Tuesday 19 July 2022
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
New Pylons: East Anglia
Before we start the debate, I want to say something about the exceptional heat. While the heat remains at this level, I am content for Members not to wear jackets or ties in Westminster Hall. Mr Speaker has announced similar arrangements for the Chamber. When the House returns in the autumn, Mr Speaker and the Deputies will expect Members to revert to wearing a jacket, and will strongly encourage male Members to wear a tie when speaking in the Chamber and Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered new pylons in East Anglia.
It is my great pleasure to introduce this debate on the prospect of new pylons in the east of England, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting us time to discuss the new electricity transmission infrastructure in our constituencies, which will have a high impact if it goes ahead as proposed.
I am introducing the debate barely 24 hours after the death of my mother. She loved the countryside, she loved Essex and she lived in Suffolk; and she would have wanted me to carry on with the debate, I am absolutely certain.
East Anglia Green Energy Enablement, or GREEN, is the title of the project that proposes to build a new high-voltage network reinforcement between Norwich, Bramford near Ipswich in Suffolk, and Tilbury on the Essex coast. As an MP, I have never received as many emails from my constituents about a single topic.
Today, I speak as chair of the Off Shore Electricity Grid Task Force, or OffSET, which does what it says on the tin. We are calling on National Grid to publish a fully costed offshore alternative to East Anglia GREEN. Yesterday evening, we had a helpful meeting with National Grid and Electricity System Operator, or ESO, and National Grid informally made the commitment that it would produce those costings and plans so that they can be compared with the proposal it is making. We urge National Grid to make that commitment publicly.
In Scotland and Wales, new transmission infrastructure faces a similar backlash. Scottish and Welsh MPs kindly signed up for the debate to explain their frustration over the development of infrastructure in their constituencies, and if they are not here today, that is probably because of the heat, although their moral support is certainly with us.
The environmental and societal impacts of East Anglia GREEN will fall disproportionately on my constituents in North Essex, although they will see little benefit from the new infrastructure in their own lives. On the contrary, the impact is all negative. The new transmission infra- structure is primarily required to transport electricity from offshore wind farms off the east coast and from new nuclear builds on the coast to London.
The East Anglia GREEN background document states that the reinforcement will require
“underground cabling through the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
That is obviously a mitigation, but it will create another problem. The construction phrase “undergrounding” will impact local habitats and archaeology—Dedham Vale is an ancient archaeological site as important as Stonehenge, only the henge in Dedham Vale was wooden, so it is not standing today, although its imprint still exists—as well as destroying valuable agricultural and arable land. Local farmers are concerned that undergrounding will disrupt soil layering and impede drainage.
The national planning framework states that development within area of outstanding natural beauty settings should be
“sensitively located and designed to avoid or minimise adverse impacts on the designated areas.”
In my constituency, I am particularly concerned about the construction to the south of the area of outstanding natural beauty, which leads to and from the proposed site of the Tendring substation. It will require a double run of cables, to the substation and then back from the substation towards London. That double run of pylons will adversely impact local communities to the north of Colchester.
I do not understand the rationale whereby because a community—Ardleigh village, in this case—already hosts existing infrastructure, it is seen to be best placed to host new infrastructure. Ardleigh has a small substation, but the planned new Tendring substation is much larger than the existing one and will cover 20 hectares, spreading into three different parishes. Two further customer substations may also be located nearby.
The House of Commons engagement team has kindly spoken to many constituents in all our constituencies about their experience of the National Grid consultation, and I thank all those who contributed, including two of my constituents. Laura, who stands to have pylons on three sides of her property, was told by a local estate agent that the value of her house could decline by 30% to 40%. That is not costed into any proposal; it is a hit that she and her family take, not something that National Grid or anyone else has to pay for. Julia, who was recently widowed, is struggling to sell her family home of 28 years because of uncertainty surrounding the East Anglia GREEN. The proposals are already blighting people’s lives.
I am sure I speak for all of us here today when I offer my hon. Friend my most sincere condolences on his grievous loss.
The National Grid plan does not come through my constituency of Rayleigh and Wickford, but it runs relatively close. However, having checked with my office yesterday, I was given no notification at all about this consultation and, as far as I know, neither were my constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree with me—I say this to the Minister through him—that the consultation should be rerun, so that all Members of Parliament and the people they represent can have their say?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind words. I agree with him completely. One of my arguments is that this consultation is completely inadequate. All the respondents to the House of Commons engagement team’s inquiries expressed a strong preference for an offshore transmission system, which would avoid the blighting of farmland, and people’s homes and communities. That barely figures in the consultation and it was only in yesterday’s discussion that National Grid started to explain why it had not really considered that, but it has not published the reasons, figures, assessment or analysis as to why that has been dismissed so quickly.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Did we not learn yesterday that the reason National Grid had not published those detailed figures and analysis is because it did not have them, and that its pledge to produce them by the end of the summer—to give us more information that it believes will show the justification for the decision—suggests it will be working in reverse? That is not how a consultation should be done.
No, it is not, but to be fair to National Grid, it engaged openly with us and we were grateful for that engagement. I believe the people at National Grid are doing their best; of course, they are working within a regulatory framework and against expectations that have been set since the industry was privatised in the 1980s that are now completely out of date. Everybody is guilty of making mistakes, but this is not about blaming people for making those mistakes; we need to address why the mistakes are being made and put that right, without casting blame on the people who are doing their best.
I commiserate with the hon. Gentleman on the loss of his mum. There is nobody as close to anyone as their mum, as I know, and we are very much aware of the hon. Gentleman’s sorrow at this time.
The hon. Gentleman has outlined the environmental impact. I know this is not in my neck of the woods but in East Anglia, but the issue is the same. Whenever these pylons are being put in back home, many of my constituents express concern about the health impacts. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of those issues? Have his constituents conveyed to him their concerns about the health impacts for individuals that could well be caused by pylons? For instance, he mentioned a lady in his constituency who will have pylons on three sides of her house. Surely she must have some extreme worries about that?
I am not familiar with that issue, but the scientific literature on the health impact of pylons is still contested. There is no doubt, though, that they have a psychological impact, and that the psychological blight on people’s lives can be very serious.
People do not like living near pylons, which is why they tend to favour buying homes that do not have views that are blighted by pylons. It is a very sad development that National Grid is still proceeding in this direction, and I call this overground proposal a continuation of the patch and mend approach, as against the undersea option known as “Sea Link 2”. National Grid says that the “Sea Link 2” scenario would not provide the required capacity and would have required onshore transmission infrastructure as well. It should publish a like-for-like offshore alternative to East Anglia GREEN so that we can see not only what the additional costs would be, but what the additional benefits would be, and we could offset things such as property blight and damage to the environment, which is not costed into the proposal.
It is interesting to note that there is 10 times more total mileage of committed offshore transmission cabling in Scotland and the north of England than in the east of England. A constituent affected by East Anglia GREEN wrote to another National Grid consultation, and the community engagement team explained that the main reason for offshoring infrastructure from County Durham to southern Scotland was to
“significantly reduce its impact on communities.”
National Grid, again informally, now maintains that the reason for offshoring Scottish projects is that the electricity would have to cross multiple load boundaries, which is expensive. Again, it must explain that to the relevant stakeholders in detail. There is a complete lack of transparency about the process, which totally undermines public confidence in the decisions being proposed.
I extend my condolences to my hon. Friend at this time.
My hon. Friend is making an important speech. Does he agree that it is hard for us to explain to our constituents why an offshore route is not being taken when such routes clearly exist in other parts of the country? A number of colleagues in the Chamber today, and my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), who cannot be here, feel that it is difficult for us to make the case to our constituents that the proposals are fair and right when we are not being given the evidence.
That is absolutely right, but we also need to make the point that even if the evidence is made available and proves the point in favour of the present proposals, it is against benchmarks that are out of date and inadequate for the purpose. That is why I call this a patch and mend approach to the existing infrastructure, when the scale of the extra capacity required to be carried in the East Anglian grid is massive. It is a huge leap, yet there seems to be no strategic or controlling mind behind the planning of the national grid for the next 50 to 100 years. It is all on much shorter-term horizons.
I extend my sincere condolences to my hon. Friend, in common with colleagues.
The lack of a controlling mind does seem to be one of the biggest problems. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only reason that the network needs to be reinforced from Dunston in the north of my constituency, going right across Norfolk and into Suffolk, is because of the perverse decision to route existing offshore wind connections to that part of the network, instead of following National Grid Electricity System Operator’s own advice, which is to accelerate the provision of an offshore transmission network, which would save up to £3 billion in capital expenditure and a further £3 billion in operating costs? Does he agree that now is the time to revisit that decision?
My hon. Friend is completely right, but the real question is: to whom do we go to get it done? National Grid says it is locked into a regulatory and planning framework and has to operate in a certain way—that the assumption must be that overhead pylons are the right solution, unless there are other reasons.
The most difficult thing in the whole process is that not even the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), is accountable for what is being decided; he will tell us, “This is the framework and this is what we have to stick to.” He will then tell us that there is going to be a new proposal for a different regime that would arrive at different outcomes, but that is not going to affect this consultation, and we will be left with decisions being forced down corralled pathways by an outdated regulatory and planning framework.
Who is accountable, today, for the decisions that are being made? Who is it? Who should we go to, and say, “You’ve got it wrong and you can change it”? If nobody can change it, it must be my right hon. Friend the Minister who is accountable. He must accelerate the new regime, which would allow us to look much more comprehensively and capably at a strategic plan. There is no controlling strategic mind in charge of planning the national grid. It is just something that happens, through an outdated market mechanism that was designed to sweat the assets of an industry that had far too much capacity in the 1980s.
We are now in a completely different world. We need a strategic planning framework, and it should be located, accountably, within the Department, so that Members of Parliament can hold Ministers accountable for what is being decided, instead of us just being shoved off into the system, where we do not seem to have any influence.
May I express my condolences to my hon. Friend? I am so sorry to hear his news.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a wider problem? Losing the quality of our environment is a big cost for people’s wellbeing. In this case it is utilities and electricity; in Hertfordshire, it is about the chalk streams. No value seems to be given to environmental factors. We have regulators, but it is all about doing it cheaply. Does he agree that the Government need to look at the issue again, from the point of view of wellness, the environment and preserving the really valuable things in our communities?
I could not agree more. We have environmental policies and net zero policies that are costing the earth, even though they are designed to save the earth—they are very important policies and we put a great deal of money into them—and yet we have other policies that despoil the environment and communities. The damage they do is not costed into the proposals.
In a new regime, the effect on property prices, the loss of agricultural land and other non-monetised costs of the proposal need to be reflected in the costs; I think we would then find that the offshore transmission system would provide better value for money, and for the environment and communities. If it was worked out properly, an offshore ring main around the east of England down to London, with its connectivity, an interconnectedness to the continent, and direct connectivity from the onshore nuclear power stations and the new offshore East Anglia array—incidentally, the development of offshore wind is being held back by the lack of capacity in the national grid—could be the quickest proposal, because we would not have the same planning issues that we are tied up with here.
Dare I mention the words “judicial review”? If my constituents go for a judicial review—they are very well funded and well organised, and we are backing them—how many years will that hold up the proposal? Would it not be better for the Government to cut through and say we should go for an offshore grid, which has public support and which people recognise will help us to achieve our net zero targets more quickly and protect the environment and communities? That is what we should do.
The main point I will leave the debate with is that public opposition to infrastructure risks undermining the roll-out of renewable and nuclear power. The Government must balance what is best for local communities with what appears to be cheapest. The current approach is not serving my constituents in Harwich and North Essex. The current proposals, and the regime they reflect, command no public confidence at all in the Government of this country, and should change.
Before I call hon. Members, I offer my condolences to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin). I am sure I speak for everybody in this hall in doing that.
I will call the Opposition spokesperson at 10.40 am. I do not want to set a time limit; you can do the calculations yourselves. People usually take the appropriate time when it is left to them, rather than have the Chair set a time limit. I call Jerome Mayhew.
I am glad to lend my support to the arguments of many MPs whose constituencies are directly affected by the proposed pylon route of East Anglia GREEN. I represent the constituency of Broadland in Norfolk, which is not directly affected. The run starts at Dunston in south Norfolk, just south of Norwich, heads through Suffolk and into Essex. The reason I wanted to join the debate is to question the rationale for reinforcing the transmission network from Norwich south in the first place.
The consultation, which has already been much criticised and will be by other contributors, starts with the assumption that there is a problem that needs to be solved. That problem is additional power being applied to the network at Dunston, at Norwich south. The power comes from offshore wind farms, both those connected in the past five years, since the previous review by Ofgem in 2015, and the huge number of additional wind farms anticipated between now and 2030, and thereafter.
We know from last year’s National Grid ESO report of an anticipated 17 GW of offshore wind constructed in the southern North sea alone—part of the 50 GW by 2030 ambition—but there is a problem. Although we won the argument for a holistic network design leading to an offshore transmission network, with the Secretary of State making that announcement on the Floor of the House, we appear to have lost the battle when it comes to East Anglia. The holistic network design comes into force from 2030 onwards, we are told, yet the connections for East Anglia affect our counties between now and 2030. It is between now and 2030 that the 17 GW will be constructed and connected.
We have here the most classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Much better would be to look again at the design for East Anglian connection, follow the advice of the National Grid ESO report, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), and create an offshore transmission network. Accelerate it; do not accept the argument that it can be put in place only by 2030 and push for 2025. If we do that, on its own estimates, there are £6 billion of savings to be made: £3 billion in reduced capital expenditure, because it is much easier for a wind farm to connect to a grid that is already offshore, and £3 billion of further operating savings between now and 2050.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, with this enormous extra offshore capacity that is coming, if we do not follow his suggestion of an offshore grid as soon as possible, which is Government policy, we could be faced with the current nightmare being duplicated or triplicated? In a few years it could be said, “Well, actually the pylons we installed a few years ago are not efficient, so we need even more pylons.” How lunatic would that be?
Of course, Ofgem would say, “Well, we’ve done the calculations. We know that there isn’t going to be any more offshore wind, and we think this is going to be enough.” But in 2015, when it last looked at this subject and was asked to assess whether an offshore transition network would provide value for the money to the consumer, its advice to the Government was, “No, it would not, because we will never have enough offshore wind to justify it.” Well, how wrong it was. Just seven years later, here we are bitterly ruing that short-sighted failure to make anticipatory infrastructure decisions. We could have avoided all these arguments and be leading Europe in the development of this innovative design, which now is absolutely technically possible. In fact, I have spoken, with others, to the managing director of Hitachi, who told us that this is off-the-shelf technology now.
We come back to the consultation, which has just been closed, and the position of the regulators and National Grid. Their argument is essentially that it is too late to change the decision about connection points. We already have radial connections coming into Norfolk. Given that the power is being delivered to south Norfolk, the network has to be reinforced to draw the electricity south, hence East Anglia GREEN and 112 miles of pylons. However, I invite the Minister to take a step back and look at the rationale behind the decision to write contracts to allow the offshore wind farms to connect to Norwich south. All those offers must have been subject to planning permission, because the regulator knew, or ought to have known, that the connection point did not have sufficient capacity to deal with the anticipated measures.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent, highly technical and very important speech. Is it not true that in our recent discussions with Ofgem, National Grid and others that officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy confirmed on the call that none of the current contracts could in any way predetermine the planning application? Therefore, the question of how the electricity is ultimately shifted through the onshore grid is still open.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a question of law, it must be open because it is subject to planning.
The Minister has a great opportunity not to make the errors that we made in 2015 and to be bold about the anticipatory infrastructure that is required, which is being implemented for the holistic network design elsewhere in the country. It is ironic that the only part of the country that is not part of the holistic network design is East Anglia, given that East Anglian MPs pushed the Government into adopting the policy.
We have an opportunity to create the infrastructure that will allow us to connect without more devastating impacts on our environment and communities; to save money in the medium term, as pointed out by the National Grid ESO position paper; and to accelerate the early adoption of additional wind farms, because once the offshore transmission network in place, the connection process will actually be quicker and easier. Additionally, if we take the offshore route via “Sea Link 2” down to the Isle of Grain, there will potentially be additional benefits in relation to international interconnectors.
I question the rationale behind the assumptions that went into the consultation paper, and I make this one further request. In the very constructive call that a number of us had with National Grid Electricity Transmission Operator yesterday, it committed to generating a like-for-like offshore replacement for East Anglia GREEN, but I have one concern about that. If we literally have a like-for-like replacement, we would be taking energy from Norwich South to Tilbury. That is not the question that should be asked. The question that should be asked is what is the cost of taking advantage of an offshore route to deliver electricity to the Greater London area? It is not an exact like-for-like comparison with Dunstan in south Norfolk to Tilbury. How do we take advantage of the benefits that National Grid ESO identified in its position paper to maximise the dynamism of our electricity provision while minimising the cost to the taxpayer and to the constituents of our three counties?
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew). I extend my sympathies to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), whose parents enjoyed their later years in my lovely constituency. The whole town extends its love to him and his family over these next weeks.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I am sure he will remark that many hon. Members have met him on several occasions recently. We are grateful for that engagement, but I will leave him with the thought that that is our engagement so far. As he has heard from my right hon. and hon. Friends, this system is not suitable for our constituents. Arguably, given our recent challenges with energy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland pointed out, we need to future-proof ourselves and understand what we need for the country.
My main focus is on how the proposals fail to offer choice and the lack of meaningful consultation with my constituents. Like many, I fully support the work being undertaken to achieve net zero. Indeed, looking at the temperatures that we are currently working in and enjoying, it is essential to move towards adaptation as well. Low-carbon energy production has a crucial role, and the contribution of the east of England is likely only to grow, given the likelihood of Sizewell C, further offshore generation and the new generation of sea-tethered wind farms that could give us greater capacity. Our 4,100 MW of generation today is destined to rise to 25,000 MW by 2030, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, we have slightly put the cart before the horse. I would gently say that we are talking about energy resilience and critical national infrastructure, so we should take a step back and think about what we are doing here.
The National Grid’s proposals display little thought or care. In the meeting yesterday, for which we were all extremely grateful, it straight away blamed the current regulatory framework—the national policy statement. The reason that it could not offer anything other than pylons was that that was the most economic and efficient way of doing it. I put it to the Minister that we need to halt and understand the problem. We need to look at the NPS and its criteria in relation to energy, add the east of England to the holistic network design, and offer true choice.
As it stands, Bury St Edmunds faces having 50 metre-high pylons tearing through it, as do the constituencies represented by my right hon. and hon. Friends. From the maps that the National Grid has provided, one could be forgiven for thinking that the stretch from mid-Suffolk had been drawn by merely placing a ruler on the map and drawing a pencil line down one side.
The electricity generated on the east coast is destined—demanded—to keep the lights on in London. While it is important to give that assurance for the east of England, we want protection for our communities, our countryside and the food that we produce for the nation. We are informed by those at NG ESO that multiple cables will be needed, but we have seen no impact statement or costings, so we feel that we are being taken for a ride. The only opportunity is for the deliverer, not our constituents. As announced yesterday, subsea transmission is good enough to pull energy from Morocco to the UK, and it is good enough for the north of England, so it should be good enough for us.
Our counties are not only good at generating energy; we are three of the nation’s largest producers of food to give our people energy. What assessment has been made of the impact on that? I have received a significant amount of correspondence from constituents who are incredibly concerned about East Anglia GREEN and their strong local objection is echoed throughout the route. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know from his own constituents how passionate locals are about infrastructure projects. Mine are no different. This is precious to us.
I have visited part of the affected area in my constituency. As I drove around my constituent Tom Rash’s farm, he pointed out the regenerative way in which he farms and how erecting pylons sat at odds with our objective of supporting food production and enhancing food security, and directly contradicts the objectives coming out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As I looked at Wortham Ling, a site of special scientific interest on Mr Rash’s farm that is overseen by Suffolk Wildlife Trust and managed as a nature reserve, the acid grassland and dry heath developed on glaciofluvial drift deposits—[Interruption.]—yes, one of those early in the morning—offer a unique area of natural beauty. As we look up at the big skies from Wortham Ling or the local well-attended tennis club or the church that stands adjacent to the farmyard, the pylons will bear down on us and give us no benefits in our community. This is precious to us; it is valuable.
The early opportunities team at National Grid appear to see the area as open land, free to cut through, and has given little consideration to anything but the bottom line and what the book says. Straight routes are cheaper; we are being serviced on the cheap. Due to the sparse population, we may be seen as an easy hit. Can the Minister confirm in his summing up if there has been a full impact assessment of overground and underground pylons, undersea options, the hit to food production and the environmental impact?
If we are just being seen as an easy early opportunity, that is unacceptable. From the correspondence that I and others have received, it is clear that subsea transmission is overwhelmingly preferred. However, I say again: we have not been given the chance to choose. Who is accountable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex asked? I share my constituents’ views, because offshore generation is only going to grow and we should ensure a system that is future-proofed. Indeed, looking at Octopus’s latest announcement on Xlinks, there is more likelihood that renewables will come to us from different parts of the world. The Dutch are very high generators of renewables. Surely the ability to connect around the country would be a much more sensible approach?
Allowing those interconnectors to be put offshore would be a move forward, but I am led to believe no alternatives to the Norwich-to-Tilbury proposals have been fully explored. They appear to have been discarded without a full explanation as to why they are not viable. The recent consultation by National Grid offered no alternative to overland transmission. Indeed, many of the questions were somewhat irrelevant as they were closed, such as “Do you want green energy?” Who is going to answer anything but yes to that? There has been no ability to put forward a different view. To be frank, it was a fait accompli. It serves no purpose but to reinforce a decision that has already been made—“Sorry, overhead pylons are the default and that is what you are getting”—and to silence that local voice.
To add to the local incredulity regarding the consultation, it has now become apparent that elsewhere in the country, as others have said, subsea transmission is being used precisely to avoid impact on local communities. This is all starting to feel incredibly unfair to the east of England, particularly given our status as a net contributor to Her Majesty’s Treasury: we give you our money, we give you our energy, we grow your food, yet we are not worthy of a proper consultation or protection.
I want to see complete transparency about the allocation of funding for subsea transmission, particularly as the east of England is a major power generator for the country, with connections to the continent to transmit energy when needed. It was not included in the holistic network design and that feels like a mistake. The Minister and I have discussed the meaning of “holistic” before: it means dealing with or treating the whole of something and not just a part. We cannot have a three-quarters holistic network design, which is what we have at the moment. More work on inclusion in the HND is required. We are not nimbyists in Suffolk; we are pragmatic. However, we want a fair consultation. All this can be avoided if we are treated in the same manner as other parts of the country, with subsea transmission replacing overland proposals, or we are at least given a choice.
My constituents and I want change. We want to be part of a holistic network design. We want a Government who stop and think and take stock. We want a Government who future-proof us. A sensible Government will do that. Demand will only grow as we need to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. With any infrastructure investment, it is imperative to get it right first time. As the Minister knows, the local voice is important. Please listen to ours.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mr Stringer. I offer my condolences to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for his loss. I congratulate him on his choreography to secure the debate, which is ultimately about the roll-out of zero carbon renewable energy on what is likely to be the hottest day ever recorded in the UK.
The transition to net zero provides enormous opportunities for East Anglia to be the engine room of the UK, bringing new sustainable and rewarding jobs not just for Waveney and Lowestoft, which I represent, but across the region. If we get it right, we can be a global exemplar of how to deliver the transition. That, in turn, will create enormous export opportunities.
The case for offshore wind is compelling. It is now the lowest-cost technology for generating electricity. Energy bills continue to rise, and being able to transport and deliver more offshore wind across the UK will reduce bills. We need more homegrown green electricity to move away from Russia’s influence. The weather today provides a snapshot of our future if we delay action to reduce carbon emissions.
National Grid’s East Anglia green energy enablement project, known as GREEN, should be set in the context that approximately one third of today’s UK energy demand can be met by the energy that will come into East Anglia by the end of this decade. While much work has taken place to upgrade the existing transition network, it needs significant reinforcement. GREEN is the preferred option that National Grid has worked up in accordance with the existing regulatory framework, which includes the relevant national policy statements and the so-called Holford and Horlock rules.
I acknowledge the desire of all right hon. and hon. Members, on behalf of the communities that they represent, to consider an offshore option, but it would have been disingenuous of National Grid to have consulted on such proposal, knowing that the current policy and regulatory framework within which they operate would have discounted it. In due course the Government might wish to amend the national policy statements.
It should also be emphasised that we are at an early stage of the option appraisal and assessment process, with a statutory consultation and an examination in public to follow. There is therefore an opportunity for those concerned about the proposals to engage further with National Grid, following up the meetings they had yesterday and probably before, to address their concerns.
My hon. Friend is perfectly reasonable and has great passion about offshore wind, as we all do. He is perfectly entitled to make those points, but this is not a parallel universe. There is a sub-sea link going ahead off East Anglia called Sea Link 1. Our view is that we need far more of that. To quote National Grid about the justification:
“By connecting East Anglia and Kent, Sea Link will provide the additional network capacity needed to enable the import and export of wind energy to and from Europe.”
If it is not in policy, how can we be in a parallel universe where we are going ahead with sub-sea link off East Anglia? Our view is that we need more of them to build a connected offshore grid.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I am about to address his point and highlight why that alternative is not viable under the existing framework. Taking into account the framework within which National Grid operates, I would make the following high-level comments on their proposals. First, they have presented the most economically advantageous solutions, as they are bound by the UK Government to do. To move it offshore not only is technically challenging but will cost an estimated 10 times the current proposal—a cost that will ultimately be paid by the consumer. To bury the cable along the entire route not only would have a huge impact on the environment—as 150-metre-wide trenches are dug—but would increase the cost some 14 times.
While other regions have benefitted from subsea links, the scale of the challenge in East Anglia is much larger, with significantly higher amounts of potential electricity needing to be delivered into the grid. To do that without multiple connections coming ashore, together with East Anglia GREEN, would be similar to redirecting traffic from the M25 on to the A140—that tortuous route, which East Anglians know well, that runs from west of Ipswich, via Norwich, up to Cromer.
On a point of information, as it were, the sea link that I am talking about, which my hon. Friend said cannot go ahead under policy, is approved. National Grid will be going ahead with the link; it will be going from Sizewell to Kent. It will be going ahead partly because it gives more resilience to the nuclear power station, if we are completely frank. The point is that it is a reality. The justification that National Grid uses is the same one that we want to see from Sea Links 2, 3 and 4. “Sea Link 2” was rejected. The sea link that we are talking about has been approved and the current policy framework allows approval of undersea connection off East Anglia. As far as we are concerned, the quantity is too low compared with other parts of the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I am sure that the Minister will pick up on that in his speech. From my perspective, I think it is wrong to dismiss the concerns of the communities that the new pylons will run through, as we have heard from all colleagues today. The way forward at this early stage of the consultation process is for them to work in partnership with National Grid, developers and local and central Government to mitigate the impact. Developers are showing a willingness to do that.
In Norfolk, Vattenfall is delivering its Norfolk offshore windfarm zone by pursuing a co-ordinated approach to the onshore element of the transmission. Business organisations, such as the East of England Energy Group, Net Zero East, Opergy and the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, together with the East Wind Offshore Cluster, are developing new ideas to help address future connection. That includes collaborative project design with shared or modular grid connections, and encouraging and facilitating hybrid projects such as wind to hydrogen and wind to storage.
I acknowledge the worries that all my colleagues are articulating on behalf of their constituents. However, there must be no holdup or delay in the roll-out of the offshore wind projects off the East Anglian coast. Already, they are making a significant contribution to the local economy. ScottishPower Renewables has a £25 million operations and maintenance base in the Hamilton dock in Lowestoft that is already running and providing jobs for people in my constituency and across Suffolk and Norfolk. ScottishPower Renewables is also planning to invest a further £6 billion up to 2030 as part of its East Anglia hub development. Such projects provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, creating new, exciting and well-paid jobs for local people, which is vital as part of the levelling up process. They are also critical for the overall prosperity of East Anglia and for us to play our role in mitigating the impact of climate change, which we are feeling so forcefully today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I join others in passing my condolences to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), who made a brilliant speech in the circumstances. We are grateful to him for continuing none the less. We are also grateful to him for chairing OffSET; I think we have had an impact.
Let us be clear what we are not debating today. No one is debating the policy of pursuing net zero—all of us East Anglian MPs support that. No one is debating the need for sovereign sources of energy, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Actually, no one is debating the need for an offshore grid. That is now Government policy. When my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) held an Adjournment debate in November 2020, the current Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, then the Energy Minister, said to him:
“I would suggest that the argument for some form of offshore network system has been won. What is critically under discussion at the moment is the timing.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 584.]
That was November 2020. In the summer of 2020, the discussion had not even started. That shows the progress OffSET made in persuading Government to buy into an offshore grid. Last May, in my last Prime Minister’s question before being promoted, I asked the Prime Minister about an offshore grid. He said:
“My hon. Friend is spot on in what he says about the need for an offshore grid.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 698.]
So, it is Government policy.
The question before us is about the extent to which an offshore grid is being taken into account in the real life in-flight decisions being made today that are affecting our constituents, which brings us to East Anglia GREEN. We have just had the consultation on this brand new proposal for huge pylons across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. I attended those consultation sessions. Having met with my constituents, it is my view that they felt it was a predetermined consultation—what we would call a fait accompli.
My constituents were shown a narrow strip of land—I think it is called a swathe. The National Grid officials hoped that the discussion would be about where exactly the pylons would go within that very narrow swathe. However, my constituents and those of colleagues had envisaged that that informal consultation would be an opportunity to discuss the top-level options. Should the pylons go under the sea? Should they go over land? If over land, should they be underground just in the area of natural beauty, or elsewhere? Instead, constituents were presented with a final decision that the pylons were going in that swathe, on land—taking place, as I said earlier, as if in a parallel universe.
I also received feedback from constituents that when they asked the National Grid officials in the village halls doing the consultation about an offshore grid, they were told that it is not possible, not feasible and so on. I wrote to all constituents affected and pointed out that although officials were telling them that an offshore grid is not feasible, National Grid is committed to £3.4 billion of expenditure on undersea cabling off Scotland and the north of England, on two enormous bootstraps—undersea electricity cables.
In fact, we already have an undersea electricity cable off the west coast, from Scotland to north Wales, called the Western Link. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex said, the total mileage—built or committed—is about 800 miles. Off East Anglia, with Sea Link 1, which I referred to when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), the mileage is about 80 miles—a ratio of 10:1. When I shared that with my constituents, they were astonished. They had been given the impression that it was not even possible; in fact, it is happening as we speak. Bootstraps have been built and others will be built. My constituents want to know why we could not get a greater share of that technology in our counties.
What particularly hurt was reading an email that was shared with me. I will not reveal the name of the person concerned—they are a member of the public. The email, which was sent to National Grid’s community engagement team on the northern project, asked:
“Would you know the reasons to go submarine rather than overground, there are many obvious advantages but would be interested to understand the primary considerations?”
The response from National Grid was:
“This is a good question. Routing the cable overground for hundreds of miles would likely require overhead lines that would cause disruption and visual impacts to many communities, ranging from County Durham to southern Scotland, where the route originates. By routing the cable under the North Sea, away from settlements, we significantly reduce its impact on communities.”
Just to be clear, the question was about the primary considerations. It is clear that, off Scotland and northern England, the primary consideration—those are the words National Grid responded to—was the protection of communities. Yet when National Grid came to Holton St Mary village hall to speak to my constituents, who said, “We want you to protect our countryside by going offshore,” National Grid said that that was not even possible—“And, by the way, we can’t even talk about it as part of the consultation.”
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. If I understand him correctly, he said that in the consultation the value and worth of communities and environment was a strong rationale, but we are being told that we have to be bound by the rationale of the NPS, which is economic and efficient. Does he feel, like me, that we are not being treated fairly?
My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point: we are not being treated fairly. We possibly got some explanation about that at the meeting that we held yesterday with National Grid, National Grid ESO and Ofgem. Unfortunately, it was a private meeting, inasmuch as it was not held with our constituents, but it was public to the extent that we can talk publicly about what was discussed. I would much have preferred that our constituents were involved in those discussions, but unfortunately the consultation has closed.
What is crucial is that, first, National Grid argues that the consultation covered offshore options. National Grid emailed me. It believes that it covered those options because, buried in a 120-page document that it circulated when people from National Grid were going to village halls, there is a page that says:
“The use of onshore technology. The potential for an offshore connection was considered as part of the process of defining the preferred reinforcement solution”—
it then goes through some detail—
“but concluded that the options were poorer performing on the basis of capability and poorer in cost benefit least regret terms.”
In National Grid’s view, that means that the consultation covered offshore options. When I ask whether it covered offshore options, I mean that, when my constituents went to Holton St Mary village hall, was there a picture on the wall of their preference and another picture of what an offshore option would look like? That is what a consultation means: people look at both options. Of course the option was not on the wall; it was buried in the small print.
My view is not predetermined. National Grid says that it consulted on offshore. This, therefore, is what I am going to do. I will write to all of my affected constituents and ask them, “Did you participate in the consultation, and if so do you feel that it covered offshore? Do you feel that you had a say in the top-level choice of going overground or under sea?” My thoughts are not predetermined—I will see what they say—but my view is that the consultation did not cover it. There was no transparency on the justification.
There is a reason that there is no transparency, which we discovered yesterday. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex is absolutely right that the people at National Grid are doing their job, and we should not cast blame. That is not the point; we are here to represent our constituents. National Grid said yesterday that given the concern about what is happening in Scotland and the sense of unfairness, it would publish a detailed assessment of an offshore option later in the summer. Why will that be published later in the summer? Because it has not been done. There has been no detailed assessment of an offshore option.
How on earth did National Grid conclude that it cannot go offshore? Let us figure that one out. That will answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), because I am pleased to say that the meeting was attended by Akshay Kaul, the director of networks at Ofgem. The argument from National Grid is that the framework precludes it from looking at an offshore option. The regulator, Mr Kaul, said that is not correct: the framework does not preclude looking at offshore options; all the infrastructure projects should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. That is what he said to us yesterday, very transparently. How can something be looked at on a case-by-case basis if the detailed work has not been done?
National Grid also said to us something that goes back to the brilliant point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew): that the work it will do will show that an offshore option is not possible. There is a word for that. I have only recently resigned as the courts Minister, and must be careful what I say—I am conscious of the judicial arm—but that is predetermination if ever Members have heard of it: “We will do the work, but here is the answer it will tell you.”
I would like that report, first, not to be undertaken by National Grid, but to be commissioned by the Government and undertaken by an independent expert who is not predetermined. Secondly, I would like it—as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland said—not to draw a line from the closest oceanic point next to Norwich down to somewhere in the south of England, for instance near Tilbury or the Isle of Grain, but rather to draw what we all want, which is a mesh of offshore connections: in other words, not just Sea Link 1, but Sea Links 2, 3 and 4, which would give us 6 GW, which is what the pylons would give us. Crucially, as my hon. Friend said, we would then have the nodes that give us the interconnectivity with the continent, so we can import and export, and be the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind.
In other words, we want the consultation to be reopened, not to look at this basic and expensive option, which has had no work put into it, but to ask an independent consultant, “What if we used this connectivity as the foundation stone for a proper offshore grid in East Anglia?”, which is what we believe Government policy should be.
There is one final thing that the report needs to do. It needs to include my constituents. We know constitutionally that none of us is here in our own right. We are here only by virtue of the fact that we have won an election and we represent our constituents. They have not been involved in any of the discussions. There was no meaningful consultation on offshore as far as I am concerned. This has to be reopened. That does not mean giving us a report; it means going back to Holton St Mary village hall with the results and explaining to people why it may not be possible to go offshore, but being transparent about that. That is what democracy is all about.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I reiterate the condolences of my colleagues to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on his loss. That was a brilliant speech by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), and I associate myself with nearly everything that nearly everyone has said. I am smiling at my constituency neighbour—my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill)—whose constituency is behind Tesco and Morrisons in my constituency. We are neighbours, but if I were to go a few hundred yards to the east, my neighbour is a different Member of Parliament. I know Wortham Ling well—I walk my dogs near there.
I am interested in two aspects of this important debate. First, planning permission cannot be assumed and therefore a route cannot be assumed. I may have misinterpreted this, but that appeared to have come as a bit of a surprise to the Minister. He certainly looked round in alarm when one of my colleagues made that point. The second aspect is about time. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex mentioned judicial review. I do not want to repeat anything that has been said, but it is clear in the development in recent years of English administrative law—common law—that there is a law of consultation known as the Gunning principles, which are set out clearly and helpfully by the Local Government Association. There are four principles and they derive from a case in which Judge Stephen Sedley was in charge of the court: Regina v. Brent London Borough Council, ex parte Gunning—that is why they are called the Gunning principles. They are now clearly established and applied by the courts.
The first principle is that the proposals are still at a formative stage. The second is that there is sufficient information to give intelligent consideration. The third is that there is adequate time for consideration and response. The fourth, which has become increasingly important in recent cases, as opposed to earlier cases where the first three principles were given more weight, is that
“‘conscientious consideration’ must be given to the consultation responses before a decision is made”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) made a point about time. He said that “there must be no holdup” in the development of offshore wind. Amen to that—we all agree. The one way we can be absolutely sure there will be a huge holdup is if the lawyers get hold of this. If the Minister wants to be bogged down in judicial review and legal battles for years to come with no progress towards our net zero targets, all he has to do is ignore what all of us are saying, and I guarantee that that is where he will end up.
There is another email about the reasoning for the eastern link, and another reason was given was about the speed of delivery of an offshore link against the speed of building pylons. It says:
“The subsea link between Torness in East Lothian and Hawthorn Pit in County Durham needs to be in place by 2027. The link between Peterhead in Aberdeenshire and Drax in North Yorkshire is needed by 2029. While onshore AC overhead line options were considered, those were discounted because they would not be deliverable in the timescales that were required.”
Does that not show that going undersea can actually be quicker?
I have no doubt that my hon. Friend is right. If we want efficiency, effectiveness and economic progress, we should listen to the people calling for an offshore grid. After all, as several of our hon. Friends have said, it is already Government policy. What we need to do is follow through with the concomitant decisions that should apply when something is Government policy, rather than ignoring this area which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds said, will become the Saudi Arabia of England for offshore generation.
To conclude, because I do not want to overrun the time limit that you have set, Mr Stringer, we must make it clear that our constituents do not feel that they have been properly consulted or that offshore options were given any meaningful consideration. We want to be sure that any detailed report on offshore options is meaningful and thorough, involves our constituents fully and is written by independent experts. We also want it to embrace the idea of taking a first step towards a broad-scale East Anglian offshore grid, with, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said, Sea Links 2, 3 and 4 carrying 6 GW and multi-noding with international interconnectors, in order to add further value, which must feature in any overall holistic cost assessment.
If we want to make progress on this, as everyone agrees that we need to do, particularly in light of the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and if we want to become more energy independent, more quickly, and hasten the drive towards net zero, which every single person in this room would like to see happen, we should listen to my hon. Friends, and the Minister should too.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair as always, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on bringing the debate and extend my commiserations to him on the death of his mother.
When I found out that I was speaking for the Labour Front Bench in this debate and saw that the subject was posited as local opposition to renewable energy projects, the first word that came to mind was nimbyism. Such debates can be about people not wanting something that spoils their view, but it has been made very clear that the debate today is not about that.
In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex was quite right to point out that it does matter if there is an impact on people’s house prices or on the aesthetic appeal of living in the countryside. We should not dismiss those things lightly. He also spoke about food production and the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) spoke eloquently about the importance of regenerative farming. Ukraine affects this debate, as it affects so many things, both in our energy security and in our resilience, including the sort of crops that could be grown in East Anglia. We ought to be doing far more to support farming there.
The frustration that the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex expressed with the current processes and the discussions that have taken place was clear, and he talked about the lack of national control. Does the Minister think that the process is accountable and transparent? Could it be improved? Do we need a longer-term, broader-ranging strategy from the National Grid?
There were calls for National Grid to publish costed offshore alternatives to East Anglia GREEN. I welcome the fact that a meeting took place yesterday. That sounds as if it was a productive step on the way to trying at least to put more options in front of East Anglian communities, and I welcome that.
We heard from the hon. Members for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) and for Bury St Edmunds that this was a case of putting the cart before the horse. It came across very genuinely that this is not about people trying to delay something by throwing in lots of obstacles, almost like “Wacky Races”, where lots of rocks are thrown in front of the vehicles so they will not reach the finish line. These are genuine concerns that are being raised.
The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds talked about the broader issue of energy resilience and critical national infrastructure. This is one local example of how we need to get it right but, as she says, we need more clarity on the issue nationally as well.
I was interested to hear the comments made by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), not least because, having served on the Environmental Audit Committee with him, I know that he is genuine in his commitment to environmental concerns. He said that there should be no hold-ups to rolling out offshore wind, and I entirely agree with him. There was a debate with the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) about whether the existing framework would permit alternative options to be considered. I will leave it to the Minister to go into who is right and what has been said about that, but that goes to the need for greater transparency in the process.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk also said that all East Anglian MPs support net zero. Having listened to some of the contributions to the Conservative leadership contest, I am not entirely sure whether the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) would say the same, but that is a debate for another day. The hon. Member for South Suffolk said that the consultation was inadequate and did not cover the offshore options, which were buried in the small print. Again, I will leave it to the Minister to say whether he feels that the consultation was adequate. The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) also said that the consultation was not adequate and warned about getting lawyers involved, which we would probably all want to avoid. I speak as a lawyer myself.
Let me conclude because it is important that the Minister has plenty of time to reply. The need to make the shift to low-carbon energy is real and urgent, and the push for 50 GW of offshore wind by 2030 is very much part of that. In recent weeks, the Government have been criticised by the Climate Change Committee for the inadequacy of their plans to reach net zero, although they are doing better on energy than on some other aspects, and only yesterday, Friends of the Earth successfully brought a court case against the Government, which will require them to rethink their net zero strategy.
I hope that there will be a revised strategy as a result of the court case and the criticisms of the Climate Change Committee, and that must include a big push to get the right low-carbon infrastructure in place. Opposition to onshore wind has been a disaster for efforts to ramp up renewable energy capacity in the UK, and it is now easier to build a road than to put up an onshore wind turbine in this country.
On this project, while I bow to the local MPs over the points that they want to put on the table, it appears to me that we need the strengthening cable to facilitate the landing and transportation of power from new wind farms. Undergrounding has been discussed, although I note that the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex said that undergrounding would not work as well in practice as in theory. In Scotland, quite a bit of undergrounding has been done, but the hon. Gentleman was concerned that it would still have an impact on the Dedham Vale area of outstanding natural beauty. There was also discussion of whether alternative offshore routes are viable. I wait to hear from the Minister whether he thinks they really are an option.
I have a final question for the Minister: if there were additional costs associated with pursuing the offshore route, would they fall on customers through the transmission element of bills? I hope that that would not be the case. We all know the impact of rising energy prices, so will the Minister clarify whether, if a more costly option were deemed appropriate, for all the reasons the MPs here today have mentioned such as there being a problem with the cheaper option that is being posited, the Government would provide direct support to avoid that cost falling on customers through their bills?
To clarify, we are not saying that options with, for example, a higher theoretical up-front capital cost are necessarily more expensive over the long term. The key issue is the horizon over which we look. We feel that, based on National Grid’s own figures, if we had a co-ordinated grid, that would be much cheaper in the long term for constituents.
I pose this question to the Minister: if a different option were adopted that turned out to be more expensive, would that cost be passed to the customer? I am by no means in a position to judge which option is more expensive.
Let me conclude. There is no perfect solution, and I am pleased that discussions are taking place and that National Grid has met MPs. I hope that those discussions continue, but the ball is now in the Minister’s court for him to respond to the Members present for today’s debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on securing this important debate. I offer my sincerest condolences on the death of his mother. I knew my hon. Friend’s father, who was a distinguished former Environment Secretary, and I feel sure I met his mother in connection with his father. I know how tragic the death of a parent can be, and I genuinely send him my deepest condolences at this difficult time.
My hon. Friend has continued to be a champion for his constituents on this topic. He said that he has never received as many emails as he has recently on this issue. I will be sure to continue to engage with National Grid on this matter, and I will ensure that it engages with my hon. Friend.
I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on their engagement. It is always impressive to see MPs closely in touch with their communities. I am glad that yesterday they met National Grid—NG ESO and NG ET—and Ofgem. If I am not able to respond on all the points that they raised in the 15 minutes available, I am sure we will meet again.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) wrote to me just over a week ago, and I want to address the questions and concerns in his letter. I will begin by introducing the topic and setting out the wider context. The British energy security strategy sets out bold plans to scale up and accelerate affordable, clean and secure energy, made in Britain for Britain, so that we can shift decisively away from expensive fossil fuels. That includes the ambition for 50 GW of offshore wind by 2030.
In the fourth contracts for difference auction earlier this month, five offshore wind projects totalling 7 GW won contracts at a record low strike price of £37.35 per megawatt-hour. To put that in perspective, on 7 July—the very same day as that result—the prevailing wholesale electricity day-ahead price was £230 per megawatt-hour. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) made the point well that we are No. 1 in Europe in terms of our offshore wind capacity, and the contributions to the local economy in East Anglia should not be underestimated. That confirms the fact that positioning offshore wind as a central pillar of our energy security strategy is the right call, and accelerating its deployment will be key to addressing Britain’s long-term energy needs.
I welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Members for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk and others for the strong contribution that offshore wind makes to the UK’s energy needs. Currently, it produces 11.4 GW. However, connecting that cheap, green energy and transporting it to where it is needed in East Anglia and across the country will require more electricity network infrastructure, both onshore and offshore, than we have today. We need that infrastructure to be built more quickly. Timescales for delivering transmission network infrastructure can be as long as 11 to 14 years—often far longer than the time taken to deliver the generation that is being connected. That constraint is already biting: about 5% of wind generation is curtailed, which means that its output is reduced because there is not enough capacity on the network to transport it. That could increase to 15% to 20% in the mid-2020s as wind generation increases.
How do we connect that energy? Unfortunately, placing all new infrastructure offshore is not feasible, as I think we would all agree, as ultimately the electricity needs to get to where the demand is, which is onshore. Therefore, even with offshore cables, infrastructure such as substations is required onshore at landing points.
Let me be up front with my right hon. and hon. Friends: the new projects proposed in East Anglia, such as East Anglia GREEN, are considered nationally significant infrastructure projects, as defined in the Planning Act 2008. Any project of that nature comes to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who will consider a broad range of planning matters. That is a quasi-judicial process, of course, and I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will understand that I cannot comment on specific points, which will almost certainly be submitted during the planning process, but I will try to deal with as many points as I can in the available time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex called it a patch and mend approach. I disagree with that, but there is a big transformation coming up through the Energy Security Bill, which was published only last week and is due to have its Second Reading in the House of Lords today. It includes within it a future system operator, which will take a long-term view of the whole energy system. That is one of the key reforms in the Energy Security Bill that will come before the Commons in the autumn. Two of the four pathfinder projects that have come out of the holistic network design process, which is part of the offshore transmission network review, which I will come on to explain, are actually located in East Anglia.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds rightly pointed out that there is a presumption in favour of overhead pylons, but there are still broad overall factors involved in making these decisions. Those broad factors include the environmental impacts, the community impacts, the cost to bill payers, which I am sure all my hon. and right hon. Friends would agree is a significant factor, deliverability and speed. Those are all relevant factors when this planning is carried out. The significantly increased cost of undersea or underground cables needs to be taken into account, and the environmental impacts of different options need to be carefully weighed up. For example, undersea cabling can have a significant impact on marine life.
I appreciate what my right hon. Friend is saying—he is being very clear with us—but does he appreciate that what we learned from National Grid yesterday is that it will, over the summer, undertake a detailed assessment of a potential offshore alternative? In other words, yes, a range of factors can be considered, but that cannot have happened in the East Anglia GREEN consultation because there has been no detailed assessment of an alternative. On that basis, I hope he can understand why our constituents feel that the consultation should be reopened.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Unfortunately I was not able to be at the meeting yesterday, but I will carefully look at a read-out of what was said at that meeting and study it. In any case I need to respond to his letter of 7 July, so I will make sure that I take on that specific point as far as I am able.
In general, my hon. Friend makes the good point that there is undersea cabling around the country. He rightly points out connections, for example, between Scotland and Wales, between Scotland and England and so on, but it is worth pointing out that East Anglia GREEN will deliver 6 GW of extra network capacity. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney made that point. The latest offshore cable technology is capable of carrying up to 2 GW of capacity. When we are looking at the sheer amount of energy that needs to be transmitted, it is not necessarily comparing like with like. To deliver the equivalent of East Anglia GREEN offshore would require at least three 2 GW cables. We can all look at a map and see where connections are, but that does not tell the whole story.
The nub of it is that we have not been given these options. The Minister spoke about environmental impact and the other considerations that were taken into account, but as the MP trying to help inform my constituents, I certainly have never seen any of that information or data; I do not know whether anybody else has. Yesterday it was definitely inferred that some of this acquiring of information would need to happen in short order.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have spoken about yesterday, and I repeat my pledge to hold as soon as I can a further meeting with colleagues to consider what was said and the progression of these matters, while bearing in mind the quasi-judicial planning nature of the Secretary of State’s decision.
In July my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when he was Energy Minister, launched the offshore transmission network review, or OTNR, to improve the level of co-ordination in how we connect offshore and ensure that future connections are delivered in the most appropriate way. I think itwas my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland who asked, could we not have foreseen in 2015 the great need for this work? To some extent, that is not an unfair point. In many ways, in this country we are victims of our incredible success with our offshore wind capacity, which is the largest in Europe. It was the largest in the world until last summer, when China overtook us. It really is the envy of the world, and others come to see us. The United States is scaling up its capability and other European countries are coming to see us and so on. So he makes a fair point.
Earlier this month, we reached a significant milestone in the review with the publication of a major deliverable—the holistic network design, to which my hon. Friends have referred. In addition, we recently announced Nick Winser CBE as the UK’s first Electricity Networks Commissioner. He will play a pivotal role in ensuring that we have the right infrastructure to transmit electricity to where it is needed.
I pay tribute my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds for always being engaged on all matters environmental during her time at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. When it comes to commercial and industrial and energy resilience, which is very important, I refer her to the evidence that I gave yesterday to the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, which goes into those matters in some detail.
The HND sets out the need for about £54 billion of onshore and offshore transmission infrastructure, new and upgraded, which will be needed to deliver our 2030 ambition. That is the first time that those have been co-ordinated to ensure better outcomes for communities, the environment and bill payers. Although a new requirement for onshore network reinforcement has been identified in the HND, no decisions have yet been taken on how best to do that. All projects that come forward as a result of the HND will be subject to the relevant democratic planning processes to ensure that local stakeholders get a say on the developments and that the impacts are mitigated as far as possible. I have already mentioned the pathfinder projects.
I will deal with three or four other points that arose in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland asked whether connection contracts were subject to planning. They are, but of course they are not yet in the planning system. There is a statement from the five projects in East Anglia that are working together on offshore co-ordinated options, as he knows, and utilising changes in the offshore transmission network review process. That will be supported by a £100 million offshore co-ordination support scheme, which will be launched later this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds asked about the NPS, which will be reconsulted on later this year. I expect that that will apply to this project. MPs will have a chance to have an input on the NPS process. I expect both the current and future NPS to provide the flexibility for trade-offs between cost and impact and between offshore and onshore options to be brought forward where appropriate. That is a matter for National Grid Electricity Transmission and Ofgem. My hon. Friend also asked about the environment impact assessment for East Anglia GREEN, which will cover the impacts on agriculture. We expect farmers and landowners to receive compensation for any loss or impact on crop production.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk wants a study on the offshore grid to be done independently. In accordance with its transmission licence, it is NGET’s responsibility to develop and put forward options to reinforce the network. BEIS is the ultimate decision maker for those nationally significant infrastructure projects.
I am sure that National Grid Electricity Transmission will have noted that point from the debate. If my hon. Friend did not make that point yesterday, I am sure he could make that to them. I must be careful about the role in the quasi-judicial process in relation to NGET’s responsibility.
We have covered the holistic network design and the pathfinder projects, so I will allow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex a couple of minutes in which to respond. I look forward to continuing engagement with my right hon. and hon. Friends on these topics. I will respond in writing to the letter of 7 July as soon as possible. I will also look at what was said yesterday and any other points from the debate that I have not been able to respond to.
I am most grateful for your chairmanship of these proceedings, Mr Stringer, and to the Minister for his response and the care that he has taken over the matter. I am extremely grateful for the kind words that everybody has expressed to me today and for the high quality of all the contributions to the debate.
I am still very unhappy, because the Minister is effectively still disclaiming responsibility for the process that we are in and holds out no prospect of being able to change it. Environmental costs and community disbenefits are not costed into the scheme in any way; let us compare that with how much extra has been spent on High Speed 2 to mitigate its environmental and community disbenefits. Why are the Government not taking responsibility for the national grid in the same way as they take responsibility for railway or road development? It is inconsistent.
For the Minister to say, “Oh well, I’ll see what was said in that meeting,” and, “I can’t say anything because of the quasi-judicial nature of the process,” underlines that nobody is in charge and there is no strategic mind. It is for the Government to come to Parliament and ask for the powers necessary to be responsible, so that we can do something about this runaway train that is about to wreck the environment and communities—
Listed Buildings Protection
I beg to move,
That this House has considered listed buildings protection.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Minister for his time today. He is becoming the Swiss Army knife of the Government—a multi-purpose Minister. Whenever Blackpool comes across the political horizon, I see the Minister. I have wanted for 12 years to have a Minister for Blackpool and I think I have now got one—and a very good one, at that.
I am here to talk mainly about the listing of modern buildings. I should declare an interest as a member of the Twentieth Century Society for getting on for 23 years. A couple of weekends ago, it was a true delight to take the Twentieth Century Society on a coach trip around Blackpool and Fleetwood. I was pleased to see their enthusiasm for the buildings they saw. I got to see things that I had not seen before, and to appreciate parts of our built environment that I had started to take for granted, as someone who lives in the area.
I am also pleased to be able to praise the Government; I do not always get the chance these days to do that. Just this week, we saw the listing of Quinlan Terry’s Brentwood cathedral. The platinum jubilee saw the listing of a number of buildings, from the Harrogate sun pavilion to the motorway markers on the M62 at the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. Obviously, the one on the Lancashire side is far superior to the one on the Yorkshire side. In the past couple of years, we have seen real efforts in Blackpool, listing our middle and lower walk colonnades by the Metropole hotel, as well as our excellent promenade shelters that hotel guests enjoy along the north shore. I can also praise the Government for the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and all that contains, but I do not want to take part of the time for the Minister’s reply to me by detailing all that that includes.
As ever, Back Benchers like to point out what is not in a Bill. The Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies, a group of the likes of the Twentieth Century Society, the Victorian Society and the Georgian Group, has made the point that there is often uncertainty among local planning authorities about the occasions when they are required to notify national amenity societies of applications for listed building consent. The Bill would be an opportunity to provide a reminder and clarification, and have the potential to offer the introduction of a more practical recourse to rectification than judicial review, when a decision has been issued without notification. I urge the Government to look at that.
There are more systemic issues that see the architecture of the past 120 years not getting the same protection, which it deserves, as older buildings in this country. In particular, that applies to interim protection. There is little or no protection for a building in England while a process of listing assessment is carried out. Indeed, the knowledge that a listing might be imminent sometimes encourages an owner who hopes to redevelop the site to rush deliberately to damage or demolish the building, specifically to prevent listing.
Setting up interim listing for England was to have been one of the most significant improvements delivered by the proposed Heritage Protection Bill that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published in 2008. Sadly, that Bill never became an Act, and we can blame the Labour party for that, like so much in life, mainly due to lack of parliamentary time. Ever since, there has been a desire to plug that obvious gap. That is another potential addition to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that I urge the Minister to consider.
We also see local authorities rolling out programmes of wider work enhancing the public realm. They forget that assets are sometimes listed. They do the analysis necessary for listed building consent and conclude that there is a wider public benefit that outweighs the loss of architectural significance, but that does more damage than is necessary to achieve the same public benefit. I recognise that many of my concerns, perhaps inevitably, are resource-related and right now is perhaps not the time to ask for more money—is it ever the right time to ask for more money —in this era of fiscal rectitude, which I hope will continue.
Local authorities’ constrained resources can mean long waits for assessment of potential listings, which leads to very strict triaging of requests to eliminate all but the most urgent applications. That means that developers or potential building purchasers develop proposals, only to be frustrated by last-minute listing decisions. I point to Government policies on converting office blocks and other buildings in town centres into accommodation and housing. That can often hit a brick wall when people discover that that very building is listed nationally or locally.
Listing intervention for modern homes on single plots at risk of demolition is a particular problem. A “for sale” sign is not enough to require intervention, and potential purchasers need to be able to make informed choices about their purchase before they buy. The key problem here is how Historic England defines risk. It does not view risk merely in the case of a property being sold. Waiting for “threat”, as it phrases it, is far too late in the planning process for developer and local authority certainty, as Historic England is very cautious when wanting evidence of threat. Developer purchase is not a in itself a threat in its book.
We need to look to more strategic levels than just building by building. There is a debate to be had about the appropriateness of the 30-year rule—the point at which buildings are automatically considered for protection. Historic England guidance states that buildings
“are not normally considered to be of special architectural or historic interest because they have yet to stand the test of time.”
But technology and architectural fashion are moving so fast now that I do not think that rule still applies. We have seen a branch of Sainsbury’s in Greenwich demolished after only 17 years—demolished for a blue IKEA box—despite being shortlisted for a Stirling prize and being at the forefront of environmentally-friendly architecture. I would love to see Historic England revive its post-war steering group to look at post-1992 national lottery buildings and millennium-era buildings, of which we have a profusion. That was done in the Netherlands very successfully with its post-war reconstruction built environment. We can learn a lot from that.
As I have said, the cycle of architectural styles is accelerating, and that makes the 30-year rule less relevant. We saw post-modernism flourish in the early ’80s. Some of those buildings have been listed because they are exceptional. I think of John Outram’s Temple of Storms on the Isle of Dogs—a pumping station with a fantastic neo-Egyptian edifice.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I know that back home our historic buildings, whether listed locally or in our case provincially, are very important, but the issue for the developer or the owner of the building that is being listed is mostly one of finance. Does he feel that perhaps the financial assistance available through the Minister’s Department might enable those buildings to retain their historic importance?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Nothing would please me more than a pot of money to help save 20th-century buildings, but I fear that might not be forthcoming. My favourite building in Northern Ireland is Mussenden Temple. The biggest fear there is its collapsing into the sea, but that is not 20th century, so perhaps it lies outside this debate. However, he makes a perfectly fair point.
Portcullis House is a very good example. It is not listed, despite efforts to do so, because it is not under threat. However, there has been a gradual diminution of the original features. The central pool was meant to cool it—we can see how that is working today. Also, the benches on the sides are now crumbling at the corners. It needs a programme of repair, but because those original details have been altered, it will be less likely to be listed when the time comes. And I have not mentioned the row over Richmond House and the relocation of the House of Commons. We need a rolling programme of automatic assessment of a watch list drawn up by amenity societies, perhaps based upon Stirling prize nominees or another range of sources, or maybe even the self-nomination system in Australia for spot listing.
Historic England has done a number of good things, thematic listing being one of them, but not in insufficient depth or breadth to list all the good enough buildings. It has been seriously resource-constrained. None of that is to criticise Historic England. Thematic studies of the motor era and amusement parks have been of great value in expanding Blackpool’s list of listed buildings. But banks and department stores are all being affected by commercial change and the changes in our high streets in recent years. We could do a whole lot more for parks and gardens. I could hold an entire debate based on the Gardens Trust’s campaigning and helping safeguard Stanley park, a hidden jewel in Blackpool. That might be for my next heritage debate to drag the Minister to.
If the thematic programme is not expanded, we inevitably risk losses in the built environment. We have local listing, which I am sure the Minister will bring up, but that is also variable. There is often uncertainty about the status of local buildings. Inconsistencies can lower the protection they receive in different local authorities. I welcome the Government funding for 22 areas that will be encouraged to build up their local listings.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, and I thank him for securing this debate. He is getting on to the issue of variability between different local authorities. As he will know, I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for listed properties. Sandwich in my constituency, the best-preserved medieval town in the country, is in isolation. I find too often in my role as APPG chair that different authorities will look at the same project and come to different conclusions when people want to make renovations and repairs. Add to that the withdrawal of VAT relief on repairs, and owners of listed properties are in a tough situation. There are delays in local authorities and variability of decisions, and that needs to stop.
My hon. Friend is right and demonstrates a need for clarity for owners, potential purchasers and potential developers about what they are getting into, and the likely obstacles, risks and obligations that come with owning a listed property. I am sure the Minister has heard his comments
In Blackpool, we are fortunate to have a head of planning who started off as the local conservation officer, Carl Carrington. We have a new policy in Blackpool, which I think is the first in the country, whereby owners of locally listed buildings will need planning permission to demolish them even if they are not in a conservation area. That is important in a seat like mine, where we have some exceptional inter-war domestic housing on the sea front. That will not always be in a historic conservation zone, and runs the risk of being demolished.
I welcome the Government’s investment in heritage action zones, but I am concerned that, over time, they have been subsumed into the wider town centre pots of money that the Government are spending on levelling up, and the heritage element is being marginalised. We need to expand listing as part of building back better, coping with the changing high street and the retail environment. I query whether anything short of listing would do that protection job of enhancing new town centres such as Stevenage or Harlow, perhaps, while also reviving those town centres.
We still have too few conservation officers across local authorities. Blackpool is spoiled in that context, and we have seen the benefits of protecting our built historic environment. It all goes back to resources. That is why it needs to be part of levelling up. I know that survives as a concept and is the key to improving local protection.
Historic England did an excellent case study of how this can be made to work, in conjunction with the Twentieth Century Society. I am sure that the Minister knows all about it because it was all about Worcestershire. It was an unrepeated project that only Worcestershire has benefited from so far. Historic England said that buildings in the 20th century
“are regularly described as making a ‘detrimental or at best neutral contribution to an area’, and that even when a structure is recognised as making a positive contribution, ‘it doesn’t always benefit from the same level of research and analysis afforded to older areas’…Only a very small percentage of these assets meet the criteria for national designation. However, this everyday heritage illustrates wider social, cultural, economic, political and technological changes which were facilitated, amongst other things, by a transformation in England’s planning philosophy and culture, accompanied by the emergence of new building types, construction techniques and materials.”
That is a long quote, I know, but I just wanted to provide some examples from the Minister’s very own constituency of West Worcestershire. I am sure he knows only too well the magnificent main post office in Evesham, dating from 1960, by H L Williamson in a modern style. I am sure he talks about nothing more than the fact that Evesham was only the second town in the country to have trunk dialling when the 1935 telephone exchange opened. That has to be a topic of dinner-party conversation in Droitwich as well as Evesham. He will know from the agricultural sector in the Vale of Evesham that much soft fruit was taken to Beach’s jam factory in Evesham. That might not be an architecturally fantastic location, but it is part of local history and the architectural built environment of the Minister’s constituency.
I am sure my hon. Friend knows the small village of Hartlebury. He is nodding his head; good. The case study states:
“The fate of a recently-demolished Morgan garage raises questions over how 20th-century heritage should be better valued and conserved. Although surviving as a well-preserved example of an inter-war filling station, with its vernacular revival form and detail, changes to its overall footprint were considered to undermine the case for protection. There needs to be more emphasis placed on understanding how buildings such as this illustrate their historic value, and are valued by communities: this could have been secured through retention of the main range facing the road, whilst accepting the need for internal adaptation and further changes to the footprint of the remaining structure.”
Whether it is Hartlebury, Droitwich, Evesham or Blackpool, this really is all about pride in place, which is probably the successor phrase to levelling up. We can do much more to protect buildings across the country that are part of our communities, modern buildings from 1900 to the current day, which are changing how we see our communities and the pride we take in them.
If I had more time, there would be another 10-minute speech, but I have one final plea: can we please sign up to the UNESCO convention on intangible cultural heritage now? We are one of only 12 from a total of 193 countries not to do so. We have seen, for example, that we can no longer make cricket balls in this country. So the moment that someone says, “New balls, please,” they will not be British balls any more. To quote the Foreign Secretary, “That is a disgrace.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing this debate and for highlighting such an important issue. He spoke passionately about not only his own constituency but the heritage ecosystem. I am also particularly impressed that he spoke eloquently and passionately about my own constituency. He was right to highlight the issues and concerns.
I thank those who have participated in today’s debate, because we all care passionately about our nation’s heritage, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend has outlined. It is heartbreaking when parts of our history are wiped out because of ignorance or stupid decisions. I can assure him that I and the Department take our heritage responsibilities incredibly seriously, because we do not want to repeat the many mistakes of the past. However, we need to make sure that systems and processes are in place to minimise the chances of that happening, both at central and local government levels.
I recognise the rich heritage in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Blackpool North and Cleveleys. We spoke before the debate about how many sites are there and right next door. Blackpool is Britain’s favourite seaside resort for very good reasons and each year millions of visitors come to walk on its piers and beaches. The north pier, which is grade II listed and within the town conservation area, is just one of Blackpool’s iconic and much-loved structures. Many are listed, including the Winter Gardens and the Blackpool Tower, so my hon. Friend is right to be proud of the heritage in his constituency and nearby.
I start by setting out where we are on heritage protection, especially the process of listing buildings. My hon. Friend mentioned the strengths and some of the challenges and weaknesses. The listing process is a celebration of buildings of special architectural and historical interest. It plays a vital part in helping to safeguard the legacy of our built environment. Listing protects a diverse range of buildings in this country—nearly 380,000—from grand palaces to private houses. Any member of the public may apply for a building they consider to be potentially of special architectural or historic interest to be considered for listing. Applications come through Historic England, the Government’s heritage advisers, who assess the application and then make a recommendation to the Government. I note that my hon. Friend is very familiar with Historic England and has engaged with them in the past, as has the all-party parliamentary group for listed properties. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for his contributions as well.
The final decision on listing then goes to the Secretary of State, often via myself as heritage Minister—the junior Minister in the Department. On average we get 1,000 applications each year, many from local planning authorities, amenity societies—such as the Twentieth Century Society, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys is a member of—and individual members of the public. Most of the remainder originate from a strategic programme of listing properties from Historic England—it proactively tries to identify potential sites for listing.
All listing applications are considered; they are assessed in accordance with the polices set out in the Secretary of State’s “Principles of Selection for Listed Buildings”. If a building is deemed to satisfy those principles, it is listed and formally recognised as a heritage asset of national significance. The factors taken into account when assessing a building’s historical or architectural significance include its age, rarity and aesthetic appeal. It could also be considered significant due to its national interest. Thus it is the building itself, but also what happened in the building, that could be important. If there are relevant grounds for doing so, anyone can challenge a listing decision, requesting a review within 28 days of the decision’s being published.
I will respond directly to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys made about the 30-year rule. It is not as hard and fast a rule as it may appear. The reason why buildings less than 30 years old are not normally considered to be of special architectural or historic interest is because we usually expect listing to stand the test of time—a phrase that my hon. Friend used. It is not a hard-and-fast rule, and some buildings are listed despite being of relatively recent construction, although it is usually one of outstanding quality or particular historic interest. There is a degree of discretion here.
Once a building is listed, it is a criminal offence to demolish it or carry out works, alterations or extensions that affect the special architectural or historic interest without having first obtained listed building consent from the relevant local planning authority—usually the local council. The protections in place to determine changes to listed properties are robust; local planning authorities are obliged to have regard to policies on conservation or enhancement of the historic environment, set out in the national planning policy framework. It is important to recognise that listing does not prevent a building from changing use, nor does it protect the businesses, large or small, that may operate from such buildings. New users can sometimes help sustain historic buildings for the future. Indeed, many of our historic buildings have changed purpose over, in some cases, many centuries and that has enabled them to survive.
On enforcement powers, while the current protections are robust, they can always be strengthened. That is something I pay particular attention to. The debate is timely given that the Government are currently taking through Parliament the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which contains enhanced heritage protection measures. I will respond to the points made by my hon. Friend about that. There is a lot in the Bill, but I will give some highlights. The Bill will make it simpler for local planning authorities to step in and protect at-risk heritage assets through the use of new temporary stop notices for listed buildings. The Bill also strengthens urgent works powers, where urgent works notices can be served reasonably to a building that is in occupation. Previously, it was parts of the building not in use, as opposed to the whole building. The Bill includes the removal of compensation in relation to building preservation notices, which will encourage local authorities to serve those building preservation notices more effectively.
On interim protection, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, my Department already has a mechanism to step in where a building is deemed to be at risk. An emergency listing can happen at pace if the building is at risk of demolition or alteration. Building preservation notices can be served on such buildings for a period of up to six months to preserve them in their current state. Blanket interim protection for all buildings that are assessed for listing is an extreme measure, and we deem it to be an unbalanced approach for owners and developers. Providing interim protection for all buildings that are put forward for applications would potentially delay the planning system process, and we believe that our measures are a more balanced approach.
On the diversity of buildings on the list, many listed buildings are the result of strategic designation projects. In general, the list has grown organically over the years in response to individual applications—often in response to threats posed to particular buildings. Consequently, it is recognised that some types of buildings and some periods are better represented on the list than others.
With Historic England, we recognise that there may therefore be an under-representation of early 20th-century buildings, as my hon. Friend identified. Of course, an under-representation is to be expected, given that the 20th century ended only a short while back, and therefore the public tend to be divided on some of the buildings from that era. I can reassure him that many of the proposals that come across my desk tend to be more modern buildings, ranging from brutalist architecture, on which opinion is divided in this House and in the country, to Palladian mansions and so on. Most of the very historic buildings are already listed and have been for some time, and therefore it is not surprising that the bulk of the new listings that come across my desk are more modern, so I see quite a lot of the proposals.
My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet mentioned local listings. Locally important heritage buildings, of course, really do shape our sense of character and distinctiveness—the sense of place that they mentioned. Local planning authorities can formally identify such buildings through the compilation of local heritage lists, which, prepared with input from local communities, complement the national listing and can ensure that due regard is given to the conservation of buildings included on them in relevant planning decisions. The significance of locally listed buildings can be further highlighted through their inclusion in the relevant local historic environment records.
The Government are looking to place historic environment records on a statutory footing through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, and that will hopefully overcome some of the inconsistencies that my hon. Friends mentioned. They are right to mention the inconsistency of the resources and the attention paid to our historic buildings. I see that as I travel around the country, but generally I am very impressed by the attention that most local authorities pay to their heritage assets.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys for securing this important debate. As heritage Minister, I think it is right and important to highlight the Government’s policy for listing and protecting our most loved heritage assets across the country. I have taken on board the points raised by my hon. Friend and others, and I hope I have been able to provide some reassurance that the Government intend to strengthen heritage protection in the planning system through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend will support our efforts in doing so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), in his excellent speech, mentioned cricket ball manufacture. Does the Minister find it encouraging that the original cricket ball manufacturing factory in Penshurst for the Duke ball is, in fact, listed?
I am very pleased indeed that it is, and I am very pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned that in the final moments of the debate. I am also Sports Minister, and we could not have a debate without including some element of sport in the discussion.
I am certainly open to having a debate about intellectual assets. At the moment, we have some reservations about what can be included, because it is not clear how far it goes, but there is some merit in looking at such things. Our heritage assets are not just buildings; they also include the countryside. UNESCO listings are increasingly landscapes, not just old buildings and areas. As we progress this debate, options including intellectual property are worthy of discussion. I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
Cost of Living Crisis: Wales
Caroline Nokes in the Chair
Before we start the debate, I would like to say something about the exceptional heat. I am content for Members not to wear jackets or even ties in Westminster Hall. Mr Speaker has announced similar arrangements for the Chamber. When the House returns in the autumn, Mr Speaker and the Deputies will expect Members to revert to wearing jackets and will strongly encourage male Members to wear ties when speaking in the Chamber and Westminster Hall. I call Ruth Jones to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the impact of the cost of living crisis in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Ms Nokes. Thank you for the warning about the heat. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead the debate on behalf of the many families in Newport West who have written to me, called me and messaged me with their stories, experiences and fear for the months and years ahead.
I was elected to the House three years ago. In that relatively short time, despite the devastating pandemic and all the pain associated with it, until now I have never seen such worry and fear in the eyes of my constituents. I am so angry that they have been forced into that position by the actions of this 12-year-old Tory Government. Let me be clear: this is a cost of living crisis made in Downing Street. The biggest challenge facing us all is that we have a caretaker Prime Minister who is more focused on hosting parties than attending Cobra meetings, and more focused on holding power than using power. He is so evidently uninterested in ensuring that the people of Newport West, of Wales, and across the United Kingdom have the support they need and the good government they deserve.
I have shared this story before, but it speaks volumes to the challenge that the cost of living crisis has placed on people in Newport West. My constituent says this:
“Thank you for responding to my e-mail Ruth Jones, these are my concerns. We are in a position right now where we’re not coping. Our energy bills have risen 54% and I am afraid that myself and many others will not be able to provide for our families. My husband’s parents are on a state pension of £82.45 a week, we are concerned for their welfare as they cannot afford to heat their home nor pay for food if these energy prices continue. Many of my friends are concerned for their own families too, we are all struggling, and instead of living, we’re surviving day to day. If these prices don’t change, we must have an increase in the minimum wage.”
That is just one example of the constituents’ emails that I get every day.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She is making an excellent speech. I am going to hold cost of living crisis workshops throughout Cardiff North, such is the scale of worry and concern from constituents writing to me time and again. Does she agree that this is because of the inaction and complacency of this Government, who have failed to deal with the crisis?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The workshops sound an excellent idea. People are desperate and need such ideas. She is quite right that the obvious inactivity of the Government is the problem. This debate today is not about party politics or short-term political gain; it is about people’s lives. It is about housing, food, and the ability to have the fan on and be able to pay the bill. It is about survival.
Another Newport West resident wrote to me:
“I have one daughter, 12 years old. I am in full time employment and on benefits. I have cancer. Even before the surge in energy prices many people like me have been struggling to afford the essentials. The cost of weekly food shopping has risen, so has the cost of energy. My rent also increased recently. I have had to make cut backs on most things.”
Like colleagues across Wales, and indeed the House, I came into politics to make Newport West, Wales and our United Kingdom a better, fairer and more equal place to live, learn and work, and that remains my single focus. I hope today to give Ministers the chance to tell us how they can help us make life better for the people of Wales, but I am afraid that the response from Conservatives in Westminster and in Cardiff Bay to their cost of living crisis has been nothing short of insulting. They are out of touch, out of ideas and now out of time.
We cannot wait another day to act, because local people are worried about paying their bills and looking after their families, and have no basic survival abilities. At the same time, Ministers seem to be seriously suggesting that the answers to the challenges facing local people are dodgy loans and Tesco value products. The only conclusion I can draw from those suggestions is that the Conservatives are living on another planet. Although we are pleased to see the back of the caretaker Prime Minister, the current contest for the leadership of the Tory party means that we have no real Government in power. No decisions are being taken and there is no ambition for the people of Wales. There is no commitment to addressing their needs and no plan to get our country out of this mess.
That inaction stands in stark contrast to the decent and pragmatic leadership of the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford. The Welsh Labour Government are not just on the side of the people of Wales; they spend every day doing what they can to mitigate the impact of the Tory cost of living crisis. They have taken a number of steps, which I am sure other hon. Members will mention. In addition to those things, free prescriptions continue to help people across Wales to keep more of their hard-earned money. I note that prescriptions in England under this Conservative Government are currently £9.35 per item.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising prescriptions. Does she agree that, had the UK Government delivered on their pledge last year to introduce hormone replacement therapy for one annual payment, women in England would not face the pressure of choosing between feeding their children and paying for their HRT prescription?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Prescriptions, medicines and HRT are so important to people—[Interruption.] Absolutely, they are free in Wales.
The average band D council tax bill in England is £167 more than in Wales. Even with the UK Government’s recently announced council tax rebate, households in Wales still pay £17 less than in England, which shows that people are better off with Labour.
People being better off with Labour is further exemplified by the Welsh Government’s £244 million council tax reduction scheme, which helps more than 270,000 households with their council tax bills. Although the crisis is real, the Welsh Labour Government are stepping in and stepping up. That helps people in Marshfield, Rogerstone, Pill, Caerleon and right across Wales.
The crisis of food poverty is continuing to grow across the United Kingdom, which is why the Welsh Labour Government committed to provide free school meals to all primary school pupils. An extra 196,000 primary school children benefit from that offer, which shows how the impact of the Tory cost of living crisis can be mitigated by Labour in power. The Welsh Labour Government announced in December 2020 that free school meals would be provided through the holidays to children in Wales through to Autumn 2022, and the First Minister committed to further widen access to free school meals overall. This Tory Government have had to be forced, shamefully and repeatedly, into U-turns by Marcus Rashford’s campaigning and the votes of Her Majesty’s Opposition in Parliament.
As I have said in the House before, the people of Newport West are looking for help. The caretaker Government have no plan to help people with heating their homes, filling their cars with petrol or feeding their families. Last year, I spoke in this House about the 9,000 families in Newport West who had their universal credit cut, and since then I have seen for myself the devastating impact that decision had on families in Newport West and across Wales.
It is not just universal credit: older people and pensioners are at the sharp end of the Tory cost of living crisis, and they urgently need the Government to act. Pensioners spend twice as much on their energy bills as those under 30, and face spiralling inflation, with the prices of petrol, food and energy all soaring. Let us not forget that almost one in five pensioners now lives in poverty.
Our young people are facing the fierce winds of this crisis, with low wages, rising rent and the cost of living going through the roof. My constituent Bobbie said this:
“Hi, Ruth Jones. I would just like to ask a question, see if you can help. I work 2 jobs most weeks between 50 and 60 hours per week just to live. I get paid minimum wages for both jobs. My current outgoings are £1,200, and there is not much left when I pay the petrol, the electricity and done my food shopping. Where is the help for people like me?”
Bobbie is right. Where is the help for people like her?
I pay tribute to some of Britain’s largest charities, including Oxfam, Save the Children and Fuel Poverty Action, which have formed a new campaign coalition—Warm This Winter. The coalition is calling on the Government and all those who seek to lead the Government to support plans to prevent a catastrophic winter energy crisis. Although we currently face record high temperatures, in just a few months families will be struggling again to heat their homes. Let us not forget that all this shows how much the impacts of the climate emergency can affect all parts of our lives.
Rather than help those in need, what are the Conservatives doing? They have whacked up national insurance payments at the worst possible time, hitting working people hard. And let us not forget how Welsh Conservative MPs have used their place and their votes in this House: they voted to cut the £20 universal credit uplift; they voted against free school meals for children during school holidays; they voted for the increase in national insurance contributions; and they voted against a windfall tax. I suspect that the people across Wales, from Delyn to Clwyd South and from the Vale of Glamorgan to Bridgend, will be very clear about their views, needs and wants come the general election that our country desperately needs.
We live in difficult times, but for all the global forces facing us and the world around us, ultimately we need our Government to act, and to act now, because the cost of living crisis is costing livelihoods, costing lives, and costing businesses in Wales and across the UK. Enough is enough—we cannot waste any more time. My message to the people of Wales is simple: help is on the way with a Labour Government, and the sooner the better for all of us.
I will focus today on the structural issues that face Wales, and ask what the UK Government do for Wales in policy terms. I very much believe in being part of the United Kingdom—I believe that together we are stronger—but we can use that power in ways that can be influential and really benefit every single person.
In the last 12 years, we have seen a massive growth in inequality in this country. We have seen the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; we see that in the millionaire lists and in the people turning up at food banks. So what do we need? We need a tax policy that is redistributive, whereby those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden. What have the Government done? Well, they have put in some immediate support for the time being, but it is a stop-gap; it is not changing the system or the way we redistribute our money. They did that because Labour said, “Look, come on, you need to have a windfall tax. You need to get that money and redistribute it from the oil and gas companies, and make sure it goes into the pockets of people who are facing those enormous bills.”
Let us look at some of the taxation policies that we have had from this Government. There has been the raising of the threshold at which people pay income tax. In principle, that sounds a very good thing, but it is not the most effective way of using that money, because everybody benefits, up the whole scale; it wastes quite a lot of money on people at the top of the scale. By contrast, if we put in targeted support at the bottom, as tax credits were designed to do, we can get a lot more value for our money through redistribution and achieving equality.
What about VAT? One of the things we suggested could have been done this year was taking VAT off energy bills. Back in 2008, Labour reduced VAT from 17.5% to 15%, but now it is obviously up at 20%. VAT is also a very regressive tax, because everyone pays it; it is not a way to redistribute wealth.
Let me turn to the national income insurance hike, which hit people who are working, but did not tax unearned income . Again, that is not a helpful way of taxing people. That is not to say that we do not need money; of course we need money for the health service and the care service, but the way we raise it matters. Our cost of living crisis goes back to some of those fundamentals.
I will move on now to the Department for Work and Pensions. We all know that the transition to universal credit has produced all sorts of anomalies and difficulties. The five-week wait has put families into debt. We are not against the idea of reform or of trying to simplify the benefits system, but I wish this Government would get away from demonising people who have to claim benefits.
Who benefits from the DWP? Well, pensioners take the bulk of the money from the DWP. Then, of course, there are people who are working—lots of people have to rely on top-ups, even though they are working—so they are not in any way to be demonised. Then there are genuinely disabled people, and then there are people who have to claim money to help with their housing costs. Why are we in that situation? It is because we have got rid of so much social housing at low rents, so we now find that lots of public money goes straight into the pockets of landlords. Those eyewatering figures do not go to the people who have to make the claims; they go to the landlords. Until the Government get a grip and have a massive housebuilding programme, we are obviously going to be wasting money in that way and leaving families in often unsuitable accommodation. We need to sort out what is being done with benefits and the tax system.
Let me move on to what has gone on over the last 12 years with public sector pay. If we squeeze and squeeze, is it any wonder that we now have a crisis when inflation suddenly picks up but wages have been on hold for years? We have an incoherent policy; the former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) threw out a figure of 7%, but the minute he became Chancellor he changed his mind. We cannot have a half-baked system. We have to talk in the round about having a proper public sector pay policy. The problems have been stacking up; they have not suddenly arisen. This Government have not handled the economy or the redistribution of wealth well.
I turn to my favourite topic: energy policy. If we had invested in all the renewables that we should have done over the last 12 years, we would not be so dependent on imported oil and gas. What is this nonsense where, yet again, in the energy security strategy for 2022, the Government are pussyfooting around when it comes to wind farms in England? Luckily, we have a sensible policy in Wales.
It was disappointing to hear the Minster, at the Welsh Affairs Committee, not fully understand the implications of the National Grid situation. I hope he now understands the need for massive investment right across Wales, and between Wales and England, so that we can benefit from being the United Kingdom and all share our energy pools. We really need a strategy for energy and investment, on a wholescale basis, and not leave it to a private company to see whether they fancy it or not. We need a strategy that supports innovation, such as we have seen in the tidal lagoon, which is now being supported by Labour-run Swansea City Council, rather than having had help from the UK Government.
I will finish with a point about dealing with rural areas. As we know, rural areas have particular difficulties in that they have a limited choice of fuel that they can use to heat their homes. Many are dependent on oil, for example, and have seen prices rocket, with no help available. Then there are the massive mileage costs that people in rural areas clock up when they have to go to the shops or to work, or to take the children somewhere; and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) asked whether there could be some support to help people in those areas through sensible, centrally thought-through policies that could redistribute and help areas with massive inequalities.
On that note, I will leave other colleagues to tell the terrible and heartbreaking stories that we have all heard recently. I ask the Minister: when he is thinking about which candidate he supports in the Conservative leadership contest, will he put to them the questions of how we change the structure to have an equal and fairer society?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing this important debate. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith), who made several important points regarding the situation we find ourselves in, most notably that it is the product of several failings over many years. I thank her for referencing some of the issues that rural communities face with the fuel and energy crises. That is something that I will focus on in my speech.
We have had a few opportunities in recent months to debate the impact of the rising cost of living on households and our communities. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Newport West for securing this debate, because it allows us to focus on the impact it is having in Wales. As has already been mentioned, the April increase of 54% to the price cap has already caused a lot of concern and misery for households across Wales. I note that, as we debate today, there is speculation that the cap might rise again, in a few months’ time, to more than £3,000, with further increases expected when it is reviewed in January next year. That coincides, of course, with inflation soaring to a 30-year high and the UK facing the biggest fall in living standards since records began.
It is sobering to reflect on the fact that, following the April price cap review, the Welsh Government found that some 45% of households in Wales would fall into real fuel poverty. I shudder to think what the situation will be this autumn, when there will be increases in both the price cap and the demand for fuel to heat the winter months.
It is worth repeating a few of the statistics, just to give the background to the severity of the crisis. Domestic gas prices increased by 95% between May 2021 and May 2022, while domestic electricity prices, as we have already heard, rose by some 54%. In nominal terms, last April’s price cap increased the maximum for average bills from £1,277 a year to £1,971. Just last May, the chief executive of Ofgem said that he expected the price cap to rise by a further 40% in the autumn, to around £2,800. Perhaps demonstrating just how volatile and unpredictable the situation is, analysts now suggest that, rather than £2,800, the autumn price cap increase will actually surpass £3,000. If that happens, the price cap will have more than doubled in the last two years. That is why I think it is important that we discuss the sufficiency of the Government’s measures to date.
As the hon. Member for Llanelli mentioned, in so far as the price cap offers any solace to households, it is only for those connected to the mains gas grid. Sadly, some 72% of properties in my constituency of Ceredigion are not connected to the mains gas grid. We have the unenviable accolade of being the UK constituency that is most dependent on domestic heating oil. As has already been mentioned, the prices for off-grid heating oil and gas are not regulated by Ofgem, so they have increased to astronomical levels. Indeed, average heating oil prices increased by 150% in the past year and by some 250% over the past two years.
Without wanting to labour the point, rural households have particular challenges when it comes to heating their homes. Some are structural, and one of the things that I would like the Government to address before this autumn is standing charges. Wales is particularly badly served by typical standing charges. In April 2022, the daily cap rose by 94% in south Wales—the figure in north Wales was 102%—to a daily rate of 46p. Since April, daily rates for my constituents in Ceredigion are on average about 50% higher than those levied in London. It does not matter how much they use. and it does not matter if they save—that is the daily standing rate.
That is a particular challenge when we consider that most of the housing stock in my constituency performs very badly when it comes to energy performance certificates. Indeed, some 36% of homes in Ceredigion reach an EPC rating of C or above. It is perhaps not surprising that we do so badly when we consider that 35% of our homes were constructed in the 19th century. It is staggering that the vast majority of the housing stock that will exist in 2050 has already been built, and over a third of it was built in the Victorian age.
The reason that I draw attention to that is that, when we talk about energy efficiency measures, off-grid homes and old homes are particularly difficult to bring up to standard. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has estimated that 20% of off-gas grid homes are technically unsuitable for low-temperature heat pumps, one of the major policies of this Government.
Furthermore, the heat and buildings strategy assessment has suggested that the average cost to retrofit an off-gas grid home is around £12,000. However, if we include insulation, which we really need to do, that adds a further £2,000. That is the average figure quoted in the heat and buildings strategy, but a lot of analysts suggest that for certain rural off-grid homes, the cost could be a lot higher. Yet the Government are not providing those homes with enough support or important interventions to help make them more energy efficient. Furthermore, typically—not always, but typically—a lot of off-grid homes are in rural areas, which tend to have lower salaries. That is certainly the case in Ceredigion. We are, therefore, hit with many different challenges that we cannot overcome without Government support.
To summarise the challenges faced by my constituents and the severity of the situation, many have contacted me in recent weeks to say how they are taking extraordinary measures to try to keep their energy bills down. I have been told of people turning the boiler off so that they can save a little bit on that, having cold showers, turning their freezers off and saving on electricity by avoiding meals that need to be cooked in the oven. I do not need to point out to hon. Members that that will result in them making more use of microwaves, with the knock-on impact of typically less healthy meals. The most striking example was of a family telling me that they had bought solar-powered garden lights so that they can use them for indoor lighting in the evening, such was their concern about the electricity bill.
It is not just households that are being affected by the cost of living. I know of businesses and community organisations that are struggling, including to keep swimming lessons going in the community swimming pool. One hospitality business has quoted that energy bills have gone up by 450% in the last 18 months. Sadly, it is having to consider difficult decisions about whether it can continue to operate and stay in business.
I want to finish by referring to another problem we are facing in Wales and in rural Wales: the cost of fuel. We know that Wales is the most car-dependent nation of the UK, with some 83% of journeys being taken by private car as opposed to other means of transport. I would very much like it if, in the near future, the public transport infrastructure in Wales and in Ceredigion was such that we did not have to depend on the car. However, at the moment, many of my constituents simply do not have the choice. I want to put this point on record: we are not saying, as is sometimes suggested by colleagues elsewhere in the UK—though not in Wales, I should add—that car journeys are somehow a luxury. That is not the case. These are car journeys to go to work and to access services and healthcare. They are unavoidable journeys, and due to a lack of alternative options they are very vulnerable to the price increases in petrol and diesel.
I draw attention to one of the impacts that that has on public services. While this can be true across Wales, carers and district nurses in rural areas have explained to me that they will typically drive anything between 400 and 600 miles a week just to care for the residents on their rota, yet they are still having to pay astronomical prices at the pumps. I had a conversation with the previous Exchequer Secretary, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), about the possibility of extending the rural fuel duty relief scheme to parts of Wales. Areas such as Ceredigion satisfy all the criteria, barring the fact that we fall within a hundred miles of a refinery. As the Competition and Markets Authority review found a few weeks ago, there is no real link between higher fuel prices at the pumps and proximity to the refinery. Actually, the major drivers are to do with competition, the volume of sales and the models of garages locally. We need to look at extending the rural fuel duty relief scheme to areas such as Ceredigion so that, if nothing else, we have a bit of consistency and there is not a situation where there is a 4p or 5p difference between prices in Aberystwyth and those in Cardigan to the south. That is a cause of considerable frustration.
What about some solutions? We have already heard about the Government’s £400 payment to households. Is that still sufficient, given the changes to the onward forecast for the energy price cap? I have some particular questions for the Minister, and I will be grateful if he addresses them in his summing up. We are still unsure whether the £400 energy rebate will apply to those living in park homes or on farms without a domestic electricity contract. I know that the Government are looking at that, but I impress on them the urgent need for clarity.
On short-term measures—I will not go into the long term—I think we need to look again at restoring the £20 uplift to universal credit, removing the two-child limit and increasing social security in line with more recent inflation figures, all of which are recommendations made by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in a recent report. I would also like the Government to increase the eligibility of those who can claim carer’s allowance better to reflect the true number of people providing vital care. Also, perhaps most boldly, if as has been reported the energy price cap exceeds £3,000, the Government need to consider whether they ought to intervene more directly to limit price rises, as other Governments in Europe have done. I have to say, in closing, that constituents across Ceredigion simply cannot afford any further dithering or delay.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing the debate, and it is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake).
It is also wonderful to see so many Welsh Labour colleagues present for this important debate. That is a testament to the proud and long history that Labour has and will continue to have in the Senedd and among the Welsh electorate more widely. I note that a considerable number of Welsh Conservatives are absent this afternoon—I cannot possibly think what is distracting them at the moment.
The shambolic Tory leadership might be a priority for some, but I remain focused on the issues that keep coming up when I speak to constituents across Pontypridd and Taff Ely. The single issue impacting people the most is without doubt the cost of living crisis, which is putting working families on the brink. The crisis is hitting every single corner of the UK, but it is right to have a debate about Wales specifically.
In this place, we often talk about the north-south divide in England, but the complex situation across Wales is all too often forgotten in that narrative. Recent research by the Centre for Cities think-tank shows that regions in Wales are among the hardest hit by the cost of living crisis across all the devolved nations. Research by the University of Bristol suggests that 22% of Welsh households are in severe financial difficulty, meaning that they are forced to do things like buy lower-quality food, shower less and even sell their belongings just to make ends meet.
In my constituency of Pontypridd and Taff Ely, the local Trussell Trust food bank in Treforest has had to extend its opening hours simply to deal with the swelling demand for its services. Only last week, Wales Online reported that some food banks in Wales are on the brink of running out of food. Demand is sky-rocketing, but the generous donations that food banks depend on to function are drying up, because people can no longer afford to donate and are themselves feeling the pinch. The teams running the food banks do incredible work in extremely difficult circumstances, but it does not have to be this way, and it should not be this way.
The reality is that without proper, long-term investment from Westminster, people in Wales will continue to be impacted. I know some Members will disagree with my assessment and will be keen to point out that any support failure is that of the Welsh Government, but I must be frank. I speak on behalf of residents in my area when I say that this UK Government have never taken their responsibility to Wales seriously. It is the UK Government’s failure to recognise that wage stagnation and ineffective social security have now led to poverty and destitution, and that could have been avoided.
According to the End Child Poverty coalition, in Pontypridd and Taff Ely a staggering 31.3% of children were below the poverty line in 2020-21. That is almost a third of all the children in my area. It is a sharp statistic and one that all of us in modern-day Britain should be embarrassed by. However, let us be clear: with food banks running dry and the Welsh Government doing everything they can, without immediate action by the UK Government, living standards across the country will continue to fall.
In Wales, local and regional bodies have done everything to address the crisis. The Welsh Labour Government and my Labour-led council in Rhondda Cynon Taf must be commended for their work to relieve the pressures on households. The Welsh Government have committed more than £380 million to address the immediate and severe impacts of the cost of living crisis on low-income households in Wales. From the winter fuel support scheme to income relief for those on council tax bands A to C, Welsh Labour has worked tirelessly to fill the vacuum of support caused by UK Government inaction.
Will the hon. Lady say where the Welsh Government got the money from for those schemes?
It is not for Wales to come cap in hand to a Government in Westminster for what is rightly ours. We pay tax in Wales too and we are meant to be part of this United Kingdom. This is our money—we are not begging or asking for it. People in my constituency and across Wales are entitled to this money to help themselves. If the Minister will allow me, I will come on to the fact that in the recent uplift by the previous Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), people in Wales got the equivalent of £9 a head, which is shocking and is nowhere near the amount of money that they need to survive the cost of living crisis.
We have done everything we can to empower local authorities such as mine to mobilise resources at a local level. The Welsh Government have held two cost of living summits attended by Welsh Government Ministers and key stakeholders from across Wales. Those events allowed grassroots organisations to directly inform the Welsh Government about the impact that the crisis is having on communities. In turn, they allowed the Welsh Government to target support at those most in need. I pay tribute to all involved in those summits for their incredible efforts to help the people of Wales.
Let us be clear that those measures pale in comparison with what the UK Tory Government have the economic firepower to achieve if only there was the political will. In Westminster, the Tories are completely asleep at the wheel. While the leadership contest continues to take centre stage, everyday working people and families will continue to struggle. Good governance starts at the top, which is why I am genuinely proud of the work that Mark Drakeford and the team in Wales are doing, despite the situation in Westminster.
Ultimately, people in Wales, including me, are tired of false promises. As we all know, the UK Government are the absolute kingmakers of gaslighting and U-turns. I cast hon. Members’ minds back to the spring statement, which I mentioned. The then Chancellor briefed the press that he was set to announce bold measures to support people through the cost of living crisis. He promised an increase in Welsh Government funding of just £27 million over the next year, which, as I stated, amounts to £9 a person in Wales.
It should shame the UK Government to treat us in Wales with such contempt. They try to palm off responsibility to the devolved Administrations, but refuse to properly fund their efforts. The Welsh Government have moved heaven and earth to mobilise their considerably limited resources, yet the Tories in Westminster refuse to act. It took relentless pressure from Labour for the UK Tory Government to eventually—reluctantly—endorse a windfall tax on North sea oil and gas, or, as the then Chancellor insisted we call it, because he cannot even admit that it was Labour’s idea, the energy profits levy. But they should have implemented it months ago and, for many, the support that the windfall tax will fund will simply be too little, too late.
The Welsh Government have announced that the Welsh fuel support scheme will return this winter to help those in need by providing a one-off £200 payment for their bills. That will bring significant relief to tens of thousands of Welsh residents, and I welcome the commitment of the Minister for Social Justice last week to support people who will struggle this winter. Without UK Government support, however, that will still not be enough.
When I wrote this speech, four candidates remained in the Tory leadership contest; now we have three. To the best of my knowledge, Wales has not been mentioned once—not by a single one of them. It is clear that whoever wins the leadership will continue to forget about Wales and that, sadly, it will be a case of business as usual.
Despite the Welsh Government’s limited resources, their actions show that Labour will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the country’s most vulnerable. The cost of living crisis is not going away in Wales or across the UK, so I implore the Government to do the right thing, to take responsibility, to see the crisis for what it is and to act today to reach solutions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing the debate. The people of Cynon Valley, Wales and the United Kingdom are suffering a cost of living emergency—it is not a crisis; it is an emergency. In April, in response to the crisis, I conducted a survey among local people in my constituency, and its results were truly harrowing—that is not too strong a word.
I will take a moment to focus on those results, because this is about millions of real people’s lives. I have sent a photocopy of the report that was produced to the Secretary of State; I am still waiting for a response, which I hope will be forthcoming. In excess of 650 local people responded within four or five days—an unprecedented number—which shows the severity of the crisis in Cynon Valley. Unfortunately, I am sure that is reflected across the UK.
Some 76% of people reported having to cut down on using heating in the last year and some 90% reported feeling worse off than this time last year. In Cynon, 81% of people reported that the cost of living crisis is impacting on their mental health, 78% are worried about paying the bills in the next 12 months, 61% of those on benefits have had to skip meals in the last 12 months and over half have had to borrow money in the last year. We also asked questions about the next 12 months, which were even bleaker in terms of the impact that the cost of living crisis is likely to have.
As I said at the outset, this is about real people and I want to quote what a couple of my constituents said:
“Both my wife and I work full time and don’t feel any better off. Most schemes are aimed at people who are on benefits, which I understand, but people need help who work.”
There is a massive problem with in-work poverty in this country. Another person said:
“It was already bad before the energy prices increased. Life genuinely does not feel worth living any more. I feel guilty for bringing my children into this awful mess of a world.”
That is the reality for millions of people.
This is a political choice, and it is a political choice caused by successive Conservative Governments. It is bringing misery, anxiety and despair to millions of people. We are the fifth richest nation in the world; this is not inevitable. It is a political choice.
It is not simply because of the pandemic or inflation, although that has made matters worse. For 12 years, we have seen and experienced austerity measures in this country and the Tories have overseen a reduction in wages, including holding down public sector pay for key workers. I have just come off a call with a number of trade unions and other organisations, and the National Education Union was saying that since 2010 there have been 20% to 25% real-terms cuts in their members’ pay because of the continuous pay freeze. It is not just about the cuts at the moment, but about the cuts over the longer term.
I shall go on to talk about the solution, but in Wales, despite insufficient funding from the UK Government and an inadequate devolution settlement, the Welsh Government are doing as much as they possibly can within the constraints placed on them. They have invested more than double what they received in consequential funding, to support households with the cost of living crisis, including through a £51 million household support fund announced in December 2021 and a further £330 million cost of living package of support announced in February 2022, which goes beyond, over and above what the UK Government have offered. Carers’ pay has increased to a real living wage, basic income has increased and free school meals have been extended to all primary school pupils. That is in spite of the constraints placed upon them.
As I said, this is a political choice and unfortunately—tragically, actually, for millions of people—the Tories will not listen. They are the architects of low income. They have allowed poverty to become normalised in this country, and we need urgent, immediate action to better distribute the wealth in this country. We have got to change the balance of power from the few, in whose hands it is at the moment, to the many. We have got to tackle and address the horrendous inequality that I witness, and I am sure many others in the Chamber witness, on a daily basis. That would mean emergency measures to prevent wasteful profiteering and dividend payments from essential services. We should jumpstart the windfall tax and ban dividend payments in the public transport and in energy sectors while people are suffering.
The report also contains a number of key recommendations the UK Government need to take. I have consistently argued for an increase in social security benefits. They should have been increased in April, in line with inflation as it currently stands. The £20 uplift to universal credit should be reinstated, as the Welsh Affairs Committee has proposed, and should be extended to legacy benefits. The two-child limit also needs to be addressed, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) mentioned. Despite the triple lock, pensioners are suffering inexorably from the cost of living crisis. I am continuing to campaign for ex-miners in my constituency, and supporting the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign.
We must overturn over a decade of underinvestment through austerity, and end the rip-off of privatisation. I am an advocate of bringing utilities back into public ownership. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion suggested, we should look at what France has done in terms of limiting the increase in the energy cap. We could be doing the same in this country. As well as a windfall tax, we could and should introduce a wealth tax, which could raise in excess of £260 billion a year. The money is here in this country, but it is not evenly distributed. Those are not radical policies; they are about meeting people’s basic needs. Everybody should have enough money to eat, to heat their home, to clothe their children, and to buy pens for their children to take to school—as the NEU representative mentioned, there was no spare money for people to buy pens and rulers for their children to use to learn in school. What kind of a society are we creating? It is extremely distressing. We should have a right to food, and everybody should have access to affordable and decent housing.
I also support the trade union demand—I asked a question on this in the Health and Social Care questions this morning—for an inflation-proof increase in public sector pay. I fully support the actions being taken by the trade unions at the moment. They have been forced to go on strike. It is not a choice; nobody wants to go on strike. They have no alternative. I urge the Government to ensure that proper negotiations take place and that public sector workers, who sacrificed so much during the pandemic, and who continue to sacrifice so much, get a decent, inflation-proof pay award. Pay rises are not simply gifted. Unfortunately, they are having to be fought for. They should not have to be fought for; they should be an entitlement for people.
I will briefly mention the deductions from social security benefits, which drive huge amounts of poverty. There are 5,000 universal credit claimants in Cynon Valley who experienced a reduction in their benefits. That is unacceptable, and has an impact on people’s ability to provide the basics for their households.
We are experiencing unprecedented times. As I have just said, we do not have to be in this situation. Please listen. Please act to stop the extreme levels of poverty and inequality that exist. There is an alternative. I will continue to work alongside colleagues in the trade unions, and in our communities, to organise, mobilise and fight for change. It is such a shame that we have to be doing that. We should all be sitting down around the table. There are solutions that easily resolve the problems. Please sit around the table with us, so that everybody can have those basic human rights. Diolch yn fawr.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), who emphasised the depth of inequality, despair and impoverishment in her constituency and across Wales due to the cost of living crisis and a long history of cuts that we have seen disproportionately in Wales.
We are talking about Wales, and it is worth remembering that Wales is poorer, sicker and older. That was already the case before the austerity cuts began to bite from 2010 onwards. Let us put this in context. Austerity cut public services and welfare, and Wales is disproportionately reliant on public service jobs, has more older people on welfare and all the rest of it. That was the starting point. We know, from a University of York study that was published by The BMJ, that something like 50,000 extra people across the UK died from austerity.
Then, of course, we had covid. Again, we had the background of a poorer, sicker and older nation, where we would have expected, therefore, a much higher death rate. In fact, the death rate above the five-year average was something like 13% in Wales and 20% in England, but of course the average was much higher to start with because we had a poorer and sicker nation. The lower death rate was through the good governance of Mark Drakeford and his Welsh Government.
We are now coming to a situation after having had those massive cuts. Let us face it: in Wales, we are operating at 70% of gross value added, so average wages are about 70% of the UK average. We are having cuts and pay freezes in a very difficult situation, so people are suffering more. We have had Brexit. I know that the Minister is a big fan of Brexit, but 60% of Welsh trade was with Europe. In England, it is more like 48%. The problems that we have had, including problems with the Northern Ireland protocol, are again disproportionately hitting Wales.
Take a typical example of a public sector worker, for instance a nurse who is the only breadwinner in a house in the valleys, or wherever it is. If there are pay freezes on public sector workers, that house is impoverished. We have all heard the sorts of cases that were just mentioned: children who hold back half their free school meal to eat in the evening, because they do not have any food at home; children washing their hair with washing-up liquid; people not having the lights on, and so on. We know from the Trussell Trust that there are now 14 million people in poverty. There are, I think, 2.6 million people using food banks in the UK—up a hundredfold—and the majority of people who use food banks have some level of disability.
There is a pressing case for the Government to act now, whether through indexing social security or the universal credit uplift. There is also a pressing case for doing something about rent, which is not talked about very much. We talk about energy and food, but the local housing allowance has not been indexed. For example, studies by the Bevan Foundation show that, in an online search of private rented accommodation in Wales, only about 1% fits in with the local housing allowance. People are therefore driven into squalid, Rachmanite living conditions—another terrible fact.
In his intervention, the Minister implied, “Whose money is this, anyway?” I suggest that not only have the cuts disproportionately hit Wales but, as he knows from our meeting last week with Professor Mark Barry, there has been a historical lack of investment in Wales—of getting our fair share to boost productivity, jobs and wealth, so that we can pay our way. Over the last couple of decades, rail enhancement investment has operated at about 1.5% of the UK total, and we have 5% of the population and 11% of the rail track. Looking forward, instead of at the historical legacy, if we take 2020 as the baseline, Wales is being promised £0.5 billion out of an England promise of £106 billion, including High Speed 2, which is outrageous. HS2 is north-south. It will help Scotland much more than Wales, yet Scotland is getting its fair Barnett consequential. If we got it—90% of the 5% population—it would be £4.6 billion.
The Minister knows from that meeting that there are plans on the drawing board for about £2 billion to £3 billion. That is about half the amount that we deserve—from now on, I suppose, the legacy—and could make a big difference in moving us towards net zero, in productivity, in speed and in getting people to relocate. The truth is that once HS2 starts running, we will be able to get from London to Manchester in one hour and 10 minutes instead of two hours and 10 minutes, but it will still take nearly three hours to get to Swansea, so where will companies put their investment? In the case of Virgin, the answer is to take it out of Swansea and put it into Manchester. If we want to go to Staffordshire, it will take 45 minutes instead of one hour and 45 minutes, so on top of the historical inequalities I have mentioned, that will hammer Wales again.
The Minister asks, “Who will pay?” The way to pay is to invest in the productivity and future of Wales through moving towards a green future. We have talked about the windfall tax. Let us be straightforward: the big five oil companies have made excess profits of $2 trillion in the past few decades. They were making those operating profits above costs, and then Putin invades Ukraine and we have a price hike. They have done nothing to earn that windfall profit. It is our money, which was paid out of the pockets of the travelling public, and it should be given back.
In Spain, the people are getting free public transport; in Germany, it is €9 for a month. If we did that with the windfall tax, everyone could go to work for cheaper. We could get investment in green public transportation much more quickly, such as hydrogen and electric, and do something innovative. We could provide the background for pay settlements, such as the rail disputes. Instead of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers being told, “You can have 3% and 10,000 job cuts; what are you going to do about it?”—and, as we would expect, a strike is provoked—we could encourage everyone to go on public transport so that we do not need cuts in jobs. There might be a change to jobs, but there would be no cuts, and with more investment, we would not have to ask for so much. We can all agree to that.
I know that, yes. It is not the Welsh Government’s decision: we do not have the money to do that, and it is not devolved. The Exchequer runs UK plc; we all know that. We do not charge the windfall tax. The Welsh Government are not in a position to introduce a windfall tax or nationalise the oil companies, sadly, although they have done something about rail.
I am not talking about raising taxes; I am talking about taking back the money that has been stolen from the travelling public by oil companies. They did nothing to earn that money: it was simply that Putin invaded Ukraine, and they said, “We’ll put the price up, take the money and fill our pockets.” The Government belatedly took a small share of that money, and now they are going to give 90% of it back to drill for more oil, when what they should be doing is investing in scaling up things like organic batteries. Swansea University has identified that the renewable energy from wind farms is only put into the grid at breakfast time and teatime, and is saying, “Let’s use that wind, create hydrogen, and put that hydrogen in the gas grid”—which takes up to 40% of hydrogen, as used to be the case for coal gas. That would reduce the carbon footprint.
It is permissible on a Wales-only basis, and that is what Swansea University suggests we do. Obviously, we would have to work in co-operation with the UK Government to do that, but the idea would be to put that gas into the grid, or put the hydrogen into cylinders and send it to Ceredigion in place of the oil, so that people in rural environments would have a lower carbon footprint and a lower energy bill.
Whether it is those innovations or whether it is the tidal lagoon, there is no shortage of ideas; what there is a shortage of is Government focus on greening the economy and powering us up in a sustainable way. Instead, they just go to their mates—the oil barons—who say, “You’ve had to do this windfall tax. Give us 90% back to drill for more oil and destroy the environment.” Look at the temperature outside! It is absolutely disgraceful. The Government would not even help us with the tidal lagoon. That is not going to stop, is it? Of course, they said, “We are not helping.” That does not make any sense, even though it will go on for 100 years. The council and the Welsh Government have had to deal with it on their own.
We need a Government who care about people and stopping them starving. People may have heard of Professor Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize-winning economist who had the joy of teaching me on one occasion. He wrote “Poverty and Famines”, and found that famines were not a function of food shortages, but a function of high prices, low wages and some food logistics. He was not writing about the UK at the time, but that is precisely what we are now finding in the UK. We see pockets of starvation. We should stop that. The Government are empowered to stop it and they should, whether by indexing social security and universal credit, increasing rent, investing in green technologies, or stopping obeying everything the oil barons say. I will leave it there.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing this highly important debate. I rise with some trepidation as the sole Scot among so many Welsh colleagues, but I rise in support of some excellent contributions.
As everyone is saying, this is about families who are right up against it. One of my daughter’s best friends is a single mother who lives in social housing. I sat down with her and said, “Can we go through the budget?” She went through how difficult it is to make ends meet, and how everything matters. Each week and each month is down to just a pound or two. That was a year ago, and we are where we are now, which is a very different situation indeed. It is with her in mind that I think of my huge, far-flung constituency. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said that this affects all of the UK, and it does—right up to the north of Scotland, which I have the honour of representing. The village of Altnaharra in my constituency is—
Very well. In that case, I will echo two points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). We need a cap on the price of heating oil. As he said, so many homes in Wales have no alternative at all. They are off grid; they cannot use gas. I approached the Minister of State for Energy in March this year, and he said that it was not going to work because of a survey done in 2011 that said so. How different is our situation now from March of this year, let alone 2011? The first point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion is absolutely correct. His constituents—and I might say, sotto voce, mine too—are petrified of their bills. They are really terrified. I am the oldest member of the Lib Dem group in this place; I am getting on. I know that old people feel the cold more than young people, and they worry about money more than young people. I go back to my young friend who I mentioned earlier on, who is trying to balance a budget. It is a pretty desperate situation.
The other point made by hon. Member for Ceredigion was about the lack of choice other than to use a car. The price hike on petrol and diesel is really cutting into budgets. Some years ago, a scheme was put in place for certain parts and certain postcodes of the UK. As he said, we seek to extend that to other needy areas, such as Wales and—dare I mention, also sotto voce; I fear that I am sailing close to the wind—the north of Scotland..
I have one final point, in a Welsh context. There is such a thing as digital poverty. We have social tariffs, but their take-up is lamentable. When we look at a food bank anywhere in the UK, many of those people would not quite quality for the Department for Work and Pensions triggers to be put forward for a social tariff. However, we still look at them and say, “I bet you need help.” We need to mobilise. All of us—the Government—need to think about getting people access to social tariffs. It is about information, and working through local authorities and, maybe, banks. Who knows? There could be a huge, much bigger take-up, which would help families all over the UK to balance their budgets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing today’s debate and the passionate way in which she started the case.
It is clear that the Government have a case to answer for their cost of living crisis, which is so damaging for people in Wales and across the UK. The Government’s response to the deepening crisis has been hugely disappointing. At the moment, they are too wrapped up in internal wrangling to care about dealing with the issues that matter to people. It is clear that the Government are out of touch, out of ideas and out of excuses. After 12 years of Conservative Government, we have a high-tax, low-growth economy, with the country suffering the biggest drop in living standards since records began, and the highest tax burden since world war two.
The Government initially refused to implement Labour’s policy of a windfall tax, until the pressure was too much and they finally caved in and had to take action. The Labour party’s plan to deal with the cost of living crisis would cancel the rise in national insurance contributions, which has come in during hugely challenging times. Labour would also cut VAT on home energy bills, and the red tape that has been created by the Prime Minister’s chaotic Brexit. Our policies would make it easier to buy, make and sell more in Britain.
We have had a passionate debate this afternoon. It is disappointing, though not surprising, that we have yet to hear a Tory voice. There are no Tory MPs here to defend their record. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West, who talked about the worry and fear faced by many of her constituents. She put the blame for people not being able to provide for their families squarely on the crisis in Downing Street. She highlighted that prescription charges in Wales ease the burden somewhat, compared with the £9.35 cost in England, and that council tax band D properties on average pay £167 less than in England. There is also the £244 million council tax reduction scheme that helps 270,000 households in Wales. All those are policies of the Welsh Labour Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) talked about the massive growth in inequality, the need for a redistributive tax policy, and the fact that the UK has the firepower and capacity to take action, but not the will. She gave examples of the work of the previous Labour Government, and some ideas that could be taken forward, such as cutting VAT on fuel. She, along with other Members, talked about the need to tackle issues around universal credit, particularly the five-week wait that causes so much hardship for our constituents.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) talked about the impact of the cost of living crisis in Wales, along with the energy price cap. He spoke of his concern, which I we share, about the possible outcome in the autumn, with further increases in the price cap. He talked about the challenges facing rural communities with off-grid energy costs, and the need to tackle the rise in fuel costs. Like other hon. Members, he talked of the need to address universal credit and restore the £20 uplift.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) talked about how this Government never take their responsibility to Wales seriously, and about the economic firepower of the UK Government—if only they had the will. She talked of her pride, which many of us share, in the Welsh Government, who work so hard and shoulder-to-shoulder with our constituents, to support them through these troubling times. She highlighted the fact that the windfall tax was too little, too late.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) talked of how we are in a cost of living emergency, and that the freeze on pay over the longer term has caused so many issues. She again highlighted that the Welsh Government are doing as much as they can, doubling the investment over and above the devolution settlement. She raised her concerns about poverty becoming normalised in the fifth richest country in the world, gave examples of parents not being able to buy stationery for children to go to school, and spoke about the need for proper pay for our public servants.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) talked about the impact of the massive cuts on poverty and the family lives of many of our constituents, and pressed the Government to act now. He also spoke about local housing allowance and the recent report by the Bevan Foundation that said that many people are unable to find properties within the local housing allowance rate. Finally, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) talked about digital poverty and the need for a cap on the price of heating oil in Wales—and, of course, in Scotland.
In about two weeks’ time, I will host a cost of living crisis event in my constituency, and I know many others are doing the same. We are bringing providers and support agencies together to offer our constituents support and advice during this awful time.
In recent weeks, I have talked to constituents who have raised concerns. I talked to a young family a few weeks ago. Both parents work full time, and by the middle of the month they rely on the support of the food pantry to get them through the rest of the month—to feed themselves and their young child.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware of the food and hamper scheme that I have run in my constituency for the past six years. We provide food and hampers at Christmas and Easter, and during the summer. This year, more people who were previous contributors are becoming dependants. Does he agree that we are at a dangerous point, and that demand will eventually outstrip supply and we will not be able to help people?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work she has done over many years on this issue. I absolutely agree that we are in danger of demand outstripping supply. I have talked to food banks and food support organisations in my constituency in recent weeks, and they all tell me of that concern. Week on week, they are extremely worried that their supplies of food will not be able to meet the ever-increasing demand.
Last week, I spoke to another couple, who go for a swim three times a week, which obviously helps with their health and wellbeing—it is supported by Welsh Government funding—but they use that opportunity to have a shower in the baths to save on water and heating at their home. The danger is that such examples are becoming normalised in 21st century Britain. That is worrying, scary and shameful.
I want to contrast the Tories’ record with that of the Welsh Government. As we have heard, the Welsh Labour Government have invested more than twice what they received in consequential funding to support households with the cost of living crisis. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley talked about the delivery of the £51 million household support fund, which is targeted at people who need the most support. The Welsh Government have doubled the winter fuel support payment to £200, which has helped 150,000 people across Wales.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West said that, from September, all primary schools in Wales will begin to receive free school meals; an additional 180,000 primary school children will benefit from the scheme. The Welsh Government’s warm homes programme has invested almost £400 million in more than 67,000 homes since 2011 to improve home energy efficiency across Wales, saving families money on energy bills. More recently, 57,000 unpaid carers across Wales became eligible to receive a £500 support payment.
The budget available for the Welsh Government to support the people of Wales is hampered by the reality that, over the spending review period, it is likely to be worth at least £600 million less than it was when it was first announced last autumn because of rocketing inflation. The Welsh Government’s spending power is likely to deteriorate further because of that. That is why they have called on the UK Government to update their settlement to reflect the significant impact that inflation is having on important budgets in Wales.
We have seen the smoke and mirrors, and sheer uncertainty, around the shared prosperity fund. There has been a lack of investment, despite the explicit manifesto promise in 2019 that Wales would not be a penny worse off; investment would make a huge impact on the cost of living crisis in Wales. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West, designating HS2 as an England and Wales project, which it clearly is not, also denies Wales an extra £4.6 billion in consequential funding. The Welsh Affairs Committee and even the leader of the Welsh Conservatives agree with that assessment, but instead the Government are intent on short-changing Wales again. Once again, that money could significantly help to tackle the cost of living crisis in Wales.
What we have seen from the Tories at every turn is that they seem to make decisions to take money from people who can least afford it, such as voting to cut the £20 universal credit uplift, which Welsh Conservative MPs all voted for. They also voted to increase tax during the cost of living crisis, but voted against a windfall tax until they were forced by Labour to perform a screeching U-turn.
Our farming communities are suffering, too. Wales faces a UK Government who have broken their promises to the people of Wales. It has become clear that when providing a replacement for EU farm funding, the Government deducted EU receipts that were due to Wales for work that was due as part of the 2014 to 2020 rural development programme. That means that rural communities in Wales are £243 million worse off. Again, that is devastating for farming communities and the livelihoods of our farmers.
It is clear that this Government have no answers. Although the removal of the current Prime Minister is a step forward, none of the candidates for his job has any meaningful ideas to tackle the cost of living crisis and really make a difference to the lives of people in Wales. Rather than playing musical chairs and having the fourth Conservative Prime Minister in six years, what we really need is a UK Labour Government who will build a stronger, more secure economy, working hand in hand with the Welsh Labour Government for the benefit of everyone in Wales, and getting the cost of living crisis under control.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.
I thank the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Newport West (Ruth Jones), for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith), for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), and—last but certainly not least—for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). I may have left somebody out; if I have, I apologise. A lot of points were raised during the debate and I will try to deal with them as best I can within the confines of the time that I have.
First of all, may I make it absolutely clear that, although I am pleased that we are having a debate on this matter, there is absolutely no doubt at all in my mind or the mind of anyone in Government not only that we have a cost of living challenge, but that it is a global matter? Hon. Members can just look at the statistics for any countries across western Europe or the rest of the world to see that the problem is not an isolated one; it has come about for reasons that I will turn to in a minute. Before I go into detail on the UK Government’s commitments to support the people of Wales, I just want to make it clear that things such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have had a significant effect on the global economy.
The UK Government have been steadfast in our support for the people of Wales throughout these global economic challenges. We have certainly not been asleep on the matter of Wales—far from it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who is my former ministerial colleague, and his successor as the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), who of course is from Llanelli, are well aware of the problems in Wales and have been raising them at all times in Cabinet.
I often stood in for Mr Hart when he was unable to attend meetings—
Yes, Carmarthen West.
As I was saying, I stood in for my right hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) many times in Cobra meetings and I know how hard he was working. Incidentally, on the matter of Cobra—I know this issue came up earlier; it may have been the hon. Member for Newport West who mentioned it—it is not normal for the Prime Minister to attend all Cobra meetings, any more than it is normal for the First Minister to attend all Cobra meetings. I attended a number of them during the covid crisis, when—quite rightly—the Welsh Government were represented by the Health Minister, or sometimes by another Minister from the Welsh Government. That is normal, because the principle of Cabinet Government is that Cabinet Ministers, whether they are in the Welsh Government or the UK Government, are there to take decisions. Therefore, quite correctly, we did not always expect to see either the First Minister or the Prime Minister at Cobra meetings. Sometimes they were there; sometimes they were able to allow other Ministers to take their place.
Although I understand the point that the Minister just made, the last two Cobra meetings have been all about the climate emergency, which is happening now. I am surprised that the Prime Minister should not be in his place at these Cobra meetings and I suspect the whole country is surprised, too.
I do not know whether the First Minister was at those meetings, but I imagine that somebody from the Welsh Government was. Does the hon. Lady know whether the First Minister was there, or did the First Minister send a representative? I do not know, but it would be interesting to find out, because the point is valid: the First Minister of Wales should have enough confidence in his Cabinet Ministers to know that they can go along and represent the Welsh Government at Cobra meetings, just as the UK Prime Minister does. Anyway, let us not go down that—
The Minister’s basic proposition is that this cost of living crisis is some sort of global issue. Will he accept that the issue is about the level of underlying resilience before these global shocks occur? If the rate of growth under the Labour party had continued thereafter, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average wage would be something like £13,000 better, so we would be in a much better place to take the shocks. Instead, we are impoverished by the Minister’s party.
If we are going to have an economic history lesson going back to 2010, we will have to look at the enormous amounts of money that the then Labour Government borrowed, the financial crisis and its impact, and then the impact of covid and then a war. Generally speaking, every 10 years or so, a Government will face a serious crisis of global proportions. It could have been the fall of the wall in 1989.
Let me go back to what the Government have been doing. We have been steadfast in our support. We have provided more than £37 billion across the UK to help people with the cost of living challenge. Millions of the most vulnerable households across the UK will receive at least £1,200 of one-off support in total this year to help with the cost of living. The maximum possible benefit for a household is more than £1,600. We put in place a targeted £12 billion energy bill support scheme for domestic electricity customers in Great Britain to help with rising energy prices. We are supporting people across the UK with one-off cost of living payments, including £650 for 8 million households on means-tested benefits, £300 for more than 8 million pensioner households and £150 for around 6 million people who receive disability benefits. We are increasing the national living wage by 6.6% to £9.50 an hour, which was also mentioned here. Along with increases to the national minimum wage, we expect to be able to give a pay rise to 120,000 workers in Wales.
We also want to ensure that people across Wales keep more of what they earn. We are raising income tax personal allowances and freezing alcohol and fuel duty, saving car drivers up to £15 every time they fill up. We have reduced universal credit taper rates from 63% to 55% and we are increasing universal credit work allowances by £500 a year. Those together will see households keep an extra £1,000 a year on average. This July, we raised the national insurance contribution threshold to £12,570, meaning a typical employee will save more than £330 this year. Frankly, I could go on and on.
Opposition Members may say we are not doing enough, but to say that we have slept through this crisis and do not care is ridiculous and outrageous. I have lists and lists of stuff that the Government have been doing to support people across Wales. It is a £37 billion package. To try to suggest that there is not an enormous amount of work going on or that we do not recognise the problem is unfair. We absolutely recognise the problem—I cannot say it enough times. There is a cost of living challenge out there and there are people suffering. I do not want to hide from that in any way. At the same time, it would be nice if Opposition Members could at least recognise that when we put £37 billion into a whole host of schemes, it is deeply unfair to suggest we do not know about the challenge, we do not care about it and we are doing nothing about it. That is simply incorrect.
To take one example, the hon. Member for Newport West, who I greatly respect and who I appreciate is a hard-working MP, made a point about prescription charges. Yes, prescription charges are free to everyone in Wales. Wonderful. I get a free prescription as a Member of Parliament. In England, the number of people who get free prescriptions is very large. People in full-time education, who are pregnant, who have certain medical conditions, NHS in-patients and people on income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance, pension credit guarantee or universal credit. Anyone who faces difficulties will not have to pay for their prescription in England, but the hon. Lady did not make that point. She gave us half the story and gave the impression that everyone is paying for their prescriptions in England. That simply is not true. In fact, it is rather more progressive to target free prescriptions at those who need them because they cannot afford to pay than just to give them out to everyone.
It has taken me probably a minute just to rebut that single point. That is the problem I face. There are quite a few other points I would not mind rebutting if I get the chance to do so.
I was not aware of that, although I would be registered for it in Wales if I was. I do not think the hon. Lady got around to making her fair comment—no doubt the press can have some fun with that. I think she was also going to lead into the situation with women and the menopause; there is possibly an unfairness that needs correcting. She has been very good at raising that issue, and I praise her for it. I am not pretending that we get everything right all of the time, so I always listen to the hon. Lady with interest, because she can sometimes shed light on things that need changing. There might be an unfairness, but I am not here to discuss health policy; I am sure the hon. Lady will raise her point elsewhere.
To go back to Wales, this July we raised the national insurance contributions and I am also pleased that the Welsh Labour Government have used the £180 million Barnett consequentials from the UK Government to match the UK Government’s £150 council tax rebate offer in England. Frankly, that was a scheme brought about by the Conservative Government: the money was given to Wales, and I am delighted that Welsh Labour are following our lead in this. If hon. Members want to take the credit for it, that is fine, but let us remember that it was a Conservative Government policy, brought about by a recognition of the problems that the current crisis creates.
Our support does not end there. We are expanding eligibility for the warm homes discount by almost a third, meaning that 3 million vulnerable households across the UK will benefit as a result. We are increasing the extension of the warm home discount, and shielding the most vulnerable across the UK from the impact of global recessionary forces. I am somewhat concerned because I think, Ms Nokes, you are about to inform me that I am about to run out of time.
Thank you, Ms Nokes. There are still concerns about the cost of living and the challenges ahead, not only for Wales but for the whole of the UK. The one simple thing that I want to do is reassure hon. and right hon. Members present that the measures we have put in place recognise that, and we will continue to put more in place over the next year. We recognise the cost of living challenge, and we want to see our great nation through all adversities. Thank you; diolch yn fawr.
I thank you, Ms Nokes, for your astute and wise chairing this afternoon. I thank the Minister for his speech; I am quite sure that the debate could have gone on all afternoon. I also thank all hon. Members who have spoken on the Opposition side: they have made such powerful speeches and interventions—intelligent, knowledgeable contributions—and demonstrated that they are in touch with their constituents. It is so disappointing to see that not a single Member from the Government side felt able to make time for this debate—I do not include Parliamentary Private Secretaries in that. I am sure they have good reasons for not being here, but I am sure their constituents will equally be asking why they were not.
This has been a collegiate debate, but make no mistake: the friendliness of the debate cannot hide the stark underlying message that the people of Wales are suffering massively from the cost of living crisis. Our Prime Minister has been asleep at the wheel, and we need him to go now. We need solutions for the Welsh people, and we need them now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the impact of the cost of living crisis in Wales.
Leaving the EU: UK Language Schools
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on language schools in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. It is that time of year again when in seaside towns or big cities, the traditional sight of be-rucksacked groups dressed in fashionable attire—often pastel colours—descending on the streets is common.
There are loads in Ealing as well, although a lot less than there used to be. Local householders—as the Minister will know as a local—also get leaflets through the door asking for a spare room or two, saying there are posts going as host families and promising pretty decent money. The reason for all that is English language teaching and English language schools. It is a phenomenon that peaks in the summer months. They offer an all-round experience, typically to teenagers, for a number of weeks. Students get the full immersion: an English breakfast with a typical English family, English lessons during the day, perhaps a spot of early evening work as a barista or pulling pints before dinner en famille and then a bit of sightseeing and cultural programme built in as well—maybe visiting London, Oxford and Southend.
Either side of the weekend I have had an insight into that subculture. I visited two English language schools in Ealing: Edwards Language School and West London English School. They tell me that the two weeks from now are set to be the busiest of the year for them. However, the story is mixed. At WLES, where I was yesterday, I saw multiple classes. It has outgrown the couple of rooms it takes in an office block on Uxbridge Road. Edwards Language School is in a large Victorian house on the same road—although the road is called something else at that point. It used to span two houses, but it is in one now. It has halved in size. The school was set up by lecturers from the University of West London, which is also in my constituency, 30 years ago. It then got swallowed up by a chain, and that chain’s operations in Brighton have not survived.
I keep saying what used to be because although in 2019, the sector’s last normal year of trading, there were 550,000 students, half of them under 18, contributing £1.4 billion into the UK economy, supporting 35,000 jobs and underpinning the wider £20 billion education market, it feels dangerously at risk of decline because of the end of freedom of movement and visa changes. After I spoke to the trade body English UK, and exchanged emails with the Association of British Travel Agents, the Tourism Alliance and the British Educational Travel Association—they have all been falling over themselves to brief me for this short debate—some startling figures emerged.
The BETA says that between 2019 and 2022 the number of student groups coming from the EU dropped by 84%. In Ealing, not that long ago, I would have had a choice of five different schools to visit and sample, but two of them—one had been there since 1980—have completely bitten the dust. A third exists on paper as an online operation, leaving only its Wimbledon branch; the Ealing branch has gone.
For context, while West London College, which has an Ealing campus, offers some English language teaching, and some universities offer it too, the bulk of the provision locally and across the country comes from private businesses. That means they have sometimes been viewed with suspicion, although the British Council accreditation—the regulatory framework that they have to go through—is among the most stringent in the world. To attain trusted status is not cheap either; it weighs in at £20,000.
As a former language teacher in a secondary school, I take a huge personal interest in the subject. Language schools are an important part of Bath’s rich tourism industry, which depends on language schools and young people visiting, so it is important to address that issue with the Minister. Does the hon. Lady agree that the passport requirement for each individual student creates a barrier? We need to ask for a new youth travel scheme or collective passports to overcome some of the barriers for such fantastic businesses in my constituency. Without them, we could see the collapse of that industry.
The hon. Lady, who is from the lovely city of Bath and is a polyglot herself, is completely right. When I was a kid in 1984, we did a trip to Le Touquet on a group passport of that nature. The teacher had it and everyone was waved through. I think the kid with slightly dodgy status ducked at the moment when we did the headcount—I am only revealing this now. The hon. Lady is right that we have to find a solution. The majority of European kids under 18 do not have passports, because they travel on ID cards. The Government have said that they will not budge, so that would be a sensible solution. I think Jim Shannon wanted to intervene next.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the debate forward. Does she agree—I think she does—that there is undoubtedly work to do to highlight the benefits of learning English and other languages in the superior schools that we have? Consideration must be given to fast-track visas and discounted fees, which may be a necessary push to make that happen and to bring about what she is trying to achieve.
I completely concur with the hon. Member. We have all heard about the backlog—perhaps the Minister will talk about it—of people waiting to get passports at this time of year when they want to go on holiday. The laborious, ponderous hoops that people have to jump through seem a bit too much, compared with what used to be a relatively simple thing when we had freedom of movement.
I would point out that the groups do not just come to England; they also come to Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom, including to Peartree Languages in my constituency. During the Brexit debate, I do not remember a slogan on the side of a bus saying, “Vote Brexit to stop all these schoolchildren absconding when they come to visit our language schools, castles, museums and other tourist attractions.”
My fear and that of other members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, including my hon. Friend, is that this has become an ideological issue about Brexit and immigration, when it has absolutely nothing to do with that. There is no problem with under-18s absconding when they come, so the Government and the Minister, who is a reasonable person, should look again at this and let schoolchildren come as they always have done—in a group, using their ID cards, with a responsible adult or adults with their passports. That would not undermine the stance on freedom of movement or our immigration system, but it might help our tourism sector and language school sector, which are begging for action from the Government, because the woods are burning out there and they are doing nothing about it.
My hon. Friend is so right. He is from a capital city; I mentioned cities at the beginning. I understand that the number of language schools in Cardiff has boomed from a small number a decade ago, but they are in jeopardy now. We are meant to be going for global Britain, so, as he said, shrivelling up and putting the barriers up seems completely wrong. We should enable students to study these languages on our shores, not the complete opposite, which is what seems to be happening. That may be an unintended consequence, but I know the Minister is a reasonable man. When I come to my list of demands, I hope that he will see sense.
The fact that we had a global pandemic that nobody foresaw means that it is difficult to disentangle what was Brexit and what was covid, but a bit of Brexit-proofing would not go amiss. Surveys done by English UK show that the ID card issue is a major factor. We should of course be proud of the English language; it is our greatest export, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) says, there is a danger of killing off the market for these schools, even though as recently as 2019, we had twice as many as any other English-speaking competitor country. The business operates on pretty tight margins. One school owner I spoke to said, “I’m paid the highest of everyone here, but I like doing this. I want to spread the English language. Money doesn’t matter to me.” However, we are in danger of losing this lucrative category of student to Ireland and Malta, even though they are both pretty tiny, have capacity issues, and actually cannot cope.
To be fair, I must admit that the sector suffered multiple hits long before Brexit. Ben Anderson, of the Edwards Language School, said:
“There were a tiny minority of visa shops in the 1990s created by the old Tier 4 visas. Gordon Brown ramped up regulation.”
So the problem did not start with Brexit—it started long ago—but all this stuff has been put on steroids with the end of freedom of movement. Further tightening occurred under the coalition: until about 2014, this long-time form of soft power became conflated with immigration targets to get net migration down to the tens of thousands, which were never achieved,.
Asif Musa of West London English School said:
“There was a problem and so a crackdown was needed, rightly private schools lost their licences but then UKVI went OTT”.
In 2012, London Metropolitan University temporarily lost its right to recruit international students from outside the EU because of, in the Government’s words, “serious, systematic failure” of its monitoring of its international student body. New checks were added on monitoring. The problem is conflating language students, who are temporary and have more in common with tourists, and cutting down on bogus net migration. The legacy of that whole period, which persists to today and has been added to by Brexit, is that there is now a presumption of guilt. As one of the school owners said, “Basically, it is as if they are looking to shut you down; they are looking to suspend your licence.”
There is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. English is indisputably the lingua franca of the world, so why are we creating unnecessary obstacles when a hungry young public are eager to take courses in English on our shores? VisitBritain, in 2020, found that language school students stay three times as long as the standard tourist and spend twice as much—crucially, in local communities, on accommodation, local transport, cafes and attractions. In “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, Morrissey sang about the seaside towns they forgot to close down. They used to have a bit of a “God’s waiting room” reputation, but many have been revitalised by this vibrant business, and rejuvenated by the youngsters coming in. I feel that we cannot just do nothing while the sector is hitting the rocks.
Ealing, in losing three out of five colleges, is not alone; The Guardian says that there are just seven out 20 left in Hastings. The Minister, I am sure, shares my concern that both LAL Torbay and the Devon School of English have closed their doors. They are no more; their websites say they are permanently closed. While some post-covid recovery is under way, English UK reckons that by the end of this year, we will be at 40% to 60% of pre-pandemic volumes, but that is after an average 88% decline in student numbers over the past two years. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West and I are on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and we know that that is far worse an outcome than for any other type of tourism, with £590 million of lost revenue on 2021.
I talked about one school that looked like it was booming yesterday, but a lot of that is courses left over from 2020 that could not be taken and are now being realised. West London English School calls it pent-up demand because they honoured all courses, whereas I think other schools gave vouchers, which turned out to be pretty meaningless. As I said, these schools operate on tight margins—one of them said they were “almost non-existent”. Of those that have not gone under, many are crippled by debt. That is a shame when the power of English throughout the world is an inestimable good and a key component of soft power. Those attending UK language schools, often as children or adolescents, are much more likely to go to a UK university. I know from working in universities that we were always encouraged to get overseas students with their lucrative fees. Language schools are a linchpin of an important pipeline, which is coming under strain. At one end are school exchange visits that might see oversees students go into one of these schools; at the other end, they return for higher education. It should be noted that 57 of our current world leaders have studied at UK universities, and there is often a language component there.
The pipeline of host families is also under pressure. The cost of living makes the £200 to £250 a week per student, which used to be good money, go less far. I am told that in Ealing there used to be established residents who could be relied on, but now that houses change hands for £2 million, the new generation of homeowners is a bit befuddled at why anyone would want kids in their face. There are also things like Airbnb which are less intrusive.
What has Brexit got to do with it? I have a list of three main recommendations that I would like the Minister to take away. Enabling ID card travel is not happening, as we have heard. Ninety per cent. of under-18s in mainland Europe travel using only their ID. What about the idea mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath—the group travel option, with a group leader in charge of the rest? There is no risk that these people would abscond; they did not with the previous EU list of travellers option. We could try youth mobility schemes. The Government already have bilateral deals with New Zealand, Australia, the USA, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and others; they could sign deals with EU countries—the big ones, such as France, Germany and Italy. It can be done; I can supply the Minister with the paperwork.
I do not know if the Minister has seen in today’s Standard that our hospitality sector has loads of vacancies. Traditionally, part of the experience for oversees students was for the adult, non-minor students to spend about 10 hours a week pulling pints, as part of their immersion. These are valuable work and life skills. Limited work rights should be loosened up. People used to be able to do this as university students. Seventy-five per cent. of all English language teaching business in the UK is conducted in the summer bulge months of June to August. That is when these seasonal vacancies need to be filled. It has been done for fruit picking; it is something that the Minister could do here too.
Okay. Minister, I had a bit more, which I will try to cover in a couple of sentences.
The other thing that worries me is that this hostile environment has prevailed at other levels, too. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West said, there is no danger of 11-year-olds absconding and becoming minicab drivers in Eastbourne, so there is no need for Border Force to treat them as risks, yet there seems to be a presumption that everyone is a criminal. Sometimes people are asked at the border to provide means for their stay, and they have an all-inclusive package with meals.
The last time this sector lobbied MPs, the discussion was about coronavirus. The Government acceded to the additional relief fund, so I am hoping they can do it again. Ealing Council has administered loads; I get praised for it. The Minister cannot do anything about the cost of living and business rates, so I will leave those out of it, but let us have a concerted effort to improve our visa regime to eliminate the xenophobic attitudes towards oversees students. There were two really horrible incidents in Canterbury and Cambridge in 2019, at the height of the papers saying that MPs were not allowing Brexit to happen. We need to have a better climate. After all, we want levelling up, global Britain, Brexit opportunities, and this is a lucrative sector that includes all of those. What is not to like?
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for securing the debate. This is a subject that I have a strong personal interest in, as my Torbay constituency is home to several excellent English language schools. The Government and I therefore fully appreciate the important contribution they make to the economy and the cultural value of all educational visits and exchanges between the UK and other nations.
I suggest from my own experiences that simply focusing on language schools and the issues raised today misses the range of factors that affect the sector. I noticed that the hon. Member referred in her opening speech to institutions that have closed in my constituency. I am not sure whether she is a regular reader of our newspaper Herald Express. Sadly, one language school closed down following a significant fraud involving one of its employees, which has been well publicised, and another building is hosting a local state school. Looking at things in isolation and then drawing conclusions from them may not be the best approach to this type of debate, without the local knowledge that a constituency Member of Parliament has.
There may be bad apples out there, but that does not detract from the fact that during the votes my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) were saying there has been a contraction in numbers. There is a problem—let us not ignore that.
Again, when we cite specific examples, we perhaps need to check them out first.
In terms of understanding the pressure on the visitor economy, we have ambitious plans for the improvement and digitalisation of our future border and immigration system, alongside its simplification to make the UK an increasingly attractive destination for visitors from around the world and to support our tourism and language teaching sectors. Reference was made to processing passports, but those coming to the UK to study on a language course—the hon. Member focused mostly on EEA nationals—would not be applying for a UK passport, so those would not have any impact either.
Ending the use of EU/EEA national identity cards was touched on several times, and we have moved to end their use at the border. It is worth noting, however, that some EU identity cards were among the least secure documents seen at our border, and until this policy was implemented, they absolutely dominated detection figures for document abuse at the border, with just under half of all false documents detected at the border being EEA identity cards. To deal with this oft-abused hole in our border security, since October 2021, EU, EEA and Swiss visitors, like all others entering the United Kingdom, have been required to have an individual passport.
I will not continually give way, given that I have already had the time reduced for my reply as the intro was slightly longer than the normal 15 minutes. I will go through my next arguments, then perhaps I will have the chance to take some more interventions.
We provided a year’s notice for the change to allow people and groups in Europe to plan ahead and obtain passports before they travelled. The indications are that the change has been understood and complied with. I note that before the change, the vast majority of EU, EEA and Swiss citizens arriving in the UK were already using their passports. One of the biggest benefits of using a passport is that it enables people to use the e-passport gates available at many of our ports. To link directly to the debate, we are actively working to change the system to allow the minimum age for their use, which is 12, to be reduced. That has the welcome side effect of reducing queues at immigration desks on arrival by using a more automatic process, rather than people needing to be seen in person by a Border Force officer.
Looking at the issue in isolation misses the chance to look at some of the wider changes we are making to the immigration system, particularly in relation to this sector. I highlight our extension of the electronic visa waiver scheme to Saudi and Bahrani citizens. That simplifies and reduces the cost of the visa process by allowing them to obtain an online visa waiver, rather than going through the full visa application process. Put simply, instead of paying about £100 and going to a visa application centre, they pay £30 and apply from home. I know Saudi nationals have been regular customers of language schools in Torbay, so this measure will help the sector.
In 2021, directly linked to feedback from the language sector and universities, we changed the immigration rules, to allow for most short-term study activities to be included in the general visitor category, under which most tourists arrive in the UK, reflecting that much of this activity is more like tourism than coming to study a degree for three or four years. Now, non-visa national students coming for a course of study of up to six months do not need to apply for a separate short-term study visa, and visa nationals can simply apply for a visitor visa, or if they already hold one, arrive under a long-term visitor visa.
We are introducing a permission to travel requirement, which will eventually require everyone travelling to the UK, except British and Irish citizens, to seek permission in advance of travel. Those permissions will include electronic travel authorisation for passengers visiting the UK who do not need a visa for short stays, or do not have an immigration status prior to travelling. Similar systems are used by the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The EU is also planning on introducing its own system for the Schengen zone.
We recognise there will be challenges around electronic travel authorisation and a need to engage with sectors about how it will be used, just as many of those sectors already engage with the US electronic system for travel authorisation, but there are also clear benefits. The Government have announced that citizens of the Gulf Co-operation Council nations will, in 2023, be able to obtain an electronic travel authorisation rather than have to use the current electronic visa waiver, simplifying the process and making the UK a more attractive destination for them. To be clear, permission under the electronic travel authorisation will be similar to arriving as a non-visa national now, giving up to six months under the visitor route. That all links to our move towards increased automation.
We are clear that we have a global immigration system. We moved to end the use of the list of travellers system, which is an EU scheme allowing visa nationals to travel to another EU member state. It should be noticed that we provided a slightly longer grace period for people coming to the UK than was allowed for our residents travelling to Europe. That was an EU system and we have now moved towards a single global system.
There was some reference to collective passports. It is probably worth noting that we remain a signatory to the 1961 Council of Europe treaty, which provides for collective passports for young people. The Council of Europe is separate from the European Union. We continue to accept passports from those who have ratified the treaty, although it is worth noting that few countries other than the UK continue to issue them. A number of EU countries have declared that they will no longer accept UK collective passports. It is worth considering, with the EU’s European travel information and authorisation system and our ETA system coming in, how much longer travel documents based on a treaty that is now more than 60 years old will continue. That has to be seen alongside the various issues that can come with issuing collective passports. However, we continue to issue them for now.
I feel this debate was a slightly missed opportunity for a sector that plays a large part in the economy of my constituency and our country. By simply focusing on the Home Office and immigration requirements, we miss the range of factors that drive student choices to study, from the quality of the course to the types and quantity of accommodation available—something that I know is a challenge for language schools in my area. Many families have hosted in the past and more have come forward. It is again about how we move forward, for instance, to having dedicated student accommodation, particularly for those coming for a longer period, who will still use the short-term study visa if they are looking to study a language course of up to 11 months.
We must not send out unhelpful, inaccurate and counter-productive messages of it being hard to come here, when in reality our short-term study rules are some of the most generous globally, allowing up to six months’ study without applying for a separate visa to do that. I contrast that ability to be in the UK for up to 180 days, including doing a short English language course for up to 180 days, with the Schengen area’s 90 out of 180 days applying to non-visa nationals, or the US visa waiver system, which is 90 out of 180 days and a maximum stay of 90 days. Our system is much more generous.
That is driven by the type of open economy we want to have, and as we move forward with ETA, we expect slightly more countries to move to non-visa ETA national status, which will benefit the sector directly. I want to make it very clear that the rules on ID card use at our border will not be changing, but our generous short-term study offer will remain and that is what the focus of future debates should be.
Question put and agreed to.
Nigeria: Security Situation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the security situation in Nigeria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to see so many valued colleagues here today. In October 2022, Nigeria will celebrate its 62nd year of independence. In those six decades, the country has experienced civil war, alternating periods of military and civilian rule and—in 2015—its first peaceful transfer of power. That progression should have laid a foundation for continuing success, but Nigeria is at a crossroads. As Ayo Adedoyin, the chief executive officer of the International Organisation for Peace-building and Social Justice, who is in the Public Gallery today, has said,
“Nigerians are a very resilient people. However, it is that very same virtue which explains why the nation’s insecurity crisis is not yet such a national and international issue.”
Those are words I certainly agree with.
It is known that almost half the population would like to leave the country. The reasons for that will be wide and diverse, but there are underlying conditions that apply to every single person who lives in the country and is a member of the nation. Nigeria is home to one of the world’s largest populations living in extreme poverty. It has become synonymous with political inertia and corruption, widespread insecurity and a loss of public confidence in its politicians. Worst of all is the increasing death toll. Last year alone, 1,000 people were killed in violent terrorist incidents and the death of Boko Haram’s leader at the hands of Islamist rivals has brought further insecurity.
It is no exaggeration to say that Nigeria’s security situation has now reached crisis levels, and in the next few minutes I will outline six issues that have not only caused the situation but are perpetuating it. They are Islamic extremism, kidnappings for ransom, intercommunal and religiously motivated violence, human trafficking, electoral violence and extreme poverty. There can be little doubt that the Nigerian security crisis is having a calamitous economic impact, deterring foreign investment and undermining prospects for economic growth, which will result in a regional crisis in the future.
On the first of the six issues, violence perpetuated by Islamic extremists has increased, with the Islamic State West Africa Province surpassing Boko Haram as the deadliest terrorist organisation in the province. ISWAP is believed to have recruited a militia of as many as 5,000 into its ranks, compared with Boko Haram’s one-time strength of around 2,000 men. This new organisation emerged after a division of loyalty from the leadership of Boko Haram, with ISWAP founder Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the eldest son of former Boko Haram spokesman Mohammed Yusuf, declaring allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rather than to the former leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, who was killed last year by ISWAP.
The group has focused its activities against state targets, which has resulted in a reduction of the military police and security service’s capability. Its attacks have demonstrated a level of tactical and strategic attitude, with ISWAP combatants better armed and trained than their predecessors. There are unconfirmed reports that many are heard to speak Arabic instead of Hausa, which indicates the growing participation and influence of extremists from the Sahel and beyond. The decision to reduce attacks on civilian targets has resulted in a rise in public support for the group, which resulted in a Government intervention that began in 2013 in three states having to widen its remit across several territories in northern Nigeria.
In the last 12 months, Nigeria has also seen a large rise in kidnappings for ransom. In the first nine months of 2021, some 2,200 people were kidnapped for ransom—more than double the number abducted the year before. Many that occur are in the north-eastern states and are perpetrated by Islamic extremists, but others have been conducted by groups that are widely characterised as bandits—sometimes in conjunction with the extremists. The motivation remains financial gain. Violence conducted by Islamic extremists was highest in the state of Borno, but last year, more Nigerians were killed by criminal gangs in the north-west than by jihadists in the north-east.
For many years, there has been conflict in the middle belt region that illustrates social divisions in Nigeria. In two decades, more than 17,000 people are believed to have been killed in the region, and more than 10,000 people have fled their homes. That violence receives scarce media attention, particularly in the west, but when it does, it is attributed to disputes between farmers and herders about resources. It is undoubtedly true that in the last 10 years, 60% of Nigerian territory has been characterised as experiencing some form of desertification, which has reduced the amount of land available for agricultural production through a decline in the water supply.
Fulani herdsmen traditionally migrated through pasture lands in the middle belt region. The geographical conditions now require a greater migration further south, which brings them into conflict with settled farms. The Fulani herders come from a nomadic, predominantly Muslim tribe, but greater numbers of people in the south are practising Christians. That ensures that public opinion in Nigeria increasingly characterises the conflict as a geographical one between the country’s two dominant religions—Christians in the south and Muslims in the north. That is reinforced by the fact that Fulani militia target non-Muslim communities, particularly Christians.
In the last decade, more than 500 churches in Benue state have been destroyed by Fulani militia. In just one year, 2014, more than 100 churches were destroyed in Taraba state, with another 200 abandoned through fear of attack. In October 2021, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom raised concerns about a spate of lethal attacks against Christian communities in Kado and Kaduna states. Central Nigeria is known as the breadbasket of the nation, but because farmers are being killed in their fields, they are afraid to go out to work. With nobody to tend their crops, they fail, which contributes to the greater food shortage in the country.
Human trafficking ranks as the third most common crime in Nigeria after drug trafficking and economic fraud. It is estimated that up to 1 million people are trafficked annually, with 98% moving internally. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that at least 1.4 million continuing victims of human trafficking are living within Nigerian borders. Most victims are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and forced labour.
In the past three decades, an estimated 30,000 Nigerian women have been forced into prostitution here in Europe, with more than 85% originating from just one state—Edo. Migrants are typically unable to afford to pay the price of their transit and are forced to enter into servitude, which ensures an indefinite period of effective slavery or sexual exploitation, which is often reinforced by the use of revered juju rituals that compel those subjected to trafficking to comply with their traffickers. Those rites are used to intimidate people to stop them reporting their trafficking and to ensure their compliance.
On elections, Nigeria has a long history of electoral violence. In the 20 years since returning to civilian rule, it has held 16 elections, all of which have been marred by violence and bloodshed. In 2003, 100 people were killed; in 2007, 300 were killed. But the worst election-related violence occurred in the three days after the 2011 election, when there were more than 800 fatalities. Some 700 were killed in Kaduna alone.
Next February will see the country’s next general election. It is estimated that 87 million Nigerians—around 40% of the country—live on less than $1.19 a day. The country desperately needs to provide economic opportunity for a rapidly growing population. The United Nations projects that Nigeria’s population will almost double by 2050, reaching an estimated 400 million people. Job creation has failed to keep pace with the country’s high birth rate. That ensures that many people, especially the young, become highly vulnerable to manipulation by extremists and criminal networks.
It is not the role of the United Kingdom Government to enter Nigeria and provide military aid, but as a Commonwealth country we have a duty to assist our friends. The Minister, who is in her place, recently responded to my written question and advised that the official development assistance bilateral spend in Nigeria last year was more than £100 million. We have a lot invested in the country. To stand back and watch it become a province of Daesh is unacceptable.
The UK Government are supporting Nigeria to respond to the increasing conflict by supporting regional stabilisation and increasing inter-agency co-operation, delivering training to tackle terrorist financing and in defection, demobilisation, disengagement and deradicalisation processes, which will provide a genuine pathway for members of violent extremist organisations to defect and to reintegrate into their communities and families.
As recently as February, the bilateral Security and Defence Partnership dialogue witnessed the UK’s commitment to support Nigeria as it responds to these security challenges. However, it would now be appropriate to review what political, diplomatic and military support the UK can offer the people of Nigeria. I ask the Minister to consider reviewing the ODA to allow spending to be focused on non-lethal security co-operation measures. It is useless to provide money to ensure that girls can access education if terrorists are kidnapping those very same children.
After the elections next year, the Nigerian Government should convene an international summit to outline specific actions they intend to take, and to make requests of the international community for material development and technical support. If a proactive action plan is not made and implemented, the tentacles of Daesh will extend into and find a base on the African mainland that will allow terror attacks to occur across Africa and into mainland Europe. We need to draw a line to stop Nigeria becoming a failed state, to stop a regional conflict becoming an international one, and to protect the peoples of the Commonwealth. That line is Nigeria.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this debate and on setting the scene so well. I declare an interest as a chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The APPG speaks up for those with the Christian faith, those with other faith and those with no faith. Nigeria encompasses all three.
Nigeria is a topic very close to my heart; as many Members know, I had the privilege of visiting Nigeria five or six weeks ago, during my time as chair of the APPG. That visit happened to take place in late May. In Nigeria, we met people of Christian faith who had been displaced. We met those of Muslim faith who had been displaced. We met those who are humanists and had no faith at all. We took that opportunity to interact with all of them. I am pleased to see the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), in the debate. He and I were part of that deputation.
Shortly after we came back, the Minister responded to an urgent question on Nigeria. I think it was to do with the murder of Christians. It is hard for us to believe that we came home on a Thursday, and on the Sunday there was an absolutely terrible, horrific attack on Christians worshipping in their church, where 40 men, women and children were murdered. If we needed any reminding, that brought back to us with great force what it means to be a Christian in Nigeria.
During that recent visit I spoke, through the APPG and through the deputation, to people who had suffered at first hand the horrific consequences of the deteriorating security situation in Nigeria. They shared stories of unimaginable violence and intimidation, of family members murdered or mutilated, of women and children who were subject to all sorts of abuse, who had their property stolen, had lost their education, their opportunities and their jobs, and were in the internally displaced camps. We visited one of those camps where there were both Christians and Muslims; they had been there for eight and nine years. I find it hard to take that case in, to be honest. It was one that left a lasting impression on myself and others, because there were many who just wanted to do something and achieve something in their life but they were in a displaced camp and when they got there, they seemed to be forgotten about. They were there and food and water had been set down for them, but that is not okay because what they need is an education.
We went with a charity called Bellwether International. They provided finances so that we were able to take some food to those in the camp and to take some things for the children’s education. Within that camp—I know that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute was moved by this, as I was—we had some people who were trying to provide education for the young people. Others were trying to find job opportunities. There was a very rudimentary medical centre; to be honest, it was like a garden shed that had fallen into disrepair over a number of years, but the important thing was that there were people trying to do something. What we need to do, and what I hope we can do through our Minister and Government, is to reach out to those non-governmental organisations that reach out to people and give them the opportunity, hope and vision that they need, and which we have seen through the eyes of those who were there.
On many occasions, we met people and we did not actually have to ask them what their stories were; we just had to look at their eyes. Their eyes told us their stories. Their stories were stories of pain and agony. All those stories were made all the more bitter and unjust due to the lack of impunity and the inaction on the part of the Nigerian Government. Three million people have been displaced in Nigeria and we met some of them—from academics to NGO workers and victims. Many of the people I met in Nigeria shared concerns about impunity from the ongoing violence, where the army and the police on many occasions just stood aside and did nothing. There needs to be a strong-arm approach to dealing with terrorism, and the army and the Government need to push that very hard.
I heard, for example, that the Federal Government built a local primary school in the new region and named a school after a Fulani chief, in an area where numerous Fulani attacks have resulted in the murder of many people. If that does not spit in your eye, I would like to know what would. Again, this shows that Government in Nigeria seems to be out of touch and seems to have an unwillingness or an uncertainty when it comes to reducing the level of impunity, which has heightened in recent years as the violence in Nigeria has increased and spilled into southern states that were considered safe.
We had hoped to visit north-east Nigeria. That was not possible because of the security situation, but what we did do was to bring people from north-east Nigeria in planes down to Abuja. We met church leaders and community leaders. We were able to hear their stories and we tried to help out. Buhari’s positioning of Muslims in senior Government roles also makes it even more difficult for Christians and other minorities to speak out, thereby perpetuating a culture of impunity and a sense of being left behind. It is so sad to see a country of the magnitude of Nigeria, which has a population of 200 million and has great potential, great reserves and great economic opportunities, now lagging behind in the world watch list. Nigeria is No. 7 in the Open Doors world watch list. That means it is the seventh worst country in the world to be a Christian, with Christians facing severe levels of persecution.
The situation in the middle belt of the country is particularly concerning. Violence in the middle belt has become one of Nigeria’s most serious security challenges. Reportedly six times deadlier than Boko Haram in 2018, Fulani militant violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of Christians, and intensified religious and ethnic divisions in the country. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said that everything in Nigeria seems to be measured by religious status, which tells us that everything is coming from that thrust; that is what we need to address. It is true not only for Christians, but for those of other beliefs—indeed, for Muslims and those belonging to ethnic groups.
Connected to the Nigeria visit, we heard from Leo Igwe, founder of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who told us that, due to the extremely precarious situation of humanists in Nigeria, they do not always know where fellow humanists are and that trying to get in contact with them poses a serious threat. The APPG delegation made contact with Mubarak, a humanist who had been in prison for some 24 years. We felt that the Government were making some steps in the right direction. We would all be very happy if the Minister could properly reassure us on that.
To conclude, I will share the remarks of a Boko Haram survivor. Martha, a Christian from Gwoza, Borno state, told the delegation:
“Sometime in 2014, we were home when information reached us that a group of armed men were attacking houses and killing men in our village. My family and I tried escaping when my father-in-law and husband were caught by the Boko Haram men. The two were murdered, while my life and that of my 8 children were spared.”
Although it is a blessing that Martha managed to survive, eight years later this lady is still in a camp for internally displaced persons and has no stable source of income. Not too far from the IDP camp where we were, they had identified a portion of land where farmers—because they were farmers—could have produced their goods. It could have given them a reason to get up in the morning and a way to become sustainable. There are things that can be done.
If the security situation is not improved, however, and attacks by extremist groups are not prevented, more people will face this devastating situation. We were aware of attacks in the south-west of Nigeria, and in the middle belt where we were. I hope that this debate goes some way to communicating the gravity of the situation to our Government, so that they will do what they can to ensure that no one else has to suffer in a such a way.
We met some of the Nigerian authorities, including high commissioners and those in civil service positions within Government. We impressed on them very strongly that the one thing that they have to address first is the security situation, prevent terrorism and let people who wish to live together and who have lived together to do so. I will use Northern Ireland as an example because I have lived there for many years. The two communities were at each other’s throats for a long time, but they both realised that, in order to go forward, we had to come together. To make that happen, the first thing to do is to provide security and do away with terrorism. I suggest that the first thing the Nigerian Government do is address the terrorism issue in Nigeria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is always so faithful in his commitment to these debates. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this debate and for his excellent speech. I look forward to the Minister’s responses to his incisive questions.
There was a tale of two speeches at the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief here in London two weeks ago. First, in her keynote speech introducing the conference, the Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Liz Truss MP—
The Foreign Secretary commendably called out last month’s atrocity in Nigeria, when over 40 people were killed simply for being in a Catholic church in Ondo state, celebrating Pentecost. But that was no isolated incident, because on the same day, 5 June, there were reports from Kajuru in south Kaduna of Fulani bandits attacking the indigenous Adara people, aided by an air force helicopter, killing 32 and destroying a church of the Evangelical Church Winning All. Not a single terrorist was killed; 32 members of that church were. The following Sunday, 12 June, there were further reports of approximately 50 Catholics killed just before morning mass in Edumoga in Benue state, north-central Nigeria. In one week alone, over 120 innocent civilians were slaughtered in north-west, north-central and south-west Nigeria.
I apologise for not mentioning this earlier, but when a town was under attack right outside the gate of an army barracks, the army did not respond because it was waiting for the okay from superior officers. Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the major issues in Nigeria is the need to address terrorism on the ground? Only then can the local community get back to living a normal lifestyle in peace.
Indeed, it has to be addressed on the ground. It is heartrending that night after night, people are going to bed fearful of whether they will wake up.
The International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law noted in April 2022 that 4,650 Christians were killed in Nigeria between November 2020 and October 2021. That is higher than the 3,530 deaths recorded in the previous year of October 2019 to November 2020. It also noted that 2,500 Christians were abducted between November 2020 and October 2021, compared with 900 in the previous year.
The Minister will no doubt be keen to throw something of a contextual narrative on my emphasis on religious-based violence and religious targeting of mainly Christian victims. She will also likely note that religious identity can be a factor in incidents of violence in Nigeria and that Christian communities have been victims but emphasise that root causes are often complex and frequently also relate to competition over resources, historical resources and criminality. She might also factor in the pressing challenges of climate change and global food shortages. I ask her, however, to interrogate the repeated number of attacks going on in the central and north-west regions of Nigeria. They are executed and co-ordinated by well-organised and well-funded groups, including the Fulani Islamist militia groups, as well as other terrorist groups, such as Ansaru in Kaduna state.
The appalling atrocities by those perpetrators, using sophisticated equipment including a helicopter, cannot simply be characterised as atrocities by local bandits. The killings going on, such as those last month, are not simply a clash between farmers and herders. Much attention is given to the security challenges in north-east Nigeria, rather than the central parts of Nigeria experiencing such devasting attacks. Many villages have been destroyed, and thousands of people are displaced. Some reports say that the Fulani Islamist groups have killed more people than Boko Haram in the last two years and are more vicious in executing their atrocities.
Efforts to rightly avoid simple descriptors of Nigeria’s insecurity as a religious conflict should not fail to properly diagnose the security situation facing Nigerians who get in the way of Islamist militants. The Minister will rightly reference that the nearly 350,000 Nigerians who have died as a result of Islamic insurgencies include a large number of Muslim victims, as well as indigenous, humanist and Christian believers. As the Foreign Secretary recognised two weeks ago, those are grievous violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, a right that should be available for everyone, everywhere—a universal right that only 10 days ago brought together over 1,000 delegates from 100 countries for the London international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. However, a country whose representative at that conference sadly does not truly get what is happening in Nigeria is Nigeria.
The second speech to which I wish to draw the House’s attention is that of the Nigerian high commissioner to the UK, who pledged to uphold freedom or religion or belief without hindrance, as guaranteed in Nigeria’s constitution, but then declared that insecurity has nothing to do with religion—refusing to recognise religious-based and targeted violence. Sadly, that speech risks perpetuating impunity for religiously motivated violence across Nigeria. It means that when the young student Deborah Samuel was horrifically lynched in Sokoto on 22 May of this year, having been accused of blasphemy—which was rightly condemned by religious leaders—no one has been held accountable for the severity of that crime. It is why there are reports of security services being at best absent and at worse complicit in violence perpetrated by militants.
In conclusion, I ask that, rather than follow the line of the Nigerian Government on security and freedom or religion or belief, the Minister follow the recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s April 2022 report. It stated:
“The integrated delivery plan should include concrete steps for how the UK Government will support the Nigerian Government in promoting freedom of religion and belief, as well as preventing violence against women and girls, across their engagement activities in Nigeria.”
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this afternoon’s debate, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for the thoughtful and considered way in which he opened the debate, and I thank Members for all their contributions. It has been a useful and worthwhile exercise.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the debate is timely and important, because this is a crucial time for Nigeria. We visited Nigeria just a few weeks ago with Baroness Cox as part of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. The purpose was to follow up on the APPG’s 2020 visit, and see what had been done in response to the report, “Nigeria: unfolding genocide”, which had concluded that Christians were experiencing mass atrocities and violent acts including killings, kidnappings and the destruction of property.
As we have heard, it was a challenging visit, particularly because we were unable to travel beyond the city limits of Abuja, and those who wished to speak to us had to travel vast distances to do so. Such was their desire that they did come; they came from Sokoto, Kaduna, Jos, Maiduguri, Lagos—everywhere. They came to ensure that the UK and UK politicians did not forget about Nigeria, and that they understood and accepted the historical and colonial responsibility that this country has for that beautiful state.
What was striking was that no matter where they came from, and irrespective of their religion, their stories were similar. They were all about endemic corruption, a lack of security, a culture of impunity, an absence of meaningful civil society and extreme poverty, coupled with the emergence of radical Islam. That has seen Nigeria at a tipping point, which could descend into chaos and civil war if nothing is done.
At one meeting, we spoke to Rebecca and Kadigea, two women who had devoted their lives to building peace and bringing justice to their community. Their assessment was simple. They said that the Government “is totally oblivious to our reality”, that politicians have nothing to offer except division, and that people, particularly the young, have been left without hope. That exclusion is one of the major drivers of the conflict.
As the hon. Members for Hendon, for Strangford and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) have said of the escalation of violence, there are of course religious leaders who are doing their very best, but because of rampant Government corruption, people have lost faith. They have lost faith in the institutions that should be there to protect them, and as a result, far too many now follow the voice of the cleric, no matter how radical that clerical voice is, because it has replaced the Government as the voice of authority.
In a country where everything is seen through the prism of religion, it is almost inevitable that religious violence will follow. I recall one person we spoke to making the very shrewd observation that in Nigeria, his homeland, there has been a big increase in ostentatious displays of faith—the prayers are louder, the churches and mosques are fuller—but there is less God. He concluded that religion is not about what you do, but how you treat others. How true that statement is.
A tipping point has almost been reached. Next year, 2023, when the presidential election will take place, will be absolutely pivotal for the future of Nigeria. Both sides have chosen their candidates, and we have a responsibility to ensure that that election is free, fair and peaceful. Regardless of the result, we have to support the new Government. What plans have the UK Government put in place ahead of those elections, because the clock is ticking and Nigeria needs real, meaningful change? Unless Nigeria is transformed quickly, it will be too late, and the nightmare scenario of religious-based violence descending into civil war could become a reality. Should that happen, the consequences for Africa, for Europe and for us would be unthinkable. I ask the Minister to think seriously about what this Government can do to support Nigeria in avoiding that catastrophic end.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this debate, as well as all those who have spoken today.
The potential of the people of Nigeria to shape our world for the better is enormous, but that potential is being shattered by terrible violence with increasing frequency and scale. The fear and chaos even risks the political stability of Nigeria, one of our most important partner countries. Many of us represent wonderful Nigerian diaspora communities, so we have a vivid sense of those links and the benefits that are on offer, but at the same time, we hear increasing concern from constituents worried about the safety of their families and terrified for the beautiful country that they love. We have heard about some of the atrocities that have been perpetrated on the people of Nigeria; perhaps the worst attack of all was in Owo on 5 June, which has taken the lives of 41 churchgoers to date, with 17 still in hospital. I reiterate the Labour party’s solidarity with the victims, their families and their communities. As colleagues have mentioned, there have been other targeted attacks on religious sites and leaders.
We need to see all of this in the context of wider conflicts and violations of religious freedoms for Christian denominations and others. In January, 571 instances of kidnapping and 314 killings of people were reported in Nigeria; the majority took place in the north-west, particularly in Niger and Zamfara states. Much of the insecurity is affecting mainly Muslim communities in the north of Nigeria, and we need to be clear that insecurity is affecting people across religious, ethnic and geographic lines in Nigeria. We need to support healing and peacebuilding, which means not fuelling narratives that are being used to stoke further hatred and violence. I hope that with the Minister, we can send a unanimous message of solidarity with all the Nigerian communities struggling in the face of that insecurity.
Nigeria is a named priority in both the Government’s integrated review and the international development strategy. I hope that we will hear more from the Minister about what fresh work is being done to put that priority into action. What strategic assessment have we made of whether the forms of support within the security partnerships are the right ones? Are they at the right scale to make a real difference?
I note that the security partnership is expanding to include programming on civilian policing and civilian-military co-operation, which are desperately needed. However, when it comes to UK aid, the cuts were brutal. Funding for bilateral Nigeria programmes was cut by more than half last year. So there have been specific requests for more assistance with tackling the drivers of insecurity. However, does the Department have the resources to meet those requests? How will we manage the sensitivities of the pre-election period while hopefully ramping up our support for security in Nigeria? How are we working with other countries, particularly with Niger and Chad, on some of the big cross-border drivers?
I know that the Minister will rightly talk about the work being done as part of the Lake Chad stabilisation strategy, but frankly the geographic scale of this issue has expanded. It is alarming to read the UK-Nigeria Security and Defence Partnership’s communiqué from February and to see north-eastern Nigeria being highlighted constantly. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that the security challenges of recent months have primarily been in the north-west of Nigeria and the country’s middle belt, and I hope that she will be able to say a little more about what co-ordinated cross-border work is planned to address the drivers of insecurity.
Those drivers are not new; they will not go away overnight; and we have to face the fact that climate heating is creating intense conflicts for dwindling resources such as water and fertile land. That situation interacts with religious and ethnic differences that mirror the divide between farming communities and herders who are often nomadic. At the most basic level, people struggling to survive are more vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups—not just terrorists, but bandits, too. The UK has a role to play in supporting the Nigerian Government to provide an effective response and I believe that we need steady peace-building, enabling the state to build public service provision in marginalised areas and, above all, to enforce the law and protect people.
We really have to be conscious of what happened in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, and the risk to democracy when security deteriorates. There is promising leadership against insecurity, especially in Niger, and I would like to hear how we are getting behind those efforts to expand and adapt the more effective approaches.
We know that independent, proudly African, human rights-respecting, democratic states can provide real security for their people, but we need to support states in demonstrating that against the challenges they face. Surely, that is the task, and if there is not success in that task, we are likely to see more military coups in the region, more terrorism, more frightful atrocities, more humanitarian disasters and more exploitative interference by Russia. If that happens, the enormous promise of Nigeria risks being lost and UK interests will be woefully damaged in the process. Let us work together to stop it happening.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Nokes.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this debate and to the other hon. Members who have spoken for their comments; I will try to respond to as many of their points as I can.
Nigeria is, of course, a priority partner for the United Kingdom; its success matters. Nigeria is Africa’s largest democracy and its largest economy, and it has the highest number of people living in poverty of any country on the continent. What happens in Nigeria has far-reaching repercussions, particularly, as the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) said, in the surrounding region, so the region matters as well. She also mentioned the vibrant Nigerian diaspora that we have in the UK. Indeed, the Nigerian diaspora is one of the largest in the entire United Kingdom, with more than 200,000 people.
The Government are committed to maintaining a strong partnership with Nigeria—one that furthers the links between our people and that delivers our economic, security and development objectives. As Members here in Westminster Hall today have so correctly pointed out, rising insecurity in Nigeria is a very significant concern and the country faces multiple and complex challenges, from terrorism in the north-east to intercommunal conflicts and criminal banditry in the north-west and middle belt, violence in the south-east and south-west, as well as much serious and organised crime.
Many of those challenges are long standing, and the causes are complex and varied. Competition over resources, historical grievances and criminality are key drivers, and religion can be a factor. It is notable that 2021 was the worst year on record for levels of conflict and deaths resulting from political violence. I know the entire House shares my sympathy and concern for the families and communities affected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and others asked what our Government are doing to support Nigeria. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned elections. The 2023 elections will be a significant test for Nigerian democracy. The UK Government will continue to publicly stress the importance that all actors work together to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections in 2023. The importance of having a peaceful transfer of power in Nigeria is raised with me not only in Nigeria, but in many of my other discussions with other African nations. We are supporting the Independent National Electoral Commission to deliver credible elections. We are supporting civil society to encourage women and young people to participate more meaningfully in the election process, and we are working with the National Peace Committee and a range of civil society partners to promote peaceful elections, which includes countering divisive narratives, fake news and disinformation, because they can drive violence.
On our security and defence partnership, it is important to remember that security is of course the responsibility of the Nigerian Government, but we support them in a number of ways. The UK’s Security and Defence Partnership with Nigeria is the cornerstone of our bilateral relationship. In January, the UK hosted Nigeria’s national security adviser for the inaugural dialogue in support of our security and defence partnership, and we committed more support to help Nigeria tackle its security challenges, including police reform, tackling serious and organised crime and countering terrorism. I discussed the rising insecurity with Nigeria’s national security adviser during that dialogue, which was very in-depth and took place over a number of days, and I raised those issues with the Nigerian Vice President and the Foreign Minister during my visit to Nigeria in February. The Prime Minister raised insecurity again with President Buhari at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last month.
Although we recognise that Nigeria is responsible for resolving its security challenges, we can and do help it to respond to insecurity and shared threats in a way that is compliant with human rights. That includes delivering accountability and justice to victims of violations and abuses. To support the Nigerian authorities, we are providing training, technical assistance and advice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon raised the situation in north-east Nigeria, where extremist groups including Islamic State West Africa Province and Boko Haram, and the ongoing conflict with them, are having a particularly devastating impact on communities. Those groups continue to target anybody who does not agree with their extremist ideology. The conflict has lasted for more than a decade, causing more than 35,000 deaths and leaving 2 million people internally displaced. It has caused an alarming humanitarian crisis: 8 million people living in north-east Nigeria are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance.
The problem is not just limited to Nigeria; it also hurts communities across the wider Lake Chad basin region, and that has even wider implications. We take a co-ordinated and regional approach to supporting Nigeria and its neighbours to address the causes and effects of the conflict. We provide global leadership, and the UN Security Council is working with others to encourage a regional approach to peace. Through the regional stabilisation facility, we are supporting initiatives to improve security services and economic opportunities for all people in Boko Haram-affected areas. Over the past five years, we have provided £425 million of humanitarian aid in north-east Nigeria, reaching about 1.5 million vulnerable people. That includes food aid, malnutrition prevention support and protection services to the 1.3 million children under the age of five, pregnant and lactating women and at-risk boys and girls.
My hon. Friend also raised the situation in north-east Nigeria, which has also rapidly deteriorated due to banditry, kidnapping and violent crime. Around 14,000 people have been killed in the last decade in the north-west, and that situation is spilling over into other regions. We recently launched projects alongside Nigerian stakeholders to tackle crime and banditry and counter illicit financial flows, and we are also using our development budget to support work to build social safety nets for the most vulnerable, including those displaced by conflict and violence in some of the worst-affected states.
Regarding human trafficking, which my hon. Friend also raised, between 2017 and 2022 the Home Office’s modern slavery fund invested just over £6 million in Nigeria in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration and the Nigerian National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons. That increased the capacity to pursue and secure the convictions of traffickers, and supported around 444 victims of trafficking.
My hon. Friend also mentioned kidnappings. Those occur across Nigeria, and are carried out by criminal gangs and violent, extreme organisations. We condemn all kidnappings and call for the release of all those held captive, and we are providing mentoring and capacity-building support to Nigerian police force units, which helps them to prevent kidnapping, protect victims and hold those responsible to account.
Intercommunal violence is having a devastating effect on those communities, and the conflicts are highly localised and varied. As raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is very wise, it is clear that religious identity can be a factor in instances of violence. In some instances, it can be the main factor; indeed, in some instances it is the main factor. I discussed this with religious leaders, non-governmental organisations and regional governors during my visit to Nigeria in February. They made it clear that the root causes of these tensions are often complex, and also include competition over resources, historical grievances and criminality. That is why it is right that the UK is supporting local and national peace-building initiatives to tackle intercommunal violence, including through our work with the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and National Peace Committee.
However, the UK remains resolute in its commitment to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between religious and non-religious communities. We hosted a successful international ministerial conference the week before last, bringing together over 500 delegates from more than 60 countries across the world. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for the tireless work that she does; the conference would not have been the success that it was without her work. Her role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief has had very far-reaching consequences, and I know that everybody across the House is deeply grateful for her work.
The Nigerian high commissioner attended the conference, but so did many representatives from across Nigeria, from groups promoting peace building, social justice and interfaith relations. I understand that the conference was incredibly helpful in helping different organisations to listen to those from other countries—to discuss their issues and similarities, to see what has and has not worked, and to support those networks.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the case of Mubarak Bala. The UK Government continue to follow Mr Bala’s case closely, and I have raised his sentencing with the Nigerian Foreign Minister. We believe it is the right of individuals to express opinions, and that that right is essential in any free and open society.
To conclude, I welcome hon. Members’ comments. I am pleased that they remember that, despite the challenges that Nigeria faces, it is a country of huge potential, and the UK will continue to support a more stable and prosperous future for it. Our aid is important: it has supported more than 2 million Nigerians to improve their incomes or jobs since 2015, and it has supported education in 11 states, reaching more than 8 million children since 2009. Indeed, the importance of education was specifically raised in my meeting with the regional governors. They absolutely believe that, to improve stability across some of the fragile regions that they represent, education remains key because it will unlock opportunities.
The Government remain firmly committed to education and to our economic partnership to promote mutual prosperity. We will support Nigeria to respond to its responsibility to tackle rising insecurity, and to do so in a way that conforms with international human rights standards and humanitarian law. We will continue to encourage the Nigerian Government to implement long-term solutions that address the root causes of violence and insecurity. That is how we will work together towards a safer and more prosperous future for all our countries. I encourage all hon. Members present, and those with Nigerian diaspora living in their constituencies, to call for peace in Nigeria, especially through the election process next year.
I thank the Minister for her comments, and congratulate hon. Members on the wealth of experience and knowledge that I have heard in the debate. I thank in particular Ayo Adedoyin and his team for allowing me to understand such a complex issue—although I must apologise to some of them for mangling their names.
To respond to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the asymmetry of the weaponry and the frequency of the attacks appear to constitute an ethno-religious cleansing. As someone who represents many constituents who have direct experience of the holocaust, I am guarded about using such language and I do not do so lightly.
I am pleased that the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religious belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), was able to come along to the debate, and that her deputy, David Burrowes, who was not here himself, was giving me updates throughout. He has visited Nigeria, and has concluded that it is on the brink of crisis.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton would agree that the arming of certain groups makes it clear that organisations and individuals are receiving weaponry from outside the country. In July, a Nigerian air force Alpha jet was downed by what was termed a “non-state actor”, but those weapons clearly came from outside the country.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) shared his experience of visiting Nigeria, which showed that the amalgamation of those groups into a terrorist group is a real threat to the country. If he was not able to travel outside the cities that he was visiting, something is very wrong. He mentioned support for the country, which is necessary for everyone.
The hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) spoke about official development assistance, which is important. It has always been my view that we should use ODA, not because international development is a charity, but because our spending should allow countries to prosper—it is in our own security and economic interests.
The Minister covered a large range of issues, for which I am grateful. I do not have time to go any further, so I will reflect on what she said.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the security situation in Nigeria.