House of Commons
Tuesday 7 June 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we start today’s business, I wish to make a short statement. Today marks the retirement of Alex Newton, Editor of the Official Report—or Hansard, as most of us think of it. Alex joined the House in 1989 and became Editor in 2015. As Editor, he oversaw the introduction of a much-improved website for Hansard, making it easier for everyone to follow our proceedings here. He also took a leading role in ensuring that Hansard and the Broadcasting Unit responded so effectively to the challenge of covid. Alex is enormously well-liked and respected within the Official Report and across the House Service for his integrity, commitment and professionalism. I know that all Members will want to thank him for his service to the House and wish him a very happy retirement. We also send our best wishes to Alex’s successor, Jack Homer.
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
In April, the Government published plans for accelerating renewable energy deployment in our British energy security strategy. Of course, that is very much at the centre of our strategy to ensure sustainability, affordability and security in the long term in our energy.
I wish Alex a happy retirement; where would we be without Hansard?
Ofgem’s remit is a real barrier to increasing grid capacity, as it is currently impossible to make anticipatory grid infrastructure investment. That is slowing the growth of renewables and pushing up household energy bills. If we had the new wind and solar farms that the Government are seeking to procure in this summer’s contacts for difference auction already on the grid, every UK household would save £100 on their energy bill this winter. So why have the Government still not reformed Ofgem’s remit?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Of course when we are talking about renewables, it is important in this Chamber to reflect upon the fact that Scotland boasts 25% of Europe’s offshore wind capacity and of its tidal capacity. Now that the UK Treasury is going to be coining in some £13 billion from Scotland’s North sea oil and gas sector this year alone, will it give a little bit back and match fund the Scottish Government’s £500 million just transition fund?
I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman so enthusiastic about energy in Scotland. I wish he would extend his support to nuclear power and other forms of decarbonised baseload. On his question, the Treasury has announced a strong investment incentive in relation to the energy profits levy.
The Government have £13 billion in their back hipper, yet they will not even give £500 million back. But we should not be surprised, because this UK Government are failing to fast-track the Acorn carbon capture and underground storage project; continue to preside over Scottish renewables projects paying the highest level of grid charging in the entirety of Europe; and confirmed just yesterday that big oil incentives will not be carried over to big renewables either. So may I ask the Secretary of State: is it not the case that, as ever, Scotland has the energy but we do not have the power?
Scotland has the energy, and in the form of the UK Government it has a strong supporter of renewables and energy in Scotland. The Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) and I negotiated the North sea transition deal, and we are also pleased to have announced the energy transition zone in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, powered and funded by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Energy Price Cap
The Government are well aware of the difficulties households are facing, which is exactly why we have provided a further £15 billion of support, on top of the £22 billion announced earlier this year, to support people with the cost of living.
The energy price cap affects consumers and has major implications for business. The price of energy is recognised as one of the key drivers of inflation, because of rising prices at all levels. That is confounded by the Chancellor’s post-covid rises to VAT on hospitality and tourism. So does the right hon. Gentleman regret not doing more to get the Chancellor to provide more support to small businesses and small business owners, to help them and to help keep prices and inflation down?
The hon. Lady will remember that throughout the covid period my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer supported businesses to the tune of something like £400 billion. A lot of that support, in the form of loans and the future fund, is ongoing. I do not think we can take any lectures from the hon. Lady on supporting business through what has been a very difficult period.
This week, the citizens advice bureaux in Scotland revealed that 62% of the inquiries they receive relate to energy issues. As Ofgem has warned that people can expect a staggering 42% rise in energy prices, does the Secretary of State regret the time he has spent defending the Prime Minister against confidence votes instead of providing much-needed support for businesses and energy consumers to tackle the cost of living crisis?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the excellent package of support for consumers and businesses, but I am sure he will agree with me—unlike the Opposition parties—that it is not just about what the Chancellor can do to step in: there are lots of steps that consumers and businesses can take for themselves to reduce their own energy costs before the energy price cap is changed again this autumn. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what more can be done to help consumers and businesses to cut their own energy costs?
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has raised that issue. As a keen follower of these matters, she will know what we have done in relation to the heat and buildings strategy, which sets out clearly the kinds of steps that we want people to see in respect of insulation and the possibility of selling energy back to the grid. We are doing lots of exciting things in this policy area. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I am always interested in her ideas and I am delighted that she is heading our Back-Bench policy committee in this area.
One of the fastest and most effective ways to protect people from the impact of rising energy costs would be an ambitious retrofit and insulation programme, which should have been at the heart of the Government’s approach but has been conspicuous by its absence. The Government support pledged so far for energy efficiency falls £1.4 billion short of their manifesto commitment, so will the Secretary of State tell us what more he plans to do on the issue? In particular, will he tell us with absolute certainty that legislation for ECO4—the energy company obligation—which was due in April, will not face any further delays and will definitely be laid before Parliament before the summer recess?
It is not my job to say when legislation will be coming into this House—[Interruption.] What I will say—[Interruption.] What I will say specifically in relation to decarbonisation is that we have a clear heat and buildings strategy. The manifesto commitment covered 10 years, so it was not over the term of the Parliament. There was a clear manifesto commitment over 10 years and more money clearly needs to be spent to honour that commitment over a 10-year spending period.
It would be really nice if the Secretary of State told us when the ECO4 legislation is coming, because ECO4 is not going to work unless that legislation comes forward.
The Secretary of State knows that the new price cap and the increase in customer bills will have a devastating impact on customers’ struggle with the cost of living, so why is his Department directly contributing to the sky-high price cap levels by putting into place new customer levies—such as the socialisation of the costs of failed energy companies, the green gas levy and the nuclear regulated asset base levy—that will add perhaps £100 to the upcoming and future price cap levels, and hence to customer bills? The Secretary of State talks of Government assistance to help customers to cope with their bills, but is it not very much about giving with one hand and taking back with the other? Should customers not be angry at this cynical policy?
There is no reason to be angry about the support, because the £37 billion of support is very real. On the supplier of last resort, the hon. Gentleman will know that 26 firms had to leave the market as a consequence of sky-high wholesale prices, and all the SOLR levy does is socialise those costs within the industry. It was a necessary device to make sure that customers can ease on to other providers without interruption.
New Low-Carbon Technologies
Clean energy technologies are fundamental in both securing our energy supply and meeting net zero. This Conservative Government have set out their ambition to invest up to £22 billion in research and development by 2024. Meanwhile, we are moving to annual options for renewable energy and investing big in our nuclear future.
In recent months, I have had a number of emails from constituents who have taken the Government’s encouragement to look at getting a heat pump, but have found the cost just too high for them. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help bring down the cost of heat pumps so that they are more affordable for more people?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want to go with the grain of human nature, which means that, when it is time to replace a gas boiler, the heat pump is a competitive option in terms of price. That is why we think the cost of heat pumps can reduce by 25% to 50% by 2025. We have our £450 million boiler upgrade scheme to provide capital grants of up to £6,000, and that is in addition to the zero per cent rate of VAT on installation.
As we transition away from gas, hydrogen—in particular green hydrogen generated by renewable sources such as that at Scout Moor wind farm in my Heywood and Middleton constituency—gives the UK the unique opportunity to become an exporter of energy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is good not just for our economy and energy security, but for communities such as Heywood and Middleton where it will create new and exciting jobs?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituency and for the hydrogen sector. I was at the global hydrogen summit about three weeks ago where exactly the possibility of hydrogen exports was very much the topic of the day. That is why we have doubled the ambition in our British energy security strategy to go to 10 GW of low-carbon hydrogen production by 2030, which will provide fantastic opportunities right the way across the country, notably in his constituency as well.
I am very keen to help the Government find viable paths to net zero, which is why I took a meeting with a firm that has developed a route to continuous power from tidal basins. Can I bring those people to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss how that solution, remarkable as it is, produces continuous, not intermittent, net zero power, so that he can learn more about what could be done?
I thank my hon. Friend for his continued interest in all matters relating to net zero. My door is always open to him, particularly in bringing innovative proposals on how we will get to net zero. He will know that the Government have invested more than £175 million in tidal energy projects in the past two decades and we have £20 million allocated in the current allocation round for the contracts for difference for tidal stream power.
Yesterday, a Treasury Minister was unable to confirm whether the climate compatibility checkpoint would be applied to the recent tax cut for the oil and gas industry investing in further drilling. Can the Minister today confirm whether that climate checkpoint will apply to existing investment decisions and not just future investment decisions after the checkpoint has been introduced?
A recent Public Accounts Committee report on net zero highlighted the real challenge of getting consumers onboard. Going net zero and embracing low- carbon technologies cannot be a preserve of the wealthiest and there needs to be much more work by Government. What are the Government doing to ensure that consumers are supported to make green choices?
The hon. Lady raises some very good points. I am looking forward to appearing before the House of Lords Committee on this very topic on Thursday. I am sure that her Committee has done important work on this. We want to make this process as affordable as possible for people. That is why we have introduced the boiler upgrade scheme. That is why we are spending £6.6 billion of public money in this Parliament on energy efficiency, making sure that those options are there and are affordable. That is one of our key aims, particularly if we are to get to 600,000 heat pumps per annum by 2028.
The Minister may know that our gas pipes are capable of taking 40% hydrogen, as they did with coal gas. Will he meet me and also Professor Andrew Barron who works at Swansea University, which is pushing forward technology to take the hydrogen produced by renewable wind farms off peak, converting it and putting it into the gas grid and therefore reducing the carbon footprint of boiling an egg by 40%. Surely that is the best way forward in the short term to reduce our carbon footprint.
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Late last year when I visited the Whitelee wind farm just south of Glasgow, the UK’s largest onshore wind farm and the second largest in Europe, I saw for myself the potential there for renewable energy to convert to hydrogen. The UK Government announced a facility to assist with that. Blending is also an important aspect that we will actively be looking at. Of course we will have a number of other important uses of hydrogen, notably in maritime, transportation and the decarbonisation of industry, and those are all in the frame for consideration for what will undoubtedly be our big need for hydrogen in the future.
The Secretary of State and the ministerial team regularly meet business representative organisations to discuss how Government can continue to support businesses and help them to grow. We regularly discuss the apprenticeship levy and are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Education to feed back the views of the business community.
I was lucky enough to visit Forterra in my constituency near Desford, where it is building a £95 million brick factory. Forterra raised the apprenticeship levy because it is finding difficulties trying to get more people to come and work in the likes of the heavy goods vehicle sector. Part of the difficulty is the constraints around how the levy can be used. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can get rid of some of the red tape and be creative for those industries that are particularly struggling with the legislation and the restraints around the apprenticeship levy?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on speaking up for businesses in his area and on Forterra, which I understand from reading will be one of the largest brick factories in Europe. I would be very happy to meet him and I am grateful for any comments that he or other colleagues have about the apprenticeship levy.
We are trying to find out this morning what the Secretary of State’s job is. It says “Industrial Strategy”, but how can we have an industrial strategy without skills? The Minister knows that something is seriously wrong with the apprenticeship levy—and what about kickstart? That has quietly died the death. It was the flagship training policy of this country. What the hell is going on on the Government Benches if they do not know what their job is?
We always welcome all contributions, particularly constructive ones such as that one. The apprenticeship levy has been in place since 2015: among the most recent statistics, more than 100,000 people have begun apprenticeships and under-25s make up a substantial proportion of the number of people taking up apprenticeships. While we will always look at how we can improve things, a substantial amount of progress has been made in recent years.
The widely reported breakthroughs in fusion energy by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority team at Harwell this year signal UK leadership in a new era of industrial-scale fusion energy. I am sure the whole House takes pride in that achievement and will want to pass our best wishes on to the team at Harwell. That is why we are investing £700 million in the next phase of fusion facilities and research. We are announcing the location of the spherical tokamak, our first industrial power plant, and this month we will launch our paper on the regulation of fusion energy for industrial roll-out.
I have written to the Secretary of State recently about our Severn Edge fusion bid in Berkeley and Oldbury, because we provide the ideal location for the spherical tokamak for energy production fusion programme. We can deliver the project and we have cross-party support spanning the south-west and Wales. I believe this is a good opportunity for Government to prove that we are not just levelling up the north. Does my hon. Friend agree that the decision on where to locate the STEP prototype is crucial to the UK’s fusion ambitions, and will he say a little bit more about the timetable he is working to?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being such an advocate for her patch. I completely agree that the location of the spherical tokamak plant is critical to our future fusion industry ambitions. Some 15 sites across the UK have applied to host STEP, and the UKAEA has shortlisted five: Ardeer in Ayrshire, Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Moorside in Cumbria, Severn Edge in Gloucestershire and West Burton in Nottinghamshire. The UKAEA has now completed a detailed analysis of those sites and has submitted its recommendation to the Secretary of State, who will make a final decision and announcement by the end of the year.
Dounreay in Caithness in my constituency was in the 1950s the site of the UK’s first nuclear reactor. The nuclear industry did a very great deal to provide local employment and to halt the curse of the highlands, namely depopulation. Today, we have a licensed site, we have a willing and skilled workforce and we have a local population who support the nuclear industry. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister talk to the Scottish Government, who have not ruled out nuclear fusion, about the potential for developing nuclear fusion at a site such as Dounreay?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I congratulate him on his enlightened stance: he is supportive of the UK and the Scottish nuclear industry—a position we all rather wish the Scottish nationalists would take more widely. I have regular meetings with the Scottish Ministers for science, technology and innovation. This Government are very supportive of that cluster; if only the Scottish nationalists were.
Leaving the EU: Benefit for Businesses
Leaving the European Union gives us a fantastic opportunity, over the long term, to chart a new course to bring further prosperity to the UK. The Government are committed to growing the UK’s economy by making the most of our Brexit freedoms, signing new trade deals, and, over time, lightening the regulatory burden.
I have previously compared the role of Government to that of a cricket groundsman preparing the best possible wicket on which our players—our businesses, including mine in Hertford and Stortford—can play to their strengths. Will my hon. Friend outline the steps that we are taking to drop unnecessary regulation following our departure from the EU, so that our brilliant businesses can compete and win?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her important point. Unlike her, I am not able to make any comparisons with cricket, but we know that unnecessary regulation, where it exists, is a real burden for businesses, and we are committed to reducing it. There is also work under way on data laws, alcohol duty and imperial markings. There is the forthcoming Brexit freedoms Bill, and cross-Government work to look at reducing burdens. All of that should mean positive movement in this important area of policy.
Our insurance and financial services sector is a great British success story, and it helps to fund our local public services. The majority of employment in the sector is outside London and spread across many of our constituencies. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that we continue to support the growth of this industry, and that there must be a strong competitiveness duty on the regulator, so that we can make the most of opportunities now that we have left the EU?
I know that my hon. Friend does a huge amount of work in this area as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on insurance and financial services, and he has a background in the sector. Although he is tempting me to make policy that is dealt with by another Department, I know that his point will have been heard by my colleagues in the Treasury.
Under the Northern Ireland protocol, Northern Ireland businesses pay mainland suppliers a fee to ship to them. Will the Minister consider refunding businesses this fee, which they must accept because the list of suppliers who will take on the hassle of the web of red-tape confusion is ever-dwindling, leaving very little choice when it comes to supplying goods to Northern Ireland?
The hon. Member is hugely committed to finding ways through the challenges around Northern Ireland, and I congratulate him on the work that he does. I will certainly pass back his comments, and I am happy to discuss them with him separately, if that is helpful.
Following on from the cricket analogy, one of the golden rules in that great game is that when your time is up, you walk; you do not wait until you are told.
The Minister is talking about the benefits to businesses of leaving the EU. When will businesses in my constituency start to feel those benefits? All they are seeing now is businesses closing because they cannot get the staff, because of interruption to their supply chain, or because their exports are getting held up on their way across the channel. When will things turn around after the disaster of Brexit, so that we are at least back to where we were before 2016?
That was a nice try from the SNP at linking those things. As the SNP and the hon. Gentleman know, there are substantial global issues at the moment that all Governments are grappling with, and the Government here in the United Kingdom have been very clear about their desire to support businesses and to help people through these difficult times.
British business depends on British science for long-term national growth, and the No. 1 issue facing British scientists right now is our participation in the world’s largest science funding programme—the European Union’s £95 billion Horizon programme. Since 2007, British scientists have won over £14 billion from Horizon—more than we put in—but this is about more than money; it concerns international prestige. Horizon is a collaborative network of over 30 countries. Let us face it: this Government will never be able to replicate that. The Prime Minister said that he had an oven-ready Brexit deal; why is British science being left on the shelf?
I am not going to refight Brexit and revisit the positions we all went through in the last Parliament. Horizon is important. The UK Government have been very clear about our desire to continue with Horizon. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who is the Minister for science, continues extensive work to ensure that that happens. The EU has a choice to make, and my hon. Friend will be in Brussels tomorrow to continue that conversation.
In recent months, the UK has had a strong track record of attracting inward investment, including in cars—in Nissan, Stellantis and Ford —and in batteries, through Envision AESC; and Airbus announced a further ramping up of its A320 line in Broughton a few weeks ago. In April, the Department launched the new global Britain investment fund, which will build on our track record and encourage internationally mobile companies to invest in the UK.
I thank the Minister for his response. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of interests, my chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on Finland, and my vice-chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on Sweden. Our relationship with Finland and Sweden has never been stronger; there is the mutual defence treaty, our support for their application for NATO, and the recent Sweden-UK life science agreement. Does my hon. Friend agree that Runnymede and Weybridge, with its connectivity, academic institutions and strong tech and life science sector, is a fantastic place to build on that investment and that relationship, and to bring in further investment from northern Europe?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that his constituency has a very important role to play in the future of life sciences, and I commend his work on that strategically important sector. He mentioned the life sciences memorandum of understanding that we signed with Sweden last week. Our relationship with Sweden goes back more than three centuries and is worth £20 billion, and there are 100 Swedish life science companies in the UK. That is another example of close working across the globe on progress for everyone’s benefit.
The Centre for Policy Studies is not alone in having just published damning research from business leaders. It states that Britain is becoming a less attractive place to invest; the UK is slipping behind other countries because of red tape, rising taxes and ministerial complacency. Could it be because we have a chaotic, rudderless, high-tax Conservative Government, with no industrial strategy and no plan for growth? Is it not time that the Secretary of State listened to businesses, tackled rising business costs and backed calls to spike the national insurance hike? He should know that it is the wrong tax at the wrong time.
That is a curious line of questioning from the Opposition Front-Bench team, given that Nissan has made £1 billion of investment in recent months in Sunderland, Stellantis has made an investment of more than £100 million in Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port, and there is additional investment in green technology and life sciences—the list goes on and on. Of course there is more to do, and of course as a listening Government we will always look at what more we can do to make us the most attractive place to invest in the G7 and across the world. We have a good track record that we will continue to build on.
Affordable Energy: Winter 2022-23
The Government have announced a package of support measures totalling over £37 billion this year. It includes a £400 grant to households to help them with their energy bills when that is needed most.
Two weeks ago, we found out that we have a huge surplus of national gas but nowhere to store it. That was swiftly followed by the announcement that as many as 6 million households face power cuts this winter because of gas shortages. Will the Minister give a guarantee today that this Government can keep the lights on for both households and industry this winter? A business in my constituency told me that its energy bills have soared from £7 million to £35 million. What support are the Government giving to those energy-intensive industries?
There is a lot in that question, but the scenario the hon. Lady paints is very extreme. She will know that we are looking actively at what we can do on the storage side. On producing energy, I find it a bit rich of the Labour party to criticise us. This is the party that said, in 1997, that there was no economic case for new nuclear power stations; the party that increased, rather than cut, our dependence on gas, which went from accounting for 32% of our electricity generation to 46% of it; and the party that failed to invest in renewables, which, over 10 years, have gone from accounting for 7% of our electricity generation to 43% of it. We will take no lessons from the Opposition on helping people with energy generation and with their bills.
Incubator and Accelerator Hubs
Incubators and accelerators across the country play a vital role in helping our high-growth start-ups and scale- ups. That is why we continue to fund the strength in places fund, and are investing £100 million to pilot new innovation accelerators. That is also why, on my various tours around clusters, I recently went to the Leicester space and satellite hub, the Leeds digital health and medtech hub in the hon. Lady’s county, the Northumbria University and Ashington further education hub, and the BioYorkshire hub in her area.
York’s economic future depends on releasing the talent of our entrepreneurs and social enterprises. To do that, we need to ensure that they have space to innovate and grow. In each of the last four quarters, however, we have seen the loss of 100,000 entrepreneurs, so what investment will be made to ensure that we have the infrastructure in place for the acceleration and incubation of the future business industry?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about social enterprises being mainstreamed in the business community. She may have seen the recent report by the all-party parliamentary group for social enterprise, of which I have long been a supporter, that argued that we should mainstream social enterprise in the BEIS policy framework, which is an interesting proposal. We have just announced the biggest increase in research and development and innovation funding—an increase of £25 billion over the next three years. I have asked UK Research and Innovation to focus on that incubation hub infrastructure around the country, so that we can continue to support the university and small business networks that create the opportunities for tomorrow.
Support for Manufacturers
Manufacturing —from the heaviest of our industries to our most modern fourth industrial revolution factory—is the bedrock of our country’s resilience, and we are committed to supporting it. This year, we will launch a new manufacturing investment prospectus to promote the UK as the destination of choice for investment, and to signpost the support available to businesses.
Decarbonisation and the production of green steel represent a huge opportunity for steelmakers such as British Steel in Scunthorpe. Steelmakers are raring to go, but they need further policy guidance before they invest. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that he will continue to work closely, in the excellent way that he has done, with steelmakers to ensure that they have the guidance they need to reach those goals?
I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that we want to continue to work with British Steel, and with her—she is a champion for Scunthorpe and the surrounding communities—to ensure that it has a strong future, and to plot a pathway to treading more lightly on the earth.
The recent report by Midlands Connect outlined that upgrading the A50/A500 corridor that runs through my constituency of Burton and Uttoxeter will unlock £12 billion for the economy and create more than 12,000 jobs. Will my hon. Friend meet me and other colleagues who represent the north midlands manufacturing corridor to see how his Department can support these upgrades and unlock enterprise opportunities across the region?
As a fellow midlands MP, I very much welcome the report from Midlands Connect about the opportunities that our region can take together for the long term. I know how hard my hon. Friend and her colleagues in Staffordshire work on this, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss the matter further.
Neonatal Leave and Pay
We recognise that parents of babies receiving neonatal care need extra support during some of the most difficult days of their lives. We are committed to introducing neonatal leave and pay to meet this need as soon as parliamentary time allows.
We are all disappointed that there is no employment Bill, but there is cross-party agreement in the House on neonatal leave and pay. Leaving to one side the more controversial aspects of the employment Bill, what would stop the Government supporting a stand-alone Bill to enact policies on neonatal leave and pay?
We absolutely welcome and recognise the interest in this issue, especially from the hon. Gentleman, who has personal experience of the subject and has raised it a number of times in the House. I remain committed to the legislation. We can work on it in different ways. I believe that we have a meeting scheduled, and I am looking forward to discussing how we can deliver these policies in good time.
I was pleased to meet Ministers and the Prime Minister recently to talk about the importance of delivering the vital Government commitment to bring in neonatal leave and pay by the 2023 target that they set in their Budget two years ago. Work continues on finding a timeslot in which to take the measures through Parliament. Meanwhile, it is vital that Ministers in the Department continue to work on the required background measures, such as the guidance for businesses and for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, so that they are ready for introduction as soon as possible when we get parliamentary time. Can the Minister update me on the work that he has been doing to ensure that we are ready?
I thank my hon. Friend for the impassioned work that he does on this issue—again, following his personal experience. He is right: we are not just standing still while waiting for parliamentary time. We are taking action to prepare for implementation once the legislation is there, including by having conversations with third sector stakeholders and business representatives. Officials have also spoken to HMRC about developing a system to implement the measures when we have the legislation.
The Minister says “when parliamentary time allows”, but the Government could have provided time by putting an employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech. On neonatal pay, flexible working and an enforcement body to protect workers’ rights, this Government promise a lot but deliver very little. Ministers have promised an employment Bill over 20 times, yet it still appears nowhere in the legislative programme. Is not the only job that this Government are interested in protecting the Prime Minister’s?
Energy Efficiency: Domestic Buildings
The Government have announced a package of measures designed to support the most vulnerable in these unprecedented times. It includes support for the local authority delivery scheme, the home upgrade grant, the social housing decarbonisation fund and the boiler upgrade scheme, and takes our total funding across this Parliament to £6.6 billion.
The Minister knows that reducing consumption is vital to households and to the country, but back in 2013 the Conservative-led Government cut energy efficiency programmes, which led to a 92% fall in home insulation; and the flagship green homes grant scheme was scrapped as a failure just six months after its launch. When will the Government commit to the ambitious programme of retro-insulation that we need if we are to cut emissions, slash family bills, reduce gas imports and create thousands of jobs?
We are committed to that programme, and that is exactly why I have outlined the £6.6 billion of support in this Parliament. We have achievements as well: since 2010, the percentage of UK homes rated A to C for energy efficiency has gone from 13% to 46%. That is almost a fourfold increase under this Government in homes that are rated good for energy efficiency. We have put a lot of money into heat pumps and the heat and buildings strategy. I suggest that the hon. Member look at that strategy, which we launched only last October. He should study it and then come back with further questions.
Through unprecedented increases to the national living wage and a range of legislative measures introduced since 2019, we are building a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy that delivers on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to work.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but a great deal of his really good work could be for naught if we still allow employers to use confidentiality clauses to cover up mismanagement and discrimination in the workplace. Ministers have acknowledged this as a problem, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s warning notice, issued four years ago, is not universally understood. When will the Minister act, and put into law measures to outlaw the use of these dreadful clauses?
I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on being honoured as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire—it is well deserved. The Government consulted on the misuse of confidentiality clauses between workers and their employees back in 2019. In response, we committed to legislating to ensure that employers are not able to intimidate victims into silence. We remain committed to doing so, and I will continue to work with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on ensuring that we introduce this necessary legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Fire and Rehire
The Government will bring forward a new statutory code on the practice of fire and rehire. We will publish a draft for consultation in due course, and bring the code into force when parliamentary time allows.
Last year, when British Gas threatened thousands of its staff with fire and rehire, one of my constituents wrote and told me that the “human cost” had been the saddest part, and that
“the mental health strain on me and my colleagues has been so very difficult to watch.”
Since 2020, almost 3 million workers have been told to reapply for their jobs, with worse conditions. I heard the Minister’s response to my initial question, but the question that is rebounding round the Chamber, to almost every answer I have heard so far, is not about the intention, but about when. Will the Minister commit today to bringing forward a no ifs, no buts ban on the abhorrent practice of fire and rehire?
What we are not going to do is ban a situation that allows flexibility for employers that are in trouble. We are, however—[Interruption.] Well, it is all seen as black and white by the Opposition, but they are very anti-business in that. The hon. Lady cites an example, and there are human costs involved in the most egregious cases of fire and rehire. That is what we will be tackling through the statutory code that we will announce in due course.
New and Advanced Nuclear Power
As my hon. Friend knows, for the first time in 20 years we are committed to much more nuclear capacity than we have ever seen, and the target of 24 GW by 2050 is ambitious but perfectly achievable.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an early decision to announce the commissioning of the first small modular reactors, built by Rolls-Royce, will provide additional investment in our national infrastructure, more jobs and, crucially, help to secure our sovereign energy independence of supply?
Earlier this year I was delighted to announce investment—£210 million as I remember—in Rolls-Royce, and the SMRs, as well as advanced nuclear reactors, represent an exciting development in new nuclear. Looking at Labour Members, I must say that it is gratifying to see nuclear power being defended, as under their watch nuclear power was denuded and derided.
Hinkley Point C is 50% over budget and running years late. The Government cannot get investment for Sizewell C, and their impact assessment states that a new nuclear power station could cost £63 billion. Is the former Energy Minister, the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), correct to say that it is utter fantasy to pretend that this Government can deliver a new nuclear reactor each year?
The strategy is committed to 24 GW, and it is about large-scale nuclear and SMRs, which my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) referred to. It will be a balance, and we feel that we can reach that. It is rich of Scottish National party Members to deride our nuclear programme when they do not even agree with it. They think the whole thing is a complete waste of time. Where else would we find decarbonised baseload? They do not have the answer to that.
I am pleased to announce that since I last addressed the House we have committed £37 billion, along with our friends in the Treasury, to support the most vulnerable households with the cost of living. We have managed to attract substantial new investments across the piece in new technologies, and we continue to focus on energy, to ensure that it is sustainable, affordable and, above all, secure in the coming months.
Semiconductors are an unbelievably important strategic asset to this country, and I commend the Secretary of State for calling in the acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab, which is our largest producer of semiconductors and an important innovator of compound semiconductors. That is exactly what the National Security and Investment Act 2021 was designed to do. Will he update the House on his next steps?
My hon. Friend will know that the NSI Act, which came into scope at the beginning of this year, gives me as Secretary of State powers to call in transactions that I feel are detrimental to national security. After long consideration and weighing up all the evidence, Newport Wafer Fab was, I think rightly, deemed to be such a transaction.
If a chair or chief executive of a FTSE 100 company presided over a culture of rule breaking, broke the law themselves and then said that they would do it again, would that person have the Business Secretary’s support, or would he demand better standards than that in public life?
I agree, but if the Business Secretary believes that integrity and honesty are important in all walks of life, he should have voted against the Prime Minister last night.
I welcome the Government’s U-turn on a windfall tax, but yet again they say one thing and do another. There is uncertainty about who the tax will apply to, and there is worry that the chaotic nature of the announcement could perversely incentivise investment in fossil fuels over renewables. Uncertainty and botched announcements are a feature of the Government, which is one reason why business investment has been so poor under the Conservatives. When will the Business Secretary offer certainty to businesses on who exactly the Government intend to apply the tax to?
The hon. Member will know that issues relating to taxation are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As far as the hon. Member’s windfall tax is concerned, I have always been opposed to such taxes on principle, and I continue to be opposed. I hope that this energy profits levy does not discourage investment; actually, it has features that do attract greater investment.
I know of my hon. Friend’s ongoing interest in all matters in relation to energy, and he makes an important point about big energy users such as the Royal Mail planning and ensuring that they are efficient and robust for the future. I will ensure that his point on industrial estates is reflected back to our Department, to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and to other relevant Departments.
Later this year, the hon. Gentleman will see an effective code that will penalise the most egregious cases of fire and rehire and hit those companies in the pocket. That is an effective way of banning those egregious situations without disallowing the flexibility that some employers need in times of trouble.
Milton Keynes has been slowly becoming a globally recognised innovation hub on the Oxford-Cambridge arc, particularly on autonomous vehicles and with the connected places catapult. May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend and Milton Keynes on achieving city status as part of the jubilee celebrations? I assure him that our funding allocation mechanism is designed to support emerging clusters such as Milton Keynes.
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. We have allocated £8 billion over the next three years for life science and medical research across the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health and Care Research, and all relevant agencies. We will launch a cancer mission shortly and I would be delighted to talk to her about it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work and interest. We absolutely recognise the contribution that markets make to the vibrancy and diversity of our high streets up and down the country, and indeed of our town centres. We believe that local markets should stay at the heart of community life, and we want them to flourish all over the country.
The insect protein industry is becoming increasingly important, given the need to nearly double global food supply in the next 20 or 30 years. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. It is one of the sectors we are looking at, as part of our £25 billion three- year allocation, that needs development and support.
We are engaging constantly to make sure that consumers are getting a fair deal. You would expect us to do so, Mr Speaker, after our 5p fuel reduction following 12 years of freezes and £5 billion of relief. It is vital that we see that saving being passed on to consumers. That is why my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and I meet regularly with the sector and will continue to work closely with the CMA to analyse the workings of the market and make sure our constituents get those reductions.
Exactly what steps is the Department taking to reduce the prohibitive bureaucracy facing scientists trying to access the very welcome £50 million funding for research into motor neurone disease, a horrifying disease that affects more than 5,000 people in this country? The research was announced in November last year, but they have faced those problems.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. We made a major announcement on MND research and will shortly be setting out our fully funded broader dementia and mental health missions. On research bureaucracy, we are looking, through the Professor Adam Tickell review, at how we can reduce administrative bureaucracy in the system so we are able to get those grants out much more quickly. I will happily talk her through that.
As well as the Minister for product safety and standards, I am also the Minister for the hair and beauty sector, so can I thank my hon. Friend for supporting the sector with his new haircut? In all seriousness, we are taking a pragmatic approach to implementing the UKCA regime. We know the challenges that businesses have and we are committed to supporting businesses to adapt. We continue to work closely with industry to understand and resolve implementation challenges. We are also engaging extensively with the industry in the UK and around the world to explain our new requirements.
It was really interesting to hear the Secretary of State palm off the detail of the tax on electricity generators to the Chancellor, because the Chancellor could not answer many questions on that at the Treasury Committee yesterday, such as defining excess profits or saying exactly when it will start or what the impact would be on renewables generators in Scotland. Will he publish a full impact assessment on this policy and investment in the renewables sector in Scotland, which is a key sector in getting to net zero?
I am very happy to speak to the hon. Lady about the details of that fiscal change. The energy profits levy was announced by the Chancellor and the details will be worked out in consultation with us, but they are ultimately a responsibility for the Treasury. However, I am very happy to talk to her about those details.
Diesel and petrol prices have hit a record average high this morning, with diesel costing more than £1.85 a litre. Along with labour shortages, that is having a devastating impact on haulage businesses in North Shropshire and across the rest of the country, as well as driving inflation in the economy. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to support this critical industry through these dual crises?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), we are engaging constantly with the sector and the CMA to make sure that the tax cut is passed on. However, I find it a bit rich for the Liberal Democrats, who, if I am not mistaken, voted against all the fuel freezes and this year’s Budget, to then claim that the reduction in fuel duty, which they opposed, is now not being passed on to their constituents. If they had voted for the reduction in the first place, I would have a lot more sympathy with their position.
We have been trying to find out today exactly what the Secretary of State’s job is, because he kept saying “That is not my job”. May I remind him that he is responsible for energy and that, in the recent energy strategy, energy from waste was hardly mentioned? It could produce 20% of our energy needs. Why is he ignoring that?
I am always very pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s contributions, given that he was born in my constituency—I am always pleased to see constituents doing extremely well in life. On my role, he is absolutely right that I am responsible for energy—I was Energy Minister and am now the Secretary of State—and that is why we have brought through the net zero strategy, which has plenty on energy from waste, including in relation to our energy needs.
The recently published preliminary report by the administrators of the failed Safe Hands funeral plans company suggest that this is yet another instance in which company directors have made false promises to innocent people, taken their money, played fast and loose with it and are likely to have lost it all. Will the Minister give us a timetable for the various bits of legislation in the Queen’s Speech so that dodgy company directors can be held to account immediately and not 10 or 15 years later?
On corporate governance, we will see, in the economic crime Bill, the reviews relating to Companies House, and we have also had the Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Act 2021. However, the hon. Gentleman cites a particularly egregious example and I will make sure that my colleague Lord Callanan, the Minister responsible for corporate governance, responds accordingly.
[1st Allotted Day]
Standards in Public Life
Before we start the first debate, I remind the House again of the importance of good temper and moderation in our proceedings, as set out in “Erskine May”. “Erskine May” also makes it clear that it is not in order to accuse another Member of lying, unless the business under consideration is a distinct motion about the conduct of that Member. That is not the case today and any such accusations will not be tolerated.
I beg to move,
That this House recognises the importance of the Ministerial Code for maintaining high standards in public life; endorses the Committee on Standards in Public Life report entitled Upholding Standards in Public Life, Final report of the Standards Matter 2 review; calls on the Government to implement all of the report’s recommendations as a matter of urgency; and further calls on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make a statement to the House on the progress made in implementing the recommendations by 20 July 2022, and each year subsequently.
It is always a pleasure to stand opposite the Paymaster General. In this House, we are proud of the constituents we represent, and I am no different: from Droylsden school to St Peter’s and St Mary’s, from our town team to Tameside markets, Ashton-under-Lyne did our country proud this weekend. I am proud of our British values and the community that I come from—we all are—but the conduct of this Prime Minister undermines those values: rigging the rules that he himself is under investigation for breaching, downgrading standards and debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes.
There is nothing decent about the way the Prime Minister has acted. What example does he set? This Prime Minister’s example of leadership is illegally proroguing Parliament, breeding a Downing Street culture in which his staff and he himself felt able to break lockdown rules, and putting the very standards that underpin our democracy into the shredder.
The Prime Minister promised a new ministerial code in April of last year. It has taken him 13 months—13 months of sleaze, shame and scandal—and what has he come up with? In the very week that the Sue Gray report laid bare the rotten culture at the heart of Downing Street, the rule breaking on an industrial scale and the demeaning of the pillars of our great democracy, the Prime Minister made his choice—and what did he decide? Not to strengthen standards, but to lower the bar.
The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that, when faced with a rogue Prime Minister, a mere adviser on the ministerial code is dangerously inadequate? We must have an independent enforcer. So long as this unfit PM retains the ability to override his own adviser on the finding of a breach, the adviser—in the words of the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—is left “critically undermined”.
The hon. Lady makes a crucial point that shows why the Opposition tabled the motion today.
The bar has been lowered. Honesty, integrity, accountability, transparency, leadership in the public interest: these are the values that once cloaked the ministerial code, but to this Prime Minister they are just words. Not only that, but they are disposable words that the Prime Minister has now dispensed with, deleting them from his own contribution and airbrushing them from history—and that is just the foreword. More horrors lurk beyond.
Actions speak louder than words, and my hon. Friend hits on the point that the actions of this Prime Minister have debased the rules, have brought shame on Parliament and on the office of the Prime Minister, which is an absolute privilege, and have lost the trust of much of the public. The Prime Minister boasts about his victory in 2019, but he has now squandered all that good will with his behaviour. While people were locked down and unable to see their loved ones, cleaners were having to clean sick off the floor and wine off the walls as others were partying on down in Downing Street.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Has she had the same experience that I had this weekend when I was out meeting constituents celebrating the jubilee? They were absolutely disgusted—particularly those who are not traditional Labour supporters—by the behaviour of the Prime Minister. They feel that he is not only letting them down, but letting our country and its reputation down.
I absolutely agree. I have heard Ministers talking in the media in the past 24 hours about how we must draw a line and we must move on, but many people in this country cannot draw a line and cannot move on while this Prime Minister is in office, because it triggers what they experienced and the trauma that their families faced during the crisis.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making such a powerful speech. Does she agree that the Prime Minister’s rule breaking is absolutely despicable and that he should be tendering his resignation instead of weakening the ministerial code?
I absolutely agree. There is an important point here, because I have heard Ministers in the media saying that we have to move on and that there are important issues that we have to face. But while the Labour party has been putting forward proposals for dealing with the cost of living crisis, bringing down NHS waiting lists, as Labour did in government, and looking at the transport chaos in which this Government have left us, the Government have not been dealing with the issues that matter to the people. They have been running around the Prime Minister trying save his neck and justify an unjustifiable example of lawbreaking.
The right hon. Lady has just suggested—and the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) made the same point—that the Prime Minister has weakened the ministerial code. Is she aware of last week’s report from the Institute for Government, which said that the code had not been weakened, that “confected” accusations had been made to that effect, and that Opposition Members should therefore correct the record? Will she do that?
I am glad that the hon. Member has mentioned this. I shall say more about it later. What the Prime Minister chose to do—as the Institute for Government has recognised—was cherry-pick parts of the recommendations rather than taking them in their entirety. The chair of the committee said that it was important for the recommendations to be taken as a whole and not cherry-picked, so I respectfully disagree with the hon. Member. I do not think that this strengthened the ministerial code, and I think that what the Prime Minister did constitutes a missed opportunity. What he has tried to do is get away with weakening the ministerial code so that he can say, “I have given an apology, and I think that that is the right way to go about it.”
I congratulate the right hon. Lady and her colleagues on securing the debate. She has mentioned the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament. This Parliament failed to hold the Prime Minister to account after that unlawful Prorogation, which meant that he was able to continue his cavalier attitude to the law and, now, the ministerial code. Does she agree that it is vital for Parliament to find a way to get rid of the Prime Minister, as his party is clearly unable to do so expeditiously?
I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Lady. It is important to note that this Prime Minister has a long history and a long-standing pattern of behaviour that render him unfit for prime ministerial office. Since he had the privilege of becoming Prime Minister, all he has demonstrated is that he was not worthy of that office, and he will never change his behaviour. Conservative Members need to understand that, because he is dragging the Conservative party down. It has been suggested to me many times by the media that that may be a good thing for the Labour party. Well, it is not a good thing for the Labour party, and it is not a good thing for the country to have a Prime Minister who acts in a reckless way and does not believe that the law applies to him.
My right hon. Friend has hit on an important point about the status and importance of the Prime Minister’s office. During the time that I have been interested in politics, there have been four Conservative Prime Ministers—Mrs Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron, and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—all of whom I disagreed with politically, but none of whom remotely besmirched the position of Prime Minister and denigrated our politics in the way that this one has.
That too is an important point. The opposition to the Prime Minister comes from many different walks of political life—from his own Back Benchers, from some of his predecessors, and, obviously, from Members on these Benches. This is not really a political issue; it is more about the question of what our democracy stands for. If we do not draw a line in relation to these standards and ensure that we hold to them, the public will have a mistrust of politicians, and that is damaging for everyone, not just Conservative Members.
My right hon. Friend has talked about the ministerial code, but let us also consider just three of the Nolan principles: honesty, integrity and openness. We know that there are people in much lower offices in public service who adhere to those principles without question and without problems. Does my right hon. Friend find it regrettable that the Prime Minister does not?
One way of moving on would be a public inquiry. Many commitments have been made to such an inquiry, but we have yet to be given a date. Is it not important for everyone who has lost loved ones—the 160,000 people who have died in the United Kingdom, including 4,000 who have died in Northern Ireland—to have an input, to ask questions and receive answers, so that they can move on?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I vividly remember the contributions he made as part of that debate and the way in which he passionately put forward what the public have been through and how they felt about that. That is why I say that the public are not ready to move on. While the Prime Minister remains in office, I do not think the public will ever move on from what they have been through, because it was a very traumatic time. There is not a family in the UK that was not affected by the pandemic, and every time a Minister tells the public to move on, all it does is make them more upset and angry. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
Coming back to the ministerial code, this is not just about the foreword. Far from adopting the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in a report that the Prime Minister did not even have the decency to respond to, the truth is that he cherry-picked the recommendations that suited him and discarded those he found inconvenient. Lord Evans, the chair of the committee, has said that the recommendations, which form the basis of this Opposition day debate today, were “designed as a package”. By casting aside cross-party proposals, the Prime Minister is trying to rig the rules and downgrade standards.
Let us take the introduction of tiered sanctions. That proposal is meaningful only if independence is granted to the adviser to open investigations. Without that, it is left to the whim of the Prime Minister. Lord Evans described these two changes as
“part of a mutually dependent package of reforms, designed to be taken together”.
As the Institute for Government says, the Prime Minister’s changes do not increase the adviser’s independence at all. In fact, the net effect of the changes is to weaken standards and concentrate power in his own hands. While the adviser on standards may have been granted a swanky new website and an office, he still fundamentally requires the Prime Minister’s permission to launch any investigation, making the Prime Minister the judge and jury in his very own personal courtroom. It is no wonder his own standards adviser has criticised him for his low ambition on standards.
The adviser was joined last week by Lord Evans, the chair of the committee, who outlined the dangers of cherry-picking changes to the ministerial code. While the Prime Minister maintains the power of veto over the independent adviser, there is an inherent risk that he will overrule his own adviser or tell him, “There’s nothing to see here. Now be a good chap and move on.” Well, we are not moving on when he is dragging our democracy into the gutter. Without having independence baked into the standards system, this new code flatters to deceive.
It is extraordinary not only that the Prime Minister can refuse permission for an investigation to be undertaken but that there is no obligation on him to explain why. I am sure the right hon. Lady will agree that, in the circumstances, it is no surprise that more and more people are losing faith in the parliamentary system per se, and that we in Wales are therefore truly questioning whether we cannot do this better for ourselves.
The hon. Member makes her point, but I think we are better together. The actions of the Prime Minister do not represent the United Kingdom, which is why I am bringing this motion before the House today.
The new code is also utterly silent on the question of what amounts to a major breach of the rules, so what happens to a Minister who engages in bribery, who perpetuates sexual assault or who bullies their staff? It is the Prime Minister who continues to appoint himself as the judge and jury on ministerial misconduct, including his own. It is he who decides the degree of wrongdoing or rule breaking. You could not make it up, but that is exactly what he is proposing to do. This is the same Prime Minister who became the first in history to have broken the law in office. Now, what is to stop him saying that some sort of an apology is enough?
I wonder if my right hon. Friend has had an opportunity to read Lord Geidt’s most recent report on the ministerial code, in which he says:
“I have attempted to avoid the Independent Adviser”—
that is Lord Geidt himself—
“offering advice to a Prime Minister about a Prime Minister’s obligations under his own Ministerial Code. If a Prime Minister’s judgement is that there is nothing to investigate or no case to answer, he would be bound to reject any such advice, thus forcing the resignation of the Independent Adviser”—
rather than that of the Prime Minister, obviously.
“Such a circular process could only risk placing the Ministerial Code in a place of ridicule.”
Is that not basically where we are—a place of ridicule?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We need look no further than the Prime Minister’s response when it was revealed that the Home Secretary has been bullying her staff. He threw a protective ring around her, pardoning bullying in the workplace and forcing the resignation of his widely respected independent adviser.
Another protective ring was assembled for the former Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who unlawfully tried to save a Tory donor from a £40 million tax bill on a huge property deal. The former Health Secretary’s sister was handed lucrative NHS contracts while a protective ring was denied to care homes up and down this country, leaving residents and staff locked down and terrified as covid swept through the country. It is one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.
In fact, the only specified sanction in the new ministerial code is for deliberately misleading Parliament. It is right that the sanction for misleading Parliament remains resignation, which is a long-established principle, yet the Prime Minister is still in his place. He remains in his position, clinging on to office and degrading that principle a little more each day. This Prime Minister should be long gone but, despite the majority of his Back Benchers telling him to get on his bike, he cannot take the hint.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life made numerous recommendations, including a proposal to end the revolving door that allowed the Greensill scandal to occur, but they have all been ignored by the Prime Minister. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments was already a toothless watchdog, but under this Government it has been muzzled and neutered. Forget the revolving door, we have a system in which the door is held wide open for former Ministers who want to line their pockets as soon as they leave office.
ACOBA used to have the power to issue lobbying bans of up to five years for rule breaking, but as the Committee on Standards in Public Life said,
“The lack of any meaningful sanctions for a breach of the rules is no longer sustainable.”
ACOBA should be given meaningful powers, making its decisions directly binding rather than mere recommendations. We must put a stop to the current provision in the governance code for Ministers that enables them to go ahead and appoint candidates who have been deemed inappropriate by an assessment panel.
Urgent reform is required to the process of making appointments in public life, with a stronger guarantee of independence. A number of direct ministerial appointments are entirely unregulated, which must change. Labour supports the proposal of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to create an obligation in primary legislation for the Prime Minister to publish the ministerial code and to grant it a more appropriate constitutional status. I hope the Minister will take note. There is a precedent, as the codes of conduct for the civil service, for special advisers and for the diplomatic service are all on a statutory footing to ensure serious offences are properly investigated. I am sure he would agree it is only right that holders of public office are held to the same standard.
In the early days of Nolan, I was an independent assessor of public appointments, which was a role I took very seriously. Has my right hon. Friend noticed the trend in many public appointments to pack the panel with people with a particular political direction? In one case, a sacked special adviser with limited experience was on a panel for an important role.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She does tremendous work on the Public Accounts Committee, deep diving into some of these issues.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life concluded that the current system of transparency on lobbying is not fit for purpose. There is cross-party agreement that change is needed to update our system and strengthen standards in public life. Those standards are being chipped away day by day. It is time to rebuild, repair and restore public trust in our politics.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life has a pre-written, some might say “oven ready,” package of solutions, so let us get it done. After a decade of inaction by this Government, Britain is lagging behind the curve compared with our allies when it comes to ethical standards in government. President Biden has committed to setting up a commission on federal ethics, a single Government agency with the power to oversee and enforce federal anti-corruption laws. The Australian Labour party, which is now in government, has plans for a Commonwealth integrity commission that will have powers to investigate public corruption. In Canada, the ethics commissioner enforces breaches of the law covering public office holders.
Far from keeping up with our global partners, this Government have allowed standards in Britain to wither on the vine. The Government greeted the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life with complete silence back in November. When the Prime Minister finally got around to updating the ministerial code 10 days ago, he cherry-picked the bits he liked from the report, completely undermining its aim.
Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the refusal of the Prime Minister and other Ministers to allow senior civil servants to come to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee? We have now asked Sue Gray three times to attend our Greensill inquiry, and she has been blocked by the Prime Minister and other Ministers, as have other senior civil servants. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is another form of preventing Parliament from holding the Executive up to scrutiny?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It says a lot about the Prime Minister, as I have outlined in my speech, that he has no regard for transparency. When Labour was last in government, we legislated to clean up politics with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission, the Freedom of Information Act and the ministerial code. The last Labour Government did not hesitate to act decisively to clean up Britain’s public life, and Labour’s independent integrity and ethics commission will bring the current farce to an end and clean up politics.
Three decades ago, a Labour Opposition exposed the sleaze engulfing and decaying a Tory Government, and we legislated for it. Over the past 12 years of this Tory Government, the strong standards we set have been chipped away. Our unwritten constitution is dependent on so-called “good chaps”. We trust our political leaders to do the right thing, but that theory has been ripped to shreds under this Government. No amount of convention or legislation appears capable of stopping this Prime Minister riding roughshod over our democracy.
The next Labour Government will act to stamp out the corruption that has run rife under this Prime Minister. Labour’s ethics commission will bring the existing committees and bodies that oversee standards in government into a single independent body that is removed from politicians. It will have powers to launch investigations without ministerial approval, to collect evidence and to decide sanctions.
Honesty matters, integrity matters and decency matters. We should be ambitious for high standards, and we should all be accountable: no more Ministers breaking the rules and getting away with it; no more revolving door between ministerial office and lobbying jobs; no more corruption and waste of taxpayers’ money; and no more Members of Parliament paid to lobby their own Government.
Labour has a plan to restore standards in public life and to clean up politics, but we have to start somewhere. We have to stop the rot. Labour’s motion would see the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life adopted in full right now, which is a crucial first step. The committee was established by Sir John Major nearly three decades ago to advise the Prime Minister on ethical standards in public life, and it has promoted the seven principles of public life—the Nolan principles.
The mission of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has never been more important than it is today. It is genuinely independent and genuinely cross-party, and it has done all the work. The plans are in place, ready to go. On the Opposition Benches, we back the Committee on Standards in Public Life. All we need now is a nod from the Minister and the Government, which they could do today by passing this motion. I hope the Minister gives in this time.
Another Committee—the Committee on Standards, which is also cross-party—has produced a report. It has suggested that because one of the important principles is openness, the rule for Ministers on when and how they register hospitality should not be separate from that for the rest of Members. Will the Labour party be supporting those changes, to make sure that everybody in the House is treated equally when they are brought forward to the House?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: what the Labour party is promoting and what we want to see is transparency. We did that and demonstrated that under the last Labour Government, and we will continue to do that. Under this Government, we have seen time and again an erosion of that transparency, that right to freedom of information and that conduct in terms of how we report how donations are made and so on, with them trying to get around the rules. That is why we have proposed the independent ethics commission, because we think it is an important step in cleaning up some of the problems we face today.
This Prime Minister has tested our unwritten constitution to its limit, but today all Members of this House have their own choice to make. As Sir John Major said of the Committee in his foreword to this latest report,
“The Committee will never be redundant. A minority will evade or misinterpret the rules of proper behaviour. The rules will always need regular updating to meet changing expectations in many areas”.
As Lord Evans said, without reform to the systems that uphold and protect standards in public life, the Prime Minister’s recent changes
“will not restore public trust in ethical standards at the heart of government. Instead, suspicion about the way in which the Ministerial Code is administered will linger”.
Conservative Members must now ask themselves the question: will they back the package of recommendations proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life or will they turn their backs to save the skin of a rogue Prime Minister—one who is already haemorrhaging support from his own side? Those who reject these cross- party proposals will be complicit. They will be propping up a Prime Minister intent on dragging everyone and everything down with him. Today, all of us have a choice—we have a chance to draw the line in the sand and say, “Enough is enough!”
We urge Members to vote to defend the principles of public life, to back high standards and to clean up politics. It is time to stop the rot, and I commend this motion to the House.
I thank the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) for choosing today’s motion. We have been on opposite sides one or two times in the past few months, and it is always a pleasure, but I have no hesitation in supporting the motion on the Order Paper today.
The Government fully recognise the importance of the ministerial code and its role in maintaining standards in public life—that is not questioned. It was, of course, a Conservative Prime Minister who created the code, which sets out the Prime Minister’s expectations for his or her Ministers, detailing the standards of conduct expected of those who serve Government and the principles that underpin those standards. The code has performed that role for successive Prime Ministers since, as I say, it was first published by Sir John Major as “Questions of Procedure for Ministers” 30 years ago, in 1992.
Throughout that time, the code has been an evolving document. It is customarily issued, as the House will know, where warranted and then reissued by the Prime Minister of the day to reflect changes, and to update the guidance and principles that apply to Ministers. It is because of the importance of the ministerial code that the Prime Minister has recently revised and strengthened it. It is, frankly, fake news to say, as some have, that it has been weakened—the exact opposite: it has been strengthened, and I will explain why.
In doing this, the Prime Minister has unambiguously drawn on the advice of both the independent adviser on ministerial interests and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the independent adviser for all his work advising the Prime Minister since he was appointed a little over a year ago. I would, of course, also like to thank the Committee on Standards in Public Life, not just for its “Upholding Standards in Public Life” report of last November, but for fulfilling the important role that it has done for over 25 years: advising the Prime Minister of the day on the arrangements in place to uphold standards in public life.
I would like to talk about the changes that have been made; to clarify some of the confusion and misinformation that has been circulating in relation to them; and to set out to right hon. and hon. Members why decisions about how the ministerial code evolves are, rightly and constitutionally, ones for the Prime Minister of the day.
I will make a little progress, but I will be giving way later. Let me start by saying that the changes made to the ministerial code in this iteration and to the role of the independent adviser, published on 27 May, represent the most substantial strengthening of the role of the independent adviser since the establishment of that post in 2006. To be clear, those changes include: revised terms of reference for the independent adviser, introducing an enhanced process for the initiation of investigations; more specific references in the ministerial code to the role of the independent adviser; more specific references to the duty on Ministers to provide the independent adviser with all information reasonably necessary for the discharge of his functions; new detail on proportionate sanctions for a breach of the code, as agreed by the Prime Minister in April 2021, in line with the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life; the change whereby the independent adviser will in future be consulted about revisions to the code, as, again, recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life; and changes to further enhance the independence of the independent adviser’s office, through providing it with its own gov.uk page and responsibility for managing its own affairs and its own correspondence.
In all those ways and in more, the role has been strengthened. [Interruption.] It is not just a new website; it is the control of staff, the control of correspondence, the right to be consulted about future revisions, the creation of proportionate standards and the specific references to Ministers. It is much stronger than it was before.
I am interested in what the Minister said in his opening remarks about supporting the terms of the motion. It
“calls on the Government to implement all of the report’s recommendations”
in the “Standards Matter 2” review
“as a matter of urgency”.
Notwithstanding what the Minister just said, is he now confirming to the House that the Government will implement all of those recommendations, as the motion calls for?
The hon. Gentleman should be patient and wait to see. What is important is that, collectively, these revisions represent a substantial and significant evolution. Importantly, as I have said, they reflect the thinking, over time, of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is not as though this has been magicked up somewhere else; this is reflective of what the committee has asked for—and the independent adviser. The Government are alert to those recommendations made by those in the standards landscape. We regard those recommendations as important and worthy of careful consideration.
I am speaking as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life but not on behalf of that committee, as that is the job of the chair only. I simply observe to the Minister that there is a fatal flaw in the observations he has just made about the greater degree of freedom to be given to the independent adviser, because everything still depends, fundamentally, on the decision of the Prime Minister in office.
As it should, constitutionally. The reality is, as I think the right hon. Lady will confirm, that this does strengthen the position—certainly it does not weaken it. The Committee on Standards in Public Life first made recommendations on the ministerial code and the role of the independent adviser on 15 April 2021, prior to the appointment of Lord Geidt later that same month. At that time, or roughly at the same time, Lord Evans called for greater independence for the independent adviser in the initiation of investigations and publication of findings; and for there to be a “proportionate range of sanctions” available for breaches of the code.
That is not unreasonable. It is perfectly reasonable to have a proportionate availability—a range of options—for someone who has been found to be in breach of the code, just as this House has when Members of Parliament are found to be in breach of the standards expected of this House and just as a military court martial or court of law would have. Currently, the ministerial code does not allow for that range of options, so punishments can be disproportionate.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman always comes to the Dispatch Box and eruditely dances on a pinhead to justify his paymaster. Fundamentally, the difference is that when my party was in government, Ministers were sacked for lesser things than have been done recently, because the Prime Ministers of the day had regard to the standards in public life and had no truck with anyone who crossed the line. That is surely the difference in respect of what we all want to see—and, actually, given what we can see on the Government Benches, what a lot of the Minister’s party would like to see.
I understand the hon. Lady’s wish to paint her party’s former leaders as paragons of virtue, but the important thing—the test—is whether a Minister retains the confidence of the Prime Minister of the day, whether that be a Labour or Conservative Prime Minister.
The Government acted on the recommendations last year. In a letter to Lord Evans on 28 April 2021, the Prime Minister set out the commitment to improving the independence of the investigations process; to providing guarantees of timely publication; and to directly implementing the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on graduated sanctions, the independent adviser’s non-renewable term and his secretariat support. All those things strengthen the independent adviser rather than weaken him.
The committee then made further recommendations on the ministerial code and the independent adviser in its report of November last year. The Government considered those recommendations and consulted the noble Lord Geidt, before publishing their policy statement on the ministerial code and the adviser on 27 May.
The Minister’s response a few moments ago was incredibly telling. For all the talk about independence and standards, did he not hit the nail on the head when he said it depends on whether the Prime Minister retains confidence in a Minister? This is not any kind of independent process; it is simply about who the Prime Minister favours and who he does not.
Not at all. There is a constitutional imperative that the Prime Minister of the day, no matter what party he or she is from, must have the right to select their Ministers and must have confidence in their Ministers. That is a constitutional imperative and it is not inconsistent with the code and the independent adviser’s wishes.
Let me rest for a moment on the change that has been made in respect of sanctions, because it exemplifies the point about the Government’s considering and responding to the recommendations of others. It has always been the case, under successive Administrations, that a range of potential outcomes are available when it is determined that an aspect of the code has been broken. Some examples have been cited from previous Administrations. Members need only cast their minds back to the case of Baroness Scotland in 2009, who apologised for unknowingly employing an illegal worker and paid the associated civil penalty of £5,000, but when then Prime Minister Gordon Brown concluded that no further action was necessary, he made that determination of his own volition.
In the interests of fairness, I could equally well mention the 2012 investigation into Baroness Sayeeda Warsi under the coalition Government, or the current independent adviser’s finding that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) made a technical breach of the code in failing to declare that his sister’s company had become an approved supplier to the NHS.
The test of whether a Minister remains in office has always been the continued confidence of the Prime Minister, so I am not going to criticise previous Labour Prime Ministers for making that determination, and nor would I criticise anyone in that position. They have a difficult office to fulfil and they must make a determination. If a breach of the code is extremely minor in the eyes of most but the Prime Minister has lost confidence in the Minister in question, that will be it for that Minister. That is the way it has to work.
That is the test of whether a Minister remains, yet over time a false impression has grown that any breach, large or small, across a wide-ranging, detailed document of 26 pages, must result in resignation. Correcting that false impression has been a concern not just for the Government but for those who advise on ethics in government. In its “Upholding Standards in Public Life” report, the Committee on Standards in Public Life noted:
“No other area of public life has such a binary system of sanctions, and in both Parliament and the Civil Service there are a range of sanctions available according to the seriousness of the offence. There is no reason why this should not be the case for ministers.”
The ministerial code says:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
I am sure the Minister agrees with that—“paramount importance”. The Prime Minister has now said nine times in the House that the level of unemployment is lower now than it was before the pandemic. That is untrue. The Prime Minister accepts it is untrue: he was asked about it by one of the members of the Liaison Committee and said, “Yes, but I have corrected the record.” Unfortunately, he has not corrected the record, and he has not even corrected the record about not having corrected the record yet. Does that not mean the code should say:
“Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”—
unless it is the Prime Minister?
If I may say so, that is a rather poor example to cite, because what the Prime Minister is doing is emphasising the fact that unemployment in this country is lower now than it has been for generations. [Interruption.]
Until—[Interruption.] Can I carry on? Until now, the code has been silent on the specific consequences for breaches, apart from in some defined instances. The code sets out that knowingly misleading this House is a breach of the code for which resignation is expected. The code still says that—it is stated in paragraph 1.3.c, not one word of which has changed—but now it also includes more detail on other possible sanctions. In particular, it makes mention of a public apology, remedial action or the removal of ministerial salary for a period—again, something that this House can also sanction in certain circumstances. I do not know whether Members are arguing to the contrary.
To what degree does the Minister agree that truth matters, regardless of the sanctions? We have been talking about a lot of the details, but Plaid Cymru and I have brought forward legislation to make lying in politics illegal, because that would fundamentally show to this place that the truth matters. Does the Minister agree with me in that respect?
Of course I agree that the truth is an important and paramount object in public life. That goes without saying. Sanctions are another matter. This is a question of fact and degree in each individual case. The right hon. Lady is pursuing this line that somehow truth has been removed from this iteration of the ministerial code. It has not—it is still there at paragraph 1.3.c—so she is pursuing an imaginary problem.
Let me turn to the letter on the application of the ministerial code to the Prime Minister. Before I talk about the detail of the letter, it is important that I touch on the recent communication between the Prime Minister and the independent adviser in relation to the fixed penalty notice received by the Prime Minister and the application of the ministerial code.
I am not going to get into individual examples; it would not be appropriate for me to do so. On 31 May, the Prime Minister wrote to the independent adviser making it clear that the standards and expectations set out in the ministerial code apply equally to his conduct as they do to all Ministers. I hope that answers the question—the Prime Minister put that in his letter. In that letter, the Prime Minister reiterated his apology in relation to the gathering that took place on 19 June 2020, for which he received a fixed penalty notice. The Prime Minister acknowledged the independent adviser’s frustration that this had not been made explicit at an earlier point. He set out in detail his judgment of his own conduct—to be fair to him—in respect of the ministerial code, which had included consideration of: precedents of Ministers who have unwittingly breached regulation where there was no intent to break the law; his full accountability to Parliament and the British people to whom he has rightly and repeatedly apologised; and his correction of the parliamentary record in relation to past statements, alongside his following of the principles of leadership and accountability in doing so.
I will give way in a moment. I must get through my remarks.
Let me return to the reforms that have been introduced. It is the role of the independent adviser to provide the Prime Minister with independent advice on whether a Minister’s conduct has met the standards set out in the code, as well as providing independent, impartial advice to Ministers on the management of their interests. The role is an advisory one. In the event that an allegation of a breach of the code is referred to the independent adviser, his task is to investigate and, following that investigation, to give his independent advice to the Prime Minister in order that the Prime Minister may then reach a decision. Those decisions are taken by the Prime Minister—constitutionally it is essential that they are taken by the Prime Minister—in line with his democratic accountability for such decisions. The Prime Minister has the democratic accountability—the elected authority—and advisers and officials do not.
May I take my right hon. and learned Friend back to the Prime Minister’s response to the independent adviser—the letter that he mentioned that was published on 31 May? He is right to say that it goes through in some detail and with great care—rightly—the question of fixed penalty notices being issued and sets out the Prime Minister’s position for all of us here to know, to understand and to debate. The thing that it does not cover, and which in my view, I am afraid, is a very serious omission, is the further charge in the Sue Gray report that there have been serious failings of leadership at the top of No.10 and the Cabinet Office —both the Prime Minister and the civil service leadership. Because it is about leadership, which is one of the fundamental seven Nolan principles of integrity in public life, does that not also involve a serious and material breach of one of the fundamental underpinnings of the ministerial code, and is it also not a problem that he has managed to ignore that entire section of the report, gloss over it and fail to address it and to address it publicly?
I respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend for the simple reason that there is the issue of inadvertence. That is a relevant factor. As someone who has been involved in the law for many years, I think that one should take the approach of accepting that there is a difference between inadvertence and deliberate conduct.
The initiation of investigations by the independent adviser has been subject to much comment. I assure hon. Members that the Government have considered the range of views on this carefully. The revised terms of reference set out an enhanced process to allow for the independent adviser now to independently initiate an investigation, having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent—[Interruption.] That is an improvement on what was the case before. It is also stated in the new iteration that the Prime Minister would normally provide that consent. I note here that Lord Evans has made it clear that the introduction of a range of graduated sanctions means that the independent adviser should be given the full authority to independently initiate investigations, and that these recommendations were part of the package. The Government have considered that carefully. While they take this view seriously, please allow me to lay out why we consider it critical that the Prime Minister retains a role in the initiation of investigations. [Interruption.] Because this is a constitutional imperative. The Prime Minister is head of Her Majesty’s Government and is accountable for the conduct of the Executive. That authority and that accountability derives from the Prime Minister’s ability to command the confidence of this House, and that derives from the Members of this House, including those who hold office —all of us—at the behest of the electorate. This Government are committed to maintaining that constitutional position and the accountability of the Prime Minister, including in decisions. If we usurp that and hand that authority to someone who does not have electoral accountability, that would be a constitutional irregularity. To hand such decisions to another appointed individual without a check or a balance would be to undermine that position fundamentally.
Has not the Minister just got to the heart of the problem? It is precisely because the Prime Minister is the ultimate arbiter of the code that the holder of the position of Prime Minister has a particular obligation to act with integrity. The problem that we have here is that there is a growing lack of confidence in the Prime Minister’s integrity—we saw that last night—and the longer he clings on, the more he undermines the office that he holds and, indeed, undermines our democracy.
I respectfully disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister enhances the role of his office. [Interruption.] The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Conservative party had, proportionately, the largest electoral victory since 1979—it speaks for itself. The Prime Minister has secured the electoral support of the largest number of people in this country for many years.
The ministerial code makes it clear that the Prime Minister will normally agree to an investigation, and that, in the unlikely scenario that the Prime Minister does not agree to an investigation, the independent adviser can then request that the reasons for not doing so are published. There is, therefore, a check on the Prime Minister’s power to refuse consent for an investigation. The reasons would have to be published and they would have to be clear. Those are important improvements in independence and transparency.
Lord Geidt is clear that this is a “workable scheme”. The Government are also clear that this is a scheme that upholds the constitutional position. I would add that Lord Evans, in writing to Lord True in response to the Government policy statement, stated that the new process for initiating investigations
“represents an improvement in the process for regulating the Code, which we welcome.”
The Minister seeks to justify the Government’s position by tying it back to the principle of parliamentary privilege, as if that is somehow an absolute and inviolable principle. But it is a principle that we in recent years have watered down in relation to the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and now the Independent Complaints and Grievance Service. This is not any more the trump card that it used to be. If this House is to be subject to independent investigation as Members, why should the Prime Minister and his Ministers be treated differently?
There is the Executive, the judiciary and the legislature, and there are different arrangements for the three branches. One would not expect anything contrary to that.
Let me touch on the relationship. The Government greatly value the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but as the careful balancing of the powers around the initiation of investigation demonstrates, we consider it right that the Government assess recommendations on their individual merits. This work takes time and involves testing the strengths and weakness of proposals and options to develop a workable response. This is as true for the recommendations made in relation to the ministerial code as it is for the other areas covered in the extensive report issued by the CSPL just over six months ago. We have said that the Government are carefully considering those and other recommendations, and that is precisely the work that is taking place. The report was extensive, and the work to consider it is as extensive. I assure the House that the Government will respond to the Committee’s other recommendations in due course. The Government are happy to update the House via an appropriate statement when doing so.
Let me go back to the fact that the Prime Minister can say no to the initiation of an independent investigation. What happens if the independent investigator asks the Prime Minister to publish his reasons? Is the Prime Minister compelled to do that? Similarly, given that the Prime Minister has said all along that no rules were broken, what is to stop him breaking rules in the future and saying, “No, we don’t need an investigation because I can assure you that no rules have been broken.”? Where are the checks and balances there?