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Commons Chamber

Volume 744: debated on Monday 22 January 2024

House of Commons

Monday 22 January 2024

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Levelling-up Funding: Economically Deprived Communities

The Government have set clear and ambitious missions to end long-standing geographical inequality in the UK. In targeting levelling-up funding, we consider a range of factors, including levelling-up need. These metrics draw on the extensive evidence base of what matters for levelling up, as set out in the levelling-up White Paper.

I am interested in the Minister’s comments about targeting. Deprivation is made worse by bad policy decisions. The bedroom tax significantly impacted and brought an end to a multimillion-pound housing renovation scheme in the village of Horden in my constituency. Can the Minister explain to my constituents why our levelling-up bid aimed at regenerating Horden, which is ranked in the bottom 10% for the UK, was rejected?

We selected the bids based on strict criteria and the methodology is set out on I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is disappointed that his constituency did not benefit. We funded a project in County Durham in round 1 of the levelling-up fund, and I am happy to work with him to see what more we could do to invest in County Durham.

The household support fund has given a lifeline to councils across the UK, including Bracknell Forest Council, and it is discretionary. Will the Minister confirm whether that fund will be extended beyond this financial year?

I cannot make spending commitments today, but I can say that my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his constituents and I am happy to ensure that the relevant Minister is able to meet him to discuss the matter further.

The Secretary of State is the deputy chair of the Tata Steel transition board, so if his Department is at all serious about levelling up, will he acknowledge just how devastating Tata Steel’s announcement was for Port Talbot and for families, workers and communities across south Wales? Why will the Minister not work with Business and Trade Ministers to look again with the company at a longer, fairer transition that protects our sovereign steelmaking capabilities and our communities?

The hon. Lady knows how important steel is to me; my constituency was deeply affected when SSI closed in 2015. We have already provided £100 million of support, but I am happy to ensure that the relevant Minister meets her to discuss how we can provide further support.

It is very positive that Stoke-on-Trent has been included as one of the levelling-up partnership schemes. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that every part of Stoke-on-Trent gets levelling-up support so that all communities, including those in my constituency and particularly the town of Longton, can benefit from the scheme?

The levelling-up partnership will be transformational for Stoke-on-Trent, building on the levelling-up investment we have already made there. I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend last week to discuss his priorities, including the town of Longton, and we hope to make further announcements about that in the coming months.

I am glad that my delayed Avanti West Coast train got me here on time, with a sprint for me at the end.

Data revealed by the Centre for Cities today shows that after 14 years, towns and cities in every corner of our country have been levelled down, left behind and left out of pocket. On average, people are over £10,000 a year worse off as a result of the sluggish growth since 2010. Analysis of the country’s largest cities and towns reveals that every place is out of pocket, north and south, from former industrial towns to major cities. Fourteen years after taking power, does the Minister accept that the British people are worse off now than they were then?

I absolutely do not accept that. The right hon. Lady seems to forget the reality that we have had a financial crash, covid-19 and the Scottish Government failing to support cities like Aberdeen with the oil and gas industry. She can look at the evidence of what we are doing through levelling up. We have invested more than £4.8 billion of levelling-up funding directly into communities the length and breadth of the country, and we will continue to do that.

The Minister says “look at the evidence” and I am looking at the evidence—14 years of a Conservative Government, elected on a promise to level up the country, which has left working people worse off. In Manchester, the average household is over £8,000 a year out of pocket. Down the road in Burnley, the loss amounts to £28,000. Will they now listen to our proposals to reform planning, reinstate housing targets and get Britain building again, or will the country have to suffer another final year of failure?

The Labour party has bankrupted Birmingham, and it would bankrupt Britain. We have made huge progress towards levelling up, including by rolling out gigabit broadband, introducing educational investment in areas, opening new freeports, increasing the national living wage, recruiting more police officers, funding regeneration and community ownership, and devolving more power to local Mayors. We will continue to level up.

The European Union has provided greater funding support to economically deprived communities in Scotland than the UK Government have with their mismanaged levelling-up fund. If Scotland were still part of the EU, we would have been entitled to a multibillion-pound share of the €750 billion NextGenerationEU fund. Why should Scots be happy with the tiny sliver of Westminster levelling-up funding that we have been given, when Westminster has denied Scotland a share of the far greater opportunity of EU development funding?

I completely reject the hon. Lady’s assertion. We have invested £212 million in Scotland through the UK shared prosperity fund so far, £465 million through the levelling-up fund and £18.3 million through the community renewal fund—I could go on, Mr Speaker. If the hon. Lady wants to support constituencies in Scotland, she should back our Bill later today.

Social Rented Housing

Our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will deliver thousands of affordable homes for rent and to buy right across the country. The levelling-up White Paper also committed us to increasing the supply of social rented homes, and a large number of the new homes delivered through our affordable homes programme will be for social rent.

Local authorities have been stripped of resources for the past 14 years, and even Conservative Members agree with that. Does the Secretary of State recognise that local authorities and housing associations need certainty and stability over time, so that they have the confidence and security to invest in affordable social and council housing stock, rather than the Conservatives’ last-minute, unplanned changes that wreak chaos and instability?

I certainly agree that housing associations do fantastic work in providing homes for social rent as well as shared ownership homes, and we work in partnership with them. We are aware of the many pressures they are under. The hon. Lady says that they need certainty and stability, but that is why it would be so damaging if there were a Labour Government with their £28 billion black hole, which would mean either more borrowing or tax increases, and higher interest rates for those aspiring to get on the housing ladder. That is why we should stick with the plan rather than going back to square one.

In my constituency of Suffolk Coastal, Flagship is selling houses to second-home owners. That is a scandal. It tries to suggest that it is because it cannot repair them economically, but it is not offering them, first of all, to the local council. There are restrictions and covenants that could be put in place if these were council houses, but they are not; they are housing association homes. I would love to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss this matter further to make sure that the housing that was originally given to the housing associations stays for local people.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that issue. She represents one of the most beautiful constituencies in the United Kingdom and does so with great skill. It is because it is such a beautiful constituency that demand for housing is so high. The proportion of second homes in her constituency does create challenges for local people, which I would be more than happy to discuss with her at her convenience.

Rather than levying fines of £2,500 on the most vulnerable people sleeping rough, as is proposed in the Criminal Justice Bill, will the Minister commit to building a new generation of social housing? The current levels are pitiful and are an embarrassment, are they not, Secretary of State?

No, absolutely not. Our record on building social homes is significantly better than that of the last Labour Government. It is under our Administration that local authorities have been given the chance to take 100% of the receipts from right to buy and to reinvest them in social housing. It is this Government, spending £11.5 billion through the affordable homes programme, who are capable of delivering social homes. As we are talking of billions of pounds, the £28 billion black hole in the shadow Minister’s budget would devastate our housing market.

Regional Mayors: Accountability

The English devolution accountability framework was published in March 2023 to make it easier to understand how Mayors, leaders and institutions with devolved powers are held to account. The framework, alongside the recently published scrutiny protocol, will improve scrutiny and make clearer the outcomes and metrics that Mayors are delivering against.

Once again, I thank the Minister for the £48 million of levelling-up funds to upgrade the Penistone line, which will significantly improve the service and bring much-needed improvements to Shepley, Stocksmoor and Denby Dale stations. However, to achieve the ultimate goal of getting trains to run a half-hourly service, more investment is required, and that needs to come through the West Yorkshire Mayor and Network North. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Mayor should make that a priority, and announce the extra investment to ensure a full upgrade of the Penistone line?

We were delighted to provisionally award Kirklees Council with £48 million from the levelling-up fund to upgrade the Penistone railway line. I thank my hon. Friend and others, particularly Conservative Members, for their dedicated support, and I look forward to seeing the benefits that the funding will bring to people travelling between Huddersfield and Sheffield. As my hon. Friend says, Network North will see additional devolved funding provided to the West Yorkshire Mayor. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I will work with him and the Mayor to ensure that this new and unprecedented level of investment addresses local priorities, and supports towns, cities and rural areas across West Yorkshire.

In Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, we are looking forward to electing our first Mayor in a few weeks’ time, especially with the £1.5 billion of funding for transport improvements. How do we ensure that that money is spent on improving our road links, fixing potholes, improving railway lines and so on, and is not lost in the creation of a costly administrative third tier of local government?

We have provided additional funding to councils in the east midlands to set up the new local authority, so any additional funding through Network North will not be consumed by that. It is a fantastic opportunity to get my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) elected as the East Midlands Mayor. I am sure that he will focus on exactly the priorities my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) mentions.

One of the better aspects of devolution so far, which might actually work, is the trailblazer projects that have been rolled out in the west midlands and Greater Manchester. One of the key elements of those projects is having a single pot of money. I have repeatedly asked whether it is the intention to roll devolution deals out to the other combined authorities, and I have been assured that it is. Why, then, in the first iteration of what a new devolution deal might look like, have South Yorkshire, Merseyside and West Yorkshire been told that a single pot of money will not be included in the devolution deal? Why are the Government backtracking on the commitment to give those areas a full devolution deal, not a devolution-minus deal?

We have invited the combined authority areas that the hon. Gentleman mentions to progress to level 4 devolution, which as he rightly says does not come with a single settlement. It is something that we are still considering, and when we see it in action in the west midlands and Greater Manchester we will be able to assess its value for money and whether it is delivering for people there. I assure him that this is not devolution-minus; we are giving devolution-plus to communities the length and breadth of the country.

I am a big supporter of devolution to city regions such as Greater Manchester, and I welcome a number of the Government’s proposals to shift even more powers and responsibility from this place to the combined authority and Mayor, but does the Minister understand the disappointment of Greater Manchester MPs of all political persuasions in the proposals for greater scrutiny by MPs? One question at meetings, with a supplementary at the discretion of the chair, just does not cut it.

I held a session for Greater Manchester MPs on the scrutiny protocol. I cannot remember whether the hon. Gentleman was there, but I am happy to hold a further session with him. The scrutiny protocol is not yet in place; it is a work in progress, which we are trying to establish in partnership with MPs. We want to know what would work well for MPs in the scrutiny sessions.

Last week, the Secretary of State told the Business and Trade Committee that he hoped that the long-delayed inquiry that he commissioned into Teesworks and the Tees Valley Mayor will be published soon, and that he would not “pre-empt it”. The report was promised in July, then November, then December. It is now January. Where is it?

The hon. Lady should know that the ministerial code means I am recused from matters relating to my constituency. However, I would simply say to her when she wants to criticise Ben Houchen that he is one of the most effective Mayors we have had. The employment rate in Teesside since Ben was elected has increased by 3.6%, compared with the rest of the north-east, which only increased by 0.1%, and the national average of 0.6%. She should focus her attention on some of the Labour Mayors like the Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who is failing on housing, failing on crime and failing on the things that matter to people.

Voter ID: Election Turnout

5. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of voter identification requirements on election turnout. (901067)

We were pleased to see, in the May 2023 elections, that the vast majority of voters in polling stations were able to cast their vote successfully. That amounted to 99.75% of those seeking to vote.

Fourteen thousand voters were turned away from polling stations at the May 2023 local elections for not having photo identification. Local councils have been cut to the bone, so they do not have the resources to ensure that everybody has photo ID. What will the Government do to ensure that nobody is disenfranchised when we get to the general election?

There is nothing novel about having voter ID. France, Germany, Austria and Canada all have it, and we have had it in Northern Ireland—part of the United Kingdom—for the past 20 years. I understand that in internal Labour party selection elections, their members also have to produce voter ID. We have a full and comprehensive list of voter IDs, which councils have been using very well. For those who wish to vote and do not have one of those forms of ID—a tiny number—we also have the voter certificate, available free of charge, which allows them to vote. We want to see as many people as possible voting and, of course, we want to see them voting Conservative.

The Government’s voter ID requirements, which allow travel cards for older people but not the young person’s equivalent, are unfair at best, but the reality is that this is political opportunism. As has just been said, analysis by the Electoral Commission following England’s 2023 local elections found that 14,000 people were unable to vote due to voter ID requirements. There is real concern, based on that data, that there will be a potential impact in the forthcoming general election. Voters at local elections are often a smaller group of more politically informed people, whereas the larger group of voters who wish to cast their vote at a general election may be less aware of the requirements. Does the Minister agree with the words of his former Cabinet colleague, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg), that

“Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as… we found by insisting on voter ID for elections”?

I do not agree with that, and nor will I take any lessons on political opportunism from the SNP. I am tempted to say that I would WhatsApp my answer to the hon. Lady, but she would probably delete it before she read it. A lot will depend on whether the identification has the relevant hologram. I also point out to the hon. Lady that—[Interruption.] She chunters from a sedentary position without wanting to listen to the answer, but of the 14,000 who did not have the right identification, 7,000 came back.[Official Report, 23 January 2024, Vol. 744, c. 4MC.]

Council Budget Deficits

The Department works closely with the local government sector and other Departments to understand specific demand and cost pressures. The provisional local government finance settlement for 2024-25 makes available over £64 billion—an increase in core spending power of almost £4 billion or 6.5% in cash terms. We stand behind councils up and down the country to deliver the services that their communities look for.

It was recently revealed that Devon County Council is using its broadband clawback money to close its deficit. That £7.8 million was intended for improving broadband across rural areas. Countryside connectivity is key to boosting businesses so that they can pay their taxes, so what does the Minister plan for next year, when Devon County Council’s finance minister puts his hand down the back of the sofa, only to find he has spent the millions intended for broadband on paying day-to-day direct debits?

If the money from that Department is ring-fenced, it is not at the discretion of the county councillors where they use it; they have to use it for that purpose. I would take the hon. Gentleman’s concern a little more seriously if he had taken part in the parliamentary engagement, as 97 colleagues across the House did, including the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), or attended the Westminster Hall debate about Mid Devon Council funding, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger).

I appreciate the time that the Minister took to answer my questions at the drop-in session. We will not cut NHS waiting times without good, well-resourced social care. My Liberal Democrat council colleagues in Bath are on track to bring social care back in-house, which means better care that is better delivered locally and long-term savings. However, even Bath & North East Somerset Council, as he knows and as I have already pointed out, is under severe financial strain. Will he therefore commit to extra funding to allow it to deliver the vital social care that my constituents so desperately need?

Adult social care is a demand on all upper-tier authorities. I commend BANES Council on the work it is doing; that is precisely the demonstration of flexibility and innovation in local government that we look for to deliver quality services in a cost-efficient way, and it deserves our approbation for that. With the Department of Health and Social Care, we keep under review precisely those policies relating to adult social care, to make sure that those who are most in need receive the services that they need in a timely fashion.

Would the Minister like to put on record that he shares my thanks to Councillor Lezley Picton, the leader of Shropshire Council, who has done a fantastic job despite the challenges in trying to get down the deficit there? The council has found significant efficiency savings, but there is still more to do. Ahead of the local government finance settlement announcement, could the Minister look at the rural services delivery grant and see what more can be done for large rural counties such as Shropshire, which he will know is the largest landlocked county in England?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and for the work that Councillor Picton does as the leader of his council. He is absolutely right to point to the continued importance of innovation, change and reform to ensure value for money—that is key—and to highlight the importance of the rural services delivery grant. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I remain committed to that and we hope to be able to make that announcement in due course.

Rural councils face a disproportionate triple whammy from the rising cost of energy due to the Ukraine war, with rural councils and rural public services having to pay higher heating, energy and labour costs. Could I have a meeting with my hon. Friend to talk about the fair funding formula, to make sure that rural councils are properly funded in this next settlement?

As a rural Member of Parliament, I am tempted to tell my hon. Friend that he will be preaching to the choir, but of course I am happy to meet him. He points to the challenges that rural councils face in delivering services in areas that are wide in geography and sparse in population.

The reality is that more and more councils are being pushed to the financial brink. It stands as a fact that more councils issued bankruptcy notices last year than in the previous 30 years combined. Those councils were Conservative, Liberal Democrat and no overall control, but the one thing they have in common is the Conservative Government in Downing Street. The Local Government Association reports that councils face an immediate £2.6 billion funding gap. Now that the deadline has passed, can the Minister confirm how many councils have applied for exceptional financial support, and whether pressures in adult social care, children’s services and homelessness will be fully met in the financial settlement?

It is not policy for us to comment individually on councils that are seeking advice from or engagement with officials, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, because it gives me the opportunity to put on record that my Department and I stand ready to engage with all those councils who wish to discuss their financial circumstances. We want to make sure that we have a well-funded, professional local government sector, delivering for those people in our communities who look to them for the services that they require for their daily lives.

Public Green Spaces

Through the levelling up parks fund, taxpayers are providing more than £9 million to create new green spaces or significantly refurbish existing ones. The Department-owned green flag award scheme, which is currently operated under licence by Keep Britain Tidy, sets the national standard for public green spaces and encourages local authorities to ensure that parks and green spaces are welcoming, safe and well maintained.

Behind the closed doors of the town hall, Labour-controlled Erewash Borough Council is plotting to sell off large swathes of green open space, including the former Pewit golf course in Ilkeston, which had previously been designated as a nature reserve. Will my hon. Friend take steps to prevent local authorities from selling public land without first carrying out full public consultations, and will he join me on a visit to the Pewit site to discuss how we might save it from the hands of developers?

By law, local authorities are required to publish a notice and advertise it before disposing of any open space. This is exactly why it is so important that my hon. Friend is and continues to be the MP for Erewash. She can call out all the disasters of the Labour Erewash Borough Council which, as a fellow Derbyshire MP, I see Derbyshire Labour doing regularly all across my county. It has the wrong priorities and outcomes, and it makes the wrong decisions.

The Minister might know that we have wonderful public green spaces in our country—many of them are around London and in West Yorkshire—but is he aware that the decline of education departments in many local authorities owing to the policies of successive Conservative Governments means that today the ability to organise school trips to green spaces is minimal? Could we have a policy that allows all our children, of whatever background, to go to and enjoy those beautiful green spaces?

Order. Mr Sheerman, please do not take advantage of the Chair. I am trying to bring the Minister in, and I have to get many others in. You are important, but so are other people.

The hon. Gentleman should look at the Conservative party’s record on education in over 40 years in government. There have been substantial improvements in education and teaching, and our children are better readied for the challenges ahead as a result.

Local Authorities: Four-day Week

8. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of a four-day working week for local authority employees. (901070)

The Government have been crystal clear that we do not support any attempt from local authorities to implement part-time work for full-time pay. Removing capacity to deliver services to residents is not acceptable. The Government have taken steps to deter councils from operating such practices, and we will take further steps if necessary.

The Minister only earlier extolled the virtues of devolution. In fact, page 29 of the 2019 Tory manifesto said that the

“ambition is for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors”

and others. How does that laudable aim fit with the Government’s shocking attempts, through threats and bullying tactics, to strangle the ability of local councils such as South Cambridgeshire District Council to trial a four-day week and other money-saving initiatives?

If the hon. Gentleman can construct an argument for hard-working families across the country —many of whom will be working two or three jobs to keep a roof over their heads—that five days’ pay and benefits is commensurate with four days’ work a week, I would be interested in hearing it. I invite him in all seriousness to consider the impact on the public’s perception of the public sector if it is given out that we can afford to work four days a week but still expect and receive five days’ pay.

First-time Buyers

Getting on the property ladder is everything that is important about being a Conservative. The Government have a range of schemes available to first-time buyers, including the first homes scheme, shared ownership and right to buy. So far, nearly 900,000 people have been helped on to the property ladder by this Government.

Does the Minister agree that while Labour Members actively block the building of new homes for first-time buyers, the Conservative Government have increased the numbers to a 20-year high and helped almost 1 million households through Government-backed schemes?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I hope he heard some of the chunters of “Come on!” from the Opposition Benches when he raised the absolutely correct point that, when the opportunity was there for Labour Members, they flubbed it. They have blocked 100,000 houses that could be used for first-time buyers, people who need help, and the most vulnerable. It is all down to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner).

I thank the Minister for that answer. What discussions has he had with large UK banks, such as Danske Bank in Northern Ireland, to ensure mortgages are made as accessible as possible for first-time buyers, encouraging them to buy, not rent, when they have a steady income? Further, are there any plans to reintroduce the help to buy ISA?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his important question. Getting people on the housing ladder is absolutely vital: that is why we introduced the mortgage guarantee scheme, which extends the number of mortgages that are on the market for those people who need it, including first-time buyers. I am happy to talk separately to the hon. Gentleman about other ideas that he may have.


Right now, the Government are taking action with the progression of the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill through this place, which delivers on the Government’s manifesto commitments on leasehold reform.

Leaseholders in Leazes Park in Newcastle are having their lives ruined because their supposedly charitable freeholder, the St Mary Magdalene and Holy Jesus Trust, refuses to allow them to extend or buy their leaseholds. Across the constituency, in a cost of living crisis, my constituents face exorbitant management fees, high costs for fire safety and ever-increasing ground rents. Can the Minister tell my constituents why, when the Labour party is committed to comprehensive and fundamental reform of the leasehold system as set out by the Law Commission, he has brought forward a leasehold reform Bill that does not actually reform their leaseholds?

The Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment—going through in a very constructive way so far, with contributions from Members of all parties, presumably because they recognise the value of the clauses it contains—will make substantive changes for those who have leaseholds at the current time. We look forward to its continued progress through the House.

There will be agreement on both sides of the House that reform is needed. For my part, I welcome the introduction of the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill to get people on to modern leasehold and commonhold, and through the Minister, I invite those who are suffering—the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) explained that her constituents are suffering—to put their points through MPs to the Department, so that when amendments to the Bill are tabled, as many as possible can be discussed and accepted.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I and the Secretary of State have said, we are keen to improve the Bill where we can, but it is a substantial Bill that will make substantial changes for people who have needed reform of leasehold for a long time.

Local Government Transparency

Steps are always being taken to improve transparency. The local government accountability framework and transparency code sets standards for transparency; it mandates the publication of certain information, such as spend. The Office for Local Government will promote transparency further by providing authoritative local government performance data on the local authority data explorer.

Being a cabinet member in a local council should require the highest level of transparency. However, I fear that is not always the case when relevant previous criminal and custodial convictions remain hidden. What advice would my hon. Friend give council leaders about how to ensure cabinet members are fully transparent about their previous convictions where relevant to their role as a cabinet member?

My hon. Friend raises an important question. At the time of appointment, all council leaders should be aware of existing disqualification criteria barring councillors who have been given a custodial sentence of three months or more, or who are registered sex offenders. If the council leader is not aware, those people who are due to be appointed should make their group leader aware of those circumstances. They have a legal obligation to declare as election candidates—this is an important issue. The Nolan principles are there for a reason: to maintain transparency and standards. If my hon. Friend wishes to write to me with the details of the case he has mentioned, I would be happy to receive his submission.

Private Rented Sector

The Renters (Reform) Bill will soon enter its Report stage in the House of Commons. That Bill abolishes section 21 evictions, moves the sector to a system of periodic tenancies and introduces a private rented sector property portal and ombudsman, improving the system for responsible tenants and good-faith landlords.

In my casework, I have seen an alarming rise in the number of no-fault evictions. This is leading to families being moved a long way from my borough, with children having to travel tens of miles to get to school every day. The Government have said that they are going to remove section 21 evictions, but they have not given the criteria under which they are going to do so, and it seems that this is going to be in the hands of the Minister. Opposition Front Benchers have offered to work with the Government to eradicate section 21 evictions. The Government said they would do it four years ago. According to the Government’s own figures, 80,000 families have been threatened with no-fault evictions. When are the Government going to co-operate and get this resolved?

That is exactly why we are bringing forward the Renters (Reform) Bill. However, as we set out on Second Reading and in Committee, we will not be able to do that until the court system is able to cope with the increased number of cases. We heard evidence in Committee about the huge increase in cases that we will find. We are introducing these reforms in a phased way so that courts and the sector have time to adjust. [Interruption.] I would say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, that it serves no one to leave tenants or landlords in limbo in a court system that is not functioning properly.

Chelmsford is a brilliant city and lots of people want to go there to live, but that does mean there is huge demand for properties, especially affordable properties, both to buy and to rent. At the moment, when we build new houses the local authority can put a quota of affordable homes on those new build properties, but they cannot do that when large office blocks are converted into flats. Will my hon. Friend arrange for me to meet the Housing Minister, so that I can discuss how to make progress with my private Member’s Bill on affordable housing in conversions of commercial to residential properties?

Housing Developers: Information on Associated Infrastructure

16. What assessment he has made of the reliability of information on associated infrastructure provided to buyers by housing developers. (901078)

It is absolutely vital that buyers have correct, up-to-date and accurate material information on their purchase before they make a decision to buy a home.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister. He will know that promotional documents put out by major house builders such as Barratt Homes, Taylor Wimpey, David Wilson Homes and so on to prospective purchasers on large-scale housing estates commit absolutely to the building of health infrastructure, which very often does not turn up. Just allocating a piece of land simply is not good enough. Can he please make sure that we do not mislead purchasers and that, frankly, the doctors’ surgery is the first building to be built on many of these new estates?

My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point, and I am grateful for the time he has spent with me in my first couple of months in the job to highlight this issue, to articulate the problems and to show the real-life examples of where there is an issue. He is such a good champion of this issue for his constituency. A substantial amount of infrastructure has been built all across the country, but where there are gaps it is hugely frustrating, and we will continue to work with assiduous Members such as my hon. Friend to try to close them.

A recent freedom of information request revealed that only a third of the housing infrastructure fund has actually been spent, which leaves £2.9 billion unspent. The National Audit Office says that successful delivery of the housing infrastructure fund “appears to be unachievable”, so what is going to happen to that £2.9 billion?

The housing infrastructure fund continues to transform very difficult, challenging and unviable areas of the country. It is being spent at pace, and it will continue to be so. We expect it to be able to transform more parts of the country over the years ahead.

National Planning Policy Framework: Neighbourhood Planning

19. What assessment he has made of the role of neighbourhood planning in the national planning policy framework. (901081)

The Government recognise the time and commitment that communities put into neighbourhood plans. Our recent updates to the national planning policy framework mean that neighbourhood plans meeting their identified housing requirement are now better protected from speculative development, including through the additional reforms coming in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023.

My Lib Dem-run borough council still does not have an up-to-date local plan. Every day that passes means that we are open to speculative housing developments without the right infrastructure such as GP practices and roads and those kind of things. My communities are fantastic at producing neighbourhood plans, but they are ridden over roughshod in places such as Desford, where housing has been put in where the community does not want it. Will the Minister look at increasing the priority given to neighbourhood plans when communities and local planning authorities do not have an up-to-date local plan?

It is hugely frustrating when local plans are not in place. As my hon. Friend indicated, in his area the Lib Dem council has failed to do that, which is letting residents down. There have been changes as a result of the national planning policy framework giving additional protection through neighbourhood plans, but district councils and those with planning responsibilities need to get their plans in place.

Permitted Development: Urban Homes

21. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of a permitted development right for urban homeowners to increase their property to four storeys where that complies with the local authority’s design code. (901085)

We have introduced national permitted development rights to allow a wide range of existing residential and commercial buildings to extend upwards by up to two additional storeys. We have also recently consulted on proposals to apply local design codes to those rights and further announcements will be made in due course.

May I urge the Minister to go further and faster on this? The permitted development rights would create beautiful urban townscapes and unleash the biggest wave of housebuilding in half a century, which would in turn cut housing costs to rent or buy, be greener by allowing people to live within bicycling or walking distance from work and protecting rural landscapes from urban sprawl and, by increasing the development potential of almost any urban building, be the biggest single act of wealth creation in decades. What’s to dislike?

There is absolutely nothing to dislike, as my hon. Friend indicates, about speeding up the planning system to ensure we get the houses we so badly need. As I know my hon. Friend will appreciate, however, there is always a balance to be struck: we must ensure that we take local people with us, but we are committed to building more houses, and doing so in the right places.

Topical Questions

Earlier this month we launched the consultation on Awaab’s law, which insists upon time limits for repairs in the social rented sector. In the shaping of this law and many other initiatives and interventions to help people in social housing, the example of Tony Lloyd, the late Member for Rochdale, is in all our minds and hearts. Awaab was one of his constituents, and Tony Lloyd could not have been kinder or more supportive of the efforts of my Department and others to see justice for Awaab’s family.

The household support fund has supported 330,000 households in Liverpool since its introduction. The focus needs to shift from crisis support to prevention but in the short term the demand for local welfare is rising. Like many other councils, Liverpool City Council says the household support fund will need to continue beyond March 2024 to keep residents well supported to stay in and enter work and prevent an escalating crisis, reducing pressure on public services including local authorities. What representations has the Minister made to the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure the continuation of the fund after March?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the fund has helped many communities in need, particularly in Liverpool. He and other Liverpool MPs have been assiduous in making the case for its continuation and I have passed that on to colleagues.

T4. Leicester-shire MPs had plenty of time last week with two Ministers from the Department—the levelling-up Minister and the local government Minister—to discuss the funding and structure of our county council. To follow up, will the Minister for local government commit to meet the county council leadership to ensure that the funding and the formula that goes with it are improved for the future? (901092)

I thank my hon. Friend for his positive engagement, alongside that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) and my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), who came to see me to discuss this issue last week. I would of course be delighted to meet the leadership of Leicestershire County Council with my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and his colleagues. Through the good offices of our hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire, I met informally with Councillor Louise Richardson, the cabinet lead on health, last week.

First, Mr Speaker, may I echo the comments made by the Secretary of State in relation to the late Tony Lloyd, who will be greatly missed in all parts of the House?

As we have heard from the shadow Secretary of State, the whole country has been levelled down since 2010 at an average rate of £10,200 per person. That is a damning indictment of this Government, but with about 1,300 projects funded by the future high streets fund, the towns deals and levelling-up funds, that decline should, in theory, not have happened. How many of those projects have now been completed and what evidence does the Department have that those projects have contributed to reducing regional inequalities?

The evidence of the reduction in regional inequalities is perhaps most marked in Teesside and the Tees valley where the Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen has been responsible for overseeing an economic renaissance, renewed foreign direct investment, and improvements in public health and education. The message is clear: if we want levelling up to work, we need to elect Conservative mayors in May.

T5. The Minister will be aware that Labour-run Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council has recently given the go-ahead for developers to build hundreds of new homes at Highfield Park in Maltby on land that has always been greenfield. What he might not be aware of is that the developer has given thousands of pounds to the local Labour party, which none of the councillors voting on the issue declared. What can he do to ensure that such greenfield sites are not wantonly given over to developers? (901093)

I am sorry to hear about the challenges that my hon. Friend has seen in Rother Valley. It is one reason that more Conservative councillors need to be elected on to Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council for the future. We are absolutely aware that there are challenges. We need to build more houses and in the right place, and the best way to do that is by getting a local plan in place, and by the councils that are responsible for that engaging properly with their communities about it.

T2. My local authority is bending over backwards to try to build social housing and is committed to building 2,000 new homes, yet the Government are still standing in the way by placing restrictions on reinvesting right-to-buy money in building social housing. Why will the Government not assist local authorities to build those houses? We have had 14,000 fewer homes a year since 2010. Does the Minister accept that that is a disgraceful record for the Government? (901089)

We always stand ready to work with local authorities of whatever stripe or colour to ensure the delivery of new homes. As the hon. Member knows, London is the region of the United Kingdom that has performed worst against its housing targets. Principally, that is down to the Mayor, not to individual local authorities, so I look forward to talking to him about what more we can do together.

T8. There is a powerful community campaign to stop an asphalt plant being built in countryside in my constituency. The application has dragged on for years. Will the Minister look at how applicants and councils can be compelled to provide and process information in a more timely manner, so that such applications do not blight the lives of local people for so long? (901096)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need decisions at the earliest possible opportunity. Sometimes that is not possible, but it is important that things are done as quickly as possible. That is one reason that we announced a few weeks ago that we were monitoring local authorities’ planning application performance, so that can see where they are, and are not, doing the right thing.

T3. Lease-holders at Orchard House in my constituency are in an unsafe building with known defects. They have been issued with a remediation order, but the freeholder is simply not co-operating. Does this not suggest that the feudal freehold system should be abolished for flats, as well as for houses? What assurances can the Minister give my constituents that they will get help from somewhere? (901091)

It suggests to me that the freeholder is doing the wrong thing, and where the freeholder is doing the wrong thing, they need to be held to account through the court system, as they are, and they will eventually be forced to do the right thing. On the specifics, I am happy to talk to the hon. Lady, if that would be helpful.

We have £72 million for Bishop Auckland through the levelling-up fund, the future high streets fund and the towns fund, £20 million for Spennymoor through the long-term plan for towns and a £1.4 billion investment fund through the north-east devolution deal. It really is the Conservatives who deliver for the north-east, is it not?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank her for her work in this role in the Department and all that she has done to help level up in her constituency.

T6.   There are 14,000 families waiting on Liverpool’s housing register. We are facing a housing and homelessness crisis, and the cost of providing temporary accommodation has gone from £250,000 to £19 million in the past three years. The leader of the council has written to the Secretary of State twice. When will the Secretary of State wake up to this emergency? (901094)

I appreciate the advocacy of Liverpool MPs on behalf of those in temporary accommodation, and I appreciate the scale and nature of the problem. I have been working with the Mayor of Liverpool city region and others to look at a strategic futures advisory panel report that we believe will unlock not just additional housing, but additional investment in Liverpool and the Liverpool city region. I look forward to discussing that with the hon. Member and, indeed, the new leader of Liverpool City Council.

Over the weekend, the Express ran a story about Ferryhill in my Sedgefield constituency being a dumping ground for rapists and paedophiles. My constituents believe that has been driven by housing groups advertising in the south to people that they have houses in places such as Ferryhill where no checks are required. Can the Minister meet me to discuss how we can stop the degeneration of places such as Ferryhill?

I am very sorry to hear of my hon. Friend’s concerns. I will meet him and discuss how our antisocial behaviour action plan can help in Ferryhill.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Today, more than 40 of the Government’s own MPs have written to the Prime Minister with their concern about the financial situation facing councils and the need for emergency funding. The Local Government Association says that there is likely to be a £4 billion funding gap over the next two years. If there are to be these council shortfalls and many people will not see the essential services they rely on, what will the Secretary of State do to ensure that people still have access to the vital services they so desperately need?

I think that of the 40 MPs who wrote that letter, one was the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and one was the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), so I look forward to their joining our ranks as part of the swelling tide of Conservative support that I see across the country. On the specifics of the hon. Member’s point, we have been listening carefully to colleagues in local government and will respond in due course.

Local council tax payers in Warrington quite rightly expect high levels of governance and transparency when councillors are using public money to invest in commercial businesses, which carries a high level of risk. Does the Minister agree that the decision by Labour-run Warrington Borough Council to reduce the number of opposition councillors on its audit committee flies in the face of good governance and that questions need to be asked about how it is managing its £1.8 billion debt?

I recognise the concerns regarding Warrington’s debt. Of course, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 provides new powers for the Government to step in and take action to protect the public purse. My experience is that where important scrutiny chairmanship roles are held by opposition parties, those who take the decisions take better decisions, and the scrutiny is much better as a result.

Does the Secretary of State think it is acceptable that leaseholders of Lee Court in my constituency should be without heating and hot water, as well as experiencing multiple problems in the communal area? If he does not think that is acceptable, how and when will he strengthen the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill to stop these injustices from happening?

I absolutely accept that, and I believe that I wrote recently to Lewisham council to draw attention to its responsibilities in the area.

On Metro Mayors, may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the decision of Ben Houchen to deliver the £250 million Darlington northern link road using Network North funds? Does he agree that that is a fantastic example of Ben delivering for Darlington and the Tees Valley?

It is just another example of Ben Houchen as Metro Mayor using all the powers at his disposal and the resources released by this Conservative Government to ensure that, at last, Teesside and the Tees Valley gets the investment it needed. One reason he attracts so much criticism from the Labour party is that he is a Tory who delivers for Teesside in a way that no one has ever delivered before.

Will the Minister commit to further levelling-up funding for the devolved institutions for local sports clubs across Northern Ireland, instead of funding Casement Park to the detriment of every other sport looking for funding in Northern Ireland, so that all traditions and all sides of the community can benefit from the funding?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point seriously. It is important that we support grassroots sport and other civil society organisations in Northern Ireland. We are working hard to try to ensure that we can do that with our partners in a restored Executive. In the meantime, I should say that I am grateful to Ulster rugby for ending its relationship with Kingspan, which means that we can unlock additional funding for grassroots rugby across Northern Ireland.

While I am deeply disappointed that Stoke-on-Trent Labour refuses to make the necessary terms and conditions changes to help save Stoke-on-Trent City Council funding, there is a united view across the political divide in Stoke-on-Trent that the legacy in children’s social care is causing huge financial strain on the local authority. Will the Secretary of State do everything he can to work with Councillor Jane Ashworth to ensure that that gap is funded and those children—the most vulnerable in our society—are protected?

Absolutely. I hope that the House will note that my hon. Friend, who fights incredibly hard for his principles and for Stoke-on-Trent, is taking a typically statesmanlike approach in putting his constituents first. Come the next general election, people should remember that he is someone whose big heart reflects their good values.

Road safety is put at risk by roads that are not adopted, because speed limits cannot be enforced and often they do not get gritted. There are serious worries that people will get injured. What more can the Department do to ensure that key service roads on big, new housing estates get adopted more quickly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to ensure that developers live up to their responsibilities to provide appropriate infrastructure. It has been the case that a number of fleecehold—for want of a better word—developments have unadopted roads, where children are at risk.

Speaker’s Statement

Before we proceed to the next business, I would like to make a brief statement. The link between Members of Parliament and our constituents is special and fundamental to the democratic life of the country. As we enter the general election year, many hon. Members are expecting boundary changes. Some will contemplate standing for constituencies that they do not currently represent. I have received a number of representations from hon. Members from all parts of the House about colleagues involving themselves in their constituencies. I thought it would be helpful to remind the House of some important rules and conventions regarding constituency representation.

First, Members usually deal with individual cases relating only to their own constituencies. When a Member is contacted by someone seeking assistance who is not her or his own constituent, the normal expectation is that the person should be referred to the relevant constituency Member. Secondly, when a Member intends to visit another constituency other than in a private capacity, they should make every reasonable effort to inform the Member representing that constituency before they do so. That applies equally to ministerial visits. The ministerial code states that the Ministers intending to make an official visit in the United Kingdom must inform, in advance and in good time, the MPs whose constituencies are to be included in the visit. I should add that, although the ministerial code does not apply to shadow Ministers, they should adhere to the same protocol if visiting constituencies.

Thirdly, when issues relating to another constituency are raised in the House, the Member concerned should, where possible and when time permits, inform the other Member involved in advance. That applies equally to the tabling of written questions.

Hon. Members have a duty to look after the constituents who elected them to this place. Boundary changes do not take effect until the next election. We must observe the convention of not involving ourselves with another Member’s constituency until that time. More generally, I understand that the political temperature will rise as we get closer to an election. I urge all hon. Members to continue to treat each other with courtesy and respect in the remaining months of this Parliament. The election seems to have started a little too early.

Funded Childcare

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if she will make a statement on her Department’s plans to roll out 15 hours of funded childcare to 2-year-olds in working families from April 2024.

The Government are rolling out the single largest expansion in childcare in English history. By September 2025, we will provide working parents with 30 hours of free childcare a week from when their child is nine months old, all the way until they start school. By 2027-28, this Government expect to spend in excess of £8 billion every year on free hours in early education—double the amount we are currently spending.

We are introducing that in phases. From April, eligible working parents will be able to access the first 15 hours of free childcare each week for their two-year-olds. In September, they will be able to access the first 15 hours each week for nine-month-olds. A year later in September 2025, they will be able to access the full 30 hours for all eligible children aged nine months upwards.

We want parents to be able to access the new offer as soon as they can. Delivering that ambition includes increasing childcare funding rates, with an additional £204 million in this financial year and an additional £400 million in the coming financial year. We are providing grants to help new childminders enter the sector and, to make it easier for the sector, making changes to the early years foundation stage that it has asked us to make.

We hear every day from families how significant this policy will be for their finances. Once the roll-out is completed, eligible families will save up to £6,500 per year. It will help parents to return to work or increase their hours, and tens of thousands of parents have already successfully applied for their codes, ready to take up their places in April. Parents should visit to see the full range of support they are entitled to.

Regarding tax-free childcare, we will be issuing letters with temporary codes to any parents whose tax-free childcare reconfirmation date falls on or after 15 February and before 1 April. That will ensure that any eligible parent who needs a code to confirm their funded childcare place with their provider will have one, and that no parent should worry that they will lose out.

I welcome this opportunity to correct some misleading stories about the childcare roll-out, and to hear from the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) about whether she supports our childcare policies, and, if not, what her childcare policies would be. I am sure Members on the Labour Benches would like to know as much as we would.

In which case, it would have been good to have come forward with a statement, rather than me granting an urgent question. So, please bear that in mind before you make a comment.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and thank you for granting the urgent question.

Crumbling school buildings, botched school budgets and now the hat trick: a childcare pledge in tatters because of Conservative bungling. It is not Ministers, but families across the country paying the price for Tory incompetence. How did we get here?

A litany of failures: a pledge without a plan and a Department without a grip, led by Ministers without a clue; families without the certainty of a childcare place they were promised by the Chancellor last March; and meanwhile the Department is facing a further £120 million shortfall because of yet another miscalculation. How are they going to make up that shortfall?

Families are facing a rolling wave of Conservative chaos which wrecks all before it: for providers it is an utter fiasco, where their income after April is still a state secret. When will providers be told about their funding rates? How many families does the Minister estimate will now not be able to access new hours because of this shambles? The Prime Minister’s official spokesman this morning said:

“We are confident that the provision and capability is there, we are confident in the strength of the marketplace.”

But the market is telling them that their plan is simply not deliverable. The chief executive of the Early Years Alliance said that signing up to the new system was “financial suicide” for providers. Mr Speaker, this is not a market, it is an almighty mess and Ministers know it. Government sources are briefing the papers that there will be

“parents that just don’t get their places.”

Let me explain to Ministers in words of one syllable. That is no good. That will not work. They must do more. They need to fix it. If providers cannot price places now, how on earth can they be expected to offer more in September? Can Ministers guarantee to parents now that the roll-out will be delivered on time, yes or no?

It need not be this way. Sir David Bell is leading Labour’s early years review to ensure that childcare is about life chances for children, as well as work choices for parents. Up and down this country families are fed up with this Government, their broken promises and their incompetence. It is time for a general election to end this Tory shambles once and for all.

I will try to pick out the questions from the bluster.

On the £120 million, this is a specific issue that affects September 2024 onwards, where we allocated to local authorities 22 weeks of funding because that is the period from September to March. Some then said that they pay 26 weeks to their providers, so we have that money in order that they can provide 26 weeks of funding where that is what they do.

On the funding rates, we announced the funding rates for three and four-year-olds in April last year, and for two-year-olds in November.[Official Report, 30 January 2024, Vol. 744, c. 9MC.] Given that local authorities have to pass on 95% of the money that we give them, providers have a pretty good idea of what they will receive. However, while the vast majority of authorities will confirm their rates in the coming weeks, a small number leave it until 31 March. We are encouraging them not to do that, and to confirm their rates as early as possible in the same way as the others.

The hon. Lady asked how many families would not be able to access the childcare offer as a result of those two issues. The answer is none. As she knows, we have increased funding rates significantly. Neil Leitch, to whom she referred, is in our stakeholder group, and we value his input. However, I think it will be clear to people watching these exchanges that while we get on with the biggest delivery of childcare ever, the Labour party has no plan, no policy, and no idea how to help families with childcare costs.

The expansion of childcare is extremely welcome, and I have every confidence that the Minister and the excellent team at the Department for Education will deliver this current expansion on time and that the funding will reach all the families who need it. To be fair, however, the Minister is dealing with a system that has become remarkably complicated over the last 15 or 20 years. Would he be interested in discussing with the Chancellor the notion of rolling up all the various funding streams that we provide for childcare, and indeed for family support, and instead of taking money from people in taxes, losing some of the administration and returning it to them in the form of mandated childcare, thus giving every family with children a generous tax break to allow them to make choices for themselves?

My right hon. Friend has written some articles, which I have read, proposing that very idea. We think that our present system is the best way of achieving what we want to achieve, but I am of course happy to continue my discussions with him.

Good-quality childcare is a crucial economic infrastructure issue for parents now and the education of children in the future, which is why we need it, but the system is too complex, and we cannot access it in my constituency. Providers are collapsing. When will the Government think about drawing up a workforce plan to try to stabilise the system before adding more and more complexity for parents?

I am not sure what the hon. Lady means when she says that people in Bristol cannot access the system, but if she sends me the details, I shall be happy at look at them, because, I have said, tens of thousands of parents have already accessed it. I should also point out that while there has been a fall in the number of providers, there has been an increase in the numbers of both staff and places, so we are confident that we will deliver the roll-out as planned.

I welcome the Minister’s statement, and working parents across my constituency welcome this expansion and the biggest ever investment in childcare in England. Today, however, I received a letter from Victoria Morris, a very experienced childminder who has worked in Leigh-on-Sea for more than 20 years, pointing out that someone who owns a nursery can claim the funding for children to whom they are related, including their own children, but that does not apply to childminders. She simply asks whether the Minister would consider lifting that ban so that childminders are on the same footing as other childcare providers.

The current legislation states that people cannot access Government money for looking after their own children, although it can happen in a larger setting. We have no plans to change that at present, but I should be happy to have a discussion with my hon. Friend.

We know of the challenge that many parents face in trying to find an appropriate nursery for their children, but it is even harder when a child has special educational needs. According to messages I have received, some nurseries are refusing to take such children on. Can the Minister say without equivocation that that is unlawful?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and he is entirely right. We have heard from great organisations such as Dingley’s Promise that providers have not given places to children with special educational needs, and the team and I are looking into that to ensure that it is not the case.

Parents asked for support with childcare and the Treasury and the Government have delivered it, but the system does need to be simplified. I have been following the analysis of the codes, and receiving the codes, by Pregnant Then Screwed, which announced today that a fix had been found and thanked the Department. It would be helpful to hear a little more about that. Will my hon. Friend meet, for instance, the New Deal for Parents group, which is looking for long-term simplifications? Will he also tell us how he is working through the different local authority areas to show that there will be places available now and also in September, because so many parents are looking forward to that?

My hon. Friend has been campaigning on this issue since she arrived in this place. The tax-free childcare code issue was a specific issue caused by parents needing to reconfirm their eligibility every three months to prove that they were still eligible. If they did that quite late last year, they were concerned that they might not be able to get the place they needed in time for the 31 March deadline. As my hon. Friend says, Pregnant Then Screwed has fixed that issue. I would be happy to meet the groups that she mentioned. On the sufficiency of places, we are in monthly contact with local authorities to ensure that they have sufficient places, and only a very small number are reporting any concerns at this point.

A report from the Early Education and Childcare Coalition last November found that only 17% of nursery managers said they could offer the extended entitlement, because of the crisis in recruitment in the sector, and 35% said they would limit the number of places they offered unless the Government helped with recruitment. More than half of all nursery workers have said they are planning on leaving the sector in the next 12 months. What will the Minister do to address the crisis in recruitment and retention in the sector so that nurseries can provide the extended entitlement that parents want?

We have seen a 4% increase in the number of staff in 2023, compared with 2022. None the less, part of the reason why this is a phased implementation and expansion of childcare is to ensure that we have the number of staff we need, and in a couple of weeks we will be launching a big recruitment campaign to get more people into the sector.

I reserve the right to do that, but we hope that if we ring them up first and ask them to publish—with the threat of doing that if they do not—they will do so.

The current system of childcare support is not working: IT problems are causing parents to be locked out of the system; codes are not working; there are no timescales to sort problems; there is no response to complaints; and people are waiting weeks for moneys to be paid to providers. If the current system is not working, how does the Minister expect to reassure parents that the new system, which will rely on the same codes and systems, is going to work?

I simply do not accept what the hon. Lady says—[Interruption.] If she wants to send me details, I will be happy to take them up with any local authority that is not doing what it is asked to do. On the two particular issues with the roll-out, we have moved quickly and provided solutions for them.

This is the biggest ever expansion of childcare and it will be transformational for many working parents, so it is bound to be really complicated to implement. The Minister has just said that only a tiny number of local authorities are reporting that they think they will not have sufficient places, so does that mean that the vast majority of local authorities say that they will have sufficient places? What is he doing to encourage more people to come into the profession and act as childminders?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the vast majority of local authorities are already reporting that they will have the number of places that they need. We are working with the small number that have challenges and we are confident that they will be in the right place by that point. On her question about childminders, one of the things we are doing is introducing a brand-new childminder grant scheme to encourage more childminders into the great early years careers that are available.

I heard the Minister talk about the staffing. For a new parent or carer, handing over their young child to the staff in the sector is one of the most scary things. Those staff do fantastic work but are often paid low wages. The Women’s Budget Group has estimated that there will need to be at least 40,000 additional new early years staff to cope with the increase in entitlement in terms of recruitment and retention in the sector. Will the Minister outline when we can expect the long-term workforce plan for the early years sector, so that we can actually have the staff? It is no good having this increase in entitlement if there are no staff to look after the children.

The hon. Lady is right that we need more staff. I think she refers to the estimate in time for September 2025, rather than for the first part of the roll-out in April, which is part of the reason for the current recruitment campaign. We are pleased to have already seen a 4% increase in the number of staff.

I welcome the fact that the Government are rolling out the biggest ever investment in childcare in England. Will my hon. Friend outline how much the average working family will benefit from the extended childcare entitlements?

My hon. Friend is right that it is the biggest expansion of childcare provision in history. By the time the roll-out is complete in September 2025, it will save the average family up to £6,500 a year in childcare costs.

Many of us tried to warn the Government that this would be like Help to Buy, pushing up demand without tackling supply. Numbers matter in this sector, and it is 313 days since the policy was announced and just 70 days before it is due to be implemented. There have been 30 separate questions in this place about the staffing shortfall, and none of them has been answered. There are two children chasing every registered place, and only two local authorities have actually agreed the rates. It is little wonder that parents are frustrated. Will the Minister set out, here and now, the staffing shortfall in terms of delivering the two-year-old offer in April? Will he tell us what it is, and will he tell us when he expects to close it?

The hon. Lady cites the figures for September 2025, not for April. I am confident that, in April, she will see that we have the staff available for the roll-out.

I declare an interest as the father of two wonderful children, Charlotte and Persephone, who go to nursery in this very place and will benefit from the new proposals.

The UK has a declining birth rate—on average, 1.92 children per woman—and we clearly need more children. Time and again, when surveyed, women who want more children say that they are not having more children because they cannot afford it. I thoroughly welcome the money that has been announced, but what more is being done to support parents who say they want more children but cannot afford to have them? That could perhaps include looking at the tax rate.

I hope Charlotte and Persephone enjoy their nursery provision here, which I am sure is among the 96% of early years providers that are good or outstanding. My hon. Friend is right that childcare is one of the biggest financial challenges facing families today, which is why we are pleased to save them so much money. I am happy to continue the conversation about what else he thinks should be done to support families.

The shortfall in childcare providers is a serious issue for constituents in Putney. Eastwood Nursery School, the last remaining state-maintained nursery in my constituency, is under immediate threat of closure. It provides training for childcare providers across the constituency, as well as excellent early years education. Does the Minister support state-maintained nurseries? Will he meet me to talk about the future of Eastwood Nursery School?

We certainly support state-maintained nurseries, which play a vital role in the sector. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that particular case.

I praise the Minister for being on top of his brief and for ironing out some of the misunderstandings flying around today. Is it not the case that, as others have said, the challenges of rolling out this offer sit within the broader context of the ongoing workforce challenge? Today I spoke to a provider that has 42 settings and is not able to fully staff a single one of them. I know the Minister is doing a lot of work on this, but will he say a little more about how he plans to meet that workforce challenge with his recruitment drive?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has also done a lot to champion the sector and to raise awareness of the challenge it faces. He is right that we need to get more people into the workforce, particularly for the September 2025 roll-out. That is what the recruitment campaign and the changes we made to the early years foundation stage are all about. We listened to providers on the flexibilities that might make their lives easier and delivered almost everything they asked for, in the hope that it will help them with recruitment and retention.

I recently visited the Ryton Willows Montessori nursery in my constituency, where its manager explained her concerns about the impact of the change on her, and about how she was going to make the sums add up financially and provide an excellent service. We have heard that the final figures are not available; when will they be available? Will the Minister undertake to review the figures to see that they meet the needs of the sector?

We set our rates by conducting a survey of 10,000 providers, in order to understand the costs they face and set the rates accordingly.[Official Report, 30 January 2024, Vol. 744, c. 9MC.] Last November, we delayed publishing the rates a bit, in order that we could provide more money to take account of the Government’s near 10% increase in the national living wage. We believe we are getting them right in relation to what people are paying, but if the hon. Lady has particular evidence she would like to send me, I will happily look at it.

Last Friday, I visited the Butterfly Lodge nursery in Blackpool to hear the concerns of early years providers, many of whom are at breaking point. They welcomed the uplift in funding from April, but they were keen to emphasise that it does not even cover the significant increase in their costs, such as for utilities and the national living wage. What steps are the Government taking to stabilise the sector and prevent early years providers from leaving it altogether?

I set out in my statement the additional money that we had given to the sector in the last financial year and this one to help it to meet those cost pressures—that was anchored to the survey of 10,000 providers that I talked about.[Official Report, 30 January 2024, Vol. 744, c. 10MC.] Again, if the hon. Gentleman wants to send me information, data or specific case studies, I will gladly have a look.

I am glad the Minister said that, because I have a specific case from my constituency that I wish to raise. It relates to the parents of a two-year-old and a nine-month-old baby. They are teachers in local secondary schools and the mother is planning on returning to work after maternity leave. They have been really struggling with this issue of the portal, when they would get the code through and so on. I hope that what was announced will help them, but will the Minister confirm that if it turns out that it does not, I will be able to write to him and get an immediate response?

Yes, and I hope that the hon. Lady will do so. We have taken an extra-cautious approach on this. A particular group of parents were affected and rather than just write to them, we have written to a much broader group of parents: everybody whose reconfirmation window goes from middle of February to the end of March. So no parent should lose out as a result of this issue and she should get in touch with me immediately if those parents are encountering any problems.

The businesses involved in providing childcare need to be able to plan ahead. The Minister may say, “Everything will be fine in April. There may be some problems down the road, but we are confident we can iron them out,” but that really is not going to be get people to invest in leases from premises and all sorts of things that those who run childcare businesses are going to need to commit to, so will he give us a bit more detail? He says he is confident that this is going to meet the need, but 700,000 children are going to join the scheme, according to the Government’s own figures. Where are those childcare providers going to get the information they need in order to be confident that they can invest to go forward?

We are in monthly contact with local authorities and at least monthly contact with providers about this. Some local authorities do take a long time to publish their rates. We are looking at that, because we have provided the information and the funding that we need to, and we do not think it is right for providers in the sector to be waiting right up until 31 March to get that information. So we are looking at what we can do on that. Having said that, some local authorities have already confirmed their rates and the vast majority will do so in the coming weeks.

The initiative is supposed to provide 700,000 additional childcare places, yet 5% of providers withdrew from the market last year, including in the Sandymoor part of my constituency. How do Ministers square that circle, given the funding pressures going forward?

We are doing all we can to help providers meet the funding pressures. It is important for Members of the House to understand that there is a difference between the fall in the number of providers, which can be seen in nationally published data, and the increase in the number of staff and places. I am confident that parents will be able to access these hours as entitled.

Every time the Government have made an announcement to improve childcare, I have welcomed it. I was pleased to serve on the Bill Committee for the Childcare Act 2016, but I questioned then exactly how the Government were going to deliver the capacity needed within the budget available. The Minister said that all would be well, but he was wrong and it took years to build up capacity, and the current offer is still not being universally delivered. Given the poor preparation for this latest initiative, how on earth can parents expect the Government to deliver this time?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has welcomed our announcements on childcare, although Members on the Opposition Front Bench have not done so. We are in close contact with local authorities and providers in order to deliver the initiative, and parents will be able to get those first 15 hours for their two-year-olds in April.

Does the Minister believe that part of the consideration on affordable childcare will take into account the need for nurseries to be able to operate alongside the cost of living crisis? Can additional funding be found to meet that need, not for the sake of the delivery of a promise but for the children who desperately need the care to enable their development and for the parents who simply cannot afford to do it alone?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the increased cost pressures that everybody has to face. That is why we gave an additional £204 million in the last financial year and a further £400 million in the current financial year to help meet those pressures, based on the fact that we surveyed 10,000 providers in order to understand exactly what they are paying for all the things he outlines.[Official Report, 30 January 2024, Vol. 744, c. 10MC.]


(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to make a statement on the declaration of a national incident in response to the recent surge in measles cases.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the chance to update the House on this important matter, further to the written ministerial statement that we will publish later today.

The UK Health Security Agency announced last week that it has declared a national standard incident in response to an increase in confirmed cases of measles. In order for our measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to work, the World Health Organisation recommends at least 95% coverage to maintain population coverage. At the moment, our MMR reach is 89.3% for the first dose at 24 months, and 84.5% for the second dose at five years.

This is not a new issue. There has been a gradual decline in coverage over 10 years because of a number of factors, ranging from the Wakefield generation, when Dr Andrew Wakefield published his discredited paper on the risks of MMR, through to covid, when routine vaccinations were missed, and there has been a drop since then. There have also been concerns in particular communities, such as the Jewish and Muslim communities, about the type of vaccine used. We have not been waiting: the NHS has carried out a catch-up effort over the past 12 months, proactively contacting parents and carers of unvaccinated children aged five and younger, and we have seen a 10% increase in vaccination compared to the previous year.

However, that is not enough. NHS figures show that almost 3.5 million children under the age of 16 are unprotected and at risk of catching this serious and preventable disease.[Official Report, 24 May 2024; Vol. 750, c. 16WC.] (Correction) Measles is so infectious that one infected child in a classroom can infect up to nine other unvaccinated children, making it one of the most infectious diseases worldwide. While for most it will be a mild illness, one in five children with measles will need to be admitted to hospital for treatment, putting additional pressure on the NHS.

I want to stress that this is not just a childhood disease; for adults who have not been vaccinated it can be a serious and potentially life-changing event. My message to mums and dads with children who are currently unvaccinated is to come forward. We have a range of measures in place. One million letters are going out to the parents of unvaccinated children across London and the midlands.

We have extra clinics being set up by GPs, pop-up clinics in schools and vaccine buses targeting communities with low vaccination rates. We have held two MP briefing sessions, on 12 and 19 January: one for the west midlands and one for London. Today we have sent out information to MPs so that they can help us get the message out to their constituents to come forward. It is not too late. There is no age limit. Anybody who has not had their vaccination can come forward. The first vaccine will provide roughly 92% protection, and the second will provide 98%. The message is to come forward and get vaccinated.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

The declaration of a national incident due to the rise in measles cases by the UK Health Security Agency on Friday is concerning. Measles can be serious and it is extremely infectious, with a reproduction rate five times that of covid. However, it is also entirely preventable. The Minister is right to emphasise the importance of getting vaccinated. The MMR vaccine is safe, effective and the best way to protect ourselves and our loved ones against measles. There is no age cut-off for getting an MMR vaccine. There are alternatives available for those who do not touch pork products. Once a person has had it, the vaccine can provide protection within two weeks. I urge anyone watching this who has not been vaccinated to contact their GP.

Mr Speaker, we are in agreement that this issue is serious. I thank the Minister for outlining some of the steps that she is taking. However, we should never have got to this point. The UK was deemed by the World Health Organisation to have eradicated measles just five years ago. Since then, MMR vaccination rates have plummeted, leaving tens of thousands of children completely unprotected, which means that now one in five children is not protected with two doses by the age of five. Cases have also risen consistently over the years, and by 120% in the past year alone, so the warning signs could have been seen from space. What steps are being taken to get a grip on this crisis before it becomes a national outbreak? How will the Minister rectify her Department’s failure to maintain child vaccination rates for contagious diseases? Is this not another instance of Government complacency when it comes to protecting our children’s health?

For the record, Mr Speaker, my team attended a briefing with the Minister and her officials on this issue on 12 January, which she has mentioned. I requested some more information and communications materials that I could use in my capacity as a local MP, given the rise in cases in Birmingham. It took until this morning—some 10 days later—to be sent that information, but only after a national incident had been declared. Have the Government been asleep? Have no lessons been learned from the pandemic that, with highly transmissible diseases, the sooner we act, the better?

We saw how much children suffered and lost out during the pandemic, so the re-emergence of serious childhood illnesses that we have vaccines for and that we know how to prevent is unacceptable. When 80 countries across the world are measles-free, it is a badge of shame that this Government have lost the UK that status on their watch.

I remind the hon. Lady that health is a devolved matter across the United Kingdom. When she refers to the United Kingdom’s lower MMR vaccination rate, does she include Labour-run Wales? Wales has also not met the WHO threshold, and neither has Scotland, Northern Ireland or England. It is a real shame to play politics with this issue. This is an issue of the utmost importance.

As I have set out, this Government have been working over the past 12 months to get vaccination rates up in England, and we have seen a 10% increase. There are a range of reasons why we are seeing certain parts of the country and some communities not coming forward. The hon. Lady touched on the concerns of the Jewish and Muslim communities that a wide range of MMR vaccines are porcine vaccines. We do have non-porcine vaccines available. Priorix is not just available on request; following a meeting that we had with west midlands MPs, we proactively pushed Priorix out to communities. The help of local MPs to get that message out to communities would be extremely valuable. There is also a halal vaccine available. Again, we need to get that message out, so that people do not have to request it; it would be routinely offered to them.

We are also undoing much of the damage done to the Wakefield cohort of young adults, who were born between 1998 and 2004, when Dr Andrew Wakefield’s discredited paper on the risks of MMR led to a drop in the numbers coming forward for the vaccine. Those young adults are eligible for vaccines right now to try to prevent the spread of measles.

We also know that covid disrupted the routine vaccination programme. Again, that is a key reason why all four nations of the United Kingdom are not meeting the WHO recommended coverage. As I have set out, letters are going out to the parents of unvaccinated children, because we recognise that rates have been lower than we would wish. One million have gone out across London and the west midlands. Of all parts of the United Kingdom, it is the west midlands that we are most concerned about.

To give the House some context, last year there were more than 209 laboratory-confirmed measles cases in England, over three quarters of which were from the west midlands, predominantly Birmingham and Coventry, so there is a particular push in the west midlands. That is why nearly two weeks ago we gave a briefing to local MPs and local directors of public health, who are doing an outstanding job at the coalface, rolling out pop-up clinics in schools and going out on community buses to reach communities that may struggle to be reached through traditional routes. GPs are putting on extra clinics, but we have to get the message out. It is not through a lack of vaccines or a lack of messaging, but we still have vaccine hesitancy. We all have a role to play in getting communities to come forward.

In April last year, the UK Health Security Agency told the Health and Social Care Committee that it was

“expecting measles to come back”,

while the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation told us that the threat was “very real”. Last summer, as the Minister knows, we published a vaccination report as part of our prevention inquiry. We were pleased that, in answer to a recommendation, NHS England published its vaccination strategy just before Christmas. Can the Minister say more about how she will inject more urgency into the roll-out, and will she commit, as we also asked, to a much more flexible delivery model for vaccinations, including through pharmacy?

The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee is right. That is why we have met with both the west midlands and the London teams to hear from those on the ground what resources they need in order to become more nimble in the vaccine roll-out. The communities that are not coming forward are the ones that are not engaging with the routine MMR vaccine programme, so we need to be more nimble, which is why we are hearing from those vaccinating on the ground about vaccine buses going into communities, pop-up clinics in schools, and GPs putting on extra vaccine clinics. From our data, we have a list of the children who are unvaccinated, and more than a million letters have gone out to their parents to urge them to come forward.

My hon. Friend is right about using pharmacy, with Pharmacy First as a model, to make it even easier for people to come forward, but the real barrier is people’s reluctance to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons, whether it is vaccine fatigue through covid or because they missed their routine appointments and find it difficult to come forward at an extra clinic. We are engaging with local authorities and the Department for Education to try to make it as easy as possible for children and adults to get vaccinated.

There are clear inequalities in vaccination uptake, including MMR, which reflect various socioeconomic inequalities. What extra support is being given to those areas, and to places such as mine, and why, as the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee suggests, was the risk assessment of the UK Health Security Agency seemingly ignored by the Government?

I can assure the hon. Lady that it was not ignored by the Government. Over the past 12 months, we have been pushing vaccinations to those who have not come forward, and to communities that struggle with vaccination uptake, which is why in the past 12 months there has been a 10% increase. As I say, that is not enough. There are still people who need to come forward for vaccination who have not done so. I emphasise to the House that this is an acute outbreak of measles. If someone has their first dose of the measles vaccine today, within two weeks they will have roughly 92% immunity. If they go on to have the second vaccine, they will have roughly 98% immunity, which will be lifelong.

Might vaccination rates benefit from a much more generous compensation scheme for the very small number of severe adverse reactions?

We have a vaccine damage payment scheme, which provides a one-off payment of £120,000. That is accessible for any vaccine that someone takes up, but I have to say that part of the problem is misleading information about the safety of vaccines. The measles vaccine is safe. At one point, we had eliminated measles in this country. Most children will be fine, with a mild illness, but we have had episodes of children getting encephalitis, which is a swelling of the brain that has lifelong consequences. We must move away from the narrative that vaccines are not safe. The measles vaccine