House of Commons
Thursday 12 March 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Queen's Speech (Answer to Addresses)
The Vice-Chamberlain of her majesty’s Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty, having been attended with its Addresses of 24 October 2019 and 20 January 2020, was pleased to receive the same very graciously and give the following Answer:
I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the last Session of the previous Parliament.
I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our £220 million better deal for bus users includes measures to improve bus services in rural and urban areas. This is together with the new £5 billion fund for overhauling bus and cycle links throughout the country.
Towns such as Crook, Willington and Burnopfield in my constituency are starved of late evening and weekend bus services. What plans will the Government bring forward in the next few months to enable those areas to have better services?
As I mentioned, there is not only the £220 million fund, but the £5 billion fund, which will enable us to bring forward a comprehensive package of measures, which I hope will significantly boost Durham County Council’s current £347,000 towards the bus service operators grant.
My constituents tell me that very often buses come late or do not turn up at all. As we look to invest more in buses, what are we going to do to make sure that the companies delivering the services are doing a decent job for our residents?
My hon. Friend is right: it is really important to make these bus services work in a manner where people can just rely on them and where they do not even have to look at a timetable because the frequency is there. As part of doing that, we will be opening up bus open data powers, which will ensure that that information is transferred and available to people at bus stops and in their apps, enabling a much more frequent service to run.
Fares are crucial to funding railway operations and our upgrade programme. We have frozen regulated rail fares in line with inflation for the seventh year running.
Given that rail fares have gone up by a massive 40% since 2010, we now have the second most expensive railway in Europe. However, I still have a situation where constituents in the Northwich part of my constituency cannot get a reliable train service—in fact, disabled passengers cannot get one on one side at all. What are the Minister and the Government going to do about that?
The hon. Gentleman would probably like to know that 98p of every £1 paid in fares goes back into the railways, which allows investment in all the areas where he would like to see it, including accessibility for his constituents.
Under the Conservatives, rail fares have rocketed by 40%. An annual season ticket from Coventry to London is now £5,760, to Birmingham it is £1,400 and to Nuneaton it is £1,200. That unfairly puts rail travel beyond the reach of many of my constituents and it discourages green travel. Privatisation has failed, so will the Government bring our railways into public ownership to slash fares and combat the climate emergency?
I am sure the hon. Lady will look forward, as I do, to the issuing of the Williams review, which answers some of the questions she raised, but she should be careful what she wishes for because, today, using a single fare—£7, I believe it is—to go from London to Coventry, a host of Conservative Members are going to campaign in her hyper-marginal seat, at very good value for money.
Trade unions represent the hard-working staff on Northern who have had to take the brunt of passenger frustrations as the franchise has collapsed under Arriva Rail North. Will the Minister explain why, with Northern having been taken back into public ownership, the expert advisory panel established to guide the new service through its first 100 days excludes rail unions, the experience and expertise of which could ensure that passengers in the north finally get the rail service that they need and deserve?
It is a fair question. The answer is that Richard George, the head of the operator of last resort, is working closely with the unions and will continue to do so, because the workforce is all important to the delivery of a reliable service for passengers.
Many Portsmouth people rely heavily on South Western Railway for their daily commute. The service that they receive is substandard, with less than 50% of mainline services operating on time, while rail fares have soared by 2.7%. Put simply, Portsmouth people are paying more but getting less. Will the Minister confirm what steps his Department is taking to address this injustice for my community?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his correspondence and the way that he has engaged with my Department over this issue. He has been representing his constituents on this matter very well. As he knows, a request for a proposal has been issued to the south-west franchise owners, FirstGroup and MTR, and to the operator of last resort. Parliament will be kept informed of those developments. It is all about trying to improve the service for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.
As we have heard, rail passengers throughout the country are struggling with the exorbitant cost of train travel, with fares having risen by a staggering 40% since the Conservatives took office. In stark contrast, Germany has recently cut rail fares, and in Luxembourg public transport has been made entirely free, thereby both supporting families and helping to tackle the climate crisis. The Government used yesterday’s Budget to prioritise once again unsustainable and expensive new roads ahead of support for public transport. When will the Government finally treat this issue seriously and take the urgent action that is needed?
I completely get where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but he should understand that taxpayers already subsidise the rail network by more than £4 billion a year, meaning that 54% of our transport budget is spent on the 2% of journeys that the railways account for. He mentions Germany, which has cut rail fares, but to do that Germany cut the VAT on rail fares from 19% to 7%; he might like to know that we charge no VAT on rail fares in this country.
Question 18, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend give an indication of his estimate for completing the new airports national policy statement? Will there be sufficient time to take into account—
Order. It has to be linked to the question that you were standing for. Do not worry; we will come back later.
I note that the questions that my honourable and hairy friend has answered so far were about reducing the cost of rail fares, but that implies that either more people must make more journeys by rail, or taxpayers generally, such as those in Lincoln, must subsidise the rail industry more. Which would my hon. Friend prefer? Does he have any plans to improve the franchise process to make bidding for them more attractive to businesses?
We are going to change the franchise model—the Williams review is absolutely going to change how our franchise model operates—but my hon. Friend will have to wait a bit longer to see how that is going to happen. We have strong views on the direction of travel and look forward to informing the House shortly.
It is important to have affordable rail fares so that residents can access our railways, but many of my constituents do not have any access to trains at all because they do not have a local train station. The people of Gamesley were promised a railway station more than 50 years ago, but it has still not been delivered. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the bid for Gamesley train station?
My hon. Friend wisely highlights a proposal that will be considered among the bids for the Restoring Your Railway fund. I would be delighted to meet him to talk about it.
The Secretary of State is already aware of how unhappy my constituents who use Lockerbie station are—after fare increases, they have seen an appalling level of service from TransPennine. TransPennine has now made certain commitments to improve the service; what can the Department do to ensure that it meets those commitments?
The Secretary of State and I met the TransPennine leadership not so long ago to put the very points that my right hon. Friend has just made. As he knows, there has been quite a big change at the head of that franchise. We are working with the new management to ensure that the new trains operate correctly and that the service his constituents would like is actually delivered for them.
While rail fares remain too high, the cost of disruption to our commuters when services go wrong, as is so often the case with Southern, is considerable. Although Delay Repay has been helpful, it does not reflect the true cost of taxis, hotels and loss of work that our constituents have been suffering. Can the Minister tell us whether the new ombudsman is going to tackle the issue and make sure that we have a compensation scheme that accurately reflects the costs that our commuters and constituents suffer?
It is absolutely true that there are huge numbers of delays and cancellations on our railway on a daily basis. That completely disrupts people going to work and kids going to school, and it also affects students and people just socialising. Different plans are being mooted. The Williams review will have a fuller plan, on which I will be able to communicate with my hon. Friend.
People who live and work in Nottingham need Ministers to do something about fares, sooner rather than later. Highways England’s partial closure of the A52 Clifton bridge is making their car journeys unbearable, and we urgently need more people to use trains, trams and buses to get into the city. Will the Minister or one of his colleagues meet me and other hon. Members representing constituencies in and around Nottingham, to discuss how the Department and Highways England can support Nottingham City Council and its efforts to get our city moving during this serious disruption?
Again, the hon. Lady raises valid points on behalf of her constituents. I or perhaps another appropriate member of the ministerial team will be delighted to do that.
The bus market outside London is deregulated, with service provision being a matter for bus operators and local authorities. We are, however, providing £5 billion of new funding to overhaul buses and cycling across the country.
The reality in predominantly rural North Warwickshire is that I can get to London quicker by train than it takes for me to travel by bus from outside my house to my constituency office just 6 miles away. The situation makes it really difficult for people to get to hospital appointments, to work, to school and, as I found out last week, to Jobcentre Plus appointments. What can we do to reinvigorate transport across North Warwickshire and Bedworth so that my constituents can access the fantastic opportunities that this Government are keen to deliver as part of their levelling-up agenda?
I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration. I am pleased to say that the Government have launched two schemes that are relevant to North Warwickshire. The first is a call for an expression of interest in a £20 million rural mobility fund to support innovative solutions to transport problems in rural areas, and the second is the allocation of £30 million to every local authority in England to support new bus services or replace lost services.
Covid-19: Public Transport
We have published health guidance for staff and the transport sector, following carefully the Public Health England advice on protocols. In addition, I have contacted the various ports on several occasions.
As the Secretary of State knows, the World Health Organisation has declared covid-19 to be a pandemic. Will he clarify what new measures will be taken to keep passengers and transport workers safe on public transport?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Obviously, the issue of covid-19 is occupying the minds of everybody in this country at the moment. As an example, 2,500 posters—digital as well as printed—have gone up in our railway stations. There is a very wide programme of enhanced engagement, and we are working with the Public Health England protocols. Yesterday I met the chief executive and chair of Network Rail to discuss the subject. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), who has responsibility for aviation, and I have also had similar discussions with all the aviation industry leaders.
Yesterday, we saw welcome support in the Budget for small and medium-sized enterprises to deal with coronavirus, but ferry companies and airlines are very much at the forefront of that challenge. What financial support and liquidity are available to these companies? Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress he has made on reforming slot allocation, and will he meet me and sector representatives to discuss the adequacy of the Government’s support so far?
My hon. Friend was absolutely right last week to raise the issue of the so-called ghost flights; I think he was the first person to raise the matter in this House. I have since written both to the slots allocator in this country, Airport Coordination Limited, and to the European Commission, which has indicated that it will alleviate those slots to stop empty flights flying. My hon. Friend is also right about the pressure that the airlines are under, and we are doing further work with the Civil Aviation Authority and the EU, particularly over EU regulation 261. I would be very happy to meet him to discuss the matter.
The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced powers for local authorities and operators to work to grow their patronage. That is in addition to the £5 billion national bus strategy that I just mentioned.
Will the Secretary of State back the “Bring Back the Buses” campaign to reconnect communities and isolated villages in my area that have lost their services?
Yes, I will gladly back that campaign. Everyone recognises that buses could and should be doing a lot more. I recognise that we have lost services over a period of time. Buses are still the chosen form of transport for 50% of travel, so it is important that we get this right. Even going back as far as 2017, we were passing legislation to ensure that franchises can work in conjunction with local authorities, and those processes are going into place. We want to see the London standard of bus service everywhere in the country.
As we have heard, the Government like to say that they support bus travel. However, they have cut bus funding for supported bus services by 45% since 2010. To make matters worse, the Chancellor has just announced 27 times more spending on new roads than on supporting buses and local transport. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when the Government will finally stop paying lip service to public transport, and actually provide the investment that bus passengers so urgently need?
I am surprised that the figure 5 with “billion” after it did not answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are not just paying lip service; we are doing it. What he does not seem to understand about building roads is that buses run on them.
Of the £250 million in direct revenue support for bus operators, just £43 million goes to local councils outside London. We are going to need a lot more than that if we are going to reinstate local bus services in rural areas, aren’t we?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is where the £5 billion national bus strategy, which we will be publishing shortly, comes in. Our aim is quite simply to get to a London standard of service throughout the country, including in rural areas and his constituency.
For £1.50 in London—which the Secretary of State mentioned—I can get two buses anywhere across the capital for up to 30 miles. In Newcastle, £1.50 will not even get me three stops up the West Road, while if I want to go to Ashington, which is 18 miles away, it will cost me £8. Can we have a comparative study of bus fares in London and the north-east so that we can understand what we need to do to make them fairer and improve bus patronage?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I can assure her that that is exactly the process that we will be following in developing the national bus strategy, and I would be more than happy to work with her and incorporate her ideas. We can argue about the past, but it sounds to me that we both want to see bus services that are excellent for all our constituents, so I completely agree with her.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, to get more people on the buses, we need to make them cleaner and greener? In that vein, what is the Secretary of State doing to promote the use of hydrogen?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want buses that are cleaner and greener. We want them to be the right temperature—air-conditioned in summer, and warm in winter—with 5G plug-in points for phones. And we want to have electric buses—4,000 of them, with this new money. These new buses can be electric or, indeed, hydrogen powered, like the buses being developed by Wrightbus in Northern Ireland. We warmly welcome all such developments. My hon. Friend can be reassured that we are working closely with bus operators to develop new British buses.
Airport Expansion: Paris Climate Change Agreement
The Court of Appeal judgment on the airports national policy statement is complex, and we will set out our next steps in due course. This Government remain supportive of airport expansion, but we will permit it only within our environmental obligations.
From “No ifs, no buts, no third runway”, to engineering a trip to Afghanistan to skip the vote, the last three Prime Ministers have started off very clear on Heathrow expansion and then obfuscation and U-turns have set in. Why do not the Government take the opportunity of the Court of Appeal ruling that expansion is incompatible with our Paris climate accord obligations and make this dead and buried once and for all, and also review the other 21 planned airport expansions?
As I have already outlined, the Government are, and remain, supportive of airport expansion where we are able to deliver it within our environmental obligations. I must point out to the hon. Lady that the Court did not conclude that airport expansion is incompatible with climate change. As I have already outlined, we are reviewing this complex judgment and will lay out our next steps soon.
In the light of the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Government were wrong to deny the relevance and application of the Paris agreement. Do the Government now accept that their overriding obligation is one of compliance with our Paris accord commitments in reducing emissions, meaning that their national policy statement on aviation has to be revisited and revised, and that they should be saying no to climate-busting expansion at Heathrow?
I can understand the concerns that many hon. Members may have around the Government’s next steps. That is why we have outlined that it is currently an ongoing legal process. We have said that we will review the judgment, which is complex, and set out our next steps. As I have already outlined, the Court did not judge that the airport expansion is incompatible with climate change. But we will obviously update the House as soon as possible on any future steps that we will be prepared to take.
The Court of Appeal said that it was illegal.
In the midst of a climate crisis, the Chancellor announced the biggest-ever programme of road building—a £27 billion splurge that will increase car use, worsen congestion, and increase climate emissions. In anticipation of legal challenges, as with airport expansion, and before the Government go any further, can they confirm that the roads programme has been subject to rigorous environment impact assessments and complies with our Paris agreement obligations?
The climate emergency concerns us all, and the aviation sector faces a particularly tough challenge to decarbonise, whether or not additional airport capacity is added in the south-east. However, we cannot shirk that challenge, so I am proud that Loganair, based in my constituency, is currently working to provide passenger services using electric planes to help to tackle our climate change targets. In Scotland, these targets include aircraft emissions. Will this Government match that level of transparency and honesty, and include emissions in their targets?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for outlining his particular interest and his understanding of the situation within Scotland. As he will know, Sustainable Aviation has committed to delivering on its net zero target.
As the Minister has outlined, progress has been made with new engine technology continually setting new standards of efficiency and reducing carbon emissions, and there is huge research and development in the sector right now. Given that background, plus the fact that it may cost up to 10 times more, and that it is one of just two bodies whose regulations are followed the world over, replacing the European Aviation Safety Agency properly may take up to a decade, and recruiting the expertise required will be extremely difficult. Does the Minister not realise that leaving EASA is an act of sheer folly that is putting Brexit politics before passenger safety?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know—I believe he spoke about it last week—that we will potentially see the first electric flight this year. We have invested £300 million in the future flight challenge fund. We are committed to working with everyone across the industry to ensure that we have the technology and the skills and can deliver on our target.
Electric Vehicles: Charging Infrastructure
As the Chancellor announced yesterday, the Government are providing an additional £500 million over the next five years to support the roll-out of a fast charging network for electric vehicles, ensuring that drivers will never be further than 30 miles from a rapid charging station.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I commend the Government on the progress that has been made on charging infrastructure over the last decade, from dozens to hundreds and now thousands of charging points; that challenge is being well met. My concern is that, even with the current grants, the purchase price of electric vehicles is still out of reach for most people on lower incomes. Does she agree that, if we are to see more electric vehicle use in the years to come, the purchase price of electric vehicles is equally as important as the availability of charging infrastructure?
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about the Government’s support. It is right that the Government are committed to supporting the up-front cost of an electric vehicle. That is why I am pleased that, at yesterday’s Budget, a further £532 million of funding was announced to keep the plug-in vehicle grant for another three years. He will know that those with fully electric cars will pay no company car tax this year, and vehicle excise duty for all electric vehicles in all price brackets has been abolished.
The extension of the plug-in taxi grant until 2022-23 is welcome. That works for bespoke vehicles, but what about cities such as Cambridge, where the city council rightly expects higher standards, but for hard-pressed drivers, the cost of the vehicles is prohibitive, as the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said? What are the Government doing to help them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for what is happening in Cambridge. He will know that a range of support is available for all vehicles, including taxis that want to upgrade to electric vehicles, and the Government are committed to continuing the funding for those grants.
I wonder whether the Minister could help me with the next vehicle I should buy. I used to drive a petrol car, then Dave persuaded us all to go green, so I bought a biofuel car, which was destroying the planet, so they said, “Buy a diesel car because it emits less CO2,” so I bought a diesel car, and now I am poisoning people. An electric vehicle might be the solution, though it might be terrible because of the batteries, but I live in a flat both here in Westminster and in my constituency, so an electric car is not the answer. Is it a diesel car with AdBlue? Help me!
I am delighted to assist my hon. Friend. I encourage him to think about purchasing an electric vehicle. The answer is to ensure that there are charging points at his block of flats and across the country. In fact, the Government have doubled the funding available to local authorities to install charging points for electric vehicles on-street, to £10 million. I am sure that that will assist him.
Or he could get roller-skates!
Road Network National Policy Statements: Climate Change Commitments
We take our commitment to climate targets seriously. We have one of the world’s most ambitious plans for reducing carbon emissions from our roads, and our infrastructure policy is entirely consistent with that.
Does not the decision on Heathrow demonstrate that the Government need to upgrade their statements in the light of climate change, otherwise there is a danger that their massive expansion of road building will get bogged down in legal challenges?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Court of Appeal judgment on Heathrow is a very complex issue. Our road policy contains many elements, including a plan for decarbonisation, funding to improve public transport and plans for road improvements. That balanced package is entirely consistent with reaching net zero, which is what the Government are committed to doing.
Noise: Heathrow Airport Flight Paths
The Government’s airspace modernisation programme should allow aircraft to climb more quickly and descend continuously, which will have a noticeable noise reduction benefit for communities overflown by Heathrow flights.
I thank the Minister for that answer. She will know that 70% of the aircraft that arrive at Heathrow do so via what is known as westerly operations, involving a final approach over my constituency and others in south London. Given the concerns about noise on the part of those living under these flight paths, can the Minister tell the House whether the Bill on modernising our airspace that the Government have committed to will include provisions aimed at reducing the concentration of flight paths and mandating measures to reduce arrival noise?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I understand his concerns. Airspace modernisation is intended to reduce the amount of noise per flight for those living under concentrated flight paths. However, there is a risk that they may experience more noise than currently. Whether this is the case will depend on the final routes proposed by airports, including any respite routes, and on the outcomes of consultation with local people, and I expect he will be very vocal at that time.
Rail Services: North of England
We are working with Network Rail, operators and stakeholders to raise performance, and we are investing billions of pounds to improve services for passengers.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree with me that, in addition to national rail projects, light rail projects such as extending the Metrolink to Middleton and Heywood in my constituency form a vital part of levelling up and increasing capacity?
Under this Government, the Metrolink has been extended to reach new destinations right across Greater Manchester. The most recent extension to the Trafford centre is due to open later this month. While the development of light rail proposals is a matter for the Mayoral combined authority, we will work closely with them. I hope to see the Metrolink extended to my hon. Friend’s constituency. As the Chancellor said yesterday, we are getting investment done.
European Aviation Safety Agency Membership
The UK will leave EASA at the end of the transition period.
The Secretary of State will be aware that that news has not been well received by the aviation industry. The ADS, which represents over 1,100 UK companies, has noted that the UK and the EU could have an arrangement, in the same way that Switzerland does, giving us full membership of EASA without even having any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Why would that be a problem for the Government?
Because the EU said in its statement of negotiating parameters on 15 January that UK participation in EASA is not viable from its perspective. It would not be viable from a UK perspective either, because we would be subject to ECJ rulings in one form or another, and certainly, without any doubt, we would have to accept the European Commission creating the laws under which we would exist— and this country voted for Brexit. However, we will have a bilateral aviation safety agreement—a so-called BASA. We will also have a comprehensive air transport agreement—a so-called CATA—to enable smooth transport to continue.
The aviation industry is in crisis and 84,000 UK jobs are potentially under threat, yet the Government plan to withdraw from EASA, despite the warnings from the industry and despite its costing 10 times as much money. Will the Transport Secretary put a stop to this reckless plan, stop this needless waste of public money and protect Britain’s impressive and world-leading role in aviation safety?
The hon. Gentleman is right that the UK has the third largest aviation network, but the idea that we are there because of EASA is untrue. The reality is that we already have the expertise in this country. It is the Civil Aviation Authority that administers the entire system, so there is no particular role that we cannot step up and fill. In case the hon. Gentleman had not noticed, this country voted to leave Europe. I know the Labour party has struggled to understand this fundamental point about when we vote to do something, but people voted for it in a referendum and they voted for it again in a general election, and we are leaving.
Highways England has a programme of works under way, north of junction 2 of the M66, to resurface and renew road markings and studs. Once completed, those works will deliver safety benefits for all road users.
In 2011, lighting on the M66 between junctions 1 and 3 was decommissioned. Many of my Bury North constituents have contacted me, expressing their concerns that that has created unsafe driving conditions, especially during heavy rainfall. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me, and a number of local residents, to discuss those concerns, and investigate what actions can be taken to address them?
I appreciate the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents about motorway driving without lighting. Highways England is working closely on that topic, and monitoring the safety situation on that section of the M66. Baroness Vere, the Minister responsible for roads—she is in the Gallery—will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.
Airports National Policy Statement Review
The judgment by the Court of Appeal was complex, and the Government need time to consider it carefully. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued a written statement on 27 February.
I apologise for my earlier mistiming, Mr Speaker.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as digesting what I agree are the complex implications of that judgment, she could take this opportunity to consider the report by the New Economic Foundation, entitled “Baggage Claim”? That report debunks many of the received wisdoms about the value to the UK economy of Heathrow expansion, and sets out in detail the economic opportunities created by regional expansion, especially in terms of levelling-up, which is a clear commitment of this Government.
As my hon. Friend has outlined, just as I have a number of times today, the Court of Appeal judgment is complex. We are considering it, and we will set out our next steps in due course. On regional connectivity, we are committed to delivering airport expansion that is in line with our environmental obligations. We are also committed to levelling up, and ensuring that people are able to travel, whichever part of the country they live in, and that obviously relates to local and regional airports.
Rail Franchising System: Viability
Keith Williams has been tasked by the Government with leading a root and branch review into the rail industry, and he has confirmed that he will recommend scrapping the current franchising system. Full details will be set out in the White Paper which, all being well, will be published before summer.
I thank the Minister for his comments. Passengers in my constituency and across northern England welcomed the decision to bring Northern Rail into public ownership on 1 March, following the collapse of Arriva Rail North. In the past decade, more than £178 million has been paid in dividends to Northern Rail shareholders, while simultaneously, there have been cuts to safety-critical staff on trains and stations. Research has shown that if our railway was in public ownership, we would save £1 billion a year—enough to fund an 18% cut in rail fares. Will the Minister assure Members that Northern Rail will be kept in public ownership, to rebuild the trust and confidence of rail users, and that it will not be privatised at the earliest opportunity?
First, may I push back on the hon. Lady’s point about safety, which is completely incorrect? That issue is regulated by an independent body, and she is wrong. Since privatisation, we have seen the number of passenger journeys more than double, as well as more services and better trains. Northern Rail’s fleet is now being replaced with new trains, and that will be finished by the end of May. I very much hope that the new system will include a profuse and large group of private companies that want to run services for us.
Problems with the franchising system mean that London North Eastern Railway is now under control of the Minister’s Department. He will be aware of my long-running campaign to get through trains from King’s Cross to Cleethorpes. Can he tell me when that will happen?
I cannot answer my hon. Friend from the Dispatch Box today, but we are working to deliver the service that he has outlined, certainly at the beginning and end of each day to start with.
Bus Accident Data Collection
It is up to individual local transport authorities to determine which powers in the Bus Services Act 2017 are used to address issues of bus safety. Under a partnership or franchising scheme, bus operators could be required to provide bus safety data at specified intervals.
While in London this data is collected, in all other areas of the country it is not. It is public transport we are talking about and the public should be made aware, or be allowed to be made aware, of this key data on the number of accidents and the causes of those accidents. Will the Minister agree to meet me and members of the family of Rowan Fitzgerald, who sadly died in 2015 in an unnecessary accident, to discuss the proposals in Rowan’s law?
I know the hon. Gentleman has met a number of bus Ministers to discuss the fatal accident in Coventry in 2015. I offer my deepest condolences for this terrible tragedy. Collection of data could be considered within the national bus strategy. I, or one of my colleagues, would be happy to meet him to discuss that further.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to say a few words about an issue that I know a lot of Members have been concerned about: smart motorways. I announced last year that the Department would carry out an evidence stock-take to gather the facts about the safety or otherwise of smart motorways and make recommendations. I have listened to friends and families affected, and I have looked hard at the evidence. Today, I am publishing a report into the findings. Alongside that report, I am launching an 18-point action plan to raise the bar on smart motorway safety. Overall, the evidence shows that in most ways smart motorways are as safe or safer than conventional ones, but they are not in every way. I have therefore developed new measures to further improve safety.
I pay tribute to Edmund King of the Automobile Association and the families of those who have lost loved ones, including Meera Naran who is here today watching our proceedings. I also want to thank other campaigners, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), and my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Harborough (Neil O'Brien). Their work to help to ensure our motorways are as safe as they can possibly be is, I think, something the whole House will welcome. I have laid copies of the report in the Library and a written statement will be laid later today.
I thank the Secretary of State for those comments on smart motorways. The new plan for a northern powerhouse between Manchester and Leeds has been announced every year since 2014. Why would anybody think it will be any different this year? If Northern Powerhouse Rail is to be a success, it has to go right across the north, so why is there is nothing about the Liverpool to Manchester part of the route, which is the easiest part to deliver? As the Prime Minister was fond of saying during the election, it is oven ready.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. I have a consultation virtually ready to go. I am working with Transport for the North to get that signed off across various different parties up there. I will be expressing the hon. Member’s concern to them to get on with that. I agree that Manchester to Leeds is part of it, but getting on with the bit to Liverpool, out to Hull and all the rest is also important.
The new Greater Anglia train fleet will certainly deliver many benefits, including extra passenger capacity on the great eastern main line. I am particularly interested, too, in seeing the results of the great eastern main line taskforce study work on the upgrades my hon. Friend mentions, and the renewal of the strategic outline business case and wider economic benefit studies so we can move forward.
More than 12 months has passed since the Government announced a consultation on banning old tyres from public service vehicles. The Tyred campaign and tens of thousands of supporters have waited far too long. I pay tribute to Frances Molloy and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for the work they have done. The Secretary of State has the power to act now before more innocent people are needlessly killed. Is it not time for the Government to get this done?
As with the smart motorway point that I made a few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need to get this right, and it has been the subject of several coroners’ reports. He will not have to wait very long and I do not think he will be disappointed.
My hon. Friend mentioned that briefly to me already, so I know that it is on his radar. It is important that all our roads are managed by the appropriate authority in the interests of road users and local communities, and I would be quite happy to meet my hon. Friend and the roads Minister.
We are very keen, unlike the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team, to sort out the problems on our major roads. I would be more than happy to meet him or for another Minister to do so.
My hon. Friend will know that we are providing £5 billion in new funding to overhaul buses and cycling nationwide to benefit all passengers of all ages. The national bus strategy will set out further details.
The hon. Lady will recall that when it was announced that we would go ahead with HS2, a £5 billion fund for buses and cycling was also announced. Cycling will get a very good chunk of that money and that will be outlined in the forthcoming spending review, but I absolutely understand the point that she has made. We are working to ensure that the gap that there could be in funding is resolved.
My hon. Friend will know that decisions are made locally for Transport for Greater Manchester, and Greater Manchester already receives just under £3 million each year to support local bus services. The Government have also committed to £5 billion more for buses, which I hope is a cause for optimism for him, but as he knows, I will always be happy to meet him to discuss any particular issues.
Fairground operators make a significant economic contribution to my constituency and use red diesel for their power-generating equipment. Members of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain have contacted me to say that the Chancellor’s planned increase in fuel duty on red diesel will put them out of business altogether, and they are not in line for an exemption. Will the Minister make representations to her colleagues in the Treasury to exempt the fairground industry from the planned increase to protect the livelihoods of this unique and vibrant community?
Red diesel has traditionally enjoyed a significant subsidy, which, as the hon. Member rightly points out, was constrained by yesterday’s Budget. The Government are working across the board, with many sectors, including farmers and fishermen, and the consultation will be open to reflecting exactly the concerns she raises about fairground operators and others. I would encourage her to engage in that consultation.
I am sure my hon. Friend was pleased by the £500 million a year—£2.5 billion in total, which is more than the £2 billion promised in our manifesto—to help fill potholes, and I look forward to working with her and other colleagues to ensure their potholes are filled as soon as possible.
At a recent meeting, London North Eastern Railway shared with me its ambition to introduce an extra train per hour between Newcastle and King’s Cross, but owing to a lack of capacity on the east coast main line, this can only be achieved by curtailing other providers’ services at York, meaning that fewer trains, if any, will run between Edinburgh, Tyneside, Tees Valley, south and west Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. How soon can we expect the levelling-up investment on the east coast main line north of York necessary to fulfil all these competing ambitions?
I am fully aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman—no, right hon. Gentleman?
One day. Alas, I cannot promote him to that position.
I am fully aware of the problem the hon. Gentleman has just outlined, and we are working with the franchise and throughout the industry to resolve it. As he knows, investment in rail takes a long time to come through the system, but I promise we are looking at this.
Like my hon. Friend, I represent a coastal constituency. The south-west has great strengths in maritime autonomy and renewables and clean maritime innovation. We look forward to working with the recently formed Maritime UK South West to create an environment where these objectives can be realised nationally and in the south-west. I would be more than happy to work with him as we progress some of these ideas.
The Government’s airports policy has been struck down by the Appeal Court, and the Government have decided not to appeal that decision. Does the Minister accept that the Government cannot be a bystander on this and leave this for a decision between the courts and Heathrow’s management, who have no interest other than their own financial interests?
We have been clear that the court case is complex and we will set out our next steps. We have always been clear that any expansion would be done via the private sector. It is for the promoters of the scheme to take that forward, and as I have already outlined this morning, there is an ongoing legal case.
In my constituency, we have major issues with disabled facilities at Dewsbury railway station, where there is no tactile paving for the blind and partially sighted, and at Shepley and Mirfield railway stations, where there is a lack of wheelchair access. What assurance can the railways Minister give to my constituents that these problems will be tackled in the near future?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government recently made £350 million available to add another 209 stations to the Access for All programme. The stations he mentioned were not successful in that round of money, but I would be delighted to meet and work with him to ensure that those stations get the funding they deserve, because our rail network needs to be accessible for everybody.
The Coventry and Warwickshire branch of the National Federation of the Blind says that people with visual impairments are missing their destinations or cannot find timetable information as bus stops and buses are not enabled with audiovisual announcements. Can the Minister tell me what steps the Government are taking to make talking bus stops and buses a reality for visually impaired passengers?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and this is something we are really passionate about. My hon. Friend the Minister in the Lords recently made an announcement on talking buses. In addition, just a couple of weeks ago I launched a new Access for All campaign for stations in London to extend it right across our network. There are so many things that we can do to make our rather antiquated, old-fashioned railways and transport systems much more access-friendly.
May I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s decision, in principle at least, that something needs to be done about the rules of pavement parking outside of London? Will he join me in urging people to commit to the consultation and, if there is a case for change, ensure time in this place to deliver it for vulnerable people in this country?
May I pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, and indeed the former Chair, for promoting this subject so much? We are pleased to respond today to “Pavement parking” and will certainly wish to join him in taking forward those steps, exactly as he has described.
Will the Secretary of State commit today to making sure that every single decision taken in his Department is assessed for whether it contributes to or mitigates against climate change?
Yes, that is absolutely the case. We are committed to 2050 and will soon be producing a decarbonisation plan, which will do precisely what the hon. Lady is after.
The development consent order decision for the Lowestoft third crossing should have been made by 6 December. More than three months on, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State advised as to when a decision will be announced. Does he agree that if the UK is to build the infrastructure that the Chancellor outlined yesterday, we need a timely and efficient legal process for making such decisions?
I understand my hon. Friend’s frustrations with the delay. We will be issuing a written ministerial statement setting out a new date for the decision as soon as practically possible, but as it is a live planning application, I unfortunately cannot comment further on the scheme. However, as he knows, we of course want to ensure that all applications are dealt with in a timely way, and our Department will work to ensure that.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for the week commencing 16 March will include:
Monday 16 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Tuesday 17 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.
Wednesday 18 March—Opposition day (6th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. The subject is to be confirmed.
Thursday 19 March—Debate on a motion on the Government response to the Morse review of the Loan Charge 2019, followed by general debate on the Horizon settlement and future governance of the Post Office. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 20 March—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 March will include:
Monday 23 March—Second reading of a Bill.
Tuesday 24 March—Second reading of a Bill.
Wednesday 25 March—Opposition day (7th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.
Thursday 26 March—Debate on a motion on errors in payments made to victims of the Equitable Life scandal, followed by a debate on a motion on human rights in Kashmir. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 27 March—Private Members’ Bills.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business. He will know that the Opposition want to work with the Government on any new legislation that is put through, so could we ask for early sight of it through the usual channels and the shadow Front-Bench teams? I know that the Leader of the House was having a meeting with Mr Speaker earlier yesterday; I wonder whether the Opposition parties could also be included in those talks.
The Leader of the House will know that there is speculation in the press about the restoration and renewal programme. We are all mindful of the costs, but does he agree with the Lord Speaker and Chair of the House of Lords Commission that vacating the entire building is a far more cost-effective option? Will he find time to come to the House and explain the Government’s position, if it is changing?
We had the Chancellor here yesterday and, whoever wrote it, No. 10 or No. 11, he delivered the Budget; he got it done. I do not know whether the Leader of the House is aware—he must be, because I know that he likes procedure—that the Government chose to introduce the Budget resolutions on an income tax motion instead of following the usual custom and practice of moving an amendment of the law motion. Can he explain why? It affects the ability of the Opposition and hon. Members to table amendments to and scrutinise the Finance Bill. Is this another example of the Government trying to stifle proper consideration of their plans? Will the Leader of the House please explain why this decision was taken, given that such a motion is normally used only at the time of an election?
The Chancellor said that coronavirus was on everyone’s minds; it could be in our systems as well. We wish everyone well who is self-isolating and those who are ill a speedy recovery. I am sure that the Leader of the House will join me in sending our condolences to the families of the eight people who have now died. However, the Chancellor said nothing about the key demographic of the over-70s, who are going to be affected by the virus and the most at risk. Will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor to look again at free television licences for the over-75s? They need information, they need access to television; they may well be self-isolating.
The Leader of the House will have seen that our Front-Bench Treasury team were jumping up and down yesterday saying that the Budget contained absolutely nothing on social care—another thing that affects the over-70s demographic. If the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was revoked, we could move towards a more integrated system of health and social care. As a former member of the Health Committee, I know that in 2015 we were calling for cross-party talks with the shadow Health Secretary, now Mayor Andy Burnham.
It was amazing that the Budget statement contained nothing about the falling markets. We have seen the biggest fall in shares since 2008. The Chancellor has said that the UK has seen a
“decade-long slowdown in productivity.”
He forgot to say that his party has been in charge for the past 10 years. I know that he called the shadow Chancellor’s “little-read book” a fantasy book, but the Government are borrowing the shadow Chancellor’s big red Budget book: they are borrowing to invest.
The Leader of the House will know that people affected by the floods are also suffering from the coronavirus outbreak. I know that the Chancellor has increased spending on flooding to £5 billion, but as I have mentioned in the House previously, the Labour Government increased flood funding and this Government cut it. The Leader of the House will know that the Climate Coalition has produced a report saying that extreme rainfall has increased by 40%, and the number of people in the UK facing floods during the winter is more than the population of Birmingham and Manchester put together.
I know that the Leader of the House will join me in congratulating the climate champions at the Green Heart Hero Awards, which is organised by the Climate Coalition—my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and the hon. Members for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) and for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk).
I ask the Leader of the House again about Nazanin, Kylie and Anousheh. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) was right when she said we had been here before. Nazanin was about to be released and nothing has happened; 70,000 prisoners have already been released; we have provided aid in good faith to the Iranian Government. When did the Foreign Secretary last speak to his counterpart? This is one thing that we must get done.
The Leader of the House will know that it is British Science Week. I was delighted to welcome the Royal Society of Chemistry and Lab Tots. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) came to see experiments and how to make lava lamps. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in thanking the dedicated scientists who are looking at research and development to find a cure for the virus, and developing the tests and interpretation of the tests. I place on record our thanks to Public Health England and the House staff, who are meeting daily to keep us safe. The Leader of the House will know that there is such a thing as society and community, and we will look out for each other.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to record our thanks to Public Health England, which has been remarkably helpful to the House authorities. As she knows, a representative saw the House of Commons Commission last night, and we are being kept fully up to date. Its advice is clearly well thought through and well presented, and we are following that advice along with the rest of the country, particularly in the Government’s approach. That is an important point, and she is also right to record thanks to the scientists, who are not making lava lamps but are doing the serious work of looking at the coronavirus and how it operates.
Going back to the beginning of the right hon. Lady’s questions, she says the Opposition are keen to work together on any emergency legislation that is necessary. I understand that today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be talking to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), the shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and it is very much our intention to keep Opposition parties informed on what we are trying to do.
The devolved authorities have been kept fully informed and have been attending the Cobra meetings on these matters. The whole nation is coming together as one, and I am grateful for the support received so far from the official Opposition. The Government will do everything we can to ensure that co-operation continues to be given willingly, which is why I was not more specific about the Second Reading debates, because that will obviously depend on the talks.
The right hon. Lady raises restoration and renewal, which is currently a matter for the Commission, although there will be a handover to the sponsor body when the Act comes into force in April. There is always a regard to value for money, which must underpin everything we do, and there is widespread acceptance of the need to improve the mechanical and engineering plant—that is accepted—but some of the sums that have been mentioned are eye-watering, and Members should be concerned about that in relation to their constituents and tax purpose.
I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s warm words—as warm as she could manage—about the Chancellor’s speech. It is fascinating that the Opposition cannot find anything to criticise. We take that absence of criticism as the highest praise for a brilliant and very successful Budget. I am not sure that it is the greatest criticism if the only point that can be made is that the Budget was moved on an income tax motion, rather than on a change to the law, because that has been done with previous Budgets. The former Chancellor, Philip Hammond, used the procedure on a number of occasions, so it is not that unusual—[Interruption.] No, it is not that unusual. It has been done regularly over the past few years. This is the way of doing it. It is a perfectly reasonable way to do it, and I am sure the matters before the House will be debated vigorously and rigorously, because we will carry out proper scrutiny.
The medical advice for the over-70s will be coming forward, and we must not pre-empt what Cobra may say later today. Of course, the BBC should continue to give free TV licences to the over-75s. That is important, and it would be a great shame if the BBC failed to continue to support the over-75s. It is, of course, a matter for the BBC, but I think it would be right to do that.
The right hon. Lady is right to express her sympathy for the families of the eight people who have died from the coronavirus. It is a great sadness for those families and a worry for the nation at large that those deaths have taken place, which is why so much is being done to try to combat the effects of the virus.
Social care will obviously be an important part of tackling the virus, and the Government have asked for cross-party views to try to come up with a system of social care that will last, will have public support and will not be changed from one Government to another. It is important that we get to a settled view of social care and, therefore, the right hon. Lady’s views will be welcome in the consultation, as will those of other hon. and right hon. Members.
On share price falls, I spent most of my life before entering politics in financial services, so I know it is always unwise to predict what markets are going to do. I am glad that the Office for Budget Responsibility has said that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s brilliant Budget will lead to a 2.5% increase in productivity because of the coming infrastructure investment, which is good news.
There is £5.2 billion going into flood defences, and I note that the Somerset levels, following a lot of mitigation efforts, seem not to have flooded recently, so it seems that the mitigation efforts work very successfully. There was an extremely interesting article on that in the Daily Mail a week or so ago, which I draw to the attention of hon. and right hon. Members.
Did you write it?
No, I did not, but the article, on the success of mitigation policies on the Somerset levels, is well worth reading. The levels are not precisely where I live, but they are not a million miles away.
As always, I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for keeping up the pressure in relation to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other dual nationals who are held improperly by the Iranian regime. We continue to raise their cases at the most senior levels. The Prime Minister raised those concerns with President Rouhani on 9 January, and our ambassador is in regular touch. The exercising of diplomatic protection in Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case has formally raised it to a state-to-state issue, and there are concerns about the coronavirus in Evin prison, which we referred to last week. A number of prisoners have been released and we have asked, of course, for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be released, but ultimately it is the failings and the bad behaviour of the Iranian regime that we are dealing with. That is not something that the British Government can control, but we are certainly pushing as hard as possible to get them to behave in a proper way.
Does my right hon. Friend share my admiration for the sheer calm stoicism of so many people who work in this place? We are greeted by the police officers when we come into the building, as though nothing has changed, and the Clerks of the House carry on servicing the business of this House as though nothing has changed, despite the anxiety that the whole country is feeling about the coronavirus. Will he join me in recording our thanks to everyone who works in this place who will keep the show on the road? Does that not set the best possible example to the rest of the country that we should keep things going and remain calm to make sure that we carry on making rational decisions in this crisis?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. Yes, indeed, I would like to record our thanks to the people working in the House who are ensuring that it is kept open, which is of the greatest importance. As my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary said yesterday,
“we have resolved that we will keep Parliament open…the ability to hold the Government to account and to legislate are as vital in a time of emergency as in normal times. Our democracy is the foundation of our way of life.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 377.]
This is of fundamental importance. I can tell the House that our security and frontline staff, including catering staff, are going to be briefed in the same way as people in the Border Force, and that will take place later today. We are trying to make sure—again, Public Health England is being extremely helpful in ensuring this—that people in this House who are working to ensure that democracy is effective and that accountability is working will be treated properly.
First, I want to return to a matter I raised last week to do with the establishment of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. Last week, the Leader of the House implied that our party had filibustered a decision on that matter and that somehow we did not want the Scotland Office to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, what we are seeking to do is establish a Scottish Affairs Committee that will properly scrutinise the Government rather than one that is jam-packed with Government placemen and women. That is why we have now submitted amendments to the Selection Committee’s proposals that are with the Table Office, and we stand ready to debate them and to test the will of the House on them. Will the Leader of the House make time available for this matter to be discussed so that we can establish a Scottish Affairs Committee?
I too want to ask about the coronavirus and what it means for how we do our business in this place. We are commendably focused across the House on dealing with this emergency, but there seems to be an attitude that what we do here is keep calm and carry on, perhaps mitigating what we do in some respects but doing the best we can in the way that we normally do it, with the implication that there will come a point at which that is not possible, when we will simply stop. I put it to the Leader of the House that there is actually a middle way: we can fundamentally change the way we do things in order to keep ourselves and the public with whom we deal a lot safer. For example, starting next week, we could use the deferred decision procedure in place of having to stand in Lobbies for up to 20 minutes in an extremely confined space with 600 other people. That could be done from the Budget debate onwards for as long as this emergency lasts.
We could also look at ways in which people can vote without having to be here for an extended time, for example, by concentrating all the votes, on all the topics on which they are required, into a single period of the week, so that people have to attend then and not at other times.
We must also surely be aware that the process of self-isolation, which may rapidly increase in the weeks to come, should not mean that we abandon our ability to act as political representatives. In this day and age, the technology is available for people to be able to function from the confines of their own house. Surely it is incumbent on us to look at how we can do that by using teleconferencing for Select Committees and other matters, and allowing people to engage in discussions and debates even if they are not able to attend this building.
I will deal with the second half of the hon. Gentleman’s question first, because this is an area where we want to have as much cross-party support as possible. It is of fundamental importance that we keep this place open, but it is also important that we are treated, and we treat ourselves, in the same way as the rest of the country, and that we go ahead at the same pace as the rest of the country. There should not be a difference in how Parliament is behaving from the advice that is being given to our constituents. That is important; we should not seek to be a special case for ourselves. After the Commission meeting yesterday, I went into the Division Lobby with the expert who had presented to us from Public Health England, and his view, which I am allowed to share with the House, is that the Division Lobby is not a high risk and the only step he would recommend is that we open the windows, because a flow of air would be beneficial. On the basis that the Division Lobby is not high-risk, making major changes to the way we operate would not be the right response, but we wait upon the medical and scientific advice being given to us by the Government and if that changes, we will of course consider whether any procedural changes need to be made. Currently, that is not the case. On those who self-isolate, it will be better to use the pairing system than to try to introduce other measures, partly so that people who are self-isolating or who have coronavirus may maintain patient confidentiality. Some people who may be affected may not want everybody to know, and if we introduce novel methods, that confidentiality may be harder to maintain.
I come to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. He was right to say that it would be wrong if he thought that I had implied that the Scottish National party Members had talked out the establishment of the Committee. I made it clear that I thought that they had talked it out. There is no question of my implying it; that was exactly what they did. They talked out the establishment of the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Government are now considering the way forward, including of course the amendments they have tabled. Deliberation will be given to these important matters.
May I suggest that we run these questions until about quarter-past?
My right hon. Friend will doubtless be aware, as will the Whips, you, Mr Speaker, and the Deputy Speakers, that, along with many longer-serving Members, the 2019 intake, from across the House, are having incredible problems with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Surely it is time for reform? This is groundhog day, and, 10 years on, what does IPSA cost the taxpayer each year compared with what the Fees Office cost to do the same tasks pre-2008-09?
It is of course concerning to hear about any problems new Members are having with IPSA, but the House will appreciate that IPSA is independent of government. I am a member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, so if my hon. Friend would like to write to me with his concerns, I would be happy to raise them on his behalf. I point out that we, as SCIPSA, are raising a number of points with IPSA, and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) has brought a number of concerns from Opposition Members on these matters.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. Will he give us an early indication of his thinking as to any Backbench Business Committee time that might occur on either Monday 30 March or Tuesday 31 March, in order to help us with our planning for and with Members from across the House?
I now come to a constituency issue that I raised with the previous Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride). A constituent of mine, Mariam Lamidi, has again been refused asylum in this country and in my constituency with her children, who are two, six and eight, despite the fact that her two-year-old daughter would undoubtedly be subjected to female genital mutilation should she return to her district in Nigeria.
On the first point from the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, yes, I will try to give him an early indication in respect of the 30th and the 31st. Very often, the day before a recess is available to the Backbench Business Committee—that might be a helpful comment. As regards the very important constituent case, if the hon. Gentleman is having difficulties with the Home Office in getting replies, I will obviously help, but I assume that he is taking it up in the normal way.
Notwith- standing the kindly overtures from the shadow Leader of the House, may we have a debate in Government time on restoration and renewal, particularly given the National Audit Office investigation into the shambles of the Big Ben restoration? We cannot afford to spend upwards of £6 billion on this place when there are better value-for-money options available that do not involve a full decant.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, this is a new Parliament and a new House of Commons, and it will be entitled to make decisions as it sees fit. It is accepted that the mechanical and engineering plant needs replacing, but some of the costs that one has read about are eye-watering. We have to focus on value for money, so I am sympathetic to the approach that my hon. Friend is taking.
I was recently contacted by my constituent Vikki Lewis, who, because she is paid every four weeks instead of on a monthly basis, has received two payments within the universal credit assessment period and so has had no choice other than to fall into debt to ensure that she can house, feed, clothe and care for herself and her six-year-old son. As there was absolutely nothing about universal credit in yesterday’s Budget, may we have a debate in Government time about the failures of the cruel current system? We need a system that supports and protects people like Vikki, and many others across Newport West, who are paid not on monthly but rather on four-weekly pay systems.
I am aware of the problem of four-weekly payments, because constituents have brought it up with me, but I point out that the universal credit has been a successful policy: 200,000 more people are in work; the withdrawal rate is significantly lower, at 63p in the pound of benefits, down from the more than 90p in the pound of other types of benefit; and 700,000 families see around £285 a month of extra money that they are entitled to. Without beginning to pretend that it is a perfect system, it is an improvement on what was there before, and its measured roll-out has been the right thing to do.
As our economy goes digital, it is not just about retail; money is going digital, too, and there have been predictions that ultimately we will be a cash-free society. However, that cash-free trend is going at different paces in different places. There are implications for business and risks of people in certain groups being left behind, and there are implications now, because access to cash is becoming harder despite it being the main payment type for many transactions. May we have a debate to explore the changes to cash access and cash use in our society?
My hon. Friend makes an important point: 2.2 million adults in the UK use cash as their main way to make a payment day to day. There was reference in the Budget to the fact that the Government are going to bring forward legislation to protect access to cash for those who need it and to ensure that our cash infrastructure is sustainable in the long term. My hon. Friend may wish to raise the issue in the Budget debate, because that has been announced and will happen.
Yesterday, I welcomed the students of Deyes High School in my constituency to Parliament, where they were looked after extremely well by the education service, which does a fantastic job for schools throughout the country. The students in years 12 and 13 raised with me the very serious concern that they have about what might happen to teaching in the event of disruption in schools throughout the country, and about the impact that that would have on GCSEs and A-levels. Would the Leader of the House care to comment on that concern and how it might be addressed, either in emergency legislation or in other measures that the Government are going to bring forward?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that deserves to be answered at the right point. We need to wait for the Cobra meeting later today and for the Government to set out how plans will evolve. I emphasise again that we must act on the medical and scientific advice and not try to take pre-emptive steps, which may not have the benefits that people assume that they will have. We will be guided by the medical and scientific advice.
Sadly, 63% of people in Kidsgrove are no longer physically active since Labour’s closure of Kidsgrove sports centre. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Kidsgrove Sports Centre Community Group and the Conservative-led Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council on having found a long-term plan to refurbish and reuse this important community asset? Will he set out the Government’s plan to use local sports centres as part of a long-term plan to promote healthy lifestyles?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and congratulate all those involved from Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council and the Kidsgrove Sports Centre Community Group on their excellent work. Places such as the Kidsgrove sports centre are vital in helping local communities to come together, be more active and live healthy lives. The Government’s Sporting Future strategy emphasises the important role that facilities play in encouraging people of all ages and backgrounds to get more active. Through Sport England, from 2017 to 2021 we are spending more than £120 million on grassroots facilities, to make sure that everyone, regardless of where they live, is able to access high-quality sports facilities. It is levelling up for sports facilities.
So far, Ministers have given very little clarity on what help will be available for people who are self-employed and on zero-hours contracts. I realise that there are statements and that legislation is in the pipeline, but unless there is clarity, people who are ill and have been told to self-isolate will carry on going into work. Discussions need to be held with the relevant Departments. Will the Leader of the House make clear that this issue has to be addressed?
This was referred to by the Chancellor in his statement yesterday and solutions are being brought forward. Department for Work and Pensions staff stand ready to support anyone affected. We encourage them to get in touch to discuss their situation. Universal credit will be paid up front to people who will need it: 100% of the first month’s payment may be made. Steps are being taken to help people who are self-employed. I think £1 billion extra is being devoted to the welfare budget, to help people who are in difficulties because of the coronavirus.
I apologise for not being present at Transport questions, due, ironically, to a delay on the Jubilee line. It is extremely welcome that the Budget announced that local authorities are going to be allowed to build more council homes and to borrow money at a cheap price from the Public Works Loan Board. However, local authorities up and down the country have used the very low interest rate to buy retail centres, which are high-risk ventures, in order to generate income for the future. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate or a statement to make sure that local authorities do not abuse their new powers and that, rather than buying retail centres, they get people the homes they need?
That was why the Public Works Loan Board interest rate was raised earlier and is now being reduced for councils that will be building council houses. It is absolutely right to raise that in the Budget debate, but it is fair to say that the Government are conscious of the issue.
The very high standards of agricultural production in Angus, Scotland and the UK do not come for free; they come with significant costs of production. Those costs are not borne by foreign imports. What will this Government do to protect agriculture after Brexit from very cheap, lower standards of production from foreign producers of food?
May I begin by saying how much I enjoy Angus beef and commend the hon. Gentleman’s constituency for the wonderful food it produces? He is absolutely right that the UK has the very highest food standards—higher often than those of the EU. Not only did the UK ban veal crates fully 16 years before the EU; we also want to go further than the EU in banning the live shipment of animals. The UK already ensures that, without exception, all imports of food meet our stringent food safety standards. Our independent Food Standards Agency will ensure that that will remain the case, regardless of trade arrangements. In all negotiations the Government will ensure that any future trade deals live up to the value of farmers and consumers across the United Kingdom.
The Government are rightly committed to levelling up and creating opportunities. Two small changes to the admissions code would change the life chances of so many summer-born children. Could we have a debate in Government time on making changes to the admission code, to benefit the summer-born?
With children born in June and July, I am well aware of the issue that my right hon. Friend raises. I think an Adjournment debate would be a suitable place to begin, but that is in your hands, Mr Speaker, not mine.
This summer the British transplant games will be held in Coventry. Nine hundred transplant athletes will travel to the city to take part in the event, which aims to raise awareness of the value of organ donation and to encourage transplant recipients to stay active post-transplant. Will the Leader of the House join me in encouraging transplant recipients to register to compete in the games, and will he arrange debates on the life-saving benefits of organ donation and on the health benefits of sport in general?
May I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to the attention of the House, because I must confess that I was entirely unaware, in my ignorance, of the transplant games? It is a wonderful thing that she has brought attention to the games, and I hope that people who follow our proceedings, and other outlets, will become aware of them. I hope that her local paper will also pick up her advocacy for the games. She is absolutely right to encourage transplants, and to encourage people with transplants to show what successful lives they can lead.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Budget debates that he has announced allow an opportunity to highlight that yesterday the Chancellor announced an additional £640 million for Scotland—far more than the Scottish Government anticipated—which, in addition to the £1.3 billion already announced, means an additional £2 billion bonus for Scotland? Does he also agree that there will now be opportunity to call the Scottish Government to account to introduce the same measures for Scottish businesses as will apply in the rest of the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend makes an absolutely brilliant point. What this Government are doing is helping the whole United Kingdom, and £2 billion extra for Scotland from United Kingdom taxpayers is a real commitment to the United Kingdom. It is extraordinary that however well we do things, the SNP always complains.
The UK Government consider Saudi Arabia an ally and important trading partner. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out what influence he thinks the UK Government should bring to bear to enlighten Saudi Arabia’s medieval and backward attitudes towards women and homosexuals, such as a woman being owned by her eldest male relative and the fact that homosexuality is punishable by death—usually by public beheading or perhaps by crucifixion, of which there were 134 last year?
Saudi Arabia is indeed an important ally of this country, but that does not mean that we are unaware of human rights abuses that take place in friendly allied countries. The Government do raise the issues of such abuses with those countries. It is always harder for us to make representations about foreign nationals than about our own nationals. It is easier, for example, to make representations about Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but we do raise these important issues, and the hon. Lady is right also to raise them in this Chamber.
At the start of the month I welcomed my constituent Amanda Richardson, who is chief executive of the charity Action Cerebral Palsy, to Parliament. Her charity is concerned that children with cerebral palsy are not getting the best possible care and education in a timely fashion due to the lack of a national understanding across Government Departments, local government and the NHS as to the level of need. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate in Government time on what the Government can do to remedy this, and better support children with cerebral palsy?
I commend my hon. Friend for bringing this crucial issue to the attention of the Chamber. All children with cerebral palsy and other disabling conditions should get the support they need from the health service and schools. General practitioners play a key role in co-ordinating the care of disorders such cerebral palsy, and the condition is identified as a key area of clinical knowledge in the Royal College of General Practitioners’ curriculum. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has published best practice clinical guidance on cerebral palsy for adults and children to support clinicians to manage cerebral palsy effectively.
It is absolutely right that the attention of the Government and businesses is currently focused on dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, but I do wonder whether there will be sufficient capacity in the system to finalise our new trading arrangements with the EU, so I ask the Leader of the House—in all sincerity—whether, in these circumstances, it is appropriate to begin considering an extension to the transition period?
There is absolutely no need to extend the transition period.
As the advice from the Government on coronavirus changes and reaches a stage where many people are recommended to stay at home, a lot of people will want to watch sport on television. But, of course, major sporting events now take place on Sky and BT Sport. Would it be possible, while this emergency occurs, for those events to be screened on terrestrial television, so that people at home could watch them?
That would be difficult because there are long-standing commercial agreements, and many people already have subscriptions to the services mentioned by my hon. Friend.
Can we have a statement from the Government about whether it is now time for the Intelligence and Security Committee to become a full Select Committee of this House, thereby allowing us, as Members of Parliament, to vote on who we would like to see in the Chair of that Committee?
There are very good reasons for the process around the Intelligence and Security Committee being what it is, including the sensitive nature of the matters that it handles. Therefore, I do not see there being any plans to change the process that is set out in statute. Unlike other Committees, it is a statutory Committee under the Justice and Security Act 2013 and I foresee no changes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your endeavours to allow as many of us to ask questions as possible.
May I ask my right hon. Friend to pass on congratulations to the Chancellor on bringing forward a £400 million brownfields housing fund? That is absolutely the way to go. Will he consider a debate on relieving the real stress and strain on my constituents from repeated planning developments on greenfield countryside?
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on having a constituency in which so many people want to live because it is so beautiful? My right hon Friend the Secretary State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is going to make a statement later about reforming the planning system. I think my hon. Friend’s concerns would be suitably raised in an Adjournment debate on his constituency.
I clearly was not happy with the Budget yesterday. Wales bore the brunt of Storm Dennis. Nearly half the people who were affected across the whole of the UK were in one local authority area, and there was not a single extra penny from the Government yesterday for the families, for the businesses or for the local authorities in Wales that are going to have to pick up the tab to the tune of many, many tens of millions of pounds. When it came to the business arrangements for coronavirus, perfectly sensible measures were being introduced in England, but there was not a single penny to make them available in Wales as well. Surely we are one United Kingdom and there should therefore be fair money for all the different parts of the United Kingdom.
I do not think the hon. Gentleman is ever happy, so there is no pleasing some people. However, I would point out that over £600 million extra is going to the Welsh Government’s budget—the biggest day- to-day funding settlement for the Welsh Government in a decade—and there will also be the concomitant Barnett consequentials from yesterday’s Budget statement. So it is simply not accurate to say that Wales is not receiving extra funding.
I refer the House to my entry in the register. There were some very welcome moves on coronavirus in the Budget yesterday, and some very practical advice from the NHS. I understand the need to keep schools open if the risk is low to children, so as to keep workers in important work positions, but the same applies to nursery schools and other forms of childcare, which do not appear to have been covered in the Budget yesterday, or in advice. I have had a letter from a constituent with a nursery today saying that
“Morton Michel, one of the biggest childcare insurers in the UK”
“refusing to add Covid-19 to its list of insurable diseases”,
which could result in many childcare places going bust. Could we have guidance, and a statement from the Treasury and from the Department for Education, specifically for childcare providers, and also for children in care?
My hon. Friend raises a significant subject. I will take it up and get a reply to him as to what action the Government are taking on the matter.
In recent days, the price of oil has plummeted, yet in the Chancellor’s Budget yesterday there was not a peep in relation to this hugely important industry. Does the Leader of the House share my concern in that regard, and will he commit to a debate in Government time on this hugely important matter?
The oil sector is obviously important and the price of oil affects the whole of the economy. However, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that, yesterday in this House, his right hon. Friend the leader of the SNP raised the matter in the Budget debate, so it has just been raised.
Can we have a debate on disabled access to public transport? I want very quickly to highlight the situation in the beautiful village of Chinley, which has a growing population and a highly successful special school academy, yet the railway station has no step-free access, denying a huge number of people access to public transport. In 2020, this situation is quite simply unacceptable.
This issue affects many railway stations and it is one that is taken seriously by the Government. My hon. Friend has raised his point today, and it would be well worth asking for an Adjournment debate on the subject.
When will we see progress on the fire safety and building safety Bills announced in the Queen’s Speech? Thus far, the Government’s policy on the issues raised by the Grenfell Tower fire has been a ragbag of consultations and guidance notes. Are we not overdue clarity and comprehensive action on both those life and death matters?
The fire safety Bill will be brought forward, and the Chancellor announced £1.5 billion to deal with the cladding issue yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on how the English Football League must do more to protect the interests of fans and towns such as Bury from unscrupulous club owners? The recent EFL report stating that the Football League could not have saved Bury FC defied belief. It is an organisation that is clearly not fit for purpose. We must ensure that other clubs and their fans are protected and not sold out like Bury FC.
I commend my hon. Friend for his campaign to save Bury football club, on which he has been a leader. I can give him good news: the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has whispered to me that the Government will try to do what they can to help Bury football club. Action is being taken by some authorities, if not by the football league.
On Tuesday, the deadline passed for applications for the next set of Six Nations broadcasting rights. As I outlined in early-day motion 237, it looks likely—indeed, packages have been designed in such a way to ensure—that live coverage will be lost by terrestrial TV.
[That this House notes with concern that Six Nations organisers have refused to rule out the possibility of the tournament going behind a £300 million pay per view paywall in 2022 following the start of a new broadcast rights period; believes that by ruling out joint bids by terrestrial broadcasters Six Nations officials are making it inevitable that the rights to broadcast the tournament will be secured by a pay-to-view subscription service; is concerned that this move risks losing an audience that has been built up and will stymie the ability of the sport to attract young players to the game; notes that the Six Nations tournament has a long tradition of being aired on free-to-view television in the UK and that any decision that would limit access would be a retrograde step; calls on the Six Nations organisers to reconsider their decision on allowing joint broadcaster bids; and further calls on the Government to ensure that the long-cherished Six Nations tournament is given full protection under Group A listed event status.]
Six Nations Rugby Ltd apparently did not receive my email or letter requesting a meeting to discuss the issue, but there is another solution. Can we have a debate on listed events, so that we can discuss moving the Six Nations to group A protection?
The hon. Gentleman has raised that point, and it is heard. I encourage him to go to the Backbench Business Committee, because I have a feeling that this may win a lot of support from Members across the House representing all parts of the United Kingdom.
My office is inundated with pleas for assistance from leaseholders who cannot sell or remortgage their properties because of post-Grenfell advice on cladding and building safety. I have applied for a Westminster Hall debate, but can we have a debate in Government time about the mortgage crisis and cladding? It is clear that the external wall system process is not working as it should.
The Government are working on that. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who is sitting next to me, has said that he would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter.
Can we have a debate in Government time about the implications of the increase in the immigration health surcharge from £400 to £624 per person per year? At a time when we face a global pandemic, can we have some answers on why the Government feel it is a good idea to put barriers in the way of public health?
That was a manifesto commitment, and therefore the British people have voted for it. It is a national health service, not an international health service. It is quite right that people coming to this country should pay if they are going to use the national health service—that is only reasonable.
At last week’s business questions, I asked for a debate in Government time on electric vehicle and hydrogen infrastructure. If the Leader of the House had been in Transport questions earlier, he would have heard many questions put by Members, including the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), about the confusion in the sector. Will he grant time for such an important debate on the industrial strategy needed for the provision of these new technologies?
I am greatly flattered, because last week I suggested that the hon. Gentleman raise that in Transport questions, and he has followed my advice. I am glad that my advice is providing a useful service to the House.
I recently attended the finals of the Go4SET competition in Hamilton, which encourages young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. It was great to see so many girls taking part in the competition, with all three school teams from my constituency being gender-balanced. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Stonelaw High School’s science department on winning the pupils’ choice award? Will he commit to a debate in Government time on encouraging more young girls and women into STEM careers?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on encouraging more young ladies into STEM careers. That is very important, and it is something the Government wish to do. I also congratulate her high school. That is admirable and has the full support of the Government.
Heart failure is a long-term, life-limiting syndrome, which often gets worse over time. Current estimates suggest that 920,000 people are living with heart failure in the United Kingdom, with 200,000 new diagnoses of the condition every year in the UK. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on that very important health issue?
Mr Speaker, you saved the best for last with the hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous attender of these sessions. Of course, heart disease is an important issue. I am not sure that there will be Government time for a debate on it, but he has raised it today, and I know his persistence will ensure that a debate is held on it one way or another in the not-too-distant future.
Planning for the Future
I would like to make a statement expanding on the housing measures set out in yesterday’s Budget. I have deposited a document in the Library setting out our vision for the future of the planning system.
A home is so much more than four walls and a roof. It is about security, a stake in our society and investing for our future. The expansion of home ownership over the 20th century created a fairer Britain, with prosperity and opportunity spread more evenly. That is why this Government believe in supporting people who are working hard to own their own home, and ensuring that young people and future generations have the same opportunities as those who came before them.
We are making progress. Last year, we built over 241,000 homes—more new homes than at any point in the last 30 years—taking the total delivered since 2010 to 1.5 million. The proportion of young homeowners has increased, after declining for more than a decade. Yet a great deal more is required to be done. Many are still trapped paying high rents and struggling to save for a deposit. Home ownership seems like a dream that remains out of reach. Our children should be able to put down roots in the places where they grew up, but the simple truth is that too many will continue to be priced out if we do not build many more homes and take the action now that is required to remove barriers to people getting on to the housing ladder.
To achieve this, the Government are prepared to take bold action across the board. We will be introducing a building safety Bill to bring about the biggest change in building safety for a generation, and a renters reform Bill to provide greater stability to those who rent. We will be making sure that those in social homes will be treated with the dignity and the respect that they deserve through our social housing White Paper. We will be working hard to end rough sleeping. We will be bringing forward an ambitious planning White Paper in the spring to create a planning system that is truly fit for the 21st century—a planning system that supports the delivery of the number of homes we need as a country, but homes that local people want to live in, with more beautiful, safer and greener communities.
The way we work and live has changed beyond recognition since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. The planning system has not kept pace. We intend to change this, so we will be reviewing our approach to planning to ensure that our system enables more homes to come forward in the places that people most want to live, with jobs, transport links and other amenities on their doorstep. This means making the best use of land and existing transport infrastructure.
To that end, I am announcing that we will review the formula for calculating local housing need, taking a fresh approach that means building more homes, but also encouraging greater building in urban areas. We will make the most of our transport hubs, and I am announcing a call for proposals to invite innovative solutions for building housing above and around stations. We will be backing brownfield sites for development, and we will work with ambitious mayors and councils of all political persuasions in all parts of the country. We will be beginning by investing £400 million to regenerate brownfield sites across the country, and we are launching a new national brownfield sites map so that anyone—member of the public, entrepreneur or local authority—can understand where those sites are.
Local authorities need to play their part through their local plans. Today, I am setting a deadline of December 2023 for all local plans to be in place, before the Government will have to intervene. In addition, in the coming months, through the White Paper, we will lay the foundations for a modern, dramatically accelerated planning system. This will be a digital planning system that harnesses technology for the first time, and one where it is far easier for local communities to play a real role in the decisions that affect them, shortening and simplifying the plan-making process. As part of that, we will reform planning fees and link them to performance to create a world-class and properly resourced planning service. We will explore the use of tools such as zoning, and for the first time we will make clear who actually owns land across the country, by requiring complete transparency on land options. Where permissions are granted, we will bring forward proposals to ensure that they are turned into homes more quickly.
We are not waiting for the White Paper to begin our actions. We are encouraging local communities to take innovative routes to meet housing needs in their areas through new planning freedoms, and we are also introducing the freedom to build upwards on existing buildings. Today I am announcing a new right to allow vacant, commercial, industrial and residential blocks to be demolished and replaced with well-designed, new residential units that meet high-quality standards, including on new natural light standards. We are granting permission to get building across the country.
We know that we need to deliver at scale, and at a pace that we have not seen in recent years, and yesterday’s Budget set out that those vital planning changes will be underpinned by serious additional investment. The £12 billion that we are putting into affordable homes represents the biggest cash investment in the sector for a decade. We are finalising details for a new affordable homes programme, which will deliver homes for social rent, as well as for affordable rent, shared ownership and supported housing. There will be a route to ownership for all, regardless of the tenure at which people begin.
We are taking an infrastructure-first approach and yesterday £1.1 billion was allocated to build new communities and unlock 70,000 new homes in total. That is more than £4 billion invested through the housing infrastructure fund. Building on that, we will introduce a new long-term flexible single housing infrastructure fund of at least £10 billion.
I have made safety a personal priority of mine since I became Secretary of State last year. With that in mind, the Government are bringing forward the most important improvements to our building safety regime in a generation, and I am pleased that, as the Chancellor set out yesterday, in addition to the £600 million already made available, there will be an extra £1 billion to make buildings in the social and private sectors safe. I am pleased that in the private sector that investment will benefit leaseholders, many of whom I met recently, and I fully appreciate the pain and stress that they have been through by feeling trapped in their homes.
In line with our commitment to end rough sleeping, we are putting in more than £640 million over this Parliament for new “move on” accommodation, and vital support for substance misuse services. That work will be spearheaded by my Department, and by the new and urgent review I have set up, which is led by Dame Louise Casey.
I am also mindful of our huge responsibility to future generations, and to ensuring that as we build more, we also build better. That is why I will be updating the national planning policy framework to embed the principles of good design and place making. As recommended in the recent report by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, we will introduce a “fast track for beauty” and mandate that tree-lined streets should be the norm in this country in future.
We are backing a broader green revolution, including plans to establish a net-zero development in Toton in the east midlands, which I hope will be one of Europe’s most exciting new environmentally sustainable communities. We are seeking to establish similarly high-quality and environmentally sustainable communities through up to four new development corporations in the Oxford to Cambridge arc: around Bedford, St Neots and Sandy, Cambourne, and near Cambridge.
We should seize this opportunity to consider how the built and natural environments can work together more harmoniously, and in that spirit, I will be reviewing our policy to prevent building in areas of high flood risk. Given the recent devastation suffered by so many of our communities, we are putting an extra £5.2 billion into flood defences.
The real work begins today. Over the spring and the summer, I will work with local authorities, SME housebuilders and larger developers, local groups and, I hope, Members from all parts of the House. Our mission is clear: we will build more homes, we will help more people on to the housing ladder, and we will do our duty to future generations by ensuring that those homes are built in a way that is beautiful and sustainable, creating a legacy of which we can all be proud. That is what it means to level up and to unite our country. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement, which arrived half an hour ago.
This is indeed a follow up to the Budget and the Treasury’s flawed thinking runs throughout. After nearly 10 years there is still no plan to fix the country’s housing crisis, while the promise of the White Paper is a threat to give big developers a freer hand to do what they want, ignoring quality, affordability and sustainability. Of course planning requires reform, but planning is not the major constraint on the new homes the country needs when 365,000 were given permission last year and only 213,000 were built; when only 6,200 new social homes were built last year when more than 1 million people are on housing waiting lists; and when, of course, big developers can dodge all planning permission to
“abuse permitted development rights to provide accommodation of the lowest quality.”
Those are not my words, but those of the Government’s own Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
The Secretary of State has a number of questions on the planning front. In 2015, the Government set a deadline of early 2017 for all councils to have a local plan in place. Why is he now waiting another three years until the end of 2023? Will local areas have social housing targets, not just total targets, in this review of the formula for local housing need? Will new standards be set for greener zero-carbon homes? How much extra funding will the Government provide to beef up the capacity of our council planning services, which have been cut by a half over the past decade? The White Paper is a red warning. It could strip local communities of the powers they have to say no to big developers taking the easy option of building on the green belt. It could impose Whitehall’s total housebuilding numbers on local communities without the new affordable housing that local residents need. It could mean more unsuitable business buildings turned into slum housing, with no planning permission needed at all.
We welcome the new money in the Budget for replacing dangerous cladding and I welcome the Secretary of State’s personal commitment to building safety. Since the weeks immediately after Grenfell, we have argued that no resident should have to pay simply to make their home safe. Only the Government can fix this problem. It is a profound failure that thousands are in this position nearly three years on from Grenfell. How many fire risk buildings will this new fund have to cover? Will it fund essential fire safety work to retrofit sprinklers? Will he guarantee that this fund means no leaseholder will now have to pay the costs to make their buildings safe?
The Secretary of State’s Department released new building safety figures just over an hour ago, which he has not mentioned this morning—and no wonder. Nearly three years on from Grenfell, 266 high rise blocks still have the same Grenfell-style ACM cladding. The Secretary of State has still not published the test results or the numbers of those blocks with unsafe non-ACM cladding. The existing fund for private sector ACM cladding has already been in place for 10 months, so it is clear that funding alone will not fix the problems. Will he now also back Labour proposals for simple emergency legislation to force block owners to do and pay for this work?
Finally, with one or two minor exceptions, yesterday’s Budget was a golden, but wasted opportunity on housing. When the Government’s borrowing costs are at rock bottom and the Chancellor promises a capital spending spree, the Secretary of State must be deeply disappointed by how little funding he has for new affordable homes. Over five years, there will be just £12.2 billion, and a quarter of that is not even new money. This means an average of £2.4 billion a year. In real terms, that is only half the level of affordable housing investment made in the last year of the last Labour Government. Over five years, it will be less than housing organisations—from the National Housing Federation to Shelter—say is needed every year. Will he concede that on housing, it will be business as it was before the Budget—a continuation of 10 years of Conservative failure on housing, with no plan to fix the housing crisis—and will he admit that despite the Chancellor’s constant Budget boast on housing, this is a Government that do not “get it done”?
We built more homes in this country last year—240,000 homes—than were built in any of the last 30 years. The right hon. Gentleman left house building in this country at the lowest level since the 1920s when he was the Housing Secretary. Today, it is at the highest level for 32 years. We have built more affordable homes in this country on average since 2010 under a Conservative Government than under the last Labour Government. We built more council houses in this country in one year last year than in the 13 years of the last Labour Government combined. In Wales, which Labour has control of, how many council houses were built last year? Fifty seven. How many the year before? Eighty. How many in the three years before that? Zero, so I will take no lectures from him on our record.
This was a great Budget for housing. We saw the largest investment for 10 years in affordable housing—over £12 billion. We saw further investment in infrastructure to unlock homes in all parts of the country and the commitment to bring forward a new larger single housing infrastructure fund later this year. As he rightly pointed out, we saw a further £1 billion investment in building safety, which is an incredibly important step forward to give safety, security and confidence to leaseholders who are feeling concerned in their homes. Together, this package will help us to lay the foundations for the housing reforms that we intend to introduce during this Parliament and which the White Paper that I will publish later this year will take forward at pace.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me a few questions, including about the affordable homes programme. This has been welcomed by everybody in the sector, including Kate Henderson, who leads for housing federations—she warmly welcomed this. The housing and homelessness charities welcomed the announcements that we made as a very significant step forward in investing in this area.
We have also announced more money for brownfield land, so this is not about the ruination of the countryside or needless urban sprawl. It is about getting more homes in the places where they are most needed and backing ambitious councils and Mayors such as Andy Street in the west midlands, who want to get going and unlock the parcels of brownfield land.
The building safety fund will be open as soon as possible. We want to work with leaseholders who are in properties over 18 metres and ensure that they can access the funding.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the publication of the Building Research Establishment’s research. That will happen in the coming weeks, but the research is already available; it is simply that we have not consolidated and published the final findings. We do not expect those findings to be any different from the ones that are already in the public domain.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about legislation, as he did the other day, and he did not listen to the answer then. We will bring forward our fire safety legislation in the coming months, and I hope, from what he said today, that he intends to support it. That will give the powers to fire and rescue services across the country to do exactly what he wishes.
Order. I am going to let this run until about 12.10 pm.
Even if the shadow Secretary of State does not, may I warmly welcome the new money for affordable housing? I ask the Secretary of State to make sure that some of it finds its way to innovators such as the National Community Land Trust Network and the Right to Build Task Force, because the new ideas that will help us to change our whole approach to how we do housing are coming from them.
I do support groups such as community housing organisations—I know my hon. Friend has an Adjournment debate later today to which the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) will respond—and we want to ensure that they are properly resourced to take that forward. We want to help smaller communities, particularly in rural areas, to build small numbers of homes—five, 10, 15, whatever might be appropriate for their community—through rural exception sites and the other things he has championed over the years, such as self-building. We will bring forward more measures in the White Paper to help facilitate that.
There are many things in the statement that I welcome and which I am sure the Select Committee will welcome and will want to look at. Shortly after Grenfell, the Select Committee recommended that all cladding not of limited combustibility be taken off existing high-rise buildings and banned from new buildings, and the £1 billion is a step in that direction, but we will want to analyse whether it is sufficient. On the planning review, in the past the Committee has suggested a comprehensive review of planning, particularly of the changes since 2010. Will the review look at what has worked and what has not worked with regards to the changes and also at the recommendation of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission that there be reform to the permitted development system to ensure minimum standards? Finally, will the Secretary of State have another look at reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961, which we suggested, so as to run down the cost of land, which is an obstacle to development? On the housing needs assessment reforms, which again I welcome, the first changes the Government made actually shifted development from the north to the south. Will he look at whether the system should not be going in reverse and trying to level up by putting more development into the north?
I will pay close attention to all those points. Everything the hon. Member listed is within the scope of the planning White Paper, and I would welcome his views and those of the members of his Committee. In reviewing local housing need, we will take account of the need to level up and rebalance the economy, both geographically, from the south to the north, and between areas—for example, by trying to ensure that cities that have depopulated in our lifetime can have more homes built in them to get people and families back into and living in some of our great cities where sadly fewer people are living now than 20 or 30 years ago. I welcome the work he did on the building safety fund, and I hope this will now make a significant difference in helping leaseholders, particularly in private buildings, move forward. We have also opened it up to the social sector, because some housing associations, particularly small ones, and some smaller councils do not have the finances readily available or the ability to borrow to do the work now required. This fund will be open to them to do that, so money should not be a barrier to their moving forward with the remediation works required.
As the Secretary of State is aware, I have been much involved in reform of the planning system under previous Governments, and I urge him to be radical when he produces his White Paper. I am glad he has retained his commitment to involve local communities. Strengthening the role of neighbourhood plans against the problems put in their way by district councils would be a very good way of taking that forward.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is evidence that some local plans have been undermined and that the hard work put in by local communities has not reaped the benefits those areas would have liked—they can spend years creating plans only to see development happening on other sites, not those they have chosen themselves. We are reviewing that, taking examples from across the country where we think that has happened and trying to learn lesson from it, and I hope that will feed into our work and create a strengthened plan-making system in the future.
The built environment and planning professions have a core role to play in tackling the climate emergency, yet in his statement the Secretary of State made only tangential mention of the climate emergency. I gently say to him: he will not achieve a green revolution with one single net-zero development across the whole UK. Can I encourage him to think again about this most urgent of challenges, to enshrine the climate emergency as a core purpose and responsibility of the planning system and to set the highest possible standards for net-zero development across our planning system to ensure we are not building new homes that will need to be retrofitted in the future?
We are committed to a green revolution in the housing industry. We are doing that in many different ways, most notably through the future homes standard, which we have just consulted on. We have received more than 3,000 responses and will bring forward our final proposals shortly. We have consulted on a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions in new homes of between 75% and 80%. I do not want to pre-empt what we might choose to do, having listened to the views in the consultation. However, the evidence that we saw prior to the consultation was that that was the most credible reduction in CO2 emissions that we could deliver across the whole of the country, although some parts could go further and faster if they chose to do so. We are listening to the responses, and I want to see the industry respond, change and have much higher levels of energy efficiency and to see new heating systems come in as quickly as possible.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Supply alone will not solve all the affordability problems in the housing market. It will require intervention, such as his excellent First Homes initiative. Will he consider extending that initiative to directly commissioning first homes on public land and perhaps combining First Homes with Help to Buy to further improve the affordability of home purchase?
That is a very interesting idea, and one that I will give careful thought to. My hon. Friend and I worked together on the creation of First Homes, and I am very grateful for his views on that. He is absolutely right that this will require both supply and demand-side reforms. That is why the planning system is so important in unlocking more land in the places where people want to live, but it is also important to have ways of getting people on to the housing ladder, and First Homes is just one of those options. It will enable people in their local area to get 30% discounts on new homes. I recently met the major house builders, who are fully supportive, and I hope that we will see those homes on the market in this country by the end of the year.
I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that we are building at some of the lowest densities in Europe, which is causing us to have to build on floodplains—although I appreciate what he said earlier. If we are really talking about sustainable development, surely we have to build at density in and around our towns, as opposed to allowing the spread into our rural communities.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that that is what he took away from the tone and substance of my earlier remarks. In reviewing the planning system and how we calculate local housing need, we will be trying to push development towards urban areas and existing clusters, and away from needless urban sprawl and the ruination of the countryside. We will be using the planning system to encourage that. Some of the planning freedoms, for example, will help people in their everyday lives, allowing them to extend their own properties or build upwards on their homes, and allow entrepreneurs to buy derelict, disused buildings and turn them into housing, to get housing going in towns and cities at a pace that we have not seen for many years.
On Monday, the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government heard some rather extraordinary claims from certain London councils about the cost of building council homes in London. My right hon. Friend’s announcement and the Budget are an excellent start on building new council homes. Can he set out how many council homes he expects to see and what safeguards he will put in place to ensure that those council homes can be brought under the right to buy and that the receipts from right to buy are then reinvested in new housing?
The new affordable homes programme, which we announced yesterday, will be over £12 billion. We have not yet finalised the details, but will set them out shortly. They will show the proportion of those homes that will be for different tenures, from shared ownership and affordable rent to social rent. We want a significant increase in the number of those homes in the social rent category. I hope we can make a positive announcement on that shortly, when we have finalised the details, having spoken to and listened to the sector.
I am very sympathetic to the argument that my hon. Friend has made in the past about properties that are not eligible for right to buy and, indeed, about some councils and housing associations that are making it more difficult. I would like to work with him to take action on that. We need to ensure that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, takes housing seriously. As I have said before, we will never be able to meet our housing targets and ambitions as a country unless London pulls its weight, and I am afraid that at the moment we have a Mayor whose ambitions are way below what we should all be expecting at every level of the market. As long as he continues in place, which I hope is not for very much longer, the Mayor needs to get building in London.
The Secretary of State has just been talking about the delivery of homes for social rent, but I would like to ask him about the impact of two of his Government’s policies on the delivery of homes for social rent. The first is yesterday’s changes to the Public Works Loan Board when it comes to the delivery of homes for social rent by local housing companies. The second is the First Homes policy, which, because it is delivered through section 106 as it is currently designed, is likely to lead to a reduction in the production of homes for social rent by local councils. What is his response?
The hon. Lady will know as a follower of Treasury matters that what we announced yesterday in the Budget with reform of the Public Works Loan Board makes it cheaper for councils to borrow to invest in housing and regeneration. I hope that she will support the changes that we made. The changes we are making to the PWLB will make it harder for councils to waste money on speculative investments outside of their boundaries and get highly indebted, and make it easier to spend money on things that really matter. We have lifted the housing revenue account borrowing cap, and many councils across the country are responding to that and building council houses at a pace that we have not seen for many years, as was reflected in the statistics I gave earlier. We built more council houses last year than we have done for many years, and I hope that her local council in Oxford will do the same, if that is what she wishes.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. It is absolutely right that we look afresh at the planning system, and I am so glad that he is doing just that. My right hon. Friend knows a great deal about the challenges that new-build housing can create for existing communities as well as for owners. What more can he do to ensure that developers properly consider the rights and needs of local communities, as well as of the new build home owners, which are often impacted by their behaviours?
Quality is extremely important, and we have seen evidence of poor-quality development in this country in recent years, including by some of the most prominent house builders. That needs to change, and if we are going to reform the planning system to make it easier to build, then house builders must respond in turn by ensuring that homes are well designed, safe and environmentally sustainable. My hon. Friend has seen examples of poor practice in Telford and has campaigned on that. We are placing the new homes ombudsman on a statutory footing, and that will ensure that anyone who purchased a home has a proper system for redress if the usual complaints mechanism of the house builder does not suffice. I hope that that will see a big change in the quality of output from house builders very rapidly.
The car valeting site in Tottenham Hale, the illegal waste tip in Hillingdon, the tip in Ealing that is inaccessible: what happens to these ungreen green-belt sites that could provide a million new homes close to London train stations? Any London MP knows that we desperately need such homes for people who may never be able to afford to buy.
There are sites like that in all parts of the country. It requires good local councils and, perhaps in this case, the Mayor of London, to get involved and to help unlock the land for development. I appreciate that there can be complexities in many cases, not least with illegal waste sites, for example. We created a fund in the last Budget to tackle that—a £20 million fund that perhaps the hon. Lady would consider bidding into. We announced in this Budget a £400 million fund to unlock brownfield sites, and that will be available for ambitious Mayors and local councils across the country to bid into very shortly. I hope that she will take us up on that.
I welcome the wide-ranging initiatives in the statement, particularly the potential for four development corporations on the Oxford-Cambridge arc. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the pressures on public access to public services, particularly GPs, where there are significant increases in housing demand, especially in my constituency. Will those development corporations have specific accountability for filling gaps in access to public services? If not, what measures will he take to ensure that there is better co-ordination?
My hon. Friend understands this issue well and has represented two constituencies with very serious affordability issues, but where there is also a great opportunity to build housing. We need to ensure that that is done in a very sensitive way and that the infrastructure flows with the new housing. That is the objective of creating the development corporations, which will be partnerships between the local community and the Government, and we hope that this will be well planned, environmentally sustainable, good quality, beautiful housing and that the services—GP surgeries, schools, roads, utilities—flow with the housing and meet the demands. I really hope that I can work with all of those communities to ensure that they are great successes.
I welcome the £1 billion cladding fund that was announced yesterday. It is a start but, as the Secretary of State knows, the devil is in the detail. May I encourage him to set up a contact group with representatives of leaseholders, freeholders, managing agents, fire services, local authorities, mortgage companies and his officials, perhaps chaired by the Housing Minister, to work through that detail so that it does not take another two and a half years for all the unsafe cladding to be removed?
I welcome the work my right hon. Friend the Housing Minister has done on this issue, and I will take that away. We want to work progressively with all the stakeholders. We have built an effective operation on ACM above 18 metres in recent months. We have named contacts for all the buildings, and all, bar a very small number, now have plans to remediate.
By opening the fund’s scope much more widely to other dangerous materials above 18 metres, we will have to put in place the same procedures for those materials to understand exactly where the buildings are, to understand who are the right people to work with us and to make sure that work is tendered for and that workers get on site as quickly as possible. That will be a very complex piece of work. At the moment, it can take up to six months to get workers on site to do ACM remediation, and some projects can take up to two years to complete. I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge, but I am keen to work with anybody who is interested to make sure it begins as quickly as possible.
A sense of place informs our personal and communal sense of worth. As one of those who served on the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, I welcome this statement and, in particular, the Secretary of State’s commitment to a fast track for beauty. In considering these matters, will he also look at sprawl and out-of-town and edge-of-town developments, both in retail and housing? If we can revitalise and rejuvenate our town centres, it will refresh the spirit of our people.
My right hon. Friend is heavily involved in the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and I commend its superb report to anyone interested in these issues. One point it raises, which we will now be taking forward, is the need to mitigate against the urban sprawl and the damage to the countryside we have seen over the past 50 or 60 years and more.
The answer to that is gentle density in urban areas, building upwards where appropriate—perhaps where there are existing clusters of high-rise buildings—and, building gently where building upwards is not appropriate. There are plenty of examples in the report of where that can be done in an attractive way that local communities could support. We need to ensure more homes are built in our town centres and around our high streets. The high streets and town centres fund that we have created through the £3.6 billion towns fund provides funding to many parts of the country to do exactly that.
I look forward to the forthcoming building safety Bill. As the Secretary of State knows, homebuyers in my constituency have had some very poor experiences of safety issues in their new homes, but can he explain how the Bill will bring about not just tighter regulation but culture change in the industry, upskilling of the workforce and adequate resources for enforcement and local authorities?
All those things need to happen. We are undergoing the greatest change in our building safety regime in most of our lifetimes. That will take time and will require a significant change in the culture of the industry. The new regime, which is now being established in shadow form and will be legislated for later this year, will place new duties on those involved in the construction industry and on those responsible for looking after buildings once they have been built.
An individual or entity will be criminally responsible for safety, from the moment construction begins, throughout a building’s occupation, many years into the future. That will be managed through our building safety regulator, which will sit within the Health and Safety Executive. The HSE has a lot of experience in this field and has seen significant changes and improvements in safety in other fields, such as oil and gas, in our lifetime.
To keep families together and strengthen our communities in Guildford and Cranleigh, it is vital that we can ensure we have the right homes in the right place at the right price. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to make it easier for people to get on the housing ladder in their local area?
Part of the answer is building more homes in the places where they are most in demand. That will be at the heart of the reforms we will bring forward, and my hon. Friend represents an area that is in great demand. Some of the freedoms that we are encouraging—to build upwards gently and to reimagine town centres and high streets—will ensure that more homes are built sensitively in places such as Guildford, but we are also bringing forward a fleet of policies to help home ownership. One of them is our First Homes policy, which will enable local first-time buyers in her area to get a 30% discount on their first home. We are also looking at long-term fixed-rate mortgages, so that it is much cheaper and more certain when you are taking out your first mortgage. Of course, the Help to Buy scheme and our existing home ownership schemes have helped more than 600,000 first-time buyers on to the housing ladder since 2010.
The Secretary of State is right to acknowledge the anxiety for leaseholders living in blocks with unsafe cladding. Will he confirm that it is his intention that no leaseholder should have to pay for the replacement of cladding on their block? How long does he think it will take before all the unsafe cladding on residential buildings around the country above 18 metres has been replaced?
We will publish shortly the exact details of the new scheme, but it is our intention that it will be available for both the private and social sectors and that this will encompass all unsafe materials above 18 metres for what are commonly considered high-rise buildings. I would like it to include those buildings that are just below 18 metres, because there are some buildings where there has been a gaming of the system by some developers, such as the building in Bolton, for example, that was 17.8 metres. There will be a small degree of flexibility to resolve that issue, and this should enable no leaseholder to be trapped in their building. The funding should be available for all who require it, and, as I say, in the social sector it will be available to the relatively small number, but an important number, of housing associations and councils that do not have the resources available to do the work themselves.
The Secretary of State is right to say that under the planning system there should be a presumption not to build on green fields or on floodplains and that there should also be environmental sustainability. Does he therefore share my concerns that the west of Ifield Homes England development represents none of those criteria?
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s opposition to those proposals and I am happy to continue to work with him to ensure that Homes England answers his questions and refines the schemes as much as possible to try to meet the concerns of the local community. I hope more broadly that the announcement I have made today of a review of how the planning system interacts with floodplains and the increased risk of flooding that we are seeing in many parts of the country will be good news to those parts of the country that have seen floods in the last few weeks, and that we can bring forward changes in the coming months.
The money allocated in the Budget for cladding removal applies only to buildings over 18 metres, and the Government guidelines issued in January say:
“We strongly advise building owners to consider the risks of any external wall system…irrespective of the height of the building”.
Consequently, any leaseholder in a low-rise building is struggling to get approvals to sell, to get a bigger share of the property or to remortgage. What are the Government going to do about that? Those leaseholders are currently marooned.
The fund that we have announced this week is for high-rise buildings, and that was on the advice of our expert panel and Dame Judith Hackitt, who has advised the Government for some time and is helping to set up the new building safety regulator. The expert advice is that height is the main factor in determining safety, but it is not the only factor, and that is why earlier in the year I set in train work on what other factors we should be taking into consideration. It is none the less the most important factor as far as we are guided by advice. For buildings below 18 metres, which will not be eligible for the fund, we will continue working with lenders and insurers to get the market working faster. The new form that has been created in partnership between the Government and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors appears to be working in some cases, but not in all, and we need to make sure that that happens faster.
Inexplicably, the Mayor of Greater Manchester has delayed the publication of the spatial framework to build on local green-belt land until after the mayoral election in May. In the meantime, what can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State do to stop speculative applications on the green belt, such as that in Bredbury Parkway in my constituency?
I am very aware of my hon. Friend’s opposition to this plan and that of many of his colleagues—I would say Conservative colleagues, but it is not even exclusively Conservative colleagues. Indeed, I believe the shadow Secretary of State is opposed to Andy Burnham’s plan. It is clearly not proving popular in my hon. Friend’s part of Greater Manchester. We will have to see what happens in the mayoral elections, but I am sure my hon. Friend will campaigning strongly to protect the wishes of local people in his community.
The announcement on the new cladding fund is welcome, but it remains to be seen whether it will be sufficient to cover all the issues that have been talked about today. I have a specific question about the detail. Leaseholders are paying an awful lot of money for waking watches at the moment. Will that be reimbursed as part of this fund?
The fund will operate like the 18-metre ACM fund, in that it will be available only for the costs of the remediation works themselves, not for any service charge fees that might be incurred in the interim. We want to see this work done as quickly as possible, because I am very conscious of the fact that those waking watches are causing meaningful costs to people. There are cases where people are finding it extremely difficult to meet those costs.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s words on the presumption of brownfield development. Will he give me an assurance that councils such as Aylesbury Vale District Council in my constituency, which are high in the league table for new-build housing, at significant loss to our countryside, will not be pressured, so long as we bring forward all of the brownfield developments in Buckinghamshire?
We want to support and reward the many councils across the country that are making often difficult decisions to allocate land, aggressively build out brownfield sites, re-imagine town centres and, above all, meet the local housing need of their communities. We want to encourage those that are failing to meet the housing needs of their communities to take such a lead, because it is not fair that people are not able to live and bring up their family in their own communities. That causes housing pressure to be pushed out to other areas, perhaps such as the one my hon. Friend represents, forcing the building of even more homes and putting even more pressure on local services and the countryside in some parts of the country, particularly in the south-east.
Building can go ahead if action is taken to address potential flooding risks: more retention ponds or reservoirs to keep water on adjoining lands; and the planting of willow trees—the willow absorbs moisture and water, and can be cropped and harvested. That will involve a concerted partnership between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to preserve the environment. Will that be done? Will we have a good, sensible, intensive planning strategy now, for the future?
Absolutely. The Environment Secretary and I will be working closely together as we see what further steps might be needed in the planning framework to ensure that homes are built in the right places. The planning system today seeks to do that, but clearly we have seen examples in recent weeks and months where it has not succeeded, and so some change may be required now, particularly as the flood risk facing some parts of the country appears to be more regular and more acute than we have ever known it.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly his comments about wanting more people to live in safer, greener, beautiful areas—I am sure we would all welcome that. Some people are fortunate enough to live in such areas already, and they will be concerned about over-development. Will he assure me that they will be fully consulted? One route is a local plan, which he referred to, but many councils struggle to meet the deadlines. Will he assure me that help will be available to councils to meet those deadlines?
Yes, there will be. We want to find a better plan-making process. Plans are taking too long and we would like not only the time taken to produce them to be reduced significantly, but for people’s views to be genuinely taken into consideration. We are also, through our new digital agenda, seeing whether there are ways in which that can be done in a much more modern, 21st-century manner, on people’s smartphones, so that their views can be taken into consideration.
Does the Secretary of State agree that even more needs to be done to ensure that developers are accountable and that local communities are empowered even more to be centrally involved in the decisions made in their area? Will he be willing to meet me to discuss the Westferry Printworks development application, which he approved on 14 January?
I or the Housing Minister would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that matter. I believe it is subject to a judicial review, so it may not be possible, but I am happy to consult my colleagues in the Department to see whether it is appropriate for me to meet her at the moment.
I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that one reason why the number of completions quite often does not meet the number of consents is that there is a problem in getting utilities to sites. He is absolutely right to point out that much has changed since 1947, including the way we build houses and the developments in modular building. Will his planning review specifically look at those two issues? That would allow us to meet the desire of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) to align completions and consents.
Absolutely. A lot of important work has been done on utilities, not least by the National Infrastructure Commission, and I would like to take that forward. On the broader challenge relating to modern methods of construction, that will absolutely be at the heart of not just the planning work we are going to do but our broader housing strategy. There is a huge opportunity for us as a country to lead the world in new construction technology and to build good-quality homes at pace. I really want us to take that forward.
To discourage the needless urban sprawl on our green belt, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to encourage councils to unlock unused brownfield sites first and to work with SME builders, rather than moving toward huge green-belt release and working with large developers?
We absolutely we want to have a brownfield-first policy—that is at the heart of everything that we are trying to do in this policy area. It is why we have created the brownfield fund, which is available to those councils that really want to seize this opportunity to unlock those parcels of land. It is also driving our interest in some of the planning freedoms, such as the ability for a small builder or an entrepreneur to use the new permitted development rights that I have announced this week to purchase a disused office building with the knowledge and certainty that he or she can knock that down and turn it into good-quality housing as quickly as possible. We do not want to see the needless ruination of the countryside—we all want to see it preserved for future generations—but we have to balance that with ensuring that homes are available for the next generation in those parts of the country where people really want to live.
I heard what the Secretary of State said about the importance of completing local plans. Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council is working together with our friends and neighbours in Stoke-on-Trent on a joint local plan. Will the Secretary of State assure me and them that as we get Britain building homes, the Government will also invest in infrastructure such as the schools, roads, public transport and GP services that are needed to support new developments?
I am pleased to hear that Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent are working closely together—I am not surprised now that both are represented exclusively by Conservative MPs for the first time. We absolutely want to ensure more investment in infrastructure. As we set out in our manifesto, the infrastructure should flow first. We need well-planned, modern communities, which is why we have invested through the housing infrastructure fund. We will be succeeding that with a new, larger and longer-term single housing infrastructure fund, which will ensure that at least £10 billion is available for local areas to plan for the future and ensure that the roads, GP surgeries, utilities and hospitals are there to meet people’s demands.
What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that local authorities such as Blackpool include adequate provisions for the environment in their local plans?
That is already a requirement and we are going to do work to see whether further action can be taken. The future homes standard, the final details of which we will announce shortly, will mean that from 2025 no new home is built in this country unless it has very high levels of energy efficiency and sustainability—at least a 75% reduction in CO2 emissions. If a council is in the process of making a plan, or will be soon, it will need to plan for all homes to be meeting that standard, or higher, in the years ahead.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Town centres such as Warrington’s can thrive again if we focus on regeneration before we use the green belt. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to make sure that that is a reality?
With our £3.6 billion towns fund, the Government are setting out to do exactly that: to help local communities to come together and to work with the business community to harness private sector investment, unlock pieces of land and get more homes built in town centres. There are great examples throughout the country of councils planning significant numbers of new homes in the town centre. For example, the other day I was in Loughborough, a relatively small town that now has a plan for 1,000 extra homes to be built, some above shops and some on brownfield sites. That is exactly what needs to happen in every town centre in the country to get footfall and create new, vibrant life in town centres.
Veterans’ Mental Health
It is with deep regret that I can confirm that an incident occurred at Camp Taji in Iraq last night in which a service person from the Royal Army Medical Corps has died. The service person’s family have been informed, and requested a period of privacy before further details are released. It is a timely reminder of the ongoing and extraordinary commitment of the men and women of our armed forces. It was a cowardly and retrograde attack, and there will be no hiding place as we hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice. The thoughts and sympathies of the Prime Minister, the Government and the whole House are with the family and friends of the service person at this sad time.
Mr Speaker, following an internal review commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I wish to make a statement about serving and former members of the armed forces ending their own lives. Speaking publicly about suicide requires a balance between risking similar episodes and ensuring that I follow through on the Prime Minister’s intent to ensure that every serving or former member of the armed forces knows exactly where to turn in times of acute need. I am very aware of how it feels to be a member of a service family, particularly a spouse or relative of someone who feels that they have nowhere to turn or that Ministers are indifferent to the situation. It is this that has led me to make this statement to the House.
Suicide is almost never due to a single factor, and some reasons are impossible to identify. However, the facts on suicide in the armed forces remain broadly consistent. Current data shows that someone is significantly less likely to take their own life if they are in the armed forces—the rate is around eight in 100,000, compared with around 17 in 100,000 in the equivalent male population in the United Kingdom—but we are not complacent, and I accept that Governments have not acted fast enough to update our data and understanding of military suicide.
I am aware that we are currently experiencing a higher incidence of suicide in a cohort who served at a specific time in Afghanistan. Some people want to make suicide about numbers, but suicide is not a number. One is too many, and in my view any suicide is an individual tragedy—yes, for that person and of course for their family, but also for the military as an institution. I must, however, challenge a false narrative that veteran suicide is an epidemic, or that professional clinical services are not there. They are there. Such comments risk harming others by wrongly fuelling a perception that help is not there when it is. I therefore wish to outline to the House what I am doing about it.
I am committed to providing better support for individuals in mental distress, and to learning why suicide happens and what more can be done to stop an individual reaching the decision to end their life. I meet with families, widows and experts to understand when, or if, we could or should have intervened in those crucial weeks and months before an individual took their own life—even if sometimes the answer is tragically nothing. Alongside that work, we are aiming to reduce suicide risk through tackling stigma, through education, and by providing access to mental and physical health support. Armed forces personnel now undergo “through life” psychological resilience training, enabling them to recognise and manage mental ill health in themselves and their colleagues. This actively encourages help-seeking at an early stage.
Data is key to understanding what more needs to happen. The Ministry of Defence tracks all suicides for serving personnel and annually publishes data on coroner-confirmed suicides. It tells us that we are seeing more deaths in recent years, but the number is still well below that observed in the 1990s. Unlike in the 1990s, this is not predominantly an untrained young Army male issue, but predominantly a male issue, and in older age groups, which reflects the trends in wider UK society.
A 2018 review saw the implementation of new suicide prevention measures across defence, and a defence suicide registry will capture information related to in-service suicide across the services.
The Office for Veterans’ Affairs is funding the next stage of a long-term study of nearly 30,000 veterans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Started in 2003 and led by the world’s leading experts at King’s College, this provides data that ensures better Government policy decisions about veterans. The Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care together will fund Manchester University to examine, over the past five years, the 12 months leading up to veterans’ taking their own lives.
A new veteran mortality study will show the incidence of suicide, alongside other causes of death, among veterans who served since 2001. I am expanding this study so that it provides, for the first time, a near real-time surveillance capability, ensuring that we can respond quickly to any new cluster of events. The first report will be published later this year.
More importantly, a shift is under way in the provision of veterans’ mental health support—help is out there. For many years, I and others have called for this nation to realise her responsibilities towards those who have served. That strategic change is happening.
It is the NHS in England and the devolved Administrations who deliver veterans’ healthcare. Over the years, our service charities have shouldered much of this, underpinned by the generosity of the public. This is changing and I commend the NHS on its efforts to provide services, including those bespoke for veterans, some of which the NHS commissions the charity sector to provide. It has transformed its provision for the armed forces. A clear clinical pathway exists for veterans’ mental health services in England, with the transition, intervention and liaison service, and the complex treatment service. I have worked recently with the NHS and ministerial colleagues to accelerate the introduction of a new high-intensity service for those in most acute need, following the challenges faced by Combat Stress.
These services mean that the state is now leading the way in supporting our veterans, though a range of partnerships, including with the third sector and others. The help is there, and we all need to be better at encouraging our family, friends and colleagues to seek it.
Veterans will have experiences, training, friendships, highs and lows like no other profession. Some may feel far from those times, challenged by the reality of resuming civilian life after intensive and unique experiences. I am ensuring that the help is there to make that transition successfully.
I care and this Government care, with record investment reinforced by yesterday’s Budget’s additional funding for veterans’ mental health. A strategic shift is taking place, from reliance on the third sector to the state finally realising her responsibilities, ensuring that this country is the best place to be a veteran and everyone knows where to get help. This Prime Minister will accept nothing less. Having shared those battlefields with you, I have staked my professional reputation on it. But it requires everyone to play a role—to speak out, to reach out, to look after yourselves and each other. And never, ever give up. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for the advance copy of his statement.
First, I would like to take a moment to also express our sincere condolences to the loved ones of the service person from the Royal Army Medical Corps who so tragically died at Camp Taji in Iraq last night, and with the loved ones of Private Joseph Berry, who died last week due to a non-battle injury in Afghanistan. Our thoughts and sympathies are with them today.
We know that most service personnel transition successfully back to civilian life. However, there are some who struggle and need our continued support. I welcome the Minister’s statement, but nevertheless there is still much more that needs to be done.
We know that some veterans who struggle ultimately, and tragically, end up taking their own lives. Indeed, there are reports that 14 former and current serving personnel have committed suicide in the past two months alone, many of them having served in Afghanistan.
The Minister has raised the point about data collection for serving personnel. However, we do not know the full scale of this crisis for veterans, because unlike our major allies, such as Canada, New Zealand and the US, coroners in the UK do not record veterans’ suicides. This lack of data makes it extremely difficult to know the full scale of the problem, but it also makes it difficult to provide better, more targeted interventions. I and others, including the former head of the armed forces and several military charities, have raised that issue before. Will the Minister update the House on what action is being taken by the MOD and the Ministry of Justice to improve the situation of recording veterans’ suicides?
The Minister’s statement also raised the huge issue of stigma around mental health. I appreciate that he is working to improve the situation, but some reports suggest that approximately 60% of military personnel who experience mental health problems do not seek help. The Minister mentions “through life” psychological resilience training, but it is important to ensure that the MOD continues to work with our civilian services to support our personnel once they have left the forces. Indeed, armed forces charities have found that it can take four years on average before Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seek help for mental health issues. Despite this, the MOD follow-up period for writing to veterans is only one year after discharge. Will the Minister update us on the steps being taken to expand and improve transition support for veterans post-service?
Finally, I closely followed the Chancellor’s Budget speech yesterday and was disappointed to find out that only £10 million extra was going to veterans’ mental health services, through the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust. That is 0.007% of the NHS budget—a minuscule amount. What extra funding will the Minister be seeking for veterans’ mental health in this autumn’s comprehensive spending review, to ensure that veterans’ mental health is treated on an equal platform to physical health?
Our armed forces work hard to keep us safe so that we can live our lives to the full without fear. Day in, day out, they do things that cross the line into the remarkable. It is only just, fair and right that we have veterans’ mental health care provision worthy of these men and women.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising clear and pertinent points in this fight to understand this issue. I will cover them in turn.
We are in conversation with the coroner service about coroner data. The hon. Gentleman will understand that suicide is a very complex and difficult issue. When it comes to data, Governments of all colours over the years have started from a very low point. That is why some of the earliest funds of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs have gone into gathering the data—so that we can lead the way with evidence-based, research-based, genuine solutions to provide outcomes to our servicemen and women. A number of studies are under way. I mentioned the cohort study and our “through life” study of three quarters of a million veterans. Conversations are ongoing with the coroner service and I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with an update.
I believe that this place has made serious progress on stigma. When I first came here in 2015 and talked about the issue, we were in a very different place with mental health. Sterling work has been done by other people and I believe we are beginning to win the battle on stigma. The critical ground now is not stigma but the need to ensure that when people have the courage to come forward, the services and provision are there to meet their needs. I am fully focused on that.
On resilience training, the military now is a fundamentally different experience from five or 10 years ago. Op Smart and other service applications are doing brilliant work. We take the issue very seriously. Mental fitness and mental wellbeing are embedded in training, in phase 1 and throughout a person’s career. Indeed, we are looking to launch an enhanced programme later this year, with the Royal Foundation.
There is a challenge in tracing people who have left the forces, as we do not have a veterans’ administration like our colleagues in the United States, and nor would I seek to create one. But there is work that we can do. Three months ago, I tasked the Department to come up with options for tracing individuals as they go back into civilian life. There are mechanisms through which to do this already, such as writing to people to remind them of their reserve service. I am looking to couple that with a requirement for a GP appointment or similar—even if people feel well and do not want to go—so that we can get a better handle on outcomes.
I warmly welcome the commitment in yesterday’s Budget to funding for mental health. That funding is going to a specific area, but in no way is that the total amount going into veterans’ health. I have asked the Department to do a study outlining what we are actually doing. We are investing more than £200 million in veterans’ mental health over the next 10 years, but I accept that it can be hard to see where some of this stuff goes and what we are doing with it, which is why I have tasked the Department with making clear what we are spending where. It is not fair on the professionals who are working so hard in this arena day to day for politicians to try to score points on money when there is a whole load of money going into this project, but I accept that we need to do better to get that message out there. The shadow Minister makes a fair point. This is a challenge for the Department, but we will meet it. I look forward to meetings with him in due course. This is not a party political issue. We have to meet this challenge and, under this Prime Minister, we will.
I intend to get everybody in who was here at the beginning of the statement.
With the Minister’s own strong record on the subject, I am sure that he will agree that the misapplication of human rights law to the battlefield, rather than the law of armed conflict, is a cause of immense stress and mental distress to the veteran population who have taken part in campaigns and fear being dragged through the courts. When will the Government be bringing forward the promised legislation—I have in mind the promise made on Armistice Day last year, during the election campaign —to stop the repeated reinvestigation of veterans in the absence of any compelling new evidence?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his continued doggedness on this issue. I can confirm that I will be introducing a Bill on Wednesday next week that meets our manifesto commitment on this issue. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that the days of lawyers running amok in our services and our veterans community, trying to rewrite history in order to make money, are over. Through a series of measures starting next Wednesday when I will introduce the Bill, this Government are going to go to war on lawfare, and we will ensure that those who serve are protected when they come home by those who should be protecting them.
I thank the Minister for the advance copy and the tenor of his statement. This is a vital but distressing topic that is altogether rather shameful on us all.
Like the Minister, I have met individuals who have suffered. My old Scottish parliamentary seat contained an Army personnel treatment centre that dealt with not physical injuries, but psychological ones. The people treated there were overwhelmingly young men who were being prepared for discharge because of the experiences they had endured in the conflicts to which the Minister has referred. I can appreciate that the Army has difficulty in dealing with these issues because they often manifest years down the line. It could take three months, three years or 30 years for people to experience effects, but sadly we know that they do. Indeed, the Minister is making this very statement because these issues sadly result in the tragedies that we have seen.
There is a responsibility—if not for the Army, most certainly for the state—to address this issue. It cannot simply be left to the third sector and worthy charities, no matter how valiant their efforts are; we are required to do this collectively. In that regard, may I ask the Minister specifically about the war disablement pension? The Department for Work and Pensions currently counts the pension as income in employment and support allowance applications. It is hardly a king’s ransom for people taking the king’s shilling and, indeed, suffering for their country. Will the Minister and his colleagues ensure that this modest compensation—made for suffering sustained in the line of duty—does not count against people? It seems to me the very least that we can do.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The war disablement pension is listed, in line with all other pensions, as a source of income against universal credit, but it is different in different cases—for example, payments made to widows and so on. There are aspects that do not count against benefit claimants. We are trying to achieve the right balance of fairness across the country, but this is something that I look at on an ongoing basis and I would be more than happy to have a conversation about it with the hon. Gentleman offline.
I commend my hon. Friend and, indeed, all Governments for all they have done in this area. When I came back from a very heavy tour in Bosnia in 1993, I had an interview with a psychiatrist. He said to me, “How do you feel?” I said, “Fine.” He said, “Thanks” and left. Things have changed. There is £10 million of extra funding going into the covenant specifically for mental health. May I pitch again to my very good friend the Minister on behalf of PTSD Resolution, which has never, ever taken a penny from the Government, but which does such sterling work?
My hon. and gallant Friend is a long-term and passionate advocate of PTSD Resolution, which does good work. In the framework of veterans’ mental health, I will be bringing forward a programme in April that I will launch with Simon Stevens, the director of NHS England. My hon. Friend will see that that programme includes a clear role for charities of whatever size to bid to run some of the specialist services that PTSD Resolution and others do so well. The offering to our people is changing and I encourage my hon. Friend, PTSD Resolution and others to work together. We can meet this challenge if we work together and focus on outcomes, as I know both he and PTSD Resolution want to do.
Like the Minister, I have met several veterans who suffer from PTSD, most notably about 18 months ago when I met soldier N, who was like a coiled spring; I could sense the tension in his body and face about the trauma he had been through. Will the Minister support my call to provide homes for these heroes to give them that first step back into our civilian society, and to ensure that we have in place the wraparound service—with mental health and other provisions—to enable them through this difficult time?
I am not going to comment on individual cases because some are very difficult. The aspiration is absolutely there to provide a wraparound service. I am not sure that providing a house for individuals when they leave service is necessarily the nirvana that people think it is. The single biggest factor that will improve veterans’ life chances is having a job, and we can do more in that area. I am more than happy to have a conversation with the hon. Member about this issue.