House of Commons
Tuesday 25 October 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of City of Chester in the room of Christian John Patrick Matheson, who since his election for the said County constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of His Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the County of Buckingham.—(Sir Alan Campbell.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
SMEs: Red Tape
His Majesty’s Government are committed to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises through exemption of new regulations where possible. This exemption was recently extended to businesses with up to 500 employees, potentially reducing red tape and bureaucracy for up to 40,000 more businesses. That means thousands of businesses will not have to comply with forthcoming regulations and, most excitingly of all, it will extricate them from hundreds of EU regulations during the process of review and repeal.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the support he has given to small businesses across the country in recent weeks. As a west countryman, he will know Wadworth Brewery based in Devizes, an important local employer with more than 150 pubs and probably 1,500 people employed in the brewery and the pubs. I am afraid to say that many of the pubs are in severe financial difficulties, with many saying that things are worse than covid. Does he agree that the very welcome energy relief scheme should be extended and that the Government should give consideration to reviewing business rates and the value added tax regime?
Wadworth is a very well-known west country brewer. I used to live not very far from a tied pub in Wadworth’s capable hands, and it is a distinguished company that serves fine products. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that, while VAT is a matter for the Chancellor, the British Business Bank is offering £12.2 billion of finance to more than 96,000 small and medium-sized businesses. On 20 July my predecessor introduced a new iteration of the recovery loans scheme, which helps smaller businesses to get loans and other kinds of finance up to £2 million per business, and the Government have reversed the national insurance rise, saving small businesses £4,200 on average. The energy bill relief scheme, which ought to get Royal Assent later today, will secure businesses over the winter, and there will be a review; it is one of the most generous schemes in the world and has been copied by foreign Governments.
Businesses in my constituency, including some of the fabulous small breweries, are struggling with the extra paperwork they now have to fill in in order to export to the European Union. The Business Secretary was a great exponent of Brexit, but even he must acknowledge that it is causing a huge burden to businesses and seriously affecting their profitability.
I look forward to the hon. Lady’s supporting the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is coming later today and will get rid of lots and lots of dreadful EU regulations that are such a terrible burden on businesses. Is it not wonderful, Mr Speaker, that our socialist friends at last have this glorious zeal for deregulation? It is something we on the Conservative Benches have supported since the time of Noah.
We come now to the shadow Minister, Seema Malhotra.
In recent weeks, having crashed the economy, the Conservatives have increased the barriers facing small firms, with spiralling costs making it harder than ever to do business. Last week, the Federation of Small Businesses reported business confidence falling to its lowest levels since the pandemic. Yet, as almost half of small businesses reported falling revenues this quarter, the Secretary of State spent the weekend saying it was “Boris or bust”. Surely recent Government chaos shows that, for small businesses, it is Labour or bust. If the Secretary of State really wants to reduce the cost of doing business, will he back Labour’s call to raise the small business rate relief threshold for this financial year, saving local firms up to £5,000?
The hon. Lady has been in this House long enough to know that rates are a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. She is raising the question at the wrong Question Time. It is worth bearing in mind, with unemployment at its lowest level since 1973, that every single socialist Government, including their brief period in office in 1923, have led to higher unemployment. What are they talking about?
Support for Energy Customers: April 2023
I am proud of the support the Government have provided to energy customers. His Majesty’s Government launched a Treasury-led review into how we support energy bills beyond April next year. The review will result in a new approach that ensures there is enough support for those in need while costing the taxpayer less than planned. The cost has come down significantly because of the fall in gas prices in recent weeks. Any support for non-domestic energy customers will be targeted at those most affected. This new approach will better incentivise energy efficiency.
Citizens Advice Scotland has warned that it is already seeing huge demand for advice on the cost of living, energy bills and food insecurity. The uncertainty on the future of the energy price guarantee beyond April is frightening for consumers, not to mention the impact of insecurity faced by business. During the pandemic, the current Prime Minister kept U-turning on furlough extensions at the last minute. Will the Secretary of State offer reassurance and give at least some idea of when a post-April energy price scheme could be established?
Let me offer the reassurance that, if not for the United Kingdom, there would not be this level of support for businesses and individuals in Scotland. Scotland simply would not be able to afford it. It is the strength of the United Kingdom that allows this all-encompassing support to be provided. That is what the Government are doing. The package is one of the most generous that any country in the world has introduced. We are supporting people through the winter, and we will ensure there is focused support for the least well off in future winters.
Just four days ago, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce issued the findings of its latest business survey and, to no surprise, energy costs were the main concern. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce stated:
“The signs of an economic bounce back don’t look promising as more and more firms are telling us that they have been forced to cancel contracts, projects or plans to expand, due to soaring costs and difficulty in hiring people.”
How exactly does having no certainty on energy costs beyond March help those businesses?
Mr Speaker, I assume it is orderly to say that I think the hon. Gentleman lives in a fantasy land. Energy prices varied before this Government came in and will vary in future. What His Majesty’s Government have done is provide enormous support for businesses. I say it again: just think how much worse off businesses would be if they were dependent on an entirely Scottish Administration with no money.
It is good to see the Ministers still in their place for a wee while. Just six days ago, Martin Sartorius, the principal economist at the CBI, said:
“The prospect of household energy bills rising sharply again in April 2023 emphasises the need for Government to set out the details of any future targeted support sooner rather than later”.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly refused to clarify when households will receive clarity. Can I assume that he is also happy to leave businesses in the dark?
The hon. Gentleman cannot find a stick without picking up the wrong end. It has to be said that this Government acted with the speed of light.
“There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.”
We have returned on the previous night with a package that will receive Royal Assent today. The package has been worked out and thought through, with its budget provided, within a few weeks. We have some time between now and 1 April to establish what the scheme will be in future.
I very much welcome the Government’s energy support measures, but my right hon. Friend will know that in rural areas, in Cumbria and in his constituency, many households and businesses are off-grid, relying on heating oil, liquified petroleum gas, biomass and so on. The measures do need bolstering, so will he reassure me and my constituents that the Government will keep this under review, and will support households and businesses that are off-grid?
I am entirely in agreement with my hon. Friend; this is an important part of the overall scheme. The £100 payment to domestic users who are off-grid is based on the rise in the heating oil price against the price of gas, to ensure that people are dealt with fairly. It is important that that is also done for businesses. The issue with the business scheme, which we are developing and will have developed shortly, is ensuring that it is not open to gaming, because we have to use taxpayers’ money wisely. However, there is support and there will be support, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is fully behind that.
I welcome the £400 energy bill discount that is going out to most households across the country in the UK. Some park homes, such as those in Deanland Wood Park in my constituency, are not on the domestic supply, but equivalent support has been promised for them. They mainly have elderly residents, so will the Secretary of State outline the timescale and process as to how they will receive that money?
It is important that we support everybody who needs the support, and people in park homes are in a situation of which we are well aware. It is a question of working out how to get the support directly through to them, but I assure my hon. Friend that that is being worked upon.
Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House what role his Department will have, if any, in advising on and assisting with the Treasury-led review on the energy price guarantee during April?
I think the answer is in the name of the Department, which is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy: any policy relating to energy is one the Department has a role in.
I call the SNP spokesperson, Stephen Flynn.
As we have just heard, the CBI, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and Citizens Advice Scotland have all expressed profound concern about the lack of certainty coming from the Government on their energy price strategy. But let us not stop there, because Age Scotland has produced a report in the past couple of days outlining that four in 10 older people in Scotland are now living in fuel poverty. Indeed, one of the respondents stated:
“The cost of living means I had to cut back on food shopping, and often go weeks with no food. It’s making me unwell.”
How does the right hon. Gentleman expect people to survive this winter?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Everyone in this House is concerned about their constituents, the least well-off constituents, which is why such a big package of support has been put together—not just the price cap, which for the average household would be £2,500, converted into units of electricity, but the additional support given for the least well-off. So there is a further £400 that everybody is getting and £800 that is available to people on certain benefits. He is right to raise the issue of their difficulties, and I always admire the work done by Citizens Advice, which receives a portion of its funding from BEIS and rightly so. As constituency MPs, we all know what a useful organisation it is. The whole purpose of this package is to support the least well-off and give them certainty over the winter. He does not help by creating fear and uncertainty.
As ever, the Secretary of State is living on a different planet. The energy price guarantee, to which he refers, is of course a unit price cap, not a usage price cap. That means that average bills in Scotland are not going to be £2,500; they are going to be £3,300 and in rural areas they are going to top £4,000. That is despite the fact that Scotland produces six times more gas than we consume and that almost all of our electricity comes from low-carbon sources. On Westminster’s watch, Scotland is energy-rich but fuel-poor. Is it not the case that at this moment the solution to Scotland’s problems does not rest with his party and his incoming Government? Indeed, it does not rest with this Parliament at all, does it?
There is a certain eccentricity in the Scottish nationalists’ boasting of the amount of oil and gas they get when they have been opposing efforts to increase the licensing round. They really cannot have it both ways. They have this fantasy approach to politics where they spend money that they have not got, they rely on the UK taxpayer to support them and then they complain that it is all the fault of Westminster. I am afraid that without Westminster the hon. Gentleman and his merry band would be bankrupt.
Businesses: Energy Costs in 2023
We will publish a review by the end of the year which will consider how best to offer further support to those most at risk due to energy price increases. The review will consider which groups of non-domestic customers remain particularly at risk to energy price rises; and how best to continue supporting those customers, either by extending the existing scheme for some users, or by replacing it with a different one.
The Horse & Jockey pub in Northwood in my constituency closed before the Government’s assistance package was announced. It is one of many businesses that will not continue beyond April. Many others that have managed to remain open are struggling to secure bank facilities and to reassure suppliers and customers, because they need certainty to be able thrive. I would like to hear from the Minister what the Government are going to do to provide some certainty for these critical businesses beyond the winter period.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right—businesses deserve certainty, and we will give that to them as soon as we can, and well before the end of the scheme. It is important that we make sure, because this is a very expensive scheme for taxpayers, that we give that support where it is needed, at best value for the taxpayer. That means that we need to target it at those businesses that are at most risk of being damaged. I hope that that gives the hon. Lady some reassurance in the meantime—we are determined to give some advice before the end of the year.
The Minister has announced what will happen if businesses have fixed-term energy contracts running into the period of the support scheme, but she has not said anything about what would happen where businesses are forced to sign new fixed-term contracts during the term of the scheme that run on after it has ended. Many businesses and firms might face ruin if they sign new, sky-high fixed-term contracts for which they know that there is support only for perhaps a few months of it. They need assurances now, not at the end of April. What assurances can the Minister give that proper measures will be urgently put in place to support businesses under such circumstances?
I repeat that we will announce conclusions before the end of the year, which provides sufficient notice before the end of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we need to give support that is as targeted as possible, given the cost of the scheme. In respect of the point that he made regarding contracts, Ofgem will play a key role in making sure that energy suppliers behave honourably in the scheme. It remains our intention that businesses should receive the support that they deserve and that pricing is fair.
SMEs: Energy Price Cap
Businesses are not subject to the energy price cap in the same way as domestic homes are subject, and are not eligible for the energy price guarantee. The Government are providing equivalent support to businesses through the energy bill relief scheme, which was launched on 21 September 2022.
I have been inundated with calls from businesses, because those prices are not capped and they have soaring, runaway fuel costs. The latest was from Toryglen Community Base, whose bills are going up from £9,745 a year to £62,273 next year—a 539% increase. How does the Minister expect community organisations to pay those increased bills? They have to sign those contracts, whether they can afford them or not. The price is not going to go down. The community base has been quoted £50,000 a year for 2024. How does he expect community organisations to survive?
I thank the hon. Member for raising her concerns, and I understand the points relating to her constituents and businesses. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting small and medium-sized businesses. I am very proud that, as the first point in my portfolio, small businesses are absolutely at the top of my agenda. Having worked with small businesses for many years, it is absolutely essential that we support them. We are looking at how we can best help to support businesses, and I will gladly write to her with further details.
Onshore Wind Farms
We currently have more than 3 GW of installed, operational onshore wind capacity in England and 14 GW across the UK—the most of any particular renewable technology. We do not believe that the Government should prescribe the proportion of energy from any particular technology, but of course we have transformed the level of renewables since the hon. Gentleman’s party left power—when I think the figure was less than 7% of electricity. [Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers may well groan, but it is quite clear that Labour did not deliver. It is more than 40% today—and we are.
As a direct result of the Conservative Government’s decision to cut the “green crap” in 2015, every household’s bill is hundreds of pounds higher. Does the Minister regret that mistake, and is it not long past time to reform planning laws and to get on with building the quickest, cheapest, cleanest forms of power, such as onshore wind and solar, which would increase our energy security, cut bills and tackle the climate crisis—work that the Government have been blocking for far too long?
It was this Government who passed the net zero legislation. It was this party that was the first major party to call for the climate Act, which has driven this behaviour, and it was this party that took us from 6.8% electricity from renewables to more than 40% today. It is this party that brought in the contracts for difference, which have been copied all over the world, and which see tens of millions of pounds paid to reduce bills at the moment, with the last round driving 11 GW of additional clean energy into the system. It is this party that delivers on net zero and the environment and it is that party—the Labour party—that talks about it.
I call the shadow Minister.
Labour is committed to maximising the vast opportunities that exist in developing the UK’s onshore and offshore wind industries. In sharp contrast, the Conservative Government’s 12 years of low growth, low investment and low productivity saw the UK’s largest wind tower factory at Campbeltown close. Labour will increase onshore wind capacity. We will deliver jobs, lower bills and energy security, and we will set up a publicly owned Great British energy company. Is the truth not that Labour’s industrial strategy is the credible way forward for UK energy production?
If only Labour’s record in office was as good as the oratory that the hon. Gentleman uses today—less than 7% of electricity was from renewables then. We are also absolutely focused on developing green jobs. We have developed those green jobs, but, sadly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, it is the fate of almost every Labour Government to come in with promises and end up with higher dole queues than when they started.
I am delighted to say that, on 7 July, we announced that 40 MW of new tidal stream power was secured in Scotland and Wales through the contracts for difference round, and analysis has confirmed the predictability, resilience and potential cost-effectiveness of marine energy, which can play a key role in delivering energy security and net zero.
Over a decade ago, nuclear power was dismissed as it was too expensive, and it was said that it would not be online until 2022. How short-sighted has that proven to be? Does the Minister agree that marine energy must not suffer the same fate as nuclear? Does he also recognise that the cost will reduce over time with investment, and will he meet Jim O’Toole from Mostyn docks in my constituency to discuss his opportunities with tidal stream?
There is long-standing Government support for wave and tidal power research and development, with more than £175 million having been invested in the area over the past two decades. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, where it can be shown that it is cost-effective, tidal and marine energy has a big role to play.
As is so often the case, local ideas can provide national solutions. Will the Minister meet me and Rev. Andrew Langley from my constituency, who is using his churches to look at using new tidal technology to power the town of Dartmouth? Those are the sort of schemes that we need to be looking at and then investing in and supporting the technology.
Rev. Andrew Langley sounds like a community hero. It is exactly that kind of grassroots approach that is at the heart of Conservative philosophy as we deliver these high-level targets, but we work with the whole community to see it delivered. Community groups have a big role to play in our efforts to eliminate our contribution to climate change, and of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his local hero, Rev. Andrew Langley.
A fortnight ago, I raised the Swansea bay tidal lagoon at Treasury questions. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury kindly offered me a meeting to discuss it. He was very positive, but then, unfortunately, he lost his job. The potential of the barrage for cheap renewable energy could really kickstart our green economy in south Wales. Will the Minister reopen the business case on this important project?
We consider a whole series of critical factors, including funding mechanisms, planning considerations, the environmental impact and whether the benefits of coastal and flood defence and energy security can be included. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that we can see a way forward and that tidal and marine energy can compete with other technologies, as we bring about the transformation that was talked about under his Government but is being delivered under this one.
The United Kingdom has the highest tidal range on the planet after Canada, yet we use so very little of it, especially when we consider that a massive majority of the supply chain for marine, tidal and hydro is British. There are so many jobs to be made out of all this. Will the Minister look particularly at the potential for tidal energy in Morecambe bay? I know that his hon. Friends on both sides of the bay agree with me on this, so will he meet with me and others who are in favour of getting green energy out of Morecambe bay to see whether we can take this forward?
We are seeing these technologies mature, and the hon. Gentleman is right: tidal and floating offshore wind projects have won CfDs for the first time ever, which will help these industries grow and strengthen Britain’s homegrown renewables sector. As he says, we have tremendous tidal potential in this country. He mentioned a site further north, but the Severn estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world, so if we can get it right, there is huge untapped potential.
Anglesey is known as energy island. We have wind, wave, solar, tidal, hydrogen and hopefully new nuclear. We have two excellent tidal marine companies, Morlais and Minesto. When will the Minister publish the parameters for the fifth CfD auction, which is opening in March next year?
As my hon. Friend says, the fifth round is very exciting. We are moving from two-yearly to annual rounds—of course, they were interrupted by the pandemic, so it became slightly longer than that. After 11 GW last year and with new technologies coming through, we will come forward soon with information on that. I look forward to seeing that yearly set-up leading to even more renewables coming onstream.
My constituents do not like arrogance, and they do not like posh arrogance even more. Is it not the case that the guilty group here, most of whom were passionate Brexiteers, have done so much damage to our economy? That means that tidal power, energy from waste and a range of other alternatives have been languishing, because this Government have no sense of direction and will not recognise what the Bank of England Governor and previous Governors have said, which is that we have been impoverished by leaving the European Union.
I am not quite sure that that has got a lot to do with tidal energy.
Well, there was there an attempted linkage to the question, but I do not think that made it any less pompous or, indeed, irrelevant.
Support for Energy Customers: Winter 2022-23
We are providing a £400 discount through the energy bills support scheme over this winter, as well as the energy price guarantee, which will support millions of households and businesses with rising energy costs, and we will continue to do so from now until April next year. That is on top of a further £800 in one-off support provided to 8 million of the most vulnerable households to help with the cost of living, and of course pensioner households can receive £300.
The cost of living, and especially energy, is of great concern to my Carshalton and Wallington constituents. I welcome the Government’s action on energy bills, but I know from talking to many of my residents while out delivering my cost of living advice guide that, apart from the energy price guarantee, they are sometimes unaware of the additional support they may be entitled to, including from their energy provider and the Department for Work and Pensions, or the Government support provided through local councils. Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to ensure that people are aware of all avenues of support that are available to them?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this. Full details of the help available to consumers can be found on the Government’s Help for Households website, which people can get to from the gov.uk website. That covers my Department’s extensive energy support package and the additional help available, including through the Department for Work and Pensions, such as income support. In addition to the Help for Households site, we are communicating information on the support available to help with energy bills through suppliers, consumer groups and charities—and, it has to be said, through first-class MPs running events in their constituencies, who ensure that this happens—as well as through the media and
When Chancellor, our new Prime Minister spent precious months dragging his heels on energy efficiency, and now our fourth Chancellor this year scrambles with a Treasury-led review of the issue. We do not need more reviews to conclude that a paltry £1 billion extension to the energy company obligation falls far short of what is needed. Will the Secretary of State accept that to keep the UK’s homes warm and bills affordable for the long term, we need at the very least a further emergency investment of £3.6 billion over the rest of this Parliament, to kick-start the hugely needed nationwide home insulation programme that people are calling for?
There are focused and targeted schemes to help with energy insulation. The hon. Lady pooh-poohs £1 billion, but £1 billion is serious money, and it is going to help the households in the greatest need. A lot of work is being done with social housing landlords, but there are things people can do that lower the cost of their energy without causing any lack of warmth, such as turning down the boiler flow temperature, which almost all households can do. That will be a saving for them on the cost of energy and will make their heating more affordable; it will save energy but also reduce bills.
Poverty in Deprived Communities
The best way we can help deprived communities is by creating good jobs and growing the economy. By cutting red tape and boosting innovation, we are enabling more businesses to create more high-quality jobs. Cutting national insurance will encourage job creation and ensure that workers have more of their own money, but Government can also do their bit to help projects that will facilitate economic growth, and I am pleased that some £87 million is being spent in Sheffield at present.
According to recent polling, 69% of my constituents are worried about not being able to pay their energy bills. They are terrified for the future, with prices set to rise in April, but the latest new Prime Minister has shamefully boasted about taking money away from deprived areas like mine. Does the Minister agree that Britain needs a general election now, so that the public can have their say on their future?
The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I do not share that opinion. She will appreciate my sincerity when I say that I am very concerned to do my bit to make sure that those in deprived communities feel reassured by the support they are getting from this Government. We will make sure that her constituents continue to get the support they need, but the best thing we can all do is give that message of reassurance, not seek to play party politics by calling for a general election.
Despite being the engine room of Britain’s economy, London still has some of the most deprived areas in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way we can get people out of poverty is to create good, well-paid jobs, so that they can earn their own living and have the ability to contribute to the economy?
My hon. Friend is quite right. We seem to have got ourselves into a cul-de-sac of seeing deprivation as a result of geography, when actually the truth is far from that; we have deprived communities in all parts of our United Kingdom. It is important that we ensure that everybody has access to good, well-paid employment. We will achieve that by making sure that we are equipping people with the skills that employers need and taking away the red tape and tax barriers, to encourage firms to create new jobs. That is the Government’s approach, and that is how we will grow our way out of the problems we are facing.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I work closely with colleagues across the Government on the cross-Government challenge of net zero. Only yesterday, the Climate Action Implementation Committee met and discussed our progress on meeting our net zero targets and the carbon budgets.
Tackling climate change is a win-win-win for Hull West and Hessle, and indeed for Beverley and Holderness. Labour’s plan for Great British Energy will provide good, green, local manufacturing jobs in offshore wind and carbon capture, help protect our planet and ensure our country’s future energy security, but the short-termism of this Government and, sadly, their high turnover of Ministers is not giving this crucial issue the focus it needs and is preventing our country from developing the long-term skills strategy that is needed to fill those jobs. When will the Government stop fighting themselves and match Labour’s ambition for our country?
In 2021 alone, £24 billion of new investment was committed across low-carbon sectors in the UK. I share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for what that can do for the whole country, particularly the Humber area. We estimate that just over 69,000 green jobs have been supported in the UK since the launch of the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution in November 2020, many of which are in former industrial heartlands. It is important that Members on both sides of the House send out the message that the whole House is united in believing that net zero is the right place to go and the UK is the right place to invest. I am sure that hon. Members will send that message across the world.
I sincerely thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Climate for helping to depose the Prime Minister last week with their insistence on bringing back fracking. They may have technically won the vote but, given the response of their MPs, it is obvious that they lost the argument. Can the Minister now confirm that the Government’s anti-green agenda has exited Downing Street along with the outgoing Prime Minister? Will he commit to bringing back the ban on fracking?
Perhaps it is the nature of being in Opposition that means that people misrepresent things, but it is of course this party and this Government who have driven the net zero strategy and are greening our economy. [Interruption.] The Opposition may grumble and they may not like it, but we can see it in all the numbers. Just 14% of homes had an energy performance certificate rating of C or above when Labour left office; that figure is 46% today. Whether on energy efficiency, renewables or low-emission gas, we are the party that has solutions.
Rare Minerals and Metals
The Government published the critical minerals strategy last summer, which sets out plans to accelerate the UK’s domestic capabilities, collaborate with international partners, and enhance international financial and trading markets. We are expecting to publish a delivery plan by the end of the year to refresh the strategy and ensure that we understand the global race for critical minerals.
I thank the Minister for her response. Northern Lithium and Weardale Lithium in my constituency received more than £1 million from the Department for their work looking at lithium, which is vital for battery manufacture, including on Wearside at Nissan. Will she commit to ensuring that those projects are proceeded with at speed, so that we are not reliant on global factors, as we have been with oil and gas in recent years?
Once again, my hon. Friend is a staunch advocate for North West Durham and its businesses, particularly Weardale Lithium. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we have resilience and security of supply. The Government are committed to building domestic critical mineral supply chains and generating jobs and wealth across the UK—for example, by supporting lithium projects in County Durham via the automotive transformation fund. He has often spoken about China; resilience is key.
The Government’s plan for net zero by 2050 is unplanned and uncosted. On top of that, we now have the difficulty of finding the metals that are needed for batteries, magnets and the required systems, because China controls 60% of earth metals. Only this week, a Finnish Government report indicated that there is not enough lithium in the world for the batteries that are required for motor cars and battery storage. How will the Government deliver on that unrealistic target?
There is indeed a race to secure critical minerals, especially when countries such as China own so much of them. By 2040, the world is expected to need four times as many critical minerals as we can access today for clean energy technologies, but there is work under way in collaboration with international partners and in the UK with the Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre.
Intellectual Property Rights
The UK’s intellectual property framework and enforcement regime is widely recognised as world-leading. Our trade deals help UK businesses to get more from their rights overseas, and our ambitious counter-infringement strategy protects the value of investment in innovation and creativity.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the critical importance of intellectual property protection to all the creative industries. Will he therefore reaffirm the commitment of his predecessor to look again at the proposal of the Intellectual Property Office to expand the exception for text and data mining, which would severely undermine intellectual property protection?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I think we have a shared love of the creative industries—definitely a love of film and music—and I understand the concerns he raises. When it comes to intellectual property, there is an absolute need to make sure that we are at the forefront of that around the world. On his specific question, the Government’s proposal on text and data mining supports their ambition to be a world leader in artificial intelligence research and innovation, but we recognise the concerns of the creative industries and want to make sure we get the balance right. That is why we will soon be launching a period of stakeholder engagement to consider the best way to implement the policy. I look forward to meeting him. He may want to bring some people from the industry along, too. I would gladly do that.
We have seen an increase in research, sponsored by foreign countries, across the UK developing dual-use technologies that have benign civilian uses, but could be used for military purposes. Can the Minister provide assurances to this House today that IP developed on these shores will not be used against our allies for military purposes?
I thank the hon. Member for his very important question. I will gladly follow up in writing to assure him of the position of the Government on the matter. What I would say is that the Government’s proposal to create a new text and data mining exception for copyright is part of their ambition to be a world leader in artificial intelligence research and innovation.
The Department’s work is at the vanguard of this Government’s mission to go for growth. A secure supply of affordable energy is the foundation for economic prosperity. The energy price guarantee is bringing down bills for households, ensuring that Britain’s most vulnerable can stay warm this winter, and our energy bill relief scheme is cutting costs for schools, hospitals and businesses. We are stepping in to support consumers now, but we are focused on British energy security both for this winter and the future. We continue to work closely with Ofgem, National Grid and our international partners to secure our energy supply. That will be a challenge this winter, particularly if we have a cold winter, and is a matter of concern. The energy supply taskforce has been negotiating to help with that.
We will ensure that everything is done to provide long-term green growth, with new industries, new skills and new jobs. We are cutting red tape to help existing businesses, particularly small and medium-sized ones, saving thousands of pounds for tens of thousands of companies. This is a central Government Department.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will know that the west midlands is a major centre—if not the major centre—for car manufacturing. What discussions has he had with the Mayor of the West Midlands, who is a keen proponent for a gigafactory to assist electric car manufacture based in Coventry?
I was actually in Coventry last week because it is a centre for battery technology development, and my hon. Friend knows very well that Andy Street is one of the most effective campaigning advocates for the west midlands. What is needed is for companies to indicate that they want to invest in gigafactories, and the Government stand ready to support as much as we can.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
The Government’s economic crisis is now being paid for by every household and business in this country, but the Government’s failure goes well beyond the pantomime of the last few weeks. Twelve years of Conservative Government have given us the lowest rate of business investment in the G7, and that is with the lowest headline rate of corporation tax. So why does the Business Secretary believe the Conservative party has been so consistently unable to provide a platform for the UK’s fantastic businesses to invest in throughout the last 12 years?
What we have seen is the lowest level of unemployment in this country since 1973. That is real people and real jobs, and employment is the best route out of poverty. We have seen the most enormous advance in clean energy, with more offshore wind than any other country in the world. We have ensured that, during this difficult winter, we were one of the first countries to come forward with a comprehensive package to protect both domestic and non-domestic users to ensure that the economy could thrive. The hon. Gentleman complains that everything that has gone wrong is the fault of the Government. He seems to have forgotten about Ukraine and covid. Perhaps he should read the newspapers occasionally.
I think you have forgotten that topicals have to be short and sweet.
That was an interesting answer on the 12 years of failure—it was perhaps an answer to a question, but not the one I asked. Our wonderful businesses want to expand, invest and grow, but they cannot do that with so much uncertainty hanging over the country. The Conservative party cannot be the solution to that instability because it is the cause of it. Will the Business Secretary give us his honest view and tell us whether he still holds the view he has expressed before—that what we should have, following a change of Prime Minister, is a general election?
Pots and kettles, Mr Speaker—that was neither short nor sweet. The greatest uncertainty of all is having socialists in office because the socialists ruin economies wherever they go. They create desolation, chaos and high taxes. As I said before, every socialist Government have left office with higher unemployment, including the short-lived one of 1923.
I thank the BEIS ministerial team for the investment of £10.65 million in the Centre for Process Innovation at Darlington, which is leading the way in ribonucleic acid technology. May I invite the Minister to visit that fantastic facility in Darlington on our amazing mile of opportunity?
The vaccine taskforce did indeed grant £10.65 million to fund the launch of the CPI’s new centre of excellence in Darlington, and my hon. Friend did a great job advocating for that investment. That is on top of the £26.48 million that the vaccine taskforce previously put in place at the centre. If time allows, and if I continue to be the Minister, I will be more than happy to come and visit.
The UK is not dependent on the EU for its rights. We had better workers’ rights before we joined. We had longer periods for maternity leave, even while we were a member of the European Union. We are continuing to safeguard the rights of workers in this country in a proper way. We do not need to be told to do so by foreign Governments.
Whether it is grooming gangs, hospital deaths or economic crime, it is often a whistleblower who highlights the criminal activity and wrongdoing. They then often rely on the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which is not fit for purpose, to protect them. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the manifesto of the all-party group for whistleblowing, and its recommendations to repeal PIDA and bring in an office of the whistleblower?
A “yes” will do.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and her many years of work in this area. She is a staunch advocate for whistleblowing, and the chair of the all-party group for whistleblowing. I will gladly meet her to explore the issue further. I confirm that His Majesty’s Government are committed to the whistleblowing framework that the Department is still looking at.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for meeting last week. The Horizon scandal was awful and I will gladly follow up with further meetings to discuss the matter further.
Will the Minister expedite the track 2 process for carbon capture, usage and storage?
One of the things that we are doing in the Bill that is receiving Royal Assent pretty much as we speak, is ensuring that there are powers to deal with any inefficiencies in the market. I am very concerned that the wholesale price cuts provided by the taxpayer feed through to the retail market, and there are powers in the Bill to ensure that that happens.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to support UK forestry production, which supports companies such as Egger in my constituency, and that the best way to do that is to ensure a minimum of 1% forestry planting on public sector land?
Forestry is not one of the Department’s many responsibilities, but I will certainly take up my hon. Friend’s excellent point with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
That is a matter for the management of the company and its workforce to resolve. Disruption due to strike action impacts on consumers, businesses and other users. We are monitoring the dispute and urge both sides to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
We have an assessment process for all new licences to look at that and see its overall impact.
We are on track. [Interruption.] We are on track and we are focused on delivering that. The margins are tighter than we would like, but we are on track, we have delivered to date and we will deliver in future.
Will the Secretary of State meet me and Swansea University to talk about using off-peak renewables to convert plastics into hydrogen and blending that in the gas grid, as his predecessor did, as part of the growth agenda? I appreciate that his predecessor did not do very well following that meeting.
I note that the hon. Member has raised the issue a number of times with BEIS. I am grateful that he has done so again. We are encouraged to hear about the development of new hydrogen technologies in Swansea. I know that the previous Secretary of State visited Swansea University. A range of Government support is already available for hydrogen production. The net zero hydrogen fund, the net zero innovation portfolio and the UK shared prosperity fund would help very much in Swansea.
I call the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.
British researchers are desperately waiting for an update on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. The former science Minister pledged to publish the details for the replacement scheme, should our association not be concluded, before the summer recess, but they have still not been published. When will they be?
It is curious to respond to the Chair of the Select Committee of which I was once a member. We are waiting for the EU to make a decision on our association to Horizon. It is not within our grasp. We are still focused on securing association, but it would be irresponsible not to pivot if that was not forthcoming in the near future. [Interruption.] The hon. Member is gesticulating at me, but he knows very well that we are prepared to pivot and have guarantee schemes in place to help researchers and academics if needed.
In addition to the life-changing innovations from Cancer Research UK, medical research charities make huge economic contributions. How are the Government supporting charities such as Cancer Research UK, and investing in cancer research more broadly, so that they can continue to be such a huge driver of economic growth?
One of the first meetings I had as the Minister with responsibility for life sciences was with Life Sciences Vision and the mission team, chaired by John Bell and Jon Symonds. This is done with the Department of Health and Social Care, and of course we are looking at this particular issue as well. The hon. Member will be aware of the £375 million grant, which is focused on investing in research into these sorts of diseases. We will shortly be announcing six new life science missions. The hon. Lady will no doubt be pleased to hear that they will cover dementia, cancer, mental health, obesity and addiction.
Judging from the earlier answer, can the public now assume that the Government are happy for Royal Mail management to drive the company into the ground, sack 10,000 people and reduce ex-workers to poverty—and the Government do not even have a view?
Decisions on staffing levels and workforce structure are for Royal Mail. Collective redundancy legislation requires employers to consult employees or their representatives within a 90-day period, and that must include consultation on ways to avoid redundancies, reducing the number of redundancies or mitigating their impact. We want a resolution as soon as possible.
The previous Secretary of State admitted that he had ignored looking at a price mechanism for pump storage hydro because he viewed it as a Scottish technology. It is actually a vital form of energy storage going forward, so can I get a commitment today on a timescale for BEIS officials to speak to SSE about a pricing mechanism for generating electricity at Coire Glas?
The hon. Gentleman is an effective campaigner for pump hydro storage and it is important to look at that. We are looking at all possibilities for maximising renewable energy.
Today’s news that an additional 10,000 people every single month are now on pre-payment meters, bringing the total to 7.5 million, is deeply troubling, not least as they are paying up to 27% more for their energy. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that there is poverty alleviation on energy for the very poorest?
As I have said already, schemes are in place to support people during the winter. There is £800 available that has already been announced. There is the £400 that everybody will get. I also went through the additional schemes that are available to support people. I absolutely recognise—the hon. Lady is right to raise this on behalf of her constituents—that the price rises are difficult and worrying for people. That is why such a wide package of support has been brought forward.
Crisis in Iran
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the current crisis in Iran.
We have all been in awe of the bravery of the Iranian people since the death of Mahsa Amini over five weeks ago. The Iranian people have taken to the streets to express in no uncertain terms that the sustained repression of their rights by the Iranian regime must end. Women should no longer face detention and violence for what they wear or how they behave in public. The Iranian regime’s use of live ammunition and birdshot against protestors is barbaric. There have been reports of at least 23 children having died and non-governmental organisations suggest over 200 deaths during the protests.
Mass arrests of protestors and the restriction of internet access are sadly typical of this oppressive regime’s flagrant disregard for human rights. These are not the actions of a Government listening to the legitimate demands of their people for greater respect for their rights. It can be no surprise that the Iranian people have had enough. This year, 2022, has seen a sharp increase in the use of the death penalty, a sustained attack on the rights of women, intensified persecution of the Baha’i, and greater repression of freedom of expression and speech online.
The UK has been robust in joining the international community’s response to holding Iran accountable for its human rights violations. The Foreign Secretary summoned the most senior Iranian official in the UK on Monday 3 October to express our concern at the treatment of protesters. On Monday 10 October, the UK imposed sanctions on Iran’s so-called morality police and seven individuals responsible for serious human rights violations in Iran.
The UK has consistently raised the situation in Iran in the United Nations Human Rights Council and through other multilateral fora. On 13 October, the UK issued a joint statement with European partners condemning the death of Mahsa Amini and calling on Iran to stop the violence and listen to the concern of its people. On 20 October, the UK joined 33 other members of the Freedom Online Coalition in issuing a joint statement condemning internet shutdowns in Iran.
We continue to work with our international partners to explore all options for addressing Iran’s human rights violations. Through the UK’s action on sanctions and robust statements with international partners, we have sent a clear message. The Iranian authorities will be held accountable for their repression of women and girls and for the shocking violence that they have inflicted on the Iranian people.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Minister for her answer. I also thank the Foreign Secretary for his letter yesterday advising me that I have been sanctioned by the Iranian regime.
Since the brutal murder of Mahsa Jina Amini by the morality police, there has been a nationwide uprising in Iran. Contrary to what the Minister advised, the National Council of Resistance of Iran advised that more than 400 mainly female protesters have been murdered and that more than 20,000 have been arrested over the past 39 days of nationwide protests. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must issue the strongest condemnation of those killings and mass arrests? In order to do so, is it not right that we recall our ambassador from Tehran and even consider closing our embassy in Iran, to demonstrate that this is unacceptable?
Does the Minister also agree that we need to recognise the Iranian’s people right to self-defence and resistance in the face of the deadly crackdown, which particularly targets women and their right to establish a democratic republic? I note the sanctions that have been issued by our Government against particular individuals in Iran, but does she not agree that now would be completely the wrong time to renew the JCPOA—joint comprehensive plan of action—agreement and give Iran the capability to establish nuclear weapons? Does she also agree that it is now time to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and—I say this to the Secretary of State—its assets in the UK?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I probably ought to congratulate him on being sanctioned—that shows all the efforts that he and many colleagues in the House have made to call out the regime and the terrible actions that are taking place in Iran. The death of Mahsa Amini is a shocking reminder of the repression that women in Iran face.
We condemn the Iranian authorities and have taken very strong action. We condemn the crackdown on protesters, journalists and internet freedom. The use of violence in response to the expression of fundamental rights by women, or any other members of Iranian society, is wholly unjustifiable. We will continue to work, including with our international partners, to explore all options for addressing Iran’s human rights violations. However, as my hon. Friend knows, we will never be able to comment on possible future actions, sanctions or designations.
For the past six weeks, Iran has seen huge protests following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of its brutal morality police. Ms Amini was violently beaten following her arrest for breaching strict hijab rules.
Iranians in huge numbers have bravely said that they will accept this no longer. Women and girls are putting their lives on the line to lead a mass movement calling for nothing more than basic human rights and civil liberties. Braving severe state repression, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have joined protests. Over 12,500 have been arrested and, sadly, over 250 people have died at the hands of the security forces. Britain must support all those who stand up for basic freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religion and the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses.
It is clear that the Iranian regime is restricting information in an attempt to quash the protests. Internet access has been periodically blocked in the country, meaning that details of human rights abuses cannot be shared and protesters cannot organise. Freedom of information is integral to the success of any political movement. The UK must and can play a strong role in supporting an independent press in Iran. Reporters Without Borders has declared Iran one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom: journalists routinely face harassment, detention and threats to their family. What are the UK Government doing to encourage press freedom in Iran? What pressure is the UK putting on Iran to support fundamental human rights and freedom of speech?
The UK can and should lead calls for the UN Human Rights Council to urgently establish an international investigative and accountability mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious crimes in Iran under international law. Can the Minister assure me that the UK will do so?
There is much that we all agree on in this House, from our condemnation of what is happening in Iran to the actions we take and how we work with others. We are looking at all options to hold Iran to account for its human rights violations, and we are active participants at the UN Human Rights Council. On press freedom, last week we joined a statement of the Media Freedom Coalition condemning Iran’s repression of journalists. We will continue to do so, working with other countries and other groups to call out Iran, as well as taking firm steps, as I laid out in my statement.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important UQ. What we are seeing in Iran is state industrialised femicide. We are also seeing Iran being increasingly aggressive abroad in support of terrorist states and terrorist organisations. Will we finally act to sanction the IRGC, which is sending surface-to-surface missiles to Russia, supporting proxies across the region and spreading harmful radicalising narratives online? Will the Minister also broaden our classification of terrorist content beyond Salafi-Takfiri extremist ideology to include Shi’a Islamist extremist materials? That is the only way in which we will protect our communities at home from their reach.
Yes. We have an assessment, which we have shared with my hon. Friend, of Iran and its support for regimes including Russia. We will continue to work with others to call out what is happening, and of course we condemn its support of anything to do with Russia’s war in Ukraine.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
I am glad that you granted this urgent question today, Mr Speaker. I commend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing it and the Minister for her answer. The SNP and all of us stand in solidarity with the brave protesters in Iran in their actions against a brutal regime. I grew up in Saudi Arabia; I struggle to sound rational about any morality police anywhere. I am familiar with these men, I am familiar with what they do, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with the UK Government in their efforts to hold them to account.
The protests were triggered by the femicide—to our mind—of Mahsa Amini. There is a clear gender aspect, as I think we can all agree. Writing in The Sunday Times, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has a greater familiarity than anyone with the Iranian regime’s brutality, put it best:
“Mahsa’s death is the latest blow to the people of a country long abused… Women in Iran are desperate. They are furious and restless. They cannot take it anymore.”
I commend the Minister for her statement, but what more can the UK Government do to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of femicide? Do His Majesty’s Government view the murder of Ms Amini as femicide? Further to the point that the hon. Member for Harrow East made about closing the UK mission, may I take another view and say that closing the mission would shut down dialogue when actually we need to continue those efforts in-country?
Yes, we need to continue efforts and dialogue in-country. That also holds for continued discussion on the nuclear deal, which has been mentioned. We will always continue to work with our like-minded partners to ensure that Iran is held to account, including via the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN General Assembly in New York. At its 51st session, our permanent representative to the UNHRC in Geneva, Ambassador Simon Manley, raised the death of Mahsa Amini and called on Iran
“to carry out independent, transparent investigations into her death and the excessive violence used against subsequent protests.”
We have joined 52 other countries in issuing a joint statement to the Human Rights Council, urging restraint and accountability in Iranian law enforcement. The European Union, Canada and the United States have also sanctioned the morality police and certain individuals, and we will continue to work with those like-minded countries, but we cannot of course comment on any future designations or sanctions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the urgent question and on his being sanctioned, and I send a loud and clear message from this Parliament that we stand with the women and girls of Iran as they fight for their civil rights. However, it is not just in their own country that the Iranian regime is causing repression and havoc; it is also selling drones which are being used to attack civilians in Ukraine. Given that sanctions on Russia are working and its missiles are running out, may I urge the Minister, with the greatest urgency, to look very closely at how we can sanction those who are arming others who would do the Ukrainians harm?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to look at any possible measures that we can take. I think she understands that I cannot comment on any of them, but we are aware of these actions, and we are aware of Iran’s support for the Russian forces.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the urgent question. I am delighted to join him in that select group whose members have obviously upset the regime by telling the truth about it.
I welcome the recent sanctions decisions, but I wonder whether there are any plans to extend them to other human rights abusers. Might the Minister consider the former technology Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi and the IRGC commander Salar Abnoush, two people who would certainly merit being put on the sanctions list?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on also being sanctioned. That is, of course, because of the work that he and other Members are doing in calling out these actions, and calling for more action from the UK Government as well; but I think he understands that we cannot comment on some possible future actions, or on individuals.
Murder and brutal repression internally, sponsorship of terrorism overseas, selling deadly drones that target civilians to the invading Russian army—the list of the crimes of the Iranian regime is very long indeed, and when we look at all these activities, it is the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that comes up time and again. I do not expect the Minister to comment on specific sanctions measures, but will she at least pledge to the House that she will convey to the Foreign Secretary and her colleagues in the Foreign Office the message that it is the strong view of the House that the IRGC should be proscribed in full as a terrorist organisation?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being another of the seven individuals who have been sanctioned, and I thank him for raising these concerns again and again. We have made clear our own concerns about the IRGC’s continuing destabilising activity throughout the region, and the UK maintains a range of sanctions that work to constrain that activity. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review. I will take back that message, but, as I know my right hon. Friend is aware, we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription.
These brave women are inspirational, and how lucky we would be if they were able to get out of Iran and came here to obtain sanctuary. Is there any chance of a lifeboat scheme for them, should they be able to get out?
May I also ask about something very practical? The Minister will recall that earlier in the Ukraine-Russia conflict the BBC was given extra money to ensure that the World Service could broadcast in Ukrainian and also in Russian. Is there any chance that that could also apply to BBC Persian, which currently faces the chop?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and I join her in commending the bravery of the women in Iran. It is very easy for us to sit here, but what they are doing every day takes incredible courage and they really are showing huge strength. On BBC Persia, the BBC is operationally and editorially independent but we do provide funding, and the FCDO is providing the BBC with more than £94 million over the next three years to support the World Service. On any future actions we may do, obviously we keep everything under constant review but we do not have anything yet to announce in this area.
Sanctions glisten but they also cast a shadow. I am deeply envious of hon. and right hon. colleagues who have been sanctioned and I can only hope that mine is in the post. Can the Minister assure us that there can be no possibility of progress on the JCPOA while Tehran continues to export weapons of terror, particularly drone technology, to Russia to aid Putin’s war in Ukraine? Can she also assure me that, when the ambassador was called into the Foreign Office, that was made crystal clear to him?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s letter could be in the post if he continues to raise his concerns so robustly. Iran’s nuclear programme has never been more advanced than it is today, and Iran’s escalation of its nuclear activities is threatening international peace and security and undermining the global non-proliferation system. If a deal is not struck, the JCPOA will collapse. In this scenario, we will carefully consider all options in partnership with our allies, but the JCPOA, while not perfect, does represent a pathway for constraining Iran’s nuclear programme.
Like the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), I am a bit upset that I have not been sanctioned yet. I obviously need to try harder, so here goes. We are talking about a bunch of women-hating homicidal maniacs and clerical fascists. On that basis, surely it is now time to ban the IRGC. Some of us have been calling for it to be banned for some time; my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) and I called for it on one of the last sitting days in July. Now that the Government have had time to think about it, can they not just get on and ban it?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his attempt to join his colleagues, and I am sure he will continue with that. As I said earlier, we have been clear on our concerns about the IRGC’s continuing destabilising activity, but we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is under consideration for proscription. We will obviously maintain a range of sanctions that work to constrain the actions and some of the activities of the IRGC.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this urgent question and I thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that Iran is now quite clearly a pariah state, which means that all our policy towards it must be directed on the basis that we cannot deal with it in the same way as any other state. It supplies Russia with weapons, it is now linked to China, it is developing nuclear weapons and the brutality that we have seen meted out to those who are peacefully protesting—as their human rights would allow them to do here—is appalling. Can I urge my hon. Friend, in response, no longer to continue with the JCPOA, because it is giving Iran succour while it is still developing nuclear weapons? Also, importantly, will the Government now proscribe the IRGC once and for all, to tell it that its behaviour will no longer be tolerated and that there are more sanctions to come?
We have always been clear that Iran’s nuclear escalation is unacceptable. It is threatening international peace and security and undermining the global non-proliferation scheme. As I said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), while the JCPOA is not perfect, it does represent a pathway for constraining Iran’s nuclear programme. A restored deal could pave the way for further discussions on regional and security concerns, including in support of the non-proliferation regime. As I mentioned earlier in relation to the IRGC, we cannot comment on future sanctions, but we keep this constantly under review.
Of course we welcome the fact that the Government have sanctioned key senior officers of Iran’s brutal morality police and the revolutionary guard, as well as those involved in the supply of drones to Russia, but the sanctions are primarily focused on those based inside Iran. What are Ministers doing to ensure that those with links to the Iranian regime who have visas allowing them to be based here in the UK understand our strength of feeling about the Iranian regime’s unacceptable conduct towards its people, and towards women and girls in particular?
Even having these debates—this is the second one on this subject in the few weeks I have been in this job—is helpful, and we will continue to raise the pressure, to work with allies and to raise concerns via our participation on the Human Rights Council. We will constantly keep things under review.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East on securing this important urgent question. There is a large Iranian diaspora in Southampton, and the women and girls who have been to see me have been clear that we must call out the murder of Mahsa Amini as femicide. It is the women and girls of Iran who are bearing the brunt of the repression. I would like to echo the comments about the BBC. Knowledge and information are power, and too little is coming out of and going into Iran to support those brave individuals. Will the Minister please go and talk to colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that there is sufficient funding for the World Service so that the important work of BBC Persia can continue?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend about the bravery of the women in Iran, which I am sure those in the diaspora in her area are proud of. We will continue to work closely with our like-minded partners to ensure that Iran is held to account for the death of Mahsa Amini, including via the Human Rights Council in Geneva. As I mentioned earlier, the FCDO has put £94 million over the next three years towards supporting the BBC World Service, which is a vital lifeline for people both inside Iran and at home here.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East on securing this urgent question. I know from the discussions I have had with the various opposition groups that lobby us here in Parliament that the profile that these questions give to the issues that concern them is important and heartening. I say to the Minister that it is clear that the Iranian regime not only tortures and abuses its own citizens but is now an exporter of terrorism across the world. I do not expect her to comment on what she is going to do in relation to proscription and sanctions against the likes of the IGRC, but what I think this House wants, rather than a statement about what she is going to do, is for her to just do it. We do not need her to tell us, and we do not need information about it—just do it!
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his instruction, gently delivered as always. Of course we keep everything under review, but as he has identified, it would not be appropriate to discuss any future actions at this Dispatch Box right now.
Could I ask the Minister to reassure the House that London will not become a place of safe refuge for the Iranian regime’s proponents? Can she assure me, for instance, that money from Iran that is funding pro-Iranian platforms in this country is closely looked at? There is also a substantial rumour that the families of the leaders in Iran are getting British passports, which is iniquitous.
I can assure my right hon. Friend that I will look into the questions that he has raised. Obviously we have our own rule of law here in the UK. I have not heard the rumours about passports, but I will certainly look into that and write to him.
Why is it still possible to purchase a cheap tourist flight from London to Iran for £158?
Because nobody wants to go there!
If the Government’s sanctions are strong enough, surely we should be stopping travel to and from that country.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) points out, the price shows the popularity of the destination.
The brutal regime in Iran is being financed by up to $100 billion a year of sanctions relief, despite delivering almost no concrete action on nuclear non-proliferation. Will my hon. Friend press our international partners to ensure that such sanctions relief is tied to Iran’s delivering on its international obligations?
A viable deal was put on the table in March, which would have returned Iran to full compliance with its JCPOA commitments and returned the US to the deal. Iran has refused to seize a critical diplomatic opportunity to conclude that deal, with continued demands beyond the scope of the JCPOA. We are considering the next steps with our international partners but, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, we cannot comment on them at this point.
I put on record my support and admiration for those girls and women who are not only protesting, but putting their lives at risk on a daily basis. The violent crackdowns against civilians by the regime in recent days are a reminder of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s attitude towards dissent at home and abroad. Crackdowns against dissent are led by the regime’s ideological terror army, the IRGC. In light of the horrific state violence, both in recent days and in 2019, we have had multiple instances in this Chamber of both sides and all parties calling for the IRGC to be proscribed. When is it going to happen?
I am afraid I must refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier answer: we keep things under review, but we cannot comment on any future actions.
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s answers, but, considering that the IRGC finances and directs terror proxies across the whole middle east, including its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah, which has stockpiled more than 150,000 missiles on the Israel-Lebanon border, can she explain why we proscribe Hezbollah as a terrorist group, but not its financier and director the IRGC?
There is obviously great strength of feeling on this subject, which, as I have said, I will take back to the Foreign Secretary. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review, but we do not routinely comment on why or whether an organisation is under consideration for proscription, or the thought process behind those that are proscribed.
I strongly support the sanctions the Government are imposing—indeed, I would like to see them go further—but will the Minister give a commitment that those sanctions will not have a negative impact on ordinary Iranian people?
That is an important question; when we consider sanctions we always consider not only what can work, but the impact it will have on people. Our sanctions impose restrictions on the morality police as a whole and senior security and political figures in Iran, and will ensure that the individuals designated cannot travel to the UK and that any of their assets held in the UK will be frozen.
The courage and bravery of those young women in standing up to the brutal and authoritarian regime in Iran is frankly incredible. They are superheroes and they deserve our full support and admiration. I am proud of what this country is doing to stand up for human rights in Ukraine, and we should be doing the same for those young women in Iran. I welcome the increased sanctions put in place last week on Iranian individuals and businesses responsible for supplying Russia with kamikaze drones used to bombard Ukraine. However, does my hon. Friend agree that as well as condemning the Iranian regime on human rights, we should also condemn its place on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women? There can be no excuse for a regime that treats women with such contempt to sit on a commission that should be working to promote global gender equality and empowerment of women wherever they live.
Order. May I just remind hon. Members that these are meant to be questions, not speeches? It is an important point, but I need to get everybody in.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend, because there will be people watching this urgent question and hearing what we are saying, whether among the diaspora or in Iran, and I am sure it gives them a great deal of strength and courage to know the strength of feeling in this place. The protests also send a clear message that the Iranian people are not satisfied with the path their Government have taken, and we urge Iran to listen to its own people, to respect the right to peaceful assembly, to lift all restrictions, to stop unfairly detaining protesters and, most importantly, to ensure that women can play an equal role in society.
In the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), she talked about sanctions against the elites, who often do not suffer the impact of broad-brush sanctions. What discussions has the Minister had with her counterparts in the Department for Education about removing study visas from the families of regime members, living here far from the restrictions in Iran, and particularly those imposed on women?
I want to make clear that in addition to the sanctions recently imposed on 10 October, there are almost 300 sanctions on various activities, people and organisations within Iran. We continue to keep those under review, but I cannot comment on any potential future actions that may be taken.
In recent months, the Iranian Government have systematically inflicted untold cruelties on the people of the Baha’i faith as the world looks on. As Baha’is across the world mark the twin holy days—I send them my best wishes—can the Minister tell me what precise steps the Government are taking to support and protect this important and targeted community?
That question is very important and was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate not long ago. We condemn any actions that restrict freedom of religious belief.
I send my solidarity and support to the women and girls of Iran fighting for their human rights. Does the Minister agree that, in the light of recent events and the attacks on human rights, the BBC’s decision to close down its Persian radio service is deeply unfortunate when so many rely on it as a lifeline? Will she undertake to speak to the BBC director-general to ask whether the closure can be reviewed and reversed?
BBC Persian is a legitimate journalistic operation, which is still operating and is editorially independent of the UK Government. However, I am shortly meeting with representatives from BBC World Service and I will discuss the matter further with them.
Security forces are demanding that teachers in Iran hand over the names of troublemakers, threatening arrest if they refuse. One teacher in Tehran has reportedly died trying to protect students. What support are the UK and our allies providing to protect teachers specifically from those terrifying abuses of their human rights?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing to light the plight of teachers. Many protesters are bravely protesting, knowing that they are putting themselves in danger. That is why I welcome the opportunity to put on record our condemnation of all the actions the Iranian regime is taking.
I thank the Minister for her strong stance and her answers. It is encouraging to have time dedicated to this important situation, which is escalating at pace in Iran, but it is regrettable that many other groups face oppression from the Iranian state, and we must not forget them amid the ongoing crisis. Can she assure me and this House of her support for other religious and belief groups in Iran, particularly the Baha’i and Christians, who have long suffered at the hands of the Iranian regime and, with thousands of others, have had their freedom of religion and belief violated?
I believe the hon. Gentleman also took part in the Westminster Hall debate, as many of us did. I met a number of people after that debate who were delighted that hon. Members kept pushing their case, but urged us to keep the debate alive and active and to call out wrongdoing wherever we see it.
Avanti West Coast Contract Renewal
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if she will make a statement on her decision to renew the contract for Avanti West Coast to provide passenger services on the west coast main line.
On 7 October, a short-term contract was entered into with the incumbent operator for the West Coast Partnership. The contract extends the delivery of the West Coast Partnership and Avanti West Coast business for six months until 1 April 2023. This gives Avanti a clear opportunity to improve its services to the standard we and the public expect. The Government will then consider Avanti’s performance while finalising a national rail contract for consideration in relation to the route, alongside preparations by the operator of last resort should it become necessary for it to step in at the end of the extension period.
The primary cause of Avanti’s recent problems is a shortage of fully trained drivers. Avanti was heavily reliant on drivers volunteering to work additional days because of delays in training during covid. When volunteering suddenly all but ceased, Avanti was no longer able to operate its timetable. Nearly 100 additional drivers will enter formal service between April and December this year, and Avanti has begun to restore services, initially focusing on the Manchester and Birmingham routes.
From December, Avanti plans to operate 264 daily train services on weekdays, a significant step up from the circa 180 daily services at present. We need train services that are reliable and resilient to modern life. Although the company has taken positive steps to get more trains moving, it must do more to deliver certainty of service to its passengers. We will hold Avanti fully to account for things in its control, but this plan is not without risk and, importantly, requires trade union co-operation. The priority remains to support the restoration of services before making any long-term decisions.
In assessing options for a longer-term contract, the Secretary of State will consider factors including outcomes for passengers, value for money and the delivery of major projects and investment—in this case High Speed 2, given the links to its future delivery model. To put it simply, things must improve during this probation period for the contract to be further extended.
I declare an interest, as I suspect many Members will, as a long-suffering traveller on the so-called rail service on the west coast main line.
By giving Avanti this six-month contract extension, after months of failure and rail chaos, this Government are frankly rewarding that failure. Avanti promised to improve services back in September, and instead it has gone and cut services, introduced this emergency timetable and almost entirely stopped selling tickets online.
The provision of reliable train services is essential for the economic growth and prosperity of more than half the UK’s population. I seek clarification on the metrics the Minister will use to assess improvement or, indeed, further failure, given that the bar is currently set so low. It is clear that the west coast franchise has been fundamentally mismanaged by Avanti. These significant failings mean that staff morale is at an all-time low, which is reflected in the industrial action taken by trade unions. Staff report being overworked and understaffed due to the company’s failure to recruit sufficient staff and fill vacancies. I understand that many station ticket offices are understaffed and, in many instances, the company is failing to meet its regulated ticket office opening hours. As the Government are so tightly managing this contract, what are they doing to resolve these industrial disputes and the issues affecting staff at Avanti?
It seems that the Government are intent on rewarding failure. Rather than bringing the franchise in-house, they have given Avanti an extension. The Government have given Avanti precisely the same management fee despite it running dozens fewer services. This means Avanti stands to receive fees, or profits, worth £6 million for this period. This profiteering is supported by the Government and paid for by taxpayers and passengers. Avanti is part-owned by the Italian Government, so why not the UK Government instead? We could then reinvest any surplus revenue in improving the network for passengers rather than seeing it seep out in profits. When will the Government stop rewarding Avanti’s failure and instead strip it of its franchise and bring the west coast main line back into public ownership?
What metrics will we use? As with all rail contract awards, the Government will act in accordance with the franchising policy statement made under section 26(1) of the Railways Act 1993, which is already publicly available, in assessing whether to award a new contract. As I have said a number of times from this Dispatch Box, we are clear that the current service is unacceptable and will look for significant improvements before April if we are to extend this contract any further.
I always say that bringing something in-house is not necessarily a magic bullet, as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) demonstrated with her recent tweet when travelling on London North Eastern Railway, which is operated by the operator of last resort. For example, there might be issues related to infrastructure, which is of course publicly owned.
Avanti has a plan for improvement and the significant restoration of services in December, and we are seeing new train drivers being trained. Of course, we are seeing the wider impact of industrial action on the network, on which we and the Opposition have very clear views. They support it one day and not the next.
We believe there is a credible plan. There is daily interaction between Avanti and the Department for Transport, with weekly interaction at the most senior level. Ministers are regularly updated, too. We are making sure that a firm eye is kept on this, and we receive regular representations from Members of this House on what needs to happen to ensure this line provides the type of service we all want to see.
I have previously raised my concern about the capacity of FirstGroup, which is a partner of Avanti that also operates the TransPennine service that has been absolutely appalling over recent months, particularly for my constituents who use Lockerbie station. Is the Minister clear that FirstGroup has the capacity both to operate TransPennine and be part of the Avanti partnership and, in both, achieve improvements on the currently unacceptable levels of service?
I have met FirstGroup to discuss the overall position of its franchise. It should be remembered that FirstGroup is also involved in running the Great Western Railway franchise, which runs fairly successfully in the south-west and Wales. Other parts of its operation are going relatively well, are well managed, are delivering good outcomes for customers and are supporting our agenda of growing the rail network. For example, GWR operates the Dartmoor line that was opened last year.
On TransPennine Express, we recognise that a number of factors have affected performance. Again, quite a lot of training is needed following the backlogs caused by covid and related to the line upgrades. It is clear that TransPennine Express services need to improve quite substantially. Again, we look to work with FirstGroup to get the type of improvement plan we want to see.
I call the shadow Minister, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for securing this urgent question because Avanti West Coast’s continued abject failures are simply unacceptable. Over the course of its contract, Avanti has had the fewest trains on time, more complaints than any other operator and a wholesale failure to train new drivers, which has led to the mess we have to endure today. Despite this, Avanti has been rewarded with a contract extension. The Tories, as usual, are rewarding failure, yet there are gaping holes in the improvement plan announced alongside the contract extension, which will prolong passenger misery.
On the busiest main line in the country, at the busiest time of year, there is not a single bookable weekend service between November and Christmas—not one. The service reductions that the Government signed off were supposed to increase reliability, but they have done the exact opposite. Can the Minister explain today when services will be available to book and why the Transport Secretary failed to demand that as a condition of handing over millions in taxpayers’ cash? Avanti is being paid precisely the same management fee as under the previous contract, even though hundreds of services are not running—why? Travelling across the north is also becoming next to impossible. Today, more than 40 services on TransPennine Express have been cancelled. As my good friend the Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, lamented to me:
“It’s chaos and the Government must intervene.”
So why are they planning to hand TPE an eight-year contract for this service in May? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the House as to whether they are preventing a deal between TPE and the workforce which could improve services in the short term?
Today, what the public need to hear from the incoming Government—yet another Government—is a serious plan to get travel across the north back on track; they need to hear a plan to restore services. If the Government cannot get that, they must withdraw the contract, because passengers are sick and tired of excuses.
We have been clear that the current position with services is unacceptable and we expect significant improvements. Long-term contract award decisions will be affected if, as we approach them, the service day to day is not where it should be. The management fees that are paid are specified in the contracts for operating. That said, the performance fee, to which the hon. Gentleman was perhaps also referring, for Avanti for the period beyond the withdrawal of rest-day working and the current timetable reductions is due to be independently evaluated. That is not just done by the Government and it has not yet been done. I suspect that the independent evaluator will want to take on board quite a number of these points, but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate why I would not want to give too many comments from the Dispatch Box on what the independent evaluator should do.
As for the plans for improvement, the first point to make, which has already been touched on, is that we are seeing more drivers being trained by Avanti West Coast and there are plans to reinstate the vast majority of the timetable in December. Clearly, when deciding what comes next we will want to make sure that that has worked and it is delivering an acceptable level of service for ourselves and for passengers more widely. On TPE, although we are of course welcoming the fact that we are starting very large-scale investment into that route, the level of which that route has not seen for decades, we need to see significant improvement.
As for moving immediately to cancel the contract, I remind the hon. Gentleman of the quotes in the Manchester Evening News on 6 October that were attributed to Mayor Burnham about how that could bring more disruption in the short term. The idea that putting this situation into the hands of the operator of last resort would immediately resolve a driver shortage and other issues is not one that stands up to any scrutiny.
My constituents have been enduring a pretty terrible service from Avanti for many months, with only one train an hour from Stoke-on-Trent recently. But it is not just about the reliability and the cramped trains; it is also about the availability of tickets, as people are not able to book ahead, which is costing them more because they are having to buy on the day. When the Minister speaks to Avanti, will he make sure that he stresses not only reliability, but availability, so that my constituents can get up and down the west coast cheaply?
Yes, I will. In fact, I have already spoken to some of Avanti’s most senior management and made that point, particularly following representations from hon. Members. I also reinforced it in a meeting I had with FirstGroup more recently, and it has an overall interest in the Avanti operation.
I call the SNP spokesman, Gavin Newlands.
There are 14 trains scheduled this Saturday from Glasgow to Euston, but last Saturday only three actually ran, and yesterday saw more than 15% of Avanti’s Glasgow services cancelled. People in Scotland and the north of England are being treated as third-class citizens. I doubt that the laissez-faire attitude of the Department for Transport when it comes to industrial relations at Avanti would last five minutes if home counties commuter services were being slashed in the same way. When are Ministers going to roll up their sleeves and get involved? Was Mick Lynch not right when he said in evidence to the Transport Committee that Scottish Government politicians:
“have an attitude where they want to resolve the issue, whereas sometimes when we meet politicians down here they want to exacerbate the issue and make us their enemy.”
And that was before the Government tabled their utterly regressive Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill; Tory party ideology is impacting taxpayers and passengers yet again.
The six-month extension is seen by everyone as kicking the can down the road. What work is ongoing right now to ensure that the DFT and Directly Operated Railways Ltd are ready to “take back control” of a key piece of cross-border infrastructure, and we follow the lead of Scotland in ending the disastrous experiment of privatisation?
Work is ongoing to ensure that the operator of last resort would be ready in April to pick up the service. I will touch on some of the issues raised, but not all are within Avanti’s control; merely changing the franchise and who operates it would not resolve issues and problems that have been caused by infrastructure or engineering works, for obvious reasons—those sit in Network Rail’s purview. However, we are certainly not adopting a laissez-faire attitude. Every day, the DFT is engaging with Avanti and TPE about the services. Every week, there are senior-level contacts as well, and Ministers are actively involved with this process. I am a traveller on Avanti trains myself of a Sunday, and the idea that we are not interested in this or that we have some sort of laissez-faire attitude is completely for the birds. As for relationships with the trade unions, the Transport Secretary has met the general secretaries, but we make the point that we are not the employer in this circumstance, and it is for the unions and the operating companies to come to an agreement.
On Saturday, I endured an almost 10-hour odyssey across the UK to go from Barrow to London, for an engagement that I then missed. No one is going to peel an onion for me, but many of us have to endure this twice a week and for our constituents it is many more times than that. They are missing trips to the airport and to see their families, and they are missing their commutes. This is simply unacceptable, and they cannot book ahead and their tickets are ridiculously expensive as a result. Will my hon. Friend confirm that if Avanti does not improve services quickly, it will be stripped of its franchise?
I hear the points my hon. Friend makes. Obviously, he will appreciate that I need to follow the due legal process in terms of any removal of franchise, but we have made clear the criteria that are set out and the need for improvement before April, which is when we would need to take the final decision on a longer-term principle. If the current situation continues, that will clearly be a very strong part of our consideration.