House of Commons
Thursday 1 December 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Intellectual Property and Copyright: Artificial Intelligence
The recent Intellectual Property Office consultation on artificial intelligence and intellectual property sought evidence and views on text and data mining. A response was published in June. We recognise that the creative industries have significant concerns about the potential impacts of the TDM proposal and as a result, we are reflecting on whether to progress it in its current form. The IPO will be engaging with interested parties over the coming months to help to inform the Government’s thinking and we will set out the next steps in due course.
It was encouraging to hear the Minister tell the Lords Communications and Digital Committee last week that she is confident that the text and data mining proposal will not go ahead. That has been warmly welcomed by the creative industries, which depend heavily on intellectual property rights for their income stream. What steps will the Minister be taking to ensure that any revised proposals to promote AI do not cause economic harm to the creative industries? Will she provide an update on her conversations with the Intellectual Property Office, including the detail of its plans to extend the consultation on the proposal?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising the issue and speaking on behalf of the creative industries; IP is the lifeblood of many of those industries. As I said in the Lords Committee, I am not convinced of the value of the proposal. Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), and I met the Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who has responsibility for the Intellectual Property Office. As I mentioned, he is extending the consultation on this and we will be talking to him in the meantime. We hope to provide further details as soon as we can.
The Minister clearly agrees that our creative industries, especially music, are not only valuable in themselves, but part of what makes Britain great. It follows that we must encourage and support our creative talent across the spectrum. She also clearly understands and shares the industries’ concern about eroding creative copyright for the benefit of the AI giants, so what will she do to stop it?
Hopefully, I have set that out in my previous answer. I raised the concerns of the creative industries with the responsible Minister and he was sympathetic to those concerns. He will go back and look at the consultation again to examine in greater detail some of the concerns that have already come from the creative industries and see whether the proposal can be revised.
We are investing £5 billion through Project Gigabit to deliver lightning-fast, reliable broadband to hard-to-reach areas across the UK, and we are making great progress, having already launched procurements with a value of £780 million. Today, we announced the award of a new £108-million contract to connect up to 60,000 homes and businesses across Cumbria with the fastest broadband speeds. We are also boosting our voucher scheme: we have increased the value of the vouchers so that people can apply for as much as £4,500 towards the cost of installing gigabit-capable broadband in rural and particularly hard-to-reach areas.
I assure the Minister that the people of Nether Wallop, Over Wallop and Barton Stacey do not feel that Project Gigabit is delivering for them. They have seen changed criteria; an inability to split postcodes, which is difficult when they are on a county boundary; delays in the processing of their applications; and then being told that they will not be able to reapply until 2023, because the project will still not be procured for those areas. They want answers and delivery, not the news that the project is delivering in Cumbria.
I thank my right hon. Friend, although I cannot agree with her on the importance of Cumbria, which is one of the hardest to reach areas of our country. That we are taking that area as one of our first shows just how much we care about narrowing the digital divide. More than 95% of premises in my right hon. Friend’s constituency now have superfast broadband, which is up 55% over the past 12 years. During the same period, gigabit-capable coverage has risen from 0% to 71% in her constituency. I appreciate that particular villages and parts of people’s constituencies do not have the coverage they need, and that is why we are significantly boosting the voucher scheme. We have launched two of our procurements in areas that cover my right hon. Friend’s constituency in Hampshire. I also host regular Building Digital UK drop-ins for colleagues—I hosted one yesterday—and if she would like to come along and speak directly to BDUK officials, we shall look into the villages affected.
Everyone loves Cumbria, but some of us love Lancashire even more. Residents of Station Road in Singleton have experienced repeated delays to the installation of fibre broadband, with the project unlikely to be completed before 2026. In Lancashire the awarding of installation contracts for Project Gigabit is still a year away, and the voucher scheme remains suspended. While some rural areas enjoy great connectivity, many on the margins of commercial viability, such as Station Road, do not. How can we prevent our rural communities, especially those in Lancashire, from falling ever further into a digital divide?
I am sorry to hear about the challenges in Singleton, and I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend’s constituents. He is right to highlight the digital divide, which we are ruthlessly focusing on closing. We will shortly reopen the voucher scheme across Lancashire. We have increased the value of vouchers, and we are assessing alternative procurement approaches to Lancashire. My hon. Friend should please engage with BDUK, which I would be happy to put in touch with him.
I am pleased for Cumbria, Mr Speaker, but just 10% of Blaenau Gwent has access to gigabit broadband, compared with a 72% UK average. The swift roll-out of Project Gigabit will be essential for levelling up across our local economy, so will the Minister please ensure that areas with the least coverage, such as Blaenau Gwent, are prioritised first?
As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, the Welsh Government lead on that procurement in his constituency. We work closely with them, to support them in trying to accelerate the work they are doing, but I am happy to look into his particular circumstances. It was wonderful to visit south Wales last week, and I thank him for the work he does with the film, television and screen industries, which I also represent as a Minister.
The Welsh are never knowingly undersold—two for the price of one.
Let me plead with the Minister: as she knows, communities along the M4 corridor still do not have the superfast broadband roll-out. That is not to do with delivery; it is about the companies saying that they are unable to install on streets within three miles of the M4 motorway. I have raised with the Minister many times, from the Dispatch Box and the Back Benches, the fact that communities in my Ogmore constituency have some of the lowest speeds in the whole UK. I ask her to raise this issue again with the installers to get it fixed, and ensure that my communities have far better broadband connectivity.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area in his previous role. I would be grateful if he could write to me about the specific companies that are causing challenges in his area, particularly in relation to the M4 motorway, which I would be happy to look into.
Youth Services: Voluntary Sector
Welcome back, Minister.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
This Government know the importance of local youth services, and we have guaranteed that by 2025 every young person in England will have access to regular clubs and activities, adventures away from home and volunteering opportunities. That is a clear commitment based on feedback from 6,000 young people, supported by £560 million of funding.
Last week I had the pleasure of spending my Wednesday evening with a group called the Squirrels, which is the new expanded offer from the Scouts, offering four and five-year-olds the opportunity to engage in new services. It was perhaps a refreshing change from this Chamber to spend time with 20 or so four and five-year-olds. More seriously, research by the Scouts has raised concerns about the rising cost of living, with parents unable to afford some of the fees for those services. In addition, the cost of delivering those services with rising rents and energy bills is putting pressure on organisations such as the Scouts. What support can the Government give to organisations such as the Scouts, which offer so many opportunities for young people, to help them meet that need?
The hon. Lady is right to praise the work of many of our non-military uniformed youth groups. I am pleased to say that, in trying to tackle many of the waiting lists across England, we will be investing about £15 million in the area. I also recognise the additional cost of living pressure and am working with the sector to ensure that we feed in all the issues that it faces to the Departments that are looking at them for the long term.
Together with the former Member for Stretford and Urmston and the National Youth Agency, I am chairing a review into the benefits of linking youth work with schools. What discussions is the Minister having with the Department for Education about how we can bring in more youth workers, including voluntary youth groups working closely with schools, to help some of the kids who are not so good at keeping in schools? When we produce our report in the new year, will he agree to meet a delegation from that report?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right that it is important that there is joint working across Departments. We are doing that with the Department for Education and, in particular, looking to offer the Duke of Edinburgh’s award to every mainstream secondary school. I would welcome the opportunity to meet a delegation, listen to it and discuss the report’s findings.
Grassroots Sport Participation
Grassroots sports bind our communities together and make people happier as well as healthier. Since 2019, Sport England has invested over £200,000 in my hon. Friend’s constituency, including £40,000 during the pandemic. In October, I announced £35 million of Commonwealth games physical activity legacy funding, opening up sporting opportunities across the west midlands. The Government are continuing to invest directly in grassroots sports facilities. I am sure that I can meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.
I recently met Matt and Alan from Northfield Town football club, who have ambitious plans for a new all-weather football pitch and female facilities for changing rooms and toilets. How can we support Northfield Town football club to make the new facilities a reality?
Government investment, along with that from the Football Association and the Premier League, is delivered through the Football Foundation. Since 2019, the foundation has invested about £8 million in more than 300 projects in the Birmingham area, targeted based on local football facility plans. I am sure that the foundation would be keen to hear from Northfield Town about its ambitions. We will facilitate that via my office.
As they say, you have to see it to be it, and it is well known that, when cricket disappeared from terrestrial TV and went on to paid-for satellite TV, participation levels at grassroots plummeted. A great many Scottish football fans cannot view the Scottish men’s national team on free-to-air TV, and that has hit participation levels. The previous Sports Minister met me to discuss how we might improve the situation. Might the Secretary of State do me the same courtesy?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member.
Football Governance: Fan-led Review
The Government published their response to the recommendations of the independent fan-led review of football governance in April 2022. We do recognise the need for football fans to be at the heart of the game and for the reforms to ensure that the game is successful and sustainable in the long term. Football clubs are at the core of local communities and, for too long, fans have been an afterthought for some club owners.
Football’s coming home, but it seems that a football regulator is not. Without a football regulator, there will be no say for fans and no financial or fit-and-proper assessment of new owners, with more clubs like Bury being at risk. Almost a year on from the fan-led review, the Government are no further on in implementing any of the changes. In that time, we have seen the sale of Chelsea and the near collapse of Derby. Why are the Government dragging their feet?
It is important that I praise the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who got the fans’ voice right at the heart of her report. I and the Minister responsible for sport have met multiple football supporters’ groups and will continue to do so. The White Paper will be published imminently.
At last week’s annual general meeting of the Torquay United Supporters Trust, there was much debate about how the World cup in Qatar and the discussions around it have yet again focused attention on the governance of the game of football. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely vital that we make changes to ensure fans get a voice, that there is real engagement with their clubs, and that we do not see more of the incidents we have seen across this country, where clubs have been moved from their historic locations into other communities due to disputes over stadium ownership?
We on the Government Benches understand how important it is to get this right, and we will get it right. We will put fans’ voices right at the heart of what we do, and ensure that whatever we do has the teeth to ensure change.
In the years since the fan-led review was published, Southend United faced a winding-up petition and a transfer embargo after financial failings; Derby County was in administration; Chelsea could only carry on because of special exemptions when its owner was sanctioned; and the Mayor of the West Midlands wrote to the Football League to express his worries that Birmingham City’s future is in jeopardy under its current ownership. Which clubs will face trouble next year, the year after, or each year until the Government stop delaying the introduction of an independent regulator? The Prime Minister committed to implementing all the recommendations of the review, so why do they not just get on with it? After the next election, a Labour Government will.
After the next election, a Conservative Government will continue to get on with the job, as we have always been doing. The Government recognise the importance of acting decisively, but also of getting this policy right; we have been considering it and consulting very carefully. Of course, in the meantime, those in football can take forward some of the reforms themselves, including financial redistribution, which we continue to urge them to do. The report will be imminent.
Film and Television Industry
As set out in our broadcasting White Paper earlier this year and when I visited Pinewood and Shepperton studios last week, the Government are taking action to support British broadcasters and our world-leading film and television industries. That includes ensuring that public service content is easy to find on a wide range of TV platforms; delivering our £21 million UK global screen fund; and continuing to support our screen sector tax reliefs, which provide nearly £1 billion of support to more than 1,000 projects.
Given the sheer spunk of the contribution that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) has made to television, it would be churlish not to restore the Whip, wouldn’t it?
As my right hon. Friend knows, that is not a decision for me, but we can always depend on the right hon. Member for West Suffolk to attack a challenge with gusto, and I was not surprised at all to see him taking on all sorts of animal parts during the show. It has become a little bit of a thing for my predecessors to join that show, but I hope I can provide reassurance that I have no intention of ever doing so.
Never say never.
Of course, a very important part of our film and television industry is the music that goes with it and the composers who provide that music. At this juncture, it would be wrong of me to not recognise and send sympathy to the family of Christine McVie, one of Britain’s greatest ever songwriters, who sadly passed away yesterday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
I was glad to hear what the Minister of State aid about AI earlier, because that will affect film and TV composers, as well as other people within the industry. Will she ensure that in undertaking the AI review, the Government listen very carefully to the views of songwriters and composers who work in the film and television industry during their consultation?
I echo the hon. Member’s sympathies. Of course, we will listen to all relevant voices, and I am happy for the hon. Member to meet with either myself or the Minister of State, who is responsible for this.
Tourism Sector and Visitor Economy
The UK was one of the first countries to remove the barriers to both domestic and international visitors, and set out a post-covid tourism recovery plan in summer 2021. An inter-ministerial group for the visitor economy was formed this year, and will meet again in December to discuss cross-departmental policy priorities in support of this important sector.
With the axe looming over the English National Opera and the Donmar Warehouse—both national attractions that have helped the tourism the Minister has described to be a multibillion-pound industry for so many years—and local newbies such as the Ealing Project venue and ActOne cinema facing a tough environment with the post-covid footfall downturn and looming bills, could the Government, now that they are in reset mode, reconsider the impact of Arts Council cuts on London so that we can get tourism flowing through our capital again, from centre to suburb?
The Arts Council is an arm’s length body; it makes the decisions and has done so very carefully. It is working with various organisations that will be leaving the funding. However, it is right that we share the funding around the rest of the country; I make no apology for that. I want people not just to come to London to visit our wonderful facilities here, but to go around the whole country and experience what a great country we have to offer for tourism.
I welcome what the Minister said about spreading the money around the country. I invite him to come to the Derwent valley mills world heritage site, which is key to the whole of the spine that goes through Derbyshire. It is in disrepair and we need to get tourism back on track for Belper in particular. I would also like him to come to adjacent sites where we have “the clusters”, which are very ancient roads, to see how he can help with some funding.
It would be great to go from Qatar to Derbyshire and I would be more than happy to accept my hon. Friend’s invitation. She is right to talk about the many opportunities that we need to look at, including, particularly, the offer in the rest of the country for tourism from not just this country, but around the globe. One of my priorities is to get more people to come to London, of course, but then to visit other great counties such as Yorkshire, as I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker.
Arts Council England Funding Decisions
Decisions about which organisations to fund and at what level were taken by the Arts Council, an arm’s length body from Government. The Arts Council remains committed to supporting the core cultural institutions. For example, three institutions that receive the most funding in the portfolio are the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre. Many high-profile, established organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North will continue to receive funding.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Arts Council England’s decision to stop funding English National Opera in London and to effectively demand that it relocates to Manchester will leave hundreds of talented artists and professionals either out of work or forced to uproot their lives. Some of them live in my constituency and are understandably devastated by the decision that they now face, but they also feel blindsided, given that they had very little warning. Will the Minister tell me whether the artists directly impacted by the removal of ENO funding were consulted in advance of the decision? If not, why not?
I know that the Arts Council has taken a considerable amount of time to look at the unprecedented number of applications—more than 1,700—that were received and that it has assessed them very carefully. It is making sure that £12.6 million is available in transition funding for those that will be leaving. The time has been increased from three months to seven months, so that there is support for them for up to 12 months. We would certainly encourage the Arts Council and the English National Opera to continue the dialogue that they are having.
I call the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
On a similar theme, levelling up is undoubtedly a noble ambition, and the Arts Council funding has been too London-centric for too long¸ partly due to the subsidies to the Royal Opera House, which, if the Minister ever visits there, he will see is a bit like the Starship Enterprise, in terms of facilities. In correcting the imbalance, however, does he agree that the Arts Council needs to be careful about not potentially wrecking established institutions such as English National Opera, which was given very little notice of funding cuts? As a result, it is threatening legal action. A soft landing is needed. Does he agree that he needs to speak to the Arts Council to ensure that, when it makes such decisions in future, it has a plan in place to ensure that those institutions are at least protected and have a way in which to cope with the decision?
I reiterate that the Arts Council is an arm’s length organisation. We have had several meetings to hear about the long processes that it has undertaken to consider each of the awards that it has made. We pushed it to increase the transition period of funding, recognising the difficulty that that may present to other people. We hope that both Arts Council England and English National Opera will work together—we certainly encourage them to—on the possibilities for the future of the organisation.
I call the shadow Minister.
We all support the fairer distribution of arts funding and the principle that communities outside London should get a fairer share so that everybody everywhere can enjoy the arts, but levelling up should not be about pitting arts organisations against one another. What we have seen is an attempt to address regional disparity by shifting some funding to the regions, but doing so from a funding pot that has been shrinking since 2010. Does the Minister agree that these very short timeframes and the lack of consultation on these cuts to funding could have a very damaging impact on the ecosystem of the arts?
Well, I have to say that London will still be getting the lion’s share of funding from the Arts Council. I make no apology for what we are seeing in areas such as Blackburn, which had never received any funding: four projects there are now receiving funding. Why cannot talented artists in Blackburn get the same access to those opportunities as artists in London? I do not understand the problem.
Order. Unfortunately, we have to move on.
Next week, the Online Safety Bill will return to the House. I have made a number of changes to the legislation to strengthen the protections for children and offer a triple shield of protection for adults, while also safeguarding free speech and consumer choice.
In the meantime, I am sure that colleagues across the House will join me in congratulating England on their win on Tuesday night and, of course, show their support for the decision of the Sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), to wear the OneLove armband while representing the Government out in Qatar. I am proud of my right hon. Friend for standing up in solidarity with the LGBT community.
Northwood youth club in my constituency has served generations of young people, with access to activities including cooking, sports, arts and many other things, but it now needs investment. Can my right hon. Friend update me on the progress that the Government are making on the distribution of the youth investment fund?
The Government know the importance of local youth services; that is why we launched the national youth guarantee. The youth investment fund is a £368 million investment to build up or refurbish 300 youth facilities in levelling-up priority areas. The fund opened for applications on 1 August, building on the £12 million that we distributed for minor capital projects earlier, and we expect to announce the first awards early in the new year.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
There is a running theme here, with the fan-led review delayed, the gambling White Paper delayed, the data Bill delayed, the Online Safety Bill delayed, the media Bill delayed and, apparently, Channel 4 privatisation cancelled. It is a bit like getting an Avanti train, Mr Speaker.
They never run at all.
Like on the trains, delays cost businesses. Take the media Bill: there is now a real risk to the very future of our public service broadcasters without it. Can the Secretary of State tell us: will this particular train ever leave the station?
We are fully committed to the media Bill, as we have already said and as the hon. Member knows. It has not actually been delayed; it was announced in the Queen’s Speech for this Session.
The Government are making an absolute mess of the Online Safety Bill. After years of inaction, we now know that they plan once again to delay the Bill from progressing. Their approach will supposedly give adults greater choice online, but it does absolutely nothing to tackle the harmful content at its root. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether the abhorrent yet legal extreme content that led a man to shoot and kill five people in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) would still be available to view and share freely online under the terms of the Bill?
Not a single clause in this Bill is actually changing—in relation to children, it is being strengthened. In relation to illegal content, of course that content is still being taken down, as the hon. Member would know if she read the stuff that we have published. We are also introducing a triple shield of defence, which was lacking before, and we have made the promotion of self-harm and intimate image abuse an offence, while also protecting free speech and free choice. It is important that the Opposition remember that making a Bill stronger is not watering down.
Order. I think we have had this before. These are Topical Questions, and we need very short questions so that all the other Members can get in. Unfortunately we are struggling for time, and we cannot use other people’s time: it is not fair.
I entirely agree that social mobility is at the heart of what we want to do, and I congratulate those four institutions. If the Minister for Arts and Heritage or the Secretary of State will not come to Hastings and Rye, I certainly will.
I know that this is a long-running issue of concern for the hon. Gentleman. The BBC announced some changes to its complaints process yesterday, but I appreciate that he does not think they are strong enough. We will be looking into this in the course of our reviews of the organisation.
Clubs that are subject to the all-seater policy—such as the wonderful Leeds United—may now apply to offer licensed standing areas, provided that they observe stringent criteria set by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority. For instance, they must ensure that the density of spectators is no higher than it is in seated accommodation. I welcome the news that Leeds United wish to sign up for this opportunity, and I should be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend in the new year, after I have met the SGSA to discuss this very issue later in the month.
As I think the hon. Lady will know, in my previous role I fully understood the issues and challenges involved in this. We have received 4,000 responses to the call for evidence, which we are currently looking at. We are also working on the issue with colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I recognise that we need to sort it out.
Tourists, like residents, want to breathe clean air in London, but they also want good public transport as an alternative to driving. When I was Minister for London, my main concern in relation to tourism was for those working in the industry, at the lower-paid end. We need to have a sensible discussion, and we need a Mayor who remains accountable for the results of the consultation that is on the table.
We work closely with the Charity Commission, and of course all donors and charities have to work transparently. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Member for discuss this in detail.
I thank my hon. Friend for those kind words. Foreign investment and ownership have benefited football, from elite to grassroots level, and we must be careful not to exclude good investment from the game. However, it is absolutely right that good custodians be permitted to own football clubs, and that skilled and experienced directors run them. We will publish our White Paper on the reform of football club governance in the coming weeks; it will set out our approach to improving that governance, and the owners and directors test.
The charity Women in Sport recently reported that 1.3 million teenage girls across the UK are dropping out of sport; 50% do not feel good enough to participate. What are the Government doing to smash those stereotypes and ensure that girls keep playing sport, as I did when I was a girl, and get stuck into it?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue. It is worrying that the progress made with women and girls has not gone back to pre-pandemic levels. This issue is a key priority for me; I will be working closely with the Department for Education on it. We are developing the sports strategy, which I hope will address many of the issues that she raised.
I was a teenage anorexic, and it is terrifying how many of our children are affected by anorexia today, so will the Secretary of State meet me to make sure that the Online Safety Bill protects children from content that glorifies all forms of self-harm, including anorexia, and that those measures are implemented swiftly?
I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend. The Bill will ensure that children do not see content that promotes self-harm or glorifies eating disorders. Of course, the Bill will now be strengthened by a provision ensuring that adults will no longer see content promoting self-harm. I will invite the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who has responsibility for victims, to join that meeting, to explain the clauses that we have added.
The Minister quite rightly wore the armband in Qatar. Does he agree that it is completely disgraceful that FIFA stopped Harry Kane and other captains from wearing the armband as a demonstration of solidarity? Will he encourage our Football Association to work with other, like-minded FAs to ensure that FIFA changes its approach to the awarding and running of World cups?
That was one of the reasons why I wore the armband. It was totally unacceptable that both the Welsh and English teams, at the 11th hour, were faced with an impossible decision. I thank those teams for wanting to wear the armband; it means a lot to all of us. I have already spoken to the FA about where we go from here. We cannot, at the end of this tournament, just let the matter come to an end. We need to talk about the future.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement on Cumbria’s gigabit roll-out, and thank her for her visit to Workington yesterday; she was very welcome. Does she agree that the announcement is a game-changer for places such as Workington, and a demonstration of real levelling-up by this Government?
It is indeed a game-changer, and I thank my hon. Friend for all the lobbying that he has done on behalf of his constituents to ensure that Cumbria has better levels of connection. It is testament to his hard work that we have rolled out Building Digital UK’s first regional contract in Cumbria.
Am I allowed to say, “Pinch, punch, first day of the month”? The Government should wake up to this opportunity; there are loads of young people coming out of university with media skills. We could put them in schools, and bring culture back to our school curriculum. Could we have a new programme now?
I met the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who has responsibility for skills, just this week to talk about how we get more creative skills in the economy to fill all the wonderful jobs being created in areas such as the film and television industry. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Christmas Celebrations and Services
The Church of England’s Christmas resources usually reach around 10 million people, and we hope for the same reach for this year’s “Follow the Star” theme, details of which can be found on the A Church Near You website. Crib, Christingle and carol services will take place in most of our 16,000 parishes and 4,500 primary schools to spread the good news of Jesus’s birth.
I was at one of our churches last night, and I was thanked for giving it work to help answer the question. From the census, we know Christianity is now a minority religion. What further action can the Church take to encourage more people to come back over Christmas, on such a joyous occasion?
I thank my hon. Friend for the support he gives to all the faith communities in his constituency. The answer to his question is in the work taking place in his local parishes. I know he will join me in commending, for example, the work of Rev. Jody Stowell at St Michael and All Angels in Harrow Weald, which is offering a warm welcome space and a special service for those who lost loved ones during the pandemic, and of Rev. Matthew Stone at St John the Evangelist in Great Stanmore, which is offering a united advent service with seven churches across the denominations and a Christmas afternoon tea with children from five local schools. That sort of work shows our churches are right at the heart of our communities.
Events such as the recent Christmas fair at St Luke’s, Torquay and the forthcoming Christmas tree festival at Paignton parish church can provide lots of low-cost fun and support for families facing festive budget pressures. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Church of England is giving appropriate effort to highlighting this side of parish life, which often leads to families becoming regular churchgoers?
Again, I commend my hon. Friend for the interest he shows in his local churches. He is absolutely right that these types of church event often attract families and children who then become regular attenders. I thank and commend Father Peter March at St Luke’s, Torquay and Rev. Neil Knox at Paignton parish church for everything they do. It is important that they both know their work is noticed and appreciated.
For the record to be factually correct, we should recognise that Christianity is the largest religious group in the United Kingdom, although it may not be the majority. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that children are taught the value of the Christmas message and the lesson of thanksgiving at the family events to which he refers?
Yes, I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is an important part of our cultural heritage, and the Church will continue to do that work.
Church Investments: Environmental, Social and Governance Leadership
The transition pathway initiative, of which the national investing bodies of the Church of England are co-founders, has supporters representing a combined $50 trillion under management, all committed to making the transition to a low-carbon economy. The Church Commissioners also co-chair the investors policy dialogue with Indonesia on reversing deforestation.
My hon. Friend will, of course, be aware that a report on the UK’s upcoming green taxonomy was published this morning by the all-party parliamentary group on environmental, social and governance, of which he is a valuable vice-chair. I thank him for his support and his endeavours. One of the report’s key recommendations is that the Government should consult widely with stakeholders. What discussions have the Church Commissioners had with the Government, including the Treasury, about the UK’s green taxonomy and its implications for the Church’s ESG policy and investments?
I thank my hon. Friend for his brilliant work of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on environmental, social and governance, which are so important. I am pleased that Olga Hancock, of the Church Commissioners, chairs the policy committee of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association, which is a member of the Government’s green technical advisory group, so I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Church is right at the heart of this important work.
Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
Restoration and Renewal: Use of the River Thames
The restoration and renewal programme is considering a range of innovative methods to support future works on the Palace, including making use of the river access. No decisions have yet been taken, but consideration will be given to minimising impacts on the environment, the local area and those working in and visiting the Palace.
I would never want to pinch or punch the right hon. Gentleman, but may I ask him to wake up to the real opportunity we have of giving the River Thames a renaissance, putting much more traffic on it and bringing it back as the main concourse of London? This is a real opportunity, both for this place and the new holocaust memorial building.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is a formidable campaigner for making use of the river. Along with others on the Sponsor Body, I am putting pressure on that body, and on the new Committee that will be meeting from January, to make full use of the river. Indeed, the delivery authority is already undertaking full feasibility studies on how we can make much more use of the river. So I say to him, “Well done.”
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Political Finance Regulation and Electoral Law
The Speaker’s Committee has not made a recent assessment of the matters raised. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee recently concluded an inquiry on the work of the Electoral Commission. It recognised the complexity of electoral law, recommending that it is rationalised and improved. It also noted a “strong record” of the Electoral Commission’s monitoring, investigation and enforcement work, and made a range of recommendations to support that.
I thank the hon. Lady for that answer. With the ongoing mystery funding of think tanks, the reluctance to regulate online campaigning and the introduction of voter ID, nobody trusts this Tory Government on regulating elections and the franchise. However, I wonder what the commission’s view is of the UK Government’s proposals for a strategy and policy statement?
The commission’s view remains that a strategy and policy statement by which the Government can guide its work is inconsistent with the role of an independent Electoral Commission. It has published its response to the current consultation, highlighting where the draft departs from the existing plans for its work, which have been considered and approved by the UK’s Parliaments. The commission will continue to act in an independent and impartial way to help maintain public confidence in elections across the UK.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her new position. In that role, may I ask her to use the offices of the Speaker’s Commission to push both Ministers and the Electoral Commission on the point about regulation for the forthcoming voter ID requirements in May’s local elections? She will know the concerns of electoral registration officers that they still have not got all the information they require from the Government.
The Electoral Commission has been clear that major changes to electoral law should be made at least six months ahead of those elections, and the legislation has been a bit slow in coming forward. However, the commission is working hard to make sure that electoral administrators get that guidance as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Historic Cathedrals: Maintenance Costs
My hon. Friend continues to be an exemplary advocate for Lichfield cathedral, and I gently encourage other colleagues with cathedrals and major churches in their constituencies to stick up for them in the way that he does. I have spoken at the annual general meeting of the Association of English Cathedrals and I have also asked the Government to respond to the independent review of the sustainability of church buildings, published by Bernard Taylor. This matters for many reasons, not least the £55 billion of social value—calculated using Treasury Green Book guidance—generated by cathedrals and churches in the UK, according to the “House of Good” report by the National Churches Trust.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, particularly for his kind words about me, which were very decent of him. He will know that the chair of the Association of English Cathedrals was the Dean of Lichfield cathedral, Adrian Dorber. Sadly for the community in Lichfield, he is going to retire in March, after 17 and a half years’ service. Not only does he have theological skills, but he has raised millions of pounds, and his organisational and management skills are wonderful—many deans have those, but Adrian particularly does. Does my hon. Friend think that the Church of England could make more use of people when they retire and that they should not just disappear along with all their skills?
I, too, thank Adrian Dorber very much for everything he has done as a highly effective Dean of Lichfield, not just for Lichfield cathedral, but for the city and the wider Church. His chairmanship of the AEC has been outstanding. If he wants to continue to serve the Church after his retirement in March, I am sure that his wisdom will continue to be very much appreciated.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for South Norfolk, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Road Investment Strategy 2
The National Audit Office’s report on road enhancements has recently been published and it is excellent. The Public Accounts Commission itself, in line with its statutory duty, has no plans to examine the report, but many of the NAO’s reports are taken up by the Public Accounts Committee and while, of course, it is a matter for the PAC to determine its own programme, I will draw the interest of my hon. Friend to the Chair of the PAC.
Delays to projects in road investment strategy 2 primarily because of development consent difficulties have meant that fewer road projects have been delivered than planned and at a higher cost. Should the commission study the report, may I urge my hon. Friend to examine the potential negative impact on the next road investment strategy—RIS 3—of future road projects being shelved because of hold-ups and cost pressures in RIS 2?
In its September 2020 delivery plan, National Highways expected that it would spend £5.5 billion in the third road strategy on projects approved since 2020. Since then, this has increased to £11.5 billion largely because of project and planning delays. Taxpayers may well feel scandalised that they are paying more money and getting fewer road enhancements. I know that my hon. Friend has a particular interest in the proposed junction 10a of the A14 east of Kettering and I urge him to consider pressing his case with Ministers as I know he was doing as recently as last week.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Voter ID: Turnout Levels
The Government piloted different models of voter ID at elections in 2018 and 2019. In its independent evaluations, the commission found no evidence that turnout was significantly affected by the models piloted. However, it was unable to draw definitive conclusions, particularly about the likely impact at a national poll with higher levels of turnout.
Things have moved on since then. We now have the detailed proposals from the Government and we can see a number of concerns—in particular, the massive imbalance between the ID available for younger people as opposed to that available for older people. We also know from published correspondence that the commission has warned the Government that the introduction of voter ID will be neither secure nor workable by 2023. In all these circumstances, what more can the Committee and the commission do to ensure that good sense is heard in time and that the Government are not simply allowed to railroad this through?
I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the Committee has heard the points that he has made, but it is for the Government and not the commission to comment on the reasoning behind the inclusion or exclusion of any particular form of ID. The commission has emphasised that voting at polling stations must remain accessible for all voters regardless of age and for voters who do not already have acceptable photo ID.
Voter ID: Young People
The Electoral Commission has not identified young people as a group that is more likely to need additional support to navigate the ID requirements. Its research found that 2% of 18 to 24-year-olds said that they do not have an acceptable photo ID, which is in line with the average for all age groups. In January, the commission will begin public awareness work to ensure that all voters are aware of the ID requirement, and that those without ID know how to apply for the free voter authority certificate.
The regulations listing documents that will be accepted as voter ID were not in the Elections Bill, but, instead, were in secondary legislation. If MPs had had the opportunity to scrutinise that, many of us would have opposed the clear discrimination that sees a far more limited range of acceptable ID for younger voters compared with older voters. Has the Electoral Commission a view on whether such a limited range is appropriate and were its views sought in the process of compiling a final list?
The list of acceptable ID was included in the Elections Bill. There is of course secondary legislation before the House on 12 December and I encourage my hon. Friend to take part in the debate on the Floor of the House. The commission did provide feedback on the Bill’s content, including on the list of accepted ID, but it is for the Government to decide which forms of ID are on that list.
Obviously voter ID is an important topic, but can the commission ensure that nobody loses out and that this will not take a single penny out of the pockets of people who cannot afford to buy ID?
The commission has consistently made the case before the roll-out of voter ID requirements that, should they be rolled out, there should be a free voter authority certificate available via local authorities. The legislation to make provision for that was laid before the House recently and will be debated on the Floor of the House on 12 December.
I am terribly sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has lost his opportunity. Never mind—next time.
Rail Cancellations and Service Levels
(Urgent Question): To ask the Rail Minister if he will make a statement on rail cancellations and services, in particular across the north and nationwide.
I thank the hon. Lady for her urgent question, which gives me the opportunity to set out the Government’s disappointment with the experience of many passengers, not just across the north, but in other parts of the country. We recognise that current performance is not acceptable and is having a significant effect on passengers and the northern economy.
I will focus on two operators to set the scene. The first is TransPennine Express services. TPE services have been impacted by a number of factors, including higher than average sickness levels among train crew, the withdrawal of driver rest day working, which is the option for drivers to work their non-working days as overtime, the withdrawal of conductor rest day working and other overtime working, and strike action on Sundays and some Saturdays since mid-February under a formal RMT union dispute.
TransPennine Express had a formal rest day working agreement with ASLEF that was due to expire in December 2021. The rates of pay under that agreement were 1.75 times the basic pay with a minimum of 10 hours paid, the most generous such agreement in the industry. In December 2021, TPE approached ASLEF seeking to extend the existing agreement. Rest day working forms no part of the terms and conditions, so either side is free to refuse or enter into the agreement when it expires.
On this occasion, local ASLEF officials refused to extend the agreement and sought to negotiate different terms. In the absence of a new agreement, drivers withdrew their rest day working when the existing agreement ended, and further offers have not materialised into an agreement. TPE is undertaking an intensive programme of crew training to eliminate a backlog of pandemic-induced route knowledge loss and delayed traction training, and to prepare the business for timetable changes such as the Manchester recovery taskforce December 2022 change.
Turning briefly to Avanti, the primary cause of recent problems with Avanti train services has been a shortage of fully trained drivers. It is a long-standing practice for train companies to use a degree of overtime to run the timetable, to the mutual benefit of staff and the operators. 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. However, nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service this year between April and December, and Avanti West Coast has begun to restore services, focusing on its key Manchester and Birmingham routes.
I will end by saying that we need train services that are reliable and resilient to modern-day life. While the companies have taken positive steps to get more trains moving, they must do more to deliver certainty of service to their passengers. We will fully hold them to account for things that are within their control, and we look for others to be held to account on matters that are outside of the train operators’ control.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr Speaker for granting this important urgent question. Rail services across the north are once again in meltdown. Today, almost 40 services have been cancelled on TransPennine Express alone—and those are just the published figures, because they were cancelled overnight. People are cut off from jobs and opportunities, investors I spoke to this morning in Manchester are thinking twice about investing in the north, and businesses are unable to recruit because their potential employees simply cannot rely on the train to get to work. The damage that this fiasco is doing is enormous, and in just 11 days, major timetable changes are due to come into force. I do not say it lightly, but if this were happening elsewhere in the country, the Government would have taken far greater action by now. Instead, they have—not just for weeks, but for months and years—forced the north to settle for a sub-standard service and to accept delays, cancellations and overcrowding.
Not only did Ministers allow that, but they actually rewarded the abject failure of the operators. Six years ago, TransPennine Express had exactly the same issues it faces today. Then, as now, it blamed staff shortages and rest day working. It said six years ago that it would recruit drivers and improve resilience, but here we are again, in crisis—and the public are paying the price. Have the Government sanctioned operators or demanded improvement? No. They continue to reward failing operators such as Avanti West Coast by extending their contracts. Yesterday, it was revealed that they signed off a decision for Avanti to hand over £12 million in taxpayers’ cash as dividends to its shareholders.
Enough is enough. We cannot continue like this. It is time for Ministers to take action. Will they put operators on a binding remedial plan to fully restore services or face penalties and withdrawal of the contract? Will they claw back the taxpayers’ money that Ministers have allowed to flow out in dividends? Can the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State is preventing an offer on rest day working between operators and unions? Enough is enough. We cannot continue like this.
I agree with the hon. Lady: we cannot continue like this. That is why we have set in place a series of talks and negotiations aimed at changing working practices so that train operators are not reliant on seeking the approval of workforce to run a seven-day operation. That just does not work for anyone—management, workforce or, indeed, passengers—because the train operators are then required to seek the voluntary assistance of workforce to work on certain days. The hon. Lady says that we cannot carry on like this and that enough is enough, so I hope that she will join me in pushing for reforms.
With regard to Network Rail reforms, a 4% plus 4% offer has been put on the table. That can be self-funded and allow workforce to move to better, more modern working jobs with more interaction with and assistance for passengers, and a better experience for workforce and the passenger. Yet we have been unable to reach an agreement. The hon. Lady refers to timetable changes. Those are vital for us to increase the number of Avanti services again, but if we have industrial action in December, it will be even more challenging to put them in place.
I join the hon. Lady in saying that enough is enough and that we need change. This Government are seeking to implement change, but as Opposition Members will know, that cannot be dealt with unilaterally. It requires the agreement of the unions to modernise and change working practices. That will give train operators the ability to roster on a seven-day working basis and to see training go through on a much swifter basis. We will then have the workforce in place and the resilience. I call on the hon. Lady to not just talk about the fact that we need change, but to work with us and to influence the unions to get that change delivered.
London North Eastern Railway seems to have been less affected than other services. Does that not underline that importance of the campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and me to get the through service from London via Market Rasen to Cleethorpes, so that we can take the pressure off TransPennine Express? Can we get on with the through train, which has been promised again and again? Action this day!
My right hon. Friend makes a great bid that is linked into this matter. I am happy to meet him and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) to discuss that further. He is absolutely right that we see a knock-on effect. Take Northern, for example. It has been less impacted by the matters I have referenced than TPE and Avanti, but the knock-on from those operators—particularly TPE—has caused it to fall in parts as well. He is absolutely right to point out that contagion can pass from one part of the network to another. I will happily meet him.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
Over the past two days, TransPennine Express has managed to run a total of 42% of its timetabled cross-border services from Glasgow Central. That is from a timetable that was already slashed, as TPE struggled to provide even a basic service to passengers. Add to that the Avanti shambles and cross-border services are a disaster. It simply is not good enough, and there are real implications for the cross-border economy.
Two separate industrial disputes involving ScotRail and the Scottish Government have been resolved this year, in contrast to the ongoing disputes across talks that have dragged on for months and are only now involving Government Ministers. The RMT’s general secretary Mick Lynch said yesterday:
“In Scotland and Wales, RMT has settled similar disputes with the support of the governments there but where companies are controlled by the DfT, time is running out.”
Previous Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that disputes were for the talks and Network Rail to resolve, but clearly that stance is no longer fit for purpose. This Government are letting down Scotland and the north of England, and it is now well past time for rail to be fully devolved to Scotland. Will this welcome new and shiny team at the DFT meet me to discuss how we advance that?
This shiny rail Minister will always happily meet the hon. Member. I have always enjoyed working closely with him in our previous roles, so I am happy to discuss matters with him. He talks about the ministerial approach, and I think it should be put on the record. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Transport travelled up to the north to meet the northern mayors to discuss these issues. We want to work collaboratively with all those who can influence change. The Secretary of State’s trip yesterday demonstrates that we do not just talk about it—we actually want to deliver on it, as well. Both the Secretary of State and I have talked of the need to reach some form of agreement. We have not used the language that might have been expected or heard in the past. We want to work closely. We have both met Mick Lynch and his counter at the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. I am due to meet again with Mick Lynch, the trade unions, the train operators and Network Rail, so that will be the employers and the trade unions, with a Minister in the room, not to negotiate, but to try to facilitate some form of end and to allow this change to come through. I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman and all across the piece so that we can make a difference and get this settled.
As someone who travels on the Avanti West Coast service on a weekly basis, I know that delays and cancellations are the norm. Customers are being charged unreasonable prices for a very poor service. Can my hon. Friend confirm that he is meeting Avanti regularly to discuss its performance, as well as giving it six months to roll out a recovery plan and deliver long overdue reliability for passengers?
I am sorry for the experiences that my hon. Friend and her constituents have experienced, and that goes to all Members of this House, too. With regard to Avanti, from December it plans to operate 264 daily train services on weekdays, which is a step up from the 180 daily services at present. That would also be greater than the number prior to the refusal on rest day working, which has triggered this issue over the past six months. Of course, that is all contingent on having that co-operation, which I am keen to seek to get into place. The Office of Rail and Road has looked at the plans and signed them off, and we and officials meet Avanti on a weekly basis to hold it to account. We will continue to do so. As my hon. Friend points out, a shorter-term contract is in place. We need performance improvements to go beyond that stage.
Yesterday, the West Midlands Mayor was late for that meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss the problems on trains because her train was cancelled. You couldn’t make it up. My constituents in south Manchester do not want to hear that the Government are disappointed with the problems; they want to hear that some action is being taken. What can I do to reassure my constituents that the Government will get a grip and get the train services sorted on the Avanti west coast main line and the cross-Pennine routes?
Again, I pass on my disappointment with the experience that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. I want to be clear: we have been going on like this for years because we have a railway that just does not operate on a seven-day basis. We have leisure that has grown to 115% over weekends, and we still cannot roster the workforce. We require an agreement. Can one imagine Tesco operating on that basis? It just would not work. The tragedy when we look at the north is that we have a £96 billion infrastructure investment plan through the integrated rail plan, so we want to invest further in the north. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: if we cannot deliver the daily services right now, there is a danger that people will turn their back on rail. The only way to get long-term performance improvements is to reform the way we work the railways. We are trying to put those reforms in place, but it requires agreement from union and workforce, as well as Government willing.
I completely support the Rail Minister in his comments that something has to change and that we cannot go on as we are. Can he confirm that the pattern of performance and service levels is dramatically better for providers offering open access—in other words, competitive services—compared with some of the more traditional post-franchising ones such as Avanti? It is vital for passengers to have choice on the same track between different providers, so that if one of them is suffering from driver shortages or strikes, the others may be able to pick up the slack or at least provide a service when others fail.
I thank my hon. Friend, a former Minister, who has great expertise in and policy knowledge of this matter. He is absolutely right to champion open access. When we can actually drive competition through the system, one tends to see better outcomes and choice for passengers as a result. Open access, as we have discussed before, has some constraints. He certainly believes there is more that can be done, and I agree with him. We are keen—and I have asked my officials to look further at how we can do this—to provide more access for open access, and I am very happy to discuss that with him further.
The Minister has just said that it is not a seven-day-a-week service, but actually it is not an any-day-of-the-week service currently. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) at the Dispatch Box that almost 40 services have been cancelled on TransPennine Express in just the last 24 hours in the middle of the working week. There is nothing new at all about the driver shortages that have been crippling service provision in the north. Can he be very specific about what the Government are doing to ensure that driver provision is there so that we can unlock the potential of our towns and our cities in the north of England?
I thank the hon. Member, and she is absolutely right. We cannot be in a situation where we are relying on good will; we need to make sure we have enough drivers in the system. The difficulty we have is that a driver contract for train operators is for 35 hours over four days, which leaves us with that block. We have struggled to get enough drivers through the training course due to covid and the restrictions in the cab, which is why there has been catch-up. This has been exacerbated by covid, but I want to move away from a situation in which we have to rely on good will. I want certainty, because that is certainty for the workforce, for the train operators and, most importantly, for the passengers that their train will arrive. However, it does require such an agreement to be in place for us to deliver the specific measures she has asked from me.
Does the Minister agree with me that service levels across the country are just as important? There have been 10 negative stories in the last month about the c2c line, which hard-working commuters from Southend West and Leigh-on-Sea need, including signal failures, overrunning engineering works and rush-hour queues to buy tickets. Would the Secretary of State sit down with me to discuss this level of service, and in particular our long-awaited disabled access at Chalkwell station and the long-awaited contactless ticketing?
I had perhaps better not promise that the Secretary of State will sit down with my hon. Friend because that may be above my pay grade, but I certainly will, and I will certainly ask him if he would like to do so. We are very keen to work with all hon. Members across the House on the specific issues they may have, hers among them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, while this urgent question is on cancellations in the north, we are conscious that there has been a knock-on effect across the country and the network is not performing as we would like it to. One of the issues, and I again recognise that this comes down to the morale of both the management and the workforce, is that there is a contagion effect after strikes. We want a modern railway in which all in the workforce feel they have a future, with their jobs changing as ours all change and evolve, where there is more interaction with passengers and more pride as a result and we therefore see more passengers enjoying the experience. That is the passion I have for what we can do with rail. We just need everybody to work together to deliver it.
First and foremost, the train operators need to recruit and train more staff more quickly, and that would help to alleviate some of the strains we are working under. However, even when trains are working to timetable, travel times between cities and towns in the north of England are unacceptably slow—for instance, one hour and 20 minutes from Newcastle to Middlesbrough, which is 40 miles, and two hours from Newcastle to Carlisle, which is 60 miles. That is unacceptably slow due to antiquated infrastructure. When is something going to be done about this antiquated infrastructure in the north of England, so that we can travel as quickly as anyone anywhere else in the country?
We are about to enter the next five-year control period where we will look at renewal. Where we have assets that have become tired, we will look at replacing them and moving away from some of the older forms of working to, say, digital signalling, which would allow more trains to enter blocks. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that further, as he may have indicated that he would like. He is right that trains are a lot slower in certain parts of the country than others; I experience that in the south-east. It takes two hours to get to London from Bexhill, but the exact same distance in miles to Milton Keynes takes 32 minutes. There are parts of the country that do not get the same deal as others and we need to work even harder for them to make sure that their trains arrive.
If we are talking about service level, Taunton station is an example of what we have got wrong in this country. We spent an enormous of amount of money on redoing the station, but the parking is inadequate; cars queue back to the road to get in; people cannot get in if they are disabled or have heavy bags; and people have to walk 100 yards to get a bus to go anywhere. The service level of our stations is not right, so how on earth can the service level of our trains be right? If the first points of call for people—the ticket offices, the staff who work in the stations and the type of stations we have—are not there, we have a fundamental problem. Can we please look at the way that stations are run in this country?
My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that the entire experience attracts passengers and brings them back. It is about not just the service level, but the station experience. I travelled through Taunton station on Monday on my way to the reopened Okehampton line from Exeter. I am afraid that I did not stop off, so I was not able to experience what he has described, but I am happy to look at that further and discuss it with him. We have a station modernisation fund and the Access for All programme that is delivering more accessibility to passengers, which is vital. I will have a chat with him about it.
As well as being a global icon of the north-east, the Tyne bridge is a critical part of our transport infrastructure. We are all the more reliant on it given the atrocious levels of service on the railways and buses, and given the lack of investment in our northern infrastructure, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail. The much-needed restoration of the Tyne bridge from its current dilapidated state will lead to further disruption to our transport links, which really cannot get any worse. Will the Minister meet me urgently to see what can be done to mitigate the impact on our transport links of restoring our great Tyne bridge to its full glory in time for its 100th birthday?
As I said, I am keen to meet as many hon. Members as require it—no doubt my officials will be tearing their hair out—and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. We certainly know that, because our railways were built by our pioneering Victorians, much of the infrastructure needs renewal, some of which can be particularly complex and expensive to deliver. Ownership can have an impact on that as well. I am keen to meet her to find out more and see what we can do.
My hon. Friend might have seen the picture of me sitting on the floor of an Avanti train that was picked up by the media. Avanti’s response was mealy mouthed and gave every excuse under the sun—unions, working practices, leaves on the line, engineering works—but there is no excuse for bad management. As well as inefficient services, the services do not run on time and the ticketing is shoddy. If someone gets on a train, they cannot have a cup of coffee because the machines do not work, and there is overcharging. Everything to do with the Avanti rail service is appalling and I urge the Government to look at it in the round, not just at the reasons it gives for not running an efficient service.
I assure my hon. Friend that I do not just take the assurances that, “This is very difficult for us for all these third-party reasons.” We look at what every part of the system can deliver, including the management and those responsible for the contract. I have also heard other experiences, not least of Mr Speaker on his Avanti services, that show that things are absolutely not good enough for passengers.
We need to get Avanti to do better and we need to help it to do better as well. Where matters are within its control, I assure my hon. Friend that we will hold it to account through the Office of Rail and Road and the regular meetings that I have. Where matters are not within its control, we require it to do even more to mitigate them. I am keen that we see an improvement to the tone that is given out, the customer service and the updates.
The other day, I read with amazement an article in The Guardian which said, with regard to cancellations on the TransPennine Express, that between the middle of October and the middle of November, the reported figures were between 5% and 12% a week, but actual cancellations were over 20% each week. The difference is that train operators do not count as a cancellation a train that is cancelled before 10 pm the night before. When train operators are penalised under their contracts for non-performance, are the cancellation figures used those that the train operators report, or those that passengers experience?
I will write to the hon. Gentleman and specify how those figures are calculated. I will also give him up-to-date figures from the methodology that we calculate. I am confident that those figures recognise the same experience that passengers have suffered and he has described, but I will write to him and set that out in full.
The Minister comes to his position having been a very successful and, I think, very thoughtful Chair of the Transport Committee. He will know that there is a balance of blame—it is not just the trade unions, but also the operating companies. He will also know that lines such as London Northwestern had problems two years ago with a shortage of drivers, but it now seems to be working well. How long does he think it will take Avanti to get the number of drivers required for us to get a reliable service?
My hon. Friend is very kind. I have always enjoyed working with him, and I know he has a great passion for rail projects within his constituency, as we discussed last night. Avanti’s plan is to bring on 100 new drivers, and to change the timetable on 11 December so that those drivers can add more services. The concern is that that takes place at the same time as industrial action is scheduled, over the month of December and into January. Given all the hard work from the drivers and those training them, and from the management to try to get those services in place, it will be difficult if we see all that undermined by wider industrial action. The plan is for 11 December, but if we cannot get the strikes called off, my concern is about our ability to roll that out.
I accept the sincerity of the Minister, but “disappointment” from the Government frankly does not cut it. These issues have long been known for at least the past six years or more. They are not new or particular to Avanti and the TransPennine Express, which are just manifestations of the problem right now. Last month we had more than 4,000 cancelled services, on top of 17,800 fewer services that had been pulled from the timetable. Why are Ministers not demanding a binding remedial plan urgently to restore the services that are desperately needed in communities, not just in the north of England but all over the country?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. For too long we have worked in a manner that does not allow us to plan ahead and give certainty to the passenger or the workforce. TransPennine Express had too much reliance on the rest-day agreement. It seemed to operate because it was at 1.75 wage, which is the highest. Two other train operators operate at 1.5, and the others are much lower or have just normal rates. That was a high rate, and we could not get ASLEF to continue to operate it, which exacerbated the issue. There is too much reliance on rest-day working. When it operates, it works well, because train operators do not have as many drivers in place, but the train drivers earn overtime from that. When industrial action comes in, that breaks down. We want to move, and our modernisation plans and reforms, which we are trying to get an agreement to put in place, would deliver a seven-day railway where we are not reliant on rest-day working. That is the kind of certainty we want brought in, and that is the only way we will ever be able to avoid such issues in the years to come.
It will not have escaped the Minister’s attention that a number of MPs from Greater Manchester are in their places. The west coast main line is essential to our local economy, so we need three services to London an hour, but as far as I can tell, the schedule is currently designed using a tombola. I am convinced that the Minister is serious about getting modernisation in the way in which Avanti runs the service, but should there be no significant improvement at the end of the six-month period, will he outline the steps he will take to ensure that we have a functioning service? Greater Manchester cannot afford what is going on at the moment.
Our plan, as signed off by the Office of Rail and Road, was always to see Avanti deliver the extra 100 drivers, change the timetable and then bring services back. As I specified, that would have seen us operating more services than had been the case before the end of June, when arrangements saw drivers not taking up rest-day working. At the moment, we are contingent on the drivers to ensure that that new timetable is put in place. However, it is a two-way process—we cannot unilaterally force it, because we do not have the ability.
On my hon. Friend’s question about the contract, it was renewed for six months, but we will not wait until the end of those six months—we will need to see improvements in place at the beginning of the year to make that decision. I make the point again that where matters are in the control of Avanti to deliver, we hold it to account. Where matters are outside of its control and in the control of the unions, we must take that into account as well.
The parent company of TransPennine Express is FirstGroup and Avanti West Coast is a joint venture with 70% ownership by FirstGroup. Does the Minister see the link? Gross mismanagement by FirstGroup is causing utter chaos in my constituency and damaging the economy of Stockport and the wider north-west region.
I am aware of that. I am also aware that the lead negotiator for the train operators is the chief executive of FirstGroup and that those two entities have had those specific issues targeted against them while other train operators perhaps have not. Again, my tone and my message is to try to bring all parties together so that we can improve the service for our passengers and give them more confidence. If we are not careful—this applies to everybody involved in rail, including me—people will give up on rail, and that will cause us even greater challenges in funding the timetable that we have. It is in the interests of management, shareholders—they continue to benefit if revenues grow—and absolutely the workforce and the passengers that we turn this around. We will do that only by working together.
My constituents are fortunate to rely on both Northern and Avanti—it feels like they have won a ghastly lottery. Yesterday, I got an email from Steve, a constituent based in Ulverston, who travels from Kirkby to Whitehaven to work in Sellafield. He says that the trains are late and cancelled, that there are horrendous bus replacements and that, on return, there are direct trains that miss out the smaller stops. It is an unviable service. The service on Avanti is abysmal, but those who rely on smaller operators are also seeing a really bad service. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend confirm that he will do everything in his power to restore trains to a level of service that our constituents all deserve and expect?
My hon. Friend is right. Of course, Northern is in the control of the operator of last resort, which is what would occur in the event that we took away a contract from one of the private train operators. Perhaps his point on Northern demonstrates that we can talk of stripping contracts away, but ultimately how the entire system operates needs to change; just changing the contracts does not change the passenger experience for the better. I am sorry to hear of his constituent Steve’s experiences. Such experiences have been relayed to me by many colleagues on the Government side who have just had enough. With Northern, we see that, while it has a 6% cancellation rate, the knock-on from TPE is causing many of its challenges. That is another example of how one part of the system can knock over another part.
Another month, another urgent question to discuss how companies such as Avanti are taking not only our constituents, but all of us, for mugs. As I have mentioned to the Minister before, we keep on getting claims of progress and improvement, but we continue to reward failure. Just last week, the last direct train from Manchester to Euston was at 2.15 pm. The Beveridge report was released 80 years ago, and one of the five giant evils it identified was idleness; we are certainly seeing that with Avanti, and I would argue we saw it from the Government prior to this mess as well. When will the Department stop idling and sort out this mess?
The Department is certainly not idling: our officials work incredibly hard, and we hold train operators to account to ensure they do everything they can. As I mentioned, the Secretary of State was up in Leeds yesterday meeting the Mayors of Manchester, Leeds, and the other great northern cities. We are focused on not just putting the reforms in place, but seeking the agreement of all those who we require to do their part to ensure we get agreement—as I have said, it is not a unilateral process, but one that requires parties to come together. Tomorrow, I will be sitting down with the employers, trade union representatives and Network Rail to see what more we can do. There is certainly no idleness on our part.
I put on record the usually good service that we receive from Southeastern workers. However, rail use is still not where it needs to be, and there is no doubt that days—indeed, now months —of strike action are affecting rail use and confidence in the railways. Can my hon. Friend confirm that he and his ministerial colleagues are doing everything they can to urge the unions to get around the table, end these strikes, and stop damaging confidence in all our railways?
I thank my hon. Friend. I know she is a passionate advocate for transport in Dover as a whole; I am a fellow Southeastern user, so I experience some of what she has talked to.
I am particularly concerned about the month of December and the impact it will have on the economy. A series of strikes will cover a four-week period over Christmas. Not just the strikes but the unofficial action can have the exact same ramifications. As someone who is passionate about rail, and always has been—as someone who believes that rail has a great future, and who sees the investment that this Government are putting into rail, not least in the north—my concern is that we will never really harness all those improvements if we cannot change the current working practices. I urge everybody to think about what more they can do in the spirit of compromise. It is Christmas; I would urge settlement.
I thank the Minister for his very concrete and helpful answers, as we would expect of him. As we approach the festive season, thousands of people—some of them my constituents—will be travelling from all over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, visiting their loved ones and friends this Christmas. The announcement of further rail strikes has stoked fear of disruption for so many, and has introduced uncertainty in their travel arrangements. What immediate steps are being taken to find a solution and ensure the smooth running of public transport as we come into the busiest weeks of the year, so that my constituents will know that they can travel and get where they are going on time?
What the hon. Gentleman has described is a huge concern. Last December, there was uncertainty about the ability to travel; we thought we had moved beyond that. As that uncertainty related to health, one could say that it was beyond control, but this action is within control: it is still possible for the unions to take the strike action down so that people can get to see their loved ones across the country, and so that businesses can reopen and recover after the terrible time they have had. For many companies, December is make-or-break time: if they do not get a December in, they may not see January. We all have to think about this in an altruistic manner and see what more we can do. We will certainly do so on our side of the fence; we need the trade unions—they, ultimately, can call off the strikes or action them—to take those strikes down.
The number of daily services from Carlisle and Penrith to Euston that my constituents use is significantly reduced from previous levels, and the services that are running are timetabled at a much longer length than they used to be. Despite that, the percentage of services that are running on time hardly hits double figures. It is not the fault of my fare-paying constituents that Avanti has chosen short-term cost savings over driver training. Why are we delaying the inevitable, and when will we strip Avanti of the contract?
Again, I am sorry for the experiences that my hon. Friend and his constituents have had to endure. It takes about 18 months to fully train a driver. A lot of hon. Members will find that extraordinary, but I sat in a cab on Monday and I saw that it is a technical and difficult job. However, there may be more improvements that we can make. During covid, there was a hold-up in what would have been the usual 18-month period, because it was not possible for the unions to have workforce next to workforce for health and safety reasons. However, I again make the point that we should not rely on rest-day working arrangements. We should have driver resilience in place so that we can fully run a seven-day train operation. That requires not only us to implement change, but the workforce, through the unions, to accept that change. I very much hope that they will and that all hon. Members will do everything they can to persuade them and make that case.
My hon. Friend is right to point out the myriad issues that the railways face. Chiltern Railways serves a great many of my constituents, and delays, the use of shorter trains than expected and cancellations have crept in, when we never really saw that with Chiltern before. The difference seems to be Network Rail’s ability to allow flexibility in the timetabling for Chiltern to run additional services or move its rolling stock around. What can we do, with Network Rail, to get greater flexibility to allow Chiltern to serve its consumers much better?
I know my hon. Friend’s line well, because he represents my mum and my family. He is right that we need to ask not only the workforce, but Network Rail to modernise. For example, is it still the case that engineering works should take place at weekends, when we have seen the greatest growth at weekends and use has perhaps dropped off on other days of the week? I am not saying that we will change things in that way, but we will look at ensuring that we have the best possible case in relation to when Network Rail intervenes on the asset and takes it over. I absolutely give him that assurance. I am sure that, as a member of the Transport Committee, he can give me much more guidance on how I should do that.
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s work to facilitate the negotiations and encourage unions and rail providers to get to a deal that solves these issues. A month ago, however, the TUC paid fully for members of the shadow Cabinet to go to Madrid to get hints and tips from the Spanish unions on how to use hard-working union members to fulfil Labour’s objectives to fully disrupt the railway. [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on Labour to get off the picket line and condemn the official and unofficial strike action that we are seeing?
My hon. Friend is another esteemed member of the Transport Committee and I thank him for what he does. I heard some responses from Opposition Members. Perhaps I can set the tone on this: I will work collaboratively with the trade unions, and I recognise that they have a role to play in representing their members, and that they can influence change, because they can deliver it. I want to do that and have always done that with the trade union leaders with whom I have worked. They have that pledge from me.
I will meet Mick Lynch tomorrow and I very much hope that we can have a good conversation. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. When push comes to shove, the train operators, Network Rail and the Government are not putting the strikes on; the trade unions are. They have the choice as to whether we go ahead with a really damaging December for the railway and the economy, or whether we lift that gloom and have a good, positive Christmas. It is in their hands and I very much hope that they take the opportunity to take down the strikes.
This is not just about Avanti and Northern Rail. Commuters coming from Carshalton, Wallington, Hackbridge and Carshalton Beeches stations are also struggling because of morning commuter changes made by Govia Thameslink Railway. Will the Minister agree to another meeting with me and colleagues representing constituencies served by Southern and Thameslink to ensure that that issue can be tackled?
I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. He talked about other colleagues in the GTR network and that includes me, because that is an operator in my constituency. We recognise that improvements are needed from GTR, and officials are working with GTR in that regard. That is important; I recognise that although this urgent question is about cancellations to the north, we should be talking about service improvements that need to be made to the entire network.
I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question for almost 45 minutes.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
If it relates to the preceding business, I will take it.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I thank those hon. Members who pointed out the slip of the tongue in my question to the Minister. Apparently, I said that the West Midlands Mayor was late for a meeting with the Secretary of State; I meant, of course, the West Yorkshire Mayor. I would not want to impugn Andy Street’s timekeeping, so I am grateful for the opportunity to correct the record. I am not criticising Tracy Brabin’s timekeeping either: the fault, as usual, lies with TransPennine Express.
Thank you very much. That is now on the record.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for the week commencing 5 December will include:
Monday 5 December—Remaining stages of the Online Safety Bill (day 2), followed by consideration of a motion for recommittal.
Tuesday 6 December—Opposition day (9th allotted day): a debate in the name of the official Opposition on a subject to be announced.
Wednesday 7 December—Remaining stages of the Financial Services and Markets Bill.
Thursday 8 December—General debate on the 12th report of the Health and Social Care Committee, on cancer services, and the Government’s response, followed by a general debate on the future of BBC radio. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee, with the first debate having been recommended by the Liaison Committee.
Friday 9 December—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 12 December will include:
Monday 12 December—Remaining stages of the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Voter Identification Regulations 2022, followed by a motion relating to the first and third reports of the Committee on Standards, on a new code of conduct and a guide to the rules.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. I am pleased to hear that the Standards Committee’s recommendations to strengthen the code of conduct for MPs will come back to the House a week on Monday. I thank her for that, because I have been calling for it for months. I will study the motion carefully when it is published.
Perhaps the right hon. Lady can channel this apparent new-found momentum on standards in public life in the direction of the Prime Minister, who has still not appointed an ethics adviser. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) said yesterday,
“the Prime Minister…promised to appoint an independent ethics adviser as one of his first acts”.—[Official Report, 30 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 903.]
We are still waiting. The Prime Minister says, “Soon.” The Leader of the House says, “Soon.” What does “soon” actually mean? Can we have a timeframe for how “soon” an ethics adviser will be in place? Could we have that timeframe soon?
It seems that my plea last week for Departments to send Ministers who can actually provide answers to urgent questions went unheard. As well as being unable to define “soon”, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who answered my right hon. Friend yesterday, could not say how many candidates have already turned down the ethics adviser role. There are rumours that it is as many as seven. Is it any wonder, when the last two postholders resigned in despair? An independent ethics adviser is only as strong as the powers that they have. Labour’s independent integrity and ethics commission will stamp out Tory sleaze and scandal, and restore trust in politics. Will the so-called independent ethics adviser, whenever they are appointed, have the power to launch their own investigations?
Ministers are meant to give reasonable notice, and actual copies, of ministerial statements to the Chair and to us. I am afraid to say that again this week—at least twice, to my knowledge—that has not happened. It is unacceptable. It is our job to hold the Government to account and they must give us the opportunity to do so properly. Their disregard for this House cannot continue. Will the Leader of the House please make that point to her Cabinet colleagues?
Last week, the Leader of the House completely failed to address my concerns about the Government’s chaotic handling of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and the Online Safety Bill. She said that she would
“make an announcement…in the usual way.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 451.]
But there is nothing usual about this Government’s handling of their flagship legislation. I notice that today she did not announce the return of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. Dare I ask whether it will be coming back before Christmas—or will it also be “soon”?
The Online Safety Bill is another example. Never mind coming back “soon” with this one—the Tories are taking us back in time. By recommitting—sending back to Committee—a part of the Bill that we had already agreed, they are undoing the decisions of this House. While child sexual abuse and scams online skyrocket, along with content promoting self-harm and suicide, the Government are dragging their feet. Attempting to remove the crucial section that deals with legal but harmful content gives a green light to abusers, and takes away the framework that could deal with forms of harm that we do not yet know about. Why are the Government trying to do this? Last week the Leader of the House said that the Bill would
“be making progress through the House.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 451.]
Can she really look campaigners in the eye and say that the Government are not trying to kick the Bill into the long grass, perhaps in an attempt to prevent it from becoming law?
However, this is not just about legislation. Public strategies are a mess. There is confusion over whether the Government’s plans to deal with health inequality, tobacco and obesity have been shelved. The gambling reform White Paper is up in the air, despite high levels of problem gambling, and related mental health effects and suicides. May we have ministerial statements on these important matters, so that Ministers can clarify what on earth the Government are up to?
Reports unpublished, consultations unanswered—Whitehall must have an enormous sofa, given how much the Government are losing down the back of it. They have still not responded to the consultation on flexible working after more than a year, and meanwhile there are 100,000 fewer women in employment than before the covid-19 pandemic. Labour has a plan to help those women who want to return to work but are being held back: our new deal for working people will make the right to flexible working the default from day one. What is the Government’s plan? When will they be bothered even to respond? “Soon”, presumably.
There is a pattern here. With the Tories, psychodrama and grubby backroom deals come before legislation to protect children online. With the Tories, handouts to oil and gas giants come before public health. With the Tories, we have a weak Prime Minister whose poor judgment puts party before country. A Government who are unable to govern should make way for one who can: a Labour Government cannot come “soon” enough.
Let me first put on record my praise for, and pride in the performance of, Wales and England. I know that many Members have already paid tribute to their performance to date in the World Cup.
I note that later today we will have a Backbench Business Committee debate on World Aids Day, and I am proud of the fact that the UK is one of the largest donors to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I pay tribute to all the healthcare professionals who have done so much in recent years to reduce infections, as well as the organisations with which they work—in particular, the Terrence Higgins Trust, the National AIDS Trust and the Elton John Aids Foundation.
The hon. Lady mentioned the debate on standards that will take place on Monday week. As well as supporting the bulk of the Standards Committee’s recommendations, the Government will take further action, which I hope the House will also welcome. We will publish the motion—soon? [Laughter.] Very swiftly.
The hon. Lady referred to urgent questions. We have just been given an excellent example of responses to urgent questions by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who was more than capable of answering the supplementary questions and whose approach to such challenges will, I think, have given Members a great deal of confidence.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Government’s record of supporting women, in particular, in the workplace. I am very proud of our record of getting 2 million more women into work since 2010, by means of a raft of measures, but there is more that we wish to do.
As I said in my statement, the Online Safety Bill will be returning to the House. This is a vital and world-leading piece of legislation. It focuses particularly on protecting children and stamping out illegal activity online, which are top priorities for the Government. It is groundbreaking legislation, and it delivers on our manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world in which to be online. We are tabling a recommittal motion, and the recommitted measures will come back to the whole House for a second Report stage. That will take place swiftly, allowing proper scrutiny. This is an established parliamentary procedure—it has been used before—and it will ensure that the Bill can be strengthened while also ensuring that Members have the opportunity to take part in a full debate on the changes to the Bill.
All other business will be announced in the usual way—soon—and I can tell the hon. Lady that that means 8 December.
I have made a series of freedom of information requests about the Government’s possession and use of Hikvision cameras, which security advisers have declared to be a security risk. I made an FOI request of every Department, and then requested a revision of any decision to refuse to answer. All bar three Departments answered by invoking section 24 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which protects information on grounds of security; that is, Departments said that it would put national security at risk to let me know whether they had any such cameras, how many they had, and what they were doing about them. However, that cannot be the case when three Departments—the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Wales Office—answered completely openly, and talked of getting rid of the cameras.
How can the issue not be a security risk for three Departments, but be a security risk for the rest of them? Surely Departments are hiding behind section 24 because they are embarrassed about having an awful lot of Hikvision cameras. Will the Leader of the House remind No. 10 and the Cabinet Office that they have an obligation to answer genuine questions, and to declare the number of such cameras that they have? As a result of those cameras, all of us are at risk when we enter those Departments.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this important matter. I know that he thinks deeply about such issues. Whatever the security policies of those Departments, I can see no reason why he, a Privy Counsellor, should not be briefed by the Departments on Privy Council terms. I will write on his behalf to the Cabinet Office to ask that that happens.
The Leader of the House does not seem to like answering any of my constitutional questions directly. Right enough, they are a bit tricky for her Government, but God loves a trier, so let us see if she can answer this. In the Scottish Affairs Committee this week, the Secretary of State for Scotland revealed that the head of the UK civil service is looking into whether officials in Scotland will be allowed to do work related to our next independence referendum, following the Supreme Court’s ruling last week. The notion that it is unlawful for the Scottish Government to pursue independence as a policy goal has been dismissed by legal academics, including former Tory MSP Professor Adam Tomkins. Aileen McHarg, professor of public law and human rights at Durham University, described it as a “ludicrous position”. There seems to be a new measure of Scottish independence support as well: the duck test. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing distinguished constitutional academics’ views on that.
The Supreme Court’s decision has exposed the undemocratic lack of a legal mechanism by which the Scottish Parliament can hold an independence referendum. Surely the UK Government’s attention should be on addressing that, not on inhibiting the work of the civil service. I received a muddled response from Scotland Office Ministers. The first said that money allocated to Scotland by the UK Treasury came with “no strings attached”; then another stepped in to say that this was a matter for the civil service, and that we would need to see “how this plays out”. Can the Leader of the House offer any clarity? Perhaps there could be a statement on duck tests to establish exactly who decides whether support for Scottish independence passes the appropriate avian measurements.
Lastly, why will the Chancellor not follow the lead of the Scottish Government and introduce a UK equivalent of the Scottish child payment? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation described the increase to £25 a week per eligible child as a “watershed moment”. It also found that if the payment were extended to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a further 5.3 million children would be eligible for that crucial support. As we approach a very difficult winter, perhaps Labour will join the SNP in urging Ministers to hold a debate or make a statement on what more the Government will do to tackle this shameful poverty. The UK Government have far more tools at their disposal than the devolved Governments, and it is high time that they showed the same political will as them.