actually campaigning for reconnections to places such as Stanley, Annfield Plain and Consett, we might be a lot further advanced in these plans than we are today.

The hon. Member knows as well as I do that the main answer for a lot of communities in his constituency and mine is the bus network. The fact is that because of the Conservative Government, who have been in power since 2010, Durham County Council has lost £224 million in central Government allocation, and that has led to bus services and subsidies being withdrawn. I am sorry, but I will not take any lectures off him about transport in Durham.

If the right hon. Gentleman listened to one of his own local councillors, who represents Chester-le-Street and with whom I campaigned to get the feasibility study going—the former Labour leader of Durham County Council—and if he listened and worked with people like me, rather than listening to people who want to live in the past as he does, he would be on side now.

The right hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position, which he should not do. He could stand up and try to make another intervention if he wished. It is true that these schemes would be expensive, but if he had been campaigning for them for a longer period of time, rather than carping from the sidelines, as he is doing—

No, I will not give way again; the right hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time to have his own say during the debate. If he had campaigned for these measures for a longer period of time, perhaps we would be further advanced. Of course it is about buses. I am fully supportive—

Order. I have not heard the words “Leamside line” mentioned for about five minutes. Can we get back on to the subject of the debate? There is still one other Member seeking to contribute.

Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone.

Let us come back to the matter in hand. I have one proposal under way, working with Labour-controlled Gateshead Council and the coalition at Durham County Council. The transport lead for the north-east is the leader of Gateshead Council; the right hon. Member for North Durham praised him earlier but later said that he had not read the report. The key thing about the Leamside line is that it will provide extra capacity through my constituency for some of those routes. It is vital because it will help broader connections across the entire county.

Hon. Members have talked about the disparity between transport spending in London and in the north. That has been the same under multiple Governments, over a long period of time. I want to see that addressed, but we cannot do that by saying, “We’ll choose this over that.” As a broad region, we need to push, on a cross-party basis, for better connectivity for our communities.

I am happy to support people from other political parties on schemes such as the Leamside line and the bus scheme across the north-east, which will feed into the Leamside line. I hope that hon. Members from other political parties will think about how we can work together on all these schemes, rather than trying to put down people who fight for something important for their communities.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate and on her brilliant opening contribution.

It is sadly no surprise to me or to other Labour Members that this Conservative Government have failed to support rail infrastructure in the north-east. We have been starved of this much-needed investment for many years. The Government have talked a lot about levelling up, but, when it comes to South Tyneside and Gateshead, along with the wider north-east region, where is the real investment that is so desperately needed? The Government now have an opportunity to show real ambition in that regard.

For the past 30 years, the Leamside line from Gateshead, through South Tyneside and Sunderland, and on to Ferryhill in County Durham, has been closed. The line runs through numerous areas where new jobs and opportunities could be stimulated to assist in getting people into work, education and training, and in travelling around our region, as well as into and out of it. That could take hundreds of cars each day off some of the region’s main commuter roads, improving air quality and decarbonising transport. I hope the Government will listen to the contributions in today’s debate, and to the very valid and real arguments that all hon. Members have made for the reopening of the Leamside line.

Not just the Leamside line, but our railways as a whole—our whole transport infrastructure—need large-scale investment. As things stand, those of us in the north will yet again continue to be far worse off than those in the south. The figures speak for themselves, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) have highlighted. Transport spending per head in London is well over double what it is in the north of England, with £877 spent per head in London in 2019-20, compared with around £300 per head in the north-east. There is a clear demand for good public transport in the region, as we have the lowest rate of car ownership in the country outside London.

The north-east has been neglected for far too long. The Government tell us they are fully committed to our region, but 12 years on we have seen a whole host of empty promises and little to no action. The restoration of the Leamside line between County Durham and Pelaw in my constituency would facilitate a park-and-ride service to Follingsby Business Park, which currently offers employment to over 2,000 people, and allow local train services to return to places such as Washington for the first time in many years.

The reopening of the Leamside line would also relieve pressure on the east coast main line, which is already at capacity, pave the way for a major extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro and increase rail freight capacity. It is now time that the Government seized the opportunity to invest in the region’s railways. We need to see action and a clear demonstration that the Government are prepared to listen to our communities, businesses and cross-party politicians, and properly invest in our transport network.

The reopening of the Leamside line would open up parts of the north-east to direct rail connectivity and transform the region’s socio-economic future. The case for reopening the line is strong. I hope the Minister and the Government will listen today and, most importantly, take action to reopen this much-needed transport option, because, to quote my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, “connectivity matters.”

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I know that for many hon. Members who have spoken today, the reopening of the Leamside line has been a long and hard-fought campaign, so I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for bringing this issue forward for debate, which, as she mentioned, is very timely. I also congratulate her on her powerful and eloquent speech.

Last week Transport North East, alongside many hon. Members, hosted a stakeholder event to continue the push for the line’s reopening, continuing to make the case for that integral 21-mile line to run from Gateshead, through South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham, which has remained closed since 1992. Looking around today and hearing the strength of cross-party support for the line is heartening. I commend the tireless campaigning of Members from across the political spectrum. I know that many hon. Members could not attend today’s debate owing to events in the main Chamber, but the petitions, debates, parliamentary questions, local campaigning and cross-party working are exactly what our Parliament should be—working together to deliver transformational projects for our constituents.

Indeed, this project has seen widespread support not only across the areas that would have a Leamside line station, but across the north-east. Local authorities, businesses, Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of the North of Tyne, the local enterprise partnership and the North East England chamber of commerce all seem to appreciate the benefits of increasing capacity on the east coast main line by reopening Leamside.

There is increasing public support. All this is hardly surprising when we consider, as other Members have highlighted today, that every local journey taken contributes £8.50 to the north-east economy. Yet, as we have heard from multiple colleagues today, rail connectivity is about so much more than that. It is about connecting a talented student to their chosen college; reducing the emissions of a visit to friends and family; widening job opportunities for local people; and making local travel more affordable, accessible and appealing. It would help to improve Union connectivity between England and Scotland and reduce congestion and pollution on the roads.

Already the foundations have been laid. There are businesses and manufacturing parks on the line’s route already, such as Nissan’s factory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West highlighted, and new housing and regeneration projects. The project has been heavily included in the North East transport plan adopted last year and would deliver a station for Washington, which, as my hon. Friend knows all too well, is the fourth-largest town in England without a station. That needs to be corrected at the earliest opportunity and is desperately needed. If we want to grow the economies of the north-east, we must build the necessary infrastructure capacity to sustain that.

Prior to the pandemic, Network Rail noted that demand on the east coast main line would also increase significantly by 2040. As north-east authorities have continued to protect the Leamside alignment from development and it is under the ownership of Network Rail, everything is set, yet time on this project lamentably rolls on, as was highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). Given the huge support from all quarters, why are the Government dragging their feet ? We need honesty from the Government. Given the strength of support and planning, I join hon. Members here today in their disappointment in the lack of progress.

Despite the best efforts of hon. Members and local leaders, and given the tenacious and dogged campaigning emanating from the region, I know that many expected to see the Leamside line feature in the recent integrated rail plan, yet it never came. The Minister is well versed—as are her predecessors—on my views on this shambolic document, known by many of us as the “disintegrated rail plan”. It fails the people in the north-east in particular, with the double blow of scrapping the High Speed 2 eastern leg and Northern Powerhouse Rail. As highlighted by Transport North East, it is based on short-term cost savings rather than its long-term benefits. Rather than levelling up, it is an insult to local leaders and residents, when their preferences were made abundantly clear.

For both HS2 phase 2b and an NPR network to be delivered in full, we need investment in the east coast main line corridor between Northallerton and Newcastle, including reopening the Leamside line to free up capacity, divert freight and build resilience. Even the final plans for NPR presented to the Government included the restoration of the line to achieve full and complete connectivity across the north. However, yet again their expert advice and local voices were ignored. The completion of those schemes in full would have sparked a rail revolution, but once again it is northern communities paying the price for broken Tory promises on rail. I hope that today the Minister has better news for the good people of the north-east.

More frustratingly, I know that the Government themselves recognise the benefits of the line and the need for the project to move forward. In fact, in the unsuccessful restoring your railway bid, the Transport Minister noted that it shows,

“good potential in terms of transport and socio-economic benefits”.

However, the Government have now indicated that,

“the case for re-opening the Leamside route would be best developed as part of any future city region settlement.”

Sadly, that once again kicks the can further down the road, and also seems to be somehow dependent on the North of Tyne and North East combined authorities forming one mayoral combined authority. I hope that the Minister can provide some clarity on that point.

There are already plans for Transport North East to produce studies to further prove the benefits, with the Chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee and leader of Gateshead Council Martin Gannon outlining that Leamside is one of our top priorities, with the potential to be game-changing. That would be true levelling up: investing in local transport, supported cross-party and purely driven by the benefit that the region would inevitably see.

For too long the north-east has been chronically overlooked, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) when she pointed out that the north-east has so many left-behind communities suffering from a lack of investment, including transport spending. Investing in local transport is incredibly important. I hope that the Minister realises that here, today, she can offer more than just warm words in support of the project; we can take actual steps to ensure that it can very soon be achieved, alongside the local authorities.

I also want to highlight some of the excellent speeches from across the Chamber. The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) spoke about the importance of regional connectivity linking people with jobs in different towns and cities. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) talked of levelling up, given the prevalence of areas of social deprivation. The hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) talked about the need to improve broader connections and connectivity across his county. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) made an excellent speech about how the Government have failed to deliver rail infrastructure investment in the north-east.

There have been lots of empty and false promises, but now is indeed the time to show ambition. The Labour party will stand up for our communities and demand that the Government deliver the northern rail investment that has been so often promised. Continuing to short-change the north for short-term savings is not going to cut it any more. I hope that the Minister will address the concerns that have been voiced today by Members from across the Chamber, so that we can move forward with what is clearly a well-supported and much-needed rail line.

It is a pleasure to be able to respond to the points that have been raised during today’s debate, Mr Hollobone. First, though, I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing today’s debate.

Improving transport connectivity in the north-east is an important topic. It is vital for the Tyne and Wear region, as we have heard, for the north of England and for the United Kingdom. I thank the hon. Lady for providing a coherent, well-reasoned argument for reopening the Leamside line between Pelaw junction and Tursdale junction, and for highlighting the potential local, regional and national benefits involved. I also thank hon. Members from around the Chamber for their invaluable contributions today, and for sharing with me a little bit more about the rich rail history of the north-east, including in their constituencies. I am reminded of my great-grandfather, who many years ago worked on the railways in County Durham—I have yet to find out exactly where, but I will find out.

I will start by reassuring the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West and all Members present that the Government are wholeheartedly committed to delivering on their vision of levelling up the British economy and building back better. Improved transport connectivity within and between our great cities is fundamental to that vision, unlocking the economic potential of the northern powerhouse, building back better from this awful pandemic, and ensuring that the Tyne and Wear region and the north of England play a key role within a resurgent UK economy. That is why my Department, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—who is also the Cabinet Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse—is at the forefront of making that vision a reality.

Since 2010, over £29 billion has been invested in transport infrastructure in the north, but we want to go further and faster. In November 2021, we published the £96 billion integrated rail plan for the north and the midlands, our biggest ever single Government investment in Britain’s rail network. The IRP is a strategy focused on bringing communities in the north and the midlands closer together, boosting inter-city connections and improving east-west links—the journeys that people are often most likely to make. The plan delivers a modern network for the whole of the country, benefiting small towns alongside our big cities far sooner than previously planned, with many improvements in this decade.

That means we are providing more seats between London and the north-east than in previous proposals, with opportunities for further increases. Previous proposals would have reduced connectivity between destinations south of York and the north-east. HS2 trains to Newcastle and York could only have been accommodated at the expense of existing services, potentially reducing or removing connections between the north-east and Doncaster, Newark and Peterborough. Now, with extra train paths from the north-east to London via the east coast main line compared with previous proposals, and with a Cross Country-type service to Newcastle likely to continue running via Doncaster, there is scope to retain improved connectivity where appropriate. Investment in the east coast main line will ease the bottlenecks that we have heard about today and provide improved segregation between passenger and freight. Journey times from London to Darlington would also be cut by 15 minutes compared with today, bringing journey times closer to the original HS2 plans, but delivered much earlier.

Importantly, the IRP included a specific reference to the Leamside line, which we are discussing today, acknowledging that the Government have carefully considered proposals to reopen that line, most recently in the form of bids for development funding through the restoring your railway ideas fund. On the basis of available evidence and value-for-money analysis, the Government consider that the case for reopening the Leamside line would be best considered as part of any future city region settlement. The north-east will be eligible to work with Government to agree a funding settlement with the city region sustainable transport settlement programme once appropriate governance arrangements are in place.

Why are the Government wedded to linking this vital investment to rejigging their arrangements for the region? The Minister has heard today that it is supported across all political parties, both here and in the region. Why are the Government wedded to that, when there is really no need to do it? They should just give Transport North East the money it needs.

If the right hon. Gentleman will let me continue with the CRSTS point, I will come to a further point about the absence of a new devolution deal, which will perhaps help address his question.

The city region sustainable transport settlements represent a significant investment of £5.7 billion in local transport networks, predominantly in the north of England. The settlements that will be agreed by central Government are based on plans being put forward by Mayors and local leaders, and they will help to drive forward the economies of city regions, support levelling up and decarbonise transport. In the absence of a new devolution deal, or until a new deal is reached, the seven constituent local authorities in the North East Joint Transport Committee will continue to receive transport funding as currently, including highways maintenance funding, funding from the integrated transport block, and funding received in the final year of the transforming cities fund in 2022-23.

In the meantime, and in response to the IRP recommendations, I understand that Transport North East remains in regular contact with my officials on its plans to undertake a number of further Leamside line studies, including one to develop a new business case for the South Tyneside and Wearside metro loop, with a view to building towards an updated business case for a reopening that maximises the benefits to passenger and freight services across the whole region. I would strongly encourage such engagement to continue, and I hope that local stakeholders will work together to establish a pragmatic and phased strategy for taking forward this important local scheme.

I am sorry, but the Minister has not answered the question. She is talking about co-operation and working together, but the region is doing that already. She is basically saying that unless we agree to some type of devolution mechanism for the governance of the region, we will not get the money. Why link the two together? There is no need. There is unanimity and leadership among all councils and partners in the region now, so let’s just get on with it.

I think I was very clear in my response to the right hon. Gentleman, when I set out the situation with regards to the CRSTS, which was set out in the IRP, and then explained how the funding currently flows through that giant committee with the seven constituent local authorities.

I will now turn back to the Leamside line in a bit more detail, and to the restoring your railway programme. I know that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West and several other local MPs present were disappointed to hear recently that the proposal to reopen the Leamside line did not receive funding through the latest round of the Department’s restoring your railway ideas fund, and I absolutely sense the enthusiasm and passion for the project in Westminster Hall today. As part of the levelling-up agenda, the Government pledged £500 million for the restoring your railway programme in January 2020 in order to deliver our manifesto commitment and to start reopening lines and stations. That investment will reconnect smaller communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education.

Although our restoring your railway expert panel noted that the Leamside line proposal had demonstrated potential, it is important to note that the ideas fund has had a very high level of interest. Some 141 unique bids were received across the three rounds. Of those, 38 were successful and are being supported to develop a strategic outline business case, including three schemes in the north-east. I note the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) on the importance of improving connectivity for residents of Ferryhill, and I can confirm that the proposal for a new station at Ferryhill, which is near the Leamside line, was awarded development funding in November 2020 as part of round 2 of the ideas fund, and that Durham County Council recently submitted its strategic outline business case. The Department will confirm next steps for the scheme in the coming months.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) asked about the Weardale to Darlington line. The reopening of that line was also a successful idea in round 2 of the restoring your railway fund. A business case on that is currently being developed and is due in December.

Although the IRP has grabbed the headlines, we continue to work with partners on a number of rail schemes that will benefit those living and working in the north-east. In January 2021, for example, we announced £34 million to progress plans to reopen the Northumberland line to passenger services between Newcastle upon Tyne and Ashington by the end of 2023. As part of our new stations fund, Horden, just outside Durham, received £4.2 million towards the delivery of its new station. On 29 June 2020, the station opened to the public and has reconnected the towns of Horden and Peterlee, which previously had no access to the rail network.

We are also investing £1.2 billion in a programme of infrastructure enhancements for the east coast main line. Those upgrades are vital to improve the service on the railway for the tens of thousands of passengers, including hon. Members, who travel along that route. Alongside the brand-new Azuma trains, those upgrades will help to deliver journey time, reliability and capacity improvements.

Elsewhere, Network Rail has recently started on-site works on the £18 million phase 1 redevelopment of Sunderland station, including a new southern entrance and an enhanced southern concourse. The transforming cities fund is providing £95 million towards the delivery of the metro flow project to extend the Tyne and Wear Metro, with Nexus taking ownership of an existing freight line. That will improve frequency, capacity, resilience and connectivity, and will generate an additional 1.7 million passenger journeys.

We recognise the importance of the Metro to the local population of Tyne and Wear, which is why we have recently provided Nexus with a £336 million fleet replacement grant for the purchase of new rolling stock, and an additional £30 million for the construction of new depot facilities. The Metro has also benefitted from the Government’s covid-19 financial support packages, too.

Finally, I want to underscore the importance of the integrated rail plan, which was published in November 2021. It brings a whopping £96 billion of investment for the north and the midlands—the biggest ever single Government investment in Britain’s rail network. It is important that we do not lose sight of ongoing investments. I am genuinely grateful to colleagues for this very insightful debate, and for sharing with me the perspectives from their communities. I hope that my response has demonstrated to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West that my Department recognises the importance of improving rail connectivity in the north-east.

I express my warm thanks and appreciation to all hon. Members who have taken part in this very important debate, to the excellent shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and to the Minister. We have heard from Government and Opposition Members from across the whole region—from Newcastle down through Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland, Durham and Darlington. As we have heard, the issue unites the whole region—all politicians, local authorities and agencies from business and transport—in one endeavour: to reopen the Leamside line for all the reasons that we have heard.

Passions can run deep on why we are at this point, but we all agree that we need to look forward with one united voice, and use that passion to achieve what we all desire: the reopening of the Leamside line to the benefit of all who would use it, across all our communities, for generations to come. We acknowledge that this would be a huge investment, but it is one that people of the north-east are long overdue. The return on that investment will be huge. We do not have that figure yet, but it is being worked on as we speak, as we discussed with the Minister earlier, and I am told that we will have it soon.

I hope that the Minister has been left in no doubt about our collective passion for this endeavour. I am sure that she will expect to find herself back here, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, for further such debates once we have further evidence and figures from our feasibility studies, and as we expand our case for the reopening of the Leamside line. I hope that this Minister—although my hon. Friend the Member for Slough may be the Minister when this happens—will be there to cut the ribbon. I very much look forward to that day.

Maybe it is a good omen for the Leamside line that we have pulled into the platform earlier than scheduled.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the potential merits of reopening the Leamside Line.

Sitting suspended.

Covid-19: Military aid to Civil Authorities

Before we begin, I remind Members that Mr Speaker encourages all to observe social distancing and to wear masks.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered requests for military aid to civil authorities during the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the House for allowing time for this important debate.

Coronavirus has created pressures on all public services the likes of which we have never seen before. When those services are critical for preserving life, the pressures—increased absenteeism and greater demand—are significantly more noticeable. Many constituents have had awful experiences of waiting four, eight or even 10 hours for an ambulance for either themselves or a relative. I applied for this debate because constituents—many of whom are relatives of vulnerable people—have recently been in touch to share their despair over having to wait many hours for an ambulance, even in urgent circumstances.

One constituent had to stay by the side of his late father’s body for nine hours before an ambulance was able to attend to his father and take him away. The shock of finding his father unexpectedly dead at home would have been enough—I cannot imagine having to sit beside a deceased loved one for many hours, waiting for help that just does not turn up. Another constituent in her 80s waited for an ambulance for 10 hours after she broke her hip at home. Another was identified as having a stroke by a doctor who lived nearby; because they could not wait for an ambulance, the doctor kindly drove her directly to the hospital.

There are many such stories. I am sure West Dorset is not the only area in the United Kingdom experiencing such difficulty, and I am sure I am not the only MP hearing such stories. In this debate, my intention is not to pile criticism on the South Western Ambulance Service. In West Dorset and across the wider south-west, our ambulance service has been working to absolute capacity until it simply cannot do any more. Diligent MPs cannot stand by and allow this situation to go on without proper scrutiny. It is clear that something needs to change.

These failures are caused not by incompetence or inefficiency, but by a greater demand upon our health systems than they are capable of handling without further back-up. A lack of social care options for people fit for discharge has caused a backing up throughout the hospital system that has ultimately compounded this situation. Ambulances often need to queue outside A&E for hours, with patients having to wait so long that they are triaged in the ambulance.

Ambulance drivers are in frequent close contact with vulnerable people. They have needed to be even more vigilant than the rest of us about self-testing and isolating when required so that they do not infect their patients. While that sense of care and responsibility is their duty, it has resulted in higher levels of absenteeism than the ambulance workforce has been able to manage.

The compounding of those issues—with absenteeism and capacity pressures in hospitals resulting in ambulances queuing at A&E, unable to leave until they have safely transferred their patients into the care of hospital staff—has meant the ambulance service is unable to respond to the next call. The result at home in West Dorset is a lack of ambulances available and people waiting for hours, sometimes in great pain and distress.

When our civilian services are in this situation, during a national crisis or not, the last step of escalation is to the Government, for assistance from the Ministry of Defence.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on an absolutely superb debate, as I was saying to him beforehand. It will probably encapsulate all our thoughts, and I know the Minister will wish to respond to him. We have been grateful recipients of Army medics in our hospitals during covid-19; indeed, even this week, help is being given by 50 to 60 medics in the Ulster Hospital, just on the edge of my constituency. Does the hon. Member not agree that there is a very clear role for the Army to play, and that that role has not yet ended? Further, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who serve us in times of war and peace—our wonderful armed forces.

I cannot agree enough with the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted to be part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and spending time with the Royal Navy at the moment. Those in the armed forces not only dedicate their lives to service of this country, but go so far in supporting and helping those in need in the most difficult situations. They are to be commended far more than I can do in this debate this afternoon.

Although we understand that the armed forces capacity is not limitless, we unconsciously rely, safe in the knowledge, that in the direst circumstances our service personnel will step in and avert a crisis. When that does not or cannot happen, the resilience of our emergency services comes into question.

My local South Western Ambulance Service first scoped its request for military support in July last year. There were six operational and clinical areas where it sought additional support, because of increased activity and absenteeism due to coronavirus. Of those six areas, only one was fulfilled. After many weeks of negotiation, the South Western Ambulance Service received very limited military personnel on 11 August last year: 18 soldiers to fill logistics roles, who also replenished equipment on ambulances until the end of August. Those 18 soldiers were much appreciated, but that was only 18 for 5 million people in the south-west.

The South Western Ambulance Service had also asked for clinicians, blue-light drivers and mechanics, among other roles, but those requests were not granted. I know that it is not the role of Her Majesty’s armed forces indiscriminately to provide any and all support to civilian services that is requested. However, in March 2020, the Secretary of State for Defence announced:

“From me downwards the entirely of the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces are dedicated to getting the nation through this global pandemic.”

At that time 10,000 personnel were put at higher readiness, thus making 20,000 personnel available, if needed. Therefore, we might be forgiven for believing that assistance from the Government would be more forthcoming in this case.

The period of the coronavirus pandemic has been one where our armed forces were at their most ready to assist civilian services, and should be commended for it. Of course, more services required help and so military assistance had to be spread more thinly, but it was surprising to discover that the MACA request from the South Western Ambulance Service was fulfilled only to an extremely small extent. That gives me and my constituents great cause for concern. That was mainly as a result of the original request being filtered down and weakened by some civil servants before evaluation. That is a great concern to me as a south-west MP.

I have no doubt that difficult decisions had to be taken. The armed forces are needed operationally for so many things. To ask them to support civil services is no small request in terms of resources and, of course, the military cannot simply be diverted from its primary role. However, given the extent to which we have experienced ambulance waiting times, citizens waiting in pain for so long, and the watering down of the needs of ambulance services before evaluations took place, I question whether there are things that can be learned to improve the process of MACA requests in future, by looking at examples such as those I have outlined.

Ambulance services exist to respond to acute and critical events. Those are situations that cannot, by definition, wait without potentially endangering life. Compared with another operational deployment of the armed forces in the pandemic, testing, one has to note that, although testing was vital for oversight of the overall size of the pandemic in the UK, a timely covid test does not compare, in terms of urgency, with a person waiting for hours in acute pain—a person in their 80s having broken their hip or a person with a suspected heart attack or stroke.

Perhaps in the future we ought to have a better publicised hierarchy of need when we face a crisis that requires military support to the civilian authorities. I cannot pretend to know the intimate details of every MACA request submitted to the Government, but I can think of few acute and urgent services that might need prioritised support—and none other than our ambulance service.

One of the criteria for MACA provision is that military aid should always be the last resort, and that the use of mutual aid, other agencies and the private sector must be otherwise considered as insufficient or unsuitable. I pay tribute to St John Ambulance, which has provided much support and continues to do so. It is a volunteer army in itself, with a deeply held mission to help those in need. I wonder whether there needs to be a more established role for St John Ambulance in this area, so that it is able to more readily and structurally respond to some of these needs and to have a more substantial role in our nation’s resilience arrangements to support the emergency services. That would enable ambulance services to receive support more readily than in the cases I have outlined.

The South Western ambulance service did not and does not ask for help lightly. Only when the situation for its patients was becoming very difficult indeed did it contact the Government for help. I should say that it is only following my own intervention and inquiry that the ambulance service kindly shared some of its insights with me. Even I was surprised, though, to hear that only one out of six of its specific requests was partly fulfilled.

I hope this debate will offer an opportunity for the Government to review and improve the systems surrounding MACA requests. Greater clarity and transparency for those services making requests is needed so that they know what levels of support they can expect, especially when there is no alternative. Then my colleagues and I —MPs of Dorset and the wider south-west—will be able to further support the ambulance service in making sure we never experience some of these difficulties again.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to service under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on securing this debate, and I pay tribute to him for the manner in which he conveyed some challenging personal experiences on the part of his constituents and others. I will turn first to the situation faced by ambulance services, before clarifying for my hon. Friend that many of the expectations in terms of specialist posts are not realistically achievable within the constraints on the military’s resources.

Ambulance services have faced extraordinary pressures over the past 18 months, and I know that all hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to all the staff for their dedication and hard work. The pandemic placed significant demands on the service. In December 2021, it answered almost 1 million calls—a 22% increase on December 2020—placing significant pressures on ambulances services and the wider NHS.

We know the background reasons for that: infection prevention and control measures, higher instances of delays in the handover of ambulance patients into A&E and, crucially, the staff absence rate. Flow through our hospitals, which is always the key determinant of the ability of ambulance services to offload patients to the safety of A&E, is about the ability of that A&E to either get those patients discharged safely or admitted to hospital. A combination of those factors has placed unprecedented stress on the service and driven increased response times to patients in the community. Despite those pressures, performance for category 1 calls—the most serious calls, classified as life-threatening—has been largely maintained at around nine minutes on average over the last several months, despite a 16% increase in these calls compared with before the pandemic, although we are clear that there has been a significant increase in response times across other categories.

It is exactly because of those pressures that we have put in place strong support to improve ambulance response times, including a £55 million investment in staffing capacity to manage winter pressures to March. All trusts will receive part of this funding, which will increase call handling and operational response capacity, boosting staff numbers by 700. NHS England will also strengthen health and wellbeing support for ambulance trusts, investing £1.75 million to support the wellbeing of frontline ambulance staff during these pressured times. More broadly, NHS England is undertaking targeted support for the most challenged hospitals, where delays are predominantly concentrated, to improve their patient handover processes, helping ambulances to get swiftly back out on the road. That includes a £4.4 million capital investment to keep an additional 154 ambulances on the road this winter.

The crux of my hon. Friend’s speech was to acknowledge those pressures and to look to the military, through the MACA system, for further assistance. The scale of the challenge we faced, and continue to face, cannot be overestimated. The UK, like every other country in the world, saw its health systems and capabilities stretched to the limit. As many of our civilian agencies and institutions struggled to cope, we should take great pride in the role our armed forces played in assisting them in responding to the pandemic, reacting with skill and agility. However, we must be cautious about the limitations on the numbers of those who are qualified to drive blue-light ambulances, and indeed clinicians. I have to say that, of the 20,000 personnel my hon. Friend spoke of, only a small proportion would be clinically qualified to assist as paramedics or qualified to drive a blue-light service.

I completely understand some of the difficult points the Minister makes, but does he agree that St John Ambulance has a wonderful suite of resources and could play a much more substantial role in supporting our emergency services?

I will address that point and then return to the military point. I had a very productive meeting with St John Ambulance in the past couple of weeks to discuss exactly that. We should not underestimate the huge role it has already played throughout the pandemic in supporting our ambulance and other emergency services.

This does not cover the constituency of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), but Northern Ireland has a Territorial Army medical regiment based in Belfast. The majority of people in it are probably NHS staff—they are doctors, nurses or whatever —and that is where their interest in being in the TA comes from. Will there be circumstances on the mainland in which the TA medical corps could be used to our advantage and to address staffing shortcomings?

It is important that we take advantage of all opportunities in terms of those qualified professionals and their ability to support our more regular frontline services.

To pick up on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset about MACAs and military capacity, a large number of those 20,000 were used for testing and helping to build Nightingale hospitals, and they have recently been helping in vaccine testing centres. However, capacity in terms of, for example, clinically qualified Army medics is limited, and they often already serve in the NHS and in hospitals, so there is not a huge pool to draw on. It is important that we are clear about that. Secondly, I mentioned to my hon. Friend the point about those qualified as blue-light drivers. Again, that is not all the 20,000 or anywhere near. We have to be—realistic is the wrong word—careful in our expectations of the capacity to support specific requests, such as the specific types of support that his ambulance service put in for.

More broadly, considerable support has been offered by the military for tasks such as logistics, which my hon. Friend highlighted—for example, in supporting the ambulance service in a range of roles. Currently, the Ministry of Defence provides support to ambulance services in the following ways: 366 personnel in a range of roles, including non-driving roles; 96 personnel continuing non-blue-light ambulance driving support for the Scottish Ambulance Service; and 313 personnel in driver support to the Welsh ambulance service.

My understanding of the specific matter to which my hon. Friend referred is that it was incorporated into the broader request for ambulance drivers between 10 and 31 August last year. The element of that request to be granted was the 28 category C drivers who were provided by the Ministry of Defence. However, I come back to the point that, while he is right that the military are always there to assist us in times of need, we equally need to be realistic about their capacity in specific places.

I appreciate the Minister’s candour. I respectfully remind him that the fundamental issue is that we have constituents—patients—who are in great difficulty for a long time. I fully appreciate the many pressures that he outlined, but what I am looking to achieve through the debate, especially for those families and individuals who have gone through painful experiences —I hope the Minister can help me a little further with this—is that we do not get into this position again, with constituents on their own waiting for such a long time.

My hon. Friend will have heard me set out exactly how we have done that with the extra investment in our ambulance services. That is the key—to reinforce the strength and resilience of our existing ambulance service provision. He is absolutely right to highlight the impact—the patient and familial impact—of long waits for an ambulance, but the real answer is the measures that we are taking to invest in the ambulance service, with the £55 million more, the investment we put into hospitals to ensure that they were ready for winter, and the broader funding across the piece for our healthcare system to strengthen it further. Today, we saw another element of that package in the announcement of waiting list recovery and how we intend to approach that.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the military. In extremes, they are there to help in very specific and pressured circumstances, but they are not the solution to the problem in the long term or to avoiding the challenges recurring. That is why we have our plan not only for the ambulance service, but for improving urgent and emergency care. We saw £450 million invested in that over the past 18 months or so to improve A&Es across the country, helping them to function more effectively, in particular in the context of IPC—infection prevention and control—measures. More broadly, we are investing in our acute hospitals to allow for the flow of patients out of A&E and into the hospital or, we hope, home. That is the key to solving this.

I am pleased that the Minister highlighted that. I highlight and thank him again for the £65 million that the Government have dedicated to Dorset County Hospital to address that very difficulty.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to highlight that, not least because of his role in continuing to argue for it and in supporting Dorset hospitals in that context.

The military have done, and continue to do, a fantastic job in the context of this pandemic. However, as I say, the key to this issue is long-term investment, which is exactly what we are putting in place. I am very conscious of the challenges faced by all ambulance services over the winter, but I know that my hon. Friend’s local ambulance trust faces specific challenges of geography, distance and location of hospitals, which can be difficult for it on occasion. I appreciate the particular complexities of the system in the south-west, and we continue to work closely with the local system, but also with the military where appropriate, to see where they can support us and help add additional resilience into the system.

However, there is no substitute for the investment we are putting into making those systems more resilient in the long term, the need for which my hon. Friend has highlighted again today. We continue to focus on outcomes for patients—which is, I think, exactly where he is coming from—to avoid or reduce the risk of people having to wait a long time for an ambulance in very challenging circumstances. Tackling and improving the performance of our ambulance trusts remains a high priority in my ministerial inbox. That is in no way a criticism of the amazing work their staff are doing, but they face significant challenges. We continue to focus on those, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and his colleagues in Dorset to meet the challenges in the south-west.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Merseyside: Funding of Local Authorities

I beg to move,

That this House has considered funding of local authorities on Merseyside.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin by thanking Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I also thank Members from across Merseyside for attending today. I look forward to hearing their contributions.

According to analysis by the National Audit Office on selected main revenue income sources for local authorities, in 2010 Government funding for local authorities in England was just over £34 billion. Over the course of the next decade it decreased steadily, and by 2020 Government funding to local authorities in England was just over £8 billion. The cut of funding from £34 billion to £8 billion is staggering, and goes a long way to explain why we have seen the widespread erosion of public services. It represents a cut of around 76.5%. In other words, local authorities are being expected to continue to provide public services when they are receiving a fraction of the money they used to receive from central Government. No wonder our communities are feeling it.

If we look at Merseyside in the context of those National Audit Office figures, we see that the Government funding cuts that its local authorities have suffered are even higher than the England average. In my own local authority of Wirral, in 2010 the council received just over £266 million in Government funding, but by 2020 that figure was down to just over £40 million—a reduction of around 85%. Colleagues will be only too aware that it is a similar story elsewhere in Merseyside, and I am sure that we will be hearing details of the impact of those cuts.

I ask the Minister to listen closely to the figures that I am about to share. In Knowsley, the same National Audit Office figures show that in 2010 the local authority received more than £243 million in Government funding; that figure was down to just over £35.6 million in 2020—a reduction of around 85.3%. In Liverpool, in 2010 the local authority received more than £560 million from the Government, but by 2020 that figure was down to just over £75 million—a reduction of around 86.6%. In St Helens, in 2010 the local authority received more than £151 million, but in 2020 it received just over £16 million—a reduction of around 89.4%. In Sefton, in 2010 the local authority received more than £203 million, but 2020 saw it receive just over £16.7 million. That is a drop of around 91.8%.

Although local authorities have generally kept 50% of business rates revenues raised locally since 2013—and there is a pilot scheme to keep 100% of them in Wirral—that is nowhere near to making up the shortfall created by Conservative Government cuts. For example, Wirral Council received over £110 million less in annual income in 2020 than it did in 2010. Similarly, Knowsley received £116 million less, Liverpool over £209 million less, St Helens over £60 million less, and Sefton over £94 million less. Those staggering and brutal cuts by central Government are really punishing our communities. Political decisions taken by Conservative Governments since 2010 have had the effect of running down and forcing the closure of local public services.

Let us remind ourselves what it is that local authorities deliver. They provide and look after our libraries and leisure centres. They maintain our roads, streets, parks, and our open spaces where people relax, exercise, walk their dogs and where children play. They license taxis, the sale of alcohol and the movement of animals. They provide support to local businesses and chambers of commerce, stimulating the local economy. They manage planning processes, are responsible for public health, bin collection and waste disposal, free school meals, welfare support and advice and adult learning. They are responsible for trading standards and ensuring the safety and standards of the products that we buy. They are responsible for social services, safeguarding children and ensuring that vulnerable adults, including people with dementia, are cared for and protected, whether in their own home or a care home.

A decade of cuts to local government has resulted in £8 billion being lost from adult social care budgets, and many vulnerable people have been left without the support that they need. Some 400,000 older and disabled people are on council waiting lists for care, and there are more than 100,000 staff vacancies across the sector. That is a truly damning indictment of this Conservative Government. In short, local authorities, the services they deliver and the public realm they maintain are fundamental to our society and the way we live. If we want our councils to deliver good-quality universal public services, they need to be funded properly.

The Conservative party presents itself as the party of tradition, but it is anything but. The cuts it has imposed on local authorities since 2010 undermine our way of life and our traditions, and are pulling away the foundations of our communities. I am sure that we will hear from colleagues across Merseyside about what these cuts mean to their constituencies.

I want now to talk specifically about Wirral, where, as I outlined earlier, the local authority saw an 85% reduction in Government funding between 2010 and 2020, and received around £110 million less in overall income in 2020 than in 2010. The authority has been told that it must find savings of £20 million in its budget for 2022-23. Not doing so could lead to Government intervention. As a result, the council has been forced to make proposals to meet these financial constraints. The proposals are wide ranging and, if implemented, would have serious implications for communities in Wirral. The proposals include the permanent closure and demolition of Woodchurch leisure centre and swimming pool.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of Woodchurch leisure centre and swimming pool, and for all her hard work in leading the campaign to keep its doors open. She has made some excellent points in her speech. She will know that, as well as serving many other constituents, the Woodchurch is an invaluable community asset for some of the poorest communities in Birkenhead, including the Prenton and Noctorum estates. Like the Woodchurch estate in my hon. Friend’s constituency, people living in those communities have far worse health outcomes than their peers in more affluent areas of the Wirral. Does my hon. Friend agree that closing this cherished institution would deal a grievous blow to the invaluable work that has gone on in recent years to improve the health of people living in the most left-behind communities that we represent?

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent contribution. He is absolutely right, and he is right about the health deficit in the area. Woodchurch has a higher percentage of people with long-term health conditions and disabilities than the borough as a whole. He has anticipated the next part of my speech with regard to the surrounding areas, which are so important. It really is important that we save this swimming pool.

The Woodchurch leisure centre and swimming pool are much loved by residents and groups, including Woodchurch swimming club, and as my hon. Friend said, the facilities serve thousands of people across Wirral, including communities in Woodchurch, Upton, and the Beechwood and Noctorum estates.

Leisure centres and swimming pools are vital to the health, wellbeing and relaxation of people in Wirral. The Woodchurch estate has a far higher proportion of people with long-term health issues and disabilities than the borough as a whole. When meeting user groups in the past, I have been struck by how many people use the pool to help with health problems such as joint pain and mental health issues. It cannot be right that this important facility is at risk of closure, but of course, sadly, Government cuts have led us to where we are.

Leisure centres and swimming pools are important, too, for the education of children, who are now required to learn to swim as part of the national curriculum—so, although leisure services are not a statutory requirement, swimming is. Before covid, 14 schools were using Woodchurch pool to teach children to swim—a vital skill for children growing up on a peninsula fringed by beaches. Now, those schools are having to bus children further afield, taking valuable time out of their school day and adding costs to already overstretched schools.

Wirral Council’s proposals also include the potential closure of numerous libraries, including those in Hoylake, Greasby, Pensby, Irby and Woodchurch in my constituency of Wirral West. These are libraries to which young families can take their children to introduce them to books and meet other young families, and which, as children grow older, they can independently visit, browse and learn in an informal environment. They are places where people who have ideas about entrepreneurial projects that they want to pursue can carry out research, drawing on the expertise of highly qualified librarians who know how to source information on all aspects of human endeavour. They are places where people who do not have internet at home can access it to explore any subject they want and, if necessary, search and apply for jobs. Libraries provide incredibly important community hubs, and they are, of course, very important for tackling social isolation. We know that loneliness was identified as a public health challenge in Wirral prior to the pandemic, and libraries have a vital role to play in addressing that issue.

Further proposals in Wirral include ceasing maintenance in open spaces, including up to 10 to 15 local parks, and halving maintenance in others; the closure of two golf courses; changes to residents’ parking permits, in some cases introducing charges for residents living in areas of deprivation; a reduction in highway maintenance; an end to night-time lighting inspections; the withdrawal of additional street cleansing services in some areas; the closure of public toilets; and a reduced school crossing patrol service. That is not even the full extent of what is being considered. The implications of such measures are extremely serious and Wirral Council, like so many others, is having to make up for prolonged, brutal central Government funding cuts.

Last month, I and other Wirral MPs wrote to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, calling on him to come forward with emergency funding for Wirral to prevent further reductions in public services. We eagerly await a response to that letter and I repeat that ask to the Secretary of State, via the Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) has been working to secure a meeting between the Wirral MPs and the Secretary of State to discuss the very serious situation facing Wirral. Last week, the Secretary of State said:

“I am looking forward to a meeting. I recognise that there are real issues in the Wirral, which I hope we can work together to resolve.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2022; Vol. 708, c. 336.]

I appreciate that the Secretary of State’s office has made contact this week, and I understand that it will be in touch again shortly, to find a date after recess. I hope a meeting can be arranged as soon as possible, because time is of the essence.

Tomorrow, Members will have the opportunity to debate the local government finance settlement. This is the fourth one-year settlement in a row for councils, which, according to the Local Government Association,

“continues to hamper financial planning and council financial sustainability.”

Wirral Council feels that it is imperative to have a multi-year settlement from 2023-24, so I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on that issue.

The response from Merseyside to the draft local finance settlement for 2022-23 was very clear. The leader of Knowsley Council said:

“We are continually lobbying the Government for fairer funding and ensuring that those areas that have greater needs are appropriately funded. Yet again, this has been ignored and we are once again having to look at how we can continue to provide the essential services our communities value and need.”

The leader of Sefton Council has said:

“I am afraid that the latest funding settlement shows little evidence of the Government investing strongly in public services…The Government has left us facing a position that remains austere and which will make our Borough’s economic recovery from COVID-19, when it does finally end, even more difficult.”

For Wirral, council funding from central Government does not come close to meeting the needs of the borough, as highlighted by the requirement to make such drastic savings.

The decimation of our local authorities and public services by this Government has to stop. As I have said, the Conservative party likes to present itself as the party of tradition, but when we look at the scale of the cuts it has delivered to local authorities since 2010, it is clear that it is anything but. It is leaving local authorities that want to serve local people struggling to provide even the bare essentials, and forcing the closure of vital community spaces such as libraries and leisure centres.

The Government have a choice. They can either continue down their current path of squeezing local authorities of every resource possible, or they can take another path and invest in people and communities, nurture and grow the potential of everybody, and create and maintain a physical and social environment in which individuals, communities and businesses can thrive, and in which people can have a sense of stability. It really is a simple choice, and it is a political choice.

It is time for the Government to change course. They must face the fact that services delivered by our local authorities, and the public realm that they provide and maintain, are fundamental to the functioning of a civilised society. If we are to thrive, the Government must invest in our communities, provide financial stability and fund the services upon which we all rely.

Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokesman for Her Majesty’s Opposition no later than 5.12 pm—the guideline limit is five minutes—and then the Minister, and then there will be three minutes at the end for Margaret Greenwood to sum up the debate. Until then, it is Back-Bench time and there are seven superstars from Merseyside seeking to contribute. There will, I am afraid, have to be a strict four-minute time limit, and then everybody will get in. We will start with the first person on my list, Maria Eagle.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on her contribution and on obtaining the debate.

My constituency covers two of the local authorities involved on Merseyside—Liverpool City Council and Knowsley borough council. I want to say a little bit about Knowsley. This small authority has been disproportionately hit by the austerity and the brutal cuts that my hon. Friend referred to in her introductory speech. It has lost more than half its funding—that is, over £100 million. Years of austerity cuts have resulted in an average loss of £485 per person, compared with the average countrywide loss of £188 per person, yet Knowsley borough council represents the second most deprived borough in the nation. It was ranked the fifth worst when the Lib Dem-Tory coalition began to impose austerity, and it is now ranked the second worst, so it has not been improving over that period; its situation has worsened. It has the lowest score in the city region for deprivation affecting children, and the second lowest for deprivation affecting older people. More than 10,000 households are in fuel poverty—15% of the total—with many of them living in the Harewood part of my constituency. They are now facing a cost of living crisis as well as having to deal with the austerity cuts that my hon. Friend has set out.

Inflation is at its highest level for 30 years, and energy bills are about to rocket by 54%. Food prices are rising faster than general retail prices. Wages are stagnating and falling in real terms, with tax increases to national insurance and council tax stealth increases to come in April. The cut in universal credit has impacted on many people in Knowsley, with many now having to choose between heating and eating—that is the choice facing them. When they turn to the council, the amount of support that can be given after 12 years of brutal cuts is much lower than it used to be, and it is much harder for the council to provide the kind of support that it used to provide. It is the same in Liverpool, where the capacity for local people to get support from the council has been severely curtailed because of the impact of the cuts over that period.

If the concept of levelling up means anything, surely it means improving the lives of people in places such as Knowsley in order to level them up to the better standards of living in other parts of the country. One might have expected, therefore, that Knowsley would receive some of the Government’s levelling-up funding, but it has not. Despite making bids for the funding that the Government keep saying is available, it has not received any. The council was unsuccessful in its bid for an allocation from the levelling-up fund, and neither has Knowsley benefitted from any of the other levelling-up schemes through which the Government have been dispensing largesse.

The Government said that funding would be allocated to level up places such as Knowsley, but Knowsley has not been given any such funding. Instead, it has been given to other places that are perhaps not as high as Knowsley on the indices of multiple deprivation. This is not good enough. I hope the Minister will come up with a better way to make sure that people in Knowsley can get the respect and levelling-up funding that they deserve, because it has not happened so far.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this important debate. She has painted a vivid picture of the grave situation facing Wirral Council and Merseyside, and of the terrible price that people living in both our constituencies are set to pay for the Government’s abject failure to give local authorities the support they so desperately need in the midst of this historic cost of living crisis. No corner of our borough will be spared the devastating consequences of further cuts to frontline services, but the poorest communities of Birkenhead stand to lose the most of all.

I represent one of the most left-behind constituencies in the country, with the north end of my town ranking in the top 1% for deprivation nationally. Families living there have already borne the brunt of a long and cruel decade of austerity. Youth services have been decimated, benefits have been slashed and the basic support on which so many people rely has been stripped to the bone. Birkenhead is now bracing itself for a renewed onslaught on frontline services, and it is our youngest and most vulnerable who will be hit the hardest of all.

The list of proposed savings currently being considered by the council makes for daunting reading. Eleven libraries are set to close their doors, including in the highly deprived wards of Prenton and Rock Ferry, where they are used by so many people as a means of accessing essential services. Adult and children’s services will be cut, and the Hive youth zone that neighbours my constituency office is to lose £150,000 in cancelled funding—a devasting blow for the many young people it supports. This not levelling up at all; it is punching down.

I look forward to the Minister’s contribution and have no doubt he will want to talk about the levelling-up funds that have been allocated to Birkenhead to support its ambitious regeneration scheme. In a town that has been starved of investment for so many decades, that money is very welcome, but we will not be made to feel grateful for what we have rightly deserved all along. We cannot ignore the fact that this is largely capital spending that will do nothing to cover the day-to-day costs of getting support to those who need it most.

I also imagine that the Minister will want to parrot the findings of the recent Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy report on the state of the council’s finances, with all the talk of making difficult decisions. That report makes no mention, however, of the fact that this was a crisis made in Westminster, not Birkenhead. Since 2010, a staggering £260 million of direct Government funding to Wirral Council has been slashed. That was not inevitable. It was an ideologically motivated attack on the public sector, perpetrated by successive Conservative Chancellors, and it has devastated the lives of thousands of people who I represent.

When the Minister rises to speak in a few moments, I hope he will accept responsibility on behalf of the whole Government for the catastrophe looming over our communities. Today, the Liverpool Echo carries the story of Delilah, a baby girl born in Birkenhead on Christmas Day. Her parents, Suzie-Lei and Nathan, want nothing but the best for their daughter, but the simple truth is that so much of their life will be shaped by what the Government do or do not do in the coming months and years. On behalf of Delilah and the countless young people living in my constituency of Birkenhead, I urge the Minister to make good on the promises of levelling up and give Wirral Council the support it so desperately needs at this difficult time.

It is, as always, a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this important and timely debate. I thank her, and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), for setting out the headline figures for the reduction in grant funding to Knowsley since 2010. They both also referred to levelling up. Since they have put all that information on the record already, I will not go over the same material, but I will concentrate my remarks on levelling-up funding.

Last week, The Guardian published the results of its investigation into the local authority areas that have not benefited from levelling-up funding so far. Its conclusions are truly shocking. The article points out that some of the wealthiest areas in England are receiving 10 times—yes, 10 times—more funding than the poorest. How can that possibly be justified?

As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood pointed out, Knowsley, which is a Labour-controlled local authority, received the shocking amount per head of population of zero—nothing—in the latest round of levelling-up funding, whereas Conservative-controlled Central Bedfordshire received £90 per head. Whereas Knowsley is the third most deprived borough in England, Central Bedfordshire is in the top fifth. How that can be justified defeats me, and I am sure it would defeat many qualified statisticians and researchers.

As Jonathan Webb from IPPR North accurately put it:

“This new analysis from the Guardian demonstrates the gap between the rhetoric and reality of levelling up.”

He went on to say that the way levelling-up funding is allocated is

“unacceptable and will only widen the UK’s existing regional”

disparities. That is the complete reverse of what we are told it is supposed to do.

Despite Knowsley’s being the third poorest borough in England, it received not a penny from the future high streets fund, the community renewal fund or the towns fund. Councillor Graham Morgan, the excellent leader of Knowsley Council, put it in a nutshell when he said:

“Levelling up has been nothing but a slogan so far. The people who work on these schemes can’t find any box which we haven’t ticked, so is there some other reason—a political reason—why Knowsley isn’t getting the support that local people need?”

The answer to Graham’s question, sadly, is yes—it is a political reason.

I will conclude with three questions. First, how can the Minister justify this politically skewed allocation of levelling-up funds? Secondly, can he give me a firm assurance that when the education investment areas are announced, Knowsley will be among them? Thirdly, will he agree to meet me and Knowsley Council to discuss the need for the regeneration of Huyton town centre?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on having successfully applied for this important debate. The past 11 years of Conservative rule have seen an unrelenting assault on the budgets of local authorities, but that assault has been worse in some places than in others. Those with the poorest and most vulnerable populations have been hit hardest; those with the biggest issues to deal with have suffered the highest level of funding cuts. That has been a conscious choice made by successive Conservative Governments in full knowledge of the consequences, which is why the phrase “levelling up” rings so hollow on the Wirral and Merseyside.

In my local authority of Wirral, £230 million in direct funding from the Government was cut to just £37 million by 2020, despite the fact that close to a quarter of Wirral’s neighbourhoods rank in the 10% most deprived nationally. We have all seen the explosion in food banks, social supermarkets, and people going hungry and not being able to afford to heat their homes as a consequence of deprivation and soaring levels of poverty.

There has been a staggering 53% real-terms cut in our Government funding since 2010, which equates to £635 per household. In the same period, local authority staffing levels in Wirral have fallen from 7,669 to just 3,713. The adult social care budget has been cut by a quarter since 2010, despite a huge increase in the number of older people and young disabled people who require help simply to live. This means that a huge and growing area of need is going completely unmet, and the life experiences of those who need support have plummeted, putting an unbearable burden on their carers. However, close to two thirds of the budget is taken up by adult and children’s services, leaving very little for anything else.

Despite the Government’s vainglorious boasts, the 2022-23 local government finance settlement is actually a 2.2% decrease on the last financial year when adjusted for inflation, and that adjustment will get even worse as inflation soars. National Government funding for Wirral has decreased by 37.3% in real terms since 2015-16, leaving the difference to be made up by huge increases in council tax, which the Government assume in their figures. More Government sleight of hand means that they are assuming that all local authorities will put up council taxes by the full amount they can without having to hold a referendum. This transfer of funding from national to local taxes has left local residents paying far more in council tax for far fewer services because of the huge cuts to their budgets allocated by the national Government.

In the aftermath of the covid pandemic, which closed council services and destroyed revenue-raising opportunities, Wirral has been ordered by Ministers to make £27 million of cuts to its 2022-23 budget, under the threat of further national Government intervention. That will mean the decimation of services, increased charges for the use of what local facilities remain, and a mass sell-off of local authority buildings. It means that, at the diktat of national Government, residents in Wallasey will continue being asked to pay more in council tax for lower levels of services. The Government have taken far more from our local area than is fair and have forced huge increases in council tax, which is still failing to keep up with the rising demand. That is not a fair or sustainable solution, and I look to the Minister to give us some relief in his response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for calling this important debate. It is timely, because the Secretary of State is in Liverpool today, addressing northern leaders at the convention of the north.

Last week, we heard the Government fanfare around the levelling-up White Paper. As one commentator put it,

“the Government is like the arsonist turning up late to the scene of their crime with a fire extinguisher in hand claiming to help put out the fire they started”.

So hollow is the Government’s plan that this year—the year of levelling up—councils are being forced to increase council tax precepts yet again, while at the same time making deep cuts to local services. The degradation of local government finances since 2010 has exacerbated geographical inequalities, held back our regional infrastructure and limited the potential of our people and communities.

In this coming financial year, Liverpool City Council will see a starting revenue gap of an eye-watering £34 million. Inflationary pressures and the increase in national insurance—not to mention the insult of having to increase the pay of central Government commissioners by 50%, which is nothing short of a disgrace—are making the picture even grimmer. All that is on top of half a billion pounds-worth of cuts since 2010.

The picture is the same across the Liverpool city region. Even after the Prime Minister’s non-plan for adult social care, councils across Merseyside are still having to make swingeing cuts in that area and raise the adult social care precept, with a starting position of £12 million of cuts for Liverpool in adult social care alone. All the while, demand for services increases, and the recruitment, retention and workforce crisis rages on in the sector. We cannot go on like this.

Such is the arrogance across Whitehall that shuffling deckchairs is the modus operandi, with no real plan for municipal revival and no plan to restore local government to the pinnacle of achievement. Most insulting of all, there is no acknowledgement that the decisions of the past decade have contributed to the growing divide between the north and more affluent parts of the country. It is not rocket science why communities in places such as Merseyside, which have some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country and have been subject to some of the most brutal cuts, have become dirtier and less safe, have lower life expectancy, suffer from increasing food bank usage, and see widening education attainment gaps.

Forgive me for thinking that that has been a deliberate political ploy to re-engineer politics across the north of England, which lets Labour councils, as local establishments, shoulder the blame and burden for austerity and higher taxation, while the Conservative Government come along at the eleventh hour to save the day. Pay more, get less —no wonder our residents are fed up. It may benefit the Conservative party, but it is bad governance, and it is our communities that pay the price. The perverse nature of the centralised British state means that we now have Treasury announcements on filling potholes. Guess what? Local councils used to just fill potholes without the need for a Whitehall press release.

The Government cannot and will not level up this country while our councils are scraping around year after year to produce balanced budgets against a backdrop of sustained cuts. Across our city region, we simply cannot take any more. I hope the Minister has some real ideas for how that is going to be addressed.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this much-needed debate.

Merseyside’s wealth is its people. They are warm and generous, with a tremendous sense of humour. Most of all, we are supportive of each other. I am glad to see so many of my Merseyside colleagues here. I have the honour and privilege of representing two local authorities in Merseyside: St Helens, the home of glass and, of course, of my beloved Saints; and Knowsley, the home of the historic towns of Prescot and Whiston.

Knowsley and St Helens have an impressive track record of delivering regeneration. They have both delivered projects to raise the aspirations of our communities and, ultimately, improve life chances. Both areas are full of proud people who want the best for their community, yet both areas have had their budgets eviscerated over the past decade of austerity, which has continued into the ’20s. We hear the budget cut figures so much that their consequences can be lost, but it is right that we hear them, and I am pleased that Members have covered them so adequately today.

The decade of austerity was destructive to our communities, yet it is about more than the cuts; it is about the communities and their needs, local authorities’ legal duties to protect and to provide care, and the consequences of the cuts and the vicious cycles they create. The Government have massively reduced central grants to local councils. The idea was for local authorities to become self-sufficient. Councils were expected to raise council tax and retain business rates to cover the cuts. The Government were repeatedly warned about the consequences that that would have. It may work in wealthier parts of the country, but it does not work everywhere.

Knowsley and St Helens are second and 22nd respectively on the 2019 list of most deprived local authorities. Less well-off areas do not raise as much council tax or business rates as wealthier ones. The consequences have caused even greater hardship for communities that still have not recovered from the massive loss of manufacturing jobs. Areas that have been left behind are being pushed further adrift. It is a vicious cycle that is hard to escape. The wealthier areas that generate more income stay ahead, while areas such as mine are not given the investment to catch up. I am not sure how that complies with the so-called levelling-up agenda. Forcing local authorities to bid for scraps that are a fraction of the budgets that they have had cut is not good enough.

The regional imbalances that we have are quite simply a stain on our country. We are more geographically unequal than any other rich country. How is it that Germany, a country that was divided in two for the majority of my life, the eastern part of which was under the yoke of communism for decades, is today a more equal country? It is an embarrassment that requires a serious plan to fix.

St Helens, Knowsley and other areas in need are not asking for a handout; we are asking for fairness. We want to become more self-sufficient, like the wealthier parts of our country. The Government must help us to achieve that by supporting local authorities with fair funding. That means funding based on needs—for care in particular. Deprivation needs to be included in funding distribution formulas. Our country’s regional imbalances can no longer be ignored; they need to be addressed now, before they become irreversible. I call on the Government to get down to addressing the needs of the people of this country.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this important debate.

My hon. Friends, the superstars of Merseyside, have spoken eloquently of the funding crisis across Merseyside. The communities we represent have suffered systematic defunding for decades. This latest round of so-called levelling up is just the most recent in an endless stream of broken promises and increasing pressures on poor and working people.

In Liverpool, we have had two thirds of our budget cut over 12 years of Tory austerity. The damage that has done to the service we deliver cannot be understated. I pay tribute to councillors and officers in Liverpool who have worked hard with the ever-shrinking budget to ensure that our council continues to provide the best support possible to those in need in our city, including Granby Sure Start, Windsor Street library, Park Road sports centre and the invaluable citizens support scheme.

Liverpool is rated the third most deprived local authority in England. The deprivation faced by our communities is incredibly stark and increasing at an alarming rate. With in-work poverty at record levels and child poverty sky-rocketing, those we represent are facing a cost of living crisis. There is a triple whammy of soaring energy bills, real-term wage freezes and Tory tax hikes for those least able to bear them. Now, we are expected to fund an eye-watering 50% increase in the wages of the central Government commissioners, while making cuts of £34 million—all at a time when billionaires, bankers and shareholders are seeing their profits soar and their taxes cut. It beggars belief.

How can it be that Shell has declared a 14-fold increase in profits at the same time as it was announced that the energy price cap is being raised by 54%? The Government-driven rise in council tax in April will further compound these regional inequalities, as the wealthier councils in London and the south-east will be able to raise far more money than councils such as ours in Liverpool. Unless the Government commit significantly more funding to Merseyside and other underfunded areas, they will fail to address the systemic growth in inequality and poverty that is crippling our region.

The financial challenges faced by our communities are growing at an alarming rate. If we are truly to face up to them, cushion the most vulnerable against the worst of the impact and give our communities the long-overdue investment they need and deserve, we need to reverse the cuts of the last decade and provide multi-year settlements for councils in order to provide stability and phase out bid funding culture.

We have been here and seen it all before. Liverpool is no stranger to central Government policies of managed decline—we fought them in the ’70s under Thatcher, and we will fight them today under Boris Johnson. We cannot allow our communities to pay the price. Our local government institutions are already scraping the bottom of the barrel to balance the books. We must reverse the cuts to public services and local government; we need a £15 minimum wage to boost incomes to the lowest earners; and we must reverse cuts to social security and pension payments and reinstate the triple lock.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for not only securing this important debate, but the work she is doing with local Labour MPs, councillors and residents to protect services from Government-imposed cuts in the Wirral. The Secretary of State is quickly gaining a reputation as the Minister for closing down, boarding up and hollowing out services in the Wirral and right across Merseyside.

Libraries, leisure centres and golf courses in the Wirral are facing closure, and their staff are facing the chop, as a result of centrally imposed austerity—an additional £27 million of austerity, despite the Chancellor and this lame duck of a Prime Minister promising that it was over. The stark reality can be witnessed right across every community in Merseyside and beyond. All right hon. and hon. Members present have exposed the continued pathway of Conservative-imposed austerity, despite the Government’s fine words, and have laid out the consequences for council budgets, people and services. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) referred to the exclusion of Knowsley Council from the mysterious levelling-up fund, while my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) referred to the 11 libraries that are being levelled down and facing the chop.

Last Wednesday, the Secretary of State and his team finally published the long-delayed and trailed levelling-up White Paper, as referenced by many Members present. After 12 years of Tory Government, we were presented with 12 mission statements that act as a scorecard for failure; it is a cut-and-paste job with no new money, reannouncements and vague targets to be met in 2030.

It may be fascinating to discover, on page 2 of this 300-page levelling-up White Paper, that Jericho was the earliest permanent urban settlement. However, Members present—and, more importantly, our constituents—want to know when our councils and communities will get back the funds that have been taken away from our villages, towns and cities over the last 12 years. Some £490 million has been taken away from the people of Liverpool, and another £34 million is expected to be cut; more than £50 million has been taken away from my local council of Halton. In fact, every Merseyside local authority has seen a cut of more than 50% in real terms, according to the National Audit Office.

The Minister will of course refer to cash-terms increases, but that excludes inflation, which is at a 30-year high. The consequences in many cases are workforces depleted, children’s centres closed, libraries shut, youth services decimated and new charges introduced. The Government’s approach to levelling up has been to give communities a fiver for jumping through mysterious hoops, while taking away a tenner.

In the case of Knowsley, Tory Ministers do not even see the council as worthy of the crumbs off the table of the levelling-up fund; they instead favour Richmondshire, multi-billionaires who happen to donate to the Tory party, and filling the potholes on the driveway up to their mansions. The good people of Knowsley remain left behind in Tory Britain.

Without doubt, the Minister will refer to the Government’s preferred measure when talking about local government finances: core spending power. There will be some additional funding for adult and children’s social care, but nothing like enough to meet demand or to plug the gaps. In fact, it was stated that in real terms there will be a cut of 2.5% in this settlement. This smoke-and-mirrors approach will result only in the Secretary of State being laughed off the Merseyside pitch during his visit to Liverpool today.

Between 2010 and 2021, council tax has gone up by a massive 31%, while the area based grant has been cut by 37% on average. Tory Ministers have piled on the pain, with hard-pressed families paying more while receiving less in services, as was rightly stated. People have seen services closed down, places boarded up, and more and more councils facing bankruptcy.

Having council tax as a main source of income is inherently unfair; many councils in Merseyside have a higher number of band A properties with a lower tax base, but the arrangement favours the Secretary of State’s Surrey authority. Ministers have promised a fair funding review time and again, yet councils and communities are still waiting desperately. When can we expect that, and a fundamental reform of business rates?

That unfairness and the cuts have consequences. It is no coincidence that, as was reported on the front page of the Liverpool Echo today, a baby born in Merseyside will on average die younger than a baby born in Surrey—a shameful indictment of the Government’s 12 years in office.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on securing this important debate. As she has shown today, she is a passionate advocate for not only her constituency, but the whole of Merseyside. She has done us a favour by bringing together Members from across the region on the eve of the local government finance settlement debate to look at the funding in Merseyside.

Merseyside is a place with a hugely proud history and present. It is a European capital of culture, has legendary musical exports and at least two iconic football teams, and has, over the course of my lifetime, made significant economic progress, bouncing back from a difficult period of de-industrialisation. On the other hand, while Liverpool is absolutely recovering and making progress, we recognise that the city region continues to face profound challenges of deprivation and poor health—challenges that are among the most severe in the country.

We are committed to delivering a more prosperous future for Merseyside, and we want to help the area to play to its considerable strengths while it adapts to the challenges that I mentioned. Our plan is to do that in two different ways: first, through extra resources for local authorities in the local government finance settlement; and, secondly, through our flagship levelling-up proposals.

I am up against the clock, as the hon. Lady knows.

As we announced on Monday, the local government finance settlement for the next year makes an additional £3.7 billion available to councils in England; that includes funding for adult social care reform. This is an increase in local authority funding of more than 4.5% in real terms compared with the previous year, and we expect core spending power—the measure of resources available to local authorities to fund service delivery—to rise from £50.4 billion in 2021-22 to £54.1 billion in 2022-23, which I am just about to come to. I emphasise that the Government are providing around £1.6 billion in additional grant in the next year through the settlement, and through additional funding for things such as the supporting families programme and cyber-resilience. What that means for Merseyside is that core spending power will increase for all authorities in the region by at least 7.7%, compared with last year.

Order. The Minister has made clear that he is not giving way. I am not saying whether that is right or wrong. However, I point out that he has six minutes left. I know that feelings are running high, but everybody has had their say, so let us give the Minister the courtesy of hearing what he has to say.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. That 7.7% increase is above the average cash increase across England of 7.4%. It is a cash increase of 7.7% for Sefton, 7.9% for the Wirral, 8.1% for Liverpool city, 8.4% for St Helens and 8.5% for Knowsley.

However, as every Member here will know, we vowed to build back better from the pandemic, and that is not only about local authority spending. We plan to do that through a cross-government mission to level up the country. We will increase our support for local councils, such as those in Merseyside, taking control of their destiny and stimulating their own growth.

Last week saw the long-awaited publication of our levelling-up White Paper, which Members referred to. It set out our plans. Part of it is about helping people directly; that is why we have changed the universal credit taper rate, making the average full-time worker £1,000 better off. Part of it is about employment support and the extra £1 billion we are spending on helping sick and disabled people into work, so that they have a chance to earn more money. It is also about directly increasing wages through our record increase to the national living wage, which again will make people about £1,000 better off.

On the one hand, we are helping people in Merseyside directly, and on the other we are devolving unprecedented powers to Liverpool and Merseyside. When we came to power, the only part of England that had any devolved powers was London, the capital and the richest part of England. That settlement was obviously unbalanced—good for London, but not necessarily good for the rest of the country. As Members mentioned, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is speaking at the Spine in Liverpool today, alongside council leaders and metro Mayors—a post that did not exist when we came to power—from across the north of England.

However, we know that our ambitions for Merseyside will not be delivered without proper investment, so our ambitions are backed up with funding. Since Steve Rotheram’s election as Liverpool city region Mayor in May 2017, the Government have provided the city region with £172 million through the transforming cities fund and £332 million through the local growth fund, and will provide it with £710 million over the next five years to transform local transport networks. Across the Liverpool city region, four areas have also seen substantial cash injections through the towns deal programme, which is designed to rejuvenate high streets. That includes £37 million for Southport; that is one of the biggest town deal investments to date. Through that kind of funding, we can help restore people’s civic pride in the place they call home in the years ahead. I also draw Members’ attention to the launch last year of the dedicated freeport in Liverpool, which estimates suggest could add £850 million to the local economy and create 14,000 new jobs.

To answer a question raised by Opposition Members, Members should look forward to further details on the UK shared prosperity fund, which we will set out shortly. That fund is worth £2.6 billion and will back the sort of projects that help people access opportunities in places of need. To respond directly to one of the questions asked, that will be an allocative process, not a competition. We are responding to the desire of places to have certainty about their funding. A number of Members raised questions about the commissioners. None of us wanted commissioners to have to go in. According to the independent Liverpool City Council commissioners report last year,

“The Council is emerging from a difficult, somewhat toxic period that has led to police investigations.”

I do not want to delve further into that. However, none of us wanted those commissioners to have to be there. We hope that their work will be complete soon.

A few hon. Members spoke about the wider context. The tax share of GDP is at a record high; there is increased corporation tax and capital gains tax, so the rich are paying more through that route; a crackdown on tax avoidance has raised £160 billion-plus; we got rid of the double Irish arrangement and various other tax dodges that flourished under the last Labour Government; and we introduced the first tax on private jets. We have done a number of things to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders are paying, and that is why we are able to produce the increases in spending power for local authorities that I outlined.

Provided that the local government settlement passes through the House tomorrow, we believe that Merseyside and the local authorities making up the region will be on a firm footing for the year ahead. We are moving to a multi-year settlement as soon as we can. It is important to get that right. I am confident that the hon. Member for Wirral West and all those who have contributed to today’s debate will share in my pride at the progress that has been made in Merseyside over the past decade. If I think back to when my brother and friends used to live there, there has been humungous progress across Merseyside.

In Liverpool’s heyday, when it dominated transatlantic trade, it was considered the New York of Europe. Today, the fusing together of the powerful role played by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and its Mayor with significant Government investment in the region has given the city region a new lease of life. The alchemy of science, health, technology, culture and education that we see in Merseyside in 2022 is testament to a truly great city region, and to its people looking not back but forwards with confidence. Although the city region is part way through its renaissance, there is a lot of potential still to be realised, and I look forward to further discussions with colleagues from across the House on how we can best support Merseyside.

I am somewhat flabbergasted by the Minister’s response, to be perfectly honest. He talks about our councils being on a firm footing for the year ahead and humongous progress on Merseyside; he cannot have been listening particularly closely to the debate, or the evidence brought forward by MPs about the huge amount of deprivation. I remind him that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) spoke passionately about the urgent need to address systemic poverty and inequality. Colleagues talked about food bank use, which has gone through the roof.

My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) spoke of Knowsley—her constituency is in two local authorities—being the second most deprived borough in the nation, so how can the Minister stand there and talk about things looking good for Merseyside? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) said, Knowsley is not receiving any levelling-up money. It is astonishing that the Minister has taken this course. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) spoke passionately about this crisis being made in Westminster, not Birkenhead. He explained clearly that this ideological attack has devastated the lives of thousands of his constituents. He described it as not levelling up, but punching down. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley explained, Knowsley received no money for levelling up at all, whereas central Bedfordshire received £90 per head, and it is in the top fifth of the country. He asked how the Government can justify skewing the levelling-up fund.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) spoke about an unrelenting assault on local authorities in the last 10 years, with the poorest populations being hit the hardest. She said that that was a conscious choice, which is why the phrase “levelling up” rings so hollow in Wirral. She spoke about the explosion in the number of food banks and social supermarkets, and about how devastated our social care budgets have been. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) spoke about the half a billion pounds-worth of cuts in 2010 to Liverpool—there was a cut of £12 million to Liverpool adult social care alone—and said clearly that we cannot go on like this.

This debate has been a plea from the MPs of Merseyside to the Government for funding for our communities. The impact is clear, raw, and hurting our people. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) spoke about the importance of working to improve life chances, but she described a decade of austerity that has been destructive to our communities. She spoke of the huge regional inequalities in our country, and described how they are being entrenched, as less well-off areas can raise less through council tax and business rates.

I think I have covered everybody who spoke in this really important debate. I ask the Minister to go away and revisit the points made in it, especially that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) about this not being a Government of levelling up but a Government of closing down. This is real, and it is hurting our constituents. We ask the Government to think again.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered funding of local authorities on Merseyside.

Sitting adjourned.