House of Commons
Thursday 17 March 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government have committed £2.5 billion to vehicle grants and infrastructure to support the transition to electric vehicles.
The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, based in Amersham in my constituency, has pointed out that the cost of charging is still prohibitive for many companies. If a company with a fleet of vehicles wants to install charging points onsite, it probably also needs to install a substation, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds, which is prohibitive. The BVRLA is therefore calling for a depot grant to help with those set-up costs. Will the Secretary of State consider introducing a depot grant to help companies with fleets to convert them to electric vehicles?
We are always looking at what more we can do. We put in £1.9 billion in the 2020 spending review, and we have enhanced that with an extra £620 million for the transition. I will always look at what else can be done. Electric vehicles—I can attest to this because I have driven one for several years—are dramatically cheaper than equivalent fuel vehicles, albeit that the infrastructure needs to be got right to make sure that they are chargeable.
The UK needs 480,000 EV charging points if we are to transition to electric vehicles. So far there are 28,000 publicly available charging points, and only 1,000 on-street charging points outside London. Last year, just 7,600 new charging points were installed. At this rate, we will have to wait until 2080 for everyone to be able to use an electric car. These figures are from the National Infrastructure Commission. How does the Secretary of State expect motorists to be able to play their part in the move to net zero if the Government are not delivering the charging infrastructure?
The hon. Gentleman presents a partial picture because he forgets that there are 300,000 chargers installed at people’s homes, with Government support. In addition, the figures that he quoted are now out of date. There are 29,500 public installations, 4,500 of which are rapid chargers—a 37% increase in 2021 alone. We will be ready for everybody to go electric.
It has been more than two years since the Prime Minister promised 4,000 new zero-emission buses—representing only about a tenth of the English bus fleet—by the start of 2025. It took them a while, and it has been a year since the launch of the zero-emission bus regional areas scheme designed to deliver on that promise, but the Government said it would only deliver funding for up to 500 zero-emission buses in England. One year on, how many buses have been ordered through the standard ZEBRA process?
I very much appreciate that answer, but it is completely different to the one I received to a parliamentary question on Monday, which was that the Government have ordered zero buses through the standard ZEBRA process since it launched but that they expect to do so later this year. I hope the Secretary of State might correct the record. The truth is that six months after the Prime Minister made his 4,000 bus pledge, the Scottish Government got on with delivering, with their SULEB—Scottish ultra-low emission bus—schemes delivering 272 buses, while just a fortnight ago Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth announced the first phase of the zero-emission bus challenge fund of £62 million for a further 276 buses. The nearly 550 buses delivered or ordered in Scotland are the equivalent of 5,500 in England. The UK Government are fiddling while the planet burns. When will the 4,000 buses be delivered?
As we said in our manifesto, we will deliver the 4,000 buses during this Parliament, and we are on track to do so. I have just given the hon. Gentleman the up-to-date information on the number already funded. The SNP spokesman makes a big fuss of this, but—I do not think he mentioned this—the Scottish Government missed their own legal emission targets under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019. They were supposed to reduce the emissions but they missed the targets.
We are carefully considering the recommendations from Sir Peter Hendy’s “Union Connectivity Review” and we will respond in due course.
I welcome Avanti West Coast’s £170,000 investment and the creation of a dedicated driver depot in Holyhead, but direct rail services between London and Holyhead, the UK’s second busiest ro-ro port and the main route connecting the UK and the EU, will reduce from nine per day prior to the pandemic to just two. What steps is the Minister taking to help providers return rail services across the UK to their pre-pandemic levels to support connectivity across the UK?
I commend my hon. Friend on being a true champion for Ynys Môn. We continue to work closely with her and operators on the development of attractive timetables that are reliable, deliver excellent performance and are good value for money. Thanks to her campaign and that work, the two trains per day from London to Holyhead will increase to four in May, and we are looking to bring back more.
There are conflicting views on East West Rail as a project to improve connectivity, but the one thing we all agree on in Bedford is that the delayed consultation response, the potential demolition of homes and concerns about the environment are taking a toll on residents. We need clarity, so will the Minister tell us whether the DFT is backtracking on the project? Will he instruct East West Rail to urgently publish its proposals?
Will the Minister update the House on where we are with improving connectivity between the south coast and the M4? Is the study in his Department on track to report in September? Will it include an upgrade to the A350 as it rumbles through Westbury and Yarnbrook in my constituency? Can he give any commitment at all to a relief road that will, after so many years, bring some relief to my constituents in the town of Westbury?
Ministers will be aware that the Select Committee on Transport recently visited Leeds and Bradford as part of our inquiry into the integrated rail plan. Has the current Transport Secretary seen the former Transport Secretary Lord McLaughlin’s comments that the Government’s revised integrated rail plan goes against the best interests of people in the north of England? Is that why he has reduced Transport for the North’s budget by 37%?
The Secretary of State has met Lord McLaughlin recently, and he will no doubt have reiterated the point that I reiterate to the hon. Gentleman and everyone who asks about the integrated rail plan, which is that this is £96 billion of investment—the greatest from any Government in recent history.
The Hendy review recommended the creation of a UK-wide strategic transport network. It also identified a gap in north Wales. However, when Transport for Wales bid for funds to develop the business case for investment to fill that gap, it was declined. Will the Minister meet me to discuss and perhaps reconsider that?
We are committed to strengthening transport bonds throughout our Union. I note that the Welsh Government published a report recently saying that they did not support key improvements to the A55 in north Wales, nor the building of new roads, but I know that the roads Minister will be keen to meet my hon. Friend as soon as possible to discuss his individual concerns.
Connecting communities to the rest of the UK is crucial, but not at the expense of cutting off communities from their own locality. I urge the Minister to look again at plans in the High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill that will see the Metrolink from Piccadilly to Ashton-under-Lyne, which runs through my constituency, severed and mothballed during the construction phase, to be replaced by buses. It is unacceptable; can we look at that again?
Sometimes the Government get criticised over rail, but in my constituency, we have had electrification, more trains and more capacity going to Wellingborough, and we are now getting it going north to the great cities, and we have our station being redeveloped. It is in the middle of the country, and we have Station Island there. Is this an example of what the Government are going to do elsewhere?
Happy St Patrick’s day to everyone, but especially the thriving Irish community in my Slough constituency. Industry data that I have seen shows that while passengers are battling to get on overcrowded trains, 21,000 fewer services are running today than there were pre-pandemic. With more people returning to rail, and to ensure that we do not have a car-led recovery, will the Minister now commit to restoring the services that have been cut? If not, why not?
Following the Williams-Shapps review, we have announced the creation of Great British Railways, which will create a truly passenger-focused service for the UK. I have already mentioned the £96 billion that has gone into the integrated rail plan, as well as the restoring your railway programme. The Government are focusing on getting passengers on to rail wherever possible.
Bus Driver Shortages
My Department continues to work with trade representatives and operators to understand and mitigate the extent, impacts and reasons behind driver shortages.
Happy St Patrick’s Day, Mr Speaker. During the pandemic, bus drivers kept vital lifeline services going at huge risk to their health. Many now face reduced pay and conditions and disgraceful fire and rehire tactics employed by disreputable bosses, so they are understandably leaving the industry in droves. What steps are the Government taking to improve the pay and conditions of bus drivers, to encourage people to take up jobs in the sector, and to solve the current shortage?
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to bus drivers, who worked throughout the pandemic. The Government supported the work of local bus services with £1.7 billion of funding throughout the period. We do not intervene, however, on the levels of remuneration in private businesses, with the exception of setting rates for the national minimum wage and the national living wage.
Happy St Patrick’s Day, Mr Speaker. During the height of the covid pandemic, bus drivers worked tirelessly, often at considerable risk to their health, to keep our vital services functioning by helping NHS staff and other essential workers reach their destination. This week, a Unite the union survey said that we now face bus driver shortages in 99% of garages, which clearly severely hampers services across the country. The same survey said that an average of 90% of respondents believe that the mass exodus is a direct result of low pay and poor working conditions. Those heroes of the transport industry clearly deserve something better, so is it not high time for operators to reward the efforts of our vital transport networks and the people who work on them, and give those bus drivers the pay rise and improvements in working conditions that they thoroughly deserve?
Similarly to several hon. Members, my grandfather was a bus driver so I always stand in solidarity with bus drivers across the country. The Government have supported buses with record amounts, not just with the money that we are putting in during the pandemic but with a doubling of bus funding compared with the previous spending review. We recently announced a further six months of the covid-19 support package for the buses and light rail sectors, worth a minimum of £150 million.
Rail Network: Accessibility
We have extended the access for all programme until 2024 with almost £400 million to improve accessibility. The programme has already delivered lifts and other access improvements at more than 1,500 stations, with more to come in the next few years.
Disability access on the rail network is a major issue across the country. In my constituency, campaigners in Levenshulme have been calling for step-free access for years. We are making good progress, largely down to the determination of the community groups and local representatives who have brought the issue to the fore. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that all stations have step-free access as standard, particularly Levenshulme, which is the busiest station with step-only access in Manchester outside the city centre?
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for raising your own station too. Levenshulme was nominated in the access for all main programme, but it was unsuccessful. The hon. Gentleman had a conversation with me about that. Let us be absolutely clear, however, that more than 75% of journeys are through step-free stations, compared with fewer than 50% in 2005. We are in the process of setting the funding envelopes for the next rail control period, which is 2024 to 2029. When further funding is available, any station without an accessible route into the station and to all platforms will be a potential candidate. It is an important topic. I recently visited Eridge station to see a project that had been completed there and as we know, it really makes a difference.
Transport for the North and Levelling Up
Transport for the North’s core funding for financial year 2022-23 totals £6.5 million, a rise of £500,000 on the previous year. This funding is in addition to the Government’s historic £96 billion integrated rail plan.
Shall we try again on this? On 18 November, the same day that Ministers ignored TfN’s recommendations in the disappointing integrated rail plan, Whitehall also removed powers from TfN and levelled down its funding by 37%; the main devolved power Ministers have left with TfN is over making staff redundant. Does the Minister agree with the TfN chair, Lord Patrick McLoughlin, a former Secretary of State for Transport, in his letter of 3 March, in which he warned that funding cuts to TfN will mean
“down-sizing of the organisation which in turn will result in redundancies”?
The right hon. Lady continues to focus on process while we continue to focus on delivery. It is not for the Government to comment on the business planning of a devolved transport body. TfN definitely has enough money to complete its statutory funding commitments, and it has far more money than any other sub-national transport body. On the staff affected by TfN’s move to become the Northern Powerhouse Rail co-sponsor, the Department has commenced discussions on the TUPE process and as such I am unable to comment further at this time.
Bus Stop Safety
Our national bus strategy has asked local transport authorities to consider the impact of roadside infrastructure on passenger safety and security.
After the tragedies in Plymouth, people, especially women and girls, must feel safe while waiting for a bus, so does the Minister agree that before Conservative-run Plymouth City Council cuts 211 bus shelters—a third of all Plymouth’s bus shelters—it must stop and seriously consider the impact that will have on the safety of people waiting for a bus?
We take safety, particularly of women and girls, very seriously and I realise the difficulties that have been faced in Plymouth. The hon. Gentleman will know that we recently commissioned our safety champions to work with stakeholders and they have now provided 13 recommendations which will specifically look at how we can protect women and girls on the transport network. I would welcome further consideration on the importance of bus shelters in use and also the illumination of those shelters as an important factor in protecting women and girls.
Bus safety is important, but so is train safety. Has the Department had any more thoughts about placing a simple sticker on the back of each train seat advertising the British Transport police text number so that passengers can summon help if required and also asking people to refrain from using bad language? I think the Minister will agree that this also fits nicely with the criteria for the Great British Railways headquarters competition in that Doncaster’s champion MP not only did his apprenticeship on the railway but also helped to secure a more pleasant trip for all future rail passengers.
I am most impressed by my hon. Friend’s doughty campaigning in wanting to headquarter Great British Railways in Doncaster. Of course I agree that antisocial behaviour on public transport is a blight; however, I suspect that there might be unintended consequences from some on-train requests, such as encouraging more swearing and passenger confrontations, but I agree that we should look at doing more in this area and a solution using positive messaging to promote considerate behaviour could be an option.
Does the Minister remember that two years ago a car ploughed into a bus stop in my Huddersfield constituency, killing a young girl and badly injuring two other people? That driver has never been found guilty of anything. He put forward a plea of automatism—that he was not actually in charge—and a clever lawyer got him off. What sort of justice is that?
Train Service Frequency: Netherfield, Burton Joyce and Carlton
The pandemic is changing travel habits and we are starting to see some substantial changes in passenger demand for rail travel. As covid recedes, we must ensure that services are adjusted to meet changes in passenger demand. We are working with operators to consider what further changes might be possible at these stations.
There is a widespread view in Gedling that rail services could be improved. For example, Carlton recently lost its direct service to Matlock and many trains pass through Burton Joyce without stopping. I continue to have discussions with East Midlands Railway about how it might reach the maximum amount of services in its agreement with the Department. I would welcome the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how Gedling’s stations might fulfil their potential.
I appreciate my hon. Friend raising the matter and can see what a hard-working campaigner he is for his constituents. I assure him that we are working with the operator to consider what further changes might be possible, subject to passenger demand and the cascading of trains into East Midlands Railway. I am happy to meet him to discuss this in more detail.
Rising Fuel Costs: Impact on Motorists
I am working with my Cabinet colleagues to consider support for motorists during these challenging times.
I place on record my celebrations for everybody celebrating St Patrick’s day, and a happy Purim.
With fuel costs skyrocketing and the average family facing an annual increase of £386 in petrol costs, my constituents are being forced to choose between getting to work and heating their homes. Does the Secretary of State agree that now would be the worst possible time to introduce a tax hike of £255 on working people who are already seeing their pay swallowed up by the costs of simply living?
The hon. Lady asks specifically about the additional costs of motoring during these difficult times with what we have seen happen to the crude oil price. I gently remind her that she voted against a measure in the Budget to freeze fuel duty for a 12th consecutive year.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for the 12-year freeze in fuel duty—that is extremely welcome—but given the increases in pump prices and the costs for average constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme, we need to do more at the forthcoming Budget. The Treasury is getting more revenue from VAT, so we need to find ways to reduce that duty burden so that people in my constituency can fill up and continue to go to work. Will the Secretary of State speak to the Chancellor about that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the pressures that exist. As I mentioned, we froze fuel duty for the 12th consecutive year, which means that it costs about £15 less to fill up a family car than it would have done otherwise. He is right to mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is perhaps the most expensive Member of this House, having cost the Treasury tens of billions of pounds over the years for this worthwhile saving.
Alan Davie, Ian Roberts, Geddes and Laird are the hauliers who keep the economy of Angus moving, and by the Road Haulage Association’s estimate they are facing an 18% increase in operating costs purely on fuel. What discussions will the Secretary of State have with the Chancellor to get something sorted to keep our economy moving?
The hon. Member is right to point out the fantastic work done by haulage companies and all their workers. Over the next five years, the 2022-23 freeze will represent £8 billion off the fuel bill for motorists in this country, including the haulier sector, which I recently backed with 32 separate measures to ensure that it can continue to operate during what have been difficult times post covid.
It is a very happy St Patrick’s day in Ireland because fuel duty has been cut in the past week. I thank my right hon. Friend for what the Government have done on the fuel duty freeze, but the fact is that motorists are paying £1.60 or more for their petrol and diesel and we are heading for a de facto lockdown where parents cannot afford to take their kids to school and workers cannot afford to commute by car and have to stay at home. Will my right hon. Friend make appeals to the Treasury to cut fuel duty in the spending round next week?
I had not noticed that Parliament’s most expensive MP was in his place in the Chamber. My right hon. Friend’s work has been absolutely remarkable over the years: actually, after 12 years of the fuel freeze, the average family has saved something like £2,000 as a direct result of his excellent campaigning. I will of course have further conversations with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it will be for him to decide on the next measures.
The price of diesel is now so high that a typical van driver will be paying £800 more than they were a year ago. Meanwhile, wholesale oil prices have fallen by 28% in just one week. Those are prices millions of working people and families simply cannot afford, so why is the Transport Secretary still defending the record profits of oil and gas giants as they swallow up the pay of hard-working British people? Why does he not insist that any fall in the price of oil is passed on to the price of petrol and diesel at the pump?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about ensuring that any fall is passed on quickly. For example, I notice that Brent crude is down to $100 a barrel at the moment—it had been as high, I think, as $130 a week or two ago—and I want to see that passed on. But I am very curious as to why, given her deep concern about the cost of diesel, she voted against our move to freeze petrol and diesel prices this year.
The Transport Secretary thinks he is on to a very clever point given that Labour votes against Tory Budgets, but I remind him that the last time the Tories tried to put up fuel duty, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), now the shadow Chancellor, forced a vote in Parliament to delay the increase. People need help in the here and now as they struggle to make decisions over which basic essentials to cut. This has to be a wake-up call for the Government. The crisis shows exactly why this country must never again be left dependent on the oil and gas of foreign despots.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) mentioned the statistic of 1,000 electric vehicle charging units outside London—a stat that the Transport Secretary did not correct—which reveals the gross inequity of access in this country to EV charging units. The National Infrastructure Commission was also damning in its appraisal that the Government have no plan to deliver infrastructure. When will he publish the strategy on EV infrastructure that the industry is calling for, to help turbocharge the transition to cleaner transport?
I have to say again that words are one thing—I understand the hon. Lady is doing her job—but action is another. When individuals vote against measures that will freeze fuel prices for British consumers and motorists, they can hardly then stand there and say, “Why aren’t the Government doing something?” The Opposition could help: they could vote for it. On EV charging, I do not know where the stat of 1,000 chargers outside London comes from. It is completely untrue. There are nearly 30,000 chargers across the country, of which over 5,500 are rapid. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, we now have the fastest chargers in the west. I hope the hon. Lady will welcome that.
Rail Industry: Competition
As we create Great British Railways, we will work with the private sector to deliver for customers and taxpayers and restore competition through passenger services contracts as soon as possible.
As international rail travel opens up post the covid pandemic, Eurostar still has an effective monopoly on services through Eurotunnel. What can the Government do to encourage other companies, in particular rail companies from Germany and Spain, that have expressed an interest in running alternative services through the tunnel?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I was fortunate enough recently to visit both Eurostar and Eurotunnel. What I can say is that the UK Government would support the growth of international rail services given the significant benefits they could provide for the UK. We stand ready to engage with partners to facilitate new routes where there is a commercial proposition to do so.
In York, it is about not just competition but collaboration. We have 100 rail companies leading in rail operations and in high-end rail engineering. We find that collaborative approach not only benefits the industry but takes the future of our railways forward. What is the Minister doing to invest in rail clusters, similar to the clusters in which her colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are investing in other areas of the economy?
What I can say to the hon. Lady is how important innovation is within the industry. With the new relationship between Great British Railways, the train operators and the innovators there are new opportunities to trial and roll out innovations more rapidly. Central to that will be the better management and exploitation of data, and GBR will be in an excellent place to do that.
We have gone from a situation where competition and franchising delivered £200 million in profits to the Treasury to the situation we have now, where the Government are funding rail to the tune of £15 billion. Some review of costs is of course inevitable. The Rail Minister spoke this week about workplace reform, so will she set out in more detail what those reforms will look like? Will the Government ultimately have the resolve to see this through?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those kind words. The Williams-Shapps plan for rail, which we published last year, set out the biggest change to the railway in three decades. We are committed to bringing forward that sector-wide reform. The country owes a great deal of gratitude to all railway workers for their vital work throughout the pandemic in keeping the UK moving, but it is important to recognise that the pandemic ushered in a financial crisis across the sector leading to interventions by Government to sustain the industry. Moving forward, the railway must be financially and operationally sustainable for the future so that it delivers the service that passengers want.
Levelling Up: Bus Services in Newcastle
Our levelling-up agenda includes investing £1.2 billion to deliver better and cheaper bus services across England, as set out in our bus strategy, which is part of more than £3 billion of new spending on buses.
The levelling-up White Paper promises to bring local public transport connectivity closer to London standards by 2030—so not as good as London, just less worse and not for another eight years. Newcastle needs affordable and accessible bus services now, not the cuts we are seeing. Transport North East’s bus service improvement plan sets out the improvements we need. Will the Minister fund it?
We hope to make more announcements on the latest round of funding very soon. Officials from the Department are working with representatives from the city regions, including Nexus and Transport North East, to establish options for integrated multimodal ticketing. We have of course already announced £5.7 billion for transport networks in the eight city regions, and the north-east, the North East Combined Authority and the North of Tyne Combined Authority will receive their share of the funding once appropriate governance is in place.
Airports National Policy Statement 2018 and Jet Zero Strategy
We will not review the airports national policy statement at this time, but will consider the case again once the jet zero strategy has been finalised and there is more certainty about the longer-term impact of covid on aviation.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on airport communities, I know that many colleagues would like to know whether, in the light of the jet zero strategy, we now have the opportunity to spread the benefits of cleaner air travel to a larger selection of airports across the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is quite right that the jet zero strategy provides the opportunity to spread cleaner, greener air travel across all parts of the UK. For example, the UK sustainable aviation fuel industry could create up to 11,000 green jobs while helping to level up with production facilities across the UK. We will be looking at regional aviation in our forthcoming aviation strategy.
I say in response to the Minister’s response to the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) that the Secretary of State committed to review the airports national policy statement last July. It has to be done urgently. Since it was adopted four years ago, our net zero commitment has become law, we have adopted a carbon budget and we have held the chair of COP26. What we know about the jet zero strategy and the implications and difficulty of delivering sustainable aviation fuels means that the review must surely come sooner rather than later to incentivise change.
The point that the hon. Member misses is that we have also had the jet zero consultation. A number of presentations have come in on that and we need to consider them carefully. There is a lot of interesting work going on and we will respond on that in due course, which will give us the context to consider jet zero and the impact of covid. We will then look at the ANPS again.
Net Zero Strategy: Rail Electrification
Our transport decarbonisation plan sets out how we will decarbonise the transport sector by 2050. Electrification will play an important role in decarbonising all modes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), the Rail Minister, has already said, over 1,221 track miles of electrification have been delivered in Great Britain since 2010, compared with 63 in the 14 years of the previous Administration, and we continue to expand the electrified rail network. For example, the integrated rail plan announcement confirmed that we will complete the electrification of the midland main line and deliver full electrification and upgrade of the trans-Pennine main line.
I thank the Minister for her answer. We are in negotiations with Midlands Connect and her Department about upgrades and new investments on the Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton line, which is a very important line in the west midlands. Will she give me a commitment that she will look at that with a view to electrifying the Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton line as soon as possible?
I can certainly give that commitment. I know that my hon. Friend has met with the Rail Minister and will do so again. As he knows, Midlands Connect is developing a business case for journey time improvements on the line connecting Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton and Birmingham. This will assess the enhancements required, the timescales for delivery and the costs and benefits of the scheme.
Given the huge impact increasing transport costs are having on the cost of basic foodstuffs and day-to-day living expenses, does the Minister accept the Road Haulage Association’s estimate of an 18% increase in its members’ running costs? Is that another cost that will fall disproportionately on the poor? What action is the Department taking to ensure the poor are not expected to pay the price for a Government looking to escape the net zero tariff?
A14: Funding for Junction 10A
The findings of the technical review for the A14 junction 10A have been completed by National Highways and form the high-level strategic outline business case for the scheme (SOBC). National Highways have confirmed they will be happy to share the technical review with my hon. Friend and meet him to discuss these in due course.
Residents in Kettering, Barton Seagrave and Burton Latimer desperately need junction 10A to be included in road investment strategy 3 from 2025 because with 5,500 new homes being built on the Hanwood Park development to the east of Kettering, Kettering will grind to a halt if this junction is not put in place. Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to secure a meeting for me with the Roads Minister so that we can progress this scheme?
My hon. Friend continues to be the strongest possible champion for this scheme and for his constituents. I know he met the Roads Minister to discuss this recently, but I know my noble Friend the Baroness Vere will be more than happy to meet him again. Discussions about this scheme remain ongoing.
The road investment strategy will now have to take into account remedial work on smart motorways. Just last week it was revealed that for almost a week prior to a tragic collision on the M4, vehicle detection technology, there to protect stranded motorists, had been broken. What is more, overnight it has been reported that one in six stopped vehicle detection cameras on the M25 are currently out of action. These serious flaws in safety-critical technology on smart motorways are continuing to put lives at risk. I beg the Minister to urgently address these serious flaws and, in the meantime, to reinstate the hard shoulder before more lives are needlessly lost.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, with which I have a lot of sympathy. We are committed to making sure that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the country. We want drivers not just to be safe, but, crucially, to feel safe and confident when driving on those roads. That is why we have listened to concerns and are taking forward the Transport Committee’s recommendations. We need to continue to work to ensure that smart motorways are as safe as possible for all road users.
Private Hire Drivers
The Government support the proportionate regulation of the sector and will shortly be consulting on guidance to licensing authorities on how they might best achieve that, while maintaining high standards in safety, accessibility and workers’ rights.
During the pandemic, the support available for taxi and private hire drivers around the country was patchy, and many experienced people have been lost to the sector. What assessment has been made of the situation and, in hindsight, what could have been done differently?
I pay tribute to the sector for how it dealt with exceptionally challenging times during the pandemic; the hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to that. These have been unparalleled and difficult times across the entirety of the economy. The key thing is that now we have one of the most open societies in the world because of the success of the vaccine roll-out. I am confident that the sector and the wider economy will bounce back.
I would like to update the House on the actions that we have taken to clamp down on Russian interests in the UK. As hon. Members have already seen, we have detained private jets that we believe are owned by, or connected to, Putin’s cronies. I can now confirm that we are investigating a small number of yachts moored in this country, which we also suspect are linked to Russian oligarchs. I have taken steps to ensure that they are unable to depart, and investigations are ongoing. I can reveal that 10 Russian-linked ships have been turned away or redirected on their course, and eight ships or their companies have severed their Russian ties.
I also inform the House of conversations that I have been having with my opposite number, the Ukrainian Transport and Infrastructure Secretary, who has asked me to thank the whole House for the cross-party support that has been provided. He said that the UK’s approach has been pioneering towards his country and that where the UK goes, others follow.
Let me declare my interest as a former employee of London Transport as a bus conductor and booking clerk. Transport for London has warned that it will be forced to cut one in five buses and 10% of tube services if it does not receive a long-term funding deal from the Government. It has been two years since the pandemic began and the Secretary of State has failed to come forward with this funding, despite offering 18 months of bail-outs to private rail companies. When will he finally stop playing political games with Londoners and provide TfL with a long-term funding agreement?
That would be £5 billion-worth of political games—because that is the amount that we have given to TfL to keep its services running. That has been an incredibly fair settlement. The hon. Gentleman talks about a longer-term settlement, but surely he would agree with us that we should see what is going to happen with the pandemic; as it completes, we are able to talk about other things, including capital grants. However, I think £5 billion should be recognised by the hon. Gentleman.
The A50-A500 corridor is absolutely critical to the economy of Staffordshire and improvements to those roads are vital for the levelling-up agenda in north Staffordshire. May I ask the Secretary of State to welcome the recent publication from Midlands Connect proposing a number of improvements on that route? Of specific interest to my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme are the plans and conversations he has had about improving junction 15 on the M6.
As you well know, Mr Speaker, I am a lifelong member of the Fianna Phadraig Irish pipe band in Wythenshawe; it is my great honour to stand at this Dispatch Box and wish one and all a very happy St Patrick’s day. I am looking forward to getting home this afternoon and joining my comrades to entertain the masses of Manchester.
Worrying news has just broken that P&O Ferries has been called to port as DP World, its owner, seeks the long-term viability of the ferry company. Major disruption is expected. Can the Secretary of State update the House about any discussions that he has had with DP World or P&O Ferries about any potential redundancies, and the fact that we do not want any crews who are made redundant to be replaced by foreign cheap labour?
It was remiss of me not to acknowledge St Patrick’s Day and Purim. Both are fun and enjoyable festivals, and I know that Members on both sides of the House and people throughout the country will be enjoying them.
On a much sadder note, I am concerned about the news that is breaking on P&O Ferries. I understand that it has temporarily paused its operations, which is causing disruption in the short straits between Calais and Dover, and at some other ports. I am working with the Kent resilience forum, and I have just instructed its members to become intricately involved, along with other partnerships. I will be taking further steps later today, which will include ensuring that my officials engage in urgent discussions with P&O about the situation, which is of particular concern to its workers.
I am pleased to hear about the good work that is being done by Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council. We want to spread that across the country. Since 2020 we have committed £2.5 billion to support the transition to zero emission vehicles, offsetting their higher up-front costs and accelerating the roll-out of transport infrastructure. I should be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss more ways in which we can support her council.
My hon. Friend tempts me, but, as he will know, the competition closed yesterday. We have seen some fantastic bids from local authorities represented by Members on both sides of the House. There is real enthusiasm, and not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The shortlist will be announced in due course.
I am delighted to hear of the right hon. Member’s enthusiasm for hydrogen, which I share. We are committed to rolling out a decarbonised transport economy, and I can assure him that there is equal enthusiasm in the Department. As for the scheme to which he refers, I will look into it, chivvy it on, and get back to him.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I know he has been and continues to be a great campaigner for his constituency. I can assure him that the Kettering station canopy works are due to be completed in April and that a new national rail contract is being negotiated that will consider future investment plans.
Over the past few weeks, contractors for HS2 Ltd have brought yet more disruption and, frankly, despair to my constituents, especially in Stoke Mandeville and Wendover. They have misled property owners, they have gone back on reassurances and they have started work for which they have no permission, which has had to be halted. Will the Minister for HS2 please remind HS2 Ltd that its pledge to be a good neighbour is not just a slogan, and that it demands action?
My hon. Friend continues to be a real champion for his constituency, as I saw at first hand when he took me on a tour of problem sites across Aylesbury. I note what he says and I will be more than happy to relay his message to HS2 Ltd. I also remind him and other colleagues across the House that, following my six-monthly progress report on HS2 yesterday, there will be a meeting at 2 pm today with the CEO of HS2 Ltd, Mark Thurston, and myself, which he will be welcome to attend.
In the nearly five years I have been an MP, four cyclists have died on Oxfordshire’s roads: Ling this month; Ellen last month; Samantha in 2020; and John in 2019. Speaking after Ling’s death, her husband James said that one day he hoped to take his children to the roundabout where she died and to tell them:
“Look, no one else dies here because of Mummy.”
The county council has rightly made cycle safety a top priority but it desperately needs Government help, particularly financially. Will the Minister consider meeting me to discuss how we can keep Oxfordshire cyclists safe and how we can avoid any more senseless deaths?
I am terribly sorry to hear of the sad passing of the hon. Lady’s constituents. We agree that infrastructure needs to be properly funded and of the highest quality. That is why the Government have promised an unprecedented £2 billion of investment in active travel over this Parliament. I would be very willing to meet her to talk about the work of Active Travel England and the ways in which our interim chief executive Chris Boardman is rolling out transport infrastructure.
Rising petrol costs are one of the many reasons that Andy Burnham’s original GM clean air zone plan is unworkable and should be scrapped. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that Mr Burnham’s desire to create the world’s largest clean air charging zone does not place unsustainable financial burdens on Greater Manchester businesses and residents who are reliant on certain types of motor transport and particularly vulnerable to increased petrol prices?
Will the Minister join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) in congratulating the Unite workers on refusing to unload Russian oil at Stanlow in Cheshire? What further measures is the Secretary of State applying to sanction Russian oil and gas?
Yes, I do join the hon. Member in congratulating them. That came after I wrote to all the ports and asked them not to allow in Russian ships and Russian-connected ships. I should point out that this is the only country in the world to have a Russian-connected ban at our ports, and we look forward to other countries joining our lead, just as Minister Kubakov explained.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on refusing the Mayor of London’s decision to remove the car park at Cockfosters station. Can it be a precedent, so that we can encourage motorists to park at stations and then use the London underground network to get into the centre of London? Will my right hon. Friend use that as a means to stop car parks being removed at termini throughout London?
My hon. Friend will have seen my action with regard to Cockfosters station. The plan would have removed all but 12 car parking spaces, and while I am keen to get people using active travel and all forms of travel, the idea that only 12 cars a day would turn up was ludicrous. It would just have meant other cars parking on the streets and inconveniencing residents. I encourage the Mayor of London to come forward with better plans than that.
The most recent NatCen baseline report on the Government’s inclusive transport strategy shows we are still a long way from having a fully accessible and inclusive transport and active travel system. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the progress of his ITS commitments? In doing so, will he say why the deadline to report accessibility failures has been missed, why the consultation on bus stops has been paused and when the stakeholder group will next meet, as it has not met for over a year? Finally, how many staff are working full time on delivering these strategic commitments?
The hon. Lady asks a series of very good questions. We are working very hard on things like access for all on rail. She asks a number of bus-related questions, and we have put money into making sure that buses are more accessible through both signage and different types of communication facilities for people with disabilities. As she asks a series of questions, I will write to her with a detailed response to each of them. I hope she will find that useful.
In answer to Question 3, I think the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), said he is meeting the trade union representatives of the bus driver industry. Can he confirm that he is meeting the trade union representatives regularly? Has his Department assessed the levels of bus driver pay and the impact of the same on recruitment and retention?
In answer to Question 3, I said that the roads Minister, Baroness Vere, is regularly meeting trade representatives, not trade union representatives. As the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) will know, the bus operators are predominantly private sector companies. It is not for the Government to dictate wages in the private sector, apart from setting the national minimum wage and the national living wage, which, I am proud to say, was introduced by this Government.
The French Government have recently decided that car adverts in France must now encourage consumers to use more environmentally friendly modes of transport such as walking, cycling, car pooling and public transport as alternatives to driving. Will the United Kingdom Government consider that one small step to decarbonise transport and encourage active travel and living?
Our transport decarbonisation plan is world leading. The Prime Minister has said that we would like all short journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030. That is why we set up Active Travel England, led by Chris Boardman. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to explain that in more detail.
The Scottish Government are investing 10% of their total transport capital budget in active travel options such as high-quality walking and accessible cycling infrastructure to support people to choose active and sustainable travel. Why has the UK Government’s active travel budget failed to match those funding ambitions?
We are investing £2 billion in “Gear Change” and our active travel priorities. The climate sees no boundaries, so it is important that we work together. I am in regular contact with the devolved Administrations, and I think we can all learn from each other.
Ministers will be well aware of today’s announcement by P&O Ferries that there will be no sailings. I understand that 40% of its holdings are owned by a Russian company. This has left some of my constituents in Cairnryan unable to get home to Larne, and it has left people in Larne unable to get to Cairnryan. What can be done about this urgently? Will there be an opportunity to have a statement in the Chamber as soon as possible?
This emerging story is clearly causing great concern. I will be in regular contact, and I will take any appropriate steps. Of course I will meet the hon. Gentleman.
DWP Estate: Office Closures
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your guidance on whether it is orderly for an hon. Member who has taken very substantial donations from a trade union to ask an urgent question on a matter of direct interest to that trade union?
We need to be careful. Is the right hon. Gentleman sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) took the donation, or was it an agreement with the constituency party? This is a very serious allegation. Is it a constituency party donation or was it donated directly to the hon. Gentleman?
At the Department for Work and Pensions, we constantly look at ways to improve our services. I wish to say up-front that we know it is important to communicate changes to all relevant stakeholders so that everyone understands our plans and why we are making changes.
This seems to be an unusual situation, Mr Speaker. It is very disappointing that the embargo agreed with the Public and Commercial Services Union does not seem to have been respected. Clearly, our staff should be the top priority at this time. I hope colleagues will understand that I am not able to go into all the detail this morning as we are briefing affected colleagues as we speak. In fact, the delivery of the first stage of the strategy is being announced to affected colleagues at 10.30 today—right now. The Minister for Employment will write to MPs with an affected site in their constituency after 1 pm today, and there will be a written statement to Parliament tomorrow morning. The letter to MPs will include notification of a virtual surgery that the Minister for Employment will hold on Wednesday 23 March.
The change is to back-of-house offices and will support the delivery of the Government priorities to get more people back into employment, to deliver long-term savings for the taxpayer and to meet Government commitments to modernise public services. The Department has developed a strategy that will, over the next 10 years, reshape and improve how, where and when it delivers services to claimants. The Department is transitioning to an estate that is smaller, greener and better. This will deliver substantial benefits by increasingly developing modern, secure, resilient, sustainable and automated systems to drive better experiences for our customers, colleagues and taxpayers.
The plans for the next three-year period affect the future delivery of back-of-house services—that is, services that are delivered remotely via telephone and online, without the need to see customers face to face. I assure the House that the plans do not affect Jobcentre Plus and customer-facing roles. We have been engaging fully with PCS union representatives at the sites affected since January, and PCS union representatives will be present at sites for the announcements today, as the House would expect. Our focus today is, of course, on supporting staff through the changes.
Changes to DWP estates are not unusual. Like most public services, we are always looking to meet our customers’ changing needs, reflecting developments in technology and the approaches of successive Governments. We value our staff and are working with them now to support those who will be affected by the changes as we seek to deliver the best possible services to our customers at all times.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as chair of the PCS parliamentary group—which, of course, contains more than 100 Members of Parliament.
Will the Minister confirm that the announcement could mean that 3,000 jobs in the Department for Work and Pensions are at risk of redundancy? What measures will he take to ensure that that does not happen? Has there been an equality impact assessment of the proposals? I am thinking particularly about the impact on employees who have disabilities, for example, and may not be able to move to another location that may be miles away.
The Minister is aware that the proposals were first mooted six years ago and that the Department is looking to close offices in areas of high economic deprivation. That seems rather counterintuitive in the context of the so-called levelling-up agenda. Has an economic assessment been made of the closures and their impact on the local economies in the areas where it is proposed to close offices?
On our plans, we have, as I said, been working closely with colleagues and PCS over recent months. Around 12,000 colleagues will be moving from one site to another that is in close proximity—that will involve around 28 sites. Around 1,300 colleagues could be involved at sites where there is no other strategic site nearby. We are looking at what opportunities there are within the DWP and at what other opportunities there might be across other Government Departments. We have seen in other areas how this can work, and we are committed to doing that. Clearly, we will look at any other options that might work for those individuals.
Let me turn to the impact on the local economies. There are not normally too many people involved on each individual site, but, clearly, we have been working very hard to strengthen local economies, with the opening of a large number of new jobcentres. Again, I stress that this is about back-of house roles. This will not impact on jobcentres and the customer-facing interactions within the constituencies.
I think that this would have been much better dealt with in a statement rather than requiring an urgent question. I understand that an office in a neighbouring constituency will be closing, so I urge my hon. Friend to make sure that we notify not just MPs in the constituency where the office is closing, but MPs in neighbouring constituencies, such as mine, where, for example, people will be travelling to work in those places and will be affected.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We will, of course, make sure that those communications are made. We will also make sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has those conversations with MPs. If any MP needs to contact her, they should do so, and she will be willing to talk to them. She will also proactively get out to speak to colleagues. Please be sensitive to the fact that she is currently recovering from covid at home, so I am fulfilling her role today. If any colleagues wish to speak to me after this urgent question, I will gladly meet them.
It looks as though the Department for Work and Pensions does not believe in levelling up, does not believe in its own rhetoric on jobs, and does not believe in keeping people in work. We hear that offices will be closed in Stoke, Southend, Peterborough, Chesterfield, Aberdeen, Kirkcaldy, Barrow, Bishop Auckland, Doncaster and Burnley, taking jobs out of these communities. Can the Minister answer these questions for the Members in Stoke, in Wellingborough and in Stockton whose communities and constituents will be concerned about the news today? We have heard that up to 12,000 jobs might be affected, but how many of the workers will be able to find new jobs locally within the Department? Can the Minister guarantee that there will no compulsory redundancies?
I appreciate that staff are being informed only this morning, but this is the correct forum for the Minister to answer these important questions. The PSC Union has said that its members are facing spiralling workloads. Is it not the case that the Department actually needs more staff, not fewer? If these closures are allowed to go ahead, we will face the absurd prospect of making staff redundant in one area, while recruiting new staff in another to do exactly the same job. That will be both costly and inefficient, so can the Minister confirm that that will not be allowed to happen?
If these closures go ahead, local communities will be faced with the loss of hundreds of good jobs potentially. Many of the closures are in areas of economic deprivation that can hardly afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs. Will there be a plan to help those communities attract well-paid jobs back to their local areas? This all comes at a time when families and working people are being hit hard by the cost of living crisis made by this Government. The price of petrol, food and energy is still soaring and people are worried about the future. Has there been any assessment of the impact that these job losses will have on the local economy? I think the Minister indicated in his previous answer that there had not been, but I would be grateful if he could confirm that. Has any consideration been given to the effect that this will have on the high streets of the affected towns? Will we see yet more boarded-up buildings? This is the opposite of levelling up; this is levelling down and it is closing down.
We are absolutely committed to bringing forward more jobs. Jobs are being filled and employment is at a record high. We have vacancies. It is important to highlight that the number of front-of-house roles that we are fulfilling has increased significantly. We have taken forward a rapid estate expansion programme over the past two years. We have created 170 new Jobcentre Plus offices. Many colleagues across the House will be beneficiaries of that along with their constituents. By the end of March, that increase will be up to 194, so there will be 831 Jobcentre Plus offices, which is a huge, huge investment. There will also be an increase in work coaches, which will be a real benefit to our customers. As I have said, the roles that we are talking about are back of house. An equality impact assessment has been made—I do not think that I mentioned that earlier. On the impact on communities, on the whole, this will involve a relatively small number of colleagues in particular communities. We want to make sure that we support those people back into work. For the vast majority, there are jobs close by, and we will help them to transition into those areas. For those who do not have jobs close by, we will give them the support that they need.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on this urgent question, though I feel this should perhaps have been offered as a statement. What I cannot quite understand is that the Minister is saying that no Jobcentre Plus offices are closing, but the shadow Minister says offices are closing. Which is correct, and does it affect anything in my area? This is all new to me.
To be clear, this relates to back-of-house offices that are often in our local communities. We are trying to update our estates, some of which are no longer fit for purpose, and to bring together colleagues with the right levels of experience to create clusters that will help the provision of back-of-house facilities and services. I want to be clear again—I am sorry if I was not clear earlier—that this does not affect front-of-house Jobcentre Plus. By the end of March we will have invested in an extra 194 of those facilities. We have increased the number of people who work in our Department and, as I said, we want to look after the people affected by these back-of-house changes. Hopefully that is clear to my hon. Friend.
I, too, think it would have been better if the Government had offered this as a statement to the House. May I ask specifically about the Longbenton site in East Newcastle, which the Department shares with the Inland Revenue? What impact will today’s statement have on employment at the site and the future location of the Department’s employees on the site? It is a famous site, and they have been there since the 1950s. The Inland Revenue, which holds the lease, is giving it up and moving elsewhere. It is pretty logical that the Department will follow. Is it moving, and if so, where to? I make the obvious plea to the Minister that we want to keep the jobs in Newcastle upon Tyne.
I understand the question and the tone in which the right hon. Gentleman asks it; I know he has a lot of concern for his own constituency. We are briefing staff right now, so I am not in a position to give him the details now from the Dispatch Box, but I will gladly meet him directly afterwards to talk through his concerns and seek to reassure him. I think that is the most appropriate way of doing it, given where we are right now in the process.
Can my hon. Friend outline to the House in a little more detail how these changes will lead to better working conditions for staff in the Department, what amounts of excess space the Department has and what opportunities there will be for people to relocate? I am thinking of those people elsewhere in County Durham perhaps having the opportunity to relocate to offices in my constituency.
DWP has too much estate. Recent calculations estimate there is capacity for 158,000 people, but the maximum headcount is forecast to be around 97,500 people. We need to ensure that we use that estate as effectively as possible, both for our colleagues and for the taxpayer. We want to refocus colleagues to work in clusters so that they can most effectively support customers and claimants, but at the same time help them to improve and develop their careers.
As I have said to other hon. Members, our top priority right now is working with the staff and supporting them through the changes. Most of the colleagues affected will be moving to other facilities that are really close by. In terms of the impact on the specific communities involved, typically the number of staff involved in a particular area is quite small. However, we will seek to see what we can do to improve. I do not have the details in front of me, but I am sure there will have been new, front-facing Jobcentre Plus offices put in place in Liverpool, because that is our commitment to help more people to get into work.
In Harlow, the Department actually expanded the jobcentre, so it is now in two buildings, one in the Harvey Centre, which I visited recently and which is doing an enormous amount of work in getting Harlow people back to work. Will my hon. Friend or the Minister for employment come and visit the two jobcentres we now have in Harlow that are doing so much to help employment in our town?
As my right hon. Friend highlights, we are doing a huge amount of work to help claimants to find work and to help people to progress in work. I am delighted that he has those facilities in Harlow and I or the Minister for employment will gladly come and visit in the very near future.
This week’s employment figures show that there are 580,000 fewer people in work now than there were before the pandemic. In particular, there seem to be several hundred thousand older workers now choosing not to work nor to claim benefit. We all want a full labour market recovery. Does the Minister recognise that this is going to require major Government investment rather than the disinvestment that I think he is announcing this morning?
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, and he says it with authority as the Chair of the Select Committee, but I think he also understands that we are making a major investment in the front end—the customer-facing side—of our Department. As I said, over the past two years we have been increasing the number of jobcentres to 194. That will enable us to do exactly what he wants—to provide support for individuals across all ages through the plan for jobs.
I was a bit concerned about the response that the Minister gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) about the proposals for the site at Longbenton. We already know that the Inland Revenue is relocating from that site to central Newcastle upon Tyne, but what is proposed directly for the staff employed by the Department for Work and Pensions? This affects many MPs in the area who have hundreds of constituents employed at that very large site.
As I indicated to the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), I will gladly meet both him and the hon. Gentleman after this to discuss those concerns further. The Minister for employment will actively engage with affected colleagues, and we are engaging with the staff as we speak.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this urgent question. Ebury House in my constituency has been earmarked for closure. Will the Minister agree to meet me urgently to discuss what impact this will have on staff, and can he provide a cast-iron guarantee to this House and to my constituents that the services they receive will not be impacted?
This will not impact on services because the services we are talking about are primarily telephony and digital. Clearly, our primary concern now is to see what we can do to support people who might be impacted by the changing terms for staff. I will of course meet the hon. Gentleman after this, or during the course of today, to discuss his concerns more fully.
On two occasions now, the Minister has referred to the equalities impact assessment, saying that this amounts to relatively small numbers of people at each site who will be affected, but over the whole estate, “small” can add up to a lot of individuals. Given that these jobs are located disproportionately in more deprived communities, the loss of good-quality public sector jobs is a really important issue. What conversations are the Minister and his Department having now with those people who may be affected, and what efforts is he really putting in place to ensure that nobody loses their job and everybody is redeployed?
As I have said before, we are working with the vast majority of the individuals who can be relocated very close to their current facility. We will continue to work hard with others, too. This is our top priority. We value our colleagues, who have helped the Department through some incredibly challenging times over the past couple of years, and we want to support them through the period now. I highlight to a couple of Members who have made this point that we continue to be committed to the Newcastle area, but I will meet those colleagues after this urgent question.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this urgent question, although I entirely agree that it would not have been necessary, had the Minister not tried to sneak the announcement out in a written statement on Friday after most of us had gone back to our constituencies. One of the premises earmarked for closure is Victoria Road in Kirkcaldy, which is not in my constituency, but employs a number of my constituents and provides support services for about 3,000 of my constituents in north-west Kirkcaldy. I echo the plea made earlier that the Minister should write to all Members of Parliament, because he probably does not know which constituencies have people who are affected by each of those closures. In that letter, will he explicitly set out why they should believe the assurances being given that this office closure programme will have no impact on public service, when similar promises given about HMRC’s office closure programme turned out to be utterly worthless?
I am not sure that is good enough, if the Minister does not mind me saying so. I think all Members of Parliament should be written to, clearly explaining what the Government are doing and what the implications are for our constituencies. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) read out the list of areas affected. He mentioned Doncaster, so can the Minister please tell me what that means for my constituency of Hull North and the city of Hull?
Right now, we are speaking to the colleagues affected. We have engaged PCS every step of the way to ensure we are following the right process so far as colleagues go. The engagement with parliamentary colleagues will take place as planned at 1 pm today, when letters will be made available. If the right hon. Member has further concerns, I will make sure that the Minister for employment contacts her after this urgent question.
This issue speaks to the treatment of DWP staff, with morale in DWP offices across the country already at rock bottom, not least due to DWP management’s response to covid among staff. That has been an ongoing issue, but the Renfrew Jobcentre Plus office effectively closed after staff had to walk out after management refused to act after eight out of 18 staff tested positive for covid. In the end, 16 out of 18 staff tested positive. Can the Minister tell me what covid safeguarding, if any, is in place at DWP offices across the country, whether earmarked for closure or otherwise? Do they all follow the relevant local public health advice and regulations?
Will the Minister clarify something? My understanding is that the Government are proposing a full site consolidation involving moving staff from Seaham Lighthouse View in my constituency to Wear View House in Sunderland. The impact of these closures in areas of economic deprivation, such as east Durham, will be huge, and we can ill afford to lose good-quality public sector jobs. My question to the Minister is: how will closing a DWP office in my constituency that employs 390 people help Easington to level up, when the Government are moving employment to the larger cities?
We had a full debate in Westminster Hall yesterday that the hon. Member was successful in securing, and we discussed this in more detail. What we can do to support his area is not just around the changes we are proposing today, but is much broader. There is a big broad economic agenda to improve the north-east, which his constituency will benefit from, too.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this urgent question. He is open and transparent about his strong trade union membership, unlike some Members of the House, who spend their weekends partying with Russian lords and are not open about that.
The Minister talked about the process of digitisation. Estonia is one of the great digital states of Europe and, as it admitted, the big failure of its transition to digital statehood was not recognising the profound impact on the most vulnerable, not only in the delivery of public service at the front end but in the back office. Can he assure the House that there will be no detriment to public service at the front end, given that he is removing the back office?
We are not removing the back office; we are modernising it. Of course we want to ensure that we deliver, at the front end, for people in the channels that need it. It is interesting and important that many people who have disabilities or health conditions and who are staff members can now be empowered to do their work, because they do not have to travel because of digital capabilities. There are some exciting possibilities there, notwithstanding the fact that, on the frontline, we need to ensure that we are providing support for all customers in the way they need it.
On the impact of job losses, the Minister has clearly said that, in his opinion, there will be no impact on the offices and the delivery of the service, but I suggest that there is always an impact when jobs are lost. People who live in rural constituencies who have to travel by bus or do not have a car can be sanctioned if they do not attend their appointments. Can he assure the House that the benefit entitlements of constituents of MPs present, and not present, will not be affected by the changes in the offices?
I assure the House that this does not have an impact on the front end—on the activities that we do to support our claimants and our customers. It is also important to reconfirm that we are not reducing staff numbers; the focus is on retaining as many people as possible. We have great staff and we want to retain them. In many cases, people will relocate to another site in close proximity.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At last week’s business questions, the Leader of the House announced that there would be a debate this afternoon on protecting and restoring nature at COP15 and beyond. Unfortunately, it seems to have dropped off the Order Paper and no one understands why. I am sure that Government business has changed, but through your offices, may I encourage the Leader of the House and the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee to allow time for that debate, plenty of time before COP15 happens?
I do not know whether the Leader of the House wishes to give an answer to that. [Interruption.] I am sure that we can get you an answer but I do not have one to hand. I am sure that, as we go to business questions, the Leader of the House may want to point it out.
Yesterday, I joined fellow G7 Speakers on a call with the chairman of the Ukraine Parliament to discuss supporting parliamentary democracy and peace in Ukraine. The Ukraine Parliament has met at least twice during the war—a testament to the commitment of its Speaker and MPs to keep their country running and democracy alive in Ukraine. I will continue to have meetings.
Business of the House
It would be a pleasure. The business for the week commencing 21 March will include:
Monday 21 March—Opposition day (17th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Tuesday 22 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill.
Wednesday 23 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his spring statement, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Boiler Upgrade Scheme (England And Wales) Regulations 2022.
Thursday 24 March—Debate on a motion on war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments, followed by a general debate on the impact of long covid on the UK workforce. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 25 March—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 28 March will include:
Monday 28 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Well, there are lots of questions there. I start by thanking the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business and wishing everybody—all colleagues and beyond—a happy St Patrick’s Day.
I want to pick up comments from colleagues at Transport questions—in topicals, I think—about P&O and what looks like a real situation. I note, Mr Speaker, that you said that there might be a statement. Does the Leader of the House have any update for us on when there might be such a statement? I also echo the point the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) raised in his point of order: where has the COP15 debate gone? I note that the Leader of the House said he would mention it in his response.
It is a happy day in part at least because this morning Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori have come home. They have been reunited with their families after years of unjustified detention in Iran—it is a long time since I have felt able to smile at the Dispatch Box. In particular, I pay to tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for fighting for their constituents.
However, we continue to see the devastating consequences of Putin’s illegal attack on Ukraine, with war crimes committed daily. The Labour party stands with our allies, including NATO and others. We must strengthen our unity and resolve. We stand in complete solidarity with the Ukrainian people, but there are also implications for our own national security, so can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will not go ahead with the integrated review recommendation to cut 10,000 troops?
The hardest possible sanctions must of course be taken against all those linked to Putin. They must not live a Mayfair lifestyle in Moscow while committing atrocities in Ukraine. The sanctions package so far announced contains good measures, including the most recent on luxury items—pushed, I may say, by the Labour party—but questions remain about enforcement. The body responsible for dealing with this has issued just six fines in six years. I have already asked this but we have not had an answer, so could the Leader of the House again ask the Chancellor, who will be here next week, to tell us what he is doing to ensure sufficient resources are in place so that sanctions on dirty Russian money are properly enforced?
We on this side on the House are not ignoring the worsening cost of living crisis hitting working people up and down this country. We are on their side, but, unfortunately, it seems that the Government are not. Labour market figures published earlier this week revealed the true scale of the crisis engulfing working people: rocketing bills, stagnating wages and a buy now, pay later sort of loan scheme from the Conservative party, which is choosing to increase national insurance at the worst possible time, hitting 27 million workers. As I said, we are on the side of working people, but the Government are not. Instead, the Prime Minister is busy rowing back on his promise to ban second jobs for MPs—something we voted for. Will the Leader of the House confirm that at the spring statement the Chancellor will be scrapping his disastrous Tory national insurance rise?
The Online Safety Bill will, I hope, finally be published today—it may even have been while I have been standing here—although there was no mention of the Second Reading in the business statement. So that is another “Where is it?” question. Last year, the Prime Minister said that it would have completed all stages by last Christmas. With Russian misinformation on social media at an all-time high, threatening democracy, can the Leader of the House finally confirm when the Second Reading of the Online Safety Bill will be?
In a sign of our country’s vulnerability and energy insecurity, the Prime Minister went to Saudi Arabia to seek an increase in oil production, despite the appalling human rights record of that regime. Going cap in hand from dictator to dictator is not a long-term energy plan, so can the Leader of the House confirm when the Government’s energy security statement will be brought forward? As part of that plan, the Government should and could look again at Labour’s proposal for a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas producers. That would cut household energy bills by up to £600, helping those who need it most. Why are this Government forcing working people up and down the country, including the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, to pay the price for over a decade of mistakes made in Downing Street? I look forward to hearing his response and hope to hear more from the Chancellor on this next week.
There are a lot of topics to get through—the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm is spilling over this week—so let us make a start. P&O obviously is a developing situation. Mr Speaker, you indicated that you might take a statement later and I am sure that the Department for Transport would want to keep the House updated. I have not had any confirmation that there will be a statement later, but I know the Department will be looking at this closely and I am sure it will keep colleagues informed as the situation develops.
The hon. Lady moved on to the great news about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and the whole House will want to celebrate her safe return to the United Kingdom. She named a number of colleagues on her side. The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) raised the matter at business questions on a number of occasions and also needs some recognition. I hope that the hon. Lady would also recognise the contribution of the Foreign Office and a number of Foreign Secretaries who worked very hard to try to expedite the process and get Nazanin home, which they have been successful in doing.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady again for her support and that of the whole House on our response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. We continue to see the most appalling atrocities committed in Ukraine by the desperate regime in Russia. I have to say that these people will be held to account for the crimes that they are committing. This week we saw the bombing of a theatre with more than 1,200 people in it. One cannot even begin to imagine the carnage that such weapons cause. That is why we are right to continue with our sanctions regime. We have now sanctioned more than 1,000 people on the list and we are taking robust action against these individuals. We should be enormously proud of putting those measures in place. Alongside that, we have the largest humanitarian support package that there is and military support, with weapons for Ukrainians to defend themselves. The UK’s response has been exemplary. The Prime Minister has shown extreme leadership on the matter and continues to do so.
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the fact that that conflict is causing huge ripples around the world in terms of energy prices and the impact on the food market. The Government are very much aware of that. That is why we have put in huge packages of support. As she said, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be at the Dispatch Box next Wednesday for his spring statement. I am sure that he will update the House on progress in that direction.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Prime Minister’s trip to Saudi Arabia. Surely she recognises that the way to influence our world leaders is to engage with them: to go and sit with them, challenge them face to face and encourage them in a direction of improving human rights. We can do that only by having those face-to-face meetings and being a critical friend of those regimes. That is the right way to conduct world business.
The Goring gap question—the subject of early-day motion 1082, which I raised at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday—requires consideration by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the whole of Government because it runs roughshod over all the planning responsibilities of district councils.
[That this House calls for revocation of the conclusion of the planning inspector in the appeal relating to land north west of Goring Station, Goring-by-Sea, Worthing, the Goring Gap, separating Worthing from Ferring in Arun; notes the letter of the hon. Member for Worthing West to the Prime Minister in October 2019 asking that any inspector nominated to hear an appeal against refusal of a planning proposal should be limited to gross obvious major misjudgment; rejects building over substantial parts of the valued strategic gap between Goring-by-Sea and the village of Ferring; notes the inspector recognised the first two main issues were whether the appeal site offers an acceptable location for development and the effect of the proposed development on the landscape, including in the setting of the adjacent South Downs National Park; recognises that if the inspector’s reasoning were allowed to stand, it wrecks the responsibilities of housing authorities and county councils and attacks declared ministerial policy to maintain strategic separation between towns and villages; notes that every green field and open space between the Downs and the sea is threatened by development; and asks the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to meet potentially affected hon. Members and local authority leaders without delay.]
In a letter to the Prime Minister in October 2019, I said that an inspector should be instructed to overturn a proper decision by a local council only if there has been gross misjudgment by the council.
The issue is that Persimmon is greedily trying to fill in the strategic green gap between Goring and Ferring, in contradiction of the Worthing local plan.
The interim letter from the other planning inspector was clearly going to accept what Worthing was doing. It is wrong for one inspector perversely to grant an application when another is considering the local plan.
Can I meet the Prime Minister, and will the Government make a statement on restoring proper planning powers and revoke this inspector’s decision?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As he indicated, he raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. Independent planning inspectors take into account all relevant matters and decide each case on its own merits. However, the planning permission has been issued, so it is final, unless successfully challenged in the courts. As a challenge may be made, it would not be appropriate for Ministers to discuss the specifics of the case at the Dispatch Box, but the Government remain committed to taking forward planning reforms. As the “Levelling Up” White Paper set out:
“Ensuring natural beauty is accessible to all will be central to our planning system.”
I wish all our Celtic cousins a very happy St Patrick’s day and welcome Nazanin home to her family. The Leader of the House is absolutely right to pay tribute to the shadow Leader of the House’s predecessor. As you know, Mr Speaker, no session of business questions was complete without the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) raising the case of Nazanin. I also want to thank the Leader of the House for continuing to ensure we have ample opportunity to debate and consider the ongoing situation in Ukraine. That is what our constituents expect from us and we will continue to be as flexible as possible as we go forward.
Yesterday, we learned from the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) that the Prime Minister is a “very social” person. I have say that that came as a complete and utter surprise and shock to me. Blow me down with a feather, Mr Speaker! Who would have thought? Apparently, that accounts for his penchant for hanging around with Russian billionaires and oligarchs. Perhaps that description also helps us to understand a little bit more about the sheer number of rule-breaking parties and the heroic hedonism demonstrated by his No. 10 operation. Can we have a debate about prime ministerial sociability, and perhaps an update on the Sue Gray report and the conclusion of the Metropolitan police inquiry so that they can be considered properly by this House? Democracy requires that normal politics and scrutiny continue in this House.
One can only feel sorry for the Scottish Conservatives. Their leader, the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), dismissed by the Leader of the House’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), as a political lightweight, has now had to endure the indignity of withdrawing his letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Instead, the red carpet will be rolled out at the Scottish Conservative conference to the man that every elected MSP wanted gone only a few weeks ago. So may we have an urgent debate on abject humiliation? [Laughter.]
Lastly, the Dnipro Kids issue remains unresolved this morning. My understanding is that everything is in place at the Ukrainian end and a plane is available to take off on Friday morning. There are places waiting for them in Scotland, with the care and support they need. Can we please get them over here and brought to safety in Scotland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. He started by emphasising the united approach of the House on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We should not dismiss that. We should recognise that all political parties are right to condemn the actions of Putin. Having a united House of Commons sends a very strong message and I am grateful for his support.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Scottish Conservative conference, which will be taking place this weekend. There are huge numbers attending that conference, but I am sure there will be a space for him should he wish to cross the Floor of the House. I can arrange for a membership form to be headed his way. He could then pledge allegiance to the Prime Minister, attend the conference and demonstrate his support.
The hon. Gentleman finished on an important matter—his leader raised it at Prime Minister’s questions—of supporting children and getting them out of Ukraine and into a safer place. The Secretary of State for Education has made arrangements for more than 100,000 children to be supported in the UK through UK schools. We are absolutely committed to that. Our response—not only supporting people who are being evacuated out of Ukraine but providing humanitarian and military support—is an example to the rest of the world.
Somerset County Council is about to spend £8 million on a computer system that will ultimately cost about £20 million. IT projects in this country have a pretty shabby history. The problem we have is that there will be unitary elections in May, with the four district councils still there, but the system will be neither one thing nor the other. With counties and districts buying expensive systems that inevitably tend not to work, may we have a debate in this House on IT projects?
My hon. Friend is a tenacious campaigner on local government reform and this is not the first time he has mentioned Somerset councils in the Chamber. I know he will continue with enthusiasm to hold them to account and ensure they deliver for his constituents.
I wish my constituents in Gateshead, who will be celebrating as I speak, a very happy Purim and a very happy St Patrick’s day.
The debate on protecting and restoring nature at COP15 and beyond was withdrawn at the request of the answering Department. The debate’s main sponsor, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), acceded to the request, and we have promised her that we will reschedule the debate immediately after the Easter recess as long as we get the time from the Government.
I am glad that the Leader of the House announced the Backbench Business for 24 March on war pensions and armed forces compensation and on the impact of long covid on the workforce, but I am a little surprised that he has not also announced any time to debate the Chancellor’s spring statement. Possibly there will be nothing of any importance within it, I do not know.
The Backbench Business Committee can gladly report that we now have reinforcements. Two new members, the hon. Members for Bolton West (Chris Green) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), were appointed a couple of days ago, so it will be easier for us to get a quorum for our meetings in the coming weeks.
Lastly, I cannot help but note that we go into the summer recess on 21 July, but as yet we are not coming back. Will the Leader of the House let us know some time soon the date for our return after the summer recess?
It is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place. He was missed last week.
I am grateful for the update on the COP debate, which of course the Backbench Business Committee called for. I hope that he will recognise that so far I have delivered quite well for him on every request he has made. I think we are performing reasonably well on giving him what he asks for. As he identified, the spring statement will be next Wednesday and I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, will be very generous in allowing colleagues plenty of time to ask questions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think that those were all the questions that the hon. Gentleman had.
The people of Leyland—especially in Moss Side—have contacted me because they are concerned about street crime and antisocial behaviour, which has been an ongoing problem. The local police respond, but they are coming in from Chorley and Preston—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”]—which is too far away when your bike is being stolen by somebody with a knife, and gives plenty of time for people to scarper. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is past time to reverse the Labour police and crime commissioner’s cut to the Leyland response team and to get Leyland police station’s response teams open so that the community can feel safe on their streets?
I can understand why people would want to leave Chorley! [Laughter.]
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that everyone should have the security and confidence that comes with having a safe street and a safe home. That is why we are putting 20,000 more police officers on the streets. I know that the new Conservative police and crime commissioner, Andrew Snowdon, is already making a difference to community policing across Lancashire. I am confident that the Conservative team, under my hon. Friend’s leadership, will deliver for the people of Leyland.
At the end of February, the Prime Minister announced an immediate full asset freeze for VTB bank. The next day, the Chancellor countermanded that and gave it till the end of March to wind down its transactions. It turns out that an individual who is the head of global markets fixed-income trading at VTB bank has donated £44,000 to the Tory party in the last three years. That indicates a close association between the Tory party and people at VTB bank. He also donated £3,000 to the local Greenwich Tories at the end of December. We are now fighting local elections. Should we be fighting local elections that are funded by Russian money?