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Commons Chamber

Volume 730: debated on Monday 20 March 2023

House of Commons

Monday 20 March 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Illegal Migration Bill: Asylum Seekers

1. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of the Illegal Migration Bill on the wellbeing of people claiming asylum. (904157)

We must stop the misuse of our asylum system so that we can focus our resources upon those who really need our help, not those who can afford to pay people smugglers to transport them from safe countries.

The Illegal Migration Bill is yet another example of the Tories scapegoating asylum seekers to distract from their incompetence. It will not be compatible with our legal obligations under the Equality and Human Rights Commission and it will leave asylum seekers, such as those from Iran, in limbo so that they will be deemed permanently inadmissible to our asylum system. We need more safe and legal routes now, not after the boat crossings have stopped, as we know that the Bill will never achieve that. Why will the Home Secretary not seek to provide safe and legal routes for everybody now?

We always place a high priority on the wellbeing of asylum seekers, which is why we are also committing to rolling out safe and legal routes as part of our plan.

While I have the attention of the hon. Lady, may I take this chance to invite her to apologise to the nation? She campaigned in 2020 to stop the Government from deporting a serious foreign criminal. Thanks to her efforts, together with those of 70 Labour MPs, the Government were subsequently stopped from removing Ernesto Elliott, who went on to murder in the UK. Mr Speaker, will—

He has appealed his sentence, and I do not need any lectures from the Front Bench either. I look forward to an apology. Am I going to get an apology?

Thank you. Home Secretary, will you take the advice that I have been given? I know you do not like it, but I am only working on the facts of the case.

Well, I will still say that what Labour MPs have done is outrageous, and I encourage them to apologise.

Last week, the Italian Defence Minister made a direct link between the rise in asylum seekers coming to Europe by small boats and the activities of the Wagner Group in Africa. Given the atrocious activities of the Wagner Group in Ukraine and elsewhere, will the Home Secretary proscribe it?

We keep the list of proscribed organisations under review. We do not routinely comment on security and intelligence matters, but where a group meets a test of being a terrorism concern and where it meets our legal criteria, then a group can be proscribed, if it is necessary and proportionate to do so.

What is more frightening than this toxic Bill that locks up the most vulnerable people who walk this planet, imprisons innocent children and pushes trafficked women back into the hands of their perpetrators, is that this Tory Government are peddling their divisive rhetoric because the Home Secretary has failed to govern or to provide communities with the support they need. Before she others the innocent, will she not admit that she is blaming the destitute to mask her own failures?

The only people who have failed here are Labour and Opposition Members who have failed to stand up for the British people and failed to support our measures to stop the boats. All they want is open borders and unlimited migration.

The Government have identified 57 countries deemed safe for the removal of asylum seekers, but there are no actual agreements in place to facilitate that legally. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on when those legal agreements will be in place? They will be good for the welfare of the asylum seekers and very good for the welfare of my constituents, because we can have our hotels back.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is about enabling the Government to properly help the most genuine and vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees who come to this country. Currently, because of the influx of illegal migrants, and because our modern slavery and asylum system has been overwhelmed thanks to the efforts of the people smuggling gangs, we are unable to help those genuine victims to whom we owe a clear duty.

The Government’s new asylum legislation is a sham that is set to worsen the backlog, because they do not have the facilities to detain tens of thousands of asylum seekers, or a returns agreement in place with the EU to send back those deemed inadmissible. For all her taxpayer funded photo ops this weekend, the Home Secretary has seemingly failed to bung the Rwandan Government enough money for them to increase the number of asylum seekers they are ready to take this year. For a deterrent to be effective, it has to be credible, yet these plans are just empty threats. Will she tell us where she expects to detain the tens of thousands of asylum seekers forecast to arrive this year, where she expects to remove them to, when Rwanda clearly has no intention of taking more than a very small proportion of those who she expects to arrive this year, and when this Government will get out of the way, so that Labour can deliver its five-point plan to stop the boat crossings?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his approach to entertaining the House today, but let us compare what the Labour party has done over the last 10 days with what the Government have done.

In the last 10 days, the Prime Minister and I have secured a big deal with the French to increase cross-channel co-operation. I have presented and we have voted on measures to detain and swiftly remove illegal migrants. This weekend, I met refugees who have successfully been resettled in Rwanda and saw the accommodation that people will be using.

What has the Labour party done? Well, the shadow Home Secretary has been on Twitter. She is very good on Twitter. She has tweeted, in the last 10 days, Labour’s paltry excuse for a plan. Half of it is stuff we are already doing; the other half is its plan for open borders and unlimited migration. What I suggest Labour Members do is get off Twitter and get to Rwanda, and I will show them how to stop the boats.

Freedom from Torture has talked about the impact on torture survivors of the anti-asylum Bill, calling it

“a betrayal of the commitments made following the Shaw Review”.

Seven babies born to mothers in Home Office accommodation since 2020 have died, so it is no surprise that Women for Refugee Women and the Royal College of Midwives have opposed the Home Office’s plans. Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner has warned that the plans to detain and remove children breach this Government’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child. There is nothing about protecting asylum seekers’ welfare that the Bill will fix, so does the Home Secretary accept the harm that she is causing?

We take very seriously our duties to everybody who is within our care. Our measures will always, of course, ensure that proper wellbeing and welfare provision is available to those who are vulnerable, but let me say this: the hon. Lady has absolutely no right to lecture this Government on how to support asylum seekers when her own nation royally fails to take any or sufficient numbers into Scotland.

That is simply not correct. The Bill is not about helping asylum seekers; it is about banning asylum seekers. What does it say about the Home Secretary’s morals that she believes that Rwanda would be “a blessing” for asylum seekers, but when they come here she calls them a swarm and an invasion?

The problem that the hon. Lady is labouring under is that in opposing our plans, she sides with the people-smuggling gangs. She actively encourages, in effect, co-operation with the evil practice of exploitation of vulnerable people coming into this country. Vote for our measures, stop the people-smuggling gangs and stop the boats!

Asylum and Immigration Applications Backlog

2. What steps she is taking to tackle backlogs in (a) asylum and (b) other immigration applications. (904158)

The Prime Minister made a commitment on 13 December to clear the legacy backlog of asylum applications over the course of this year. I am pleased to report that we are on track to deliver that. We have already doubled the number of caseworkers, and we are on course to double the number again. We are streamlining processes to reduce unnecessary paperwork while maintaining robust standards. The productivity of caseworkers has more than doubled since the start of the year.

My constituents Mr and Mrs Leeson have UK residency but are American citizens. They live in my Livingston constituency and are highly skilled, but they have had huge issues with getting their niece Karissa, who they have guardianship over, a visa to come to Scotland. A US court has ruled that they are her guardians, but they are being told that they will have to wait six months for an administrative review. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the case? My constituent and her niece are currently stuck in the US, and the family are being separated.

I would be happy to look into the case that the hon. Lady raises. With respect to visas, I would just say that the UK visa service is now meeting or exceeding every one of its service standards, so the Government are providing a good service generally, but I would be happy to look into that case.

The Minister says that the Government are providing a good service, but that is not my experience, either of asylum cases or across the piece. There are so many cases of work visas, visitor visas and so on being delayed for longer than I have seen in the 18 years I have served as an MP, which have included serving in the Minister’s role. When will he get a grip? It is all very well saying that he is dealing with asylum, but it is like whack-a-mole: he puts effort into one area, and another area goes badly wrong. When is he going to get a grip?

I prefer to trade in facts, and the fact is that in every single one of the visa categories the UK visa service is at or exceeding the service standard. It is true that we moved a number of people away from work and visit visa duties to ensure that we met the demands of the Homes for Ukraine scheme last year, but those people are now back on the job and the service is performing well. If the hon. Lady wants to give specific examples, I shall be happy to look into them.

The backlog of asylum seekers is increasing the need for accommodation. We have just heard outrage expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress that the Scottish Government are making on housing numbers of asylum seekers similar to the numbers housed in the rest of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the outrage of the Scottish National party is entirely confected. There are almost no individuals in initial and contingency accommodation in Scotland; in fact, there are fewer hotels in Scotland than there are in Kensington. However, it is not just members of the SNP who should hang their heads in shame, but Labour in Wales, because in the whole of Wales there are only three hotels. There are more hotels in Earl’s Court than there are in Labour Wales.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the sudden influx over, say, a bank holiday weekend of thousands of migrants who have crossed the channel in small boats causes substantial infrastructure problems in Kent. If we are to stop this dangerous trafficking of people across the channel, we must not only crack down on the gangs but demonstrate that it is a futile practice which will not lead to a shortcut into the asylum system in the UK.

My hon. Friend has cut to the nub of the question. We cannot build ourselves out of this issue by creating more hotels or large sites. The only sustainable answer is to break the people smugglers’ model, and that is what the Illegal Migration Bill sets out to do. We on this side of the House are on the side of the British people, while those who vote against the Bill are on the side of the people smugglers. It is only by stopping people crossing the channel, by creating a genuine deterrent—for instance, sending people to a safe third country such as Rwanda—that we will achieve that.

Violence against Women and Girls: Charge Rates

3. What steps her Department is taking to improve charge rates for perpetrators of violence against women and girls. (904159)

We are committed to holding perpetrators of violence against women and girls to account, as has been demonstrated by the rape review, the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and the tackling domestic abuse plan, which includes violence against men and boys. To improve the police response, the Home Office is providing £6.65 million to develop the national operating model for rape investigations through Operation Soteria, and has funded domestic abuse training specifically for investigators.

Disabled women are twice as likely to be victims of domestic abuse as non-disabled women. I am currently dealing with the case of a woman who has ended up in hospital as a result of abuse from her partner. She has had no direct contact with the police, no personal statement has been taken, and she feels completely let down. I appreciate that thousands of women go through this, and I also appreciate that Greater Manchester police are doing the very best they can, but what is the Home Secretary doing to ensure that these women have the necessary confidence and trust to feel able to report such abuse to the police?

The confidence of any victim of abuse must be increased, and to that end the Government are spending unprecedented amounts on training not only new but existing police officers in how to deal with victims. Disabled victims are no different from any other victim, and they are entitled to the same number and quality of responses. I should add that police guidance dictates that officers will visit the scene of every reported instance of domestic abuse, the only exception being when it is unsafe for them to do so. The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue, which we take very seriously.

I welcome last week’s announcement by the Government which will lead to tougher sentences for domestic abusers who kill their partners or ex-partners. Can my hon. Friend confirm that this Government will always do everything possible to protect vulnerable women and girls and deliver justice to those who attack or threaten them?

This Government are made up of the party that believes in law and order, and wherever we can, we will continue to review sentences. Strictly speaking, this is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, but I know that the Deputy Prime Minister, and also the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, are thoroughly committed to reviewing this sort of offence.

Fraud Strategy

The fraud strategy will be published very shortly, and it will set out how the Government will work with industry to remove the vulnerabilities that fraudsters exploit.

Over 70% of scams originate online, showing that tech and social media companies are not only significant to enabling fraud but key to preventing it. Given that tech and social media companies are currently driving the problem, will my right hon. Friend compel their sector to be part of the solution by going after frauds and fraudsters on their own platforms, as well as upping all our defences in the upcoming national fraud strategy?

I know that my hon. Friend is well versed in this subject. I read the article that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) recently wrote. It is a very good piece, which I recommend to the House. The article referred to the increase in scam adverts on social media, and I agree with him that social media companies must take greater responsibility for the safety of their users online by stopping more of these frauds at source. The Online Safety Bill is a welcome first step towards that goal, but it is right that we continue to consider what more can be done.

Fraud now accounts for nearly half of all crimes, yet very few of those crimes are investigated and only 0.1% of them go to court. While it is welcome that we will eventually get this fraud strategy, what more are the Government doing to ensure that the police have the resources and expertise to tackle crimes of fraud and that the criminal justice system speeds up so that many more such cases get not only investigated but heard in court?

The hon. Member makes the case for me, and I am grateful to him for doing so. The reality is that we are seeing an explosion of fraud, not just in this country but around the world, and we have to deal with it. That is why bringing together the intelligence resources, the policing elements and the will is so important. I was in Manchester on Thursday where I met the chief constable and others who are doing so much to tackle fraud, not just connected to the garment industry where I was on Cheetham Hill, but linked to human trafficking and, sadly, to state threats and even terrorist financing.

Illegal Migration Bill: Compatibility

5. What recent assessment she has made of the compatibility of the Illegal Migration Bill with the refugee convention. (904162)

11. What recent assessment she has made of the compatibility of the Illegal Migration Bill with the European convention on human rights. (904170)

I refer the hon. Lady to the statement in my name that appears on the front of the Bill. I would add that I am satisfied that the provisions of the Bill are capable of being applied compatibly with the human rights convention and compliant with our international obligations, including the refugee convention.

Apparently the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does not agree with the Home Secretary. They have said that this legislation amounts to an “asylum ban”, adding that it would be a

“clear breach of the Refugee Convention”.

Does the Home Secretary not realise that the very nature of human rights is that they are universal and that it is not for Governments to pick and choose which rights apply to which groups of people?

I refer the hon. Lady to article 31 of the refugee convention, which makes it clear that there is not an absolute duty on states to offer provision to asylum seekers, particularly if they have come from a safe country. It is important to note that the Bill applies to people who have come here illegally from a safe country. It is important that we instil a framework that enables us to detain and swiftly remove them so that we can stop the boats and stop the people smuggling gangs.

When introducing the Bill, the Home Secretary said that she was

“confident that this Bill is compatible with international law.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 152.]

She then immediately confirmed that she could not make a declaration of compatibility under section 19 of the Human Rights Act. That followed her previous comments that she thought that it was less than 50% compatible. Can the Home Secretary please confirm to the House today which of these three views she holds?

I do not think the hon. Lady has quite got the point of the Human Rights Act. Section 19(1)(b) is designed for exactly these purposes. Although the Government believe our provisions are capable of being compliant with the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights, we are, none the less, testing legal arguments and legal bases, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, a previous Labour Administration also introduced legislation carrying such a section 19(1)(b) statement.

The SNP is all talk and no action. Although Scotland makes up 8% of the UK population, only 1% of the UK’s asylum seekers are housed in contingency accommodation in Scotland. It is very easy for the SNP to make all the right noises, but it has taken zero action to stop the boats.

The 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol are fundamental foundations of how humanity deals with refugees at times of crisis, but there are questions to be asked about whether the convention and the protocol remain robust enough, effective enough and sufficient to meet the challenges of refugees in the decades to come. Will my right hon. and learned Friend have the courage, as Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, to lead international discussions on this topic?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly powerful point, and I agree with his sentiment. The historic conventions to which we subscribe are fundamentally challenged by modern travel and a global migration crisis in which more than 100 million displaced people are on the move today. It is right that western and democratic nations, which take pride in our duty and track record of offering refuge to vulnerable people, start a conversation to ensure that we strike the right balance.

I am a strong supporter of the Illegal Migration Bill, on the grounds that it is the only practical solution to stop the wicked people-smuggling trade across the channel. Does the Home Secretary agree not only that those who compare this Government’s policies to those of 1930s Germany are appallingly ill-informed, but that it represents a grotesque slander against the victims and survivors of the holocaust?

Many people have commented on this. All I will say is that people who resort to such analogies have already lost the argument.

Police Funding Formula

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important topic. The Government are committed to reviewing the police funding formula, in which there are some unfairnesses. The police funding formula is historical and somewhat out of date, and we intend to consult on it in the near future.

Will the new funding formula be crime based, rather than just population based? Will it be implemented immediately for the winners, to stop the gross unfairness of the current formula to forces such as Bedfordshire?

The intended consultation will cover topics such as the demand drivers of crime and how we should take account of the different costs of providing a police service in different parts of the country. In the meantime, Bedfordshire’s excellent police and crime commissioner, Festus Akinbusoye, is working incredibly hard to spend his budget effectively and to drive down crime in Bedfordshire.

Is the Minister aware that many police forces are struggling to obtain good forensic science facilities? Is he further aware that the Westminster commission on forensic science, with which I am involved, is deeply concerned about the instability of forensic science in our country?

Forensic science is critically important, as the hon. Gentleman says. The Home Office is continually discussing forensic science provision with our colleagues in the policing family to make sure there is adequate provision. We are always looking at the funding arrangements and the range of providers, so I can assure him that this topic is the subject of continual scrutiny.

Antisocial Behaviour

We are committed to tackling antisocial behaviour and to recruiting 20,000 additional police officers, which will take us to our highest number ever. We expanded the safer streets fund to include the tackling of antisocial behaviour as one of its primary aims, and last year we published the ASB principles to establish a strong and effective partnership response to antisocial behaviour.

One challenge we have in Crewe and Nantwich on antisocial behaviour is groups of people at bus stops, on high streets and in other public spaces drinking alcohol all day long. That puts off families and elderly people, in particular, from making use of those public spaces. In theory, public spaces protection orders should work, but they can be burdensome to get into place. May we meet to discuss how we might make it easier for them to be enacted, in order to reduce that kind of behaviour in towns and cities?

My hon. Friend is right to focus on the blight that antisocial behaviour causes to communities. He mentions existing powers that the police have. We are keen to ensure that those are streamlined and improved so that they are more effective. I am pleased that his local force of Cheshire has more police officers on the beat—316 in the force. Following my visit, I was pleased to meet his outstanding local chief constable last month.

We have seen significant antisocial behaviour and crime issues in Longton town centre. With Staffordshire police and the city council, we have been working up plans to improve CCTV and to gate up a number of alleyways. However, we need additional funding to deliver that, so will my right hon. and learned Friend update us on when the next round of the safer streets fund will open for bids?

I am pleased that those in my hon. Friend’s constituency are starting to draw up plans for the next round of the safer streets fund. He will know what a difference safer streets has made to Stoke-on-Trent, with neighbourhood crime down by 26% since 2010. I cannot give him a precise date on the next round, but I can assure him that we hope to be able to say something more about safer streets in the near future.

Government austerity measures led to Northumbria police losing more than 1,100 police officers and to a huge increase in antisocial behaviour in my constituency, with thefts in local shops in East Boldon and Hebburn, and off-road motorbikes in Wardley and Boldon. The incident levels are so high that this week I am having a specific surgery with the police and crime commissioner in Wardley. When will Ministers allow recruitment to vacant policing posts, invest in our communities and tackle antisocial behaviour?

I am pleased that Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner has received just under £3.9 million from the Government through safer streets to date. That has included £3.5 million in the current round to fund projects such as community engagement, target hardening and guardianship interventions. Those are measures where Government funding targeted in local communities, in response to input from local leaders, is making a difference to safety in our communities.

I recently attended an open meeting in Oswestry in my constituency, where residents expressed concern about escalating antisocial behaviour in the town centre. The police and crime commissioner was there, but I am afraid to say that he was a little dismissive. Will the Home Secretary assure me that when the new police officers materialise, they will be properly allocated to market towns in rural places such as North Shropshire, so that the antisocial behaviour is dealt with effectively?

It is thanks to this Government’s commitment to increasing the number of police officers that we will have many more resources on the frontline in forces throughout the country to tackle antisocial behaviour. I only wish that the hon. Lady would get behind our plans.

I see from the weekend papers that the Conservatives are about to introduce an antisocial behaviour strategy. After 13 years of doing nothing, of dismissing antisocial behaviour as low level and unimportant, apparently the strategy will include Labour’s plan to tackle fly-tipping, Labour’s plan to tackle graffiti and Labour’s plan for community payback. May I ask the Home Secretary which other Labour policies she is going to adopt? Would she like me to arrange a full briefing from the Labour party?

It really is, isn’t it, Mr Speaker? May I point out that Labour-run Croydon Council has just cut the graffiti cleaning team? Will the hon. Lady just give us some advice on how that has worked?

Illegal Migration Bill

8. What recent assessment she has made of the potential impact of the Illegal Migration Bill on levels of (a) modern slavery and (b) sex trafficking. (904165)

Let me be clear: the UK Government are committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery and to supporting victims. We continue to invest in the police to support them to improve the support they offer victims, and to drive up prosecutions. A total of £16.5 million has been provided by the Home Office since 2016, including £1.4 million last year for the modern slavery and organised crime unit.

First, my thoughts and prayers are with my constituents the Gentle family, who lost their son Gordon during the Iraq war. We should remember all those military families who lost loved ones during that conflict.

Is the Salvation Army correct when it points out that detaining trafficking victims as they arrive and then removing them will simply deliver vulnerable people back into the hands of the criminal gangs that exploited them in the first place, and that that does nothing to break the cycle of exploitation but only further fuels the profits of these criminal gangs?

No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The Illegal Migration Bill makes it clear that we want to break the cycle of the human traffickers. We will do that by carefully considering cases and returning those people who can be returned to their home country, where it is safe to do so. In cases such as Albania, we have worked closely with the Government to put in place the procedures necessary to ensure that those people are carefully looked after and not at risk of re-trafficking. If that is not the case, they will be taken to a safe third country such as Rwanda where, once again, their needs will be looked after.

Just to correct the Minister, it was not the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) who made that criticism, but the Salvation Army, which the Home Office employs as its main contractor on trafficking.

I asked the Prime Minister this, and I got no answer, so I am trying again. When I worked on a Home Office contract, I met many women and children who had been brought here illegally to be repeatedly raped as sex slaves. The Prime Minister tweeted that such victims would be denied access to support from our modern slavery system—a tweet that will be an absolute delight to traffickers. How will we help to prevent a woman who is brought here illegally from being repeatedly raped if she is denied access to our modern slavery system?

The hon. Lady and I agree that we want to do everything we can to support the victims of human trafficking, but we disagree on how we do that. She is content for people to be brought across the channel in small boats at the behest of human traffickers. We want to break that cycle once and for all, and we believe that that is the fair and the moral thing to do. Today, a majority of the cases being considered for modern slavery are people who are coming into the country—for example, on small boats. We are seeing flagrant abuse, which is making it impossible for us to deal appropriately with the genuine victims, to the point that 71% of foreign national offenders in the detained estate, whom we are trying to remove from the country, are claiming to be modern slaves. That is wrong, and we are going to stop it.

Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre

9. Whether she has had recent discussions with the Scottish Government on the operation of the Dungavel House immigration removal centre. (904167)

There is regular contact between Dungavel House immigration removal centre and relevant local stakeholders, as necessary, on issues relating to the day-to-day running of the centre. Although immigration is not a devolved matter, we will keep the Scottish Government informed should there be any significant changes.

I share my constituents’ shock at the distasteful photoshoot of the Home Secretary outside the transportation camp in Rwanda. Will she set out the following in regards to Dungavel? How will this whole process work? How many refugees at Dungavel House are earmarked for transportation to Rwanda? How many are children or pregnant women? If the Home Secretary cannot give us those numbers now, I am happy to receive a letter later.

Well, I share the disappointment at those who peddle misinformation of any kind. However, with respect to Dungavel House, it is an immigration removal centre and it is used routinely to detain, prior to removal, foreign national offenders and those who have entered our country illegally and whom we are seeking to remove. The hon. Gentleman and I may disagree on this issue. We on the Government side of the House want to remove foreign national offenders. We do not want them to remain in the UK. We also do not want to close detention centres. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) campaigned to be Leader of the Opposition on a pledge to close detention centres, but we want to get dangerous offenders such as murderers and rapists out of this country.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

12. What steps her Department is taking to close facilities used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the UK. (904171)

As I outlined in my statement to the House on 20 February, we are taking increasing steps to address the threat from Iran—but, I should make clear, not to address the welcome we extend towards the Iranian people. Today of all days, we should say, “Nowruz etan Pyrouz.”

There are three—if not seven—cut-outs of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operating here in the UK, silencing critics of the ayatollah, inciting hate, celebrating terrorists and recruiting for a terrorist state. The Government know that this House wants the IRGC proscribed, but in the immediate term, will they please protect us from transnational repression by shutting down these cut-outs of the Iranian state? I also ask the Home Secretary or the Security Minister to meet Vahid Beheshti, who is on day 26 of a hunger strike outside the Foreign Office because he wants the IRGC proscribed. I am seriously concerned about his health, and it would help if the Government were to meet him.

I would be very happy to meet him and, indeed, anybody else who takes the threat of the IRGC in this country as seriously as we do. We have had this work ongoing for a number of months now, and my hon. Friend will be aware that asking for actions to be taken means we must be legally compliant with the responses. That is where we are getting to; we are increasingly at the point where we are taking more and more action against the IRGC. So may I say, in the words of Omar Khayyam, in his poem for new year:

“No words about last winter can bring cheer;

don’t speak of yesterday—rejoice today.”?

I thank the Minister very much for that. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is involved in all sorts of unspeakable activities in Iran—abuse of people, persecution of Christians and other ethnic minorities, and attacks on women—but here in the United Kingdom it is also involved in subversive activities through the buildings it has. I think that everybody in this House wants to see it proscribed, so can the Minister give us some indication of when that will happen?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well, sadly, that we cannot discuss individual proscriptions, so I will not go down that route. However, he has been a voice for freedom of religion and belief in this country and around the world for many years. He will be aware of the brutality not only against women and the LGBT community in Iran, but against people of faith, Baha’i, Jews and Christians, who have seen their lives destroyed by an extraordinarily brutal regime. This Thursday is the beginning of Ramadan, and I am sure everybody in this House wishes every Muslim in our community Ramadan kareem and the blessings of the season. The reality is that this is a time for communities to come together, yet in Tehran it is time for the regime to ignore the Islamic faith and to tear people apart.

Knife Crime

Tackling knife crime is a priority. That is why, since 2019, we have not only spent £340 million on diverting young people into alternative activity via the violence reduction units, but had targeted Grip hotspot policing in areas where knife crime is particularly prevalent. That has led to a 19% reduction over the last three years in hospital admissions with a bladed weapon injury, and since 2010, according to the crime survey for England and Wales, violence is down by 38%.

Last year knife crime in Salford fell, thanks to the extensive work with young people by the Salford community safety partnership and Greater Manchester police operations to remove weapons from circulation. Sadly, since January this year there has been a spate of serious knife crime incidents that have destroyed lives and distressed the community. We need urgent Government support to implement a wider proactive reduction strategy. Will the Minister commit to ringfencing dedicated funding today for knife crime reduction initiatives and for lifesaving bleed kit roll-outs across Salford?

That is a very fair question. We are already directing ringfenced money towards Greater Manchester and other areas via the Grip hotspot funding, which we are going to at least maintain and possibly increase next year, and the violence reduction units, which try to get young people on to a better path. I am visiting Greater Manchester a week today and look forward to discussing those initiatives and more with Chief Constable Stephen Watson, who I must say is doing a very good job, and others in Manchester.

Deterrence through tough sentencing must play an important part in dealing with the scourge of knife crime, such as that committed against my constituent Ellie Gould some years ago. I very much welcome Ms Wade’s report, which came out on Friday, about sentencing in murder cases involving knives, but I am disappointed that the Government have so far accepted only three of the 17 recommendations. Will the Minister speak to his colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to ensure that all 17 of the recommendations are implemented?

I know that my hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner on this topic over many years following the appalling murder of his constituent. Yes, I will raise the issues that he mentions with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, who I am sure will be extremely receptive.

This week, the five young men who murdered a 17-year-old boy from Poplar using knives were pictured for the first time. Those young men were sentenced to a total of 93 years in prison. Although sentencing is a form of justice, the reality is that this Government have lost their grip on preventing such violent crimes. Time and again, they have failed to act until it is too late—sticking-plaster politics at the heart of power. When will the Secretary of State show some leadership and lay out a proper plan for crime prevention?

As I set out to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), the Government have spent £340 million in the last three years directly to tackle knife crime, and, contrary to the hon. Lady’s question, that is yielding results. Hospital admissions for injuries caused by knives have dropped by 19% in the last four years, and violent offences, as measured by the crime survey—the only statistically approved measure of crime—have come down by 38% since the last Labour Government left office.

Topical Questions

Like the public, I want common-sense policing focused on keeping people safe and driving down crime. The disproportionate recording of non-crime hate incidents must not be used to inhibit free speech. We must be very careful about what is kept on an individual’s record. That balance has not always been struck, so I introduced a new code of practice on non-crime hate incidents and the recording and retention of personal data. It introduces new safeguards so that personal data may be included in an NCHI record only if the event is clearly motivated by an intentional hostility and where there is a real risk of significant harm to a group or an individual. Those changes are endorsed by outstanding police leaders such as Stephen Watson, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, and I hope that the whole House will get behind the draft code.

Last summer, teenagers abused hundreds of canisters of nitrous oxide along Southend seafront. Today, firefighters have reported cutting people out of vehicles because of nitrous oxide abuse behind the wheel. Given the severe effects of such abuse, will my right hon. Friend consider taking tougher action to restrict the sale, possession and abuse of nitrous oxide in the UK?

I know that my hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate on this subject, as well as on the issue of dangerous weapons, and I pay tribute to her for her brilliant work. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 provides police with the powers to clamp down on the supply of nitrous oxide for non-legitimate use, but she is right, and I am clear, that the use and proliferation of nitrous oxide is unacceptable, and we will announce new measures soon.

We welcome the Home Secretary back from her expensive interior design tour.

The Louise Casey review will be published tomorrow and is expected to be damning, with far-reaching findings. The Home Secretary has known about failures on standards and vetting in policing for a long time, so why has she repeatedly refused to bring in mandatory vetting standards and automatic suspension for officers under investigation for domestic abuse and sexual assault?

I regret the tone that the shadow Home Secretary adopts when it comes to Rwanda. I encourage her to ditch her outdated and ignorant views on our friends in Rwanda.

When it comes to the Casey report, which I have read, it is clear that there have been failings within the Met. That is why the commissioner is right to accept those past failings, and that is why he has my total backing in moving forward to turn around performance and standards in the Met, so that every citizen in London has total confidence in those who wear the badge.

The problem is that the Home Secretary’s response is too little and too late. We should all back the commissioner to take urgently needed action in the Met, but confidence in the Met has dropped sharply and confidence has also dropped nationally. The system for national standards that the Home Secretary presides over is far too weak, with no proper regulations or requirements and no proper intervention when things go wrong. Neighbourhood policing, which sustains confidence, is being hollowed out. That is damaging for communities and for the vital work that the police do. Will she now commit to urgent legislation and a full overhaul on standards? The proud British tradition of policing by consent is in peril unless the Government act urgently.

I am proud of this Government’s track record on reducing crime and increasing the number of police officers. Since 2010, violent crime is down, robbery is down, neighbourhood crime is down and burglary is down. When the right hon. Lady talks about the Met, what I would gently say is that London has a Labour Mayor—as well as a Labour police and crime commissioner—who has failed to hold the Met to account properly. I am afraid I must encourage her to speak to her Labour colleague and ask him to do a better job of holding the Met to account.

Order. I say to both sides that topical questions are for Back Benchers. If people want to ask a longer question, they should be called earlier and not wait for topicals.

T2. As a host to Ukrainian refugees, I have been able to witness at first hand the difficulty and hardship when someone is separated from their family. My constituent Hazel Randall hosts a 24-year-old, Katya, who wanted to help her family reunite briefly in the UK, but they were faced with a £100 per person visa fee and a 200-mile round trip to the application centre to be able to travel to the UK. Will my right hon. Friend consider temporarily waiving tourist visa fees for Ukrainians wanting to visit their families? (904184)

Last week marked the first anniversary of the launch of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which my hon. Friend took part in, and it is a powerful rejoinder to anyone who says that the UK is anything other than generous and compassionate to those in need. I have listened to his remarks, and I have had a conversation with His Excellency the Ukrainian ambassador in that regard. We have taken an important step in the past month by reopening our visa centre at our embassy in Kyiv, so that Ukrainian nationals can begin those processes in their home territory, rather than having to leave and go to Warsaw.

T3.   Reports in today’s edition of The Times about the extreme activities of those promoted by the Islamic Centre of England, a UK-registered charity funded by the Iranian authorities and under the direction of the UK representative of the Iranian supreme leader, are just the latest evidence of the threat that Iran poses in the UK. The Security Minister has already told the House about the very real threat that Iran has made to UK-based individuals, including the Jewish community. Does the Minister agree that it is finally the time to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? (904186)

The hon. Member will well know that the work we have been doing against the Iranian threat in the United Kingdom has not diminished—in fact, it has increased in recent months. He is right to talk about cultural centres. Sadly, the Islamic Centre of England is not alone. Indeed, the work of the IRGC is not limited to those Iranian proxy organisations. We have to ensure that we have the resources and the attitude, and that is exactly what this Government are pulling together and exactly what we are deploying against this vile threat that has taken over a country and is now threatening ours.

T5. What guidance is the Department planning to issue on policing the provisions of the Public Order Bill, especially relating to preventing people from being arrested in a public place for what they are thinking about or for silent prayer? (904189)

My hon. Friend knows my position on that issue. He also knows about the guidance we have issued on the policing of non-crime hate incidents. He will note from the announcement recently that we are encouraging the police to strike a better balance, so that freedom of speech is more protected in their efforts to keep the public safe. The College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council will be working on new guidance to reflect the new offences in the Public Order Bill, but I reassure him that we are doing everything to ensure that the sensitive balance is struck, so that freedom of speech is protected while safeguarding the public.

T4. The Refugee Council estimates that if 65,000 people crossed the channel this year, it would cost £219 million to detain them for 28 days, or £1.4 billion to detain them for six months. Are figures such as those the reason for the Home Secretary’s refusing to share the economic impact assessment of the Illegal Migration Bill with the House? (904188)

The hon. Lady makes a powerful case for deterrence, which is exactly what the Illegal Migration Bill does. It will deter people from crossing the channel and break the model of the people smugglers.

T7. Tomorrow is the 80th anniversary of the formation of the Dambusters 617 squadron at RAF Scampton. Will the Home Secretary have a conversation with her Minister for Immigration about the meeting I had this morning with him, West Lindsey District Council and Scampton Holdings, in which the Minister was told in terms that if the Home Secretary goes ahead with her plan for 1,500 migrants to be placed there, it will scupper the long-term retention of the runway and the £300 million-worth of investment by Scampton Holdings? (904191)

I had a helpful and constructive meeting with my right hon. Friend and his constituents. No decision has been made with respect to RAF Scampton, and we will consider all of the things that were said in that meeting extremely carefully as we come to a final decision.

In 2021, only about 10% of rape allegations were referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service. The figure is even lower when we take into account other sexual offending. Has my hon. Friend ever received a satisfactory explanation from the police for such a lamentably poor referral rate?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this really important issue. The nub of the issue is that historically police officers have not developed a new way of dealing with rape in a modern, digital world, among other things. I am pleased to say that the Government are investing extra money in education in this field. For example, the Government are supporting the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing to design and pilot a new rape and other sexual offences investigative skills development programme for police officers, to make sure they know how to deal with victims. Chief Constable Crew, down in Avon and Somerset, is doing similar work.

In my constituency, I have employers who are struggling to recruit staff living next door to asylum seekers who are not allowed to work. Last week’s Budget talked about boosting employment. Does the Home Secretary agree that lifting the ban on work for asylum seekers would help to boost employment?

We do not agree with that: we do not want to see any further pull factors to the UK. We want to see deterrence suffused throughout our approach, and one element of that is ensuring that those who come illegally are detained and then removed from the country.

I was encouraged by the answers that my right hon. Friend the Security Minister gave earlier in relation to Iran, and the evidence put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), as well as the report in The Times this morning that has been referred to. Does the Security Minister therefore agree that that reflects a deliberate attempt by the Iranian regime to use whatever foothold available in our national life to spread conspiracy theories, extremism and radicalisation?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we have seen from the Iranian regime, sadly, is that overlap of crime, state threats and the use of terrorism to threaten the British people and our allies around the world. This Government will absolutely not allow those to flourish, and will stand extremely firmly against any such threats in this country.

Indecent exposure and non-contact sexual offending can be gateway offences to very much more serious offending against women and girls, as in the cases of Libby Squire in Hull and of Wayne Couzens, as we heard in his sentencing last week. When are the Government going to act on these early warning signs?

This is a really important issue, and I am grateful that the right hon. Lady has raised it. We all know from new academic research that indecent exposure can lead to far more serious crimes, and it is now the time that the police chiefs and also the College of Policing take it more seriously. Again, with the extra money that we are spending in this field, with education and allowing police officers to know what they are dealing with, I expect a lot more progress to be made in this area.

We have seen a number of murders recently in Walsall as a result of knife crime, but we have seen no sign of the Labour police and crime commissioner. Does the Minister agree that it is important that the police and crime commissioner visits all part of the west midlands, rather than simply staying in Birmingham?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Police and crime commissioners, particularly the one in the west midlands, should visit all parts of their patch. I was also rather concerned to hear that the Labour PCC in the west midlands is formulating plans to close up to 20 police stations, despite having received a 10% increase in funding over recent years, which I think is pretty shocking.

On the back of last week’s Budget, I made a speech about industrial hemp. The industry is telling me that it can create 105,000 jobs and pay £1 billion in tax if it is allowed to grow—pun intended. I will be writing to the Minister to explain this in detail, but it would be really helpful if I could sit down with the relevant Minister and industry representatives so they can make their case.

Mr Speaker, I will take this question. The hon. Member and I have had a number of discussions on this topic. We are always happy to engage, discuss points of detail and hear industry representations, so if he would like to meet face to face to discuss it further, I would be very happy to do that.

It was great news in the Budget last week that Dinnington High Street got £12 million for regeneration, knocking down the burnt out building and opening up the marketplace. What we need now is a police station to combat antisocial behaviour. Will the Minister support my campaign to reopen the police station on Dinnington High Street, which will clamp down on antisocial behaviour, and use some of the underspend in the Labour police and crime commissioner’s budget to do that?

I think my hon. Friend has formulated an excellent plan. I notice that South Yorkshire next year is getting an extra £10.7 million in funding, and the idea he suggests sounds like a good way of spending some of that.

Today I heard harrowing testimonies from the Turkish community in Coventry North West who have lost family members in the tragic earthquake. They would like to be reunited with the family members they have left, hopefully via a family visa scheme, so what steps is the Home Office taking to provide support to those affected by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria?

Our sympathies go to all those affected by the tragic events in Turkey. The UK Government are doing a number of things, including sending specialists to help with those who have been trapped in the wreckage. We have a range of visa options, including family reunion and visit visas, so that those people who have strong family ties to the United Kingdom can come here.

Last week, I raised with the Foreign Secretary that, for the past 15 months, I have been trying to bring to safety five British children in hiding in Kabul after their British father was blown up by the Taliban. They are too young to travel alone, but the Home Office will not grant their Afghan mother a visa, unless she passes an English test. However, she is not allowed to access education in Afghanistan. The Foreign Office tells me it is a Home Office issue. The Home Office is not responding to my correspondence, so will the Minister grant me a meeting to discuss this case?

I would be happy to look into the case. I would just say that over 25,000 individuals have been brought safely to the United Kingdom since Operation Pitting and that is something we should all be proud of.

Children are regularly detained in police cells for long periods and for too long without an appropriate adult being present, despite that being both a requirement and an essential safeguard for children. Will the Minister confirm today that, when police powers and procedures data is published later this year, it will include the number of minutes taken for an appropriate adult to arrive and the duration of time present—and if not this year, when?

The hon. Lady is raising a very important question. The case of Child Q is of course on our minds as we consider this. Some revisions are being made to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice—it is code C—that are relevant in this area. In relation to the reporting question she asks, I can certainly undertake to look into that.

Far-right Islamophobic Danish politician Rasmus Paludan has said he is going to travel from Denmark to Wakefield for the sole purpose of burning a Koran in a public place. Mr Paludan was previously jailed in Denmark for his hateful and racist statements. He is a dangerous man who should not be allowed into this country. Can the Home Secretary assure me and my community that the Government are taking action to prevent this?

I inform the House that Mr Paludan has been added to the warnings index. Therefore, his travel to the United Kingdom would not be conducive to the public good, and he will not be allowed access.

Rail Services

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the progress the Government are making in improving rail services for passengers.

Let me begin by saying how pleased I am that, today, members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers at Network Rail have voted to accept a 5% plus 4% pay offer over two years. Seventy-six per cent. of members voted to accept the offer, on a turnout of nearly 90%, showing just how many of them wanted to call time on this long-running dispute.

From the moment I became Transport Secretary, the Rail Minister and I have worked tirelessly to change the tone of the dispute. We sat down with all the rail union leaders and facilitated fair and reasonable pay offers. Now, all Network Rail union members have resolved their disputes, voting for a reasonable pay increase and accepting the need for a modern railway.

But not every rail worker is being given that chance. Despite the Rail Delivery Group putting a similar fair and reasonable offer on the table on behalf of the train operating companies, the RMT has refused to put it to a vote. It refused to suspend last week’s strike action even to consider it. Such a lack of co-operation is disappointing—and what does it achieve? It deprives the RMT’s own members of a democratic vote, denies them the pay rise they deserve and, most importantly, delivers more disruption to the travelling public.

My message to the RMT is simple: call off your strikes, put the RDG offer to a vote and give all your members a say because it is clear from the vote today—the “overwhelming” vote, in the RMT’s own words—that its members understand that it is time to accept a deal that works, not only for their interests, but for passengers.

Let me turn to the steps we are taking to help passengers and fix the issues on the west coast main line. Members will know that rest-day working, or overtime, is a common way for operators to run a normal timetable. However, last July, drivers for Avanti West Coast, who overwhelmingly belong to the ASLEF union, simultaneously and with no warning stopped volunteering to work overtime. Without enough drivers, Avanti had little choice but to run a much-reduced timetable, with fewer trains per hour from London to destinations in the midlands and the north. Passengers, businesses and communities along vital routes up and down the west coast main line rightly felt let down, facing cancelled services, overcrowded trains and poor customer information. Put simply, it has not been good enough.

While the removal of rest-day working was the main contributing factor, my hon. Friend the Rail Minister and I repeatedly made it clear to Avanti’s owning groups, Trenitalia and First Group, that their performance needed to improve, too, because we should always hold train operators to account for matters within their control. That accountability should come with the chance to put things right. That is why my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), extended Avanti’s contract by six months in October. She rightly set a clear expectation that performance had to improve—no ifs and no buts.

I am pleased to say that not only was Avanti’s recovery plan welcomed by the Office of Rail and Road, but it has led to improvements on the network, with weekday services rising from 180 to 264 trains per day, the highest level in over two years, and cancellation rates falling from around 25% to an average of 4.2% in early March, the lowest level in 12 months. Nearly 90% of Avanti’s trains now arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, over 100 additional drivers have been recruited, reducing reliance on union-controlled overtime working, and it is very pleasing to see Avanti’s new discounted ticketing scheme benefiting passengers on certain routes.

As you would expect me to say, Mr Speaker, there is much more still to do to ensure that Avanti restores services to the level we expect and to earn back the trust that passengers have lost, but we should welcome those improvements and recognise the hard work undertaken to get to this point. The Rail Minister in particular has overseen weekly meetings on Avanti for months and kept hon. Members from both sides of the House regularly informed. He deserves credit, along with Avanti, for that turnaround.

October’s extension was not popular, least of all in parts of this House, but it was the right decision and Avanti is turning a corner. Its recovery so far has given me sufficient confidence to confirm that today we will extend its contract by a further six months, running until 15 October. However, that short-term contract comes with the expectation that it will continue to win back the confidence of passengers, with a particular focus on more reliable weekend services, continued reductions in cancellations, and improvements in passenger information during planned and unplanned disruption. My Department will continue to work closely with Avanti to restore reliability and punctuality to levels that passengers have long demanded and have a right to expect.

I realise some hon. Members will also want to hear about TransPennine Express. I will update the House separately about TransPennine Express ahead of the contract expiring at the end of May, but let me be clear: its current service levels are, frankly, unacceptable and we will hold it to account on its recovery plan. We have made it clear that, unless passengers see significant improvements, like we have on Avanti, all options regarding that contract remain on the table.

I spoke earlier about holding operators to account, but if we stand here and rightly criticise poor operator performance, we should also recognise that across the industry train operating companies have few levers to change it. Avanti, like others, relies on driver good will to run a reliable seven-day-a-week railway. Like others, it is at the mercy of infrastructure issues out of its control. In fact, seven separate infrastructure issues affected Avanti’s performance in the first week of March alone.

Outdated working practices and track resilience are why predictable calls for nationalisation wildly miss the point. Any operator would face those constraints and struggle to run a reliable service. Ideological debates about ownership are therefore a distraction, like wanting to paint your car a new colour when what it needs is a new engine. Only fundamental reform will fix rail’s systemic issues, which is what the Government are delivering, bringing track and train together under the remit of Great British Railways, taking a whole system approach to cost, revenue and efficiency, and freeing up the private sector to innovate and prioritise passengers. Having set out my vision for rail last month, very soon, I will announce the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways, another clear sign of the momentum we are building on reform.

We are getting on with the job of delivering a better railway. It is why we are finally seeing improvements along the west coast main line, as we continue to hold Avanti to account. It is why we are making progress on rail reform. It is why we will always defend the travelling public from unnecessary strike action. And it is why we will always play our part in resolving disputes in a way that is fair to rail workers, the travelling public and the taxpayer. Unlike others, I am not interested in pointless ideological debates about privatisation and nationalisation. The Government are focused on gripping the long-standing issues facing the industry for the benefit of its customers—freight customers and passengers—taking the tough but responsible decisions in the national interest, and building the growing, financially sustainable and modern railway Britain deserves. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. What a relief it is to see him in his place. Since he announced huge changes on HS2, affecting billions of pounds of investment and jobs, costs to the taxpayer and particularly affecting the north of England, this is the first we have seen or heard from him. You can call the search party off, Mr Speaker.

I welcome the deal on Network Rail, but it is overdue. After 10 months in which the Government refused to negotiate and, according to the chief executive of Network Rail, engaged in “noisy political rhetoric” that had been “counterproductive” to negotiations, a compromise has finally been made. However, passengers across the midlands, the north and Scotland, Members from both sides of the House, and possibly you, Mr Speaker, will be looking on in disbelief today as millions more in taxpayer cash is handed to an operator that is so demonstrably failing passengers. For the Secretary of State to stand at the Dispatch Box and hail a turnaround in the service demonstrates how staggeringly out of touch he is with the lived reality of people in this country.

The figures speak for themselves. Over the past six months, under the Secretary of State’s intensive improvement plan, Avanti West Coast has broken several records—records for delays and cancellations: the highest ever number of trains more than 15 minutes late and the highest single month of cancellations since records began. In one month, almost a quarter of services were badly delayed. That is higher than during the chaos in August and during the height of the pandemic.

That is not all. Under the Secretary of State’s so-called improvement plan, the number of trains on time actually fell to just one third. If that is what success looks like to the Government, is it any wonder that people question whether anything in this country works any more? They look on in disbelief as the answer to this prolonged failure is always millions more in taxpayers’ cash.

This issue matters because across the north, services remain in chaos. Today alone, more than 35 services have been cancelled on TransPennine Express. This has been an issue for not months but years. Six years ago, TransPennine Express had exactly the same issues that it faces today. Then, as now, it blamed staff shortages and the unions. It said then that it would recruit drivers and improve resilience. Then, as now, the Government shrugged their shoulders and let it off the hook as performance plummeted. The Secretary of State dismisses as pointless debates about the future of railways—little wonder, when the answer to the enormous challenges facing the railways is always more of the status quo.

The Conservatives promised competition that would serve passengers and lower fares; instead, as is happening today, contracts are awarded without the faintest hint of competition while fares rise again and again, and passengers suffer. Their answer to it all is more of the same: the same failing operators; the same waste and fragmentation; the same broken system. Labour will end the fractured, fragmented system holding our railways back and put passengers back at the heart of our rail network, prioritising long-term decision making. But the message that today’s decision sends could not be clearer. Under the Conservatives, our broken railways are here to stay. Under the Conservatives, passengers will always come last.

The hon. Lady must have been listening to a completely different statement; what she just said bears very little relationship to either facts or the things I set out. Let me take her points in turn. I am pleased that she welcomed the acceptance by RMT members of the deal on Network Rail, and that—she obviously did not say this—she recognises that my approach since I became Transport Secretary has clearly been the right one, having helped lead to the situation we are in today. I did not expect her to pay me any credit for that, but I note that she welcomed the result.

The hon. Lady said that the Avanti figures speak for themselves, and they absolutely do. Weekday services have risen in the new timetable since December to 264 trains a day. The cancellation rate that she talked about was last year; the most recent rate is down to 4.2%, the lowest level in 12 months. That is a clear improvement. I have said that it needs to be sustained, which is why Avanti has an extension only until October. Some 90% of its trains now arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, which is not good enough—it is in the pack with the other train operating companies, but at the bottom of the pack. I have been clear that Avanti needs to deliver improvement in the next six-month period. But the figures do speak for themselves: they demonstrate an operator that is turning things around but still has more to do, which was exactly what I said in my statement.

I was clear that TPE’s current service levels are unacceptable and that no options were off the table. I am interested in the hon. Lady’s focus on guarding taxpayers’ money. If I have added this up correctly, she and her Front-Bench colleagues have made unfunded promises of £62 billion of rail spending with no demonstrable means to pay for them. I am afraid that she will have excuse me for finding her professed concern for the taxpayer a little incredible.

Finally, I was surprised that the hon. Lady does not seem to have noticed that far from talking about the status quo, last month I set out in detail a clear set of proposals for reform to bring track and train together in Great British Railways, which I reiterated in my statement. That is what we will continue doing: not having an ideological debate about who owns the railways but talking about delivering better services for passengers. That will remain our relentless focus.

May I start by welcoming the resolution of the industrial dispute? I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Rail Minister on their constructive work to bring that about.

In his statement, my right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that there are many reasons behind train cancellations and delays, including infrastructure works and failures, industrial action and the weather, as well as those that are the responsibility of the train operating companies. Would it not help scrutiny and accountability of those operators—not just Avanti and TransPennine Express, but all operators—to have available a clear breakdown of the reasons behind poor performance, so that we can hold to account those who are responsible for which bits of the delays?

I would say two things about that. I will look carefully at whether there is more we can do to show the public clearly and transparently the reasons for delays, so that they can understand their cause. To some extent, I do not think that it is that important to passengers, because they do not really care whether the train operating company or Network Rail has caused the problem—they want it to be fixed. My hon. Friend makes the case for reform. It is exactly why we need to bring together the guiding mind on track and train operators—to join up the system, make better decisions for passengers and, ultimately, deliver a better service, which is what passengers are interested in.

While the Secretary of State was finishing writing his statement before coming to the House, Avanti was doing what it does best—causing more chaos to the west coast. I was glad that I got the London North Eastern Railway down, rather than Avanti. Avanti was far and away the worst-performing company for cancellations in period 11 and the second worst in period 12, according to Office of Rail and Road tables. It was beaten in period 12 only by TransPennine Express. Coincidentally, both franchises involve FirstGroup. By contrast, ScotRail is by far the best performing major operator for cancellation percentages, and it runs eight times as many trains as Avanti.

Since the much heralded Government intervention, ORR data for periods 8 to 11 shows that the number of trains arriving on time is lower, and hovers around 32% to 35%. The Secretary of State talks about facts, but the fact is that still only a third of trains are arriving on time. Does he really think that merits coming to the Despatch Box and bragging about a turnaround? Even on Avanti’s 15-minute threshold for arrival, performance has been consistently lower than in earlier years. In period 10, a quarter of trains arrived outside that 15-minute window. Period 11 was only marginally better. Yet again, ScotRail significantly outperforms it. LNER has had its own issues, but it still outperforms Avanti by some distance. There is no shareholder dividend system for ScotRail or LNER. Despite the Secretary of State saying that there is ideological battle on this issue, why are the Government still so opposed to nationalising rail companies and giving them public sector ownership?

The Secretary of State mentioned discounted ticketing, yet no one north of Preston benefits from that, so passengers in Scotland are paying full whack for services that barely exist to cross-subsidise tickets for trains that stop 200 miles away. Scottish commuters have seen plans to shelve the Golborne link for HS2, with no replacement identified, and further delays to the Euston link. Even when HS2 comes into being, our trains will be slower on the west coast main line than Avanti’s are at present. Despite the rhetoric about rhetoric, is it not the case that this Government just do not care?

Let me deal with those questions in order. First, it important to focus on the facts. To take today’s Avanti service, 95.5% of services were running within 15 minutes of their planned time. There was a service issue today, which I know at least one hon. Member was affected by. There was a Network Rail points failure between Carstairs and Carlisle, which resulted in the delay and part-cancellation of two services, including the 0939 from Lancaster, which started instead from Preston and arrived three minutes late at Euston. It is interesting that the issue was caused by the bit of the industry that is, of course, owned by the taxpayer, so that does not demonstrate the hon. Gentleman’s case for nationalisation.

Secondly, on timekeeping, I said in my statement that Avanti’s punctuality was now within the pack of the train operating companies, but that it was at the bottom of the pack and there was more work still to do. I was very clear that Avanti has improved its performance but it is not where it needs to be, which is why I have sufficient confidence only to extend the contract until October. Both I and the Rail Minister have been clear that Avanti needs to continue to deliver improved performance.

On LNER, on the east coast, in my view one of the reasons why good performance is delivered on that route is that there are open-access operators providing competition and choice to passengers. It is important for us to bear that in mind when we think about the future shape of the rail service.

On the hon. Gentleman’s points about HS2, because I have to consider the interests of the taxpayer and the fact that inflation is significantly high at the moment, I had to make difficult decisions. The choice I made was to continue delivering phase 1, in order to ensure we deliver it as promised; to have a short delay to phase 2a, to continue to deliver phase 2b on track; and to look again at delivering a station at Euston, within the budget that has been set. I think those were the right decisions to deliver improved infrastructure, to benefit the country over decades to come.

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Rail Minister and the leadership team of Network Rail on bringing this prolonged period of industrial action to a close. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when an offer is put to members of the RMT and employees, it must be clear that they indeed want it and accept it? Does he agree that it is right that the RMT should now put the offer to the train operators to its members as well?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The offers that have been made by both Network Rail and the train operating companies—broadly the same value of offers—are fair and reasonable, balancing the interests of the workers on the railways, the passengers and the taxpayer. It is important that the staff themselves get to make a judgment about whether they think those offers are fair, and I urge the RMT to put the offer to the train operating companies to its members, and to let the members decide. Surely that is the right thing for it to do.

It seems that an assessment has been made by the Secretary of State that actually the service is just a little less rubbish. Is that really a just case for extending the contract? My constituents are flabbergasted.

I was very frank with the House that the service last summer and autumn was completely unacceptable. Avanti brought in a new timetable in December. For the first month, we did not really see any improvement because there was sustained industrial action on the railways. Since then, it has delivered improved performance. Is it good enough? No, it is not—I have made that clear—but I believe that it has demonstrated that it has turned things around enough to justify giving it the chance of a further six months to show that it can do the job. We will see whether it does that job in the next six months, but it has demonstrated that it can turn things around.

As the Secretary of State suggests, things have started to improve on Avanti West Coast, including through Stoke-on-Trent, but we need to see further improvements, particularly when it comes to services and delays. But that is not just down to the operators: as the Office of Rail and Road suggests, every single Network Rail region has seen more delays attributed to Network Rail than in the previous period. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must focus on track as well as train if we are to get the improvements we need?

I very much agree. The Rail Minister has met Network Rail to raise the specific issues that my hon. Friend raises and others, but let me say two other things. First, now that we have resolved all the industrial disputes on Network Rail, the company’s management can now focus 100% on delivering improved performance rather than on dealing with an industrial dispute. Secondly, it has ambitious plans for reform to deliver improved maintenance of the network in a safer way for the people who work on it and at a lower cost for the taxpayer, all of which will deliver better services for my hon. Friend’s constituents.

I assume from the Secretary of State’s earlier comments that he is aware of my Twitter thread about my cancelled and then delayed journey to London this morning. It will have come as no surprise to my constituents, whose lives have been disrupted by this train company for far, far too long. Today’s announcement of the contract extension has been met with anger by my constituents. I have to say that Avanti really did take the biscuit today when it even managed to serve mouldy food in its on-board shop. My constituents would like to know what on earth Avanti has to do, other than be the worst-performing rail operator in the country, to actually lose the contract.

I would say a couple of things. First, I did see the hon. Lady’s tweet, which is why I set out clearly the position with respect to the train service that was disrupted this morning: there were two services that were part-cancelled, and the rest of Avanti’s services this morning were running perfectly all right. The issue with the cancellation was to do not with Avanti, but with Network Rail’s performance.

On the hon. Lady’s second point, I come back to what I said earlier. I am not pretending that Avanti has fixed its performance or that it is up there with the best-performing train operating companies—far from it—but the question I faced was whether it had done enough to demonstrate that it was capable of turning its services around. I have set that out, and I will not try the patience of the House by saying it all again. It has made a significant improvement—enough to justify an extension until October. Is there more to do? There absolutely is. The hon. Lady is right to make that strong argument on behalf of her constituents, and we will hold the company to account.

My right hon. Friend is the antithesis of the Fat Controller, but may I thank him very much indeed for all his efforts in securing a satisfactory agreement with the unions recently? Owing to the complete shambles that at times we see from Avanti, which purportedly seeks to run a rail service, there will be concern among my constituents. Has my right hon. Friend reflected on the question of over-promising in bidding for franchises? Will his judgment of Avanti’s success or otherwise over the next six months be conditional on improvements such as the ability to book tickets further in advance than is currently possible?

My hon. Friend is quite right, and I will take his initial comment in the spirit that I am sure he intended. We will judge Avanti in the same way that it is judged on the fee that it earns: on its operational performance; on the experience of its customers; on its financial management; on how it works with Network Rail, other train operating companies and other stakeholders; and on the fundamental performance that it delivers in its timekeeping, its punctuality and its level of cancellations. It will also be judged on its customer service experience. It is quite right to say that it has had some issues with the ability to book tickets ahead, and over the past week it has had some issues with its website. It knows that it needs to fix those issues and that we will hold it to account, as will my hon. Friend.

I just cannot reconcile the Secretary of State’s statement that services have improved with my own experience as a passenger over the past month, from today’s minor inconvenience of no food being available on the long journey from Bangor to London, to the delays in last week’s trains, to what happened the previous week when the trains did not turn up at all—and that is on top of the withdrawal of direct services on the vital Irish route through my constituency and Ynys Môn to Holyhead. How can the Secretary of State have any confidence that in six months’ time the service from Avanti will be any better?

There has been an improvement over time. Last year, I made it very clear that services were completely unacceptable. Avanti introduced a new timetable in December, but it was impossible to see any improvement during the first month of its operation owing to sustained industrial action affecting either the train operating companies or Network Rail. Avanti has since improved its performance, but I accept that it is not all the way there, which is why I extended its contract by only six months. Those at Avanti are well aware that they are still on probation and have more work to do, and I shall expect to see sustained improvement on punctuality and timekeeping, on cancellations, and on the way they work with their customers. We will be holding them to account, and my hon. Friend the Rail Minister will continue his regular meetings with them to ensure that their performance continues to improve, for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

I am pleased to see that the cancellation rate has fallen to 4.2%, but one swallow does not a summer make, and this service has been letting my constituents and me down for a prolonged period of time. What will the Secretary of State be looking for during those six months, and will he be able to publish the precise metrics of what he would consider to be a success in order to allow the contract to be refreshed in future?

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. I said in my statement that performance had been poor, but improvements had been made. This will be a question of punctuality and timekeeping—of whether Avanti hits the required on-time performance—the number of cancellations, and how easy its customers find it to deal with the service. I will also have to judge it on the basis of what is going on in the industry. It would be much easier to judge the performance of train operating companies if their staff were not going on strike, which I why I think that if the RMT puts its deal to the members, we can resolve the industrial dispute. The issue of holding management to account would then be very clear, because it would be the only thing left on which we can focus. It is very difficult to hold management to account when the workers keep going on strike and disrupting the service for passengers.

The Secretary of State said that the contract would be extended with the “expectation” that Avanti would win back the confidence of customers. I have to say that my constituents in south Manchester are a long way from having confidence in Avanti. I speak regularly to people who are driving rather than taking the train because they know it is the only way in which they can guarantee that they will arrive at their destination on time. Leaving aside the cancellation statistics, how will the Secretary of State measure the confidence of customers in Avanti’s currently shambolic service?

I made it very clear that Avanti would have to earn back the trust of its customers, which, for rather obvious reasons, it has lost over the past year. The only way to win back the trust of customers in a service business such as passenger rail is to deliver sustained performance improvement over time. During the most recent period for which we have statistics, the cancellation figures clearly improved, but Avanti still has more work to do. It needs to sustain that performance, making the trains more punctual and reducing the number of cancellations for a sustained period. If it does that, it will win back the trust of its customers. If it does not, it will not, and we will make decisions accordingly.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. The arrangements that will hopefully end the strikes are very good news, and the RMT should certainly ballot its members. As for Avanti West Coast, my constituents who use Lichfield Trent Valley station will be pleased to see what has been done, but we do need more improvement. He has used the phrase “Great British Railways” a number of times. I am really looking forward to any announcement that its headquarters might be in Derby.

On that last point, I promised to update the House before Easter on where GBR’s HQ will be, and I will stick to that promise. On my hon. Friend’s other points, I reiterate what she says: this is about delivering reform and bringing track and train together in GBR, which will lead to improved performance across the rail network.

The Secretary of State seems to be celebrating a 4% cancellation rate on Avanti. May I invite him to look at the cancellation rate on Thameslink trains from St Albans City station, which is 8%? In fact, only 47% of our trains run on time, and our tickets are almost a third more expensive per mile than the average London commuter route, which means that St Albans is now rated the worst commuter station into London. Will the Secretary of State look at those cancellation rates and tell me when the prices affecting my constituency will go down and when reliability will go up?

We look at the performance of the rail network overall but, as the Chairman of the Transport Committee said, we need more transparent information. The most important thing is that lots of the issues to do with the performance of train operating companies are partly to do with infrastructure. Passengers do not care what causes the problems, which is why GBR, with its new regional structure, will ensure that we deliver a more joined-up system and better overall performance, which is what is ultimately important for the hon. Lady’s constituents.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. It is very positive that RMT employees at Network Rail are ready to accept the offer, and therefore disappointing that those who work for the train operating companies have not been given a chance to express their views. On the specific points in the negotiations, does he agree that reforms to working practices in order to modernise and bring greater efficiency to the railways are critical to their future? Can he confirm that this is central to the negotiations taking place?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for reform in general, but this is also part of the deals that have been accepted. On Network Rail, the modernising maintenance programme is central to delivering the savings that will help to fund the pay offer that has been made. We need to see similar reforms in the train operating companies in order to deliver a reliable, seven-days-a-week rail service that is better for passengers, particularly given that we have seen a bounce-back in leisure travel at the expense of commuter rail, which I do not think is going to come back post-pandemic. We need to see a more flexible railway delivering for passengers.

Last year we saw £4.1 million in bonus payouts despite the worst performance figures for all rail operators. Today we see contract extensions despite the Office of Rail Regulation showing that 17% of trains had been cancelled since December. Does the Minister think that rewarding failure on this scale is justifiable to the UK taxpayer or, indeed, to passengers?

I do not think the hon. Lady listened very carefully to what I said. I did not say that Avanti had fixed all the problems, but it has delivered an improvement in performance compared with last year. As I have said, since it introduced its timetable in December, we did not see much improvement in the first month because either train operating company staff or Network Rail staff were on strike, but since then it has delivered an improved performance. Has it improved as far as it needs to go? No, it has not—I was clear about that. We need to see that performance sustained over the coming months, and that is how we will judge its performance when we make a decision towards the end of this next six-month period.

The vast majority of my constituents who use rail rely on Chiltern Railways, and passengers have faced massive and dangerous overcrowding on services to stations such as Haddenham and Thame Parkway and Princes Risborough at commuter times and at weekends. That is due in no small part to customers frustrated with Avanti who would ordinarily choose Avanti to go from Birmingham to London being displaced on to the Chiltern line instead. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of Avanti’s failures on overcrowding on other railways, and what can he do to alleviate that pressure?

I have not made a specific assessment of the extent to which Avanti’s poor performance, particularly last year, has led to the effects that my hon. Friend describes, but he has set them out clearly. If the improved performance that has taken place over the past few months is sustained, it will enable a reverse of that effect, which will deliver better services not only for those who use Avanti but for his constituents who use Chiltern’s services, for whom the level of overcrowding will reduce.

Frankly, we could do with a Secretary of State who has to use Avanti West Coast twice a week, as many of us in this Chamber do. I must be the unluckiest rail user in this place, because I always seem to be on a train that he says is one of the 10% that triggers delay repay. Avanti has failed, and it has failed spectacularly. Even by the Government’s own admission, Avanti has failed to the point that my constituents genuinely do not understand why it was allowed to have £4 million of bonuses and £12 million of dividends. Can he explain to my constituents why we have a rail service that allows and rewards abject failure?

I cannot help that the location of my Forest of Dean constituency means I use Great Western Railway rather than Avanti. The hon. Gentleman can criticise me, but that is the geographical fact of the case.

I used Avanti when, for example, I went to Manchester to meet the northern Mayors to discuss Avanti’s performance when it needed improving. Since I met them, Avanti’s performance has significantly improved.

On bonuses, the hon. Gentleman is talking about a period that predates last year’s extremely poor performance. We have not yet seen the published figures to assess the period since last year.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need to see sustained performance improvement. As I said in my statement, we will make sure Avanti has done that when we come to make a decision about the period after October.

I am concerned that the Government have extended the Avanti West Coast contract to 15 October 2023. My Ynys Môn constituents and businesses are at their wits’ end over Avanti’s terrible and unreliable service to Holyhead, which is the UK’s second busiest port. The Minister mentioned that more than 100 additional drivers have been recruited, reducing reliance on overtime. Is there a target figure that Avanti needs to recruit by 15 October for the contract to be extended?

The majority of pre-covid services to the north Wales coast have been restored, and there are five trains a day in each direction between London and Holyhead. Avanti has recruited more than 100 new drivers, which needs to be sustained for it to continue delivering a reliable timetable without depending on rest-day working. We will work closely with Avanti to make sure that performance continues over the coming months.

During the period of Avanti’s improvement plan, the operator had the highest proportion on record of trains running more than 15 minutes late. By the Secretary of State’s own admission, Avanti has also lost the confidence of its customers. Why are the Government rewarding this gross incompetence with yet another six-month extension?

I was clear in my statement about the facts on Avanti’s punctuality. Although it is now back in the pack with the other train operating companies, it is at the bottom of the pack and still has more work to do. The question for me, as I said in my statement and as I said in answer to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), is about whether Avanti’s performance has improved enough to demonstrate it can continue improving. The statistics I read out show that Avanti is clearly running a much better service, with 40% more trains, and has significantly reduced cancellations in the past few months, but I was very frank that its performance is not good enough today. Avanti needs to continue delivering service improvements for us to give it a further contract. That is what we will judge Avanti by as we run forward to October.

I must confess that I was disappointed to hear from my right hon. Friend that he has decided to extend Avanti’s contract by six months. Avanti has been letting down the people of north Wales for far too long and I had hoped that he would be coming here to say that he was terminating that contract. It would appear that the progress Avanti has made is that it is no longer delivering a truly deplorable service and instead is delivering something rather less than a mediocre one. Will he confirm that he will expect Avanti to be delivering an excellent service by October, failing which it will be stripped of its franchise?

I think my right hon. Friend is being a little unfair in not recognising the performance improvements Avanti has made. I completely accept that its performance last summer and autumn was terrible, and I said that, but it has made significant improvements. It needs to continue those improvements, particularly in delivering reduced cancellations, improvements at weekends—its weekday services are better than its weekend ones—and improvements in how it deals with its customers. All those things absolutely need to continue happening for both him, and me, to be satisfied with Avanti.

Today, more than 30 services were cancelled by TransPennine Express. The Minister has outlined his concern about the service, so will he reassure the House that when performance figures are published we will find that TPE will not have received a penny in performance bonuses, given the misery that millions are facing?

The hon. Lady is right about TPE; I made it clear in my statement that its current performance is unacceptable. The rail Minister and I met its senior leadership and made it clear that the current performance was unacceptable. As I said at this Dispatch Box, if there is not considerable improvement, all options are on the table.

Staying with TPE, the Secretary of State will know that I have raised this issue on more occasions than I would wish to do so. The service out of Cleethorpes is supposed to be hourly through to Doncaster, Sheffield and Manchester, but today there was a six-hour gap between 8.20 and 14.20, and 10 days ago there was an eight-hour gap between trains. This is having a terrible effect on business and leisure facilities, and tourism to Cleethorpes, and it has been going on for 16 months, so it is not something new. When he comes to make a decision on TPE, will he please take an extremely robust position?

I know that my hon. Friend has had a particularly difficult time on the route that serves his constituents. I was clear at the Dispatch Box that TPE’s service is not acceptable, to put it mildly, and it needs to improve. The one thing I would say is that it is overly dependent on rest-day working. When I met northern Mayors, who made this point to me clearly, I ensured that a refreshed, more generous offer on rest-day working was made to ASLEF, but again, it did not even put it to its members. That offer would have made a significant difference in the performance delivered to his constituents. I ask ASLEF to look again at the offer that has been made on rest-day working and take it up, so that we can do the most important thing: deliver improved services to passengers, rather than continue an unnecessary dispute.

Avanti’s abysmal performance is not just demoralising its own hard-working staff on stations and on trains, but causing a huge blow to our economy. The Lakes is the second biggest visitor destination in the country, and it is connected with the biggest, here in London, and the impact on the economy is huge and massively damaging. During this six-month probation period we are talking about, Avanti has recorded almost one in five trains cancelled, with almost one in two delayed. What appalling additional reduction in the quality of service must Avanti do to lose the contract? People in Cumbria will be appalled at the apparent low standards.

The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me if I have this wrong, but I do not think he was here for the whole of my statement, so he may have missed the bit where I set out the improvement that Avanti had delivered. It weekday services have risen from 180 to 264 trains a day, and cancellations were down to 4.2%. I made it clear that Avanti had demonstrated enough improvement to justify the extension until October, but it absolutely has more work to do to deliver for his constituents and others who use the service. That is what the Rail Minister and I will be expecting Avanti to do in the months running up to October.

The ideologically driven actions of the RMT have brought chaos to the wider economy. Rail strikes alone cost the UK hospitality sector £1.5 billion in December—that affects jobs and livelihoods. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the Conservative party will always be the champion of the public and their right to get on with their daily lives—even in the face of the RMT’s actions?

That is a very well-aimed question, because it demonstrates that, when we have rail strikes, there is an immediate impact on not just passengers but the wider economy. I reiterate that, with a 90% turnout and a 76% acceptance of the offer, Network Rail’s RMT staff have demonstrated that they thought it was fair and reasonable in all the circumstances. They have accepted it, which seems to me to justify the RMT putting a very similar offer to its members working in the train operating companies. I would urge it to do so, and to do so quickly, so that it can call off next week’s strikes. That probably needs to happen by the middle of this week so that we do not damage the passengers, or the businesses that depend on them, any more than they already have been.

The people of Stockport have to suffer the extremely poor services provided by Avanti and TransPennine Express. It is extremely frustrating that the Government have decided to extend Avanti’s contract by six months. The Secretary of State pretends that Avanti was an excellent service provider before last summer, but in 2021-22 it had the most complaints of any operator. Why do new figures prove that the Government sanctioned a £12 million dividend for Avanti shareholders, and will the Secretary of State demand that money back?

I think I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the period before the very poor service last year. However, he will also know that the judgment about whether train operating companies have hit the performance targets they have been given is reached independently, not by me, and I think that is a good safeguard.

On the hon. Gentleman’s general point about Avanti’s and TransPennine’s performance, and whether it is good enough, I was clear that TP’s performance is not good enough at the moment. If TP does not demonstrate improved performance, all options remain on the table.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister on successfully working their way through the Network Rail strike. They have rightly mentioned winning back the trust of customers, so as they start to consider whether Avanti, TransPennine Express and others have successfully improved their performance, will they also consider that open-access operators—which the Secretary of State mentioned as a shining example of good practice and which have maintained their customers’ affection—may be the answer for both these routes? Why do we not have more of them and fewer monumental, single provider-dominant contracts?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. On the point about drivers, almost 100 drivers have been recruited—I said more than 100 earlier, but it is almost 100, and I would like to correct the record at this early opportunity.

My hon. Friend’s point about open-access operators is right. As I said in answer to a previous question, that competition and choice are welcome, but we can only have that when we have sufficient capacity—that is important. I also note that Avanti’s announcement today makes it clear that the new managing director it has brought in to grip its performance and to continue delivering improved performance has been responsible for two of those very successful open-access operators. I think that bodes well for Avanti’s customers.

I have to tell the Secretary of State that the only cancellation my constituents would welcome is the cancellation of the Avanti contract. He mentioned the five services a day between Holyhead and Crewe, but he may not be aware that two of them have been cancelled today. For communities in Chester and north Wales, this ongoing nightmare is affecting lives and economic performance. When will the Secretary of State stop rewarding failure and get a grip on this service?

I think the hon. Lady’s question would be fairer if I had pretended there was not more work to do. Avanti has delivered performance improvement, running 40% more services, reducing the rate of cancellations to 4.2% and running significantly more trains on time, but I was very clear that it needs to do better on punctuality and deliver sustained improvement on cancellations. I know how much cancellations inconvenience passengers—not just those who wanted to catch the cancelled services, but passengers on other services that are then overcrowded. Avanti has work to do, but I think it has done enough so far to justify a six-month extension. We will consider whether it has sustained that performance when we have to make a further decision later this year.

The service my constituents endured from Stoke-on-Trent last year was truly appalling, as my right hon. Friend acknowledged earlier. Does he agree that, although things have been better this year—I can testify myself that there are more services, they are less crowded, and most of them turn up on time—it is still not good enough, and 4.2% is not an acceptable cancellation rate? Will he hold Avanti to account before extending the contract any further?