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Commons Chamber

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 20 April 2023

House of Commons

Thursday 20 April 2023

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Transport Links: South-east Wales and South-west England

1. What steps he is taking to improve cross-border transport links between south-east Wales and south-west England. (904446)

Good morning, Mr Speaker. The Department for Transport is engaging with the Welsh Government and other stakeholders to deliver transport connectivity improvements, and we will publish our response to Lord Hendy’s Union connectivity review in due course. In February, we announced a £2.7 million investment to develop options for new stations and services on the south Wales main line, and connectivity between south Wales and south-west England was boosted in 2021 by through services between Cardiff and Penzance.

The UK’s connectivity review, the Burns commission and the western gateway rail review, which the Secretary of State will be acquainted with, all highlight the very real need for real investment on the south Wales main line. As part of that, will the Government commit to fund the much-needed relief lines upgrade?

I am very grateful for that question. When I was on the Back Benches, the hon. Lady and I co-chaired the all-party parliamentary group on the western gateway, so I am very familiar with the requirements for connectivity between south Wales and the south-west. On the specific scheme she mentioned, the south Wales relief lines upgrade is now being progressed to a full business case and that will receive very careful consideration by my Department.

Aviation Sector: Decarbonisation

Good morning to you, Sir. The jet zero strategy was published in July 2022, and sets out the Government’s approach to decarbonising UK aviation. The strategy focuses on the rapid development of technologies in a way that maintains the benefits of air travel while also maximising the opportunities that decarbonisation brings for the UK.

The new electrically powered Luton DART—direct air-rail transit—is critical to the future sustainable growth of London Luton airport. It will help increase the number of passengers accessing the airport by rail and support the delivery of Luton Council’s 2040 vision of a carbon-neutral town. Do the Minister and the Secretary of State agree that the Luton DART will help reduce the environmental impact of journeys to and from the airport and congestion on surrounding roads, and may I take this opportunity to invite them both to come and visit?

How extremely kind of the hon. Lady to extend that very interesting invitation. I would accept in a flash except that I do not want to usurp the prerogative of my colleague in the House of Lords, so maybe I can pick up with her. I am very interested to hear what the hon. Lady said and very grateful for the update. I will ask my officials to look closely at that.

Repairing Potholes: Funding in Spring Budget 2023

3. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the adequacy of the funding for repairing potholes announced in the spring Budget 2023. (904448)

6. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the adequacy of the funding for repairing potholes announced in the spring Budget 2023. (904451)

15. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the adequacy of the funding for repairing potholes announced in the spring Budget 2023. (904465)

The Government are investing more than £5 billion between 2020 and 2025 in highways maintenance. On top of that, we are putting in another £200 million announced in the spring Budget, which will allow local communities to plan effectively for managing their roads, with enough money to fill millions of potholes, repair dozens of bridges and resurface roads right across the country. It is up to local authorities to determine how best to spend this funding.

Would the Minister urge the Labour Welsh Government to follow the UK Government’s example by setting up a national pothole fund to deal with the severe problems we have with potholes in my constituency of Clwyd South in areas such Rhos, Hanmer and Bronington and the Ceiriog valley?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I would indeed. While this is of course a matter for the Welsh Government, I am sure residents across Wales, and actually the tourism industry from the rest of the country as well, would appreciate the sort of additional investment into addressing potholes that the Chancellor has provided in England. I am afraid it seems rather indicative of the Welsh Government’s approach to the road network that while England is investing, they are not.

I can tell my hon. Friend that in Maldon also the repair of potholes is one of the top issues on the doorstep. Would he therefore congratulate the Conservative-led administration at Essex County Council, which is putting an additional £9 million into the repair of potholes on top of the Government funding, and is he surprised to learn that the Liberal Democrats voted against it?

Well, Mr Speaker, sadly nothing surprises me when it comes to the Liberal Democrats. I would not be surprised to hear them claiming to do one thing but actually doing another, which is what they do regularly in my experience of local government. No doubt my right hon. Friend will ensure that his local residents are fully aware of any such political chicanery from his local council’s political opponents. I praise the local council there for putting in an extra £9 million, on top of the extra £5.5 million that the Government have provided, to deal with those potholes.

It is shocking that Essex Lib Dems voted against more money to fix our potholes. Local Lib Dems also voted for the ultra-low emission zone charge in London, the zoning charge in Oxford, the congestion charge in Cambridge, and the parking charges at Chelmsford’s Hylands. Does my hon. Friend agree that when it comes to local roads, local Lib Dems are much more likely to be flinging out fines than filling up potholes?

I recently visited my hon. Friend in Chelmsford to see the excellent Conservative councillors there working hard on behalf of local residents, and the stats speak for themselves, with Conservative councils repairing around double the number of potholes when they are in charge, compared with Liberal Democrat-controlled councils. She raises an important point: whether it is ULEZ, which the Lib Dems backed, backing the Labour Mayor in London, or other schemes right across the country, it is Conservatives in local government who are supporting our road network and ensuring that potholes are repaired, and Lib Dems who are at war with the driver.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, how kind. It would be terrible—wouldn’t it?—if the Government were claiming to be putting more money into potholes, when in reality in the past two years alone, there has been a £534 million reduction in real-terms funding for highways. I am convinced that local election voters in two weeks’ time will make their decisions based on realities, rather than on bluster.

Here is another reality: Cumbria gets 20 million visitors a year, and we are delighted to receive every single one of them. But our highways are in a state, because we do not get a penny from the Government to compensate for any one of the cars that those 20 million people visit us in. Is it time that the Government gave a funding formula to Westmorland and Furness Council, and Cumberland Council, that takes account of the fact that our roads, and indeed our hospitals, doctors services and police services, are used by others, and not just by ourselves?

As I pointed out in a previous answer, when it comes to councils repairing roads, it is about getting on with the job on the ground. Conservative councils repair on average twice as many potholes per council area as Lib Dem councils do. The recent Government announcement about ensuring that utility companies are properly held to account is also in the right direction. If Lib Dem-controlled councils are interested in potholes, have they implemented a lane rental scheme that enables them to get cash, like Surrey, Kent and West Sussex County Councils have done, all of which are Conservative controlled? There is nothing from the Lib Dems on that.

Let me take the focus away from Conservatives and Liberals, and focus it on my constituency if I can. I do that for a reason. In the past, the Government from Westminster have been helpful to the Northern Ireland Executive and to our road surfaces, and they have given us money for potholes under the Barnett consequentials. Ards and North Down Borough Council in my constituency has the worst potholes in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister hold discussions with the Chancellor to ensure that under the Barnett consequentials, we can get some help for potholes in my constituency?

I will always be delighted to do so. I was recently in Northern Ireland and drove along some of its brand new roads. I was delighted to see that Northern Ireland is still investing in our highway infrastructure, unlike in Labour controlled Wales.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Sometimes you just have to admire the brass neck of the Conservative party. As Chancellor, the Prime Minister personally slashed the pothole budget by £400 million, which is enough to fill 8 million potholes. Lined up side by side, that giant Tory pothole would stretch from here to John O’Groats and back again. Will the Minister accept that after 13 years, the British public see that our roads, like the Tories’ excuses, are full of holes?

The hon. Lady heard me have a go at the Lib Dems, because Tory councils have filled twice as many potholes. You will be surprised to learn, Mr Speaker, that Conservative councils have filled three times as many potholes as Labour councils, and with an extra £5 billion going in over the next five years, and an extra £200 million this year, I hope the hon. Lady will welcome the Government’s investment in potholes.

Bus Services

The Government have provided over £2 billion since March 2020 to protect vital bus services, with that support set to continue until June 2023. As a result, bus service provision in England outside London remained at over 85% of pre-covid levels in 2021-22, despite patronage and commercial fare revenue remaining significantly lower. We are actively working on long-term plans to support the sector from the start of July and will set out further details in due course.

I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Minister and Andy Street in my campaign to save the No. 45 bus route in my constituency. It is vital for residents in Yew Tree and Tame Bridge, and I thank Yew Tree Primary School for joining my campaign to save the route. The service is only safe for a further six months. Does my hon. Friend agree that communities like mine in Yew Tree and Tame Bridge cannot be left without a long-term secure bus route?

I thank my hon. Friend for her work on this matter. She has mentioned it to me in meetings already and I know she is really campaigning in this area. The Government have provided significant help to support our bus sector, with over £1.8 billion in 2021-22 alone. That includes over £7.3 million since March 2020 to West Midlands Combined Authority to protect bus services. We are also considering further support for the sector from July onwards. I look forward to working with her to convince other parts of Government to ensure we can deliver that.

According to the Department for Transport, bus usage remains, as we just heard, at around 85% to 90% of pre-covid levels. That means many bus routes are no longer considered commercially viable for operators, despite being vital to communities. That is true of the No. 2 bus in my constituency, which will no longer connect Loughborough and the villages of Quorn, Barrow and Sileby with Leicester. Will the Minister please consider further subsidising bus routes to ensure reliable services, which will help attract passengers back and prevent rural communities becoming isolated?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She has already mentioned this to me and I know how important these services are. I have a semi-rural constituency myself, so I understand that such connections are vital. Prior to the pandemic roughly 40% of operator revenues came from public funds, including from concessionary bus fares, and at the moment the figure is at about 57%. It is right that councils decide which bus routes they want to support, but I hope that with the extra moneys we have provided over the past two years, and hopefully into the future, we will be able to provide a long-term solution for the communities she represents.

If the Minister came to my constituency and talked to residents waiting for a bus, which will probably not turn up, how would he go about persuading them that their bus services now are as good as when the Conservatives came to power in 2010?

What I would say is that—like the hon. Gentleman, I am sure—I recently held three bus meetings right across my constituency to enable people to speak to local operators and to bring those operators face to face with my constituents. I am sure he is doing something similar in his constituency. The bus sector has faced major challenges over the last couple of years, including around driver shortages—all things we are working very hard to address. We are looking at concessionary fare travel at around two-thirds of where it was pre-pandemic. That has really fallen off a cliff in the last couple of years. It is up to us to encourage people back on to our bus network. That is why this Government have provided six months of support, with a £2 fare cap, to encourage people back on to our bus network.

To help the public grapple with rising costs in the cost of living crisis and promote sustainable public transport, the Scottish Government have supported more than 50 million free bus journeys made by under-22s across Scotland since the policy came into place last year. Not only has that benefited young people by saving them money during this Tory cost of living crisis; it has also, crucially, encouraged a shift away from cars to public transport in the next generation. To provide certainty for investment by world-leading bus builders such as ADL in Falkirk, will the Minister consider replicating this successful Scottish policy in England?

I was delighted to visit Lothian Buses in Scotland recently to see for myself the impact of Scottish policies on the ground. The BSIP—bus service improvement plan—funding here in England has enabled fare caps right across the country. UK Government money is providing the £1 fare cap for under-22s in the north-east and the £2 fare cap in combined authorities in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and other parts of the country. On free bus travel, it is about getting the balance right. We want a service that is respected by people when they use it and I am not sure that providing something totally for free is always the best solution.

The cross-party Transport Committee recently published its report on the Government’s national bus strategy, which found that the Government are unlikely to meet their target on zero-emission buses. The Committee is disappointed that the Government have not delivered on their promise to publish guidance on franchising and socially necessary services. The long-term future of the bus sector remains uncertain. Labour has a plan to get our buses back on track. What is the Government’s plan? Will it be more dither, delay and short-term sticking plasters?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman said that, because through the city regional sustainable transport settlement this Government have provided billions of pounds of long-term funding for greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and other combined authorities right across the country, allowing them to do that long-term investment. Labour might claim credit for it on the ground, but this Government are providing the money to allow it to happen.

Ultra-low Emission Zone: Expansion

5. What recent discussions he has had with Transport for London on plans to expand the Ultra-Low Emission Zone. (904450)

Transport in London is devolved to the Mayor of London, and he is accountable to the electorate for the decisions that he makes, including those regarding road schemes that charge users. We have been clear that Government grant funding, via the longer term funding settlement, cannot be used to cover the cost of implementing the scheme.

Several outer London boroughs have refused to enter into section 8 agreements with Transport for London to allow ULEZ cameras to be installed on their roads. Sadiq Khan believes that he can override the boroughs and install his hated ULEZ expansion without their permission. Ministers have previously said that they would get legal advice on that. What advice has been received?

My hon. Friend has been campaigning strongly on behalf of his constituents against the expansion of the ULEZ scheme. Under schedule 23 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999, the Mayor of London and Transport for London have the relevant statutory powers to install the infrastructure required for the expansion without obtaining the London boroughs’ consent. That reinforces my earlier answer that the Mayor of London is accountable. If electors in London do not like what is going on, they have the power to deal with it at the ballot box.

Properly funded scrappage schemes make a massive difference to ensuring that people transition to low-emission vehicles. This Government have provided funding for clean air zones and scrappage schemes in Bristol, Bath, Sheffield, Birmingham, Portsmouth and other areas around the country. The previous Conservative Mayor of London supported the London clean air zone, and it is recognised in the Government’s air quality strategy, so why have the Government not provided a single penny of scrappage funding for London since the introduction of the ULEZ in 2019?

Frankly, it is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to talk about this Government’s support for Transport for London. The latest TfL settlement supports almost £3.6 billion-worth of projects. This Government’s total funding to TfL has been more than £6 billion since the start of the pandemic. There are significant resources. The Mayor of London is expanding his ULEZ scheme—that is his decision, and it is therefore for him to fund the necessary scrappage scheme. If he does not want to fund a proper scrappage scheme, he should not be expanding the ULEZ.

Zero Emission Buses

The Government are committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses and a zero-emission bus fleet. As the roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), said, he has focused on sustainable public transport recently in a visit to Scotland, which included meetings with the traffic commissioner in Glasgow and Lothian Buses.

The Transport Committee’s recent report referred to earlier on the implementation of the national bus strategy confirmed that meeting this Government’s bus decarbonisation targets initially for England and Wales actually relies on the Scottish Government. That is evidenced by Scotland’s ordering of 10.11 zero-emission buses per 100,000 people, compared with just 0.94 in England outside London. Will the Minister explain the vast chasm of delivery? What is the Government’s revised target for zero-emission bus delivery in England and Wales?

The Government are on track to deliver the policy. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are working with companies to build substantial supply chains that then have to scale up by several orders of magnitude in order to meet the scale of orders. If we look at the number that have been ordered alone: for zero emission bus regional areas, the ZEBRA scheme, 1,342; 275 for Coventry; 20 will be going to Cambridgeshire in the next few weeks, I am pleased to say; and 350 to other schemes in England outside London. The total so far is 3,429, which is well on track to meet our target.

Will the Minister visit Morebus, serving my constituency, because there he will learn that its new buses generate fewer emissions than I do pushing my lawnmower?

One can take that as a comment either about buses or about the size of my right hon. Friend’s lawnmower—let us assume that it is about buses. I thank him for his interest and I am certainly happy to discuss that further with him.

Rail Infrastructure: North of England

8. What steps his Department is taking to help deliver major rail infrastructure improvements in the north of England. (904454)

We remain committed to delivering the integrated rail plan, which, as the Chancellor confirmed in the autumn statement, includes HS2 and delivering the Northern Powerhouse Rail core network. We are also delivering on the multibillion-pound TransPennine route upgrade between Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds and York, which represents a bigger central Government commitment than Crossrail in London.

The Department set up the Northern Transport Acceleration Council to put rocket boosters on rail upgrades in the north, but three years on we are no closer to high-speed rail services between Sheffield and Leeds, there are no more trains on the Hope Valley line and NTAC has not met in full since May 2022. Does the Minister think that the appropriate governance arrangements are in place to enable effective decision making?

Yes, I do. The delivery speaks for itself in terms of what is being done. In recent months, I have been up to visit the team on the TransPennine route upgrade. With 76 miles of rail line, 23 stations, 6 miles of tunnels and 285 bridges or viaducts being upgraded, it is a vast engineering project. From next year, electric trains will be able to run between Manchester Victoria and Stalybridge. I remind the hon. Member that there was a grand total of nine miles of electrification under the last Labour Government in 13 years. We are also delivering the Northumberland line, HS2 all the way to Manchester and various other projects. It is about delivery rather than talking.

When it comes to rail infrastructure improvements, the opening of a train station in Aldridge would be a huge boost, providing connectivity to the north of England and beyond. We are currently working on a business case. As soon as that comes forward, can we expect a speedy response from the Minister?

My right hon. Friend has met me to champion the cause of the new station at Aldridge. I can give her an assurance that as soon as that business case comes through, we will make a very fast decision. I will continue to work with her and Mayor Andy Street in delivering more improvements for her constituents.

I am proud to support an application to reconnect Oswestry with Gobowen in my constituency, using an existing railway line that has been closed for a number of years, and we submitted an excellent bid in September. Can the Minister update me about when we will hear the outcome and, ideally, whether he will be supporting the bid to restore the connection between Oswestry and Gobowen?

The restoring your railway programme is delivering on eight lines, and another 32 lines have business cases or are at other stages of progress. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady and provide detail about the specific project she mentions, but in my view the restoring your railway programme has been a great success.

We have some vital projects going on across the north and in Hyndburn and Haslingden, such as the improvements at Accrington rail station; Lancaster County Council’s levelling-up fund bid, which—apologies, Mr Speaker—is focused solely on east Lancashire; and the bus service improvement plan. But other schemes are needed, such as Access for All at Oswaldtwistle and Church, work at Rishton station and the reopening of the Rawtenstall-to-Manchester line. Will the Minister meet me to discuss those projects? Will he visit Hyndburn and Haslingden to see why they are desperately needed?

I should be delighted to visit. Taking a leaf out of Michael Portillo’s book, I am hoping to do my own great British railway journeys over the summer. I very much hope to meet my hon. Friend while doing so. Since 2006, Access for All has delivered step-free access to 220 stations. The programme has been a great success, and I am pleased to say that the stations that my hon. Friend mentions are within the portfolio of the 300 stations that we are currently assessing.

P&O Ferries: Discussions with DP World

Our Seafarers’ Wages Act 2023 received Royal Assent on 23 March and will protect seafarers who are working on vessels that operate regular international services to and from the UK from being paid less than the national minimum wage. It will boost the pay of thousands of seafarers who work tirelessly to maintain supply chains and transport passengers safely across our waters.

DP World, the shamed parent company of P&O Ferries, saw its profits soar to £1.5 billion last year and paid out a massive dividend after sacking 786 seafarers and replacing them with cheaper agency crew. The P&O workforce now face 60 more redundancies. When will this compromised Government start working with trade unions such as the RMT and prioritise the jobs and rights of seafarers and port workers in the UK over the merciless profiteering of DP World? Or does it just prove that it pays to exploit workers in Conservative Britain?

I disagree. When I took the Seafarers’ Wages Bill through this House, I ensured that the Government made a number of concessions in this space. The Secretary of State has recently discussed with the French Government further options to work together to improve conditions for seafarers working on cross-channel routes between England and France. That work continues apace.

Dover is the headquarters and home of P&O Ferries, but the management of P&O Ferries and DP World have treated Dover and its workforce absolutely disgracefully. Will the Minister outline the steps that this Conservative Government are taking to improve conditions for seafarers and hold P&O Ferries and DP World to account?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work on the frontline in Dover. She has done a huge amount to raise the profile of the issue and to stand up for her constituents and for workers in Dover. She will know of the work on the Seafarers’ Wages Act, which was largely brought forward with her support. I have been disappointed to see some of the recent redundancies that P&O has brought forward locally. I know that she will continue to work with us to champion seafarers’ welfare and will not shy away from ensuring that Britain maintains its role as an international leader in championing the rights of seafarers, including their employment rights.

If we want to champion seafarers’ welfare, where is the seafarers’ charter? We have been waiting for it forever.

Earlier this month, disgraced P&O made another 60 people redundant, despite recording a £1.6 billion profit. Can the Minister explain how on earth Peter Hebblethwaite has still faced no sanction in over a year? Does that not show that under the Conservatives it quite clearly pays to trample over the rights of workers?

As the hon. Member knows, we have worked together on the Seafarers’ Wages Act to tackle exactly the issues that he has raised. With regard to Mr Hebblethwaite, civil action is still being considered and it would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this time.

The Seafarers’ Wages Act remains a real missed opportunity. Let us look at points six to nine of the Government’s nine-point plan:

“Developing a statutory code for ‘fire and rehire’ practices”?


“Taking action against company leaders who break the law”?


“Improving the long-term working conditions of seafarers”?

Nope. As the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) asked, where is the seafarers’ charter?

“Encouraging more ships to operate under the UK flag”?

Nope. The figures went down by another 3% last year and are down by 30% since the Tories came to power. Other than the utterly anaemic Seafarers’ Wages Act, what have the Tories ever done for seafarers?

When SNP Members start talking about ferries, we can tell that they think they are on to a good one. It is interesting that they have not raised the subject of motor homes today instead.

Work on the seafarers’ charter continues as we speak, and I will update the House as soon as more information is available.

Apprenticeships: Transport Sector

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the brilliant work he has done on apprenticeships in Harrogate and Knaresborough over the last few years. I note that some 12,430 new apprenticeships have been created there since 2010. As he knows, the Department is committed to working with the transport industry to create high-quality apprenticeships so that the sector has the skilled workforce it needs. I work closely with the transport employment and skills taskforce to see what we can do to promote apprenticeships still further in the industry.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I have been meeting representatives of bus companies that run apprenticeship schemes. They tell me that the rules governing the number of hours per month in the classroom can be problematic for smaller companies when it comes to rostering, and that if there was some flexibility—a change not in the total number of hours, but in the delivery pattern—they would be able to take on more apprenticeships, which they want to do. Will he consider that idea?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Department for Education published fresh guidance last year on how apprenticeship training can be delivered flexibly to fit business needs. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), the Roads Minister, has been to talk to him and, I believe, has visited the classroom in Harrogate with him, so he can take it from us that we are very much seized of the issue of flexibility and the importance of improving it.

The Minister will know that when it comes to the delivery of charging infrastructure, we are way behind the curve in comparison with our peers in France and Germany. We need more skilled individuals to deliver that infrastructure. Many young people in my constituency benefit from the courses run by Warwickshire College Group, although I am not sure how good the courses are in the rest of the country. What are the Government doing to ensure that the next generation are really electrified about the opportunity this presents?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman meant to begin his question by congratulating the Government on the zero-emission vehicle mandate and our new investments in the local electric vehicle infrastructure scheme. The effect of that, of course, is precisely to create the further investment that will itself drive private sector demand for apprenticeships. We are certainly working as hard as we can on our side, along with the transport employment and skills taskforce, to ensure that we meet this increased demand.

Railways Reform

In February this year I set out our commitment to reforming the railways. Last month I was pleased to be able to visit Derby and announce its success in being named as the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways. We will publish our response to the rail reform legislation consultation before the summer recess. Meanwhile, we are continuing to deliver rail reform, including the roll-out of pay-as-you-go technology across the network, simplifying industry processes and developing the long-term strategy for rail.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to railway reform, but the Secretary of State will know from my recent meeting with the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), that my constituency is heavily impacted by the construction of HS2. We have always been promised that the Handsacre link will bring economic benefits to Stafford, but given the recent push to find savings in this project, concerns have been raised that the link will be scrapped. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it will indeed go ahead?

My hon. Friend never misses an opportunity to raise her constituents’ concerns about HS2, both with me and with the Rail Minister, thus doing the job that she was elected to do extremely well. Our priority is to deliver the opening stage of HS2 on schedule and to ensure that high-speed services from Old Oak Common to Birmingham Curzon Street begin between 2029 and 2033, but I have made it clear that phase 1 construction works north of Birmingham from Delta Junction to Fradley—including works at Handsacre—will continue to progress.

In Scotland, through our publicly owned ScotRail franchise, peak fare rail travel will be scrapped for six months from October. This progressive reform would not have been possible without those powers being with the Scottish Parliament. Does the Minister welcome a measure that will aid hard-pressed families in this cost of living crisis, or does he agree with his arch-Brexiteer colleague who said this morning that devolution should be reversed?

This Government strongly support devolution, and not just to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but through what we are doing with combined authorities across England, because we think that having decisions taken more locally is a good thing for the country. The Scottish Government have an enormous number of powers and they should use them widely. I am pleased to see that in the past couple of weeks they are starting to be held to account for their decision making.

When it comes to railway reform, the Conservative Government seem to know only two approaches—hike up fares and cut railways back to the bone. They are not content with slashing services, cancelling investment and reducing reliability: a leaked Network Rail report reveals that the Government want to cut funding to such a dangerous level that it will be unable to “operate, maintain and renew” tracks and bridges. On top of that, a £3 billion risk fund to help in emergencies such as severe weather will also be cut. Fewer repairs mean more obstructions, risking more delays and accidents and more compensation to private operators. Why are Ministers so passionately committed to making our railways less reliable and ever more expensive? Have the public not suffered enough already?

That was an extraordinary question, containing not a single fact. The Government have provided a record £44.1 billion settlement for Network Rail in control period 7—in English, that is between April 2024 to March 2029. Compared with the previous control period, that is a 4% increase in real terms when compared on a like-for-like basis, and an above-inflation settlement during a highly challenging fiscal environment. That demonstrates our continued commitment to running and maintaining vital railway infrastructure.

Driving Tests

12. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce the number of learner drivers waiting for a driving test. (904460)

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is increasing the number of driving tests by conducting out-of-hours testing, recruiting over 300 examiners, and re-employing retired examiners. Recovery measures have created 35,000 extra test slots each month, which equates to approximately 813,000 additional slots since April 2021. As of 27 March, there were over 50,000 tests still available to book. The DVSA’s Ready to Pass? campaign aims to increase the pass rate and reduce waiting times by ensuring that people do not take their test until they are absolutely ready to do so.

Learner drivers are increasingly falling victim to a flourishing black market in driving tests. Third parties are using bots on the Government’s website to snap up driving test slots that are then sold for double or triple the price. One of my constituents saw a test advertised for £240. Even driving schools are gaming the system. With AA research showing the most vulnerable, including young care leavers, being hit the hardest, what are the Government doing to crack down on this exploitation, and will Ministers stop the bots?

I had a meeting with the DVSA on this matter earlier this week, and we will continue to take steps to block cancellation services from accessing the booking system. There has been a significant drop in traffic to those services because of the DVSA’s successful work in identifying booking apps and bots, but there are some driving instructors who book slots for their own use. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, in Isleworth and Tolworth, the waiting times in February were 8.5 weeks and 7.3 weeks respectively, well below the national average, so there is no need for people to use the bots as they can book a few weeks in advance.

I have received correspondence from a number of constituents struggling to get driving tests in my constituency in recent weeks. For example, a constituent reported that the nearby Bletchley testing centre has nothing available for six months. On top of the question from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) about the growing purchasing of tests by third parties, will my hon. Friend consider changing the point at which tests are released? I am led to believe that it is 6 am on a Monday, which enables those third parties to get in and book them all up quickly rather than leaving them open for the genuine public, most of whom are probably not at their computers at that time.

I will certainly look at that. Of the 300 extra driving instructors we have recruited, 87 are in London and the south-east. We have made hundreds of thousands of new slots available in the region over the last couple of years, but we continue to take great ideas from both sides of the House to see what more we can do to ensure people can take their test at the appropriate time.

HS2 Delays: Long-term Costs

HS2 is a transformational project, and the Government remain fully committed to building the line from Euston to Manchester. HS2 is being delivered in stages, with cost estimates published for each phase of the programme. We remain transparent on the emerging cost position of HS2, and we publish six-monthly reports to Parliament. The recent announcement will clearly require us to work through adjustments for certain phases, and we will provide updated estimates in due course, including through those six-monthly reports.

Tens of thousands of jobs and billions of pounds in economic growth depend on building HS2. The National Audit Office has noted that the decision to delay HS2 by another two years will increase the costs of the project yet again. The Institution of Civil Engineers says that delaying HS2 could make the building process

“more difficult as construction firms shift their focus to other countries.”

Is it not time that the Government came clean with the public that HS2 is happening, and stopped the dither and delay that will only cost the taxpayer more money?

As my hon. Friend points out, the Liberal Democrats have different views on HS2 in different parts of the country, which would not be the first time.

The Government remain fully committed to HS2. Picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) about the supply chain, I made it clear in my statement to the House that we are going full steam ahead on phase 1 from Curzon Street to just north of Birmingham, precisely to make sure we protect jobs and the supply chain, and to demonstrate clearly that the project is going to happen. We see the transformation it is having in the west midlands, as Andy Street never tires of telling me, in generating economic growth in Birmingham. We want to see more of that across the country and across the route.

Topical Questions

Last month I announced measures to decarbonise transport, to help ensure that the UK continues to lead the international fight against climate change. That included the second round of the advanced fuels fund and further measures to progress the 2025 sustainable aviation fuel mandate, to help us fly sustainably. Earlier this week, we published Phil New’s independent report on attracting more sustainable aviation fuel investment to the UK, which I discussed with the industry and academia while chairing the Jet Zero Council on Monday.

The House will also be aware that we announced the zero-emission vehicle mandate, demonstrating how our post-Brexit regulatory freedom allows us to do more and to be more ambitious than our European Union partners. This will enable us to provide the green growth we need to grow the economy and to create better-paid jobs and opportunity across the country.

The establishment of the Cromarty Firth freeport will hopefully mean more freight travels through Invergordon, which has a railhead. Our railway network is one of the UK’s greatest national assets. What are the Government doing to make sure more freight is taken off the roads and on to rail? The establishment of HS2 will surely mean that capacity is freed up on other lines that could be used to move freight.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, to which I have two responses. First, HS2, as I frequently say but is not always well understood, is about freeing up capacity on the west coast main line both for passenger services and for freight. In my George Bradshaw address, I made it clear that later this year Great British Railways will set a freight target to get more freight off our roads and on to our railway network to help decarbonise our transport system.

T3. For disabled people, access to public transport is often the difference between having a job and not, between socialising and not, and between living independently and not. In my constituency, in Burnley and Padiham, a brilliant young man called Joe Skinner has made it his mission to improve disabled access on buses, whose current design does not take account of modern wheelchair sizes. So may I ask my right hon. Friend when disabled access requirements were last reviewed, whether he would come to Burnley to meet Joe and talk about this, and whether he would praise Joe for the work he does, not just for disabled people in Burnley, but for people right across the country? (904547)

I thank my hon. Friend for that; he has been a great champion of this cause. I absolutely join him in praising Joe Skinner. Let me also praise Cameron Wood in my constituency, who has been equally hard-working in pressing the case for the improvement of disabled access. I know that my hon. Friend has already met the buses Minister, whom I know is keen to get up to Burnley—I would be very supportive of that.

Last year, the Prime Minister said:

“Smart motorways are unpopular because they are unsafe.”

Yet last week he confirmed that he would leave 400 miles- worth in place. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many breakdowns were missed by the stationary vehicle detection system on our smart motorway network last year?

It is worth saying to the House that smart motorways remain the safest roads on the strategic road network, which is why the existing smart motorways are going to remain in place and we are finishing the construction of the two that are almost completed. However, it is also worth saying that the public do not have as much confidence in smart motorways as we would hope, which is why the Prime Minister delivered on the promise he made to cancel future smart motorways. That is a sensible, balanced position that we have taken, one that I strongly endorse in the House.

The combination of smart motorways and faulty technology is giving drivers serious cause for concern. Last year, more than 4,000 breakdowns were missed by that faulty technology. That shocking statistic shows that motorists have been left at risk by the Government’s shambolic roll-out of smart motorways. Will the Secretary of State do the right thing and urgently reinstate the hard shoulder?

This is a very good example of why the Labour party is not fit for government. The hon Lady does not want to face up to difficult choices. If she wants to reinstate the hard shoulder and maintain the capacity of the road network, that would mean spending billions of pounds on road improvements and she has no plan to pay for that. If she is not doing that, it means massive congestion on the motorway network, which will force people off that network and on to less safe A roads, and that will lead to more people losing their lives, not fewer. That is a choice she is not willing to face up to.

T4. In recent times, we have had a good number of fatal road accidents in West Dorset: on the A3066, at Mosterton; on the A30 between Sherborne and Yeovil; and on the A35. A year or so ago, I lost one of my best friends from primary school in a fatal car accident between Sherborne and Dorchester. Recently, I have set out and set up my road safety taskforce in West Dorset to address this issue. May I ask the Minister to confirm the standards and conditions he would expect local authorities and indeed National Highways to meet when it comes to white lines, cat’s eyes, signage and the like? (904548)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Obviously, my heart goes out to all of those affected, including the family of his friend. My understanding is that there were two incidents in 2021 on the roads in his constituency where a police officer attended and said a contributory factor was a poor or defective road surface. This is up to the local authorities; they have a statutory duty to maintain their roads. There should also be a proper inspection scheme for all of the areas that he talks about. The Department encourages good practice in highway maintenance through our “Well-managed Highway Infrastructure” code of practice. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss road safety further.

The Government had a relative paucity of ambition on Active Travel before slashing the budget. They now plan to spend less than £1 per head in England outside London, compared with £17 per head in Wales and £50 in Scotland—5,000% more. In the Transport Committee yesterday, the Secretary of State spoke of other Active Travel spending not in core funding, but we have that, too, with the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District Scotland—AMIDS—levelling-up project and the River Cart walking and wheeling bridge city deal project in my constituency. Without the waffle, what will the Government do to deliver transformational change—

Order. I must help Members from all parts of the House. Topical questions must be short and sweet—quick answers, quick questions. Minister, please show us an example.

The Government are spending £3 billion on this area over the current spending period. Active Travel England is making an enormous difference to the quality of schemes throughout England. Significant amounts of money are going in through the levelling-up fund and through City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements and other schemes, so we believe that we are on track to meet our targets.

T6. Barrow and Sileby train stations in my constituency are currently in need of vital improvements to make them more accessible to passengers. Can the Minister please provide me with an update on when the Access for All scheme will reopen for applications and whether there are any other pots of funding available for accessibility improvements in the meantime? (904550)

The Department commissioned station nominations for Access for All in May of last year and is currently assessing more than 300 stations that were put forward. They include Barrow-upon-Soar and Sileby. I hope to be in a position later this year to announce the successful projects.

If the Minister’s Portillo-style tour of the railways takes him north of the border, will he reflect on the eye-watering track access charges paid by ScotRail and the eye-watering disruption caused to ScotRail services by problems with that track? Is it not just common sense that train tracks as well as train services should be fully devolved to Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman I hope knows that the way track access charges are paid for is in two parts. If he looks at the total charges paid for track access by ScotRail, he will see that they are done on the same basis as in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is a very fair deal for ScotRail, and I do not think that there is anything for the hon. Gentleman to complain about.

T7. People in Chelmsford spend too much time in traffic jams. It is hitting our economic growth, and the Army and Navy junction is a notorious pinch point. The outline business case for the new junction has been submitted. Will our excellent team of Transport Ministers help me to get the funds that we need from the Treasury to get the new junction delivered? (904552)

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me on my recent visit to her constituency where I saw the Army and Navy roundabout. The outline business case has been submitted by Essex County Council. It is currently proceeding through our assessment and decision-making process, which includes consideration by Ministers in my Department and also in the Treasury. I look forward to a positive announcement before too long.

T5.   What assessment has the Minister made of measures to improve safety on public transport? In particular, does he commend PCC Kim McGuinness and NEXUS for creating an app to keep the public safe when travelling in the Northumbria force area? (904549)

Safety on public transport is a vital matter. Like me, I am sure the hon. Lady is delighted to see the extra money that the Government are making available through our largest bus service improvement plan right across the country, and for the north-east of England, which covers her constituency and mine. Indeed, funds from that will be made available for transport safety in the future.

T8. I welcome the £3 million allocated to Nottinghamshire in the recent Budget to tackle potholes. That is in addition to the extra £50 million that Nottinghamshire County Council is spending on top of the regular budget. When will that extra money become available? Given the widespread severity of the issue and the depth of public concern over it, will he join me in asking the Treasury for further funds in future spending rounds? (904553)

My hon. Friend will never need to encourage me to ask the Treasury for more cash for our road network. Potholes are a menace for all road users. The funding will be available in May. I will also be visiting Nottinghamshire in May, so I may be able to tack on a visit to his wonderful constituency during that time.

In February and March, nearly a quarter of TransPennine Express services were cancelled, continuing a pattern that has been going on for more than a year. In the north, our economy and our residents are suffering as a result of TransPennine’s failures. Surely there cannot be any question of rewarding those failures with a contract extension.

Every week I review the figures and performance related to TransPennine Express. It has been said before that those figures are not good enough; there has been some improvement, but they are still not good enough. As the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have informed the House, the contract expires on 28 May 2023. We have made clear that all options are on the table and a decision will be announced in the House shortly.

Recommendation 7 of Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review says that the north Wales main line should get good connectivity with HS2 and electrification. Given that the massive white elephant of HS2 no longer comes anywhere near north Wales, can the Minister confirm that at least the Government will be proceeding with the electrification of the north Wales main line and give us an idea of when that might happen?

I know how important not only rail connectivity, but road connectivity is to people in north Wales. I urge the hon. Gentleman to work with me and partners across Government to ensure that transport connectivity is a top priority for people across north Wales.

The Minister is forever promising better bus services for tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes—much like the buses—leaving my constituents stranded at bus stops. When will he deliver better buses for Newcastle and when will he hold the bus companies to account for the atrocious services my constituents are experiencing?

I am holding the bus companies to account. In fact, we have seen a reduction of over 80% in the issues with driver shortages locally. I have had two bus meetings in my own constituency with local residents and Go North East—I am sure the hon. Lady has had similar meetings where she has put residents in touch with the bus company—and we are providing over £100 million from central Government to the north-east for that long-term funding that she constantly asks about, but was never delivered under the last Labour Government.

At 410 miles, the A1 is Britain’s longest road, and it is largely free-flowing until it reaches my constituency, where it goes through no fewer than four roundabouts, as the Road Minister saw for himself. That is an absurd situation, but to make National Highways change its views will require intervention by the Secretary of State. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a meeting to discuss that further?

I thank my hon. Friend for those important points. I drive up the A1 myself on a regular basis to my North West Durham constituency, so I am aware of the issues around Sandy and Biggleswade. I will continue to work with National Highways and the Secretary of State to see what more can be done to improve life for my hon. Friend’s constituents.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), the Minister said, “If we look at the number that have been ordered alone: for zero emission bus regional areas, the ZEBRA scheme, 1,342”, but, as was discussed in the Transport Committee yesterday, that number is not correct. In the ZEBRA scheme, there have been 503 buses ordered, only six of which are on the road, and 792 are funded. The Minister was talking about the total funded, and one of the big issues is that funding is not being delivered. I appreciate that this is not a question for you, Mr Speaker—

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, it may be helpful for the House to know that we had a detailed question and answer session on this yesterday when I was giving evidence to the Transport Committee. It is a complicated matter and I committed to write to the Committee to set out the details in full. I will arrange for a copy of that to be placed in the Library of the House for the benefit of all hon. Members so that they can see the facts.

Fishing Industry: Visas for Foreign Workers

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Office if she will make a statement on visas for foreign workers taking employment in the fishing industry.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for this question. I know this is a topic of significant interest to many in the House. Ordinarily, the Immigration Minister would respond, but he is on an operational visit this morning.

It has been the long-standing position of this and previous Governments that foreign nationals coming to work in the UK, be that on land or on our waters, should comply with the immigration system when doing so. I do not believe that that is controversial, and the fishing industry is no exception to that. Section 43 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 clarifies the Government’s policy position to date: that foreign nationals working in our waters need permission to do so. It does not introduce a new policy. Acknowledging that many in the industry have been incorrectly relying on transit visas rather than work visas to crew their boats, the Government delayed the implementation of section 43 for six months from October 2022 to allow time for the industry to regularise the position of its workers. However, we have decided not to delay implementation any further.

We are aware of the problems that the industry is having in relation to access to labour, and we are fully cognisant of the important contribution that it makes to the economy, particularly in smaller, rural and coastal areas. There are routes in the immigration system that are available for the fishing industry to use. In recognition of the fact that the industry has not been a wide user of the immigration system to date, we will make a generous offer, going over and above what is usually available to employers, to assist it. We are currently finalising the details of our offer of support as a matter of urgency. Once it is ready, my Home Office colleagues will ensure that it is communicated to the industry and to interested Members of the House.

I have to say that fishermen listening to that will have seen it not so much as an answer but as an insult. As you will know, Mr Speaker, this issue has been raised on many occasions in the House. The fishing industry has for years struggled to source the labour that it needs to function properly, and has looked beyond these shores to meet its needs.

Those in the fishing industry have worked hard to construct a scheme that would meet their needs, and its details—written by the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance—have been under consideration by the Home Office. It is, to all intents and purposes, identical to schemes made available to workers in aquaculture and the offshore renewables industry. On Thursday last week, however, the Home Office announced that there would be no such scheme for the fishing industry and, furthermore, that the temporary arrangements that have been in place for the fishing industry would be ended with immediate effect.

My first ask of the Minister is this: will the Home Secretary or the Immigration Minister agree to meet me, with a delegation of fishermen’s organisations and Members from all parties, to discuss the details of this? We need answers from the Home Secretary. Why is the fishing industry not allowed the same opportunities given to people working in aquaculture and offshore renewables? Why was no grace period allowed for fishermen to make alternative arrangements?

The people who will be most affected are those fishing in inshore waters using both fixed and mobile gear. If they are to go to sea at all, it will have to be further out, which could bring them into conflict with other sectors that are already fishing there, and will inevitably compromise safety in an industry that is already acknowledged as one of the most dangerous. The excluded areas are very widely drawn and, in Orkney, include uninhabited islands, some of which are 90 miles from the Orkney mainland, making a difficult situation catastrophic. One Shetland fisherman told me last week that he currently works inside the 12-mile limit because he has quota only for haddock. If he has to fish outside the 12-mile limit, he will catch not just haddock but ling and saithe, for which he has no quota and which he is not even allowed to discard. What would the Minister have him do?

Those fishermen have done everything that every Minister in every Government have asked of them. They have worked hard, saved and invested, but they are now left facing ruin. This is a betrayal on the scale that we saw when Ted Heath said that our fishermen were expendable.

I do not accept that this is a betrayal of the industry. There has been much discussion in this area, and a generous package is imminent to bring the fishing industry in line with other industries. Allusions to the agriculture industry—a seasonal, low-skilled industry—are not apposite because fishermen are highly skilled and should apply through the usual routes. The wind farm system is closed, so it is not right to draw a comparison there either. The right hon. Gentleman asks to meet the Home Secretary or the Immigration Minister. I can put that request to the Minister this afternoon, and I hope that it will be agreed.

I am not crying wolf when I say that this is really putting the scampi industry at risk. Whitby Seafoods has substantial investment in Whitby, as well as in Kilkeel, near the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Those 500 jobs would be at risk without the supply of scampi. That can be done only using crew who are, in the main, from the Philippines. I hope that this Minister or the Immigration Minister will join me in Kilkeel to see how the crew of Filipinos work together as a team, conversing in their own language. On safety, we need to come up with a solution to the language situation so that we can keep that fish coming in, keep those jobs onshore, and keep Whitby scampi on our pub restaurant menus.

I know that my right hon. Friend has been very keen in his work in this area, and he always supports the workers in his constituency and the wider industry. The Government have already delayed the implementation of section 43 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. It is only right that when this House passes legislation, we expect it to be implemented, and there has already been a delay once.

In relation to the particular point that my right hon. Friend made, I am sure the Immigration Minister will want to talk to him and perhaps visit. I cannot commit him to too many visits, but I will try when I see him this afternoon. This is an important industry, but it is only right that these systems are brought into line with those that everybody else has to abide by. The language provisions are there for important reasons—for the safety of those workers. There has to be a proper system for English language attainment, as with every other industry in this country; there should be no exceptions.

Labour recognises the vital role that the fishing industry plays in securing the food that we all rely on. That is why it is so important that our immigration system is designed alongside the agricultural sector with the specific sector bodies representing its constituent parts. The announcement this week is a prime example of the Government’s points-based system not working as it should. Too many industries rely on immigration to fill skills gaps, but we cannot just turn off the tap. If we want to back British industries to buy and sell more in Britain, they need the workforce to do it.

Under the Conservatives, the immigration system exists entirely in isolation from long-term plans for the labour market. Action in both areas is far too weak. On immigration, the Home Secretary claims to want to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, in disagreement with the Prime Minister, while net migration exceeds 500,000. On the labour market, the Chancellor speaks of tackling economic inactivity, despite soaring levels of people off work due to long-term illness. There is no proper interaction between these two areas. The consequence is no long-term plan to balance sector-specific labour shortages with immigration rules, and instead, panicked fixes developed on an ad hoc basis. A concession is in place for offshore wind and not for fishing. Thousands of visas are released for HGV drivers but not for the meat industry. If those differences were justified by evidence, one might have sympathy, but sectors such as the fishing industry would be forgiven for thinking the Government are just making it up as they go along.

The Labour party supports the principle of a points-based system, but we will improve the current system to make sure it is fair, firm and well managed. We will balance the requirements of businesses and public services with the need to provide the right levels of training and support for home-grown talent, while recognising the critical role that immigration can play and ensuring that we treat those migrant workers with the dignity and respect they deserve. This year, the Labour party is undertaking a review of the points-based system, but unlike the Government, we are engaging in a dialogue with businesses, trade unions and communities, so that the system works for all.

The fishing industry will be keenly watching this, and I want to ask the Minister three quick questions. What are the Government doing to help the fishing industry transition? What consultation have the Government had with the fishing industry on these changes, and how have they adopted their approach as a result? What reforms are they considering to the points-based system to ensure that businesses train up home-grown talent in exchange for recruiting from overseas, so that the labour force is resilient? I hope the Minister can answer those questions.

The hon. Lady mentioned a few areas. The offshore wind concession has now closed, so that is no longer of any relevance. It is not accepted that insufficient work has been done in this area. We have a very well-honed skilled workers programme, which has been developed after much work and consultation, and it is not accepted that this is a panicked fix. It is a typical Labour suggestion that something is panicky if it has been delayed for six months—that is hardly a panicky quick fix. This is calculated, bringing this industry into line with everybody else. There needs to be a level playing field.

The Government are doing much in relation to transition. The hon. Lady asked what provision there will be. If she was listening earlier, she will have heard me mention that there is going to be a detailed, generous package, which will be announced imminently, to allow the fishing industry, which has taken time to get away from this historical practice, to come into line. There will be generous support, and it will be announced imminently.

The UK Government’s decision to not create a bespoke visa scheme for the fishing industry has created huge challenges for the sector, with some crew members forced to stop working and some boats unable even to go out to sea. The chaos caused by the Home Office announcement that a concession would not be provided to the fishing industry for foreign crew working within 12 nautical miles prevented workers on transit visas from going on to fish in international waters. What will the Minister do to address the fact that overnight, fishermen and businesses found themselves in legal limbo, with no time to make preparations to continue working? It makes no sense for concessions to be provided for workers in the aquaculture and offshore renewables sectors, but not the fishing sector.

Around one fifth of fishermen working in Scotland come from outside the European economic area and rely on transit visas to work. How does the Minister respond to concerns that it will be very difficult to find enough crew to meet demand, and what reassurances can she give to the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, which has raised serious concerns about the Government’s willingness to sacrifice Scotland’s fishing industry—concerns echoed by the Scottish Government, who have been similarly ignored? That threatens this sector, which is so important to Scotland and to our rural and island communities.

The Government accept that there are special requirements in relation to fishing, which is why these fishermen are skilled workers, and they should be applying through the skilled worker scheme. It is not accepted that the industry has been left in limbo: it has been allowed a six-month delay, with plans for generous support that will be announced imminently.

Again, comparisons with the agricultural industry are false, because we have seasonal, low-skilled workers in that industry for a good reason, and they have a different scheme. For fishermen, it is all year round, and these are highly skilled workers. It does the industry a disservice to say that they should be treated in a similar, seasonal, once-a-year or twice-a-year way. The industry needs to be able to accept these changes, which have been passed by the Government in this House. There will be a generous package of support to assist it so that it will no longer be in limbo—as the hon. Lady says—but will be able to plan to be treated in the same way as the rest of the UK.

The Home Office’s treatment of sectors employing large numbers of migrant workers has been hapless for years, so can I press the Minister: by when will we see the generous offer that she has talked about today?

I do not accept that the system has been dealt with by the Government in a haphazard or hapless way. There has been a lot of consultation with the industry, and there has been the significant delay that I mentioned. The industry has been given time. Of course, the Government are very sympathetic to every industry across this great nation of ours. However, we do now need to move on with the will of Parliament and make sure that this industry goes along with what everybody else has to use—the skilled worker route. That is what we are going to do, but there will be generous support for employers to make sure they are able to make those changes.

Be in no doubt, Minister: this is a betrayal of our inshore fleet. It is particularly galling that it comes just 24 hours after the Tories demanded that the Scottish Government listen to, and consult further with, our fishing communities over highly protected marine areas, which I am delighted to say they have committed to do. That the Tories have become so callously deaf to the pleas of those same fishing communities, who have made the reasonable request that they be treated no differently from other sectors, is a betrayal, and will be seen as political opportunism of the worst kind. Can the Minister not see and understand that?

I can understand, on behalf of the Government, the concerns about this area. However, I think the hon. Member does himself a disservice with the emotive language he uses. He says that we are callously deaf, but we have delayed on special grounds for six months and are bringing in a supportive and very generous package that will be announced imminently. The rhetoric therefore does not ring true; I know that sometimes, rhetoric is used to try to divide us in this nation, but I do not accept that that is the right way forward. A generous package of support will be announced imminently.

The plight of the fishing industry is closely allied to hospitality and tourism in coastal areas and other parts of the United Kingdom, which face a similar crisis. Some 63% of the hospitality and tourism businesses in my community are operating below capacity, because of a lack of staff. The Minister’s Department has been in discussions with me and the tourism industry about a youth mobility visa scheme with France, Spain, Poland and other countries. Can she give me an update or at least allow a meeting between me, the tourism industry and Ministers to see how they are getting on with bilateral negotiations over youth mobility visas to solve this problem?

The Government are fully aware of shortages in all sorts of industries in the country, which is why we want to get more British people back working, particularly the over-50s, and there have been a lot of schemes on that. The Government are working hard, and there will be a package of support to enable employers to implement this measure, so that the fishing industry is the same as every other industry. We are cognisant of differences—geographical and otherwise—and the idea is that the will of this House to have a skilled worker scheme is brought into play.

The Minister may not be aware that the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation was literally the only part, across the entirety of Scottish civic society, that openly supported Brexit. It continued to support the Government’s approach for a number of years. Even it now says that it has gone badly wrong. If the only cheerleaders that Brexit ever had in Scotland are telling the Minister that they have been sold a pig in a poke, is it any wonder that as well as resoundingly rejecting her party and her Brexit, the vast majority of people in Scotland now believe that her Union’s days are severely numbered?

It is unfortunate when the nationalists try to bring everything down to Brexit or independence. This is a whole of the United Kingdom system. We have a skilled worker programme, and fishermen will need to apply. There will be generous support. Despite the six-month delay, we need to give further assistance to the industry, and we will announce a generous package imminently.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has put his finger on it. Today I have spoken to Mr William Calder, who runs Scrabster Seafoods, a highly successful firm in Caithness. William said to me that if the skippers cannot get the crew for the boats, the boats do not go to sea, and if the boats do not go to sea, they do not catch the fish. That means he may not have the fish he needs. He employs people in vital jobs in Caithness. The Government have to ask themselves one simple question: are they about business and nurturing business, or not?

Of course the Government are about nurturing business, but this is about assisting industries that have been using the wrong visa for many years to come into line with the rest of the country. The fishermen should be employed through the skilled worker visa. This Government are about economics and industry, and this is about encouraging the sector with generous support to recruit local people where possible, rather than people from abroad who may not have the language skills needed to promote their safety. That is why the English language is so very important in the visa system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) points out the problems caused for his community if the fish are not landed. If that happens, there is no fish and no seafood to process. That feeds into communities such as mine, which may not have a food processing industry or fishermen, but do have a massive hospitality industry that is dependent on that food. Can the Government not see that by taking these steps, they are failing the entire economy and the business they claim to support?

With respect, it is not failing the economy to demand that one industry does, with extra help, what everybody else does. There will be extra financial support for employers to apply through the skilled worker scheme. There has been a six-month delay. There will be support for employers to apply through the route that they should use. This practice needs, after a six-month delay, to be brought to an end, and fishing industry employers need to recruit locally if possible and use the visa system that exists.

The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance has asked for an extension for fishermen’s safety. They need to be trained to the appropriate English language standard. In the meeting that we had with the Minister for Immigration in January, the fishing organisations outlined how they were going to achieve that goal through a college in Sri Lanka that could train the fishermen and fisherwomen up to a standard of the English language that enables them to come here and fit into the scheme. We had some indication from the Immigration Minister that he was sympathetic to that.

I represent Portavogie in my constituency of Strangford and, because the other MP does not attend this place, I ultimately represent Ardglass and Kilkeel on fishing as well. It is imperative to have a managed, safe transition, and time is needed to deliver that. Analysis shows that 600 jobs could be lost. I say to the Minister again very respectfully—the Minister knows that I am always respectful to her, as I am to every person in this Chamber—that, for the communities that will be impacted, a further grace period is needed to enable the fishing sector to thrive and create jobs and opportunity. We need 12 months to make that happen, so that people can learn the English language and come here and do the jobs.

I know the hon. Member has worked hard on this area. However, there has already been a six-month delay. The point about the English language is crucial. The English language requirement is fundamental to the successful integration into British society of workers coming from abroad. That is for many reasons: it is not just for integration, but to keep them safe. The level is B1 English, which is lower intermediate, and migrants do need to understand that. I am interested in the work that he has been watching in Sri Lanka, but there has already been a six-month delay. We need to bring this practice to an end, and applicants need to go through the skilled worker route.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 24 April will include:

Monday 24 April—Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Public Order Bill.

Tuesday 25 April—Opposition day (14th allotted day). Debate in the name of the Leader of the official Opposition, subject to be announced.

Wednesday 26 April—Remaining stages of the Illegal Migration Bill.

Thursday 27 April—General debate on progress on reforms to NHS dentistry, followed by a general debate on reducing plastic pollution in the oceans. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 28 April—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 1 May includes:

Monday 1 May—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 2 May—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, followed by a general debate on support for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 3 May—Consideration of Lords amendments to the National Security Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill.

The House will rise for the coronation recess at the conclusion of business on Wednesday 3 May and will return on Tuesday 9 May.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business.

I do hope everyone had a good recess, but for some it was probably more so than for others. On that note, can I welcome the leader of the SNP’s comments that he, ahem, does “not believe” the SNP is operating criminally—reassuring—when it comes to its “Carry On Campervan” saga? The problem the SNP has is that it does not sound all that convincing, perhaps with good reason.

Seriously, it has emerged that the SNP’s auditors have resigned from doing its Westminster group’s accounts as well as from doing the national party’s. I understand that senior SNP figures failed to inform the authorities here about that. Will the Leader of the House tell us if she knows whether that is correct, because this is serious—it is taxpayers’ money? Can I ask the Leader of the House to intervene to make sure that SNP money that is provided for some of its political staffing here in Parliament has been properly accounted for and used for the purposes for which it is intended? Does she agree with me that, as the police investigation spreads, the First Minister and leader of the SNP should take the basic step of suspending Members of the Scottish Parliament who are the subject of police inquiries? Is it not time that the SNP came clean about who knew what and when? The Scottish people deserve much better than this.

The Government snuck out 17 written ministerial statements on the day Parliament broke up for Easter—Whitehall’s big spring clean! Why, then, did the Leader of the House not dust off the Government’s impact assessment for the Illegal Migration Bill? It has been stuck down the back of Downing Street’s infamous sofa for so long that she cannot be surprised that I am bringing this up. On the 10 separate occasions I have raised it, she has been unable to provide an answer 10 times. Could she have another go today? I was starting to wonder whether it was something personal, but she also could not give an answer to the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), at business questions just before the recess. Who knows how many times the shadow Home Office team have asked? There are now just six days until the remaining stages of the Illegal Migration Bill, as announced this morning. What good is publishing an impact assessment after a Bill has been rushed into law? How is that good law making? Surely the Leader of the House does not want to accept that. What are the Government trying to hide? Is it, by any chance, that the Bill is unworkable and they know it? If not, why does she not prove us wrong and publish the impact assessment?

The Leader of the House has just confirmed that the remaining stages of the Bill are scheduled for next Wednesday, instead of Tuesday, presumably to give the Government more time to table last-minute amendments. Is that because the Prime Minister could not even get his own MPs to line up with him? It does look that way. We are here again, with a weak Prime Minister who is forced to cave in to appease a small minority of right-wing Back Benchers. What a mess. Can the right hon. Lady clear it up? The Government must table any amendments such as we read rumours about in the press this morning as a matter of urgency, because MPs need to see them and scrutinise them as soon as possible.

Finally, will the Leader of the House please consider a debate on the time people have to wait for cancer care? Figures released by Labour this morning show that under the Tories, people are waiting up to six months to see a cancer doctor after an urgent referral from a GP. Some are waiting for more than a year to start treatment—a year! Labour has a plan to bring down NHS waiting times and get patients seen and treated faster. The Government have stolen enough of our policies, so could they please, please pinch our policy on this? We would double the number of medical training places, increase nursing and midwifery clinical placements, and recruit more health visitors, and we would pay for that by ending the non-dom tax loophole so that wealthy individuals—[Interruption.] It is not funny. I do not think any of our constituents find cancer waiting times funny. Will the right hon. Lady consider who the Government are siding with? Is it non-doms, or is it nurses and cancer patients?

Let me start with the hon. Lady’s final point, which is a serious and timely one in a week when the nation is focused on improving bowel cancer diagnosis rates, and we had that wonderful documentary celebrating the work of Bowelbabe and other cancer campaigners. The Health and Social Care Secretary has been doing much more to ensure that we get down the backlog in our NHS, and a large part of that, and one of the main barriers to people being able to come forward for treatment, is a backlog in diagnostics. That is why we have invested so much in setting up new diagnostic centres to crack through that backlog which, as the hon. Lady knows, is due to the pandemic. These are serious matters, and I know all Members of the House are concerned about them. I am sure hon. Members know how to apply for a debate in the usual way.

The hon. Lady raised the matter of the SNP and Short money, and although we all enjoy a joke at the SNP’s expense, these are serious matters. I shall not comment on her suggestion about people being suspended under police investigation—I shall save her blushes as that might have included the Leader of the Opposition, who has been in that camp before. These are not matters for me, but I understand that unless the SNP has audited accounts by 31 May, it will lose its Short money after the April payment. I understand that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority may also have considerations to make. The SNP membership will feel rightly let down by this, which is similar to how the rest of Scotland will feel about the SNP’s poor stewardship of public money. On the upside, I guess it will be easier for them to have a whip-round among the membership, as that number is dwindling to the point where most of them could fit into, well, a luxury camper van.

The hon. Lady raises the issue of an impact assessment. I did say, in my response to the shadow Deputy Leader of the House at the last business questions, that I hope material can be brought forward to assist Members on Report. I understand that that is still the case. I also understand that the majority, if not all, of the amendments will be tabled today.

The hon. Lady is critical of the new amendments. I want a Bill that will work. I ask her to look at them and judge them with an open mind, and urge her party to consider supporting us in obtaining the tools we need to make our systems fit for purpose and protect our borders. As a country, we cannot be soft on these issues. We regret Labour voting 44 times against tougher sentences. We regret Labour blocking the deportation of foreign criminals. We regret that crime levels in Labour-controlled police and crime commissioner areas are on average 34% higher than elsewhere, and that Labour is still against the Bill to stop the small boats.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister exposed the Leader of the Opposition as being Mr Softie, just as his predecessors have done with other Labour leaders. Mrs Thatcher, as you remember Mr Speaker, was an authority on this, having made a study of ice cream so liquid and air-filled it could be poured. Today, the Mr Softie opposite is topped with hundreds and thousands of unfunded spending pledges and one big flake. We know it, Opposition Members know it and the public know it, too.

I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware of the importance of local banking to local communities. With news of the closure of yet another bank in Aldridge in July, we will be left with just one bank for the whole constituency. It really worries me that older residents struggle with access to banking, cash and valuable services, so will she consider providing time for a debate to discuss this really important topic, which I am sure is of interest to Members on both sides of the House?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this very important point. Although these are commercial decisions for banks, it is a matter of concern to us to ensure that people have access to banking services and are able to access cash. As she knows, we have announced more than 50 new shared banking hubs. I will certainly raise the matter with the relevant Minister, as the next departmental questions are not until 9 May, to ensure that she has all the information she needs to look at alternatives. We are progressing legislation in the Financial Services and Markets Bill to ensure that communities are protected.

I suppose I should start by thanking the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) for that remarkable outburst. In many ways we should be grateful, because never before has she shown such an interest in Scotland—that was, indeed, painfully obvious. There is much I would say, but it will suffice if I say that perhaps people in glass houses should not throw stones.

It is a pleasure to be here and come off the subs bench to make my debut at business questions. Members can see that, like all great athletes, I have been weeks in preparation for the big event. There is, however, a chance that more folk will have witnessed this particular substitution than any of the five changes made during Scotland’s famous and magnificent victory over Spain last month. Unlike our free-to-air Parliament TV, no such thing exists as free-to-air live football in Scotland. Scotland’s football fans have to subscribe to all manner of providers if they are to watch domestic or international matches. It is becoming an increasingly expensive hobby. May we therefore have a debate to find a way that will, at the very least, return Scottish international matches to free-to-view telly?

But of course, it is not just our international football that is facing an international blackout. Scotland’s democratically elected politicians are facing one too, as the hyper-insecure Foreign Secretary is now frantically telling foreign Governments that they should not engage with Scottish Ministers without his or his Department’s permission. Quite what has triggered this bizarre bout of ministerial paranoia in the Foreign Secretary is unclear, so perhaps it would be very helpful for all of us if the Government were to make time for a debate about what it is exactly they fear from Members of our democratically elected Parliament speaking to people furth of these islands.

Surely, talking to others, learning from one another’s experiences, sharing new ideas and understanding difference is at the heart of all that we are about. Given that exactly 55 years ago today, on 20 April 1968, Enoch Powell gave his now infamous rivers of blood speech, would it not be great to have a debate in Government time to put on record our overwhelming belief that immigration has been good for this country and has greatly enriched every one of the nations on this island?

Let me start by sending my thoughts and good wishes to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). I wish her and her family well. I thank the hon. Gentleman for stepping up and standing in, especially as it has been a painful few weeks for his party. For some time now, BBC “Politics Scotland” has resembled an episode of “Taggart”. I thank him for showing up today.

I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says about viewing the considerable recent Scottish sporting victories, and I will ensure that colleagues have heard that.

The hon. Gentleman raises the matter of the Foreign Secretary’s concern that the Scottish National party is spending so much time, effort and money on matters on which it does not have competency, in both senses of the word. He asks why the Foreign Secretary might feel that way; I suggest that it might be the hon. Gentleman’s own views.

The hon. Gentleman raises the small boats Bill, on which he has done a lot of work recently, making his views very clear. Making our asylum system effective is a compassionate thing to do. It is compassionate to break the business model of people smugglers and to enable us to use the finite resources that we have to help those in genuine need. We have to deal with the reality of the situation. The hon. Gentleman’s arguments against the Bill are drawn from fantasy. He says that our motivation is

“a legacy of our colonial past,”

or the fact we wish to profit from supplying “warring factions with weapons”. Is he talking about Ukraine? Ukraine is not a warring faction but a sovereign nation under attack. I am proud of what this country has done to support the Ukrainian people.

Let me enlighten the hon. Gentleman about some other things that we should be proud of in our country, rather than talking down. The Halo Trust, based in Dumfries and Galloway, is one. It has done more to de-mine and strip out weapons than any other organisation in the world. We should be proud of that. He says that the small boats Bill is a legacy of “our CO2 emissions” and the impact they have had on

“many of the world’s poorest nations.”

No industrial nation has done more to cut its carbon emissions, or done it faster than the UK. It has done more than any G20 nation, and Glasgow played a huge part in that. The UK is more than halfway to meeting its net zero target.

I hope that the SNP will stop talking Scotland and the rest of the UK down. We will do what is necessary in the Bill and in other areas to protect the vulnerable and the planet and to promote peace. We do not pass the buck and shirk responsibility—that we will leave to the hon. Gentleman and his party.

Tomorrow I will meet homeowners at Brookside Park in Bromham, one of a number of park home sites in my constituency. They will raise issues such as the 10% commission charged when they sell their home, the fact that their pitch fees increase annually at the rate of the retail price index and not the consumer prices index, the general laxity of regulation for park homes, and the recent difficulties—now largely overcome, happily—with the energy support programmes. Can my right hon. Friend find time for a general debate in the House on the particular needs of homeowners in park home areas?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. He will know that the issue is a focus for this Government, in part because of the energy bill support scheme alternative funding that is available and wanting to make sure that everyone can make use of that. The relevant Department has set up surgeries for Members, particularly because of the issues they have raised about park home owners, and we supported the Mobile Homes (Pitch Fees) Bill. We are focused on the issue and I thank my hon. Friend for raising it. He will know how to apply for a debate in the usual way.

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and for announcing the Backbench Business debates on 27 April and 2 May. I am glad to say that the Committee had no fewer than six applications yesterday, which keeps us on track to fill up the appropriate slots. Slots for May are already filling up rapidly, so if Members are looking to access slots for debates in late May or June, I urge them to submit their applications as soon as possible.

Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Gateshead football club on getting to Wembley to play in the FA trophy final on 21 May? It will be my second visit to Wembley in recent history. I am afraid to say that Newcastle was not as successful against Manchester United as I had hoped, but I am hoping that Gateshead will have greater success against Halifax Town on 21 May.

Finally, may I ask the Leader of the House if we can we have a debate about children being hungry at school? Because of the very low income required to be eligible for free school meals and the sadly increasing cost of school meals for those who have to pay, many more children are being sent to school with totally inadequate, nutritionally deficient packed lunches. That is in addition to the growing number of children who rely on breakfasts provided in school, through the support of Magic Breakfast, Greggs and Kellogg’s. So can we have an urgent debate about the growing number and the dreadful problem of children being hungry in our schools? Hungry children do not learn, and that is bad for everyone.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his update and advert for future debate applications. We all appreciate the work he and his Committee do.

I join him in congratulating Gateshead. I had better wish both teams well, but particularly Gateshead, as the hon. Gentleman has raised the match this morning.

On his substantive question, I will ensure that both the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Secretary of State for Education have heard his concerns today. He will know that we have widened access to free school meals, but obviously in these very difficult times we want to make sure that all children have good nutrition and are able to have a good day at school.

In light of yesterday’s coroner’s court ruling that the death of Dr Stephen Wright was due to

“unintended complications of the vaccine”,

we now have a legal precedent to review all cases of deaths that fell within the first 14 days of receiving these experimental treatments.

Stephen sadly died 10 days after receiving his first dose of AstraZeneca. As previously any death within a fortnight of receiving the vaccine was regarded as an unvaccinated death, his death was originally attributed to natural causes. Will the Government issue a statement and release details of other such cases where people sadly died within 14 days of vaccination?

I will ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to update the House in light of this recent change. These are very serious matters that I know are shared concerns for many Members on all sides of the House.

MPs from across the House have spoken on many occasions about medical licensing and medical device licences, the processes and policies of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, our covid response and compensation for the vaccine injured, which was recently raised on the Floor of the House by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright), the former Attorney General. These are totally legitimate and correct debates to have. Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is one of the many checks and balances that we have in this country to ensure that we are taking the right course of action on these and all other matters. That is what many colleagues do.

What other colleagues are not doing is promoting false propaganda, which is widely known to originate from the Kremlin, abusing and undermining colleagues and the occupant of the Chair, and using the autopsy of a 14-year-old girl as clickbait on their social media feed, all of which the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) has done in the past week. He might like to reflect on that.

Many of my constituents in Battersea have been victims of car theft, a distressing and disruptive ordeal. Last year, on average, one car a day was stolen, but of all those incidents only five led to a charge. Tory cuts to policing in London have had a devastating impact and have led to severe consequences, so can we have a debate in Government time on the desperate need for more neighbourhood policing in London?

I hope that I am always helpful to hon. Members, but I think the hon. Lady needs to direct her questions to the Labour London Mayor. Since 2010, this Government have halved crime on pretty much the same resource. In my opening remarks, I set out the clear fact that Labour-run police and crime commissioner areas are 34% more likely to have a higher crime rate.

Barclays bank has recently closed its branch in Thornaby and now looks set to close its branch in Yarm. That will have a huge impact on many vulnerable and elderly people in my patch, who will lose their access to banking services; it will also reduce footfall for Yarm’s incredible retail and hospitality businesses. Will my right hon. Friend grant a debate on access to banking in our high streets and town centres?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking the second question today on that issue. I urge him to get together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) to secure a debate in the usual way, but of course I will make sure that the Department has heard his concerns. I thank him for being a champion for services in his community.

I congratulate the Leader of the House on her excellent response to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). She was absolutely right.

The Prime Minister has boasted that 500 new dentists are practising in the NHS because of Government reforms. In reality, over 500 dentists are doing just one NHS check-up a year. The British Dental Association has described official data on NHS dentistry as a work of pure fiction; it also says that the Government have never attempted to collect data on the workload of NHS dentists or how much time they spend on private and NHS patients. Can we have a statement from the relevant Minister to explain why the Government are not collecting that important data in the middle of an NHS dentistry crisis?

The hon. Lady will know that that is a huge focus for the Department. The Secretary of State is collecting more data and using it in a way we had not done previously. As I announced in the business statement, on Thursday 27 April we will have a general debate, thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, on progress on reforms to NHS dentistry. The hon. Lady will know that we have brought forward new money and that contract reforms and many other things are under way, not just to deal with the immediate situation, which has arisen in part because of treatment backlogs, but to make the right provision and have the right number of dental schools around the country to ensure a pipeline and a strong workforce in future.

I thank the Leader of the House for visiting Hyndburn and Haslingden last Friday to see the Veterans in Communities organisation in Haslingden and speak to volunteers and veterans— I must just plug the open day from 10 to 3 o’clock tomorrow in Accrington town centre, where people can see the amazing work that they do. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such organisations make a huge difference to places like Hyndburn and Haslingden and to veterans in general? Can we have a debate in Government time on the support that these organisations give to veterans in our communities?

It was a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and see Veterans in Communities, an amazing organisation—I am particularly keen to get updates on the progress of the giant model railway that it is constructing. I thank her for what she has done to champion such organisations and ensure that they have all they need to reach everyone in the community who can benefit from their services.

Yesterday Private Eye revealed truly shocking, industrial-scale corruption on Teesside. A huge site acquired by the public body South Tees Developments Limited for £12 million in 2019 subsequently received hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer investment. Any future sale had to be on market terms, but we now know that private developers exercised their option to purchase for a mere £1 an acre plus inflation, paying £96.79 in December 2022. I have the transfer. The only economic growth that is being delivered is being delivered to the accounts of Ben Houchen’s pals Messrs Musgrave and Corney, who, for a bargain £100, will benefit to the tune of £100 million—and all the while the state remains on the hook for the ongoing environmental costs. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities comes to that Dispatch Box and tells the House what plans the Government have for a full investigation of this industrial-scale corruption?

The relevant questions session will not take place until 5 June, but I will write a letter, on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf, to ensure that the Secretary of State has heard what he has said. I should add that the Mayor has been doing an incredible job in regenerating that part of the country and making it a world leader in clean technology. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised serious issues, so I will, as I say, raise them with the Secretary of State on his behalf, although I assume he has already done so.

I think it fair to say that in the past, communities in Sandwell have felt that there has been a bit of “cut and run”, but in recent times the Government’s £4 million investment in historic high streets such as the one in Wednesbury has come as a sign of hope. That being said, the removal of the Wednesbury market from its Union Street site to the clock tower has caused no end of controversy. The traders did not want it, and nor did the community. May we have a debate in Government time on the broader topic of how we can realise investment in our communities, and how there can be real accountability when we are trying to level up historic market towns such as Wednesbury?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he has done to secure new investment, focusing on Wednesbury and other parts of his constituency. His important question illustrates why it is vital for people to consult the local community, including businesses and market traders, when such matters are under consideration. This seems like a good topic for an Adjournment debate, and he will know how to apply for one.

May I return the Leader of the House to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara)? I have held a roundtable with the Scottish Football Association, broadcasters representing both free-to-air and subscription channels, the Scottish Football Supporters Association and an observer from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on securing access to live coverage of both Scotland’s national football teams on free-to-air television, equivalent to the coverage currently afforded to English and Welsh football fans. I have also discussed the issue with various sports Ministers over the years, but I should like to work with the DCMS, or indeed anyone, to find a solution. Will the Leader of the House give the Secretary of State a nudge about arranging a promised meeting, and might she also make time for the debate suggested by my hon. Friend?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important question, and, in particular for the words “work with the DCMS”. I shall do all that I can to assist him. I think that people do want to be able to follow their local and national teams, and I am also aware of the burden on those in charge of pubs and other venues who wish to stream these events. I shall ensure that the Secretary of State has heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, which is now in force, has made it a criminal offence to arrange a child marriage in England and Wales, but unfortunately marriage policy is devolved, so Scotland and Northern Ireland have not yet banned child marriage in their jurisdictions. The sustainable development goals commit the whole UK to banning child marriage entirely by 2030. May we have a statement from the responsible Minister about what steps the UK Government are taking to ensure that the actions of the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive do not cause us to fail in our international obligations?"

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for all the work she has done to make this important step a reality. I can inform her that Lord Bellamy wrote to the Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments in November last year to encourage them to follow suit and meet the sustainable development goal in particular. I understand that the devolved nations are now considering that matter. I personally found it a matter of deep regret that when we introduced the Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) Regulations 2019, people in Scotland had to wait a further six months to benefit from that legislation. I encourage both Scotland and Northern Ireland to follow suit when able to do so.

May we have a debate about the treatment of refugees from Afghanistan? I recently visited a group who are housed near Cardiff, including consultants, doctors, people who had translated for us in Afghanistan and people who fought alongside our armed forces there. Even after all this time since they were evacuated, they have still not been housed and face great difficulty getting into employment. They also told me that they were beginning to suffer from abuse because of the dog-whistle politics on refugee status that is sadly going on at the moment. Without pivoting to such dog-whistle politics, will the Leader of the House take the opportunity to explain to the public that those refugees helped us in our foreign policy aims in Afghanistan, and tell us what the Government would do in such a debate to explain what will be done to help them?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important matter, which I know many Members will be concerned about. It is a key example of where we want to help not just those in greatest need, but people to whom we have a particular moral responsibility. Afghan refugees, especially those who served alongside us, supported our armed forces, helped us with translation and other services, or worked with some of our aid agencies, are exactly such people. I shall make sure that the relevant Minister has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. If he wishes to pass me details about the particular site in Cardiff, I would be happy to pass those on too.

In Cumbria in the last year, 44% of all people diagnosed with cancer waited more than 62 days to get their first treatment. That is 464 individuals waiting more than two months after a diagnosis to get their first treatment, when we know that every four weeks’ delay in treatment reduces people’s chance of surviving by 10%. May we have a debate on the Government’s current lack of a cancer strategy to tackle that crisis, and will the Leader of the House consider making radiotherapy a key part of that discussion, bearing in mind that 53% of people with cancer should have radiotherapy by international standards but only 27% of British patients do? Will she also consider the impact on rural communities such as mine, in which travelling times to undergo radiotherapy can be three or four-hour round trips every day for weeks on end, and the bid that we are making for a satellite radiotherapy unit at the Westmoreland General Hospital?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue: he is the second Member to raise it today, and I shall certainly make sure that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has heard his concerns. As I said before, we are acutely aware of the need to ensure that while we work through the backlog, new cases are dealt with swiftly. It does make a massive difference to outcomes, which is why we have stood up the new diagnostic centres and are bolstering the NHS in the way that we are. As well as the provision of those services, how people are able to access them is critical, and I know that hospital transport and accessibility of those services is very important. I wish him well in his bid.

My office was contacted in March 2022 by a young Albanian national who entered the UK in 2019 and is still, to this day, awaiting a decision on her immigration status. She had a Home Office interview in May 2022, and in October 2022 she received long-awaited confirmation that she is a victim of modern slavery and that sexual exploitation had occurred in the UK between January and April 2019. She has a degree in English from Tirana University and a British interpretation qualification, yet she is unable to seek employment in Britain. Will the Leader of the House advise me on how much longer my constituent will have to wait for a final outcome from the Home Office on her immigration status?

I am sorry to hear about this case. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has used the Home Office’s new surgery. We know it is very difficult to get answers via hotlines and correspondence, so the Home Office has established a new service, both on site and on Teams, so that Members can talk directly to a person dealing with an individual’s case. I am not part of that service, so I cannot give an answer on this case, but I will make sure he is able to access those surgeries. If he has any future problems, please contact my office.

Despite living in a colder climate, consumers in the highlands still face higher energy tariffs than consumers elsewhere in the UK. There is no regulation at all for off-gas-grid supply, there is price discrimination for those with prepayment meters, and companies are raising direct debits while holding on to credit. There are faulty meters, the failure of smart meters, and incorrect and confusing billing. Is it not past time that we had a debate in Government time on the failure of energy regulation for people in the highlands and other rural areas?

After advertising the Home Office surgeries, I now advertise that the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has stood up surgeries in Portcullis House where individual cases and policy issues can be raised. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero has introduced new measures on prepayment meters and other things to ensure that people are not paying a poverty premium and are not disadvantaged by where they live in the UK.