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Westminster Hall

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 19 July 2023

[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Universal Credit Deductions

It is a little warm in here today, so if Members want to remove their jackets, that is perfectly allowable.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of Universal Credit deductions.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. This is a matter of considerable interest and concern to me, as it will be to many other Members, each of whom will have busy caseloads from worried or despairing constituents, many of them describing how the universal credit system has worked for them or, more to the point, has abjectly failed to work for them.

In March last year and earlier this month, I questioned the Secretary of State on how many universal credit claims were having deductions taken from them in the most recent month for which data was available in each parliamentary constituency, what was the average size of sums deducted in each constituency, what was the total sum deducted from claims in each constituency, and what proportion of each sum was deducted to repay advance payments. The figures in the Scottish context were quite revealing to me. For example, I learned that in one month alone in 2021, 180,000 households in Scotland had an average of £60 deducted from their social security payments, and that between December 2022 and February 2023, the UK Government deducted £12.1 million a month from 206,000 Scottish households. The number of households affected by deductions and the sums being recouped seem to be increasing.

Those figures were disturbing but maybe not surprising. After all, last year the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I was then a member, published a report on the cost of living, which called on the Department for Work and Pensions to pause the deductions and restore them gradually only as the rate of inflation reduced, or when benefits had been increased to accurately reflect the rise in prices. The Government rejected the report’s recommendations, stating that pausing deductions is not

“necessarily in the claimant’s best interest.”

But claimants know that since then, inflation has remained very high, and the rise in the price of basic foodstuffs for the poorer has been ferocious. It is time to take a broader look at the problems with universal credit deductions. That is why I secured this debate.

I cannot tell my hon. Friend how many times a constituent has contacted me to tell me that, as a result of the universal credit calculation and payment cycle and the fact that their employment paydays are not exactly a month apart, they are trapped in an endless cycle of recalculation and financial hardship. Does he agree that it is clear the current assessment cycle is not fit for purpose?

I do agree, and I point my hon. Friend to the written answer I secured, which gives the statistics for every constituency in England, Wales and Scotland. She will see that the rate of deductions is around £60 in her constituency, but she will also notice that the number of households affected by deductions is increasing. She makes an important point about looking at an individual’s pay cycle and whether it is four-weekly or monthly.

Let us look at some examples of people affected by deductions. The Trussell Trust tells us that almost half of people referred to food banks in its network are subject to deductions from their benefit payments due to repayment of a benefit advance or a benefit overpayment. We will see that linkage repeatedly during the debate. The Trussell Trust goes on to remind us that

“The five-week wait for Universal Credit means many people have no choice but to take an Advance Payment to manage essential bills like rent and utilities”,

which immediately places them in debt and reduces their income below the standard allowance.

Deductions for overpayments, including tax credit overpayments, often take people by surprise because they are historical or are the result of DWP error. Like other deductions, they can be taken from people automatically at unaffordable rates. The standard allowance of universal credit does not provide enough income to cover the cost of life’s essentials, so any deduction taking people below that already low level will push them further into hardship. Key phrases are advance payments, overpayments that are historical or due to Department for Work and Pensions error, and the cost of living essentials. I will come back to each of those.

We then hear from the Trussell Trust about consequent mental health wellbeing, which is often impaired by people struggling to understand what they owe, and why, and how to access support. The Trussell Trust is not alone in making those observations. The organisation Feeding Britain has

“a vision of a UK where no one goes hungry”.

I should also mention Good Food Scotland, with which I do a lot of work in Glasgow South West.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter forward, and I will be making my own contribution to the debate. The Trussell Trust in Newtownards in my constituency was the first in Northern Ireland, and what it has to say about vision reinforces what the hon. Gentleman has said. According to Newtownards Trussell Trust,

“our vision is for a world where food banks, like ours, don’t need to exist.”

That is what we want to see, and I know the hon. Gentleman wants the same.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention. As he knows, he has relatives of mine among his constituents in Newtownards. He is absolutely correct about our vision: we all want to see a world in which food banks do not exist. I know he is very supportive of my Food Poverty Strategy Bill, which is a private Member’s Bill that I recommend to all hon. Members.

Feeding Britain has talked to many people who are having to go hungry. In the days leading up to the debate, food banks in Brighton, Derbyshire, Leeds and High Wycombe reported speaking to individuals who all cited deductions as a key reason for referrals to them, and described some harrowing cases. For example, a client in Chichester has some £55 a week to live on after deduction of rent and other deductions for advances and loans from universal credit. The client received no prior warning or notice of the deduction, and even her work coach was unable to explain why the deduction had been made. That client is a lone parent with three children. She is worried that even if the deduction is found to be a mistake, she will be waiting until the next payment to receive the money that was deducted.

Feeding Britain has also told us of a client in Manchester who had £72 deducted for rent arrears. The first he was made aware of that was three days before payment when he accessed his payment statement. Living off the standard universal credit allowance is difficult as it is, but so much being deducted with so little notice makes it almost impossible. The website states that universal credit will place a note on the journal when a third-party debt deduction is about to start, but no such information about the debts—how much was owed or how long the client would be paying off the debt—was provided in that example; there was not even a note telling them how further information could be obtained by telephone. The closing comment from the Manchester office was that

“the most efficient aspect of Universal Credit is debt retrieval”.

In the report “UK Poverty 2023: The essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK”, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights that key design features of the social security system, including having to wait five weeks for the first universal credit payment and universal credit being deducted to pay off debts and arrears, directly lead to higher food insecurity and have contributed to the rise in food banks.

The Child Poverty Action Group has shown that across the UK the number of children living in households with debt deductions being taken from their universal credit has risen to more than 2.2 million, making up more than half—53%—of all children in households receiving universal credit. Those families are missing out on an average of £73 a month as a result. Every commentator seems to express similar views on where the system is failing, and there is much commonality on where they think the appropriate solutions lie.

The use of a predominantly online system has led to many cases being raised with my office. In particular, vulnerable constituents without consistent internet access or phone credit may be unaware that they have been sanctioned until the payment is made because they are not able to access their journal. Have the hon. Member’s constituents experienced that? Does he agree that DWP’s communication needs to be improved?

Yes, I do agree. My hon. Friend is right again about the lack of information in journals. The example I gave of the individual in Manchester is typical of what happens to universal credit claimants who get caught up with deductions and other aspects of the social security system that I want to see resolved. The Government have recognised some of the problems and have reduced the rate of deductions by lowering the cap and extending repayment periods, but that is not enough; significant reductions to already low incomes remain, and there is no affordability assessment to ensure that people can afford the payments.

What action can we take? Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that support has eroded over decades, and that universal credit standard allowance is now at its lowest ever level as a proportion of average earnings. Together with the Trussell Trust, it is calling on the Government to implement an essentials guarantee to ensure that the basic rate of universal credit at least covers life’s essentials and that the support can never be pulled below that level.

Rather than offering one-off payments to shore up the incomes of struggling families, the UK Government should reverse the damaging policies impacting on our most vulnerable, including by reinstating the universal credit uplift of £25 a week, removing the benefit cap and the two-child limit, and halting punitive sanctions regime, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) outlined. In addition, the Scottish National party recommends that the Government immediately introduce an amnesty on deductions resulting from the Department of Work and Pensions’ own errors. Advance payment loans should be turned into non-repayable grants after a claimant has been deemed eligible, as the Work and Pensions Committee recommended in our report. Too often, we hear that advances are not loans, but if someone is paid money and is expected to pay it back, that is indeed a loan, not an advance.

We are also arguing for the cap on the monthly rate of deduction to be lowered, and for the widespread use of sanctions to be stopped, as there is clear evidence that they do not work. A London School of Economics study found that the impoverishment of larger low-income households has helped few parents to get a job, and is instead pushing families further into poverty and damaging their health.

I said at the start that I will intersperse my contribution with comments, examples and solutions from Scotland, so here are some. Social Security Scotland can take deductions from some benefits—the adult disability payment, the child disability payment and the Scottish child payment—to pay back an overpayment, but when overpayments occur, it engages with clients to discuss their circumstances and agree a payment plan that takes them into account. Its debt management strategy states:

“Where the repayment method is voluntary deductions from benefits, we will mutually agree a value with client as part of Affordability Assessment. Where enforced deductions are applied due to client not engaging with us to agree a payment plan, a maximum deduction of 10% of Scottish Benefit Entitlement will be applied unless the overpayment is due to Fraud, in which case a maximum of 15% will be applied.”

That social security philosophy and those actions work.

The Scottish National party believes that social security is an investment in the people of Scotland and a key part of the Scottish Government’s national mission to tackle child poverty. It continues to do everything it can with the limited powers and fixed budgets it receives from this place. That includes investing £5.2 billion in benefits expenditure in 2023-24, supporting more than 1 million people. I have stated clearly that we need to tackle child poverty. The Scottish Government’s tackling child poverty delivery plan estimates that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty this year, as a result of the policies of the Scottish Government. However, the Scottish Government should not have to pick up the broken pieces left by this place, or keep using their limited powers and fixed projects to mitigate damaging Conservative party policies.

With every day that this Government fail to fix the known problems of universal credit and the social security system, and fail to use their reserve powers to tackle the rising cost of living adequately, they demonstrate that independence is the only way for Scotland to boost incomes and build a fairer society. The rest of the United Kingdom needs to fix its broken social security system; Scotland is already determined to do so.

I remind Members that they need to be here for the full debate if they are going to take part. I was also going to ask Members to bob if they want to take part; I thank Members for doing that. I call Jim Shannon.

My goodness! Thank you, Dame Maria. That threw me off. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the second day running. It has come to the point when you and I are in Westminster Hall almost as much as each other. Well, maybe that is an exaggeration. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who rightly brought forward this topic. We met on the Terrace this morning and he said, “Jim, will you come and do your bit?” and I said, “Does the Pope have red socks? Absolutely, I will be there. There is no doubt about it.” I am here to endorse what he said. A person from the food bank wrote me a letter, and I will quote the best part of it. He illustrates very well what happens, and why it is important.

I can well remember the fear at the outset of universal credit—the fear that people would be worse off, and that families would struggle. Boy, do they struggle. I am sorry to say that, but they do, because I witness it every day. I witnessed it on Friday in my office, with a person who had the same problem with universal credit. We were able to sort it, by the way. I find it incredibly hard to understand how universal credit works, and I am far from stupid. Once through the technical details and the machinations of the whole thing, one has to ask, “How on earth does anybody follow this?”.

For some, this fear has become a real struggle, and the deductions from an already sub-par universal credit is enough to push some families over the edge. I have seen that in my constituency office. My staff have a continuously good relationship with the social security offices round the corner. I have to put on record that they are brilliant. The number of problems that they have sorted out when my staff speak to them illustrates that they have grasped how the system works and how to get through it, but the ordinary person cannot do that. I have struggled to understand it as well.

It should be remembered that those who are unemployed or unable to work have a set rate that remains pretty stable. However, self-employed people have different work weeks, and the flexibility that universal credit was supposed to offer has resulted in deductions from overpayments. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned that, and I endorse it. The deductions are so hard to work out that families are left not even understanding how they owe money. It is incomprehensible.

The Minister understands. I am no different from anybody else here. Whenever we approach the Minister and explain the issues, he always tries to respond in a positive fashion. I appreciate that, and want to put that on record, because it is good to have a Minister who really wants to do things and help out. We are all working in our constituencies, advocating for our constituents, and we know well the issues that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West outlined.

I was contacted last week by the phenomenal manager of the local food bank, a man with the largest heart for helping families and vulnerable individuals. I want to read out his comments, as time permits. My speech is his letter to me, because it illustrates the issue really well. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West has friends and relatives in Newtownards. I know them—and think they vote DUP, by the way, so maybe they are not nationalists.

I think they do; he does not know them as well as I do. The letter states:

“As a food bank operating in Newtownards, we are writing to you to raise our concerns about rising numbers of people in our community who are needing to turn to food banks, like ours, because they cannot afford the essentials we all need to survive.”

These are his words: “This is not right”. I say amen to that.

“In the last financial year we saw a 30% increase in clients coming to the Newtownards Foodbank compared to the previous year. We are aware that our summer has started really busily with an average of 24 different families attending each week since June in what is normally our quieter spell.

Many attendees are struggling with the inability to feed there families and provide fuel for their house needs. A significant proportion are actually working but their outgoings outstrip their income. Those on benefits clearly don’t get enough to match their basic needs.

While the cost of living crisis and the pandemic have placed additional pressures on incomes, this year’s rise is part of a longer-term trend in levels of need. Support has eroded over decades and the basic rate (‘standard allowance’) of universal credit is now at its lowest ever level as a proportion of average earnings. Alarmingly, the number of parcels provided this year is more than double the amount distributed five years ago.”

I will say that again, because that is an important line:

“Alarmingly, the number of parcels provided this year is more than double the amount distributed five years ago.

No one should be forced to turn to a food bank because they cannot afford essentials, including food. We provide immediate support to people in our community when they are struggling the most, but our vision is for a world where food banks, like ours, don’t need to exist.”

I said that in an intervention on the hon. Member for Glasgow South West. That is his vision, mine, the vision of every Opposition Member and, I hope, of the Minister. The letter also says:

“Research by the Trussell Trust shows that inadequate social security is the main driver of food bank need and there is a known link between issues with the benefits system and food bank use. This can and must change.

Alongside the Trussell Trust, we are calling for our social security system to Guarantee Our Essentials by making sure that the basic rate of Universal Credit is at least enough to afford the essentials we all need, such as food, energy and basic household goods – and that deductions can never pull people below this level.”

He asks me:

“Will you support the principle that, at a minimum, Universal Credit should always protect people from going without the essentials?”

That is Richard’s letter to me this week. I will say on the record that I fully support what he said.

My hon. Friend has succinctly summed up the issues in the letter from his constituent. Does he agree that faith-based food bank providers in my constituency, his and others are doing excellent work, and that most people in society, including universal credit recipients, support the principle of the universal credit system, which is to encourage people back into work? The problem is that when there are deductions, and almost a penalistic regime, people suffer. That problem must be solved in our society, because people are being driven further into poverty, rather than lifted out of it.

My hon. Friend has succinctly made his case in his intervention. The key issue for the Minister—this is from me, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, who set the scene very well, and, I suspect, everybody on the Opposition Benches—is that there is a delay in the system, and difficulty understanding the system. Whenever we go to the local office, the office manager and staff can respond, but there are many people other than those who come to us—and there are many who come to us, by the way; many come to the office with this issue, because they still cannot understand it. We are asking the Minister for the extra help that is quite clearly needed. There is also the five to six weeks’ delay that many people seem to have. Whenever they earn more money, they fall back down again. They are often sick, and their housing benefit is so complicated; it is almost hard to try to comprehend it.

The hon. Member has talked about budgeting. For many, short-term budgeting is a necessity. The housing element of universal credit is paid directly to claimants, not landlords, which contributes to an entirely foreseeable problem. Does he agree that, especially given soaring living costs, it would help claimants budget if we removed the direct payment of this element to claimants?

The hon. Lady has demonstrated clearly the complications of this system, and others will, too, because they have the same knowledge and interpretation of it as I have.

I will finish with this. My answer to Richard, the manager of the food bank, is clear: yes, I support what he said. I hope that his letter has clearly illustrated what is needed. Will the Government support that, make things easier for my constituents and do things differently? I hope that the answer to that is also yes; I am sure that it will be. Families—my constituents in Strangford, constituents across the whole of Northern Ireland, and constituents across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—must be able to depend on their Government, rather than their local food bank. That is my story today.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing a debate of such enormous importance to our constituents. It is good to see the Minister in his place. I hope that in his remarks he will do away with the prevarication and tired excuses that we so often hear from the Dispatch Box on this subject, and that he will have the courage to confront head-on the disastrous consequences of this Government’s cruel and pernicious benefits regime for millions of people across this country.

The design and roll-out of the universal credit system have proven to be a catastrophe for the worst-off in our society. In my constituency of Birkenhead, nearly 14,000 people are in receipt of universal credit. With the exception of housing, there is no issue that constituents come to me about as frequently as the inadequacy of universal credit payments during the cost of living crisis, the questionable and often downright wrong reasons for which deductions are made, and how the five-week wait is forcing many people even deeper into debt.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that this is a nationwide crisis. The basic level of universal credit now stands at its lowest level as a proportion of average earnings, and 90% of low-income households on universal credit are going without essentials. When we talk about people who have deductions made from their payments, it is important to acknowledge that most claimants struggle to survive even when they receive their payments in full.

We should also remember that a significant proportion —around 40%—of the people we are talking about are already in work. Although Ministers talk about deductions being a necessary incentive to ensure that claimants fulfil their obligations under the scheme, the vast majority of deductions are in fact debt repayments, either to the DWP or to third parties.

Universal credit deductions are now one of the leading causes of destitution in this country, and the most vulnerable are paying the price. Families with children, and families in which somebody is unable to work because of illness or disability, are significantly more likely to have deductions to their universal credit payments, and 2.2 million children are growing up in households in which deductions are routinely made from universal credit payments. Although it has been reported that the average reduction amounts to 15%, nearly half of all households with a deduction have over 20% of their basic allowance deducted.

Yesterday, I met Victoria Benson, chief executive of the charity Gingerbread, which provides invaluable support to single parents, to discuss the impact of the two-child limit and universal credit deductions on single-parent families. She explained that single parents are disproportionately over-represented among universal credit claimants. Some 70% of single-parent households are in receipt of universal credit, and that figure is likely to rise to 90% by the summer of next year as a result of the managed migration from legacy benefits.

The struggles of being a single parent—raising children on one’s own, trying to make ends meet and searching, often in vain, for affordable childcare—are very real. Now, many single parents are also forced to grapple with deductions that leave them with an uncertain income each month and unable to afford the essentials for either their children or themselves. The result is parents going without food so that their children can eat, and falling even deeper into debt.

We are all entitled to a basic level of comfort and dignity. If the universal credit system is not guaranteeing that to the millions of people who rely on it as a lifeline, it is simply not fit for purpose.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—sorry, the hon. Member, though I am sure he will be right hon. at some point—on securing it.

I did have a much longer speech. However, I cut it quite severely for this debate, thinking that there might be a mass of Conservative Back Benchers here to defend their Government’s policy. Clearly, I was mistaken. Given First Minister Mark Drakeford’s statement last night that Welsh Labour would oppose cuts and stoppages to universal credit, I had rather hoped to see a mass of Welsh Labour MPs here as well. I confess that cannot spot a single one, though I commend the three Labour Back Benchers who are present, and look forward to their speeches.

Arfon is one of the poorest constituencies in the UK, as the Minister will know, having stood against me there some time ago—but we will not go into that. For the poorest of the poor, the outlook is very bleak. In February this year, 4,500 people claimed universal credit in Arfon, and 2,100 of them, or 48%, were subject to deductions—nearly half of them. The average deduction was £59. The total deduction taken from the very poorest people in Arfon every month is £125,000; grossed up, that is £3 million a year. Every year, therefore, the poorest people in Arfon are returning £3 million to the Treasury. They cannot afford that. They are on universal credit—a sum assessed to be the very minimum needed to live. I could not live on universal credit, and certainly not on universal credit that is reduced by £59 every month. I have a straight yes/no question for the Minister: could he live on universal credit that has been cut every month by £59?

I did a surgery specifically on universal credit some time ago, and did a budgeting exercise with a constituent of mine from a housing estate on the very edge of town. She knew exactly how much she had to spend. There was nothing spare at all. Looking at the figures, I said, “ Look, you’ve got a pound spare.” She replied, “Once a week, I take the bus home with heavy shopping, rather than having to walk the whole way every time.” I do not know exactly how much I have to spend every month. Does the Minister know? My constituent did. She is an expert. It is unlike the picture that is often conveyed of people on universal credit—that they are somehow feckless.

In Wales, in February, 114,100 children lived in families who are on universal credit and paying deductions. The percentage of Welsh children in universal credit households paying deductions was 57%. Three of every five children are in families on universal credit living below the minimum sum assessed to meet their needs. That is the level of deprivation that the system causes. The Trussell Trust has been mentioned several times; it is no surprise that people on universal credit are being referred to its schemes in Wales. Over half of them are also paying deductions. It is quite clear from the evidence where the problem lies: with deductions for half of people on universal credit.

The monthly deduction from universal credit households with children in Wales was £4,208,000—over £50,496,000 every year. Wales is a poor country. Other parts of the UK are poor as well, such as north-east England and Merseyside, but I can say this for Wales as a Welsh MP: our poorest people cannot afford to lose £50 million in income every year. We cannot afford this Tory Government. Indeed, we need a coherent Welsh benefit system, among other things, starting of course with the devolution of benefits administration—that is my party’s policy.

On 24 April of this year, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), a very straightforward question:

“Have the two-child limit and the benefit cap increased child poverty?”—[Official Report, 24 April 2023; Vol. 731, c. 491.]

Now, I would imagine that most people here know the answer to that. The Under-Secretary of State, however, replied with 88 words of evasion but no answer. Put simply, that answer is of course, “Yes”.

The two-child limit affects nearly 19,000 families in Wales, and abolishing it would give each child an extra £3,235 every year. On a UK basis, it has been calculated that this change would cost £1.3 billion. To put that in perspective for hon. Members, the most valuable premier league squad is Manchester City, which is valued at £895 million. But let’s not be too ambitious! The fifth most valuable is Man United at £645 million; for the value of two Man United squads, we could take all of these children out of poverty. This Government will not do it, but for pity’s sake, what about the official Opposition angling to be the next Government? Are the lives of children blighted forever by poverty not worth two football teams? Would that not be better on day one of a new Government—better than scrambling to balance the Tories’ books?

The shadow Minister should consider the words of Raymond Williams, one of the giants of socialist thought in this country in the last century—although a member of my party, not his—who said something very striking, with which I will finish:

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

It is a real honour to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I thank my good friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for securing this important debate and for his excellent speech, and other hon. Members for their fantastic contributions.

The DWP has the power to make direct reductions from benefit payments to pay certain debts and costs owed by an individual. This can include money paid to the Government due to a benefit overpayment, or a loan to a third party such as a landlord, utility provider, local authority or the courts. It is worth noting that the majority of benefit deductions are for DWP debts, including those related to universal credit advance payments, overpayments and budgeting loans.

I want to draw attention to several factors of universal credit deductions that seem to be having an extremely negative impact on my Liverpool, West Derby constituents. First, many new universal credit claimants now take out an advance while they wait for their first payment, and the advance is usually recovered by deductions of equal instalments over a period of 24 months. The pain that our constituents are facing right across the UK has been outlined today, but taking out that advance payment seems to be actively encouraged by the DWP. Secondly, when someone moves on to universal credit, any outstanding tax credit debt is now transferred to the DWP, allowing it to recover the debt through any of the methods available to it, which are far more extensive than those available to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Universal credit rules allow the DWP to make deductions for overpayments caused by DWP error, which was not the case with legacy benefits.

A major area of concern with deductions is the basic premise of affordability. It is staggering that there is no requirement for the DWP to determine whether someone can actually afford a deduction, or to consider what that deduction would do to their and their family’s life. From the weekly emails I receive from desperate Liverpool, West Derby constituents, and from speaking to people in my surgeries, it is plainly clear that many simply cannot afford the deductions enforced on them The levels of universal credit deductions faced by far too many of my constituents, including extremely vulnerable people, are causing them to struggle to pay for essentials such as heating, fuel, food and toiletries—the very essentials of life. It is driving them into absolute, abject poverty.

At the mobile food pantry that we run in Liverpool West Derby every Friday with Fans Supporting Food Banks and St Andrew’s Community Network, I hear many stories of people being forced into using emergency food aid as a result of DWP deductions. This is replicated across the city at the other five services that we run, and the pattern repeats across the UK, as we have heard from Members today. The Government argue that their deductions can help claimants to better manage their finances, but in December 2022 the Trussell Trust reported that more than half of all universal credit claimants who experienced deductions in their benefits had one day when they could not afford to eat at all or only had one meal because they could not afford to buy enough food in the previous 30 days. We need to remember that we are the sixth richest country in the world, and to drive people into these circumstances is completely immoral.

The Trussell Trust highlighted new research showing that 47% of people referred to food banks had faced deductions to their or their partner’s benefits income to pay back a benefit advance, benefit overpayment, DWP loan, or any other debt or fine. That rose to 57% among those referred to food banks who were in receipt of universal credit. In its June 2023 report, “The welfare debt trap: Adjusting the level and priority of deductions from benefits to prevent hardship”, Citizens Advice found that the deductions have created hardship and are applied disproportionately to households in which someone has at least one long-term health condition or disability and to households with children, which are also more likely to have deductions applied at a higher level. Those people are the most vulnerable.

The current system of deductions clearly targets our most vulnerable citizens and is driving millions of people into poverty. It is supposed to be a safety net. Let us be crystal clear—amazing, I can see the Minister puffing his cheeks— that the current universal credit deductions system is not fit for purpose and needs fixing urgently. Where do we go from here? I urge the Minister to take the following measures into consideration for the benefit of the huge number of people, many extremely vulnerable, who are suffering as a consequence of these actions. The DWP must place affordability at the heart of deductions and prioritise the reduction of the total amount being deducted from households. At the heart of the calculations must be the basic human right every citizen should have: to be able to afford food, water, shelter, clothing and heating. The DWP must not be allowed to push people into abject poverty.

The Government must provide immediate breathing space for low-income households that are under extreme pressure due to the cost of living crisis. The priority order for deductions must be changed to put greater emphasis on debts where non-payment has the most serious consequences and less emphasis on debts to the Government. The Government must get serious about helping people not to accrue debts in the first place, especially through the use of advanced payments or loans. Deductions for overpayment owing to DWP error should not be made. Minister, my door is always open to discuss how a right to food could be implemented to tackle the scourge of food poverty, which we see across all our communities and have heard about so bleakly today. The ball is firmly in his court.

Thank you, Dame Maria, for allowing me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I want to congratulate my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), on securing this very important debate.

The UK is a country shamed by the poverty of millions of its people, yet this Government sadly seem endlessly able to find ways to penalise and humiliate people for being poor. There are 14.5 million people in this country living in poverty, with many of them claiming universal credit, and in the middle of a cost of living crisis, the DWP is making deductions from a staggering 45% of claimants. My constituents in Leicester East face deductions significantly above the national average. As we have heard, around half of the deductions imposed on claimants are for advanced payments, which they are forced to request because the universal credit system is constructed to deprive claimants—already in need—of support for at least the first five weeks following their claim.

A survey by the TUC found that 86% of universal credit claimants had been put into financial difficultly because of the mandatory waiting period. Those are figures from 2020, before the current cost of living crisis. Financial difficulty has caused “immense misery”, resulting in

“many being forced into debt, relying on food banks or going without food. Many said it had impacted their mental health through stress and anxiety and that they had felt degraded by the process.”

Claimants in need are then forced to pay back advance payments at a rate of up to a quarter of the already meagre support that they receive through universal credit, prolonging and intensifying their hardship. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West for tabling his important written question. In his answer, the Minister claimed that the payments are “not a debt”. The deduction at source from a paltry benefit—just £747 a month on average based on the figures provided by the Minister—certainly makes it look like a debt, handled in just the same way as debts to other bodies.

The Government appear to have decided to structure the benefit in that way with the help and for the convenience of the DWP, simply because they can, putting people into hardship. That is an act of class warfare and a clear abuse of power. Advance payment deductions amount to about half the total monthly deductions from universal credit payments, exposing the fundamental, structural unfairness and harshness of the universal credit system.

To make a bleak picture even worse, the data provided by the Minister in his 4 July response to the written question asked on 29 June 2023 by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West shows that the amounts deducted do not include sanctions under the draconian conditionality regime. In the same period as the one covered by the Minister’s response, the latest official statistics report that 6.18% of claimants were under sanction, with 44,000 new adverse sanction decisions in a single month and a year-on-year increase of 2.5%.

As well as the directly inflicted hardship of applied sanctions, just under a third of claimants are in conditionality regimes and under the threat of sanctions. The regime means that tens of thousands of people, already struggling, are facing unbearable hardship and the abject terror that they could suddenly become penniless. However, last year, the Government blocked the release of data from an academic study to find out whether such deductions were linked to ill health, poor mental health, suicide or attempted suicide, despite having previously promised to provide it.

The evils of the current system are clear and beyond any reasonable dispute. This is class war; it is neoliberalism writ large. The aim is to punish and control working-class families, targeting the most vulnerable through increased social and material losses. To coin the term of Friedrich Engels, it is actually “social murder”. Advance payments that have to be repaid—which are a debt, whether or not the Minister chooses to term them as such—must urgently be replaced for those in dire need and in destitution by a system of non-repayable grants, to alleviate at least some of the onerous burden that the Government have placed for too long on the shoulders of those least able to bear it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I thank my very good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for securing this timely debate. I say “timely” because it is almost a year to the day since I raised a similar issue in the Chamber. With that in mind, it is incredibly worrying that the situation outlined today has not improved. Instead, it has continued to spiral out of control, thanks to the British Government’s inaction.

I have listened with great interest to the contributions made this morning. Given the announcements this week, there is no better time to stress the damage that has been caused by this fatally flawed universal credit system. Last week, Citizens Advice published new data showing that families are operating in negative budgets, which means that their income no longer meets the basic costs of covering food, energy and housing. According to its latest analysis, two in 10 households have £100 or less after paying for monthly essentials, and of the 40,000 people who Citizens Advice sees with debt problems, over half cannot be helped, as they have already cut back so much on the bare essentials.

This all comes as a result of an austerity agenda pursued by the British Government—a Government who refuse to make the necessary change to universal credit deduction rules, despite households facing severe financial destitution and uncertainty. As we have heard today, the impact of deductions is significant and all the more pertinent to our constituents as they continue to be gripped by the cost of living crisis.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West said, the average Scottish household has had £59 deducted from their universal credit. In a cost of living crisis where every single penny counts, that is the difference between putting food on the table and having to go hungry. As he outlined, the deductions affect almost half of Scottish households on universal credit, with the DWP clawing back around £12 million a month. Nearly half of those deductions are to pay back universal credit advance payments because struggling households cannot wait five weeks for their first payment. This is a system that is fundamentally flawed.

It is therefore no surprise that since January this year, 60% of universal credit claimants whom citizens advice bureaux have helped with deductions have also required help accessing food bank or emergency charitable support. Trussell Trust data indicates that people with deductions were around twice as likely to go without food, toiletries and utilities as those on universal credit without deductions, and over two thirds of people in Scotland who were referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network in receipt of universal credit were facing a deduction.

Furthermore, the latest statistics from Citizens Advice show that, of the 84% of people who had their benefits deducted, 43% have had to borrow money to cover the essentials. In addition, the Child Poverty Action Group reported that more than 2.2 million children are living in households with debt deductions from their universal credit. I know from speaking to constituents in Parkhead, Shettleston and Tollcross that the uncertainty of how much a deduction is or when it will be taken causes significant and, most importantly, unnecessary hardship for claimants.

In their reports, charities refers to universal credit deductions as “wiping out people’s finances” and

“trapping them in a spiral of debt”.

“Trapping” and “spiralling” are words that I would never wish to associate with a social security system, yet the system that this Conservative Government have designed and presided over continues to push individuals into a never-ending cycle of debt and financial insecurity. As a number of Members have stressed, the British Government are subjecting vulnerable people to heinous deductions that push them into further debt and destitution. Debt, in and of itself, has a profound impact on the cost of living, and that is only exacerbated by this broken system, which is forcing people to make impossible choices that amount to their being unable to even meet the most basic needs.

When the root cause of the issue is poor system design, it is astounding that the Government continually refuse to make the necessary changes to rules around deductions. We are faced with a British Government in denial, who do not believe

“that pausing deductions by default is necessarily in the claimant’s best interest.”

What is it about being unable to afford basic food, buy household essentials or heat their home that is in the claimant’s best interests? People are already diverting limited resources towards debt repayments and that is only compounded by unexpected deductions.

Despite continued and constrained resources, the Scottish Government are doing what they can to mitigate the impact of this broken system, but the root cause undeniably starts here in Westminster. We know the Government can make solutions and immediate changes today that would make a huge difference to those struggling the most and make our constituents’ lives somewhat more manageable, as so many continue to face impossible household budget decisions. Those changes need to be made sooner rather than later, as millions face food insecurity, soaring debt and unnecessary hardship.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. We must ask the Minister to consider the need for some discussion between claimants and the DWP, particularly where the DWP’s own errors are causing the deduction. Does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a discussion about an affordability assessment between the claimant and DWP in future?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. When the permanent secretary of the DWP gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, I raised the issue of the recovery of some of the payments. The permanent secretary acknowledged at the time that despite the heavy-handed wording in the DWP’s letter, there was scope for a discussion between claimants and the Department. The fact that the Department has not been willing to amend the text of that rather hard-hitting letter makes the point.

We have a broken social security system that is perpetuated by the UK Government. Moreover, I say to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), that there is no point in his party winning the election and coming into Government but continuing the policies of this Government. He and his party should be thoroughly ashamed of being thirled to a two-child policy and an associated rape clause that is the very opposite of what the Labour party should stand for. The hon. Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) are good socialists who are appalled by the policy. If the hon. Member for Reading East wants to stand up and take the opportunity to apologise for his party pursuing a policy that is tantamount to social engineering, I will be happy to hear that. If he does not do so, my constituents will conclude that the only way to ensure we do not have disgraceful social security policies is with the powers of independence, because this lot clearly have nothing different to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing today’s debate. The issue of deductions is both incredibly important and sadly often neglected. We often discuss the adequacy of social security as if it were simply a matter of looking at the value of benefits, which has fallen in real terms since 2010 as a result of below-inflation uprating and freezes. However, that is only part of the story.

As we have heard today, we cannot assume that people are even getting the amounts set out in benefit rates. About 2 million households, or about 42%, on universal credit have their benefits reduced below the standard rates every month to repay debt to the Government. Deductions and debt to the Government are at a scale we have never seen before and have become a routine aspect of social security administration under the current Government, and I am afraid to say that that major change to the benefits system has largely escaped scrutiny.

The official Opposition are not opposed in principle to deductions, but the problem is the scale. There will probably always be a need for benefit deductions in social security. For a start, it is unlikely that any system will ever completely eliminate incorrect benefit payments, and taxpayers expect overpayments to be recovered wherever possible. There is also—views differ on this—a role for repayable loans to smooth out the pressure of unpredictable costs, as other hon. Members have said.

We need to recognise that deductions cause hardship for many families that, by definition, are on very low incomes. The Trussell Trust reports that 57% of universal credit households that use food banks face deductions—we have heard accounts of that today. Its evidence shows that 50% of people on universal credit with deductions have had more than one day in the previous month either having only one meal or having gone without eating altogether. That compares with 26% of those without deductions. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has shown that decisions particularly hit families with children and people with limited capability for work, more than half of whom face deductions.

There is little doubt that, in the middle of the worst cost of living crisis for decades, benefit deductions are pushing families that are already struggling into destitution, as hon. Members have said. I hope Members from across the House agree that, as far as possible, the Government should aim to minimise deductions, but unfortunately the opposite seems to be happening. Nearly half of all universal credit households face deductions each month, so we need to recognise that the system is not working as it should.

One of the main reasons for that is the timing of universal credit payments—a problem that the Government were repeatedly warned about at the design stage of UC. Families have to wait five weeks for their first universal credit payment, and somehow the Government persuaded themselves that that would not be a problem for the great majority of families claiming because they would have a pay packet or savings to tide them over. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, about 60% of people making new claims for universal credit have had to take out an advance, and as of February this year, 732,000 households were paying off new claims advances.

In addition, more than 900,000 universal credit families are facing deductions for budgeting advances. In other words, nearly one in five of all UC households have had to take out a loan to get through the month. We were promised that universal credit would deal much better with fluctuations in income and need than the benefits it replaced. The fact that so many people need to take out budgeting alternatives shows that that is unfortunately far from the case.

Although deductions may be a necessity, there is no excuse for using them as a default mechanism to deal with problems that the Government have failed to address. Ministers should be trying to minimise deductions by addressing those problems at source, but that is the opposite of what the Government have actually been doing. Where deductions are unavoidable, the Government need to manage them much more sensitively, as we have heard pleas for today, and take into account households’ circumstances.

Qualitative research by the Trussell Trust states:

“Many people who have experienced government debt repayments were not supported to understand the situation they were in”—

that is a crucial point.

“They didn’t know why the money was owed, they didn’t know how much they needed to repay, and they didn’t know how long the repayments were going to last. Of particular concern was that they also didn’t know what—if any—options or choices were available to them.”

Given that deductions cause genuine hardship for so many families, we should expect the DWP to adopt a high standard of customer service. It should proactively contact claimants—I hope the Minister will address that point—take into account affordability and ensure claimants are fully aware of the scale of debt and the options available to them, but improving customer service can go only so far. Debt and deductions are playing a much bigger role in social security than they have in the past, largely because of the failure of universal credit to live up to the claims that were made for it. We should not welcome that situation at the best of times, and certainly not in the middle of the worst cost of living crisis in a generation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—my good friend, and I apologise for calling him that, as I realise he will get some opprobrium for it, but we are friends, albeit our views differ—on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to answer on behalf of the Government.

We recognise the importance of supporting claimants to manage their financial obligations, and the deductions policy in universal credit provides a co-ordinated approach to providing that support. There is much that I want to address today, but I will start with the basics: employment is up, vacancies are down, economic inactivity is down and we are pleased to see that inflation has fallen today.

The Government believe that we should continue to have a sustainable, long-term approach to tackling poverty and supporting people on lower incomes. The primary aim of the universal credit deductions policy is to protect claimants by providing a last resort repayment method for arrears of essential services, and to ensure obligations are enforced. It is important to strike the right balance between ensuring protections are in place and allowing claimants to retain as much of their benefit as possible for their day-to-day needs, while understanding that although the taxpayer expects us to recover overpaid benefit debt, that must be done without causing undue hardship.

It is worth remembering that people who are on disability benefits and pensioners have never been more supported. Welfare has never been more supported. Colleagues will be aware that state pensions and benefits were uprated by 10.1% in April this year, the national living wage was increased by 9.7% to £10.42 an hour, and other support includes the energy price guarantee, the household support fund and the various cost of living payments, which I will go through in a little more detail. It is not right to look at universal credit through the prism of what it provides because, for those who require extra support, there are the cost of living payments—£94 billion over 2022-23 and 2023-24—as we continue our support for the most vulnerable households.

Over 8 million UK households on eligible means-tested benefits will receive additional cost of living payments totalling up to £900 in this fiscal year. The first £301 payment was made in April and May this year. Two further payments of £299 and, I believe, £300 will follow this autumn and in spring 2024. That is £900 additional support over and above the universal credit support that is provided.

In addition, 6.4 million people on eligible extra costs disability benefits have also recently received a further £150 disability cost of living payment. In 2023-24 we will spend £276 billion on Great Britain’s welfare system, including £124 billion on people of working age and children. Much criticism was made in the debate, which I have taken on board, but those sums have never been higher.

There is also approximately £30 billion for supported housing. Again, a criticism was made that we do not provide enough for that. I remind colleagues that 1.4% of GDP goes on supported housing. That is by a significant margin the largest sum in the OECD—the next highest is 0.9%. Those are the consequences of decisions made to support individuals on an ongoing basis.

Much was made of the deductions policy, which I will try to address.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) referred to the deductions and the data he had received for England, Scotland and Wales. He had asked for the same information on the deductions in Northern Ireland, but for whatever reason that was not available and I do not understand why. Can the Minister use his powers to enable us to have that data?

I can hardly turn down a man who ambushed me with cake not once but twice in Newtownards on my two visits to Northern Ireland. It was a pleasure to join the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues there. I saw not just a thriving business, but some of the difficulties and complexities of life in Newtownards and the work that he and the local support organisation to which he referred very favourably, and rightly so, are doing.

On the Northern Ireland statistics, I am 99% sure that those are due to the changes in Government and the current difficulties in relation to Stormont, but I will do everything I can. I will write to the hon. Gentleman individually—[Interruption.]—and to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, of course. I will probably refer the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland, with a view to ascertaining the specific data that he seeks. He will be aware that, as we discussed when I visited his beautiful constituency by the lough, I as the individual Minister do not control individual jobcentres or the policy in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of points, which, as he intervened on me, I will try to deal with. One of the points—a general criticism of the roll-out of universal credit—was also raised by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley). I respectfully reject that point. Disregarding what one thinks of this Government, under no circumstance could the legacy benefit system have coped with covid. Under no circumstance could it cope with and support the cost of living support that we are rolling out on an ongoing basis. Under no circumstance could it allow for the universal approach that we are able to manage because of universal credit. The hon. Member for Birkenhead has a very illustrious predecessor, to whom I send best wishes, because I know he is not in good health. Lord Field would very much have made the case that universal credit was the right thing to do and that it was right to reform, albeit that the roll-out has been a long-term situation.

The managed migration of tax credits was also discussed. With respect, that is an ongoing policy, and there is transitional protection for people moving from tax credits to universal credit. I respectfully invite colleagues to be aware that the migration is going well and that there are ongoing protections.

The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) raised many points. It is not really for me to get into the disastrous state of Labour policy, whether it is that of the Welsh First Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, colleagues on the Opposition Back Benches or the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who chose to present the Opposition’s policy. The best comment I heard was from the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), who has left—or perhaps the Labour party left her. She quoted Engels, and I think also Marx, in support of her policies. When Marx was talking about the division of labour, I did not know he was actually talking about the Opposition party. The long and short of it is that in Labour-run Wales employment is down, as compared with the rest of the country, where it is up. We could compare and contrast the health service in Wales and in England; the constituents of the hon. Member for Arfon, even on the Llŷn peninsula, are travelling to England for operations.

I believe that I have the time briefly to say that I remember well the summer of 2005, when the hon. Member for Arfon and I were both younger, fitter and probably better looking—[Interruption.] He did not have much hair even then, I have to say. We were both standing for the seat of Arfon and the Llŷn peninsula, as the constituency then was, I believe. The hon. Gentleman was exceptionally courteous to this young whippersnapper, who was representing the Welsh Conservative party, particularly when we attended a hustings event that was conducted entirely in Welsh. Although I can say diolch and many other things, can order two beers in Welsh, and have a mother who is a Llewellyn from the Tywi valley, it was an ordeal I will never forget: spending two hours conducting the whole meeting in Welsh, with some rather large headphones for the translation.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised affordability assessments. I will come to that, if he will bear with me, but it is unquestionably the case that changes have been made to the universal credit deductions policy following representations made by a Select Committee and others, and it is right that I try to explain where we are with that.

In April 2021, the cap on the standard deductions was reduced to 25% of a claimant’s universal credit standard allowance. That followed a reduction from 40% to 30% several years earlier. At the same time, we doubled the new claim advance repayment period to 24 months. The consequence of that was that hundreds of thousands of universal credit claimants retained more of their award. The reduction in standard cap was warmly welcomed, and we believe that it maintains the right balance.

Colleagues have raised many specifics about deductions, but one must remember, for example, that well over 150,000 individuals have child maintenance deducted in respect of children for whom they are responsible. I could add more detail about individual deductions and the different types of deduction, but the child maintenance deduction in particular is one that concerns the Department because it is the state’s obligation to ensure that parents are responsible to some degree for the children they have. Some of those deductions—well over £2 billion—are made in respect of child maintenance, and scrapping all deductions policy, which some have called for, would have a massive impact in that regard.

There are obviously budgeting advances, which help to finance intermittent or unforeseen expenses—for example, essential household items. Those advances ensure that low-income families with an emergency financial need who do not have access to adequate savings or a loan can access funding.

Several hon. Members have mentioned their food banks. I put on the record my support for the Miner’s Lamp food bank in Prudhoe, which I visited again recently and supported with a donation. In respect of loans, credit unions up and down the country are doing a fantastic job and should be supported by Members. I was proud to set up the Northumberland Community Bank, which is the fastest-growing credit union in the north. I am not involved with it now, which is probably why it is the fastest-growing credit union in the north, but it was very much set up with the Church of England and with local communities to try to provide low-cost savings and loans to support individuals and keep them out of potential difficulties.

We believe that we have reached the right balance on the level of deductions from benefits, but we are committed to supporting those who might be struggling. I want to try to address that situation. It was asserted by various colleagues that there is no fall-back position. I do not accept that. We strive to set affordable and sustainable repayment plans, and encourage customers to contact the Department if they are unable to afford the proposed repayment rate. When a customer makes contact, we might be able to reduce the rate of repayment or temporarily suspend repayment, depending on the customer’s financial circumstances.

The review period for customers with a negotiated affordable repayment rate has also been extended from six months to two years. However, customers may contact us at any time to renegotiate affordable repayment terms.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). The hon. Member for Reading East has had his say.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It is important that information is communicated slightly better to claimants. As an action point, will he undertake to go away and look at how information could be better cascaded to claimants so that they are aware that there is a bit more flexibility? I would appreciate that.

I certainly will do that, and I will also have a look at the individual letters that apply in those particular circumstances. All such letters, as the hon. Gentleman will know having done the pensions job for five long, lovely years, are kept under review, and there is the opportunity to do that.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) is no longer in her place—I know she has to be elsewhere—but she raised in particular the issue of access to a journal for those who do not have the internet. Again, we need to make it clear that, obviously, an individual claimant can attend a jobcentre, which has computers that claimants can use to access their universal credit claim and their individual journal, or they can speak to a member of staff who can support them through the process.

Bear with me. I might give way, but I am going to keep trying to make progress. The hon. Gentleman had 20 minutes and will have more time soon.

Much criticism was made of DWP staff, particularly by the hon. Member for Leicester East. She used various expressions that I utterly reject. I will not dignify them by repeating them, but I want to make it utterly clear that I am proud to work with the 25,000 men and women who work in our 700-plus jobcentres up and down the country. They do a fantastic job in trying to assist everybody. When she impugns the individual character of DWP staff, I am afraid she is utterly wrong. She should reflect on that and visit her local jobcentre.

No, I will not; I am so sorry. I do not think I want to dignify the hon. Lady with any further comment in this debate.

The practical reality of the situation is that we believe very strongly that individual claimants have the ability to receive support. I could go on about various points in respect of advances and the five-week wait. During their first assessment period, a new claimant can receive a payment up to the expected amount of their UC award, which can then be repaid over 24 months. It is not possible to make a payment as soon as a claim is made, and colleagues should understand that. The assessment period must run its course before the award of UC can be calculated. It would not be possible to accurately determine what a claimant’s entitlement will be in the month ahead. The process ensures that claimants are paid their correct entitlement, which is something we all wish to see, and prevents significant overpayments from occurring.

I welcome today’s debate, and I understand and share the concern of the hon. Member for Glasgow South West that we should ensure that we support the most vulnerable in society. I want to finish on a couple of key points. Much criticism is made of the situation in respect of long-standing poverty, but it is a long-standing principle of the Government that the most effective and sustainable way to tackle poverty is by supporting people into work and to progress. In 2021-22, working-age adults living in families in which all adults were working were seven times less likely than working-age adults in workless families to be in absolute poverty after housing costs, and we have made progress. In 2021-22, there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009-10, including 400,000 fewer children, with 1 million fewer workless households than in 2010.

Support exists on an ongoing basis and, as I say, there has never been a larger sum spent on those who are most vulnerable. The cost of living support continues into 2024, and I commend the Government’s approach to these issues.

I think the Minister said I had 20 minutes to sum up, but you might have something to say about that, Dame Maria. I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Arfon (Hywel Williams)—as I was reminded by him, he has a sophisticated electorate, given its electoral history—for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe). I also thank the Front Bench spokesmen.

I thank the Minister for his kind words in referring to me as his good friend—that will probably get me deselected during the summer when I seek to secure selection again. I also thank him for mentioning the great Frank Field. Frank was at an event in Parliament this week, alongside Feeding Britain and Good Food Scotland, and he told me that he agrees with me on universal credit deductions. I hope the Minister will take that on board.

In reply to the Minister, it starts with a five-week wait, and the Government will really have to deal with this situation whereby we are handing out loans. They are not advances; they are loans. I ask the Government to look at how quickly they can pay a benefit as soon as someone hits the eligibility criteria.

As the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) says, the real issue is the scale and the number of deductions now taking place. Like others, I ask the Minister to look at what happens when there is a departmental error. The Department really needs to look at the information that has been provided on the online journal and have that discussion. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is a good friend—that will not get him deselected—rightly said that the Minister said he would look at the communication. That also needs to be about the information given to claimants, and I ask him to look at that and come back to us. Affordability assessments should be standard practice.

The Minister did not address the crucial point: since the Government have eased the deductions and made their changes, there has been a cost of living crisis. That is why we are asking him and the Government to look again at easing the rate of deductions, which we think will help the situation.

Every single Member has spoken about food poverty and has given examples of how deductions are causing it. I am on a crusade—a mission—to end food poverty across these islands, which is why I have introduced a private Member’s Bill to that end. One way to end food poverty is to address the universal credit deduction situation. I hope that the Minister will do that during the summer, because if he does not, we will be coming back and having another debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of Universal Credit deductions.

HPV Vaccinations

I beg to move,

That this House has considered HPV vaccinations.

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I am also delighted to see the Minister. The subject of the debate is vaccination against the human papillomavirus. Unusually, both the Minister and I have seen HPV-related cancers, the destruction that the surgery to get rid of them does in providing a so-called cure, and how that often leaves patients. To be a little more positive, we have markedly moved our healthcare towards prevention. An increasingly vital arm of our preventive attack on various diseases must be vaccination. A vaccination strategy must focus not only on protection, but on elimination. For some diseases, we have been able to move towards elimination of the causative agent. That is the drive for me in this debate.

Vaccination has been around for a long time, ever since Dr Edward Jenner used the pus from a cowpox sore to inoculate an eight-year-old boy against smallpox in 1787—the first of thousands of people he and others inoculated and saved from smallpox that year. Millions upon millions have been inoculated since. I have no doubt that in this day and age, Dr Edward Jenner would have been up before the General Medical Council and struck off for recklessly endangering life, spreading disease and not following the guidance of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—I do not cross swords with it very often, but I have done so in the distant past. Since 1787, the development of vaccines has saved multiple millions of lives and stopped even more millions from various serious illnesses. The brilliant development and use of covid vaccines was a spectacular example of how far and how quickly we can progress.

I remember the mass inoculation programme against the polio epidemic from when I was a very small child. We saw polio spread through our community. If I remember correctly, the vaccination was a series of three injections in the upper arm using a syringe with a needle that was, in my view as a child, like a hollow 4-inch nail sharpened at the working end. It was plunged into my arm, reused after sterilisation and sharpened on a leather strop. It really hurt. Of course, the polio vaccine is now just a sugar cube carrying the vaccine, and kids love it. It has effectively wiped out polio in this country and most others. As we are all aware, there have been huge advances in the development, delivery and programming of vaccines, particularly for small children, who have been given huge protection against a variety of diseases. Over decades, vaccinators have had the chance to rid the world of some of these nasty diseases. Polio has been virtually eradicated. Apart from a few pockets in the world, yellow fever—a horrendous disease—has gone. Smallpox has gone. Measles went, but it has come back, because the vaccinations slipped.

I turn to HP viruses. They are a large family of viruses, at least two of which are downright dangerous to humans because they are causative agents of very many human cancers. They cause cervical, uterine and penile cancers and—in my professional area, which the Minister is aware of from her point of view—head and neck cancers. I point out my professional interest as a very part-time dentist. Head and neck cancers can be very hard to detect early and are frequently very destructive to treat. Surgery is frequently required. Such surgery commonly impairs normal living, such as eating, smiling and talking, and often physical appearance.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate; he is right to have done so. I know that the Minister will respond in a very positive fashion, as she always does. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government and the Minister must perhaps be clearer on why one dose is now needed, when parents in my constituency with a medical background tell me that one dose will not seal the vaccination? They are asking why covid boosters were essential, but this standard form of vaccination does not seem to be.

As ever with the hon. Member’s interventions—which are frequent, as we have noticed, and press releases must result from them—he raises an interesting point. I will touch on it as I move on.

As I said, head and neck cancers can be hard to detect early. They are destructive to treat. However, we have had a vaccine for some time. For many years, there has been an initially very successful UK campaign to vaccinate teenage girls, targeting protection against cervical cancer. As the Minister will be aware, various colleagues and I, along with various groups, ran a campaign to make the vaccine available for teenage boys as well. The vaccine has been given to young teenage boys and girls and is not in the package received by infants. To be successful, we can and must drive the virus out. To do that, we must obtain herd immunity, with an overwhelming majority of teenagers inoculated—90% is the minimum target—but that is not happening. In 2021-22, only 9.8% of year 8 boys in this country were fully vaccinated. The figure for girls is better, but it is still only 67.3%.

With experience from the covid vaccine, we now have a real opportunity to rid the country of this deadly virus through an effective, concerted campaign, as we did with covid. The scientists have helped and, as has been mentioned, the HPV vaccination initially required two spaced injections, which have now been reduced to one. They use modern, fine, sharp needles, unlike the needles I was used to, meaning an essentially painless application.

There are some hurdles. This is being given to young teenagers, preferably both boys and girls, but an isolated vaccination is unfortunately not part of the package of early year vaccinations. Because early HPV vaccinations were promoted as preventing cervical cancer, some groups wrongly saw them as promoting promiscuity. That could not be further from the truth. For that reason, in our next campaign we should tend to slant the promotion more to the prevention of death and disfiguration from head and neck cancers, as well as cervical and penile cancer.

The NHS developed IT systems on a personal, individual level over the covid campaign. Someone on the campaign list would get constant reminders to get the covid boosters; those reminders kept coming until they had got the boosters. The same could be applied to HPV, especially as teenagers’ lives are generally dominated by their phones. A vigorous campaign in schools would help, and pushing in GP practices so that parents got involved.

As someone born in New Zealand, it pains me to say that the Australians are driving for an HPV-free nation, and I have heard that the New Zealanders are following suit. The Aussies appear to be winning against the virus. They are on the edge of being below four cervical cancer cases per 100,000 annually. If the Australians can do it, we can darn well do it.

The consequences of removing this virus are enormous: saving lives, saving thousands from disfiguring and often debilitating surgery and, most importantly, saving vast sums from our precious health budget. Minister, let’s get on with it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for bringing this important issue to the Chamber today. I know that he has done a great deal of campaigning on this, particularly vaccination for boys, and that he has clinical experience. We have discussed this, as we have both seen at first hand the horrific effects of head, neck and oral cancers on individuals and the difficult treatments they have to undergo, including surgery and radiotherapy. People are often not aware that HPV vaccination relates to head and neck cancers as well as cervical cancer.

HPV causes about 99% of all cervical cancers, but thanks to our world-leading vaccination programme that protects girls and boys, we have seen an 87% reduction in cervical cancers in vaccinated women compared with previous generations. Our ambition is to work to eliminate cervical cancer, and the HPV vaccination programme is a key part of that, but we are also looking at the data on the impact on rates of head and neck cancers as well as other cancers. Vaccination is a game changer in preventing some cancers caused by HPV.

The UK was one of the first countries in the world to introduce an HPV vaccination programme, back in 2008. Since then, millions of vaccines have been delivered, stopping the transmission of HPV, protecting individuals and saving lives. The programme has been evolving and we have made a number of significant changes, including introducing more effective vaccines, reducing the number of injections required and making the programme universal; in 2019, it was offered to boys as well as girls. Those changes have further strengthened what was already a very successful programme, and it is a key priority for the Government to increase uptake rates of the vaccine to at least pre-pandemic levels. That is a good place to get to, but of course we want to go further if we can.

Although we are not back to pre-pandemic levels yet, we are seeing encouraging recovery among older school-age children, as those who missed their vaccination during the pandemic are being caught up with. The vaccine is mainly delivered by school-based vaccination teams, and this delivery model, in combination with alternative vaccination sites for those who are not in mainstream education, has been very successful in getting our uptake rates pretty high.

Pre-pandemic levels of vaccination were consistently high across the board. To try to get back to those levels, anyone who missed their immunisation for whatever reason will remain eligible until their 25th birthday. They can catch up via their schools, alternative sites such as community centres, and GP practices, so there is a range of routes through which a young person who missed their vaccination can still access it until they are 25.

There is a separate HPV programme for gay and bisexual men, who are also at risk from HPV. The JCVI advises that they are at an increased risk of the virus and its effects on particular cancers. That is why there is a separate programme available through specialist sexual health services and HIV clinics, and the vaccine can be accessed until a man’s 46th birthday. There are two separate programmes, with multiple ways in which people can get the vaccination, and we encourage them to do so.

We have raised the eligibility age over the course of the programme and offered the vaccine to boys as well as girls. Using recent evidence, we are able to compare pre-covid vaccination rates of girls, but we are not able to with boys, because they have only been offered the vaccine since 2019. We are looking at the data, which will take years to develop, on the effect of vaccinating boys on preventing cervical cancer in future partners and on other types of cancer caused by HPV.

We are now evolving how many doses we give. When the programme started, people were offered three doses. That has since been brought down to two doses, and from September this year, a single dose will be sufficient to vaccinate fully against HPV. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked how we can be sure that a single dose will be effective. The JCVI looked at the evidence and recommends a single dose. We know from vaccination rates that young people often come for one dose, but may not return for the second. If we are happy that a single dose is effective, that will get our vaccination rates up. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley highlighted the example of Australia, where a single-dose vaccine is used, with good success rates. The JCVI, the World Health Organisation and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies all recommend moving to a single dose, because the clinical evidence is that it is just as effective as two doses.

Moving to a single dose will allow our vaccination teams to focus on catching up with those who have not turned up for any vaccines. That is our key priority: reaching out to those groups that have not come forward, because of the implications of trying to prevent cancer in an individual and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley said, trying to capture the herd immunity effect. There may be some people who cannot have the vaccine for some reason. Getting as many people vaccinated as possible means we are reducing the risk of cancer when they are older.

I can reassure the hon. Member for Strangford that these changes are based on scientific review and advice from independent experts and the JCVI. They all aim to strengthen the programme further and ensure that more people have access to effective vaccines to prevent HPV infection and future cancers.

First, I welcome the Minister’s response, which is very positive. I mentioned people in my constituency who are medically qualified in their particular sector. They may not have all the evidence that the Minister referred to. Would the Minister please email me to let me know when that information will be available? Thank you.

Absolutely, we can send the hon. Gentleman the information provided by the JCVI on its recommendations. I think the hon. Gentleman also asked why it is a one-off and not a regular dose. The evidence and studies show that, when someone is vaccinated against HPV, the protection lasts for at least 12 years. It could well be longer but, because the programme is not that old, we have only that level of data. There is certainly at least 12 years of protection from that initial vaccination. We will send him that information; we quite rightly want people to be able to ask questions and be reassured by the evidence we are able to provide.

HPV vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways to protect people from both the infection and related cancers. We are keen to ensure that vaccination levels are as high as possible. Pre-pandemic, the programme reached 80% coverage for two doses. Those were good levels of protection that we would like to get back to, and then go higher. Covid-19 disrupted the roll-out, because young people were not able to go to school, and the vaccination teams were not able to roll out those programmes. Despite catch-up work and teams working extremely hard, we are seeing a decrease in uptake in vaccination. That is of concern because of the future implications.

We are committed to recovering the HPV programme back to pre-pandemic levels. We have seen some recovery when we have done catch-up work. To put it in context, HPV vaccine coverage decreased by 7% in year 8 girls, and 8.7% in year 8 boys. That is quite a significant drop. We have figures only for girls pre-pandemic, but these rates are about 18% lower than pre-pandemic coverage. That shows that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley is quite right to raise this issue, and that there is work to do. I am happy to commit to meeting with my counterpart in the Department for Education, the Minister for Schools, to see how much further we can go to support schools and make the vaccination roll-out more effective.

I will also meet with the screening team to see how we can drive up those rates further and whether we need better communication, for both young people and parents, about what a difference vaccination can make to a young person’s life. To a young person at school, cervical cancer or head and neck cancer seem a long way off, but vaccination is so important for the future, not just for them but for future partners. I commit to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley that we will do more to get those rates back up, because it is in the interests of young people.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the debate. I encourage him to keep holding our feet to the fire on this issue, because it is important that it does not drop off the radar. He was quite right to raise the issue of the covid vaccination. We have been extremely successful as a country, particularly in the initial roll-outs, in vaccinating the whole country at 12-weekly intervals and then with ongoing booster programmes for vulnerable people in the community. We do well with our flu vaccine roll- outs as well. We need to put this programme on a par with other vaccination programmes and I am keen to make progress.

I commit to working with my DFE counterparts and raising the profile of how important the HPV vaccination programme is. I commend my hon. Friend for all his work in this area, particularly his clinical work. He has picked up head and neck cancers at an early stage, and people will have benefited from his clinical expertise. The ideal is for them not to develop that cancer in the first place, and that is where we all want to get to. We are committed to increasing the uptake of the vaccination across all eligible groups, and I will keep the House updated on our progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Planning and Solar Farms

[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered planning and solar farms.

Today I would like to shed light on an issue that has the potential to have a significant adverse effect on the constituents I represent in Sleaford and North Hykeham. I am concerned about the industrialisation of our countryside through large-scale solar farms. Solar power does have its merits in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the transition to a sustainable future. However, while acknowledging the merits of solar farms, it is also essential that I address the concerns that have quite rightly been raised by my constituents. Some of the solar farms proposed in my constituency would dramatically alter the landscape for the worse, shattering the character of what is not only beautiful countryside but highly productive arable land.

Rural constituencies such as mine have been plagued by applications for large solar farms. As I am sure is the case for many of my hon. Friends, my inbox is often filled with passionate pleas from constituents whose homes, and sometimes their entire villages, would be surrounded by a sea of solar panels. Not only will the landscapes they love and cherish be destroyed, but in many cases, it seems, people lack any effective means to stop such plans. It is a core tenet of our democracy that we listen to the voices of our communities and address their concerns. Transparency and an inclusive consultation process are key to fostering a sense of ownership and ensuring that those affected are heard and their concerns are addressed. Sadly, the consultation process for some solar farms has fallen short of expectations and failed to engage adequately with the affected communities.

The Government have produced plans to reach net zero and create sustainable and reliable energy production —for example, yesterday my hon. Friend the Minister announced plans to expand British nuclear. It is estimated by the Government that we will need to need use 0.5% of land to meet the solar panel target, but it is also estimated that 600,000 acres of south-facing industrial roof space is currently unused, and I do not believe that the Government anticipated all the panels being in Lincolnshire, or would wish for such an outcome.

There are essentially three ways to gain permission to build solar panels. The first is through permitted development rights. Planning permission is not usually needed for up to 50 kW on a domestic roof, or for up to 1 MW on a commercial roof. Between February and April this year, the Government consulted on expanding the permitted development rights for commercial installations—for example, on the roof of a warehouse. The consultation proposed removing the current threshold of 1 MW, as well as expanding rights for solar canopies on non-domestic car parks. That would liberate smaller developments that do not destroy the character of the countryside. The Government have not yet responded to the consultation, but the “Power Up Britain” document said that they would amend the relevant regulations by the end of the year, and I would appreciate an update from the Minister on when he intends to do so.

The second mechanism is for mid-scale farms that do not have permitted development rights but fall below 50 MW. These are applied for using local planning authorities—essentially, elected local councils. The planning guidance says that local planning authorities should consider the site, size, colour and design of solar panels, their visual impact, the effects of glint and glare, the need for renewable energy not to automatically override environmental protections and, pertinently, the cumulative impact of solar panels on local amenities and landscapes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the point about local planning authorities having the power to look at and consider individual planning applications for solar farms under a certain size, does she agree that there is potentially an effective way forward here, which is for local authorities to introduce their own planning policy frameworks for solar farms to allow them to have local discretion to look at certain local circumstances that may exist in the national guidance?

My hon. Friend is right, but as I will come to later, where such frameworks are produced, they are being circumnavigated using the nationally significant infrastructure project process to avoid local community engagement.

The NSIP process is final way that planning can be attained for large-scale solar farms. According to part 3 of the Planning Act 2008, solar farms with a generating capacity above 50 MW are considered NSIPs. These are not decided locally; they are decided by the Secretary of State. NSIP applications, if successful, can contain an element of compulsory purchase orders, and from speaking to constituents, I am aware that some landowners feel intimidated by this fact. When they are being produced by a plethora of people prospecting and asking them to rent their land, they worry that if they do not comply, they will lose their land to compulsory purchase orders. The Government must address this.

There is a problem in Suffolk with solar farms being proposed, but very few of them have used that final mechanism that my hon. Friend has outlined. In a lot of cases I can think of in my constituency in mid-Suffolk, it has been down to the discretion of the local planning authority to examine on their merits. The lack of a local framework against which the planning authority judges these applications means that the developer is empowered and local communities are disempowered, and unfortunately a number of applications have gone through. Will she join me in pushing this issue with the Minister?

My hon. Friend is right that if these applications are of the size decided by local authorities, a local plan in place can enable a local authority to made decisions based on what it wants locally, rather than what it is told to do. My hon. Friend is right that a local plan can be very helpful when dealing with a smaller application.

I was informed yesterday that there are 12 NSIP applications currently in process in Lincolnshire for large solar farms, including Beacon Fen, Springwell, Heckington Fen and Fosse Green Energy, which all appear in my constituency. I am also reliably informed that there are a further two NSIP solar applications in the pipeline for North Kesteven. However, it is notable that as of yesterday there is only one small-scale application to our local council. The Government need to reflect on why they have created a planning system for solar panels that drives applications off the NSIP scale, as we have so many NSIPs in Lincolnshire and so few small applications.

As we have just heard, through NSIPs, local people have decision-making power taken away from them rather than given to them. The upgrade of substations on the electrical network, such as the ones in Navenby, should be a positive enhancement to local infrastructure, but in practice it has acted as a magnet for speculators seeking to cash in. Where substations have been upgraded, we get a cluster of large solar farm applications near to them, as it is cheaper for the companies that want to build them. As a result, instead of a large number of small, low-impact solar farms, we get a small number of gigantic industrial farms, which utterly ruin the landscape, in some cases choking entire villages of potential future expansion and turning what has traditionally been a food-producing haven into a vast glimmering desert.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On her point about food-producing land, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is just finishing a food security inquiry, and one of the key areas we looked at was land use. Solar has a big part to play in our energy mix, but we must be careful of the unintended consequences of taking prime food-producing land and the greenbelt out and replacing it with these installations. It is similar to the trees debate: we must have the right trees in the right places. We should have the right solar panels in the right places. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are right places to put them, including the many roofs across the country, and not least those on agricultural buildings?

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. In some respects, he has paraphrased my speech into a few sentences very eloquently, so I thank him. I ask the Minister to ensure that when the Government improve infrastructure they do not destroy the countryside in the process. The scale of these applications is quite difficult to imagine from a map alone, though I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has brought a map with him today. Each covers around 2,000 or more acres—that is just over 3 square miles. Some of these NSIP applications are larger than that, sometimes substantially.

I would also like to raise the threat of glint and glare from light reflecting off solar panels. In Lincolnshire this is especially significant due to the presence of the RAF. The Red Arrows operate from RAF Waddington, which sits on the edge of my constituency. The limestone cliff top means that the Fosse Way site that is being proposed will be an especially visible eyesore from across the constituency. Many of my constituents choose to live in a rural setting because of the superb views, which solar farms threaten to spoil entirely. The impact will also extend to house prices. Many of my constituents fear that houses with unburdened views will sell for much more, leaving residents individually out of pocket as well.

Before my hon. Friend moves to her next incisive and powerful point, I wonder whether she might recognise, given her expertise in this field, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) said, that arable land available to grow the food that we need to be secure is at its lowest level since 1945 and is being lost at around 100,000 acres a year; we lost over 750,000 acres in the 10 years to 2019. We cannot have it both ways: either we have food security from the production of domestically produced foodstuffs or we give up land for solar and onshore wind.

As ever, my right hon. Friend is right and has read my mind—I was going to move on to talk about food production.

I am particularly concerned about the use of good agricultural land because farming is a cornerstone of my constituency. It does not just form the backbone of the economy in my constituency, but it has evolved to underpin the area’s very culture. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have revealed the fragility of the global food market, so it is more important than ever that we make strides towards becoming agriculturally self-sufficient.

I am informed by the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership that Lincolnshire alone produces 30% of the UK’s vegetables and 18% of its poultry, and is responsible for 12% of the country’s total food production—all from a county covering less than 3% of the UK’s land mass. Lincolnshire, without a doubt, has some of the UK’s best and most versatile farmland, yet it seems to be particularly targeted by large solar farms.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) is not able to take part in this debate today, but she told me that she has similar issues in her constituency, and is particularly aggrieved by the loss of good agricultural land. I am aware of the concerns of Members of the House of Lords, too, including Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who told me of his concerns about the use of good-quality agricultural land local to him for solar farms.

My hon. Friend is quite right. The national planning policy framework has a presumption against the use of good quality agricultural land, but that is not the problem—3a land is exempt from solar. The problem is slightly less good quality land, 3b in particular. In the old days the Government said solar was banned from 3b, but they have now changed their mind and are allowing 3b to be used. It is slightly less than good land that we are looking at.

My hon. Friend is right. However, what I have seen across local applications is that in some cases the application does contain land that is of a higher grade, but two things are happening. One is that the companies tell me they are going to re-analyse the land to check that it really is of that grade. After all, it might be of a much lower grade if they re-test it. The fact that they are marking their own homework concerns me as well. Secondly, speculators have explained to me that they are told that if their application contains mostly lower grade land, and they have demonstrated that there is no other land locally that they can use or is available to them, or that it is in a corner or surrounded by panels, they can use the higher grade land, too. So it is not just land below grade 3a that is at threat.

The Heckington solar farm in North Kesteven promises to power 100,000 homes, but there are only 45,000 homes in the entire area of North Kesteven. It is unfair to expect that area, which already punches well above its weight in food production, to also provide much more than its fair share of electricity. After all, the National Farmers Union estimates that the total land use for solar farms at present is no more than 20,000 hectares. If the 12 proposed farms in Lincolnshire all went ahead, they would cover 9,109 hectares, increasing the land used in the whole country by almost 50%.

The impression is given by some—this comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray)—that class 3b land is not particularly good for farming, but that is not true because 3b land can support a wide variety of crops. In Lincolnshire such land is often flat, relatively easy to cultivate and accessible by roads. As we face continual food inflation and a growing global population—by over 40 million so far this year—that land is needed more than ever. Now is not the time to be increasing our carbon footprint by importing yet more food.

An argument I have heard in favour of large solar farms is that they are occasionally used for grazing sheep or beekeeping, but I am concerned that those are mere token gestures that do not compensate for the damage done to the wider environment. Transitory animals such as deer have their routes blocked; that would not be such a problem if a solar farm covered only one field, but one proposed site in my patch covers 1,400 hectares or 5.4 square miles. Birds and bats that mistake glass for water can be killed when they land on the hot panels. Worst of all, the presence of solar panels limits the potential for biodiversity due to the persistent shadow cast and the set channels created by rain water run-off without proper dispersal.

I am not against solar power in principle, but I am desperately concerned that the character of our beautiful countryside could be completely altered by continual rows of glass panels, sometimes stretching for miles and miles. I am also concerned for my constituents, who did not seem to have been given an adequate say in projects that ultimately affect them the most. There is a great deal that we can do to transition to green energy, but surely there is a better alternative to industrialising our countryside.

In the UK, 600,000 acres of south-facing industrial roof space is currently unused. Prioritising industrial, residential and brownfield land for solar farms is a step in the right direction. The large Bentley factory in Crewe, its roofs coated in solar panels, is a brilliant example. It produces an average of 75% of Bentley’s daytime electricity demands—equivalent to demand from more than 2,300 homes—a year, all without using as much as a square metre of productive and beautiful agricultural land.

It is perhaps fitting that the proposal near Aubourn and Thorpe on the Hill looks like someone standing and throwing a shot putt, since it will drive a wrecking ball through the area if Ministers do not stop these applications going ahead.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for securing this important debate.

It is really good that the issue of solar farms and planning has been raised. It is obvious to us all that we have to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy; nobody would demur from that. As well as the environmental benefit of saving the planet, renewable energy also has the advantage of cutting people’s bills, and again nobody would argue against that.

The hon. Lady said that it can sometimes feel like all the solar panels in the country are in her Lincolnshire constituency, but I assure her that that is not correct: we have stacks of them in my part of Devon. The small parish of Hawkchurch, a village in my constituency that borders Dorset and Somerset, is already home to more than 100 acres of fsolar arms.

Although I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is advocating passionately for his constituency, I must point out that more than 50% of land nationally with proposed solar plants is in Lincolnshire, Leicester and Rutland, so we are disproportionately at threat.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. We have heard that nationally there are 600,000 acres of roof space on which solar panels can be put. That is an excellent point to make. Certainly, for some of my constituents, it can feel like the solar panels are concentrated in some small areas.

When approval is sought for renewable energy projects—not just solar but onshore wind—they can hit a roadblock and get stuck in limbo. That is why this process can drag on and become a real scourge on our communities, as the developers and the local people battle it out.

Anyone buying a new Ordnance Survey map today will see something they would not have found 20 years ago: many new solar farms. I am not a big fan of the term “solar farm”, because to me a farm is for producing food, not electricity. Solar and wind are two of the quickest and cheapest forms of sustainable energy. If we are to reach net zero, we need a joined-up plan for connecting our existing power grid to renewable sources of energy. Solar accounts for just 5% of total electricity output, compared with about 27% for wind.

Between them, the solar schemes awaiting construction would generate 15,000 MW per day, which is enough to power 1.9 million homes. An enormous number of solar schemes are in the planning stage but have not yet been approved, and some of them could affect people in my part of the world. One enormous solar farm between Talaton and Whimple, near my constituency, would power 12,000 homes.

As people increasingly transition from heating their homes with oil to heating them with electricity, we need to think about not only power generation but insulation. In 2012, the Government were insulating 2.3 million homes per year, whereas now they insulate fewer than 100,000 homes per year. Let us think about not only how we can generate more but how we can conserve electricity.

Two of the main challenges in respect of advancing plans for solar are, first, how we plug into the national grid and, secondly, how we address the concerns of local communities. I hear the point about how prized agricultural land can appear to be lost under solar panels. The effect on local communities relates not only to the site—people sometimes get a little bound up with what solar panels look like—but to the sustained level of heavy goods vehicle traffic, because a lot of traffic goes back and forth to maintain the panels. We have to properly address local communities’ concerns to ensure that we do not hold up all solar panels and all solar renewable energy in this country.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s extremely interesting speech. Will he clarify whether the Liberal Democrats in general are, and he in particular is, in favour of solar panels on agricultural land or opposed to them?

The Liberal Democrats in general are, and I in particular am, very much in favour of renewable energy, and I am happy to put that on the record. On solar in particular, some of the proposals for solar farms, as they are called, are too large; we need to distribute and disperse such renewable energy projects so that they do not take up vast tracts of land, as they do in my constituency.

I was going to ask the same question as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray). To clarify further, is the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) saying that he is against large solar developments on prime land? Or is he is saying that he wants many more of them and for them to be spread, meaning he would presumably like many more applications, in many more places, for smaller solar farms that eat up agricultural land?

I am certainly in favour of more and more distributed solar energy generation. I am not in favour of some of the enormous solar complexes, including in my part of Devon, where an enormous amount is foisted on sometimes very small communities.

I am sorry to keep pressing the point, because I am using up the hon. Gentleman’s time. Am I right in thinking that he is talking about a great many more solar farms, albeit smaller ones? If so, will he send a message to Devon County Council that he would welcome a large number of smaller—up to 200 acres, perhaps—solar farms in his constituency, rather than the bigger ones that the county proposed? Is that what he is saying?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for again seeking clarification. I will not be writing to Devon County Council, because that is not the local authority charged with planning, but certainly the local authorities in my patch that are charged with planning know that, in general terms, I am in favour of renewable energy generation, but that I am not in favour of the concentration of solar farms that we are seeing in particular parts of my patch.

My final point is that we need to think about the lifespan of these projects in the planning process. We are seeing enormous technological development. Solar photovoltaics and battery technology have moved on staggeringly in recent decades. We must not handcuff ourselves to technology that becomes out of date very quickly; instead, we must ensure that when these things are built at a small scale, they use the latest technology and are built in such a way that, if new technology comes along, we can retrofit to ensure that our methods are the most efficient means of producing renewable electricity possible.

In summary, if we are going to invest in schemes such as solar farms, their lifespans must not be too long and we need sustainable renewable energy solutions that work with farmers and local communities so that we can take people with us.

Everyone is in favour of renewable energy and there is no harm in having some solar farms; the problem is the sheer scale in Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. Ten thousand acres of applications ring the small town of Gainsborough, and are marked on the map in the red and black. This is ludicrous overdevelopment. To distribute, say, 1,000 acres —that is the offer—in a large rural district such as West Lindsey, covering perhaps up to 600 square miles, would be reasonable, but 10,000 acres ringing one town is just ridiculous overdevelopment.

The point I want to make is that when it comes to a public inquiry—and there should be a public inquiry—the applications must be taken as one, because developers are trying to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, they say that these solar farms are nationally significant infrastructure projects. They say that simply because they want to bypass local opinion—that is the only reason. They want to bypass the whole planning process. They say that they are nationally significant infrastructure projects and therefore must be considered by Whitehall rather than by the local authority. That is their point of view, although when Tony Blair brought in the new planning system, it was designed for nuclear power stations, not for one little company making numerous applications and subverting the local planning process.

On the other hand—this is where the devil comes into all this—the developers are dividing the projects into separate applications. One of my constituents noticed that some developers submit multiple applications, but under the same project management team. All three of the developers in our part of England use the same law firm. When the Department considers such applications, it must consolidate them into one and look at them as a whole. I do not think any fair public inquiry would allow development on 10,000 acres ringing one town, as long as the applications were consolidated into one. But they are trying to pick us off one by one.

We all know that if the applications were approved, thousands of acres of good farmland would be lost. This is at a time when food distribution networks worldwide have been turned upside down by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Even this week, since the latest attack on the Crimean bridge, Russia has said that it is suspending the agreement to allow grain to be exported through the Black sea. Our own national planning policy framework presumes against the approval of applications that would build on highly graded agricultural land; that is because Britain’s food security is of the utmost importance.

I am sure that when the Minister responds to the debate he will say that we do not want to build solar panels on good agricultural land. We all know that the protection applies to land grades 1, 2 and 3a, but we must extend the exemption to 3b as well. Talk to any farmer in Lincolnshire—my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) is married to a farmer, so she knows this issue more than anyone else—and they will say that the quality of land is all much the same for wheat, grain and barley. Any farmer will say that. Solar companies are trying to conduct so-called analysis of the land to prove that it is 3b when no one in the past has cared whether it is 3a or 3b. The whole thing is a con and a cheat.

It is worrying that there is some evidence that some of these companies have Chinese backing. All this stuff is made in China. What are we playing at? Opposition to the projects is both broad and deep. I have had objections from the parish councils of Brampton, Brattleby, Broxholme, Burton, Cammeringham, Fillingham, Glentworth, Ingham, Kexby, Knaith, Marton and Gate Burton, Saxilby with Ingleby, Scampton, Springthorpe, Stow, Sturton by Stow, Upton and Willingham.

Consider the visual impact. Look at the cliff that runs all the way down the centre of Lincolnshire. If all the applications are granted, anyone looking from the cliff will see a sea of black. Instead of seeing unique farmland stretching away to the Trent, perhaps all the way to the Pennines, there will be a sea of black. The developers have offered almost nothing in community gain. We have heard all about the threat to good usable farmland. Building solar farms on that land undermines farming as a profession and the agricultural sector as a whole. Farming is a challenging, all-consuming and difficult calling in life. It is incredibly rewarding for those involved in it, and absolutely necessary for the lifeblood of the country.

As we have heard, Lincolnshire is the breadbasket of England, and we would like it to stay that way. Covering 10,000 acres around one town is not the way to do that. The land covered by the applications I have talked about could feed two cities the size of Hull for a year. The panels would stand 4.7 metres tall. I have known tenant farmers, whose families have been farming 200 or 300 acres for 200 years, who will be thrown off their land. They have absolutely no rights: the landowners can come in and throw them off the land they have been farming for generations.

Who gets all the benefits? I have nothing against large landowners. Unfortunately, I am not one myself; I would love to be a large landowner. We have many large landowners in Lincolnshire. To be fair to them, they are good people. They are already quite well off, but they are going to get fantastic rewards. The rewards that landowners get are staggering.

The situation may vary for different landowners. I have talked to those in my constituency—that does not include my husband because, although he is a farmer, he is not planning a solar farm, or at least not to my knowledge—and the amount offered is more than they would get for farming the land. It takes out the risk of things such as bad weather. Equally, the difference after tax is not so great. In fact, the money is going to the speculating companies—the prospectors who approach landowners to rent the land from them.

I am worried about where those companies come from. This has all grown up very suddenly and they have huge financial resources. I suspect that they are not very interested in Lincolnshire; they are based in London. They are a group of entrepreneurs who are going to make shedloads of money and then sell the planning application on. They do not care a damn about us.

When I became the Energy Minister, I assumed that the renewable industry would be full of people like Richard Briers of the Good family. Remember the Goods in “The Good Life”? They were people interested in keeping goats in their garden and doing a lot of composting. In fact, they were the kind of people who drove flashy sportscars and had been selling double glazing the week before. It is clear that this is not about the environment and renewable energy; it is about getting rich quick.

In that brief period of the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), tried to change the definition to include 3b land. A huge mountain of well-funded lobbying money was put in immediately to frustrate the whole process. Make no mistake: this is not about the countryside and it is not about producing green energy in the right controlled way. It is about money. Some people are going to get very rich indeed.

Solar power has a vital part to play, but solar panels belong in moderate amounts—perhaps—on poor agricultural land, atop buildings and on brownfield sites, not on good farmland. Put them on top of large logistics centres at the side of motorways. Sit them on top of factories and industrial buildings. Put them on schools and houses, by all means, but good land needs to be kept in agricultural use.

I commend the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for securing the debate and the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. In Northern Ireland, there are examples of solar farms being integrated into small farms where sheep are able to graze. There are a couple of examples of that in my constituency. Solar farms have been agreed to in places where there is industrial land with which it has not been possible to do anything. That land might have been corroded by lead mines or something like that. Those are the best places for solar farms. Productive land should be kept for farming, as the Ulster Farmers’ Union wants.

Industry always responds to subsidies. I cannot understand why the Government do not create a new subsidy regime whereby if someone builds a massive warehouse, it is in their benefit to put a solar panel on top of it. That is something the Government could do. Let us keep solar panels off good agricultural land, and let us have them in proportion. I hope the Minister will respond positively to this important debate.

I might come across as taking a slightly different view, but that is absolutely not why I am here. I represent a beautiful part of the world. There is not a massive amount of housing going on in my part of the world, and there is not a huge population. There is a huge amount of countryside. There is lots of farmland, and it is very productive land. Natural England—God bless it—has just taken a huge amount of farmland out of production for a site of special scientific interest. We must recognise that the land squeeze is not just about renewable energy.

I come at the issue from a different angle, in that the reform of policy allows us, as we have just heard, to get solar in the right place, deliver the right thing for our communities and address the cost of energy and the pressure on energy security. To give some context, the size of the prize, as we heard in the Chris Skidmore “Mission Zero” report on the upside opportunity of net zero, is likely to be over £1 trillion by the 2030s. That is a generational economic growth opportunity in relation to renewable energy. The downside risk, stemming from current issues in the UK planning grid and the wider investment climate, is potentially £62 billion of missed investment in the same period. That is not £62 billion-worth of solar farms all over our beautiful green and pleasant countryside. It is about having that £62 billion of investment in the right place. I will touch on that later.

The risk is crystallising in part due to the negative global headwinds that are adversely affecting the UK, such as post-covid inflation and the war in Ukraine, but also because of proposed policy decisions that have been deeply unpopular with investors—for example, the electricity generator levy and the continued issues with planning. Although the EGL was a negative indicator to the markets, more important issues pertaining to planning are holding up the connection of solar projects to the UK grid, slowing our transition to net zero and harming our ability to secure national energy security.

The situation is impacting a crucial partner in solar generation that often goes forgotten. We have referred to them today: the farmers and landowners. I have heard the comments about posh Land Rovers and very wealthy landowners; that is not the case in my neck of the woods. Farmers there are not extraordinarily rich and have not made a huge amount of money by using their land for things other than producing food. They are able to put renewable energy infrastructure, solar farms, and other stuff such as mobile connectivity, on their land in the right place where the land is not productive. That has actually helped farms to survive. We all know that if farms are not viable, they are broken up and sold off. Then we do get the very rich, Chelsea-tractor drivers coming into beautiful parts of the countryside and not looking after it. Maybe they have hobby farms or estates that do not protect the countryside.

My hon. Friend talks about small-scale connections; one of the things that is driving against small-scale connections is their price. The price is determined by the electric companies, which are driving people towards the massive scale, because that is the only way to make the connection commercially viable.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. I wanted to come to that, which is why I was hesitant about appearing to take a view different from the rest of the room. That is the thing: it is not just the suppliers that drive out the smaller-scale solar installations but the planning process. I am told that the cost of going down the NSIP route to get permission could be £10 million. If someone is going to spend that kind of money on a solar farm—I agree that the term is dreadful—I can understand why they go for a huge solar installation. The cost of that route makes the installations so concentrated and on such a scale. It would never be delivered in Cornwall.

Currently, a site is limited to, I think, 50 MW under what I would describe as the traditional route of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which is much healthier for local communities to engage in—it is easier for them to have their say and for the right solution to be reached. I therefore suggest that consideration be given to reforming that traditional route to allow slightly bigger sites to be used without having go down the NSIP route. I say that because land-use planning is key to everything. A lot of work is happening in the Lords and in the Government, with lots of conversations about how we plan land use for housing, transport, growing food, producing energy and caring for the natural environment, but that work must accelerate. It is the best possible tool to deliver the energy and food that we need and to enhance the natural environment, while doing it in a way that works for communities and in everyone’s interest.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the more of these things that can be decided at the local level, the better it will be. First, we are talking about sites of up to 200 acres, which is quite large, particularly in places such as Cornwall. Secondly, the fact is that if Government policy has a presumption in favour of solar, and if counties like Cornwall or Wiltshire have targets that they must achieve, local authorities will have to have a presumption to allow solar farms, because they will know that if they turn them down and get an inspector, the inspector will allow them. Therefore, having the local authority decide this is not necessarily a solution.

I hear that. We were and perhaps still are hopeful that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will address some of the opportunities relating to the inspector. The call for proper reform and understanding of where solar fits into the whole of land use planning is key. I absolutely agree that we need a proper plan for how land is used and what kind of land is available for what kind of purpose.

The elephant in the room is grid capacity. When we consider planning and solar installations, surely it is better to look at where there is good grid capacity and where land can be made available, and to prioritise those areas. We are all committed to moving away from fossil fuels, and we all recognise that we must have energy security and reduce the cost of energy. We can do that through renewable energy. We have shown that in Cornwall; for a long time, we were the leading county for onshore renewable energy. That position has been stolen from us, partly because of grid capacity. The clever move is to understand not only what land use is about and how we identify what should be on that land, but where the capacity is, including grid capacity and the quality of land.

May I press my hon. Friend on grid capacity? One thing that is driving the problem in my constituency is the issue that we had with grid capacity. The National Grid upgraded a substation and, therefore, for several miles around it, everything is open to applications for solar panels. That is what is driving those massive applications that destroy the countryside.

I hope not. I am arguing that there is a real danger—as happened with onshore wind, and I do not object to onshore wind in the right place—that we create a situation where these things cannot happen at all. We would then hinder the right kind of development and movement in the right direction. In Cornwall, we have the opportunity provided by the Celtic sea, with a huge amount of offshore wind, which is a much better solution. I still think, however, that grid capacity, land use and reform of planning that understands and recognises everything that has been said can stop the gold rush for something that does not deliver anything for food or our countryside, so we can enjoy our green and pleasant land as we should. We must not cut off our nose to spite our face when it comes to delivering energy as close to home as possible to meet our constituents’ needs. That is what I am getting at, and local community networks are an important part of this debate.

I do not intend to impose a formal time limit, but a countdown clock of seven minutes will be displayed informally, to be helpful to Members.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for securing this important debate. It is no coincidence, as I said earlier, that many of us speaking in this Chamber today represent Rutland, Leicestershire or Lincolnshire, which have historically been known as the breadbasket of England. They have fed our nation for centuries, yet we are seeing a concentration of solar developments in those areas, with more than 50% of all land nationally proposed for solar plants being in Lincolnshire and bordering counties. Colleagues might wish to adopt the term “solar plants”, because that is what they are. I worry that it does not bode well for our national food security when the heartlands of our agriculture are being assaulted.

At my last count, there were 77 solar plants currently proposed in Lincolnshire and bordering counties, totalling over 38,000 acres of land in just our corner of this great country. In Rutland and Melton alone, we have solar plants proposed or in place in Exton, Ryhall, Essendine, Ragdale, Barkestone, Plungar, Ketton, Ranksborough, Pilton, Muston, Uppingham and Belmesthorpe, let alone in nearby Stamford villages such as Carlby, Braceborough and Casewick. It is unacceptable that we are seeing this assault on our local planning infrastructure.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is very clear in its guidance that grade 3a and above best and most versatile farmland should not be used for energy projects. Solar Energy UK says that solar plants

“generally utilise previously developed land, such as brownfield sites, and land of lower agricultural quality”,

but that is simply not true. Here are a few examples by geographical location. In Bassetlaw, 100% of all solar plants are on BMV land. In Scruton, it is 97%; in Drax, 94%; in Shropshire, 97%; in Camblesforth, 94%; and in Old Malton, 60%. That cannot be right. In my constituency of Rutland and Melton, there is the proposal for the 2,000-acre Mallard Pass solar plant, which is made up of just 6% grade 1 land, 47% grade 2a land and 47% grade 3b land. If it goes ahead, we will lose 2,000 acres of productive farmland. If we are serious about food security, we cannot allow that to happen, because if it does, by 2050 only 9.2% of land classified as BMV will still be under cultivation for food purposes.

Everyone needs to stand by the protection of our farmland. To make that a reality, I am calling on DEFRA to make its guidance against energy projects on BMV land legally binding. I will table a clause to the Energy Bill to protect BMV land from excessive solar development, and I hope that all Members here today will sign it, to make clear that we need to put this into law.

I want to touch briefly—in contrast with the comments made by many colleagues—on solar developers essentially making a mockery of our planning process by putting in proposals for plants producing 49.9 MW to avoid the scrutiny of being over 50 MW as a nationally significant infrastructure project. From my research, I have discovered that one developer, Econergy, which has two applications for solar plants in the UK—one is in Rutland—is claiming to the planning authorities that those plants will produce just 49.9 MW. However, in internal presentations that are apparently only for shareholders but have been put on the company’s website, those developments are listed as generating 80 MW and 53 MW. Essentially, these applications are going into the local planning system under the pretext that the plants will produce 49.9 MW, when they are not and have no intention of doing so. This suggests foul play.

If solar developers are playing the system to avoid scrutiny, they must be punished by the Planning Inspectorate, just as any person would be if they broke planning laws. I have given those documents to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ask for an urgent investigation, because due process must be followed.

I also call on the Government to act on forced Uyghur labour in solar supply chains. The US and the EU have both taken concrete actions to protect their markets from goods that are produced by Uyghur slaves, yet we have done nothing. Consequently, we are now a dumping ground for goods made with Uyghur slave labour, making a mockery of our modern slavery laws and the vote in this House to declare the persecution of the Uyghurs a genocide. From June to November 2022, over 1,000 shipments of solar panels from China were seized by the United States due to their links with Uyghur forced labour. Not one shipment has been seized in the UK.

Canadian Solar, the developer behind the proposed Mallard Pass solar plant in Rutland, is one of the worst offenders. Not only have its suppliers been sanctioned by the US Government, but it has had shipments seized, and it is now being done for tariff dodging because it put its products through Thailand, hoping that the US authorities would not notice that they were originally made in China. Canadian Solar was named in the Sheffield Hallam University report as guilty of being complicit in genocide, and even its shareholders tried to deselect its board over links to forced labour. It then called my office and said, “What would Alicia like, to drop her opposition to our solar plant? We’d love to know what she would like in return for this.” No, I will not be bought off and I hope that no one on my Lib Dem-led council is meeting Canadian Solar and having similar conversations.

Why is Canadian Solar allowed to apply to build nationally significant infrastructure in our country, and why are the Government not taking action? Something is not right here, and if the Government will not act, I ask hon. Members to back me and the other clause I will table to the Energy Bill to insulate our market from panels tainted by Uyghur blood and other forms of forced labour.

Solar will be an important part of our push for net zero. That is what we in Rutland want, but we will not have it at any price, and communities in Rutland and the Stamford villages will not accept blood-tainted products. To ensure that solar’s contribution is truly a positive one, I call on the Government to make guidance against building energy projects on BMV land legally binding. I ask them to urgently investigate solar developments misrepresenting their applications as generating only 49.9MW and to punish any offenders, and to follow the US and EU in finally blocking solar imports made with Uyghur forced labour as part of genocide, because to fail to act would be immoral.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) on securing it. Like her, I take a profound interest—as she and certainly my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) will know—in all matters that concern the great county of Lincolnshire. They are right to say that Lincolnshire is disproportionately affected by this matter. Similarly, Lincolnshire is disproportionately the area that grows much of the food that is consumed across our country and which fills shop shelves and pantries in homes, so it is right that we take a profound interest in the use of its land to grow the crops we need to assure our country’s energy security.

I will speak about three things in this brief but telling contribution: energy, the environment and agriculture. When I was the Energy Minister, I discovered that it is critical for any country’s energy policy to have an energy mix—some baseload energy of the kind provided with nuclear power and some flexible energy that can respond to changing patterns of demand, because demand for energy is unpredictable. Of course, it is true that we heat and light our homes more in winter, but we can get sudden surges of demand, for instance, in a particularly cold snap, so we need flexible energy provision of the kind provided, for example, by gas.

Renewables are an important part of that mix. They do not have the flexibility of fossil fuels but are important in delivering our ambitions on carbon emissions. Renewables are not a good per se; they need to be in the right places and deliver the right volume of energy.

On those terms, when I was the Energy Minister and later in Downing Street and in the Cabinet Office, I was partly responsible for the moratorium on onshore wind. That had the effect—I would not want to suggest that I knew this at the time; I was not prophetic—of driving wind power offshore and catalysing the extraordinary success of our offshore wind industry. When the developers could not build onshore, they looked to how they could maximise offshore production and developed specialisms in doing so, which became world beating. Offshore wind is infinitely preferable to onshore wind for many reasons: first, because of the volume, size and number of turbines and the amount of energy that can be produced; and, secondly, because there is a single point of transmission back to the grid, rather than multiple points.

That brings me to solar, because solar is much the same: it is important but it needs to be in the right place. For the most part, solar should be on buildings. It is extraordinary that we drive around our country and see a proliferation of every kind of large building, particularly warehouses, without a solar panel anywhere near them, yet, simultaneously, we have these applications for large-scale solar farms on prime agricultural land. By prime, I mean grades 1, 2, 3a and 3b. Even grade 4 land is actually not entirely unproductive, but certainly in Lincolnshire, where there is a great deal of grade 1, 2 and 3 land, it is preposterous that on that very land, which could be making more of the food that our country needs, we put these huge solar developments.

I say to the Minister, who is sensitive to these subjects—I met him recently to discuss them, and I know that he is an extremely good and diligent member of this Government—that we need to refocus our efforts on developing on-building solar. Successive Governments have been inadequate in that respect.

What about the environment? The environment and an interest in the climate are related but not synonymous. Of course, the climate affects the environment, but the environment is more than just the climate. The environment is a matter of ergonomics, but it is also a matter of aesthetics. We either want to preserve what my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) called our green and pleasant land, and believe in our landscape and its use, or we do not. I do, frankly; I want our countryside to continue to be productive and beautiful. Why should we not make a case for beauty? I have been doing so in relation to buildings for years, so let me now do so about our landscape and countryside.

Do we really want to continue to industrialise the countryside? People say to me, “These solar developments will not last long.” How long, and why would another application simply not be put in at the end of the life of the solar development? As for onshore wind, it is not the turbine but the concrete that anchors it that will last forever. Solar panels on buildings are therefore essential to protect our environment.

The third thing I want to talk about is agriculture. Colleagues across the House understand, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, that a combination of the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine has refocused attention on how we can be more secure, both in energy and in food production. That is a delight to those of us, like my right hon. Friend and I, who have wanted to protect our economy for years. We have started to see the liberal obsession with free trade unravel, and that is a very good thing. In essence, that means that whereas the proportion of food produced in this country has declined over our lifetimes—we used to make more of the food that we consume here in Britain—we now need to move in the opposite direction. That will not happen if we use up all the land for these other things.

In the 30 seconds I have left, let me say this: this is an argument about energy, but it is actually an argument about much more than that. I hope that the Minister will be characterised, as he looks back on his legacy, as being the man who for the first time took seriously our concern for the environment, our need for an appropriate energy mix and our belief in British food for British consumers.

I have been a passionate environmentalist for most of my adult life and most of my time here in Parliament. I went to the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro as a special adviser in 1992, and since then have been involved in almost every aspect of environmental discussion in this place.

For that reason, I am passionate about the necessity to achieve net zero by 2050. We must do it; there is no question about it. I spent a lot of time travelling in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, and I have seen the effects of global warming. There is no question about it: we must do this thing, and renewable energy is of course the way we must do it. We should not come away from our commitment to the use of renewable energy to achieve net zero. I am also absolutely convinced that solar supplies a very large part of that. It is by far the cheapest, most effective and most efficient way of producing renewable energy, so I am a passionate supporter of solar energy, too. That is how I should perhaps preface my remarks.

However, I have a number of concerns, and the first is about solar energy itself. The planning permissions that have been granted are for 40 years. The technology is developing at breakneck speed, and I do not believe that the solar farms across Wiltshire—incidentally, Wiltshire is the second largest solar county in Britain—will still be there in 40 years’ time. They will be removed, and those sites will then be brownfield sites and will be replaced by something equally obnoxious. It is extremely unlikely that they will go back to being productive farmland.

That is perhaps compounded by the fact that much of this activity involves, as some of my hon. Friends have said, complex financial shenanigans. Wall Street and Chinese financial companies are investing in this business, because they know it is enormously profitable. They could not care less about renewables. They could not care less about agriculture. They could not care less about Britain. They do care about making a substantial buck out of it. We have to look into the way in which these things are funded; we have to look into these companies. Who pays for these things and who is getting the profits from that? It is an important point.

On exactly that point, Canadian Solar, the company that I mentioned earlier—I am sure that the Foreign Office Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), will report back, now that he is here—needs to be sanctioned urgently. It is not Canadian. In fact, it is a Chinese company—Chinese run and based in China—pretending to be Canadian. I wonder why it would not choose a Chinese name for the business. Can my hon. Friend help me?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend; she is of course quite right.

We are concerned about the technology; it will not last. We are concerned about the 40-year planning permission that has been granted. We are concerned about who stands behind this. I am also very concerned, in a technical sense, about battery storage units. These solar farms are no use at all, because the use of energy fluctuates during the day and therefore there have to be very substantial—and hideously ugly—battery support units to make them work. These things are ugly, huge and dangerous—many of them burst into flames spontaneously. A very large question exists with regard to their technology. We must be very careful indeed about the way in which we use this stuff, for that reason alone.

Secondly, my hon. Friends have made a very important point about food security. Post Ukraine, we are deeply worried about who will feed us in Britain and who will feed the world. It strikes me as morally quite wrong to be covering good agricultural land—3b is good agricultural land—with vanity mirrors being paid for by overseas investors. That seems to me to be morally unacceptable; morally, it simply cannot be sustained.

The food production versus energy security argument is a potent one, and of course the very simple answer to the energy security question comes, as my hon. Friends have said, from putting solar farms or solar panels off agricultural land. I am proud that in my constituency I have RAF Lyneham, which has the largest solar farm in Europe. It is huge—absolutely enormous—but cannot be seen by anybody. It is on former military land. The same applies to Wroughton, just outside my constituency, where, again, one of the largest solar farms in Europe is on entirely unproductive land. That is absolutely fine, but why are we having a spate of applications right across North Wiltshire for 200-acre or 300-acre sites on grade 3b land that has been used for years for the production of wheat and of grass? Indeed, in the west country, those crops are very important with regard to dairy. It has been used for donkey’s years to do that, but all of a sudden, because it is 3b and these companies are going round proving it is 3b, somehow there is a presumption in favour of them getting the application.

That brings me to my final point.

I am rather short of time. My hon. Friend will have time to reply in a moment.

That brings me to my final point, which is on the planning system. Wiltshire, as I said, is the second largest county in England, and we have hundreds of these applications right now. We have found that the Government have laid down targets for the county and therefore the planning officers very correctly say to the planning committee, “If you turn this down, as you may well want to turn it down, it will without question go to appeal. The inspector will without question allow it. And the barristers’ fees for the public inquiry will be down to the county.” Therefore, having a target for renewables on the county means that there is a huge presumption in favour of the local authority allowing this. That must be turned round.

I would like to see two things in the national planning policy framework when it comes forward later this year. First, I would like to see a return to the days when there was a presumption against using 3b agricultural land. That was the case. When my right hon. Friend George Eustice, whose constituency I cannot remember—

If I may say so, Ms Nokes, that is precisely why I said that I could not remember his constituency—I was hoping that I would be assisted. [Interruption.] He is my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice).

My right hon. Friend appeared in front of the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I serve. He made it plain that, in his view, 3b land was included in the presumption against and it would be in the NPPF when it came out. He then had to write to me to correct that; officials made him correct that particular point.

We need to see, first, a reference to 3a and 3b. Secondly, we need to find some new way of applying the planning law so that there is no longer this presumption in favour of the developer. We must find a way of presuming against the developer and presuming in favour of preserving our green and pleasant land—presuming in favour of food security rather than energy security—and a way of putting these solar installations not on agricultural land but on large-scale industrial land and on previously used military land of the kind that I have described. We are in the process of concreting over our countryside for these things, covering it in totally unproductive mirrors in a way that will never be reversed. We will not go back to that agricultural land. We risk saying to our future generations, “We did this to your countryside; blame us for it.”

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes and to respond to what has been a genuinely interesting and thought-provoking debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) on securing the debate and thank all hon. Members who have participated this afternoon.

Last year was the UK’s warmest on record and one of the sixth warmest ever recorded globally. The record-breaking temperatures we experienced last summer, including our first ever 40-degree day, caused an unprecedented number of heat-related deaths, wildfire incidents and disruption to infrastructure. Yet the occasionally severe weather we experienced last year is only a foretaste of what is to come, unless our country plays its full part in decisively slowing the rate of global heating to prevent it reaching catastrophic levels. On that, I think the room is ostensibly agreed.

The science, as we all know, is unequivocal. Bold action is required and it is required now. However, when it comes to the UK’s net zero emissions target, the Government have consistently been long on aspiration but short on tangible progress. The UK’s nationally determined contribution requires emissions reductions of 68% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels and the Government’s sixth carbon budget requires them to be slashed by 78% by 2035. Yet in their June 2023 progress report, the Climate Change Committee states plainly that its confidence in the achievement of both targets

“has markedly declined from last year.”

Put simply, the overall pace of climate delivery under the Government remains woefully inadequate.

If our country is to meet its interim targets, reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and lower energy bills for consumers, the Government need to do far better, including when it comes to the domestic deployment of established low-cost technologies such as solar. Having over recent years subjected solar to a series of erratic policy changes and reductions in support, including slashing rates for the feed-in tariff scheme in 2015, the British energy security strategy published in April of last year finally provided a welcome measure of certainty, committing the Government to a fivefold increase in solar deployment by 2035 and taking levels from the current 14 GW of capacity, the bulk of which is ground-mounted, to 70 GW.

The Government have also been clear as to the scale of solar deployment likely to be necessary to meet the UK’s wider net zero targets, with a technical annex to the “Power Up Britain” policy paper published in March suggesting that approximately 90 GW of solar will ultimately be necessary. Yet last year saw just 0.7 GW of new solar deployed, in a rate of installation that falls well short of what is required to meet the Government’s target. As the Climate Change Committee has stated in its 2023 progress report,

“The deployment of solar capacity is significantly off track to meet the Government’s target of 70 GW by 2035.”

To get on track for that target, the committee makes clear that the Government need to facilitate the delivery of

“An average annual deployment rate of 3.4 GW”.

This House can debate what the precise split should be between large and smaller-scale projects, what types of land should be prioritised for solar deployment and how we best maximise the efficiency of land that is utilised. However, the only fundamental question is precisely how we markedly drive up solar deployment rates, not whether we need to. Moreover, every hon. Member who is engaging with the debate today in good faith needs to at least have an answer as to how the extra 3.6 GW of annual solar capacity implied in the Government’s target should be accomplished.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Surely he recognises that by far the best way of doing so is to put solar on buildings. Every public building, warehouse, agricultural building, office and industrial estate could have and should have solar. The advantage of that would be to bring energy production and consumption into closer union and reduce transmission and distribution costs that make up about 15% of every energy bill.

The right hon. Gentleman has a lot of expertise in this area, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. He pre-empts a point that I will come to. We think the Government should be far more ambitious and creative about rooftop solar, which we think can meet the bulk of our solar needs.

As the House is aware, the Labour party has committed to delivering a zero emission power system by 2030—five years ahead of the Government’s target date—and we assess that honouring that commitment will require us to triple the deployment of solar by the end of this decade to up to 50 GW of capacity. We are under no illusions: we know that is a stretching target, but it is essential to achieving zero carbon power by the end of the decade, and a Labour Government will do what is necessary to meet it.

Our plans are premised on a significant uplift in solar photovoltaic deployment on rooftops, which analysis suggests could provide the bulk of the 50 GW of capacity that we want to be installed by 2030. I think hon. Members are broadly in complete agreement on that point. As I said, we want the Government to be far more ambitious and creative in how they do that.

The hon. Gentleman is setting out what he thinks a Labour Government would do were they to get the chance. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) talked about the new clause she will table to the Energy Bill to say that grade 3a and 3b land should not be used for solar panels. Will the Labour party support it?

That is a good question. I listened with great interest to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). There should be greater protections for best and most versatile land graded 1 to 3a, but we disagree with Government Members when it comes to category 3b land. We think there is sufficient flexibility in the system, and that we need 3b land in certain circumstances. We certainly would not exempt 3b land in its entirety, as a couple of hon. Members suggested.

Although we want the majority of solar to be deployed on rooftops, there is no question but that we will need to take steps to enable the deployment of far more ground-mounted solar than is presently being installed, and that will include a number of large sites. That will require reform of our planning system. We believe that the planning system as a whole needs to be overhauled and aligned fully with our net zero emissions target.

What is the difference in wheat production between 3a and 3b? Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten me, please?

The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to stray outside my departmental responsibilities, which I will not do. I am afraid that we are in complete agreement with his Government, who say that there needs to be far more solar deployment on category 3 land. He may want to take it up with the Minister outside the debate.

We believe that the system needs a renewed focus on integrated spatial and infrastructure planning to ensure we are developing and using land strategically, and ensuring that large sites of more than 50 MW are appropriately distributed across the country. I listened with great interest to the comments of the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) about a land use framework. We certainly support that direction.

We believe the planning system needs proactive and strategic energy deployment to be integrated fully into local and neighbourhood plan development, and renewable development should feature prominently in the development plan’s soundness test. We believe the system needs to speed up the process for securing planning consent for renewable generation of all kinds for projects over and under 50 MW capacity.

That is not to say that we do not understand and appreciate the concerns that have been expressed in the debate. As I have made clear, there is no question but that we need a more strategic and planned approach to ground-mounted solar deployment across the country. We need to do more to drive up rates of rooftop solar installation and prioritise solar deployment on previously developed or lower-value land. We need to take steps to further maximise the efficiency of sites used for renewable deployment, and co-locate infrastructure wherever possible to mitigate its impact on communities. We need environmental protections to remain in place, and we need communities to continue to have a say about where large-scale projects are best located.

Ensuring we have a sensible approach to large-scale ground-mounted solar deployment does not mean that there is an option to refuse it wholesale.

I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned human rights. He has dashed my hopes of the Labour party’s support for my new clause to the Energy Bill—although I will come back to him for a flip on that in a few weeks’ time—but what about the amendment that recognises that we should not be importing Uyghur-produced slave labour solar panels?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I hope she will forgive me if I do not outline a Front-Bench position on a particular amendment that is outside my departmental responsibility—

I will certainly feed the point back to my colleagues. [Interruption.] I am answering the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton. In general terms, we are very concerned about and share the concerns about the supply chains for solar and the use of slave labour. I have listened to the hon. Lady speak very eloquently on the subject many times, and I think we generally agree with the approach, but I cannot speak to the particular amendment she mentioned.

As I said, having a sensible approach to solar deployment does not mean that it can be an option to refuse it wholesale. It is deeply problematic that rates of solar farm planning permission refusal have risen significantly over recent years. We are committed to ensuring that communities have a say on where large-scale solar deployment should take place in their areas and want to do more in particular to boost community participation and engagement upstream at the plan-making stage, as well as ensure that communities directly benefit from local renewable installation. However, we feel strongly that the Government must address delays in the planning process and other regulatory processes that currently present a barrier to low-carbon infrastructure installation at scale.

I am coming to an end. To conclude, large-scale solar is safe, reliable, versatile and of overwhelming environmental benefit. It is one of the cheapest renewable generation technologies that exist and can effectively complement other, more variable sources. In the global race for clean energy, it is a particularly easy technology to deploy at scale. We need a planning system that properly engages communities in its roll-out and mitigates its local impacts, but also one that enables its deployment to take place at the rate and scale we need to rapidly reduce our emissions and reap the full advantages of the green transition. That is what a Labour Government intend to deliver if we get the chance to serve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to respond to this incredibly important debate. It is incredibly important. I represent a vast 1,900 square-mile rural constituency, so I understand the pressures that are being felt in many of the constituencies represented here today.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for securing this debate. Let me say in advance that if I am unable to answer any of her questions today, I will get back to her at a later stage and will ensure that Ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs do so as well. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Derek Thomas), for North Wiltshire (James Gray), for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for taking part. I also thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for taking part. It is especially good to see one of my predecessors, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). It is always nerve-racking when a predecessor comes into the room, but I thank him for his kind words and assure him that he has left some big shoes to fill in the Department.

I assure everybody here that sustainability remains at the heart of the Government’s ambition for development. That includes the protection of the environment and local communities. Energy security, food security and protecting our environment are some of the key challenges we face in the UK. Meeting these goals is urgent and of critical importance to the country. We believe they can be achieved together for the United Kingdom. We believe that solar energy will continue to play a key role in helping to secure greater energy independence while building a more sustainable and greener future for generations to come.

However, the Government recognise that solar farms, as with any new infrastructure, will have local impacts. It is therefore essential that we have a robust planning system that not only helps to deliver energy security but protects the environment and local communities and supports wider Government ambitions, such as food security. As several hon. Members have pointed out, and has been pointed out to me in the past, we are not able to create new prime agricultural land.

The dramatic rise in global energy prices following the covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emphasised the urgency of the need to build a strong, home-grown renewable sector. Solar energy is key to achieving this. Solar farms are one of the most established renewable energy technologies in the UK and the cheapest form of electricity generation. We have seen an increase in the number and size of developments coming forward and expect this trend to continue. In the net zero strategy, the Government committed to installing up to 70 GW of solar capacity by 2035. That represents a fivefold increase in our current capacity, and we need to maximise the deployment of all types of solar to achieve this ambitious target.

It is important to stress that this does not mean seizing large swathes of the countryside and turning them into industrial solar farms and storage units. Yes, ground-mounted solar will be needed, but smaller-scale commercial and domestic rooftop projects will be just as essential, if not more so. The Government believe that solar and farming can be complementary, supporting each other financially, environmentally and through shared use of land. Therefore, we seek solar deployment across the UK, looking for development mainly on brownfield, industrial and low and medium-grade agricultural land, and we encourage solar technology that delivers environmental benefits, with consideration for ongoing food production or environmental improvement.

I will come on to planning for solar farm developments, but I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord). As we could not know from his contribution, I looked up the Liberal Democrat policy on planning for solar farms. Some people listening in Somerton and Frome might be interested to learn that the Liberal Democrats’ plan is to remove restrictions on new solar and wind to accelerate the deployment of renewable power across the country. They want to remove some community input into the planning process for new solar deployment, which is certainly not the position of His Majesty’s Government.

Planning applications for solar developments below 50 MW capacity are determined by local planning authorities—in the case of the hon. Gentleman, it would be the Liberal Democrat-run authority in Devon—through the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and in accordance with the national planning policy framework and the relevant planning policy guidance.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for highlighting the role of local authorities in determining some of the lower-output solar farms. East Suffolk Council is run by a Green-Liberal Democrat coalition, which has already given the green light to developers and controversial developments in Framlingham. What reassurance can he give my constituents that the Government will make sure that controversial applications for solar farms are not green-lighted by local authorities?

I will come on to the role that the Government play in the planning process. It is really important that local authorities—be they Liberal Democrat, Green, Conservative or Labour-run—take into consideration and listen to communities when they have expressed deep concerns about the deployment of solar farms or, indeed, other energy infrastructure projects that may be planned for those constituencies. I urge those listening to the debate to hear that message, and I urge Members present to ensure that party colleagues of theirs who run rural local authorities also hear it loud and clear.

Planning applications for solar farms with over 50 MW capacity are decided by the Secretary of State through the nationally significant infrastructure project regime, in accordance with national policy statements on energy. There are currently no operational projects of that size in England. However, there are 23 projects currently in the planning system, with the latest—the Longfield solar farm near Chelmsford—gaining consent from the Secretary of State just last month, ahead of the statutory decision deadline.

The problem of clustering has been raised several times. The Government recognise that as a problem, and we certainly think it needs to be looked into. Is the Minister able to give us a sense of why the Government did not include in in their NSIP reform action plan, published earlier this year? It was silent on the issue, despite the Government recognising it. Why is that?

I will endeavour to get an answer to the hon. Member’s question from the relevant Government Department, and I will ensure that it gets to him as speedily as possible after the conclusion of the debate.

My hon. Friend the Minister has just made the point that 23 planning applications are currently in the NSIP process. As far as I understand it, not a single proposal has been turned down yet by the Government. Does that mean that, no matter what, NSIP projects will be given the green light to go ahead, even if the Planning Inspectorate blacks out MPs’ responses and all sorts of other things? Are the projects genuinely being looked at on a case-by-case basis, or will we just green-light any NSIP project to get more green energy?

Absolutely not. There is no automatic green-light system, and I am assured that every proposal is looked at on a case-by-case basis and on its merits, taking into account the opinions and concerns of the local communities it will affect.

The NPPF makes it clear that local planning authorities should have a positive strategy for producing energy from renewable and low-carbon sources, such as solar farms. It sets out that where a significant development of agricultural land is shown to be necessary, areas of poorer quality should be used in preference to those of higher quality. If it is proposed to use any land that falls under Natural England’s BMV classification—best and most versatile agricultural land—that needs to be justified during consideration of the planning application. As defined in the NPPF, “best and most versatile agricultural land” constitutes land in grades 1, 2 and 3a of the agricultural land classification planning decisions, and decisions should continue to be made based on that definition. However, I have heard the concerns raised by hon. Members, and I will ensure that DLUHC Ministers are made aware of them.

I know time is brief, but can we take it that there is a presumption against development on prime agricultural land—certainly grades 1, 2 and 3a? I take the point about 3b, but let us just deal with the first three. Is there a presumption against the kind of development that takes valuable land out of food production?

My right hon. Friend will have heard my earlier contributions. We are determined to ensure that land is protected for food security reasons and that this green and pleasant land that we are all so proud to represent continues to be just that. However, I understand the concerns of right hon. and hon. Members, so I will ensure that DLUHC Ministers hear them loud and clear.

Before I conclude, I will briefly turn to the issue of slave labour and China. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton knows my personal position on the issue, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will have heard loud and clear her representations here today. We are supporting the UK solar industry’s main trade association, Solar Energy UK, in leading the response from business to include securing the solar panel industry’s commitment to a robust supply chain traceability protocol, supporting a global co-ordinated response from the solar industry—the Solar Stewardship Initiative—and communicating relevant UK and international human rights frameworks. I will meet my hon. Friend in due course to discuss her proposed new clause to the Energy Bill.

I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for attending today and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham for securing this important debate. I will of course ensure that DLUHC and DEFRA Ministers are made aware of the issues and serious matters raised this afternoon. We are committed to reforming policy so that it continues to complement wider Government ambitions: food security and preserving agricultural land, reforming the infrastructure planning system that focuses on improving community engagement, and introducing a new framework of environmental assessment through DLUHC’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. I once more thank everybody for their contributions this afternoon.

Thank you, Ms Nokes. I will be brief as time is short. It has been a very interesting debate. I think there is broad consensus that solar panels are not a great idea and should not be on agricultural land.

I want to address points made by other hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) talked about the massive scale of the speculation and the 10,000 acres surrounding Gainsborough. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) talked about the absolutely huge scale of the very good, in his view, solar plant at RAF Lyneham. That huge thing is reported on the internet as being 250 acres. The scale of the applications we are talking about in Lincolnshire are each over 2,000 acres, sometimes much more than that, so they really are enormous.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) made good points about the potential for innovation and how wind farm innovation has driven a much better solution. In fact, restrictions on food-producing land lead to innovation on buildings and the types of panels that can be used on top of commercial centres.

The Minister talked about protecting best and most versatile agricultural land. We also need to consider the concept of planning justification, which is based on what else is locally available. In Lincolnshire, the land is good land. We have to travel a long way to find land that is not good land, so justifying something on the basis of what is available locally is not helpful. I would like him to look at that.

I think we all agree that the use of brownfield sites is better. I will support the proposed new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on the use of best and most versatile agricultural land.

Finally, the Government need much more joined-up land use planning. They want to build more houses and create more energy, and they want more land to be set aside for the environment and more land for growing food. They cannot have all of them. In this case, the Minister cannot have his cake and eat it. In fact, without the best and most versatile agricultural land producing eggs, flour, sugar and other ingredients, he will not be able to have his cake at all.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered planning and solar farms.

Hyperemesis Gravidarum Awareness

I beg to move,

That this House has considered awareness of hyperemesis gravidarum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. The Minister has been very encouraging of this debate, and I thank her for meeting me recently to discuss hyperemesis gravidarum—more commonly referred to as HG—and how we can increase awareness of this cruel condition, reduce stigma around it and improve treatment and care for pregnant women.

I became familiar with the condition because of tragedy. One of my constituents, Jessica Cronshaw, was 28 weeks pregnant with her baby Elsie when she passed away after suffering with HG and being left unable to eat, drink or complete daily tasks. It is a truly horrific story, and before turning to what we need to do to ensure tragedies like that are prevented in the future, I want to thank Jess’s family and her partner Eddie, who are in attendance today, as well as Dr Caitlin Dean and Charlotte Howden from Pregnancy Sickness Support for all the help that they have provided.

I did not know Jess on a personal level. She was the year below me in school back at home. So rather than me talking about Jess, I wanted to use my privileged position of a Member of Parliament to recount the words of Jess’s family about her life and her struggle with HG.

“Our Jessica was a strong and determined 26-year-old woman, whose bright blue eyes lit up any room. Her infectious grin and smile partnered with her clumsy sense of humour was enough to leave people in floods of laughter. Jess's capacity for love and embracing any challenge, no matter how big or small, was admired by us all.

Jess was a dedicated local primary school teacher in Accrington. Her passion for her children shone through in all of her preparation, planning and delivery. She would often spend many hours outside her working day organising and creating school projects to give her pupils the best possible experience. Jess took such pride in her career and her work ethic was unmatched.

Jess also had a passion for her fitness. She without fail would walk up our local hill every morning at 5am come rain or shine. Jess benefited enormously from her exercise routines and this was the reason she was so dedicated to it. She eventually set her own business up as an online coach providing nutrition and exercise plans for many people. Jess inspired and helped so many people feel the benefits she was all so familiar with.

She cherished quality time making memories with her family and friends, and you would often find her hiking up mountains with her Dad, brothers and partner Eddie or enjoying quality time with her Mum and Gran. She was a beloved friend to many, providing endless stories of her adventures which always resulted with everyone crying with laughter.

Jess as a young woman found true happiness in her life. She was content, she was strong and was a fierce, confident, driven woman. She found true love in her partner Eddie and both were overjoyed with the news they were expecting their first baby in May 2022.

Unfortunately, Jess quickly learnt that her pregnancy was going to be far from the smooth pregnancy a lot of other expectant mother’s experience. Jess went from her outgoing and independent self, exercising every day without fail, working full time for her children at school and maintaining her coaching business that ran alongside this, to being completely bed bound from 6 weeks pregnant. Jess could not stop vomiting and when vomiting eased, she continued to feel nauseous. All her usual comforts, whether it was a cup of tea, enjoying a TV series or exercising became far from her reality throughout the duration of her pregnancy.

Jess was admitted to A&E at 6 weeks pregnant due to being completely debilitated with her symptoms of hyperemesis gravidarum. She was unable to eat, unable to keep fluids down and was absolutely floored being left unable to complete basic tasks independently. Jess received the diagnosis a week later and was admitted on one occasion for an IV drip for hydration. Jess’s symptoms, despite being tried on 4 or 5 different medications, continued up until she was 28 weeks pregnant.

These symptoms of HG are often unbearable and incomprehensible for women, not only the physical trauma their bodies endure but also their emotional and psychological health is hugely impacted. There is an impact to the family and friends around sufferers who often feel helpless. Jess at one point said she felt like she was dying due to how severe her symptoms were. If the care around sufferers of HG isn’t good enough, the outcomes can be catastrophic.

For Jess and her beautiful daughter Elsie and for all of Jessica’s family and friends her battle with HG resulted in the most devastating outcome. We are left with a hole in our lives and hearts that can never and will never be filled. We lost our Jess and Elsie tragically when she was 28 weeks pregnant, the severe HG symptoms became unbearable for her. On the 14th November Jess could go on no longer, her and Elsie survived for 5 days on life support and Elsie was christened with the family around them both, before Elsie’s life support was turned off on the 18th and Jess’s on the 19th.

Jess and Elsie’s passing was preventable, Jess wanted her baby girl, and she had her full life ahead of her. If it was not for this incapacitating condition or if there was adequate training, awareness, knowledge, care, and support from professionals who come into contact with any HG sufferer then we as a family would’ve had the chance to see our beautiful Jess become a mother and flourish. We as a family hope and pray that no family must ever see the suffering we saw Jess experience throughout her pregnancy, a time that should have been the happiest time of her life.

Every day we all have to wake up with ‘what if…what could we have done more’ and we end our days with the same thoughts. This is our reality now. Jess, even when bed bound, found the strength to lift her head up from the pillow and use her platform on social media to raise essential awareness of HG. Jess made the courageous start of her legacy and now as her family, friends and local community it is time for us to ensure essential change starts now to the care every HG sufferer receives when they need it the most.”

I am sure that you will agree with me, Ms Nokes, that this is incredibly moving. It is a real-life example of why we need to enact change. Even in their darkest moments, the family were incredibly grateful for the care provided by the nurses at the Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital on the critical care ward, including nurse Danielle Turner, who changed all her shifts to be with the family in Jess’s final moments. They were also grateful to the staff at the neonatal intensive care unit at Burnley General Teaching Hospital, who brought Elsie to Blackburn Hospital so that she could be christened among family and friends.

For those not well versed in this condition, HG occurs only during pregnancy, and was—and, to a large extent, still is—stigmatised. If women suffering from the condition cannot be rehydrated, they could die of starvation or dehydration. HG is still a severe and potentially life-threatening condition that can have profound effects on the sufferer’s health and wellbeing. Clinical manifestations of HG can include loss of 5% or more of pre-pregnancy weight. While there are more modern treatments, such as IV fluids, HG can be seen as a mental health problem; people might deem the sufferer to be making it up, or think that it is all in their head. That misses the point. Mental health struggles may be a symptom of HG, but they are not the cause. A lack of awareness, and stigma towards those seeking support, is sadly all too common. There can be a dismissive attitude to women’s suffering during a first pregnancy, and notions in some quarters that sufferers simply were not prepared for the trials and tribulations of morning sickness.

The term “morning sickness” is harmful; pregnancy sickness, the correct terminology that we should move to, does not occur only in the morning. That is an unhelpful perception that impacts on women’s suffering. If we are to have meaningful change, we need to look at the support required from the outset by those suffering from HG. Many women with HG who have not suffered from it before will understandably be vulnerable, and will struggle to come to terms with their condition and what it means. They should have access to better perinatal mental health support, so they have someone to talk to who understands HG. In addition, many suffering from HG need proper nutritional advice. An inability to keep down food and water means that both mother and child can be at risk of malnutrition. Proper nutritional advice is sparse for the women suffering from HG. I have heard reports of women going all day on a single biscuit, or half a can of flat Diet Coke. That is not a sustainable situation.

Several of Jess’s interactions with medical professionals were over the phone, and not in person. This, again, is not uncommon, and reflects missed opportunities for those professionals to see for themselves how HG is impacting a woman going about her day-to-day life. Face-to-face appointments should take place as home visits; for women suffering with HG, driving any distance, let alone to a hospital, can seriously exacerbate their health condition.

Given these three issues—the lack of proper mental health support, proper nutritional advice and face-to-face time with medical professionals—I am sure the Minister will agree that the fact that there is no compulsory training on HG for midwives surely needs to change. An appointment with a midwife tends to come in week nine of pregnancy or later, so many women suffering from HG will see their GPs first, who do not receive basic diagnostic training. That compounds the issue. Around 1% of the pregnant population suffers with HG. That alone is thousands of women at any one time, but the figure does not account for those women who remain undiagnosed because midwives simply are not aware of HG and how it can present in pregnant women, or because GPs do not have the relevant diagnostic training. I am aware that midwives have compulsory training on dementia, which prompts the question: how often do midwives treat people with dementia? I suspect they do so very infrequently—much less frequently than they treat people with HG, which occurs only during pregnancy.

Moving on from diagnosis and early intervention, many women require medical treatment and drugs to help ease their symptoms, but the system is complicated and inconsistent; the responsibility is often left to the woman, and there is an attitude of “on her head be it” after prescription. In any other situation, if a person was vomiting continuously, there would be extensive medical testing, but with HG the usual response sadly seems to be, “It’s just bad morning sickness”, even though HG is the most common reason for hospitalisation in early pregnancy. Furthermore, the rate of therapeutic termination of a pregnancy because of HG is estimated to be 10% in the UK, and that accounts for further morbidity and admissions.

We have licensed drugs to help ease symptoms of HG, such as Xonvea. However, it is not accessible to many women, and its availability is something of a postcode lottery. Several hospitals have banned the use of the drug Ondansetron in the first trimester of a pregnancy due to historical stigma, and without hard medical evidence. Ondansetron can prevent malnutrition in early pregnancy, which can be harmful to not only the woman, but the foetus.

We need a much more evidence-led focus on medications to treat HG—one that neither denies women access to valuable treatment nor, when medication is prescribed, makes women feel that they are taking a risk with their baby’s wellbeing, and taking their baby’s life into their own hands. Research from the US and the UK has found that women with pregnancy sickness tend to have much higher levels of the appetite protein growth/differentiation factor 15, or GDF15; their placentas make incredible levels of it during pregnancy. Researchers believe that that may be a genetic cause of HG. I know that there are significant challenges associated with testing new medications on pregnant women. However, if the issue is approached carefully, new GDF15-based drugs could improve treatment options for HG and definitively prove that GDF15 causes the condition. I am told that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is keen to do more work on in-pregnancy trials to improve treatment for pregnant women, and that is something that the UK should consider.

On a societal level, we need to look at this through the prism of women’s health. Young mothers are often stigmatised for struggling with HG, due to outdated notions that they are simply being soft. In addition, women whose first language is not English will struggle to advocate for themselves. It is hard enough for a woman who does speak fluent English to do so when suffering with HG; navigating the complex system is incredibly difficult for those who do not. Although there are protections in law for women with pregnancy-related conditions, there may be issues with maternity pay for those with HG. Women suffering from HG may face acute symptoms both in the qualifying week for maternity pay and before. That means that calculations for maternity pay can be based on statutory sick pay, rather than their actual salary. That is an added stress that no woman needs when going through such a traumatic experience.

I will conclude by again mentioning Jess and Elsie. Their story is sadly typical of that of many women who suffer from HG, who may face a lack of mental health support and nutritional advice; seemingly no knowledge of the condition among midwives; and a reluctance to prescribe medication. Jess and Elsie died because, put simply, there is still not enough awareness of the condition in the medical community. There is a lack of formalised support at diagnosis, and treatment with medication is often not based on science, but on stigma. I hope that Jess and Elsie’s story will be a starting point for change. We need to advocate for a more harmonised approach to HG across the country, which incorporates training, support for women and medication. We need that to prevent more tragedies, and to get better outcomes for pregnant women across the United Kingdom. I hope that with the Minister’s help, we can prevent anybody from feeling as helpless as Jess did, and can ensure that her memory lives on by getting the right support for women in the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) for a very moving speech. I express my condolences to Jess’s family and to Eddie, her partner, and let us also remember baby Elsie. My hon. Friend could not have expressed any better the impact on a whole family, a community and an individual, and I agree with every word she said. We met recently to discuss Jess’s case, and I am happy to continue to work with my hon. Friend on this issue.

Unfortunately, there are many women like Jess going through this. They are probably watching or listening to the debate, and will take comfort from the fact that they are not on their own, and that there are many others who feel like this. Every pregnant woman who is living or has lived with hyperemesis gravidarum or a difficult pregnancy—particularly those like Jess, who had such an active life before becoming pregnant—will recognise that isolation and loneliness. It is an all-encompassing feeling of not being physically well, which takes a toll on mental health as well.

To echo my hon. Friend’s words, hyperemesis gravidarum is a severe form of nausea and vomiting. She is right that we need to move away from the term “morning sickness” and to instead use the term “pregnancy sickness”, and we should also be aware that HG is very different from pregnancy sickness. Any woman who has experienced nausea or vomiting during the early stages of pregnancy knows how debilitating that is. However, when that continues week after week, and they see other pregnant mothers glowing and thriving in pregnancy, and sharing photos on Instagram and social media, it adds to the difficulty, and the feeling of isolation because they are not dealing with pregnancy in the same way as many others.

Hyperemesis gravidarum can affect between one and three in every 100 pregnancies, so it is not a small number. Thousands of women are affected. It can affect an individual’s mood and their ability to work. Many mums are keen to work for as long as they can, because they want to take as much maternity leave as possible after they have given birth. The effect of not being able to work, and the effect of HG on home life, particularly if mums have other children for whom they care, cannot be overestimated.

Although most women can be treated at home or as an out-patient, some need to be admitted to hospital. As my hon. Friend said, if they are not able to eat or keep fluids down, it is vital that medical care is there when they need it. Too many women are left feeling isolated and unsupported. There is stigma and a taboo; there is little understanding that this condition is very different from morning sickness, and that it affects women’s mental health, as well as their physical ability to cope with their pregnancy.

I absolutely agree that more needs to be done to address this issue. The National Institute for Health and Care Research is awarding funds for research on the causes of the condition, the way it can be managed and the nutritional impact on pregnancy. The women’s health ambassador, Professor Dame Lesley Regan, who is an obstetrician, is keen to look at hyperemesis gravidarum, because in her clinical practice she has seen its effect on women. She will host a webinar on hyperemesis gravidarum on 27 September in her role as chair of Wellbeing of Women, which is a leading women’s health charity. That public webinar, which is free for people to sign up to and attend, will explore the experience of patients with this condition and provide options for treatment, support and self-care. I encourage anyone who has been affected by it or has an interest in it to sign up. The details will be published on the Wellbeing of Women website. If the women’s health ambassador is championing improvements in this area, that is the start of the conversation. It will start Jess’s legacy, in terms of raising awareness for other women.

Mental health support is often not accessible. This is not the only case of women not being listened to when it comes to women’s health. Ahead of the women’s health strategy, we issued a call for evidence, to which we received more than 100,000 responses. Whether it was on endometriosis, the menopause or fertility issues, the overwhelming response was that women are often not listened to when they ask for help, either because healthcare professionals were not aware of the conditions that women were raising, or because the attitude of healthcare professionals, whether to pregnancy, the menopause or puberty, was, “This is part of a woman’s cycle, and you just have to get on with it.” We want to end that stigma.

There are so many interventions that can help women throughout their life course, regardless of their condition or the life change that they are going through. Through the women’s health strategy, we want to change that attitude, so that when women ask for help, they have a positive experience and feel supported.

We are looking at perinatal mental health. Tragically, the most common cause of death in new mums is suicide; that is absolutely extraordinary. It is tragic to hear that Jess died by suicide because she felt so isolated and helpless in dealing with her condition. We will hopefully publish the suicide prevention strategy very soon, and new mums—indeed, mums in general—will be a priority group in it. We recognise that there is not support for mums during and after pregnancy. We want to address the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death.

We are doing that already. Mental health services around England are expanding to include new mental health hubs for new, expectant or bereaved mums. We are opening up 33 of them, which will provide psychological therapy, maternity services and reproductive healthcare for women with mental health needs following trauma or loss, or directly related to their experience of pregnancy or birth. Those will be available in England from March 2024. I know that is no consolation to Jess’s family, but we are absolutely addressing that as quickly as we can.

We also recognise the importance of supporting women’s health in the workplace. My hon. Friend is quite right that there are laws in place to protect women when it comes to maternity leave and discrimination around pregnancy. I am happy to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), on raising awareness of this condition, because employers are not aware that it is very different from early-stage morning sickness or pregnancy sickness, and that female employees will need help, support and understanding. They should not be afraid that the situation will eat into their maternity leave or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said, statutory sick pay. I am happy to have discussions with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We have been working closely on the menopause in the workplace, so I am happy to take that up.

Hyperemesis gravidarum is not included in the women’s health strategy, which looks at the priority areas of women’s health, although pregnancy is. I would like to address that, because I have heard clearly from my hon. Friend, through what she said about Jess’s tragic experience and the outcome for her family, how difficult this issue is. I take on board that many healthcare professionals, particularly those whom a woman will see before she sees a midwife, will not have had training or support in understanding the extent of this condition. As my hon. Friend said, even midwives do not get specific training on HG.

I suggest that, following the webinar in September that the women’s health ambassador is leading, we organise a roundtable with her to discuss the findings, and see how we can take some of this forward. Through the National Institute for Health and Care Research, we have money for research, which could be on managing the condition; psychologically supporting women who are struggling with its devastating and debilitating effects; or the use of drugs such as Ondansetron. We need an evidence base, so that we can support primary care teams and midwives in giving medication safely to pregnant women. There could be research on hydration and nutrition support for those not able to keep down food and fluids; on the training and education of medical staff and midwives; on removing the stigma and taboo; or on raising awareness among healthcare professionals, the public and pregnant women. They may not realise that HG is a condition for which they should be able to get help and support, and that it is not just them being unable to cope with morning sickness. Some women do feel that, when they actually have a condition that makes their experience different from what many women go through.

The offer is on the table; I can meet my hon. Friend to see if we can draw some findings from Jess’s terrible experience, so that we can eliminate the chance of that happening to other women. In the minutes that I have left, I extend my thanks to my hon. Friend, and say to Jess’s family that I am so sorry to hear of their experience. I am happy to support Jess’s legacy, so that we change the experience for pregnant women who suffer with hyperemesis gravidarum, and never again hear such a tragic story.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Camp Hill Line Railway Stations, Birmingham

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Camp Hill line railway stations in Birmingham.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I am here today because the completion of the Camp Hill railway line in Birmingham, which would have connected Birmingham’s Kings Heath and Stirchley stations, has been delayed to the end of 2024. That is what we have been told.

On 27 June, the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, announced the delay in his typically understated and unwarrantedly optimistic fashion. In a response to me, he said he was disappointed to see the letter I had written to him on Twitter before he had received it. Yet, none of the councillors in the wards affected—Kerry Jenkins, Izzy Knowles, Lisa Trickett or David Barker—or the Members of Parliament involved, myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), were informed by him before his decision was given to the media.

The delay has come as a huge blow to my constituents, who have little access to direct rail links to Birmingham city centre. Residents of Moseley and Kings Heath, who have been without a rail link for decades, are devastated by the news. They will now have to continue to rely on increasingly congested roads for their travel to and from Birmingham city centre. I am here today to press the issue and to ask some vital questions, which have been put to me by my constituents, regarding the delay. I will also situate the delay within the wider context of the abject failure by this Conservative Government and by Conservative Mayor Andy Street to deliver on transport for the people of Birmingham and the west midlands.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he, like me, remember the Mayor launching his re-election campaign in February 2020 in a blaze of publicity? He promised eight new metro lines, 380 new stops and 21 new railway stations, but since then things have ground to a halt: University station, which was meant to open in time for the Commonwealth games last year, still has not opened; the Camp Hill line has gone dead; and the Pineapple Road station in my constituency is a big hole in the ground. Does my hon. Friend think that the Mayor is better at making promises than at delivering and that he is spending too much time trying to shoehorn Warwickshire into the West Midlands Combined Authority at a cost of £60 million to each of the other councils in order to gerrymander the next election?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I, too, remember the promises made by Mayor Andy Street in the run-up to the last election, and he has less than 12 months to come up with some new excuses. We also have to remember that, in all his campaigning, he tried to distance himself from the Conservative party, so I wonder whether he will run on the Conservative ticket or as an independent. More importantly, the issue raised by my hon. Friend—bringing Warwickshire into the combined authority—is simply about giving the Mayor an edge for electoral purposes. Even those elected to represent Warwickshire do not want that. I think he knows that he is in a bit of trouble.

Let me move on to the Camp Hill delay. Many residents have expressed doubt about the finality of this announcement. Is this delay the final delay, or is it simply one of many to be announced further down the line? It is interesting how this has been put back from the end of the year to the end of next year. The Mayor knows full well that there will be a mayoral election in May, and there might be a general election. This is no coincidence, as he knows he might be out of office, along with the Conservatives. They will then say that this is a problem for the Labour party, when they have delayed matters. That is not going to work. Can assurances be given to my constituents that the Camp Hill line will face no further delays, or should they expect further disappointment in the future?

Secondly, there is concern regarding the finances of the project. While the bulk of the finances come from the West Midlands Combined Authority, £20 million comes directly from the Department for Transport, which is a considerable stake. I would therefore like to ask the Department whether an assessment has been made of the costs the delay will incur for the project. Will further funding to make up for the additional cost be provided by the Department, or will that responsibility be passed on to the people of Birmingham and the west midlands? That question is vital. The West Midlands Combined Authority is in dire financial straits. The medium-term financial plan represents a significant challenge to the authority, as a deficit of £29 million is forecast for the 2024-25 financial year, rising to £50 million in the 2027-28 financial year.

Furthermore, the £1.2 billion of priority schemes from the West Midlands Combined Authority investment programme remain unfunded. That raises significant doubts about the completion of vital programmes, such as the Camp Hill line. Will the Government guarantee that any extra funding for the Camp Hill line will be provided and that that will be done in a way that does not jeopardise other projects in the city or the region?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is he aware that the delays to the transport plans do not simply affect the stations at the centre of this debate? In Mr Street’s manifesto, he promised that work would begin on the east Birmingham tramline, connecting Digbeth through the poorest communities in the country out to Solihull, ensuring that the land between the two new high-speed stations was connected with a tram? Yet there is absolutely no sign of that work taking place either. There is no sign of the Arden Cross hospital that was promised and, as my hon. Friend rightly says, there appears to be a £1.2 billion hole in the investment programme. Are people in the west midlands right to conclude that this is a mayor who, frankly, promises but never delivers?

My right hon. Friend makes the important point that the people of Birmingham and the west midlands have realised that Andy Street, the Mayor of the west midlands, is only good at promising, without any delivery taking place. Money for the east Birmingham tramline connecting Birmingham airport through to the city centre was actually promised by George Osborne. How many Chancellors have we had since then? How many of them have actually delivered? They are good at promising, but never at delivering.

Has the Department for Transport considered the health and environmental impacts of a year-long delay to this project? Birmingham City Council’s most recent report on air quality in the city found that pollution levels still exceed mean objectives for nitrogen oxide levels, caused primarily by increased road traffic. Furthermore, Birmingham, Hall Green has the second highest number of traffic casualties in Birmingham, with 304 casualties reported in 2021. The congested roads in my constituency are no longer safe for residents or pedestrians, yet people will have few alternatives until at least the end of 2024 because of the delay.

Finally, are the people of Birmingham, Hall Green and the west midlands more generally still expected to put their trust in Mayor Andy Street to deliver on his transport plans for the region? That is a pertinent question, because Andy’s record is, quite frankly, appalling when it comes to delivering on transport objectives for the region. His penchant for delays is matched by the Government’s inability to complete High Speed 2 within a reasonable timeframe, with costs spiralling, helped upwards by rising interest rates. Seemingly inspired by this failure, Andy Street has taken to delaying innumerable transport projects, which has increased costs.

Let me examine the Mayor’s record a little more closely. First, we have the West Midlands Metro tramline. The Birmingham Eastside extension—

Order. I gently remind the hon. Member that this is a debate on the Camp Hill line railway stations in Birmingham, not Transport for the West Midlands. He might like to make sure that his remarks are restricted to that.

Thank you, Ms Nokes. I was making the point that this is not an isolated case; there is a pattern of behaviour that is of great concern. You will appreciate that the projects I am mentioning are of great importance not only to my constituents but to the residents of Birmingham and the west midlands because this is about getting—

The tram link, which connects the stations of Stirchley, Kings Heath and Moseley to the city centre and then links to the tramline going to the rest of the west midlands, has had major disruptions, even in the Black Country, Dudley and Brierley Hill. Have commuters been let down? Absolutely, because at the last election they put their trust in Andy Street to deliver on his promises. Despite his prior assurances, the Mayor announced a 12% increase in bus fares—way above inflation—but what exactly are people getting for the money? For that reason, I ask whether the residents of Birmingham and the west midlands, but particularly those in Birmingham, Hall Green, can now trust Mayor Andy Street to deliver on the Camp Hill line and the Government to bail him out before the next mayoral election.

It is always a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Ms Nokes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) has secured a very important debate, because we in Birmingham now have the clean air zone, which affects a lot of constituents on the train lines across the city. A lot of my constituents have relatives in the Camp Hill and Hall Green areas, and they find it difficult to meet the additional expense to go through the clean air zone, so they want to use the train lines across the city to get to those places. Unfortunately, we were not successful in that.

We have one train station in my constituency, which was built because of the Commonwealth games. We wanted Hamstead Hall and other stations to be updated so that more people could use public transport, and particularly trains, but we had a different idea from our Mayor, who wanted to create a bus service connecting Walsall and Birmingham through my constituency. It was supposed to happen, but it did not. After taking money from the HS2 connectivity fund, it still did not go ahead, because there was not enough preparation to do it. Through the consultation period, which lasted almost two years, my constituents were very distressed because their inputs to the consultation were not seen as appropriate, and the right answers were not given. I remember attending a huge number of the meetings myself.

In Birmingham, we have fantastic infrastructure, particularly our train lines, but that is no good to my constituents if it is not connected. That is the direct responsibility of Mayor Andy Street. I hope that, rather than looking at new white elephants, he will look at the existing structure that we have so that our constituents do not have to suffer greater amounts of nitrogen oxide gases polluting our city and community.

We want to ensure that we have good, clean transport across the city, which is why I support my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne).

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I extend my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) for bringing forward this important debate. I know that the project, like many promised by this Government, has been a long time in the making. In fact, my hon. Friend was instrumental in campaigning and lobbying for it even prior to his time in this place.

It is beyond clear that the delivery of this project will be transformational for the local area and provide residents with a vital and sustainable transport connection. That will bring residents closer to the transport hubs in Birmingham, reducing journey times into Birmingham to eight to 14 minutes for those living near the stations of Pineapple Road, Kings Heath and Moseley village. Sadly, the Government’s hallmark of continued delays and broken promises in their transport plans seems to have permeated to Conservative West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street.

As Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), have touched on, it has been over 80 years since the Camp Hill line was used by anything other than freight and through services. That is a clear wasted opportunity. When it is harnessed, the line will connect local residents with easier ways to travel to work, education and leisure, all while reducing emissions by increasing passenger usage of a less polluting form of transport.

Some 3.7 billion vehicle miles were travelled on roads in Birmingham in 2019. It is unsurprising that the West Midlands Combined Authority claims that this project alone will reduce traffic congestion in the area by up to 25%. Rail connections into cities and across areas in the midlands are vital in our battle against the climate crisis, but have sadly been long neglected.

As we have seen recently, even when plans are committed to, they have been riddled with delays and mismanaged, with ballooning budgets. Just a few months ago, for example, the Government announced that the delivery of HS2 into Birmingham, which would have benefited the constituencies of all Members from the area, will be delayed by another two years, holding back further the transformational impact of the project. Further delays on rail infrastructure in the region, which were noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), are disappointing. Inflationary pressures have been cited as one of the causes. Our stubbornly high inflation in comparison to other European nations is alarming, and it is having a devastating impact on households and our future infrastructure.

We know that delays cost money, as we have seen with London Euston’s HS2 terminal. It is completely understandable that the Members present and the residents they represent want answers. I hope the Minister is able to alleviate their concerns, following his recent conversations with the West Midlands Mayor and other stakeholders. What is the exact cost impact of these delays, and will the project remain within budget? We must ensure that the detail of the delays is made clear and that the process of reducing them is fully transparent for all right hon. and hon. Members’ constituents, so what can the Minister share with us today? We must also ensure that this is the only delay to the project and that mitigations are in place. As the project will be enhanced by the completion of other local projects, how will the recently announced exploration of the feasibility of a new station in Balsall Health impact on the Camp Hill line plans? If it is granted, will it delay the final delivery of the line further?

In the light of recent announcements, I would like some reassurances on the accessibility and ticketing functions at this station. Will there be a ticket office at these stations, or will it be limited to staff on the platform? We are all aware of the sham consultation that is taking place on ticket office closures, which I hope the Government will discontinue and on which there is legal action pending. While it is clear that this project has wide-ranging support, we must ensure that more is done to keep it on track. This is a crucial decade to build the future of transport and tackle the climate crisis. Sluggish progress will simply not cut it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) on securing this debate about the construction of three new stations on the Camp Hill line in Birmingham, namely Moseley, Pineapple Road at Stirchley, and Kings Heath. At least, that was the title of the debate; anyone who had wandered in might have thought it was on the election next year or a Labour pile-on on the current Conservative Mayor, but I will do my best, as I always should, to stick to the subject in hand.

I trust that we are at least in firm agreement that the successful delivery of these three stations will provide a welcome boost to the hon. Member’s constituents in Birmingham, Hall Green and beyond. Passenger services on the Camp Hill line were withdrawn in 1941, but since then demand for public transport in the area has grown substantially. Investment in rail infrastructure can have transformative impacts on local communities. Reopening the Camp Hill line stations will bring 75,000 people within 1 km of a new railway station and unlock untapped potential in the region.

The business case for the stations, which I received in 2020, presents a compelling array of benefits that align with the Government’s wider objectives for the country. They include supporting the local economy, expanding labour markets, reducing carbon emissions, reducing congestion on roads, helping to tackle regional inequalities, and levelling up the country. The Department therefore approved the release in June 2021 of the fixed £59 million contribution of rail network enhancement pipeline funding to the West Midlands Combined Authority for the delivery of five new stations in Birmingham, three of which are on the Camp Hill line, together with two more on the Walsall to Wolverhampton line.

I will make some progress first. The West Midlands Combined Authority and Birmingham City Council have also contributed funding toward the Camp Hill line stations, which I regard as a positive example of the joint working and strong local consensus formed around this scheme. All of this means that I am hugely excited to see how the new Camp Hill line stations can improve the lives of the people around them. However, West Midlands Rail Executive—the organisation delivering the new stations for the West Midlands Combined Authority—has reported that unprecedented microeconomic challenges, coupled with the emergence of unexpected issues across all three work sites, have delayed the expected completion of the stations to late 2024.

The pandemic, inflation, resource shortages and supply chain disruption have all posed substantial challenges for the construction industry. Meanwhile, on one work site a protected species was discovered that can only be moved at a certain time of the year, and most of the work on the site had to be delayed until the animals were safely relocated. Elsewhere, a historic well, which was not registered on any public records, was discovered, meaning works had to be paused while the public realm was redesigned accordingly. Furthermore, a locally listed historic wall situated close to a worksite was in an unstable condition and had to be carefully deconstructed in a way that means it can be restored later.

While I share the disappointment at the delay to the stations, I accept that construction must not be rushed at the expense of local heritage and biodiversity in local communities, so I support and commend West Midlands Rail Executive’s best efforts to ensure that construction is undertaken in a way that is sensitive to the built and natural environment in which it takes place. My officials are working closely with the West Midlands Combined Authority and West Midlands Rail Executive to track progress and seek opportunities to accelerate delivery where possible. I understand that there are scheduling efficiency opportunities being explored that might see one or two of the stations open earlier in 2024. I give way to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who wanted to intervene.

The Minister is too generous. I wanted to refer to a point he raised earlier. He rightly said that the Department had given a £59 million grant to the transport authority. Can he confirm that additional funding was anticipated through a round 2 levelling-up bid, but it was not authorised, and that that is one of the reasons for the current delay? I understand about the protected species and the historic wall, but what is the explanation for the delay at Stirchley, where there does not seem to have been any answer as yet?

I encouraged the hon. Member to rise to his feet to interrupt me, so I hope I am being generous in that regard. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is responsible for the levelling-up fund and I do not have information about unsuccessful bids, but I will write to him about that. I will also write to him regarding the other station impact. We tend to find a knock-on from one to another: I recently visited the Northumberland line where there was a similar matter of a protected species—great crested newts in that case—and that had a little knock-on effect as well. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on both those points.

On costs, the hon. Gentleman is right; the contribution I mentioned earlier from the Department is £59 million. There is no doubt that inflation, as I find across my portfolio, presents a challenge in ensuring projects are delivered on budget. The Office for Budget Responsibility recently reported that construction inflation is running at around 15%, so that is a big challenge for us. That is why the Department is afforded flexibility on how the £59 million of RNEP funding is distributed between the five new stations.

Can the Minister confirm that, with the 15% construction inflation on top, the £59 million increases by another £9 million? The project is not on time, but is it on budget and will further funding be required? If so, where will that increase in funding come from?

Obviously, this is a contribution made by the Department. As mentioned, my portfolio, which also includes HS2, is experiencing great challenge. There is a limited amount the Department is able to offer, but it has offered that amount as well, and we look to our partners to raise the financing that may be required to deliver the project.

Although I have focused on the three Camp Hill line stations, I have also touched on the two other stations in the five-station project. It would be remiss of me not to mention also the host of other exciting rail infrastructure enhancements that will imminently be delivered in and around Birmingham by Mayor Andy Street. I hope this affords me an opportunity to rebut a little what struck me as “What has the Mayor ever done for us?”, like Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and “What have the Romans done for us?” Allow me to list them: a new station at Perry Barr, which was delivered on time for the Commonwealth games; Edgbaston tram extension opened for the games; extensions being built in the Black Country and Birmingham Eastside; sprint bus routes opened for the games, clearly reducing the journey times; the lowest bus fares in the country outside London, and fares still below those in 2017, when the Mayor was elected; 90% of the pre-covid bus network is protected, well above many city regions; on target for a 100% Euro 6 bus fleet by the end of the year; West Midlands Trains are the most improved under Mayor Street’s collaboration; and—something that the Labour party may struggle with—seven times more transport capital now being invested per year than before Andy Street was the Mayor. Actually, that is why we trust Andy Street to deliver.

One thing that is really interesting, Ms Noakes, is that there is a lot of criticism of the delivery of this line, but if my recollection serves me well, the Labour party was in power between 1997 and 2010, and the three stations—this line—were not delivered. The line has been closed for more than 70 years. When it is delivered, it will be under the Conservative Government and the Conservative Mayor, Andy Street, who are both being criticised.

I would not wish to stray off the brief, so I hope that the Department’s substantial investments in rail infrastructure throughout Birmingham provide assurances to constituents represented here today that they will soon be able to enjoy the benefits of new and improved services, both on the Camp Hill line and beyond. I would also reaffirm my confidence in Mayor Street, who in my view is the best of Mayors.

I, too, would like to go along with the Minister and set out the record of Mayor Andy Street. Indeed, he has achieved a lot. If we look at the long waits for transport, with 28% of people waiting at least 20 minutes for delayed transport—and often much longer—that is under the watch of Mayor Andy Street. It is clear that those delays are due only to the mismanagement and incompetence of the Mayor—and perhaps the team that he leads, but it is always with the leader that the buck stops. Commuting times in the West Midlands are now the highest in the country, at an average of 46 minutes, comparable to London’s—a city with a population of 9 million compared with Birmingham’s 1.1 million.

Those are the achievements of Andy Street. If the Minister is going to be proud of that, especially with the wider projects that he mentioned—especially in the Black Country, with the delay to the Brierley Hill project—then that is something that he can be pleased with, but it is nothing that the residents of Birmingham Hall Green, Birmingham or the West Midlands can be proud of. Transport in Birmingham Hall Green, Birmingham and the West Midlands is worsening due to the lack of investment, a lack of competent leadership and a lack of consideration for the needs of people in the region.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Camp Hill line railway stations in Birmingham.

Sitting adjourned.