House of Commons
Thursday 19 May 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That there be laid before this House Returns for Session 2021-22 of information and statistics relating to:
(1) Business of the House.
(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question, Allocation of Time and Programming of Bills;
(3)Sittings of the House;
(4) Private Bills and Private Business;
(5) Public Bills;
(6) Delegated Legislation and Legislative Reform Orders;
(7) European Legislation, etc;
(8) Grand Committees and the Regional Affairs Committee;
(9) Panel of Chairs;
(10) Select Committees.—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Union Connectivity Review
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked me to pass on his apologies; he is absent from oral questions as he is attending the International Transport Forum annual summit, the world’s largest gathering of Transport Ministers, where the UK is assuming the presidency. We are carefully considering the recommendations of Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review and intend to respond later this year.
Mr Speaker, if you want to go from anywhere in Scotland or northern England by train to anywhere in north Wales, chances are you will have to go through Chester. Will the Minister please hurry up with the consideration and get us a positive decision on the electrification of the line from Crewe to Chester, and on the remodelling of Chester station to increase capacity for signalling and passengers?
The hon. Gentleman is nothing if not passionate about the city of Chester and the region. I am very conscious that the strategic outline business case for improvements in and around Chester station was submitted, and that the document has been reviewed. My understanding is that work is still ongoing.
Does the Minister agree with me that the biggest impediment to rail connectivity between Scotland and England is the ongoing dispute between the rail unions and TransPennine Express, which has caused huge disruption to my constituents who use Lockerbie station. Is there anything the Minister can do to bring to an end these unwarranted cancellations and disruptions to services, particularly at the weekend?
I am very conscious of the disruption, which is really disappointing because of the distress it causes to passengers. It is important to recognise that from the start of the pandemic, the Government earmarked more than £16 billion for taxpayer-funded life support for passenger services. We absolutely urge the unions to work with TPE to identify ways of restoring rest-day working.
According to a written answer I received yesterday, the now publicly owned ScotRail pays the highest track access charges of any train operator; they are more than double the next highest figure and make up nearly a quarter of the entire total. The charges have increased by over 320% in the last five years. Does the Minister accept that those punitive charges reduce the Scottish Government’s capacity to boost even further the substantive investments made in transport decarbonisation, and will she commit to rebating ScotRail and the taxpayers of Scotland for those unjustifiable and exorbitant charges?
These are charges that all train operating companies pay, right across the country. I will not get into the detail of how they are worked out, but let us be absolutely honest: this Government are making a massive investment in the railways. That includes the £96 billion in the integrated rail plan. I know, Mr Speaker, that you are very keen to see investment and improvements in Chorley. No doubt we will have a conversation about that in future.
P&O Ferries: Staff Rosters
Responsibility for ensuring roster patterns comply with international hours of work requirements lies with the owner-operators and flag state. It is for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, as the port state, to verify that those requirements are being met.
May I rapidly explain to the Minister why I tabled this question? On the intensive Dover to Calais route, P&O wants agency crew to work over 230 round trips before a period of rest. The experienced local crew it replaced worked 18 round trips before a rest period. This is where P&O is cutting its wage bill; it is not just doing it through minimum wage avoidance. Will he take steps to ensure that the legislation announced last week will cover roster patterns, so that the remaining major employers of British seafarers, such as DFDS and Stena, which have reasonable roster programmes, are not undercut by the likes of P&O, both on pay and maritime safety?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. If there are concerns that the MCA is made aware of, those will of course be investigated. With regards to the action we would take, the legislation announced is relatively narrow in scope and deals with the minimum wage aspect. However, the point the right hon. Gentleman rightly raises is being considered as part of the fair ferries national framework agreement being developed by the Department in conjunction with the UK Chamber of Shipping, operators and the unions.
What P&O did—and it was willing to admit this—was break the law. It refused to allow the usual consultation rights, and Parliament needs to do something to fix that. Surely the Government need to be in a position to take the likes of P&O on and get an injunction, so that consultation rights are left intact. Will the Minister speak to other Ministers across Government to ensure that this rather large hole gets filled?
Yes. My hon. Friend raises a very good point. There is a package of nine measures that we are taking to tackle the disgraceful behaviour of P&O, which the House is united in condemning. Conversations will go on between ourselves and other Departments, particularly the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which holds responsibility for the area of legislation my hon. Friend mentioned.
As the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), said, P&O brazenly broke the law, and it has faced no consequences for that action. Last week, the chief executive officer, whom the Transport Secretary said is not fit to be in charge of P&O, was promoted to the board. P&O is laughing in the faces of this Parliament and the public, and the Government are frankly letting the company get away with it. When will they get tough and seek a court order banning the entire board from office?
It is obvious nonsense that the Government are not acting. There are nine actions that we are taking to tackle the utterly disgraceful behaviour of P&O. The hon. Lady should be absolutely clear that P&O is responsible for this situation, not the Government; we are taking action. It is also worth remembering the model that Irish Ferries introduced in 2004, because the Labour Government did nothing, and she has done nothing. This Government are the ones who are taking action now.
I am back again, Mr Speaker, and I completely agree with the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). The Government have unveiled plans to allow ports to surcharge or block ferry companies such as P&O if they do not comply with national minimum wage legislation. I welcome anything that makes life harder for the likes of P&O, but why are the Government ducking their responsibility to amend and enforce employment law, and instead palming it off to the private sector? Is it not time that maritime employment law was devolved to Holyrood, and that a Government committed to taking action against the likes of P&O? Is it not time that that Government were given the power to get on with the job?
As I have explained, the Government are committed to taking action. We have nine points that we are addressing, and ports are being asked to act because they are the area where we have control and where we can enforce national minimum wage legislation. That is a critical plank of the action we are taking—it is not everything, but it is one of the most important things. We will continue to talk to colleagues across Government about any other steps we might take on employment legislation more generally.
Driving improvements to local transport services is vital to levelling up. That is why we have committed £5 billion this Parliament to do that.
Reductions in rural bus services in the Dewsbury constituency continue to be a major problem, particularly in villages without nearby rail access such as Grange Moor, Flockton and Emley, leaving many local people unable to access GP surgeries and local amenities. Does my hon. Friend agree that private bus companies and the West Yorkshire Mayor need to look at ways of improving and increasing bus services across rural areas, rather than just focusing on major towns and cities?
That is totally right. That should absolutely be the focus. The Government are determined that great bus services should be available to everyone, everywhere. We have recently announced that we will provide funding to improve bus services in a wide range of areas, and I am delighted with the £70 million that is being made available to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.
Rural transport networks are the arteries of our towns and villages—they bring life to our communities. However, the answer is not just big buses running the same routes on the same timetable every day; it is also partly about demand-responsive transport. The good news is that Wilshire Council recently won a £1.3 million grant from the Government to invest in demand-responsive transport in the Vale of Pewsey. May I thank the Minister for that award and ask what more the Government are doing to foment the revolution in demand-responsive transport?
I am grateful for the appreciation and, most importantly, his championship of rural communities and the solution that demand-responsive services represent. We recognise that they can really improve the availability of local transport. Our national bus strategy encourages local authorities to consider demand-responsive transport as one of the tools available for improving local bus service provision. As my hon. Friend says, we have provided £20 million from the rural mobility fund to areas across the country to trial demand-responsive transport solutions in rural and suburban areas. I am delighted, and will follow the progress that my hon. Friend is so keen to achieve.
Despite submitting an innovative proposal, Suffolk County Council was not successful in its bid for its bus service plan. It is disappointing that it first heard of this decision through the media, and it is yet to receive a full explanation of why its bid was not accepted. Will my hon. Friend meet the county council and Suffolk MPs to agree a strategy that will ensure that Suffolk has a fully comprehensive and properly integrated bus service?
We were really pleased to receive the bus service improvement plans from all the local transport authorities. On 4 April my Department sent a letter to those areas that were unsuccessful setting out our continued support, advice on enhanced partnerships, and many other ways that we will continue to improve the provision of local bus services. I will certainly ensure that the Minister responsible in the other place holds the meeting that my hon. Friend asks for.
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion, and he has set out exactly what our national bus strategy wants to achieve. I am thrilled at the ambition that I am hearing from across the House—and, indeed, the country —for better bus services. That is what we want to achieve. I feel the disappointment, but as was set out in the letter of 4 April to the unsuccessful areas, this is not the end of the road—far from it. We will continue the support. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to join the meeting with the Minister in the other place, as we Bus Back Better, particularly in his community.
Given the growing popularity of the Worcestershire Parkway station, which is at the intersection of the North Cotswold line and the Cross Country line, will the Minister ask her colleague’s officials to look again at the compelling strategic outline business case for doubling the North Cotswold line between Oxford and Worcester?
The £500 million restoring your railway fund is supporting more than 45 schemes in England and Wales by providing funding and advice. In answer to her question, it would probably be most appropriate for her to have a meeting with the relevant Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton).
The Government’s help to local bus companies and help for light rail during covid has been appreciated, but already bus companies in Sheffield are starting to make cuts, particularly First. The Government have said that, come October, all covid support will end, and South Yorkshire received no funding whatever under the BSIP. Does the Minister understand that in Sheffield and South Yorkshire, come October, we are not going to get London-style services? Many parts are going to get no bus services whatever.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman recognises the support that has been provided for local services during the pandemic. It was not an insignificant amount; indeed, it was £2 billion. We have provided £2.5 billion in new funding to support improvements to bus services and, as was set out in a letter sent by my Department to unsuccessful areas, we will continue to support operators and local authorities as we roll out our national bus strategy.
Bus services are critical transport infrastructure in Newcastle, but too often my constituents are left waiting for long periods at bus stops for high-priced bus services, not knowing when the buses are going to come. That is only getting worse, with price increases and service cuts. When—I want a date, not talk about the Bus Back Better fund, because that is not going to do it—will my constituents get bus services of the same affordability and quality as London’s? A date, please.
This is an ongoing part of the progress that we are making to ensure that people throughout the country—everyone, everywhere—benefit from better bus services, in both rural and urban areas. As for specific dates, I should be delighted to write to the hon. Lady giving details of any further competitions or funds that might be available. Meanwhile, we will continue to help local authorities and operators—as we have been doing, particularly during the pandemic—to bus back better.
In my constituency we have four railway stations as well as a tube station, but one of those stations, Queenstown Road, has no step-free access and is also inaccessible in other respects, so constituents wanting to board a train on that line have to go to Waterloo. Obviously, we would all agree that this is not fair or right, and it goes against the Government’s commitment in their inclusive transport strategy. Along with other key stakeholders, I have been calling for funds to ensure that we can make Queenstown Road fully accessible and fully inclusive. Will the Minister meet me and other stakeholders to discuss how we can make that a reality?
Of course accessibility is a priority for the Government. As I have said, we want to ensure that everyone, everywhere, can benefit from local services. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), the Rail Minister, will endeavour to meet the hon. Lady to discuss specific proposals for step-free access.
Before the pandemic, the trains to Stansted airport ran every 15 minutes. Since the Department for Transport has been pulling the strings, the frequency has slipped to half-hourly, with a knock-on effect on local transport services. As passenger numbers return to their pre-pandemic levels over the summer, will the Minister revisit that decision as a matter of urgency?
Buses are lifelines, and for four years we have worked incredibly hard in south Yorkshire to transform our services for the better. We have rightly been ambitious, putting forward a strong levelling-up fund bid and an excellent bus service improvement plan, but the Government supported neither. What advice can the Minister give those in our area, and many others around the country, who have the ambition to transform their services but need investment from national Government in order to do so?
I do not think I have heard such support for buses in any previous session of Transport questions, and it is brilliant to hear it, because we want to drive that patronage. We want to increase the number of people travelling on buses, and I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is championing the cause. As for specific support, I think he should read the letter that we sent out giving details of the support available, and perhaps consider the levelling-up fund, which can also provide support for buses. The closing date for applications is noon on Wednesday 6 July. However, as I have already said many times, we will continue to help local authorities and bus operators to improve bus services for everyone, everywhere.
On Monday, I was in Bradford meeting local schoolchildren left stranded by cuts in Northern rail services. In Wakefield, some passengers will face a four-hour gap in services between 6 am and 10 am. The Transport Secretary has not said a word about the cuts, but has spent his week boasting about new routes in Sevenoaks. Of course the south-east needs routes, as does the rest of the country, but what message does that send to our northern communities? If Ministers mean a single word of what they say about levelling up, will they commit themselves to restoring those northern services to pre-pandemic levels, as a matter of urgency?
The Government are investing £2 billion in active travel over this Parliament. This will allow local authorities to create new walking and cycling routes, including new footbridges.
My constituents in Silsden and Steeton have waited far too long for a footbridge to be built over the busy A629 dual carriageway. Six years after a feasibility study was granted, nothing has happened, despite this Conservative Government awarding millions of pounds to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to fund projects just like this. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on our Labour West Yorkshire Mayor and our Labour-run Bradford Council to stop dithering and delaying and get on and get that bridge built?
My hon. Friend remains a powerful champion of this and other transport priorities across his constituency. The Government have recently confirmed an £830 million settlement for the West Yorkshire Combined Authority as part of the city regional transport settlements programme. We expect to agree a finalised investment programme of public transport, walking and cycling improvements in the city region in the coming weeks.
Rail Services: South Wales and South-west England
We are always looking for ways to boost connectivity between south Wales and south-west England, and have most recently introduced through services between Cardiff and Penzance as part of the December 2021 timetable.
The Union connectivity review and the Welsh Government’s Burns commission have both highlighted the need for new stations such as Magor on the south Wales main line to improve our cross-border rail services. Will the Minister commit to delivering funding for the long-awaited relief line upgrades, and will she meet me and campaigners to discuss the bid for a new station for Magor?
On the Union connectivity report, as I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, in response to Sir Peter Hendy’s review which was published last year, we have set aside development funding for projects to improve UK-wide connectivity. We are engaging with the Welsh Government and other stakeholders before issuing a formal response to that review. I am more than happy to meet her.
Transport for London: Finance
After providing £5 billion to support Transport for London through the pandemic to date, we continue to discuss a potential longer-term funding settlement to provide TfL with financial certainty while ensuring fairness to national taxpayers.
My hon. Friend may be aware that the do-nothing Mayor of London has announced consultations on hammering hard-pressed motorists yet again, with an extension of the congestion charge, an outer London charge, a pay-per-mile charge and an expansion of the ultra low emission zone. Will my hon. Friend rule out funding those schemes, and will he penalise the Mayor of London if he goes ahead with them?
Decisions on road charging are of course for the Mayor of London alone to take, but I agree with my hon. Friend that the Mayor must not punish people who need to use their cars, especially at a time when people are struggling with the cost of living.
The national bus strategy, published in March last year, sets out the Government’s vision for delivering better bus services for passengers across England. In April, we announced over £1 billion of new funding for the bus service improvement plans, as part of a £3 billion investment in buses during this Parliament.
Well, we are back to buses. My local bus company is really struggling. Numbers 1, 2, 3, 3A, 19, 22, 39, U1, U2, U5 and D2 have all been cut, at a time when we must offer people proper alternatives to car travel. When can my constituents expect bus services to get back to at least pre-pandemic levels?
We have provided huge support for bus services across the country during the pandemic. I would like to remind the hon. Lady that since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 annual support for buses has been 15% higher in real terms than it was under Labour, and that bus fares rose far faster under the last Labour Government. This Government support buses and bus users and we will continue to invest in bus services across the country.
The people of Stoke-on-Trent were delighted to receive £31.7 million from this Conservative Government to bus back better, but sadly, First Bus still thinks it appropriate to cut some services despite this much-welcomed investment. Will the Minister meet me to talk about First Bus’s shameful local record? If that company cannot handle it, maybe there should be franchising in the city of Stoke-on-Trent.
Well, well, well, the Minister and the buffoons on the Back Benches talk of enhancing bus services, but at what cost? Today, Labour party research—[Interruption.] I suggest the Minister listens to this. Today, Labour party research shows that ZEBRA, or zero-emission bus regional area, funding to the tune of £15 million has been awarded to Arrival, which is interesting because that bus company is run by one Mr Denis Sverdlov, one of President Putin’s closest allies. The funding will see Arrival’s buses on the streets of the UK, sanctioned by this Government.
This Government are supposed to have sanctioned everyone connected to the Russian Government as a result of the horrific war in Ukraine, so I have one simple question: why is millions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money being handed to one of Putin’s nomenklatura? This is not Bus Back Better but buses straight to Russia.
Dear oh dear, the shadow Minister is buffooning back better rather than bussing back better. I am more than happy to raise that issue with my noble Friend the Buses Minister. We will certainly look into the details of that allegation, but at a time when public transport users are beset by strikes that the shadow Minister will never condemn, he should look in the mirror at his own party’s record on supplying public transport across this country.
Following encouraging initial research, further trials of the latest noise camera technologies have been announced to assess their effectiveness, and Members House are encouraged to submit applications for a trial in their local area.
I welcome the Government’s forthcoming acoustic camera trial, so much so that I have already submitted an application for a trial on the A34 bypass through Wilmslow in Tatton, although I hear that competition is stiff because of the number of applications submitted. Although I do not expect the Minister to give me advance notice of the result of Tatton’s application, if even places such as the A34 bypass through Wilmslow are not successful, will he consider having more trials in more places?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her interest in the scheme and for highlighting the nuisance of noisy vehicles in her constituency. We will be carefully reviewing all the applications received, and we will choose four sites that represent a wide range of urban and rural environments across England and Wales. We will then consider the results of those trials.
Villages in Meon Valley, including those along the A32, are blighted by noise from illegally modified motorcycle exhausts, so I am pleased the Minister has explained that the noise camera trial will move forward. Will Meon Valley be included in the trial to put an end to this unacceptable blight on communities in my constituency?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the blight on her constituents, and I entirely understand why she does so. The noise camera trials will demonstrate whether the technology can be an effective enforcement tool that enables the police and local authorities to tackle the excessively noisy and illegally modified vehicles to which she refers. I know she will work with her local authority to apply for a trial in the best way possible.
I thank the Minister for his answers. The pilot scheme has a target of picking up excessive noise, which has an impact on people’s hearing over time that they might not notice. At the conclusion of the pilot scheme, will he share that information with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Ministers? I feel the findings of the pilot scheme could benefit us back home in Northern Ireland, too.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The enforcement of such matters is devolved, which is why we are doing the trials in just England and Wales, but of course we will talk to the devolved Administrations to make sure the results are shared so that we can, if possible, roll this out across the UK.
Local Transport Plans: Decarbonisation
As part of guidance to be published later this year, local transport plans will be expected to include quantifiable carbon reductions.
The opportunity to make a seismic transition to cycling and walking in our towns and cities is simply not being realised in places such as York, the home of Active Travel England. “Gear Change” is the right ambition, but local plans and local transport plans are just not reflecting it. So how will the Minister ensure that this ambition is instituted in planning? Will she publish the Government’s funding plan needed by 2025 and 2030 to achieve this cycling and walking ambition?
Goodness me, our ambition for cycling and walking is well and truly set out in our transport decarbonisation plan and “Gear Change”; it was the Prime Minister’s ambition that by 2030 half of all journeys in towns and cities will be walked or cycled. As the hon. Lady mentioned, the home of Active Travel England will be located in York. This is just one of the ways in which we are decarbonising the transport system, moving away from fossil fuels and to electrification. I am also delighted that she has 33 electric buses operating a park-and-ride system in York.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Minister and I both know that the quickest way to decarbonise the air around our nation’s great airports is to implement the airspace modernisation programme, which will allow for better take-offs, better landings, more efficiency and the ending of stacking. The good news is that guidance was issued in May—three years ago. Does the Minister want to take a punt on when the Government will implement it?
I think it best that the hon. Gentleman has a meeting with the Aviation Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts)—specifically on that point. As for how we will decarbonise the aviation sector, again we are not short on ambition, nor on progress. We have rolled out the “Green Fuels, Green Skies” programme, and we continue to work with aviation manufacturers and airports to ensure that we decarbonise the aviation sector.
Rail Journey Times: Bradford to Leeds
As part of the integrated rail plan, the Government will be upgrading the Calder Valley line between Bradford Interchange and Leeds to reduce journey times from about 20 minutes today to as low as 12 minutes.
Last year, the Government scrapped Northern Powerhouse Rail, which would have run from Manchester to Leeds, through Bradford, stating that it was too expensive. At the same time, they ignored the plans set out by the Mayor of Greater Manchester to look at serious alternative funding models. Those same models got the £19 billion Crossrail project built for London. So can the Minister tell me why something that is good in the capital is apparently too good for places such as Bradford? Has he even considered the serious alternative proposals set out by the Mayor of Greater Manchester?
Let me gently correct the hon. Gentleman: last year, we set out our integrated rail plan, which is a £96 billion investment in the railways of the midlands and the north. It is the biggest ever investment by any Government in the railways of this country, and that is five times as much money as was spent on Crossrail. We are committed to delivering improvements across the north of England to more places sooner than under previous plans, and I encourage him to get behind the plans. I am more than happy to meet anyone, including Transport for the North and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and I meet the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues from Bradford regularly to talk about other options. The Government have said that we will take an adaptive approach, and we will continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure that we get this right, but £96 billion is a huge investment in our railways.
The Department consistently monitors how transport costs impact the cost of living and is investigating ways to reduce them further.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Of course we all know that petrol and diesel prices have hit record highs, and now the prospect of an embargo on Russian oil means they could increase further. Many of my constituents are struggling to fill up their tanks for essential use. The RAC has called on the Chancellor to reduce VAT on fuel costs, and many EU countries operate essential user fuel rebate schemes. What discussions has he had with the Chancellor about employing similar schemes and similar cuts in the UK?
At the spring statement, the Chancellor announced a temporary 12-month cut of 5p a litre in duty on petrol and diesel, to support motorists. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently wrote to the fuel companies to ensure that that cut was being passed on. Treasury Ministers continue to keep the matter under review and Transport Ministers continue to have regular conversations with Treasury Ministers about the importance of ensuring that motoring remains affordable.
The cost of rail travel could be reduced by maximising the income of the rail companies. On three of the four journeys that I took last week, there was no ticket inspection on the trains and none of the barriers were operational. Bearing in the mind the taxpayer support for the rail network, it is not only passengers who are being taken for a ride but the taxpayer. What will the Minister do to ensure that London North Eastern Railway, TransPennine and Grand Central—the guilty parties last week—maximise their income and reduce travel costs?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Revenue protection is of course incredibly important for all train operating companies. Taxpayers have put more than £16 billion into our railways during the course of the pandemic, so we need to continue to ensure that all operators do everything they can to maximise their revenues. I am interested to hear more details about not only my hon. Friend’s experience but that of other Members, because the Rail Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton)—and I are committed to ensuring that what my hon. Friend witnessed does not continue to happen.
Is the Minister aware of the huge costs for people who live in Wakefield and Huddersfield that have resulted from the fact that the small, regular and very good service between the two places was axed two years ago? It has meant that people have to travel in taxis and cars, which is much more expensive, so it is a disaster not only environmentally but financially. I was in Wakefield only on Saturday, and that is still a very important aspect of life and the cost of living for the people who live there.
I completely appreciate the importance of local rail services. We are working not only to restore rail services following the pandemic but, through things such as the restoring your railway scheme, to open new lines and services throughout the country. We continue to invest record amounts. As the lead on the integrated rail plan, I am particularly interested in ensuring that we get local services right throughout the north of England. I am happy to discuss with the Rail Minister the points the hon. Gentleman has raised, to see what more we can do in his area.
On Tuesday, we will see the opening of the fantastic Elizabeth line, which will run from east London right through the incredible town of Slough and on to Reading. It shows just what can be achieved when a Labour Government decide to make an ambitious public transport investment, as they did back in 2005 by introducing the Crossrail Bill. That stands in stark contrast to this Government, who are cutting services, jobs, safety checks and infra- structure projects throughout our rail network. The only thing they have increased is fares, and by eye-watering amounts. Will the Minister explain how huge cuts and huge fare hikes will do anything to get people back on to trains and to tackle the climate and cost of living crises?
Without wanting to test your patience with repetition, Mr Speaker, I emphasise again that the integrated rail plan in the midlands and the north is, at £96 billion, five times as big as the Crossrail project. I gently remind the shadow Minister of who the Mayor of London was when Crossrail was given the go-ahead and who the Prime Minister was when it opened. We are very proud of Crossrail and investing in London, but we are also very proud of investing in the midlands and the north.
The Government are investing record levels in rail enhancements across England and Wales. The £500 million restoring your railway fund is currently supporting more than 45 schemes to reconnect communities and reverse the Beeching cuts.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the Carno station action group, which has campaigned for more than two decades to reopen Carno station? I implore her to meet me to talk about the Welsh Government’s kind offer to put forward 25% of the funding to open the station at Carno in Montgomeryshire.
I know that my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for all things to do with Montgomeryshire, particularly for better transport. Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review supported further improvements between mid-Wales and the midlands. We are obviously considering them very carefully, but I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend.
Diesel-only Trains: Decommissioning
We remain committed to phasing out diesel-only trains by 2040, and have electrified almost 800 miles of track in the past four years alone to support that goal.
The Minister is aware that the Global Centre of Rail Excellence being developed in Onllwyn in my Neath constituency is the first and only purpose-built UK rail test facility, which will test the capability and reliability of alternative diesel rail technologies. Will the Minister add “test British” to her “buy British” approach, so that all new and upgraded rolling stock endure a fault-free running period before being introduced into service in the UK?
The hon. Lady highlights exactly why electrification of our railways is so important and also the importance of British research, British innovation and British businesses’ involvement in the railway sector. On the point about electrification, I mentioned earlier that we had included almost 800 miles in England. I remind the House of the importance not just of electrification, but of the fact that it was this Government who, since 2010, have electrified more than 1,200 miles of rail, compared with just 63 under Labour.
We now come to topical questions, but, first, I want to let those on the Front Bench know that no letter was sent to me; it was sent to the Opposition. We have just had an apology. To all those saying that I have received a letter, I say, no, I have not. That is not good enough, and hopefully we will get it right next time.
May I put on record my sincere apologies for the fact that a letter about the Secretary of State’s absence was not received by you. [Interruption.] I will ensure that it never happens again.
The Secretary of State has travelled to the International Transport Forum to meet the largest gathering of international Transport Ministers from across the globe. The UK has taken the presidency of the ITF, an international, inter-governmental body on transport policy, at a pivotal time when the world faces multiple transport-related issues. The forum brings together 63 countries to work on shared goals, including making transport more connected, safe and resilient. Through the ITF, we will continue to work to tackle Russian aggression and to work with other like-minded partners to ensure Putin’s brutal and unprovoked war in Ukraine fails.
I regularly hear from residents in Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Turriff and other towns and villages across my constituency complaining about the excessive noises from car exhausts, as was mentioned earlier. I welcome the recent announcement of trials and pilot schemes for noise cameras, but I was disappointed to hear that they will apply only in England and Wales. Given that the legal framework for statutory nuisance rules for construction and regulations for vehicles are UK wide, what engagement has my hon. Friend, or other Department Ministers, had with the Scottish Government to see what can be done in Scotland, and is there scope for expanding the pilot beyond just England and Wales?
I know that this is a big issue in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Noise camera enforcement comes under policing, and policing is, of course, devolved in Scotland, but we continue to have discussions with the Scottish Government. We are keen to continue those discussions and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to see what more we can do on this issue.
Last year, the Chancellor slashed the road maintenance budget by £400 million, but we now know that those cuts are going even further. Pothole funding is set to be cut by 30% in real terms by the end of this Parliament. That is the equivalent of almost 12 million potholes every single year. Last year, the Chancellor confidently told the British public to enjoy National Pothole Day before the potholes are all gone, but that statement is now nothing more than a distant memory. Is that not further proof, if it were ever needed, that the Government are asleep at the wheel while road users continue to suffer on roads that are not fit for purpose?
Approximately £915 million a year has been committed for the next three years, which is consistent with funding levels for 2021-22. That will help local highways authorities manage their highway assets, including tackling potholes and other road defects across local road networks. As we know from the local elections, Conservative councils fix potholes faster than Labour councils.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about SAF, which is critical. We want the UK to be a world leader, and it has the potential to create more than 5,000 jobs; we have one of the most comprehensive programmes in the world. We are considering the role that a price stability mechanism, such as a CfD, might have. We are building the evidence base to support that. It is a complicated idea for SAF, but we are doing that work.
The Government are aware of the impact that electricity lines across the port of Tyne have on businesses in the area. Electricity network infrastructure is a matter for Ofgem as the energy regulator, but the Government continue to engage with the National Grid and the Port of Tyne authority to help find the right solution to manage a key piece of electricity network infrastructure in the area. Of course, I would be happy to arrange any suitable meeting for the right hon. Gentleman and his parliamentary colleagues.
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Grove station. Of course, I would be happy to meet him to discuss what future options might be available.
An MOT centre in Wombwell has told me that it is fearful for its future after hearing of plans for MOTs to be required only every two years. It says that after the previous six-month extension, 90% of cars were not fit for use on public highways. The proposals are bad for motorists and local businesses, so will the Government think again?
The Secretary of State has made it clear that we are always looking for ways to assist with the cost of living and, indeed, driving. Any decision to substantively modify testing requirements will be subject to appropriate consultation and legislation. It is right to keep the system under review, but no decision has been made and we will take seriously the responses from the consultation.
As I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, the pandemic has really changed travel habits. Operators are using this opportunity to reassess services to ensure that they provide the rail timetables that meet new passenger travel patterns and are fit for the future, but also, importantly, carefully balance cost, capacity and performance. Our new timetables are demand-led. Where operators have modified their timetables we will keep them under review as appropriate.
On Saturday, along with over 100 others, I took part in Newcastle’s Kidical mass cycle, and parents raised with me the challenges of getting kids to cycle to school and, related to that, the impact on air quality of cars idling outside schools. I got my cycling proficiency from Hill View Junior School. What are the Government doing to help children to learn to cycle, acquire cycles, and stop cars idling outside schools?
I think this is perhaps my favourite question of this session because we are improving and increasing the funding and support for Bikeability, which is a fantastic scheme rolled out right across the country enabling children—and adults, actually—to be equipped with the skills they need to ride on our roads and enjoy cycling.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As much notice as possible will be provided of any disruption along the route of the TransPennine upgrade, and we will continue to work with the industry and delivery partners to ensure that any disruption is kept to a minimum. In advance of closures, plans are being developed to ensure that sufficient services are maintained, whether by diverted trains or bus replacement services. We are also relying on innovation to ensure that we have to close the track for less time than previously.
The ministerial team will know that those of us who have been lifelong campaigners for road safety are extremely worried that in future our Government will accept lower standards of safety in car manufacture and design, and much else. Can the Minister assure me that we will not become the poor man of Europe in terms of safety and environmental standards?
Absolutely, yes. My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for local services. We are providing that feedback very shortly to ensure that local authorities, enhanced partnerships and bus operators can all work together and stand the greatest chance of success in future applications. That support will continue.
Earlier on, the Minister replied to the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about safety in relation to P&O Ferries. The Minister will be aware of the occasion a month ago when a ferry between Northern Ireland and Scotland lost power in the Irish sea and was afloat for an hour and a half in one of the busiest places for boat and ship travel. Has he had any opportunity to talk to P&O Ferries to ensure that that dangerous situation, which could have led to an accident and loss of life, never happens again?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this. Clearly, safety is the Government’s paramount concern, particularly in such circumstances. The Maritime Coastguard Agency is responsible for ensuring safety. I have had discussions with it about that, and we will make sure that any necessary steps are taken. If he would like a further briefing, I am happy to give him one.
Rural communities are particularly close to my heart, because I live in one. It was a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency of North Devon to enjoy a ride along the Tarka trail, which was absolutely fantastic. We will continue to support walking and cycling, as I have set out. In terms of her specific question, I hope that she will look forward to our rural strategy. The Government provided £20 million, as we have heard, to the rural mobility fund, which is just one of the ways to improve services in rural areas.
I am proud, on behalf of Rother Valley, to support Doncaster’s bid to be the headquarters of Great British Railways. Doncaster is a great location that serves the whole of Rother Valley and the whole of South Yorkshire. Will the Minister look favourably on South Yorkshire’s bid to be the home of Great British Railways?
We have heard a lot today about the restoring your railway scheme, and I remind the House that it was launched by the Prime Minister at the Fleetwood to Poulton line. Can the Minister say where the scheme is at, what the next stage is and when that decision will be taken?
I know that my hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for all things Blackpool North and Cleveleys. The next round of submissions for our restoring your railway programme—I was at the Dartmoor line just last week—is currently being considered, and we will be updating and announcing in due course.
The zero-emission vehicle mandate requires a smooth glide path in its transition towards the 2030 ban on petrol and diesel vehicles. Will my hon. Friend consider the impact that the smooth glide path has on smaller automotive manufacturers? Their commitment to achieve the 2030 ban is absolutely agreed, but the capacity to achieve the smooth glide path for those smaller manufacturers, such as Aston Martin, is much more difficult.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has referenced our zero-emission vehicle mandate. We continue to work with all manufacturers, including the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and I have been delighted with the enthusiasm and the determination to transition from a fossil-fuelled car manufacturing economy to zero-emission vehicles. I will continue to work with all manufacturers, and in particular Aston Martin.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) for his support for Doncaster’s bid to become the home of the Great British Railways headquarters. Does the Minister agree with my hon. Friend and the wider community of Doncaster that Doncaster is the rightful home of the new Great British Railways headquarters?
Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the threatened strike action by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers at Green Park and Euston on 3 June, when many people from across the country will be wanting to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee?
It is always regrettable when we hear about disruption, because it is the passengers who really suffer from the distress and disruption caused. I just flag once again that it is this Government who have earmarked more than £16 billion of funding for passenger services since the start of the pandemic. That is equivalent to about £600 a household. This taxpayer-funded life support was the right thing to do, but it is important that we now get the right balance between what is right for passengers and what is right for the taxpayer.
Heritage railways are vital to the tourist sector, but they are struggling at the moment with coal supplies. Can the Minister give an assurance that she will do all she can to ensure that these heritage railways have access to the necessary supplies?
Food Price Inflation
The global spike in oil and gas prices has affected the price of agricultural commodities. Agricultural commodity prices have always been closely correlated with energy costs, since gas is used to manufacture fertiliser and fuel energy is needed throughout the food chain. Gas prices were rising as we emerged from the pandemic, but the invasion of Ukraine has caused some additional turbulence in international commodity markets. I have already set out measures to support farmers and growers in England ahead of the coming growing season. Those measures are not a silver bullet, but they will help farmers to manage some of their input costs from fertilisers.
The turbulence of the market has brought into focus again the importance of a resilient global supply chain and the importance to our national resilience of having strong domestic food production. In the UK, we have a high degree of food security. We are largely self-sufficient in wheat production, growing 88% of all the wheat that we need. We are 86% self-sufficient in beef and fully self-sufficient in liquid milk, and we produce more lamb than we consume. We are also close to 100% self-sufficient in poultry. Sectors such as soft fruit have seen a trend towards greater self-sufficiency in recent years because of the extended UK season.
As part of a global market, however, there have been pressures on input costs and prices. As a result of those rising input costs, there are of course also some pressures on households, predominantly as a result of the energy costs. There have also been some rises in food prices in recent months, although the ferocity of retail competition means that price pressures have been contained on certain product lines.
In March, overall food prices rose by 0.2%; the price of fruit actually fell in March by 1.2%. In April, however, food prices rose by 1.5%, which is a faster rise than we have seen in some years. If we look at the price of specific categories of food, in April, bread and cereals rose by 2.2%; sugar, jams and syrups rose by 2%; fish rose by 2%; meat rose by 1.9%; vegetables, including potatoes, rose at a lower level of 1.3%; fruit remained broadly stable; and oils and fats decreased slightly by 1.1%.
The single most important measure of household food security and the affordability of food remains the household food survey that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has run for many decades. That shows that, among the poorest 20% of households, the amount spent on food consumption was relatively stable at around 16% of household income between 2008 and 2016. It then fell slightly to 14.5%, but with the recent price pressures, we can expect it to return to those higher levels of around 16% in the year ahead.
We are monitoring the situation. The Government have put in place an unprecedented package of support to help those who need it. That includes targeted cost of living support for households most in need through the household support fund, where the Government are providing an additional £500 million to help households with the cost of essentials.
I am staggered by that response. The Secretary of State speaks like a commentator or spectator on the sidelines, rather than the person responsible around the Cabinet table for food security. He seems oblivious to the cost of living crisis that people are facing. He can reel off the stats all he wants, but working people know that when they go to the supermarket, the price of almost everything they are buying is going up and up. All the Government do is spectate and commentate from the sidelines.
The Secretary of State says that the Government have made interventions, but to what end? He talks about a fertiliser shortage and an input costs crisis, but there is a fertiliser plant in the north-west that is completely closed and has been since September, and the fertiliser plant in the north-east is running at only 30% capacity. Let us also look at carbon dioxide, the labour shortage and distribution costs, and what they are doing to the cost of food.
Let us then look at the public sector. Bear in mind that the NHS serves 140 million meals a year, schools serve 600 million meals a year and prisons serve 90 million meals a year. Cost inflation has an impact on frontline services as well as on household budgets. For households, that is on top of inflation, on top of energy prices going up, on top of mortgage payments going up, on top of petrol and diesel going up, and on top of taxes going up.
What interventions have the Government actually made in practice? They have told people to ride the bus for the day to keep warm, to try to live off 30p a meal, or to just work that bit harder and they will be fine. Well, let me tell them: the number of working people in poverty is the highest since records began. Sixty-eight per cent. of people in poverty are in work. Working is not a route out of poverty after 12 years of this rotten Government.
I see it in Oldham. People who are coming for food parcels now are not in temporary crisis, but in permanent crisis. They are in debt. They are wearing NHS uniforms, coming to collect food parcels to put food on the table. But let us go from Oldham to Camborne, because I have visited the Secretary of State’s constituency. The food bank there is now giving out 10,000 meals a month—just one food bank in his constituency. It is a constant crisis. Will he commit, even at this late stage, to call an urgent cross-Government, industry and charity commission to get ahead of the food crisis? He knows that, if the Government do not get a grip by Christmas, it is going to be even worse.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not want to hear facts, but the urgent question is about food price inflation and the facts about that do matter. He is the one who wishes to spectate and commentate, rather than dealing with the facts before us. I absolutely acknowledged that food prices are rising, and faster than we have seen in recent years. Indeed, household spending among the poorest 20% may return to the levels it was when his party was last in power. However, it is also the case that, in April, overall food prices rose by 1.5%.
The hon. Gentleman asked about fertiliser prices. Here there has been more positive news this week. Fertiliser prices peaked at about £1,000 per tonne in March. This week they have fallen to about £620 per tonne—it was £290 per tonne a year ago. Farmers are purchasing at that level. He expressed concerns about carbon dioxide supply, but that is a by-product of the manufacture of ammonium nitrate, and now that the main fertiliser plants, including the one at Billingham, have reasonably full order books for the remainder of the summer and are manufacturing and selling ammonium nitrate, we do not foresee a problem when it comes to carbon dioxide.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point, which was that the cause of the pressure on household incomes has been the global spike in gas prices and the corresponding impacts on people’s energy bills—household electricity and gas bills have risen sharply. The Government have put in place some measures to try to mitigate and dampen that, but we have always been clear that we cannot remove the impact altogether. Of course, because people need to buy food every week, when there is pressure on the household budget, an inability to buy food is what they notice first, even if food prices have not changed dramatically from where they were previously.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned those in work. The Government have been very clear about that. Over the years, we have continued to raise the threshold before the lowest earners pay any tax at all and in April this year we increased the new national living wage to £9.50 an hour. Those on the lowest pay will have an additional £1,000 in their pay packets as a result.
Finally, I take this opportunity at the Dispatch Box to praise the work of Don Gardner and local volunteers, whom I meet regularly in my constituency of Camborne and Redruth. We often work in conjunction with them to help to ensure that people visiting that food bank can get access to the benefits and support that they need.
Compared with the last major recession we had under the Labour Government, we have done a great deal to expand provision, including free school meals to post-16 students and to all infant-aged children—something the Labour party never offered. On the issue of community food pantries and food banks, I commend to the Secretary of State the model established by Councillor Anne Handley in Goole, the Two Rivers community pantry and the incredible team of volunteers. They are providing heavily subsidised food to anyone in the town who wants it. We have received support via the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the past. Can he assure me that that support will continue for amazing schemes such as the Two Rivers community pantry?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Projects and charities such as that do indeed perform an important role in our country. Often, the strongest part of their role is not just the provision of immediate emergency support, but help for people to get the support that they need to address other issues and challenges they might have in their life, so that they can get things back on track.
The 9% rise in the consumer prices index is the highest since records began, with a quarter of those in the UK resorting to skipping meals. The Governor of the Bank of England has warned of an “apocalyptic” outlook for consumers, with the worst yet to come as inflation looks set to hit 10% by the autumn. Food banks are already struggling to cope as households face unprecedented demands with the cost of living. Food banks themselves are a clear sign that the welfare system is failing: that is why food banks exist. Will the Secretary of State argue in Cabinet for measures such as converting the energy loans into grants, the reintroduction of the universal credit uplift, a reversal of the national insurance hike and an inflationary uplift for all welfare and state pension payments, so that—in 2022, in the UK—we do not have to witness the scandal and shame of people being unable to afford to feed themselves and their children?
We have obviously made some changes to the benefits system over the years, in particular the introduction of a tapered reduction in universal credit; it always pays people to work more hours and take on more work. We are in a fortunate position in this country in one way: unemployment rates are very low—the lowest since 1974—with close to 1 million job vacancies, and wages for the lowest-paid have been rising.
The analysis we have done on food price inflation—I would point out to my right hon. Friend that, in the month of April, food prices on average rose by 1.5%—suggests that around three quarters of the price pressures we have seen can be directly attributed to the price of gas and the remainder to other factors, including rising costs of labour as wages rise for the lowest-paid.
In my constituency, many people before inflation began to become an issue were already finding it difficult to make ends meet. That is not propaganda; that is a matter of practical reality. Every Member of Parliament knows this about their own constituency. What I looked for from the Secretary of State was some indication that there was action that he and his colleagues in Government were going to take, and there came no answer. What is he going to do to help my constituents, who really are on the breadline?
The action that the Chancellor has taken so far was announced earlier this year in the spring statement. It included a £150 rebate on council tax bills, and a £200 rebate on energy bills to dampen and spread the cost of the spike in energy bills. We increased the national living wage in April to £9.50 an hour, and that puts an extra £1,000 in the pockets of the lowest-paid. Obviously, we keep this matter under constant review, as the Chancellor has made clear.
My constituents in Scunthorpe and the surrounding villages well understand the global factors affecting the cost of living and of course food price inflation, but they are worried about what is to come. I know the Government have set out a number of measures, and we are doing a lot. When does my right hon. Friend think we will start to see the effect of those measures at the supermarket till?
The reality, as I have said, is that the changes in global commodity prices are being driven by the high price of gas and energy. As I pointed out earlier, the cost of fertiliser, which is one of the key drivers of those international commodity prices, has now fallen by 40% from its peak in March, and is now running at about £620 a tonne. If fertiliser prices remain at that level, or indeed continue to fall, we are likely to see pressure come off the forward prices of international commodities.
I want to share with the Secretary of State the experiences of my constituent Rebecca, who is a single mum expecting her second baby soon. She said she reached out to me in “desperation and fear”,
and she told me:
“The cost of living has shot through the roof, it is unaffordable and I am having to make some pretty desperate decisions. My weekly shop amount has already jumped from under £50 per week to £75 a week… I am finding it virtually impossible to buy the necessary equipment for my baby’s impending arrival.”
How can the Secretary of State expect Rebecca and millions like her to struggle with tax increases and soaring inflation with no additional support? What is he going to do and what are the Government going to do to ease this pressure on families, which Rebecca tells me is now making her “fearful for the future”?
As I acknowledged in the statement, it is undoubtable that rising energy bills have affected household incomes, because people are paying more money on their gas and electric. Food prices have indeed risen—but across the year, with the rate currently at about 6.5%. Of course, we all have constituents with such challenges in their lives, and we all work with them. The Government have put in place the household support fund specifically to help those who fall between the cracks and cannot get support elsewhere, and we have doubled the size of that fund.
In tackling the global pressures behind surging inflation—US monetary policy tightening, the increase in raw material prices and the conflict in Ukraine—my constituents prefer the Government’s considered approach to the knee-jerk reaction of the Opposition. The key aspect that is beneficial to most families is to put more money into their pockets through tax cuts. Will my right hon. Friend work with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to see what room there is for tax cuts as part of our response?
I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Any fair-minded person can see that international factors are clearly at play, over which no Minister can have total control, but we can control the support that we give to our domestic food producers. Is this not the moment to do as the National Farmers Union has asked of the Secretary of State and pause the Department’s programme of basic payment cuts to farmers? They will see their payments cut this year by 25%, next year by 30% and the year after by 50%.
The Government pledged to keep spending on agriculture in cash terms the same year after year in this Parliament, and that is precisely what we are doing. The right hon. Member is correct: we are phasing out the subsidy on landownership that meant that 50% of the budget went to 10% of the wealthiest landowners in the country and replacing it with a more logical approach that is about supporting the things that farmers do for the environment. Our sustainable farming incentive in England will deliver that by helping farmers with the cost of alternatives to fertiliser to chart their course. Of course, it is for Scotland and the Scottish Government to decide what they want to do in that regard, but we have a programme that is supporting farmers in England.
It is clear that food prices are up at the supermarket tills, but I am not clear about whether they are also up at the farm gate. Farmers in my constituency are being hit twice, because food is also more expensive to produce. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to work closely with the retailers to ensure that, during this period of pressure, they give fair contracts and have good relationships with their suppliers?
My hon. Friend raises a fair point, but I point out that the farm-gate price of milk has risen by close to 30% so far this year, the price of lamb is at record levels, having just gone above £6 a kilo at the farm gate, and the same is true for beef. The price of cereals has doubled. The price of pork is also rising, partly because poultry and pork contracts tend to be linked to the cost of production. So farm-gate prices are also rising, but we recognise that farmers also have higher input costs.
The Government are at sixes and sevens on how to respond to the cost of living crisis. No. 10 is saying that Labour’s windfall tax idea is ideologically unconservative, although, of course, Margaret Thatcher had one. Will the Secretary of State go back to the Chancellor and demand a windfall tax to support families across our country?
The Chancellor is very familiar with all the arguments around the policy that the hon. Member mentions. I would simply say this: the Treasury is rightly concerned that, in an inflationary environment when prices are rising, we must be careful about borrowing and throwing more money at that or even increasing public spending in a way that could exacerbate the problem, so it is a difficult line to tread. That is what the Chancellor is considering as he looks at this issue.
Food prices going up around the country has a particular impact in my constituency, which has the oldest demographic in the country. Pensioners are worried not only about rising food prices but about the value of their pensions. Between March 2021 and March 2022, food prices went up by 6%. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor, so that there is an absolute cast-iron guarantee that the triple lock will return next year to help my pensioners who are struggling with food costs and the cost of living?
Mr Speaker, given the nature of these questions, I almost feel that this urgent question should have been taken by the Chancellor. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is well aware of the arguments that my hon. Friend makes. A decision was taken to change the triple lock temporarily, for reasons we all understand, with very rapidly rising incomes. That is a matter for the Chancellor to deal with in a future statement in this House.
Recently, I caught up with staff and volunteers at the community one-stop shop in Broomhouse in my constituency. They are doing a great job, but their food bank and their community pantry is hugely oversubscribed. It has become a bit fashionable in here to laud food banks. These sorts of schemes help to feed families and give dignity to users, but they really should not be necessary in a society where so many companies are enjoying the benefits of huge windfall profits caused by the same factors that have led to some of the increases in food prices. I hear what the Secretary of State says about not being the Chancellor, but will he use his position in Cabinet to urge that those windfall profits are taxed so that the money can be used to help people like my constituents, many of whom are working hard—employment is not the answer; this is about in-work poverty—and many of whom have received cuts to their benefits?
Specifically on food banks, the area for which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has responsibility is through supporting projects such as FareShare and other food charities which play an incredibly important role in supporting food banks to ensure they have supplies. I think I dealt earlier with the second issue that the hon. and learned Lady mentions, which really is a matter for the Chancellor at a future date.
Ukraine is known as the bread basket of Europe and the world. It is one of the largest exporters of wheat, grains, oils and barley. On average, it exports between 4 million and 5 million tonnes of grain each month. At the moment, it is exporting only a couple of hundred thousand tonnes of grain and that is having a huge impact on food prices in England and on inflation across the world. What are the Government doing to increase the homegrown production of foods and help to secure more routes into the country for grain in order to lower prices?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Ukraine is a very large producer and in particular it is the world’s biggest producer of sunflower oil, which is the principal agricultural commodity we were importing from Ukraine. On cereals, Ukraine accounts for around 9% of wheat exports, a lower percentage of global production. In answer to his question, as I said in my statement we have a very high level of food security in this country, with high levels of self-sufficiency in wheat, producing 88% of the wheat we need. Of course, we are also mindful of the impacts on other countries around the world, in particular those in north Africa that import significant quantities from Ukraine.
In crises on this scale, Governments of all complexions, Conservative and Labour, have looked at ensuring people have the resources coming in so that they can afford basic foods. At the moment that means inflation-proofing benefits, pensions and wages, but they have also looked at price controls. The Government are looking at price controls for energy. Will they now look at price controls on a basketful of basic food stuffs, so that we do not see what we have seen in recent surveys, which is people actually now on the edge of hunger?
I would simply point out that the ferocity of retail competition in this country at the moment means that two of the big companies, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, are in a price match war with Aldi. That will actually do far more to constrain prices in some of those categories—not all, but in some of them—than any regulation the Government can bring in. I would point out that the last time we saw a spike in food prices of this size, with household spending on food exceeding where it is today, was 2008. The Labour party did not choose at that point to introduce price controls.
My right hon. Friend has set out for the House the complications involved in price rises of food and other substances, and supply is clearly one of those. Will he therefore take action to encourage our farmers to produce more, and then make sure that our supermarkets pass on the profits they make to farmers to encourage them to grow and develop more product?
Confidence among farmers to sow next year’s winter wheat crop and to continue to put down flocks of broiler chicken and so on really does matter. In the case of poultry and pigs, many of the contractual arrangements automatically pass on some of the costs—for instance, the costs of feed. With fertiliser prices easing down, I think we will see confidence returning, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. In England we have chosen to bring forward 50% of the annual subsidy payment to July this year to help farmers with cash flow during a difficult time.
Dennis Woods from Unity in Community in north Hull told me last week that demand at its food bank is soaring. This is a left-behind community, so donations are suffering, and every week the food bank’s stock is cleaned out. It seems to me that things will only get worse, so given that the Government are combining 1970s stagflation with attitudes from the 1870s about the working poor, what exactly will they do to help people in my constituency who are suffering from hunger and who cannot put food on their table?
The Secretary of State may be aware that in Wales a policy of providing free school meals to all primary school children is being progressed thanks to an agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government. Will he speak with colleagues in the Treasury about potentially uprating the public sector budget so that that important provision is not affected by rising food prices?
The Governor of the Bank of England has described food inflation as “apocalyptic”. Instead of telling people to work harder, buy cheaper or cook better, why do the Government not think again about raising national insurance, cutting universal credit and putting a windfall tax on the oil companies?
Again, these are matters for the Chancellor, but I would simply say that, as we emerge from this pandemic, there are challenges—challenges to global supply chains, challenges to the global economy and, domestically, challenges to our NHS. The NHS has had two years of wrestling with the pandemic, and it now has a backlog in some areas that it needs to get on top of. The national insurance rise and social care levy that we have put in place will bring in the resources that will help the NHS to get back on its feet after the pandemic.
In my constituency, hunger, poverty and malnutrition are not abstract concepts. Food bank demand is through the roof, and many food banks can no longer cope with demand as donations are squeezed from the very communities that need their services. The Secretary of State can robotically repeat what the Government have done and how much they have spent—only once—but the simple, sad fact is that it is just not enough. Many of my constituents are going hungry in one of the richest economies in the world—here and now in the 21st century. We need some urgency and some action, Secretary of State.
When my constituent goes to Collective Sharehouse, she has to select items that do not need to be cooked, because she cannot afford to cook any food. She is therefore not getting a balanced diet, and we are going to see inequality grow not only economically but in terms of health outcomes. Will the Secretary of State go back to the Cabinet and speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to ensure that we see a proper increase, in line with inflation, in people’s social security and pensions so that they can eat?
As I said, we recognise that the single biggest driver of pressure on household incomes has been rises in gas and electricity bills. That is why the Government have focused their attention on those areas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions obviously keeps under open review the approach and the support that we give people, but we should recognise that there are around 1 million job vacancies in this country, with unemployment at the lowest level ever. We want to support people into high-paid work.
As the campaigner Jack Monroe has highlighted, and as Newcastle’s West End food bank sees in practice, the cruel truth is that the poorer you are, the higher the rate of inflation you face and the fewer choices you have. But the Government have choices, and my constituents are amazed and disgusted at the choices they make to protect windfall profits rather than working people. Why does the Secretary of State think it should be the poorest who pay the price of inflation?
I reject the hon. Lady’s caricature. This Government increased the national living wage to £9.50 an hour and have consistently raised tax thresholds so that the poorest do not pay tax at all. This Government and this Chancellor have put in place a package of measures to help those on the lowest incomes.
None of us came into this place thinking that we would see a day when children went to bed with no food in their tummy and no heat in their home. I know the Secretary of State to be an honourable man, but today’s statement does not show an understanding that this is a national and global emergency just like covid. There should be a Cabinet-level group—it could always be all-party—because this crisis is not going to go away. People are going to starve in this country and worldwide. We should have a programme to grow more, not just for us but for the whole world. Please, Minister, go back to the Cabinet, shake No. 10 up and get this moving.
Our domestic production of food is crucial to our national resilience and plays an important role in our overall food security, as do open markets around the world. We will be setting out a food strategy in June that will deal with many of these issues and will set out our ambition to expand agricultural output.
I thank the Secretary of State very much for his answers to the questions—he is obviously over his subject matter. In my constituency, milk went up by 25p in one week and since March of last year the price has risen by more than 25%. That is only one of the cupboard staples, and an essential element for future health. What steps can the Secretary of State take with regional counterparts to bring down prices and ensure that the farmer is supported and helped? Will he bring to the ears and attention of the Chancellor the need to halt the plastic packaging tax, which has increased production prices for dairymen across all the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
There have been so many questions for the Chancellor that I am sure by now he has tuned in and is listening to proceedings. In answer to the initial part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the Government are removing the tariff that was introduced on United States feed maize so that we can reduce some of the input costs, particularly for the pig and poultry sector. That will also benefit dairy farmers.
Business of the House
It will be a pleasure.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 May will include the following:
Monday 23 May—Second Reading of the Public Order Bill.
Tuesday 24 May—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.
Wednesday 25 May—Remaining stages of the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, followed by a general debate on Ukraine.
Thursday 26 May—My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will propose a Humble Address to celebrate the platinum jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen.
The House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 26 May and return on Monday 6 June.
The provisional business for the week commencing 6 June will include the following:
Monday 6 June—Second Reading of the National Security Bill.
Tuesday 7 June—Opposition day (1st allotted day). A debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition: subject to be announced.
Wednesday 8 June—Second Reading of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.
Thursday 9 June—A general debate on social housing and building safety, followed by a general debate on a subject to be announced.
Friday 10 June—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I also thank him for mentioning the forthcoming recess, but staff tell me that they would like to plan their holidays, so will he help them out by announcing the rest of the year’s recess dates?
I agree with you, Mr Speaker, that Ministers should make their statements before talking to the press, but it is also the case that ministerial statements should be made to announce Government policy. Yesterday’s statement from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) —who is also the Minister for Justice and Tackling Illegal Migration—was pure party political polemic. If his statement had been drafted by civil servants, it would have been an abuse of power, so I sincerely hope and trust that that was not the case.
Every day that the Government continue to dance their hokey cokey with Labour’s popular windfall tax, working families and pensioners suffer. Bills, food—which was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and petrol prices are up. Real wages are down. Suggestions from Conservative Members range from incentives for granny annexes to getting a better job. How does that help an actual granny whose pension went up by 3% when inflation is 9%, the highest in 40 years? How does it help the three in five people who are turning off the heating to save money? Putting on a jumper does not reduce the standing charge.
Yesterday the Prime Minister said that the Government were against raising taxes, although there have been 15 Tory tax rises in two years. He then said that they would look at “all sensible measures”. By the evening, the Chancellor was telling business leaders that he had a plan. I ask the Leader of the House: where is the plan? If he does not know, perhaps he could persuade the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency to use his “overgrown prefect” powers to put the Chancellor on the naughty step until we see it. The Leader of the House must know that the Government will eventually have to give in and accept our plan. Will his Government continue to leave people to struggle while they wait for the inevitable U-turn? Will the Leader of the House urge the Chancellor to present an emergency Budget now?
Members on both sides of the House are still experiencing unacceptable Home Office delays. Our constituents cannot obtain driving licences or passports. When I visited our local jobcentre last week, I was told that people could not take up jobs because they could not obtain ID. Yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Corby, could not say whether proposed cuts would affect the number of Home Office civil servants. The Leader of the House will surely have seen the long, slow queues in Portcullis House for the Ukraine drop-in hub, which is now also the passport drop-in hub. Civil servants are doing a great job, but this is not a plan. So I ask the Leader of the House again: where is the plan? How will people get passports and driving licences with fewer civil servants?
During the trial of the former MP for Wakefield, the survivor of this abuse said that he had contacted those at Tory HQ during the 2019 general election campaign to tell them about it. I commend his bravery. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) wrote to the co-chairman of the Conservative party on 24 April asking why there had been no action at the time. She has received no reply. Can the Leader of the House please help? Can he also tell us why these allegations were not acted on in the first place? Have the Government contacted the child sexual abuse survivor Sammy Woodhouse to apologise for putting her on a panel with the former Member for Wakefield after they had been informed of the allegations? Does the Leader of the House understand why survivors of sexual abuse might conclude that this could have been a cover-up?
Earlier this week, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) raised a point of order about a letter sent by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) to a previous Tory party chair about potential connections with members of the Russian state, which has also not received a response. Obviously this needs clearing up. My hon. Friend mentioned six other letters that she had sent to Tory chairs that had also gone unanswered. Other Members on both sides of the House have experienced similar delays in receiving replies to their letters to Ministers, if they have received replies at all.
I recently received one from the Department of Health in response to a letter sent six months ago, so this is clearly a pattern of behaviour. Could the Leader of the House please encourage his colleagues to invest in a pen and some writing paper, or perhaps to familiarise themselves with email? Is not good enough to have to wait six months for a ministerial response to letters. When the Government fail to respond to MPs, on all sides, they are letting down the British people we are all trying to help. Those British people are furious. They are sick of this Government’s lacklustre approach to the country. They are tired of inaction when action is possible, and they are fed up with being treated with what can only be described as disregard. This Government need to get a grip, and to do it now.
Thank you for that advice, Mr Speaker. I should start by correcting the record. At last week’s business questions I may have inadvertently misled the House when I said to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) that the Government had introduced 33 Bills in the Queen’s Speech. I forgot the five carry-over Bills, so we are actually introducing 38 Bills. This is a demonstration of the Government’s huge commitment to our ongoing response to the global inflation challenge.
The hon. Lady asked about recess dates, and I will do my best. I hear her plea, and I will respond as quickly as possible. We then got into what I think we can call her party political rant; she started with Labour’s plan for a windfall tax. It is time to undress exactly what this plan is. She paints it as a silver bullet that would solve the global inflation challenge faced by not only the UK but the rest of the world. That simply is not true—[Interruption.] I will tell her about my plan in a moment, but we need to address her plan. Let us look at the numbers. I think she is suggesting that the amount of support we will give each household will be somewhere between £50 and £100, as a one-off hit. The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s actual plan is for a £22 billion intervention to try to help families fighting the global inflation challenge. That is an enormous package of support. It includes a reduction in the duty on fuel. That is alongside our plan to reduce national insurance contributions for over 70% of those paying them, and to change the taper regime for those on universal credit so that people can keep more of their wages. The Government recognise that this is a huge global challenge, and we will continue to fight it on behalf of people up and down the country. The Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer will continue to monitor what is happening, and will continue to deliver the £22 billion-worth of support.
The hon. Lady mentioned passports. Clearly there have been a number of challenges at the Passport Office, as well as at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. That is why we have recruited another 500 people since April 2021, with a further 700 arriving by the summer. There is a support centre in Portcullis House, as she identified, but if there are specific cases in which I can assist her constituents, I will of course feed them directly to the Foreign Secretary.
The hon. Lady made reference to Wakefield, and I hear your advice on that, Mr Speaker. We need to work together across this House to ensure that those who are victims of abuse in any way, shape or form have the confidence to come forward, and that their allegations are taken seriously and fully investigated. We have made huge strides in that direction, with cross-party support, but my door is always open to anyone who has suggestions on how we could move forward on this. I know that Mr Speaker is putting together a Committee to look at some of these matters. Together, cross-party, we can address these challenges. We take them very seriously, and I think we are moving in the right direction, but there is more to do.
The hon. Lady made a passing reference to political donations, for which there is a system that must be followed. The Conservative party and other political parties must follow those laws. She also mentioned the speed of ministerial responses, and I accept that challenge. Departments should respond quicker, bearing in mind that there has been a global pandemic.