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Commons Chamber

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022

House of Commons

Tuesday 8 February 2022

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

Before we start today’s business, I want to say something about the disgraceful behaviour yesterday that was directed at the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) and the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I deplore the fact that Members of this House were subjected to intimidating and threatening behaviour while simply doing their jobs. I know the whole House will join me in saying that we stand with our colleagues in condemning the behaviour that they and the police experienced.

While I do not comment in detail on security matters on the Floor of the Chamber, steps must be in place to keep passholders secure as they enter and leave the parliamentary estate. I have requested a situation report from the Metropolitan police via our security team on how this incident occurred.

I understand that arrests have been made following yesterday’s incident, so it would not be appropriate to comment in detail. I know it has been reported that some of the abuse directed at the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition, related to claims made by the Prime Minister in this Chamber, but regardless of yesterday’s incident, I made it clear last week that, while the Prime Minister’s words were not disorderly, they were inappropriate. As I said then, these sorts of comments only inflame opinions and generate disregard for the House, and it is not acceptable. Our words have consequences and we should always be mindful of that fact. I will not be taking points of order as we move on to the business.

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Domestic Abuse Victims: Legal Aid

1. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of support provided through the legal aid system for victims of domestic abuse. (905496)

Access to justice is a fundamental right, and this Government are committed to ensuring that everyone gets the timely support they need, including legal aid, to navigate the justice system. In addition, the Government are absolutely clear that victims of domestic abuse must have access to the help they need. In the light of this, we are conducting a review of the means test for legal aid and this is specifically considering domestic abuse victims; we plan to publish this consultation shortly. We have already made some further changes to improve access to legal aid by removing the cap on the amount of mortgage debt used in determining access to civil legal aid.

The Bellamy review outlines serious and long-standing concerns about the lack of funding for criminal legal aid. Domestic abuse victims already face trauma, and experience mental and physical scars that are only exacerbated by the Government’s failure to fund legal aid properly. What assessment has the Justice Secretary made of the impact of the potential strike by the Criminal Bar Association on the already immense courts backlog? Will he finally commit to engage with the CBA, so that victims are not denied access to justice?

Legal aid for domestic abuse is primarily a civil legal aid matter, but in relation to criminal legal aid I am pleased to confirm to the hon. Lady that I am meeting the CBA later this week and engaging with the association through the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid in a webinar tomorrow. I am engaging with all stakeholders because I think that is the right and constructive approach to drawing up this important policy so that we achieve our aim, which is better reform of the criminal justice system.

Lighthouse Women’s Aid in Ipswich does huge work in the area and across Suffolk, as the Minister knows. I hope that Ipswich being one of the seven outposts for Ministry of Justice civil servants will mean that we are at the forefront of new initiatives to tackle domestic abuse. Will the Minister update me on the timeline for these jobs coming to Ipswich and the strategy to ensure that as many of them as possible go to Ipswich people?

My hon. Friend and neighbour is a great champion of his constituency. We will set out further details of our plan to move staff out of London. It is entirely right that we do that as part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I should also say that I welcome his championing of what the voluntary sector can do to support victims of domestic abuse.

UK’s Human Rights Framework

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on reforming the UK’s human rights framework. (905497)

5. What steps he is taking in response to the publication of the Independent Human Rights Act Review published by his Department in December 2021. (905500)

Under this Prime Minister and this Government, before the next election, we will replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a Bill of Rights to end the abuse of the framework and the system by dangerous criminals and to restore some common sense.

The Justice Secretary claims that his reforms will protect free speech—a right that already receives special protection in the Human Rights Act—yet simultaneously the Government want to criminalise exercise of the right to protest, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and there are already plans to take away whistleblower protections in the Official Secrets Act. Is it all free speech the Justice Secretary aims to protect, or only the kind his Government want to hear?

I thank the hon. Lady, because she raises a good substantive point. We want to strengthen and reinforce the right of free speech, in particular given some of the judge-led privacy law we have, but also some of the encroachments on free speech we have seen in political debate. I think constituents of Members in all parts of the House would recognise the difference between free speech, lawful protest and, frankly, the downright sabotage that we have seen by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, where we are right to legislate to protect the freedoms of others.

This is not new territory for the Secretary of State. He has been around this course. He failed last time of course, because he could only do what he wanted by leaving the European convention on human rights. That is still the situation now, so will it be Government policy that we should follow the human rights example of Belarus in leaving the protections of the convention?

We have been around this house a few times. It is precisely because our reforms through a Bill of Rights can make a substantial difference by injecting some common sense without leaving the European convention that we will proceed. I will give one example. I visited HMP Frankland in Durham. It is a high-security category A prison. One of the challenges in dealing with terrorist offenders, particularly those who could infect the minds of others, is the issue of separation centres. We are increasingly seeing litigation claims claiming article 8 as a right to socialise getting in our way. That is a good example for the common-sense approach and the balance we want to have. I am very surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is opposed to it.

The position is that the Government commissioned an independent review, did not like the conclusions and so have simply just ditched them. Why should anyone have any faith that the Government will listen to their consultation responses if they are so hellbent on pursuing what Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC has labelled an

“indefensible…inward-looking and cowardly”

retreat from human rights?

I am very grateful for the independent Human Rights Act review. We looked very carefully at all the recommendations, some of which we take on board and for others we are going to innovate in different areas. I will give one example. I suspect the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would want us to reform the system to stop foreign national offenders, whether they are living in Scotland or any other part of the UK, from frustrating deportation orders on the most flimsy, elastic grounds created by article 8. That is something we will do, and I think he should support it.

I am grateful that my right hon. Friend made reference to the independent review of the Human Rights Act. I am sure he would want to join me in thanking the right hon. Sir Peter Gross, the chair of that review, and his colleagues for their exceptionally hard and diligent work in this regard. Sir Peter gave evidence to the Justice Committee last week. He pointed out that while the Government have published their own consultation document—“Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights”—that document is not in fact a response to the independent Human Rights Act review report. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it would only be fair and courteous to Sir Peter and his colleagues to ensure that once the consultation on the Government’s document is concluded, their response to that consultation includes a full response to Sir Peter’s panel’s review, including detailed replies to all the points the Government do or do not accept, exactly as was done with the Faulks review?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee. First, I have already thanked the chair and all the panel, but I am happy to join my hon. Friend in doing so again. The IHRAR panel produced a well-considered and useful report, and I considered it very carefully. The consultation that we are pursuing is ongoing, and includes—this is an important point—areas beyond the terms of reference of the IHRAR report, such as adding a recognition of the right to trial by jury and strengthening freedom of expression, which Members have already raised. There are also areas where the Government wish to explore only a subset of the options considered by that review, and section 3 is a good illustration of that.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister outline how his reforms to the Human Rights Act and a new British Bill of Rights can help us to take back control of our borders and stop the small boats crisis in the channel?

Clearly the issue of small boats goes well beyond issues in the European convention on human rights, but what I would say to my hon. Friend more generally is that the reforms we are pursuing allow us to take more firm action under the Nationality and Borders Bill and under wider powers to deal with foreign national offenders. He should be aware that some 70% of claims by foreign national offenders scuppering deportation orders are under article 8. That is clearly an area where we can reform.

I am tired of hearing the rights of asylum seekers so desperate to get here that they will go on these dangerous boats conflated with those of dangerous foreign national offenders. The Secretary of State needs to stop drawing that parallel.

I echo the Chair of the Select Committee in calling for a full response to Sir Peter Gross QC. Indeed, I wonder why the Government bothered to appoint him if they were not going to listen to him. Does the Secretary of State at least agree with his first recommendation, which is that there should be a full and robust programme of education about what the Human Rights Act actually is? Or would that be a bit of a hindrance to this Government’s programme of misinformation?

It is precisely through the process of consultation on our proposal for a Bill of Rights that we can have a proper, substantive debate, listen to all sides of the argument and inject some common sense back into the system, and disseminate that more widely. I think that constituents of hon. Members in all parts of the House would appreciate that.

The other thing that the Secretary of State keeps on doing is saying that we have to review this because there are so many dangerous foreign criminals, but will he listen to the UK security services, who know more about dangerous foreign criminals than he does? They have warned that overhauling the Human Rights Act could affect their ability to provide evidence in secret. I know he knows why that is dangerous, particularly in terrorism cases, so will he listen to them and to his predecessor in this role, who has also warned that this could make the UK, and by extension all of us, less secure?

May I gently say to the hon. Member that there is an issue around extraterritorial jurisdiction, where we will want to consult very carefully? Whether it is the deportation of foreign national offenders—and no, I am sorry, but we will keep talking about that; it is something that our constituents care about, and this is a reform that needs to happen—or whether it is parole reform, which I believe we also need to undertake, or separation centres in our most high-security prisons, these are all areas where the public, constituents of hon. Members in all parts of the House, will expect us to take a common-sense approach. That is exactly what our Bill of Rights will achieve.

Sentencing for Terrorist Offences: Northern Ireland Executive

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on sentencing for terrorist offences. (905498)

I have had no recent discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on sentencing for terrorist offences. While sentencing is a devolved matter, the Department continues to engage in discussions with the Department of Justice on devolved matters where helpful and relevant.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland makes huge efforts to bring to justice those responsible for terrorism there, but the chances of convicting those offenders are undermined by excessive delays in the criminal justice process. Will the Minister work with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister to try to address this problem, so that we can hold to account those who still seek to use violence to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland?

My right hon. Friend speaks with great expertise on these matters. She will be aware that justice and policing are devolved matters, and the Northern Ireland Executive recently reaffirmed their commitment to speeding up the criminal justice system in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. At the end of last year, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill, which contains measures that will simplify the current system, remove some avoidable delays and ensure the quicker progression to court of some of the most serious cases. I welcome this significant step forward in reforming the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

Violence Against Women and Girls

May I take a moment, Mr Speaker, to place on record my sincere thanks to Her Majesty the Queen, as we celebrate the seven decades of peerless public service that she has provided to our great country? May she long reign over us.

This Government set out its ambitious tackling violence against women and girls strategy in the summer to change attitudes, support women and girls who are victims of crime, and pursue perpetrators relentlessly. This focus includes rolling out section 28 video-recorded evidence in sexual and modern slavery cases nationally and helping victims of domestic abuse to have more time to report common assaults, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Last week we also launched the tender for the first ever national 24/7 support service for victims of rape and sexual assault.

This Sunday we marked International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Sustainable development goal 5.3 commits the UK to the elimination of

“all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”

by 2030. However, the UN estimates that 2 million extra girls are at risk of cutting due to the pandemic. Is the UK on track to meet its own targets?

We are. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject, because female genital mutilation is one of the most hidden crimes. Those poor victims, who are often very young, face the most terrible pressure to explain to others what has been done to them, often by their loved ones. We are really supporting victims not just through the tackling violence against women and girls strategy that I have already discussed, but through our work over the last decade to tackle those terrible crimes, so that they can, if they feel able, seek help. Importantly, we are also educating people that it is not a fit practice for the 21st century.

A woman has approached me for help. She tells me that as a teenager, she was raped and has lived with the trauma for over 30 years. She has no confidence or trust in the police or the criminal justice system. She feels intimidated and frightened by her attacker to this day and fears that she will not be listened to, taken seriously or protected. What can I say to her?

May I thank the hon. Gentleman for gravely articulating the many effects that such terrible crimes have on victims, not just in the immediate aftermath but for many years, often decades? We have a programme of work to address the failings in the criminal justice system in terms of prosecuting sexual assault and rape cases. We have already been publishing our national scorecards, which aim to bring transparency to every corner of the criminal justice system to give victims and the public the confidence that they need in it.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point, I commend to him the current Ministry of Justice campaign #ItStillMatters. I very much hope that the lady he speaks about can seek support through that campaign or through the sexual violence helpline that I outlined in my previous answer, which I hope will be up and running very soon.

One of the most heinous forms of violence against women and girls is found online and the law has some serious gaps, as my hon. Friend knows. Cyber-flashing, which is online indecent exposure, and deep fake pornography are not against the law. What is she planning to do to change that?

I thank my right hon. Friend who has been concerted in her campaign on that terrible form of online crime involving deep fake imagery. On cyber-flashing, I am pleased to confirm that the Government are looking for a legislative vehicle in which to outlaw that pernicious modern-day crime. On deep fake imagery, she will know that we have sought the advice of the Law Commission to help to update our general laws to better reflect the 21st century in which we all live.

Many women are sent to prison for low-level summary offences, and incarceration has a catastrophic effect on them and their families. The female offender strategy will see the first residential women’s centre sited in Wales that will provide accommodation and rehabilitation for vulnerable women. Can the Minister give an update on the progress of that centre in Wales? Will it house a families unit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because, as she will know, because she has a particular interest in the area, there are women in the criminal justice system who have been the victims of crime, including domestic abuse. Of course there are women who commit incredibly serious crimes—indeed, sadly, we have seen them in the news recently—and who must be imprisoned to serve their sentences. For the more vulnerable women who my hon. Friend talks about, however, we are looking seriously at and progressing our plans for a residential women’s centre in Wales. I cannot go into more detail at the moment, but I hope that I will be able to come back with an update in due course. It will provide an alternative for judges and magistrates in dealing with those particularly vulnerable female offenders who may benefit from the sort of intensive care that we hope to provide in such a centre, rather than putting them in prison.

At a roundtable with rape survivors last week, victims told me that they had come to terms with what had happened with them, but could not come to terms with how they had been treated by the criminal justice system. It now takes a shocking 1,000 days for a rape case to get to court, and only 1.3% of rape cases are prosecuted, so it is no surprise that victims feel that the system is working against them. Will the Minister back Labour’s fully costed plans to give rape victims a legal advocate from the moment they report the crime through to trial, or will she continue the Government’s failure to tackle violence against women and girls?

I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady has welcomed the victims Bill consultation. As she will know, it has just closed, but it is very much part of this Government’s work to bring the victims Bill into law to provide safeguards of the sort she indicated. In addition, we are already funding more independent domestic violence advisers and independent sexual violence advisers. These people can really help from the very moment a victim feels able to report their crime to the police, and they have that support when they need it. I also think, as I say, that using the helpline—the 24 hours a day helpline—we are setting up for victims of sexual violence may be the first step some victims feel able to take before reporting the crime to the police.

Finally, I very much hope that we can persuade the Opposition to support the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. It has many measures to help tackle violence against women and girls, but in particular we are raising the period of time that violent offenders and sexual offenders spend in prison from half to two thirds if they receive a sentence of more than four years. This is a really important step, and I very much hope the Opposition will support us in our efforts to keep dangerous sexual offenders in prison.

Restorative Justice

The new victims code sets out clearly that victims must be told about the option of restorative justice and how to access it. We are enshrining the code in law, and for 2021-22 we are providing £115 million of grant funding to police and crime commissioners for victim support services, including restorative justice. Overall, we are increasing MOJ funding for victim and witness support services to £185 million by 2024-25.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on restorative justice, I have seen how it can massively help both offenders and victims of crime. Would the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the findings of the first ever APPG report on restorative justice and how we can integrate some of its recommendations into the victims Bill?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a tireless campaigner on the issue of restorative justice, for sharing the APPG’s report with me and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who I know has also thanked him for his efforts. We are carefully considering its recommendations and will respond in due course. I am particularly mindful of the fact that, especially in relation to acquisitive crime, restorative justice can play a significant part in righting such wrongs, and I would of course be delighted to meet him to discuss this further.

Domestic Abuse: Prosecutions

8. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help increase the number of successful prosecutions for domestic abuse. [R] (905504)

This Government are committed to bringing more perpetrators of domestic abuse to justice. It is a key plank of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which creates new offences such as non-fatal strangulation, and extends the coercive or controlling behaviour offence to include former partners.

The excellent work the Government have done on domestic abuse risks being seriously undermined by recent reports of Met police conduct published by the Independent Office for Police Conduct. One officer who had attended a domestic abuse incident said of his victim that she was mad and deserved a slap. As Members of this House will know, that was the tip of the iceberg of the remarks uncovered. Police conduct is of course the subject matter of the Angiolini inquiry, but before that concludes, what work is my right hon. Friend doing with the Home Secretary to ensure that domestic abuse victims retain confidence in the criminal justice system?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. The remarks she cited are utterly abhorrent I would imagine to everyone on all sides of the House. The public rightly expect the behaviour of the police to be beyond reproach, which is why we have tasked the Angiolini inquiry, as she said. In addition to that work, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing set out last week, inspections are ongoing in forces across England and Wales to judge their vetting and counter-corruption capabilities. More broadly, we are of course taking forward the victims Bill consultation and we have increased funding for support services. They have actually increased to £185 million by 2024-25, which will help fund an increase—by about a half, up to 1,000—in the number of independent domestic abuse advisers. So we will keep showing zero tolerance of domestic abuse while those wider inquiries are ongoing.

Domestic abuse victims face the trauma of first, gaining the courage to report it, fearing for themselves and their children’s safety, wondering whether they did the right thing and whether their truth will be believed, then they face this broken justice system: being cross-examined, questioned and treated like a criminal. With prosecutions collapsing and criminals being let off the hook, the Government cannot keep letting victims and survivors of domestic abuse down, so will the Secretary of State commit to putting in place a proper package of training, specialist support and trauma counselling for all victims of domestic abuse and their children?

I totally agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment and frustration. We need to do more. We have got the local criminal justice scorecards, which will deal with not just wider crime, but rape. Those are coming up in the first quarter of this year. The victims strategy and the victims consultation will put victims at the centre of the justice system. That is important: I think it is a moral duty, but it will also make us more effective in delivering prosecutions. We also have a wider domestic abuse strategy, which will be outlined later in the year. As the hon. Lady knows, we have introduced in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill an extension of the time limit for reporting domestic abuse and common assault and battery to give victims of domestic abuse longer to come forward with their claims and to prevent the perpetrators from finding themselves timed out.

Sexual Offences: Timeliness of Cases

9. What recent assessment he has made of the timeliness of cases involving allegations of sexual offences. (905505)

In June, we published the end-to-end rape review report and action plan, which examined forensically each stage of the criminal justice system response to rape. As part of that, we are publishing timeliness data for each part of the criminal justice system in our new national and soon-to-be-released local scorecards, allowing us to increase transparency and hold agencies to account for delivering across the system.

According to the latest figures from last September, 23% of the cases waiting in the Crown court backlog have been outstanding for more than a year. That is up from 15% in the previous September. The National Audit Office says that rape and serious sexual offence cases have been disproportionately affected by those delays. Does the Minister therefore agree that victims of such crimes should not be expected to wait for years and years and years to get justice and that the increasing delays are a shameful indication that the Government have lost their grip on tackling serious crime?

If I may correct the hon. Lady, the Crown court backlog is beginning to come down. We all welcome that, following an investment of £250 million by the Government to ensure that that happens. On the data, I hope that she has had the opportunity to look at the national scorecards. She will see how detailed they are. Recent timeliness data shows that timeliness for adult rape cases has improved slightly from the second quarter of last year. I do not take that as job done by any means. This will be a very long journey, involving every aspect of the criminal justice system, to give victims the confidence to report and then remain with a case. I hope that she will see that our work through the rape review looks at not just timeliness, but all the other levers we have at our disposal to try to improve the situation.

The delays across our courts system cause lasting damage to the lives of victims, defendants, witnesses and their families. I was therefore very surprised to hear that yet another Nightingale court—Monument this time—is closing in a couple of months, when the delays in criminal cases, including sexual offences cases, recently reached a record high. Will the Minister explain why that is happening, confirm the Department’s plans for the remaining or any new Nightingale courts and let us know just how much longer that vital resource will be available?

In an effort to help the hon. Gentleman, I point out that we have extended 32 Nightingale Crown courtrooms until April and we have opened two new super-courtrooms in Manchester and Loughborough. In the Crown court, the outstanding case load reduced from around 61,000 cases last June to around 58,700 cases at the end of November. As I say, we do not in any way say that this is job done. We will continue to invest in this, but the figures are beginning to go in the right direction after the pandemic.

Family Courts: Delays

We are determined to reduce delays and bring down waiting times in the courts to reduce the impact the pandemic has had on children and their families. We invested £0.25 billion to support recovery in our courts in the last financial year, and that included £76 million to increase capacity to hear cases in the family and civil courts, as well as in tribunals. Last year’s spending review provided £324 million over the next three years to further improve waiting times in the civil and family courts and tribunals.

In east London the position is getting worse. The delays in the east London family court are the worst in London. Several months ago we were told that parts of east London would be transferred to other courts to ease the problems, but nothing seems to have happened so far and families are now having to wait a minimum of seven months for a hearing. When will we finally see some progress on this? Do we not need additional court capacity?

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. I can confirm that the Government and senior judiciary are working closely together to increase the sitting capacity across the east London cluster. In recognition of the pressure on family work across the east London estate, a Nightingale court was created at Petty France, with four additional courts, and additional courts are being utilised at Stratford magistrates and the Royal Court of Justice. But I recognise that this is an important issue for his constituents and I would be more than happy to meet him to talk about what more we can do.

Criminal Courts: Backlog of Cases

11. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the backlog of cases before the criminal courts. (905507)

We are already seeing the results of our efforts to tackle the impact the pandemic has had on our justice system. In the magistrates courts, the caseload is close to recovering to pre-pandemic levels and, as we have just heard, in the Crown court the outstanding caseload has reduced from around 61,000 cases in June 2021 to around 58,700 cases at the end of November 2021. I can confirm that in the next financial year we expect to get through 20% more Crown court cases than we did in the year previous to covid.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on how his Department is working to ensure we maximise use of the current court estate, including courtrooms not used during the pandemic, and what view he takes on the continued role of Nightingale courts to address the backlog?

My hon. Friend speaks with great expertise as a former criminal solicitor. In terms of Nightingales, as I have said, we extended 32 Crown Nightingale courtrooms until the end of March and we are taking steps to extend individual Nightingale courtrooms on a case-by-case basis. He makes the crucial point about the existing estate in our courts, which is where the custody cell capacity is, and we need that to come back into use.

Two key decisions were made to help us to bring those rooms back into use. First, last summer we came out of lockdown at the earliest opportunity while others were suggesting we should remain in lockdown. Secondly, this Christmas we did not panic, we did not lockdown and we listened to the data. If we had gone with the recommendation from the Labour party in the Administration in Wales, we would have had 2-metre social distancing back in our Crown courtrooms. Fortunately, I spoke to the Counsel General in Wales, and they took measures to be more flexible and were able to keep the courts open, which is why the backlog is now falling.

The average time between a victim reporting a rape and the case coming to trial has just hit a record high of more than 1,000 days, thanks to the Government’s courts backlog. Many rape victims live in fear of being confronted by their attacker if they have to wait so long for the case to come to trial. Can he tell victims why the delay in getting justice is still far too long?

The volume of convictions for rape has actually just increased, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about timeliness. As the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) pointed out earlier, the backlog is now falling. It has fallen significantly in the Crown court, but of course we will continue to take steps to improve it. We have taken a whole range of positive steps to battle the backlog. Importantly, we have taken the Judicial Review and Courts Bill through the House: his party opposed it. We keep coming up with constructive measures to deal with the backlog, but the Opposition oppose them and fail to come up with any constructive suggestions of their own.

I am afraid that to many victims who are waiting nearly three years for their case to come to trial that response will sound very complacent. The Bar Council has told the Government that their proposal to give magistrates more sentencing powers could make the backlog even worse because it would lead to more defendants choosing to go to Crown court, where there is already a very significant backlog. Are the Government making a bad situation worse because they do not have a clue what they are doing or because they have gone soft on crime?

We are not going to take any lectures on being soft on crime from a party that voted against our measures to toughen sentences for serious sexual and violent offences. Labour Members voted against that in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, so we will not take any lectures. The key thing is this: we keep taking positive measures—we have mentioned the super-courts and the Nightingale courts—and they keep opposing them. They have not yet come up with a single constructive suggestion. We are putting the investment in place, with £477 million in the spending review. At some point the hon. Gentleman will have to come up with a constructive suggestion, not just carp from the Opposition Benches.

Drug Use in Prisons

Before I begin, may I associate myself with the spontaneous expression of fealty by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) towards Her Majesty? We do a lot in our Department at Her Majesty’s pleasure and I know that my hon. Friend’s remarks will have added to her good humour this morning. Before Christmas, we published a 10-year drug strategy that will reduce overall illegal drug use across the whole of the country, with a huge investment in treatment and recovery. Making sure that all prisons have a zero-tolerance approach towards drugs is critical to our success in that regard.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Drugs are responsible for about half of all acquisitive crime, burglaries and robberies in the UK, so if we hope to give people who are leaving the prison estate a chance in the future, we have to drive down drug use within that estate. With that in mind, does he agree that the only way we are going to drive those figures down is through improved security measures and abstinence-based treatment?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on the button. Too often in dealing with drugs we imagine there is a silver bullet, whereas in fact we need a suite of tools to attack both demand and supply. He is right that increased security in prisons is critical, making sure we have a ring of steel to ensure it is very hard for drugs to penetrate the secure estate, but also that we invest in treatment and rehabilitation, not least as prisoners leave the secure estate. You will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, that last year we secured funding, and ongoing, that will ensure everybody who does need a treatment place on exiting a prison will secure one. He is right that it is totally critical for our assault on acquisitive crime that we get that approach correct. I would just point him towards a new development in this area, which is the roll-out of what is called depot buprenorphine. That is, effectively, a new inoculation against heroin and opium addiction, which we think holds out enormous promise.

Just look at the state of our prisons: drugs up 500% in the last 10 years; violence up by more than 100% between 2010 and 2020; and almost 12,000 frontline prison officers leaving the service since 2016. With prisons in crisis, it is no wonder that reoffending rates are, staggeringly, over 40%. The Government are failing to keep the public safe. When are they finally going to get to grips with this?

The hon. Lady, as usual, gives a partial picture. She will know that reoffending rates now are lower than they ever were under the Labour party and we continue to make inroads into that number, pushing hard—critically, between the two Departments, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice—to get the number down. She will know, of course, that since the last quarter of 2018, assaults in prisons are on a downward trend. Look, we are not pretending that the picture of the prison estate is entirely rosy—there is still lots more to do—but the Government have recently announced enormous investments, not least in drug rehabilitation and treatment both within and outside the secure estate, and we believe that will make a huge difference.

Reform of Family Law

We are committed to reforming family law to reduce conflict, protect children and protect victims of domestic abuse. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 will commence on 6 April. This is the biggest change to divorce law in 50 years and introduces no-fault divorce to reduce conflict. Courts in Dorset and north Wales will pilot new integrated domestic abuse courts from 21 February, introducing a less adversarial way of hearing private family law cases, and we are supporting the private Member’s Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) to raise the age of marriage to 18 in England and Wales.

The current system for child maintenance, administered by the Child Maintenance Service, clearly financially incentivises resident parents to withhold contact with children from non-resident parents. Does the Minister think that this is a fairer system for children and parents alike?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. I can confirm that Baroness Stedman-Scott is the Minister with responsibility for the Child Maintenance Service at the Department for Work and Pensions, and I would be more than happy to put him in touch with her on that specific point. Child maintenance calculations can be adjusted to reflect a situation where care of the child is shared between both parents. That reduction is intended to broadly reflect the cost associated with any care that is given. The calculation is not intended to take into account every aspect of a person’s circumstances. Bespoke rules that aim to reflect each family’s individual and changing situation will result in complexity and delay money getting to children.

Safety in Prisons

Prison staff carry out a vital role in protecting the public, and we must do all we can to protect them and the prisoners in their care. That is why in the prisons strategy White Paper we have committed to a zero-tolerance approach to crime and drugs, which fuel violence behind bars. We have introduced the key worker role into the Prison Service to support individual prisoners and to try to deal with problems before they escalate, and we are providing PAVA spray and body-worn video cameras to prison officers to help them to protect themselves.

I thank the Minister for that response, but since I presented my Bill to reduce violence in prisons—the Prisons (Violence) Bill—last month, numerous prison officers have contacted me to share their experiences of being attacked at work. I noticed that the Minister was nodding during the presentation of the Bill. Will she listen to her prison staff and back the provisions in my Bill to reduce violence, including the obvious step of counting all kinds of violence, not just the most serious cases, against prisoners or staff as key performance indicators or management targets for every prison?

The hon. Gentleman talks about an issue on which there is agreement across the House. I do not think that anyone in the House wants to see our brave prison officers hurt or put at risk in their place of work. That is completely unacceptable, which is why I was nodding along through his comments on his Bill. I recognise many of the points that he rightly made in presenting his ten-minute rule motion. We note, however, that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and private prison providers are already subject to statutory duties to protect staff and prisoners from violence. We have committed to further work to improve the safety of everybody behind prison walls through our prisons strategy White Paper, including—I am delighted to say—by March this year, the completion of our £100 million security investment programme to root out the drugs, phones and other illicit items that can play such a terrible role in the safety of our prisons.

Topical Questions

Over the last month, I have met offenders participating in the community payback scheme in Birmingham, prisoners at HMP Hatfield who are being supported back into work in partnership with the charity Tempus Novo, and frontline staff at HMP Frankland working to tackle extremism and terrorism, including through their separation centre.

On behalf of the prison officers I represent in Plymouth, I ask the Secretary of State: now that he has dropped his plans to close Dartmoor prison, what plans does he have to invest in facilities at the dilapidated prison to ensure that it can be a safe and humane environment again?

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that particular prison in his constituency. He will know that we are investing almost £4 billion over the next three years to deliver 20,000 additional modern prison places by the mid-2020s. I have been to look at some of the advantages that they can have, including at Glen Parva prison, which has started the operational build. It is not just about the numbers; it is also about such things as the in-cell technology and workshops that can be a pathway to get offenders to go clean and get into work, in order to cut reoffending and protect the public.

T2. Wrexham houses the newest and largest prison in the UK, HMP Berwyn, with a criminal justice network to support it. Wrexham is therefore the perfect place to locate a justice satellite hub, and I welcome the relocation of hundreds of jobs to Wales under the levelling-up White Paper. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is proof that the Government have a commitment to the seats that Labour left behind? (905523)

My hon. Friend is an absolute champion of her constituency and she is right to want it to get its place in the levelling-up agenda. As she said, the Ministry of Justice is already a major employer in Wrexham through HMP Berwyn, which employs around 750 staff directly and over 250 more through partner organisations. We also have two courts in Wrexham employing around 100 staff. The key point, as detailed in the levelling-up White Paper, is that our Department is committed to moving more than 2,000 roles from London to the regions by 2030, of which 500 roles will be moved to Wales as a demonstration of our full support for strengthening the Union. This will include a number of locations, particularly Wrexham.

T3. Women leaving custody without a safe and secure home risk harm to themselves and to the public, but many of those women are not captured in official homelessness statistics. Will Ministers commit to rolling out the temporary accommodation service to all probation areas this year, and to extending support for vulnerable women to get into permanent housing beyond 12 weeks? (905524)

I thank the hon. Lady for her point about the important role that accommodation plays in resettling women. I know that she will take comfort from the fact that nearly 23% fewer women are in custody than in 2010, but of course work continues and we need to ensure that women as well as male prisoners are set up for their life on release. Although the prisons strategy White Paper focuses on the male estate, because that is where the majority of offenders reside, it applies equally to the female estate. I hope that the hon. Lady will take some time to look at resettlement passports, for example, to see what we believe can really make a difference to the life chances of those who are given that second chance.

T5. Reforming our broken asylum system and tackling illegal immigration is in part dependent on reforming the Human Rights Act. The British people expect action on the issue, so how quickly can we expect firm proposals to reform the HRA, following the end of the consultation next month? (905526)

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. He is right that across a whole suite of issues, including illegal migration, the proposals for a Bill of Rights with common-sense, sensible reforms will help us to address the problems. Once the consultation results come back, we will want to listen very carefully and proceed to legislation in the next Session.

T8.   When my constituent Neil was 27, they discovered that they were the product of rape. Although they had been adopted as a baby by a loving and supportive family, this left them feeling hollow, cut adrift, scared and alone. Thanks to Share Psychotherapy, a fantastic charity based in Sheffield, Neil got the support that they needed, but so many like them do not have such services available. Will the Secretary of State commit to recognising in law those conceived from rape as victims? (905529)

May I thank the hon. Lady and express my solidarity in the awful and harrowing case that she refers to? If she writes to me, I will be happy to look at her specific proposal.

The overall level of funding for victims this year is three times the level in 2010. Through the victims Bill consultation, we are ensuring that victims are at the very heart of the criminal justice system. Our local as well as national justice scorecards will help to monitor where there is best practice within the justice system and where we are falling short, right across the country.

T6. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill—I served on the Public Bill Committee—will allow a few low-level crimes to be dealt with automatically online. Will the Minister consider extending that provision to help clear the courts backlog? (905527)

My hon. Friend, who put in a great shift on the Committee, makes an excellent point. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill will introduce a new procedure for certain low-level offences such as travelling on a train without a ticket, enabling defendants who wish to plead guilty to make a plea and accept a conviction and standard penalty entirely online, without the involvement of the court. Given that it is a new type of procedure for dealing with certain minor offences, we are proceeding with caution and limiting its scope initially to three offences. However, new offences could be added in future. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that through precisely such steps and through the single justice procedure, we will reduce in-person pressure on magistrates so that we can move more business from the Crown court to magistrates and bear down on the backlog.

There are three prisons in my constituency, Belmarsh, Thameside and Isis, which a lot of my constituents work in. Prison officers and other justice staff go into work to protect us, but the Government are failing to protect them at work. One cause of increasing violence in prison is understaffing. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to tackle the recruitment and retention crisis?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that our officers and staff are a critical part of protecting the public through our prisons. Without those staff and officers, our prisons simply do not function. The Deputy Prime Minister and I are looking intensively at not only the pay but the other conditions under which officers and staff are working. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we are about to enter into the pay round review, which is done by the independent body. We take that very seriously. As I have said, I also want to look at the conditions for staff and officers working in prisons, because they are the hidden emergency service that keeps us safe day in, day out.

What plans are there to take heed of the National Audit Office’s recent comments on the delivery of the female offender strategy? Can I highlight community solutions such as the North Wales Women’s Centre in my constituency, which provides support to help tackle the root causes of crime, such as domestic abuse and poverty?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the vulnerabilities of some female offenders. We are very much committed to delivering the female offender strategy by reducing the number of women in custody and seeing a greater proportion of women managed in the community. We are investing £9.5 million in women’s community sector organisations, and the North Wales Women’s Centre received nearly £50,000 of that investment last year. I commend him and the women’s centre for doing such important work in his constituency.

The Justice Secretary will have heard the exchange with the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). He should be aware that there is a cohort of IRA murderers who have evaded justice, successfully fought extradition and now abide in other countries. Would he consider any Government proposals to deal with the legacy of our past to be morally repugnant if those individuals were allowed to come home and retire with a level of dignity that they never offered to their victims?

I do understand the level of pain, suffering and anxiety that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. I can understand it from communities on all sides of the troubles and the conflict, which is why the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has come forward with a set of proposals that offer a balanced approach and that we hope will allow those communities on both sides to move forward.

In Darlington, organisations such as Family Help provide specialist domestic abuse support for women and children fleeing abuse. Our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 sets out a framework for the delivery of support locally. Will my hon. Friend outline the progress being made towards establishing domestic abuse local partnership boards and the role that local organisations will play?

I thank my hon. Friend for the tireless work that he put into the Committee that scrutinised the Domestic Abuse Bill. I am delighted to confirm that all tier 1 local authorities have set up domestic abuse local partnership boards, in line with the Act, to provide them with advice on the provision of the specialist services that are such an important part of that landmark Act. I genuinely encourage all Members across the House to engage with those boards to see what they are doing for their local communities and how they are helping their constituents.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s defence of free speech earlier today, but the truth is that free speech is under attack in our courts. Tom Burgis is appearing in court today against oligarchs who are seeking to silence him. When will the Secretary of State bring forward a defence against strategic lawsuits against public participation—SLAPPs? If we want to live in truth, we need SLAPP-back laws now.

The right hon. Gentleman is not the only one who has raised this with me; my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has also been campaigning on it. I am very happy to look at the specific issue. The House has periodically looked at questions of libel law and we will keep those issues under constant review. As I have said in relation to a Bill of Rights, this is an opportunity to reinvent the priority attached to freedom of speech.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the focus on getting prisoners into stable employment when they leave prison has been critical in achieving the current reoffending rates, which are lower than they were under Labour? Can he also outline to the House what further measures he can take in this area?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I was at HMP Hatfield just last week, looking at the excellent work that the governor is doing with a local charity, Tempus Novo. One of the issues is the weighting attached to this key performance indicator, which is far too low. It is currently below 1%, which is extraordinary to me, and it will be ramped up as part of the review in the prisons White Paper. It will be much more central to the work that all prisons do and we are making it a presumption that offenders can be given a pathway into employment when it is suitable and secure to do so.

Although the justice system clearly has a role to play in prosecuting offences against women and girls, it is equally important that young men and boys grow up in an environment where they understand that misogyny, in all forms, is unacceptable. With that in mind, will the Minister join me in commending the fans of Raith Rovers football club, who last week forced the club to reverse its decision to give a playing contract to someone who, in two separate court hearings, had been found guilty of rape and who refused to show any remorse for his crimes? Does the Minister agree that, given the important role models that professional footballers are for young men and boys, there must be serious doubts as to whether that is a job that can ever be performed by an unrepentant and unreconstructed rapist?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is absolutely abhorrent and of course I think that the club in question took the right decision. As the father of two young boys, I take very seriously, as we in Government should take seriously, and we in this House should take seriously, how we raise our children, and the level of education and awareness of these issues. We are taking a whole suite of measures, from the local justice scorecards to the victims’ Bill, the violence against women and girls strategy and the rape action review. But it is incumbent on businesses, including football clubs, which are so high profile, to make the right calls, as the football club has done in this case.

Will the Minister commit to supporting victims of sexual abuse in the victims’ Bill in ways such as by rolling out section 28?

I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend said. She will have seen that section 28, which deals with pre-recorded evidence from victims of rape, is set out in there. We will be articulating more clearly a plan to move from the limited trials we have at the moment to a national roll-out, which will be done in the first half of this year.

Two excellent support providers in Loughborough, the Exaireo Trust and the Carpenter’s Arms, look after people who have been repeat offenders and/or suffered from addiction for many years. As one resident put it, they were

“lost, broken and with no hope”.

These two organisations completely transform the lives of those residents in their service. What is my right hon. Friend doing to work with local providers and support these organisations financially to help people into work?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and those organisations on their fantastic work. She is right that, if we are going to get ahead particularly of acquisitive crime, we have to look at the root causes of people’s offending and so often that is drug addiction. As part of our 10-year drugs strategy, we are committed to binding together coalitions of organisations, including the kind of organisations she described, to make an assault on this kind of crime and addiction in every area of the United Kingdom.

Later this month, the best new prison will be opened in Wellingborough, on the site of the old prison. It is a strange time that we live in, because the same Department that is opening that prison wanted to close it years ago. A young councillor in my constituency, who represented the Croyland ward, put a community group together to save it. I wonder whether the Under-Secretary has any knowledge of that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is always innovative in his questions. I well remember that campaign. It is funny how these things come around. I am delighted that the Ministry of Justice has changed its mind and that this new super-prison is going to open, which is going to employ his constituents and mine. It is fair to say that he listened, campaigned and delivered.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I take every opportunity to champion the work of the Private Law Working Group and the Family Solutions Group. In 2020, their reports clearly set out the need for change in family law and why it is really important that we do that for families. What steps is he taking to increase the resolution of family disputes inside and outside courts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recently met the president of a family division. About 60% of the cases that go there, certainly on the civil side, are safeguarding or domestic abuse cases. They ought to go there, but for the rest we need to be looking at the incentives and disincentives, the use of mediation and the whole structure of the system to prevent these harrowing cases—they are particularly harrowing for children. In any event, many cases do not need to go through the courts and I am working with the judiciary to try to achieve that reform.

Elective Treatment

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on a new, ambitious elective recovery plan—the NHS’s delivery plan for tackling the covid-19 backlog of elective care.

The NHS has responded with distinction during the country’s fight against the virus, caring for over 700,000 people with covid-19 in hospital in the UK and delivering a vaccination programme that is helping this country to learn to live with the virus, while at the same time doing so much to keep non-covid care going. Nobody—no institution—felt the burden of the pandemic more than the NHS. There have been 17 million cases of covid-19 and the NHS has had to respond to the original variant, the alpha wave, the delta wave and, most recently, of course, the omicron wave. Despite these pressures, we had one of the fastest vaccination programmes in the world, including one of the fastest booster programmes in the world.

Sadly, as a result of focusing on urgent care, the NHS could not deal with non-urgent care as much as anyone would have liked. The British people have of course understood this. Despite those exceptional efforts, there is now a considerable covid backlog of elective care. About 1,600 people waited longer than a year for care before the pandemic. The latest data shows that this figure is now over 300,000. On top of this, the number of people waiting for elective care in England now stands at 6 million, up from 4.4 million before the pandemic. Sadly, that number will continue rising before it falls.

A lot of people understandably stayed away from the NHS during the heights of the pandemic, and the most up-to-date estimate from the NHS is that that number is around 10 million. But I want these people to know that the NHS is open and, as Health Secretary, I want them to come forward for the care they need. We do not know how many will now come forward—we do not know whether it will be 30% or 80%—because no country has faced a situation like this ever before. So in developing this plan, the NHS has had to make a number of assumptions. Even if half of these people come forward, this is going to place huge demand on the NHS, and we are pulling out all the stops so that the NHS is there for them when they do. We have already announced that we are backing the NHS with an extra £2 billion of funding for elective recovery this year and £8 billion on top of that over the next three years. In addition, we are putting almost an additional £6 billion towards capital investment for new beds, equipment and technology.

Today we are announcing the next steps, showing how we will help this country’s health and care system to recover from the disruption of the pandemic but also how we will make reforms that are so important for the long-term future. That will allow the NHS to perform at least 9 million extra tests, checks and procedures by 2025 and around 30% more elective activity each year in three years’ time than it was doing before the pandemic. This bold and radical vision has been developed with expert input from clinical leaders and patient groups. It will not just reset the NHS to where it was before covid but build on what we have learned over the past two years to transform elective services and make sure that they are fit for the future.

This plan focuses on four key areas. The first is how we will increase capacity. On top of enormous levels of investment, we are doing everything in our power to make sure that we have even more clinicians on the frontline. We now have more doctors and nurses working in the NHS than ever before. We have a record number of students at medical school and a record number of students applying to train as nurses. The plan sets out what more we will be doing, including more healthcare support workers and the recruitment and deployment of NHS reservists. We will also be making greater use of the independent sector, which formed an important part of our contingency plans for covid-19, so that we can help patients to access the services they need at this time of high demand.

Secondly, as we look at the backlog, we will not just strive to get numbers down but prioritise by clinical need and reduce the very longest waiting lists. Assuming that half the missing demand from the pandemic returns over the next three years, the NHS expects the waiting list to be reducing by March 2024. Addressing long waits is critical to the recovery of elective care, and we will be actively offering longer-waiting patients greater choice about their care to help to bring down these numbers.

The plan sets the ambition of eliminating waits of longer than a year for elective care by March 2025. Within this, no one will wait longer than two years by July 2022, and the NHS aims to eliminate waits of over 18 months by April 2023 and of over 65 weeks by March 2024, which equates to 99% of patients waiting less than a year.

I have heard the concerns that have rightly been raised, including by many hon. Members, about the pandemic’s impact on cancer care. On Friday, World Cancer Day, I launched a call for evidence that will drive a new 10-year cancer plan for England, a vision for how we can lead the world in cancer care. This elective recovery plan, too, places a big focus on restoring cancer services.

The NHS has done sterling work to prioritise cancer treatment throughout the pandemic, and we have consistently seen record levels of referrals since March 2021, but waiting times have gone up and fewer people came forward with cancer symptoms during the pandemic. The plan shows how we will intensify our campaigns to encourage more people to come forward, focusing on areas where referrals have been slowest to recover such as lung cancer and prostate cancer. It also sets out some stretching ambitions for how we will recover and improve performance in cancer care: returning the number of people waiting more than 62 days following an urgent referral to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023; and ensuring that 75% of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer are diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days by March 2024.

I am determined that we tackle the disparities that exist in this backlog, just as I am determined to tackle disparities of any kind across this country. Analysis from the King’s Fund shows that, on average, a person is almost twice as likely to experience a wait of over a year if they live in a deprived area. As part of our recovery work, we are tasking the NHS with analysing its waiting list data according to factors such as age, deprivation and ethnicity to help to drive detailed plans to tackle these disparities.

Thirdly, this new chapter for the NHS provides an opportunity to radically rethink and redesign how services are delivered, to bust the backlog and to deliver more flexible, personalised care for patients. The pandemic has shown beyond doubt the importance of diagnostics. Although over 96% of people needing a diagnostic test received it within six weeks prior to the pandemic, the latest data shows that has fallen to 75%. Our aim is to get back to 95% by March 2025.

A major part of this will be expanding the use of community diagnostic centres, which have already had a huge impact. These one-stop shops for checks, scans and tests help people to get a quicker diagnosis and, therefore, the treatment they need much earlier. Sixty-nine community diagnostic centres are already up and running, and the plan shows our intention to have at least 100 in local communities and on high streets over the next three years.

We will also keep expanding the use of surgical hubs, which will be dedicated to planned, elective surgeries. They will allow us to do more surgeries in a single day than can be carried out in out-patient settings, so that we can fast-track operations and ensure that patients are more likely to go home on the same day. We have already been piloting these hubs, and we will now be rolling them out across the country.

Finally, we will improve the information and support for patients. I know the anxiety that patients feel when they are waiting for care, especially if they feel that they do not have certainty about where they sit in the queue, and I am determined to ensure that, as we enter this next phase, we will be open and transparent with patients. We will be launching a new online platform called My Planned Care, which will go live this month, offering patients and their carers tailored information ahead of their planned surgery. They will be able to see waiting times for their provider, so they can better understand their expected wait. A third of on-the-day cancellations are due to people not being clinically ready for treatment, and the new platform will also be able to link patients to the most appropriate personalised support before their surgery. This shows the approach that we will be taking in the years ahead, putting patients at the heart of their care and giving the support that they need to make informed decisions. We will also put in place a payment system that incentivises strong performance and delivers value for money for the public.

Just as we came together to fight this virus, now we must come together on a new national mission to fight what the virus has brought with it. That will mean waiting lists falling by March 2024, strong action to reduce long waiting times, and stretching targets for early diagnosis and for cancer care. This vital document shows how we will not just recover, but reform and make sure that the NHS is there for all of us, no matter what lies ahead. I commend my statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but it falls seriously short of the scale of the challenge facing the NHS and the misery that is affecting millions of people stuck on record high NHS waiting lists. We have been waiting some time for his plan to tackle NHS waiting times. We were told that it would arrive before Christmas; we were told that it would arrive yesterday; and it is not clear from his statement today that the delay was worth the wait. There is no plan to tackle the workforce crisis, no plan to deal with delayed discharges, and no hope of eliminating waits of more than a year before the general election in 2024. I wonder whether the Conservatives will be putting that on their election leaflets. The only big new idea seems to be a website that tells people that they are waiting for a long time, as if they did not already know.

Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us whether the plan itself contains two other measures that have been floated in the press: the cancellation of patients’ follow-up appointments, whether they need them or not, and an offer enabling people to seize the opportunity to travel hundreds of miles around the country, if they can find a hospital in England that does not already have a waiting list crisis of its own. What we did hear was a series of reannouncements, including some perfectly sensible proposals for community diagnostic and surgical hubs. We welcome those, but the Secretary of State cannot pretend that they meet the scale of the challenge.

The Secretary of State reaffirmed the Prime Minister’s commitments on cancer, announced only yesterday. He announced a new target that no one should wait more than two months for cancer diagnosis, but there is already a target for the vast majority of cancer patients to be treated within two months of referral. Can he tell us which target he is aiming to meet? Is it the target that has not been hit since 2015, or the target announced yesterday, which seems to lower standards for patients because the Government consistently fail to meet them? The Prime Minister has also announced that three out of four patients should receive a cancer diagnosis within 28 days, but that is an existing target which was introduced in April and has never been met, and nothing that the Secretary of State has announced today gives me any confidence that it will be met in the future. Given that half a million patients with suspected cancer are not being seen in time, it seems that the Secretary of State declared a war on cancer after more than a decade of disarming the NHS, and is now sending the NHS into battle empty-handed.

Indeed, it is hard to believe that this is the announcement that the Secretary of State wanted to make. One Government official briefed Robert Peston that the plan was being blocked by the Chancellor, who is, “reluctant to rescue the Prime Minister”. Putting to one side the appalling spectacle of the Tory leadership crisis impacting on life and death decision making in Government, it seems from the statement that the Chancellor has won the day. What other explanation can there be for a plan to recover the NHS and bring down waiting lists that does not contain a workforce plan? The single biggest challenge facing the NHS is the workforce challenge. There are 93,000 staffing vacancies in the NHS today. The NHS is understaffed, overworked and, if the Secretary of State is not careful, he will lose more people than he is able to recruit. This is not a new development, and it should not be news to him.

In April, the NHS called for a national workforce plan. Polling from the Health Foundation found that the public want more staff with fewer workload pressures. The Secretary of State himself told the Health and Social Care Committee in November that his plan would include a strategy for the workforce crisis. We know the NHS wants a workforce plan and the public want a workforce plan. He promised a workforce plan, so where is it? There is not even a budget for Health Education England let alone a serious plan to recruit and retain the workforce that we need. Instead, he is proposing new NHS reservists. Who are they? Where are they coming from? How many does he imagine there will be? How does he imagine that they will make a dent in the 93,000 vacancies? It seems more “Dad’s Army” than SAS.

Then there is the issue of wider NHS and social care pressures that impact directly on waiting lists and waiting times: the pressures on GP practices that see people ringing the surgery at the crack of dawn in the hope of getting through before the appointments have gone; the pressures on social care that lead to delayed discharges from hospital, as we saw in more than 400,000 cases in November alone; and the missed opportunities and the wasted money that comes from a failure to invest in community services that lead to people turning up at A&E at greater cost to patient health and at greater cost to the taxpayer.

This plan falls well short of the challenge facing our country. Six million people are waiting for care. Cancer care is in crisis, with half a million patients with suspected cancer not seen in time. Heart and stroke victims are waiting more than two hours for an ambulance when every minute matters. It is clear from what the Secretary of State said today, from what his colleague, the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), said yesterday, and no doubt what will be heard repeated in the Tory scripts in the days and weeks to come, that the Conservatives are hoping to blame the state of NHS waiting lists on the pandemic—the “covid waiting lists”, they called them. But this is not a covid backlog; it is a Tory backlog. After a decade of Tory mismanagement, the NHS had: record waiting lists of 4.5 million before the pandemic; staff shortages of 100,000 before the pandemic; 17,000 fewer beds before the pandemic; and 112,000 vacancies in social care before the pandemic.

In conclusion, it is not just that the Government did not fix the roof while the sun was shining, they dismantled the roof and removed the floorboards. With the ceiling of their ambition that the Secretary of State outlined today being to go back to where we were before the pandemic, it is now clear that the longer that we give the Conservatives in office, the longer patients will wait.

I am surprised with the argument and the tone of the hon. Gentleman. It is 2022, not 2024. We have all come to expect the scaremongering that we have just heard from the Labour Benches at election time—that has happened in every election campaign since the war—but what I did not expect is this scaremongering from the hon. Gentleman on the plans to recover in the wake of a deadly pandemic.

I am astonished and disappointed that the hon. Gentleman is willing to stand there and claim that there is no covid backlog. [Interruption.] That is what he just said. He just said that there is no covid backlog. He is well aware that this country has just gone through its biggest health challenge in history. He is also well aware that there has been a national mission across the NHS to deal with that challenge and to recover from it. I paid tribute to the hon. Gentleman just last week in this House—perhaps I was just a bit too early—when he rightly supported the nation’s vaccination programme, because he understood just how important it was. Perhaps some of his Back Benchers have now got to him, so instead of standing up for the British people, he is just thinking about his own leadership prospects in his party—perhaps that is what is actually going on.

Today, instead of doing the right thing and backing the NHS—backing the hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses and everyone working heroically across the NHS—the hon. Gentleman decided to play party politics. A moment ago, he heard me talk about the 10 million people who the NHS estimates have stayed away from the NHS and who need reassurance from both sides of the House about what the NHS is doing. He should reconsider his approach and work together in the national interest.

I welcome the statement and I am grateful to the Secretary of State for setting out a covid recovery plan to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. Every single Member of the House should support him in that endeavour. I ask him, however, how he will tackle the staffing crisis.

I thank my hon. Friend for her support. Over the past two years, the number of clinicians in the NHS has risen by about 40,000. In the past year, we have 10,000 more nurses, 5,000 more doctors and more people in medical school than ever before, so a huge amount of record investment is going into the workforce. Recently, I also asked the NHS to put together a long-term 10-year-plus workforce strategy and I look forward to receiving it.

The elective care backlog is not the only crisis facing the NHS. Covid has affected the care being delivered by mental health services, primary care, emergency care, community care and social care. In the Health and Social Care Committee’s recent report on tackling the NHS backlog, we recommended that a broader national health and care recovery plan be published to set out a clear vision for how patient care will be improved. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that will be published before April, as the Committee recommended?

I thank the hon. Lady for her work on the Committee. She is right to raise the importance of mental health. Although today’s plan is focused on elective surgical procedures and diagnostics, she is right to talk about other types of care, especially mental health care. I know that she supports the huge amount of record investment going into the NHS for mental health care. Under the NHS long-term plan, it is an additional £2 billion a year. She is also right to raise the importance of patient care. I believe that there is a lot in this plan on patient care that she will support.

I welcome the statement and the national mission. I must say that for the Labour party to try to play party politics with it is a serious misjudgment. Surgical hubs have been successfully piloted in London by the Getting It Right First Time programme. As they are rolled out across the country, will the Secretary of State ensure that GIRFT continues to be properly resourced and is given a key role in leading the programme in future?

Absolutely; I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. There are already 44 surgical hubs up and running across the country, including in London. I went to see one at Moorfields, which is getting through cataract operations more quickly and seeing more people per day than ever before. He is right to talk about their importance and the funding is there in the plan to see many more of them across the nation.

The key issue seems to be the workforce. It is about trying to ensure that people do not leave the workforce now or do not leave it early. It is also about recruiting enough people, sometimes into specialties that are not necessarily the sexiest ones that people are pushed into at the beginning. For instance, there is no chance of getting diagnoses within the target set in 2018, which we now hope to meet in 2024, unless we train more pathologists every single year. This year, we will not train enough pathologists to meet the number who are leaving this year, so we are going backwards rather than forwards. How will the Secretary of State address that?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the workforce, especially in the context of specialisms, and pathology is a really good example. That is why we are putting record amounts of investment into the workforce and training. It is also one of the reasons why, to get a more joined-up plan in health, I have decided that Health Education England should be merged with the NHS. This will enable more joined-up thinking and much better planning for the future, especially in specialist areas.

I declare my interest as a doctor. Will the Secretary of State look again at how we structure doctors’ pay and remuneration? At the moment, we are training lots of doctors—more and more of them—which is a great thing, but typically they leave in their late 50s, so we are losing a whole decade of productive medical time. That cannot go on. Will he look again to see how we can disincentivise early retirement of medical professionals?

My hon. Friend speaks with great experience and raises a really important issue. The short answer is yes. We have fantastic doctors throughout the NHS and more in training in medical schools than ever before, but we should also focus on retaining talent throughout the NHS. I assure him that that work has already begun.

I am shocked that some Government Members are trying to pat each other on the back, because right now my heart is breaking for all those constituents who have emailed me to tell me that they are in fear and in pain, and what they have just heard is that that may continue for years to come. The Secretary of States talks about new tech, new hubs and new scanners, but without people to operate them they may be of limited use. Where is the plan to fill the almost 100,000 NHS vacancies?

The hon. Lady, like other hon. Members, is absolutely right to raise the importance of workforce. To deliver on this plan, of course we need to do so much more to keep increasing the workforce and make sure all the skills we need are there. Just last week, I believe, the NHS published that it has more doctors, nurses and clinicians than ever before; 40,000 people have joined the NHS over the last two years, including many more doctors and nurses. Also, as I mentioned, I have asked the NHS, with HEE, which will become part of the NHS, to come up with a long-term plan. We look forward to that plan and will invest in it.

People of a certain age, of whom, unfortunately, I am one, are terrified because they think that if something goes wrong, they might have to wait in pain for two years. We cannot wait until March 2024 to join the back of a slightly shorter queue. Then we see our friends who have private health insurance—I am not one of them; we cannot afford it—being seen within days. May I suggest a policy that would be wildly popular with many of our own supporters, which every Conservative Government until 1997 followed, which is to give tax relief to private health insurance? Why not look at every innovative solution that unleashes new money? Before the Secretary of State says that that is a matter for the Chancellor, will he at least put it at the back of his mind, so that when he next talks to the Chancellor they will at least discuss it?

I am always pleased to talk with my right hon. Friend about his ideas and suggestions, and I am happy to meet him to discuss this further, but I am sure he agrees with me on the importance of making sure that we invest in the NHS and the workforce so that they can deal with as many people as possible.

Across the country, millions of people are waiting for potentially life-changing procedures, and it is absolutely right that every effort be made to bring this backlog down, but the Secretary of State should be aware of just how big an ask he is making of frontline staff. This will be a herculean effort, especially for all those who have spent the last two years on the frontline of the fight against covid-19. When he considers the enormous sacrifices that NHS workers have made over the course of this pandemic and everything that they will be asked to do in the very difficult months ahead, will the Secretary of State concede that last year's 3% pay rise was pitiful and commit to giving our healthcare heroes the substantial pay rise they truly deserve?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that all those working in health, and social care for that matter, have been the heroes of this pandemic. Everything that they have delivered and gone through over the last two years is something that the whole nation will respect. He is right to also point out that the expectation over the next few years for delivering on the plan is very high, and the workforce of course deserve maximum support. When it comes to pay, it is right that the Government listen to the independent pay review bodies, which will take into account a number of factors, and that is exactly what we did last year.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making this announcement here first. Does he agree that, as other Members have said, particularly Opposition Members, we need to increase the workforce? How then can the mandatory vaccination of NHS health workers, which was going to lose us 80,000 people, possibly have been right? We knew the covid backlog was there, so how on earth was that ever a good policy? I know that Opposition Members supported it hugely, but Conservative Members had their doubts. Was it not a wrong decision?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the workforce, but I am afraid I do not agree with his comments about the plans for mandatory vaccination. I will not go through the details again; I did make a statement to the House on that last week, and in fact it was supported by the vast majority of Members of this House. The short answer to his question is that it is all about patient safety. The Government and the NHS are always absolutely right to put patient safety first, and although the Government have now, in the light of omicron, rightly changed their plans, it is still the professional responsibility of everyone working in healthcare to get vaccinated.

I am grateful for what the Secretary of State said about diagnostic hubs. Will he investigate personally why the planned hub for Westmorland general hospital has been delayed until 2023? I am also grateful for what he said about cancer services more generally. He knows that there have been 60,000 missed cancer diagnoses over the last two years, and I am sure he knows that radiotherapy is a key factor in tackling the backlog. Is he aware that radiotherapy ought to be accessed by 53% of cancer patients in this country but is accessed by only 23%, and that, as a proportion of our cancer budget, funding for radiotherapy in this country is only a little more than half the average for similar developed countries? Will he therefore make it a priority to meet with the all-party parliamentary group for radiotherapy and look at our manifesto, so that we can work together to save tens of thousands of lives that would be needlessly lost otherwise?

The hon. Gentleman raises a series of very important points, especially in what he said about cancer and radiotherapy. I believe he already has a meeting in the diary with Health Ministers, and I will look out for the output of that meeting. I agree with what he said about radiotherapy and the importance of investment in that, and there is a lot more investment. I referred earlier to the £6 billion extra capital budget, and a large part of that will be used for new diagnostics. I hope he also agrees with me that, as well as radiotherapy, we need to invest in the very latest cutting-edge technology for cancer care, such as proton beam therapy, which I saw for myself last week in London.

The Secretary of State will know that many on this side of the House were very reluctant, but did support the increase in resources for the NHS through the increase to national insurance and then the health and social care levy. When we are making that argument to our constituents, they will expect that money to deliver results, so may I make one observation and ask one question? The observation is that, while the plan is welcome, only getting to 99% of patients waiting less than a year by March 2024 is not ambitious enough, so will he perhaps be more ambitious? Will he also say a word about how the resources raised through national insurance will be removed from the NHS and flow into social care? From October 2023, we will have to fund social care with the same money. He did not talk about that, and social care is as important as the NHS, so will he say a word about that?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of making sure that every penny spent in the NHS, or social care for that matter, is spent wisely and in the very best interests of taxpayers. I absolutely agree with him on that, and that also has to translate into the ambition. My right hon. Friend, like other hon. Members, will not have had time yet to look at the plan. I am happy to discuss it with him afterwards if he wishes. I hope he agrees that it is full of ambition. Indeed, if the NHS can go much further than the targets I set out earlier, that is what we all want. As I said in my statement, it does depend on how many people come back to the NHS, and that is very hard to estimate, but I want as many people as possible to come back.

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of social care and the need for much better integration between healthcare and social care. We will set out more detailed plans on just that very shortly.

As a clinician, I am astounded by what the Secretary of State has brought forward today. First, he talks about health inequality, then puts forward a solution that will exclude people who experience the greatest health inequality because they also experience digital inequality. Not only that, but people on waiting lists are in a lot of pain. They are put on waiting lists because of the advancement of their condition. They do not need a website; they need clinicians surrounding them to give them the physical and psychological support they need over the two or more years they will have to wait. What plans has the Secretary of State got to ensure that they get the physical and psychological support that they need over that time?

The hon. Lady is of course right to talk about the importance of health inequalities. I hope that when she has had time to look at the plan she will see just how seriously the NHS and the Government take that. More broadly, I will have a lot more to say about tackling health inequalities shortly. Of course, the hon. Lady is right that there need to be alternatives to digital access for those who cannot easily access digital, be it through a web platform or the NHS app. There are alternatives in place, but I hope she agrees that for those who can use digital tools, we should make them part of the offering. The new “my planned care” service will be hugely important in providing more transparency than ever before, but also in helping people prepare for their surgical procedures. She may have heard me say earlier than one third of on-the-day cancellations of surgical procedures happen because people were not prepared.

I declare my interest as an NHS doctor and I echo much of what has been said by colleagues across the House about the workforce challenges.

As the Secretary of State said, covid has been a huge challenge to the NHS and it is a testament to NHS workers that cancer treatment was maintained at 94% of pre-pandemic levels throughout the pandemic and that 95% of people who needed cancer treatment started that within a month. However, I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that one month is a very long and frightening time to know that cancer is growing inside and that every day’s delay could be the day that costs your life. How does he intend to reduce that time and what will be his target from diagnosis to treatment?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the workforce. She is right to raise the importance of cancer care and to note that it has remained a huge priority for the NHS despite all the pressures of the pandemic. In the plan that we are publishing today, we have set out a number of cancer targets. They are all very ambitious with record amounts of investment. Once my hon. Friend has looked at the plan, I would be happy to discuss it further with her, either the cancer aspects or anything else.

I thank the Secretary of State for a progressive and positive statement on the way forward. With statistics showing that there were some 10 times more patients waiting six weeks or more for cancer diagnostic tests at the end of November 2021 than in November 2019 in England, and with similar UK-wide statistics, what specifically is the Secretary of State doing to address the massive backlog in those life-saving tests?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. With respect to life-saving tests and scans, including for cancer, the plan sets out a huge amount of new investment in diagnostic capacity. One area of investment is the new community diagnostic centres, some 69 of which have already opened across England in convenient places such as shopping malls and car parks, which people can access much more easily and get their results from much more quickly.

I welcome the plan. I am most intrigued by the “my planned care” website, because one of the biggest problems for clinicians is that they spend a lot of time chasing admin. It is a great opportunity for pre-operative checks and for people to know where their follow-ups are. Will the Secretary of State look at expanding it to out-patient settings? People over the age of 80 may well have four, five or six specialists, so trying to keep track of their letters, of where they should be and of their appointments is really difficult.

During covid, 29 million people downloaded the NHS app and we had the fantastic covid dashboard, so we have seen what we can do with technology to help our patients and clinicians. Will the Secretary of State encourage the NHS to build on the measures that he is bringing forward to help with the backlog?

Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the importance of technology in delivering world-class care. He will know that I have already announced that the parts of our health system that contribute to the best use of technology, NHSX and NHS Digital, will become part of the wider NHS so that we have a more joined-up strategy. “My planned care” will start as an online platform, but will move to an app-based service as soon as possible. My hon. Friend is right to talk about the importance of having something similar for out-patient care; we are already on it.

Will my right hon. Friend work with our excellent GPs to increase access to primary care? Will he encourage them to open up more channels of communication such as email, text and chat apps to ensure that people feel able to raise their health concerns at the earliest possible stage rather than putting them off until they become more serious, when it is potentially too late?

Yes. I join my hon. Friend in thanking GPs up and down the country for all their phenomenal work throughout the pandemic amid the huge pressure that they have had to deal with. He is right about making sure that channels of communication with GPs are as varied as possible and are available to everyone in all age groups so that we can better support early diagnosis.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for his leadership as we recover from covid. I must say that I find the words of the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) a bit hollow when the Opposition voted against £36 billion recently.

May I raise the matter of recovery in our emergency care? The Secretary of State will know that too many people in Newcastle-under-Lyme have had to wait too long for ambulances recently. Will he or his Ministers help to bring together West Midlands ambulance service, Royal Stoke University Hospital and the clinical commissioning groups to find a solution so that we can get patients into hospital and back out again as quickly as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House that the Labour party voted against additional investment in the NHS. He is right to talk about the impact on urgent care, particularly for ambulance services and especially during the recent omicron wave. We invested an additional £55 million in ambulance services over the winter. A lot more needs to be done to support urgent care, but the plans that we will shortly set out for the integration of healthcare with social care will certainly help to relieve many of those pressures.

Kettering General Hospital performed heroically during the pandemic and is now gearing up with determination to increase its elective surgery capacity by 30%. Does the Secretary of State take on board the point that in addition to having to clear the covid backlogs, areas such as Kettering and north Northamptonshire are seeing a very steep rise in the local population, with tens of thousands of new houses being built, and are expecting a very sharp rise in the next five years in the number of people aged 80 or over? Will he ensure that Kettering General Hospital gets all the resources it needs?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking the staff at Kettering General Hospital for everything they have been doing, especially over the past two years. Of course, challenges remain. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Health will visit Kettering General Hospital shortly; I look forward to hearing about it. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) that when we look at funding and directional resources, we will certainly take account of not just the current population, but the forecast population.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 17 November 2021, the House approved a humble address motion compelling the Government to publish the minutes from or any notes of the meeting of 9 April 2020 between Lord Bethell, Owen Paterson and Randox representatives. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) received an answer to a written parliamentary question that explained that the Department of Health and Social Care had previously released the minutes of the meeting, referring to an attached document containing some heavily redacted notes. But when that very same document was made public in response to a freedom of information request in January 2021, it was with the explicit caveat that they were “draft notes” and that official minutes were not taken and sent to attendees. The Government appear to being arguing with themselves, and not for the first time. Can you offer some assistance to explain whether it is in order for the Health Secretary to describe documents as “minutes” that his own Department has previously denied are minutes? If not, will he be afforded an opportunity to correct the record, explain what status those draft notes have and inform the House once and for all what happened to the formal minutes taken at that crucial meeting?

Then I will try to do the best I can. I thank the hon. Member for giving me notice that she would raise the point of order. The Chair is not responsible for the content of Ministers’ answers to parliamentary questions or for Departments’ responses to freedom of information requests. If the hon. Member believes that there is an inconsistency between the two in this case, there are always ways in which she can press the Department for further information to clarify the matter. Can I suggest that she takes it up with the Table Office for further advice? I hope that those on the Treasury Bench are well aware that this issue has been raised and are able to inform ministerial colleagues. I think we do need the answers: I do not want to keep dealing with the same points of order.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you been given notice that the relevant Minister will make a statement to the House on this year’s GCSE and A-level examinations? As you will know, advance materials were published yesterday, following weeks of uncertainty, the Government’s lacklustre education recovery efforts and concerning reports of A-level grade inflation in private schools. Given the impact on millions of pupils, school staff and parents across England, it is important that the House has an opportunity to scrutinise those developments properly.

Let me first state clearly that I have received no notice from Ministers that they intend to make a statement on this matter. Ministers on the Front Bench will, however, have heard the hon. Member’s point of order and, I hope, have noted his request.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise to ask again whether you have had any response from the Prime Minister after the UK Statistics Authority said that the statements that the Home Office, and subsequently the Prime Minister, made on crime were misleading. “Misleading” is not my word—it is the word of the independent chair of the UK Statistics Authority. The Prime Minister told the House

“we have been cutting crime by 14%”—[Official Report, 31 January 2021; Vol. 708, c. 24.]

The Office for National Statistics found instead

“a 14% increase in total crime, driven by a 47% increase in fraud and computer misuse”.

I raised yesterday “Erskine May”, resolutions of the House and the ministerial code, which all record the importance of the Prime Minister correcting the record at the earliest opportunity. This is five days on from the Statistics Authority’s comments. Do you have any guidance on what counts as “earliest opportunity”, as this does not feel like that?

The ministerial code also expects Ministers to abide by the Statistics Authority code of practice which says that people must be “truthful, impartial and independent” in their use of statistics. Given that the Statistics Authority, whose job it is to be independent, impartial and truthful, has said that the Government are being misleading, surely it is now a matter of basic respect for the House and the standards that we all signed up to about not misleading Parliament that the Prime Minister should give us a response.

First, I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving notice of her point of order. I can confirm that I have not had any notification of a statement, or any other response, on this issue.

I am not able to add to the responses to the three previous points of order on this matter. The right hon. Lady has put the point on the record, and I am sure she will find alternative ways to pursue this issue. I recognise it is important that this is heard, and I am sure that the Table Office, or possibly other available avenues, will now be used.

Motor Vehicle Tests (Diesel Particulate Filters)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to set standards as to the emissions particulate sensing technology to be used in roadworthiness tests for diesel vehicles; and for connected purposes.

As you know, Mr Speaker, I have been a Member for a very long time, but it is 20 years since I last moved a ten-minute rule motion, so I hope everyone will be tolerant of me today.

I declare my interest as chair of the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality, as an active member of the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution and as chair of the World Health Organisation’s global network for road safety legislators.

Throughout my career in this House, as many colleagues may know, I have been a passionate campaigner for the environment, and I know that colleagues on both sides of the House share the view that we and all our constituents have an inalienable right to breathe clean air. It is now clear that toxic air is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, affecting pregnant women, the elderly and our children and grandchildren. No one is exempt from breathing poisonous, polluted air in our country.

As a former Chair of the Select Committee on Education, and in much of my other work, I have always believed in pursuing good, evidence-based policies. On air pollution, the experts and the science are crystal clear. The challenge cannot be overestimated and it urgently requires not just a joined-up approach, or just a cross-party and cross-sector partnership, but a recognition of the huge scale of the challenge we face.

The Government are fully aware, because they have the records, that up to 36,000 people a year are dying from breathing polluted air. Indeed, it was linked to over 150 deaths in my Huddersfield constituency in 2020. Not only is it a tragic loss of life to this invisible killer but there is a huge economic cost, estimated at £20 billion annually, from the accumulation of treating health conditions and days missed at work.

This is a challenge that we are morally obliged to solve, but reducing air pollution is also vital to our economy, to our health and to the general wellbeing of our society. I am particularly proud to have worked over the past few years with Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, one of our greatest experts on this issue.

It is estimated that just short of 30% of our noxious emissions come from the transport sector, and over 90% of these emissions come from road transport vehicles—the cars, vans and lorries we see every day. Many of the challenges we face on air pollution will take major research, innovation and intervention, which will take considerable time and resources, but we also have an opportunity to seek more rapid, achievable wins. This Bill is at the top of the list.

Tackling diesel emissions can be achieved relatively speedily and, if this House so chooses, the Bill would have a profound impact on air quality in our towns, cities and communities in the short term. The World Health Organisation has made it crystal clear that diesel emissions have a dangerous impact on human health, especially respiratory health.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) is familiar with the scale of the challenge, given the tragic case of Ella Kissi-Debrah. Ella’s death and the evidence linked to her case shows just how devastating toxic air can be in urban spaces. Her mother, Rosamund, continues to campaign passionately for change to the law, and we must not let her efforts be in vain.

This brings me to the core purpose of my Bill. All diesel vehicles need to be fitted with fully functioning and fully operational diesel particulate filters—DPFs. A DPF captures and stores dangerous emissions released by the vehicle. If DPFs are not working and are not checked properly, that is how we get the pollution. Independent research shows that a single faulty filter produces the same amount of pollution as a three-lane, 360-mile-long traffic jam with vehicles that have proper, functioning DPFs fitted. That is the distance between my constituency of Huddersfield and Land’s End.

To be fair, as a country, we have made some moves in the right direction. In 2014 and 2018, MOT tests became marginally more rigorous to ensure the proper working of these filters. But now, in 2022, we are being left behind and our MOT tests in this area are once again insufficient and out-of-date. Governments in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany are making faster progress in reducing the levels of ultrafine particulate matter through simple improvements in MOT testing. This is of particular concern to me because one of the things that this does is to accelerate the ageing process. Looking around the Chamber, that concerns some of us very much indeed. In the Netherlands, 10 improved models of devices that test the efficiency of these filters are already set to be approved by this July. The Dutch, using more sensitive technology, are picking up on the real efficiency of these filters. The revised test would require improved sensing technology set at 250,000 particles per cubic centimetre. The current testing system in the UK picks up only 1% of faulty filters. With the higher standard used in the Netherlands, it is estimated that 15% more filters would be identified as faulty.

Checks on diesel particulate filters do make up part of the current requirements for diesel vehicles, but at present the test seeks only to determine if these filters are obviously defective or actually missing. I have been in touch with the Secretary of State for Transport and his ministerial team about this issue on several occasions and have always been told, “We already have safeguards in operation.” However, the fact is that thousands of vehicles are falling through the cracks of this out-of-date testing system, to the serious detriment of air quality and public health nationwide. So, in essence, my Bill would bring the UK up to the highest possible standards in MOTs. It would introduce new sensing technology that would identify less obviously defective but still dangerous filters. It would ensure that vehicles are roadworthy and fit for Britain’s roads. Finally, these more stringent tests would protect the health and wellbeing of millions of drivers, passengers and pedestrians throughout our country.

This Bill is entirely realistic in its ambitions. Its proposal is tried, tested and has been rolled out repeatedly in other countries. It is a small change to make but it would potentially have huge, life-saving impacts. Other countries’ experience has shown the best practice that we can achieve. It is now clear that all we must do is to follow these examples and build consensus across this House and across industry to get these emissions down. In my experience, so many of our constituents want to play a role in addressing the climate change crisis. They may not be Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough or Bill Gates, but they want to help to make a difference in their communities and in our constituencies.

I believe that responsible citizens would readily change their behaviour and support these efforts if they were made aware that their vehicle had a broken filter and was poisoning the air we all breathe. Last week, I presented a Bill to the House that would put a duty on every local authority to audit the quality of its air and annually report this to Parliament. With the support of this House, MOT providers, road users and pedestrians would be able to proceed in the confidence that these changes can be brought into effect without unsustainable costs for garages or for drivers.

What is clear is that we cannot afford to wait. We are making advances in technologies such as hydrotreated vegetable oil fuel—with the help of Lord Tebbit’s son, William Tebbit—and hydrogen and battery technologies are moving forward, but not fast enough. The UK should not be a follower in making MOT tests more rigorous; it should be a leader. We continue to hold the presidency of COP26 and there is still a window to show decisive, bold and thoughtful leadership. Let us take this step together and move closer towards achieving a goal that we should all share across this House: that our children, grandchildren, friends, family and loved ones are united in the right to breathe clean air.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Barry Sheerman, Clive Efford, Christine Jardine, Geraint Davies, Kim Leadbeater, Dr Philippa Whitford, Huw Merriman and Sir Robert Goodwill, present the Bill.

Mr Barry Sheerman accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March, and to be printed (Bill 252).

Opposition Day

[12th Allotted Day]

Cost of Living and Food Insecurity

I beg to move,

That this House is concerned that households are bracing themselves for the biggest drop in living standards in thirty years; notes that the cost of living crisis includes steep price increases in everyday and essential food items, making the situation worse for the 4.7 million adults and 2.5 million children already living in food insecurity and risking more people experiencing food insecurity; regrets that the Government is making the cost of living crisis worse through tax hikes, low growth, falling real wages, and a failure to tackle the energy crisis; condemns a decade of Conservative-led governments for leaving Britain uniquely exposed to a global gas crisis and failing to create high paid, secure jobs; and calls upon the Government to set out a national strategy for food including how it intends to ensure access to high quality, sustainable, affordable food for all and meet the United Nations goal to end hunger by 2030.

Members on all sides are hearing more and more from desperately worried constituents who are concerned about rocketing household bills and the cost of food, but where is the Secretary of State? Where is the Cabinet Member responsible for this Department? The person who sits around the table with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor has not even bothered to turn up to this debate. That is absolutely scandalous. Is it that they do not understand the real-life consequences of food poverty and rocketing bills? The darkness of poverty is not just not being able to turn the lights on; it is being driven into debt and despair because you cannot afford to live. And the darkness is not just at night time: it is during the day when the curtains are closed because you are fearful of the debt collector knocking on the door. That is the darkness of poverty. That is what is clearly not understood by this Government, who are too busy saving the job of one person, the Prime Minister, instead of getting on with the job of running the country—Operation Shaggy Dog in full force—and I think that is absolutely outrageous. While the Government are putting all their energies into desperately trying to save the Prime Minister, they are hitting hard-working families with a triple whammy.

I do not think the operation was called Operation Shag a Dog, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to correct the House.

I am happy to clarify the record. I am, of course, referring to the Dulux dog, my favourite being Digby, although everyone has their own favourite.

Let us return to the real task in hand, because as much as we talk about the fun of Parliament and the Prime Minister’s latest crisis and turmoil, this debate is about the people of this country. The people of this country are being ignored while Downing Street is in despair: first, there is the cost of living crisis on food, energy bills and goods; secondly, the universal credit cut, cutting the income of 6 million families; and, finally, putting up taxes on working people and businesses, leaving us with the biggest tax burden for 70 years.

Is not part of the reason why the Secretary of State is not here perhaps that some of us will ask why the Department has been sitting for 18 months on a report on food bank use and ask what is driving that?

There is that, but I have no idea what the Environment Secretary does. I remember going up to Durham at the height of Storm Arwen, when families were disconnected from electricity for two weeks and more. The Environment Secretary, who sits around the Cabinet table with the Prime Minister, did not even turn up, and that matters to people.

I will make some progress. The cost of everyday and essential food items, on which millions of low-paid families depend, are soaring even faster than the headline rate of inflation. As campaigner Jack Monroe explained on “Good Morning Britain”, the cheapest rice at one supermarket was 45p for a kilogram this time last year and it is now £1 for half that. That is a 344% increase, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable households the hardest. A can of baked beans has gone up by 45% and bread by 29%. All those are the staple of a household cupboard.

I will make some progress. As oil and gas giants are seeing more profits than the whole of the Treasury corporation tax take combined, Labour has been clear that a windfall tax should be levied on companies that are profiting, cushioning rocketing household energy bills and helping hard-working families here in Britain.

My hon. Friend is making a really important point. Last year, the Meadows food bank, just one of the food banks in my constituency, gave out 38 tonnes of food and fed 40,000 meals to over 2,000 households. Does he share my concern that, with rising food and energy prices, those numbers will be even higher in 2022?

My hon. Friend shows us the contrast of an excellent local MP highlighting the work of the Meadows food bank, because we know the difference that it makes. Frankly, I find it sickening to see Conservative MPs carrying out the same visits. They are in government, and the job of Government is to make sure that there is not a need for food banks, not to turn up for a photoshoot.

On top of the cost of living crisis, the Government are making the situation even worse. The national insurance rise in April will cost the average household £600 a year more. The freeze in the personal tax allowance will cost £78 and petrol will be up £250 a year, with real wages and pensions set to fall further. This is firmly a bills bombshell and it is made straight at the door of Downing Street.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the clear points that he is making. In Northern Ireland, 13% of people—241,000 people—are in poverty, with 17% of children and 14% of pensioners in poverty. With the 5% increase that the chief executive officer of Tesco said yesterday would happen to food prices, those in poverty are unfortunately facing a perfect storm that will mean they are in even worse poverty. Does the hon. Member agree that, for those reasons, this Labour motion should be supported?

I thank the hon. Member so much for that. Northern Ireland is a beautiful part of the world, but that is partly because it is so sparsely populated and rural. On top of the premium related to poverty, there is also a rural premium, where many energy-efficient homes are more expensive to heat and, in many cases, gas oil has to be transported in rather than piped in. That has a significant premium that is felt acutely by many communities.

I will make some progress.

We have heard that food bank use has rocketed significantly, and it cannot be right that so many food parcels are given out. It is right that volunteers step up, but we are one of the richest countries in the world and it should not be needed. I am proud of the efforts of the British people in supporting one another, and many of us have stood shoulder to shoulder with them, while at least one Government Member was earning £1,400 an hour helping tax havens to take on the UK Government. Volunteers up and down the country rallied, including groups in Oldham such as Mahdlo Youth Zone, where I volunteered to deliver sandwich packets during the school holidays, and the REEL project, where food parcels were being given out. [Interruption.] Let me tell the hecklers on the Government side the reality of this: those food parcels, made up by volunteers, were being given out to people after work—people in care uniforms and NHS staff were coming to collect those food parcels. This affects a lot of people in the community, and it is an absolute scandal that, instead of accepting that, the best we hear from the Government Benches is heckling.

I want to make some progress. As chair of the Co-operative party, I am proud that food justice has always been fundamental to our movement. Today, we have co-operative retail societies leading from the front in supporting the great efforts of Manchester’s son Marcus Rashford to ensure that kids do not go hungry. Our food justice campaign has highlighted that the Government signed up to UN sustainable development goal 2, which is to end food hunger by 2030, but they do not seem to realise that that is in just eight years’ time. Where is their sense of urgency in making sure we meet our international obligations under that SDG?

The Government will also know that this country is deeply unequal. Their own figures show that the north-east and the north-west of England have the highest level of food insecurity in the country, yet ensuring access to a healthy diet does not feature at all in their levelling-up agenda. Let me tell the Government that they can’t level up when people are going hungry.

Central to this is how we support the amazing work of farmers and British producers, who produce some of the best-quality produce in the world. Britain should be a beacon for quality, high standards, ethical treatment of animals, lower carbon production and environmental protections, but at every turn they are undermined or sold out by this Government, who are more interested in bankers in the Shard than farmers in the shires.

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling on the Welsh Labour Government to work with farmers? At the moment, there is a target for tree planting, which is all well and good but it needs to respect farmers’ knowledge of grade A agricultural land, so that we have a secure future for farming in Wales.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman takes me on to the Welsh Government, who are leading from the front on this. We look on in England and see residents in Wales being given better access to welfare, school meals and prescriptions than people in England. But I share the fundamental concern that corporations in the City of London are buying farmland across the UK for carbon offsetting. That is not right, and it has the implications of undermining British farming production, rewilding and nature. It is really important that this Conservative Government come forward with a UK strategy to deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman is making a series of good points. Does he share my concern that the Government’s plans for environmental land management schemes provide an incentive for landowners to clear off their tenants from the land, take big loads of cash from the taxpayer and leave those farmers without work, wrecking not only the local environment but the rural economy, and massively reducing our ability to produce our own food, thus increasing food prices in the process?

Absolutely. We all welcome the fact that we bring in produce from all over the world, as it gives variety and helps maintain consumer price. But it is really important that we do not undermine British produce in that process, and that we understand the importance of seasonality and of food security. If we allow food production here in the UK to be eroded and diminished, the time will come when we cannot feed our own population. That will be the real risk. The Government are watching this now and are allowing wealthy landowners on big estates to get rid of tenant farmers in favour of rewilding, and the Government are paying them for that. It is outrageous.

I am going to make some progress for a moment and then I will take the intervention, depending on the time. Food processors and farmers face steeply rising energy, fuel, carbon dioxide, fertiliser and other costs. Because of the Government’s failure to plan, our food supply chains are missing crop pickers, meat factory workers and lorry drivers. In addition, crops are wasting in the fields and there are gaps on supermarket shelves. Immorally, we have seen the cull of 35,000 pigs because the butchers were not available to send them to our supermarkets.

But the Government are not just standing by; they are actively making matters worse. Only yesterday, the Government had to issue another notice, warning of devastation in the pig industry caused, in part, by labour shortages. What an absolute waste. It is immoral to see people go hungry in this country while food is wasted. What is more, whether it is the Prime Minister, the Chancellor or the Governor of the Bank of England, every decision and every action must pass this simple test: does it make life better for working people, or does it continue to put more and more pressure on living standards?

Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that Oldham Foodbank is having to feed more than 1,000 people a month, as he knows? As the cost of living squeeze increases, those generous Oldhamers who have been helping source food for the food bank will get fewer and fewer, because it will not just be the people on the lowest incomes who are affected; it will span middle income groups too. What does he have to say to that?

Like my hon. Friend and neighbour, I think the work that our volunteers do at Oldham Foodbank reflects the work done in food banks up and down this country. They are the very best of us. They make sure that people do not go hungry, but they rely on the charity of our neighbours, and if our neighbours are struggling to put food in their own cupboards, that will have an impact on what they are able to donate to the local food bank. That is the reality, but where is the Government’s plan for that? How are we going to tackle the cost of living crisis and ensure that the safety net is in place? We just do not see it. That is a real issue that we need to address.

Will the hon. Gentleman congratulate the Welsh Labour Government and Plaid Cymru on coming to a historic 46-point agreement for the next three years, which includes such matters as free school meals for primary school children? Will he also commend the fact that the agreement stiffens Labour’s resolve to turn its fine words for many years into real action now?

This is my point—words into action is important in politics. People are so fed up with politicians saying one thing and doing another, and making promises that are not kept, that when they see a Government in power who do exactly what they say they are going to do—on free school meals, the natural environment and those issues that matter—people begin to rebuild trust in politics. I think we have seen that during the pandemic and how people viewed the Welsh Labour Government in power and making that real difference.

To conclude, Labour has a five-point plan to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis: restrictions on junk food advertising; promoting healthy food choices in supermarkets; clearer calorie and nutritional information; a ban on the sale of energy drinks to our children; and public health weight management programmes to support people to live healthier lives. But we want to go even further and to realise real food justice. Let us compare that with the Government. More than six months on, the Secretary of State is incapable of agreeing his food White Paper.

Labour is committed to fixing Britain’s broken food system. Fundamentally, we should live in a country where working people earn enough through their work to put food on the table. In short, that means putting food justice at the heart of Labour’s contract to deliver security, prosperity and respect for the British people. After 11 years, the Government stand on a shameful record of high taxes, low growth and rocketing bills. It is clear that they have run out of ideas, and the British people have run out of patience.

I start by paying tribute to all those who work around the clock to keep the nation fed, whether that is in fields, processing plants, factories, wholesalers or stores, and those who move our goods around. The pandemic has reminded us that domestic food production really matters. Our production-to-supply ratio remains relatively high, judged against historical levels. If we look at the foods we can produce here, it remains healthy at 70%, and that has been stable for the past 20 years or so. We are close to 100% self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes, for example.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for food security, including household food security, and monitoring it.

I would be delighted to give way to the hon. Lady. She and I have discussed these issues many times.

We have indeed. Both the current Secretary of State, during the Committee stage of the Agriculture Bill, and the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), when he spoke with me at the Oxford real farming conference, made a pledge to support more county farms and peri-urban farming, so that cities such as Bristol could produce food locally. We were promised funding, but it does not seem to have appeared. Can the Minister tell me what the Department is doing on that front?

It is always a real pleasure to talk to the hon. Lady about these matters, because she has really leant into them over the years, and the work of her all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy has been very helpful. I should be delighted to meet her again to talk about what we can do for county and peri-urban farms. We are putting together a new entrants strategy as part of our environmental land management plans. We have not quite finalised that work, but I think it would be a good idea if I could meet her so that she can feed into the work that we are doing.

Does the Minister agree that there is no reason why we should not produce 100% of the temperate food that we need? We lost a huge amount of market share when the common agricultural policy was introduced, and some of us want to get that back now that we are out of the CAP. Is it not better to cut the food miles and rely on local jobs and local production?