House of Commons
Thursday 2 February 2023
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
The Procurement Bill is being considered in Committee in the House of Commons. The Bill will create a new public procurement regime that will make it simpler, quicker and cheaper for suppliers, including small and medium-sized enterprises and social enterprises, to win public sector contracts. In developing the proposals for the new procurement regime, the Cabinet Office has worked with hundreds of organisations, and economic growth and innovation have been at the forefront of our minds.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that UK major projects have had, at best, a mixed history of both procurement and contract management over a long period. How will this Bill embed external expertise in the procurement process and IT productivity systems in the contract management process?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that question. The Cabinet Office is producing comprehensive guidance and a programme of training for contracting authorities, with support for sharing best practice. This will complement efforts that the Cabinet Office is already making to support commercial best practice, including through the contract management capability programme and the provision of a suite of playbooks that provide advice on sourcing and contracting.
My residents in North Norfolk often think that Westminster is a long way away from them. Can my hon. Friend tell me how the Procurement Bill will enable businesses in my constituency—there is an incredible range of talent and innovation there—to bid for the £300 billion-worth of services that the Government procure every year?
I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the Bill includes a specific duty on contracting authorities to recognise the particular barriers that SMEs face. Other measures will also benefit SMEs, such as the strengthening of prompt payment requirements, with 30-day payment terms applying contractually throughout the public sector supply chain; a single digital platform, so that bidders only have to submit their core credentials once; and new transparency requirements.
I thank the Minister for his positive answers to the question. Wrightbus in Northern Ireland is an example of where we could contract domestic companies and expand our economy, as opposed to going international. What steps will the Cabinet Office take to ensure that we prioritise domestic contracts within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the devolved Assemblies?
I cannot comment on the specific contract that the hon. Gentleman raises, but he will know from the debate we had in Westminster Hall the other day that the Bill introduces provisions that will mean that contracting authorities publish their pipeline and can publish advance notices of procurement, which will enable businesses and suppliers to get ready for local contracts.
Unfortunately, the Procurement Bill in its current form does very little to prevent a repeat of the VIP scandal that, sadly, contributed to almost £10 billion-worth of personal protective equipment being written off by the Government. We know that sunlight is often the best disinfectant, so will the Minister support our amendment to ensure that any Minister, peer or senior civil servant involved in recommending suppliers under direct award must publicly declare any private interest in that supplier’s success?
The hon. Lady will know from the many debates we are having on this subject that transparency is a key element of our new regime, which replaces the old, outdated EU regulations and will ensure that there is sunlight throughout the procurement process, from start to finish.
The Prime Minister expects all Ministers to act in accordance with the code and demonstrate integrity, professionalism and accountability. He has appointed Sir Laurie Magnus as the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests to advise on matters relating to the code.
I am tempted to use a word favoured by the Deputy Prime Minister in response to that, but I will not. I am not interested in when people were formally informed or notified about things. I would just like to know when the Prime Minister knew about the bullying allegations against the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab)—was it before he appointed him as Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister?
I am sure the hon. Lady was in the House yesterday and heard what the Prime Minister said, which was that as soon as he became aware of formal complaints against the Deputy Prime Minister, he took action. That action involved appointing Adam Tolley, who is a very experienced employment KC, to look into those allegations. It is appropriate that we have a proper process, and the trigger for a proper process is a formal complaint.
It is all fine and well to talk about a “proper process”, but there are reports that staff working for the Deputy Prime Minister felt physically sick and even suicidal as a result of the alleged bullying. Does the Minister accept that in any other workplace the Deputy Prime Minister would have been suspended, pending investigation? Why is it one rule for the Deputy Prime Minister and one rule for workers anywhere else?
The Government take any complaints of bullying and harassment very seriously. That is precisely why the Prime Minister appointed Adam Tolley to conduct this investigation. Opposition Members have constantly asked me when we are going to appoint an independent adviser so that we can have a proper process, and now that we have appointed one and we have a proper process, they say that we should perfunctorily sack the person. They cannot have it both ways.
Trust in politics matters, and Ministers have a responsibility to uphold standards. The list of Ministers’ interests on the website is currently 247 days old and has not been updated since last May. It is not even an accurate list of Ministers, by a long way. Can the Government not be bothered to update it, or is there something to hide? Does the Minister agree that there is absolutely no reason why Ministers’ interests should be less transparent than those of any other Member of Parliament?
I, like many others, was surprised to see that it took the head of the investigation into Richard Sharp’s appointment at the BBC a week to realise that there was a conflict of interest and recuse himself from the role. What will the Minister do to tackle this chumocracy around the Prime Minister? Is it not time he adopted our proposal for an independent integrity and ethics commission to finally restore the accountability and professionalism that the Government promised?
I was involved in the appointment to which the hon. Lady refers, as the Secretary of State. We had a clear and transparent process, with independent selectors choosing that person. Indeed, the matter was looked into by the Select Committee, which found that it was an excellent appointment. The Government stand by the appointment, and Richard Sharp, as the chairman of the BBC, is doing an excellent job.
Transparency International’s corruption index has recorded a sharp fall in the UK’s score. This has been affected by factors such as the VIP lane and the claim that 40 potential breaches of the ministerial code were not investigated. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree with the international business leaders that under his Government, the UK is more corrupt?
I completely disagree with the assertion from the hon. Lady. This Government have upheld high standards of transparency, and we have advanced transparency since we came into office. The idea that this country could be compared to the sort of states to which she refers is completely preposterous.
I did not refer to any states. When will the Prime Minister appoint the anti-corruption champion? This vacancy has gone unfilled for seven months. Given the sharp fall in international views of the UK’s level of corruption, when will this person be appointed?
Scotland Act 1998
Alas, I am a mere junior Minister and I rarely get to talk to my illustrious Cabinet colleagues, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government used section 35 very carefully and very reluctantly, in order to preserve the balance of powers between our countries.
If the Government were so determined to resolve their dispute with the Scottish Government, they would publish the amendments that they say would make the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill acceptable to them. Is not the reality that the Tories are prepared to veto and undermine the elected Scottish Parliament because they never really wanted devolution in the first place?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, section 35 of the Scotland Act is part of our constitution. He will also know that it is now for the Scottish Government to bring forward a Bill that addresses the adverse effects set out in the statement of reasons. Once again, the nationalists do not wish to take responsibility.
Support for Veterans
Tackling inflation is this Government’s No. 1 priority. We have a plan that will help to more than halve inflation this year and lay the foundations for long-term growth to improve living standards for everyone, including veterans.
Many in the armed forces community are being forced to turn to charities such as the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes for cost of living support. The Royal British Legion has awarded £1.9 million- worth of grants in the three months to January alone. Rather than leaving charities to plug the gap, will the Minister outline how he will ensure that veterans and their families right across the UK are not forced into hardship by increased living costs?
There is no question of forcing people to go to charities to bail the Government out. Veterans have access to a range of support sources to help with the cost of living: the energy price guarantee, the cost of living payments, the relevant council tax rebates and veteran welfare services. I pay tribute to the RBL for all the work that it has done.
I really do not think that the Minister recognises just how much some veterans are struggling to make ends meet. Of the £1.9 million-worth of grants awarded to veterans by the Royal British Legion, 88% were for basic energy bills, with 90% of applicants being of working age. How does the Minister expect the veterans community to trust him to make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran when his Government have forced many of them to rely on charities and to choose between heating and eating?
I am not going to take any lessons about what it is like to be a veteran in this country, particularly for our most vulnerable veterans. A suite of measures are available to help them. Under this Government, there have been light years of change in what it means to be a veteran. I was a veteran under the Labour Government and we are miles away from that place, but I am always willing to do more. I have concerns about these issues, but we are doing everything we can to improve the cost of living for those who need it.
Industrial Action: Public Services
All Departments are responsible for their own business continuity plans and have well-established contingency arrangements. The Cabinet Office’s Cobra unit has supported Departments to develop those arrangements to minimise the impact on public services. Yesterday, for example, more than 600 military personnel undertook action to support a smooth flow at the border. I pay tribute to the work that they and others did.
As if the ultra low emission zone were not bad enough, Carshalton and Wallington residents have had to deal with strikes affecting the transport network, despite the Mayor’s promise of zero strikes. There is a very important point to be made about safety as a result of the ongoing impact on the transport network. Bus stops and railway stations in London face dangerous overcrowding when strikes are on. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the safety of the remainder of the transport network will be a key factor when minimum service levels are set?
As a Member of Parliament whose constituency borders London, I share my hon. Friend’s deep frustration with the conduct of the Mayor and with the ULEZ, which is a tax on hard-working commuters and citizens in London. My hon. Friend rightly raises a point about minimum service levels, which are at the root of the Government’s legislation—the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which passed through this House in the face of opposition from the Labour party—to protect standards of service and safety on our transport network.
Ambulance response times, particularly in rural areas such as Eddisbury, are one of those issues on which I seem to have been campaigning since I first came to Parliament. Like others, I am perplexed by the contrarian and regressive turn that has been taken in the policy area by unions representing ambulance workers, which are refusing to agree to minimum service and safety levels during industrial action. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they should embrace those common- sense measures? Perhaps the public would then be more sympathetic in the subsequent collective bargaining.
As ever, I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. The public expect a minimum safety level in core public services such as ambulance provision, as exists in comparable European countries. This is a sensible, straightforward measure to ensure patient safety at a time of most desperate need, which is why the Government are bringing it forward—again, in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party.
Resilience is a key priority across Government. My Department has already published the resilience framework, refreshed the national security risk assessment and established a risk sub-committee of the National Security Council, which I chair. We will soon publish a new national risk register, and this afternoon I will chair the UK resilience forum, which strengthens our links with partners across the country in collectively tackling the risks we face.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am involved in family farms.
As the breadbasket of Britain and home to the all-energy coast, East Anglia has a key role to play in strengthening national resilience on food and energy security. Can my right hon. Friend outline the co-ordinating work his Department is doing with other Departments to ensure the east of England realises its full potential in both feeding the nation and keeping the lights on?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight East Anglia’s increasing role in providing energy security through its massive offshore wind developments, which are helping to provide secure renewable energy. In addition, the Government food strategy, which was published last year, sets out plans to boost domestic production in sectors with the biggest opportunities, which will of course include East Anglia.
Prospective Cabinet Members: Financial Affairs
Successive Governments have preserved the ability for officials to provide advice to Ministers in confidence. It would therefore not be appropriate for me to comment specifically on any advice in the ministerial appointments process. Ministers are required to declare all relevant interests and matters of concern.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware that I am not satisfied with his answer. It has been reported that the Prime Minister was given an informal warning about the tax affairs of the former Conservative party chair, and yet he still decided to appoint him to his Cabinet. If true, it means the Prime Minister’s promise of integrity is completely meaningless. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm whether the Prime Minister was given an informal warning?
Lib Dem Members, and indeed other Opposition Members, continually say that the Government need to appoint an independent adviser. We appointed an independent adviser, who looked into all the facts of this case and produced an excellent report, and the Prime Minister took action. That is the way government should be conducted, and was conducted in these circumstances.
Public Procurement: UK-made Steel
The Government are ensuring a competitive future for the UK steel industry, and the reported value of UK-produced steel procured by the Government was up last year by £160 million, from £108 million to £268 million.
In last week’s Westminster Hall debate, the steel Minister, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), said
“there is huge scope for more procurement to take place in the UK.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2023; Vol. 726, c. 331WH.]
Will the Cabinet Office commit to publishing up-to-date data on the Government’s record in using UK steel, because it has not been good enough so far, and to adopting ambitious targets across Departments on the use of domestic steel in public projects?
I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady right now that 67% of the steel required for High Speed 2 is UK-produced, 94% of the steel used to maintain our rail track is produced in the UK and 90% of the steel used to build schools is produced in the UK. I understand there will be an urgent question after Question Time, which will give her the opportunity to ask a Minister from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about this.
Veterans: Mental Health Support
The Government are committed to providing high-quality evidence-based mental health support for veterans. There will be an additional £2.7 million of funding for Op Courage over the next few years, on top of the £17.8 million annual investment to provide a specialist mental health support and treatment pathway for veterans and their families.
A recent University of Manchester study showed that veterans under 25 were more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. I welcome what the Minister says, but it would be good if he worked with the Department of Health and Social Care, which is looking at a suicide strategy, to ensure that we are doing all we can to help veterans under 25 with their mental health. Does he agree?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for all his work on mental health over many years. The Manchester study revealed that, overall, people who have served are less likely to take their own lives, but there is a cohort within that for whom the risk is clearly higher. Defence Transition Services is doing everything it can to prepare that cohort for civilian life. We are clear that every suicide is a tragedy for the individual, their family and the military as an institution, and we are working all hours and doing everything we can to prevent every single one.
Two things have impacted on the mental health of veterans in the Rhondda. One is the complete collapse of the private rented sector, with many single men getting no protection under the law and finding it very difficult to find a guarantor so that they can get anywhere to live at all. The second thing is brain injuries. I hope that the Minister has seen the recent research showing that the percentage of people sleeping rough who are veterans—and, of those, the percentage who have brain injuries—is phenomenally high. What can we do to ensure that those elements are sorted so that people who have done everything they can for our nation get the support that they need?
I will first tackle the homelessness point. Veteran homelessness has been an issue in this country for far too long. In December, I launched Op Fortitude, which is a dedicated drive to end veteran homelessness in this country. With £8.5 million and 910 supported housing placements, it will be rolled out across the nation. We are determined to end the problem this year.
I recognise the link with traumatic brain injury. A lot of work is going into understanding how that affects this generation of veterans, who have come out of Afghanistan and Iraq, in particular. That work is ongoing, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to update him on it.
In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we are proud to be home to a number of charities that help veterans with their mental health, including the Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre and its Operation R&R, which is based at its retreat in Newchapel and Mow Cop; and the Veteran Support Network, led by Lee West, which is based in Middleport. Will the Veterans Minister be kind enough to come and visit those fantastic charities and see the work that they are doing, and will he look at what pots are available—whether revenue or capital—to allow them to expand their work across north Staffordshire?
Of course, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his persistent work and campaigning on this issue over many years. This country has some phenomenal charities that work night and day to look after our veterans. Op Courage, which was established in 2019, has formalised that pathway for the first time, and any charity and service can bid in to run different parts of it. That is why it has been an incredibly successful programme. I am more than happy to visit his constituency at a time when we can make it work.
One way in which we can support veterans’ mental health is to ensure that they transition into meaningful employment that allows them to use the highly transferable skills that they bring from the service. Has the Minister had time to look at what is happening in the US, where they are counting the number of veterans in big companies, and does he think that we could or should do that here?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there has been brilliant work in that space. Last week, I visited Barclays, which is the first company in this country to count how many veterans it employs. It is important that companies go beyond rubber-stamping paperwork about what it is like to be a veteran in those companies. They need to mark how many veterans work for them and the ease and equity of access to employment. Some great work is being done in the States, and I am always looking to improve the offer over here.
The thing about political constitutions is that they need to be underpinned by good relationships based on trust and respect. I do not think it would be an overstatement to say that some of those relationships have been a little strained of late. Will the Minister be proactive and support my private Member’s Bill next month, which will ensure the representation of devolved nations on public bodies? That would be a small step toward improving things.
I am pleased to say that from where I sit I have seen some very good relations recently. We have been working in lockstep on the Procurement Bill with colleagues from Northern Ireland and Wales to devise a new procurement regime. I am obviously happy to consider her Bill.
Veterans: Government Services
We are working to better understand the needs of veterans and their families through research and data collection with organisations such as the Office for National Statistics. We also regularly engage with the charities sector and with veterans directly, for example through the veterans’ survey, which closes today.
Our veterans are civilians in waiting to return to civilian life. Given the recent census and new data on veteran communities, are there any plans to improve healthcare services for ageing veterans with muscular and skeletal problems incurred through military service?
Veterans healthcare is a responsibility across the nation, with 1,789 GP surgeries and 132 hospital trusts now veteran accredited. It is a low level of commitment, but it makes the world of difference to veterans who are trying to access musculoskeletal services. I am determined that by the next general election, every GP surgery in the country will be veteran accredited and every hospital trust too. I will work hard to ensure we achieve that ambition.
In Burnley and Padiham we have long supported our armed forces and veterans, including through brilliant local organisations such as Healthier Heroes and the Burnley and Padiham branch of the Royal British Legion, which support veterans in the community. We also have local events such as Padiham on Parade, which takes place every June as part of Armed Forces Week. Can I invite my right hon. Friend the Minister to Burnley to sit with these organisations and see what more we can do to join up Government support with local organisations so that we ensure this is the best country to be a veteran in?
I thank my hon. Friend for his continued advocacy for a cause that I know is dear to his heart. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs is all about blending third sector and statutory provision. Veterans do not care where their care comes from as long as it is professional and evidence based and they have that community. It is our responsibility, through the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, to ensure they have that care, but it will often be delivered by different groups across the country. As my hon. Friend highlights, there are some wonderful groups up in Burnley doing that, and I would be more than delighted to visit him and talk about how we can support them better.
Can the Minister provide an update on the work undertaken by the Defence and Security Accelerator on behalf of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs on veteran health innovation? What progress has been made to support mental health in the community?
This year we established Op Courage and Op Fortitude, and we are looking at designing a clear, physical healthcare pathway for veterans. We are building pillars of support across the United Kingdom. We have put £5 million into a health innovation fund. A lot of individuals came back from Afghanistan and Iraq with injuries that would have been unsurvivable 10 or 15 years ago, with a level of complexity that we had not dealt with before. We are putting money into understanding the science behind that to ensure they have prosthetics for the rest of their lives, not just the next two or three years. There is a commitment from the nation under the armed forces covenant to special care for those who are seriously injured. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member and talk her through some of the other work we are doing.
Public Sector Contracts: Fraud
Last year we established the Public Sector Fraud Authority as a centre of excellence to work with Departments and public bodies to understand and reduce the impact of fraud. It does so by providing expertise and best-in-class tools to prevent and detect fraud, including in contracts. The Procurement Bill will also fight fraud through extending the grounds for exclusion and by establishing a debarment list.
The covid pandemic exposed several conflict of interest problems in public sector procurement. The Government’s Procurement Bill is an excellent opportunity to address those, but it does not pick up all the issues raised by the Government’s own independent inquiries. What will the Minister do to improve on that?
I beg to differ slightly with my right hon. Friend because, as the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office said, we are absolutely determined to ensure that the Procurement Bill is a step forward in transparency and how we handle conflicts of interest. I believe that it will help to give more reassurance on exactly that topic, but I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend if he has further ideas.
Government Departments: Best Practice
Recording and building on best practice is vital to improving how government operates. That is a challenge in a complex digital world where information and data are created at unprecedented rates, but one that we need to get right. I assure my hon. Friend that the civil service is required to maintain records that can be used to spread best practice.
If we do not learn the lessons of history, we can end up repeating the mistakes of the past. Given that Ministers and senior officials in Departments are regularly changing posts, will the Government ensure that each Department has a corporate memory so that new Ministers and officials can see what worked and what did not, and what lessons were learned, to help us to have the most efficient government that we can have in this country?
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. Under the civil service code, it is absolutely the case that proper records must be maintained so that people can learn from the past and pass that on, and I would always expect there to be professional handovers between teams. On his wider point, I am keen for civil servants to remain in post longer so that they can be judged on outcomes and have the time to follow through on projects, which is particularly important for senior responsible owners. There is also a role for departmental boards to be a repository of institutional knowledge and to ensure that that is communicated to new Ministers and officials as they come through.
The Cabinet Office is co-ordinating action to strengthen our nation’s resilience, including our energy security, cyber defences and industrial action contingencies. His Majesty the King’s coronation in May will be another significant milestone in the history of our nation. A coronation claims office has been created within the Cabinet Office to consider claims to perform historic or ceremonial roles in that ceremony. So far, more than 200 such claims have been received, and we will work with experts from the royal household to determine which will play a part in that historic day.
Shockingly, a survey found that one in 12 Public and Commercial Services Union members are having to use food banks. Yesterday, more than 100,000 civil servants took part in industrial action, principally over pay. What steps will the Government take to make a significantly improved offer so that they can reach a negotiated settlement for underpaid civil servants?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office continues to engage with the unions in constructive discussions about precisely those points, with a particular view to the forthcoming financial year. I also pay tribute to the overwhelming majority of civil servants who did not strike yesterday—only 12% participated —to ensure that essential public services continued uninterrupted.
I am deeply saddened, as my hon. and learned Friend is, by any interruption to our children’s education, particularly when they have suffered so much during covid. I pay tribute to the headteachers and others who ensured that about 90% of schools were open in one capacity or another so that our children continued to have an education—indeed, 70% of teachers did not participate in the strike. I hope that we continue to keep schools open on a voluntary basis, but if we cannot, we reserve the right, under the legislation passing through Parliament, to deem education an essential service that requires minimum service levels.
Last week the independent adviser revealed that the former Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), submitted his declaration of interests only in the last two weeks, some three months after his appointment and while he was in the eye of the storm. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell the House how many other Ministers are yet to submit their declarations and what steps he or the Prime Minister has taken to pursue them, and can he guarantee there are not yet more ministerial conflicts of interest waiting to emerge that he knows about either formally or informally?
I can assure the right hon. Lady that we are upholding high standards of transparency. The ministerial code requires such declarations to be made, and they are policed by the independent adviser, which the Labour party urged us to appoint and we appointed that person. Where there are failures, action is taken immediately, as we saw from the Prime Minister this weekend.
While we are on the subject of transparency, The Guardian has today revealed that the National Audit Office is due to meet the Cabinet Office this week to obtain details of public money spent on the former Prime Minister’s legal fees. The permanent secretary has already admitted a budget of £220,000 could have been exceeded, and the contract, which has already been extended once, could be extended again. Will the Minister publish the details of this arrangement and tell us who approved it and why—or, even better, can the Minister just put a stop to this insulting waste of public money all together?
The right hon. Lady will know that this was dealt with by the permanent secretary at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and the contract was published on Contracts Finder. It has always been the case that Ministers receive support in respect of their conduct in office after they have left office. That was extended to Ministers in the Conservative party and the Labour party. I will add that it is a good job that we did not extend it to former Leaders of the Opposition given the millions of pounds being spent by the Labour party defending itself against allegations of antisemitism.
It is a pleasure to take it, Mr Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He referred to the rapid response unit; what it was doing during the course of the pandemic was entirely sensible—trawling the whole of what is available publicly on social media to make certain we as the Government could identify areas of concern particularly regarding disinformation so that correct information could be placed into the public domain to reassure the public. I think that was an entirely reasonable and appropriate thing to do. I do not know about the specifics that my right hon. Friend asks about; I would rather not answer at the Dispatch Box, but my right hon. Friend has asked me to write to him and I certainly will.
As a fellow Hertfordshire Member of Parliament, I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the disruption to travel, particularly for commuters into London. That is precisely why our manifesto committed to bringing forward minimum service legislation. We are passing that legislation through the House in the teeth of opposition from Labour, and the reason for doing so is to ensure that our hard-working constituents can get on with their lives and livelihoods.
Ministers get around the table with unions all the time—the Education Secretary did precisely that earlier this week—but Ministers also owe a duty to hard working people in all four corners of our nation to ensure that minimum standards of public services are upheld for their safety, and we will continue to pursue legislation to that effect.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that that needs co-ordination. I am delighted to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has regular meetings to make certain that that co-ordination happens across Government. The levelling-up missions themselves are jointly monitored by my right hon. Friend and by the No. 10 policy unit to ensure that they are effective and we get bang for buck.
The Government take those allegations very seriously, which is precisely why we appointed a leading King’s Counsel with employment law experience to investigate it. I thought the Liberal Democrats believed in due process—we have a due process and we should allow that to take place.
Of course. The whole point of those surveys was that, when we set up the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and I came into this job, we were starting from a very poor position on data. We managed to get the question into the census to understand how many veterans we have in this country, and the ONS study that my hon. Friend mentioned increases the granularity of that data, to really understand what the challenges are for people transitioning. I am confident that the services provided now are much better than they were, but we are always looking to learn and I will look closely at the results of the survey.
Public procurement rules are the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. With the Procurement Bill, the Government are seeking to extend the scope of Government contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises, but I have always firmly believed that we also need to extend the number of advanced and higher-level apprenticeships as part of public procurement, so what more are the Government doing to get those high-level apprenticeships linked to contracts?
As a former Minister for apprenticeships, I share the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm. If he wishes to find out more about the Procurement Bill, he can join me and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) in Committee Room 10 on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the foreseeable future. He will hear us talk about social benefit and the social value embedded within it, and I hope apprentices will be part of that.
Stoke-on-Trent is proud to still be the largest recipient of the levelling-up funding announced to date, and the second-largest recipient of the Places for Growth programme, through which we now have 500 Home Office jobs coming to our great city, with 100 jobs recruited, another 160 being advertised and the office due to open in March at Two Smithfield, a regeneration site led by Councillor Abi Brown and her fantastic Conservative councillors on Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Councillor Brown and the Home Office on securing those important jobs for our local area and place on record my thanks to the Cabinet Office for all its hard work in making this achievement come true?
I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue, and I congratulate him and his area on achieving that huge goal. It is part of a process: since September last year 8,000 jobs have been relocated away from London, with all the associated benefits of people being close to the communities that they serve.
There is, literally, one rule for all normal MPs and another for Ministers in relation to transparency. All ordinary MPs must declare all their financial interests within 28 days, whereas, as has already been revealed, Ministers do it considerably later, if at all. Why do we have to wait until May to know what Ministers’ financial interests are? Only a few weeks ago, when we had a vote on this matter, the Leader of the House promised that she would ensure that all Ministers were held to the same timetable as other MPs. When is that going to happen?
Ministers are required, under the ministerial code, to provide full declarations, so I dispute the hon. Gentleman’s claim in that regard. However, he raises an important point which I have discussed with the Leader of the House. We are taking steps to move to more rapid declarations of ministerial interests so that they align more closely with the declarations of Members of Parliament, and we are working through those processes with our private offices.[Official Report, 20 February 2023, Vol. 728, c. 2MC.]
I know your appetite for short answers, Mr Speaker. As my hon. Friend says, Bryn Parry is not well at the moment. He founded Help for Heroes with his wife Emma back in the early days of the Afghanistan campaign, and his contribution to care for the veterans of this nation and what he has achieved over many, many years is unrivalled. He has changed hundreds of lives for the better, and he has a dear place in my heart and in the heart of the nation. I pay huge tribute to him and his work, and we are all thinking of him and his family at this difficult time.
In the three years since the United Kingdom left the European Union, almost all Brexit-related legislation has included sweeping Henry VIII powers, or other regulatory powers, for Ministers. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster give us an example of how democratic scrutiny and control have been taken back to this House rather than by Executive power grab?
There are a number of ways in which we are taking back control in this place following Brexit. The most obvious example is what is taking place in Committee Rooms in the House even as we speak, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has said. The Procurement Bill is a major step forward: it increases flexibility, and will help smaller companies for many years to come.
I apologise for not being here earlier, Mr Speaker.
Under my Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, the Ministry of Defence has a duty to ensure that all veterans leaving the armed forces are provided with a settled home, and are advised to approach their local authority. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the MOD keeps to its legal duty?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work on homelessness. There should be no homeless veterans in this country. Provision is generally available but, under Op Fortitude, we have procured £8.5 million-worth of services to deal with instances in which it is not. This will be a clear, dedicated pathway for those who are at risk of homelessness, providing wraparound support in supported housing. We are going to end veterans homelessness this year, and I look forward to briefing my hon. Friend on how we are going to do it.
The Institute for Government has suggested that publishing more policy advice from officials, publicly, would improve transparency, ministerial engagement and analysis. What assessment have Ministers made of that recommendation, and will it be implemented?
Every Minister relies on good and honest advice from our officials, and we are blessed with just that. It is up to Ministers to determine how that policy is then prosecuted, and to stand up to represent and defend it, and I believe that we need to preserve the privacy between the advice received and the decisions made by the Government. We as Ministers are responsible. I am grateful for the advice I receive, and I do not expect civil servants to defend it. I have to take the decision and I have to defend the advice, and I would rather stick to that position when it comes to how we are accountable to this place.
One in 10 people in the ex-services community face financial difficulties, as the Minister knows. According to research from the Royal British Legion, that is about 430,000 people. In the current crisis, the situation is only getting worse, and I am aware of that as well from my constituency. What steps will be taken to ensure that those former members of the armed forces are not left behind?
The issues facing the veterans’ community are no different from those faced by all people across the United Kingdom today with the cost of living challenge. There is help and support through the energy price cap scheme. Grants are available across the country, including specialised grants from groups such as the RBL, which has been working hard in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I pay tribute to them and we will continue to do all we can to support the most vulnerable through this very difficult time.
British Steel: Negotiations
First, let me begin by saying I understand that this must be a very concerning time for British Steel employees, following the discussions that took place between the company and union representatives yesterday. Of course, these are commercial decisions taken privately by the firm, and conversations with the unions are private.
We all recognise that Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has created challenging global trading conditions for steel, but it is very disappointing that British Steel has chosen to take this step for its employees while negotiations with the Government are ongoing. The Business Secretary and I have always been clear that the success of the UK steel industry is a priority. We have worked intensively with British Steel on support to help safeguard and unlock shareholder investment and will continue to do so. Steel is important for our economy, supporting local jobs and economic growth. We are committed to securing a sustainable and competitive future for the steel sector. I must put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) for all the insight and advice she provides to me as the Minister.
We have already taken action to protect the steel industry from unfair trade and reduce the burden of energy costs, including £800 million in relief for electricity costs since 2013. That is on top of a range of other support funds worth £1.5 billion to support efforts to cut emissions and become more energy efficient across the sector. It is firmly in the interests of the sector that we continue our engagement. We want British steel production to continue in the United Kingdom, to protect our steel sovereignty as a nation and build a stable, decarbonised and competitive industry. It is in the interests of employees, their communities and all areas of the UK that benefit from the UK steel supply chain, and I encourage the company to continue discussions with us to reach a solution.
I can confirm that the Government have put forward a generous package of support, which we believe, combined with shareholder action, would put British Steel on a sustainable and decarbonised footing. My officials are helping British Steel to understand that package in more depth, and I am hopeful that together we will find a solution that protects jobs while setting British Steel up for success. Obviously, decisions that the company takes are its commercial decisions, but I will continue to work with colleagues across Government to ensure that a strong package of support is available, including Jobcentre Plus and the rapid response service, if needed. Members across the House should be in no doubt of the Government’s determination to continue support for the UK steel industry, and I urge British Steel to continue discussions to help us secure its future in the UK.
As my hon. Friend has set out, in the midst of these negotiations with Government, involving hundreds of millions of pounds of further support on top of what she has listed, Jingye sat down yesterday with the unions and talked about laying off 800 British Steel workers. I do not want to break down my communications with British Steel, because I will fight for these jobs and continue to talk to it. Accordingly, I will temper my language today, but I want to be clear that I cannot and will not defend this decision, which is unacceptable in every possible way for my constituents. This is not a way to behave. It sends entirely the wrong message and breaches the spirit of negotiations, which I believe are the result of a level of Government focus on steel and its wider issues, including energy and carbon costs, that are genuinely encouraging for the industry.
Hundreds of families in Scunthorpe are worried sick, wondering if and when they will lose their jobs. I want to add that I am very capable of challenging the Government if I do not think they are going far enough on steel, but that is not what is happening here, and I hold the company entirely responsible for how it decided to act yesterday.
I ask the Minister to do three things, please. First, will she challenge the company on whether it is actually credible to run its operations with 800 fewer people? I have been told that it would not be possible to safely run the blast furnaces if that many team members were lost. Secondly, will she express in the strongest terms that this is not a way to do business and ask the company to immediately reconsider these potential redundancies? It is in its gift to do that, and if it publicly halted these redundancies, that would send a welcome and strong message to the community of which it is a part.
Thirdly, will the Minister reiterate this Government’s support for the thousands of world-class steelmakers in my patch, who are decent, hard-working, skilled members of our community? Will she tell them again today that we value their skills, we understand the importance of steel, we understand that we need it for every single thing we do in this country—from defence to growth—and that we are determined to do whatever it takes to make sure we do not become the only country in the G20 that cannot make its own steel?
Our lady of steel basically sums up the whole argument in her two minutes, and I do not disagree with much of what she has said. The decision to hold this meeting is a commercial one, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a peculiar way to do business, while we are in the middle of negotiations that will involve substantial amounts of Government support, which I will go on to describe.
I put on record, agreeing with my hon. Friend, that we make the finest steel in the world, and the steelworkers in the UK are the most skilled in the world. British Steel manufacturing is vital, and it cuts across everything we do, as well as issues around supply chain resilience brought on by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and issues around Chinese steel dumping. Steel is vital for our national security, just as it is for every sector involved in manufacturing and production. The Government are absolutely committed to the steel industry, and I will go on to describe that.
I make it clear that any decision that Jingye makes is a commercial decision, but it is our duty to make sure that if support is needed, we make it available, so our thoughts are first and foremost with employees and their families. We will work across Whitehall, whether that is standing up the Department for Work and Pensions rapid response service to support employees, working with the MoneyHelper scheme or working with the Department for Education’s National Careers Service.
I will spend a moment to explain the level of support that British Steel has already had. We have offered £120 million in grant funding through the exceptional regional growth fund to ensure that it can continue to work in the area. We have offered UK export finance to help it with new export contracts. In June, we extended UK Steel’s safeguards to protect domestic production. It has benefited from Government electricity price compensation for energy-intensive industries and the energy relief scheme for business. As I have mentioned, £800 million has been provided across the sector since 2013. It can also apply for help with energy efficiency, decarbonisation, low-carbon infrastructure, and research and development, where more than £1 billion is available in competitive funding for industry. The support is strategic and long term.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe raised three points. She asked me to challenge the company on the number of employees it needs to continue functioning in a safe and stable way. Of course, we will drive that message home, and we will make it clear in the strongest terms that this is not the way to do business. She knows that I was on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee for a few years, and we wrote a report on steel. Perhaps my language then was a little freer than I can be at the Dispatch Box. It is peculiar for this conversation to take place while we are in the middle of good negotiations, since the negotiations involve substantial taxpayer money. Obviously, these are sensitive negotiations, but I do not think that it is inappropriate for me to say that the Government want some assurances and guarantees linked to jobs. The message I want to send today is that we will continue to be available to ensure that discussions and negotiations continue.
I listed the huge support that the Government have already put in place for steel. If I may, I would like to share some of the other support available for the region in and around Scunthorpe. More than £20 million was given to Scunthorpe through the towns fund, and more than £10 million through the future high streets fund. More than £25 million in seed capital was given towards the Humber freeport, and more than £5 million to north Lincolnshire from the UK shared prosperity fund. I must put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe for being such a fantastic campaigner and for securing that funding for her constituency.
These are ongoing, sensitive negotiations. I hope everybody across the House, regardless of what they think of the Government’s record, will send the shared message that negotiations and discussions should continue. It is appropriate that within those discussions we should expect some assurances on job security.
I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) for securing this urgent question on an issue that affects not just the workers in her constituency but the future of a foundation industry across the UK.
In November last year, the iconic Redcar blast furnace—once the second largest in Europe—was demolished. Decades of work, tradition and pride needlessly went up in smoke. Here we are, yet again: another crisis under the Conservatives’ watch, with Liberty Steel announcing a number of weeks ago the potential loss of hundreds of jobs and yet more pain this week from British Steel. [Interruption.]
Liberty Steel bosses have described the UK steel sector as being “on life support”. No other developed country faces losing its domestic steel sector. If that were to happen here, it would be a badge of shame for this Government. It is entirely avoidable. Will the Minister outline the steps the Government are taking to secure the future of the Liberty and British Steel sites? She talked about the economic impact, but it is about more than that. It is about the fact that those sites have been at the heart of their communities for generations.
Earlier this month, there were reports that the Secretary of State wrote to the Chancellor requesting a bail-out for British Steel. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case and whether she and the Secretary of State are continuing to push for that? The last thing that the steel sector and the British taxpayer need is another blank cheque bail-out for a buyer, rather than a proper investor. We do not need more sticking plasters; we need a long-term plan.
The market wants green steel, so will the Government back Labour’s plan for green steel, invest in new technology over the coming decade, crowd in private investment and address the root of the problems, rather than play an ever more expensive game of whack-a-mole? Labour will always back our steel industry. It has a bright green future—something it will never get under the crisis management Conservatives.
I had hoped that the Opposition Front Bench spokesperson would support our ongoing desire for negotiations, and that she would ask why the redundancy conversations are taking place while negotiations are ongoing.
On Liberty Steel, on 20 July 2021 the then Business Secretary set out in his evidence to the BEIS Committee that we did not have adequate assurances to be confident that money offered to Liberty Steel would remain solely available to UK operations. It is important to note that that approach was commended in the Committee’s November 2021 report. Of course, I was on the Committee then, but it is important to note that the Committee is made up of Members from both sides of the House, so that was obviously an agreed position of colleagues across the House.
The hon. Member talked about the level of support that we are providing to the sector to ensure that it can reduce its emissions and take on board new technology to go as green as it can. We have more than £1.5 billion of long-term, strategic and focused support in place to help it to go green, cut emissions and become more energy-efficient. There is more than £1 billion for the carbon capture and storage infrastructure fund, more than £240 million for the net zero hydrogen fund, more than £55 million for the industrial fuel switching fund, more than £20 million for industrial decarbonisation research, £289 million for the industrial energy transformation fund and up to £66 million as part of the industrial strategy challenge fund. That is substantial funding to help the sector to be strategic and have structures in place to help it to reduce emissions, invest in new technology and decarbonise.
The hon. Member spoke about Labour’s plan, or the budget it has in place to help steel become green. I am not sure how that has been costed or tested. As I said in my statement, what is important is that we are putting forward a generous package of support. I hope that she agrees that, because it is taxpayers’ money, we should also have certain assurances, whether on job security, or that new technology to decarbonise is adopted. That is a sensible, strategic way to go forward.
The company has clearly acted in a most inappropriate and high-handed manner, and that affects not just the 800 workers directly employed at British Steel: my neighbouring constituency has many thousands of jobs dependent on the supply chain. Could the Minister assure us that the Government will give maximum support and recognise the importance of steel to the region as a whole?
My hon. Friend has always been a great advocate for all the jobs in his constituency, including those linked to the steel supply chain. That is why the sector is so important: the number of jobs that trickle through it is huge, and it is a foundation industry that supports every other manufacturing sector. We are negotiating as hard as we can to ensure that we get over the present hurdle and that we can go on and talk about other things, such as further procurement, which would be great news for the supply chain as well. Of course, if any decision is taken by the firm, it will be a commercial decision, and if any support is required for workers, across Whitehall, we will do everything we can to ensure that that support is available.
I have listened carefully to the Minister’s words, and she has regularly detailed the amount of public money that has gone in to support the steel industry in the United Kingdom, and said that these are commercial decisions and private discussions. I wonder though, with the renewed role for steel in the green energy transition, why the Government—I will say this, even if the Labour party will not—do not consider nationalising steel in the United Kingdom? If so much public money is going into the industry anyway and they recognise—the Minister has assured the House that they do—that steel is not just any other industry but a strategic asset for any developed economy, why does she not nationalise it?
Nationalisation is not going to solve any of the problems that we are talking about right now. The problems that the steel sector in the UK faces are the problems that it faces globally. It is unfortunate that the hon. Member thinks that nationalisation could be the answer to this or to everything. It would not make steel more competitive, it would close down the ability to raise money from capital markets, and the whole of the risk and burden would fall on the taxpayer, with no guarantee of a long-term, sustainable strategy. We are proposing to ensure that we have a long-term strategy which is providing support now. We provided support during covid. We are providing substantial support during the energy crisis, and there is a fund of more than £1 billion—£1.5 billion in total—to help with tackling emissions and energy costs. We have a long-term strategy in place.
I think the shadow Minister must have forgotten—I like her a lot, but I think she must have forgotten—who the Government were in 2009, when the mothballing of Teesside and the loss of 1,700 jobs commenced. I would hope that the Opposition do not use my constituents who are affected by this as political pawns in some game to try to bash the Government, because that would be pretty low. I know that the shadow Minister will not do that, and I hope others will not.
Everything British Steel has asked us to do as local MPs in the past few years we have done. We have gone out and fought for it to ensure our steel safeguards are protected and to ensure that, when the site ownership changed, hundreds of millions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money was offered to support the new buyers and to pay the salaries of our constituents during that period, and, of course, we have done everything they have asked us to do on energy costs. So I am as angry as my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) at the way in which our workers are being treated by Jingye. This is no way to conduct a negotiation with Government and it is no way to engage with its workforce or with local Members of Parliament, at a time when the Government have put hundreds of millions of pounds on the table to help to support the sector. So I can only join my hon. Friend in demanding that Jingye and British Steel show a bit more respect to our constituents and negotiate in good faith.
My hon. Friend, once again, nails the position that we are in. I know that the steel sector has such fantastic champions across the House. Since I have been in post, which is not very long, I have attended several meetings, briefings and debates in Westminster Hall, so I know it has fantastic champions, and it is a shame that those champions are feeling let down today. What is extraordinary is that there is a huge amount of growth coming down the line for steel. Demand for UK steel is expected to rise by 20%. Significant commercial opportunities are coming down the line. Once again, because British Steel has such fantastic champions and we have such superb MPs across the House, including my hon. Friend, they have been able to win some substantial deals for the sector. He mentioned steel safeguard measures. In 2022, we extended all 15 steel safeguard measures and agreed an extensive solution to the US section 232 tariffs, significantly increasing US market access for UK firms. The steel sector could not have better steel champions and, like them, I feel a bit let down today.
The point that was made relentlessly by hon. Members in last week’s steel debate, and we really appreciate what hard news this is for steel workers today, is that high production costs mean that UK steel is unable to be competitive in the international market. The Government support is not as generous as other countries’, and some of the list that the Minister read out is older money and it is across industry, not just for steel. So does the Minister understand that a long-term plan is needed to give our industry confidence?
Because we have invested so much in renewables, we know that there will be better energy costs coming down the line, but we have had £800 million for the steel sector since 2013. We know that policy is being reviewed, and we are going to make sure that support is just as substantial going forward. The UK offers a great place to have a steel sector, and we know that there are opportunities for growth. We know there is going to be a 20% increase in UK contracts, we are looking at procurement and we have a fantastic skilled workforce. There is support to help decarbonise and take away some of the costs of emissions, too. Support has been available—up to £800 million—and support will continue to be available.
In the BEIS Committee report the Minister referred to, we recognised that the ability to produce steel is fundamental to the existence of UK manufacturing, and it was good to hear the Minister’s commitments. We know that, in part, the future will be about making more use of recycling of previously used steel in electric arc furnaces, but could she say a bit more about the discussions that have taken place with the broader industry to secure its future here in the UK?
My hon. Friend was my neighbour when I was on the BEIS Committee: we sat next to each other every Tuesday morning for two years, so I saw more of him than I did of my husband. I take care of manufacturing and advanced manufacturing too, so conversations are taking place across the sector. My attention since being in post has fundamentally been on steel, on ensuring that we can get these negotiations over the line, and on how we can take the sector forward and ensure it is as competitive as it can be, in particular by looking at procurement and ensuring that the £1.5 billion fund is actually used by the steel sector, that it comes forward and tries to get hold of as much of that money as possible.
This crisis is facing British Steel today, but the rest of the UK steel industry may not be far behind. The Minister will know that I and other Opposition Members have raised on many occasions the cost of energy, which was a problem before Ukraine and covid—it has been going on for years and years, and this Government have done absolutely nothing about it. We need a long-term solution to the cost of energy for steel, not just these little pots of money that she keeps talking about.
We have had many meetings, and normally they are very respectful, but I must object to “little pots of money”. There has been £800 million of energy cost relief since 2013, with more money to come down the line, and £1.5 billion to help decarbonise. These are not little pots of money. Energy costs for the steel sector are an issue worldwide. We have a strategy and a fund in place, and this debate is about ongoing negotiations and the action that has been taken by this particular firm.
Does my hon. Friend agree that “little pots of money” seems a somewhat odd description, considering the £800 million since 2013 and lots of other support being available? Does she agree that holding the residents of Scunthorpe to ransom is a funny way of doing business? Does she also agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) has worked relentlessly and fought tirelessly to help her residents and is doing so again today?
“Ransom” is not my word, but it is an interesting way to explain what is going on. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe is the leading champion of steel across the industry. I was at a Westminster Hall debate last week, and I pointed out that I cannot turn around any corridor without her cornering me on steel. That is why the sector is so well represented in the UK and why we have put together support that has been valued at over £1.5 billion of grants to help it decarbonise, with £800 million to cover energy costs.
Negotiations are ongoing. My officials will be speaking to British Steel and Jingye today. It was interesting to hear what meetings took place yesterday. When we are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds of support for a firm, while it is in negotiations with Government, for it to have this sort of conversation is not the way that we tend to do business in the UK.
Steel is vital to help us move to net zero by, for example, extending our railways or building net zero homes, but the industry is also a major contributor to carbon emissions, and we know that the industry will only survive long term if it becomes sustainable. The Government recently gave the green light to the Cumbria coalmine, supposedly to support the steel industry. How does that sit with the Government’s claim that they are supporting the steel industry to go green?
I fear that the hon. Member would rather have coal imported and not worry about the cost or the emissions impact of that. The Secretary of State’s decision on the Cumbrian coalmine was made following a comprehensive planning inquiry that heard from over 40 different witnesses and considered matters such as demand for coking coal, climate change and the impact on the local economy. What is really important is that we have a resilient UK steel sector, and I will never apologise for that.
To safeguard our national strategic interest, it is imperative that this country maintains a capacity for steel production. The Minister has outlined the considerable package of support that the Government have already provided, not least the £800 million for energy costs over the last few years. Can she reassure the House that this Government will do everything they can to support this key industry?
Absolutely. That is why we are working so closely with the companies and the unions. I have met with the unions, most recently last week. Hopefully I am not divulging too much information, but they also claimed that they struggled to have good levels of communication with Jingye and British Steel, so it is not lost on all of us. We are very committed to the sector.
We have also been buying more British steel. In 2021-22, the Government procured £268 million of UK-produced steel for major projects, which was an increase of £160 million on the figure from the previous year—this is based on departmental reports. I have been the HS2 Minister, and I have always been concerned about why we could not procure more UK steel in our rail and road projects, and in all others, including those for shipping—I have also been maritime Minister. So there is even a greater future ahead. As I mentioned, the UK’s steel demand is going to rise by 20%; this is a good space to be in. We are just in a peculiar situation while we are having ongoing negotiations, and the decision was taken to have this meeting with the unions yesterday.
I know that the Minister is sympathetic, but Ministers across Government need to realise that this is a crucial time for steel companies, as they are making decisions about where to invest for the future worldwide. What discussions has she had with colleagues across Government about giving guarantees that far more than £300 million will be there for developing the steel technologies of the future, that there will be a proper Government procurement strategy for British steel and that there will be a fair deal on energy prices for the future?
I appreciate that this is a very tricky moment for the sector, as it is worldwide. We have spoken about this previously, and it is incredibly important for us to get it right. We have been focused on the present real-time negotiations. Let me put it on record that we are, as always, available to continue those discussions and we are hoping that they will continue regardless of the announcement of the discussions that took place yesterday. I cannot stress enough the long-term and strategic benefit of having a £1.5 billion fund in place to help us decarbonise—that is providing a huge amount of support.
We have spoken previously about procurement, and when I moved away from BEIS Committee after, I realised how life comes at you fast when you are a Minister and you cannot commit to the recommendations you made in your report. However, we are working hard on procurement, too. We want to make sure that there is more British steel in our defence projects. Let me put it on record that the Ministry of Defence purchased £4.3 million of UK-produced steel through its contracts in 2020-21, which is an increase of 42%, from £3 million in 2019-20. There is a huge market here, which is why we are so committed to ensuring not only that we negotiate well, because this is about British taxpayers’ money, but that we have the right resources and infrastructure in place for a long-term future for British steel.
The announcement and news will be frustrating for my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), who has worked so hard, and for neighbouring constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who has worked with the supply chain. We are all conscious of the strategic importance of steel, the need to modernise the industry and the impact of energy costs on the profitability of the business. As the Minister says, there is a positive future demand for steel. So will she confirm from the Dispatch Box that there is direct ministerial contact with British Steel’s owners, Jingye, and perhaps also with the China Chamber of Commerce in the UK, so that the importance of this partnership is stressed and the need for a successful outcome to the negotiations is made very clear?
Not only are my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes and for Scunthorpe huge champions for steel, but they have good relationships with Ministers, unions and workers locally. I could not be better supported, which is why I am committed to ensuring that I deliver the best package for the steel sector that I can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) talked about ministerial engagement with Jingye; I do not have all the dates in front of me, but there is engagement from the Secretary of State downwards, and of course I have meetings as well. Officials will be holding meetings with British Steel and others, too, so meetings do take place regularly. I will do my best to put together some more dates and write to him so that he knows the exact number of meetings taking place and at what level.
The green freeport announcement for the Cromarty firth is very welcome. Our dream is to build floating offshore wind structures in the Cromarty firth, at the Nigg yard, where I once used to work. We want to build them out of British steel, not steel from any other country. Our hopes, wishes and aspirations are for that to happen, so may I wish the Government all the best in sorting this situation out? I do not want to see my constituents’ hopes dashed. We need that steel, including for the future of my constituency.
The hon. Member has hit on two of my favourite topics: freeports and the Maritime 2050 strategy, which I launched when I was the maritime Minister. He has all my support, and I am grateful for his support with ensuring that we get the best possible negotiations over the line as soon as we can. It is unfortunate that the discussions took place yesterday.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we find a way to ensure that steel is produced sustainably, right here in the UK, so that we can deliver new renewable industries such as floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea, particularly as shipping steel in creates additional supply chain emissions?
Absolutely. I think the argument is sometimes lost when people say that we can bring steel in. Why would we want to do that when we have a sector right here? People do not often calculate the cost or the impact on the environment. We have put together substantial funding to help the industry take new technology on board, reduce emissions and decarbonise. I must say that when I have had meetings with those in the sector, they have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and meet net zero targets. That is why we want to work hand in hand with them.
On TV this morning, a journalist carefully outlined the case with reference to discussions between the Government and British Steel’s Chinese owners. I echo what the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said about the supply of British steel; its supply to Northern Ireland is so important for the construction sector. What is forcing companies to look elsewhere is the increase in price, not a desire for a better product—the best product is British steel. Will the Minister commit to working with the industry to fund more efficient technology and mechanisms, and subsequently to aid the production of cheaper materials to maintain affordable buildings and enhance the British steel sector?
Our steel industry has suffered as a result of unfair international competition for many years, because Governments all over the world have been subsidising their own steel industries. My hon. Friend referred to our steel industry’s bright future and the potential 20% increase. Does she agree that it is an absolute business nonsense to lay off highly skilled staff at a time when the order book is likely to fill up?
That is why it was so peculiar to be made aware of the conversations that took place yesterday. Opportunities are coming down the line and we know that there will be huge demand for more UK steel. Grants are available to help with cutting the cost of adopting new tech and decarbing. The Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), is next to me on the Front Bench, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that we can export. It is a peculiar period to be having discussions with the unions, while we are in the middle of negotiations and we know that the sector will only improve.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 6 February will include:
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.
Tuesday 7 February—Remaining stages of the Seafarers’ Wages Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
Wednesday 8 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Thursday 9 February—A debate on the independent review of net zero, followed by a general debate on parliamentary services for Members. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
The House will rise for recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 9 February and will return on Monday 20 February.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business.
This week, the International Monetary Fund announced that the UK is the only advanced economy forecast to shrink this year. Even sanctions-hit Russia is performing better than us. Why, then, was the Chancellor not in his place on Tuesday to answer Labour’s urgent question? He needs to address the concerns raised by MPs on behalf of people who do not know how they are going to pay for a holiday this year, or how they will ever get round to servicing the boiler or making the home improvements they have been putting off. Some are simply worried about how they will pay the bills.
Britain has huge potential and people with great talent but, under the Tories, we are all being held back. Labour will get the economy growing with our green prosperity plan and our active partnership with businesses, which I know from our packed-out international trade reception earlier this week are turning to Labour in their droves. Has the Leader of the House considered a debate on boosting export-led growth? Under Labour we would have a growing economy and better public services.
Labour’s motion on Tuesday called for the abolition of the unfair tax break that the super-rich use to avoid paying their fair share: non-dom tax status. The next Labour Government would instead use the money to train a new generation of NHS and social care workers, and to provide breakfast clubs for every primary-aged child in England. I understand there are around 100 non- doms in the constituency of the Leader of the House, so why is she choosing to give her super-rich constituents an unfair tax break over providing for Portsmouth’s children and reducing her local NHS waiting lists?
Speaking of the economy, the Business Secretary has, according to media reports, taken great offence at my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones)—I cannot understand why—for putting perfectly legitimate questions to him on the economy at a session of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee last month. Think about that: questions on the economy to the Business Secretary. That is hardly a curveball. Apparently, the scrutiny annoyed him so much that he is not co-operating with the Committee on national security. We need parliamentary scrutiny by the Committee on the blocking of foreign takeovers of British companies on national security grounds, which can happen only once the Government have published a memorandum of understanding, for which the Committee has been waiting for more than a year.
I cannot believe I have to say this, but national security is not a game. This playground politics should be beneath senior members of the Government. Does the Leader of the House agree that Cabinet Ministers who will not do their job properly because robust questioning has hurt their feelings are simply not up to it? Will she urge the Business Secretary to act in the national interest, and for national security, by co-operating with my hon. Friend and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee so that we can have proper parliamentary scrutiny of this important process?
Finally, it has been five years since the damning report on the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 people lost their lives. In all that time, the Government have not provided a response and Ministers have not committed to changing the law to protect future victims of public disasters. Families have spent decades fighting for the truth, yet they are still waiting for justice, despite the tireless campaigning of the bereaved, my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and so many others. Labour has long called for the introduction of a Hillsborough law to give real protection to victims of future public disasters and their families. We need urgent action, not further painful delay.
Just this Tuesday, the Home Secretary could not even provide a timetable for a response. A Home Office Minister later said that we can expect it in the spring. Could the Leader of the House please be more specific? The Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood, is due back in the House tomorrow. As a lasting legacy for the Hillsborough families, will the Leader of the House support it?
I start by echoing the many sympathies and sentiments that hon. Members have expressed at the sad death of firefighter Barry Martin. I am sure all Members in the Chamber today will want to echo those sentiments.
On a more cheerful note, I wish all the home nations good luck in the Six Nations, which kicks off this weekend.
The Hillsborough inquiry and its findings were well done, and what we have done was the right thing to do. I know this is a huge concern to many Members, and I will never forget our debates and the incredible emotional stories that many Members told about that tragic day. I understand that ongoing police inquiries are the reason for the delay. Certainly, given what the hon. Lady has said—I am sure that this is also what other Members would want me to do—I shall write to the Home Office and ask it to contact her and other Members who have expressed an interest to update them on progress.
I thank hon. Members for supporting the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill this week. I am delighted to say that we have introduced the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill this week, and I hope that all Members will support it. I also welcome the announcements on the environmental improvement plan, as well as the health and social care improvement plan and today’s important announcement on children’s social care.
The hon. Lady asks me about growth. I would be happy to compare the Labour party’s record, and the state in which it leaves the UK when it leaves office, with what we have done on business growth. She will know that in previous years, we have had one of the fastest growth rates, in part because we came out of lockdown earlier than others. That is largely what she is seeing.
The hon. Lady talks about the cost of living. One of the things that the Prime Minister has delivered on is £26 billion-worth of cost of living support. Exports are growing, and if she wants that to speed up and continue, perhaps she will support the legislation we are introducing to modernise our economy—the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill—and be a bit more encouraging and positive about the from-scratch trade deals and memorandums of understanding that the Department for International Trade is doing. I expect the Opposition to welcome our accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, which will open up a £9 trillion market to our constituents.
The hon. Lady should look into Labour’s record. She will not know my own constituency as well as I do, but when it comes to getting people into employment, doubling their personal tax allowance thresholds, the new schools that we have built, the vast improvements to the local hospital—it had one of the worst MRSA records in the country—or the maladministration of pension credit and tax credit, every index, including the recent Bloomberg index on levelling up, says that my constituency is doing very well. That is, in very large part, down to the hard work of my fantastic constituents.
The hon. Lady raises the issue of national security. I would like to make a comparison between our records on defence and national security, and perhaps compare our current national security architecture with Labour’s, but Labour had no such architecture. The National Security Council was set up under a Conservative Government.
I am responding to business questions on the Prime Minister’s 100th day in office. During that time, as well as providing the cost of living package that I mentioned earlier, he has stabilised the economy and invested billions in schools, the NHS and social care. We have also passed much legislation—[Interruption.] As the hon. Lady is calling out, I will be generous. Although I am sorry that we do not have the Opposition’s support on minimum service standards, modernising our regulatory framework or reducing stamp duty, I thank them for what they have supported; there is quite a lot of it.
Of the Financial Services and Markets Bill, the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), said:
“The Opposition support this important piece of legislation”.—[Official Report, 7 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 468.]
The shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill:
“The Bill, which the Labour party strongly supports, has got much better”.—[Official Report, 7 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 55.]
Of the National Security Bill, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) said:
“I rise to confirm that the Labour party supports the Third Reading of this Bill.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 792.]
Ditto on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, the Online Safety Bill, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, the Seafarers’ Wages Bill and the Procurement Bill. If we are doing such a bad job, why does Labour end up supporting our Bills? I do not know.
On the Leader of the Opposition’s 100th day, one of his own MPs remarked that he did not have a clue what the Leader of the Opposition stood for. I suggest to the hon. Lady opposite that 1,034 days since her leader took the helm, that charge still stands.
What we did not hear is that when Labour was last in Government, it halved the number of first-time house buyers, but while the Tories have been in Government it has doubled again.
I regret that the Government have not even got a strategy for pensions uprating, let alone decided to change the appalling decision that half our overseas pensioners will not get increases. Legal sophistry is not good enough; we ought to have a plan or strategy to change that. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will talk to her colleagues and ask them to talk to me and to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) about that.
May I also say that the Government really must have a debate on planning? In a one-mile stretch of road in my constituency, outside the local councils’ plans there are applications to build on Highdown Vineyard, Lansdowne Nursery, Rustington golf course, the land north of Goring station at Roundstone, and now between Ferring and East Preston. If developers can make those proposals outside both local councils’ plans and may then appeal to the Government’s inspectors, that is wrong. We ought to debate that and get it changed.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising those points. Questions to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be on the day the House returns, but I will also write on his behalf to the Department for Work and Pensions and make sure it has heard his remarks today. I know it is a long and ongoing campaign and that many Members of the House would agree with the sentiments he has expressed.
I thank the House for its thoughts and best wishes for the family, friends and colleagues of Barry Martin, who lost his life bravely fighting a fire in my constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith.
The recent impartiality review of the BBC suggests that its reporters receive training in economics—not a bad idea. Should the Leader of the House not introduce some training in economic literacy for Ministers? It might prevent over-budget blunders such as the Ajax armoured vehicle programme, which is six years overdue, with costs of £3.2 billion so far and not a single deployable vehicle delivered; or HS2, where it is suggested that even what remains of the line could cost twice the latest official price tag of around £71 billion.
The Leader of the House speaks of stabilising the economy. Who can ever forget the Budget catastrophe of ’22, which cost us all more than £70 billion, or the double-counting of shared prosperity funds? It might even stop the rather misleading and lazy criticisms peddled every year by opposition parties about reserves in the Scottish Government’s capped budget. Is it any surprise that the UK is now the worst-performing economy in the G7? I will tell you who can get their sums right: oil and gas companies, whose obscene profits balloon while some of our most vulnerable citizens suffer. Let us have a debate on whether the call for maths to be compulsory for young people in England until they are 18 should be applied retrospectively to Ministers as well.
Lastly, this week sees Brexit’s third birthday. Its arrival was welcomed with joy and acclamation from the Government Benches, but now it seems it is naebody’s child. Yesterday we heard the Prime Minister deny that it had any impact on the cost of living crisis, but that is not what the London School of Economics says. Its research shows that Brexit caused a 6% increase in food prices over just two years, and the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that Brexit will cost every person in the UK on average £1,200. Where are the debates taking a clear-eyed look at its impacts?
Scotland, opposed to Brexit from the outset, is being told by both the Tories and Labour that there is no way back and that we should just sink with the rest of the Brexitanic. There is a way back, Mr Deputy Speaker, but only with the powers of independence will we find a way back to our friends and family in the EU. I hope they leave the light on for us.
I clocked earlier that the SNP’s theme of the week was Brexit. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) made the same point yesterday when he invoked the metaphor of an SNP lifeboat saving the good people of Scotland from Brexit. Leaving aside the fact that, based on the SNP’s attempts to procure ferries, any lifeboat that it procured would be likely to cost three times the contract price and never materialise, I would say that Scotland does not need such a lifeboat. Rather, Scotland needs a Scottish Government whose main modus operandi is not talking down their own nation; it needs a Government who take responsibility. The hon. Lady invites me to talk about economics and wishes that Ministers had better economics lessons, but the Scottish Government have not even managed to spend their planned budget. Instead, they have an underspend of £2 billion.
I do my homework and I am always interested to learn, so I went on to the Scottish Government’s website to see what they say about the economy. Clearly, growth levels have not been what they were in previous years, so I wanted to look up what they thought the reason for that was. According to the website, it was:
“Due to the requirement for many industries to cease trading during the lockdown for COVID-19”—
nothing about Brexit or us rotters in the UK Government. It was down to covid, as the hon. Lady knows well.
The hon. Lady also knows that the UK shared prosperity fund has maintained funding to Scotland post Brexit. She knows about the Edinburgh reforms, the Financial Services and Markets Bill, and the reforms to Solvency II, which will mean so much to financial services firms in her constituency. She knows that figures reported in autumn last year show that exports in Scotland are up by £3 billion since 2018, in current prices. She knows how the green freeports will help to drive growth, and she knows that we will shortly open up an enormous, multitrillion-pound market for producers in Scotland through our accession to the CPTPP.
The whole UK has been through the mill, but we are coming through it and the future is bright. There are massive opportunities, and I invite the hon. Lady to talk them up and to talk her nation up. If the SNP was coaching the Scottish Six Nations team, it would have told them to stay in their dressing room and tied their laces together. I encourage her to be a little more positive about the future, as her constituents should be.
Since November 2021, I have been assisting my constituent, Mr Paul Barford, regarding his concerns about the quality of care that his late father, Joseph Barford, received from the NHS and about the way in which the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman dealt with his complaint. Indeed, I, too, experienced an unacceptably slow response from the PHSO. The ombudsman plays an important role in dealing with complaints about Government Departments, but there is too little accountability to Parliament. In the light of the concerns raised by Mr Barford, I would be grateful if the Leader of the House could find the necessary time for a general debate on the standards of the PHSO and, more generally, the accountability of ombudsmen and regulators to Parliament.
I am sorry to hear about that case and the difficulty that my hon. Friend and his constituent, Mr Paul Barford, have had in raising concerns about his father Joseph’s care. My hon. Friend will know that the ombudsman is accountable to Parliament through the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which holds an annual scrutiny session to evaluate its performance. If he agrees, I shall write to that Committee and to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to let them know about the case and to see what can be done to improve scrutiny.
First, I have an apology from the Backbench Business Committee. We had proposed to hold a debate this afternoon on 25 years of Welsh devolution, but following consultation with the lead member concerned and general agreement from everyone we spoke to, we thought it appropriate to postpone that debate given the very sad loss of First Minister Mark Drakeford’s beloved wife Clare earlier this week. We send our sincerest condolences to Mark and his family.
I have been contacted by many constituents on the following issue. Given the cost of living crisis and in particular the cost of fuel and vehicle maintenance and insurance, may we have a statement from the Chancellor on whether the Treasury intends to review and revise the approved mileage allowance payments of 45p? Many employees assist their employers by using their own vehicles for work purposes, and employers can of course at their own discretion pay above the AMAP rate but those payments may then be subject to tax and national insurance implications. These mileage payments go to many categories of workers including domiciliary care workers and peripatetic health staff. This is an important part of looking after people; people receive these payments for driving their own car. May we have a review and a statement? That would be greatly welcomed by hard-pressed workers who must use their own vehicles for work.
Lastly, given the Leader of the House’s Portsmouth constituency, will she congratulate Newcastle United on defeating Southampton on Tuesday night and therefore being on the way to Wembley to play Manchester United at the end of February in the League—or Carabao—cup final?
First, I echo the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments about Mark Drakeford and the sad loss he has suffered. I very much understand the decision to move that debate.
I will certainly make sure the Treasury has heard the hon. Gentleman’s concerns today, but I point out that the next Treasury questions are on 7 February and I suggest that he raises the matter there.
The hon. Gentleman knows the staff in my office well and he will not be surprised to learn that the football match he referred to was very much in our minds earlier this week and there was much cheering emanating from our office.
London Councils recently published a report about school places in London highlighting that constituencies such as mine, whose London Borough of Hillingdon has seen a 15% reduction in the number of primary school children, face a serious challenge of overcapacity. At the same time the report highlights a serious shortage of places for children with special educational needs and disabilities across the capital. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate to discuss solutions, which might include greater openness among mainstream schools to taking children with special educational needs and disabilities and opportunities for local authorities to open their own SEND schools where multi-academy trusts have been able to do so in their locality?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. As the next Education questions are not until 27 February, I will write on his behalf and make sure the Department has heard his concerns. He is absolutely right that it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that every child can reach their full potential. He will know that increasing support for children and young people who need extra support and have special education needs is a priority for the Department and I will certainly make sure it contacts my hon. Friend to see what more can be done for his constituents.
It gives me no pleasure at all to say that if the coroner service in Manchester was a school or a hospital trust it would be in special measures: the coroner service is statistically bottom of the list in England. The reason appears to be that the coroner’s mental capacity has been challenged and he is subject to accusations of sexual harassment. I make no judgment about the validity of those claims, only about the time it is taking to resolve them. Those issues have been outstanding for two years and bereaved families in Manchester need a better service. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on how issues such as mental capacity and matters of internal discipline can be dealt with more efficiently and quickly?
I am very sorry to hear about the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes. He is quite right that it is about not just the functioning of bureaucracy but families facing unresolved issues and the additional trauma of not being able to move on from a tragedy that has occurred. Given that the next questions for the Ministry of Justice is a little way off, I will write on his behalf to ensure that the Secretary of State hears those concerns and ask him to contact the hon. Gentleman.
Last week I met the Football Foundation and Pannal Ash Junior football club in my constituency. Pannal Ash Juniors is a fantastic local club, which started with just six boys and now has more than 500 boys and girls playing football, and has been built up over many years by former Conservative councillor, now club president, Cliff Trotter. I want to see all children, regardless of age or ability, being able to take part in sporting activities and climb the football pyramid. Can we have a debate about increasing access to and participation in grassroots sport, for all the benefits sport brings and to help to find the next generation of England’s Three Lions and Lionesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point and putting on record the tremendous success of that football club and how much we owe to Cliff and other individuals who have enabled it to happen. We recently had a debate on community sport, but the issue is raised pretty much every week, so I am sure that if my hon. Friend applied for a debate, it would be well attended.
The position of the Church of England bishops on same-sex marriage is causing very real “pain and trauma” to many gay Christians. I hope the bishops will back reform in the end,
“allowing parishes and clergy to conduct weddings for same sex couples”.
I know the Leader of the House agrees, because I am quoting her words from her letter to her local bishop, for which I commend her. I suggest two ways we could progress. First, every one of us who goes to a gay marriage this year could take a bishop along so that they get to know and share in the love—you are bound to be going to one, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am sure the Leader of the House is going to several this year. Secondly, the Church of England and the General Synod were established by statute, agreed by the House of Commons. Will she allow time—as I suspect this would be the view of the whole House—for legislation to push the Church of England into allowing same-sex marriages to be conducted by parishes and clergy who want to do so, if Synod does not act?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I know many people will ask why we are concerned about such matters in this place and say that surely it is not a matter for us, but a matter for the Church; I would point them to the large number of letters we all receive, not just from parishioners, but from members of the clergy. I understand why this is a focus for many Members across the House. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), responded to an urgent question on this matter, and I refer hon. Members to that. As politicians, we perhaps more than most appreciate the difficulty of the judgments that the Church needs to make in this respect, but I know there have been meetings this week both in Parliament and with the legal profession about the implications of this decision. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I know this is an issue that many Members of this House will wish to pursue.
Today is the deadline for outer London local authorities to sign up to dictator Khan’s unreasonable demands to erect cameras and other signage in their boroughs for the ultra low emission zone. Given that that decision will affect more or less the whole south-east of England, with councils all over the region concerned about their residents driving into London, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate in Government time, so that we can express our view and send a very strong message to dictator Khan that he should not be implementing this policy—[Interruption.]
The title that the hon. Gentleman gave the Mayor of London is causing some disquiet across the Chamber. The Mayor of London is not a dictator. The Mayor of London can be voted out of office, and I would encourage people to do that, because I think that some of the policies he has implemented are causing immense difficulties, not just to residents but to businesses in London and outside, and not just in surrounding boroughs but in constituencies such as mine where tradesmen need to come into London. We have to enable people to make such transitions, and I think that—particularly at this point, when they have little liquidity in their businesses and households—a more sensible and considered approach might be appropriate.
The decision to allow Bristol airport’s expansion flies in the face of local democracy and action on net zero. The expansion will produce an extra 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, double what is currently emitted by the rest of Bristol’s transport. The Government’s planning rules have allowed this to happen, putting airport expansion ahead of net zero, although the Climate Change Committee recommended no net expansion of airport capacity. May we have a debate in Government time on how expanding airports such as Bristol accords with the UK’s net zero targets?
The hon. Lady has raised a matter that is clearly very important to her constituents. In all decisions such as this, we have to balance economic growth, and the ability to make the transition to a higher-wage economy and level up the country, with the legally binding net zero targets to which we are committed. I think that this matter has been largely dealt with at a local level, but I shall ensure that the relevant Department is aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns.
Following the disgraceful antisemitic abuse directed at the football fan Katie Price earlier this month, may we have a debate on the so-called Y-word, so that the House can send the clear message that this is a vile racist slur which has no place in football or in wider society?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. I was also pleased to see swift action this week with regard to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), who apologised—rightly, and all credit to her for doing so—for the totally unjustified and appalling remarks that she had made about Israel.
I thank the Leader of the House for confirming that on Wednesday the House will debate the local government and police grants. As she will know, local authorities are in the advanced stages of preparing their budgets for next year, but the public health grants for 2023-24 have still not been announced. Local authorities in England with health and wellbeing responsibilities desperately need to know what their funding allocations for public health will be next year as they set their budgets. Can the Leader of the House explain the delay, and tell us when we can expect that announcement?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I am very happy to write to the Department and get them not just to contact the hon. Gentleman, but to make the timetable for that clear. It is important that we give people the information they need to plan, and I am sure that the information will be forthcoming very soon.
It is the case that the ultra low emission zone scandal is getting worse and worse by the day. Not only were the majority of Londoners ignored in the consultation and not only is there a lack of evidence on air quality, but now, according to a freedom of information request and media reports, it appears that the Mayor of London may have lied to the London Assembly. Can we have a debate, in Government time, about the integrity of public consultations—[Interruption.] We can hear Opposition Members groaning, and it is notable that not a single London Labour Member is in the Chamber. May we have a debate about the integrity of public consultations, about holding the Mayor of London to account and about the powers of the London Assembly?
I understand that there are very serious concerns over not just the decision that was made, but how it was arrived at. I thank my hon. Friend for getting those concerns on the record today. The real damage that this is doing to many small businesses across the capital and elsewhere, the knock-on effects on household income and the ability of those companies to get on the front foot are incredibly serious. It is understandable that people want to scrutinise how these decisions were arrived at. I thank him for getting that on the record today.
Just before turning to my question, the Leader of the House quoted me at the Dispatch Box at the start of her contribution, outlining our support for the National Security Bill. I politely point out that she did leave out the bit where I had to come to this House to make a point of order, as I was concerned that the Bill Committee for that really important legislation had to be adjourned twice, largely because there were three different Government Ministers during the Committee, two of whom resigned because they fell out with the leadership of the Conservative party. It is a good job that we on these Benches supported that legislation; if it had been left to this Government, thanks to their ineptitude, it would probably still be in the Committee corridor.
Turning to my question, the Leader of the House will be aware that Shell announced record profits of £32 billion, which is the highest profits to date in its 115-year history. She will understand that that is utterly galling for so many of our constituents who are really struggling to pay their energy bills. Will she make time for a debate to consider the firm action that we all now need to see from this Government to make sure that those energy companies are working for their customers and not just exclusively for their shareholders?
I reiterate what I said in my opening remarks: I am incredibly grateful for the support that the hon. Lady and her colleagues have given to the lion’s share of legislation that we have introduced. I hope that that trend will continue as we bring forward critical legislation, such as that to stop small boats, and I encourage the Opposition to continue in that way.
With regard to energy companies, the hon. Lady will know that the Government have taken action not just to support households through the cost of living crisis —£26 billion-worth of support brought in by the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State—but to ensure that energy companies are acting in good faith in passing on cost of living measures to bill payers and also that people will not be pushed on to prepayment meters. The Department and Ofgem have taken action on that front.
Bringing the vision of floating offshore wind to reality in the Celtic sea has been the work of the Celtic sea all-party parliamentary group, which I chair, and so many businesses in the Celtic Sea Developer Alliance. Will my right hon. Friend advise how we can ensure that the Government deliver a strike price in the current auction round that enables this to happen as there are growing concerns that officials behind the scenes would prefer a failed auction round rather than start at an achievable strike price. A failed auction round would lead to investment in this vital new technology going overseas. May we have a debate on this in Government time, or can my right hon. Friend suggest more rapid alternatives to ensure success in this auction round so that floating offshore wind becomes a reality and we hit net zero by 2050?