House of Commons
Thursday 2 May 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That Mr Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough constituency of Peterborough in the room of Fiona Oluyinka Onasanya, against whom since her election for the said Borough constituency a recall petition has been successful.—(Mr Nicholas Brown.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Great Western Main Line
We have so far electrified the Great Western main line as far as Newbury, Bristol Parkway and Chippenham, and electrification to Cardiff is progressing towards delivery by November this year.
I certainly welcome the electrification work in south Wales, although it should have gone through to Swansea, but what is the Department doing to ensure that Network Rail works closely with communities such as Magor in my constituency, which is right on the line, to ensure that where work does have a big impact on residents it listens, reacts to problems and compensates accordingly?
I cannot comment on the specifics of that community, but I will take that up with Network Rail on the hon. Lady’s behalf. As a general principle, I raise, and have raised repeatedly, with Network Rail how community engagement and communication are absolutely critical for all communities along the lines they serve.
The electrification of the main line railway through Devon and Cornwall would be massively challenging and hugely disruptive because of the geography, with a number of bridges, tunnels and steep inclines. Does the Minister share my view that the best way forward for places like Devon and Cornwall is to use bimodal trains that make use of electrification where available, but then have clean diesel engines where electrification is not possible?
My hon. Friend makes a very wise point. Electrification has always been part of the answer to improve the network, its environmental performance and its running capability, but it will not be the right answer on every single occasion. There will be occasions where electrification provides no significant journey time savings, yet has a significant capital cost. In those situations, we should seek to get the benefits via technology and the technology in the rolling stock. I agree with my hon. Friend.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), my constituents, particularly those in Lawrence Hill, one of the most challenging parts of my constituency, had to endure months of inconvenience as the electrification work was carried out. To add insult to that injury, we are not even getting electrification to Bristol Temple Meads. They have to put up with the inconvenience without the electrification. What compensation, assistance or help can the Secretary of State or the Government give to my constituents in Lawrence Hill?
The issue of compensation when we do works on either the railways or the roads is raised repeatedly, but it would simply just add to the cost of projects. I recognise that we cannot work on the roads or the rails without causing some disruption. That should be minimised. As I said to the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), we should be working to communicate and collaborate with communities. In terms of compensation, there is no plan to change any of the current arrangements, but I just remind her that the services at the end of the work will result in the best ever services from Bristol.
The Minister may be aware that the Welsh Affairs Committee reported on the cancellation of electrification to Swansea and pointed out that although Wales has 11% of the UK’s rail network it receives 1.5% of rail investment. Does the Minister not agree that that disparity needs to be addressed?
We are keen to see investment right across our network. I know the hon. Gentleman has campaigned for a variety of infrastructure investments—indeed, we had a Westminster Hall debate on this subject only a few weeks ago—but we are investing at a record level. The budget for England and Wales for control period 6, which started last month, is £48 billion. That money is being spent on upgrading, maintaining and renewing our network. As proposals come forward for inclusion within schemes, they should of course be based on merit. I look forward to working with Welsh colleagues to see what happens.
Skipton to Colne Rail Link
An initial feasibility study carried out in partnership with Transport for the North was completed in December 2018. We are now working to assess the scheme to ensure that it can be affordable, will attract sufficient traffic and is part of the right long-term solution for the cross-Pennine rail routes. The results of that work, which we expect to receive later this year, will inform the decision about taking the scheme forward.
Does the Minister agree that restoring the line would have the advantage of providing an important new freight link across the Pennines, as well as a passenger link? Will he agree to publish the feasibility study, so that Network Rail’s £800 million cost estimate can be scrutinised and, probably, brought down considerably?
Of course if the scheme is to go forward, it has to be at an affordable price. It is part of the Government’s broader strategy to improve connections between east Lancashire and West Yorkshire, and I commend those Members who have made such a powerful case for the improvement of those routes—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), at the other end in West Yorkshire, who has talked about the importance of those routes.
I also believe it is of fundamental importance that we have a proper freight route across the Pennines, as well as passenger services for local communities in those areas, so that we can provide shorter journey times from ports on the east and west coasts. That, to my mind, is the central part of this work.
Seating-only Policies: Capacity and Ticket Prices
The Department has made no recent assessment of the potential effect of the introduction of seating-only policies on our national rail network. I understand that Virgin set out a number of proposals in its submission to the Williams rail review, including seating-only services. Those will of course be considered by Mr Williams and his team as their work progresses.
When do the Minister or his officials propose to have discussions with Virgin Trains? There is a great deal of concern that this could affect Virgin employees and, equally, pensioners’ freedom to travel, so I hope the Minister will discuss this with Virgin.
I look forward to the Williams review’s response to Virgin’s submission. I see Virgin’s point, but I have to say that the turn-up-and-go principle that has always been part of our rail network is important and, I think, valued by passengers. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the impact on passengers and those who work on the railways, but the underlying turn-up-and-go principle is a fundamental part of our rail network, and we would only challenge that with extreme care.
Far too many rail passengers have to stand, which is especially inconvenient for those on lengthy journeys. Many other countries successfully run double-decker trains. Why do we not, with a bit of vision and ambition, introduce double-decker trains on our network?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. Our challenge is that we have a very old infrastructure, including many cuttings, tunnels and bridges. Cuttings are perhaps less of a problem, but the tunnels and bridges would be more of a challenge. The height capacity, which also impacts on freight, is being considered, but the way to deliver the capacity that my hon. Friend seeks for his constituents and that we want is perhaps not through that route, which would require huge interventions and a large capital budget, but to use other forms of technology and development.
Midland Main Line Franchise
Brand-new trains capable of operating under electric and diesel power will be introduced into service on the midland main line from 2022. I hope and expect the first train to be tested in 2021. I must leave the announcement on the manufacture of the new trains to the operator, but my hon. Friend knows that I have signalled on many occasions since becoming Secretary of State how committed I am to seeing more trains manufactured in the United Kingdom.
The inter-city fleet will be entirely new, which will be a great bonus to travellers on that route. We expect to see more seats and a brand-new fleet of trains, which is really important as we go through the biggest upgrade to the midland main line since the Victorian age. I cannot immediately recall the operator’s plans for the route from Kettering—serving the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)—but they will no doubt set out the detail of those trains, which will be new commuter electric services down from those stations, for local Members shortly.
As the Secretary of State knows, we are a great manufacturing nation with the finest technology. Surely, after last night’s wonderful decision on climate change, we should think about how we can make more things in this country, without cheating the public. The Hitachi trains will not be made here, although they will be assembled here. When can we revive the train manufacturing sector in this country?
The more we build in this country, the more we invest in research and development. In the north-east, we are seeing more of Hitachi’s capabilities coming to the United Kingdom. The same applies to CAF in south Wales and, in particular, to the great success of Bombardier in Derby. Bombardier currently has a huge amount of work, and is delivering new trains throughout the network. However, I am with the hon. Gentleman: I want more to be done in the United Kingdom. As we move further into the 2020s, I am very committed to ensuring that as much as possible of the new rolling stock that we are expecting is built in the UK.
My question relates to fair and consistent treatment of bidders. Given that the Department has confirmed that all three bidders for the East Midlands franchise were non-compliant, why were only Stagecoach and Arriva disqualified from the competition?
Well, that is certainly not what the Secretary of State’s Department is saying. He withheld sensitive market information between 1 and 9 April when disqualifying Stagecoach from the South Eastern and West Coast Partnership competitions, thus demonstrating that his interference further discredits the franchising process. Have any of the bidders for the other rail franchise competitions submitted non-compliant bids, and have they been disqualified? If so, why has the information not been made public?
Leaving the EU: Port Delays
My Department is working closely with the Border Delivery Group to help to ensure that trade will continue to flow with minimum friction at UK ports. We are also continuing to liaise closely with the devolved Administrations.
During the farce of the ferry company with no ferries, and indeed no harbours, the Secretary of State claimed that no taxpayers’ money would be spent on services that were not required. However, the National Audit Office has reported that cancelling the other no-deal ferry services that were contracted to start on 29 March will actually cost £56 million. Did the Secretary of State not understand the contracts that he was signing, or did he not even read them?
That was another question with some flaws in it. First, no taxpayers’ money was paid to Seaborne. In view of the article 50 extension, the Government are reviewing no-deal contingency planning, and have decided to terminate the contract with Brittany Ferries and DFDS. It is right for us to ensure that we have done everything that we can in the event of a no-deal scenario. We had to take out an insurance policy, which is why the other contracts were provided. The cost of terminating those contracts will be £43.8 million, but had we delayed the termination, it would have been an extra £10 million. I remind the House that this is just 1% of no-deal planning. If the hon. Lady is concerned about the cost and about no-deal planning, I suggest that she vote for the deal.
You will realise, Mr Speaker, that when we leave this dreadful European Union, there will be a massive expansion in trade as we increase exports all over the world. Has the Minister—this excellent Minister—planned an expansion of the ports so that we can deal with that increased trade?
Once again, my hon. Friend is waving the flag for the United Kingdom. We have indeed put together a 30-year maritime strategy called Maritime 2050, which will help to deliver the fantastic maritime nation that we were before we joined the EU. It is a great opportunity to promote again the hard work undertaken by our ports, including preparing for the possibility of—[Interruption.]
Order. I am listening to the flow of the Minister’s eloquence and the eloquence of her flow, but meanwhile the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is chuntering from a sedentary position to no obvious benefit or purpose; the only thing I can detect is some muttering about one flag rather than another flag. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak on his feet with force and Demosthenian eloquence in due course.
The Transport Minister in the Lords said yesterday that she did not rule out our having a no-deal scenario in October and therefore we could potentially be exactly where we are now later in the year. Can the Minister assure me that the ferry companies will not get double-bubble if that unfortunate situation occurs?
So far we have had a contract with a company with no ships and illegal procurement practices, which resulted in Eurotunnel winning £33 million in compensation, and then the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and tells us the £50-odd million cancellation of the current services is the right thing to do as part of the Brexit preparations. Now we also learn that P&O is suing the Department. When did the Minister learn of its action? Will this go through the courts, or will there be another £33 million cave-in as apparently such sums do not matter as they only represent a small percentage of the overall figure?
I am not going to comment on any procedures taking place in respect of legal action, but if the hon. Gentleman really is concerned about no-deal planning, he cannot in one breath say we have not prepared enough and in the next say we have prepared and now we have to deal with the consequences. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about no deal, I suggest he think about voting for the deal. It was absolutely right that we respected the needs across Whitehall and procured freight capacity, including for urgent medical equipment and medicines that may or may not be needed; it was the right and responsible thing to do.
I suggest that the Minister should change the record: why should we vote for a deal that we think is a bad deal just to cover up this Government’s incompetence? We have had 89 lorries mimicking the effects of 10,000 lorries, a contract given to a company with no ships, a £33 million out-of-court settlement, another court case looming, and contracts with a 29 March no-deal date that could not be changed costing an estimated £56 million, yet the Government say they have stood down their no-deal preparations as they seem to think everything is okay. What real Brexit preparations work are this Government doing for a possible no-deal exit on 31 October?
That is such a lengthy question that I feel the hon. Gentleman has already cracked the urgent question to come after these departmental questions. To go over the whole debate about Brexit, we would need far more time than we have now. The public made a decision, and it was our job to undertake everything that would come out of that decision so we have to prepare for no deal. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is criticising us for preparing for no deal or for having no deal in the first place. It was the outcome once we had triggered article 50, and I must say that the work undertaken by the Department for Transport with our port sector was remarkable, with all the officers and directors who worked within the Department to ensure that everything was in place if no deal was to happen. The Department for Transport has a role to ensure that every other Department within Whitehall has what it requires for a no-deal scenario; that is why those contracts were procured and that is why we are in the situation we are in now.
Rail Franchising System
Rail franchising has delivered substantial benefits to passengers and record levels of investment over the past 25 years, but it is time for a fresh approach and that is why we set up the Williams review, which will enable us to fundamentally realign the railway industry, with a renewed focus on the needs of passengers and freight customers across the country in the future.
Well, the chair of that review has just said that the franchising system is not fit for purpose. In the light of that, does the Secretary of State not agree with Opposition Members that privatisation has been a litany of failure, that the fragmentation of the network has meant the coherence of the passenger-led system has been destroyed and that we need to have a reintegrated railway system under democratic control? Is that not the future for the railway system in this country?
The Labour party is very clear that it wants to recreate British Rail, and it has every right to argue for that—[Interruption.] Labour Members say no, but that is their policy. I remember the days of British Rail. It was a state-run railway on which routes were closed, services were cut and the trains were old and outdated. Today, we have a railway that carries twice as many passengers as it did in those days and has far more trains. The challenges that we face are challenges of success, not failure.
Of course, the Transport Secretary is right in many respects. In my own community, Putney station needs a second entrance to cope with the overcrowding, which is a sign of how important it is for commuters every day. Will he give us an update on this? He very helpfully visited the station last year, and he has described getting a second entrance as a second win. Will he update us on his discussions with Network Rail to help to move that project forward?
Since my right hon. Friend and I visited her station, I have discussed the issue with my Department and with Network Rail. In the past month, we have entered the new rail control investment period, which will involve £48 billion—a record level of investment in the railways—including a number of hundreds of millions of pounds to invest in stations and improvements. I absolutely accept, and I think we all believe, that particularly at busy stations in and around our commuter centres—which Putney certainly is—we will need such improvements. She knows that I am very sympathetic to what we need to do there.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, when we embark on a new franchising system, one of the considerations needs to be the provision of services not just on the main arterial routes but on the secondary routes—such as a direct service from King’s Cross to Cleethorpes?
This is one of the things we need to achieve for the future. There is demand for extra services all round the country, and to release that demand, we need to continue to invest in capacity. That is what we are going to be doing in the next control period. We will also need to use smart technology such as digital signalling to increase the number of train paths, and we will of course need to expand the network, which is what the HS2 project is all about. I absolutely understand and share my hon. Friend’s ambition.
Shipley Eastern Bypass
I must apologise to you, Mr Speaker, because I am not possessed of either a Demosthenic or a Ciceronian eloquence, but what I can do is focus the House’s attention on this perfectly formed and important local question regarding Bradford Council’s discussions on a Shipley eastern bypass. My hon. Friend has been a highly effective campaigner for this project, and as he will know, we have supported it within my Department. My officials remain in regular contact with officers from Bradford Metropolitan District Council. The council will need to provide a detailed business case for the Department to review to take forward plans for the road scheme, and my officials are advising the council on how to develop its business case.
You are very kind, Mr Speaker, but I am not sure that we would want a Division on that proposition. As the Minister has made clear, the Government have paid for a feasibility study to be carried out, for which I am extremely grateful, but since then, not a fat lot seems to have happened at the Bradford Council end. So when does he expect to see the feasibility study completed by Bradford Council so that we can crack on with delivering this vital scheme?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus attention on the council, because it is with the council that the situation presently lies. Bradford Metropolitan District Council has said that, by November this year, it will submit a strategic outline business case looking at how to resolve congestion issues in Shipley. The Department will then consider it and provide recommendations to Ministers.
All will be revealed, Mr Speaker. Has my hon. Friend the Minister had any recent discussions with the Welsh Government over the urgent need for the M4 relief road, which will provide quicker and better access from Wales to Shipley and the rest of the UK?
How unwise I was to have considered this a tightly focused question. I had entirely failed to understand the national implications for this proposal across Wales and England. My officials remain in close discussions not merely with Highways England about the M4 but with the Welsh Government about the strategic road network. I therefore have no doubt that once the great Shipley bypass has been constructed, access from Wales will be as uninterrupted as my hon. Friend would wish it to be.
Dartford Crossing: Revenue
Before 31 March 2003, tolls from the Dartford crossing financed the construction of the QE2 bridge, paid down pre-existing debts and provided a future maintenance fund. After 1 April 2003, a charging scheme to manage demand was introduced at the crossing, reflecting research suggesting that if the tolls were lifted, demand would be 17% higher and congestion would worsen accordingly. To respond directly to the hon. Lady’s question, the user charges have raised a net income of £669 million in the period 2003-14 to 2017-18, which has been reinvested in transport.
I thank the Minister for his response, but according to my reading of the legislation and the accounts, the income from the Dartford crossing is paid to the Department for Transport with no ring fence, so it can be spent anywhere on anything transport related. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? Given the crossing’s adverse effect on Bexley and Dartford residents in terms of air pollution, congestion, extended journey times and often complete gridlock—the hospital is on one side of the Dartford bridge and residents are on the other—what percentage of the income has been and will be spent on improving transport for those residents?
I can confirm that all the money raised is reinvested into transport, and the benefits of that are felt locally through the charge, which reduces congestion and therefore improves air quality. Of course, a vastly greater sum is projected to be invested in the lower Thames crossing, which is currently under way and will relieve significant burdens on her local community.
Local bus journeys remain central to transport choices, accounting for around 59% of all public transport journeys. The number of local bus passenger journeys in England has fallen since the 1950s to 4.36 billion in the year ending March 2018.
Since 2010, public funding for bus services has been cut by 45%, leading to a 20% decrease in passenger journeys. At the same time, bus operators have pocketed £1.5 billion in profits. Does the Minister think that the country and commuters are getting a good deal?
Well, bus patronage differs up and down the country, as does the number of miles covered by buses. When local authorities have good partnerships with bus companies, the number of bus passengers across all age groups tends to be higher. It is fundamental to note that the one place where bus miles are going down is in Labour-led Wales.
Once again, my hon. Friend is a true champion of his constituency, and he refers specifically to Henley Town Council. When a council has a good relationship and partnership with a bus operating company, decisions about where and how buses should run can be made close to home to ensure that services are run how passengers want. I want buses to be the most convenient, accessible and greenest form of transport across our country. This is not just about funding; it is about good relationships between local authorities and bus operating companies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) made an important point. Bus services are in deep crisis: funding has been slashed by £645 million a year in real terms since 2010; over 3,000 routes have been cut; and fares have soared by 2.5 times the increase in wages. It is therefore hardly surprising that passenger numbers have fallen by 10% since 2010. Will the Minister now apologise to the millions of pensioners, young people and commuters who rely on our buses?
Bus passenger numbers vary across the country, and I do not think it is appropriate for the hon. Gentleman just to whitewash bus services as if they were one national service. He should realise that bus passenger numbers are up by 15% in Bristol and by 38% in Poole, and bus passenger numbers are up among young people in Liverpool as well. Over £1 billion is spent on bus services, with some going directly to local authorities and some going to bus operating companies.
When the hon. Gentleman talks about the cost of a bus journey, it is important to remember that, every year, the cost went up three times as fast under the Labour Government than it ever has under this Government. Under Labour Governments, no matter how much change a person has in their pocket, they will never be able to afford that bus journey.
It seems that the Minister, sadly, may not fully acknowledge the depth of the crisis affecting our buses. For many people, buses are the only means of public transport. The crisis in our bus services is damaging our communities, particularly the young, the old and people with disabilities.
Our councils stand ready to help where this Government have failed. Indeed, the Minister references the work done by some excellent Labour councils across the country. On local election day, can she tell the House why the Government will not allow all local authorities the powers to regulate bus services and, indeed, to set up new council-run bus companies? Both measures have led to much-improved services across the country.
I can tell the House, on local election day, that we have put in place legislation under the Bus Services Act 2017 to allow local authorities to manage those partnerships with their bus companies to ensure that they deliver good value and good services locally. All local authorities need to do is to work on business plans and timetabling and they can bring those partnerships forward. They have not done that yet.
The Government take performance seriously and understand it is crucial to passengers and freight users, which is why we agreed a Network Rail settlement for England and Wales of £47.9 billion for control period 6 specifically aimed at maintaining and renewing the railway to improve reliability and punctuality for all rail users. The budget in Scotland is £4.85 billion, and I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to make similar representations to the Scottish Government, who have devolved control of railway infrastructure funding in Scotland.
I am sure the Minister and the whole House will want to welcome Monday’s launch of the new sleeper stock on the Caledonian Sleeper service. I recommend the service to you, Mr Speaker, should you ever want to come and visit us up in Glasgow.
Of course, the first services were slightly hampered by delays and a fall in punctuality as a result of signal failures and problems with Network Rail. Given the success, the ambition and the vision that the Scottish Government have shown with this new sleeper service, should they not now also have the power devolved to control the whole of Network Rail so that we can deal with some of these punctuality issues?
The whole of Network Rail would include England and Wales, which might be a stretch for the Scottish Government. I obviously also welcome the arrival of the Caledonian Sleeper. I have not seen the service yet, but I understand it is fantastic and I look forward to seeing it, and potentially even using it.
On how this is structured, the Scottish Government, as they should, have control of the spending north of the border in Scotland. I am keen to see devolution across our rail network. Local solutions to local problems is a merit that we should be considering.
I just point out that we have had a good run on punctuality over the past few months in the UK. Performance obviously needs to be constantly improved but, when I checked this morning, 95% of trains were on time, including 94% of trains in Scotland. That is a strong performance from ScotRail and a strong performance across our whole network.
Punctuality is often viewed through the prism of the big strategic journeys, but may I urge my hon. Friend also to take into account, when considering how to improve punctuality and bringing pressure so to do on the operators, those small, intercounty and over county boundary journeys that are often so important to students and workers? I think particularly of those from Gillingham in my constituency through to either Salisbury or back to Dorchester—those journeys are vital to the local economy, and the service is not quite good enough.
I do sometimes fall asleep on the trains at the end of the week if I am heading north again. I was not planning such a visit, but I am always happy to visit and I would be happy to take up the invitation that you have just suggested my hon. Friend makes, Mr Speaker. I never think of punctuality as purely an inter-city question; everybody who uses our rail network should be able to expect to be on time every time. That is why the measure of punctuality is being changed to include “on time every time”, including all the stations on a route, not just the final destination. That data is being collected for the first time now and is very encouraging. Let me confirm to my hon. Friend that I agree entirely with his basic point, which is that passengers deserve an on-time service every time, and it is part of my planning.
I think this a bit tangential to punctuality, Mr Speaker, but I might try to get it in. [Hon. Members: “Give it a shot.”] Will the Secretary of State honour the pledge he made to me on 17 July 2017? I realise that that is not a punctual request, but now is the time. I asked him about the mutual mistrust between NW10 residents and HS2, and he said that his door would always be open. Now that construction has started, they feel as though they are living in a war zone, a dustbowl and the longest and largest building site in Europe. So will he make a visit or sit down with me and my constituents to sort this out?
I know that, like me, the Minister will welcome the electrification of the midland main line, a project currently being undertaken, and the new half-hourly service to and from Corby, which will be a real boost for our rail services in north Northamptonshire. But there is still a demand for more northbound services from Corby, so will he help me to explore that possibility, as I think we ought to be tapping the huge potential there?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituency, and for the rail services to and from it. The new franchise will certainly bring a wide set of positive developments for the rail passengers of Corby. I am more than happy to agree with him on this and meet him to work together to see what we can do to make these services even better.
If the Government are going to take on my predecessor Tom Harris, who sits on the Government’s own rail review board, they had better make sure that they are right. So can the Minister explain why Mr Harris is wrong when he calls for control over Network Rail to go to the Scottish Government?
I am aware of the work that Mr Harris does as part of the rail review, and I am looking forward to seeing what the rail review says. We have had some early indications on its thinking. We have seen some speeches made by Mr Williams to give some indicative direction on its thinking, and we will see more later in the summer. I think we should be looking forward to its work with enthusiasm.
Cycling and Walking
Cycling and walking are an important part of transport strategy for this Government, and of course they bring great benefits in terms of health, combating obesity and improving air quality, and, as the Committee on Climate Change has reminded us, with their effects on the environment more widely. We published the cycling and walking investment strategy in 2017. Since then, we have conducted a major cycling and walking safety review, as well as providing a lot more funding; about £2 billion is being invested over this Parliament. The Department is also supporting 46 local authorities with their local cycling and walking infrastructure plans, so they can deliver cycling and walking schemes according to a more phased and consistent long-term programme.
As the Minister is an MP in neighbouring Herefordshire, I hope he can come to visit the excellent new cycle track in Shropshire. It has been built by Shropshire Council between the villages of Pontesbury and Minsterley and makes it more safe to cycle between villages in our county. Will the Minister come and have a look at the scheme? What more can he do to support councils in the building of safe cycle tracks?
My hon. Friend will be aware that we have just made an award to Shrewsbury for the relief road, through the large local majors scheme. I look forward to visiting that road at some future point, and at the same time I will certainly tie in a happy cycle down the excellent cycle path between Pontesbury and Minsterley. My hon. Friend should know that, more widely, we are now investing at a high rate in cycling and walking schemes, including through the transforming cities fund, which is now up to £2.5 billion in total; the housing infrastructure fund; and our new £675 million future high streets fund, which is specifically targeted at smaller conurbations.
Yorkhill and Kelvingrove Community Council recently submitted a £2 million community-led bid to the Sustrans Community Links Plus competition, with the ambition of making the area Scotland’s most accessible community. Will the Minister welcome this cycling-village project which, as well as linking three national cycle routes, will be pedestrian, wheelchair and autism friendly? Would he welcome similar community-led initiatives throughout the UK?
As the hon. Lady will know, I am almost idiotically keen on cycling projects, so I massively welcome that development. We have recently funded Sustrans with a further £20 million-odd to support the national cycle network and are a great believer in much of the work that it does.
We know from the international evidence what would work to boost us to continental levels of cycling: consistent, long-term funding, rather than stop-start funding, and for both capital and revenue projects. Will the Minister set out what he is planning to ask for? Will he press for cycling funding of £10 to £35 per head, to bring us up to continental levels?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I actually spent two hours yesterday in front of the Transport Committee debating exactly that question and specifying in some detail some of my hopes and expectations for future work, including for the spending review. Of course the hon. Lady is right about the importance of consistency and longevity in funding—that is what our local cycling and walking investment plans are doing and why we welcome the work that has been done in Birmingham by Mayor Andy Street and in Manchester through the Chris Boardman and Brian Deegan project—but I remind her that in 2010 the level of funding for cycling and walking was £2.50 a head; it is now at more than £7, and I hope that that upward direction will continue.
The House will be aware that yesterday the High Court ruling on the proposed expansion of Heathrow found that my Department acted lawfully on all counts. It would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to thank all those in my Department who worked on the case for their exemplary work, not only through the preparation period for the national policy statement but on the case itself. I also express my thanks to the business community, to the trade unions, including Unite in particular, and to the vast majority of Members of Parliament who have supported expansion. We must now get on with delivering that expansion for Britain, although always mindful that the expansion scheme must fit in with the UK’s climate change obligations.
I have said to all those who are commissioning new trains, particularly when my Department has a role in the procurement, that I expect manufacturers, when they deliver trains—this is an important point going back to what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said earlier—to leave a skills footprint and a technology footprint in the United Kingdom. One thing we can all do through the procurement process is to be absolutely insistent that that skills footprint is left behind. That does more than anything else to ensure that trains are and will be built in the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State is in charge of the worst-performing Department when it comes to emissions. Transport emissions have risen since 2010. The Committee on Climate Change said that
“the fact is that we’re off track to meet our own emissions targets in the 2020s and 2030s.”
Is the Secretary of State content with this failure, or will he commit to honouring the UK’s own legal and international climate change commitments?
First of all, I am part of a Government who have presided over a fall in Britain’s carbon emissions. Indeed my hon. Friends who have spoken on this matter over the past two days have set out ways in which this Government are among the leaders in the world in seeking to reduce carbon emissions and to deliver actual results in doing so. Members should look at what we are doing in pushing for a transformation of other vehicle fleets on our roads and in getting hydrogen trains on to our rail network as quickly as possible. If they look at the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) is doing to promote cycling and walking, they will see that we are spending more than previous Governments have done. There is, of course, much more to do, but we are working harder than any previous Government to deliver real change.
The Government contributed to the UN’s special report on 1.5°C, yet failed to take into account its contents when designating the airports national policy statement. Similarly, the Secretary of State admitted that the Paris agreement, ratified years ago by the UK and by almost every country in the world, was not considered when designating the ANPS. Given that the UK Government have now accepted that we are in a climate emergency, will he review the ANPS in the light of Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the Committee on Climate Change advice—if yes, when?
When we prepared the ANPS and when the Airports Commission prepared its recommendations, it was done in the context of the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change. We have continued to work with the Committee on Climate Change, and I am confident that we will deliver that expansion and continue to fulfil our obligations to reduce carbon emissions and move towards what was set out this morning.
I can confirm that, compared with today, there will more trains from Kettering going north. The trains will be new, so they will have more seats, which means that, in terms of capacity, there will be more trains and better trains. On timing, we will see the start of more services for my hon. Friend’s constituents from December 2020.
I simply do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. This service is not being run on the cheap. We are seeing record levels of investment—both private and public investment is at a record level. Perhaps I should point out to him that his party’s policy is to nationalise the railways, which will result in more cash required from the Government, but of course the Labour party has not yet said where it might come from. We are focused on delivering the enhancements to the network, which will meet our aspirations for a high-capacity, environmentally clean rail network underpinning the UK economy. Therefore, I am afraid that I cannot really agree with the premise of the question.
When it comes to maritime emissions, we can look at the work of the International Maritime Organisation, which is opposite us on the Thames. A huge amount of work was done earlier this year to look at driving down greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050. It is interesting to note that this Government led the high-ambition coalition to get that agreement made, so we are not only leading nationally, but driving down greenhouse gas emissions internationally as well.
Ministers will have seen the National Audit Office report on the sale of railway arches by Network Rail, which includes some criticism. It is of some concern that the impact on tenants was not an explicit sale objective and was considered only late in the sale process. Ministers were aware—we had meetings with the Minister responsible before the sale took place—but they seemed indifferent to the significant potential for massive rent rises for the businesses in the railway arches across the country. Given this NAO report and its criticism, what will Ministers now do to safeguard the interests of those businesses and to make sure that they are not subjected to massive rent rises by the new leaseholder management company?
When I took on this sale, I ensured—in the work we did to prepare for the sale and with potential buyers—that additional safeguards were put in place for those tenants. Whether the arches had remained in the public sector or been sold, it would always have been right to ensure that a market rent was charged. There is no expectation of rent increases out of line with market rents. In the public sector, it would not have been proper use of public money to provide subsidised rents for businesses.
On airport security, given the stresses and strains on many police forces, not least the Met police and Sussex police, what further consideration has the Transport Secretary given to allowing the British Transport police to have responsibility for the security of British airports?
That suggestion has been put to me on a couple of occasions. At the moment, because of the nature of the threat around our airports and the fact that so much airport security—particularly at our principal airports—is done through the Metropolitan police, who co-ordinate anti-terror work nationally, I am not yet convinced that it would be the right thing to do, but I am always open to considering change if it will deliver improvement.
Constituents have contacted me again this week to highlight the eye-watering increases in the cost of commuting by rail to Bristol, and how that is forcing them into their cars. After yesterday’s climate emergency debate, is it not time for Ministers to act on extortionate rail fares?
We are in the sixth year of capping regulated fares in line with inflation. Also this year, we have introduced the railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds—effectively extending child fares up to their 18th birthday. The hon. Lady should recognise the action that is taking place and remember that Labour gave us a 10% fare increase during its last year in office. Where Labour is running the devolved railways, it is also increasing fares in line with inflation, so she should be backing the Government’s policy, not criticising it.
I was hugely concerned to see that, although the Secretary of State was sent a memo in November 2017 outlining how many millions of people would be affected by the third runway expansion at Heathrow—up to 13 million people were planned to be part of a publicity campaign letting them know what was going on, and 5 million people were to be leafleted directly—that campaign never took place because it was vetoed by officials at the Department. We effectively had a vote in this place when communities and the people who represent them were entirely unaware of the extent of extra noise from Heathrow. How can the Secretary of State be confident that there really is public support for this project when the public are wholly unaware of its impact on them?
I assure my right hon. Friend that nobody in my Department has vetoed any consultations. We have carried out all the consultations that we are statutorily obliged to carry out. Of course Heathrow airport is now also so obliged, and has been carrying out consultations itself, so we cannot veto it; this is part of a process. As I have said all along, a central part of the proposal is that Heathrow delivers a world-class package of support to affected communities, and that is central to what we will insist that it does. That is an absolute given and an absolute red line for the Government.
Is the ministerial team aware that an all-party group of Members of Parliament came together to secure the seatbelt legislation many years ago? After 13 failed attempts, we actually got it through on the 14th, and the number of lives saved and serious injuries prevented has been substantial. The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which I chair and which is still a vigorous cross-party group, is concerned by the report today that seatbelt wearing is declining. A quarter of the people killed on the roads last year were not wearing their seatbelts. Could we make it an enforceable offence with three penalty points? Can we take action on this?
We absolutely recognise the original achievement of passing that legislation. I thank PACTS for the work that it has done on this report, which I warmly welcome. Needless to say, we are working very closely with it. We will look very closely at the report. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have a road safety refresh statement coming up over the summer, and we will look at this in that context as well.
I am not aware of the scheme that my hon. Friend has specifically raised. The RIS 2 announcement will not be made until towards the end of this year, and RIS 3 will not begin until 2025. However, I would be very happy to meet him to discuss the issue in more detail, because it is obviously very important to his constituents.
Now that this House has taken the lead in supporting Labour’s climate change emergency motion yesterday, does the Department for Transport not agree that it is time that we made sure that there can be no new roads without cycle lanes, unless there is a damned good reason why not, and no new housing without cycle locks and electric car charging points?
Of course we will continue to seek to expand the cycle network. Given the nature of the hon. Lady’s constituency, I hope she will welcome the commitment and the money that this Government are putting into MetroWest that will help to reduce congestion in the centre of Bristol, get people out of their cars and create a cleaner environment for people in her city.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that I have moaned previously about the fact that there was a bridge knocked down in my constituency, near to the Corby constituency and right by a business development centre, leaving people stranded. Thanks to the efforts of a local community action group, ROAR—Reinstate Our Access Road—plus Councillor Gill Mercer, and, in particular, the intervention by the excellent Secretary of State, that bridge is now going to be rebuilt. Does the Secretary of State agree that local democracy, hard work and a Secretary of State can get things done?
I am very pleased that we managed to resolve the problem. My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. When the unexpected happens or an unintended consequence disrupts a community, the ministerial team and I will always try to do everything we can to ameliorate or change it.
Yesterday’s judicial review on Heathrow was concerned only with the legality of the decision, not the merits of airport expansion. Given that this House has overwhelmingly affirmed that we face a climate emergency, surely a swift and easy way of meeting our obligations would be to cancel the third runway at Heathrow. Not only will it pollute my constituents’ lungs, but it is costing us the earth—literally.
I gently remind the hon. Lady that this Parliament voted with a majority of nearly 300 to designate the national policy statement because we recognise that we need to provide jobs for the future, economic opportunities, and indeed the wealth that will deliver the environmental technologies that will clean up this country and help to clean up the planet. As I said earlier, we have sought, and the Airports Commission has sought, to make sure that these expansion plans are consistent with those obligations. International aviation does present a challenge, but I do not believe that we are suddenly going to see it disappear in the future. International aviation is only likely to disappear if the cost of holidays and the cost of travel is put up by Labour.
The Rail Minister will recall that on his recent visit to my constituency, Associated British Ports and the other business representatives present expressed concern about east-west capacity for freight haulage. The Secretary of State referred to this earlier. Will the Minister agree to meet me, ABP and other representatives to see how we can further increase capacity?
I had a very interesting visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. He laid on an extremely good range of businesses, so I have clear insight into the concerns of the business community that he serves. I would of course be very happy to meet him. I can confirm that increasing capacity and having more freight services in the UK is a Government priority.
Holywell Town Council, in conjunction with Tesco, has recently put in place the first electronic vehicle charging point in a town centre in my constituency. I know the Minister will agree that the Government need to do more, so will he give an update on what progress has been made since the fanfare announcement last July of support for electronic charging points? How many have been introduced as a result of a Government initiative?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we take that matter very seriously. We are about to launch the charging infrastructure investment fund, which will see £200 million of public money matched by £200 million of private sector money. We expect a rapid roll-out to what is already one of the largest charging networks in Europe.
Will the Minister confirm that the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge expressway started life as a project under the coalition Government, with Liberal Democrats in the Department at the time? Does he agree that the best opportunity to mitigate its effects for local villages is for it to go west of Oxford?
I can certainly confirm that the project originated in the coalition Government, and it would be quite disingenuous of any political party that was part of it to seek to distance itself from that decision. Of course, I can make no statement whatever about the direction, since that is the subject of a continued process of consultation and review.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) in thanking the excellent Secretary of State for getting the Leyland bridge issue sorted out. My constituents in Irthlingborough are delighted that the bridge will be rebuilt, but will he join us in keeping the pressure up, to ensure that it is done as quickly as possible? The inconvenience is unacceptable, and that would be very much appreciated.
I will indeed give that assurance. We continue with the biggest investment programme in the railways for decades and decades, and indeed the biggest investment programme in our roads for decades and decades—an investment programme that will help motorists, but which the Labour party wants to scale back, as part of its war on the motorist. I give a commitment that, as we seek to invest in the future of this country, we will do everything we can to minimise the disruption. I cannot promise that there will be none, but we will try to minimise it.
I seek your advice, because I believe that the buses Minister may have inadvertently misled the House. In our exchanges, she claimed that all local authorities have powers to franchise buses. I believe that the Bus Services Act 2017 only allows metro mayors to do that, and there is a very small number of them, whereas there are hundreds of local authorities.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I did not say “franchising”; I said “partnerships”. The Bus Services Act introduced new powers for local authorities and operators to work together through partnerships and franchising. Mayoral authorities have those powers automatically. All local authorities must approach the Department if they wish to get permission. They need to prepare business strategies and put together programmes of work, but we are ready and waiting to work with them, as we do already. Mayoral authorities can franchise, and local authorities can put together partnerships. I am more than happy to put that on the record.
National Security Council Leak
The National Security Council takes critical decisions about keeping this country safe. It was established in 2010, in part following lessons learned from the Iraq war, to ensure proper co-ordinated decision making across the whole of the Government. It operates with the full breadth of expertise in the room, with Ministers from the relevant Departments and advisers and officials, including the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the heads of the intelligence services and others.
The decisions that it makes are critical to the safety of British citizens and to British interests both in this country and around the world. For example, it is inconceivable today that the Cabinet could take a decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging prior discussion in the NSC, on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant Departments, and with decisions formally minuted. I am sure that the whole House will recognise how important it is that those decisions are taken in an environment in which members of the council and those who advise them feel free to speak their mind, with absolute certainty that the advice that they provide and the conclusions that they reach will remain confidential.
The leak investigation into the disclosure of information about 5G was constituted to ensure that the integrity of the NSC in general was upheld and, vitally, that participants in NSC meetings could continue to hold full confidence in its operation and the confidentiality of its proceedings. The Prime Minister set out her response to evidence from the leak investigation last night, and has thanked all members of the National Security Council for their full co-operation and candour during the investigation.
The unauthorised disclosure of any information from the Government is serious, and especially so from the National Security Council. The Prime Minister has said that she now considers that this matter has been closed, and the Cabinet Secretary does not consider it necessary to refer it to the police, but we would of course co-operate fully should the police themselves consider that an investigation were necessary.
The House will recognise that it is the policy of successive Governments of different political parties not to comment on the detail of leak investigations, and I will not comment on specific circumstances or personnel decisions.
The primary duty of any Government is to keep our country safe and secure. On that we all agree. This leak from the National Security Council is a fundamental breach of that duty. Let us be clear here: the Prime Minister believes that her former Defence Secretary leaked information from the National Security Council; he vehemently denies it. Only one of these accounts is accurate.
I do not think we have ever seen a leak from the National Security Council, and that is why this is so serious. The damning letter from the Prime Minister was a result of her understanding that to leak from that committee was an abdication of responsibility and public duty. It is indicative of the malaise and sickness at the heart of this ailing Government. It is indicative of the sorry state the Conservative party finds itself in. In response to receiving the most brutal sacking I can think of, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) has protested his innocence. Therefore, this matter cannot be, as the Prime Minister says, closed.
The essential point here is that the Prime Minister has sacked the Secretary of State for Defence because she believes there is compelling evidence that he has committed a crime, but despite that she does not believe that he should face a criminal investigation. Where is the justice in that? In what world is it acceptable that the Prime Minister should be the arbiter of whether a politician she believes is guilty of criminal conduct in office should face a criminal investigation? Can the Minister confirm that there were no leaks from the leak inquiry itself, given that details seem to have been passed on to a national newspaper on 30 April?
At the heart of this battle in the National Security Council was whether the Prime Minister’s judgment that Huawei should be allowed to be part of our critical infrastructure network was sound. Many believe it was not. Our Five Eyes partners are so concerned about the UK allowing this company to participate in our 5G network that they are considering whether they can safely continue to share intelligence with us. The Minister will know that for the Americans and the Australians to raise public concerns on this matter is unprecedented. The Five Eyes network is the intelligence apparatus that has helped keep this country safe for nearly half a century. I know that. I have been a Defence Minister, and I have seen the material that we share with each other in total confidence.
In his defiant challenge, the former Defence Secretary has put the Prime Minister’s integrity and judgment in the spotlight. Whether or not he is guilty should be a question for the criminal justice system. The question that the Minister has to answer today is whether he is confident that the Prime Minister’s decision to allow Huawei to participate in our 5G networks keeps this country safe and protects our intelligence relationships with our allies.
The hon. Gentleman elided several different subjects in his questions. On the substance of the Government’s policy decisions, it has been said already from this Dispatch Box several times that the review of 5G networks by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is a matter of public record. The Government have committed to telling the House of their conclusions once those decisions have been taken and approved at all levels within the Government and once we are ready to bring the information to the House. That will be the time for the House to learn what the Government have decided and to hold Ministers to account for their decisions.
I can reiterate to the House that the Government’s priorities for the future of telecommunications remain stronger cyber-security practices, greater resilience throughout telecommunications networks and diversity in the marketplace. Again, as has been said before from this Dispatch Box, this is a policy challenge that goes beyond a single company or even a single country, and we continue to work very closely with all our Five Eyes allies and with other international partners.
The problem with this particular case was not so much the material disclosed as the forum from which the leak came. The Prime Minister set up the inquiry and took the decisions she took yesterday to maintain the integrity and secrecy that is essential for the proper conduct of the business of the Government of the United Kingdom, whichever party happens to be in office. As far as I am aware, the inquiry was conducted on the basis of confidentiality throughout its proceedings. It came to conclusions that were reported to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and she took the decisions she announced yesterday.
This boils down to what is set out in paragraph 1.6 of the “Ministerial Code”:
“Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. She is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not only the work of our intelligence and security services that could be compromised by unauthorised disclosure but the Council’s access to information and advice provided by our allies on a top secret basis? Can he reassure us therefore that our allies have been reassured in turn that this sorry episode will not be repeated?
Appropriate contact is of course being made with our key allies, as my right hon. Friend would expect. He is absolutely right. I, like he, can recall discussions that involved not only material of the highest level of classification within the UK Government system but the sharing of information disclosed to us in confidence by key allies. Without going into detail—for obvious reasons—I should remind the House that among the subjects discussed at the National Security Council in the last year alone have been our analysis of and response to the chemical weapons attacks in Salisbury and our analysis and response to the civil war and conflict in Syria. I think that Members on both sides of the House will appreciate the importance of these discussions remaining confidential at all times and of all participants having full confidence that that will continue to be the case.
This is a most disgraceful episode from the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson). Fair play to the Prime Minister for acting as swiftly as she did, but I am afraid that it is not in her gift to say that the matter is closed. Indeed, the fact that we are here shows that it is far from closed. The fourth paragraph of the Prime Minister’s letter states that all the Cabinet Ministers interviewed
“answered questions, engaged properly, provided as much information as possible”,
yet the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman was not “of the same standard”. What was his conduct? What exactly did he avoid answering?
What is the purpose of this investigation? Surely to God it was not set up only to determine who the leak came from. Surely once that has been determined there must be a more severe consequence than just someone losing their Cabinet position. If the integrity of the Government—what is left of it—is not to be further shot to pieces, there must be more severe consequences. Does the right hon. Gentleman who has been sacked have a future in the Conservative party, or will he be suspended from it? Will he be eligible for future candidacy within the Conservative party, and will he have his CBE removed by the Government? Finally, will the Minister stand at the Dispatch Box and answer a clear question? Has the Official Secrets Act been broken—yes or no?
The hon. Gentleman’s final question is not a judgment that I or any other Minister in any Government can make. Whether a criminal offence has been committed is a matter for independent prosecution authorities, and ultimately for the courts. I said earlier that I would not go further into the details of the investigation and its conclusions than had already been set out in the Prime Minister’s public statement.
Members across the House will recognise the history of the close working relationship between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), and that ought to persuade the House that the Prime Minister would not have taken such a decision were there not compelling evidence and no credible alternative explanation for what happened. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Prime Minister stated in her letter that during the investigation the conduct of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire and his team was in contrast with the full co-operation received from other ministerial members of the NSC and their teams, and the Prime Minister came to the decision that she announced last night.
On the hon. Gentleman’s request for further punishments, honours are not a matter for a ministerial decision but for an independent committee in any case, but I would just say that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire has lost a job that he loved and to which he was utterly committed, and I think that should stand.
I entirely endorse the words used by my right hon. Friend in his statement, and it is necessary that the working of the National Security Council is kept confidential. Without that, our allies cannot trust us, and it would become impossible to discuss secret matters within the Government. Does he agree that we seem to have watched the progressive breakdown of collective responsibility? Unfortunately, that appears to have a corrosive quality, which starts in people’s willingness to contradict colleagues over policy issues in Cabinet, and creeps incrementally into a willingness to brief externally on discussions of an increasingly secret nature. Does he share my hope that if some good comes out of this most unfortunate episode, it will finally be a shot across the bows for those who think that such behaviour is acceptable?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend about the corrosive effect of unauthorised disclosures. We all have to be honest with ourselves. I do not think there has been a Government in history from which there have not been leaks and gossip from time to time—as I look at Labour Front Benchers, my mind goes back to what we saw under the Blair and Brown Administrations. But I do want to say this in response to my right hon. and learned Friend: above all, when it comes to National Security Council discussions—I think this applies to the Cabinet, too—there is great merit in the very old-fashioned precept that Members should speak with complete candour in the room and shut up when they get outside.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) asked the Minister a very direct question: whether he thought that the Official Secrets Act had been broken. In reply, the Minister said that it was for others to decide. Has the Attorney General been asked for his opinion? Was any other legal advice sought by the Prime Minister in coming to her conclusion?
It is not a matter for the Attorney General or any other Minister. This decision has been taken on the basis of the lack of confidence that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, regrettably, came to feel in my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence. It followed the principles I set out in quoting from paragraph 1.6 of the ministerial code.
Having been somewhat involved in the establishment of the National Security Council in its current form, and having sat on it for six years, I completely understand the Prime Minister’s correct understanding that it has to be, as the Minister said, a sealed container if it is to do its work appropriately. Does he agree that notwithstanding the rather brilliant confections of Opposition Members, on this occasion—thank goodness—so far as the substance is concerned and regardless of its legal standing, which I accept is a matter for others to decide, there does not appear to have been a compromise of any classified information?
I do not want to rush to make that assumption because normally all papers that are considered by the National Security Council are at an extremely high level of classification. The key point—I think this is the thrust of my right hon. Friend’s question, and I agree with him on it—is that the issue at stake was less the substance of the material that was disclosed than the principle of a leak from the National Security Council. The fact of that leak—that breach of confidentiality—is what puts at risk the mutual trust that is essential for all Ministers and advisers attending those meetings to have in one another, and the trust, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) said earlier, that we expect our allies to have in our respecting the confidentiality of the material that they share with us.
The Prime Minister may or may not be right, and as far as the Government are concerned, her exchange of letters yesterday is the end of the matter, but surely when it comes to matters in this House, different considerations apply. The right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) and the Prime Minister are both Members of the House, and they now have very different versions of events in relation to a matter of some national importance. It is surely important that the House should know which of them is right. For that reason, surely either the Prime Minister has to publish the evidence on which she relied, or somebody else has to be allowed to mark her homework. It cannot be possible that both mutually contradictory versions can be allowed to stand.
What we are talking about is a leak inquiry, carried out on the instruction of the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary, by another appropriate official, into the unauthorised disclosure of the proceedings of the National Security Council. It is an internal Government matter, just as any such disclosure and any leak inquiry would be considered a matter for the Government concerned—Labour, Conservative or coalition. I really do not think that it would be right to be in a position where the House collectively tried to establish itself as an investigating authority into internal matters relating to the conduct of Ministers as members of the Government, or the conduct of officials as members of the Government. Those are matters that it is quite proper for the Government to determine, and it is then for Ministers, as I am doing this morning, to come to explain the Government’s decision and be held to account by the House.
Having also sat on the NSC for several years, I recognise the importance of undertaking this leak inquiry. However, at the heart of this is a broader question about the approach that both the NSC and the Cabinet need to take to serve the national and public interest. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend on the NSC, but surely an element of this extends to how Cabinet is conducted, the rules around it and the behaviour of those who sit in the Cabinet.
Is it not now time to be clearer about the ministerial code of conduct and the role of the public interest in briefings given externally? I say that because we have a freedom of information law that clearly sets a public interest test that is routinely applied by Departments, yet it seems that the Secretaries of State running those Departments can routinely set that test themselves, without any regard for the way in which their officials would do so from day to day by almost certainly excluding ever publishing advice to Ministers when the public ask for it.
I disagree with my right hon. Friend on this point. I think that Ministers and their officials take their duties to put the public interest first very seriously. That is absolutely central to the principles of not only the ministerial code, but the civil service code which, let us not forget, has statutory force, unlike the ministerial code. In my experience of the last nine years in government, Ministers take those principles very seriously indeed, and their officials—particularly senior officials—are clear and robust in reminding Ministers of those duties. I agree with my right hon. Friend in hoping that lessons will be learned from this particular episode about the importance of mutual trust and the confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings.
For well-rehearsed reasons, this is clearly an extremely serious matter, and it is aggravated by the source of the leak being the Secretary of State for Defence. Many people believe that this really marks the complete disintegration of the Government, with some of their members—I emphasise “some”—having completely swept aside any scrap of decency and honour in the pursuit of blatant personal ambition. This is really important. This is not somebody who has said, “I fundamentally disagree with this decision because it is against the public interest.” It is somebody who has leaked information because of his personal ambition and because of the crisis that exists in government. I do not think there is any question at all—no ifs, no buts—that this matter has to go to the police. In that event, will the Minister undertake that the Government will fully co-operate at all levels—including all Ministers, aides and officials, including special advisers—in that police investigation, which is now critical?
In this country, we believe in natural justice. In any company, the civil service or anywhere else, someone accused of a disciplinary offence, let alone a criminal offence, is given a chance, in an impartial forum, to prove their innocence. As a matter of natural justice, how will the former Defence Secretary now be given an opportunity to prove his innocence?
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire has not been accused of any criminal offence but, sadly, he has lost the confidence of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and she has therefore acted in accordance with the principles set out in the ministerial code.
It is difficult not to sympathise with the former Defence Secretary, because in a kangaroo court one cannot prove oneself innocent. That is what many of us are worrying about. If the former Defence Secretary has done what is alleged, he should of course face the full criminal law, but the Minister is completely wrong to say that it has nothing to do with the Attorney General. The Official Secrets Act states categorically that a prosecution can proceed only if the Attorney General allows it to proceed. Any member of the public can go to the police and demand that there be a full investigation—I suspect that many people will—but has the Attorney General’s advice already been sought, and how will the former Defence Secretary be able to make his representations to the Attorney General?
The hon. Gentleman mixes up a number of matters. The Attorney General’s consent is required to a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, but the Attorney General has no power to initiate an investigation or a prosecution. The hon. Gentleman is also continuing to confuse two points. What we are dealing with—this is at the heart of the issue and the decision before the Prime Minister yesterday evening—is not so much the substance of what has been disclosed as the fact that the leak was of proceedings of the National Security Council. Therefore, whether or not the various harm tests under the Official Secrets Act were met in this particular case, the Prime Minister reached the decision that, regrettably, she no longer had confidence in my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire. That was why she reached that decision in her assessment of the public interest.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Outside this House, a right hon. Member is being called a liar, and inside this House, a number of Members have implied as much. Natural justice demands that the evidence be produced so that his reputation can be salvaged or utterly destroyed, doesn’t it?
I have, I think, taken great care in the language that I have used in the House today, and I am not in the business of going around making allegations of the kind that have apparently been made outside the House. The fact is, however, that having read the investigation report, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reached the conclusion that there was compelling evidence to suggest responsibility on the part of the former Secretary of State for Defence for the leak from the National Security Council, and that was why she took the decision that she did
Of course the principles of good governance must be upheld, but does this mark a turning point? Further to the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), does this mean that in future we will not see breaches of ministerial collective responsibility that undermine our negotiating position as we leave the EU?
I sincerely hope that all Ministers will abide by the principle that one speaks with complete frankness in trying to shape and take decisions about collective Government policy, and then when one leaves the room one supports that Government policy and does not disclose details of the various arguments and debates that may have taken place in Cabinet or Cabinet Committees.
I do not know whether the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) has undertaken a leak or not—I am not party to that information—but from having sat on the Intelligence and Security Committee and being subject to the same official secrets arrangements and the same briefings that Ministers get, I do know that if I had leaked from that Committee, I would have been subject to a criminal prosecution. My question to the Minister is simply this: did the Cabinet Secretary’s report or the Prime Minister’s assessment suggest that at any time the criminal threshold has been crossed, and has a report been made at any time to the police, as would be the case for any crime committed on business or personal premises?
Clearly, if there had been evidence to convince the Cabinet Secretary that a crime had been committed, or that prima facie a crime might have been committed, he would have reported that to the Prime Minister and come to a different judgment about whether the Government needed to refer the matter to the police. The decision that the Cabinet Secretary came to was that this matter did not need to be referred to the police. To take up the right hon. Gentleman’s initial point, there is a difference between the tests for criminal offences that are, as he will recall, set out in great detail in the various sections of the Official Secrets Act, and falling below the standards of confidentiality and other conduct required of Ministers under the ministerial code.
There are a few troubling aspects of this affair, to put it mildly. As we have seen—most people would, I think, agree about this—there have been a number of leaks from the Cabinet as a whole, particularly in the past two years, yet inquiries into those leaks either do not seem to have been pursued or have not led anywhere. An impression is given that a leak from the Cabinet might be okay but a leak from the NSC is not, and we must be very careful to avoid that. I do not think the ministerial code even mentions the NSC or says that it requires a higher level of propriety. Are there any proposals to change the ministerial code in this regard?
Because the National Security Council is constitutionally a Committee of the Cabinet, it is automatically covered by the provisions of the code that apply to the Cabinet and all Cabinet Committees. The particularly serious nature of this leak is derived from the fact that it is inherent in the nature of National Security Council discussions and the papers going before it that the very highest degree of secrecy needs to be maintained, but my right hon. Friend’s point about the need for higher standards as regards Cabinet and Cabinet Committee meetings is also well made.
The Minister just said that the former Defence Secretary is not accused of committing a criminal act. If he broke the Official Secrets Act, he is accused of committing a criminal act. Can the Minister now answer the question that has been asked three times and he has failed to answer: has the advice of the Attorney General been sought or not?
As I said in response to an earlier question, the role of the Attorney General under the Official Secrets Act is not to authorise or initiate investigations, but to give or withhold consent for a prosecution if and when a finished case is presented to him.
I know from sitting firmly on the other side of the official-ministerial divide how hard it is to get officials, let alone our allies, to share important, and particularly secret, information with Ministers at all. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what matters is that we protect the integrity of the National Security Council if it is to operate at all properly?
How can this matter be closed as far as our security partners are concerned given that the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) has said that he is innocent? Has he been interviewed under oath at any stage during the investigation, because I note that he is not here to set out his position on the Floor of the House and it is vital that our security partners now have confidence? If it was not the former Secretary of State for Defence, who was it?
It is regrettable that the Deputy Prime Minister did not offer to make a statement to the House and instead had to respond to an urgent question and that he is not giving away the information that Members are requesting. The former Secretary of State has sworn on the lives of his children that he did not leak the information. This seems to have been a kangaroo court reaching a decision in secret without any evidence to base that decision on. Mr Speaker, you will remember what happened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). There was a rush to judgment and he was forced to resign, but it was then proved that what he was saying was true. Is the Deputy Prime Minister absolutely sure, without any reasonable doubt, that the former Secretary of State is guilty, or could it just be possible that the kangaroo court has made a mistake?
There was a thorough investigation. Every ministerial member of the National Security Council, and those officials and special advisers who might have had access to the material relating to the proceedings of that particular meeting, was spoken to and, as the Prime Minister’s letter yesterday made clear, co-operated fully with the investigation. The investigation report was presented to the Prime Minister by the Cabinet Secretary and, having studied it, my right hon. Friend came to the conclusion that there was “compelling evidence” to suggest responsibility on the part of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire. As she said in her letter to him yesterday, she took into account the fact that, in the findings of the investigation, there was a difference between the conduct of the former Secretary of State and his team compared with the conduct of other Ministers and their teams. That is why she came to the conclusion that she did. I repeat that this comes back to the question of Ministers serving in office so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. That is a principle that has applied to every Government in this country, and it is what applied in this case.
By all accounts, the former Defence Secretary is the 38th person to lose their job in a Government riddled with incompetence and disloyalty, so it really is going some actually to be sacked by the Prime Minister. What she has described as a grave breach of trust has been enough to lead to his sacking, so why has it not been enough to call in the police?
Notwithstanding the particulars of this case, is it not time for the Government finally to bring forward the espionage Bill, which would include the long overdue root and branch reform of the Official Secrets Act? Despite the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments today, is it also not the case that Cabinet leaks will continue as long as Cabinet papers retain their current classification? Is it not time for a review of how Cabinet papers are classified, and should they not all be classified as secret or above?
The question of the classification of documents is kept under review the whole time. In my recent experience, some Cabinet papers have been classified at secret level and others at a lower level. The classification depends on the substance of what is included in those papers. My hon. Friend also asked about future legislation, and we are obviously keen to bring forward the measure to which he referred, and other Bills, to the House as soon as we can.
The former Secretary of State for Defence clearly thought that it was his way or the Huawei, and he has been told by the Prime Minister to go away, but he has not shut up. Is it not the reality that we will not get the truth unless the former Defence Secretary makes a resignation or sacking statement to this House and we have the chance to debate it to get to the bottom of the fiasco?
Whether my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire wants to apply to you, Mr Speaker, to make a personal statement is a matter for him, but there has been a public exchange of letters between him and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister came to her decision for the reasons that she gave, and I have tried to set those out this morning. Her sense that the decision was necessary was accompanied by a sense of real sadness, because this is not a decision that any Prime Minister would take lightly and it would not be made without considerable regret.
The National Security Council is a relatively modern phenomenon, and my right hon. Friend has set out some of the issues that the body discusses. The clear concern of the House, however, is that if my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) is not responsible for the leak, which is what he says, then someone within the NSC is. It is therefore vital that there is an independent police investigation to demonstrate whether or not he is guilty.
It is obviously for the police to decide whether they believe that the case merits their investigation, but it is not their job to conduct leak inquiries regarding material disclosed within the Government, for which there is an established system. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister concluded in her letter to the former Defence Secretary that there was no credible alternative explanation to this particular leak.
The events of the past week have brought into sharp relief both the importance of handling such sensitive information responsibly and the perception that that is undertaken securely. With that in mind, will the Minister reassure me that if the Government had concerns that the Official Secrets Act may have been broken, the matter would be referred to the relevant authorities?
Clearly, the Cabinet Secretary made a careful assessment of those matters in coming to his judgment, but that judgment is that this is not something that the Government should refer to the police, and the Prime Minister considers the matter closed. Again, I repeat, it is the fact that this was a disclosure from the National Security Council that is at the heart of the seriousness with which the matter has been taken.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said, and I have two questions. First, will he confirm that it is not naive or misplaced still to believe that we have a senior civil service that is imbued with integrity and probity and that we can rely upon? Secondly, following the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), we know that the security and intelligence family is close and, like all families, it relies on a mutual relationship of trust. Will the Minister assure me and the House that, rather than just taking it for granted that our allies consider that we are still trustworthy and steadfast, we will go out proactively and positively to reaffirm that case? Not to do so would clearly put our country at risk.
First, yes, I am very confident that we have an impartial and professional senior civil service that is always ready to serve the elected Government to the best of its ability, whatever political stripe that Government bear. Secondly, it is actions rather than words that will demonstrate to our allies on security and intelligence matters that they should continue to trust us, just as we look to their actions when there are reports of things going wrong within their systems, but it is absolutely right that we must act swiftly and be clear about putting right any flaws in our system of the kind that we have experienced with the NSC in the past couple of weeks.
Given that this has never happened before, is not the real question how it can be that the former Defence Secretary, or indeed anyone else, has felt so emboldened and confident to leak confidential information now? Is not the answer to that, in large part, that this Government are so fractured and weakened that they have lost the authority and cohesion to be able to govern? That process will now be compounded by the Government beginning to eat themselves alive in the search for a new leader. Is not the real way to guarantee that this does not happen again for the Government to put themselves out of their own misery and call a general election?
Dear, dear. It takes a bit of brass neck for an SNP Member to talk about fights between party leaders. The truth is that the Prime Minister has taken very firm and swift action in response to the leak investigation that was carried out on her instruction. The Government are getting on with the task of developing policies designed to protect and enhance the national security of the United Kingdom in respect of both the safety of our citizens and the defence of our interests around the world.
All members of the National Security Council have sworn the Privy Council oath, and top secret material is circulated and discussed. If a leak of information from the National Security Council is not a breach of the Official Secrets Act, what is?
The various tests for a criminal offence are set out in detail in the Official Secrets Act. Whether or not that threshold has been breached depends on harm tests, and those harm tests are different depending on the category and the content of the information we are talking about.
Surely one risk of this leak is that it effectively predetermines the public mood on the substantive issue of Huawei in a more hawkish fashion before we have come to our own policy conclusions. Of course the Five Eyes are our most important allies, and we have to do everything we can to reassure them, but we are also a sovereign country, and we have our own unique circumstances and our own more nuanced position with Beijing, so can I urge my right hon. Friend to continue all the work across Whitehall in a calm, deliberative and, above all, objective fashion so that we come to the right policy on the point of substance?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments, and he is right. In carrying out that work, it is vital that we have a forum in the National Security Council where the intelligence chiefs can talk frankly to Ministers about their assessment of the balance of risks and threats this country faces and where Ministers, taking account of the best advice available to them, can weigh up how to strike the right balance between this country’s future and developing security interests and our future and developing economic interests to try to steer a way forward that delivers the best outcome for the people of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend invites me to engage in a bit of hypothetical speculation. If there were to be any such clear evidence, I think the Prime Minister would want it reported to her immediately and given to her in full. It would clearly need to be the provision of information that provided some other credible explanation for the leak that has taken place.
I hold the Minister in high regard. Last week, during Prime Minister’s questions, he implied that Huawei was “a private firm”, effectively at arm’s length from the Chinese state, as one of our own firms would be. Is that not at best a half truth? Huawei is 99% owned by Chinese trade unions and that, in effect, is being part of a one-party state. Therefore, Huawei is, in effect, an arm of the Chinese state.