House of Commons
Wednesday 7 September 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Good morning, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be here this morning in this role. It means that we will not be speaking to each other quite as much as we have done in the past, but I very much appreciate the way that you have interacted with me in my previous role; thank you, Sir.
I obviously intend to continue the excellent work of my two predecessors. I will be speaking to each of the Northern Ireland party leaders and will urge them to form an Executive as soon as possible. I know the House shares my view that Northern Ireland needs a stable, fully functioning devolved Government to deliver on the issues that matter most to people.
My right hon. Friend will know that Northern Ireland is a great place—a wonderful part of our United Kingdom. I warmly congratulate him on his new role. I know that he will do a fantastic job.
The main barrier to the resumption of devolved power-sharing government is, of course, the Northern Ireland protocol, so will he undertake to push that legislation through as quickly as possible and use an Act of Parliament to get it through if necessary?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her good wishes. I think she was the third longest serving Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I hope to emulate her and perhaps beat her record if I am any good at my role. I know the energy and passion that she put into it.
We are committed to resolving the problems in the protocol—ideally through negotiation, but if not, through legislation—so yes.
The Executive do need to reform. That is very, very important. Whatever issues there are with the protocol, there are very important functions and services that the people of Northern Ireland need to work, so the Northern Ireland parties need to form an Executive as soon as possible. The protocol has put up barriers to trade and other things. We can fix them through negotiation, but if we cannot, we will fix them through legislation.
I welcome the Minister to his new role. We are concerned about his politics, but the SDLP will work constructively with anybody to get solutions. He will be aware of the absence of a fuel poverty strategy and that UK-wide solutions do not account for the fact that 68% of Irish homes run on oil. They are proof that Stormont caretaker Ministers either cannot or will not see Northern Ireland through the cost of living crisis. We are concerned that the only trick up the Government’s sleeve appears to be one that will alienate a majority of Northern Ireland voters and parties, but we ask the Minister to commit to working constructively with all parties, with all identities, to get us through this impasse and see the people of Northern Ireland through the winter.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She had some experience of working with me when I had my Foreign Office role at the beginning of this year. I would like to think that we did work constructively together. I demonstrated that I will happily work with all parties and all communities in Northern Ireland and I intend to continue in that frame as I move forward.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place and pay tribute to both of the Northern Ireland Secretaries that we have had since July. I particularly pay tribute to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Shailesh Vara), and his predecessor’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis).
Let me ask at the outset whether the Government’s position on getting Stormont up and running is unchanged. To date, we have heard that
“there is no excuse for the DUP not being back in government”,
“Unless we get an Executive we can’t help those families in Northern Ireland.”
Is that still the case?
The former Foreign Secretary stopped protocol negotiations back in February. Now that she is Prime Minister, her team has been briefing conflicting reports about her intentions. We have heard that negotiations will restart. We have heard that negotiations will not restart and that article 16 will be used instead, or that the protocol Bill will proceed with urgency, provoking EU retaliation. This issue will have been covered in the appointment conversation that the Secretary of State had with the Prime Minister. It is imperative that he now updates and informs the House which of these will become Government policy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I had hoped that I had answered that a tiny bit earlier. I am keen that, in sorting out the issues of the protocol, we try to negotiate a solution with the European Union. However, we do have legislation ready. We have discussed it in this House. If we do not get a negotiated solution, we will legislate.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his position and look forward to working with him. I hope that he will be successful in doing what is necessary to get Stormont restored, namely removing the poison of the protocol. Does he understand why Stormont and the Executive could not operate while Unionists are required through the “Ministerial Code” and decisions of the Executive to implement the very agreement that they believe is destroying the Union and damaging the economy? I trust that, in his position, he will work vigorously to have the protocol removed and sensible government restored in Northern Ireland.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. The one thing that was abundantly clear when I travelled to Northern Ireland earlier this year was that the protocol was not working for all communities in Northern Ireland. Everyone had a different solution to the problems of the protocol, but the protocol was not working. I will work with everybody to try to solve those problems, and I will be urging him and his party to go back and form an Executive, because the best way forward for Northern Ireland is for it to have a functioning Executive in the future.
Does the Secretary of State understand that this is not just a Unionist concern? While Unionists are concerned about the constitutional impact of the protocol, the economic impact of the protocol, be it the 25% duty on steel, the 14% increase in the cost of moving goods to Northern Ireland or the reduction of choice for consumers in Northern Ireland, affects everyone in Northern Ireland, whether they are Unionist, nationalist or neither.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Exceptions
Clause 15 ensures that the Bill can fully meet its objectives by granting powers to make clear where additional elements of the protocol and withdrawal agreement are excluded, subject to carefully defined purposes. To ensure that that is done only if necessary to meet the Bill’s objectives, that power is limited to a list of specified purposes.
With increased exports, manufacturers in Northern Ireland rank trade arrangements as the least of their post-Brexit challenges, and Office for National Statistics figures show that the protocol has actually protected Northern Irish trade. Despite those facts, the Government seem somehow beholden to the minority views of the Democratic Unionist party. Will the Secretary of State abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and work constructively with the European Union to prevent a trade war at this time of a cost of living crisis?
There is a point among all that I agree with: it is important that we work together across this House to sort out the cost of living crisis, which affects everybody, especially those in Northern Ireland. However, I humbly suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it is quite rich for the Scottish National party to try to interfere in Northern Irish business.
Follow that! During her leadership campaign, the new Prime Minister said she was determined to deliver the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in full—no matter the consequences, apparently. I appreciate that the Secretary of State is brand new, so I will give him a multiple-choice question. On those consequences, will the Government a) risk a trade war with the EU and its 500 million consumers; b) risk inflaming a potentially volatile situation in Northern Ireland; c) risk people’s livelihoods and perhaps even lives in pursuit of a hard Brexit that has failed already; or d) all of the above, in ploughing on anyway?
I can 100% agree with my hon. Friend. He is completely right. It is important that goods and services that are available in England, Scotland and Wales are fully available in Northern Ireland and that goods and services can flow properly. The problems that the protocol has, probably inadvertently, put in place mean that that is not the case now, and we need to solve that issue.
I take this opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State; I very much look forward to working with him.
The protocol Bill is still to make its way through the House of Lords, despite opposition to it on the Opposition Benches in this House during its passage. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether it is still the preference of the UK Government to reach a negotiated settlement with the European Union over the protocol without having to apply the terms of the protocol Bill? If it is, given that there have been no substantive negotiations since February, when does the Secretary of State plan to initiate those discussions?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my new role; I really do look forward to working with him. Secondly, yes, the new Prime Minister said at every single hustings, I believe, that the preferred option is negotiation to sort out the protocol, but the legislation is there and it will continue through its process.
May I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new duties, and ask him to use his well known diplomatic skills and his deep experience as a referee in his new responsibilities? Does he agree with me, as co-chair of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, that there is obviously a landing zone for an agreement? Both sides say so. In his discussions with the political parties from Northern Ireland, can he press for and redouble efforts on discussions that yield a result in the interests of us all?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question and for the work that he does chairing that assembly. I, too, believe, and thought when I left the Foreign Office in February, that there is a fairly obvious landing zone for the negotiations, and I very much hope and believe that that is the case today. I think that everything can be sorted out by negotiations, but we have legislation that we will use if not.
Northern Ireland Protocol
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will be speaking to each of the Northern Ireland party leaders this week on a number of issues, including the protocol and, as I may have mentioned, will be urging them to form an Executive as soon as possible.
As the Secretary of State is probably aware, the leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has claimed that the Government have until now taken a rather differentiated approach to the parties, and only the Democratic Unionist party was consulted on the drafting of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Given the crucial importance of the protocol to our future relationship with Europe, to the future of the United Kingdom and to the people of Northern Ireland, will he do everything that he can to ensure that each party is consulted equally?
Cost of Living Increases
The Government have taken decisive action to help tackle increases in the cost of living across the entirety of the United Kingdom, including support for the most vulnerable households in Northern Ireland, who will receive up to £1,000, including a one-off £650 cost of living payment. Yesterday, our new Prime Minister, whom we warmly welcome to office, made it clear that the Government will announce further action later this week.
The Conservatives’ low-pay agenda means that public sector pay awards are insufficient, and are pushing millions of people into poverty. Health and local authority workers in Northern Ireland are balloting over poor pay awards, as is happening in Wales. Will this new Conservative Government end their predecessors’ low-pay agenda and provide the two nations with the required funding to provide an inflation-proof pay rise, which people need and deserve?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I preface my answer by saying that I welcome the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my friend, to his position. I know that he will engage constructively with everyone and with all political parties in Northern Ireland.
I was discussing the matters that the hon. Lady raised with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Jayne Brady, at the weekend. Northern Ireland has received the largest block grant since devolution in 1998, and as my right hon. Friend the new Prime Minister has made clear, we stand ready to make further announcements later this week. However, we also continue to urge the parties in Northern Ireland to get a reformed, devolved Executive up and running in Northern Ireland so that the people who elect politicians in Northern Ireland can hold them accountable for the decisions that impact their lives.
A quarter of all children in Northern Ireland are living in significant poverty—the same proportion as in my constituency in York—but that is about to get worse. It is an indictment of this Government that they have failed to protect children from the cost of living crisis and have failed to invest in their future. What fiscal steps is the Minister calling for from the new Chancellor so that every child can have a warm meal in their stomach each day and a warm home to live in?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the extent of the challenge, but as she is incredibly fair-minded I know that she will acknowledge that Northern Ireland has significant challenges that go back many generations. If, for example, we could get Northern Ireland to the average UK level of productivity, it would be worth some £16 billion to the Exchequer. If we could get the level of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland to the UK average, there would be an extra 50,000 people in work in Northern Ireland. That is the scale of the challenge that will face all Governments as they try to improve the opportunities for all communities across Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is poorer, it is less well, it is more dependent on public sector pay and it is going to be hit much harder by the cost of living crisis, so why do the UK Government not spend the £400 million that has been allocated but is not being spent because Stormont is not sitting directly on the people who need it most, rather than being preoccupied with cutting Northern Ireland off from the single market, which will make things even worse?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the scale of the challenge. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, came to Northern Ireland to meet the Communities Minister and the Economy Minister to seek ways that the UK Government could get help directly to people who need it so desperately in Northern Ireland. We are absolutely clear—the whole House will understand this, and my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State made it clear earlier—that the protocol is a negotiation between the Government of the United Kingdom and the European Union. We have committed publicly and straightforwardly to fixing the challenges of the interpretation and implementation of the protocol, and we believe that while we crack on with that, the parties should crack on with reforming devolved government in Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will know that the cost of living will continue to be exacerbated by the absence of Stormont and a functioning Executive. Protocol issues are being prayed in aid as an inhibitor to the restoration of Stormont. He has worked his socks off over the summer to try to bring things to a helpful and meaningful conclusion. Is he in a position to update the House on the progress he has made?
The Chairman of the Select Committee asks about an incredibly important point. Getting a restored devolved Government in Northern Ireland will help enormously in delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. We absolutely acknowledge that the protocol—its interpretation and application—is the impediment to the Democratic Unionist party going back into government, and we will fix that.
My hon. Friend is correct that I have spent a very busy period over the summer engaging with the Irish and elsewhere. I would like to place on record in the House today my thanks to the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the former Prime Minister, Sir Tony Blair, for their assistance in the work that I have done over the summer. This weekend at the British-Irish Association in Oxford, I had constructive and prolonged talks with Vice-President Šefčovič, and I am convinced that if the appetite exists, we can find a way to a negotiated solution to the Northern Ireland protocol in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland and all the people of the United Kingdom—and in the interest of finding a new way of working in partnership with the European Union post Brexit.
I welcome the new Secretary of State. I hope he has had time to savour those moments of ecstatic relief upon realising, as a former Chief Whip, that he no longer has responsibility for the Tory parliamentary party.
Northern Ireland has unique energy needs: a reliance on heating oil, different regulation, a preponderance of small businesses and very low disposable incomes. Will the Minister confirm that in tomorrow’s energy announcement, Northern Ireland will hear not only what will happen to it but when payments will start to be made?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question and I say to him that he is held in deep affection across Northern Ireland. He is right to identify Northern Ireland’s unique energy challenges, which I have seen and heard about myself on visits in recent weeks. I know that the new Prime Minister will be hearing those messages too and will want to update the House as soon as possible.
Let me use this occasion to pay tribute to the wonderful visits team in Northern Ireland, whom my right hon. Friend will remember—Nadine, Kathryn, Nicola, Helena and George. They have supported me so brilliantly on the 277 visits that I have carried out over the last 12 months as Minister of State, 107 of them to businesses.
Yesterday, the Resolution Foundation told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that there had been a disgraceful lack of discussion about the cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland. Ofgem does not exist there, so there is no price cap on energy; 68% of homes are fuelled by oil, so costs went up in February; and a non-functioning Executive means that there is no £400 support payment. Can the Minister tell us why the Government have allowed the people of Northern Ireland to suffer for longer, and how he intends to right that wrong?
I have to say that that would have been an absolutely brilliant question, if the hon. Lady had not listened to any of the answers we have given so far. I have pointed out that the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, was there talking to the Economy and Communities Ministers. We are working with every effort to try to get help directly to the people of Northern Ireland.
I have explained what we are doing in terms of the underlying economic challenges in Northern Ireland. I have not pointed out that, in addition to all that, we have made the largest block grant since devolution with £400 million on the new deal, £617 million on city deals, £730 million on Peace Plus and £2 billion through the New Decade, New Approach commitment negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). The Government are doing everything they can to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, as they are for people across the entire United Kingdom.
Justice for Victims
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know that I am fairly new to my post so, to be honest, I have not actually made an assessment, but the Government believe that an approach to the past focused primarily on criminal justice outcomes will fail to deliver justice and information to the vast majority of those affected by the troubles. The legislation focuses on information recovery while ensuring that those who do not engage with this process remain indefinitely liable to prosecution.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. During the debates on the Bill, Members from both sides of the House paid tribute to and supported the work of Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, who is conducting Operation Denton, which affects 127 families who lost loved ones in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Regardless of the passage of the Bill, I ask the Secretary of State to look at whether there is a way for that important work to continue, so that families in Northern Ireland can get the answers that they deserve.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. This Government support any work undertaken in Northern Ireland to tackle issues that disproportionately affect women. In May, my predecessor made regulations that remove the barriers to ensure that women and girls in Northern Ireland have the same access to healthcare as those in the rest of the UK.
I will happily write to my hon. Friend with more details about that, but the regulations laid in May take a dual approach. On 20 May, the previous Northern Ireland Secretary wrote to the Health Minister in Northern Ireland requesting that he provide a clear and unambiguous commitment that he will comply with the regulations. There has been lots more action since, about which I will write to my hon. Friend.
On the issue of women’s rights, this week Northern Ireland’s golden girl, Lady Mary Peters, celebrated 50 years since achieving her gold medal at the Olympics. She has inspired young women such as Bethany Firth, Kate O’Connor, Ciara Mageean and a host of others to do likewise. Now that the Secretary of State is in post, what will he do to promote women into sport and encourage them with not only active support but resources for sport?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. He will know that I am a not very good but passionate sportsman in a whole host of sports, and I recognise what getting more women involved in all sorts of sports can do to benefit communities, people, their health and everything else. I will do everything I possibly can using sport as a tool to both get involved in all the communities in Northern Ireland and try to encourage more women into sport at the same time.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
I would also like to take this opportunity to welcome the new Prime Minister to her place—and I know she will want to ensure that any statements will be made in the House first.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am honoured to take my place as Prime Minister in this House and to take on responsibility at a vital time for our country. I am determined to deliver for everybody across our United Kingdom. I will work constructively with all Members of this House to tackle the challenges we face.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Can I warmly welcome the Prime Minister to her place? This is her first Prime Minister’s question, and it is also mine.
In a leaked audiotape, the Prime Minister is heard saying that British workers need to put in “more graft” and that they are lacking in “skill and application”. She also wants to take away their basic workers’ rights. In my Erdington constituency, the latest figures from the Commons Library show that children in over 7,000 households are living in child poverty and that 68% of those households have working parents. So does the Prime Minister believe that thousands of working parents on low income in my community should just put in more graft?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her first Prime Minister’s question. What I am determined to do as Prime Minister is to make sure we have an economy with high wages and high-skilled jobs, and the way I will achieve that is through reducing taxes on people across our country and boosting economic growth. That is the way that we will make sure we get the investment and the jobs that people deserve.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hospitality industry is vital, and I will make sure that our energy plan, which will help support businesses and people with the immediate price crisis, as well as making sure there are long-term supplies available, will help businesses as well as helping individual households.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his welcome. I hope that we will be able to work together, particularly in areas we agree on. I know that we have had strong support from the Opposition in opposing Vladimir Putin’s appalling war in Ukraine, and I want us to continue to stand up to that appalling Russian aggression, which has led to the energy crisis we face now. I am against a windfall tax. I believe it is the wrong thing to be putting companies off investing in the United Kingdom, just when we need to be growing the economy.
I thank the Prime Minister for her answer. I ask because Treasury estimates are that the energy producers will make £170 billion in excess profits over the next two years. The Prime Minister knows that she has no choice but to back an energy price freeze, but that won’t be cheap, and the real choice—the political choice—is who is going to pay. Is she really telling us that she is going to leave those vast excess profits on the table and make working people foot the bill for decades to come?
I understand that people across our country are struggling with the cost of living, and they are struggling with their energy bills. That is why I as Prime Minister will take immediate action to help people with the cost of their energy bills. I will be making an announcement to this House on that tomorrow, and giving people certainty to make sure that they are able to get through this winter, able to have the energy supplies and able to afford it. But we cannot just deal with today’s problem; we cannot just put a sticking plaster on it. What we need to do is increase our energy supplies long term. That is why we will open up more supply in the North sea, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has opposed, and why we will build more nuclear power stations, which the Labour party did not do when it was in office. That is why we will get on with delivering the supply, as well as helping people through the winter.
I look forward to tomorrow’s statement, but the money has got to come from somewhere. The Prime Minister knows that every single pound in excess profits that she chooses not to tax is an extra pound on borrowing that working people will be forced to pay back for decades to come. More borrowing than is needed—that is the true cost of her choice to protect oil and gas profits, isn’t it?
The reality is that this country will not be able to tax its way to growth. The way we will grow our economy is by attracting investment, keeping taxes low, and delivering the reforms to build projects quicker—that is the way that we will create jobs and opportunities across our country.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is looking at this in the wrong way. The last time we cut corporation tax, we attracted more revenue into the Exchequer because more companies wanted to base themselves in Britain, and more companies wanted to invest in our country. If taxes are put up and raised to the same level as in France—that is what the current proposal is, which I will change as Prime Minister—that will put off investors, and it will put off those companies investing in our economy. Ultimately, that will mean fewer jobs, less growth, and fewer opportunities across our country.
It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister is not only refusing to extend the windfall tax but choosing to hand the water companies who are polluting our beaches a tax cut. She is choosing to hand the banks a tax cut. Add it all together, and companies who are already doing well are getting a £17 billion tax cut while working people pay for the cost of living crisis, stroke victims wait an hour for an ambulance and criminals walk the streets with impunity. Families and public services need every penny that they can get. How on earth does she think that now is the right time to protect Shell’s profits and give Amazon a tax break?
I am on the side of people who work hard and do the right thing. That is why we will reverse the national insurance increase, and that is why we will keep corporation tax low, because ultimately we want investment right across our country. We want new jobs and new opportunities, and that is what I will deliver as Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister claims to be breaking orthodoxy, but the reality is that she is reheating George Osborne’s failed corporation tax plans, protecting oil and gas profits, and forcing working people to pay the bill. She is the fourth Tory Prime Minister in six years. The face at the top may change, but the story remains the same.
There is nothing new about the Tory fantasy of trickle-down economics and nothing new about this Tory Prime Minister who nodded through every single decision that got us into this mess and now says how terrible it is. Can she not see that there is nothing new about a Tory Prime Minister who when asked, “Who pays?” says, “It’s you—the working people of Britain”?
There is nothing new about a Labour leader who is calling for more tax rises. It is the same old, same old tax and spend. What I am about is reducing taxes, getting our economy growing, getting investment and getting new jobs for people right across the country.
I am afraid to say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not understand aspiration. He does not understand opportunity. He does not understand that people want to keep more of their own money. That is what I will deliver as Prime Minister. I will take immediate action to help people with their energy bills but also secure our long-term energy supply. I will take immediate action to ensure that we have lower taxes and grow the economy. In that way, I will ensure that we have a positive future for our country and get Britain moving.
I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the House will be with the families caught up in the terrible shooting over recess in Kyle and Lochalsh, and indeed in Liverpool. I trust that the families will be fully supported.
Let me congratulate the Prime Minister and her family on her appointment, but I am sorry to say that her reputation for straight talking is falling apart at the first PMQs. After nine questions, she has still not told us who will pay for her energy plan. Today, the public are waiting to find out the response to the economic crisis, and they want answers. Will she finally answer two very simple questions? Will she freeze energy prices at their current levels, and will that be paid for by a windfall tax—yes or no?
No, it will not be paid for by a windfall tax. I do not believe that we can tax our way to growth. I want to see us using more of our UK energy supply, including more oil and gas from the North sea and nuclear power in Scotland. I hope I can count on the SNP’s support for that.
The Prime Minister may have changed, Mr Speaker, but it is the same old Tories shouting us down.
On her first full day as Prime Minister, she has failed to rule out a Truss tax on households and businesses. Instead of targeting the profits of massive corporations with a windfall tax, the Prime Minister’s plan appears to be a decade-long raid on the bank accounts of ordinary taxpayers. These costs must not be passed on to consumers and businesses by deferring bills. The Government must announce an enhanced windfall profits tax, making sure that those oil and gas producers pay their fair share from excess profits. Does the Prime Minister understand that her first act as Prime Minister will now define her: a Truss tax that households and businesses will be paying for years to come?
The Prime Minister should know by now that many people in the north of Ireland are starving and freezing in their homes. We need a tailored solution for Northern Ireland, but that is much harder to achieve because the Democratic Unionist party is refusing to form a Government at Stormont. The new Prime Minister has a choice to make: she can either be on the side of the DUP or on the side of struggling people in Northern Ireland. So whose side is she on?
I want to work with all parties in Northern Ireland to get the Executive and the Assembly back up and running so that we can collectively deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, but in order to do that we need to fix the issues of the Northern Ireland protocol, which has damaged the balance between the communities in Northern Ireland. I am determined to get on with doing that and I am determined to work with all parties to find that resolution.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and welcome her to her position as the third female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Can I ask my right hon. Friend why does she think it is that all three female Prime Ministers have been Conservatives?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her fantastic question, and I look forward to calling on her advice from her time in office as I start my work as Prime Minister. It is quite extraordinary, is it not, that there does not seem to be the ability in the Labour party to find a female leader, or indeed a leader who does not come from north London? [Laughter.] I do not know what the issue is.
I am determined that we deal with the issues facing us as a nation. We do have problems with our energy supply, due to the appalling war being perpetrated by Putin in Ukraine. That is why I will take immediate action to deal with the energy crisis; my Chancellor will take immediate action to reduce taxes and make sure we are growing our economy; and our new Health Secretary, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, will take immediate action to make sure that people are able to get appointments with their GP and proper NHS services.
All sides of the House should wish to help the Prime Minister to be successful in tackling the problems facing the country.
When I raised one of them in July with the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), he said that I could talk to the Housing Minister, but the Housing Minister retired within 17 minutes of hearing that. [Laughter.]
Will this Prime Minister look at why the Planning Inspectorate is able to overturn councils’ planned protections for green lungs?
And will she look at what is happening to the Goring Gap in relation to the A259 in the Worthing West and the Arundel and South Downs constituencies, because local councils have no role if they cannot protect what matters most to them?
I am a bit concerned about offering my hon. Friend a meeting with the Housing Minister, in case any ill should befall him. But my hon. Friend is right; there is not enough power in local hands at the moment. It is too easy for local councils to be overruled by the Planning Inspectorate, and that is certainly an issue that I expect my Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at.
Order. I want a nicer Parliament and that question was not a good example. I certainly do not want the word “corrupt” being used against the new Prime Minister. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) will withdraw that comment.
May I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend and welcome her to her place, but may I also wish her the very best with the heavy responsibilities that she now bears? Around 1.5 million households across the countryside rely on heating oil in order to keep their homes warm and cook their meals. They have faced price rises of around 130% in recent months and they are not part of the energy price cap. As rumours abound about what tomorrow’s statement may hold, will she confirm that those 1.5 million households—many of them in rural areas such as my constituency—will be specifically included in any mooted ideas about an energy price freeze?
I very strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are strategic industries that use a lot of energy. We need to do all we can to help them become more energy-efficient, but we also need to make sure that they are able to remain competitive in the global marketplace. That is certainly something that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at in preparing this package.
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on her appointment and tell her that I know my constituents want her to succeed at a difficult time? Outside the immediate challenges of energy and inflation, levelling up remains a priority for them. One way to demonstrate her commitment to levelling up would be to choose a town such as Crewe to host Great British Railways. Will she ensure that levelling up is at the heart of that decision?
Crewe is, of course, a great railway town—my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am not going to prejudge the decision that will be made, but what I will be doing as Prime Minister is absolutely focusing on levelling up and making sure that we are attracting the investment and growth into parts of this country that have been left behind, so that they have their fair share of opportunity.
We are facing very serious issues as a country, partly as a result of the aftermath of covid and partly as a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine. What the British people want is a Government who are going to sort it out, and that is what I am determined to do as Prime Minister: sort out the energy crisis, get our economy going and make sure that people can get doctors’ appointments. That is what I am focused on.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her position as Prime Minister, but I would also like to thank her for her support for my campaign to keep Doncaster Sheffield airport open. Will she now help further by writing to South Yorkshire Mayor Oliver Coppard and Peel Holdings chairman John Whittaker to remind them of their powers, duties and responsibilities to the people of South Yorkshire and beyond? Will she use the full weight of her office on these decision makers to keep our Doncaster Sheffield airport open?
May I, too, warmly welcome our new Prime Minister to her role, and indeed all her Front Benchers to theirs?
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and, as my right hon. Friend knows, cancer is still the biggest killer of children under the age of 14. Will she restate her Government’s commitment to publishing a 10-year cancer strategy, and can that strategy embed a childhood cancer mission at its very heart?
Cancer is a devastating disease, and it is particularly heartbreaking when children have cancer. We will certainly proceed with the strategy that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and I know that our new Health Secretary will do all she can to help those children with cancer.
This is why it is so important that we tackle the issue of energy. I will make sure that people are able to afford their energy bills, at the same time as dealing with the long-term supply issues to ensure that we are resilient in energy and never get into this position again.
It is standard practice in the European Union that when it cannot get its own way in negotiations with the UK, it plays for time and waits for a new leader who it hopes will take a different view from his or her predecessor. For the sake of clarity, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK’s preferred option in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol is a negotiated settlement, but that if such a settlement is not forthcoming, we will proceed with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill which is currently going through Parliament?
Let me first thank my right hon. Friend for his service as Northern Ireland Secretary. He is absolutely right: we need to resolve the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol. My preference is for a negotiated solution, but it does have to deliver all the things that we set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. What we cannot allow is for this situation to drift, because my No. 1 priority is protecting the supremacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
I do not agree with the way the hon. Lady is talking down our national health service. The fact is that our health service did brilliantly in tackling covid, in delivering the vaccine roll-out and in getting this country back on its feet, but we do face challenges now with the backlog following covid, and that is why the new Health Secretary is going to work to address those challenges.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment and recognise her determination to address the many urgent and difficult challenges that face us now. Would she accept that one of those challenges is an almost entirely unregulated online space? Would she accept too that no responsible Government can avoid the need for excellent, balanced, sensible regulation in this space? Will she therefore assure me that the Online Safety Bill will come back to this House swiftly for us to consider further and amend if necessary?
I can assure my right hon. and learned Friend that we will be proceeding with the Online Safety Bill. There are some issues that we need to deal with. What I want to make sure is that we protect the under-18s from harm and that we also make sure free speech is allowed, so there may be some tweaks required, but certainly he is right that we need to protect people’s safety online.
I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend and her whole Front Bench, and wish them every success in the new Government. I would particularly like to thank my right hon. Friend for her steadfast commitment to support for the earliest years throughout the 12 years that she and I have worked together for three previous Prime Ministers. Can I ask her now to renew her commitment to rolling out “The best start for life”, to give every baby the best chance of leading a fulfilling life?
My right hon. Friend has done such a fantastic job championing this issue and developing the policies, and I am committed to following through on delivering for children, because we know that intervening early and helping children early is the best way to help those children to have a successful childhood and, ultimately, a fulfilled life.
Avanti West Coast
The current west coast franchise agreement is due to expire on 16 October. As with all contract awards, the Government will act in accordance with the Railways Act 1993 section 26(1) franchising policy statement, and a decision has yet to be taken by the Secretary of State. Given the market and the commercially sensitive nature of the outcome, further information cannot be provided at this time.
Like all operators, Avanti has used a degree of rest-day working to operate its timetable. In essence, this means that drivers have been volunteering to work the additional shifts over and above their contracted hours. The industry arrangement has been in place for many years, to the benefit of the drivers, the operators and indeed the passengers. Avanti has a rest-day working arrangement that remains in place with the ASLEF union, which represents about 95% of the drivers.
However, on 30 July this year Avanti experienced an unprecedented, immediate and near total cessation of drivers volunteering to work passenger trains on their rest days. This left Avanti unable to resource its timetable and, in the immediate term, resulted in significant short-notice cancellations. Avanti has reduced its timetable in response to the withdrawal of rest-day working. Reducing the timetable provided better certainty and reliability for passengers as it reduced the number of short-notice cancellations.
The Department continues to work closely with Avanti to monitor performance, while Avanti continues to review the demand data and the position regarding train crew availability to inform options to reliably increase services. An increase in services between Manchester and London remains an absolute priority and Avanti will continue to look for opportunities to support passengers and businesses along the route.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It is disappointing that the Secretary of State is not here, as this issue impacts millions of people in our constituencies.
Many of us saw the chaos at Manchester Piccadilly, London Euston and several other stations over the summer as Avanti West Coast slashed its timetables and suspended ticket sales at short notice, cutting key towns and cities off from each other. Now, in September, the problem has persisted and the chaos continues to blight the lives of thousands of people not only in my constituency but across the north-west of England and other parts of the UK. Avanti says that this has been caused by “unofficial strike action” and
“the current industrial relations climate”—
phrases that serve only to abdicate management responsibility for ensuring that the trains are properly staffed.
ASLEF and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers members across the country have indeed recently been on strike in defence of their pay, terms and conditions—I pay tribute to those members for doing so—but their strike action has no bearing on the fact that Avanti has a business model that expects train drivers to work their rest days as a way of maintaining the service, rather than having sufficient staffing levels.
We know that there have been underlying problems at Avanti for a long time. Figures from the Office of Rail and Road for the first three months of the year show that Avanti’s performance was already behind that of other franchises, such as those on the great western and east coast main lines. The company was paid £17 million in performance and management fees from the public purse in just two years, including for “operational performance”, “customer experience” and
“acting as a good and efficient operator”.
Anyone who has been on Avanti trains knows that that is absolutely untrue.
Now, customers are unable to purchase return tickets when seats for one leg have not been released, forcing people to buy two singles or open returns at greater cost; there continues to be a lack of clarity and certainty around the release of tickets; and many outlets still say “sold out”, leading people to believe there are no tickets left. My constituents, and all those who use this vital service, need and deserve clarity. We have seen poorer performance, with the threat of the closure of ticket offices, yet higher fares. It simply does not add up.
The previous Prime Minister and his Government preached levelling up, but by failing to address this crisis the Government are causing huge economic damage to Stockport, Greater Manchester and other areas across the north. As cleaners, guards, drivers and other rail staff work hard to provide a good service, the company and its management continually let the public down.
Did the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), approve the decision to cut Avanti’s timetable? Could the Minister tell the House who is incurring the revenue loss following the cuts to Avanti’s timetable—the train operator of the taxpayer? When will the Department for Transport come up with a proper plan to end this chaos so that the route is properly up and running again? Rail passengers deserve much better.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker—thank you.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points. I completely understand the frustration and disappointment, but more than anything the need to give passengers the confidence in our rail sector to know that their train services will be safe, affordable and reliable.
This is a long-standing challenge. As I have already set out, the rest-day working agreement has been in place for many years, but it is a way of working that can no longer continue in a modern-day rail service. Part of the challenge is with recruitment and retention, which is why we are working to improve the gender balance among drivers, which is woefully low, and to improve the age diversity of drivers. When the average age is 51 years and the average age of retirement is 59, we clearly have a problem with retention. That is where we are focusing our efforts, in partnership with Avanti and all train operators.
I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. At the heart of this are the passengers who are losing out yet again, and I absolutely agree with the Minister that we cannot run the rail system in such an antiquated fashion, with train operators not able to fix in advance when their staff will be rostered. I hope there will be some changes on that. The transport Bill and the formation of Great British Railways will provide many of the solutions to transform the railways. Is the Bill’s Second Reading still on track to be delivered this autumn?
Thank you for granting this important urgent question, Mr Speaker.
Avanti West Coast’s decision to slash services on the UK’s busiest rail route has left passengers facing chaos; it has lost more than 220,000 seats per week between our major towns and cities. The damage that this shambles is doing to the regional economy and the public purse is enormous, yet, incredibly, it was signed off by the Government. Ministers have let this failing operator get away with appalling performance for far too long: the fewest trains on time; more complaints than any other operator; and a wholesale failure to train new drivers. A serving Transport Minister in the Lords has admitted that its performance is “terrible”.
Despite that, this Department has handed tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in performance and management fees, which have then been pocketed by shareholders, including—you could not make this up—a £4 million bonus for “customer performance”. What passengers need to hear today is a plan to get this vital line back on track, because those who rely on this service are tired of excuses. It is not sustainable or reasonable to continue to rely on the good will of drivers to work on their rest days, so will the Minister demand an urgent plan from the operator to restore the timetable, as she is perfectly entitled to do under the contract? Will she commit to claw back taxpayers’ money for services that have not run? Will she tell the House why, despite a contractual obligation to train new drivers, Avanti has comprehensively failed to do so? Above all, will she ask the new Secretary of State to guarantee that there will be no more reward for failure and to strip Avanti of its contract when it comes up for renewal next month? This ongoing fiasco is causing real damage to the economy, passengers and the public. The Ministers must stop washing their hands of responsibility and, finally, intervene.
I completely agree with the shadow spokeslady on the need to modernise the workforce. People volunteering to work rest days is no longer a sustainable way to run the rail sector, and that is what we are tackling. On timetabling, however, it is surely better to provide certainty over uncertainty. The timetabling decision was made so that at least passengers could be provided with the confidence that the trains they see on the timetable will be running—they certainly were not previously. She will know that the rewards decision is an independent decision, and in some aspects Avanti performed well and in others it certainly did not. As I am sure she will know, the decision to be taken on 16 October is a commercially sensitive one, which I will not discuss, not least because I am not the rail Minister. I have every confidence, because the Secretary of State said so yesterday evening, that she will be meeting stakeholders, including those in the rail sector, and a new rail Minister will be appointed very shortly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her response to this urgent question. The blame lies on both sides: the unofficial strikes are completely unwarranted and are causing immense trouble for my constituents, who are given the most appalling treatment as a result of those strikes. Furthermore, Avanti itself has got to get its act together, and get it together soon. I have been using this line on the west coast for 37 years, since I first came into Parliament, and I have never seen it in such a state as it is in at the moment. Finally, as HS2 is part of this argument, I just want to say that it is a white elephant, and I hope the Prime Minister will get rid of it as soon as possible, certainly from Birmingham northwards.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes excellent points. I wholeheartedly agree that the situation is untenable and needs to be improved. I also travel frequently—indeed, most weeks—on my journey down to London on Northern, TransPennine and Avanti services into London Euston, so I share the challenges and the pain that those undertaking journeys to Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow Central and Manchester are currently enduring. That is why we are working hard in the Department for Transport with our train operating companies, particularly on the matter of recruitment, diversity and retention, to ensure that we have train drivers who are trained so that we can operate a safe, affordable and reliable service in future.
The inflammatory tone and language the outgoing Secretary of State used regarding the ongoing industrial relations dispute has been echoed by many operators, including Avanti. That is very much to be regretted, and I hope that new leadership changes this.
Reports last week suggested that Avanti was being considered for a long-term contract award. Is there any truth to those reports, and what discussions are taking place about using the operator of last resort to take over services? Avanti paid out £11 million in dividends to shareholders last year, 30% of which went to the Italian state-owned operator Trenitalia. It is a clear sign of the failure of privatised rail operators when profits are being used to subsidise public transport in Italy, rather than the UK, so what discussions are being had with the Scottish Government about the situation at Avanti and, more broadly, how Scotland was able to nationalise our franchise and how DfT can learn from that process?
A quarter of TransPennine routes are also being suspended next week, in addition to the Avanti crisis. This is becoming a critical situation for Scotland and the north of England. Where does that leave the integrated rail plan? Lastly, what assessment have the Government made of the economic impact on the north of England and Scotland of Avanti and TransPennine scrapping their services?
I understand the challenges, particularly on that Glasgow Central train, which I travel on as well. All options are on the table for the discussions on 16 October as to how we will proceed, but information about those discussions is commercially sensitive at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for her statement to the House. Given that ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, has pumped in a quarter of a million pounds to the Labour party, does she also call on Opposition Members to condemn these strikes? Those who have a lot to say should make clear their other interests, which I am not sure they have done so far.
My hon. Friend speaks from experience and makes an excellent point. I think all of us across this House want the same thing: for passengers to be sure that they can enjoy a safe, affordable and reliable train service. As to how we are moving forward, when 95% of train drivers are represented by ASLEF and the remaining train drivers are predominantly represented by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, any of us in this House with communication channels open to those unions could make the point that the way we will have a sustainable rail sector in future, with more passengers travelling by train, is for those passengers to be confident that those trains will be driven, whether or not it is a rest day.
The Minister said that she would prefer passengers to have certainty, rather than uncertainty. I think we would all agree, but the only certainty for passengers at the moment is that they still cannot book a seat on Avanti services on virtually any weekend between now and November. When will the Government demand a legally binding plan—as they are entitled to do under the contract—to restore the timetable, and when will that proper timetable be restored?
I understand the challenge, but however we cut this cake, we need the same ingredients: we need train drivers to drive the trains. There is a finite number of qualified, trained train drivers who can drive those routes, and it takes on average two years to recruit and train a train driver. Avanti has a particular challenge because it only had the contract for 16 weeks before we, the Government, stepped in on 1 March. That is not an excuse—I am just pointing out the facts to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). That is what we are dealing with; that is the challenge that my Department, Avanti and, indeed, all train operators face. This challenge is not limited to just Avanti: it is affecting all train operators at the moment, which is why we are so focused on the solution.
The service provided by Avanti on the west coast is incredibly important to my constituents in Rugby, especially as the railways are shifting towards being used more for leisure than for business commuting. Does the Minister agree that part of the solution to the problem is to get train drivers who work in a service that operates seven days a week to work to the same terms and conditions as workers in hospitality, health and care, and elsewhere who also serve the public at weekends?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Of course trains need to operate seven days a week, which is why the system of train drivers volunteering to work on those rest days is no longer sustainable. A 35-hour shift and volunteering to work rest days, while it has provided considerable extra income for train drivers, is no longer sustainable. That is exactly what we will tackle through the modernising workforce programme and Great British Railways.
The Minister talks about partnership with Avanti. May I suggest to her that, if she looks at it objectively, that partnership is not working, and the best thing she could do is plan to get out of it? She should sack Avanti, which is not only not running services to Manchester—it has cut those services by two thirds—but, when it eventually gets passengers on to its trains, drops them off at unpersoned stations in an unsafe position. This is not just about running services: Avanti is a dreadful company, and should not continue with this franchise.
As I set out previously, Avanti has particular challenges that other train operating companies do not, in that it took over from Virgin and had 16 weeks before the pandemic hit. The very nature of training drivers requires close contact in a cab, which has prevented Avanti from being able to recruit and train the necessary number of drivers. Again, that is not an excuse; it is the reality of the situation.
I met with Avanti and the West Coast Partnership yesterday at the Women in Transport event, where we discussed the need to improve the current 12% level of women train drivers. When 51% of society is women, the train driving sector and the transport sector more widely are clearly missing out on incredible talent across this country. We are talking to Avanti about how they will recruit those train drivers, because whoever runs these trains, they do need to be driven.
There is now, at best, one through train per day from Holyhead to London. Any travellers from north Wales who wish to go along the north Wales main line have to change once, or perhaps twice; in other words, the north Wales main line has been reduced to the status of a branch line. Whether that is the fault of Avanti—and I am bound to say that I do attribute a lot of blame to Avanti—it is an unacceptable state of affairs for the travelling public of north Wales, so can my hon. Friend give her best estimate as to when a decent train service will be restored to north Wales?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct: the service to north Wales is unacceptable. That is why the decision that will be taken on 16 October will bear in mind how swiftly we can improve that service to north Wales and, indeed, all the other stations that Avanti West Coast connects people to.
Avanti West Coast is causing chaos for my constituents, who are still unable to book a seat on virtually any weekend between now and November. When I contacted the Secretary of State’s predecessor about this issue over the summer recess, his Department had the temerity to blame the disruption on unofficial strike action rather than on Avanti’s woeful failure to recruit new train drivers. Those claims have been rightly denounced by the rail unions as untrue. Will the Minister today commit to making a clean break with the failures of the past by refusing to reward failure and by stripping Avanti of its franchise unless immediate action is taken to restore the timetable?
All options remain on the table, and the decision will take place on 16 October. I think I have already set out the acute challenges that Avanti faces and I make the point again that it takes, on average, two years to train a train driver. These things cannot be resolved overnight. A long-term programme is needed to recruit train drivers to the rail sector.
I have previously expressed my concern that, having built up an extensive timetable to Lockerbie station, which is served by both Avanti and FirstGroup, passenger confidence has been completely undermined by the unreliability of services. TransPennine is part of FirstGroup, which is also part of the Avanti partnership. I do believe that some blame lies with First and the way in which it is managing these franchises. Does my hon. Friend agree that it urgently needs to not just get rid of the managing director of Avanti, but address its part in making sure that services are available and that passengers, particularly in a rural area in Scotland such as the one that I represent, can be confident in the reliability of services?
Absolutely. I, too, live in a rural area and recognise how important a safe, reliable and affordable rail service is for passengers, especially when they do not have other options. I reiterate that a decision will be taken on 16 October. All options remain on the table. There is no excuse for Avanti’s inability over recent years to recruit sufficient numbers of train drivers. However, we do have a finite number of train drivers in the UK, and so recruiting more train drivers must be our priority. The most important thing is to recruit more people into the transport sector. We can all play a part in that. There are fantastic careers and brilliant qualifications in the transport sector, as I learned yesterday at the women in transport event. My message to all parliamentarians is to work with me in the Department for Transport to convey the great opportunities and careers that are available in the transport sector and also for train drivers.
I declare an interest as vice-chair of the west coast main line all-party parliamentary group and as someone who spends a huge amount of my life on the west coast main line. If we follow the logic of the Minister’s argument that some of this comes down to staffing and the workforce, would she agree that the Department for Transport and Avanti have to move away from the anti-union rhetoric that was perpetuated so often by the former Secretary of State? We have heard today, in several contributions, Members talking nonsense about unofficial strikes. If she thinks that the workforce is the most important element here, how does that inflammatory language help the situation?
I certainly have not used inflammatory language. My husband is a member of the GMB union and I believe that my salary contributes every month to its upkeep.
On the west coast main line, 500,000 seats are still provided every week. Yes, we have seen a dramatic reduction, but I do agree that we need to work with all partners and all stakeholders to resolve this urgent situation for the benefit of passengers, to decarbonise the transport sector, to reduce emissions, to cut the congestion on our roads and to ensure that we have a sustainable, safe, affordable and reliable train service in the future. That is common sense.
I am grateful to the Minister for her update. I, too, met Avanti representatives last week. They told me that they had reduced the number of trains from Euston from nine to four an hour. My constituents are telling me that they are unable to get advance tickets more than three days before travel. Will the Minister take some practical steps with Avanti and, now that it has a core emergency timetable, ask that it release advance tickets further in advance— perhaps at least three or four days in advance of when people need to travel—so that constituents know that they can travel with some certainty?
When just 53% of Avanti trains are arriving on time, it comes as no surprise that I have been inundated with complaints. I have lost count of the number of constituents who have been in touch with me really frustrated by their experience of Avanti. They talk of trains being cancelled, trains being delayed, and seats being double booked. Does the Minister think that the £4 million bonus that Avanti got for customer satisfaction and performance would perhaps have been better spent on driver recruitment and training?
As my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour well knows—she often travels on the same train as me between London and Cumbria—the quality and quantity of services have dropped significantly. These short-term cancellations are really affecting our constituents. They are missing their connections with Northern, which, by the way, is experiencing similar issues on its line. Whether these problems are down to unofficial strike action or problems with Avanti and Northern management, will my hon. Friend assure me that the new Secretary of State will be getting a grip on this issue so that our constituents do not have to live with this for much longer?
Absolutely. I understand the challenges, particularly on the Cumbrian coast line. I have spoken to passengers who have suffered the pain of having their last train cancelled. I for one would like to see that policy come to an end. That is why we have taken the difficult decision to reduce the timetable so that we can provide certainty and avoid people expecting a train to be running and then being told at the last minute that it will not run. That is in nobody’s best interests. On whether these are unofficial strikes, the reality is that, for something like 20 years, train drivers have been happy to work their rest days. The fact is that they are now no longer willing to do so, which has taken out of service around 40 of the 50 drivers who regularly work their rest days. We can all appreciate the immediate challenge that that has placed on Avanti, which, as I understand it, is the only train operating company to have endured such a harsh, urgent and immediate step by their train drivers.
Passengers are sick and tired of delays, cancellations, reduced timetables, and an inability to book tickets in advance. We have a bizarre situation where Avanti received £4 million as a reward for customer service. It is now time for the Minister and the new Secretary of State to intervene and remove the franchise from the company and put in place a publicly owned and publicly controlled franchise.
So the hon. Gentleman says. I am not so convinced by what he says. There have been considerable benefits from the privatisation of the train sector. We have seen a doubling of passengers and many, many improvements. Nobody is saying that the current situation is acceptable. That is why we are looking at this and why all options remain on the table, but I am not quite as convinced as he might be about the solution.
I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for tabling this urgent question. Even though Avanti has a reduced timetable, it has not provided reliability. It is still cancelling trains and it still will not take advance bookings. Whether it is ASLEF and its actions, which are not helpful, or the effect of covid and many drivers’ not coming back to work, my hon. Friend the Minister is quite right to acknowledge that Avanti’s system of running its business is the main aggravator. We must put out thanks from my constituents in Lichfield, who at least are able to use London Northwestern Railway, which after a shaky start is now providing a very reliable service every hour down to London, but what steps can the Government take, perhaps in October, to ensure that the position with Avanti does not remain as it is?
I agree with my hon. Friend that many train operators are providing a much better service than Avanti, and I am grateful that that is the case. We will learn from them and we will continue to speak to, challenge and probe Avanti about exactly how it will come to an agreement with its workers to ensure that we have sufficient train drivers to drive the trains as soon as possible. We recognise the importance of having a safe, affordable and reliable train service.
My constituent Lucy contacted me this week to express her concerns. Trains to London have been reduced to one per hour and are regularly at full capacity, yet ticket costs keep rising. Some constituents say they have been unable to accept work or cannot visit family because of Avanti’s poor service. Does the Minister agree that that is unacceptable? If so, why are the Government considering renewing Avanti West Coast’s contract in October?
We are considering all options, and all options remain on the table. Withdrawing Avanti’s contract is one of those options, but we must bear in mind all the implications of that. As I said earlier, we can cut this cake however we want, but ultimately we need the drivers to be driving the trains. That must be the absolute priority. One service an hour is completely unacceptable.
Across the west midlands and in my city of Coventry, commuters have faced a summer of nightmare travel disruptions, causing untold damage to the local economy. Commuters across Coventry deserve to be able to travel without facing delays caused by the Government’s inaction. When will the Minister finally hold the management team of Avanti West Coast to account for failing to provide an adequate service to commuters in Coventry?
The train service to Bangor in my constituency was never great, but now it is dire, with trains cancelled, trains late, trains packed, ticket prices sky-high and no reliable service to and from London. Visitors to north Wales are abandoning the train in Crewe and taking to their cars, and my constituents are driving all the way to London rather than taking the train. So much for Union connectivity—so much for green travel. Is it not clear to the Minister that Avanti West Coast should lose the franchise and be replaced with a public service as in other, more developed countries such as Germany?
While I have deep sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and indeed with everybody who has endured the pain of an unacceptable, unreliable train service for far too long, I also want to point out that we are working with Avanti and all train operating companies, which have had a particularly difficult time during the pandemic. I agree that it is unacceptable that people should feel the need to drive all the way from north Wales to London, because that flies in the face of our decarbonisation targets, adds to congestion, increases emissions and, frankly, is not the most pleasurable way to travel across the country.
I for one thoroughly enjoy my train journey from my community down to London, and I want many more people across this country to travel by train. That is why we have taken the steps we have, not only to challenge Avanti and all train operating companies on their recruitment, their diversity, on improving the fact that only 12% of train drivers are women and the fact that the average age is approaching the average retirement age, but to relay to the public the advantages of travelling by train, on which I am sure he can agree with me.
A number of times throughout this discussion, the Minister has agreed with hon. Members from across the House that Avanti is delivering a service that is simply not acceptable. Will she admit that her Department’s only logical step to improve that service must include removing the franchise from Avanti?
While it is my job to answer the questions, my question to the hon. Gentleman would be: “Where are the drivers going to come from?” That is the challenge here. However we cut this cake, the ingredients are the same. We need drivers to drive the trains, and that is what we are focused on.
The Government seem to think that state ownership should not be necessary, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) pointed out, much of the UK’s railways are already in state ownership—the states of Germany, the Netherlands and, in the case of Avanti West Coast, Italy. Is it not time that the Government learned lessons from Scotland and followed the Scottish Government’s example by bringing the railway operators and any profits they might make back into public ownership?
The reality is that we, the state, are currently paying for the train service, because it is unsustainable for train operators to pay for it themselves. I will take deep interest in comparing and contrasting ScotRail with other train operating companies; if there are lessons to be learned, I welcome them. All options are on the table, and the decision will be made on 16 October about which option will best serve our passengers, who are the most important people in this discussion.
I want to highlight to the Minister the impact of Avanti’s cuts in service to one per hour from Manchester to London, and of passengers being unable to book at weekends. A young constituent of mine who is a wheelchair user was due to travel to London next Sunday. She is nominated for a Shaw Trust Disability Power 100 list award. She has had weeks of uncertainty and now she has to travel by coach and car. There will be many more people in that situation who need accessible transport. The Minister mentioned certainty, but there is no certainty in Avanti West Coast services or with this timetable. Will she and her Secretary of State now act, and recognise that Avanti has failed in the provision of rail services and that its contract should not be renewed?
I spoke with a member of Andy Burnham’s office yesterday at the Women in Transport event, along with Avanti and the West Coast Partnership members that were there. I have every sympathy; I am disappointed with the service and frustrated that the hon. Lady’s constituent has had to endure such a difficult journey. The solution is to have train drivers working.
Whether we call this an unofficial strike action or not, a system whereby drivers were willing to work their rest days for extra pay has worked for nigh on 20 years, and with almost immediate effect one train company, Avanti, has not been able to persuade its drivers to work their rest days, resulting in about 40 out of 50 drivers who usually work their rest days not being willing to work more than 35 hours. I think I am setting out the challenge very clearly. Whether the franchise is state owned or privately owned, the challenge remains: these trains need to be driven, safely, by people who are trained. It takes two years to train a train driver. That is the challenge.
Today I think we have truly gone through the looking glass. We have heard from those on the Government Benches about unofficial strike action, but it is not unofficial, because the Trade Union Act 2016 makes sure that it is not. If Avanti thinks that it is, it has mechanisms to challenge it. The Minister has spoken about drivers working on their rest days, but the clue is in the title—it is a rest day, and there is no compulsion for a driver to do so. Does the Minister agree that the decision to award Avanti West Coast a £4 million bonus for operational performance, customer experience and,
“acting as a good and efficient operator”,
would have been better spent on training and recruiting the new drivers she keeps going on about? Is it not time that Avanti was stripped of this contract?
The Minister must understand that the problems at Avanti did not begin with the change to the timetable. Avanti has been a disaster for the communities on the west coast main line. It is not acceptable that we have just one train an hour from Greater Manchester to London; that we cannot book in advance; and that the cost of tickets is far more expensive than the equivalent on the east coast main line. Avanti has failed, so in October will the Minister look objectively at all the evidence and strip Avanti of this contract, because it has broken its deed and its word, which it gave to the Government when the contract was awarded?
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and I are due to meet the rail Minister next week to discuss the Chester to London line, so I hope whoever the new rail Minister is will honour that meeting. We have been asking for a meeting for six months, during which time the service has gone from terrible to non-existent. When I asked the previous rail Minister why in those circumstances Avanti would be granted a new contract, I was told that it was important to do so to ensure value for taxpayers and continuity of services for passengers. The question to the Minister is: how can we have continuity of services when we do not have any services?
One of my constituents has written to me to describe the chaos that she is experiencing. She travels on Avanti west coast to London for work on a fairly frequent basis. She explains that when trains are cancelled, particularly at short notice, the other trains are really busy. On one occasion she was on such a train. It was so busy that she could not get off to make her connection and she ended up going to London when she wanted to go to a completely different part of the country. Bearing in mind that level of chaos, why are the Government even considering renewing the contract with Avanti, and is it not time to bring our railways into public ownership?
I am not convinced that bringing the railways into public ownership at this stage in the way that the hon. Lady has described will provide the solutions that passengers are looking for, and that is why we are going to look at all the evidence when making our decision on 16 October.
As the MP for Glasgow Central, I know that the cancellations and lack of reliability from Avanti have had an impact on business, leisure, tourism and the many events that Glasgow hosts. People have to travel for longer and they have to go through Edinburgh, for goodness’ sake, which is a huge inconvenience and imposition. There is a particular difficulty for disabled people and those travelling with children when changing trains, so can the Minister tell us exactly why we have to wait until 16 October to get this sorted? Why can she not do more now?
Avanti’s decision to provide a reduced timetable was certainly part of the solution, although not a satisfactory one—far from it. I have said before that one train service an hour is not acceptable at all. I agree with the hon. Lady about disabled people and people travelling with children—I am a mum of four, and I remember when my girls were all under five what a challenge it was to travel by train on a good day. To endure delays and cancellations, and to be stuck on a platform with young children, or for people who are disabled, is doubly difficult. I have absolute sympathy with all rail passengers who have endured the trials and tribulations of delayed and cancelled trains. We feel the pain—I certainly feel the pain, because I am a frequent train passenger—which is why we are taking action to remedy this situation and provide passengers with confidence that they can be sure of a safe, reliable and affordable train service in future.
The Minister has varied between apologising and criticising Avanti. The one thing that she has not mentioned is the need to tell Avanti something very clear: get round the negotiating table with ASLEF and the other unions and sort out the industrial relations problem. It is a lousy employer, and a bit of industrial peace would move the railways forward.
Is it not absurd that the Government are pouring billions of pounds into companies owned by other countries’ Governments? Whatever the ownership of the companies, they are failing to deliver services but have been awarded multi-million-pound contracts by the Government. Avanti is supposed to run HS2. Should that really happen in the light of the catastrophic delivery failures, and will the Government look at a new operator for HS2?
I repeat that all options are on the table. The decisions on HS2 are a bit further away. As HS2 Minister, I can say that we are having those conversations. I am certainly speaking with Avanti and visiting all phases of HS2, both in development and in construction. Those conversations are live.
The service is a disgrace. Does the Minister understand that there is an urgent need for a solution—not a solution in two years’ time—and that it would be quite unconscionable for this failing company to be re-awarded the franchise in October? May I just say that it is for the Government to grasp the urgency of this situation? If Avanti and no other operator can run this service, may I gently point out that the east coast main line, which was taken into public ownership, runs more efficiently and reliably, and the fares are cheaper?
The hon. Lady makes fair points on the comparisons with other train operators, and we will that take into consideration as we make the decision on 16 October. To reiterate, that is 16 October this year, not 2024—we are not waiting two years to make a decision.
It is highly regrettable that the Minister has blamed workers in relation to this particular mess. May I recount a story from a constituent who is a lawyer who commutes to London? She could only get to London last week via Leeds at extra cost and extra time, which is an absolute disgrace. She said that that showed the Government’s disregard for the north. She has made a decision to stay in the north and reinvest her salary in the north, but apparently that does not matter. Is this the last-chance saloon for Avanti? Given that it is five weeks until 16 October, what will happen in the meantime? Are we going to have another five weeks of this mess?
Personally, I would say that the north is the best place to run a business and to live. I have considerable experience, having lived all my life in the north. On what we are doing now, Network Rail and Avanti are working to resolve the ticket issues so that they can provide those advance tickets, as I have mentioned. The decision on 16 October will be significant, which is why we need to take time to consider all the options, and to understand the evidence about which will provide the best solution for passengers, because that is the absolute priority.
My constituents, too, want to make trips for work or to visit family and friends, and they still cannot book a seat on virtually any weekend service for the next two months. News that the TransPennine Express is also reducing services seems to be yet more evidence of a managed decline of our railways under the Conservatives, so what guarantee can the Minister give the House and my constituents that, under the Government, they will have access to the services that they need, and when that will happen? The Government have known about the issues about months, so waiting again for months and months is just not good enough.
This Government are absolutely backing the rail sector, with more than £90 billion being invested in the integrated rail service. Great British Railways will seek to address many of these challenges, not least the modernisation of the workforce, which is absolutely necessary. I have absolutely not condemned the workers for this situation, but the fact remains that workers have been willing to work on their rest days for something like 20 years and they are no longer willing to do so, certainly with Avanti. We need to find a solution to that challenge, working with the unions but also recruiting more drivers and a more diverse set of drivers, and ensuring that we have drivers who are trained to safely, affordably and reliably operate the train service we all want—particularly this Conservative Government.
Jagtar Singh Johal