House of Commons
Wednesday 9 February 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Inflation: Households and Businesses
The Chancellor announced a £9.1 billion energy bills rebate last week. This includes a £200 energy bill discount for households across the UK, including Wales, as well as an additional £175 million to the Welsh Government.
On Monday, this Conservative Government imposed a real-terms cut to social security benefits and pensions of approximately 4%. This is on top of the hike in national insurance contributions, the rise in the energy price cap and cuts to universal credit and working tax credit, which the Bevan Foundation in Wales has estimated will take approximately £286 million out of the Welsh economy. People in Wales are genuinely fearful of the impact that these cuts are going to have on living standards, so I ask the Secretary of State: how can he justify voting for these measures, which will not only exacerbate existing poverty but drive more and more people into hardship and poverty?
The hon. Lady has constituents, as we all do, who are of course concerned about the cost of living challenges ahead, but I hope I can reassure her by naming, as I have already done, a few of the measures we are putting in place. They include the substantial additional money via the Barnett formula for the Welsh Government, but also the universal credit taper is worth £1,000 per household, the increase in the living wage is also worth £1,000 a year for those in receipt of it and there are the warm home discounts. Of course, the main thrust of what we are trying to do is create the right circumstances for a jobs-led recovery.
I can only refer the hon. Member to my earlier comments. We want to be extremely sure, just like him, because Conservative Members have a similar dynamic in our own constituencies, that we are putting in place everything we can, whether that is the universal credit taper, the increase in the living wage, an increase in the tax threshold, or indeed the jobs-led recovery I have mentioned. The fact is that the economic prospects for the UK, including Wales, are actually growing at a reasonable pace, although it can always be faster and greater. I am hoping I can reassure his constituents, just as I am attempting to reassure mine, that we have their best interests at heart when it comes to food poverty.
People do understand the need to provide more money for health and social care, but Welsh businesses and workers—they now face rampant inflation, bringing escalating costs and reduced consumer spending power—are angry that the UK Government are hitting them with the national insurance rise while the Chancellor has simply written off billions. What talks has the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues about implementing concerted efforts to recover the £5 billion of taxpayers’ money taken fraudulently by criminals in covid support, and about engaging with companies that were vastly overpaid by the UK Government for personal protective equipment contracts on recognising their corporate social responsibility and returning excess profits, rather than hitting workers and businesses across Wales with this national insurance rise?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about fraud. All I can tell her is that the Treasury is a world leader in tracking down, eliminating and reducing the risk of fraud, and I think she should give it some credit for the remarkable work that it has already done in that respect.
An 80-year-old constituent of mine has contacted me to say that he and his 78-year-old wife currently pay £68 a month on energy bills and they just about manage, but they have been told that that will go up to nearly £3,000 for the year. Meanwhile, BP has announced its highest profits in years. The Government’s answer is to hand out loans, but Labour has a plan to make energy companies pay. My constituent is worried and angry, and he wrote to me asking me to shout and scream at the Secretary of State. I do not think that will work, but what does he expect me to say to my constituent?
What I hope I could pass on to the hon. Lady’s constituent is that deploying the usual Labour response to pretty well every problem in the world, which is to find somebody and tax them, is not the right answer, because that would have a knock-on cost that would then be picked up by the very constituent she mentioned. The idea that tax is anything other than a disincentive in this particular instance is a myth. Much more important are our attempts to make sure that families in the position her constituent points out are looked after to the best of our ability.
As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, the Chancellor has announced that 80% of English households will receive a £150 council tax rebate with effect from April this year. As a consequence, the Welsh Government have received an additional £175 million under the Barnett formula. Is it a matter of regret to him, as it is to me, that the Welsh Government have not yet announced that that money will be passed on to Welsh council tax payers, who are entitled to precisely the same benefits as their English counterparts?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The Treasury was explicit in what the Barnett consequentials were for the Welsh Government, and I agree with him. I do not understand why families and businesses in Wales are still unclear about how that money will be used.
People in rural areas will be at a particular disadvantage during the upcoming energy price crisis. About two thirds of my constituents are not connected to the gas grid and are therefore not covered by the protection of the energy price cap. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as rural areas will experience particular hardship, the Welsh Government have a responsibility to act fast to get the £175 million that they have just received out the door as quickly as possible?
Absolutely. I refer to my earlier answer. That is critical, because we probably have a higher proportion of people in Wales in that position than almost anywhere else in the UK. So this is urgent, and I urge Labour Members to put as much pressure as they can on their colleagues in Cardiff to make it happen.
I certainly will. There is a contrast worth highlighting, as the Government’s solutions to these problems are to provide direct and positive interventions for families across Wales rather than defaulting to the lazy position of finding an energy producer and taxing it, as if that would resolve the problem.
It is not just record inflation that is hitting Welsh households hard. Rents in Wales have increased by nearly 10% in the last year, the third highest rate in the United Kingdom outside London and Northern Ireland. When it comes to paying bills, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary thinks that a monthly saving on the BBC licence fee of 87p over two years is
“one of the few direct levers we have in our control as a Government.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 39.]
Is that really the extent of the Government’s ambition to help people in Wales cope with a Conservative cost of living crisis?
I am grateful—I think—for the hon. Lady’s question, but she seems to overlook the numerous examples that I have already given, and I have an even longer list of ways in which the UK Government have stepped in, during covid in particular. We have helped protect 470,000 jobs and 60,000 Welsh businesses, dished out £2.4 billion in business loans, increased the living wage and adapted the universal credit taper—I could go on, if only you would allow me, Mr Speaker. She needs to reflect on the long list of positive things to which Labour has contributed almost nothing by way of assistance.
Well, people across Wales are facing the biggest drop in living standards in 30 years under the Secretary of State’s watch. Inflation is at a 10-year high and rising, national insurance levels are increasing by more than 10%—another Tory broken manifesto promise—energy bills are up 54% and rents in Wales are up 10%. Wales is bearing the brunt of the incompetence and chaos not just at No. 10 but at No. 11, while the Secretary of State sits at the Cabinet table and lets it all happen, does he not?
No. The hon. Lady seems to have forgotten that there has been something called a pandemic in the last two years, and that has had a significant effect on the global economy. She also seems to have forgotten that her party is responsible for a number of the standard of living issues in Wales, yet we never hear so much as a squeak of criticism about Welsh Labour’s performance in Cardiff. I urge her again to reflect—perhaps through Hansard tomorrow—on the comments that I have made and the numerous ways in which the Government have intervened in some of these economic challenges, the result of which is that more people are now on the payroll than before the pandemic began and the UK economy is the fastest growing in the G7. Perhaps she should reflect on those facts before raising the issues that she has.
I certainly can. In answering that question, it is also worth reflecting on the fact that the Labour solution around VAT—an interesting recognition of a Brexit dividend—would not have that effect. The Treasury analysis is that Labour’s proposal would unduly hit the families our proposals are designed to help.
Young Audiences Content Fund
There will be a full evaluation of the fund’s impact on the provision of public service broadcasting for young people, including Welsh language content. The Government are committed to Welsh language broadcasting. S4C will receive £88.8 million a year for the first two years of the licence fee settlement, rising in line with inflation thereafter.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. The fund’s 5% target for content in the indigenous languages has been invaluable to producers of Welsh language children’s programmes such as an upcoming drama series about children’s mental health and, of course, the production of new episodes of “Sali Mali”. Mike Young, the producer of “Sam Tan” and the creator of “SuperTed”, has previously stated that those much-loved favourites would not have been made without state support. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the impact of the fund’s closure and ways we can secure the future of original children’s content in the Welsh language?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that issue. I would approach it with an open mind. I will perhaps remind the hon. Gentleman that it was a Conservative Government who established S4C. It was also a Conservative Government who introduced the Welsh Language Act 1993. He may also know that it was a Conservative Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee who allowed Welsh to be spoken for the first time in Select Committee hearings. Modesty prevents me from saying any more on that, but I can assure him that we will always want to support the Welsh language.
Broadband Coverage and Speeds
The Secretary of State recently met the Culture Secretary to discuss the delivery of the UK Government’s £5 billion Project Gigabit, which will deliver gigabit connections to the hardest to reach 20% of the UK. Up to 234,000 homes and businesses in Wales should benefit from this investment.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. According to the House of Commons Library, 17.4% of lines in my constituency receive less than 10 megabits per second, one of the worst records in the British state. It is clear, therefore, that the UK Government and Welsh Government broadband strategies are failing large parts of Carmarthenshire. Will the Wales Office emphasise that mission 4 of the levelling-up White Paper published last week prioritises areas that have been neglected so far?
Those figures are concerning, and I agree that that connectivity needs to become a priority. However, the statistics will also show that the number of homes connected to fast broadband in Wales has risen from just 11% in 2019 to 47% in 2022. That number continues to rise and later this week—in fact, tomorrow—I shall be visiting the Swansea Bay growth deal to look at a project that will further increase connectivity in Wales.
Bore da and diolch, Mr Speaker. Following on from that question about speed and infrastructure in Wales, my hon. Friend may be aware that back in the ’80s and ’90s I travelled quite quickly with my fellow students on the train from Lampeter to Aberystwyth. Will he provide an update on the likelihood of bringing back the train line between Carmarthen, Lampeter and Aberystwyth, especially in the 200th anniversary year of the setting up of St David’s University College in Lampeter?
That is an exciting and interesting suggestion, and one of a number that will be looked at. What I am doing, with the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Transport, is looking at projects already under way, such as the improvements to the north Wales coast line and to the south Wales relief line.
The Conservative manifesto promised gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across Wales, and across the UK, by 2025. How does the Minister justify the levelling down in his Government’s so-called levelling-up White Paper, which now only states targeting 70% to 80% by 2025?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have set some very ambitious targets. I certainly hope we are going to meet them, but I just point out once again that the number of homes connected to fast broadband has risen from just 11% to 47% in three years. I think that is an exceptionally good outcome. I can assure him that we want to see that figure continue to rise.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) is absolutely right to raise this issue, because broadband speeds in urban areas—not only in Wales, but in England—are not always up to the mark. At the same time, will the Minister praise, for example, Openreach, which provides fibre to the premises in very rural areas of Wales such as the Dysynni valley in southern Snowdonia?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend wants to declare a particular interest. Obviously we support Openreach in delivering fibre to the hardest-to-reach areas, but I take him back to the whole purpose of Project Gigabit—to deliver to the hardest-to-reach 20%. The figures already show that we are being very successful in achieving that greater connectivity in rural Wales.
Crown Estate: Devolution
The Scottish Government have awarded 25 GW of offshore wind development rights through Crown Estate Scotland to 17 projects, which has put Scotland at the forefront of global offshore wind development. It is more than double the UK’s existing offshore wind capacity and it will create high-quality jobs and significant local investment. Why does the Secretary of State not think that devolving the Crown Estate to Wales would benefit the people of Wales in the way that it is benefitting the people of Scotland?
I have spoken on this subject recently to port authorities, investors, councils, employees and, most importantly, the public. Not a single person—not one—has suggested to me that the future of floating offshore or, indeed, any other renewables will benefit from the devolution of the Crown Estate. This is an international opportunity for Wales. The supply chain benefits are huge and, actually, the Scottish National party’s ambitions are far too modest in this respect.
The recent devolution of the Crown Estate seabed is predicted to enable Scotland’s offshore wind farms to reliably power around 30 million homes across the United Kingdom. Has the Secretary of State assessed how many millions of homes could be powered by Welsh offshore generation?
I think I caught the majority of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Yes, we have undertaken significant analysis of the potential, but the potential is massively enhanced by this being a UK-wide—an international—approach. It is not enhanced—indeed, it is jeopardised—by constant reference to devolution of the Crown Estate, which seems to be almost off-putting to future investors in this particular sector.
Well, it has not put off investment in Scotland, certainly.
The Crown Estate portfolio in Wales, with its marine assets, has risen in value from £49 million in 2020 to its current value of £603 million. The evidence from Scotland is that it is hugely beneficial for the devolved Government to be handling that and maximising the supply chain opportunities. Why is the Minister not open to the idea of devolving it, or is the message to the people of Wales that when it comes to governance in Wales, Westminster still knows best?
Absolutely not. I made it clear earlier that where I take my advice from and listen the most intently is the views of port authorities, councils, investors, employees and the public. That is what really matters to me. This is about job creation and sustaining jobs and not about looking at every single issue through the prism of independence and what works for the Scottish Government. This is about making this work for the people of Wales, and that is what is important to us.
Devolution of the Crown Estate is a total red herring, and it so cynical of nationalists to turn every issue into an anti-United Kingdom process row. Does my right hon. Friend agree that floating offshore wind represents a hugely important opportunity for Wales, particularly for the port of Milford Haven in my constituency—Milford Haven is shared by his constituency—and will he assure the House that he and his colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are doing everything to ensure that Wales and Pembrokeshire benefit from the opportunities of renewable marine energy?
My right hon. Friend is right; I met the Crown Estate last week and had exactly that conversation. I have to say that it was an exciting, interesting, innovative conversation about all the possibilities that he mentions, which exist across the whole UK but particularly in the Celtic sea. I repeat what I said earlier: the emphasis and impetus come from investors, members of the public and port authorities, not from nationalists who just wish to look at everything through the prism of their own power base.
The Secretary of State has just said that there is no public interest or appetite at all, and that not one person is saying that devolving the Crown Estate is a good idea. By this morning, 10,000 people had already signed a petition asserting Wales’s right to reap the benefits of our own national resources.
The ScotWind auction raised almost £700 million for Scotland’s public finances. To reassure the Secretary of State, this is not a new tax. In the heat of the cost of living crisis, Scottish renewable natural resources generate revenue for the benefit of the Scottish people, providing a better welfare service than in Wales. Is it not clear that devolving the Crown Estate in Scotland has improved the Government’s ability to respond to the cost of living crisis, and so it would in Wales?
Shock, horror—the hon. Gentleman raises that petition. Of course, it represents a tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Wales, even assuming that everybody who signed it is resident in Wales.
I chose my words carefully earlier. The people I want to listen to most intently are the people who will do the work and benefit from the work: port authorities, councils, employees, the public and investors. Every single person I have spoken to about the issue concludes that devolving the Crown Estate is nothing more than a distraction that would actually damage the prospects of its being the success story it deserves to be.
Connectivity and Infrastructure
The Government are committed to levelling up across the whole United Kingdom, including Wales. Better connectivity and infrastructure are key to that, which is why we asked Sir Peter Hendy to conduct the Union connectivity review.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to the actions that he has announced, the Union connectivity review pledges to do much more, including reducing journey times on the east coast rail line and protecting important domestic routes between London and Aberdeen, for example? It shows levelling up in action and is a demonstration of this Government working for the entire United Kingdom, including Wales.
To draw on the link between Wales and Scotland, I congratulate Loganair, which flies between Cardiff and Edinburgh and will no doubt benefit from the cut in air passenger duty for regional airports. As a result, we can expect to see an increase in demand for flights, which is good news for Cardiff airport, good news for travellers and good news for the Union.
Cross-Border Transport Connectivity
Cross-border links are vital to achieving levelling up in every part of the United Kingdom, including Wales. Last week, I met the Welsh Government’s Transport Minister to discuss how our Governments can work together to improve those vital links, including through the recommendations in the Union connectivity review.
If you go by train to north Wales, Mr Speaker, the chances are that you will go through Chester. We have plans ready to go to increase capacity at Chester station, but we are being held up because the Minister’s colleagues in the Westminster Department for Transport will not agree on Union connectivity grants for Network Rail and Transport for Wales. Will he please have a word and tell them to get a move on?
I am sure that my colleagues in Westminster will be doing absolutely everything they can to improve connectivity links between Wales and England, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have a word with his colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government, who have decided to abandon road building in Wales. Traffic congestion is bad for the environment, and a good road network is good for a flourishing economy.
The Llanymynech-Pant bypass proposal is the most important connection for my constituency, although it is 90% in England. I welcome the Treasury Bench’s commitment of £45 million to get it to the next stage, but will the Minister meet with me to ensure that the Welsh Government, with their road blocking and lack of vision on Union connectivity, deliver this road?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I can tell the House today that it is my intention to return on the first day after the half-term recess to present our strategy for living with covid. Provided that the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions, including the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test, a full month early.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The Northern Ireland protocol frustrates business, undermines the Belfast agreement, and restricts the free movement of goods and people within our United Kingdom. What action will my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Union take to reunite the UK and uphold the interests of all its residents, including those living in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend is quite right. The protocol does not require, contrary to how it is being applied by our friends, all foods, all medicines and all plants to be systematically checked in the way that they are. We must fix it, and with good will and common sense I believe we can. However, if our friends do not show the requisite common sense, we will of course trigger article 60.
Of course, this Government and this country despise those who defraud people, and that is why we crack down on fraudsters. We have strengthened our anti-fraud taskforce and we are bringing forward an economic crime Bill. We also attach huge importance to tackling neighbourhood crime and crimes of violence, and I am pleased that those crimes are down 17%.
The Prime Minister’s answer has a big hole in it. We have had lockdowns for the past two years; two crimes that people could commit were online fraud and throwing parties. So far as I can see, the numbers for both have gone through the roof.
However, I was asking the Prime Minister about the 14,000 cases of fraud a day. Many older people have been duped out of hard-earned savings, but the Business Secretary casually suggests on TV, “Don’t worry; it’s not real crime.” There is a crime gang in Manchester nicking cars and shipping them around the world, all financed by covid loans from the taxpayer. What is the Chancellor’s response? Write off £4 billion in losses, and block an investigation by the National Crime Agency. The Prime Minister’s Cabinet is turning a blind eye to scammers. Is it any wonder that his anti-fraud Minister realised that no one in Government seemed to care and threw in the towel?
No, because what we are doing is tackling crime across the board. That is why we are investing more in tackling fraud, but we are also tackling the neighbourhood crime that does such massive psychological damage to people in this country. We are tackling knife crime, burglary and crimes of violence in the street with tougher sentences—which Labour voted against, by the way—and putting more police out on the street. And we are able to afford it because we have a strong economy and we are coming back strongly from covid, and that is thanks to the big calls that this Government got right.
The Prime Minister’s anti-fraud Minister quit, saying that the failure of Government to tackle fraud was “so egregious” that he had to
“smash some crockery to get people to take notice.”
It seems that the Prime Minister has not noticed the broken plates and shattered glass all around him. It is almost as if he has been completely distracted for weeks.
Talking of scams, households are going to have to fork out an extra £19 billion on their energy bills. The Government are insulting people’s intelligence by pretending they are giving them a discount. It is not; it is a con. It is a buy now, pay later scheme. A dodgy loan, not a proper plan. [Interruption.] He shakes his head, so let me put this in language he might understand. When his donors give him cash to fund his lifestyle and tell him he has to pay it all back later, are they giving him a loan or a discount?
Our plan to tackle the cost of living is faster, more efficient and more generous than anything that Labour has set out. We have lifted the living wage by record amounts, we have cut the effective tax for people on universal credit and we are now setting out a fantastic plan to help people with the cost of energy. It is more generous and more effective than anything Labour has set out. It is £9.1 billion—it is huge sums that we are using to help people across the country—and the only reason we can afford it is that we have a strong economy, the fastest growing in the G7— as I think I may have pointed out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman last week—not just last year but this year as well.
The Prime Minister clearly hasn’t got the first clue what the Chancellor has signed him up to, so let me help him out. His plan is to hand billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash to energy companies and then force families to pay it off in instalments for years to come. If it sounds like he is forcing people to take out a loan, and it looks like he is forcing people to take out a loan, is it not just forcing people to take out a loan?
We are giving people in bands A to D council tax valuations across the country—27 million homes—the equivalent of a £150 rebate off their council tax. Labour’s offer is £89. Ours is faster, more generous and more effective. This is a global problem, caused by the spike in gas prices, but what Labour would do is clobber the oil and gas companies right now—[Interruption.] Yes they would—with a tax that would deter investment in gas, just when this country needs gas as we transition to green fuel. It would be totally ridiculous, and it would raise prices for consumers.
There is an alternative. The Prime Minister can stand up to his Chancellor and tell him to support families rather than loading them with debt. He can tell him to look at those bumper profits of the oil and gas giants. Shell’s profits are up £14 billion this year. BP’s profits are up £9.5 billion this year. Every second of the day, they have made £750 extra profit from rising prices. At the same time, households are facing an extra £700 a year on their bills. Why on earth are this Government forcing loans on British families when they should be asking those with an unexpected windfall to pay a little more to keep household bills down?
The Labour plan would clobber suppliers. It is an improvement on what I thought the right hon. Gentleman stood for, which was nationalising the energy companies. Maybe he has dropped that one now. I cannot tell whether he has dropped that one; maybe he has. What he would be doing is hitting the energy companies at precisely the moment when we need to encourage them to go for more gas, because we need to transition now to cleaner fuels, and this Government are providing £9.1 billion of support. It is more generous than anything Labour is offering.
I repeat my point: the only reason we can do it is that we kept our economy moving in those hard times, when Labour took the wrong decisions. We came out of lockdown in July last year when the Leader of the Opposition opposed it, and we kept going over Christmas and new year when they opposed it, and that is why we have the fastest-growing economy in the G7, not just last year but this year as well, as I never tire of saying.
The Prime Minister can bluff and bluster all he likes. The reality is this. On top of the Tory tax rises, on top of the soaring prices, the loan shark Chancellor and his unwitting sidekick have now cooked up a buy-now, pay-later scheme. It leaves taxpayers in debt, while oil and gas companies say that they have more money than they know what to do with. It is the same old story with this Government: get in a mess, protect their mates and ask working people to pick up the bill. But is the Prime Minister not worried that everyone can now see that with this Prime Minister and this Chancellor it is all one big scam, and people across the country are paying the price?
What they can see is a Government who are absolutely committed to doing the right thing for the people of this country and taking the tough decisions, when Labour is calling for us to take the easy way out and spend more taxpayers’ money. It was this Government who decided to keep going in July, when the Leader of the Opposition wanted to stay in lockdown. We kept going over Christmas and new year.
By the way, it occurs to me that we were also able to use those Brexit freedoms to deliver the fastest booster roll-out and the fastest vaccine roll-out—[Interruption.] Yes, when the Leader of the Opposition not only voted 48 times to go back into the EU—yes he did—but he also voted to stay in the European Medicines Agency.
Our plan for jobs is working. We have record low youth unemployment. Our plan for the NHS and care is working. Labour has no plan at all. Our plan for the country is working. We have a great vision to unite and level up across our country. Labour has no plan whatever. I say to him: plan beats no plan. We have a great plan for our country; they play politics.
Yes. I think it was only last week that I was congratulating my hon. Friend on her fantastic advocacy for nuclear in Ynys Môn. Do not forget, Mr Speaker, that Labour allowed nuclear capacity to decline by 11% on their watch; I do not think my hon. Friend has forgotten that. We want to get back up there, and that is why there will be at least one big nuclear project this Parliament—at least one—and our Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill will support that objective.
Mr Speaker, I am sure that you and the entire House will want to join me in welcoming the Remembering Srebrenica campaign, that launched our yearly events in Parliament last night. We must all continue to strive for ongoing peace in Bosnia.
The flurry of changes in Downing Street over the last few days is a sight to behold. It is amazing how much energy this Prime Minister can sum up when it comes to saving his own skin. But while he has been busy rearranging the deckchairs, in the real world people continue to be punished by the Tory cost of living crisis. Yesterday, openDemocracy found that as a direct result of the Chancellor’s national insurance hike nurses will, on average, take a £275-a-year pay cut in April. That pay cut will hit at the very same moment that soaring energy bills land—bills that have shot up £1,000 in the space of a year.
It is a bill day and the rest of the public simply cannot afford it. So, rather than the Prime Minister and the Chancellor scrapping over the Tory leadership, will they do something useful and scrap their regressive hike in national insurance?
It was interesting that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) did not mention that, because I think everybody can see how vital this is. We have to clear our covid backlogs; we have 6 million people already on the waiting lists; I am afraid that will go up, and we need to be recruiting the staff now. That is why we are recruiting 50,000 more nurses. There are 11,000 more this year than there were last year. To the point made by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), let me say that we have increased the starting salary for nurses by 12.8%, in addition to the bursaries and other help that we give them. We value our nurses, we love our NHS and we are paying for it.
Actions speak louder than words and if the Prime Minister wants to reward nurses, he needs to pay them. They are the very backbone of the national health service—the very people he is hitting with a pay cut in April. I should not have to remind the Prime Minister that at the same time as those nurses were going into work every day to fight a pandemic, 16 different parties were happening in his Government. The public know what nurses sacrificed during the pandemic, and they know exactly what this rule-breaking Prime Minister and his Government were up to. So are the Prime Minister and his Chancellor seriously telling those nurses that their reward for seeing us through the pandemic is a £270 wage cut?
What we are telling the people of this country now is that we back our fantastic nurses all the way. What they want is more nurses, which is why record numbers are in training and why we had 11,000 more in the NHS this year than there were last year. Those are fantastic investments in our country and in our society, and I must say that it is peculiar that, as I understand it, the Scottish nationalist party’s approach to healthcare is now to cut off the bottom of doors in schools in Scotland in order to improve ventilation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson), who is truly a modern-day Lady Wulfruna. She is completely right; Wolverhampton and the Black Country were at the heart of the first industrial revolution and they are at the heart of the current 21st-century green industrial revolution. I am very glad that since April 2020 we have seen 125,000 starts for the sector-based work academy programme, partly at least thanks to her lobbying and support, and wild horses will not keep me away from Wolverhampton.
Seventy-four-year-old Janet had £25,000 stolen by fraudsters. She told the BBC:
“The money was my mum and dad’s and I just felt I let them down.”
For Janet, and for the 4 million people who fell victim to fraudsters and online scammers last year, fraud is a crime. So does the Prime Minister understand the hurt that he and his Ministers cause fraud victims such as Janet when they write them out of the crime figures and dismiss fraud as something that people do not experience in their day-to-day lives? Will the Prime Minister correct the record on crime figures, and apologise?
I direct the House to what I have already said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer). The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that this Government hate fraud and online fraud. We are tackling the scammers by helping people to come forward when they get an email—when they get duped. We are of course helping them in any way that we can, but we are also cutting the crime that affects people up and down our country—the neighbourhood crime—and dealing with the county lines drugs gangs, and the right hon. Gentleman should support that as well. I am proud that those numbers have come down by 17%.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for everything she does to support education for girls. Twelve years of quality education for every girl in the world is probably the single most transformative thing we can do to improve the world. I remember working with my friend Uhuru Kenyatta on that declaration and we will certainly ensure that everybody at the Commonwealth meeting signs up to it.
Yes, I agree completely that there must be a solution that commands cross-community support. At the moment, there is no doubt that the balance of the Good Friday agreement is being upset by the way that the protocol is being operated, and we need to fix that. That is what we will do, and, if our friends will not agree, we will, as I said earlier, implement article 16.
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion, which is both interesting and ingenious. The oil and gas companies create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the UK, and they are very important to our economy. I will do what I can to take forward his request for a meeting with them, but I remind him and the House that we have frozen fuel duty for 12 years in a row, saving people £15 in the cost of filling up their tanks, compared with 2010.
I do not think that the hon. Lady should let the thugs and yobs who bullied and harassed the right hon. and learned Gentleman off the hook, because they are culpable, any more than she should let the Iranian Government off the hook, because they are culpable.
Since 2017, referrals for children’s mental health have gone up by 60%. Eating disorders among young girls have gone up by 400% since lockdown, and we know that social media companies play a huge part in that. Given that social media platforms such as TikTok are providing “crack for kids” in terms of adult content, negative imagery and addictive algorithms, will my right hon. Friend consider implementing a 2% levy on social media companies, which would raise £100 million to fund mental health resilience programmes for children?
I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned on this issue assiduously, and he is quite right about the psychological damage that social media can do. I have heard what he has had to say recently about TikTok. We will see what we can do to address all these issues in the forthcoming online harms Bill.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is wrong in what she says, because we are investing massively in Yorkshire—investing in 640 more police in Yorkshire and investing in education in Yorkshire—but she has misunderstood what we said at the time of the £96 billion integrated rail plan. What we are saying is that we will look at ways in which we can ensure that we protract the eastern leg of High Speed Rail from north of Birmingham to Bradford. What we are not doing is coming up with a scheme before we have decided exactly what to do and how to fund it, but we are not ruling it out.
I served my country with pride in the Royal Green Jackets. I will always be a rifleman and a veteran. I welcome the veterans’ strategy that the Prime Minister has just brought out, but I ask him whether veterans will always be at the heart of this Government’s strategy and whether everything will be done to see that they always get what they need and are honoured?
Yes, that is why we have set up an Office for Veterans’ Affairs and have ensured that veterans get preferential treatment on public transport, which was one of the first things I did when I became Prime Minister. It is why we ensure that veterans receive particular support and encouragement in employment, and we encourage employers to take on veterans as well.
That is a curious question to come from a Member on the Benches that contain someone who took, I think, £586,000 from the Chinese Government to support his office. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that this Government took the brave and necessary step of making sure that we excluded Huawei from our critical national infrastructure, and that was the right thing to do, whatever he says.
May I ask the Prime Minister a question about Sue Gray’s report—[Interruption.] Colleagues may groan, but I am only asking it because I asked the Prime Minister this question last week and did not get a straight answer. It is important, because it is about those who make the law obeying the law. The Prime Minister wants to be judged on the facts, and that is right, so may I ask him for a commitment at the Dispatch Box? On conclusion of the Metropolitan police investigation, will he ensure that Sue Gray’s final report is published immediately and in full?
With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, I believe that I did answer that question last Monday, or whenever it was—possibly last Wednesday as well. I will repeat for the benefit of the House that as soon as all the inquiries are concluded I will immediately publish in full whatever Sue Gray gives me.
I thank the hon. Lady for that question and for all the hard work she does on behalf of Nazanin. We remain committed to securing the release of Nazanin and all the very difficult consular cases that we have in Iran. As the hon. Lady knows, the International Military Services, or IMS, debt is difficult to settle and square away for all sorts of reasons to do with sanctions, but we will continue to work on it and I will certainly make sure that we have another meeting with Richard Ratcliffe in due course.
Dover is once again beset by miles of traffic jams along the motorways, affecting residents and local businesses alike—not because of Brexit but because of Brussels bureaucracy and red tape. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how we can invest in our local roads, the M2, the M20 and the Dover traffic assessment project to unclog those roads once and for all, and how we can get rid of the unnecessary red tape for a trading global Britain?
Afghanistan Humanitarian Crisis: UK Response
The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains deeply concerning. In January, the UN requested nearly $4.5 billion for 2022—the largest humanitarian appeal on record. The UN has announced that it will be holding an international pledging conference on 31 March, and the UK is strongly supportive of that conference. On 28 January 2022, the Foreign Secretary announced £97 million of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan from the UK. This latest allocation of vital support delivers the Prime Minister’s promise to double the aid to Afghanistan, to £286 million. By the end of January 2022, we had disbursed over £176 million in aid, and will disburse the remainder by the end of this financial year—that is, the end of March.
UK aid allocated since October is supporting over 60 hospitals, providing health services for more than 300 million people, ensuring that 4.47 million people get emergency food assistance through the World Food Programme, and will provide 6.1 million people with emergency health, water, protection, shelter and food, through the UN Afghanistan humanitarian fund.
In addition to providing immediate assistance, we are playing a leading role in international efforts to address multiple causes of the crisis. The provision of basic services such as health and education remains critical. We continue to explore solutions for service delivery such as payment of frontline delivery workers. We are working closely and monitoring Afghanistan’s economy, specifically its lack of liquidity, and we are working with partners to seek solutions. The UK also played a key role pressing for a resolution establishing a humanitarian exemption under the UN Afghanistan sanctions regime. On 27 January, the UK Government laid legislation to implement UN security Council resolution 2615. That will save lives and reduce the impediments faced by humanitarian agencies.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the Minister for her response.
The stark reality is that Britain can and must do more to rise to this horrific challenge. The inescapable facts are that the Taliban won and we lost, but we had previously promised that the military withdrawal would not be followed by economic and political withdrawal. Indeed, in 2010, when we announced the end of the combat role for British troops, we doubled aid and development spending from the UK as we had promised.
Although the £286 million pledged recently is extremely welcome, it is still not clear over what period it is all being spent and whether it is new and additional funding. It is, however, clear that it is not enough. The tremendous response to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal for Afghanistan in December shows too that the British people do not think it is enough, as once again ordinary citizens across Britain have responded magnificently.
The appalling reports from brave journalists such as Christina Lamb cannot be read without tears of anguish at the plight of our fellow human beings, who are selling their daughters into early marriage and parting with body organs to provide food for their families. This is not science fiction; these are facts, attested to by British journalists and charities working on the ground while the World Food Programme is trying desperately to feed 20 million starving people.
Some 90% of the people in Afghanistan do not have enough to eat. Five million are living in camps. Four million are just over the border in Iran, and they will not stay there; they will be heading for Europe and for Britain before long. UN professionals have made clear that $4.4 billion is required, and, typically, fair burden-sharing would mean that the UK would agree to provide about 10% of that. Why is the UK not hosting this important and welcome pledging conference in March?
Before the Prime Minister decided to vaporise the Department for International Development, there were dedicated officials, steeped in the practicalities and respected across the world, who were able to bring together the necessary technical skills, connections and experience to lead the international community to a better and more responsible place. As Britain’s International Development Secretary, I spent half my time urging, pleading and cajoling my counterparts in the rich world to step up to the plate. Britain led, and the international community followed. We need the same oomph, the same vigour from Britain today to make this happen. It is not just an appeal to our humanity; it is firmly and completely in our own national interest.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the generosity of the British people in responding to this very serious humanitarian crisis. It is a deeply tragic situation. However, the UK Government have also responded, and have shown leadership across the world. The £286 million that we have promised will be spent by the end of this financial year. It has been spent continually over this period, and will be spent by 31 March. That is the date on which the United Nations will host its new donor conference, and the UK is absolutely supportive of that initiative. It is vital that all countries come together through the UN to step up to the mark.
It is also thanks to UK leadership that the United Nations Security Council backed the resolution that we had suggested to enable the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid, while preserving sanctions against the leading Taliban figures. That means that the aid can continue to flow, and will not be held back because of those sanctions. As I said last month, we are also working to encourage the World Bank, as a matter of urgency, to repurpose the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, which would unlock a further $1.5 billion. Indeed, I had discussions with my officials about that just this morning.[Official Report, 21 February 2022, Vol. 709, c. 1MC.]
Let me start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for securing a vital urgent question.
This is not the first time that I have risen to my feet to speak about the humanitarian disaster faced by the people of Afghanistan; nor do I believe that it will be the last. The Opposition have warned continually and forcefully of the catastrophe that is unfolding before our very eyes. We warned that the country was heading towards a humanitarian cliff edge. We warned that tens of millions of Afghans faced imminent starvation, including millions of children. We warned that the situation would ultimately deteriorate as the country heads into a freezing winter. The response from the Government has been sorely, sorely lacking.
Quite simply, the international community has turned its back on ordinary Afghan people in their time of greatest need. Rather than a stepping up to the plate on the international stage, we have seen a complete withdrawal. It is a scandal that so far all the Government have offered is finally to send the money that it promised, by March. This was money pledged at the beginning of the disaster; things are now much worse. It is no good the Government saying that they have doubled aid when they halved it the previous year. The UK’s financial support for Afghanistan is at the same level as it was in 2019, when there was no impending catastrophe on this scale. Worse still, the Government have so far made no commitment to putting forward any of the additional $4.4 billion asked for by the UN.
This catastrophe will continue to get worse without a co-ordinated international response. It is a moral imperative that we act swiftly to help Afghanistan at its time of greatest need. We know the money can reach the people in need if directed through the United Nations and other partners, so I ask the Minister the following. What communications has she had with her European counterparts on hosting the global pledging conference suggested by me, our former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill)? What representations has she made to free up the $1.2 billion sitting in the World Bank that could be used to pay the wages of Afghan healthcare workers and teachers? Will she commit here today to donate the additional funds to the UN appeal for which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield called? If so, how much?
The appalling scenes in Afghanistan should not divide the opinion of the House. I plead with the Government to do the right and moral thing and urgently step up their response to this unfolding tragedy.
It is extremely important, when we talk about such a tragic situation, that we get the facts right about what the UK Government are doing on behalf of the British people. We have announced and already spent more than £176 million of aid, which is supporting more than 60 hospitals, providing health services to more than 300,000 people, ensuring that more than 4 million people are getting emergency food assistance and providing 6.1 million people with emergency health, water and protection. That is what the UK is already doing, and the money is going out week by week, month by month. As promised, by the end of this financial year, at the end of March, our aid will have reached £286 million.
We also announced £97 million in January. As I said last time I was at the Dispatch Box on this subject, it is incredibly important that we work with partners across the world and support the UN, which has announced the largest ever appeal. That is why we are working with it and supporting its donor-led conference.
We are also working to unlock the money at the World Bank. It is a complex issue that involves bringing different people together, but we are leading on that. We have also led on unlocking the money that is getting to the people who need it, because of the exemption we helped to introduce on sanctions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on dragging the focus of this House away from the playground and back to the real and terrible world.
I am wearing the emblem of the genocide in Srebrenica. What we are witnessing in Afghanistan is virtually genocide by starvation. We cannot, in a civilised world, allow this to continue. Will my hon. Friend please work with the Ministry of Defence to see how we can practically provide not simply hard cash but food, tents, clothes and the things people really need, not in March but now?
That is an extremely important point, because we are working, as much as we can, to get aid through to the people who need it. We are working through a lot of different organisations, including the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund, the World Food Programme, the International Organisation for Migration, the United Nations Population Fund and the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is also funding local partners.
My colleague Lord Ahmad, the Minister with responsibility for south Asia and the UN, has also met senior Afghan women in this country to help shape the policy and the programme by making sure we hear their feedback. Our policies and programmes are also being informed by Afghan leaders, including Shukria Barakzai, Fawzia Koofi and Hasina Safi. That includes supporting local agencies on the ground, especially those focused on women and girls. Lord Ahmad met them very recently, too.
We hear an awful lot in this place about global Britain—where is global Britain now? The harsh Afghan winter has already set in and the United Nations estimates that only 5% of Afghans have enough good food to eat each day. That was made clear as far back as September and the situation has clearly worsened since. The UK Government have absolutely no excuse if they claim to have been caught by surprise as this famine has developed.
Military operations in Afghanistan cost the UK public purse £28 billion or thereby, and the shambolic handling of the UK and international coalition’s withdrawal from the country has accelerated the current humanitarian disaster. As a former military stakeholder, the UK has a moral obligation to support the wellbeing of Afghan people, so why can the FCDO not find a fraction of that £28 billion to support the UN’s emergency famine appeal? So far, the UK Government have not given anything to the appeal. Support does not cut it: it is money that works. The UK has committed a mere £286 million and only given £176 million of that to date. What is the Minister doing to accelerate the delivery of humanitarian aid to those most in need on the ground in Afghanistan?
As I have already said, the funding the UK is putting in day by day and week by week already supports 4.47 million people in Afghanistan. We recognise that the UN has launched its largest-ever appeal and we are working to unlock the money at the World Bank. The date of that conference has been announced as 31 March and we will be supporting it; we are extremely supportive as it is. However, we are also doing a huge amount of international work, including encouraging Muslim majority countries to play a full role in seeking to influence the Taliban. For example, the Foreign Secretary visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Indonesia in October and November and met the gulf Foreign Ministers again in December to discuss that and other issues. The Prime Minister’s special representative, Nigel Casey, met the Taliban representatives in Oslo last month. We are pushing on all sides, first, to improve the aid that comes in, secondly, to get the aid to the people and, thirdly, to encourage other neighbours and countries to step up to the mark.
Let us cut to the chase: no Minister has met the Taliban. I met them in November and they told me to my face that they could not cope. That is what is leading to extreme poverty, mass malnutrition and a million children close to starvation. It is so simple for us to blame the Taliban, but we chose to hand responsibility to this insurgency, knowing that the economy would then collapse. Now we compound the tragedy by freezing international funds. Does the Minister not agree that if we are to break the impasse and help the Afghan people whom we abandoned, it is now time to recognise the Taliban so that we can get that urgent funding into the country and save lives? That would be an example of leadership and an example of global Britain.
Our officials have very pragmatic engagement with the Taliban at official levels, especially pressing on human rights and humanitarian issues. For example, in October the PM’s special representative for the Afghan transition, Sir Simon Gass, and the chargé d’affaires for the UK mission to Afghanistan, Dr Martin Longden, travelled to Afghanistan, where they held talks with the Taliban. The Prime Minister’s special representative met Taliban representatives late last month and officials have continued to discuss the humanitarian situation. In terms of getting funding to where it is needed to ensure that the humanitarian aid can get there, it was the UK that worked with leadership to get the resolution at the UN giving a humanitarian exemption, meaning that funds can flow for humanitarian need despite the sanctions
It is a hallmark of this Government to say, “Everything’s all right; we’re doing everything we need to do.”, but clearly voices from across the House are saying, “Everything is not all right, and you had at least four months when you were warned about this humanitarian crisis affecting millions of people in Afghanistan.” Will the Minister commit to come back to this House with a proper and comprehensive statement on the day we return after recess, to ensure that we are satisfied that there is a comprehensive international and domestic response?
As I have said already, the UK funding is providing food aid to 4.47 million people. It is an enormously tragic situation. The UK has stepped up for over 4 million people, and we need others also to step up more. We know that there is going to be a long-term need as well, which is why we are supporting the UN conference that will happen at the end of March. We are working with all the relevant partners—as I have said, the World Food Programme and the many other UN organisations—to make sure that the funding we are putting in is getting to where it is needed. That is supporting 4.4 million people at the moment, and as I have said, this will go up to 6.6 million when we include the support we are also putting in for health, water, protection, shelter and so on.[Official Report, 21 February 2022, Vol. 709, c. 1MC.]
Last week, the US Treasury Department issued guidance to international banks on sanctions exemptions on humanitarian grounds enabling international banks to transfer money to charities and aid agencies—for example, to pay the wages of teachers or health workers. As a practical step that the Government could take immediately, would the Minister instruct the Treasury, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Bank of England or whichever organisation holds responsibility to issue such guidance to British banks this week?
Let me cut to the chase with the Minister and say that she knows what we must do if we are going to deliver the food to stop this crisis for children. The pictures of children begging, obviously with no food, really gets to all of us, does it not? I have to say to the Minister that she is aware—surely she is aware—that if we are going to get in this food and this help, we have to work with the major international charities. A member of my family is in a very senior role in one of those big agencies. Will she promise me that she will talk to the leaders of those key organisations—she knows who they are—and say, “Are you getting enough resources to deliver on the ground?”? Will she promise to do that today?
The funding we are giving is being channelled through many different organisations, including UN organisations such as the World Food Programme, and through the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs into local organisations too. My colleague, the noble Lord responsible for this area, meets them regularly to discuss any blockages in getting the food there. It is a really challenging and heartbreaking situation—everybody understands that—and my colleague is meeting them regularly. That is the way this is currently being funded to make sure that the funding is going not through Government or Taliban organisations, but through those humanitarian aid organisations.[Official Report, 21 February 2022, Vol. 709, c. 2MC.]
The former Secretary of State for International Development Rory Stewart said yesterday:
“It’s unbelievable that an international coalition which could find 130BN dollars a year for Afghanistan when fighting there, cannot find 5 per cent of that amount to prevent millions of Afghans from starving. The West abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban in August. Now it is abandoning Afghans to starvation. Betrayal follows betrayal.”
Can I ask the Minister what the UK Government have done in real terms, working with the international community, to really help prevent the starvation of the Afghan people?
As I have already said from this Dispatch Box, the aid we have allocated since October is supporting 4.47 million people to get emergency food assistance through the World Food Programme, as well as supporting 60 hospitals and 300,000 people with health services. We are working with various UN agencies, including the World Food Programme, to make sure that that is delivered, and we are fully supportive of the UN donor conference, which it has announced will be held on 31 March.
Alongside the humanitarian issues are many concerns about women. Four women—Parwana Khil, Tamana Paryani, Mursal Ayar and Zahra Mohammadi—have just been seized off the street and imprisoned, and everybody is incredibly worried about them. Does the Minister have any information on their whereabouts, because we are concerned about their safety?
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I would be more than happy to follow up with an answer following this urgent question. Since Operation Pitting ended, we have also supported more than 3,000 people to leave Afghanistan or to move from third countries to the UK, so we are continuing to help relocate people.
The Minister mentions Operation Pitting. An Afghan gentleman came to my surgery in agony: his family have not left the house or seen daylight for months and he is worried about what is happening to his country. To add insult to injury, the leave to enter for the 15,000 Afghans who are now here expires at the end of this month. When we add all that strife together, their mental health is suffering. Will the Minister guarantee now at the Dispatch Box that by the end of this month all those Afghans who came here will be given leave to remain?
As the hon. Lady knows, the Home Office Minister—the Minister for Afghan Resettlement—leads on that subject, so I suggest we raise that with her. Significant cross-Government effort has been under way to ensure that the thousands of Afghans who have been evacuated to the UK receive the support they need to rebuild their lives.
What is happening in Afghanistan today is a catastrophe of epic proportions. For those who committed so much to that country, particularly the families of the servicemen and women who lost their lives, the Government’s current trajectory makes their lives harder, not easier, in dealing with that sacrifice. I urge the Government to think again. If we can commit £30 billion to a military project such as Afghanistan, it is obscene that we cannot commit more than 5% in foreign aid to rebuilding that country and saving as many lives as we can, having invested so much over so long.
My hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 150,000 people who served in Afghanistan and, in particular, to the 457 who so sadly lost their lives and the many others who had life-changing injuries. For 20 years they denied terrorists a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the UK, and enabled development that improved the lives of many millions of people in Afghanistan. I remind him that the UK funding going in at the moment is helping to feed more than 4 million people. It is a very tragic situation but that funding is going through, and we are working with others and pressing to unlock the funds at the World Bank and the support of the donor conference.
Do the Government recognise that this catastrophe will continue to unfold before our eyes unless the Afghan banking system starts working again? In particular, do the Government support the release of frozen Afghan central bank reserves to restore inter-bank lending? On donor funds, whether they are held by the World Bank or being asked for from donors around the world, do the Minister and all those involved understand that we need speed? It may be complex, but people starving or having to sell their children are not interested in complexity; they want help now. A meeting later this month or next month is, frankly, too late.
Afghanistan has been dependent on foreign aid and FDI since time immemorial. Indeed, my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who is no longer in her place, referred to the former Member for Penrith and The Border and the need for at least 5% funding immediately. Western Governments got Afghanistan wrong last August, 10 years ago and 20 years ago. As we look to the future, what will UK-Afghanistan relations and strategy look like?
It is an enormously complicated situation. We are engaging with the Taliban at official level, especially on the humanitarian situation and human rights. We are currently focused on ensuring that our committed funds are getting to the 4 million-plus people we are supporting with food aid and other aid, encouraging the return of girls to education when schools go back in March, and doing everything we can to encourage the international community to step forward and address the current situation, which is indeed very serious.
Further to the point made by my friend the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), I suspect that the Minister saw the comments from General Lord Richards, who called on the west to come to terms with the Taliban being the Government in Afghanistan. None of us wanted that outcome, but innocent people are starving and freezing to death and it feels like we are sleepwalking into a catastrophe. Will she look again at what more can be done to unfreeze state assets, lift sanctions and restart the Afghan economy, in order to give people in Afghanistan some sense of hope for the future?
On sanctions, as I said, we have already made progress as the humanitarian exemption that came into UK law on 27 January has helped to unlock funding. On whether we should recognise the Taliban, we have a long-standing policy of recognising states, not Governments, and the Prime Minister has been clear that if the Taliban want international acceptance, they must abide by international norms. However, that does not stop us from engaging at official level, especially on humanitarian issues.
The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is one of the most generous such schemes in this country’s history. However, while some local authorities are providing homes—they are ready and available—there appear to be delays from the Home Office in processing and matching them to Afghans resettled through the scheme. Will the Minister please ask the Minister for Afghan Resettlement to write to me with an update specifically on the properties offered by Blaby District Council?
Not only does famine kill, but starvation and malnutrition will scar the bodies and brains of a generation and beyond. Every day that we delay means that recovery will be more expensive than acting now. We need cash in the system and the Afghan economy. If the World Bank could release reconstruction funds today, how quickly could that cash be flowing through the Afghan economy?
I completely agree that it is important to keep money flowing through the Afghan economy and, as I said, we are working with the World Bank on that. On 25 January—a couple of weeks ago—the UK also supported the Asian Development Bank with a £405 million support package for the Afghan people, funded from the Asian Development Fund.[Official Report, 21 February 2022, Vol. 709, c. 2MC.]
Obviously, when the evacuation took place, and immediately afterwards, Afghanistan was the centre of attention. Naturally, people have forgotten about it, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on bringing it to the attention of the House once again. At the start of the evacuation, 656 families in my constituency had relatives in Afghanistan who were trying to get out. This weekend, I discovered some more, most of whom are still trapped there and are UK citizens. May I suggest to the Minister that we should have a facility, via the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, whereby MPs can confidentially feed in details about the people who are still trapped there, so that assistance can be provided? Clearly they are under threat from the Taliban and in peril. We need to retain confidentiality but assist them to leave if that is what they want to do.
As I said, this is a hugely concerning situation. On helping people to leave the country, the UK has been working to allow Afghan nationals to cross borders into neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We have supported more than 3,400 people to leave Afghanistan since the end of Operation Pitting. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is managed by the Home Office, so my hon. Friend should raise that issue with the Home Office. On the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, which is for people who helped the Government, people can still apply to that. I understand that the Minister for the Armed Forces is due to be holding a resettlement surgery shortly, so perhaps my hon. Friend could raise those issues with him directly. If not, he should certainly write to me and I will pass the details on.
The Minister will recognise that from all parts of the House there is a desire for more action, not simply from the world community, but from this Government of ours. It is good to know that 4 million people are being helped, but there are probably 37 million people facing starvation at this very moment, and they will continue to face starvation unless we see the reconstruction of the Afghan economy. Where is the World Bank up to on that? What are the Government doing to bring pressure to bear to say, “We need action now, not in months’ time”?
Successive Governments have committed United Kingdom forces to Afghanistan and we have spent billions of pounds. We now have a situation where millions of people are starving, and we must cut through the bureaucracy and get food to people, because otherwise they will starve to death. We sit here in a country where we can feed ourselves and we do our very best to feed our whole population. For goodness’ sake, Minister, please, we have to get more food into Afghanistan and get it there now.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is an incredibly concerning humanitarian situation. We have pledged our funding, and it is going through and getting through to those we are supporting, but it is important that the rest of the world also steps up. I understand that some countries— the European Union and United States—have also made announcements such as we have since the UN launched its appeal. We are absolutely supporting that UN appeal, because the momentum needs to continue. This is a very urgent situation.
Many of my constituents have close family members in Afghanistan who worked bravely to further our shared aims in the country, including by working alongside NATO forces, in the media and on supporting women’s rights. So many who could not get out are at ongoing serious risk from the Taliban and are still in hiding. Constituents have told me recently about how family members are being hunted by the Taliban, who are going door to door. The humanitarian crisis is making things so much worse, with food prices rising and the impossibility of access to the help that is needed. With 31 March two months away, will the Minister work with colleagues across Government and across this House, and use our soft power to bring the international community together more quickly and with greater urgency, not only to tackle the humanitarian crisis but to accelerate the evacuation and resettlement of Afghans still at risk?
The Ministry of Defence’s ARAP scheme is still open and people can still apply, and the hon. Lady should raise individual cases with the Armed Forces Minister. We have supported some 3,400 people to leave Afghanistan since the end of Operation Pitting, including over 700 British nationals and eligible dependants. We will continue to work to ensure that those who are eligible can try to depart the country safety, and that includes holding the Taliban to account for their commitment on safe passage.
Ex-pats and diaspora community groups, such as Glasgow Afghan United in Glasgow North, play a hugely important role in sending remittances back and keeping channels of communication going with the humanitarian situation on the ground, and indeed trying to support friends and family members who want to leave Afghanistan. What support are the Government providing to those kinds of groups to ensure that support continues to be provided, that channels of communication are kept open and that voices on the ground are heard?
As I mentioned earlier, this is an extremely serious situation. My colleague Lord Ahmad regularly meets the various aid organisations that we work with, and he has been meeting Afghan leaders, including many women Afghan leaders, to ensure that they are feeding into our projects. Just last week, he met a group of very senior Afghan women who have come to this country, including businesswomen and judges, to feed in their views and what they are hearing from the communities they have left behind, to ensure that that is helping to shape our policies.
As we have heard and seen in the utterly heartbreaking scenes on our TV screens every night, urgent humanitarian aid is absolutely essential, but people in Afghanistan also desperately need access to basic public services. Can the Minister set out what the Government are doing to co-ordinate a global plan to get the money needed to keep local schools, clinics and hospitals running?
The money that we have already announced is providing over 6 million people not only with food but with health, water, protection, shelter and so on. I agree on the importance of ensuring that children and young people, especially girls, can return to school. The Taliban have said that they can, but we want to see that delivered when schools reopen at the end of the holidays at the beginning of March. We will continue to work with other organisations, especially going into the UN pledging conference, to call people together to ensure that those donations come through.
It is estimated that the war in Afghanistan cost the US $2 trillion. The same BBC report indicates that the UK cost was $1.5 billion per annum. The Minister says that the UK Government are committed to spending £286 million this year. Can she explain why the spending on war dwarfs the spending on aid, despite the clear humanitarian crisis and the UK’s moral obligation to the country?
None of us wishes to be in this situation. There is a deeply concerning humanitarian situation, and what we all saw happening over the summer when the Taliban moved in so quickly left a really difficult situation, but Operation Pitting and the work of our soldiers to evacuate those 15,000 people was really incredible. It is important now that funding comes from across the world, not just from the UK. We continue to be a leading donor with the money we have contributed so far, which is helping the 4 million. I cannot comment any further ahead of the conference, but I am sure that the House will be informed as and when we make further announcements through written ministerial statements.
I am sorry, but the answers we have heard today are just completely inadequate. I do not think the Minister understands that tens of millions of people will starve to death in Afghanistan unless she steps up and meets the need, economically and politically, to put in the resolution that we need. I have been trying to meet Ministers with the only Afghan MP in our country. Two months have gone by and we still do not have a meeting. MPs know their communities and how to get the money to the frontline, but they need help from this Government. Where is it?
My colleague Lord Ahmad met a group of leading Afghan women in this country only last week. If the hon. Lady would like to contact me about her particular contact, I will make sure he reaches out so that such roundtables can include other people recommended by this House. It is a deeply tragic situation. It is many millions of people. There are other very, very difficult humanitarian situations across the world. Just last week, I announced further funding for humanitarian aid in Somalia, in Kenya and in Ethiopia—a very serious situation. The UK’s aid is currently providing food for over 4.4 million people. We will support the conference and the House will continue to be updated when we have more news to share.
It is clear to me that we have a moral obligation to support the people of Afghanistan, who feel abandoned. The Minister stated that UK funding is getting to where it is needed. With that in mind, it is vital to ensure that support is delivered on the ground for Christians who are at the bottom of the pecking order for Taliban assistance. What can be done to ensure that food is received by Christians and other ethnic minorities? What will be done to improve a dire and precarious position, and ensure that UK funding gets, as the Minister stated, to where it is needed?
We work with a lot of different local organisations through the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. If there are specific organisations that the hon. Member would like to engage with, then he can contact me.
Mr Speaker, regarding meetings with Ministers, I am more than happy, of course, to meet Members, but in this case, I think that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) needs to meet the Minister responsible, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad. However, I will follow up on that point, because it is the first time I have heard an inquiry of that nature.
North Sea Oil and Gas
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on reports that six North sea oil and gas fields are due to be given the green light this year.
There will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming years. It is a clear choice between a transition that secures our energy, protects jobs and leads to innovation in new technologies like carbon capture and hydrogen, and an extinction for our energy sector, as I think the hon. Lady proposes. Flicking a switch and turning off our domestic source of gas overnight would put energy security, British jobs and industries at risk, and we would be even more dependent on foreign imports. The way we produce oil and gas is cleaner than in many jurisdictions, so it would be illogical to import them at further expense to Britain and our planet.
The fields referred to in these reports are already licensed, some dating back to as early as 1970, and are now going through the usual regulatory processes. All proposals are subject to a rigorous scrutiny process prior to consent, as opposed to licensing, by our expert regulators, including an environmental impact assessment and a public consultation. No decisions have been taken by the regulators, so it would be inappropriate to comment further on that process. However, to be clear, continued support for Britain’s oil and gas sector is not just compatible with our net zero goals; it is essential if we are to meet the ambitious targets we set for ourselves while protecting jobs and livelihoods.
As announced last year, and forming part of the North sea transition deal, we will introduce a climate compatibility checkpoint for any new licences to ensure that any future licensing rounds remain consistent with our goals. Meanwhile, we continue to make progress on developing new nuclear, which I think the hon. Lady also opposes, and renewables that will power our future. Today, we have announced that we are ramping up our options for our flagship renewable scheme, contracts for difference, establishing new industries, boosting investment and creating jobs in our former industrial heartlands.
That was a frankly extraordinary statement by the Minister. The idea that the solution to an energy crisis caused by high gas prices is to increase our reliance on gas seems pretty risible. The UK still holds the COP presidency and is, of course, bound by the Glasgow climate pact, so why is he ignoring the international agreement that
“limiting global warming to 1.5 °C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions”
and giving the green light to the extraction of more oil and gas?
Will the Minister confirm whether he and his Government are actually still committed to net zero by 2050 and the interim targets? Frankly, judging by their actions, that seems to be in question.
Why is the Minister not listening to experts such as the International Energy Agency, which could not have been more explicit? Perhaps he has not read its “Net Zero by 2050” report, but if he had, he would know that 2021 is the cut-off point for the development of any new oil and gas fields if we want to hit internationally agreed climate goals. Does the Minister acknowledge that the proposals go against the spirit, if not the letter, of that warning?
Is the Minister aware that renewables are already cost competitive, with wind and solar beating new gas generation hands down? Let us not have any more of this guff about more transition fuels being needed.
Will the Minister explain to the House and to our constituents why the Government are not investing in real energy security for people? Why not roll out an ambitious street-by-street energy efficiency and insulation programme, instead of pretending that we need more oil and gas to keep our homes warm and to bring people’s bills down?
Why are Government decisions about new licences being taken behind closed doors? MPs only hear about them through media reports.
When does the Minister plan to update the Oil and Gas Authority’s usual processes and the environmental impact assessment framework to minimise the economic recovery of North sea reserves? When will he get rid of the outdated MER duty that calls on the Government to maximise economic recovery? He needs to be guided by the climate science and, quite frankly, he is not.
Finally, will the Minister agree that any Government recommendation to the OGA that undermines the House of Commons’ formal declaration of a climate emergency, as well as our international climate obligations, should at the very least be subject to a parliamentary vote?
Let me first say that it is a pleasure to take a question from the hon. Lady. I have been in this role for four months, and I think I am right in saying that this is the first time that she has actually asked me a question about energy and climate change, so I am delighted to see her here today.
We are not increasing our dependence on gas. We are clear that we are increasing the production of renewables, which is actually part of the solution for the medium to long term—and even the short term. We are not resting on our laurels about having the world’s largest offshore wind sector; we are quadrupling that capacity over the decade. What we are not increasing is our dependence on imported foreign gas. The point of this is that our domestic production emits far less carbon and is obviously better for our energy security.
The hon. Lady says we are ignoring COP, but it is quite the opposite. The COP President continues to be hard at work for the rest of the year. Of course, we remain adherent to our net zero strategy, which I launched at this Dispatch Box back in October.
Renewables are cost-effective—the hon. Lady is quite right. They have become a lot more cost-effective thanks to the actions taken by this Government on contracts for difference and our hard work over 12 years to increase the percentage of our electricity generation coming from renewables from 7% to 43%.
The hon. Lady talks about decisions behind closed doors, but these are not decisions. These licences have already been licensed, and further regulatory processes will continue throughout the year.
The hon. Lady asked whether we are guided by the climate science. Of course we are. We are leading in climate science.
Finally, it is now 33 years since the Green party’s best ever electoral performance in the UK. I think it scored 12% in the 1989 election, but it has not come close since. Why is that? At that time, it was saying that it was impossible to take action on emissions while still growing the economy. This country and the Conservative party has proven the Green party comprehensively wrong. We have grown the economy by 78% while cutting emissions by 44%, delivering for the people of this country both on the economy and on the environment.
My right hon. Friend mentions nuclear power. Does he welcome the successful nuclear fusion experiment that has taken place today? Does he agree that it is far better for us to produce our own gas and oil than to depend on expensive foreign imports?
I entirely agree. A very important announcement on fusion is being made today by the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is quite right about the progress we are making in this place, which is opposed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), her party and various other Opposition parties. We are moving forward on nuclear. Money is going into the Rolls-Royce small modular reactors programme; Hinkley Point C is being built; we are moving towards a final investment case for a further nuclear power plant in this Parliament; and we have a future nuclear enabling fund. We are moving forward on nuclear, which is an essential part of this country’s future energy needs and energy security.
The truth is that the Government are thrashing around after what we now know has been a decade of failure on energy, particularly on the transition to a low-carbon energy economy. They have no answer to the energy crisis that millions of families in our country face.
This is not a long-term answer either. The energy price crisis is a fossil fuel crisis, so the long-term answer must be to go further and faster on zero-carbon energy, energy efficiency and clean energy storage. On energy security, the Opposition believe that the long-term answer lies in zero-carbon energy. We need a phased and just transition in the North sea, but that cannot be an excuse for business as usual and pretending that the climate crisis does not exist.
There is one crucial climate test that should be applied to the current proposals and other proposals: whether they are compatible with keeping global warming to 1.5°. In the energy White Paper, the Government said that they would
“develop the existing checkpoints in our processes before proceeding with future licensing rounds.”
Is the Minister saying that the proposals he describes are exempt from that statement in the energy White Paper? Can he explain how what he has said today is consistent with its approach? Can he tell the House whether he believes that any future licensing decisions must be compatible with keeping global warming to 1.5°? Can he tell us how that assessment will be made?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. Of course, he could have made his own UQ application today on this very topic, but let me answer him.
Yes, we are absolutely committed to a zero-carbon energy system. We are committed to a decarbonised power sector by the year 2035, so long as it is consistent with security of supply, as well as being consistent with the net zero strategy to get the UK to net zero by 2050. I have not heard recently whether the Labour party is still committed to getting to net zero by 2030, which I think was in its manifesto at the last election. Perhaps it would be helpful if one day the hon. Gentleman updated us on that really very ambitious target.
On compatibility with action on global emissions, the answer is “Absolutely.” That is why a key part of the North sea transition deal was the climate compatibility checkpoint that we announced just a year ago. The consultation, which closes on 28 February, refers to future licences; the current licences would still need consent from the regulators. Nothing has changed in the Government’s position or in the process. We look forward to responding to the climate compatibility checkpoint consultation in due course.
Our commitment to net zero is not in any sense incompatible with making use of our domestic reserves. Otherwise, we will simply be reliant on imported gas from Putin and the Gulf, creating insecurity and greater emissions in the process. If we want our oil and gas companies to invest, we need to provide them with certainty. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the principles that I committed to as Exchequer Secretary, as other Treasury Ministers did: fiscal stability and maximising economic recovery in the North sea basin? It is through that combination that we can encourage our world-leading oil and gas companies to invest for the future.
My right hon. Friend was a brilliant Exchequer Secretary.
As a former Treasury Minister, I can say how well he was regarded in Government and in this House for the important work that he did at HM Treasury. He is right: this is not in itself a debate between gas and renewables. The current debate is whether we get the gas that we currently need from the UK continental shelf or import it from abroad. Foreign imports come at a higher price in regard to emissions and our energy insecurity.
It is worth reminding ourselves that 50% of UK gas comes from the UK continental shelf; that is a good position to be in. An additional 30% comes from Norway, which I regard as a very good, stable and secure source. On the investment picture, he is also right—and the Chancellor was absolutely clear on this in his statement on Thursday—on the importance of more investment coming into the North sea, not just for the short term but for the transition going forward.
I welcome this urgent question because it gives us all an opportunity in this Chamber to reflect upon the fact that when the UK Government need to meet their energy demands and their financial demands, the first thing they seek to do is to turn the tap on in Scotland and exploit our natural resources. Whilst they are willing to do that, they are simultaneously unwilling to deliver carbon capture and underground storage in the north-east of Scotland, unwilling to match the Scottish Government’s £500 million just transition find, and of course unwilling to finally end the renewables robbery that is the TNUoS—transmission network use of system—account charging scandal. May I ask the Secretary of State a very simple question: when is he going to show similar haste on those important issues?
I listen to the hon. Gentleman week in, week out, claiming that the UK Government, when it comes to energy, are doing down Scotland. The exact opposite is the truth. We are very supportive of Scottish nuclear, which he is opposed to. The Hunterston nuclear plant closed just a few weeks ago, which had provided, at low cost, zero-carbon energy to all of Scotland’s homes on an equivalent basis for 31 years. We heard not a peep out of him. We hear the Scottish First Minister recommending that particular fields not be given approval. How does that land among the 200,000 people in this country who are dependent on the oil and gas sector, of which about 40%—80,000 or so—are in Scotland, particularly north-east Scotland?
On CCUS, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Acorn cluster is the reserve cluster, and has significant UK Government support. I have met with Storegga and many other participants in recent weeks. The transition review is led by Ofgem and of course we will look at cost and affordability in relation to transition.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s ideological opposition to nuclear, and now the increased opposition to oil and gas and the North sea transition, shows that the SNP is not fit to run an energy policy for Scotland, and the people of Scotland will be thankful that the matter is reserved.
My right hon. Friend makes a strong point. Of course the line from the Treasury—speaking as a former Treasury Minister—is that all taxes are always under review, but I repeat the words of the Chancellor from Thursday, that a windfall tax is “superficially appealing” but probably counterproductive. He reminded us that oil and gas companies pay corporation at twice the rate of non-oil and gas companies, and that the sector has already paid some £33.7 billion in taxes since the year 2010.
In November, the COP President was reduced to tears after ambitions to phase out fossil fuels were voted down at the last minute. Three months later, the UK Government are tanking efforts to keep us to 1.5º by approving these six new oilfields. It is not just about looking at the energy supply and demand in this country; it is about setting an example. If we are to approve this fossil fuel exploration, what is to stop other countries from following suit?
I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s question and the chance to put on the record the brilliant job done by the COP President. At the start of the year running up to the conference, only 30% of global GDP was covered by a net zero commitment. That rose to 90% after the conference, which sets an example. I am the co-chair of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an international group calling for the phasing out of coal—something I am proud of.
There is one thing that none of us in this House must ever apologise for: defending the interests of our constituents. I look across my constituency and across the country, and it is quite clear that energy bills are going to soar. That is partially due to a lack of energy security. But let us be clear: coal is a very dirty fossil fuel; gas is less so; nuclear is fairly clean; and renewable is right at the top of the tree. I commend the Government for recognising that we must never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, by ensuring that we get cheaper fuel supply to our people.
Granting new oil and gas exploration in the North sea flies in the face of the Government’s net zero commitment. Closer to home, the Tory-controlled Surrey County Council is defending in court a decision to approve four oil wells in Horse Hill, Surrey. Why are the Government getting behind Surrey County Council’s defending in court the destruction of green land and the introduction of massive new CO2 pollution, in direct conflict with their own net zero ambition?
On the second matter, it would not be right for me to opine on planning decisions. On the first, the licences are not new—I do not think the hon. Lady heard my statement—regardless of what she may read in The Daily Telegraph. In some cases, they were granted as early as 1970. The issue is how those licences are taken forward once they have regulatory approval.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s confirmation that these are not new fields and, in some cases, have been licensed for many decades. Can he confirm that these fields and their production profiles are already factored into this Government’s energy transition plans for net zero by 2050—not only the Government’s plans but the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee? As part of an already declining domestic production profile, even those and further oil and gas fields that are still to come do not close the gap between current oil and gas provision and renewables, although that gap will steadily close as time goes on.
My hon. Friend makes some strong points. He is absolutely right that these are not new fields; they are fields that have already been licensed and that therefore have been taken into account in our net zero strategy and in our upcoming carbon budgets. What that would mean if they were to get regulatory approval—I stress that that is an independent process—is that probably, in the future, we would be importing more gas, which would come with higher emissions and at a higher price.
We have a Prime Minister whose approach is “Do as I say, not as I do”. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 22 September last year, he stated:
“We are approaching that critical turning point—in less than two months—when we must show that we are…learning, and maturing, and finally taking responsibility for the destruction we are inflicting...It is time for humanity to grow up.”
I do not care much for the Prime Minister, but I care about this country’s reputation. Has he misled the United Nations?
We are proud of the record and our delivery at COP, and the COP President continues to deliver. It is a fantastic achievement to get coal written into a COP document for the first time. We should be proud of the fact that we are the co-chair of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, and the fact that so much more of the world’s GDP has been under net zero obligations at the end of the UK’s year than at the beginning.
The UK’s journey to net zero will still require some fossil fuels during the transition period. While my right hon. Friend focuses on our sustainable future, will he ensure that domestic production meets our transition needs? If we do not see that, all we will see is increased emissions.