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Westminster Hall

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 7 September 2022

[Christina Rees in the Chair]

Cryptoassets: Regulation

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Government’s regulatory approach to crypto-assets and currencies.

It is good to see you at least in the Chair, Ms Rees, and it is good finally to be here to talk about a subject that has produced an awful lot of heat and often little light in this place—that of the regulations on cryptocurrencies. I hope you will forgive me if I go on at some length about the issues that I think we have to debate in Parliament today.

We should start with a few pieces of accountability as, of course, we are not quite in the post-trust era. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain, as well as being a vice-chair of the crypto and digital assets all-party parliamentary group. I see the chair of that all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), in their place today. The latter group is a relatively new kid on the block as it was established just last year, whereas the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain has been around for some time.

Let me come to the first of many aspects of what we can see as a sort of cognitive dissonance around the idea of crypto. Despite the fact that we often talk about crypto as a new kid on the block, it is now a pretty widely accepted concept, even if a poorly understood one, and I am glad to see that we have interest in today’s debate from across the Chamber—at least, I think we have interest from across the Chamber. I hope we will hear a lot of interesting ideas about what the future holds, and I will add a couple of suggestions of my own towards the end of my speech. Given that this is the first debate in the House on the subject, we require something of a tour d’horizon of the landscape as it lies today before we move on to the challenges and some opportunities that recent developments provide for the future of crypto.

Before doing so, however, let me place on the record my gratitude to the secretariat of the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain, led by Professor Birgitte Andersen of the Big Innovation Centre. Her leadership in creating space within the all-party parliamentary group to allow many of the big issues of the day to be debated over the past few years has been vital, and the work put in by her researcher, George Farrer—and indeed by his predecessor, Fernando Santiago—to ensure that the topics remain current and relevant has been much appreciated.

Through the forum that the all-party parliamentary group provides, I was able to meet Dr Robert Herian, now of the University of Essex, and I am much indebted to the work he has done, particularly in his 2018 book “Regulating Blockchain”, which will provide the basis of some of the suggestions I make today. If Members are interested in the subject, they should buy a copy of the book. I am sure Dr Herian will be glad of the plug.

For a movement that is often described as a cult, it is apt that crypto even has its own origin story: it was invented on 31 October 2008 with the release of Satoshi Nakamoto’s “Bitcoin Manifesto”. However, as with much of the myth and legend around the subject, it is unclear whether Nakamoto is a single person, or indeed whether much of the work was singly their own, given that theoretical work had been done on different concepts of blockchains, going back to the early 1980s.

What Nakamoto’s manifesto did, however, was bring the technology to wider prominence. There was a ready pool of adherents in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, who understood the importance of decentralised finance and the potential to move beyond financial institutions as they have been conceived hitherto. Progress was slow but steady at first, but it picked up in the middle of the last decade with the release of books such as Alex and Don Tapscott’s “Blockchain Revolution” in 2016, which was my gateway into the possibilities of the technology. That was followed by exponential growth over the past few years, with the rocketing in value of not only Bitcoin but other cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and the range of memecoins, which made up so many of the initial coin offerings that we saw around 2018-19.

All the way through, many have predicted a crash, but the pandemic lockdown saw crypto reach unforeseen heights, whether it was furlough cheques or the lack of faith in existing investment that drove the trend. The high watermark seems to have been in November 2021, when the value of one Bitcoin reached about $68,000. The ultimate symbol of the bubble may well have been the adverts during the American Super Bowl half-time break, with Hollywood A-listers such as Matt Damon and Larry David imploring us to buy crypto.

The Super Bowl ads were not just good at showing us what the bubble looked like; they probably go down as one of the supreme examples of what crypto’s contribution to our discourse has been: its unique culture. One had comedian Larry David decrying seminal innovations throughout history—the wheel, the toilet, the light bulb—before doing the same with crypto. “Don’t be like Larry,” the ad exhorted the watching millions, “Don’t miss out on the next big thing.”

FOMO, or fear or missing out—there are plenty of folk in this place who have that—has certainly motivated many to get into crypto, but so have a range of other acronyms that appear on the profusion of online crypto culture forums. I hate acronyms, as many of my colleagues know, but the one that struck me the most is HFSP—have fun staying poor. It is a motto that manages to encapsulate so much: the unscrupulous nature of so much of this mainly unregulated space; the background of so many crypto investors, cut off from access to the traditional markets; and the pervading millennial jokey humour.

I come to the first very important point at which more Government attention needs to be paid to crypto. The market has been allowed to proliferate, drawing in uninitiated small-scale investors, who begin crypto trading because they see only the upside: the market that lies beyond outright scams such as Squid coin or OneCoin, in which investments of dubious provenance have been hyped and pumped, attracting the hard-earned savings of so many people.

I represent one of the poorest constituencies in the country, West Dunbartonshire. I grew up in that community in the ’70s and ’80s and lived through what I believe was its ruination by Thatcherism. It is still a resilient community, but too many feel marginalised and remote even from our neighbour, the city of Glasgow. Many of my constituents are the type of people who have been caught up in the dubious practices around crypto, and I wish more could be done about it, especially as we head into the cost of living crisis. We need to remember that it is often those who feel they have nothing to lose who are the targets of scams.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this extremely important debate to Westminster Hall. Given all that he is saying, does he agree that consumer protection needs to be at the heart of a regulatory framework? We should highlight some of the good examples of innovative businesses, including in Scotland, such as Zumo in north Edinburgh and Scotcoin in north Glasgow, which are creating jobs in the industry.

I do not disagree, but I will talk later about the reality of the existing regulation and how we should lead best practice.

It is important that regulation is able to make a clear delineation of where the legitimate business exists and outright scam cannot. Despite the halving of the value of Bitcoin since its peak in November, it remains at a price much higher than it held a few years ago. Although many will argue over the inherent value of crypto, the market remains remarkably buoyant, despite all that has happened.

Many of the challenges begin with the merest definitions involved in the whole business. As I said, I hate acronyms. All the DLTs, NFTs and CBDCs are confusing enough before we even get to the question of what crypto actually is. Is it an asset? Is it a technology? Is it an idea?

Another enduring problem of crypto, encapsulated in that Larry David advert, is its novelty: the idea that we have a genuinely world-changing thing before us. That idea falls apart immediately as it comes into contact with the real world. As an asset class, it has proven to be resilient neither to inflation nor to external shocks, never mind the fact that conventional and centrally regulated currencies have continued to attract a far larger interest as a holder of value in straitened economic times.

It has been difficult to keep up with the pretence of some of the more outlandish claims about the technology’s potential, as they struggle with the evidence of the past few years. International bank transfers, for example, are still cheaper, when taking into account the need to convert crypto into fiat currency. There remains a massive legitimacy problem given that the post-truth aspects of blockchain technology struggle when put beside existing institutions.

Even the idea of a decentralised and therefore more equitable structure has struggled against the demonstrable fact that so many cryptoassets remain in the hands of so-called whales—the few at the top who managed to get their timing right or to be there when the currency started. Far from being a novelty, the lived experience of the crypto bubble has reinforced the fact that there truly is nothing new under the sun. While so much of it remains a new arrangement of an old song, we hear riffs that echo debates that are being had outwith the crypto bubble; debates that have resonance in the fields of economics, sociology or computer science.

Solutionism is the idea that there is a clever, technological answer for all of life’s problems and that, somehow, human nature can be overridden with the application of the requisite solution. Crypto fits squarely in that space. One wag called it a solution in need of a problem, and a whole range of problems have been hastily set up to be solved by it. As we will see, that gets entirely in the way of the more durable and sustainable uses that it has.

Principal among those is the way in which many adherents seem to revel in the way that crypto offers the opportunity to turn the current logic of most of the internet on its head. The current logic is that we are offered free services in exchange for access to our metadata. Instead, this bold new vision goes, we should—or could—monetise these fractional shares of data, which we give back to, say, Facebook or Google. The value of popular tweets that we make could be released, as could that of those Instagram posts that have been gathering likes but no dollars. There is obviously not the same value to be released for everyone, especially a boring auld guy like me. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friends. There is a lot of doubt about how much that value would ever amount to, but the principal argument against this sort of future for crypto is that it adumbrates a dypstopia where every single aspect of our lives that could be monetised can be and where our maximum productivity can be released.

For many, including some in the House of Commons, that is the final step on the way to a new liberal utopia, where we know the price of everything, although the cynic in me thinks that we will miss out on the value of quite a lot. Given the way social media has descended into something of a mess, catering to what seems like a mixture of our lowest common denominator and our basest desires, I am not sure that giving human beings the ability to monetise absolutely everything creates a positive incentive.

This idea makes the assumption not only that the technology is the most efficient way to solve these problems, but that it is the most efficient version of itself. In speaking to those who have worked on the technical side of the crypto industry, it is remarkable how imperfect the technology itself is, mainly because it has humans involved in its creation. To take one example, coders make errors in one out of every 10 expressions, or every three lines of codes—code that is, of course, written in a way that reflects the biases of the person writing it.

In cryptocurrencies that seek to use the technology to incorporate smart contracts, and therefore programming languages, that opens up a whole range of exploits, with systems not working as they should and money being vulnerable to theft. According to one estimate, 5% of all decentralised finance—or DeFi—funds are lost in that way, which is especially problematic when most of those funds are uninsured.

The technical issues are dwarfed by the environmental impact of crypto, which is a truly vast problem that threatens to undo all the good that it could bring. Essentially, the technology inherent in most forms of crypto—nodes competing to solve puzzles to access coins—creates the incentive to use increasingly large, expensive and energy-intensive servers. Not only does that consume vast amounts of electricity—the equivalent of the annual energy use of Argentina, accordingly to legend—but it creates another brick in the wall of a crypto oligarchy, with the largest investors able to control far more of the servers and thus far more of whatever cryptocurrency is held there.

There are certainly workarounds, and I hope to explore some of that in my speech, but as we stand here today, looking at the landscape, it is not only another challenge that cryptocurrency advocates need to overcome but, added together with the other questions I have laid out, it becomes something more significant that needs to be addressed if they want crypto to become part of their daily lives.

Before I am accused of being too much of a negative Nancy, it is important to understand exactly where we are at the moment, because only by doing that can we better understand the potential for blockchain technology. Then we can focus better on the regulation that we need to bring in to ensure that it thrives. My biggest fear is that bringing in regulation means changing so much of the culture in the industry, and dialling down so many of the solutionist expectations of its adherents, that it may not be possible, but I am going to give it a shot.

It will be difficult to push back so much of interest that has been created in the crypto community and it is important to understand what is motivating these investors, many of whom are young or from non-traditional finance backgrounds, especially as we stare down the barrel of a cost of living crisis and the inevitable recession that will follow. Blockchain’s genesis, following the 2008 financial crisis, is central to this.

The possibilities for demystifying finance, and for allowing normal investors access to resources usually only available to those able to access corporate lawyers, is certainly within reach, if the capabilities of so-called distributed autonomous organisations—or DAOs—are realised, not only as an add-on for existing companies, businesses and commercial practices, but as a way of creating a new type of entity that can avoid the pitfalls of oligopolistic capitalism.

Blockchain’s birth as something of a libertarian project has obscured the incredible potential for the technology to improve government efficiency, clamp down on tax avoidance and increase accountability for those in public life. The best existing example of that can be found in the Republic of Estonia; I should probably add that I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Estonia. Estonia began a roll-out of blockchain in its governmental processes from the Ministry of Finance, and in doing so made all other Ministries reliant on the technology themselves and ensured that one of the central pillars of the social contract—the relationship between the taxpayer and the Government—was radically accountable.

As things stand, the necessarily slow pace of regulation means there is every incentive for individuals to stay a couple of steps ahead of regulation, exploiting loopholes and bending the rules as much as possible. They are of course supported by an industry of enablers and administrators who find ways for their clients to keep to the letter of the law while evading the spirit of it, although often not even succeeding at that. That means that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is always playing catch-up, with any deterrence factor it represents always being ex post facto.

The radical solution offered by crypto is turning that calculation on its head, as Dr Robert Herian outlines in his book, “Regulating Blockchain”:

“Blockchain may offer an opportunity to recalibrate the power play between those who would engage in aggressive tax strategies and planning, and those charged with regulating or containing them by, for example, more effectively enforcing tax liabilities ahead of settlement on trust, rather than relying on bringing trustees to account post settlement.”

This is the essence of blockchain for good—an idea that the all-party group, of which I am chair, very much tries to promote: both individuals and the Governments they elect should be given the ability to hold third parties accountable in liberal democracies, and hopefully beyond.

In ensuring that crypto plays the role that it could, regtech—regulatory technology—will come increasingly to the fore over the coming decades. Given its traditionally attributed birthdate of 2008, we should note that crypto is now entering its third decade of existence, and I like to think that that could herald a new-found maturity. If there is something that we need to take from the recent crash, it is that the wild west days of crypto are over. Too many people have been affected, and too much is now at stake. The Government now have the opportunity to rein in the crypto bros and ensure they make good on their promises to investors, creating the environment for an industry ready to realise its potential.

In that spirit, I hope to make a few suggestions of my own about I think the Government should proceed. In the spirit of there being nothing new under the sun, which I touched on earlier, it is important to start with the Government and stakeholders understanding how much law is already in place to curb the worst excesses of a supposedly unregulated market. To quote Dr Robert Herian again:

“sandbox culture as the sine qua non of contemporary regulatory standoffishness at the state level has ultimately spawned the problematic regulatory conundrum with which we are now faced, one in which innovations and solutions have been legitimised.”

Quite simply, in pretending that they have no levers at their disposal, the spies and speculators who have proliferated all the way through our economic history have re-emerged in the guise of the crypto bros. The biggest step that the Government could take to redress the balance is to enforce the law that they already have.

Fraud is fraud—there are no two ways about it. The police are overwhelmed dealing with novel scams, but scams are what they are. Better training for those dealing with enforcement, and ensuring that they are able to work with those in industry who are ahead on best practice, is crucial. All of that cascades from an empowered and properly funded Financial Conduct Authority, which is not deliberately, as many have speculated, underfunded and under-resourced as a way of ensuring that many offenders slip through the gaps.

This situation has created many of the trust issues that crypto seeks to address: smaller-scale investors get stung by unscrupulous practices that larger entities can use an army of lawyers to protect themselves from. Although we could get into a long philosophical discussion about trust and the possibilities for post-trust, it is important to note that this aspect of crypto has not proven as transformational as many of its adherents promised.

The idea that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies would prove to be immune from inflation, speculation and the like has proven to be demonstrably untrue, as has the idea that a new form of stablecoin could come in as a forum of neutral exchange between the various types of crypto. The problems experienced, for example, by the Tether stablecoin demonstrate this. A simple solution whereby every dollar of the stablecoin is backed by a dollar of assets fell apart under the lack of accountability for the company’s owners, and the markets reacted in the way that markets usually do when promises are not met. In this place, vital to the functioning of any sort of crypto culture, the deliberate lack of trust—the post-trust aspect of the crypto stablecoin—came off worse after coming into contact with the entirely rational human instinct to need the sort of trust that has hitherto been provided only by institutions and, in this context, central banks.

My second proposal for regulation is therefore that the Government not only bring forward the regulation expected in the Financial Services and Markets Bill, but do their utmost to ensure that debates around that exceptionally important crypto development are able to be had in the House—and not only when the Bill is in Committee. The Bank of England published feedback on central bank digital currency proposals in June last year. It stated five core principles, the first of which is the most important:

“Financial inclusion should be a prominent consideration in the design of any CBDC.”

Paying heed to that core principle means the scales being tipped back away from the crypto whales, who are increasingly hoarding the new assets, in favour of the average investor, realising the potential that gave so many, previously excluded from the system, some hope that they could be part of it.

Similarly, the opportunities for Government to enable financial inclusion through the development of proposals for decentralised autonomous organisations are vital to ensuring that the benefits of access to stable digital fiat currencies can be extended to the broader commercial sector. I hope that company and contract law can keep pace with such developments in an inclusionary way. At the heart of that is, obviously, the Financial Services and Markets Bill. I hope the Minister will allow time in his remarks to elaborate on those aspects that may not come to the fore in the limited time that will be allocated to the new occupant of No. 11.

I have presented two solid, legalistic opportunities for the Government to regulate crypto, but I should also like briefly to touch on the opportunities that exist for the environmental impacts of crypto to be negated, with the creation of carbon-neutral data centres. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the renewable energy sector that the nation of Scotland is ultimately blessed with resources that should see us well placed to make the transition not only to a carbon-neutral future but—and forgive me for saying it—an independent, sovereign one.

However, thanks to the work of fellow SNP member Stuart Evers, we can see that Scotland also has the opportunity to become a hub for carbon-neutral data centres, which make use of three qualities that Scotland has in abundance: not only the technical expertise to provide new network security in large data centres, but the physical security offered by our natural landscape and the energy security provided by ready access to what are called dual renewable resources, whereby a primary green energy source is always backed by another green source should it fail. That is best accomplished by a combination of wind and tidal energy. Thanks to Stuart’s preliminary work, we can see that Scotland hosts a plethora of potential locations for such centres, primarily along our west coast and in the Orcadian archipelago. That is certainly not crypto-specific, but it is an important point to make when we think about the ways in which the benefits of a well-regulated and well-run crypto industry could be felt across these islands.

I appreciate that I have taken up quite a lot of the time allocated for the debate. I have set out three solid areas where this Government could legislate to better realise the promise of the crypto industry, but my primary objective was to ensure that there was, for the first time, a forum for debate on the many areas for regulation of the sector. I hope that I have provided a suitable introduction to the challenges and opportunities that exist in an increasingly fast-paced industry. I look forward therefore not only to the Minister’s remarks but to what hon. Members have to say about the potential they see in making crypto work better for everybody.

I intend to start the winding-up speeches at about 10.25 am, so if Back Benchers are kind to each other, there is no need to put a time limit on speeches.

I thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for bringing this important debate to the House, and for securing the first ever debate on crypto in the House of Commons—it is a pleasure to speak in it.

Before I start, I thank the Economic Secretary to the Treasury as well. He and I served on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and he has done an amazing job over the last two months as Minister. I hope that, in the ongoing reshuffle, he is rewarded for his valiant efforts over the summer holidays.

As mentioned, today’s debate comes at a time of great change, both in Westminster and in finance. The latest game-changing financial assets continue their exponential growth. Crypto—be it NFTs, CBDCs, stablecoins, currencies like Bitcoin or Tether, or the blockchain technology that underpins it all—represents a massive opportunity for British businesses and British investors, and we cannot simply sit back as the next financial revolution comes our way.

However, there is an issue: crypto is, by its very nature, a decentralised platform, with no ties to any particular economy or region. Britain is already world renowned as the beating heart of finance, banking and markets, so it is only natural for crypto to similarly look to Britain as its home. Equally, Britain should welcome the investment and opportunities of crypto. One of the major advantages of welcoming this decentralised platform is the benefits it will bring to the whole UK—not just London and the south-east. Cryptocurrencies can be bought, sold and mined from anywhere with an internet connection—something that the last Government worked so hard to roll out across the UK, and which our new Prime Minister reaffirmed in her commitment to us all yesterday.

Crypto really is an opportunity for everyone, from Truro to Thurcroft and Rother Valley, and all the way up to Scotland and Northern Ireland. If we first fix the problems with education and regulation, I believe we will have a thriving industry here in the UK.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. However, does he agree that there are concerns regarding the slowness to register companies in the UK, and issues with registration linked with the FCA at the current time, which are seeing some companies who want to be based in the UK now moving to Switzerland, France and other jurisdictions?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention and for all the hard work she is doing on this subject. She is right: we need to get these business regulated more quickly. We cannot rest on our laurels; we need to get things going, although that applies to all business, whether crypto or not. The UK needs to encourage more businesses to establish themselves more quickly, and we should have the regulations in place to make the UK accessible.

This new Government must look at increasing the level of public education around cryptocurrencies. The most common crypto-related Google search query is, “What is cryptocurrency?” That is nearly five times more common than any other. The public—from the schoolyard to the retirement home—need to be educated about the risks and rewards of this new financial asset. As with all new technology or financial tools, there clearly are risks. According to Action Fraud, nearly £150 million was scammed and stolen through crypto-related fraud last year. Educating people is the only way to ensure sensible decisions.

That being said, there are significant rewards to be gained from crypto, including instant free transactions, which will help businesses deal internationally. Meanwhile Britons will be able to transact in new ways that were previously impossible: they will be able to pay their energy bills per unit used, have their hourly wages paid on the hour or have increased privacy when paying for goods and services. Britons must be shown that the benefits are there if they approach crypto sensibly, but they must also know the risks.

That being said, given that crypto ownership is already on the rise, we cannot rely on education alone. The estimates of how many Britons own some form of cryptoassets range from 5% up to 20%, with that number clearly increasing year on year. As well as educating the public, we must rethink the regulator’s approach to cryptocurrencies. As I mentioned, there are serious risks involved in investing in crypto, even with the so-called stablecoins, as we saw with the rapid decline of Terra earlier this year. However, the current system serves only to suppress British businesses, without offering enough protection to customers and consumers.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, as I said, that fraud is fraud, and that if fraud is being done, it needs to be dealt with by the appropriate authorities? It is up to the Government to make sure they actually clamp down through existing legislation.

I agree that fraud is fraud, and that we must clamp down on it. We already have some regulation, but we are also in a new world. We need better and tighter regulation to deal with the issues that are coming forward. We should make sure that this Government pursue every single penny of fraud so that people get their money back.

Since the introduction of the FCA’s list of approved crypto firms, over 80% of applicants to join the list have not been accepted, and those firms were forced to shut down or move abroad. The FCA has worked quickly and effectively to install some form of regulation to ensure that the most important anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing checks are in place. The issue is that our system, and indeed our economy, has not yet caught up. The very nature of cryptocurrency necessitates that it can be securely used by anyone, anywhere, making it hard to successfully pass “know your customer” checks. Instead of relying on antiquated classifications, the Government must create new regulations for this ever-growing method of transactions, to nurture British businesses while protecting consumers and the public. The final proof of the ineffectiveness of current regulation and the need for action now is that 250 businesses are not on the approved crypto business list but still carry on crypto-related activities, whereas the list of approved, regulated firms has just 37 entities.

We have talked about the regulation of cryptocurrency, but I want to touch on one last point: the energy consumption. We need to look at not just financial regulations but, potentially, energy usage regulations. To take just one of the most popular cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin, according to the Bitcoin energy consumption index, the total Bitcoin carbon footprint last year was 71.73 million tonnes of CO2—the same as Greece. Bitcoin also uses the same amount of electrical energy as Norway. We are in an energy crisis across the world, and we must look at whether that is a good use of energy. If crypto is using so much energy, should there be regulation to ensure that it is mined or used using renewable sources? As we saw last year, China uses coal-fired power stations to help its crypto industry. We need to put in place regulations to make sure that our crypto is highly regulated not only financially, but so that it operates in a green and efficient way. There is no point going to a low-carbon future if we are undermining our own growth by having this energy-intensive industry.

To conclude, Britain cannot afford to ignore the potential benefits that cryptocurrency presents, but we must first level up regulation and education to ensure that we are properly prepared. We must protect consumers, investors and society but also unlock the economic benefits for the whole UK.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), and I thank him for his contribution. I particularly thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for raising this issue. He put forward a detailed but succinct presentation, and his knowledge of the subject is impressive. I thank him for sharing it in such a way that our understanding inside and outside the Chamber is a lot better.

As everyone will know, I am not great with technology. To be honest, I like to be able to feel my money in my inside pocket and to know what is in my wallet and in the bank, so crypto is not something that I will ever venture into, but there are a great many who do. I am aware that this is an evolving topic and has a lot of popularity, especially among young people, so it is great to be here to discuss how we can help people go about these things in the right way and, more importantly, safely and with the knowledge of what the gamble can mean—both success and failure.

It has been estimated that 2.6 million people across the UK use cryptocurrency, with around 100,000 people in Northern Ireland using it as a form of finance. Interestingly, from my studies, it seems that outside of London, Northern Irish people buy the most Bitcoin, with 15% of people admitting to purchasing it—I am one of the 85% who do not. The fact that 15% do tells me, first, that there is a great interest in it and, secondly, that many people have faith in it, and they wish to be reassured in that.

Why does the hon. Gentleman believe that Northern Irish people like cryptocurrency more than Scottish, English and Welsh people do?

That is a question I cannot answer. I think that there are those who are prepared to take a gamble and those who are not. Perhaps people in Northern Ireland like the element of uncertainty, or perhaps investors like the certainty of the value of their investment. I will give an example of that, because it illustrates the situation very well.

Some 38% of people in Northern Ireland say that they have thought about purchasing cryptocurrency but have not yet done so. What some forget is that Bitcoin is a form of finance. Some bars and restaurants across the UK accept it as a form of payment, so it must be regulated. What I am seeking to do today, as someone who does not have any real knowledge of how the system works, and what I always look to do, is to consider how we can do things better and how we can regulate crypto and make it safe.

We have heard many stories of how accessible and worthwhile Bitcoin and cryptocurrency can be. I know the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) has a great interest and knowledge in this subject matter. One of my constituents, who is only 28, invested £1,000 in Bitcoin when he was 23. The value of that today is £40,000. What an investment that young fella made! It was probably not a big amount for him, but at the same time he took the gamble. Knowing when to stop is one thing, but continuing the gamble and risk will not always work out well for everyone. People are making extortionate amounts, but it is important that the dangers and risks of addiction are highlighted. Those are some of the concerns I have on safety, and that is where regulation from the Government and the Minister would be most noticed.

Many have heard the story—I wonder how it could ever have happened—that in 2013 a British man accidentally threw away a laptop hard drive that contained what would be worth £280 million today, so cryptocurrency can be incredibly volatile and has been described as overhyped. The Bank of England has strongly highlighted the consumer risks of cryptocurrency and has tended to downplay the threat they may cause. In addition, the FCA has regulated some cryptocurrencies, which tend to function like shares or investments.

It is essential that cryptocurrency assets follow anti-money laundering guidelines. However, there is a link between cryptocurrencies and organised crime. Not every investor is involved in that, but clearly there is a link. In 2021, the National Crime Agency seized £27 million in cryptocurrency assets. The lack of regular oversight of cryptocurrency makes it attractive for criminals seeking to partake in illicit financial crime, not only in the UK, but all over the world. In addition, the largest seizure of that kind in the UK was undertaken by the Met police, when they seized £180 million-worth of cryptocurrency linked to international money laundering in London. That underlines the importance of regulation, and being able to follow the money and catch illegal money.

Although crypto can seem appealing to many, and a hobby for some to build their assets, the potential dangers must be brought to light. Government and FCA regulation is crucial to ensure that people are aware of what they could lose. There is always a risk with crypto, but it is about ensuring that people know the risks. The cryptocurrency market crashed twice—we, and investors, must be reminded of that—in 2018 and 2020, losing large sums of money for hundreds of people.

The Government have some regulations in place to address cryptoassets, but this debate is about doing that better. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire put that forward, as others have, in a concise and helpful way. I look to the Minister to share the Government’s thoughts about how that can happen. Finance is an essential component of our economy and one that needs rules, regulations and laws in place. We must get this right and protect people from economic crime, which is all too prevalent.

I am aware that this issue will be referenced in the upcoming Financial Services and Markets Bill, and maybe the regulations could be strengthened to offer us some reassurance. We must look UK-wide when addressing the issue. It is not just an England issue, but a Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland issue; it is for all of us together. I urge the FCA and Her Majesty’s Treasury to engage with local Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure the regulations are knitted together administratively in all regions, and to ascertain what more the House and the Minister can do to regulate the use of cryptoassets and currencies. Again, I thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire for securing this important debate. I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Thank you, Ms Rees, on behalf of all of us for saving this morning’s debate. It would have been a great pity if all the work that some hon. Members had put into their speeches had gone to waste. I thank my good and hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for leading the debate in such a well-informed way. From conversations I have had with him, I know that although he definitely sees the huge potential benefits of cryptocurrency, he is also all too well aware of the potential pitfalls.

My hon. Friend gave us a helpful history of cryptocurrency and, importantly, reminded us that it has a particular culture that some of us might be interested in. We have to recognise that there may be certain attitudes to risk in that culture; I think he used the phrase “have fun staying poor”. If people involved in those games—and they are games for too many people—are happy to stay poor or run the risk of being poor, that is all very well. However, many people are sucked in without understanding the risk that they might suffer significant financial losses.

My hon. Friend repeatedly referred to the crypto bubble, which is an accurate description. The one thing all bubbles have in common is that they burst; we have to ensure that regulations are brought in quickly enough to stop it being a bubble before it bursts. He also pointed to flaws in the way the Financial Conduct Authority operates, on which I agree with him wholeheartedly. He referred to the collapse of Terra, whose total value went from something like $45 billion to nil in approximately 72 hours. That is how quickly things can go either well or very badly in the world of crypto.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) made an interesting speech. He was correct in describing Britain as the beating heart of financial services, or words to that effect; financial services are a massive part of the economy of London and the whole United Kingdom. However, I would caution him that we must recognise the fact that, although some people are in denial, Britain—London in particular—is gaining a reputation as one of the best places in the world to commit financial services fraud. If we continue to deny that and think of it as a problem that will go away, the entire future of London as a financial services centre of excellence could be in doubt.

Towards the end of his speech, the hon. Member for Rother Valley made a strange comment in response to the reminders of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire about the huge energy input required for crypto to operate. The hon. Gentleman said that there is no point going for a low-carbon future if that undermines our economic growth. I gently point out to him that there is no future that is not low carbon. If we do not achieve a low-carbon future, we have no future whatsoever.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I hope I can refer to as a friend, admitted to being one of the 85% who do not own cryptocurrency. It is nice to see that he is still very much in the majority with regard to some things in Northern Ireland, although he might find that that becomes a minority at some time—who knows! We could have an interesting philosophical discussion over his wee story about the young man who made so much money on crypto, increasing £1,000 to £40,000. That is slightly more modest than others who have made gains on crypto. Where did that £39,000 come from? The world did not become £39,000 richer. The amount of money in the world did not increase by that amount during that time, so somebody somewhere was £39,000 worse off, or a lot of people were a few pounds worse off. Every time somebody makes money on a speculative investment, somebody somewhere else loses it. We have to be prepared to face up to that.

I hope the Government will take the same approach I do: clearly, cryptoassets and currencies are here to stay. We cannot uninvent them. The nature of the thing is that even if we wanted to, it would be practically impossible to legislate to keep them out of the United Kingdom all together. People we are responsible for will continue to get involved in crypto. They will invest in it, play the game and speculate on it; whatever terminology we use, they are going to put their money into crypto. We have a responsibility to ensure that when they do, they are not taking risks they do not understand or running the risk of losing money they did not realise they were liable to lose. We certainly do not want to see people losing money they cannot afford to lose.

The challenge is to maximise the very obvious potential benefits while, at the same time, minimising the risks to individuals, businesses and potentially—let’s not kid ourselves—to entire economies. This thing will get big enough that if it goes wrong, it could bring down entire economies. If it goes well, clearly it would have massive benefits for us all.

Consumer protection must be at the heart of the Government’s regulatory approach. I find the implication that consumer protection has been deprioritised in the Financial Services and Markets Bill quite concerning; it will not be one of the things to which the regulators will be instructed to give high priority. I urge the Government to ignore the siren voices of some on their own Benches who call for a completely unregulated free-for-all, which would be the way to absolute disaster for the many. There would undoubtedly be untold riches for the few, but it would be a highly irresponsible approach.

I thank my hon. Friend so much for giving way and for the important points he is making. I wholeheartedly agree that consumer protection must be at the forefront of the work that is taken forward. Does he agree that it is important that as many people who are interested in this sector as possible get in touch with the crypto and digital assets all-party parliamentary group, which is currently engaged in an inquiry into the sector, in order to consider regulation, recommendations and consumer protection, as well as the opportunities for growth?

I am quite happy to take that unashamed plug for the APPG. Given that it has been mentioned and will be recorded in Hansard, I have no doubt that those who are interested in its work will take up my hon. Friend’s offer.

Crypto has all the characteristics of all the great scams in history; indeed, it has most of them on a scale that very few of those other scams had. It has the possibility to become and to facilitate the biggest scam in human history, if we let it. We need to co-operate with other jurisdictions to regulate in such a way that means that the sector continues to grow and deliver benefits, but does not expose, as I have said, either individuals or potentially whole economies to unacceptable risks.

Although I welcome the Government’s steps on regulation, which I hope will be only the first steps on a much longer journey, I am concerned that what has been offered to date has been a patchy and piecemeal approach to regulation, compared to the far more comprehensive proposals in, for example, the EU’s draft regulation. I would not expect the Government to admit it, but I worry that this is another example of settling for second best just to prove that we are different from the European Union.

We should always remind ourselves that even technological advances that end up having massive benefits for humanity can have their downside. I know a lot of people, including a lot of Members of Parliament, who are only alive today because of radiology and radiotherapy, and that would not have happened without the genius and greatness of Marie Curie, who is one of the greatest human beings ever to have lived. Marie Curie was killed by her own discovery. Indeed, almost all the people who were the first to receive the benefits of the “miracle” radium pills that followed on from her discovery died a horrible death from cancer.

The message is: let us not turn our backs on new technologies or be scared of innovation, but seize the opportunities that such technologies offer. But just as developments in scientific and medical technology can carry risks for humanity as well as huge benefits, so can advances in financial technologies. The technological advances that we are seeing just now are happening at a pace that we could not have imagined even four or five years ago. That means that regulation must be flexible and able to adapt very quickly to identify where the potential risks are and to close them down.

I would like to say that we have a Financial Conduct Authority that I am happy to trust with taking that message on board, but in my heart of hearts, as I have said both here and in the main Chamber often enough, the Financial Conduct Authority as it stands is not fit for purpose. It needs to be given a significantly stronger remit and significantly greater resources. There is no doubt that the FCA is the correct place for regulation to reside, but I ask the Minister not simply to talk about what is in the Financial Services and Markets Bill just now, but to give us an indication of how quickly the gaps in regulation that will still exist after the Bill has been passed will be filled. It is not only people who are enthusiastic about cryptocurrency who are watching this debate to see when regulation is going to become adequate; there are also people watching this debate who are looking for an opportunity to make vast sums of money at the expense of our constituents, if we allow them to do so.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on securing this important debate and on setting out in detail many important issues, particularly a number of matters that he raised around fraud and things that the Government can do. He has significant expertise in this area, as is evident from what he has presented in today’s debate and the fact that he chairs the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain. I thank other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, particularly the hon. Members for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who raised a number of issues, such as fraud. I also thank those who have made interventions, raising consumer protection issues.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the important issue of cryptocurrencies and cryptoassets, and the Government’s regulatory approach to the industry. This debate is well overdue. In recent years, crypto has entered the mainstream, with an estimated 2.3 million people in the UK owning cryptoassets and the number of companies trading in crypto likely to grow further over the coming years, so this is a good moment to reflect on both the benefits and risks of cryptoassets and related technologies.

Many early advocates of crypto believed that it could lead to the end of central banking, the replacement of the dollar and fiat money by Bitcoin—or digital gold—and an upending of the regulation of markets and of the potential surveillance of consumers. However, crypto supporters have so far been disappointed. Like many utopian projects, this had collided with the realities of geopolitics, corporate power and illicit finance. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. With reports that Russian oligarchs may have converted their assets into cryptocurrencies to avoid sanctions, many are rightly questioning whether crypto has a future at all.

In recent months, we have seen a huge crash in the value of many of the leading cryptoassets. During the recent period of crypto market turmoil, Bitcoin, Ethereum and other coins have collapsed, putting millions of UK consumers’ savings at risk. Research published by crypto trading platform Gemini found that the number of people investing in crypto has rocketed in the last 12 months, and as many as one in five people in the UK has lost money in the crypto crash. Despite this, the Government are wilfully using out-of-date data, which estimates that only 3.9% to 4.4% of British adults own crypto. I am not sure whether the Minister has more up-to-date stats. Not only that, but the Government have so far failed to properly regulate the crypto sector and protect consumers. They also have no idea how many people have been affected by the current crypto crisis, so there is clearly a desperate need for a clear strategy on the regulation of cryptoassets and blockchain technology.

Labour believes that we do not need to choose between a total crackdown on ownership of cryptocurrencies and the wild west approach advocated by some. Properly regulated blockchain technology has the potential to transform our economy and the financial services sector. Many innovative companies are embracing different forms of blockchain technology to improve transparency in order to finance and create highly skilled, high-productivity jobs across the UK. This has the potential to reduce inequalities, with £69.6 million having been invested in financial technology companies based outside London and the south-east in 2021 alone, driving efficiency in all sorts of industries.

I am afraid, however, that so far the Government have risked undermining the reputation of the sector. In the absence of a comprehensive strategy regime, the UK has become a centre for illicit crypto activity. According to research by Chainalysis, which is a global leader in blockchain research, cryptocurrency-based crime, such as terrorist financing, money laundering, fraud and scams, hit a new all-time high in 2021, with illicit activity in the UK estimated to be worth more than £500 million; that is really alarming. Despite the pressure from Labour and the financial sector, the Treasury has yet to acknowledge the scale of the threat, and the FCA has identified more than 230 unregistered cryptoasset firms operating in the UK right now. Many companies have not even applied for anti-money laundering or “know your customer” checks, yet they face little or no sanction from the Government. That has allowed some firms to exploit anonymity-enhancing technology to protect the identity of criminals and individuals linked to hostile states such as Russia.

As several Members have mentioned, there is a rise in crypto-related scams in the UK, which is very concerning, and reports of digital asset fraud were up 50% in 2021 compared with the previous year. I suspect there is even more such fraud now.

On the point that the shadow Minister is making, it is important that the Minister addresses the issue of potential sanctions evasion via digital currency. Also, I pay tribute to the fact that Ukraine is now one of the countries that uses most crypto, and during this horrendous wartime experience it has been able to support its economy and its troops—buying military supplies and supporting those on the frontline—through crypto. There is a mixed picture, but one that has to be addressed.

I support the hon. Member’s comments about Ukraine. I am not saying that using crypto should be scrapped, but the Government need to take more action to address the fact that there are issues related to the growth in fraud and in activity that is damaging to the UK. Too often, the Government have stood by and let firms responsible for these scams trade with impunity. They have continued to delay the introduction of stronger rules on the advertisement and marketing of cryptocurrency products. A survey by investment platform AJ Bell found that many crypto investors are simply unaware of the high-risk nature of their investments.

I hope the hon. Lady agrees that, as I said in my speech, we have existing legislation that we should be pushing to the fore while we wait on new regulation. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) about Ukraine and cryptocurrency in that state, but there is clearly a high rate of scamming in relation to the raising of cryptocurrency for the Ukrainian Government and their campaign against the Russian Federation. Sometimes, people might not be giving their money to Ukraine; they might be giving it to some scammer in North Korea, or in the Russian Federation, who says they are raising money for Ukraine.

The hon. Member makes an important point—he has expertise in the area—and there needs to be some sort of action from the Government to ensure that there is an overall strategy to address the issue. Some companies are doing good work, but they are not aware of the high risks, which links with what the hon. Gentleman has just said about the high rate of scamming. The high rate of scamming is worrying, particularly as many investors have sunk a huge proportion of their savings into crypto. Half do not have an individual savings account while four in 10 do not even have a pension. The serious collapse in crypto risks not only wiping out the life savings of many people, but significantly disabling the UK’s financial market. I am sure none of us wants that to happen.

The Government responded to their consultation on the regulatory approach to cryptoassets, stablecoins and distributed ledger technology in April, and there are measures to bring stablecoins into the regulatory perimeter in the upcoming Financial Services and Markets Bill. We will of course scrutinise the Bill carefully and look closely at what progress is being made through Parliament, but I have a number of questions to ask the Minister, particularly in relation to this debate.

Why have the Government introduced legislation relating only to stablecoins, and not a comprehensive regime for crypto more broadly? It is simply not good enough that they will not even consult on such a regime until later this year, as the stats show that urgent action is needed. If we do not have a comprehensive framework to address the risks and opportunities presented by cryptoassets, we risk falling behind our global competitors in the crypto space, including the US and the EU, which has just agreed a comprehensive regime for regulating the cryptocurrency industry.

How will the Government crack down on misleading advertising promotions, beyond regulated stablecoins? Members from across the House have discussed fraud today, and the Government need to take responsible action on it. I do not want consumers to be left to deal with it and take responsibility for it. Does the Minister accept that the Government have failed to address money laundering and fraud in this sector, and have allowed criminals to get rich at the public’s expense?

How will the Government ensure that enforcement agencies have the powers they need to crack down on digitally savvy criminals operating through electronic money institutions and cryptoasset firms? The industry is fast-moving at the moment, so does the Minister believe that there is the necessary capability and expertise in the Financial Conduct Authority and other agencies to deal with crypto? Labour is calling for greater powers for regulators and enforcement agencies to crack down on anonymity-enhancing technology, misleading advertising and the criminals operating in the crypto space.

The Government have ignored these serious and important issues for far too long, and the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), seemed more interested in his NFT gimmick than a proper regulatory strategy. We still do not know the cost of that project, despite responses to parliamentary questions confirming that the Treasury holds that information. Perhaps the Minister can shed some light today on what that information is. The lack of transparency on how much taxpayers’ money has been thrown down the drain on that gimmick is frankly shocking, but hardly surprising from this Government.

A Labour Government would be serious about attracting fintech companies to the UK and safely harnessing the progressive potential of blockchain technology. To do that properly, we need thorough and thoughtful regulation of the sector, and I look forward to the Minister setting out how the Government intend to do that.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I join all hon. Members who have spoken in congratulating the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), first, on securing the first parliamentary debate on this topic and, secondly, on his tour de force speech covering the opportunities and risks of crypto technology. I expect that this will be the first of many debates on the subject.

During today’s debate, hon. Members have rightly focused largely on the risks of the new technology, concerns about consumer protection and areas for regulatory clarity, but I suggest that we all share the hope that, through innovation and creating the right conditions, we can achieve opportunities for the crypto industry in the UK to contribute largely to the growth of the wider economy.

I hope to cover a number a points that the hon. Member made in his opening speech. I will start with three of them: financial inclusion issues, particularly with regard to central bank digital currencies; requirements for carbon neutral data centres; and enforcing the existing law against fraud. I hope to cover those points in my speech, but if I do not, I look forward to engaging with him, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and her APPG in the future.

Throughout the debate we have spoken about a wide range of related but distinct terms, and I would like to take a moment to separate some of them. First, distributed ledger technology is exactly what it says: it is a form of technology that allows ledgers to be kept up to date despite being in multiple places or distributed. Secondly, blockchain is a type of DLT that uses encryption, adding security and new functionalities. That is the technology that underpins crypto, although it also facilitates innovation in many other sectors, such as trade finance. Thirdly, cryptoassets are privately issued digital assets that rely on distributed ledger technology such as blockchain for their workings and security. So-called cryptocurrencies are the most well-known cryptoassets today. I will use the phrase “crypto technologies” to refer to cryptoassets and the blockchain that underpins them in the round. Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that seek to maintain a stable price by pegging to a real commodity or a currency, but there are other forms of stablecoins that have their supply regulated by algorithm. Again, there are two separate terms under that overall heading.

I and other hon. Members have mentioned the central bank digital currency, which is a form of digital money issued by central banks. CBDCs are structurally different from cryptocurrencies, which are almost always decentralised whereas CBDCs are controlled by a central bank. The Government have already committed to issuing a public consultation on this topic, jointly with the Bank of England, later this year.

A number of hon. Members pointed to the issue of financial inclusion. There has been no decision on the issuance or design features of a CBDC, or indeed whether we will do one. In those decisions, considerations about financial inclusion and accessibility of central bank digital currencies will be at the heart of any technical design decision. I hope that addresses one of the concerns raised by hon. Members.

In all its forms, we are still on the cusp of the technology breaking through, and its uses are likely to evolve dramatically in financial services. As hon. Members have said, thousands of cryptoassets, including Bitcoin, have been issued, and together these have a total market capitalisation of around $1 trillion today.

There is so much value. Does the Minister recognise that this technology is not new? It has been around for nearly three decades.

Absolutely. One of the issues, which the hon. Gentleman raised in his speech, is how pervasive the technology has become since 2008. We are still looking at the different applications and different levels of the technology, as I outlined at the start of my speech, both within financial services and more broadly within Government. He mentioned the issues in Estonia and in the economy as a whole. The technology has been around for a while, but it has many tentacles that have spread in many different ways through countries and international economies.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that in addition to that growth, as he and other hon. Members have mentioned, there has been substantial volatility. Notwithstanding those market fluctuations, the potential for DLT technology underpinning cryptoassets remains powerful in many ways. Across the world, NFTs are entering common parlance. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) talked about one that could have a revolutionary impact on the creative industries.

Blockchain technology is being used in healthcare to store patients’ medical records securely; in housing to record property rights; and in supply chains to track the path and safety of food throughout the farm-to-table journey. In Government, we are developing opportunities here in the UK to use distributed ledger technology for customs and international trade, to ease the import of goods. DLT has the potential to change how our financial markets work, too. That is why new have started work to understand how it might be applied to a UK sovereign debt instrument.

Even the fundamental architecture of the internet may undergo changes as Web3 becomes more popular, with blockchain offering the potential to drive a more decentralised, user-owned ecosystem. The innovation powered by DLT could spill across society, well beyond the scope of today’s debate, which rightly focuses on financial services.

As crypto technologies grow in significance, the UK Government are seeking ways to achieve global competitive advantage for the United Kingdom. We want to become the country of choice for those looking to create, innovate and build in the crypto space. We are already the leading European fintech hub, second only to the US worldwide. By making this country a hospitable place for crypto technologies, we can attract investment, generate new jobs, benefit from tax revenues, create a wave of groundbreaking new products and services, and bridge the current position of UK financial services into a new era.

I thank the Minister for his important points about taking things forward in a progressive way. Given the current uncertainty in the Government sphere, while the UK is still committed to making the UK the global home of crypto, what progress has been made in establishing the cryptoasset engagement group that was announced in April, to bring on board leaders from the sector and engage positively?

The hon. Lady is right to mention the importance of bringing people together. I will refer to that. May I also take the opportunity to re-emphasise the work that her APPG is currently doing on regulation for consumer protection in this space? There are multiple participants and interests, so I echo her point.

At the forefront of this is something that we have talked a lot about when it comes to the culture. We have highly driven entrepreneurs with great skills. Having their teams in the UK enables us to build the wealth and experience that can power further discoveries and growth in a constructive way.

As is always the case with innovation, there are risks that need to be managed. For one, cryptoassets can be used to hide ill-gotten gains through corruption or organised crime. Since January 2020, cryptoasset firms operating in the UK have been subject to the money laundering regulations. We recently brought forward legislation to implement the financial action taskforce travel rule for the transfer of cryptoassets.

Cryptoasset firms must conduct customer due diligence checks, just as banks do, including sanctions screenings. Through the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill, we will give law enforcement new powers to seize and recover cryptoassets. As would be expected of a global financial centre, we will put a very robust system in place, and will never compromise on our high standards. That was the key point made by the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant).

Separately, there are legitimate concerns, highlighted by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire and echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), about the energy intensiveness in the process of creating some types of cryptoassets. As a global centre for green finance, we are already looking closely at energy usage associated with certain crypto technologies, and I will take away the point the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire made about carbon neutral data centres regulation.

We have also said that we will seek to protect consumers by legislating to bring certain cryptoassets into the scope of financial promotions regulation, because it is essential that investors understand the risks they are taking and that there is more transparency from firms. I know that some firms are concerned about the way in which this regime might be implemented, to the possible detriment of UK firms. We are looking very seriously at that issue.

I say in reply to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead that the UK’s approach on a lot to do with financial services is to have an agile system that relies robustly on the regulators to write their rules as things are brought within the regulatory perimeter. That underpins our approach. It underpins the work in the new Financial Services and Markets Bill, and that is distinct from the perhaps more legalistic approach of the European Union trying to define in statute right from the start what the regulations should be. In the United Kingdom we trust regulators to work at speed and effectively to write the rule books that are right at that point in time.

I thank the Minister for his answers. He said that it is the regulator’s responsibility to address this, but the Government also need to take responsibility. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether the Government will produce a comprehensive framework. Can he also tell us what work the Government have done to check that the FCA has the capacity and expertise to look into this?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for emphasising those additional points. She will know that the Bill that we are discussing in the House later today will bring stablecoin within the regulatory perimeter. There are two other aspects of cryptoassets that I think she is referring to. One is central bank digital currencies, on which there will be a consultation towards the latter part of this year. The other is the broader aspect of cryptoassets, which has been part of the discussion today. That will be consulted on, both by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the FCA, in the months ahead.

The hon. Lady’s second point was about the resources available, and the skills in the FCA. I have full confidence in both of those. The FCA has had increasing resources; I meet its head regularly and discuss these matters with them, so I am confident that the resources and the skills are in place.

I am conscious of time, and I have a few more things to say. I have mentioned a few of the known risks that we face, and they present real challenges. We will, however, be better placed to shape the sector and lead it to social and economic good if we actively engage with it from the outset, and that is what the Government are doing. The role of the Government is to be on the front foot to achieve a global advantage. To do that, we in Government must provide a solid framework, so that decision makers can take decisions in a risky environment, and we are bringing forward a number of reforms, through carefully tailored regulation. Informed by the sector, and after a consultation that is open to anyone, we will create a dynamic regulatory landscape; that is how we will tackle issues ranging from fraud to volatility and environmental considerations.

The Government are legislating to bring certain stablecoins, where they are used for payment, within the regulatory perimeter by expanding the payments and e-money regulatory frameworks. Increased competition between stablecoins and existing UK payment systems could lead to lower costs and improved services in the long run. Through the Financial Services and Markets Bill, we will build into our regulatory framework an ability to harness those benefits of stablecoins. At the same time, we will protect consumers by ensuring that the face value of stablecoins is backed by the underlying funds, and that consumer funds will be safeguarded if a stablecoin provider becomes insolvent.

In the first instance, we wanted to focus on areas of immediate potential and concern, but the market has changed sufficiently for us to look at regulating a broader set of cryptoassets. Earlier this year, we committed to consulting on this broader regulation, including the trading of unbacked cryptoassets such as Bitcoin. We will continue dynamic engagement with industry; for example, the FCA’s recent CryptoSprints brought together over 100 industry participants to discuss future regulation. We know how important it is that there remains strong co-ordination between the UK authorities as we develop the regime; that is why the Cryptoassets Taskforce, launched in 2018, continues to have a vital role in informing where regulation can drive forward UK objectives.

As we build a regulatory regime that delivers safe, sustainable and—I hope—value-creating innovation, we will ensure that we are at the cutting edge of legal innovation, so that the UK has a strong legal foundation for this technology. Following a request from the Government, the Law Commission recently published new proposals for reforming property law relating to digital assets and smart contracts. The Government have asked the Law Commission to consider the legal status of decentralised autonomous organisations, which the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire referred to. They are a new form of online, decentralised organisational structure. We are exploring ways of enhancing the competitiveness of the UK tax system to encourage further development of the cryptoasset market in the United Kingdom.

We are undertaking this work because we have a choice: the UK can either be a spectator as this technology transforms aspects of life, or we can become the best place in the world to start and scale crypto technologies. The Government choose the latter course. We want the UK to be the dominant global hub for crypto technologies, and so will build on the strengths of our thriving fintech sector, creating new jobs, developing groundbreaking new products and services—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Healthy Start Scheme

I will call Kate Green to move the motion, and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge of the debate to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to the Healthy Start scheme.

It is a pleasure to introduce the debate and to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I start by praising Healthy Start. The scheme provides support to expectant mothers who are more than 10 weeks pregnant, and to parents and care-givers who are responsible for at least one child under the age of four. Healthy Start vouchers, which have a value of up to £4.25 a week, or £8.50 a week for those with a child under one, entitle parents in receipt of certain social security benefits to fruit and vegetables, cows’ milk, infant formula and pulses. The vouchers also enable mothers to access vitamins from pregnancy until their child reaches the age of one, and enable children to access them from birth until the age of four. Originally, the scheme used paper vouchers, but since September 2021, families who were already enrolled on the Healthy Start scheme have been moved on to prepaid cards. Since the end of March 2022, prepaid cards have entirely replaced the paper vouchers.

Healthy Start has an important role to play in helping to ensure that mothers and young children have a nutritious diet. It is effective: research has found that participating families increase their spend on fruit and vegetables. The Minister will understand how crucial a healthy diet is for pregnant and new mothers, babies and young children. The British Medical Association has highlighted the effects of poor nutrition during pregnancy: adverse health and social outcomes, premature birth, low birth weight, shorter life expectancy and a higher risk of death in the first year of a child’s life.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this incredibly important debate; I know the work that she has done on the issue. A report from Feeding Liverpool, published today, has found that thousands in our city who are eligible for Healthy Start are missing out. In 2021, an estimated £758,521 went unclaimed, rather than on giving children and those who are pregnant in Liverpool access to good food, milk and vitamins. That is a huge loss for families who are struggling to cover the rising cost of living in a city where one in three is now food insecure. It will have a huge health impact; we know how important nutrition is for children in the early years. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must urgently review and extend the eligibility threshold for Healthy Start, to enable more families to benefit from the scheme, and that the Government must invest in a national Healthy Start communications campaign to increase awareness and uptake?

It is a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend’s question. He has done excellent work as part of his “Right to Food” campaign, and he raises a number of issues, including take-up, the generosity of the scheme and the importance of adequate nutrition, that I will come back to in my speech.

My hon. Friend will know that child food poverty continues to stunt children’s development as they grow up, and that overstretched family budgets, which mean that mothers go without in order to feed their children, are harmful to maternal health, increase maternal stress and are especially dangerous if women are breastfeeding—or, indeed, may prevent them from doing so. The Minister will share our concern that a new YouGov survey commissioned by Kellogg’s, which will be released next week—I appreciate that she has not had a chance to see it yet—has found that 66% of low-income families say that accessing Government benefits is complicated, and 53% are not confident that they are aware of all the benefits available to them. At the same time, 80% of parents on low incomes say that the rising cost of goods has impacted their ability to pay for essential items, and more than one in seven says that their children are worried about the situation.

This is an incredibly important subject. I commend the hon. Lady on the way that she has introduced it. We are moving into what are perceived to be difficult times. Some of the figures for Northern Ireland show that poverty will probably double, which shows the importance of the scheme. Does she agree that the Government and the Minister must look once more at eligibility for the scheme, as working people who are already on the breadline will increasingly find themselves unable to support their family? If the scheme is not able to provide for a family as it did in years gone by, there will be a need to change the money available and the system.

The hon. Member draws attention to a very important point about the pressures faced by families—and not just those in which people are out of work, but those where they are working on low incomes. Healthy Start and other forms of social support can play an important part in enabling families to raise their children.

The removal some months ago of the £20 uplift in universal credit and the cost of living crisis will exacerbate the situation for families, as soaring energy, food and fuel bills lead to a further increase in maternal and child poverty. Last month, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that the cost of living is expected to be 11.3% higher in financial year 2022-23 than last year; inflation is expected to peak in the last quarter of this year at 13.1%. The impact will fall disproportionately on low-income families. The TUC has suggested that pay rises could fall behind inflation by almost 8% later this year, marking the biggest fall in real wages for 100 years.

The situation is especially acute for families with new babies and very young children. Maternity Action points out that the value of the basic rate of maternity, paternity and parental pay, relative to women’s median earnings, has declined from 42% in 2012 to 37% in April 2022. New mothers are expected to survive for up to 33 weeks on not much more than a third of women’s average earnings. That, of course, is at a time when they face the additional costs associated with parenthood.

Against that backdrop, Healthy Start will be more important than ever, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have pointed out, many mothers on low incomes will not even be eligible for support. To qualify, they have to be on an income of less than £408 per month, so a new mum receiving universal credit plus statutory maternity pay would not qualify for support.

Alongside concerns about the scale of support needed are concerns about the take-up of Healthy Start, as we have heard. In a written answer to the Bishop of Gloucester on 1 August, Lord Kamall stated that up-to-date figures are not held centrally. He promised that work to compile the data was taking place across Government, and that the data would be published as soon as possible, but I find it astonishing that the Government do not have those figures now.

As we have heard, there is widespread concern about low take-up. In Greater Manchester, the combined authority estimates that around 40%, or approximately £5 million-worth, of vouchers go unclaimed. That is borne out by Maternity Action’s survey; fewer than 1% of respondents on low incomes reported receiving Healthy Start, the Sure Start maternity grant, or the Scottish Best Start grant and food vouchers, yet more than half of those very same mothers reported difficulties in buying essentials at least some of the time, and 2% reported using food banks. It is pretty clear that the benefits are not proving effective at reaching all those most in need.

Concerns about take-up are compounded by the suspicion that digitalisation has not improved things; indeed, it may have made them worse. I am not at all against digitalisation—indeed, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommended it back in 2014. There are a number of potential benefits to introducing a payment card system: cards can be used anywhere in the UK; unspent sums can be rolled over from week to week; administration should be simpler and potentially cheaper for retailers; and data collected from card use could be used to improve the supply chain and for system monitoring.

However, it appears that when prepaid cards were finally introduced last year—applications are made by telephone or online—the process had been piloted only on those who already had smartphones and monthly price plans. That may explain some of the problems being experienced, which may be inhibiting take-up. First, the issue of the cost of calls—55p a minute for those on a pay-as-you-go mobile—is compounded by long waiting times to get through on the helpline. Applicants have reported having to wait up to an hour to speak to an adviser, leading to call costs of as much as £33.

One reason for the delay in getting through seems to be that the same line is used for both inquiries and application. A complicated query can lead to long waits for callers down the queue. Meanwhile, those applying online may face data costs. Claimants also report that no reason is given if their application is rejected. They need to reapply if they think the decision is incorrect but, unhelpfully, they will not know what they got wrong. Support takes effect from the date that an application is approved, but there is no backdating for those who had to reapply.

The expectation that a card system would mean improved coverage has not always materialised. The prepaid cards can be used at any outlet that accepts Mastercard. Unfortunately, that means that some outlets that previously accepted the paper vouchers are no longer able to accept the prepaid cards. They include independent local stores, which often supply culturally appropriate foods to minority and marginalised communities, market stalls, and those making direct sales from the farm gate, which is a particular issue in relation to rural poverty. Even some well-known high street names that previously accepted the paper vouchers had the wrong Mastercard merchant code and could not accept the cards, as food retailing is not their main business. I am not sure whether that issue has been resolved; perhaps the Minister could confirm that.

Finally and distressingly, while we may have expected that the use of a prepayment card would reduce stigma, Feeding Britain points to worrying research from Northumbria University; it shows that shoppers need to split their trolley of purchases at the check-out; cards are frequently declined at the check-out, causing anxiety, embarrassment and humiliation; and shop staff are unfamiliar with the new prepaid cards, unable to help or offer conflicting advice. We hope that those are teething problems and will reduce as stores become familiar with the cards, but it is troubling that the new scheme should have compounded poverty with stigma in this way.

Having said all that, I repeat my support for the Healthy Start scheme, but it could be so much more effective at reducing poverty and improving maternal and child nutrition if changes were made. I will conclude with some questions and suggestions for the Minister. First, sort out the helpline. I cannot understand the logic of a service that is intended to support low-income households imposing call charges that exacerbate family poverty. Healthy Start is not alone in that. It is high time that the Government carried out a comprehensive review of the cost of calls to helplines across Government that are specifically designed to enable people on low incomes to reach the services and benefits intended to help them, including Healthy Start. While I am on the subject, a review is needed of the data charges when accessing services online.

Next, deal with the delays—if necessary, by increasing helpline staff numbers to reduce waiting times. Will the Minister review the routing of calls depending on their nature, so that complex queries do not create bottlenecks that lead to long waits for other callers?

As I have said, eligibility for Healthy Start starts from the 10th week of pregnancy. In practice, however, the support takes effect from the date of a successful application, so an expectant or new mother who has only belatedly discovered that she is entitled to support will lose out. Does the Minister agree that support should take place from the 10th week of pregnancy in all cases, and be backdated if necessary? That would help those whose initial applications are rejected and who successfully reapply. Will the Minister look at what can be done to ensure that applicants are clear about the reason for refusal if their application is rejected?

As I have said, Healthy Start is available until a child is four, which leaves a gap of several months before children start school and may become eligible for free school meals. Will the Minister consider extending coverage until a child starts school? Will she look at the value of Healthy Start, at extending it further up the income scale—many claimants in receipt of universal credit are ineligible—and at automatic uprating, so that the value of the benefit keeps pace with inflation? The Co-operative Group topped up the value of the vouchers as families struggled during the pandemic. With the cost of living now rising so sharply, there is a need for the Government to act urgently.

Crucially, will the Minister urgently launch a vigorous and comprehensive national take-up campaign, working with local and regional government; retailers and industry bodies such as the Co-op and the Association of Convenience Stores, which work hard to promote the scheme among their members; charities, foodbanks and pantries such as the Bread and Butter Thing and Community Fridge; the advice sector; schools and family hubs; registrars in NHS settings; and organisations that provide support to new mums and pregnant women? There is good practice on which to build—for example, Kellogg’s is partnering with the Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group to run a pilot in four schools and colleges that gives parents access to a financial inclusion officer, who will be available in informal settings such as school breakfast clubs in order to offer parents advice on how to access benefits, including Healthy Start.

Finally, a more accessible application process would also help take-up, so will the Minister work with the Department for Work and Pensions to introduce a tick box as part of the universal credit application process, and with local authorities to introduce a similar tick box on applications for council tax support? Better still would be to introduce a system of automatic enrolment, as Feeding Britain has proposed—perhaps with the option to opt out—to replace the system that we have now, which requires parents to opt in. Is that something the Minister would consider?

I know the Minister takes the health and welfare of pregnant women and children very seriously. Healthy Start has an important role to play, and I hope she will find the suggestions that I have made this morning helpful. I look forward to her reply, and to hearing how she intends to take action to ensure the scheme does all that it has the potential to do to help children to thrive.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Rees, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing the debate. I know that she is passionate about the Healthy Start scheme and the wider issue of children and young people. I also thank the other hon. Members who contributed this morning.

The Government welcome the opportunity to discuss the Healthy Start scheme and how it is benefiting hundreds of thousands of families across the country. Eating a healthy and balanced diet in line with the “Eatwell Guide” can help prevent diet-related disease, ensuring that we get the energy and nutrients needed for good health and for maintaining a healthy weight throughout life. As the hon. Lady outlined, the Healthy Start scheme is one of the ways that the Government continue to target nutritional support at the families most in need, which is increasingly important in view of current pressures on the cost of living. The scheme helps to encourage a healthy diet for pregnant women, babies and children under four from low-income households. It offers support to buy fresh, frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables, fresh, dried or tinned pulses, plain cow’s milk, and infant formula. Beneficiaries are also eligible for free Healthy Start vitamins.

Healthy Start is a passported benefit, with eligibility based on the receipt of welfare benefits and tax credits under certain earnings thresholds. Women who are at least 10 weeks pregnant and families with a child under four years of age are eligible for the scheme if they claim income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, child tax credit with an annual family income of £16,190 or less, universal credit with family take-home pay of £408 or less per month, or pension credit. Pregnant women on income-related employment and support allowance are also eligible for the scheme. In addition, anyone aged under 18 who is pregnant is eligible for Healthy Start, regardless of whether they receive benefits. Once they have given birth, they must meet the benefit criteria to continue receiving Healthy Start. Pregnant women and children aged over one and under four each receive £4.25 every week, and children aged under one receive £8.50 every week, as well as free Healthy Start vitamins.

Our commitment to the Healthy Start scheme is demonstrated in both the voucher value increase of over 37% in April 2021, and the strategic move from a paper-based service to a digital one. I am extremely pleased that there have been over 400,000 successful applications to the Healthy Start digital service since its launch. Of those, 37% are households brand new to the scheme. The figures show that by providing a modern and efficient digital Healthy Start service, we have addressed the barriers created by the legacy paper-based service and have encouraged more eligible families to join.

Following user research and testing, we have replaced the paper application form with an online application that provides an instant decision for many families. We have also swapped paper vouchers, which beneficiaries told us could be lost, damaged, inconvenient or stigmatised to use, with a prepaid card. I take on board the hon. Lady’s point that cards can be stigmatising when they go wrong, but a prepaid card that is loaded with Healthy Start benefit payments is an improvement. I am aware that there have been teething issues, which is to be expected when transitioning from a legacy service to a new digital service. However, we have been working to address those issues with the NHS Business Services Authority that operates the Healthy Start scheme on behalf of the Department.

I am grateful for the tone of the Minister’s response. In relation to addressing the teething problems with NHS digital and business services, I understand that work with local steering groups has now ceased and there are no longer regional co-ordinators to feed back problems. Will the Minister look at ensuring that those on the frontline are able to continue to feed intelligence to the NHS, and receive intelligence back about improvements that are being made?

Yes, we always need to make sure that we know what is happening on the frontline so that we can keep improving services.

Since 1 April this year, over 1.5 million calls have been made to the automated Healthy Start helpline. The helpline supports beneficiaries to self-serve on topics such as activating their cards, reporting lost or stolen cards, and checking their balance without needing to speak to an agent. The NHS BSA analysed the issues that applicants and beneficiaries may experience when applying for and using the Healthy Start scheme, and it has acted on the findings. In particular, it has invested more resources so that agents are handling calls and resolving them first time—an issue that was brought up early in the scheme. Currently, the average call wait time is down to just 31 seconds, which is a vast improvement. I am grateful to the NHS BSA for its work on harnessing the power of social media by engaging with over 15,000 messages since April this year. I also extend my thanks to Iceland—the supermarket, not the country—which continues to find novel ways to support and promote the scheme. The hon. Lady mentioned other supermarkets that we would be delighted to engage with.

At a time when families are increasingly aware of the cost of living and the need to provide their children with a healthy diet, the Government are committed to helping the most vulnerable. I will try to get through a few of the other questions in the time that we have. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) wanted to make sure that no one was missed in the transition. Since September 2021, the NHS BSA has directly contacted all households receiving Healthy Start vouchers to invite them to apply for a prepaid card, including three invite letters, two leaflets, emails and text messages. The Government continue to look at ways to support households to ensure that they are aware they can take up the offer, and the NHS BSA recently provided training to staff at the Department for Work and Pensions to raise awareness of the Healthy Start scheme. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned DWP and I think it is important that everybody is working together on these issues.

Healthy Start eligibility is kept under continuous review and aligns closely with other passported benefits across Government. There are no current plans to expand eligibility for the scheme with regard to the onus threshold or the qualifying age range but, as I said, we always keep such schemes under review. We have talked about the current cost of living and food inflation, and the Healthy Start scheme is kept under review from this point of view as well. The voucher value rose from £3.10 to £4.25 in April 2021—an increase of 37%. We have no current plans to increase the value of the Healthy Start scheme.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston raised the cost of calls to the helpline. In line with national and other Government agencies, the NHS BSA transferred from 0845 numbers to 0300 or 01 or 02 numbers as part of the fair telecoms campaign. Telephone companies include calls to 0300 numbers in the free minutes of some call plans. Any call charges outside of a plan are charged at a local rate, which is set by the caller’s provider, so calls to the NHS Healthy Start telephone helpline are charged at a local rate if they are not part of an inclusive package. We now have a separate automated telephone helpline that is available 24 hours a day, which will help people with a lost or damaged card or to check their balance—as the hon. Lady said, issues that are not complex but much easier to resolve through an automated system.

Of course, people can apply via email and through the NHS Healthy Start Facebook and Twitter social media channels, so there are ways to access the service without paying for the phone call. We recognised some of the teething problems that were seen on the telephone lines, and hopefully the hon. Lady will see that we have now made vast improvements.

The hon. Lady talked about automatic enrolment through universal credit or local authorities. However, the Healthy Start card is a financial services product, which means that the person using it has to take on certain responsibilities. There therefore needs to be that acceptance of authorisation. The hon. Lady is looking confused—I will write to her with more details, rather than try to explain it in the short time I have left.

The hon. Lady also talked about cost of living pressures potentially increasing existing disparities. The Government are committed to levelling up health across the country and will continue to work to close the gap in health outcomes between different places and communities so that people’s backgrounds do not dictate their prospects for a healthy life. I know that that is very close to the hon. Lady’s heart; it is very close to mine as well.

I have hopefully covered many of the issues that have been raised by the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston and for Liverpool, West Derby. As I say, I will write to the hon. Lady about the financial services product. If there are any other outstanding issues, I am happy to have further correspondence with her. I close by thanking the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and other hon. Members for their contributions. As always, we will keep the Healthy Start scheme under review to ensure it provides support for those families who need it the most.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Seven Principles of Public Life

[Derek Twigg in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Seven Principles of Public Life.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Twigg. I thank parliamentary colleagues who offered support in securing this important debate and those participating in it. Sadly, it does not seem to be very important to those on the Government Benches. I also thank staff at the House of Commons Library, who seldom get the thanks they deserve, for preparing an excellent briefing for today’s debate.

With a new Prime Minister being installed only yesterday, our politics and political system stand at a crossroads. We should use this moment to move beyond the controversy of the last premiership, to genuinely learn the lessons of the past couple of years, to truly understand the public’s anger, to collectively strive to be better and do better, to reaffirm our commitment to the Nolan principles, and to demonstrate that they mean something in the way we go about our business. However, I have little faith that this place—the so-called mother of all Parliaments—will achieve better. Far too much power is invested in the executive branch in an overly centralised system of governance—a centralisation of power that is incomparable to our counterparts—so I fear that the very nature of our democracy will inevitably see us lurch from scandal to scandal.

This place is full of good people with noble pursuits—those who do not need to understand any newly proposed descriptor of the Nolan principles to practise them in everything they do. Although I will not allow the new Prime Minister’s predecessor off the hook, our problems did not start with the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and nor did they end with him, even though I believe with every fibre of my being that no one has eroded public trust in our institutions more than he has. He is a product of the changing face of the governing party: a Conservative party that is uninterested in conserving but is willing to trash and stretch constitutional norms to their limits in order to safeguard its self-preservation, in practice of its fundamental belief in its divine right to govern.

Louise Thompson, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, summed it up nicely by stating that we cannot separate the personnel from the system and that the two can complement each other in the wrong ways. She said in The Week:

“His two and half years in Downing Street have exposed some of the vulnerabilities of British constitutional norms, demonstrating how the combination of a strong parliamentary majority, ambiguous ministerial and parliamentary rules and a national crisis can give prime ministers a seemingly free hand to dominate political life and avoid scrutiny.”

Lest we forget, it was under the Major Government that Lord Nolan, then chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, devised the seven principles of public life in 1995. The CSPL was established with the following terms of reference:

“To examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life.”

That was written in 1995. It is astonishing that such words could easily have been put together for the context in which we are operating as we gather here in 2022.

What is the context for today’s debate, and why is the debate necessary? In a democracy, governance requires consent and the popular support of the people we represent, but support for politics and politicians is at a record low. That was highlighted in an Institute for Public Policy Research report published late last year, which found that trust in politicians is at an all-time low and that the sharp decline in political trust is undermining liberal democracy. It found that almost two in three people now see politicians as being “merely out for themselves”. The study showed a “significant and disturbing” decline in satisfaction with democracy, and in trust in key democratic institutions.

The sleaze scandal around Owen Paterson at the time was just the tip of the iceberg of declining political trust. Heaven knows how much worse those numbers would have been if the research had been conducted following partygate and the numerous allegations of sexual abuse. In the mind of the public, there have been one too many rotten apples in the past few decades and the entire barrel is spoiled. In answer to my original question, that is why this debate matters. That is the context in which it takes place. To do nothing and say nothing is to be complicit.

The Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership are, of course, not law. They are not directly enforced. However, they form part of many codes of conduct. For example, the ministerial code says that Ministers are expected to observe the seven principles of public life. The House of Commons code of conduct says that MPs are expected to follow the principles in the carrying out of their parliamentary duties.

There has been a flurry of activity in relatively recent times in this area. In November 2021, the House of Commons Committee on Standards—not to be confused with the CSPL—proposed bespoke descriptors of the seven principles for MPs, which were designed to more closely reflect how the principles apply to the role of an MP. In April 2022, the Committee took evidence from the then Leader of the House and the then Minister for the Cabinet Office on the Nolan principles.

Indeed, the deputy Leader of the Opposition called an urgent question on the mechanisms for upholding standards in public life in July 2022. I hope that we will hear a more suitable, bold response from the Minister today, rather than something echoing the evasive non-answer the then Paymaster General gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) back in July. On that day, the Paymaster General repeatedly mentioned the “sophisticated and robust” systems for upholding standards in public life. I am sorry, but what utter guff. I agree with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who responded that,

“those systems are, on the whole, irrelevant if the participants have no regard to them.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2022; Vol. 717, c. 733.]

I believe our systems can be summed up in one word: irrelevant.

No such sophisticated, robust system exists in this place for upholding standards in public life. Acknowledgement of that basic fact by the Minister today would be, at the very least, a start. That is in stark contrast to other professions where the Nolan principles apply, such as healthcare and journalism. [Interruption.] The Minister may laugh, but it is a fact that in healthcare, the professional duty of candour requires that all healthcare professionals are open and honest with patients when something goes wrong. In the media, the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s editors’ code puts significant emphasis on not publishing inaccurate or misleading information or images. Where that does happen, it must be corrected promptly and with due prominence and, where appropriate, an apology must be published. Fundamentally, such differences in the practice of standards can only feed into the impression the public have that there is one rule for the people and another for us in this place.

I thank the organisation Full Fact for providing such examples ahead of this debate. It believes that to ensure a true commitment to honesty in public life, the honesty descriptor should include, in addition to the imperative to simply be truthful, an obligation or requirement to seek out, share and present information accurately and, crucially, to correct the record when necessary. I agree that that should be the case.

That leads me on to “Standards Matter 2”, a review conducted by the CSPL. I want to highlight some of the responses to the public consultation, which were consistently detailed and outcome-focused, and provided genuine suggestions on the enforcement of standards. I personally conclude that that is the only terrain on which this debate should be conducted—not empty platitudes about personal responsibility and self-regulation, which have been shown to get us nowhere.

For instance, the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex said in its response:

“UK standards in public life are in decline and at risk of declining further, with numerous recent breaches of integrity at the heart of politics and public life”.

It said:

“Dependence on established norms and personal integrity is no longer tenable when these are regularly undermined… The UK may need to move in some areas from principles to rules, backed up by enforceable sanctions”.

It went on to provide a raft of suggestions on sanctions, oversight and accountability. It suggested independent bodies, such as an anti-corruption agency free from political interference, in line with other mature democracies. That suggestion was also made by the likes of Transparency International UK, which highlighted the cronyism and nepotism at the heart of our system. I believe that public consultation document should be a starting point for cleaning up our democracy, and I implore everyone to read it.

To conclude, our system of governing standards is built on self-regulation, and the belief that we in this place know better—that we will always do the right thing. That arrogance has recently been reinforced by the new Prime Minister, who has stated that she may not need to appoint a new ethics adviser. She always acts with integrity. Who says that? The new Prime Minister herself. The Nolan principles are as relevant today as they were when they were devised, all those years ago. The next big question for this place is whether we are serious about those principles, in both word and deed. If we are, we can no longer hold on to the belief that we—the politicians—are best placed to regulate our adherence to them. Leadership starts at the top, starting with the Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate. It could not be more fitting that we gather to debate the subject of standards in public life in the same week that a Prime Minister for whom the words integrity and honesty are alien was at last forced from office.

Optimists may hope that a change in leadership will bring with it a renewed respect for those most basic of principles that govern conduct in public life. However, anyone who has spent any time at all observing how the Conservative party acts in office would be far more sceptical. Indeed, the new resident of No.10 was more than willing to stand by her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), as he tore up the rules, lied to the public and trampled over democratic norms. That proved to be no impediment in her assent to the highest office in the land. In fact, it undoubtedly helped her along the way.

While ordinary people have been confronted by the worst cost of living crisis in memory, Parliament has been consumed by a tawdry litany of scandals that have served to undermine public confidence in this place like never before. If the new Prime Minister is to convince a public who have had no say in choosing her that she truly does intend to work with them, she must make restoring faith in Government and Parliament a top priority. That must mean enshrining the Nolan principles at the heart of everything we do. Those seven principles are foundational in guaranteeing that public bodies work in the interests of those they are supposed to serve. However, the principles mean little without the appropriate mechanisms to ensure they are properly enforced.

We can talk about honesty all we want, but it means nothing when our Prime Minister can lie to Parliament and the wider public for months with total impunity.

I withdraw it then, reluctantly.

Talk of accountability is equally hollow while efforts are still under way to frustrate the ongoing work of the Privileges Committee. We often talk about the need for culture change in Parliament, and rightly so, but if we are to begin the task of rebuilding faith in public life in earnest, we must accept that broader structural reform is also needed.

When it comes to standards in public life, the Government have for far too long been allowed to mark their own homework. We saw with the case of the former Member for North Shropshire that when the rules have become inconvenient, Members have been free to try and change them as they please. That can no longer stand. The time has come to accept that ministerial and parliamentary standards need more rigorous and, most importantly, independent enforcement. That is why my party is calling for the Prime Minister to be stripped of her sole authority for enforcing the ministerial code and for an independent integrity and ethics commission to be established to ensure that the very highest standards are followed in public office. That is why the independent ethics adviser, of whom the Prime Minister has said she has no need, must be made truly independent. Finally, that is why we need to give serious consideration to the growing calls to make misleading Parliament a criminal offence.

The process of restoring confidence in our Government will be long and difficult. It will mean accepting that the way things have always been can no longer continue, but if our constituents are to have any faith in the Government’s ability to work in their interests in the difficult times ahead, that is essential.

I intend to call the Front Benchers, starting with the SNP, no later than 3.30 pm.

I remind hon. Members to consider the language they use during the debate. We are debating the seven principles.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate on a subject that is extremely close to my heart.

In the 2019 general election, there was a 67% turnout, which means that a third of people did not vote. Even more worryingly, there was only a 19% turnout of 18 to 24-year-olds. We have a clear problem with political engagement—or, rather, political disengagement and disillusion—and we have to ask ourselves why.

I have given a great deal of thought and time to standards in public life recently, both before and after my election last year. For reasons that hon. Members will understand, I am particularly concerned about the consequences for us all, both inside and outside the House, when our failure to meet decent standards of behaviour leads to a loss of faith in the democratic process. People staying at home on polling day is one thing, but the more sinister side of having a political system that people do not feel inclined to engage with or do not trust or believe in is the risk that they will be drawn to the extremes, leading to polarisation and division, fractured communities and, in the worst cases, political violence. With abuse, threats and intimidation of people in public life now commonplace, and after two serving MPs, including my sister, have been murdered in recent years, surely we all have a responsibility to do all that we can to remove the cancer of hatred, abuse and intimidation from public life before it spreads any further.

In my view, that starts with respecting the seven principles of public life, set out so well by Lord Nolan. We should set an example in this place by airing our disagreements without treating with contempt those with whom we disagree. Those principles—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—should be uncontroversial. The fact that some in high office have been unable to put those principles into practice in recent times should concern all of us, regardless of our political colours. Our first loyalty should always be to uphold the standards the public expect us to uphold. In public office, we should always be ready to look at things from the public’s perspective.

I know that for many of my constituents in Batley and Spen—and, indeed, for me, as a relative newcomer to this place—this job is not just about what it takes to be an effective politician; it is about the kind of behaviour that makes someone a good human being and a decent person. It should be second nature, but since my arrival at Westminster I have been surprised—shocked is a better word—by how some people come to this place and seem to forget how to behave. Some of the behaviour we see would not be tolerated in any other place of work, or indeed in the school playground. We all get angry and frustrated, but we have a professional duty to channel those powerful emotions responsibly. Of course, in this job it is totally unrealistic to expect everyone to like or agree with us, but we should be able to demonstrate that we will treat others with respect, and we will hopefully be treated with respect in return.

I first became engaged in the debate on the Nolan principles through the work of the Jo Cox Foundation. Civility in public life is an important strand of its work, and rightly so. Jo believed passionately in freedom of expression and in healthy, vigorous political debate, but she also believed that we should be able to conduct that debate without resorting to personal abuse or insults or seeking to provoke hatred and division in society. The ambition of the Jo Cox Foundation, working alongside the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, is to move political discourse in this country back within the bounds of respectful debate and away from any form of intimidation, abuse or threat of violence.

If we get this wrong, it impacts not just individuals, but our democracy itself. There are implications for our ability to foster strong and integrated societies, drive out extremism and encourage political participation at all levels. Our politics has always been conducted in primary colours, and nobody is arguing for it to become beige and bland, but I believe it is perfectly possible—indeed, essential—for us to continue to conduct our debates robustly and vigorously, while still upholding these seven important principles.

As we get closer to the next general election, the political temperature will inevitably rise, the stakes will get higher and all of our competitive instincts will come to the fore. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but as that happens, we must continue to uphold the standards of conduct we have committed to. It is up to us all in this place to show leadership on this issue. Indeed, I believe that our future as an open, tolerant, inclusive democracy, which people can believe in and want to engage with, depends on it.

I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Twigg. As you know, I am Chair of the Committee on Standards. I have always thought that was a bit of an irony—I am certainly no saint, and I have never pretended to be. I was awarded the civility in public life award recently, and when I came back to the House that evening, some Conservative Members, including the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said to me, “That is completely and utterly ironic. You are the most acerbic Member we have.” I said, “You’re mistaken—it is not the servility in public life award that I got.”

I want to talk about three things today: first, the independent adviser on the ministerial code; secondly, openness, which is just one of the seven principles of public life; and thirdly, the new code of conduct recommended by the Committee on Standards, which I chair.

I have always thought that the independent adviser on the ministerial code should be a statutory post. I think, as Lord Geidt himself suggested, that the independent adviser should be able to launch an investigation into any potential breach of the ministerial code without reference to the Prime Minister, and that should include, potentially, launching an investigation into a breach of the code of conduct by the Prime Minister. I note that most constitutions around the world, including South Africa’s, have a process for investigating the Prime Minister. We have sometimes helped to draft those constitutions, although not South Africa’s—that was done by the African National Congress. However, we have absolutely no process whatever, unless the House manages to launch something, which can be started only if the governing party supports it.

I think it is important that we have a fully independent adviser on the ministerial code, but I note that the now Prime Minister said during the leadership contest that she was not going to appoint another one, because she did not need one to know

“the difference between right and wrong”.

Let us leave whether she knows the difference between right and wrong to one side for a moment; she will need an independent adviser, and will legally have to have one, unless she is going to completely rewrite the ministerial code itself, because it says that potential breaches of the code will be addressed by the independent adviser on the ministerial code. Unless she is going to tear up the ministerial code and have no ministerial code at all, she is going to have to have an adviser—not least because the adviser not only does that bit, but also draws up the list of ministerial financial interests. That is the only thing that prevents corruption in ministerial office in the United Kingdom—the only thing.

Bizarrely, that list is published only occasionally. It is meant to be published every six months but, quite often in recent years, because we have not had a ministerial adviser, it has not been published for a year, 18 months or two years. That means that normally—not just occasionally—the list of ministerial interests is not even a correct list of Ministers. It is not a correct list of Ministers today, and it was not a correct list last week, the week before or for much of this year, last year or the year before. That is not transparency, so I think we need radical reform to improve the system. The list of ministerial interests should be published the moment a Minister has made a declaration to their permanent secretary; that should be in real time. It should be co-ordinated with what we publish in the House, so that any member of the public, at any time, can see in a single place all the financial and other interests that any Member of the House has.

That takes me to my second point, which is about openness in Government. As all Members will know, we are required, as Members of Parliament, to register any financial interests we have under a variety of different headings: ownership of land, payments we have received for work we have done, gifts we have received, hospitality, overseas trips and so on. There are various thresholds—£300 or £1,500, depending on whether it is an Electoral Commission-relevant gift. We have do that within 28 days.

Breaching that requirement is a breach of the code of conduct. I know that—I said I am no saint—because I managed to get this completely wrong. I completely forgot to register that I had gone to Poland with the British Council. I remembered to do so three years later, and I completely owned up without anyone ringing the Daily Mail. We have a proper rectification process when individual Members just get it wrong in an honest way. Roughly 25 Members end up going through that process every year, and that is perfectly sensible.

However, we have a clause in the code of conduct that says that some must register these things unless they have received them in their ministerial capacity. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and the former Foreign Secretary, now the Prime Minister, went to the premiere of the most recent James Bond film. They did not register that in the House, which they would have to have done within 28 days, and they said that that was because they went in a ministerial capacity. In the Standards Committee earlier this year, I asked a couple of other Ministers, who have now moved on, why someone would register going to a Bond premiere in their ministerial capacity. One of them said, “Well, that’s because James Bond exercises Executive functions.” Then one of them tried, “Well, actually James Bond works for MI5,” and I said, “It’s actually MI6, but don’t let that bother you.”

This is a nonsense, and it is a bigger nonsense than we think. The Government are theoretically committed to publish details of four different things every three months: travel, gifts, hospitality and meetings. There is not one Government publication, and each Department does that separately, but they are nearly always late. The worst offender is normally the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the Cabinet Office is often the best performer. At the moment, if we add up all the days that Departments are late publishing this material, it is to the tune of 1,200 days. That means that if somebody went to an event last November, we would probably not know about it until next March or June, which could be after a general election or long after the moment when it would have helped the public to know what financial interests potentially influenced a Minister.

To check all these documents every year, we would have to look up 362 separate documents on the internet. On top of that, according to the last set of details provided by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which came out in July and referred to October to December last year, two Foreign Office Ministers apparently never went on any overseas visits whatever. I simply do not believe that. Apparently, the then Foreign Secretary, now the Prime Minister, had only one meeting in the whole three months. I simply do not believe that, bearing in mind that the Business Secretary at the time had 154 meetings in the same period.

So I do not think that the transparency system is working. It is bunch of made-up material, it is completely incomprehensible to the ordinary member of the public and it is a complete failure of the Nolan principle of openness. That is why the Standards Committee has said that we should abolish the exemption allowing Ministers simply to record things through the ministerial route. We think that all Members of Parliament should be treated equally under the rules of the House. If someone has a financial interest it should be known within 28 days, with the same details provided by all Members of Parliament, and no exemptions for Ministers. It could be argued that it is even more important to know who is wining and dining Ministers, because they are the people making executive decisions. We should know that in real time.

Finally, the Standards Committee, which I chair, has produced a new code of conduct for the House. There are many areas where we just want to make the rules simpler, so that people do not make inadvertent errors. Of course, we should have high standards, but we do not want to have impossible standards that nobody would be expected to meet in any other line of work. We have tried to simplify the rules in many different ways. I urge Members to read our full report. We have some outstanding differences with the Government, but those should be resolved on the Floor of the House.

We have also said that we should restrict second jobs for Members. For instance, someone with a second job should have a contract that says what that person can and cannot do, so that they cannot engage in paid lobbying, as Owen Paterson did. We also said that a Member should not have a job where they sell their knowledge as an MP on the open market to businesses around the country, effectively as a political consultant. That is not on. The Government seem reluctant to bring that forward to the House. I gather there will be a debate next Wednesday, and I hope that we can resolve all of this swiftly and bring in rules for all Members of the House that are more stringent in some areas and simpler in others, so that all Members are treated equally.

It would be a massive mistake for the new Administration to start off with a row about standards. That is what brought down the previous Administration. I really hope the new Prime Minister will not go down that route again, and I know that many Conservative Members feel similarly. I hear that the Government intend to bring forward only the new provisions on introducing a right of appeal over standards issues. I think that would be a big mistake.

Finally—you will tell me that I have already said “finally”, Mr Twigg, but I used to do it in my sermons, and I do not see why I should stop now—when the motion to appoint the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Mr Daniel Greenberg, is brought forward, I am confident that the House will be enthusiastically supportive. Those who know him through several Committees he already works with in the House will know that he is absolutely cracking. He is clear, incisive, witty, intelligent and clever. He knows the law inside out and how Parliament and politics work. He will be a magnificent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I hope the Government will bring forward that measure very soon.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate after so many brilliant contributions from my Labour colleagues. I hope the wide-angled camera that the parliamentary authorities use to broadcast this meeting will show that not a single Conservative Back-Bench MP has bothered to turn up. That is a shame. The Minister and her Parliamentary Private Secretary are rightly in their places, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Standards in public life should not be optional. Every one of us, regardless of party, should seek to uphold, celebrate and share them, and we should tell the story of why they matter, but someone needs to turn up to do that. I hope that people can see the empty chairs in this room and that they will ask why only Labour Back-Bench MPs were speaking in this debate. This issue does matter.

The standards spoken about so brilliantly by my hon. Friends, the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) are important. We could restrict those standards to selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. We could include others, as many people who have applied the principles of public life to their own organisations have done, such as duty and a requirement to uphold the law—that should be a given but, sadly, we have seen that that is not always so. Other principles are respect, equality and the importance of treating everyone equally, no matter who they are, who they fall in love with, where they come from, the colour of their skin or their religion. The principles, when taken together, are about how to be decent.

I sometimes get things wrong; I sometimes make mistakes. The system should be broad and confident enough to allow us—if we make an honest mistake, because of innovation or because we get something wrong—to put our hands up, apologise and learn that lesson. That is an informed, sensible and confident system. What we have at the moment is a broken system. It is important that we deal with it. It is not broken because of neglect. It is broken because of deliberate decisions to break it. That is dangerous, because it puts us on a path to a place where standards do not matter and are not upheld. It suggests that we are all the same, and that every Member of Parliament—regardless of their party—is somehow in the mud, somehow on the take and somehow unfairly representing their constituents. There are brilliant MPs in every party; there are a lot of good, decent Conservative MPs who would probably want to be here. We need to make sure that this debate is conducted against those high principles and in a language that reflects the political body we are seeking to create. That is the spirit of what I want to say.

The context in which this debate is being held is important, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree set it out really well. We are here because the last Administration sought to break many of those standards, sought to evade scrutiny and sought to excuse and protect those who had broken the standards, the system and the principles that we seek to uphold. That gives us a choice, because people care about those standards.

If we were to do a taste test on the streets of Plymouth or in any other constituency and to ask people to name the seven principles of public life, I am not certain that every member of the public would be able to name them all, but they would all give it a good go, and the words we would get back would reflect the overall sentiment of the principles. That is what we should be aiming at, because what we have seen over the past year should scare each and every one of us—no matter whether we are in government or in opposition, aspiring to be in government. This issue matters.

Yesterday, I hosted a group of young care leavers from Plymouth at an event with Barnardo’s. They talked about their experience of being in care, and I am enormously proud of them for the way they travelled from Plymouth—many of them leaving it for the first time—to come to Parliament. One of them asked me, “Why would anyone take notice of us? Why does it matter?” I explained the job of Members of Parliament, and they said, “Aren’t they all corrupt?” That is not an unreasonable question for a young person who has been confronted by years and years of the news coverage that we have had. I am so proud of those young people for telling their story about being in care, but we need to make sure that our day-to-day business here speaks to a place that every young person can look at and aspire to be in and whose principles they can aspire to follow.

That means changing the rules that we have. I do not see a reason why MPs have second jobs. The declarations of who has a second job includes many of the MPs in the south-west near to me. When I at how many hours or days a week they spend doing a second job, I think that is one or two days a week that they are not doing the job that they were elected to do and that they are paid very handsomely to do. What are we getting? Are taxpayers getting a rebate? Are they getting a refund? What influence, decisions and information is being shared? There should be no second jobs, except for those who are keeping up a medical licence or the ability to write a book.

I understand why some people do not want to be in Parliament, because I do not think it is a safe place to work. I say that because I worked in professional workplaces until my election, and I did not doubt that any of those private sector workplaces were safe. People were able to come to work and be safe. I do not always believe that Parliament is a safe place to work, especially for many of our staff. Young people, often not paid very much, are in an atmosphere full of alcohol, where power has a currency all by itself. When we talk about standards in public life, they are not amorphous, blobby things. They are not foggy things that we are trying to catch. They are lived experience for people. We must make this place a safe place for everybody to work. There is a big distinction between the Parliament that I turned up to as a young researcher in 2000 with brown hair and the Parliament that I turned up to with grey hair when I got elected.

It was brown—I have picture evidence.

None the less, progress has been made in those 20 years. We should not dismiss the fact that MPs of both parties have sought to make change to make this place a better one. However, it is not yet a safe enough place for everyone to work, and it needs to be. That is the reason why the seven principles of public life should not exist on a dusty bookshelf; we should live and breathe them. More than that, they should be visible to everyone in this place. Far from being points of shame, or a tick-list to see what someone has got wrong, they should be a source of pride and strength for us all in this place. We should display them around the building. The refurbished parliamentary building should welcome Members and guests with a celebration of those principles, built into the fabric of the building, just as today’s Parliament highlights the many old dudes in wigs who once ruled Britain hundreds of years ago. We should make them visible to everyone.

Making them modern must also make them personal. If I am lucky enough to be returned as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport after the next election, one of the changes that I would like to see is that when we come to swear in, we should not just swear an Oath to the Queen—to God, if we have one—or affirm; I think we should also swear to uphold the principles of public life. If each and every one of us, in our own voice, says those words, lists the seven principles of public life and affirms or swears to uphold them when we are in office, then they are not just a tick box or a document that we have been given as part of the corporate brochure—the new starter’s handbook. They are something that each and every one of us has said and made personal. That matters because if it is personal, it is more likely to be upheld by every individual.

I think we are at a crossroads in our democracy. At a crossroads, taking the right turn is not inevitable. Many places can take the wrong turn, and as we are seeing around the world, where rights are under attack, where democracy is being eroded, where misinformation is sometimes more believed than accurate information, it is not inevitable that we win this fight, that standards win. That only happens when we make the case for it, when people are persuaded by it and when there is no other option but to uphold those standards.

So I hope the Minister will take the Opposition’s suggestions seriously, and make actual changes to the way this place functions—changes not designed to catch people out, but to celebrate those standards and make them something that each and every one of us aspires to make sure we uphold through our activities. When we go into schools and talk about our role as Members of Parliament, I think people see an MP who is proud of their job. They see an MP wanting to share the hope of changing the community for the better. Talking about their politics, their values, every single MP would probably make a case for good practice—for best practice and for hope. Why are we so different when we leave those schools and come to this place, that we find it so easy to qualify and avoid those standards? Why do we find it so easy to protect the people who break those rules? If every Member of Parliament decides today to stop protecting the people who make this place unsafe, to stop protecting the people who break the rules, we will get a Parliament that is better and we will have something that those young kids can be proud of.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing the debate, and I thank my other colleagues for all the excellent speeches from them so far.

The seven principles of public life—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—were brought in after the Nolan inquiry, following scandals in public life. They have been embedded in my brain since they were adopted. They permeated our understanding as councillors; they were the principles by which we worked and made decisions. We sign up to them when we are elected as MPs or councillors, or assume a variety of roles, but so do a large number of public servants when they are appointed or employed. They are integral to our public life. However, what happens in Parliament, and by Government, matters throughout our public life. That spreads beyond this place.

I said that it was embedded in my brain but, as a Quaker, truth and integrity is also embedded in my core. For those colleagues who go into Prayers, every day they pray that Members may never

“lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of”

—apologies for the language—

“all mankind”.

I believe, as others have said, that the vast majority of MPs do comply with the seven principles in all they do, and actively and willingly sign them and follow them. However, sadly, we have seen too many examples of where that has not been the case. Too often, in the last few years, that has come from the very top of Government, and from, as of yesterday, the previous Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). My constituent, Peter Oborne, identified 50 lies made by that Prime Minister in this House between the general election in 2019 and January of this year—when he stopped counting, but there have been many examples since. Honesty is one of the seven principles.

Peter Oborne said, I thought quite helpfully, that

“we…had an area of public discourse which belonged to everybody, a common ground where rival parties could coexist”.

He goes on to say:

“Political lying is a form of theft. It takes away people’s democratic rights. Voters cannot make fair judgements on the basis of falsehoods.”

That is just addressing just one of the seven principles.

Over the past three years, we have seen a bonfire of ethics and integrity. We have seen the Government try to overrule the Standards Committee; we have seen stories about Conservative MPs being threatened by Government Whips; and we have seen the very basic standards around public life degraded in front of us. The new Prime Minister stood by and supported the previous Government, who took a blowtorch to the basic ethics of public life.

I was particularly concerned to see, last week, that the Government have spent £130,000 commissioning a legal opinion on the Privileges Committee investigation into the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. I am not sure why the Cabinet Office felt it was a good use of public money to get an opinion on a matter that was for this House, and this House alone.

Under that Prime Minister, we saw the Government—I would say, disgracefully—undermine the basic structures that uphold standards and integrity in politics. Not only did they try to overrule the Standards Committee, but the Prime Minister refused to sack his own Ministers when they were found to have breached the ministerial code. What is the point of having a ministerial code if it is not enforced? Conservative Ministers have even gone as far as giving the finger to those protesting outside Downing Street.

Surely the fundamental problem we have is that, over the past three years, Ministers have felt able to act with impunity. A Minister unlawfully overruled a planning decision to help a Conservative property developer and party donor he had met at a dinner. We have seen a Cabinet Minister rebuked for bullying civil servants but not sacked. We have seen crony contracts worth millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money awarded to friends and allies of Ministers without due diligence. If that had happened in local government when I was a councillor, we would have been sacked, and probably the Government inspectors would have been in and taken over from the powers of the councillors. Yet, when they were asked to provide evidence in court, they magically claimed their phones had been wiped.

We have seen more. We have seen a Government who suspend Parliament when they fear they will not succeed in what they want to do; who expel Conservative Members from the party, breaking the rules that they had passed; and who refuse to adopt their own code of conduct. Those are all symptoms of a failure to live the values of the seven principles. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, they should not just be on a dusty shelf; all of us should live and breathe them every day. Perhaps they should be up in gold leaf around the walls of Westminster Hall, the Chamber or Members’ Lobby, so that they are always there in front of us.

This matters to people’s faith in democracy. It matters if we want people to vote and have faith that their vote matters, and have faith in what it is they are voting for this time and next time—in all elections, not just to Parliament. They must have faith in their other elected representatives. It matters to the reputation of this country. We could have a debate on every single one of the Nolan principles—but that would take up the 90 minutes that we have been allowed for this debate today.

If we are not to undermine Parliament, our democracy and the reputation of this country, we must take action. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has made three serious, genuine proposals. Given his deep experience of the history of Parliament and his role in our Parliament now, we should listen and take action. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, we have to do better by being better.

In a debate about the seven principles of public life, it is fair to preface my remarks by saying that the recent history of the Government has been at best tempestuous. That is the context within which this debate takes place. I will try to summarise what has brought us here today.

We know about the crony covid contracts and the illegal Prorogation of Parliament, but what probably touched the public far more deeply were the lockdown parties that the former Prime Minister knew nothing about. He then admitted he knew about them but did not attend. Then he admitted he attended but did not realise they were parties. This was a saga that pushed the credulity of the public beyond comprehension, and was beneath the dignity of the office of the Prime Minister.

Some Tory Members think we should all move on—it is in the past; let us forget about it. But there is no denying that people across the House of Commons and people across the UK, regardless of their political persuasion, felt by turns very angry, let down, betrayed and even mocked by the behaviour of a Prime Minister who told us we could not be with our loved ones. We were told to help prevent the spread of covid and to support the NHS. People, by and large, followed that advice—even when their loved ones were dying alone and even when loved ones were suffering with terrible loneliness. They followed that advice even when it was very difficult and distressing to do so, because they believed it was the right thing to do. To find that their Prime Minister so casually and so blatantly did not follow that advice—his advice—was very hard for many to bear.

I understand that we face a crisis in energy prices, a cost of living crisis, and deeply worrying levels of inflation, but truth and honesty when Prime Ministers take to the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons really matters. If leaders look people in the eye and say things to them that are not true, or if people feel that they simply cannot trust what the Prime Minister tells them, how much harder is it to govern and effectively lead through times of dark crisis? Now more than ever, people across the UK need leaders they can believe in. The legacy of partygate is that the office of the Prime Minister has been badly tarnished, and that is ultimately a threat to democracy itself. It seems to me that perhaps that is why we are even holding this debate.

There can be no doubt that the previous Prime Minister’s tenure showed just how important the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty truly are. Those principles underpin the survival of democracy itself. Standards in public life, the ministerial code and trust all matter.

This is not just about the impact of partygate. We have also witnessed attempts to rewrite the ministerial code, and declarations saying it would be “disproportionate” to require Ministers who breach the code to step down, and that it would be more in keeping to ask them to take a pay cut or make a public apology. Yet Lord Evans was clear in his report recommending reforms following a review of the ministerial code by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which said:

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament.”

That is self-evidently true and should not be considered remotely controversial in any state that believes itself to be a democracy. And yet, chillingly, breaking international law was removed from the code in 2015. The section that read,

“the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”

was changed in 2015 to,

“the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life.”

There can be only one reason why the commitment to comply with “international law” and “treaty obligations” was removed. Presumably the intention is, and was, to pick and choose what international law would be complied with. And what do we find? The then Northern Ireland Secretary, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), admitted to the House of Commons in a debate on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill that it broke

“international law in a very specific and limited way.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]

That allows Ministers to make regulations inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under the withdrawal agreement, laying the groundwork for more extensive breaches of international law and, importantly, seeking to insulate Ministers from judicial scrutiny at home.

Most extraordinarily, the provisions on international law and those on domestic law in the same Bill could have legal effect notwithstanding their incompatibility with

“any rule of international or domestic law whatsoever”.

This appears to be an attempt to oust the jurisdiction of the courts to review the legality of ministerial decisions under these powers at all.

We have a new Prime Minister and she must get a grip on the moral decay at the heart of Government. Lord Geidt left because he was put in the impossible position of having to arbitrate over flagrant law breaking. Of the four ethics advisers there have ever been, two have resigned under the tenure of the former Prime Minister—the same Prime Minister whose final honours list appears to be full of presents for cronies and pals, putting them into positions of lifetime peerages, unaccountable to the public while they scrutinise legislation.

How can we recover from this damaged trust and decay? It will not be easy but I believe it can be done. The new Prime Minister could do what her predecessor failed to do. Her predecessor refused to give the then Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, Lord Geidt, the power to launch his own investigations, as requested by a number of ethics bodies, but the new Prime Minister could provide such power to independent standards advisers. At the moment, as we have heard, an independent investigation into whether the ministerial code has been breached can take place only if the Prime Minister approves it, and even then, the findings can be completely disregarded. That cannot be right.

But the fear that many of us have, as we have heard today, is that matters will not improve. The new Prime Minister has said that she may not appoint an ethics adviser, but that would be a terrible mistake. I understand that her reasoning is that it is not necessary as she has “always acted with integrity”, but even if we believe that and accept that argument, in politics perception matters. Sometimes in politics, perception is the only thing that matters. The perception will inevitably be that her stubborn refusal to appoint an ethics adviser, given recent history, means that it will be business as usual and it will do nothing to restore confidence in the idea that the principles of public life really matter to this Government. It will be a squandered opportunity for the new Prime Minister, who was at the heart of her predecessor’s Government, if she fails to take a new broom and sweep away some of the dubious ethics of the previous leadership. Otherwise, as we all know, trust in politics and the business of government will continue to erode. That damages the very fabric of our society and the cohesiveness of our communities, and ultimately threatens democracy itself. That helps no one, benefits no one but harms everyone.

Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing it.

What an important debate this is to have on the first day of a new premiership. The timing could not be more appropriate. I share the disappointment of other Members that there are no Conservative Members here, except the Minister—I am glad to see her in her place—for this very fundamental debate. Shockwaves have just gone through our political system. The premiership has changed because of an erosion of standards, yet the Chamber is not absolutely packed. Conservative Members should be looking at themselves and the system, and making changes.

I hope the new Prime Minister and her team are watching and that this debate serves as a reminder that this House cares deeply about ethics and standards. Members have made some really fantastic speeches. I encourage anyone reading this in Hansard to go back and read the earlier speeches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree spoke about the erosion of trust in politicians caused by the scandals and sleaziness under the previous Prime Minister, and about the need for a new system to restore integrity. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said that the new Prime Minister must make restoring trust and confidence in politicians a priority of her premiership—I agree.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) spoke about the link between standards in public life and the loss of faith in the political system, and about the seriousness of this debate and the need for respect for each other in this House. We must set an example here by upholding the highest standards, which will then be followed throughout the rest of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) highlighted Ministers’ persistent failure to register interests on time and the opaqueness of the system, which goes against the principle of openness. Who is paying for freebies? Who is meeting Ministers? He spoke about the need for the Committee on Standards’ new code of conduct to be taken up, and I hope it will be next week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) spoke about the importance of standards. I met the young people who came from Plymouth yesterday, and I was really struck by their integrity, openness, transparency and leadership, but I was disappointed to hear of their loss of faith in politicians, which is reflected across the country.

I have no idea how MPs are able to have a second job. Today is the 1,000th day since I was elected, and it has been really tough. Every day, I have been delighted to be a Member representing my constituency and standing up in public life, but I do not know how I would fit anything else in. On the issue of Members’ safety, people feel this is not a safe place to work and that causes them to count themselves out of standing to come to this place, and we lose an immense wealth of talent because of that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) highlighted the cronyism, the suspension of Parliament and a list of things that have happened to bring us to this debate. The failure to uphold standards and their undermining have meant that the system has lost public trust. This is a crisis.

When it comes to ethics and standards, and to trust, the Government need to be placed in special measures, and I hope to hear from the Minister about what special measures will be taken to bring us out of this system. Instead of the seven Nolan principles, we have seen scandals, bullying, back-covering and cronyism. We have seen poor behaviour by MPs acting with impunity. We have seen what is said in the House, and what happens in Downing Street, bringing us to this place. It breaks my heart when I stand on doorsteps every weekend and people say, “You’re all the same.” The undermining of the seven principles by some Members undermines us all and all the work done by decent MPs, and it allows improper influence to undermine our very democracy.

Because of all that has happened, it is no wonder that the former ethics adviser felt overworked. Government Members—not in Westminster Hall today, but elsewhere— will be quick to assert that the Prime Minister will turn over a new leaf and that we have a new moment and a break from the past, so that we can start afresh. Deep down, however, they know this is a fiction, because the Prime Minister propped up her disgraced predecessor as he misled the British public and corrupted Downing Street. The actions of the former Prime Minister cast a long shadow and, whether she likes it or not, the new Prime Minister is darkened by it. That is why action on standards, and explaining that action to make it transparent what changes are being made, is so important.

It is already clear that the Johnsonian tradition of believing that the rules do not apply to those at the top will be kept alive and well under the incoming Administration unless there are changes. Instead of pledging to restore standards in public life after years of Tory sleaze and scandal, the Prime Minister is threatening to trample all over them. During the leadership campaign, she was asked multiple times to commit to replacing the ethics adviser. At Prime Minister’s questions earlier, her answer to one of the questions was a simple yes. That is what was needed for the question of whether she will appoint an ethics adviser. Her response should have been yes, but she did not commit to appointing an ethics adviser, which is extremely worrying. The Prime Minister has already appointed a whole new senior leadership team and political advisers, but an independent adviser on ministerial interests was conspicuously absent from the list. Like her predecessor, she seems to think she does not need one. To use her own words, that is a disgrace. If only the Prime Minister cared as much about standards in public life as she so evidently does about pork markets and cheese.

The incoming Prime Minister would do well to remember that it is because of her predecessor’s disregard for the seven principles that she now finds herself with moving vans outside No. 10. She should know, and I am sure she does know, that getting rid of the ethics adviser is a blank cheque for corruption. Corruption is a big word, but it does not arrive in any country or place of work with a big bang, saying, “Hello, I’m corruption.” It creeps in unannounced, it corrodes and infects politics. It is about small decisions, larger ones and things that are done behind closed doors that are not known about. It is often small and unseen. It is insidious, and it infects slowly. That is why a line must be drawn and the system must be changed, because it is not working.

Senior civil servants are also worried, which matters for the whole delivery of Government. When the last ethics adviser resigned, Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA—the senior civil servants union—said that

“confidence in the process has been severely damaged. If the prime minister does not intend to replace Lord Geidt, then he must immediately put in place measures to ensure a civil servant can, with confidence, raise a complaint about ministerial misconduct.”

We cannot just leave a vacuum at the top. As pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, the position of ethics adviser is not an optional extra. The ethics adviser performs a key administrative function that enables openness, honesty and transparency. With the post vacant, there is no one to whom new Members can give their full list of interests that may be thought to give rise to a conflict with a Minister’s public duties. With whom will they register that? There is no one to investigate possible breaches of the ministerial code. There is no one to advise the Prime Minister on the code, which is a substantial and highly important document for upholding the seven principles, and there is no one to take up existing investigations.

Labour believes in the seven principles. When we are in Government, we will clean up politics by establishing an independent ethics and integrity commission to ensure the transparency and accountability that have been woefully lacking under the Conservatives. We would make appointments at speed, but we would go further. We have called for an expansion of the scope of the statutory register of lobbyists and a ban on MPs taking up lobbying jobs for five years after leaving office.

Not only does Labour believe in the Nolan principles, the public does, too. The former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), said that voters don’t “give a fig” about the ethics adviser. I hope that no new Ministers share that view because voters do give a fig. This is unacceptable. I would counsel the new Prime Minister and her Cabinet not to insult the British electorate by being complacent about standards. They do give a fig about honesty and integrity.

I will end by asking the Minister several important questions, which I have asked several times in different places but have never had a straight answer for. First, can she confirm whether ongoing investigations launched by the previous ethics adviser will now be completed? Can she confirm whether there will be an interim position or a role holder for the ethics adviser? Labour’s motion to the House in June called for this replacement to be put in place within two months. It has been well over two months now, but no interim position or ethics adviser has been put in place. Has the Minister spoken with the new Prime Minister about what she plans to do with the role? I am sure the Prime Minister has been very busy, but this is a high priority. Is she aware of the key accountability functions not being performed because there is no adviser, and how outdated is the record of ministerial interests now? Who is holding Ministers to account in the interim?

With no ethics adviser and no obvious backstop in place, Ministers are free to do as they please without consequence. It is a blank cheque for bad behaviour. It is a bad start for the new Administration. It may be an attractive position for the Government, who have always found the rules to be incredibly inconvenient, but it is not attractive or acceptable to the British public. The seven principles of public life have been the cornerstone of our democracy for 25 years. There was a time when they were treated as sacrosanct by all Prime Ministers, Ministers and Governments—whether Labour or Conservative—because those seven principles are British principles.

The public do not ask for much from us—well, not all the time. They do not ask for perfection in their politicians, but they rightly expect that we act in the public’s interests at all times and never in our personal interests. It is that simple. Labour understands this. This is a time for a reset on public standards. I hope to hear from the Minister about—that word—delivery. The Government must deliver not only an effective system that stops power corrupting, but one that inspires and sets the best example to the country of action in public life.

Before I call the Minister, I remind her to leave a few minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important and timely topic. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for requesting the debate and express my gratitude to the hon. and right hon. Members present for their active participation.

The standards to which public servants in the United Kingdom, including those who serve in political life, are appropriately held are highly regarded across the world. The bedrock of those standards is formed, as we have heard many hon. Members say, by the seven principles of public life established by Lord Nolan in 1995. The principles— selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—are woven into the codes of conduct for Members of the House and those in the other place. They are also central to the ministerial code, which sets the standards of behaviour expected of those who serve in Her Majesty’s Government. The seven principles, as we have heard, apply much more widely, such as to civil servants, those in local government and across public life.

Today’s contributions have made clear the importance of the seven principles to all of us. They form a touchstone to which we return and a benchmark against which we judge our actions. When we make those judgments, there will, of course, be times when we fall short. We cannot be complacent about that. Applying and upholding the principles is not a passive undertaking. It requires collective vigilance, self-assessment and willingness to learn and be held to account. That can be uncomfortable, but it is essential.

I shall try to answer as many of the points and questions raised in the debate as I can. The Government have been considering the “Standards Matter 2” report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life alongside Nigel Boardman’s report on the use of supply chain finance in Government. As set out in the written statement on 15 July 2022, a number of changes have been made in response to those reports. For example, in June 2022, new guidance was issued on the declaration and management of outside interests in the civil service. The Government have also implemented Nigel Boardman’s recommendations on Government contracts and the use of supply chain finance in Government. In May 2022, reforms were made to the role and remit of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests in response to recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The Government are also taking action to improve the enforcement of the business appointment rules. Mechanisms are now in place for breaches of the rules to be taken into account in the award of honours. Agreement on a similar approach is also being sought with the independent House of Lords Appointment Commission. The Government are now considering how to implement the same approach in relation to public appointments. Alongside this, the Government are considering consequences for prospective employers, including through the procurement process. Work on further reforms continues and will be informed by the new Prime Minister.

Please be in no doubt that the Government remain fully committed to ensuring that all Ministers, including the Prime Minister, are held to account for maintaining high standards of behaviour and behaving in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, as the public rightly expect. The ministerial code lays that out. In the absence of an independent adviser, permanent secretaries carry out the process of reviewing Ministers’ interests, advised by the Cabinet Office. Correcting the points from the right hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), it is actually the duty of the permanent secretary to carry out that work in the absence of the independent adviser.

The Prime Minister is currently dealing with a number of pressing issues, as Members might imagine, and has not been in post long enough to turn her attention to this matter yet. However, it is important and she will do so as quickly as she is able. We have heard many Members quoting the Prime Minister, from the hustings and so on, as saying that she is not appointing an independent adviser.

One of the difficulties of it all being done by the permanent secretary is that if—let us say, for the sake of argument—a Secretary of State was accused by a permanent secretary of bullying them, how then could the Government Minister simply turn to the permanent secretary for advice on adherence or otherwise to the ministerial code? That is why we need an independent adviser on the ministerial code. It cannot simply be reporting to permanent secretaries. Under the system the Minister has just outlined, there is no means for any of this becoming public. Permanent secretaries cannot publish it. The only person who can publish it is the independent adviser on the ministerial code.

The head of the civil service can take the role of looking after issues like that when there is a clash between a senior Government Minister and their permanent secretary. The Prime Minister said that she was “not necessarily saying” that she would not appoint an independent adviser, but that

“the leadership needs to take responsibility. You cannot outsource ethics to an adviser. We need ethics running through the Government. The culture of organisations starts at the top and that’s what’s important to me.”

In response to the right hon. Member for Rhondda, again, the appointment of the next independent adviser and the terms of their appointment are matters for the new Prime Minister. In the light of the resignation of the former independent adviser and the comments made by Lord Geidt and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee at the time, the Government felt it was right to reflect and consider the way in which that independent adviser’s role was delivered, particularly given the increased scrutiny of the role. The independent adviser is a personal adviser to the Prime Minister, and it is an appointment on a five-year term. It is therefore right that the appointment is made by the new Prime Minister, and that some time is allowed for the Prime Minister to consider next steps in this key role. It is for the Prime Minister to confirm how this function will be undertaken and to consider the available options.

I am not right honourable, by the way—[Interruption.] It is an outrage, I know—the country can hardly continue.

This is an important point; when will we see the first list of ministerial financial interests published for this new Government?

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see. The handling of interests in the interim—the process of managing interests—continues in line with the ministerial code. The code sets out that the permanent secretary in each Department can provide advice to Ministers, and plays a role in scrutinising interests. The Cabinet Office also provides that advice, and the Government’s publication of transparency information also continues unaffected. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned 362 pieces of transparency; in fact, there have been 4,568 transparency releases on the platform since the pandemic was declared—more than 10 times the number the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

I was referring to the ministerial transparency documents. In order to find out what financial interests Ministers have, we have to look at more than 300 documents; it should be one document, so that everybody can look at it easily.

Thank you for that insightful comment. As the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth mentioned councils and corruption, I suggest that she look at Sandwell Council and the process of awarding contracts as an example of a lack of transparency and process.

I am not saying that every council is perfect; I am saying that a process is used in local government. I do not know the details of the Sandwell example, but such things are the exception to the vast majority of local governments and councillors in the UK. I know how the mechanisms work from my 25 years of experience as a councillor, although some of that was before the Nolan principles came in, and I know that there is little leeway for elected councillors.

I suggest that the hon. Lady look at the Sandwell case.

As for gatherings and investigations, the Government asked the country to make extraordinary sacrifices, and as the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) said, he has taken personal responsibility, acknowledging people’s anger and hurt and offering a full and unreserved apology for the mistakes made, and he has left office. Any investigations that were not completed by Lord Geidt prior to his resignation will remain outstanding. Members will appreciate that the Prime Minister has just been appointed, so decisions on matters relating to the independent adviser will be taken in due course.

I will finish in order to leave time for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree. The Government continue to hold public standards in the highest importance, and places the seven principles of public life at the foundation of ethical conduct and integrity. The Prime Minister is fully committed to ensuring all Ministers are held to account to maintain high standards of behaviour, and to behaving in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, as the public rightly expect. As part of this commitment, we continue to carefully consider the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, and we will be updating the House on this work in due course.

I thank the Minister for allowing me time to sum up, and all colleagues for their excellent speeches. We have heard lots of information today, and I want to touch on a couple of issues. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), the shadow Minister, that the public do care about the Nolan principles. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that our system is broken, not because of neglect but because of deliberate decisions to break it. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about the importance of an independent adviser, and how that should be a statutory post.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about how perception matters in politics. I say to the Minister that perception does matter; the Nolan principles do matter. I would be grateful to the Minister if she could report back to the Prime Minister the disappointment from this side of the Chamber that no Conservative Back Benchers spoke in this debate, because it is incredibly important. Could she also convey to the Prime Minister that perception does matter and the Nolan principles matter?

It does not matter that the Prime Minister says that she will uphold them, and that she has integrity; she must demonstrate that by appointing an independent adviser. I am not saying that the Prime Minister is not going to uphold the principles. My point is that we had, in the former Prime Minister, someone who did not observe those principles. Quite frankly, that is not good enough for the public that we all seek to serve.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Seven Principles of Public Life.

NHS Dentistry Services: Carshalton and Wallington

I beg to move,

That this House has considered NHS dentistry services in Carshalton and Wallington.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I start by paying tribute to the incredibly hard-working dentistry professionals in Carshalton and Wallington, and around the UK, many of whom dealt with extremely difficult circumstances over the pandemic. They were some of the, I think, unfairly less applauded heroes of the NHS and our healthcare system during those dark days. I want to make it clear from the outset that the concerns I will raise during this debate are not aimed at the professionals, but rather at the system at large. They are concerns that have been shared with me by local NHS dental professionals in Carshalton and Wallington.

It is a well-known saying from the 19th century that a quarter of all human misery is toothache. The modern equivalent for many residents in Carshalton and Wallington is trying to get an appointment to treat said toothache. Dozens of my constituents have been in contact with me recently to raise concerns about accessing an NHS dentist.

Those concerns broadly fit into four main categories. The first is access to NHS dental services as a whole, from all patients—including those who are registered with a practice. The second is the often huge waiting list to register with an NHS dentist. The third is the removal of some patients from the NHS register due to their understandable lack of using services as much since the first covid-19 restrictions were brought into place in spring 2020. The fourth is the cost of purchasing private dental healthcare in order to gain access to treatment when trying to go through an NHS dentist has failed.

NHS figures released this year have found that a quarter of all people who attempted to get an NHS appointment did not succeed. Of those who were new patients, or at least had not had an appointment in over two years, the figure shoots up to almost 75%— almost three in four new patients are unable to get an appointment. A HealthWatch report published in December 2021 showed that seven of the NHS’s 42 integrated care systems were reporting that they had no practices at all taking on new NHS patients. Of course, visits to the dentist did drop over the pandemic, and that was understandable. However, the percentage of the population recently seen by a dentist has been slowly falling for several years. The Care Quality Commission has stated that the core of this problem originated before the pandemic hit.

The long-term impact of decreasing access to NHS dentists should not be underestimated. Without regular and easily accessible dental treatment, smaller issues can grow into greater ones. That puts a greater strain on the healthcare service as a whole—not just on dentistry—including an increase in patients turning to A&E for urgent oral health problems that were not treated by NHS dental services earlier in the process. Many patients who have been treated for mouth cancer or diabetes, for example, were first diagnosed, or at least had symptoms highlighted, by dental professionals. These patients have much higher survival rates if these issues are caught earlier on.

As we continue to try and help our constituents through the storm of the cost of living crisis and of building back a better national health service, we are heading into a winter of huge energy price rises and inflation as a consequence of Putin’s war in Ukraine and of the pandemic. It is even more important to ensure that dental care can be received on the NHS.

The cost of NHS dental treatment to the patient starts at around £23.80, with the most expensive band of treatment capped at £282.80. However, if a patient takes a private route, they can expect this pricing to significantly multiply. I am not just talking about a few extra quid here or there; for complex treatment such as extractions, we are looking at hundreds of pounds when done privately. There are no set limits on what practices can charge for private dental treatment, and prices will of course vary from practice to practice. Such extra financial burdens on people during the current economic crisis is unrealistic.

Unfortunately, difficulty in accessing NHS dental treatment has led to some worrying reports of dental DIY, with people turning to extracting teeth at home using household items and tools. In fact, reports of DIY dentistry in England and Wales have not just been reported by the media here in the UK, but have made it worldwide. Such practices are not only bad for those committing the DIY dentistry, but put greater strain on the whole public healthcare system when they inevitably go wrong.

However, financial issues are not just limited to patients. According to local dentists, many concerns about access to NHS dental care are a result of the financial implications of the system in which dental practitioners operate. Dental practices are essentially small business, but they operate in a strict top-down system.

Since 2006, dental contracts have required dentists to complete a set number of units of dental activity, or UDAs. Treatments are assigned to a band based on complexity and urgency, and each band is given a UDA value. A course of treatment is assigned to one UDA value based on the most complex element rather than the number of different treatments involved. That means that treatment to fit one crown is assigned the same number of UDAs as the treatment to fit eight crowns. That makes it impossible for many practices to make ends meet from NHS contracts, particularly during the current economic climate.

Furthermore, dental contracts in England and Wales are based on NHS dentistry providers performing an agreed number of UDAs a year. This means that if the target number of UDAs is not met, the contracts provide for a clawback, also known as a fine. If the target is reached, patients must be sent elsewhere or else wait for a new quota. The system is almost universally criticised by dental practitioners. A 2022 survey by the British Dental Association found that 82% of practices have reported unfilled vacancies and cited the current contract as the key barrier to filling posts. The Government are of course aware of this and have described the current dental contract as the nub of the problem. I welcome the new Health Secretary’s ABCD approach—ambulances, backlogs, care, doctors and dentists—and was pleased that it specifically mentions dentists, because they sometimes feel like they have been forgotten.

The Government have also described the contract as “a perverse disincentive” for dentists to carry out NHS work, but despite attempts to review and reform the dental contract since its introduction in 2006, it remained largely unchanged until the reforms announced in July. Those problems have obviously only intensified since the covid-19 pandemic, and the BDA estimates that over 38 million dental appointments were missed as a result. That has had a huge knock-on effect, which the industry is still trying to deal with. I am pleased that the Government announced an additional £50 million in funding for dentistry in January to help with the backlog. However, the impact of the pandemic has only mixed with the pre-existing contractual problems to create a perfect storm in dental care, which will take greater work to correct.

The Government do seem to be taking steps in the right direction, and I welcome that progress. The Government’s announcement in July of proposed changes to the system is very welcome—the Minister will tell me if I am wrong, but as I understand it, they will mean NHS dentists being paid more for treating more complex cases, such as those who need multiple fillings. Dentists will now receive five UDAs for treating three or more teeth, an increase on the current level of three UDAs, which was applied to any number of teeth. Higher-performing dental practices will also have the opportunity to increase their activity by a further 10% to see as many patients as possible. That will help to address some of the concerns with the current UDA inconsistencies and their financial impact.

However, there are fears in the industry that the reforms will not go far enough to address—if you will pardon the pun, Mr Twigg—the root cause of the problem in dental care. The BDA has suggested that the UDA system is fundamentally flawed and needs a complete overhaul rather than slight improvements, which, although helpful, will have little impact on practices and patients in the majority of cases.

For many of my constituents, accessing NHS dental care can be like pulling teeth. I am incredibly proud of the Government’s record on healthcare and the NHS, and I look forward to working with the new ministerial team at the Department of Health and Social Care not just to deliver for NHS dentists, but to deliver the new £500 million hospital in my borough and improvements to St Helier.

When it comes to dental care, there needs to be greater consideration of the fundamentals of the system that need reform, in order to improve NHS dental care. There are long-standing system-led issues that span multiple Governments and multiple parties. The recent improvements are greatly welcomed, but I hope that the Minister will outline what further steps the Government can take to address the crux of the matter, which is affecting many residents in Carshalton and Wallington.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this important debate on dentistry. I recognise the scale of the challenge that he described and we are committed to addressing the challenges of NHS dentistry. Those challenges continue to be real across the country, but, as he remarked, we have taken steps to address these issues. We are committed to improving dental access and making NHS dentistry a more attractive place for dentists and their teams to work.

I appreciate that access to NHS dentistry varies across the country, as my hon. Friend described, and that access was a big issue before the covid-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic further exacerbated those challenges, as we had to reduce the amount of care delivered, in line with the infection prevention and control measures that were introduced at that time. The activity thresholds for NHS dentistry were carefully set at that time by NHS England, and balanced access for patients against necessary infection prevention and control measures. At that time, dental practices were asked to prioritise urgent care and care for vulnerable groups, supported by over 700 urgent dental care centres, of which I think there are a number in his constituency.

Services have gradually been returning to normal levels, and I am pleased to say that in July 2022 NHS England asked dental and orthodontic practices to return to full delivery—that is, 100% of their contracted activity. The sector has worked hard to deliver as much NHS activity as it can, with many contractors already delivering 100% or more of their contracted activity for some time. As my hon. Friend mentioned, at the start of this year an additional £50 million was secured and made available for NHS dental services, to support the dental access challenges further and to provide patients with more dental appointments. That additional funding supported NHS dental teams in increasing capacity and giving more people access to vital dental care across England.

Those most in need of urgent dental treatment, including vulnerable groups and children, were prioritised for the additional available appointments that were made possible through that funding, with a third of activities being provided at the weekend and outside core hours. That funding meant that those with higher level of need were seen, with over two thirds of treatments being for the provision of urgent care. More than 64,000 additional patients were seen. I would like to pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend, to all the staff at dental practices and community dental services who went above and beyond to provide this extra care for patients.

We are beginning to see some improvements in NHS dentistry as we recover from the pandemic. The most recent NHS dental statistics report, published a few weeks ago, showed delivery of more than double the number of courses of treatment, compared with the previous year, an additional 539 dentists returning to NHS dentistry and an increase in preventative care provided to children.

As my hon. Friend said, it is clear we need to go further. We are pressing ahead with the package of measures that he alluded to, which we announced on 19 July. To go ahead with the dental reform package was one of the first decisions that I took as a Minister. We worked closely with NHS England, which negotiated with the British Dental Association, and engaged with many other stakeholders on these improvements. The changes include improving the criticised 2006 NHS dental contract to ensure that practices are more fairly remunerated for the care they provide to patients, and enabling practices to make better use of the range of dental care professionals in a practice.

We want to see all members of the team, including therapists, nurses and hygienists working their full scope in a practice, which will make it easier for more people to access care. Practices will be supported to adhere more closely to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines on recall intervals, which indicate that a healthy adult with good oral health need see a dentist only every two years, and a child every one year. That will free up capacity to deliver additional care required by higher need patients.

The changes that were also alluded to will also enable NHS commissioners to have greater flexibility in commissioning additional services to meet local need and will enable improved and more responsive management of those contracts. The highest performing practices will be able to deliver beyond their contract and treat more patients.

We will also improve information for patients who are looking for care, which is why we will make it a requirement for dentists to update their information on the NHS website. In addition to those changes, which will increase dental access and recruitment and retention of the dental workforce, Health Education England is working to implement recommendations from its recent 2021 “Advancing Dental Care Review” as part of its four-year dental education and reform programme.

The aim of that work is to develop a skilled, multi-professional oral health workforce, more able to support patient and population needs within the NHS, by reforming dental education and training. The programme will help address inequalities in dental care access across the country, better targeting areas that are currently less well served.

We know that international dentists are a vital part of the UK’s dentistry workforce. To improve the recruitment of overseas dentists and to ensure that international dentists remain a vital part of our workforce, we are currently working with the General Dental Council on legislative proposals that will allow the regulator greater flexibility to expand the registration options open to international dentists. The changes will support alternative routes to the overseas registration exam where appropriate, as well as expand access to the exams.

We aim to introduce the legislative changes this year, subject to the outcome of the recent consultation on the parliamentary approval process. In the meantime, current arrangements ensure that UK regulators continue automatically to recognise relevant qualifications of dentists from the European economic area, and we want to continue to facilitate their vital contribution to the dentistry workforce.

I want to emphasise that the reforms that we introduced on 19 July are one step. I and the Government recognise that they are a first step in a reform programme. In the longer term, we are looking at committing to improve access to urgent care and at the necessity of further workforce and payment reform. We will continue to work with NHS England and the dental sector to consider what further long-term changes may be necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Liverpool Port Access: Rimrose Valley

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Rimrose Valley and Liverpool Port Access.

It is a real pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I am pleased that I have managed to secure this debate; I have been applying for it for some months now. I did not have to bribe Mr Speaker or any of the officers—it was definitely legitimate.

This issue is a matter of considerable local interest. In fact, a number of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) are in the Public Gallery to listen to the debate. They are here representing not just themselves as individuals and friends of Rimrose Valley, but many thousands of people across my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. In short, if National Highways gets its way, it will plough a major road through Rimrose Valley, which is the only significant area of green space left in my constituency. It is a healthy lung that serves my constituents well, and National Highways should keep its hands off it. To be blunt, I think National Highways should do its job properly and produce a scheme that will achieve the goals that so many of us, including the Government, want.

It is easy for me to speak on this matter. I have in one way or another dealt with this issue about access to the port for more years than I care to mention. As a child, a significant part of the area was still in agricultural use at the eastern end, bordered on one side by the Leeds to Liverpool canal. I even remember the remains of a piggery on the site with the troughs still in place. For a child moving from back-to-back housing—very poor housing in Bootle—to an area that had green fields on the doorstep was fantastic. I reminisce, but I am making the point that we have to protect those areas of green as best as we possibly can.

I thought it best if I sought out a view from the people who have been involved in this issue perhaps not as long as I have been. In other words, I wanted a fresh perspective from others who perhaps do not have a history on this matter, as I do. Perhaps my judgment is clouded and a fresh perspective would help, so I asked a representative of the friends of Rimrose Valley for a few comments and observations, and I completely accept that other views are available. I do not decry those other perspectives, but this is a particular perspective and it is these views and observations that will inform much of what I say in the next 10 minutes or so.

Rimrose Valley is the last remaining space of its kind in a heavily urbanised and industrialised part of South Sefton—which is, in effect, north Liverpool—made up of wild and semi-wild “countryside in our community”. Given his relatively local antecedents, the Minister will be broadly aware of the geography, and I suspect he will have often been able to view the area, if only from across the Mersey at a little distance. The space is essential for community cohesion, linking families and friends for generations. I touched on that earlier when sharing my own experience. It is part of our local heritage. It provides a safe, clean and green commuter route for schoolchildren. The park is surrounded by dozens of primary and secondary schools and nurseries. It is an active travel corridor for people travelling to and from places of work. It helps to remove unnecessary car journeys, especially at peak times, and it offers a vital habitat to a huge diversity of wildlife, including protected species such as barn owls, bats, water voles and a vast array of birds and pollinators.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on behalf of his constituents. As he says, looking after wildlife is important because we know that nature needs to be supported. Under measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, the Government want to remove the requirement for environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental impact assessments, which have been vital for protecting sites of local, national and international environmental importance for decades, and replace them with environmental outcome reports. However, shockingly the Government have not given any indication of how those environmental outcome reports will work on the ground. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely vital that the Government do not undermine vital existing protections for nature-rich sites, precious green spaces close to urban environments and the green belt, and that they must be held to account on that matter?

I agree. It is really important that we ensure that as much of our local habitat—our local green spaces—is maintained as possible. I am sure the Government recognise that, and as we go through the Committee stage for that Bill, those issues will be teased out and we will seek assurances from them about their intentions. It is crucial that we do that, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. All these matters, including transport issues and the environment, are inextricably linked.

Those areas cannot simply be relocated. A field cannot be picked up and moved somewhere else. It does not work like that, because it has taken centuries and maybe longer to get to that particular situation. Rimrose Valley is called that because Rimrose brook goes through it, and it has obviously been there for thousands of years.

Rimrose Valley also offers respite from the pollution generated by port traffic on the surrounding roads. Residents who have lived next to the port have a life expectancy of 12 years less than those who live just a mile away. South Sefton already experiences some of the worst air quality in the United Kingdom, and the road proposal would compound that and negatively impact on people’s health and wellbeing. It would shorten lives and affect children and older people disproportionately.

Rimrose Valley offers space to improve physical health, with ramblers, running clubs and football clubs all using the park and surrounding spaces regularly. It maintains a good level of fitness for people, which of course alleviates pressure on the NHS. That is another part of the inextricable link between all these issues. It offers a place to go to improve mental health. Many local doctors and support organisations now practise social prescribing as a free and natural alternative or supplement to medication, which also takes pressure off our NHS.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on such an important topic. Rimrose Valley is shared between our constituencies, and our constituents enjoy its value. He is talking about air quality and public health, and I remind him that 40,000 deaths per year are linked to poor air quality and subsequent breathing-relating illnesses. Does he agree that the Government’s own public health goals say that such issues should be tackled urgently, and that the Department for Transport, by pursuing this option of a polluting road, is at odds with the Government’s own stated policy objectives of saving lives through improving air quality?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. We want to ensure that air quality is as good as it can possibly and practically be, given the set of circumstances. It is the role of us all, including the Government, to maintain that. I will touch on that later, but it is a very important point. I repeat that all these themes are inextricably linked.

Rimrose Valley was a lifeline for the thousands of people surrounding it during the covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions. It was a huge asset to the community during that time. Many homes around there do not have the luxury of a garden or a yard, so large public green spaces were essential. We all know that that is what the Victorians recognised—they certainly did in Liverpool, Birkenhead and such places. They built massive parks to ensure that people could get out, have a walk, enjoy themselves and get some respite from the places where they may have lived or the work that they may have done. There is a tradition in Britain of having large, open spaces, especially in some of the bigger cities, such as Liverpool.

Nearby communities were severed in two—I am reminiscing again—when another National Highways road, the A5036 trunk road, was built in the 1970s. Known as Princess Way, it is closer to the docks, and communities have never recovered from it. The proposed route would compound their misery, as the two roads would feed into that section of the road, splitting the community yet again. It is a case of history repeating itself, with absolutely no lessons learned or care for the potential damage caused. It is a “computer says no” approach to road planning.

The proven theory of induced demand shows that building more roads stimulates more traffic and does not necessarily tackle the underlying problems. To some extent, we have seen that locally with the bypass at Broom’s Cross, which alleviated congestion temporarily but is now another congested road at peak times. This is not about being anti-road or nimbyism; it is about ensuring that due diligence is undertaken when any project of this nature is proposed. I know that the Minister will be well aware of that, given the schemes in his own constituency.

Let us move on to the issue of the port of Liverpool, which is the elephant in the room—and it is a particularly large elephant. The port of Liverpool has been permitted an expansion, with little thought given to the infrastructure needed to support it. If there is to be an expansion, rightly or wrongly—I do not judge that at the moment; it is not for me to make that judgment—let us at least have the foresight to ensure that the environmental impact on communities is a significant factor in the design of any scheme that seeks to accommodate it. We do not want retrofitting, but if we are going to have a retrofit, it has to be proper and appropriate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central has touched on, decades of activity have had a negative impact on surrounding communities, with increased air pollution from heavy goods vehicles and ships at the port. Additionally, the port generates noise and light pollution, which is a blight on citizens who live alongside the port. We have to mitigate that as much as possible.

Despite the port owner’s claims that it is neutral about the type of port access scheme or project, a freedom of information request submitted by campaigners reveals that the Peel Ports Group has “worked tirelessly” with National Highways in the lead-up to the project being announced. It has a vested interest. I am not criticising that, but it would perhaps be one of proposal’s bigger beneficiaries and, whether we like it or not, many people are asking how it can be right that a private company potentially gets to determine or have a massive say in how public money is spent. If there is to be a port expansion, let us make sure that an access project to the port is as environmentally friendly as practically possible. This is not about being anti-business; it is about balancing the needs of the various interested parties. That balance has not been met, and the environmental impact is being felt by the local community of thousands of people.

The road proposal conflicts with the Government’s own policies. Let us take the climate emergency as an example. The transport sector is the single biggest contributor to climate-wrecking CO2 emissions in the UK. It is the only sector that has seen emissions go up, not down. CO2 emissions stem from both the construction and subsequent use of roads. In my view and that of many other people, the project would be used to support port-related HGV traffic—the worst polluters on our roads—without a real assessment of alternatives that are as sustainable as they are practical.

On that point about wider issues to do with transport funding, does my hon. Friend agree that there seems to be a lack of equity in transport funding across the country? I am thinking of my own patch in particular. Bradford is not included in the Northern Powerhouse Rail; we are without full station access. Does he think that this a problem throughout the nation?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend raises this issue. She has spoken many times on transport issues and, to be frank, she really does now what she is talking about. I may come to that issue later, and I am pleased that she has highlighted it.

The issue of pollution flies in the face of the climate emergency declaration. It is apposite that my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central has noted the public health crisis in air quality. He referred to 40,000 deaths a year and related illnesses. Public Health England has said that that needs to be tackled. Protection of green spaces is seen as vital, and the Government’s own 25-year environment plan sets out targets, yet in certain situations National Highways is, in my view, ignoring those objectives.

On levelling up, the north receives on average about seven times less expenditure per capita than the south. If the Government are serious about levelling up, they need to reflect that in projects such as this and give the community the budget it needs to do the job. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) is making.

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) have both pointed out the importance of levelling up and investing in transport across the nation. Given that this is a strategically important link, should not it be done with the longer term in mind, including climate objectives and ensuring that freight can travel as effectively as possible? That means providing alternatives to roads. The problem is that if we put more lorries on the roads, we will slow down delivery times and also deliver a less effective solution to the challenge of how we move goods around the country.

That is a perfectly fair analysis and assessment of the current situation. The mid-range cost of the proposal would be about £250 million. That is for just less than a 5 mile route, so it works out at about £50 million a mile. In relation to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South, the lower Thames reach crossing is now estimated to cost £8.2 billion, which works out at about £364 million per mile, including a tunnel. That is over seven times the per-mile cost that National Highways plans to spend on the Rimrose Valley road. However, the Rimrose Valley tunnel option was brushed aside as too expensive.

Turning to the conduct of National Highways, to date the organisation has told people that their homes would be safe, then issued the threat of compulsory purchase orders on homes and businesses. It withheld information on the environmental impact of the scheme from the public during the first consultation, thereby making an informed decision impossible. It has created divisions between communities in selecting the options it presented to the public. It ignored the outcome of its own public consultation, often in favour of the route that had the least support. In my view, and that of many other people, National Highways misled the public, claiming that a court ruled in favour of its preferred route, when actually it did not. It ignored the needs of those living alongside Princess Way—the road I referred to earlier, which is an extension of the A5036 and part of that corridor—with absolutely no mitigation. It ignored the Government and Sefton Council’s declaration of climate emergency by promoting yet another polluting road. It gave less than two weeks’ notice for public information events and sent newsletters to our schools, so that pupils could deliver National Highways’ messages. It also refused multiple freedom of information requests on dealing with private companies.

What about support for the proposal? The local authority, myself, and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central, strongly opposed the scheme. Recently, Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram called for better alternatives to be explored—we have all called for that. The council had a judicial review in 2008 and has not ruled out further legal action.

Public opposition—the “Save Rimrose Valley” campaign—is backed by thousands of local citizens demanding a better outcome. The amount of people involved is remarkable. There are effectively festivals—thousands of people coming to Rimrose Valley—organised by Rimrose Valley Friends. I pay tribute to the hard work of those people. The campaign is backed other leading organisations, including Friends of the Earth, Wildlife Trusts, CPRE, the countryside charity, and Transport Action Network. The campaign is calling for the road proposal to be cancelled with immediate effect and for non-road sustainable solutions to the movement of goods in and out of the port of Liverpool, removing as many HGVs as possible from the existing road. That includes investment in rail freight, which goes to and from the port but is pretty negligible in the grand order of things. Of course, Network Rail has not even been missing in action; it has just been missing in this situation.

Pursuing the innovative solutions in the Sefton Council and Arup report is an option. It says not, “This, that or the other should happen,” but, “Here are the options; let’s properly explore those options.” Public health and wellbeing should be paramount in all local, regional and national transport and infrastructure decisions affecting our communities. I know the Minister acknowledges that.

The campaign calls for action to address the climate emergency, with all transport investment in Sefton contributing to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions to help reach the Government’s own legal targets. The implementation of bold transport policies across Sefton and the wider city region, including proper investment in active travel and clean and affordable public transport, is called for.

The port of Liverpool is part of the make-up of the community. It exists. That cannot be ignored; it will not go away. It is a player alongside other players that are part of that Mersey Maritime group, as is the community. It is a symbiotic relationship and a partnership. It is not one telling the other what to do. I hope those players take part in that community and partnership effort on this project.

After all, the needs of people in the community are just as important as the needs of any company. Rimrose Valley, and other green spaces in our region, need to be protected from future developments that damage the integrity of our environment. The people of the communities along that corridor need to be assured that the price of port expansion will be paid. The people along the Church Road route, who have suffered for many years, need some succour—they need help and assistance. Building an alternative road in the valley is not the answer.

If that needs more mileage investment, so to speak—on the equivalent scale of the lower Thames reach, which I referred to before; Crossrail, which cost the best part of £260 million a mile; Crossrail 2, with a proposed £530 million a mile, although it might be more; the Stonehenge tunnel at £1.7 billion for just 2.5 miles, or £680 million a mile—so be it. I do not object to any of those projects. Other people might, but I do not. Those projects were important for those areas and they deserve that level of funding. My community is entitled, as is every other community, to a fair share of the transport budget.

In conclusion, we do not want a second-rate solution to a problem not of our community’s making. We want a first-class response to our real concerns, and I hope that the Minister, who I know takes these issues seriously, will give us that response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this debate after many months—in an honest fashion I am sure—on an issue that is so important to both him and his constituents, many of whom are here in the Public Gallery. I extend the common courtesies to welcome the Minister to his place. I hope that he has his phone on today; hopefully good news will come, and I look forward to seeing him across the Dispatch Box on many more occasions.

I cycled the trans-Pennine trail recently, and went to both Hornsea and Southport. I did not quite go through the Rimrose Valley, but I was in that neck of the woods. What a beautiful neck of the woods it is past the Liverpool loop line going north. It is a very nice bit of our country. The locals have campaigned for five years around this well-loved urban parkland, which they do not want to see tarmacked over to provide a new dual carriageway. It is a big landmark in their campaign today that their MP has secured this debate.

Liverpool is vital, not just for the city region of Merseyside or the north-west of England, but for the United Kingdom generally. Some 40% of all Irish sea trade comes through there—31 million tonnes. It is the fourth biggest port in the UK. We are facing west and, having left the European Union, its expansion looks secure in the years to come. We are talking about almost 12 km of port along that coastline.

Peel and the port of Liverpool are making some major investments that we welcome, particularly at my end—I will not say the better end—of the Manchester ship canal. I had the pleasure of visiting Port Salford recently to see the trimodal development there that will regenerate the west of Manchester, with the ship canal, new rail links and the M60 motorway.

We cannot look at this issue in isolation. There are other large developments in the Merseyside region. I had the pleasure of being at a Merseyside maritime conference recently. I took the famous ferry across the Mersey and saw the new Everton stadium going up, in addition to what the Liverpool city region Mayor, Steve Rotheram, and the councils, are doing there. They are really upping the pace of regeneration of the city region.

As shadow maritime Minister, my colleagues and I will always welcome efforts to improve infrastructure to support the economic growth of the maritime sector. However, in my view, these plans are not ambitious enough, particularly when measured against the Government’s own green agenda and that of National Highways.

Residents living near the port already have a low life expectancy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle said, it is 12 years lower than the national average. South Sefton already experiences some of the worst air quality in the country. My constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East is divided down the middle by the M56, so I know the problems that poor air quality brings.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said, the transport sector is the UK’s single biggest contributor of CO2 emissions. It is also the only sector in which we have seen emissions go up, not down. In Greater Manchester, where the Government are forcing Mayor Burnham to reduce emissions, guess what? National Highways does not have to reduce its emissions as part of that plan. A new road being constructed would only increase port-related traffic, with HGVs being the worst polluters on our roads. There has to be a better way of doing this.

I have spoken with local elected representatives, who I believe are best placed to understand the unique issues associated with a port operating alongside their residential communities. It is a basic issue of subsidiarity. Government cannot just set up city regional Mayors in Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Doncaster and Liverpool and then ignore the powers they have given them. Local politicians and the people they represent are best placed to help fashion local policies and transport infrastructure.

I have heard from local Members about the community cohesion that comes from having this kind of space in a heavily industrialised and urban area of north Liverpool. I hear it provides opportunities for safe, clean and active travel, which is so important and is one of the things I commend the Government on—particularly the last Administration and the last Prime Minister, who was so keen on this and put investment in. I hear that it is a well-used commuter corridor and, in addition, it offers a vital habitat to many species. We must look at alternatives to the scheme, and listen to councillors, MPs, the Metro Mayor and local residents, but there is a more fundamental issue: building a road through a valued green space is a very 1980s answer to the issue of road congestion. It is a “one more lane will solve it” attitude, but we know that one more lane does not solve things because of the impact of induced demand; we know that if we build more roads, we will attract more traffic.

I have not checked with the House of Commons Library, but a news article recently stated that there are now 40 million licensed vehicles on our roads. We want the freedom to drive—that is important—but that figure has almost doubled in the last 30 years and it is not sustainable, because we see the solution as just building and building more roads. We need a Government who are committed to an integrated and innovative transport strategy, including investments in the railways and particularly east-west connectivity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) said. We still do not have that connectivity.

There was a guy called Daniel Adamson from Manchester. He came up with the idea and built the ship canal. He coined the phrase “northern powerhouse” in the 1860s, describing an economic region from the Mersey basin to the Humber estuary that would be connected. If that were connected properly, it would be the 10th-biggest economic unit on the planet, but we do not have that connectivity, as we all know. I know that the Minister knows it, because he represents a constituency not far off that corridor.

The money allocated to this project could and should be spent on sustainable solutions to port access, such as rail freight capacity, not least because of the climate emergency that we are facing, the public health crisis associated with air pollution, and the substantial loss and degradation of green space. A new road is not the solution, when we can be creative, as we have been at the port of Liverpool, with a purpose-built rail terminal on the banks of the ship canal, allowing co-ordinated onward transport.

The campaigners are not seeking merely to shift the issue from Rimrose Valley, away from the A5036 and on to another borough or area. They are keen to find the right solutions, the best technology, the right route and the right location. It is my view that we should support them and my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle in doing so.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg, particularly in the role I currently have the pleasure of fulfilling in responding to the points raised by my colleagues during the debate. I thank the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) for his kind words and comments. My phone is not on, but no news is good news, so he will be pleased to hear that I am still here as a Minister in the Government—we will wait and see what happens over the next 24 hours. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing the debate on the subject of Rimrose Valley and the port of Liverpool access, an issue he has toyed with since his leading role on the local council. I am sure he is fondly remembered by officers and councillors alike for his forthright endeavours, and by his constituents and those local residents, who I have noted are here today.

Good transport connections are the key to unlocking essential growth for cities, which is why I thank the hon. Member for Bootle for calling and opening this debate. I am sure that he and his colleagues will understand that I can neither condone nor support some of the claims and points that they have made. Transport links play a crucial role in supporting productivity, innovation and economic growth in cities, towns and communities, which is why we have provided a series of devolution deals to mayoral combined authorities to ensure that their transport connectivity maximises economic growth and supports thriving communities. The Government are fully committed to delivering our vision of levelling up the British economy and strengthening the bonds of our cities, aimed at unlocking the economic potential of the northern powerhouse, while ensuring that places such as the Liverpool city region and the north of England play a key role in a resurgent UK economy.

All the campaigns, my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle and I agree about the importance of transport and investment in it to unlock opportunity and to contribute to levelling up; the point we are making is about the nature of the transport, the infrastructure and other impacts. My hon. Friend and I have tried to engage with National Highways, to make the case for alternatives to this road solution, because of the HGV issue he and I raised earlier. In a letter to me, National Highways called my inquiries “vexatious”. Does the Minister agree that National Highways’ response—calling the elected representatives of the people of Sefton “vexatious” and refusing to engage on alternatives to a road—is wholly inappropriate and flies in the face of the policy that he has just set out?

I have heard and noted the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I will talk about the relationship—perhaps the non-relationship—with National Highways shortly. His intervention was longer than I expected, but I have taken on board all the points he made. I expect that in the future there will be ongoing dialogue with the Department and the hon. Gentleman and other local MPs.

Since 2010, more than £33 billion has been invested in transport infrastructure in the north, but our ambition is to go further and faster, regardless of recent pressures, especially as we focus relentlessly on the economic wellbeing of our cities, regions and nation, as that brings jobs, wealth and social mobility to all who wish to enjoy the fruits of their own labours. The integrated rail plan is the biggest ever single investment in Britain’s rail network—a £96 billion strategy of rail construction and upgrades for the midlands and the north to be delivered over the next 30 years. The IRP focuses on bringing communities in the north and midlands ever closer together, boosting inter-city connections and improving east-west links in particular. These are journeys people are most likely to make, and, as I learned on my recent visit to Immingham, these links are of the utmost importance to freight and access to the western port of Liverpool.

We have announced the first allocations from the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, regenerating towns and high streets and investing in the infrastructure that people need, including transport. As the hon. Member for Bootle undoubtedly knows, also included is £37.5 million for the Liverpool city region’s levelling up for recovery proposals, which will deliver a range of transport interventions to support connectivity and economic growth in and across Liverpool city centre, the maritime gateway in Sefton and over the water in Birkenhead, which as he rightly said is my place of birth—he and some of his constituents would probably call me a plastic scouser. This funding will enhance connectivity between employment centres such as Atlantic Park along the A5036 Dunnings Bridge Road.

This Government are also spending over £24 billion between 2020 and 2025 on our strategic road network. The core principle of our road investment strategy is to create a road network that is safe, reliable and efficient for everyone, and that sets a long-term strategic vision. Our first priority is to fix existing strategic roads, ensuring that they are well designed, well maintained and well connected, and will serve all road users well into the future. Where existing roads are simply not up to the job the country asks them to perform, we will ask National Highways to look at the potential to develop wider realigned or, in a few cases, wholly new roads to keep people and goods moving.

Transport connectivity is not just a local and regional issue; it is important for the whole United Kingdom. Transport for the North itself recently noted the importance of the port of Liverpool, whose Liverpool2 deepwater container terminal reflects the aspiration of the region to increase its freight potential—an aspiration we have supported through its recent designation as a freeport. TfN also noted that areas of investment with significant freight benefits will include access to constrained ports—for example, the A5036 to the port of Liverpool.

The hon. Member for Bootle will be aware of our commitment to the improvement of the A5036 Princess Way, which is the critical link between the port of Liverpool and the motorway network. Solutions to address some of the challenges on the route are key to unlocking the potential of the port and the wider city region, including its ambitious freeport proposals. These improvements will provide better links and improve the resilience of the network while boosting business productivity and economic growth by providing a more reliable road network and improved local access. The objectives of the scheme go beyond port access; the scheme aims to improve journey times, reliability, quality and safety, to reduce the nuisance caused by noise and dust to those living alongside the existing route, and to reduce the severance of communities living alongside the existing route.

As the hon. Member for Bootle will know, the A5036 performs a number of important functions. It serves primarily, I am led to believe, as a local community and commuter route; it acts as a link for trips to and from Bootle, Maghull and Liverpool city centre; and it forms part of the strategic road network providing national routes to and from the port of Liverpool.

However, this scheme was included in the first road investment strategy and subsequent second road investment strategy because the route is among the worst nationally for congestion and unreliability, with high numbers of road traffic accidents that disproportionately affect vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists. If nothing is done, these conditions will only worsen as traffic levels increase, with anticipated growth locally and through the port itself, which is critical to the economy of the north and the wider UK. For all those reasons, the A5036 Princess Way scheme in the port of Liverpool was developed. The scheme aims to build a new road between the M57 and M58 and the port of Liverpool to replace the current substandard route.

I acknowledge the strong views of the hon. Member for Bootle on the proposal for the new road through Rimrose Valley, but I reassure him that National Highways is aware that there is a range of opinions and concerns about its proposals for the A5036. I am reliably informed that it is committed to working with all stakeholders to achieve the right result for the city region and the country. The hon. Gentleman’s former colleagues should be mindful of that olive branch and the hand of friendship, or partnership working, which some in the north-west and the city of Liverpool are famous for.

On the point the Minister makes about National Highways, the concern we have is that no alternatives to this scheme are being significantly or substantially considered. It is not a question of saying that we are just against the road and the port access; we are asking whether we can have a dialogue and potentially expand the modality of the transport link, rather than it just being about a road, take it or leave it, two or three metres either side of a line.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Later in my remarks, I will come on to some information that may be helpful to him and hopefully will spur him on.

The current proposal for the new road comes with a full commitment to measures to mitigate its impacts through Rimrose Valley and to enhancing the environmental and amenity value of the current park and the open area of land north of the park. We in the Department for Transport and our agencies are fully cognisant of the issues and we recognise the need to fix negative impacts on the environment, which matter greatly to local people.

I am aware of the commitment to find a multi-modal solution to port access and acknowledge the work by the port access steering group, chaired by the Liverpool city region mayoral combined authority. In addition to planned investment on the strategic road network, there has been investment in the Bootle branch line to support increased rail access to the port.

The hon. Member for Bootle will no doubt be aware that the Liverpool city region mayoral combined authority is developing its fourth local transport plan, which will include a strategy for freight and logistics. National Highways is helping the city region to develop this plan, and the Department is awaiting the outcome with interest and will take the proposals into consideration as the scheme develops.

At this point, I urge the hon. Member for Bootle to never give up, but to be prepared to compromise and negotiate. Throwing one’s toys out of the pram or taking the ball away like a spoilt child assists no one and is not a serious negotiating strategy in a professional setting in the 21st century. It may play well in the local watering holes and Labour social clubs, but it risks parts of the great city of Liverpool being left behind.

My example for the hon. Gentleman is one of personal endeavour and the willingness to achieve remarkable solutions in the face of negativity and naysayers. Between 2004 and 2012, I was told that Lincoln eastern bypass was a non-starter. It had been talked about since 1916 and I was told it would never happen, and that the transformation of the city of Lincoln, with reduced congestion, improved travel times and environmental benefits, was pie in the sky.

In December 2020, I was proud to be asked to open the—albeit single carriageway—eastern bypass. It is not in my constituency, but around it, and it is of great benefit to the vast majority of my constituents and provides environmental improvements to the very centre of our city of Lincoln. That has led to an affectionate nickname for the bypass, which is known locally as McCartney Way by some. I am not sure if the new road or even tunnel that the hon. Member for Bootle seeks would be more aptly named Princess Way mark 2 or the Dowd Underpass, or perhaps he has other middle names we are not aware of that might lend themselves to such a project. I digress.

A feasibility study into the provision of electric vehicle charging points in the vicinity of the scheme has been carried out by National Highways. The project team is interested in developing that and other opportunities to promote a more sustainable transport solution, potentially in partnership with the Liverpool freeport team and the Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram, formerly of this parish, with whom I had a very cordial meeting over the summer.

I firmly believe that good transport infrastructure is a catalyst for enterprise and growth and that better connectivity means greater economic opportunity, with all the benefits that brings to communities and individuals of all ages. That belief has driven my actions over the years in my constituency of Lincoln, and I have promoted it across the country since being appointed a Minister in early July this year.

I reaffirm my thanks to the colleagues who have spoken and whose points have been taken on board: the hon. Members for Bootle, for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and for Wythenshawe and Sale East. I have listened carefully to all they have said, and have taken note of the points they have made, particularly on the green lung issue. I thank them for this very insightful debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Bootle is satisfied with the response I have provided, which promotes good transport links for cities and regions, and makes clear that the Department recognises the vital importance of such improvements for local residents and business concerns, as well as for the economic wellbeing of the whole United Kingdom—this Minister recognises it doubly so, through a plethora of local examples, as I have tried to elucidate in my myriad remarks today.

I appreciate the response from the Minister. I thank my colleague on the Labour Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane); my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson); and my colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for their interventions.

I will finish on this point, which I want to reaffirm: we have a road, and that is the only solution so far. We need alternatives to be discussed and teased out, not to be told, “This is the only option.” It is almost a Henry Ford, “You can have any car you want, as long as it is black.”

I am told by Mersey Maritime that this industry is worth £5 billion to the Liverpool city region economy and supports 48,000 jobs; it has a direct impact of £706 million, supporting 8,527 jobs, or 4% of jobs in the maritime sector nationally; and so on, and so on. It is a big economy. What we need are transport links that reflect that growing economy and the growing need in the area. Simply bunging a road through Rimrose Valley is not going to achieve the growth that the Government want, nor the environmental impact that we and the Government want, nor anything else for that matter. This is a “take it or leave it” project and we are not prepared just to take it—we want to have a discussion about it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Rimrose Valley and Liverpool Port Access.

Sitting adjourned.