House of Commons
Thursday 26 January 2023
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we start today’s business, I want to note that tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. I know the whole House will agree with me about the importance of remembering the 6 million Jewish people murdered during the holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed as a result of Nazi persecution, as well at those killed in more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. I know also that colleagues will want to join me in thanking the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for the important work it does. This important event will be marked by a talk from survivors of the holocaust and of genocides in Darfur and Bosnia in Speaker’s House at 1 pm today, and a ceremony in Portcullis House Atrium at 4.15 pm, at which you are all welcome.
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Broadband Coverage: Rural Areas
I wish to echo your words about the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s important work, Mr Speaker.
We are investing £5 billion through Project Gigabit to deliver lightning-fast broadband to hard-to-reach areas across our country. Last week, we announced that thousands of people living in rural Cornwall will benefit from a £36 million contract. We have now awarded six such contracts, covering up to 681,000 premises. More procurements are in the pipeline and we have also upped our voucher scheme so that more premises can benefit.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Obviously, I am delighted that last week we secured nearly £19 million from the levelling-up fund for Shrewsbury town centre, but we will never really have levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom unless rural parts of our constituencies have broadband coverage commensurate with metropolitan areas in coverage and speed. What is she doing specifically to make sure that improvements are made in the county of Shropshire?
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the importance of digital connectivity to the whole levelling-up agenda, which is why we are prioritising our procurement to some of the really tough-to-reach parts of the country that have been poorly served by broadband previously. I know that he has been campaigning hard on these issues since 2015. He has good superfast coverage now in his constituency, but I appreciate that gigabit is not where it should be in his county. I am pleased to say that our Mid West Shropshire procurement is going to be awarded in April to June this year, and I hope that his constituents will benefit from that.
The roll-out of rural broadband has made great progress in the past three years. Will my hon. Friend outline when the new framework and guidance for fibre community partnerships and the gigabit roll-out will be available, so that the roll-out can continue at pace across North Devon?
I thank my hon. Friend, because the progress has been substantial and she has been a key part of that by making sure that political pressure is maintained to get this kind of connectivity to places such as her constituency. On the fibre community partnerships, Openreach temporarily paused the registration while the supplier worked through the current requests. We have been working closely with Openreach to assist its review of that scheme. We hope it will be reopening it as soon as possible, but she will be pleased to hear that we are also on track to launch the Devon and Somerset procurements in April. Again, I hope that her constituents will stand to benefit from that.
I recently met people from CityFibre in my constituency to celebrate the roll-out of full fibre in Inverness. CityFibre is now moving into the rural areas, and it has taken the full fibre coverage from 0.8% to 60%. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that companies such as CityFibre, working in partnership with local councils and others, can continue to operate in this market as there is this competition, and that they have the ability to operate in and expand into rural areas?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention and question. CityFibre been fundamental in driving stiff competition in this area, which has really accelerated the roll-out. We thank CityFibre and other altnets and providers for all the work they are doing. We absolutely prioritise having a competitive framework, because we think it has been so crucial to making sure that areas such as his are covered.
As has been said, if levelling up is to mean anything, it would mean it in broadband. Often, what is needed is just a green cabinet and small amounts of money for rural areas. What confidence can people have that the Government will act in this Parliament? Other countries with a much worse topography have seen their rural areas get broadband years ago. What confidence can people have that the UK is going to act in the next two years—in this Parliament?
I am always grateful to hear from the hon. Gentleman. I know that his constituency is a very rural one with an island population, which creates particular challenges. Much of the broadband roll-out is being driven by the Scottish Government. Their R100 programme has had some problems, and I have spoken to Ivan McKee about how we can assist with those. We are keeping a very close eye on the matter, because we want to make sure that every part of our country is covered by this connectivity and is not disadvantaged by some of the local ways in which the projects are being managed.
The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme is not working as intended in the smaller rural villages of Tatton. The community groups have found that the scope of the local authority contract includes commercially viable areas, but excludes the remote areas. I thank the Minister for being very helpful, but, ironically, the more work that we did, the more we exposed the weaknesses. Will she meet me, representatives of Lower Peover and Building Digital UK to solve the issue?
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that she has done to make sure that Cheshire is connected. I have looked at the issues of Lower Peover. In particular, she highlights challenges with the voucher scheme. I want to assure her that we have upped the amount that can be claimed to £1,500 per premises. I am always happy to meet hon. Members on these issues, but I also hold BDUK surgeries regularly, so please book in for those, but, of course, I will meet her personally to discuss this.
I thank the Minister for her answers and for the help that the central Government at Westminster give to Northern Ireland for rural broadband. One issue is banking, online shopping and postal services. Has the Minister had the opportunity to assess how, in relation to rural broadband, these things impact on banking services in rural areas? We are moving forward to new technology and new times. We need help.
The hon. Gentleman highlights just how important good connectivity is to accessing all the services that are going online. One great thing about Northern Ireland is some of the progress that it has made on gigabit connectivity from its contract with Fibrus, and we thank Fibrus for all that it has done. I am happy to look into any of the issues that he raises, but, as I have said, he highlights very well just why it is so important that people do have that connectivity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish to begin by echoing your words about Holocaust Memorial Day.
From April, families across the country will face a 14% rise to their broadband bills, but, even before that increase, there were already more than 1 million households struggling to pay for the internet. Expanding gigabit coverage is vital, but it is pointless if families cannot afford a broadband package. How will the Department work with Ofcom to examine the impact of mid-contract price increases and wholesale prices rising by inflation?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is right to highlight the cost of living challenges that are affecting so many households. We have worked hard on this. It is important that we have a stable regulatory framework that allows companies to invest, but we have hitherto had some of the most competitive telecoms prices in Europe and consumers have benefited from that. In relation to those who are really struggling with their bills, we have done a lot of work with telecoms providers on social tariffs. Unfortunately, the uptake of those tariffs is not where it should be, so I ask every Member of this House to help us raise awareness, because their constituents can get deals from as little as £10 a month. Trying to get them that connectivity is so important to people’s job chances, life chances and so on.
Ownership Structure of Football Clubs
The Government do not assess the ownership arrangements with individual clubs. However, the Government response to the recommendations made in the independent Fan-Led Review of Football Governance sets out our view that tests of new owners and directors are needed to ensure the future sustainability of football clubs and the stability of the game in total.
Thousands of West Bromwich Albion fans are deeply concerned about the actions of the club’s ownership. The owner took a £5 million loan from the club to fund his other business—money that is yet to be repaid. The club has now taken a high-interest loan of £20 million to fund day-to-day business secured against the club’s name and stadium. Will my right hon. Friend bring forward the Government’s response to the Fan-Led Review and introduce a regulator to give fans the power to stop owners abusing the club’s assets in this way and to penalise owners whose business decisions are not in the best interests of the football club?
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on her recent wedding and praise her for the work she has been doing in this area in support of her local football club, working closely with fans’ groups such as Action4Albion and Shareholders for Albion. We will set out our plans for reform in the White Paper, which will be published in the next few weeks and will include strong action on owners and directors to ensure that they are suitable custodians for clubs and to avoid harm to fans and local communities such as she has described.
Sustainable ownership in the long term can only be achieved if we sort out football finance. There are negotiations going on at the moment between the English Football League and the Premier League around the issue of parachute payments, which create a financial imbalance, particularly in the championship. There are 14 clubs in the premier league that will not move on the issue of parachute payments, because they are the most likely to fall into the championship. Are the Government going to act on that, or will it take a Labour Government to do it?
We have had extensive engagement with both the EFL and the Premier League, encouraging them to get on with the negotiations. Sometimes they have progressed and sometimes they have stalled, but I am pleased to say that they have been progressing somewhat more rapidly in recent weeks—I think the prospect of the coming White Paper may have encouraged that—and we hope they will come up with a solution that will bring financial stability to the whole of the pyramid.
Broadband Speeds: Urban Areas
We have made it as attractive as possible to deploy gigabit broadband in the UK by busting barriers and requiring Ofcom to promote competition and investment. There are now more than 80 providers investing nearly £35 billion rolling out gigabit broadband, and coverage has risen to 73% from 6% in early 2019. The vast majority of urban areas will be connected commercially, at no extra cost to the taxpayer, by 2025.
As we have already heard today, the spread of broadband into rural areas is going ahead at pace, but there are pockets in urban areas—I think particularly of Westminster and the centre of Birmingham —where Openreach is using very old copper twisted-pair technology, which has been around for more than 100 years and cannot develop the speed. It is up to firms such as G.Network, Hyperoptic, Virgin Media and City Broadband to provide that service, but they do not always provide a telephone service. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage Openreach to upgrade its technology and infrastructure in urban areas?
London and the west midlands are among the best-connected regions in the country: coverage in London is at 83% and in Birmingham it is even higher at 93%. However, as my hon. Friend points out, there is still more to do. This month we have brought into force new laws that make it easier for telecom companies to get faster broadband into 9 million flats where people are living, and the vast majority of premises in urban areas will be connected by 2025, whether by Openreach or another provider, at no cost to the taxpayer.
Grassroots Music Venues: Government Support
The Government are committed to supporting our grassroots music venues, the lifeblood of our world-leading music sector. Arts Council England has extended its Supporting Grassroots Live Music fund until 31 March 2023. During the pandemic, venues benefited from the cultural recovery fund; we are also supporting venues through the energy bills support scheme and will continue to do so through the energy bills discount scheme until spring 2024.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. With Independent Venue Week coming up next week, I pay particular tribute to Big Jeff, the best ambassador for grassroots music venues anyone could ever want, who is finally getting back out on the gig circuit after his terrible accident last year—thank you for indulging me on that, Mr Speaker. The sector is on a knife edge, sustained by a 0.2% profit margin. As I understand it —although the Minister may want to correct me, considering the answer he has just given—it is not included in the support for energy bills from 1 April. Will the Minister, if he does not have good news for me today, take that up with the Treasury as a matter of urgency, because it could be energy bills that finally push many independent music venues over the edge?
I thank the hon. Lady and congratulate Big Jeff on all the work that he is obviously doing in the sector. We will certainly reflect on that. I think that the new energy scheme strikes the balance between supporting businesses over the next 12 months and limiting taxpayers’ exposure to volatile energy markets, and there is a cap based on estimated volumes. It is really important that we support music venues, hospitality and wider community venues to the benefit of our community and the amazing creative sector.
Accessibility of Cultural Attractions
My Department is committed to broadening the accessibility of our cultural heritage sites across the country. Arts Council England recently announced the 2023-26 national portfolio, which will significantly improve access to arts and culture. DCMS also works closely with David Stanley, the disability and access ambassador for arts and culture, to improve accessibility to the sector for those with disabilities.
In recent months, projects in Blyth Valley have received upwards of £700,000 of funding from my right hon. Friend’s Department, including the refurbishment of the grade I listed Seaton Delaval Hall, Headway Arts in Blyth, and the replica of the Williams II sailing ship that discovered Antarctica in 1820—there is so much to see. On that point, I offer my right hon. Friend the opportunity to experience those projects at first hand, meet the people involved, and sample the excellent fish and chips on the north-east coastline.
Heritage and culture play a vital role in many of our communities, including in the Blyth valley, showing that they are great places to live, work and visit. I am delighted that the Department and our outside bodies are funding projects there, including the £96,000 for Headway Arts. That is just what we want to see. Of course, I would be more than happy to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. As I represent the home of the original Harry Ramsden’s, I would be interested to compare them with good old Yorkshire fish and chips.
I am incredibly proud of the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford and the outreach work that it does in the wards of Stoke and Westborough, which have some of the highest rates of deprivation and the lowest health outcomes in Surrey. It does all that work outside the national portfolio organisation framework, with little support from the local authority. To truly level up accessibility to the arts for my constituents, what can the Department do to encourage local authorities to recognise and support arts organisations that sit outside the NPO framework?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to be proud of her theatre and all the work that it does despite being outside the portfolio. Our Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that all people have access to arts and culture regardless of where they live. Many local authorities invest in those sectors and respond in innovative ways, and have created many new models. I hope that her local authority will look at the huge benefits that others have enjoyed by accessing many of the partnerships that have brought about best practice in our country.
Unboxed was a £120 million investment to celebrate the best of Britain. The Department reported in November that the figure for audience engagement was just over 18 million. That sounds a reasonable reach, but it turns out that a one- hour “Countryfile” TV special was doing the heavy lifting with 5 million viewers—nearly a third of the total. I understand that a wider evaluation is in hand, but does the Minister think that the festival made the impact that his Department intended it to, and can he ensure that this point is considered in the wider evaluation?
The hon. Gentleman is right to question in the way that he has. Unboxed has had many successes, and it has brought about cultural and art experiences to places that would perhaps never usually enjoy them—I am thinking about the work that went on in Caernarfon in north Wales, for example. He is right that we are evaluating it, and this will be a part of the assessment that we make.
What steps will Ministers take to ensure that cultural attractions in tourist spots offer full disability awareness training for staff, covering not just physical disabilities but hidden disabilities, so that they can better accommodate their visitors?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: when we talk about access for all, we absolutely mean it. The disability unit in the Government has launched an enhanced and expanded programme of disability and access ambassadors to help us drive progress in increasing access. I am pleased that many of our establishments are working on that at speed.
The accessibility of cultural organisations will be affected greatly by the Government’s tapering of orchestra tax relief and theatre tax relief from April. The Association of British Orchestras tells me that the 50% rate has enabled orchestras to survive at a time when box office and other earned income is falling. It has enabled concerts in non- traditional venues, reaching new audiences in underserved communities. However, the tapered rate will cost some national organisations as much as £3 million. Jobs will be lost, there will be cuts to productions, and outreach work, such as that we have heard about, will not be possible. Some orchestras and theatres will just not survive. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to review urgently the reduction in orchestra and theatre tax reliefs?
The hon. Lady is right to raise those important points. I assure her that both I and my ministerial colleagues in the Department have regular discussions with colleagues in the Treasury. We will continue to do so and raise the points she has highlighted.
Grassroots Club Rugby: Recovery after Covid-19
Supporting grassroots sports is a key Government priority. It brings communities together and makes people happier and healthier. Through the sport survival package, rugby union received £160 million to ensure the survival of clubs at all levels during the pandemic. That was specifically designed to help those grassroots clubs. In addition, Sport England offered £23 million to support rugby union during the pandemic.
Local rugby clubs play a vital role in encouraging a healthy lifestyle, bring communities together and provide young people with an opportunity to develop friendships and skills for life. As the Minister knows, the pandemic has proved ruinous for many clubs, with clubs local to me in Ilford, Dagenham, Barking, Romford, Chingford and Wanstead all facing either closure or significant difficulties. The president of my local club, Ilford Wanderers, told me:
“We aren’t just losing players; we losing wholesale teams.”
That has been compounded this week by the controversial changes to the amateur games rules for rugby union regarding safe tackle height, announced without consultation. I seek the Minister’s assurance that funding will be ongoing and he will work with the Rugby Football Union on financial support to save those community clubs and ensure that this fantastic game, in all its forms, continues for many generations to come.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the significant contribution that rugby union makes in many of our communities. I pay tribute to the many thousands of volunteers who give up their time to ensure that these clubs survive. We work constantly with the RFU and Sport England to ensure that the best assessment is made of support that is needed for the sector. I will continue to do that and raise the points that he highlighted.
I welcome the news that more than 200 grassroots rugby, football and boxing organisations across England and Wales are to be awarded £5 million to put on local schemes. Does the Minister agree that, apart from the obvious health and wellbeing benefits, these schemes help to keep vulnerable young people out of antisocial behaviour and crime?
My hon. Friend is right. The power of sport is significant and far-reaching: it helps with health and wellbeing and, as he rightly points out, can be a great avenue for helping people not to be tempted into areas of crime. That is why grassroots sports will be a key focus of our sports strategy.
We all love the game of rugby football union. In Wales this week, the Welsh Rugby Union was accused of sexism and misogyny. It is shocking and, unfortunately, reaches throughout the culture of Welsh rugby. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State reach out to the Welsh Government to provide their support and give the right guidance on setting up an independent regulator?
Sexism, misogyny or any prejudice has no place whatever in any of our sports. As the hon. Member knows, sport is devolved, but I will reach out to colleagues in the Welsh Government and have a discussion about that. I am absolutely clear that our sports strategy will have inclusion at its heart.
First, may I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on last month becoming the new president of the Rugby Football League? I suspect that your form of the game will see a big influx of new players as the English Rugby Football Union seeks to rewrite the rules of the union game.
Does the Minister agree that, given 75,000 players, coaches and supporters of the union game have already signed a petition rejecting the new rules, the RFU should think again, work more collaboratively with the grassroots across all the home nations and ensure that all steps taken to improve player safety are consistent and workable and do not lead to a player exodus?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point that a number of colleagues have already raised with me. As he will be aware, national governing bodies such as the Rugby Football Union are responsible for the regulation of their sport and ensuring that appropriate measures are in place to protect participants from harm and serious injuries. I can assure him that we continue to work with sports bodies, including the RFU, to ensure that player safety is prioritised, and I will certainly raise the points he has raised in my next meeting with it.
Rugby Football Bicentenary Celebration
The Government are delighted that rugby union is celebrating 200 years in 2023. We are looking forward to working with my hon. Friend to mark that occasion, and I am delighted that the Minister for Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), plans to join some of those celebrations at Rugby School. Rugby continues to be one of our biggest participation sports, and the very best of the game will be showcased in the men’s world cup later this year. We also look forward to supporting the growth of the game, with England hosting the women’s world cup in 2025.
Mr Speaker, you will know that my constituency is known around the world as the birthplace of the game, where it is played in both codes—both union and league. The game all started in 1823, when a Rugby schoolboy, William Webb Ellis, picked up and ran with the ball at a time when everybody else just kicked it. The bicentenary this year gives both the town and Rugby School the opportunity to celebrate with events and matches on The Close, including one with the parliamentary team from the Commons and the Lords. We are welcoming the Minister for Sport, and we look forward to seeing him at the celebrations with the first pass of the ball, which will be transported to rugby- playing countries around the world.
The Minister is very much looking forward to joining the start of the global pass, which will see 200 passes take a rugby ball through the hands of fans across the globe. The programme of events will give plenty of opportunities for the people of Rugby and beyond to celebrate their role in the history of the sport.
Football Governance: Fan-Led Review
When we published our response to the recommendations made by the independent Fan-Led Review of Football Governance, we were clear that football needs reform to ensure the game’s long-term sustainability and to safeguard clubs, and I have met the authorities to push for action now. We will publish a White Paper setting out our detailed position within the next couple of weeks. That will set out the direction of travel for significant reform within football.
I do not know whether I need to declare an interest as a supporter of Barnsley football club, but I put that on the record anyway. Further to the point made just a moment ago, we are still waiting for progress between the Premier League and the English Football League on increased funding to the pyramid, which could, hopefully, avoid another Bury football club or Derby County scenario. The Minister and the Secretary of State have mentioned the White Paper, but given that it may be 18 months before any new regulator is operational, can the Secretary of State say what she will do in the interim to break the deadlock and ensure that football clubs are financially sustainable for the longer term?
While we will publish the White Paper in two weeks’ time, it is clear that football does not need to wait for the Government to act. Both the Minister for Sport and I have had several meetings trying to push that along. I urge football to act now because it is in its interests, too, to safeguard clubs and to protect the interests of fans.
I welcome the news that the Government’s White Paper will be published shortly. Does the Secretary of State agree that most football clubs that get into financial difficulties are already trading outside of the rules of the competitions they play in? If those rules were properly enforced, these problems would not occur, and that is why we need the regulator to ensure that transparency exists.
As always, my hon. Friend talks a great deal of sense, and I completely agree with him. That is why this Government will be acting and standing up in the interests of clubs and fans to ensure that the regulator is in place to do just that, but of course the rules of the game could be enforced now.
Everton football club is reportedly up for sale, with its stadium half-built. With others up for sale, this looks set to be a record year for premier league clubs changing hands. Many others face financial problems and ownership uncertainties, all since the Fan-Led Review was published. Yet fans will have no say and new owners are not subject to robust independent checks. We still do not have the deal on financial distribution in the pyramid. Will the Secretary of State take responsibility for the clubs that go under or get themselves into trouble before the independent statutory regulator is finally implemented?
This Government have proven time and again that we are on the side of the fans. We committed to the review in our manifesto. We stepped in during covid to protect clubs with a £600-million sport survival package. We stepped in again to prevent the super league —a competition that no fans wanted. Whenever fans have needed us, we have been in their corner. This will be a huge shake-up of football, and I will not apologise for taking the time to get it right. We will come forward with the White Paper in the next two weeks.
The Online Safety Bill reached a major milestone when it passed its Third Reading. It is now being introduced in the Lords. Last week I visited Birmingham to hear how the 2022 Commonwealth games has contributed £870 million to the UK economy. Meanwhile, another major event is heading down the tracks, with just 100 days to go until the King’s coronation. The Government are helping to deliver a historic weekend that will bring our country and communities together. Everyone can join us across the whole weekend, whether it is hosting a street party or volunteering through the Big Help Out for causes that matter to them.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that update. There has been much conjecture in the press about widely differing rules on transgender people participating in elite sports, with very different agreements made. Could my right hon. Friend give an update on her position, to ensure that we protect the integrity of women’s sports?
On all sport, the Government are clear that a way forward is needed that protects and shows compassion to all athletes. We are also clear that sex has an impact on the fairness of competitive women’s sport. Fairness should be the primary consideration. We need a common-sense approach in this area, which is why I am holding a roundtable with domestic governing bodies in the coming weeks, and working with UK Sport on an international engagement plan.
Half the DCMS shortlisting panel for the BBC chair had close links to the Conservative party, but even they managed to put forward five candidates. So what does the Secretary of State think it was about the close confidante of the former Prime Minister who was helping with his personal finances that first attracted him to appoint Mr Sharp over the other four candidates? Does she have confidence in the process and that the actual and perceived conflicts of interest were fully disclosed?
Richard Sharp was appointed chairman of the BBC following a rigorous appointment process in line with the public appointments governance code and the BBC royal charter. The advisory assessment panel included a senior independent panel member approved by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who praised the process as fair and robust. In addition, there was pre-appointment scrutiny by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which confirmed Mr Sharp’s appointment. I understand the current Commissioner of Public Appointments will be investigating.
My hon. Friend has spoken to me on a number of occasions about this issue. As I said to him, these national and international governing bodies are independent of Government, but he raises important points that I will be more than happy to raise in my next meeting with the RFU, and perhaps he and I can have a further discussion about this in due course.
Does the Secretary of State believe the public think it is ever acceptable for anyone to donate hundreds of thousands to a political party and then be appointed by that same political party to a plum public post—in the case of BBC chair Richard Sharp, having been interviewed, we now learn, by a panel including another Tory party donor? Rigorous—really?
For some of the most vulnerable people in Darlington and up and down the country, terrestrial broadcast TV and radio serves as a lifeline, as we so starkly learned when the Bilsdale mast caught fire last year. Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring that broadcast TV and radio will be supported well into the future, so that everyone can enjoy these services?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of terrestrial, particularly to the most vulnerable communities. We have committed to ensuring that it is in place until at least 2034, and we are supporting the continued use of spectrum for that purpose. We have also commissioned a study to ensure that we are fully aware of how TV habits are affecting this.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting this issue. The Competition and Markets Authority has already looked into that and was not concerned about competition issues in relation to some of the platforms, but we are looking at this as an intellectual property question. The relevant Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and I will have a roundtable on this issue, to ensure we are fully across it and to highlight its importance.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the exemption proposed for artificial intelligence from copyright restrictions on text and data mining. I have been struck since I became acting Chair of the Select Committee by the weight of worry from different creative sectors, including music and cinema, that this could destroy the copyright protections that many creators have. Are Ministers looking carefully at that?
I can confirm that we are looking carefully at this. We have had a range of reactions to the proposals. The Minister for IP, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), welcomed the additional evidence, and the Government have now launched a period of stakeholder engagement on implementation options, taking into account the evidence received. We are confident that, together, we can come up with a proportionate response.
I have not heard the song, but I will look it up. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), we are confident that we will design a balanced approach. We will work with the industry to develop the creative industries sector vision and set out our ambitions for the sector, including in that important area.
North Norfolk is home to some of the most incredible and beautiful heritage landscapes. We know that the benefits to our mental health are enormous when we have equal access to these surroundings. Will my right hon. Friend thank my constituent Laura Drysdale, who is director of the Restoration Trust in Cromer, for all her charitable work to help those suffering with mental ill health and support her National Lottery Heritage Fund bid for the Norfolk landscapes for wellbeing project?
I raise the plight of the Peacehaven and Telscombe conurbation, which has more than 23,000 people, with no further education provision, high levels of free school meals and pupil premium, and, despite improvements, below average rates of literacy and numeracy. Despite that, the county council wishes to downgrade the library from 900 square metres to 300 square metres and to reduce its opening times. Will the Minister join me in calling for libraries of an appropriate size in large towns? Will the Department publish statutory guidelines on the square meterage and opening times expected per population for large towns?
As the hon. Gentleman says, public libraries are run by local authorities, so it is up to each local authority to identify the needs of local residents. DCMS has previously received representations about the relocation of Peacehaven library and we have engaged with the local authority to understand the plans and their implications. The Secretary of State has a statutory power to intervene by way of a local inquiry if she considers that a local authority is not providing a comprehensive and efficient library service. That is taken seriously, so if a complaint is received, the Department will challenge the council and evidence will be carefully considered before it is decided whether a local inquiry is needed.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Parish Churches: Family Attendance
There are Church of England churches that provide breakfast and lunch clubs, as well as youth, children’s and toddler activities, including messy church and much more besides. A vibrant children’s and youth ministry is often a key component of church growth.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The core of any parish mission is outreach to the community, with events such as the forthcoming family fun day at St Martin’s church, Barton, which will offer local families a chance for free fun, with lunch included. What resources are the Church Commissioners providing to support parishes in that mission and to ensure that details of such events reach those who would most benefit from attending?
I commend my hon. Friend for drawing attention, for the second month in a row, to the great work done by his local churches—none more so than St Martin’s church, Barton under the inspirational leadership of Father Nick Debney and Pamela Macey. On behalf of the House and the Church of England leadership, I warmly thank them for everything they do. I will send my hon. Friend details of the national churches strategic funding programmes, to which the diocese of Exeter can apply for St Martin’s church and other local churches.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for South Norfolk, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
National Audit Office’s Estimate
In line with its statutory duties, the Public Accounts Commission sits formally to discuss the NAO’s main supply estimate, taking evidence from the Comptroller and Auditor General and other NAO officials. On 1 March last year, the Commission approved the NAO’s supply estimate for the financial year that will shortly end, and it also approved an adjustment in November to allow the NAO to enter into a lease in Newcastle. On 8 March this year, the Commission is due to consider the NAO’s supply estimate for the forthcoming financial year, which will end in March 2024.
The National Audit Office does superb work with penetrating analysis of public expenditure, but it now covers the greatest ever number of public sector organisations. Will the Public Accounts Commission take that into account when arriving at the estimate for next year?
Yes, it will. The National Audit Office is affected by inflation, which is now at 9.2%, as well as other cost pressures relating to its statutory role, including the greater work required by updated international audit standards and the fact that when more public bodies are created, they need to be audited. The Commission also notes that the NAO is competing against private sector audit firms in recruiting and retaining staff, and needs to take that into consideration. The Commission will discuss those issues in more detail when the NAO presents its main estimate on 8 March.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Churches and Cathedrals: Maintenance
The Taylor review of cathedral and church building sustainability was published in 2017. There is an urgent need for dialogue with the Government about it, because without a bedrock of basic maintenance and repairs funding, there is a real risk to many of our amazing church and cathedral buildings. In passing, I note that such issues are always easier to address with a full church.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. My constituency is home to no fewer than 24 churches, including every branch of Christianity, but St Lawrence’s church in particular is in dire need of repair. It is a very well populated church, but it does need additional funds to restore it to its previous good keeping. Can my hon. Friend tell me what help will be given to St Lawrence’s church?
I have read up on St Lawrence, Little Stanmore: its baroque interior and internationally renowned organ—Handel was employed as a composer in residence —are real treasures. I will put my hon. Friend in touch with the national church buildings department, which advises parishes on grants and support for refurbishment. I can also tell him that the Willesden area council of the diocese of London is able to distribute grants of up to £20,000 for urgent repairs.
As the hon. Member said, a large number of churches and cathedrals in this country are in serious danger, including a number in my constituency. He also mentioned discussions between the Government and the Church of England on securing the future of churches. Will he say if those discussions are imminent?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I think the answer is that they need a bit of a boost, if I could put it that way. I would welcome his support, and indeed that of hon. Members on all sides, because I think all places of worship—and the Church of England does have an enormous number of grade I and grade II buildings—are important in all of our communities, and we do need a serious national conversation about how we keep them going for the future. Other countries fund them from the state. Personally, I do not think that is right, but I do think we need a dialogue with Government as to how we go forward in this area.
Restoration and Renewal Client Board
The hon. Member for Broxbourne, representing the Restoration and Renewal Client Board, was asked—
Restoration of the Palace of Westminster: Sustainable Procurement
The delivery authority leads on procurement for the restoration and renewal programme. The delivery authority’s procurement policy includes sustainability as one of the criteria to consider when making procurement decisions. The aim is to deliver a refurbishment programme that ensures efficient and responsible resource consumption, helps to develop construction and craft skills nationally, and increases social mobility—for example, through taking on apprentices.
What a mess we are in with both Houses. What a mess restoration and renewal is in. I campaigned for putting a lot of the work on the river, but that pales into insignificance when we see the mess we are in. People locally—my constituents—say, “Quite honestly, you people in Parliament couldn’t organise a proverbial in a brewery!” The fact is that we look ridiculous in this House because, whether it is sustainable or non-sustainable, we simply seem to be making no progress at all.
Forgive me, Mr Speaker. I am not sure what the question was there, but I shall try to answer. I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire with regard to the Thames, because I know we have a passion for the Thames. I want to see the River Thames thrive: I want to see it thrive with fish for personal reasons, but I also want to see it thrive with commercial endeavour. Despite the hon. Gentleman’s frustrations, the delivery authority is looking at conducting feasibility studies on using the Thames to deliver construction materials, and I can write to him further about that. I am not sure I can help him with his frustrations immediately, but perhaps in the future we will ease them somewhat.
I often agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), and this is no exception. I would like to ask my hon. Friend—a very good friend—what on earth we are doing. Why are we not out of this place or making plans to remove ourselves to somewhere else while restoration and renewal carries on? Are we ever going to do it, or are we just going to wait until asbestos, a sewage leak, a fire or some other disaster befalls us?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her—incredibly helpful—question, and I shall try to answer it as best I can. The delivery authority is working tirelessly to deliver a programme to renew and restore the Palace of Westminster, and there are enormous complexities here, as she knows. I do not want to stray into politics, but ultimately any restoration of this place will have to be funded, and we do need to find a mechanism for funding that the Treasury feels comfortable signing off. As far as the plans are concerned, progress is being made, and I am more than happy to keep my right hon. Friend informed, despite her fierce questioning.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Political Donations and Donors: Electoral Law
The Speaker’s Committee has not held recent discussions on the matters raised. The UK has one of the most transparent political finance regimes in the world. However, the Electoral Commission has highlighted that reforms are needed to modernise and further safeguard our system, and it has made recommendations to ensure that voters can have greater confidence in political finance in the UK. Those include new duties on parties for enhanced due diligence, risk assessment of donations, and changes to the law to ensure that companies have made enough money in the UK to fund any donations.
While I welcome steps to improve transparency in donations to political parties, what more can the Speaker’s Committee do to support improved transparency in donations to, and campaign activity of, non-party campaigners, and on increasing levels of foreign interference?
The commission regulates the spending of organisations campaigning during the regulated period ahead of an election or referendum. It also regulates donations to political parties and candidates. Unless an organisation is engaged in regulated campaign activity, it will fall outside the commission’s area of responsibility. The commission does not have a role in regulating spending on political activity more generally. The National Security Bill includes measures to tackle foreign interference in the UK’s political processes, but could provide additional security by incorporating additional recommendations. That would include strengthening existing controls on donations and loans to political parties and campaigners, such as enhanced due diligence checks based on anti-money laundering regulations. I know the hon. Gentleman is an active and interested member of the Speaker’s Committee, and I am sure that the Electoral Commission would be happy to meet him if he wishes to discuss the matter further.
If the hon. Gentleman would like to raise any particular concerns with the commission, I extend the invitation to him. The commission would be happy to meet him to discuss political donation. The commission has recommended that political parties be required to conduct enhanced due diligence checks, so that voters can have greater confidence in political party finance.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church’s Assets: Historic Involvement with Slavery
The Church Commissioners have not tried to draw a direct line from historical investments to current assets, given the myriad inflows and outflows over 300 years. Our forensic accountants estimate that investments linked to the slaving activities of the South Sea Company were equivalent to several hundred million pounds in today’s money. That is deeply shameful to acknowledge, and while no amount of money will ever be enough to repair the horrors of the past, the Church Commissioners have decided to invest £100 million over the next nine years in a better future for all, particularly in those communities affected by historical slavery.
The £100-million fund will enable impact investment grant funding and research in response to the findings in the Church Commissioners’ report. An oversight group will be established to help the Church Commissioners shape and deliver that response. Today the Church Commissioners, as award-winning ethical investors, punch well above their weight in combating modern slavery and human rights violations all around the world.
While we cannot and should never ignore the Church’s historical involvement with slavery, is it not better to focus on the missionary work that churches did over the years, with the spread of the Gospel and the best story ever told: that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners?
I do not think it is a question of either/or. When the chief executive of the Church Commissioners was on the “Today” programme recently explaining why we have done this, he was contacted later that day by a global majority heritage individual who had stayed away from the Church for 40 years and is now going to come back again. I say also to the hon. Gentleman that full churches do not tend to fall down.
I look forward very much to visiting Lichfield cathedral, but sadly that may not be until after Dean Adrian Dorber retires. I know that the dean’s work has been so significant that I will see many ongoing examples of his tremendous legacy when I do visit.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because he will see the Herkenrode glass, which has been restored, and he will hear the magnificent organ, for which £6 million had to be raised to make it sound so beautiful. They are a reminder that a dean’s work is not just worship, but fundraising, management and all the other factors in running a great and successful cathedral such as Lichfield. What sort of training is given? It seemed to me that poor Adrian Dorber had to learn on the job and then, with a little bit more investigation, Mr Speaker—it is a bit like being a Speaker, actually—that they all have to learn on the job. Can we not improve on that?
One might think that Lichfield cathedral was the only cathedral in the Church of England, because my hon. Friend is one of the very few Members who regularly stands up for his cathedral. Running a cathedral, as he rightly says, is not only a major spiritual undertaking to proclaim the good news of Jesus, but a huge management task, which is why we require all new deans to undertake a component of an MBA module before taking up office.
Blessings for Same-sex Couples
With you permission, Mr Speaker, following my response to the urgent question on Tuesday, the advice I was given then was by the Church legal office, and I was yesterday asked to make a small clarification. A simple majority in each of the three Houses of the General Synod could suffice to pass a measure and amending canon to change the definition of marriage in ecclesiastical law, but circumstances could also arise in which two-thirds majorities in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy would be needed, and, as with all authorised forms of service, a two-thirds majority in each House would be required for the approval of the Synod as a form of service for the marriage of a same-sex couple. I apologise, Mr Speaker, but I was only informed yesterday. Given that I was answering questions today, I thought you would find it acceptable that I put that slight clarification on the record.
In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), it is the case that the General Synod of the Church of England can make its own decisions on these matters. Members of the Synod will have a chance to make their own views clearly known, having listened to the very forcible views expressed in this House on Tuesday. I repeat that the Church of England has apologised for past behaviours, and welcomes and values LGBTQI+ people unreservedly and joyfully.
I thank the hon. Member for that clarification and for his comments about welcoming the LGBTQI+ community joyfully. But can I ask him to clarify then why it is that a man and a woman who do not believe in God and do not regularly attend church are welcome to marry in the Church of England—indeed, the Church’s website says, “God’s blessing is the main attraction for many couples”—but a couple in a same-sex relationship, both of whom may have worshipped in the Church all their lives and live in the spirit of Christian faith, are denied the same right in the Church, even though similar denominations in Scotland offer that opportunity? Can the hon. Member inform the House whether the Commissioners have discussed that inequality with the Church of England?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. These matters will be very livelily debated at the General Synod between 6 and 9 February. I can also tell her that each province in the global Anglican communion is autonomous. The majority of the provinces in the communion provide neither blessings nor marriages for same-sex couples: the Scottish Episcopal Church provides marriages, the Church in Wales provides blessings, and the Church of Ireland provides neither for same-sex couples, so the hon. Lady can see that there is a variety of practice within these islands. But I have heard what she has said and, more importantly, I will make sure that the General Synod is very well aware of her views and those of others in this House.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 30 January—Committee of the whole House and remaining stages of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
Tuesday 31 January—Opposition day (12th allotted day): debate in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced
Wednesday 1 February—Remaining stages of the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [Lords].
Thursday 2 February—General debate on LGBT history month, followed by a general debate on devolution in Wales 25 years on. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 3 February—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 6 February includes:
Monday 6 February—Debate on motions to approve the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2023, the draft Benefit Cap (Annual Limit) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2023, followed by a debate on a motion to approve the charter for budget responsibility: autumn 2022 update.
I thank the Leader of the House for setting out the business. Ministers answering questions from MPs on behalf of our constituents should be a given—it is the most basic form of scrutiny in a parliamentary democracy—but, as we all know, this Government struggle with even the basics. Swerving scrutiny is now the norm. Last week the right hon. Lady said, as a justification for setting off on a pre-prepared political rant, that I had invited her to compare the Government’s record in power against Labour’s. I did not, actually, and she should not need to be reminded that that is not what these exchanges are about. I am happy to take her for a cup of tea and talk about Labour’s record achievements: cutting NHS waiting times and crime; on educational attainment; the minimum wage; laws on equality and human rights; and the world’s first climate change Act—the list goes on and on.
What I would like here, on behalf of the people we represent, is direct answers to important questions on the Government’s failing legislative agenda and their utter disdain for Parliament. Admittedly, if the Prime Minister carries on as he is, the right hon. Lady might be able to dust off her “PM for PM” Tory leadership merch sooner rather than later—I’d like a mug—but until then Parliament requires her to represent the interests of this House, and therefore the British people, in Government.
Seeing as the right hon. Lady did not answer last week, let us have another go. First, on the Tories’ sacking of nurses Bill, they should have published an impact assessment before it even reached the House, yet the final stages are due in the Commons on Monday and we still have not got one. That is despite her saying last week, publicly, that she thought impact assessments were very handy. Well, they are, but they are more than that; they are a crucial tool for parliamentary oversight, especially when a Bill is being rattled through like this one. What are the Government hiding? When will we see their report on what the Bill’s impact will be?
The Leader of the House’s reassurance that the burning through of regulations under the retained EU law Bill will have good scrutiny simply does not wash with the people of Bristol West, or anywhere else. The right hon. Lady is Parliament’s representative in Government, so why is she not backing MPs being given a proper say on behalf of our constituents over workers’ rights to holiday or maternity pay, or over environmental protections? It is literally her job.
The Leader of the House could start by giving us the means to scrutinise properly. Last Thursday, I got no answer on the Government’s half-baked dashboard for EU regulations, so perhaps I could get one this week. Do they have a plan to complete the dashboard? If so, by when? Do they have a plan to square the practical difficulties of getting through thousands of regulations before the end of the year? If so, what is it?
In questions to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) was told that the return of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was
“a matter for business managers.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2023; Vol. 725, c. 695.]
The problem is that when I have asked the Leader of the House about this before, I have got—you guessed it—no answer. Like everything else that they have lost down the back of the sofa, apparently it is Tory infighting holding the Bill up. I gather that Tory Back Benchers have had to be reassured that it will not be used as a device to crack down on hunting. They want to protect hunting? What a mess! Can the Leader of the House clear this up? When will the Bill be brought back to the House for its remaining stages?
While the Leader of the House is down the back of that infamous sofa, could she try to pull out the football governance White Paper? The Government committed in the last Queen’s Speech to publishing proposals to establish an independent regulator of English football. Could she give my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) a birthday present and find them, please? Since that commitment, we have had flip-flopping, rides on the ministerial merry-go-round, and a promise from the Culture Secretary that the White Paper would be published “imminently”. Labour has supported the introduction of an independent regulator for years. It is urgent for clubs, players, staff and fans. The Government have let them all down. Where is it?
Let me end by noting the fast-approaching 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The Labour party is immensely proud of its part in the peace process, as are many others across the House, of all political dimensions. Will the Leader of the House please allow a debate in Government time so that Members can reflect on what was achieved, and to allow representatives from Northern Ireland to share their views? Does she agree that this moment should not be left to the Backbench Business Committee and we really should have a Government debate?
I am sure the whole House will want to recognise that we have Holocaust Memorial Day this week. Let me place on the record my thanks, in particular, to all the survivors who help us and new generations to understand what happened and, of course, to redouble our efforts to tackle antisemitism wherever it appears. I also thank the Holocaust Educational Trust. I know that many Members will have relied on it to take them to Auschwitz and elsewhere, and that will have had a huge impact on all Members of this House.
May I also place on the record my thanks to the ship’s company of HMS Queen Elizabeth, who visited Parliament this week, for all they have done for the Atlantic Future Forum?
I remind colleagues that today marks 100 days until the coronation, and I encourage all Members to make use of that moment to bring our communities together and create new projects in our constituencies, which I know is a focus of His Majesty the King.
I anticipated correctly that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) would not ask me today about our £150 million extra investment in mental health support, or the £50 million to supercharge the UK satellite industry, or the crackdown we announced this week on criminal gangs. I am shocked, quite frankly, Mr Speaker, at the suggestion that there are pre-prepared political rants in this Chamber.
I shall attempt to answer the hon. Lady’s questions. I completely agree with her that we need transparency and truth on all the Bills that she mentioned, so I am grateful for the opportunity to correct some of the misunderstanding in what she outlined about some of them.
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is not about nurses. Nursing unions have been hugely responsible when they want to take industrial action, and we have great confidence in the minimum service levels that they have put in place. Very explicitly, we are not taking these powers and bringing forward measures regarding nurses at all, and it is quite wrong to suggest that. Instead, we are focusing on where we have deep concerns about minimum service levels—in two blue-light services and in transport. I remind the House that under the current Mayor of London there have been nearly 100 strikes on public transport in London, and I do not think the commuting public, who rely on public transport, can go on like this. So that is what the Bill is doing, which is very well understood by everyone except, perhaps, those on the Labour Front Bench.
There is clearly an ongoing misunderstanding about the way in which the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will work, and about the scrutiny that will be applied to it. Committees in both Houses are dedicated to looking at that, but there are clearly measures that we will want to continue; we have been explicit about, for instance, environmental protections and protections for workers, to which we are committed. Just last Friday we passed additional measures to protect workers’ tips in the hospitality industry, and this week we have proposed measures to introduce a statutory code so that practices such as firing and rehiring no longer take place. Let me gently remind the hon. Lady what her own party did to its workers at their headquarters in July 2021, when it put many of its staff on very insecure contracts.
We will protect workers’ rights and we will protect environmental standards, but there will be some EU law on our statute book that does not work for the modern economy, and that is what we will focus on and reform. I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that, and will start focusing on what our economy needs rather than misinterpreting the way the Bill will work and the scrutiny that surrounds it.
I am delighted that the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, a private Member’s Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), completed its Committee stage this week. That is another step towards ensuring that we protect endangered species around the world which some people wish to go and shoot and bring back and turn into ashtrays: it is a huge step forward. We care deeply about the welfare of animals, which is why we introduced the important measures in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.
I have placed on record all the work that has been done by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on football governance, which is a subject close to my heart because I helped to save my club, Portsmouth, in the largest and fastest ever community buy-out in the country’s history, and that club is thriving now. Improving football governance is a priority, and in the course of my work I have been looking at bringing it forward—I would say “soon”, but the hon. Lady has banned me from saying that. Further business will be announced in the usual way.
The hon. Lady made a very sensible suggestion about the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, which was an incredibly important moment for our nation and for Northern Ireland. I will certainly take up that suggestion and see whether we can accommodate it.
Tuesday was National Compliment Day, so I will end by paying the hon. Lady a compliment: these exchanges are always a pleasure.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 states that the Secretary of State must appoint an independent anti-slavery commissioner, but the post has been vacant since the excellent Sara Thornton stepped down last April. May we please have a statement from the Home Secretary on the process and timetable for the appointment of the replacement commissioner?
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that important point, and pay tribute to her for all the work she has done not just for the UK but internationally, putting this issue on the international stage and encouraging other nations to join in the leadership that she has shown. Home Office questions will not take place until February, so, on my right hon. Friend’s behalf, I will write to the Home Secretary asking her to contact my right hon. Friend personally to discuss the matter.
I, too, pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and all organisations and individuals who contribute so much to keeping alive the memory of the millions who were so shamefully murdered.
Today is known to some as Australia Day and to others as Invasion Day, and I pay tribute to the First Nations people of Australia and their long fight for recognition of the dreadful injustices they have suffered since European colonisation in the 1700s.
A Conservative Member, who is clearly bent on establishing himself as some kind of Conservative poundshop Farage, reportedly shouted something loathsome at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday about the 200 asylum-seeking children who are allegedly missing. It was so despicable that I will not repeat it, but the Leader of the House must know its content through the outrage on social media. Will she join me in condemning his remarks, which by victim-blaming potentially 200 missing vulnerable children, marks a new low in dehumanising language towards asylum seekers? We all know behaviour in this place can be raucous and passionate, and that emotions sometimes run very high, but surely we would all join in deploring the language used to attack the poor and defenceless among us.
I have been approached about why important pieces of legislation, such as the media Bill and the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, are still in parliamentary purgatory. What can the Leader of the House do to speed that process along? What does she have to say about these delays? The Government always have bucket loads of lame excuses for legislative hold-ups, but I think we know the true reason. A couple of weeks ago, she rather bravely tried to suggest parallels between her party, which is completely engulfed in sleaze and scandal, and mine—a case of whitabootery so bold it would make a sailor blush.
I am therefore pleased to see there will soon be an awayday at Chequers, where we are told that Tory priorities will be discussed. Perhaps the Leader of the House can arrange a statement to the House on those Government priorities, once they are finally agreed. She will not be surprised to hear that my party’s overriding priority is independence, because we see that achieving the full powers of a normal, independent country is the best and, indeed, only way to achieve a fair and progressive society for all our citizens.
However, what priorities do the Government’s actions suggest are important to them? Is it the ability to place donors on influential boards; the introduction of illiberal laws that crush inconvenient human rights and employment and environmental protections; the playing out of the mad dreams of a libertarian future using most of the population as guinea pigs who are unable to protest; or the batting away of the democratically agreed laws of another country’s Parliament with the stroke of a pen? Perhaps we will finally get an insight into that eternal question: just what is it about the Houses of Parliament that first attracted so many wealthy people to stand for office?
I start by addressing the hon. Lady’s serious point about asylum seekers, particularly with regard to their vulnerability and the vulnerability of children. Many Members have raised this issue, but one of the very sad things about the system—we recognise it is a broken system that needs reform, and we are introducing legislation to do that—is that keeping people in hotels for long periods of time increases their vulnerability. We have heard stories of gangmasters turning up at hotels where they know asylum seekers are staying to take people away. For obvious reasons, it is very hard to protect people in such an environment, so we have to address this. When we introduce legislation to tackle this issue, to get the system working more effectively and to make it fairer for both the UK taxpayer and for the very vulnerable people who are being trafficked, I hope we will have support from both sides of the House. This is a serious matter, people need protecting and they need protecting swiftly.
The hon. Lady, again, invites comparisons. I hope she will forgive me, but I cannot let this exchange pass without quoting Rabbie Burns:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
I am sure the hon. Lady and her colleagues could deliver those lines much better than I have, but I wish the SNP had the gift to see itself as others see it, or as Audit Scotland and Scottish taxpayers see it in the week in which the Auditor General for Scotland, Stephen Boyle, called for greater transparency on the colossal underspend in the SNP’s budget. Very often, Scottish National party Members come to this House asking for additional funding from the UK Government, but the SNP has underspent its budget by nearly £2 billion—that is the equivalent of 7,142 nurses. I am sorry to say that the areas of underspend were in education and skills, the economy, net zero and transport, and also in money given to the covid response.
The hon. Lady paints a picture of Scotland and of the people she represents that I do not recognise. I say to her that she is governing a great and dynamic country, one that stiffens the backbone and reinforces the soul. It is the nation of Fleming, Dunlop, McAdam, Watt, Telford—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Scotland is the nation of the Argylls and the Black Watch crossing the Rhine, the Scots Guards at Tumbledown and Shimi Lovat’s commandos securing Pegasus bridge. The taxes sitting in the Scottish Government’s accounts not being spent on education are paid for by grain farmers not grievance farmers, and by incredible communities and creatives. The people who elected the hon. Lady are incredibly resourceful and they do not match the SNP’s vision of them as a nation of victims; they are a powerful force for good in the Union and the world. They march to the fife and drum, not the saddest tune played on the smallest violin.
I recently attended a regional meeting with the English Football League to discuss the Government’s fan-led review, and I was pleased to be joined at it by Harrogate Town’s chief executive, Sarah Barry. The review represents a significant step change in how the football pyramid receives crucial funding. At Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions a few minutes ago, the Secretary of State announced that she would be publishing the Government’s next steps within a fortnight. This topic has attracted much interest from colleagues on both sides of the House, so will the Leader of the House ensure that when that is published there will be sufficient time for a good debate on the issue?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this incredibly important issue; I was also at that meeting. There are people who say, “Why should we be regulating businesses?” I can tell them that if a branch of Tesco closed in my constituency, I could point to a Sainsbury’s a few metres away and say, “Don’t worry, there’s another supermarket there.” However, when Portsmouth football club was about to fold, I could not say to my constituents, “Don’t worry, down the road in Southampton is another football club where you might care to go to watch a game.” He is absolutely right: we want to make sure that these important community assets, for that is what they are, are protected. The next DCMS questions is on 9 March, but I shall make sure the Secretary of State has heard his question today.
As Chair, may I say that I take pride in the fact that the Backbench Business Committee has been able to facilitate this afternoon’s important debate on Holocaust Memorial Day? There is an important message here: Back-Bench Members in all parts of this House think that that is an important and priority debate to have in such a timely way. On behalf of the Committee, I would very much welcome applications for debates in the main Chamber and for slots in Westminster Hall. We ask for applications to be submitted in writing to our Clerks, who are situated in the Table Office. The Committee meets on Tuesday afternoons to consider applications, where we ask Members to present their applications in person.
May I thank the Leader of the House for our meeting yesterday and for introducing me to the members and crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was a real pleasure? May I also thank her for writing to the Levelling Up Secretary on my behalf following last week’s business statement? The crisis in local government funding is intensifying, particularly in my local Gateshead Council. Our leisure centre, previously a venue for top-level and international sporting events, is now, sadly, earmarked for closure, along with its swimming pool, which is situated next door. Gateshead International stadium could well be in the firing line; the home of Gateshead Harriers and Gateshead football club could be in the firing line because the local authority no longer has the revenue to support its maintenance, upkeep and running. So may we have a debate in Government time on the sustainability of our sporting and activity centres?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work to facilitate this important debate on Holocaust Memorial Day. I know that many Members will want to contribute, and this debate provides an opportunity to do so.
The hon. Gentleman knows that, since the Christmas recess, we have had one debate on the importance of community sport. It is a subject that is very much recognised, and obviously we need facilities in which to do those activities. I know that the questions to that Department are not until a little later in the year, so I will write again encouraging Ministers to engage with the hon. Gentleman to see what other funding streams could be accessed for his constituency. We have offered him some further time next week for the Backbench Business Committee. I know that that is short notice, but I hope that he will consider taking it up, because there are clearly bids from many Members on a whole range of topics.
This Government have a fantastic track record on their commitment to achieving net zero. I am very proud of our determination to achieve net zero from the tailpipe by 2035. It is world beating, and I applaud the Government for their ambition, but can my right hon. Friend please have a chat with the House authorities about possibly offering more superfast chargers in the carpark here so that many more staff and people who come here each day can achieve their own net zero ambitions?
I thank my right hon. Friend not just for that question, but for all the work that she has done in this area. She held the brief in ministerial office, but, on leaving that office, she has continued her interest and has worked on a number of policies to help move on this agenda. She is absolutely right: we cannot expect people, including Members of this House, to make those changes to their lifestyle—the kind of car they buy, how they heat their homes and so forth—unless we have the infrastructure in place, and unless we have the innovation and the support for that innovation to bring forward products that people will want to take up. I shall certainly take up that suggestion, and she will know better than I who I should take it up with.
Further to the excellent points made by my hon. Friend the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, I wish to raise the issue of our public swimming pools being at risk of closure, as they have been excluded from the vulnerable sector designation by the Treasury for support with energy bills. Swimming pools face huge increases, including the fantastic pools at Inspire sports centre in Luton South, with which the Leader of the House is familiar. This will impact not only children learning to swim and our public’s health, but the development of our elite sportspeople, particularly those in my constituency who win medals in diving. I seek further advice from the Leader of the House on how we can raise this important issue—I was unable to ask about it earlier this morning at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport oral questions—and on what more we can do to ensure that we can save our swimming pools.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important point. I am very familiar with the particular pool that she mentions—I will probably have flashbacks later on in this question session, remembering my time there. This is an important matter not just for swimming but for sports such as diving—divers need warm water to do that at the level that they do in her constituency. I know that this is an issue of interest a number of Members, so I will talk to the Secretary of State to see whether something particular can be done for this sector. I know that she is very focused on protecting these community assets and on ensuring that, after the period of covid when people were not able to do these activities, we do everything we can to encourage people back into exercise and a healthy lifestyle.
I am full of good will this morning, Mr Speaker, having caught sight of your wonderful socks, the colour of Chorley rock.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to the Angling Trust. We stand on the threshold of something really exciting: we are about to establish a recreational catch-and-release big game tuna fishery in the south-west of this country. No longer will people have to travel to exotic climes to catch enormous fish, and where big fish swim, anglers follow, spending money on hotels, guides and restaurants. Can we have a debate to celebrate that fantastic development, to discuss how we can maximise the economic benefits to the south-west and to thank the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), for his perseverance in driving it forward?
I am happy to echo my hon. Friend’s praise for the Minister and all the work done to bring this scheme forward. It is another example from a raft of schemes the Government have brought in over many years to support and help coastal communities. We introduced that focus, and I know that the south-west in particular has benefited from many such schemes looking at the opportunities for recreational fishing and the hospitality sector. If we were not excited enough about that already, we are even more excited after my hon. Friend’s question.
Can we have a debate about the importance of our recording studios to our creative industries? If we do, there are two things in particular that we can discuss. The first is the BBC’s selling off Maida Vale, which could still be run as a going concern; there are offers on the table and it ought to be kept as part of our musical heritage. The second is the fact that our recording studios, so important to our film, television and video games industries, are not eligible for the energy bills discount scheme, despite institutions such as libraries, museums and even zoos being eligible. If penguins in zoos are eligible for the discount scheme, should not Arctic Monkeys be too?
Very good. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I will speak to the Secretary of State at DCMS about the theme that is emerging from the question session today. I also thank the hon. Gentleman for putting on record the opportunity with that particular studio; there are many organisations that would be very interested, but unless they know about the opportunity they cannot start to be creative about how they might be the answer he is seeking.
On Tuesday, I attended the funeral of Councillor David Jenney. He had been a local councillor for more than 15 years and done an immense amount of public service. In addition, he was the honorary agent to my Conservative Association: he would deal with the paperwork associated with elections, organise the distribution of leaflets and lead canvassing sessions. He would be out every Saturday with the listening team. He was an absolute star. Up and down the country, across political parties, there are people like David. Could the Leader of the House arrange a debate in his honour, entitled “The unsung heroes of our democracy”? May David rest in peace.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to David and to Barbara, his wife, who will have been a huge support to him in many of the things he did, including being mayor of Rushden for a time. I know he was much loved by the whole community. My hon. Friend is right; it is not fashionable to be involved in politics and the things we do on the doorstep on all weathers are not glamorous, but it is vital to our democracy. His suggestion for a debate is an incredibly good one and would be supported across the House.
I am a proud highlander, so let me try to strike a lighter and more positive Scottish note. My personal friend the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell)—that is almost longer than Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross—and I have both had the honour of serving in the Scottish Parliament. We know that there are meetings at ministerial level between Scottish Ministers and UK Ministers, but would the Leader of the House think about some sort of mechanism whereby Back Benchers of this place, the Scottish Parliament and other devolved institutions could meet and talk from time to time? I was once a member of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, which did a great deal of good in fomenting Irish-UK relations. Such a mechanism would lead us to a period of understanding and co-operation rather than strife and misunderstanding.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion and for the tone in which he always engages. I feel strongly that many Members will have ideas about what else we can do to make ourselves the best legislature in the world, and I know that you have that ambition too, Mr Speaker. We will very shortly bring forward a survey, which is supported by the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), to look at what additional support and services we can develop to enable hon. and right hon. Members to do their job better and to support them in that kind of engagement. I hope that all Members will respond to that survey when it comes out. I think the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is excellent.
Today is Republic Day in India, and many millions will be celebrating in style there, as will the diaspora across the world. Very sadly, the BBC has chosen over the last two weeks to show what can only be described as propaganda videos on behalf of the opposition to the Government of India —particularly scurrilous and baseless attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and to quote the involvement of Jack Straw when he was UK Foreign Secretary. Can my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate, in Government time, on BBC impartiality? It is quite clear that this is a gross dereliction of the BBC’s duty. I agreed with only one thing in the two shows: the final comment about Narendra Modi and the Indian Government being re-elected at the next election and probably the one after that.
My hon. Friend has very clearly got his concerns on the record. I know that they are shared by others in his constituency. The BBC, as he and all Members know, is governed by the royal charter—it is an independent body—and we also have in Ofcom a regulator whose job it is to ensure that the BBC is robustly held to account for delivering its public service duties, including accuracy and impartiality. I would suggest that he engage with the BBC and Ofcom if he feels the need to, but he has got his concerns on the record today.
I place on the record my own comments about Republic Day in India. Millions and millions of people will be celebrating the 74th Republic Day today.
Tragically, the son of Ms Jayne Toulson-Burke, Mr Bob Toulson-Burke, passed away from dengue fever in 2016 while travelling in Asia. The NHS has said that there is presently no known treatment or vaccine for dengue fever, and warns that people at increased risk of the fever should avoid travelling to nations in which the infection is found. However, there is little information about the infection for people who are travelling to countries where it can be contracted. Will the Leader of the House grant a debate, in Government time, about raising awareness of dengue fever?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for helping to raise awareness of that important point by speaking about it in the House today—his points are well made. Health questions are not until a little further on, so I shall raise this with the Department. I think it would be an excellent topic for an Adjournment debate.
Last Friday, I met a GP at the Central Surgery in Barton-on-Humber in my constituency, and heard of the excellent work that he and the other doctors do at the practice. But I also have to recognise the frustration of many of my constituents about accessing GPs. Could we have a debate focused specifically on access to primary care? I hope that useful suggestions might come forth, rather than a political knockabout.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent suggestion. As I said, Backbench Business time may be available soon, and the merit of such a debate would be that we could look at the disparity between how certain areas operate their GP services; indeed, right down to a practice level. There are areas that are still managing to offer good access to a GP in a timely way, with face-to-face appointments where necessary, and in terms of the hours that they are operating. In others, that is not the case. Sharing good practice is an important part of getting services right for everyone everywhere.
Water companies are dumping sewage into our rivers. They have failed to fix leaks in the summer, when we had a hosepipe ban, and the winter, when the water is turning into hazardous ice on our roads and pavements. Thames Water gave its chief executive a bonus of £720,000 on top of a £2 million salary. May we please have a debate in Government time about whether our water companies are fit for purpose?
This is an issue of huge concern to many Members across the House. That is why, in 2018, we fired a shot across the water companies’ bows that led to the legislation and other measures brought forward to ensure that the infrastructure plans needed to end storm overflows are in place in a timely way. We are also monitoring those overflows. When we came into office, only 6% of them were monitored, but it is now 100%. We take the matter very seriously indeed.
Some of Thames Water’s work formed part of the arguments used to reassure Members of this House that the costs of those infrastructure plans would not be astronomical—they would be affordable—so that we could press ahead with an ambitious timetable for delivering them. I thank the hon. Lady for raising that matter, which is of huge concern to all Members.
There were reports in the media saying that I was seething last week about the levelling-up fund. That is not quite fair—but it is fair to say that I was prickly. Our £18 million bid was unsuccessful. Most of that was about Gainsborough sports centre. Only between £1.5 million and £2 million of it was for Broomhill lido—a 1938 outdoor pool that closed in 2002. It is of huge benefit to the local area as a cultural and sporting attraction. Will my right hon. Friend advise me about what other pots of money and avenues might be available to the Broomhill Pool Trust to get the small amount of money needed to push it over the edge and bring that wonderful attraction back to the people of Ipswich?
My hon. Friend raises a subject close to my heart. I would normally say, “I shall write to the Minister who can advise him about further pots,” but I can probably tell him now because I have a 1930s lido in my constituency that I am renovating. I know how much the lido will mean to his constituents—it is not just a leisure facility but part of their heritage. There will be other funds, and we should connect him to other projects that have been supported through the coastal communities fund to really ensure that he has got the best advice to take that forward. I will write to the Minister on his behalf, but I am also happy to assist him with anything that I have learned along the way.
In earlier comments, I found that the Leader of the House was trying to suggest that ambulance workers are not co-operating with management as nurses are. I recently visited my local picket of ambulance workers, and there was a protocol in place: when there was an emergency, the picket immediately and voluntarily went to see the patient. Will she withdraw her comments? Has she noted that this morning The Telegraph says that recent weekly statistics show that 2,837 more people than usual died, which is 20% higher than the average. Does she accept what is happening? There is not a shred of evidence that the strikes are causing these problems; it is a failure of management of the NHS by the Government.
Let me clarify for the hon. Gentleman that this is not about people not wanting to protect life. It is not about a moral judgement on behalf of those individuals. People who work in the blue-light sector and people who work in caring professions care deeply about the wellbeing of others. That is why they are in those professions. The problem is how these minimum service levels are arrived at and ensuring that we can have confidence in them and that they are also arranged in a timely way. Unlike nursing unions, which have a clearly defined and agreed way of working that covers the whole of the area affected by industrial action, the other services that I have referenced do not. They are very fragmented, and arrangements are often worked out with local management, as opposed to across the nation affected. This is about protecting the public and ensuring that when industrial action takes place, we can still protect the public. It is most acute, I am afraid, in the transport sector. I hope that that clarifies the position for the hon. Gentleman.
May I commend my right hon. Friend on her earlier Burns quote? Burns always sought to shine a light on hypocrisy. May I ask my right hon. Friend if we can have a debate in Government time on the environmental and socioeconomic importance of bus services that link rural communities with larger towns and cities? In recent months, the 101/102 service between Dumfriesshire and Edinburgh, which goes along the A702 corridor and through communities such as Biggar and West Linton, has been under threat. I commend the local community campaigners who have done so much to ensure that that service will be retained, at least for three years, but it highlights the devastating impact that the loss of such a service would have had on my constituents, and I am sure on others in rural areas across the United Kingdom. That is why a debate is very important.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—these services are incredibly valued. They are a lifeline for communities, and I commend him and all the campaigners who have fought to ensure that these services are protected. It is why this Government have invested £2 billion in mitigating the impact of the past few years and ensuring that we are maintaining existing bus routes. I point him towards the next Transport questions on 2 March to make this case again. I am sure that if he secured an Adjournment debate, it would be well attended.
It is a little known fact that the famous Irish actor and Oscar nominee Barry Keoghan and I have something special in common: we are both care-experienced, and as care-experienced people, the odds of either of us making a success of our lives had all the cards stacked against us. I would like to take this opportunity to wish Barry the very best of luck. I will be rooting for him at the Oscars. I raise that as the Government’s response to the independent review of children’s social care is due imminently, and it is far too often that the voices of those who matter most are not listened to. As of last night, 11 councils across these islands have introduced protected characteristics for this, and more are set to follow. Would it not be fantastic if the UK was the first in the world to recognise care-experienced people in this way? Can the Leader of the House promise me and other care-experienced people, whether from my constituency, Dundee, Scotland or across these islands, that their voices will be heard when this response is published, with a debate in Government time to discuss the fundamental importance of this recommendation and of amending the Equality Act to implement it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this incredibly important issue, and I join him in wishing Barry every success. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The response is due and will be coming forward imminently. He is absolutely right—we saw it during covid—that we need a continued focus on these services, because those being cared for and looked after do not have a voice, and we need to be a voice in this place. I will certainly take that up with the Secretary of State. We have also had a number of continuing scandals, as hon. Members will be sad to see, about the treatment of children in certain social care settings. That has to end, and I know that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is focused on that aspect, too.
No woman should be made to feel intimidated by a male Member simply for speaking up for what she believes in. The recent behaviour that we have all witnessed in this place simply cannot be repeated. Can we have a debate in Government time on the behaviour of hon. Members in this Chamber?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, and other Members of this House who act swiftly when they see poor and intimidatory behaviour whether it occurs in this Chamber, online or through proxies online. We are elected by our constituents to serve them in this place. Whatever our disagreements, we must respect the fact that we are all elected Members standing up for our constituents. It is only through listening and courteous debate that we will end up with good legislation and focus on the issues that matter to everyone in this country.
For many people in certain areas of Nigeria, terror and kidnapping have become almost a way of life. We have had statements and urgent questions in the past, and a debate on one occasion. However with the focus of this place and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office understandably on Ukraine and other parts of the world, would it not be important to have a statement or a debate on that benighted country, to keep our focus on Nigeria as well?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have all been horrified by the frequent reports of that kind of activity—whether the murder of priests, as we have had recently, the kidnap and ransom of particular individuals or brutal killings. It is an incredibly important country, as is our relationship with it. I will ensure that the Foreign Secretary has heard the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. He will know that the next Foreign Office questions is on 31 January, but I will make sure that the Department has heard what he has said.
I champion Doncaster whenever it is in the news for the right reasons. Unfortunately, this week it is in the news for the wrong reasons. Three places in Doncaster—Fullerton House, Wilsic Hall and Wheatley House—looked after some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society from all over the country. While there, children and young people were abused. That should not have happened. My thoughts are with the families and victims at this time. I call for the perpetrators and anyone who knew of that to be brought to account.
The whole affair is extremely distressing. We owe it to the victims to come together to make sure that it will never happen again. It brings into focus one main issue: why are vulnerable children being placed many miles away from their families and loved ones? To me at least it seems bizarre and needs addressing immediately. Parents often have a sixth sense when something is wrong, but if their child is placed hundreds of miles away, visiting can be difficult—
Order. I am very conscious of this important issue. At the moment, a lot of inquiries are going on. I do not want to get into a debate because it is so important that the victims are contacted. I am concerned about where the case is within the judicial system. The general point that you have raised is quite right, but I am cautious of taking it any further. Could the Leader of the House briefly answer the point?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue and for sending a message to all those affected. This is an important issue for him as their constituency MP, and for many Members in this House. He will know the action that the Secretary of State has taken to date. I will make sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the concerns that Members have expressed and keeps all Members of this House apprised of what is going on to ensure that it is addressed.
Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), the horrific revelations this week concerning the Hesley Group in Doncaster, with reports of children being punched, made to sit in cold baths and having vinegar poured on open wounds as a punishment, are entirely unacceptable. Those homes continued to be rated good by Ofsted, despite concerns being raised, and local authorities were paying as much as a quarter of a million pounds a year for the placement of children in those homes. These revelations follow other scandals of a similar nature at Calcot children’s homes in Oxfordshire, Achieve Care Homes in Bolton and others. I am not asking the Leader of the House to go into detail about the matters in Doncaster, which are rightly the subject of a criminal investigation, but will she help to secure a debate in Government time on the safeguarding of children in residential care, the role of Ofsted as the regulator and the grotesque profiteering of private companies off the abuse of vulnerable children?
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s sentiments. Sadly, this is not an isolated case; it goes right back to Winterbourne View and the recommendations that Sir Stephen Bubb made in his report. We have to look at the volume of referrals going into care settings that we know are not appropriate for children, particularly those with behavioural and learning disabilities. We also have to look at what good care looks like. We are talking about a relatively small number of children and they should have the best care possible. I shall certainly make sure that the Secretaries of State who are involved in this hear what several Members have said today.
I know that it is customary to request a debate at business questions, but I wonder if my right hon. Friend can advise me which Department would be best to respond to a debate on the levelling up of hotel accommodation in Ilfracombe. The levelling-up Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), acknowledges the need to level up Ilfracombe, despite its bid being unsuccessful, and is coming to visit, but the Home Office is considering two further asylum centres in the town. What plans are there to process the applications of those asylum seekers already in the town, and when will we start reducing the number of tourist hotels being used, so that we can go back to providing accommodation to much-needed tourists? I understand that it is a priority for the Prime Minister—might he respond to a debate or make a statement on progress to the House?
This is not the first time that my hon. Friend has raised that matter, and I can confirm to her again that the Home Office is the Department that needs to respond to her concerns. What it boils down to is that we have to ensure the whole system is working effectively. She will not have long to wait before that piece of legislation is brought forward, but I will write again on her behalf to the Home Secretary to raise her concerns about how much-needed hotels for tourism and so forth are being used in her constituency and her other concerns about this matter.
Erdington High Street has seven betting shops, and I am campaigning to oppose the latest planning application for yet another one. Birmingham City Council did the right thing by rejecting the application last July, but the gambling bosses have now made an appeal to the Government. Another bookies on our high streets is the last thing we need. After being let down by Ministers yet again when our levelling-up fund bid was rejected last week, will the Leader of the House grant a debate in Government time on the importance of investing in our high streets?
The hon. Lady is right that high streets are a lifeline. They are very important to the local economy, and they provide a place for people to socialise and for all sorts of services to be provided. As someone who has not had money granted in applications, I know that we are often successful in subsequent rounds and that the Department will be looking at the unsuccessful bid from her area and what could be done to improve it or ensure there is some other investment into her constituency. I will not comment on the specific planning issue, because Mr Deputy Speaker would chastise me for doing so, but the hon. Lady has got her concerns on the record today, and I wish her luck.
My inbox is full of correspondence from constituents who are concerned about NHS dental services. With the imminent closure of the dentist at Firthmoor Community Centre, 7,000 of them face the prospect of no dental provision. I know that my right hon. Friend takes the issue seriously and has been successful in campaigning for better provision across Portsmouth, so can she find Government time for us all to debate it?
I am sorry to hear that those providers are leaving my hon. Friend’s constituency. He will know that we have put additional funding into dentistry: about this time last year, an additional £50 million was made available to assist with the catch-up job that we had to do to get everyone dentally fit after the covid pandemic, and further funds have also been put in. It is also vital to have flexibility in commissioning to ensure that the money can be used to ensure that every dental chair and every dentist is occupied for the longest possible time. I had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), yesterday and I know that he is looking at bringing forward further measures shortly to assist with that. I will make sure that he has heard the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson).
People’s Past People’s Future, a community group in Rutherglen, recently organised a hugely successful event aimed at helping people to make new friends. Will the Leader of the House join me in thanking the organiser, Geraldine Baird, and VASLan for providing funding? Will she schedule a debate in Government time on the value of community groups in tackling loneliness in isolated groups?
I happily join the hon. Lady in praising Geraldine and the organisation VASLan. We know that by ensuring that people have that social engagement, we also ensure that they are healthier and we improve their quality of life. It is fundamental that everyone has a social network and support, and I thank her for her work to ensure that that is the case for all her constituents.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to sport and its many benefits, including those linked to health and wellbeing. This is a special weekend in Bassetlaw, as the men’s team for SJR Worksop football club takes on Retford United in a game that we locally call “El Bassico”. SJR Worksop also runs many teams for youngsters in our area, but unfortunately, at this time of year, it faces the challenge of finding suitable all-weather surfaces to play on. Despite its size, many youngsters from Worksop have to travel to neighbouring areas to find a 3G pitch to play on. I am therefore calling on the council to get its act together and help to provide our local youngsters with the leisure facilities that they deserve. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the importance of public sporting facilities and their benefits to health and wellbeing?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising an incredibly important point and wish him luck in getting his local authority to focus on that unmet need and to make that investment. It sounds like an excellent topic for an Adjournment debate, for which he knows how to apply.
The Leader of the House will be aware that, on Tuesday, the Royal British Legion published its report on the first three months of its cost of living payments. It has real concerns that 88% of the grants were for energy top-ups and 90% were issued to people of working age. It is also deeply concerned that veterans living with disabilities or who are carers are falling through the cracks of the schemes. I am aware that there are Defence questions on Monday, but can she find time for the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to make a statement to the House on the support available for our veterans during the cost of living crisis? I have every confidence that all hon. Members want to support our veterans, but it should not be left to the RBL to introduce a grant system to support the people who have done such service for our country.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. One of the factors that motivated the Government to bring in the armed forces covenant and the principles that sit alongside it, was that people should not be disadvantaged by the service that they have done for the nation. The notion that local authorities would send veterans who needed help getting, for example, white goods to SSAFA or the Royal British Legion, because they would take care of them, was absolutely outrageous and appalling. That is one of the reasons we brought in the covenant. We want the covenant and the principles that guide it to be very effective. In the slightly longer term, the hon. Gentleman will know that both the all-party parliamentary group on veterans and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs are doing some survey work—in particular, the APPG is looking at that financial aspect. But I will flag that issue with the Department. We are giving a huge amount in cost of living support and we want to make sure it is getting to the right people, which is why, whatever scheme we set up, we are always supplying local authorities with some flexibility, so they have the power to act where these big schemes do not reach everyone.
Not long after I was elected, Network Rail confirmed that £9 million had been ringfenced for urgent refurbishment works at Keighley railway station and that those refurbishment works would be completed by December 2022, yet to date no work has begun. It is vital that we get these urgent refurbishment works under way as soon as possible, as without doubt Keighley railway station is in the worst state of repair along the Airedale line. That is of course deeply frustrating for the many people who use the station daily and indeed those who work at the station. Can we have a debate in Government time to hold Network Rail to account, so we can ensure that promised schemes are delivered on time?
I am sorry to hear about the situation in my hon. Friend’s constituency, not just because I know it will be putting his constituents at a disadvantage, but because I am planning to visit his constituency soon and would want to have that station in a much more improved fashion. I thank him for raising the matter. I will make sure that the Secretary of State has heard his concerns, but he will know that Transport questions are on 2 March and I encourage him to raise it then, too.
Most of us at some point or another have had cause to be grateful to hospice services—such as Ayrshire Hospice—which provide essential end-of-life care for around 300,000 people every year in the UK. However, the support provided to hospices via the new energy bills discount scheme will not be sufficient to protect hospices from soaring costs across the board, which potentially threaten the very survival of this vital sector. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out her support for increased financial assistance for our hospices, which are so important in looking after our terminally ill loved ones?
I thank the hon. Lady. The hospice sector is incredibly important, which is why we were keen to ensure it was placed at the heart of end-of-life services. Prior to that policy change, it was very much kept out of Government policy. We want these vital organisations not just for the immediate services they supply, but for the support to the wider family. Given that Health questions will not be until later in the year, I will make sure the Secretary of State has heard those concerns, and I hope she will raise these issues with the Scottish Government, too.