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Business of the House

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 2 February 2023

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?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising those concerns. Given that the next departmental questions are not until late February, I will write on her behalf to the Department and ensure that her very understandable concerns have been heard.

Last month, Labour Councillor Jack Hemingway proposed a successful motion to Wakefield Council calling for urgent action on sewage discharges in our rivers and lakes. He spoke about the River Calder in my constituency, where, on a three-mile stretch from Horbury Bridge to the M1, there have been over 400 sewage and waste water discharges, pouring out the equivalent of 100 whole days a year. Even Wakefield’s Conservative group supported the motion. May we please have a statement from the Environment Secretary on what she will do to crack down on water companies and stop sewage being discharged into our waterways for good?

This issue affects the constituents of many Members across the House. I will certainly ensure that the Secretary of State has heard the hon. Gentleman’s request for an update, but what the Government are doing to ensure that storm overflows and discharges are ended for good is very clear. He will know that there is no piece of legislation that can switch off overflows. The only thing that will stop them is investment in infrastructure. That is why there is now a statutory duty on companies to bring forward an infrastructure plan and they are doing that. The only reason he can quote those statistics accurately is because instead of 6% of storm overflows being monitored, as was the case when we came into office, 100% now are. We want to improve the monitoring of those systems. The Government have gripped this issue and change is happening. In short order, we will end storm overflows for good by investing in the infrastructure needed to bring that an end.

I congratulate Stoke-on-Trent-based charity Helping Angels on opening up Café Indi at The Pavilion in Burslem’s grade II listed Victorian park. The café, supported by the local ward councillor, Lesley Adams, provides inclusive work placements and volunteering opportunities to adults and young people with autism and Down’s syndrome, for example, to gain experience in hospitality, build their confidence, enhance their life skills and help them transition into paid employment. Will my right hon. Friend come to visit both Helping Angels and Café Indi in the weeks and months ahead, and will she make time in this place for us to debate how we can help more people with learning needs and disabilities into the workforce so they can have a better and fuller life?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point and join him in congratulating Helping Angels on all the work it is doing to ensure that those individuals can reach their full potential, and have the dignity of a pay packet and all the good things that come with having a job and a good workplace. I am always open to invitations from hon. Members, but I might extend one to Helping Angels. From my conversations with Mr Speaker, I know that he is very keen, particularly in catering, that we offer more opportunities to exactly these sorts of fantastic individuals to potentially come and work here in the Palace of Westminster. The Minister with responsibility for disabled people is organising and facilitating some visits, and I am sure we can make sure that Helping Angels gets an invitation, too.

My constituent Eugene was granted permission to resettle in Bellshill under the Ukrainian family scheme. Thankfully, he is now living safely in my constituency. However, his wife remains in Ukraine alone, under cruel Russian occupation. After five months of waiting and still no update on why her application has not been approved, will the Leader of the House commit to assisting me in resolving this case? Can she find some time to debate, on the Floor of the House, why the sheer inadequacies of the Home Office are causing loved ones, like my constituent’s and those of hon. Members’ constituents across the House, to be separated in a needless and cruel manner?

I am very sorry to hear about that case. If the hon. Gentleman will pass on to my office the details and his correspondence to date with the Home Office, we will help him to look into it today. It is very important that, if there is no valid reason for someone to be in that situation, it is sped up and families can stay together. The work to ensure that we support Ukrainian people and children unable to stay in country and be safe, under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and other schemes, has been a huge success and a very positive and innovative step forward. That is why it is very disappointing when we hear of such cases, which are certainly not the norm, but we will do everything we can to get the situation resolved for the hon. Gentleman very swiftly.

The Leader of the House rightly referred to this week’s announcement of the urgent and emergency care recovery plan, and I note that in Gloucester the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust’s category 2 response times have halved since the Christmas period, the average time lost per day to handovers is down by two thirds, and its internal rating has moved from red to black for the first time in two years. Alongside Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust coming out of business continuity measures, I hope we will see further improvements, and I am grateful to those who are working so hard to improve public services, which include nationally, by the way, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Passport Office, on which my office has recently received thanks from constituents for recent service. Will my right hon. Friend agree to find time to update the House on improving public services, as well as analysis of the impact of strikes on their performance?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving us all the opportunity to say thank you to all those individuals who work in those services, whether that is the NHS, passports, the DVLA or other areas of Government. They have had a hell of a job in catching up after covid. For passports, for example, just at the end of last year more than 95% of standard applications were processed in the 10-week period. With the DVLA, there are no delays now for vehicles and standard driving licence applications. With the NHS, huge progress has clearly been made on elective recovery, GP appointments and cancer referrals. Cancer referrals are currently the highest on record. That is down to the hard work of those public servants, and we should thank them. The Government want to focus our energy on what is still left to be done, but it is very good that we have been able to say thank you today.

I know that the Leader of the House will fully understand and share the concerns expressed by Members right across the House about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, not least the terrible treatment of women and girls. I know that she will also understand the importance of continuing to engage with a country that collectively we have invested so much in. Will there be an opportunity, at some point in the not-too-distant future, to debate future UK Government policy with regard to Afghanistan, not least given the concerns that exist about the continuation of official development assistance to that country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this huge concern. We have a duty towards the people in that country, many of whom stepped up and were part of the reforms. Many women took on positions of leadership in their communities, and we fully understand their loss and their sense of abandonment. I am grateful for the opportunity to say from the Dispatch Box that they are always in our thoughts. I think we need to take a very pragmatic approach and ensure that we can keep hope alive for as many people in that country as possible. It should be the topic for a debate, and I will certainly make sure that the Foreign Secretary has heard what the hon. Gentleman says. Separately, I am also looking at what I can do as Leader of the House to give all Members more opportunity to directly support individuals, in particular those who stood up—including women, and particularly those in leadership roles—who now find themselves in an appalling situation.

The Government’s decision to reduce air passenger duty and reform public service obligations will boost regional aviation and make it easier to restore commercial passenger flights from Blackpool airport. All we need now is for the Labour-run council that operates the airport to believe in its potential, and we can finally get Blackpool flying once again. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate in this House on regional airports and aviation and how they can deliver levelling up and help to achieve economic growth?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an incredibly important point. I echo his encouragement to his council for the regional aviation hub. That connectivity is important to the whole levelling-up agenda. I know that my hon. Friend has been campaigning vigorously on this matter. I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport has heard, again, his championing of his constituents and the airport.

This month Nigeria will hold elections. More than 3 million Nigerians have been displaced by violence and climate change, forcing them to live in internal displacement camps. Religious minorities are often excluded from those camps due to stigmatisation or fear of future attacks, leaving them unable to cast a vote in the election. Whenever I ask the Leader of the House for help, she always responds positively. Does she know of any representations from His Majesty’s Government to ensure that Nigeria’s religious minorities are not disenfranchised?

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his diligence in shining a spotlight on what is going on in Nigeria. Enormous numbers of people are displaced, for a variety of reasons. He will know that wherever there is support—particularly international aid—there is oversight of how that aid is distributed, ensuring an equal duty of care. There are ways of monitoring that. I will ask the Foreign Office to write to the hon. Gentleman to let him know how that is being carried out in the areas that he raises.

A constituent wrote to me about his elderly friend’s experience in A&E at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital recently. The 88-year-old man needed urgent care. He waited in a wheelchair in a corridor for 26 hours before being admitted. We all know that, sadly, that is no longer unusual after 13 years of Conservative Government, but it is unacceptable. When will my constituents get a response from a Government Minister that actually reflects and respects the awful reality facing NHS staff and patients today? When will the Government take responsibility for failing patients and breaking the NHS?

I am sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s case. I do not know whether she has raised it directly with the Department of Health and Social Care, but I encourage her to do so if she has not already. If she has and would like some assistance in getting a response, my office would be happy to help. We know that the NHS has been under huge pressure because of covid. We also know that the Department of Health’s plans are enabling those backlogs to be cleared. We would expect waiting times, certainly on elective treatment, to come down in the next couple of months.

There are reports today that the Government have been misleading pensioners into thinking that their universal credit national insurance credits are automatically applied to their NI records. In fact, the system is either broken or has never worked, because they are being applied manually. That is leading to a series of errors, leaving pensioners without the payments that they are entitled to. It is not a legacy issue but one that is happening now. When will the Government make time for this issue to be discussed in this House, to be transparent about what is happening and to set out the steps being taken to ensure that our constituents are not left with shortfalls in their retirement that they might not even be aware of?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. I will make sure that the Secretary of State has heard her concerns. Departmental questions are not until early March, so I will ask her to issue a reply and to consider what can be done to inform more Members of this House.

Today is Time to Talk Day, when we are all encouraged to take some time in our day to have a conversation about mental health. I encourage all Members to do so. Many people are unable to access mental health services or the support they need. Recent figures from the Royal College of Psychiatrists show that 78% of mental health patients end up seeking help from emergency services. Can we have a debate in Government time on what the Government are doing to improve access to community mental health services, to ease pressure on our ambulance services and A&E departments?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that incredibly important and timely issue. I encourage all hon. Members to promote the Time to Talk campaign. She will know that we have had recent announcements on additional mental health support. It is incredibly important that interventions are there early, because that can often mean the difference between someone being able to recover and manage the issues they are facing or heading into a decline, with ever more serious interventions needed further down the track. I encourage everyone to take part in the campaign, and I will ensure that the call for a debate has been heard by the Department of Health and Social Care .

I take my responsibilities on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee seriously in scrutinising the Cabinet Office. I was pleased to have had a question listed this morning on value for money and procurement, but I was disappointed that the Cabinet Office withdrew it and changed the answering Department. It was entirely within its rights to do so, but it has answered similar questions before. Will the Leader of the House, as the Commons’ voice in the Cabinet, ensure that her colleagues respect this place, understand that hon. Members, particularly members of Select Committees, should be able to table questions to be debated in this place, and stop the habit of denying answers?

I am sorry to hear that. If the hon. Lady will give me all the information, I will follow it up with the Department on her behalf.

As interest rates are set to rise again to 4%, almost a million households are at risk of defaulting on mortgage payments over the next two years. Borrowers will be hit hard, and the cost of living and purchasing power will be further squeezed. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out what her Government can do to support those currently struggling with climbing mortgage interest rates? Otherwise, predictions of a significant rise in repossessions may well happen, at great social cost.

The hon. Lady will know that stabilising the economy, bringing down inflation—halving inflation—and providing certainty and stability on people’s mortgage rates is a priority for the Prime Minister. I will ensure that the Treasury has heard what she said, but that is a priority for the Government, and the Prime Minister has set out how he will be judged on it.

Bus services are vital in keeping the many communities across my constituency connected and yet, with the bus recovery grant due to finish on 31 March, we again face a cliff edge for the continuation of many of our services, with an up to 20% reduction being predicted. It is vital that we maintain our bus services, so can we urgently have a debate in Government time on maintaining our local bus services?

This is an important issue for many hon. Members across the House. We recognise the importance of local bus services, which is why we have provided £60 million to help bus operators cap single fare journeys to £2 a journey at the start of the year to help with household budgets. Bus services received about £3 billion in the last financial year to support improvements, and I will ensure that the Department for Transport heard the hon. Lady’s particular local concerns.

The Leader of the House is due to nominate Members who can stand in for her at meetings of the new restoration and renewal board. Will those Members be delegates who share and represent her views on, say, the use of electronic voting, the House moving to meet in different places around the country and other aspects that might be described as modernisation, or will they be substitutes who will be free to express their own opinions about how things should move forward? If so, how will that help to ensure consistency in the new board’s deliberations?

I will maintain an interest in this as a member of the House of Commons Commission. I think that this is a serious job. Those Members will be able to make their own judgments, but, clearly, that body has more than my delegates on it. The shadow Leader of the House also has a delegate, and there are external experts to help form a collective judgment.

Most importantly, in the coming weeks we will be asking all Members of the House their views about the priorities. We will be ensuring that we have a solid schedule of works, which currently has not really been visible to Members of this House, and that we can be pragmatic about how we approach the R and R project, both to reduce the cost to the taxpayer and to minimise the disruption to the business that we conduct in the House.

My constituent Sophia Martin from Cambuslang, who plays for Glasgow City FC, is believed to be the youngest female player to sign a three-year professional contract, having just turned 16. Sophia has already impressed with her performance, hard work and commitment, and I wish her well. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Sophia on her achievement, and can we have a debate in Government time on the contribution of young women in professional sport?

I very happily give the best congratulations a Portsmouth supporter can possibly give to the hon. Lady’s constituent by saying, “Play up, Sophia Martin!” She has achieved a great deal, and we should all be very proud of those achievements. I wish her well, and I thank the hon. Lady for telling us that fantastic news.