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Commons Chamber

Volume 735: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

House of Commons

Thursday 6 July 2023

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Production Costs

11. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on increases in the cost of food production. (905839)

13. What steps her Department is taking to help mitigate the impact of increased food production costs on (a) consumers and (b) businesses. (905841)

Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine has placed pressures on global imports and energy costs. We have taken significant action to support British growers and to safeguard our food security. Building on the work to invest in fertiliser supply and slurry storage, energy infrastructure and costs, the Prime Minister recently hosted the first ever UK Farm to Fork summit on productivity and sustainability, as part of maintaining the £2.4 billion budget for farming each year.

Last month, the Prime Minister said that weekly shopping bills had

“gone up far too much in the past few months”.

That must be the understatement of the year. Food inflation is at a record 45-year high. Farmers and growers are facing higher business costs across the board, and consumers are bearing the brunt with their weekly shop. What discussions has the Minister had with the Prime Minister to find out what they can do now for farmers, growers and producers and to protect beleaguered shoppers? What is the plan, because what the Government are doing now ain’t working?

I think the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are not responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has had a significant impact on global energy prices. The good news is that those global energy prices are coming back to a level, and that is starting to feed back into our food supply chain. That is why we are helping and supporting farmers, investing in new technology and investing in their businesses to make them more sustainable and more profitable going forwards so that they can continue to deliver great quality British food at a reasonable price.

The war in Ukraine has not caused the labour shortages that are causing Scottish crops to be ploughed back into the fields. The war in Ukraine has not caused customs barriers and tariffs that mean that Scottish seafood is being left in the sea. Brexit has caused those things. That is why food inflation is higher in the UK than elsewhere. When will the Government accept that?

Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. Food prices are higher in Germany and France. If Brexit were the issue, clearly that would not be the case. That is why we are investing in those farmers. We are supporting them by increasing the number of visas that are available in the seasonal agricultural worker scheme. We are supporting those farmers to continue to produce great quality food.

Businesses, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has said, are suffering because of the absence of labour, in fishing and, indeed, in farming in East Lothian. Given that this has been brought about by Brexit and that the previous routes of labour have been sold off, is it not time that the Scottish Government had control over some migration visas, even of a limited timescale, as applies in south Australia and Quebec?

We have issued 45,000 possible visas on the seasonal agriculture worker scheme and we are currently nowhere near that level. There are an extra 10,000 visas available should the industry require them. We have not seen the necessity to trigger those extra 10,000 at this moment in time, which is because there are adequate visas available to support farmers and fishermen.

The price of wheat peaked at £350 a tonne. It has subsequently fallen to below £200 a tonne—not much more than it was before the invasion of Ukraine. Why has the price of bread in our supermarkets not fallen, too?

I declare my interest in these matters.

I recognise the fact that global wheat prices have now come back down. We work closely with retailers, processers and the hospitality sector to make sure that there is not extra profiteering in the marketplace. We will continue to have discussions with those representatives and will work with the sector to make sure that food is reasonably priced for our constituents.

The farming Minister will know that in north Northamptonshire we have some of the best farmers in the country who are facing these challenges, like every other farm up and down the land. Would he be kind enough to visit Kettering to meet a large group of local farmers—perhaps in early September in between harvesting and drilling?

That is a very kind invitation. It is always a pleasure to visit Northamptonshire, and, if my diary allows, I will of course meet my hon. Friend and his farmers.

The Minister has talked a lot about support for farmers, but in reality there is a severe lack of profitability for those producing chicken. That is causing a sharp reduction in the number of birds reared in England, while in Scotland production has changed significantly, as retailers resist demands to pay a fair price for chicken. Will the Minister commit to extending the examination of food supply chains to poultry meat, as requested by the National Farmers Union Scotland, as the threat of empty shelves looms? Will he also engage with retailers to ensure that poultry farmers are fairly compensated?

I was on a poultry farm yesterday talking to poultry producers. The SNP cannot have it both ways; it cannot ask one question about suppressing prices for consumers and another about increasing the prices for farmers—those things are diametrically opposed. What we are doing as a Department is supporting those farmers through the £2.4 billion-worth of subsidy, helping them to invest in new technology and talking to retailers and producers to make sure we get fairness in the supply chain, so everybody gets a fair return for their hard work.

Animal Welfare

The Government are committed to continuing to deliver on our manifesto commitments and the work we have undertaken through the action plan for animal welfare from 2021. So far we have delivered six measures through primary legislation and four through secondary legislation. We have also supported three private Members’ Bills, one of which, the Shark Fins Act 2023, banning the import of detached shark fins, received Royal Assent last week. As the Minister updated the House on 25 May, we will be supporting the delivery of the measures from our manifesto during the remainder of the Parliament and we have already started with a consultation on banning primates as pets through secondary legislation.

We have had three Secretaries of State and 760 days have passed since the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was first introduced in this House, and we are no further forward today on banning animal fur imports, or on tackling illegal puppy and kitten smuggling, or on banning foie gras. The former DEFRA Secretary, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), said the Bill did not go ahead due to

“a lack of resolve to take it through.”

How long must animals suffer the consequences of this Tory psychodrama, and when will animal welfare finally be prioritised in this place?

The hon. Gentleman must be living in a parallel universe. There is no doubt that many measures have been undertaken to improve animal welfare. One thing I would say is that there have not been any live exports of animals since 2021, and we still have legislation ready to go. We have already set out our approach. Of course he will be aware that it is already illegal to smuggle pets, and some of the legislation we were working on was to try to make it more challenging for criminals who abuse pets as well.

The Secretary of State is right that progress on animal welfare can be made by specific and targeted measures. I would add to the ones she mentioned the adoption by the Government of my own private Member’s Hare Coursing Bill. However, we do need a clear programme of further progress. Can she tell me the progress on two specific changes: the ban on the import of dogs with cropped ears and the ban on keeping primates as pets?

As my hon. Friend points out, he has already undertaken significant work regarding hare coursing; it is one of the top priorities for rural police and crime commissioners and they continue to do good work on that, recognising that much of it is connected to organised crime. On the two measures he refers to, because we are introducing secondary legislation to stop people keeping primates as pets, we have to consult formally and then the legislation will be prepared alongside that. In terms of the mutilation elements, when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries spoke to the House on 25 May, he said that we would be taking forward measures on individual issues. I intend that to happen in the next Session of Parliament.

Last Friday Lord Goldsmith resigned from the Government and his letter to the Prime Minister was absolutely devastating. If I may paraphrase it, it said that before taking office the Prime Minister assured party members via Lord Goldsmith that he the Prime Minister would continue to implement the action plan, including the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and measures such as ending the live export of animals for slaughter, banning keeping primates as pets and preventing the import of shark fins and hunting trophies from vulnerable species. Lord Goldsmith has been horrified as bit by bit the Government have abandoned those commitments, domestically and on the world stage. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill has been ditched, despite the Prime Minister’s promises; efforts on a wide range of domestic environmental issues have simply ground to a standstill; and, more worryingly, the United Kingdom has visibly stepped off the world stage. Lord Goldsmith and the Secretary of State served as DEFRA Ministers in the last Parliament. Does she agree with his devastating critique of the Prime Minister and her Department?

Of course not. I was very sad that the noble Lord chose to leave Government. I pay tribute to him for a lot of what he has done in terms of international nature. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), set out to the House on 25 May the approach that we are taking and why. We are getting on with the legislation on keeping primates as pets, and we are preparing single-issue Bills. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, clearly does not know a lot about government. I understand that, because he has never been in it—[Interruption.] I am responding to the chuntering from the hon. Gentleman. The point is that when we introduce secondary legislation, the formality is that we have to consult. That is why we are doing a short consultation, which we launched last week. We will get on with the secondary legislation when we return after the recess.

Coastal and Marine Biodiversity

3. What recent discussions she has had with relevant stakeholders on monitoring coastal and marine biodiversity. (905830)

My hon. Friend and I share a feature in that the coast and the sea are a key part of our constituencies. We have just brought into effect our first three highly protected marine areas. We engage regularly with various stakeholders on a variety of issues relating to the monitoring and protection of coastal and marine biodiversity. We will continue to do that around our shores, but we also do extensive work around the world, with our knowledge and expertise, to ensure that we preserve marine biodiversity much more strongly right across the globe.

I recently met Applied Genomics Ltd, a marine scientific business in my North Norfolk constituency. It specialises in environmental DNA acquisition and processing, and has developed an effective technique to measure a broad biodiversity profile, from fish stocks and invasive species to microbial pollution. The UK does not currently have an all-encompassing nationwide programme to monitor our coastal marine environments, so will the Minister consider launching a consistent, low-cost and accurate programme, and will she meet me to discuss it?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we monitor marine and coastal wildlife and habitats through the UK marine monitoring and assessment strategy evidence groups. Indeed, the £140 million natural capital and ecosystem assessment programme is an important example of how we are trying to do these things in a smarter and more timely way. I am delighted to say that Applied Genomics, the company to which he refers, whose work I think is interesting and valuable, has delivered some of that work.

When will the Secretary of State join me in a campaign to try to clean up our seas and oceans? Around our country, there are reports of marine life dying. When will she wake up to the fact that tyres are not just made of rubber but contain 72 chemicals, some of them poisonous and related to cancer, and all that wear goes into the gullies, gutters, streams, rivers and oceans and it is poisoning marine life? When will she do something about it?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is trying to launch a campaign on that. The Department and the Government are aware of the impact of the particulate matter that comes off tyres and brakes. That is increasingly one of the challenges for heavier electric vehicles, and the Department for Transport in particular is working with the industry on that. On the other aspects he mentions, we have the £500 blue planet fund, and we invest right around the world and on our shores in improving marine biodiversity. That is why we are sponsoring activity on coral reefs, for example, and on getting plastic out of our oceans. It is why the UK played a critical role in securing the UN “biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction” treaty on trying to improve marine biodiversity. This Government have done more for the oceans, and made them a central part of tackling climate change, than any other country in the world, and we will continue to do so.

Tree Planting

I am pleased that the England trees action plan has set out more than 90 actions to help us meet our targets in increasing tree planting. Since its publication, we have rolled out the England woodland creation offer grant scheme; we have added two new community forests, bringing that to a total of 13; we have invested in nursery capacity; and we have launched a new training and apprenticeship scheme to boost skills and workforce in the forestry sector.

Since January 2020, 350,000 trees have been planted in the west midlands. An estimated 62 tonnes of air pollution have been removed as a result in the Black Country alone. More than 320,000 of those trees have now been registered with the West Midlands Combined Authority’s virtual forest. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking our wonderful Mayor, Andy Street, for spearheading that massive effort, and will she outline how the Government plan to help the west midlands to plant even more trees?

It is fantastic to hear about these successes and the innovation of virtual forests. I thank Mayor Andy Street and the people of the west midlands for planting more trees. We will continue to support tree planting through our national forest in the midlands. We will work closely with the Forestry Commission on the nature for climate fund grant schemes, including the local authority treescapes fund. This is yet another example of fantastic Conservative Mayors delivering for their residents cleaner air, and greener and more beautiful spaces. As we regularly say, vote blue, go green.

I recently visited the Woodland Trust’s Snaizeholme tree planting project, which is in the Prime Minister’s Yorkshire constituency. It has huge potential for nature recovery and carbon capture, but along with other sites, it faces a financial cliff edge when the nature for climate fund comes to an end. Will the Government commit to long-term funding that provides certainty for that vital work?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have extensive funding, and he will also know that the cycles of funding go with something called the spending review, which is until 2025. We will continue to invest in forestry, and we are doing it through our environmental land management schemes as well. I planted the first tree in the northern forest with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). We need to keep it going.

No, he didn’t. The more trees that are planted, the better, so let us all take credit for planting trees. It is good for wellbeing, and it is good for the planet.

Fur Market

5. When she plans to publish the results of her Department’s consultation on the fur market in Great Britain. (905833)

A summary of responses to the call for evidence on the fur market setting out the results and any next steps in this policy space will be published soon.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs called for evidence on banning the import and sale of fur back in 2021, but two years on, we have yet to hear what the public think about such an important and timely issue. Will the Department commit to a date when it will release the results of the consultation on the fur market in Great Britain?

Non-mains Drinking Water

Private drinking water supplies are regulated by local authorities, which receive scientific and technical advice from the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Local authorities sample and identify water-quality risks, can serve notices to correct any issues identified and have remedial powers if those responsible for the supply do not comply with the notice. Private water supply compliance is steadily improving. In 2022, 96.4% of private supplies were compliant, up from 91.4% in 2010.

The nine homes of Aysdalegate near Charltons do not have access to mains water. Over the last decade, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council has performed drinking water checks nine times, and on all occasions, the supply has been judged unsatisfactory owing to bacterial contamination, including E.coli and enterococci. A regulation 18 notice, which specifies that the water requires boiling before drinking, has been in place permanently since December 2017, and residents report to me finding tadpoles and other life in their drinking water. This is a Dickensian scandal in 2023, but Northumbrian Water has advised that it will cost these low-income homes over £100 each simply to give them a quote for mains water connection. That is obviously unacceptable. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me urgently so that we can discuss how to help my constituents?

I am sorry to hear about this issue, which my right hon. Friend has already brought to my attention. Our legislation does allow for those on a private supply to request a connection to the mains supply, but it is right that the legislation allows a water company to charge for the cost of making a new connection, because otherwise it would impact on all customers’ bills. The local authority can give advice, and I urge him to keep contacting it, but if there is anything more we can discuss usefully, I would be happy to do so.

Like yourself, Mr Speaker, I am of a generation that can well remember when water came from the wells, and it was pure and clean. Times have moved on, and we have realised that such water is not available to everyone, as the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) said. I ask the Minister this question ever mindful of the discussions that she will have had: have there been any discussions between the Government and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland to ensure that grants are available for people who need to go on to mains water and that their water is pure, as it was many years ago but is not always today?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; I, too, have a well, but it does not supply our drinking water. I think a lot of people have wells on their properties, or locally on their roads or wherever. The issue he has raised is a matter for the Northern Ireland Administration, but here the Drinking Water Inspectorate has commissioned research into the impact of future private water supplies, as well as the whole regulatory model and legislative framework.

Support for Farmers

We are backing British farmers with £2.4 billion of investment every year. We have recently updated our new schemes based on the feedback that farmers have given us, making them easier to apply for. We are providing tailored business advice to all farmers. We have cut red tape, brought in fair enforcement regimes, and helped the sector access the seasonal labour it needs. We are looking closely at the Shropshire review that we commissioned to see how we can go further. We are reviewing supply chain fairness in the sector and trying to unlock opportunities for genetic technologies. I could keep going, but I will leave it there for now.

Upland farmers across Burnley and Padiham, and indeed right across Lancashire, play a huge role in keeping us fed and enhancing the local environment. That is why it is so important that we support them. Can my right hon. Friend say how recent announcements will improve support for upland farmers specifically, and will he reaffirm the commitment made in May by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we will move beyond income-foregone calculations when designing support schemes?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Lancashire farmers and the efforts they make to keep us all well fed. We are committed to ensuring that payment rates mean that as many farmers as possible can benefit from our offers, and have recently increased payment rates for upland farmers. Through countryside stewardship-plus, we will pay farmers extra for co-ordinating their action and working with neighbouring farms and landowners to tackle climate change, as well as supporting nature gains and keeping us all well fed.

Farming: Delinked Payments

The Government plan to bring forward regulations to delink payments later this year, as the parliamentary timetable allows. Those regulations will introduce delinked payments in 2024, as planned. Information about delinked payments can be found on

Delinking the legacy basic payment scheme payments from the need to have land area entitlements could be a really powerful catalyst for change. It would free the Rural Payments Agency and farmers from the bureaucracy of the legacy scheme; remove a very difficult distortion from the land market; and, crucially, free farmers up to make decisions about what to do with their land in future. Since farmers are making decisions about next year’s land use now, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to confirm from the Dispatch Box that the delinked payments will happen next year, and that there will be no reversal of that plan?

I am happy to confirm that, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work he did to get us to this point. Of course, we will be bringing forward the legislation to delink those payments next year.

Food Security

The first UK food security report, which we introduced in the Agriculture Act 2020, was published in 2021; the next one is due in 2024. The F4 group, comprising the British Retail Consortium, the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation and UKHospitality, meets regularly and reports directly to Ministers. We recently met representatives from the whole supply chain at the UK Farm to Fork summit in Downing Street.

I have raised access to food before with the Minister and, in particular, how surplus food and food near its use-by date can be used by organisations such as FareShare. There is still a huge problem right across the country whereby constituents cannot afford to buy food in supermarkets, and are therefore relying on food pantries and food banks for their main shop. To have food security, people must be able to afford food. What more can the Minister do to resolve those issues and ensure that people are not literally starving, or in a position where they cannot afford to buy basic foodstuffs?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the huge package of support the Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced to help families with the cost of living challenges they face. On average, every household receives over £3,000 of support with their energy and food bills, but I am sure we can do more to help and support primary food producers, processers and retailers to make sure that we drive as much efficiency as possible into the system, in order to maintain lower food prices and help families up and down the country.

Last week, past failures caught up with the DEFRA ministerial team. First, the Climate Change Committee castigated them for lack of progress on agriculture and land use, and then the report they had commissioned from John Shropshire and his team detailed the crop losses and lost productivity and production caused by their failure to address labour supply issues. This week, could the Minister tell the House if he knows whether the UK is more or less food-secure than this time last year, and will he explain how he has reached that conclusion?

We have extensive conversations with the food supply market. We are blessed in the UK with very robust food supply chains, which are some of the most secure anywhere in the world. Of course, I acknowledge that the Shropshire review has indicated some areas in which we can improve and assist, but we have delivered the 45,000 visas that are available through the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Not all of those visas have been taken up, and an extra 10,000 are available if required, but nobody has asked for that to be triggered.

Topical Questions

It has been a particularly busy week for DEFRA in a number of different ways, with not only the launch of the designated highly protected marine areas, but the House of Commons voting to support the legislation to introduce the ban on plastics, which is another way to improve the environment.

Of course, there has also been significant speculation about the water industry. I think it is important to put it on record that the Government have confidence in the financial resilience of the water sector industry. We will continue to have discussions, which are important, and I think it is critical to be aware that people who do not know a lot about the water industry, frankly, are out of their depth in making some comments and speculation. We need to make sure that we treat this situation very carefully, because it is critical to make sure that we have ongoing investment in the water industry, which everybody here relies on.

Thankfully, my dog Sidney Pickles came from a great home, although one could complain to trading standards that his former home failed to describe him as a naughty cocker spaniel or a fox poo-rolling little tinker. Seriously, however, there has been much misinformation about the Government’s action on puppy farming from the Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Government have, in fact, been taking firm action to stop the unscrupulous selling of puppies by deceitful sellers?

Indeed, and I want to thank my hon. Friend. I have met her dog Sidney Pickles, who is delightful. As she says, it was purchased from a great breeder. One thing we need to continue to focus on is improving the laws on dog breeding to crack down on unscrupulous breeders. Regulations do require commercial dog breeders to hold a valid licence from their local authority, and it is important that people check for that licence. The regulations also prohibit the third-party sale of puppies and kittens.

The Tories are sinking the water industry. Since Tory privatisation, water companies have racked up debts of over £60 billion. Every day, we see 800 sewage dumps and lose over 3 billion litres of water in leaks, and what is the biggest leak of all? The £72 billion paid out to shareholders. Now Thames Water is on the edge as the money dries up. Can the Secretary of State tell the House if she believes that this is an isolated case—yes or no?

I have already said to the House that the Government have full confidence in the financial resilience of the water sector. I will point out that, of course, the gearing for Thames Water shot up in 2007, when Labour was in government. It is fair to say that, when a previous Secretary of State issued a strategic policy statement to Ofwat, one of the key focuses was about reducing the gearing, and that has not happened with Thames Water. Ofwat is still responsible, and I am still holding it to account on how that goes forward. However, it is very important that we do not have speculation and misinformed comments. It is critical that we get water companies through certain stages, and I am confident the Government will do that.

Like the industry itself, that response does not hold water. People know that Thames Water is not an isolated case: five companies are rated as being of concern by the Government’s own financial regulator. Last weekend, I wrote to the Environment Secretary setting out six key tests to safeguard bill payers, workers and taxpayers from paying the price of a failing water industry. Will she finally act to protect the national interest and commit to those six tests, and will she rule out customers having to pay twice for boardroom failures—yes or no?

I have not yet seen the hon. Gentleman’s letter, but I will of course respond to it before the recess. Over £190 billion has been invested into our water industry since privatisation, through a long-standing combination of equity and debt investment by water companies. Speculation around such an important utility does not help the situation, and a measured approach is critical to getting through this difficulty. He mentions other water companies, and that is why Ofwat has acted and why new equity has come into many water companies. It is critical that we continue to have that confidence.

Hundreds of animal lovers across the west midlands have suffered the dreadful crime of pet theft in recent years. What are Ministers doing to prevent such crimes?

Stealing a pet is already a criminal offence, and we know the devastating impact that pet theft can have. We legislated to require the microchipping of cats, in addition to dogs, because that can act as an effective deterrent. The pet theft taskforce reports that dogs are mostly stolen from gardens and outbuildings, and highlights the need for owners to ensure security at home for their treasured pets.

T3.   Bearing in mind the escalating number of dangerous dog attacks, including the death of a dog, Sula, in Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire, whose owner felt that their life would have been at risk had they intervened, will the Secretary of State review the Government’s decision to drop the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill? If not, will she explain to the House how she plans to deliver its measures by different means? (905849)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries set out on 25 May how we intend to take through our manifesto commitments. We also have a taskforce working on this situation, and I expect a report with some recommendations later this year.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Yorkshire Water’s sewer improvement project. This £15 million scheme under the A65 in Ilkley is only happening as a result of a huge campaign by the Ilkley Clean River Group and our passing the Environment Act 2021, which the Opposition voted against at every stage. Does the Minister therefore agree that the Government are purely focused on cleaning up the water quality of our rivers?

I could just say yes, but I will add a bit more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is this Government who have got water quality on the radar. We are cleaning up our rivers and our bathing waters, 93% of which are classed as good or excellent. Our plan for water will ensure that we provide the clean and plentiful water we need for generations.

Gateshead food bank and Feeding Families, both of which operate in my constituency, have seen huge increases in the demand for food parcels over recent years. With food inflation running at 18.3%, the situation will only get worse. What will the Minister do to tackle food inflation, so that people do not have to rely on those organisations?

That is why we are investing in our farmers to help them produce food more efficiently and increase productivity. It is also why the Government have put forward a huge £94 billion support package—over £3,300 per household—and provided £100 million of support to charities working in the sector.

The use of storm overflows is of huge concern to my residents in Southend-on-Sea. Due to this Government’s actions, Anglian Water was supposed to have its plan for mitigating the use of overflows on the Secretary of State’s desk last Friday. Was it there, and when will my residents be able to see it?

Every water company was asked to put a plan for every storm overflow on the Secretary of State’s desk. I can tell my hon. Friend that all the plans have arrived and are being analysed.

What should I say to my twin grandsons, who are here today, about their future given that they live in Cambridge, where air quality is poisoning young people, pregnant women and many others? What will the Secretary of State really do about cleaning up the environment for that generation?

What assurance can the Farming Minister give my Ynys Môn farmers that this Government are doing all they can to ensure that food labelling is accurate? Will the Minister accept my invitation to the Anglesey show on 15 and 16 August to discuss the matter with my farmers in person?

It is always a pleasure to visit Wales and Welsh farmers. I say to constituents of my hon. Friend that making sure there is a red tractor on their food is a very good step to make sure that their food is procured in the right way and that they are supporting UK farmers. I will look at my diary and see whether I can attend her show. I am sure it will be an excellent example of the top-quality food and farming in Wales.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Justice for Victims of Crime

1. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (905801)

4. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (905804)

The CPS is improving access to justice for victims through its victim transformation programme. Together with measures in the Victims and Prisoners Bill, this will help to ensure access to justice for all victims of crime.

In October 2021, the Government made the not hugely ambitious pledge to reduce the size of the Crown court backlog within four years. The latest figures published last week show that the backlog is now almost 2,900 cases higher than when they started. Will the Solicitor General explain what new steps the Government will take to meet their target, as what they have been doing so far clearly is not working?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. One method being used is sentencing blitzes, whereby sentences are being lined up back-to-back to ensure that cases are completed as quickly as possible.

The Ministry of Justice’s early legal advice pilot scheme has just reported. It ran for five months, cost £5 million and supported a sum total of just three people. Instead of the Attorney General and the Government trying to reinvent the wheel by making it square, why do they not deliver better access to justice by supporting more people through legal aid?

In terms of access to justice for victims, I mentioned the victim transformation programme, which is vital in supporting victims. It will transform how the CPS communicates with victims and ensure that those with specific needs have enhanced support.

The victims’ right to review makes it easier for victims to seek a review of a CPS decision not to bring charges. Will the Minister congratulate CPS East Midlands on having the victims’ right to review prominent on the front page of its website? Is he satisfied that the scheme is being rolled out satisfactorily across the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He will be pleased to know that on the law tour, the Attorney General and I saw CPS East Midlands for ourselves, and he is right. It is also right to acknowledge that the vast majority of cases are performed correctly and accurately. Of those that are not, it is right to say that 243 decisions were found to be incorrect and were reviewed last year.

Illegal Migration Bill

2. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the Illegal Migration Bill with the European convention on human rights. (905802)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am bound by the Law Officers’ convention not only to not talk about advice that I give to Cabinet colleagues, but to not even reveal whether such advice has been given.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave evidence to the Court of Appeal, advising the court on matters concerning international refugee law. That ultimately contributed to the Bill being found unlawful. The recommendations included co-operation with EU neighbours and fair and fast asylum procedures that are more humane, efficient and cost-effective. Will the Attorney General ensure that the Cabinet listens and enacts those recommendations?

The Government are disappointed by the recent outcome of the case before the Court of Appeal and will seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal did say that the policy of removal to a safe third country could be compatible, and it did not disturb the finding of the High Court that Rwanda is safe, though the majority was concerned about the possibility of onward removal from Rwanda. The Government will make robust arguments before the Supreme Court and will be applying for permission later today.

The former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), when told of the demise of his Bill of Rights, said:

“All the wrong people will celebrate.”

Was the Attorney General celebrating the defeat of that attack on our European convention rights? Will she now stand up to other of her Cabinet colleagues who repeatedly transgress international law? They did it with the Northern Ireland protocol, with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, with the Illegal Migration Bill and again this week with the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. She is the Attorney General, so if she will not stand up for the rule of law, who will?

I absolutely can and do stand up for the rule of law. The Government are committed to the rule of law domestically and committed to maintaining and upholding our obligations under international law. That is made quite clear to all Ministers.

The Rwanda asylum plan was declared so poor that it threatened the rights of asylum seekers not to be tortured or subjected to inhumane treatment, and it was found incompatible with a host of international conventions. Those were the findings of the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court will inevitably reach the same conclusion. How much taxpayers’ money does the Attorney General estimate the Government will spend appealing this illegal plan?

I absolutely do not accept the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. The divisional court was a strong win for the Government. At the Court of Appeal, the majority found against us, but we also had a strong judgment from the Lord Chief Justice. We believe that the assurances we have had from Rwanda regarding asylum protections there are robust, and we intend to make those arguments strongly in the Supreme Court.

Violence against Women and Girls

3. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (905803)

Work is going on across the criminal justice system to drive up prosecution levels. In the Gower, charges of adult rape suspects have increased dramatically in the past year. The Solicitor General and I recently visited CPS South Wales to discuss its future plans.

The Jade’s law campaign is gathering more supporters with each passing day, united in our belief that a man such as Russell Marsh should have no say over the future of his children, whose mother he so viciously murdered. Will the Attorney General engage in a serious and sympathetic discussion with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about how we can make Jade’s law a reality?

While I always enjoy my discussions with the hon. Lady, I am afraid that I am not a Minister in the Ministry of Justice. I am happy to pass on her points to those Ministers. The Attorney General’s Office stays completely separate and independent of the Ministry of Justice, and it is important that we maintain that.

I am sure the Attorney General will agree that the investigation and prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences requires particular skills in both investigation and handling in court. Will she therefore welcome the increase in prosecution counsel fees to an equal level with those for the defence so that we get the most competent people doing these cases? Will she also accept that more investment must continue to go in so that the Crown Prosecution Service, as the Director of Public Prosecutions pointed out to our Committee on Tuesday, can continue to recruit sufficient experienced rape prosecutors and have the digital technology to deal with things such as mobile phone evidence in these cases?

My hon. Friend knows well that I do not hold the budget that he is seeking to influence, but he is one of the best campaigners in the House and, as ever, he made his point extremely clearly. I watched with interest his Committee’s proceedings earlier this week and noted what was said.

Almost 500 days ago, in the joint inspectorate’s report on the post-charge handling of rape cases, it recommended that “Immediately”—I stress that word—

“the police and the CPS should work…to ensure that bad character is considered in all rape cases, and progressed wherever it is applicable.”

That means applying to enter into evidence relevant elements of a suspect’s history, including past convictions and a record of violence. But when I recently asked the Ministry of Justice about the issue, it could not even tell me how many bad character applications had been made or allowed in the last year, let alone what progress had been made in meeting the immediate recommendations from last year’s report. Does the Attorney General know what progress has been made? If not, will she make immediate inquiries?

I am always interested in the right hon. Lady’s inquiries into the way that data is produced. She has made some valid points in the past, and I am always keen to engage with her on how best we can provide transparency. I am happy to take her point forward with Ministry of Justice colleagues. I have seen much closer working between the CPS and the police. That is working particularly well in the area of rape and serious sexual offences, which is why we have prioritised that work. I would be happy to look into her question.

Crimes of Aggression against Ukraine

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential establishment of a special tribunal on crimes of aggression against Ukraine. (905805)

I am confident that Russia will be held accountable for its appalling actions in Ukraine. We have been at the forefront of international efforts. We have referred Russia to the International Criminal Court, we will intervene on behalf of Ukraine before the International Court of Justice later this year, and we are part of the core group of states working to establish a special tribunal for the crime of aggression.

The Attorney General will appreciate that the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction over crimes of aggression—in effect, the deliberate, violent and unprovoked military incursion into the sovereign territory of another recognised state. Karim Khan, a prosecutor at the ICC, has pointed out that none of the other 93,000 war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine could have happened had it not been for that initial crime of aggression. Will the Attorney General assure us that steps are being taken to set up a special tribunal as quickly as possible, so that Putin and his fellow criminals can be brought to justice before they get the chance to destroy the evidence?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest in this matter. There are three broad strands to our work on accountability. First, we have provided expert assistance to Ukrainian investigators. Secondly, alongside the international community we will continue to provide the ICC with funding, people and expertise, though I accept that the crime of aggression cannot be prosecuted there. Thirdly, we are exploring other options to hold Russia accountable for the crime of aggression.

Rape and Serious Sexual Offences

6. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase support for victims of rape and serious sexual offences. (905806)

10. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase support for victims of rape and serious sexual offences. (905812)

We know that increased support for victims means that they are more likely to stick with the case until trial. We are working together across the criminal justice system to achieve that. Independent sexual violence advisers are really effective. The new intervention is the revised victims code, which will put a duty on the CPS team to meet the victim.

In constituency surgeries I have heard some of the most horrendous, gut-wrenching child sexual exploitation stories, some of which have involved multiple instances of rape of young children. That has profound, lifelong implications not only for the victims but for their families. As the cases move through the court, the experience can be terrible and traumatic, which is further exacerbated if the trial is delayed. Will the Attorney General assure me that in those cases, the whole family, including the victim, are supported not only during the trial but before and after, with mental health and wellbeing support?

I have spoken to my hon. Friend about the specific case in his constituency. The Government are making it easier for all victims, including children, to access support. I spoke earlier about ISVAs—we also have children and young persons’ independent sexual violence advisers, who are specially trained to work with children. The Solicitor General and I saw some great work in Manchester, where a large number of child victims are supported.

Some of those who groomed and raped children in Rotherham during the child sexual exploitation scandal and were put away are now starting to be released, some having served less than half their sentence. That is causing immense psychological damage to the victims, who live knowing that their rapists walk free. What can we do to protect those vulnerable people and make sure that child rapists serve their proper sentence behind bars?

Public protection is our top priority,. We want serious offenders to serve the time in prison that reflects the seriousness of their crimes. Last year, we abolished automatic halfway release for serious sexual and violent offenders who are serving more than four years.

I thank the Attorney General very much for her answers. One thing that concerns me and everyone in this House, but in particular families, are the delays for those who have been sexually abused over a number of years and are waiting for a trial to happen. What has been done to support families and individuals through that, because the timescale erodes their willingness and confidence to have justice?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the concern that with delay comes victim attrition. The answer lies in support. The ISVAs that I mentioned earlier are invaluable in ensuring that victims are willing to continue their case to trial.

Serious Violent Crime: West Midlands

7. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the level of prosecution rates of serious violent crime in the west midlands; and if she will make a statement. (905808)

On our recent law tour, the Attorney General and I saw at first-hand the work of the Crown Prosecution Service west midlands serious violence unit. As my hon. Friend would expect, the CPS prosecutes violent crime robustly.

As the Attorney General will know from intimate knowledge, serious violent crime is thankfully not something that Lichfield suffers very much from at all, but that is not the case in the broader west midlands. What can the CPS do to demonstrate to people in the west midlands that it will have a zero tolerance attitude and take action against serious violent crime?

The sale and use of drugs is driving serious and violent crime. Last year, for drugs offences the CPS in the west midlands had a conviction rate of over 90%. I agree with my hon. Friend’s zero tolerance approach.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

The unduly lenient sentence scheme remains an important tool, ensuring appropriate sentences for the most serious crimes. Last year, we referred 139 cases to the Court of Appeal and the sentence was increased in just under 70% of those cases.

I thank the Solicitor General for his response. He will recall that I contacted him on behalf of a number of my constituents about a child sex offender in my constituency. Our local newspaper, the Stoke Sentinel, reported the sentencing of that offender beneath the headline, “Pervert Walks Free From Court”. My constituents are rightly concerned that such serious offenders can receive a non-custodial sentence. Given that my right hon. and learned Friend has been unable to intervene, will he review the way in which such offending is evaluated, so that such cases can be considered?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and for raising this case. He is a great champion for Stoke-on-Trent. He will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, but it is right to say that the threshold or test for undue leniency is a high one. In the vast majority of cases the Crown court judges get the sentence right, and the Court of Appeal will grant permission only in exceptional circumstances.

War Crimes Trials: Ukraine

We have sent our most experienced international judge, Sir Howard Morrison, to train more than 100 Ukrainian judges. I met some of them earlier this year in Kyiv with him. Next week, we have a delegation of Ukrainian officials in the UK for prosecutorial training.

The International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression was launched in The Hague this week with the backing of the EU, the US and the International Criminal Court, collecting data, interviewing victims and building evidence files to assist both international and national prosecutors to bring criminals to justice for the invasion of Ukraine. In addition to what the Attorney General has already said, what further practical steps will she take to support the centre, and assist and support international efforts to gather evidence of war crimes committed in Ukraine?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I would be delighted to pick this up with her outside the Chamber if she would like more detail on the work we are doing. I work very closely with the Ukrainian prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin. His team are currently investigating and prosecuting 92,000 open war crimes cases during a conflict—something that is unprecedented. We are providing help at every level, including prosecutorial and evidence-gathering help. We are a keen part of the atrocity crimes advisory group. We have been training judges. We are keen to help with the wider accountability question on the international stage as well. At all levels, we are absolutely determined to help our friends in Ukraine.

I could keep going on Ukraine almost forever, Mr Speaker. What else shall I talk about? What a delight! I could talk about Ukraine all day.

There is another large piece of work on compensation that we are undertaking with our international partners—

Rail Ticket Offices

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if he will make a statement on plans to close rail ticket offices.

I am answering the urgent question on behalf of the Secretary of State, who is currently involved in this process, so it is appropriate for me to respond.

There has been a huge shift in the way in which passengers purchase tickets at railway stations, with about one in every 10 transactions taking place in ticket offices in 2022-23. That is down from one in three a decade earlier and equates to 13% of rail revenue. Despite this, our stations have hardly changed in the past 10 years, which means that staff are constrained to work in ticket offices, although they could serve passengers better on station platforms and concourses. I am pleased that the rail industry has launched consultations on the future of ticket offices under the ticketing and settlement agreement process, which will give the public an opportunity to scrutinise the train operating companies’ proposals to ensure that they work in the best possible way for passengers.

These changes are about modernising the passenger experience by moving staff out of ticket offices to be more visible and accessible around the station. Crucially, no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed as a result of this reform—staff will still be there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it—and the new approach will take into consideration the potential impact on individuals with protected characteristics. It is of course vital that our railway is accessible to all and I have engaged directly with accessibility groups and will continue to do so.

This is an industry process, so I encourage Members and their constituents to engage with their local train operators to find out more about the proposals for their local stations. If passengers want to raise any views, they can contact the relevant passenger body. I believe that the industry’s proposed reforms could enable staff to provide a more flexible, agile and personal service, creating the modern experience that people expect.

Yesterday, the Rail Delivery Group confirmed plans to close hundreds of rail ticket offices across the country but, this morning, as is usual when difficult decisions are made, the Secretary of State was nowhere to be seen. This announcement, driven every inch of the way by his Department—not the industry, as the Minister claimed—has caused huge anxiety to vulnerable and disabled passengers and rail staff up and down the country; and how long have people been given to respond to these hugely consequential plans? Just 21 days. This is a massive change to the network, affecting more than 150 million rail journeys a year and hitting elderly and disabled passengers the hardest, and they have been given only three weeks to have their say. Why does the Minister not just admit that this consultation has nothing to do with taking on board their concerns? It is a rubber stamp for a decision that he has already made, with the most vulnerable cut out altogether.

Can the Minister give any reassurance to vulnerable passengers who rely on staff in railway stations to help them to purchase tickets and board trains? Why has he not published equality impact assessments alongside these consultations? Given that he claims the solution is modernisation and digital ticketing, does he know how many stations do not currently have tap-in or barcode capability? What assessment has he made of the impact on revenue for our rail industry? Will he admit that this process is merely a prelude to job losses that will mean far fewer staff to serve the travelling public, and the continued managed decline of our railways?

We know what this is really about. It is not about reforming our railways; the Government have already ditched plans for Great British Railways. It is not about modernisation; the Department has already confirmed that the contactless ticketing roll-out is limited to London and the south-east. This is about one thing and one thing only: the Conservatives crashed the economy and now they are asking for more self-defeating cuts on our declining railways.

On the Minister’s watch, our rail services are already being run into the ground, with cancellations at record highs, basic services such as wi-fi being taken away and legislation to reform the network on the scrapheap. Will he simply acknowledge that the Conservatives cannot fix the railways because they broke them in the first place?

Let me give a little more detail on the Secretary of State’s role in the ticketing and settlement agreement, which has been in place not just under Conservative Administrations, but under the last Labour Administration. The Secretary of State is required to make a determination where the train operators and the passenger groups cannot reach an agreement. That makes it entirely right for him not to be here to respond to the urgent question.

The hon. Lady mentioned job losses. First and foremost, this is all about taking expert ticketing staff into the parts of the station where currently they are not seen. If only 10% of tickets are sold across the ticket counter, crudely, that means that 90% of passengers are not accessing that member of staff. The idea is to take the member of staff on to the platform to help passengers to purchase tickets via a ticketing machine or online. Ninety-nine per cent of tickets can be purchased in that manner, so there is no reason why this will not be an improvement.

In the event that there are some staff who do not wish to make the transition, of course, the train operators will need to look at that. The sad reality is that there is an offer on the table that would guarantee no compulsory redundancies up to December 2024, but the union leaders refused to put that offer to their members. If there is any concern about the impact on jobs, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and those it backs financially might wish to take some responsibility for that.

The hon. Lady talked about pay-as-you-go being rolled out only to the south-east. The devolution deals that have been announced will enable the roll-out of pilots by the Mayors of the West Midlands and Manchester by the end of this year. She also talked about wi-fi being taken away, but that is not the case either. We are looking for each train operator to do research to show how much the wi-fi is used, how helpful it is and what more can be done.

The Transport Committee is conducting an inquiry into accessible transport. We have received alarming evidence that the quality and range of assistance to vulnerable passengers has declined markedly since the pandemic. If the redeployment of staff is to be meaningful, it is essential that the new roles and training are designed with the support of campaign groups for vulnerable people. Will my hon. Friend assure me that that will happen?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The very first discussions I had with any groups about these changes were with those groups that represent passengers with accessibility and mobility issues on the railway. I told them that I am keen to work with them to help to ensure that these proposals are designed such that they work for each group with different characteristics. I will be looking to meet them again to ensure that that occurs.

At 9.30 am, the Office of Rail and Road issued its rail passenger assistance bookings update for the latest year, which shows that passenger assists increased by 68% compared with the previous year. That demonstrates that more help is needed at stations for people with accessibility needs. Again, by freeing people who are currently under-utilised in the ticket office and putting them on to the platforms to give help and guidance, we will help those who need it the most. That is at the forefront of everything that the train operators are looking to do with these proposals.

In May 2021, there was a partial collapse at Northwich station—it was the ticket office. It is being rebuilt as we speak and there is an investigation into the collapse. I am now told by the Minister and the Secretary of State that it is incredibly likely—it seems a foregone conclusion—that the ticket office will never reopen. Disabled and elderly people already struggle accessing the station, but they will struggle even more without staff. This is a folly. The Minister needs to think again.

It is not the ticket office but the expert people in it who assist passengers. With these proposals, the train operators are looking to free up people from behind the glass, often in parts of the station that passengers do not access, to help them to use their skills to get tickets sold at ticket machines and to advise people on how to purchase online, so they can do that in future, and thereafter to help them with the entire passenger journey experience, giving them information and making them feel more reassured.

These roll-outs have occurred across other parts of the network. London Underground did this some years ago, and I do not believe the current Labour Mayor of London has any plans to turn it round because it actually works. It gives a better passenger experience. People can either live in the past or look towards the future. The way in which passengers transact across a whole range of services is exactly the same, and we are keen to see the railways modernise and thrive.

Many of my constituents write to me about overcrowding, on an almost daily basis, particularly on Chiltern Railways. No one has ever written to me about ticket office provision. Sympathetic as I am to the argument for ensuring staff come out from behind the counter to assist people directly on platforms and around the station, how will this solve the demands of passengers, which we are probably all seeing in our inboxes on a day-to-day basis, in relation to rush-hour capacity and weekend capacity?

Chiltern Railways, for example, is looking to expand coverage at High Wycombe. By redeploying staff, it can get more staff on to the platforms. This is an example of where my hon. Friend’s passengers will benefit because train operators can flex staff to provide more coverage, which makes people feel more reassured. Again, as hon. and right hon. Members look at the details and engage with the consultation, they may find their constituents are getting a wider range of services over a wider range of hours than they currently receive.

As a booking and ticket clerk on the underground back in the 1970s, trust me: I know ticketing is now easier. I still use the buses and the underground every day, so I am familiar with the scenes at stations in the mornings and evenings. However, more screens and more opportunities for things to go wrong are not the answer to every problem. Does the Minister know how many ticket machines fail every day? These machines will make it harder, not easier, to buy tickets. It will be harder, not easier, to secure refunds. It will be harder, not easier, to apply for rail cards. Who uses booking office clerks? Disabled people, the elderly and people with language problems or difficulty understanding how to use the ticket machine. Will he give the green light for the RDG to change track and scrap this train wreck of a proposal?

There are 979 regulated, operated stations, but 43% of all stations currently do not have any ticket office facility at all, and people are still able to use those stations to access trains. Ninety-nine per cent of transactions can be completed either online or via a machine. In the event that a machine is not working and there are no staff—a lot of stations, like my own, are staffed for only half the day—a ticket to ride can be acquired and then a ticket can be purchased at the end of a journey. Again, these processes are already in place for those stations with no ticket office. We have those blocks to build on.

Many people using stations such as Stoke-on-Trent station are infrequent travellers, and many are vulnerable or elderly and need support to buy a ticket. Can the Minister assure me that there will always be someone at Stoke-on-Trent station to provide a paper ticket to those without digital skills?

There are no plans to replace paper tickets through the train operators’ process. Again, the aim is to ensure that ticket office staff are freed up and on the platform to sell the tickets and help passengers to purchase them at the machines or online. The hope is that, thereafter, those passengers will be able to book for themselves with confidence, without needing to use that service. Those staff will also be available at Stoke-on-Trent to provide other services and information: more customer services. This is the exact way in which our rail passengers transact across the retail and financial space, which is why it is the right approach for the railways.

My constituents who use Cross Gates station and people across the country will be worried about this proposal, because closing ticket offices is yet another example of private profit being put before the public good in our railways. This move is really about gutting railways of station staff, who have a big impact on passenger accessibility and safety, especially for older and disabled people. Does the Minister really believe that this will make the railways more welcoming for people—or does that not matter?

If we like seeing station staff when we access our journey and like the fact that we will be seeing more of them because they will be freed up, then I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Rather than gutting the railways, this Government, and indeed the taxpayer, have provided £41 billion of support since the pandemic. That does not sound like gutting the railways to me. I truly believe that we will end up with a better station experience, one that better reflects modern usage, which is why we are happy to support the train operators with these proposals. As I say, 10% of transactions are purchased across the ticket office counter—10 years ago, it was one in three. The railway is adapting to the manner in which consumers have changed their habits.

Disabled, elderly and other vulnerable passengers have been troubled by today’s announcements, but does the Minister share my weary exasperation at the fact that people do not understand that the best way to help disabled and elderly passengers is for staff to come out from behind their screens to assist them in using a ticket machine, to help them on and off trains, and to help them to move around the station? Does he agree that for more than a decade Ministers have sought to improve services for passengers on the stations but have been blocked at every turn? Does he not see an opportunity to improve accessibility on our rail network here? It should be welcomed, not rejected.

My hon. Friend speaks with experience, having done this role himself, and he is absolutely right in what he says. I find it patronising to be told constantly that those who have disabilities or those who are elderly cannot access things online and cannot do this. That is not the case at all. At the moment, we do not have enough products online, and, as part of this process, I have been pushing to ensure that we have more online. It will mean that people do not have to go to the station beforehand to pick up a travelcard because they need a photo that they have to take. The idea is that this move should make things better for those who have accessibility and mobility challenges, not just in putting more tickets online and into a place where they can buy them from the comfort of their own home and phone, but in making sure they have more help at the station. So I thank him for the points he makes; he speaks with expertise.

The Government have overseen the largest increase in rail fees. My constituents must deal with frequent delays and cancellations, and now people in Bath and across Somerset face losing their ticket offices. Bath is a world heritage site that has a large number of visitors. Foreign visitors, in particular, find getting through apps and ticketing machines bewildering; they depend on the ticket offices. It more important than ever now to attract people on to public transport, so will the Minister explain why my constituents, and the many visitors to Bath who would otherwise come by coach, should feel confident that train journeys will be more reliable, cheaper and more attractive than driving?

It is because we want to give that better customer experience, so that more passengers are seeing more staff at the stations to help them with information, make them feel more secure and welcome, help them purchase a ticket, and do so in a manner where those passengers are used to transacting across the space. I very much hope the hon. Lady will see a better staff experience as a result and therefore even more people will be attracted on to rail.

My hon. Friend is a good Minister and a good friend, but I think even he knows he has a tough gig this morning. To use his Beatles analogy, can he not just let it be? I queue up at my ticket office every Monday morning. There is always a queue of people wanting route advice, people with disabilities who cannot use the machines and people wanting refunds. I have to queue because I have an open flexible ticket, as many Members do, that I cannot get from the machine. Will roving members of staff be subject to statutory regulation? At the moment, ticket office staff are the only staff subject to statutory regulation, so I might not even be able to find a roving member of staff to take me to the machine, to request a ticket that the machine will not give me. It is not going to work, is it?

The Beatles analogy rather flew past me, I am afraid. Let me repeat the statistic to my hon. Friend: 99% of all tickets can be purchased from a ticket machine or online. In terms of the 1% we need to work on, I have asked the industry and officials to speed up the process, so that more tickets can be purchased in that manner and ticket machines can be changed so that that can occur. I seek to work with my hon. Friend to convince him that that is the right approach.

As the former Chair of the Transport Committee and having spent all my time on transport since I became a Member, I would not be making this statement if I did not believe this was the right thing for the railway and for passengers. That matters to me hugely. I am not a stooge; I do this because I think this is the right thing to do, it will create a better passenger experience and it guarantees our future in rail.

The Minister spoke of modernising passengers’ experience of railways. Having visited, he will know that Luton station is not fit for purpose and that the ticket office is integral to the upper level walk-through from the town centre to High Town. Any closure of the ticket office will pose risks to the security and safety of staff and passengers. Crucially, can the Minister assure me that the proposed closure of ticket offices will not be used as a reason to delay, decrease or halt refurbishment of stations that are in need of renovation in the future, such as Luton station?

I have stood at the Dispatch Box and assured the hon. Lady that the maintenance improvements for Luton station will start in August and will be delivered by the beginning of next year. I can give her that assurance. This programme is completely separate and does not have any knock-on effects regarding the Access for All programme, through which 400 stations will have been given step-free access by next year.

As part of the process for the programme, passengers will have a three-week period during which they can provide their views on individual stations, so they can give their views on Luton station. There will then be a 35-day period during which passenger groups will assess what they have seen, and they can work with train operators on issues with which they are uncomfortable, perhaps for reasons of meeting accessibility needs. Finally, the Secretary of State will determine matters, if the two parties cannot agree. So there is a process in place to ensure that every station meets its requirements, which they must do from an accessibility perspective. None of that changes through this mechanism.

Ten per cent of ticket sales is still an awful lot of ticket sales. In this process, I hope that people who choose or need to buy their tickets from a ticket office will not suffer from the tyranny of the majority who choose not to, and that their interests will be properly protected throughout. Will the Minister assure me that those people who want to pay for their tickets using cash will still be able to do so? To me, banning people from using cash to buy tickets would be completely unacceptable.

I think I see the Beatles analogy, because there is a ticket to ride process—[Interruption.] Okay, that was it. That process is available to anybody who wishes to pay cash. For example, if my hon. Friend looks at the Northern Trains website, he will see that there is a whole feature explaining how cash can still be used. The machines should take cash. In the event that they do not, there is a process for passengers to purchase a ticket on the train without fear of a penalty. So yes, cash can still be used in the machines.

The Minister is clearly on Southeastern time. That is why he was late getting the analogy. He said that just 10% of tickets are sold over the counter, but that does not explain who are using the ticket offices and what alternative arrangements he is going to make for them. Southeastern has announced 40 ticket office closures, 35 of which are in south-east London—that is 35 in south-east London. That is an outrage. One in my constituency has closed, but all the ones around my constituency are closing as well. What will he do to ensure that these people not only keep their jobs once they are moved out from behind the glass, but are not moved from being redeployed to redundancy? And what will he do about the 10% who rely on ticket offices?

I say respectfully to the hon. Member that Southeastern has had its best performance in six years. He stood in this place in January rightly saying that changes in the December timetable had led to higher cancellation rates. Those rates have gone down from 13% to 1.6%. Southeastern was one of the best operators in terms of performance. That was all down to the staff, but never has he stood up to thank the staff for turning things around and working so hard. He should not think they are his friends when they have to listen to him going on and giving misinformation about the situation. He has also got Southeastern’s consultation wrong. Southeastern is doing its part in stages. The first part is on the Metro, so it is London TravelWatch that will deal with the responses. It will then roll out the changes to the rest of the network. He knows that, because it was on an email sent to him.

I pay tribute to and thank people such as Vinnie at Chislehurst station who was actually very busy when I came through this morning to get my rather late running Southeastern train—but we will leave that on one side. Does the Minister accept that 21 days is a very short period for such an important consultation? Secondly, one of the stations named—Sundridge Park—does not have step-free access to both platforms. It is staff currently in the ticket office who help people get on the trains: they put up the ramps and help passengers to negotiate the steps. Will he give an undertaking that no staff will be removed until cast iron arrangements are in place for somebody to be in attendance on those stations to assist people throughout all the hours that a station is operating?

The changes mean that some staff may be best deployed on the platforms, because that is where they are seeing most of the passengers and some of them need their help. There may be other situations where it makes more sense for that member of staff to be near where they are currently positioned because of the design of the station. The idea is that each station is looked at, so that when a member of the public decides to fill in the consultation, they will get a dropdown, which will locate the station in which they are interested and then they can provide their comments. The passenger groups will then look to see whether what is proposed will work. If it does not, that is a different matter. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the train operators and the passenger groups will make their determinations on a case-by-case basis. Where things do not make sense, those changes will not just be put through to make for a worse experience.

The announced closure of 45 railway ticket offices across Greater Manchester, including at Levenshulme and Gorton stations, will be to the detriment of my constituents who depend on them. Just when we should be encouraging travel by rail to reduce our carbon footprint, this measure will push people away from our great British railways. We should be trying to make train travel easier, cheaper and more accessible, so why are the Government acting against the interests of the public?

I re-emphasise that the aim of these measures is to redeploy staff who are currently underutilised and who are not seeing the passengers that they used to because passenger habits have changed. Those staff will be freed up to work in other areas where they can not only sell the ticket to the passenger, but also help them with information and cater for any particular accessibility needs on the platform. This is all about making for a better passenger experience. All I can say to the hon. Member is that he has the consultation and he should complete it. He will find that things such as this happen in all walks of life and in train stations as well. Manchester has looked at using ticketless travel. Tyne & Wear Metro has just done this and London Underground has done it for years. It actually works and it gives a better passenger experience and that is what I am determined to see the train operators deliver through this change.

I have huge concerns about these plans. As the Minister knows, my hard-pressed constituents trying to get to work, college or university from Marsden or Slaithwaite stations and transiting through Huddersfield still face huge disruption on the TransPennine route. When the computer says no, does he not agree that the best way for them to get advice on ticketing, refunds, alternative routes and when the next train is coming is by speaking to fully trained staff in ticket offices?

If I give my station as an example, we have one member of staff, who is in a ticket office. Most people already have their tickets, for the reasons I have given; only one in 10 buy them from the ticket office. They access the platform through a gate and do not see any members of staff. If there are delays and problems, it is better for passengers to be alongside the member of staff on the platform to get that information, rather than trying to find them behind glass.

There is a problem with the Minister’s point about looking to the future. Back in 2021, Transport for the North, of which I was a board member at the time, was forced to abandon its integrated smart ticketing programme after the Government pulled the funding. I am sure the Minister will remember that from his time on the Select Committee. That work would have helped to digitise transport and create multi-modal, multi-operator pay-as-you-go travel on rail, light rail and bus. We thought it was a deeply flawed decision at the time, and recent events have shown that to be the case. Will he work with TfN and others to see whether any of that work can be reinstated?

I have the greatest respect for the hon. Member and I will certainly look at what more can be done. We are keen to roll out more pay-as-you-go. There will be 400 stations by the end of the year that will have pay-as-you-go in place, where people can tap in and out. That tends to be the future, as we see with London Underground. Those pilots are in place for the end of the year in the west midlands and Manchester. I recognise that does not cover the area he mentions, and I am happy to work with him to see what more can be done.

Coming back to London Underground, this system has been in place for some years. London Underground does not have staff behind ticket office counters, and I believe it works well. It has freed those staff to come out into the station area as a whole, where they can give much better advice and understanding to passengers. It works really well, and that is why, I believe, no Labour Mayor has asked for it to be reinstated.

Residents in Swindon had a taste of things to come yesterday, when the ticket office was closed and people were queueing out of the door to use the wholly inadequate machines at the station. The wi-fi was unreliable as well. If we are to proceed with this significant change, the technology available to customers must be significantly better and we need to avoid a situation where elderly customers who come to pick up an advance ticket have nobody to help them. Will the Minister do everything he can, working with the rail authorities, to ensure that residents do not face—to quote the Beatles again—a “Magical Mystery Tour” when they come to Swindon station?

I will certainly do so, with my right hon. and learned Friend, and I will share a bit of experience that led me to want more in this direction. I need to get a weekly travel card, but I could not get it online because it was not available. I went to the station but did not have a photo with me. I asked, “Why is it the case that we still need a photo when that weekly travel card is less than an Avanti single?” I was told, “That’s the way it has been on the railway for 40 years. That’s why we do it.” That is not good enough. I have mobility, so I can walk up to Charing Cross to make that transaction —or not make it—and then leave, but for others who do not, it does not work for them at all. I can give him the assurance that alongside this programme is a strong exercise to make all products accessible from machines and online; 99% are already accessible, but we need to get the full suite of products so that people do not have to queue in the manner he has just described.

Although these station office closures are in England, they have implications for Scottish passengers. Many in my constituency, myself included—never mind those in the Borders and elsewhere in southern Scotland—access services through stations in northern England, in Berwick and elsewhere. That is not just a matter of choice, but often a matter of necessity; it is required because of the pan-UK services timetabling from LNER, TPE or CrossCountry, all of which are signed off by the DFT. What discussions are taking place with the Scottish Government or with Scottish passenger representatives to ensure that the rights of those north of the border who are impacted by this change will be protected?

I will be looking to speak to the Scottish Executive. In Scotland, similar proposals have, as I understand it, been rolled out to a number of ticket stations by ScotRail. I want to assess whether that was a mandate from the Executive. I will certainly be having a chat with them to see what lessons can be learned, given that Scotland appears to have gone before England in that regard.

May I take this opportunity to welcome the extension of contactless payments to Berkhamsted and Tring in South West Hertfordshire? I declare an interest as a local commuter from one of those stations. Although this initiative on rail ticket offices will, in my eyes, help more travellers, can my hon. Friend reassure the House that additional support will remain for those who require help, such as the elderly and the disabled?

Yes, I can. I thank my hon. Friend for his points. I know that he has busy stations and will want to ensure that his constituents are looked after. The very first meeting that I had when we were looking at the train operators’ proposals was with disability and access groups and age concern groups. I wanted to work with them—I still do—to find out what individual characteristics of the design may work for some but not for others. I can give him the assurance that we will continue to support those who have the greatest vulnerabilities. I firmly believe that taking people out from behind glass and putting them into areas where they can be best accessed will mean that they will be able to give passengers the greatest help, making for a better rail experience.

The Minister says that he has engaged with relevant disabled people’s organisations, but there has been widespread opposition to ticket office closures from such organisations, including Disability Rights UK, the National Federation of the Blind, Transport for All, Royal National Institute of Blind People, Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Guide Dogs and Scope. The Minister thinks that taking expert staff out of station ticket offices and putting them on the platform will help people, but how will people know which member of staff to go to for the help they need? A ticket office means that people know where to go to get that help. If those staff are to be redeployed, there will not be a single redundancy, will there, Minister? I have a funny feeling that these proposals will go down not like a yellow submarine but like a lead balloon.

I have stated the position with regard to redundancies. A deal is on the table but the RMT will not give it to its members to make a determination. It included a commitment to no compulsory redundancies until December 2024. It is for the RMT to decide whether it wishes to get that protection in place. I will say the same thing to the hon. Member that I have said previously: I have worked with those groups; they were the first I met and are at the forefront of my mind in ensuring that this works. From a passenger perspective, if they want to reach out to a member of staff for any reason, they will do so, and members of staff will—because they are great members of staff—signpost them to somebody else. All members of staff must have the requisite training, and they do. I have great faith in our railway workforce to continue looking after passengers. I believe that these changes will bring more benefits in that regard.

I thank the Minister for meeting me yesterday to discuss the proposed closure of Darlington’s booking office. I also met David Horne yesterday afternoon to discuss that issue. I remain deeply concerned that our mainline station, which is currently receiving £139 million of expansion investment, will be left without a booking office. The elderly, disabled and vulnerable rely on help from our ticket offices, and if a station has barriers, that help needs to be in front of those barriers, not behind them. Ticket machines and apps have cut-off times, making purchases impossible in the minutes running up to a train leaving. Will my hon. Friend look into that problem? Will he assure the House that there is proper consultation, and that some ticket offices can be saved? Will he make it clear that representations can be made by letter and not just by email?

Yes; the way in which the ticketing and settlement agreement process works means that anyone can access it online, but they can also write. Details will be available at stations, and indeed online, explaining how people can write through to make their points about their stations.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for meeting me and for doing so in a constructive manner whereby he was able to give me examples of his concerns, including tickets not being available within 15 minutes of travel. I have taken that point away because it forms part of the catalogue of changes that I want to see—the remaining 1% of tickets that cannot be purchased for that reason should be reduced towards 0%. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members who can give other examples to get in contact with me as well, because I will take those problems away and look at getting them fixed.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was right: sometimes it is just too complicated to purchase a ticket without using a ticket office. I recently had that experience, and buying my ticket from the ticket office was £50 cheaper than if I had purchased it from the machine. I am afraid that the Beatles analogy he started is right: he’s got a ticket to ride, and he don’t care.

I was not even aware that I had started a Beatles analogy. Actually, this is more important than joking about music; this is about reassuring passengers that we can deliver a better experience but also an experience that they are very familiar with, in terms of the other transactions they make across the retail space. More and more people are doing that online, and they start doing it online by being taught how to do it. The idea is that ticketing staff who are currently behind glass, not seeing those passengers, will help to deliver that and ensure that those passengers have a better experience and do not need to queue up next time, because they can do it in a seamless manner. Where that operation does not exist because of the machine, we are looking to upgrade. I will take any examples he has, to ensure that passengers get the best price but can do it online or via a machine.

Staff at Kettering railway station are superb; they are friendly, polite, efficient and dedicated to simply outstanding customer service. Given that Kettering is one of the stations potentially affected, will the Rail Minister encourage rail passengers in Kettering to take part in the public consultation promoted by East Midlands Railway? Can he confirm that if the changes go through, a passenger who turns up at Kettering railway station with cash to buy a ticket will be able to do so?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that cash purchases would remain across the network. If there is a machine that is not working for cash, passengers can enter the train, safe in the knowledge that they can then purchase their ticket on the train or at the end of their journey. There are a number of stations that are not part of the current consultation, and they will tend to be the end point where passengers will find a busier station. I can absolutely give him that assurance.

My hon. Friend mentioned the staff. We are looking at the ticket office as a place that people are not accessing any more, but the ticketing staff are brilliant. All we want to do is utilise them more, so that they can see more people and use their expertise. Passengers want their ticket office staff to be more accessible, so that they can gain that expertise, and that is exactly why we want to put them in the places where the passengers are.

I am a bit worried. The Minister keeps saying that staff are not utilised and that people are not accessing ticket offices. I can tell him that in Hull last year, nearly 180,000 tickets were sold from the ticket office—that is one ticket every 1.6 minutes. We have gone through years of bad management with TransPennine at Hull Paragon station. This looks like another downgrading of facilities for passengers. We have heard about the effect it will have on the elderly, the disabled and the vulnerable. Can the Minister just for once put the travelling public first?

I am putting the travelling public first when I make these points. What the right hon. Lady and others cannot deny, despite saying it cannot be believed, is that 10 years ago one in three tickets was sold across the ticket office counter, because people were not purchasing as much online or through machines. Now it is 10%. That demonstrates that ticket office staff are not being utilised fully. We want to utilise them in a better manner. Redeploying staff where they are not as busy as they were and could be better utilised and have a more rewarding job is what happens across the retail sector. The railways should be no different.

Anyone who has experienced the long queues from the machines and the ticket office at my local train station of Leigh-on-Sea—sometimes it goes out of the office and around the block—on a Monday morning, and sometimes on a Saturday, will know why I have been campaigning for contactless ticketing to be extended to Leigh-on-Sea and Chalkwell stations ever since I arrived in this place. As such, I am personally delighted; however, innovation must never be used as an excuse to exclude any of my constituents or deliver a worse service. The blind and partially sighted, such as the wonderful Jill Allen-King OBE, cannot access the touchscreen ticket machines and need a person to help them buy that ticket, but that person does not need to be behind glass. Can the Minister assure me that there will always be somebody available at Leigh-on-Sea and Chalkwell ticket stations to help the blind and partially sighted, the elderly, and anyone else who needs help?

Yes—any currently staffed station will not become unstaffed as a result of these changes. As I have said, 43% of stations do not have ticket office staff, but if the stations that my hon. Friend has mentioned are currently staffed, they will not become unstaffed.

My hon. Friend referenced guide dogs. I am very grateful for the meeting I had with the Guide Dogs team, because we know that when it comes to mobility and accessibility issues, what may work for some does not work for everyone. Sight loss is a particular example of that, so I am very keen to continue to work with Guide Dogs to reassure my hon. Friend’s constituents that they will always get the help they need at her local stations.

I have several rail ticket offices in my constituency: Stockport, Heaton Chapel and Brinnington. The Minister will know, because I have raised it with him frequently, that Heaton Chapel and Brinnington do not have disabled access, so I am not convinced by the notion that this Government are looking to deliver more for passengers, and I do not think my constituents are convinced either. The ticket offices at all three of those stations—Stockport, Brinnington and Heaton Chapel—seem to be earmarked for closure, and the people who work in those ticket offices will be worried. Some 240,000 people work on the railway; they will be worried that the Government are running the industry into the ground, so I urge the Minister to rethink this proposal. Twenty-one days is an absolutely outrageous period of time for a consultation.

Again, I point to the accessibility stats. There was a 68% increase in the number of passengers who needed assistance at stations, so it surely makes sense to free up people who are working behind glass and are unable to provide that assistance—people who may not be as utilised, because fewer passengers are purchasing tickets in that manner. Those people can then go and assist the passengers who need that help the most, which is at the forefront of these changes.

I very much welcome the announcement that Gillingham and Rainham ticket offices will be kept open, and I pay tribute to the fantastic staff in Gillingham and Rainham. Across the board, constituents have raised with me the needs of an ageing population and the elderly. I accept the need for innovation and adaption, but whether it is banking or seeking repeat prescriptions, services are going online, and the elderly are finding it difficult to access face-to-face services. Regarding transport and getting advice and support at public train stations, can the Minister please ensure that face-to-face provision is always available for our elderly residents?

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I hope that these changes will lead to more face-to-face interaction, because those who work on the railway and provide such brilliant help, information and reassurance for passengers will be more likely to be in the places where those passengers are located. Southeastern is doing its consultation in stages—the current part is for the metro side of Southeastern, after which it will be rolled out further—but I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

My constituents and I are getting a bit fed up of everything being pushed online, because as we have heard today, it does not work for everyone. However, I want to ask the Minister what he is going to do to help operators deal with this change. Merseyrail, for example, does not accept tickets on phones, and there have been plenty of examples of people who bought through tickets online being fined because they have not been able to produce a physical ticket. Is the Minister going to do an assessment of operators’ capacity to deal with this issue and give them some financial support to make that change?

We will certainly be working with the train operators to ensure that passengers are not inconvenienced. As I mentioned, 43% of stations do not have ticket offices right now, and people still purchase their tickets and get on board. However, if members of the public are not able to purchase a ticket for whatever reason, including in stations that do not have a ticket office—perhaps because the machine is not operating—there will be a means to ensure that they are not inconvenienced. Obviously, the changes could be rolled out further, so I will make sure that train operators are fully geared towards that end, and that passengers are not inconvenienced in the manner that the hon. Gentleman has described. I give him that assurance.

Of course, it is always healthy to carry out a review to make positive change, but I have to say that I am deeply concerned to hear that Northern is considering closing the ticket offices in Keighley and Ilkley. I am yet to be convinced that these changes will have a positive impact on disabled passengers, elderly passengers, those with accessibility issues and of course those who want to carry out more complex transactions. One in six people carry out such transactions at those two stations—higher than the national average. Will the Minister meet me so that I can express my concerns, but will he also reiterate to the House that this is a consultation and that there is no done deal, and urge people to comment and give their views to the consultation?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I would certainly be delighted to meet him and any other hon. and right hon. Members who wish to meet me to discuss this issue. Again, let me set out the process, which has been triggered by the train operators setting out their plans. There is a period of time— 21 days—for members of the public to respond. There is then a 35-day period for the transport groups, London TravelWatch and Transport Focus, to assess what is being said at each station. If they are not convinced, they will work with the train operator, and if that mechanism cannot reach an agreement on these matters, it will go to its ultimate stage, which is with the Secretary of State.

Many Members have mentioned the impact on those with accessibility problems, and I would urge the Minister to take that into account. For my constituents in Edinburgh West, the closures announced by LNER, CrossCountry, Avanti West Coast and TransPennine all affect stations on the main line route. Can the Minister tell us how he is going to address the perception, which is growing, that people are not being encouraged on to public transport, and that accessibility to the south of the United Kingdom from Scotland, particularly from Edinburgh, is being undermined?

As part of this process, a number of stations will not be included. They tend to be bigger hub stations, as we call them, so Edinburgh is not included in that regard. I may be in danger of repeating myself, but the reason I sat down on the very first day this came up with those who represent disability and accessibility groups is that I was concerned they would feel that such a change may not be a positive for them. I wanted to work with them to understand how we can make this change positive, and how we can deploy more staff into the spaces where they will be able to access them more than they can right now. I continue to work with those groups, and I give the hon. Member the assurance that that process will remain. Of course, after the consultation and at the end point, all the current accessibility requirements will have to be met under these proposals, as they are under the existing set-up.