House of Commons
Thursday 9 September 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Highgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]
Bill, as amended, considered.
Bill to be read the Third time tomorrow.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure
It is very appropriate that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) has asked this question because today is World EV Day. We are investing £1.3 billion in accelerating the roll-out of charging infrastructure over the next four years. On average, over 500 new chargers are added each month.
When I speak to the people of South Ribble, they are keen to do their bit to cut carbon emissions and also to get the benefits of cheaper travel from electric vehicles, but the thing that is constraining us and the problem we face is a lack of accessible charging points, not only commercially in the centre of town but in order to charge at home, across pavements and so on. Given that today is World EV Day, will my hon. Friend assure me that the Department will do everything it can to put the infrastructure in place to encourage more electric vehicle use?
I heartily commend my hon. Friend’s constituents for the transition to electric mobility. We are already supporting the roll-out of over 25,000 publicly available charging devices, including more than 4,700 rapid devices—one of the largest networks in Europe. I am delighted that South Ribble Borough Council is one of the 137 local authorities that has applied for the on-street charge point scheme, which has awarded funding for 16 chargers. I am happy to work with her to get further infrastructure rolled out.
I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that it was brilliant to see earlier this week figures showing that ever more electric vehicles than petrol or diesel ones are being sold. She has talked about the on-street charging points. It is vitally important that we get those in place and that these vehicles are accessible not just to those who have driveways and private parking. Will also she talk to her friends in the Treasury about the distortion that vehicle excise duty can create, because electric vehicles tend to be more expensive than their petrol and diesel versions, sometimes pushing them into a higher excise duty bracket?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the popularity of electric cars. In fact, one in seven cars sold so far this year has a plug. He will know that vehicle excise duties are obviously a matter for my friends in the Treasury, but he will be also be aware that we are continually supporting the up-front purchase of electric vehicles via a very generous programme of grants, and that is set to continue.
I warmly welcome the transport decarbonisation plan, particularly the requirement that all new homes and offices have electric vehicle charging points, which is a theme that I expounded in a ten-minute rule Bill. Will my hon. Friend give me an update on the timing of legislation?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the hard work she has done on her ten-minute rule Bill, which addresses a vital issue. We in Government are going to act. We have heard her calls and those of her residents. We will publish our consultation response on requiring all new residential and non-residential buildings to have a charge point, and we intend to lay legislation later this year. We have also confirmed our intention to mandate that home and workplace electric vehicle chargers must be capable of smart charging.
The continued roll-out of electric vehicles and the 25,000 charging point milestone is to be welcomed, but how confident is the Minister that the investment in charging points, particularly in remote and rural areas, will meet the scale of the challenge when committed investment is still a twenty-fifth of the £1 billion earmarked from the far from carbon-neutral HS2?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that his constituents in Scotland, like those across the whole country, are benefiting from the UK Government’s funding support: £1.3 billion is being spent on grants, charge point infrastructure, installation, and tax breaks on electric vehicle motoring. That is a significant sum and it is benefiting his constituents in Scotland.
When the Minister talks about electric vehicles, she just talks about cars. In York, we talk about e-scooters, e-bikes and e-Motability vehicles. What is she doing to ensure infrastructure for such vehicles so that people can go further on the cleanest form of transport and have the dual function of charging for active travel too?
I thank the hon. Lady for her support for active travel. It is one of the Government’s key priorities, which is why we have committed £2 billion to roll out cycling and walking infrastructure across the country. Some of those schemes are already being rolled out very safely, and many local authorities up and down the country, including York, are benefiting from them.
Residents of Regatta Point, a block of flats in Brentford, want to install electric charging points in their 60-space basement car park. They are coming up against huge logistical difficulties over transmission and getting the electricity down there for overnight charging, and a huge cost of roughly £1,500 a space. What is the Minister doing on the roll-out of EV charging for overnight charging in apartment blocks to address the financial and logistical hurdles they face?
The hon. Lady has raised an important point. The Government’s intention is to ensure that wherever people live—whether that is their own home, a terraced home without parking, or, as she says, an apartment building—they have access to overnight charging, because that is the most convenient way for people to charge. We will be setting out more details in our infrastructure strategy, which we are publishing soon, but we are looking closely at the challenges of installing charge points in car parks and blocks of flats.
I declare an interest, as I have an electric car. Local charging is obviously important, but on Saturday I will be using my car to go from Sheffield to Plymouth to watch Sheffield Wednesday play and hopefully win. It is quite a challenge to find rapid charging points on the journey to get there and back in reasonable time. One of the concerns is that people get to a rapid charging point and it does not charge rapidly. Apparently there is a problem with the grid in many places not consistently providing the level of charge needed for these rapid chargers. Could the Minister have a look at that problem, because I think it is quite a serious one?
I wish the hon. Gentleman a good journey. I hope his football team is successful. He has raised some vital issues, and I assure him that they are all ones we are addressing in our infrastructure strategy. We are also addressing reliability in our consumer experience consultation. We intend to lay legislation later this year to deal with many of the issues he has raised.
Maritime Industry: Decarbonisation
We have set out our plans in the transport decarbonisation plan, and have committed £20 million through the clean maritime demonstration competition.
The port of Falmouth has a wonderful maritime heritage and huge potential in the industry. It has already done some fantastic environmental work, including the preservation of more than 100 acres of sea grass. Will my hon. Friend commit to working closely with ports such as Falmouth to ensure that we can sustainably decarbonise the maritime industry, while continuing to enable the industry to grow and prosper?
I can absolutely commit to that. It is vital that we work with all elements of the maritime industry to accelerate the transition to net zero and to take advantage of the very real opportunities for green growth. Both the British Ports Association and the UK Major Ports Group are represented on our clean maritime council, and I and my officials regularly engage with the trade associations and individual ports on environmental issues.
I agree with the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) that fantastic projects are under way across the UK, including in her constituency, to get the maritime sector down to net zero. There is, however, a significant funding gap when it comes to making these developments a reality, and the Government, despite their record, have not done anywhere near enough to address the significant investment shortfall compared with other maritime nations that we compete with. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that our vital maritime sector gets the support it needs? Will he commit to addressing that and providing the necessary funding to support the research and innovation that is required?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of decarbonising the maritime sector, but I cannot agree with him about the Government investment. We have invested £20 million in the clean maritime demonstration competition. That seedcorn funding will help to develop the technology that we will be using. It is the largest technology competition ever run by the Department for Transport. I am very glad that next week we have London International Shipping Week, which is the flagship event of the maritime year. We will be able to see the glories of the UK’s maritime industry next week, and I look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman there.
Goods Supply Chain
I have regular discussions with the road haulage industry. Over the summer, we conducted a public consultation that resulted in over 9,000 responses.
Despite all the Government’s protestations to the contrary, Brexit and the end of freedom of moment are the lead causes of the current driver shortage in the UK. Will the Secretary of State listen to the Road Haulage Association when it says that it does not have a cat’s chance of solving the problem unless it has access to temporary labour in the short term?
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but actually it is a fact that there is a global shortage. In the US, for example, drivers are being hired from South Africa. In Poland, the shortage is 123,000 and, in Germany, 45,000 to 60,000. To say that this is just a Brexit issue is completely untrue; it is about coronavirus. That is why, as I said, we consulted on a series of measures, for which the consultation closed on Monday, to ensure that we can go back to pre-1997 driving licences—a Brexit bonus—to allow for more tests to be taken for HGVs so that tests for both articulated and rigid HGVs can be taken together. There are also one or two other measures that I will return to the House quickly to say more about.
Rugby is an excellent location for logistics, being at the centre of England and at the crossroads of the motorway network. However, despite the challenges that the sector faces, including that of drivers, our haulage and courier businesses make sure that we get the goods that we have ordered—usually online—incredibly quickly. Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the extraordinary efficiency of our logistics sector?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in that. This sector literally works day and night to provide goods, medicines and vital services around the country, for which we are hugely grateful. It has done that throughout the pandemic in very difficult circumstances. We on the Government side are pleased to see salaries for haulage drivers going up. If they are paid 20% more, or something like that, that would be good for British workers, and I thoroughly support it.
This has been a summer where Ministers have shown an abject failure of duty, whether on the exam fiasco, Afghanistan or the HGV driver shortage. We have seen high-profile examples of businesses impacted by supply-chain disruption and suppliers with stock that they could not get out the door, yet Ministers seem to do nothing. Will the Government finally accept that when it comes to a crisis such as this, it is their job to solve it, not just to sit on the sidelines and hope that it all works out? If they do accept that, what action is the Secretary of State taking to bring forward a road freight recovery plan to tackle head on the long-standing warnings of truck driver shortages that have been compounded by Brexit and covid?
First, we have introduced a temporary relaxation on drivers’ hours. Secondly, we have introduced £7,000 funding for the large goods vehicle driver apprenticeship programme. Thirdly, there is an additional incentive payment of £3,000 and, as I mentioned, we have been working hard to free up space at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Authority—the testing authority—so we are now testing 50% more drivers than we did before the pandemic. Yes, we have been acting, but we are going to go further. I mentioned removing the need for car drivers to take additional tests for a trailer—a move we can make only because we are outside the EU—removing the requirement for staged licence acquisition to obtain a lorry licence and authorising third parties to assess off-road manoeuvring for the lorry practical test.
If that is the best the Government have got, I am afraid that the crisis will not be sorted. They talk about solutions and interventions, but the long-term problems in the haulage industry will not be resolved by those measures outlined, such as making drivers work longer hours. It is only by training more that we can help to fill the long-reported 90,000 vacancies.
This problem has been a long time coming. The Secretary of State will know that well before covid, and a year before Brexit, 24,000 would-be truck drivers passed their theory test, but only 9,000 went on to complete their practical test, and yet even with that knowledge and the industry pleading for intervention, nothing has been done. This is a live crisis that is only getting worse. Without real action, he will be left standing alone as the Transport Secretary who stole Christmas, leaving shelves empty, gifts absent from under the tree and restaurants and bars without the stock they need to trade. Will he immediately take action and set up a taskforce to resolve this crisis once and for all?
Order. I say to Front Benchers that these are meant to be questions—statements come at a different time—and, please, we have to shorten them. Those on each side complain to me afterwards that they have not got in, so let us help the rest of the Members of this Parliament.
Mr Speaker, I will be brief. This is the problem of having a pre-written statement. The hon. Member heard the previous answer—a 50% increase in the number of tests. He is right that it is not enough, but that is why we have closed the consultation, which I have just said we will act on fast, on what will introduce even more testing capacity. The fact of the matter is that we are acting on this. This is a global crisis—in Europe alone there is a shortage of 400,000 drivers—and this is the Government who are doing something about it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those answers. It is clear that there are huge backlogs at the DVLA and the DVSA, and he is working to get through those, but will he also consider other measures to address this crisis, such as skills provision and signposting for jobseekers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As well as things such as the provision of skills—I have talked about the £7,000 apprenticeship programme—we are looking at what else we can do working with both the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. He mentions the shortages with the problems at the DVSA and, on the licensing side of this, at the DVLA. He may want to join me in trying to persuade Opposition Members to end the pointless DVLA strike, which is hurting the most vulnerable people in our society who cannot get their licences back, including those who drive HGVs.
The penny has finally dropped. For the first time the Government finally seem to understand the scale of the problem, and they seem rattled. This was the reaction of the industry to expediting the testing process, which we welcome. However, it is nowhere near enough, and it will take at least two years to fill the gap, if they attract enough drivers. Why then, as I asked the Secretary of State when I wrote to him back in June, can he not convince the Home Office to put HGV drivers on the shortage occupation list for a temporary period? This is not just about cancelling Christmas; shelves lie empty right now.
I do agree that this is an urgent measure. That is why, before anybody else was talking about it, we were already acting—carrying out these consultations, putting in place these measures—and we have 50% more people being tested. I hear his call for more immigration to resolve the problem, but we do have to stand on our own two feet as the United Kingdom. There are a lot of people coming off furlough, and I look forward to those people getting jobs.
Transport Services to Isle of Wight
We recognise the importance of this route. We will always keep route assessments under review, including if there is any evidence of market failure that requires intervention.
The Secretary of State knows that I hold him and his ministerial team in high regard. However, is it right that we have in the Isle of Wight ferry services a public service without any sense of public service obligation, and can the Minister tell me of a single example elsewhere in the United Kingdom where we have a true lifeline public service with no lifeline obligation attached to those services?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is a long-standing advocate of improving the service for his constituents, and he and I have spoken about it on many occasions. He will of course know that service provision to the Island is a matter for the local council, working with service operators. None the less, the Government will continue to monitor the service on this route, and if there is anything he would like to discuss with me at any time he need only ask.
Travel Companies: International Restrictions
Where eligible, travel companies have been able to draw on the unprecedented package of measures brought forward by the Chancellor last year, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, as well as our work to safely restart international travel under the global travel taskforce.
In addition to being hampered by the international travel restrictions, many transport companies, such as long-distance coach companies, are struggling because of the lack of test provision for drivers. The Secretary of State spoke at length about what is happening for HGV drivers, but will the Minister confirm whether those changes will include PCV—passenger-carrying vehicle—drivers with more capacity for testing, and will the Government consider allowing tests to be taken in the delegated in-house facilities of larger companies such as Stagecoach?
Eighty-one thousand people working in air transport are currently on furlough, including approximately 2,200 in my constituency, which covers Manchester airport. Even in non-airport seats such as that of the Secretary of State, just short of 300 souls face the axe in less than a month’s time. Furlough is due to end three weeks today, and if the Government continue to restrict the market in some sort of latter-day corn law way, they have to make a choice: either open up the market, or put in a sectoral deal. Which is it going to be?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the importance of the air transport industry and the travel industry more generally, not just to his constituents but to all our constituents. That is certainly the case for my constituents, and I am acutely aware of it. The best way to support them all is to do what we in the Department for Transport are hard at work doing, which is to safely reopen international travel. Since we last spoke, on 2 August we expanded quarantine-free travel to passengers from the European Union and the United States. We are working to expand that further, and will continue to do so.
Earlier I mentioned the penny dropping with regard to HGV drivers, but the aviation and travel industries can only dream of the Government understanding the magnitude of the crisis they face. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of jobs have gone in the sector, including 3,000 in my constituency, and that is with a job retention scheme in place. If the scheme ends this month there will be further damage to the sector. Did the Minister make representation to the Treasury to extend the scheme for aviation and travel, and if not, why not?
As I said to the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), the importance of this industry is well understood by me and the entirety of Government. We are working hard to ensure that we get international travel up and running again safely and securely, because that is the best way to protect all our constituents. We will continue to do that.
High-speed Rail: Hull to Liverpool
Options for routes into Hull are being considered as part of the integrated rail plan, which will be published soon.
November will mark five years since Conservative Ministers blocked a £94 million privately financed scheme to electrify 70 miles of rail track between Selby and Hull. There are still no guarantees of a date for Hull rail electrification, and there are reports that the section of High-Speed 2 that would most directly affect and benefit east Yorkshire is being scaled back or even totally shelved. Last week Ministers announced £78 million for electrifying 13 miles of line between Wigan and Bolton, with the reason given being the economic case for that upgrade. The economic case for an upgrade in Hull is even stronger, with our energy estuary and freeport status. What exactly do Conservative Ministers have against Hull and the east Yorkshire area?
We have delivered almost 700 single-track miles of electrification over the past three years, and we continue to expand the electrified rail network. That compares with just 63 miles in 13 years of the last Labour Government. Therefore we will take no lessons from the Labour party on electrification.
HS2 and East West Rail: Construction Traffic
Assessments of the impact of HS2 construction traffic on roads were included within the environmental assessments submitted during the passage of the High Speed Rail (London–West Midlands) Act 2017 and the High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Act 2021. For East West Rail the impact of construction on roads is monitored in compliance with the Transport and Works Act orders.
I thank my hon. Friend, and the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), for visiting my constituency during the summer recess to see for themselves the many issues that the construction of HS2 and East West Rail are causing for my constituents, one of which is the perilous state of the roads following a number of HGV movements. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that there will be urgent and rapid action to make safe those roads affected by the construction of those two projects?
Both the HS2 and East West Rail projects undertook full surveys of road conditions for the designated lorry routes prior to the construction works commencing. HS2 Ltd and East West Rail Company must ensure that all road damage as a result of construction works is repaired to the standard reported in those surveys. My hon. Friend continues to be a vocal champion for his constituents, and I look forward to continuing to work with him on this and other issues.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister told this House that the Government were
“going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of the HS2.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 325.]
Last year, he told the House that plans for HS2’s eastern leg remained “absolutely unchanged”. So when reports surfaced over the summer that Ministers planned to mothball the eastern leg, I was absolutely shocked. A U-turn, Mr Speaker? Another broken promise from this Government? Surely not.
Being the helpful person that I am, I want to help the Government put this scandalous rumour to bed once and for all. Can the Minister, rather than giving the evasive answer that he gave me last year about waiting for some sort of integrated rail plan, confirm that the eastern leg of HS2 will be built in full, on time and on budget?
I think the shadow Minister knows my answer. As the Prime Minister announced, we are working on the integrated rail plan, which is progressing well. It is only right that Ministers take time to fully consider all the evidence from all the stakeholders, regional leaders, the National Infrastructure Commission and the Government’s own analysis before making a decision. This is a cross-Government decision, but we intend to publish the integrated rail plan soon.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the HS2 phase 2b eastern leg is that local authorities seem constantly to be adding to the cost? Leeds City Council told HS2 that it could not shut any bridges or roads in the construction, meaning that the line has to be on a viaduct, which has increased the cost massively.
We are very keen to ensure that the benefits of HS2 are delivered as affordably as possible, recognising the importance of valuing every single penny of taxpayers’ money. Leeds and the regional stakeholders have brought forward ambitious plans for regeneration around a new Leeds station. That is one of the many aspects that is being considered across Government by Ministers not just in this Department but in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Treasury ahead of making decisions on the integrated rail plan.
Local residents neighbouring the brand-new Old Oak Common station, which has so far cost £6.98 billion and rising, showed me last week how their east-west journeys by bus, buggy—you name it—have become impossible because they are living in a barbed wire-festooned dust bowl of a building site. Can we have an urgent visit from the HS2 Minister? It should not just be Conservative Members who get visits. I have been waiting for a long time; the last time I was promised one was when the Secretary of State’s name rhymed with “failing”.
I would be delighted to visit Old Oak Common again. It is the largest ever railway station built in a single stage. It is a 32-acre site, and it will offer the hon. Lady’s constituents unrivalled connectivity when it is open. I have visited in the past, and I will be keen to visit again and meet the hon. Lady.
Kettering Railway Station: Capital Investment
Over the last three years, £24 million of capital investment has been provided from Network Rail at Kettering station, with £1.13 million provided by East Midlands Railway.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that question and for allowing me to visit this wonderful station in his constituency. Network Rail’s canopy works—the canopy is truly beautiful, Mr Speaker—are planned for completion by the end of November this year. Network Rail’s works at Kettering, including the mainline route enhancements, have created 16 jobs, while East Midlands Railway has created 70 jobs there.
South Western Railway Services
There is a consultation, which the hon. Lady well knows about, at this point in time. I am told that South Western Railway intends to provide 93% of its pre-covid capacity should that consultation be agreed to. I continue to monitor the situation.
It is clear that SWR’s proposals to slash services by about half from busy stations in my constituency, such as St Margarets and Whitton, is being driven by the demands in its contract with the Department for Transport. So will the Minister intervene and review his contract with SWR to avoid these drastic cuts to services on which local residents rely and for which they pay a very high price? It is far too soon to be making decisions about post-pandemic services.
I am watching the situation and looking forward to hearing back from SWR about the consultation. I have been talking about this very much with my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who has a similar campaign to that of the hon. Lady on behalf of his constituents. SWR has sent the consultation out to more than 3,500 stakeholders—MPs and other elected representatives, passengers and so on. Everybody knows that the number of passengers is still very much below the pre-pandemic level. We are relying on the results of that consultation to try to determine what future services need to look like.
Rail Services: Toton
It will not surprise Members to learn that the Department will soon publish an integrated rail plan, which will confirm how we intend to take forward the HS2 eastern leg.
I thank the Minister for that enlightening answer. He knows that as well as for HS2 itself, the IRP has huge implications for our regional economic growth, job creation and connectivity within the region. Ahead of any decision in the IRP, will he and the Secretary of State meet me, as the chair of the regional delivery board, to make sure that that decision ticks the boxes that we need in the east midlands?
I have been impressed by the scale of regeneration plans for the proposed station at Toton and the way in which local leaders have come together to maximise the benefits of HS2 for their communities. It is important that we consider regeneration and economic impacts upon local areas, as well as how to create the right kind of transport network—the IRP will seek to balance this. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend again to discuss this issue.
HGV Drivers: Road Safety
The Department’s published guidance makes it clear that driver safety and that of other road users must not be compromised, and that the relaxation must only be used where necessary.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Longer hours behind the wheel is not a solution to the shortage of HGV drivers; it is unsustainable, exploitative and dangerous. So does he agree with Unite the union, which represents many lorry drivers and supply chain workers, that such a crucial piece of our national infrastructure needs its own national council to set decent standards across the industry and, most importantly, to restore collective bargaining to improve and protect pay and conditions?
It is worth understanding, as there is often misunderstanding about this, that drivers are still bound by the working time directive and still have to work an average of a 48-hour working week over a 17 to 26-week period, and that the relaxations do not increase the working time; they are in place to allow extra flexibility. However, I do agree with the hon. Lady about the need on drivers’ conditions—they have been poor over the years, which is one reason why 99% of HGV drivers are men. We need to improve those facilities, to bring many more people into the sector, and I am very keen, as I mentioned before, to see better pay and conditions as well.
We recently published the transport decarbonisation plan and set out our pathway to achieving net zero, and we are delivering an ambitious, international COP26 campaign.
The Scottish Government have just announced that they will meet the target long campaigned for by active travel groups of 10% of the transport budget to be spent on active travel. That is exactly the kind of ambition that needs to be highlighted at the COP. So, first, I hope the Secretary of State will invite the Scottish Transport Minister along to explain that ambition. Secondly, will the Secretary of State outline what steps the Government are taking to meet that ambition south of the border?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman missed it earlier in the summer, but we announced an active travel programme—this was all part of our £2 billion of funding, with, I believe, an additional £330 million of that being spent this year alone. Of course COP26 will provide a fantastic opportunity for the United Kingdom to showcase all the work we are doing collectively in order to improve our climate.
With an eye on COP26, I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for the reopening of dormant railway stations as part of the Government’s drive to net zero. In doing so, what assessment has he made of local authorities that have both declared a climate emergency and contributed to the preparation of business cases for these exciting possibilities for communities such as Eddisbury, which are still ill served by rail?
I thank my hon. Friend. I do think that local authorities that declare a climate emergency should be prepared to pay more than lip service to the issue. I was having a look and I understand, unfortunately, that the Labour-led Cheshire West and Chester Council is still refusing to contribute a mere £5,000 to his valiant efforts to reopen Beeston Castle and Tarporley station, the only potential station between Crewe and Chester.
In the past month, my constituents in Bath have been subjected to the pollution of helicopter joyrides flying low over Bath. Clearly, this type of leisure pursuit is hugely damaging to the environment and does nothing to get us to net zero. Currently, neither the Civil Aviation Authority nor Bath and North East Somerset Council has the power to intervene. Will the Minister meet me to find a way forward for my constituents?
I congratulate the hon. Lady for shoehorning that into this particular question. I am more than happy to arrange for her to meet my aviation Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts)—to discuss it.
Air Travel: Covid-19 Test Costs
The Government recognise that the cost of testing can be high and continue to work with industry to reduce costs further. The costs of NHS Test and Trace tests for international arrivals were reduced recently, and the Competition and Markets Authority is conducting an urgent review into the testing market.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said and for what he is doing, but he knows that this problem affects not just those who want to go on holiday, but those who want to see family and may not have seen them now for years. To help those families—particularly larger families—with these costs and to resuscitate the aviation industry, as I know he is keen to do, will he please do more to make sure that the costs of those tests come down to be as low as they reasonably can be?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that question and particularly for his emphasis on the wide breadth of reasons why people have to travel. Bringing families back together, as well as business and leisure travel, is a major part of that and I thank him for drawing the House’s attention to it. He can be absolutely assured that the DFT will continue to work with travel and testing providers to reduce costs further, for travel that is cheap and easy, as well as safe, is our aim.
Road Conditions: England
In addition to investing £1.7 billion in local roads this financial year, I am pleased to say that the Department has now published its position paper on road condition monitoring on gov.uk and is working with the highways sector towards a common data standard to help local authorities to target defects in their networks more effectively.
I thank the Minister for the additional £3.2 million that her Department has provided to Blackpool Council for routine maintenance work in the current financial year. Despite this additional funding, many of my constituents are concerned that Blackpool Council has the wrong local transport priorities and is far too slow in completing routine maintenance work. What priorities does her Department have in place to ensure that money given to local authorities is spent in a timely and efficient manner?
I agree with my hon. Friend and his residents that it is incredibly disappointing that Labour-run Blackpool Council is failing in its responsibilities to ensure that there are decent and reliable roads for residents, which is clearly a priority. We know from freedom of information requests that Conservative councils fix potholes faster than their Labour equivalents. I hope that Blackpool will work harder on this issue.
Motorists: Journey times
The Government are investing in major enhancements across the strategic and local road networks to increase capacity and reduce delays.
The car remains a great agent of enterprise and personal freedom and we should never apologise for advancing its cause, so in that spirit, what support will the Department provide to advance construction of the much needed north-west and northern parts of the Northampton ring road?
I commend my hon. Friend for his sterling efforts over a long period to support investment in a key part of the local road network in his area, which, as he says, is vital for jobs and the local economy. I understand that West Northamptonshire Council is exploring options to secure funding, and discussions will take place in the spending review.
Public Transport Use
The Department is working closely with operators to support measures to increase passenger confidence and encourage a return to the network. On the two trains that I took this morning, I could see that it is working.
Buses are a clear manifestation of community across the country. Even for small-state Conservatives like me, there is a role for subsidy. Will the Secretary of State commit to a cautious approach to subsidy that balances the opportunity for communities to make services viable with encouraging them over the long term to become self-sufficient?
I agree that buses are essential to communities: they connect people, enable people to get to jobs and education, and drive growth. That is why we are investing £3 billion of new money during this Parliament outside London for English buses, with consequentials, and why over the pandemic we provided £1.4 billion to support the sector.
Great British Railways: Headquarters
The formation of Great British Railways is still in its early stages. The location of its headquarters will be considered in due course.
The Minister will be aware of the central role that Derby has played in the history of British rail transport. Derby has also invested in the future of the industry, with local businesses helping to develop the UK’s first hydrogen trains. Does he agree that that combination of pedigree and potential would make Derby an excellent location for the new headquarters of Great British Railways?
My hon. Friend knows my affection for Derby, which I represented for 10 years in the European Parliament. She is right that Derby has played an important role in the history of rail in this country. I have heard her sales pitch this time and previous times loud and clear, but I have to say that the location of GBR’s headquarters will be considered in due course.
Today is World EV Day, celebrating electric vehicle ownership worldwide and right here in the UK—one of the best places to drive an electric vehicle. Our extensive network of 25,000 publicly available charge points means that we have more rapid chargers for every 100 miles of key strategic road than any other country in Europe. We have made real progress, with more than half a million electric vehicles on our road. I am pleased to say that just last month, through grants and tax incentives, one in six cars sold in this country had a plug on the end of it.
I have been working closely with local councillor Sheila Lennox-Boyd to get improvements to the A38, including the roundabout at Carkeel, which is a National Highways responsibility, and the bridge, which is run by local councils. Will the Secretary of State meet us to discuss this key route into Cornwall?
Back in July, speaking about the Prime Minister’s pledge to buy 4,000 UK zero-emissions buses by 2025, the Secretary of State said that
“there are 900 buses in production right now”—[Official Report, 14 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 408.]
Allegedly, this is the Government’s flagship policy, yet the roll-out of these buses seems to be little more than rhetoric, given that every British manufacturer of buses I have spoken to says that they have no knowledge whatever of any orders. Will the Secretary of State now tell the House exactly where those buses are being made right now, as opposed to being potential on a DFT internal spreadsheet or more greenwashed PR spin from this Government?
I will tell you what I will do, Mr Speaker: not only will I write to the hon. Gentleman, but I will publish a copy of the letter in the House, for the House’s greater benefit. He will be interested to see that those buses are not just ordered or in production; some are actually on the road.
The current timetable structure and track capacity on the Great Eastern line south of Ipswich have not allowed any new direct services to be implemented to Liverpool Street at this time. I am aware of the problem; my officials have asked Greater Anglia to continue to see whether there might be opportunities to introduce direct services between Liverpool Street and Lowestoft, as I very much recognise the importance of the direct service.
My hon. Friend will know that there is a bid in at the moment for the shovel-ready scheme to convert the freight-only railway line from Lichfield to Burton into a regular passenger service. It is backed, in a personal capacity, by his fellow Minister, the roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths), and—most important of all!—by the West Midlands Mayor, because of the connectivity. It will be driven, incidentally, by a hydrogen-powered locomotive if it is given the go-ahead. Will my hon. Friend come up to Lichfield to see for himself how vital this rail service will be?
In his normal shy and retiring way, my hon. Friend has given me an invitation that I simply cannot refuse. As he knows, we have received a bid for the restoration of passenger services between Lichfield and other places in round 3 of the restoring your railway ideas fund, and I look forward very much to my forthcoming visit.
I thank the hon. Lady for her very good question. As I mentioned earlier, Great British Railways is in its formative stages, but I will happily work with her and the accessibility groups that she mentioned so that we can help to guide people through any new systems that come forward.
Antidotes and doctors! Following his question to one of my colleagues yesterday, I was not sure that my hon. Friend was all that keen on vaccines—or vaccine passports, at least.
I am obviously well aware of my hon. Friend’s bid for the Ashton-to-Stockport line, including the Rose Hill connection, which is in round 3 of the restoring your railway ideas fund. He has kindly given me a great deal of information about the bid, and I have met him and the other proponents of it. I promise him that we are assessing the bids, and expect to announce outcomes very shortly.
I am all in favour of having a science-led emphasis on everything to do with policy, and the fact that they are 123,842 lorry drivers short in Poland suggests to me that this is not a Brexit-only issue. I have explained the measures that are not only going to happen next year or the year after but are happening now with 50% more tests, and this will happen very quickly with the consultation result that I have already discussed.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I share his concern, and I know that he is a passionate advocate for safer roads in Dewsbury. I can tell him that the Department is currently working to redraft that circular, with a new version to be published by the end of the year.
Two of my constituents, a Danish national and a British citizen with Danish residence, were denied boarding a BA flight by the airline’s staff because they did not accept my constituent’s proof of Danish residence even though it was consistent with Danish travel advice. Despite a letter that I received from a Foreign Office Minister confirming that my constituents were right, BA has refused to issue a refund and is standing by its misinterpretation of the advice. Does the Minister agree that airlines need clearer guidance on international travel documentation post-Brexit, and will he raise the issue with the airlines, the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary to ensure that this does not happen again?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising this matter. It is difficult for me to comment on an individual case, but perhaps we could meet and if he could give me further details I would be very happy to take this up.
This week the Transport Committee has launched yet another inquiry on international travel, and we will shortly be hearing from the chief executives of leading airlines and airports as to why they are doing less than 20% of the business they were doing in usual times while mainland Europe is now up to about 70%. They will be concerned that furlough is coming to an end, and they will want to know whether the barriers to travel will be reduced to make up the shortfall. I know the Secretary of State has done a lot already, but can he offer some optimism and encouragement on how the rules will change to allow the business to do more transactions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who does a terrific job chairing the Transport Committee. We do want to see the recovery, and I can inform him that I will shortly chair the second meeting of the G7 Transport Secretaries to discuss exactly his point. We will discuss how we can roll this out internationally using the principle of fully vaccinated travel and how we can try to reduce the costs and the imposition of the tests along the way. However, those decisions have yet to be made, both domestically and internationally, so I do not want to overly raise my hon. Friend’s hopes but I can reassure him that we are focusing on this.
The SMMT estimates that, in order to have the correct charge point coverage by 2030, 700 new charge points will need to be installed every single day. Can the Minister advise me on how many are currently being installed, and whether we are ever going to reach the target of 700 a day?
In our infrastructure strategy that is to be published shortly, we will set out clearly how we are going to meet the charge point targets that are required. I would like to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that we are installing 500 charge points every month across the country, and that by 2023 we will have six rapid chargers in every motorway service station across the country.
Our very popular rail Minister is aware of the excellent work being done by the North Cotswold Line Task Force. Could he update colleagues and councils along the North Cotswold line on his conversations with the Treasury about doing more business casework on redoubling a stretch of the North Cotswold line?
I had a recent meeting with the taskforce, and I am due to have meetings with Treasury colleagues at which I have said I will raise this issue. I believe I am waiting for a tiny piece of work from the taskforce, so I look forward to receiving that and trying to move the project forward with my hon. Friend.
Does the Secretary of State agree that as London returns to work and commuters begin to get back on the trains and into their cars, it is important that we encourage people, as much as possible, back on to public transport? In my constituency we expect the construction of some 1,500 flats over the next few years. Does he agree this is no time to be cutting South Western Railway services to North Sheen, Mortlake and Barnes?
As I said to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), South Western Railway is undertaking a consultation that will shape the future of services. It is important that that consultation is viewed as one that we will listen to, and we will listen to it. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) will have seen that recently, following consultation, we decided not to proceed with the east coast main line proposals because of stakeholder reaction, among other things, so it is vital that the consultation is replied to in great detail, and I hope she will do that.
Afghanistan: FCDO Responses to Members
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on when he will ensure detailed responses are provided to hon. and right hon. Members regarding UK nationals and vulnerable Afghans stuck in Afghanistan.
Through the shared effort across Government and our armed forces, we have delivered one of the largest and most complex evacuation operations in living memory. Between 15 and 29 August, we evacuated over 15,000 people from Afghanistan. This includes more than 8,000 British nationals, close to 5,000 Afghans who loyally served the United Kingdom, along with their dependants, and about 500 special cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges and so on.
Now that the primary evacuation period has ended, we have moved to a new phase. We stand by our commitments to support those who have worked for us and to take all remaining eligible cases. Securing the safe passage out of the country of those who remain is an immediate priority, and we are working through diplomatic channels to that end, which is why Ministers have made calls and the Foreign Secretary has visited the region. It is our determination to continue to work rapidly with both the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to assess all cases that have been sent through to us.
Responding to MPs’ cases and correspondence remains a priority for the Government. My noble Friend the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth wrote on 5 September to all those MPs who sent cases to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, outlining the actions we are taking to progress the cases that have been sent to us, as well as the relevant contact routes that are now available as the initial evacuation phase is over.
The Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth also sent a letter to all parliamentarians on 6 September outlining the work we are doing to provide safe passage for all those still in Afghanistan.
We received over 200,000 emails during Operation Pitting alone, which is significantly more than we received during the entire repatriation operation for British nationals at the onset of the covid pandemic last year. During the evacuation, our priority was rightly on getting UK nationals and those Afghans who worked for us on to the flights leaving Afghanistan. In addition, we brought out hundreds of individuals who were identified as special cases owing to the particular risk they faced because of their ties with the United Kingdom.
Since the completion of the evacuation phase, we have been urgently working through the correspondence, including the hundreds of letters that we received during the operation from MPs and peers, many of which contained multiple cases. More than 100 additional staff have been assigned to work through the caseload. Where the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has received cases that are dealt with by the Ministry of Defence under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy or by the Home Office under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, we will pass them to the relevant Department. This will be completed within a week—that is, by 16 September—and those MPs concerned will be informed as to the Government Department that will be assessing the cases. Only after this assessment will the relevant Department be able to provide a more substantive update to those Members who have sent in cases.
The FCDO will continue to handle British national cases and we will be in contact with MPs about the specific cases they have raised within seven days, providing as much detail as we are able. We are deeply grateful for and pay tribute to the work of parliamentarians during this mammoth operation. I also pay tribute to the staff of many MPs who have worked around the clock responding to the concerns of constituents and those stuck in Afghanistan. Thanks to parliamentary colleagues and Members, our consular team has already been able to reach many who are in need. We are committed to addressing the concerns of parliamentarians as we move forward and will intensify our work as we end this operation.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
In my 20 years as an MP, I do not think I have heard as many upsetting stories as I have heard in the past few weeks, and I think that that feeling is reflected among many Members of the House. We owe a debt of gratitude to our staff because many of them are fielding these calls, not just once but every single day, with requests for information. Let me cite just one:
“I have eligibility offer. I have submitted all documents, including passports, birth certificates, marriage certificates. I was FCDO interpreter in Helmand. I am still in Afghanistan. The British Government did not evacuate me. I might be killed by the Taliban.”
Torture, rape, threats and constant reprisals are the reality for many people who stood by us in our hour of need. If anyone believed or hoped that the Taliban had changed, just listen to this:
“The Taliban are arresting people in my street. They go door to door. They knocked my house door again and were looking for me.”
I will not read out any more from that email because it would reveal who it is, but this is from a UK contractor whose father had all his fingernails removed one by one the last time the Taliban were in charge before being murdered. I note also that the Taliban has now announced that women will not even be allowed to take part in sport, so what chance is there for any participation in society or a full education?
Repeating a promise made by the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister told the House on Monday that every single email from colleagues was being responded to by “close of play today”—that was Monday, not next Thursday or in a month’s time. It was this Monday that has already gone. So far, all we have had is a circular—a Dear Colleague letter, not even handwritten—from one of the Ministers, as referred to by the Minister just now. There has been no answer to the 143 individual cases—sorry, it is 142 cases because one was murdered the other day.
I have to say that the way that the Government have dealt with Members has been a complete and utter shambles. I know that they may want to do good, but they have let us all down in this. This is no way to treat Members or our constituents. Why on earth have three separate channels through three separate Departments? It means that we have added to the confusion by sending everything in in triplicate, because we do not know which is the right set of criteria. We want a single point of contact and not, incidentally, the Minister for resettlement in the UK. We want a Minister for rescuing people in danger in Afghanistan—a single point of contact. The Minister has just repeated that we must go through all three Departments all over again.
Let me ask some specific questions. If someone has been rejected for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, will they be considered automatically under the other schemes? That is not at all clear for the two who have been rejected that I know of. When will the full resettlement scheme criteria be in place and publicly available? As I understand it, it has still not been agreed by Government. I am reluctant to raise this, but why did the Government provide virtual briefing meetings for Tory MPs only fully a week, if not two weeks, before Labour MPs were engaged? I know that this is the case, because at least five Conservative MPs have raised it with me. How many MPs have written to Ministers with details of UK nationals?
Finally, will the Minister respond to the charge that was made in relation to British embassy officials telling people on the day of the explosion at the Abbey Gate that they should still be going there? That was clearly a miscommunication. The Foreign Secretary said that he was going to update us and give us the full details, but we still have not heard them.
I completely understand the passion with which the hon. Gentleman speaks. I suspect that every single Member of Parliament has received similarly harrowing accounts. Indeed, I have had a number of communications from previous military colleagues who are themselves in touch with Afghans they had worked with. We all recognise the fear and horror that many Afghans are going through.
I also thank the many MPs from across the House who have privately thanked me and asked me to pass on their thanks to the ministerial team and, probably more importantly, to the officials in the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence for the numbers of people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan. As I said, this was an unprecedented operation, and being in receipt of over 200,000 emails has put a strain on all of the Government that is unlike anything any of us have had to deal with before.
The hon. Gentleman says that we should only have one set of assessment criteria. That cannot be the case.
Well, the hon. Gentleman said that there should one scheme. There cannot be one system for British nationals, Afghan nationals who have worked with us and Afghan nationals who have not worked with us. He says that Members are being told to send things in three different directions. That has not been the case. If he listens back to the speech that I just made, he will hear me saying that the FCDO has triaged and will triage correspondence from Members and make sure that it is sent to the appropriate Government Department so that British nationals are dealt with by the Foreign Office, where they should be dealt with; ARAP cases are dealt with by the Ministry of Defence, where they should be dealt with; and special cases are dealt with by the Home Office, where they should be dealt with.
We will ensure that correspondence that we have received before the end of this month is assessed and that Members will be told where their correspondence has been triaged to. If that correspondence has been sent to the FCDO, they will receive a status within seven days.
As everybody knows, the last few months have been an especially harrowing time for many of our staff, and the teams in constituency offices all over our islands have been frankly outstanding and impressive. It is also true that many of those working in the Foreign Office crisis centre have been quite exceptional. I pay huge tribute as well to our right hon. Friends the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary, whose efforts have been second to none.
The point about unity of command is one that I know my right hon. Friend the Minister understands exceptionally well; it avoids confusion, risk and danger. That is particularly important in this situation because, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was saying, the risk to these people is growing by the day. The biometric data that was left behind by the United States is increasingly being used against these people, to track them and find them. People are taking risks in going to the border, from which they then have to turn back when they find out that borders are closed or their papers are no good. Giving information early is therefore not just a kindness or a courtesy; it is lifesaving. Will the Minister commit to trying to bring these things more closely together, to achieving a comprehensive approach between the three Departments, and to giving answers quickly to those who stood by us in our hour of need?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about the speed with which these decisions are made, but we should remember that in all cases, and particularly in immigration cases dealt with by the Home Office, there is a degree of complexity that does not make speed easy. We should also remember that in many cases, because Afghans have had to flee their homes, cities and villages, they have incomplete, or in some cases are completely devoid of, documentation, which adds a degree of complexity.
We made an expansive and generous offer to support those Afghans who were at particularly high risk of reprisals from the Taliban. That created a significant increase in the number of cases brought to our attention. We absolutely will work through them at pace, but we have to be realistic about the complexity of some of these cases. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that speed is of the essence; we recognise that. We also recognise that Members who have contacted us in genuine fear for the people they have either worked with or speak on behalf of also want some reassurance, which is why we are absolutely dedicated to making sure that we pass on in a timely manner the information we are able to pass on.
A week ago last Sunday, The Observer newspaper quoted a whistleblower who had access to Foreign Office email accounts. He said that MPs were not getting replies to the emails they had sent, and:
“It’s not just that MPs weren’t getting replies—their emails weren’t being read”.
The source also said that there was a backlog of 5,000 emails.
On Monday this week, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary stood before the House and made commitments to Members on all Benches. Referring to a question from the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the Prime Minister said:
“I can tell him that by close of play today every single one of the emails from colleagues around this House will be answered”.—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 26.]
Later that day, the Foreign Secretary said,
“we will have replied to all MPs’ emails received by 30 August asking for an update by today.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 47.]
Both those commitments have been broken. That clearly runs against the basic principle of this House and treats Members from all parties with utter contempt. Given that MPs continue to wait for detailed emails on hundreds of cases, it raises the prosect that the Government knew at the time that they were making a promise to Members that they could not or would not keep.
The seriousness of these cases demands a serious response. Many of the people involved are vulnerable—women, children, families, LGBT+ people, people who have worked alongside the UK in Afghanistan and people living in fear of the new Taliban regime. Members’ staff have worked incredibly hard, as have Members from all parties themselves, so will the Minister now tell us, clearly and definitively: when will these emails be fully and comprehensively answered?
Two hundred thousand emails were received. Although it is absolutely the case that the people in Afghanistan—whether they be British nationals, Afghans who worked for us or at-risk Afghans—are a priority, it is just not possible to open, analyse and respond to 200,000 emails in the same timescale that we would normally be able to.
The commitment made by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister was discharged: every single MP received a response so that they knew that their email had been received and opened and would be worked on. The detail on where those emails have been triaged to and, in respect of cases that are being dealt with by the FCDO, the initial status of cases will be, as I said, provided to right hon. and hon. Member from all parties by 16 September. The commitment that was made was discharged. We will continue to work on behalf of British nationals and at-risk Afghans and we will ensure that any correspondence received directly by the FCDO is triaged and sent to the most appropriate Government Department for processing.
I would like to thank all the officials who have been dealing with this matter, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has raised a really important subject. I will come straight to the point. How confident is the Minister that the UK will be able to reach and get out of Afghanistan those Afghan folks who worked with us, not so much in Kabul but in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where they served alongside the UK military and took the greatest risks to their own safety and that of their families? What is the chance of getting hold of those people who are now trapped hundreds of miles from Kabul?
The ministerial team at the FCDO, including the Foreign Secretary, have been liaising extensively with both neighbouring countries and countries in the region to facilitate the evacuation of Afghans who have worked with us. It is not possible—it is not possible—to make cast iron guarantees. There is no functioning Government in Afghanistan, but we are liaising intensively with neighbouring countries to give the Afghans the very best chance of escaping the Taliban regime.
I warmly commend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for bringing this matter forward, because it allows us the opportunity to express the real frustration and anger that exists. In that spirit, I commend the Minister for his statement today, because there was rather more humility and realism in it than we heard from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary earlier this week. I think it is that mismatch between what has been said and what has been delivered that has led to the upset.
I have an auto-response for anybody who emails me. They get an automatic response generated by my inbox saying, “What is your postcode? Are you a real person? Do you live in Stirling?” So I could say, hand on heart, that anybody who gets in touch with me gets a response within seconds, but for me to suggest that that is a substantive response that actually answers the question would surely be misleading Parliament, which is why I have never made that point. I have to say to the Minister that I have canvassed opinion across the SNP group. As at 5 o’clock last night, we have 153 outstanding cases of individuals within Afghanistan needing help. We have not had a proper response. I will send all of those to him this afternoon and I would be grateful for an urgent response from his services to that.
We are trying to be constructive here. We need to learn the lessons. Can the Minister commit to a review for the future? When will the new details of the new scheme be published, so we can all learn the lessons for the future?
Members need to be realistic about the level of detail and granularity that any organisation is able to provide in this timescale. We are talking about one of the most complicated and challenging environments anywhere in the world at the moment. There is no functioning Government in Afghanistan. These cases are incredibly complex. We made a commitment to ensure that Members knew their emails had been received, triaged and allocated to the appropriate Department. The commitment I have made today is that they will receive that information within seven days. They should know the emails have been received by the Department because they will have already, as per the commitment made by my right hon. Friends, received the confirmation that we are working on those cases. I cannot promise to be able to resolve complex cases within a matter of days. No organisation is able to do that, but we will work tirelessly to ensure these cases are operationalised.
Female Afghan MPs are particularly at risk. Many have decided, very sadly, to leave their own country. As a public service announcement, I want to say that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is working with other Parliaments to put together the complete list of those individuals. I thank the Minister’s noble Friend for offering me a meeting. I know that many colleagues will have heard from female Afghan MPs. If they could ensure that they reach out to me, as chair of the British group, to make sure we have sight of all the names, we will work with other Parliaments to ensure that when they are able to get out of the country there will be a range of different countries that will give them refuge.
We have worked extensively with countries in the region. I pay particular thanks to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which have worked very hard on some specific cases that I have raised with them. I am very grateful for the point that my hon. Friend has made. We do very much prioritise women, who, as we have always known but are now reminded, are in particular danger under the new regime in Afghanistan.
This Government are making a habit of breaking promises. However, breaking their commitment to help desperate people trying to flee Afghanistan is a new low. I have hundreds of people asking for my help to save their loved ones. Fazel Rabi Rustamkhel contacted me about his brother, a BBC journalist in Afghanistan, whose life he understandably believes to be in grave danger, yet I have not even received so much as an acknowledgment of the case from the Foreign Office. Can the Minister now tell me when I will have a reply that I can share with Fazel, and when we will receive substantive responses to all outstanding casework?
I have already made the commitment that any cases received before 30 August will have had a confirmation response, that the emails will be, or have been, triaged to the relevant Government Departments, and that Members will get confirmation of that triage destination within seven days. For cases presented to us after 30 August, the normal turnaround time for response has been three weeks, which we have committed to reduce to two weeks. However, we are conscious that there is still a very intensive pipeline of cases being presented to us, and we will work on those as well.
Can I gently point out to hon. Gentlemen opposite that the only meetings I attended were all-party or were invited as such? I thank all at the FCDO, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office for all the work that they have done to extricate many of the Afghans who are at risk because they have been helping the UK Government. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that we are now repaying that help with opportunities here to contribute to our society with appropriate jobs and other support?
Operation Warm Welcome is an incredibly important part of this, because while it is of course the absolute priority to remove Afghans, where possible, from danger in Afghanistan, we want to ensure that those who come to the UK are able to integrate and to fulfil their lives. Having a plan not just for housing but ultimately for future employment and so on is a really important part of that, and that is what underpins Operation Warm Welcome.
I note the Minister’s comments about co-ordinating with the Home Office, but could I urge him to similarly co-ordinate with the devolved Administrations across the UK, who will play a huge role in looking after our refugees? If the commitment to refugees is not backed up by suitable funding to councils in the UK, the scheme will fail—it is as simple as that. So can I urge the Government to put appropriate funding into UK councils to see that this actually works?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point about the ongoing support. He will have noted that the Government have already made a financial commitment to support local government as part of Operation Warm Welcome. He makes an incredibly important point and it is noted.
There is no doubt about the incredible effort that the Foreign Office and other Government Departments have put into responding to this incredibly difficult and tragic situation, and I thank the Minister for his honest and constructive responses to this UQ. This country is leading the way in offering safe haven to up to 20,000 Afghans over the next four years, but for many Afghans fleeing the country, their first port of call will be neighbouring countries such as Pakistan or Uzbekistan. Can he confirm that some of the £286 million in aid that we are allocating will be used to support refugees in these neighbouring countries?
My hon. Friend is right that the majority of refugees from Afghanistan would be expected to find refuge, at least in the first instance, in neighbouring countries. We work extensively with those countries. We enjoy strong bilateral relations with most, particularly Pakistan, which has a long border with Afghanistan. I can assure him that we will continue to work closely with them to ensure that refugees that enter their countries are looked after.
I join the Minister in thanking members of the armed forces and consular staff, who have worked incredibly hard. This mess is not of their making; it is that of Ministers. He claims there have been 200,000 emails, but they are not all from Members of Parliament. If that were the case, we would have each sent more than 300 emails. Is he saying to the House that our emails have no more weight than any others? Can I just raise with him the marked contrast with how other countries have dealt with this issue? I had a constituent in Afghanistan who is a British citizen. There was no answer from the Foreign Office. My office laterally thought, as her husband is a US citizen, to contact the State Department. It not only replied straight away, but got her out within 48 hours and phoned to say it had been done. There is a different way of doing it, and it is about how parliamentarians are treated.
The Defence Secretary suggested that people should now move to the borders if they want to leave. I have a family in my constituency who have the ability to get to Pakistan, but want to know what happens next. The Germans last week put in place a transit route through Uzbekistan. Where are we at with this?
As I have said, the Foreign Secretary visited the region and spoke extensively with regional partners, including Pakistan. We will continue to explore with those neighbouring countries what means can be put in place for Afghans to come to the UK, where that is their most appropriate destination. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman pays tribute to the officials in the Government Departments, most notably the FCDO, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. Many other Departments provided volunteers to reinforce our work, and I also pay tribute to them.
I thank the Government for responding positively to the representations I have made on behalf of Afghans at risk. May I ask my right hon. Friend about what will happen? Given that the Taliban will increase their grip and become less and less helpful, the only way for people to get out of the country will be to run to the border. That brings them into the scope of neighbouring jurisdictions and the United Nations. What discussion has he had with the UN about trying to assist people to leave to appropriate countries, such as the UK, and specifically triage them, as has happened with the Syria resettlement programme?
I thank my right hon. Friend for congratulating the officials who have been working so hard on this. I note that it is surprisingly common to be thanked by Opposition Members in private, and less so in public, but I will take the thanks wherever it comes. With regards to engagement, I can assure him that we are engaging multilaterally and with countries in the region. We will explore all routes for helping Afghans evacuate, whether that be land crossings or the re-establishment of air corridors.
Like many Members, I have an awful lot of cases. I have 150 cases that I am dealing with. I will not rehearse all the details, but they include prominent women’s rights activists who have death warrants already issued on their heads by the Taliban. I have veterans of the Afghan national army, and I even have the wife of a British national who has a two-month-old baby and is stuck in Kabul. I have another chap whose family have already been butchered by the theocratic fascists of the Taliban, and he is now in hiding, awaiting instructions from me or the Government on how we will get him out. I genuinely want to know what conversations the Minister is having, and whether they are being accelerated, with people such as our friends in the Pakistani Government to ensure that they have the money and support to be able to get as many people as possible safely over the border. It is clear we will not be extracting anyone directly out of Afghanistan any time soon, but we have friends there. If we can support them, we can get people out of Afghanistan and process them there to get to safe haven in our country.
I think Members from all parts of the House will completely understand the fear that the people who have contacted the hon. Gentleman will have. We will all have had similar cases. We are liaising closely with the countries on the border. It is understandable that no country would want to accept many hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of undocumented people, so it is not as easy as saying, “Countries should open their borders to Afghan refugees.” We are working closely with them to ensure that there is a process by which we can help to evacuate as many eligible Afghans as possible.
I worked in the Foreign Office crisis centre and I cannot imagine what our diplomats have been through. I am so grateful that many hundreds of those whose cases I took up personally were evacuated over the last few weeks, including those who went to the Baron hotel on the day of the terror attack—yes, it was terrifying, but it got them out. This will upset colleagues, but no, I did not hear back on those who were evacuated—but the Afghans did, and that is all that matters. Sometimes, I did not know that they were out until they were in a hotel in the UK, but they got out. I still have some to get out, and I am heartbroken about that; I speak to them every single day. My ask is: reply to them. I do not need a reply; they need a reply. Let us get them out. Let us also recognise our Foreign Office staff. I am very grateful for what they did alongside our military.
I thank my hon. Friend for her point about the Afghans whom we were able to help. During the process, we have always prioritised our ability to get people at risk out of Afghanistan—including Sir Laurie at the Baron hotel, shortly before the explosion, to help facilitate the processing of Afghans leaving. We endeavoured both to get them out and to keep Members informed, but we will prioritise getting people out.
The French Republic began its evacuation by 10 May and it was completed four weeks before the fall of the city of Kabul; meanwhile, a fortnight before, the British Government—the Minister’s Government—were still sending asylum seekers back from the UK. Would it not be right that if the Minister had talked to his colleagues in the French Republic, Members on both sides would not be in this ridiculous position? The reality is, it is an utter failure of political leadership at the heart of the Government that has allowed this to happen.
The ARAP scheme to help repatriate Afghans who had worked directly with us was put in place in April this year. The FCDO travel advice was updated in April and, prior to mid-August, many thousands had already left Afghanistan. I absolutely reject the hon. Member’s point. We should remember that this is the largest and most complex evacuation scheme that the Government have ever had to deal with—certainly in anyone’s living memory.
In the call that took place on 24 August, Members were told by the Foreign Secretary that cases of Afghan nationals who did not meet the ARAP criteria but on whom we had information that they had supported UK objectives and were at risk could be submitted to the FCDO via the special cases route. I submitted a handful, as I am sure many of my hon. Friends did. All I would like to know is: are those special cases still being considered on a discretionary basis outside the ARAP and Afghan citizens resettlement scheme? If so, when will decisions be made and Members told?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which helps to explain why different applicants have to go through different routes. The Ministry of Defence has, understandably, taken the lead with regard to the ARAP scheme, because those were Afghans who worked directly for the Ministry of Defence, but when we made the expansive, generous offer to protect more Afghans whom we knew were going to be at risk, that increased the complexity enormously. I am completely happy for the FCDO to remain the point at which we triage applications, but ultimately the time it takes to assess applications will depend entirely on their complexity. In some instances where people have had to flee and leave all their documents behind, a very complex set of assessments needs to be made.
I am sorry that I am having to draw stumps, but I will leave this message with the Minister. Both I and the Leader of the House are very concerned that MPs’ correspondence is not being answered. I know that you have been inundated, but the fact is that people should be brought in to ensure that MPs get at least the acknowledgment that they deserve. I also have a real concern. The Minister is very generous and courteous to all in this Chamber, but I am not happy that briefings are there only for certain MPs and not for others. They should be for all. I represent everybody in this Chamber, not the select few. So, please, let us get the message across to answer emails, making sure that MPs are responded to as quickly as possible, but also that briefings should be given to the Opposition, as well as to some on the Government side.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 13 September will include:
Monday 13 September—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill.
Tuesday 14 September—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Health and Social Care Levy Bill.
Wednesday 15 September—Opposition day (5th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. The subject is to be announced.
Thursday 16 September—General debate on the role and the response of the devolved Administrations to COP26, followed by a general debate on proposed reforms to the criminal justice system to respond better to families bereaved by public disasters. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 17 September—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 20 September will include:
Monday 20 September—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business.
After a two-year, one-month and 14-day build-up, the Prime Minister bounced his Cabinet into accepting his so-called social care plan and yesterday bounced Parliament into accepting it by calling a vote, and now on Tuesday they want to ram the Bill through in just one day. I know the Leader of the House will say that this is not unusual, but why the urgency for a plan that does not even come into effect until next year? Is it because the Prime Minister’s so-called plan is nothing more than a Tory tax rise? It is the third Tory tax rise on working families in recent months—a hat-trick of broken Tory manifesto promises.
And it is not a plan. There is nothing on workforce, nothing on how to help people stay in their own homes, which is what people prefer, and no vision for what social care should be. The Prime Minister knows that this would never get through Parliament unless the Government rush it through. This a meagre attempt to fix the NHS funding gap, which it will not, and nothing more than a statement of intent that in a few years’ time the money will be moved to social care. The NHS funding gap predates the covid crisis, so I will not take that as an excuse. That gap happened under successive Tory Governments over the last decade, and no Minister can guarantee that the money raised from the tax hike will actually go to social care. It will not fix the NHS funding gap and there is still no route to fix social care: it is a tax rise, not a plan.
This is on top of the forthcoming cut to universal credit, hitting working families yet again. I thank the Leader of the House for rescheduling Labour’s debate and vote on this that was planned for yesterday. Will the Government use the extra week to reconsider this callous cut, which is set to plunge even more people into hardship? Let us not forget that the pandemic is not over. We cannot forget that more than 150,000 people have died of covid. Bereaved families are still waiting for a public inquiry, and the work on this by my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), is really sterling. They want us to learn lessons now to plan for the future so that others will not suffer as they are, and I ask the Leader of the House again: when will the Government’s inquiry be brought forward?
The Government have not only failed on the home front; they have also trashed Britain’s proud global reputation. It is 20 years since British troops went into Afghanistan, yet in just weeks we have seen the complete roll-back of the gains for which 150,000 of our brave soldiers fought and 457 died. The Government’s failure to plan an exit strategy means that not only thousands of Afghans are still at risk, but now our national security is at risk. We do not have eyes on the ground. They are failing at the first, fundamental duty of Government—keeping citizens safe.
We have a Foreign Secretary who could not even pick up the phone when Kabul fell, even though the sea was closed, whatever that means. His Department was completely unprepared, as we can clearly see, and he thinks that just one statement to the House will make up for all this. If this is not a resignation matter, can the Leader of the House tell us what is? I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for his urgent question. I can categorically state from the Dispatch Box that emails sent to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office before 30 August have not even had an auto-response in my own inbox, so I wonder how many other people have been put on the line to the crisis team to respond to them.
Can the Leader of the House confirm when the Home Secretary will come to this House to set out her plan for the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme? Despite the Government’s complete failure to plan over the last few weeks, the heroic effort of our troops involved in Operation Pitting is not in any doubt, so will the Government officially recognise their bravery with a medal?
Finally, this afternoon the House will debate the legacy of our dear and much missed colleague, our friend Jo Cox. This afternoon I will be thinking of Jo, as I do every day in this place, and I will think about the impact she made on us all as Kim, her sister and her successor, takes her place and makes her maiden speech. I know that all hon. Members will be cheering Kim on as she, like Jo, makes her own unique and inspirational contribution.
May I agree with the hon. Lady about how important this afternoon’s debate is, and wish the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) extremely well in making her maiden speech? That is a difficult occasion for all Members, but doing so in memorial to one’s sister must be a particular pressure. I am sure it will be a brilliant speech, and I wish her extremely well in doing that in an important debate.
On the other issues raised by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), the argument about bounce is simply ridiculous. When we have a Budget, that Budget is announced when the Chancellor stands up to speak. The Budget resolutions to provide for the immediate implementation of tax increases under the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968 take place at the end of the day, and mostly happen to go through on the nod. We have a seven-clause Bill, including the clauses on commencement and so on, and including the debate yesterday, it will have had more than an hour per clause. If we had an hour per clause on every Bill, we would never have time to discuss all the Bills we have going through. This is being done in a completely proper and sensible way that is respectful of procedures within this House.
I am intrigued that the Opposition do not want the NHS to get more money. They seem to oppose that, and think that giving more money to the NHS is a bad idea. That does prove the point nowadays that the Conservative party is the party of a good health service, and the Labour party has run away from its historic background. There will be £12 billion more each year for the NHS and the catch-up programme, to provide funding for up to 9 million extra checks, scans, and operations over the next three years, with the NHS running at 110% of pre-pandemic levels by 2023-24. Some £5.4 billion was announced earlier this week in addition to that, and it is the most extraordinary injection of money to ensure that the NHS can catch up after the remarkable service it provided during the pandemic. I am sure that people up and down the country, and constituents in all constituencies, will note that the Labour party does not want the NHS to have this funding, that it wants people to wait longer for their hip and knee operations, and that it wishes there to be no catch up. No doubt we will find out more of that next week when we debate the Health and Social Care Levy Bill.
The hon. Lady referred to the uplift in universal credit. That was intended to be temporary to help people through the worst of the pandemic. It provided £9 billion in additional support, but it was intended as a temporary measure. We cannot always keep temporary measures forever; we have to balance the books. That is why a Bill is coming forward next week—it is about ensuring we are able to pay our way. This is typical socialism. The magic money tree comes back to mind, which Labour Members still seem to think exists somewhere, although it is odd that at the moment they do not want any of their magic money to go to the NHS.
The hon. Lady raised the important issue of Afghanistan and what is going on there. The evacuation of 15,000 people, including 8,000 British nationals and 5,000 people through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy is a remarkable mission. It was carried out well and competently, and that is something we should note and approve of. Of course the withdrawal from Afghanistan was not a decision taken exclusively by Her Majesty’s Government. I sometimes get teased for valuing our imperial history and being proud of it, and thinking what a great country we were when the Pax Britannica was across the world. But it is not the Pax Britannica any more; it is, if anything, the Pax Americana, and if the United States does not want to stay in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that we could stay there by ourselves. In that context, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is someone in whom we can all have confidence. He was working hard when he was on holiday, and he has attended to his duties.
Mr Speaker, may I bring people up to date with modern technology? The hon. Lady seems to think that to speak to the Foreign Secretary, someone has to go through an operator, who will pull out plugs and put them through. Nowadays, there are things called mobile telephones; they work internationally, and people can get through. Even more amazing, correspondence can arrive through electronic means; the “e” in email is for “electronic”. Lo and behold, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was working extremely hard and effectively and is a great man. That is why he is also the First Secretary of State.
Over the whole issue of Afghanistan, the Government have been doing remarkable work with local councils. I am very proud that the council that covers the area I live in, Bath and North East Somerset Council, has already volunteered to take people from Afghanistan. I know that Stoke Council has done the same, and other councils across the country are showing the natural good will of the British people in helping a nation that is in great difficulties.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to arrange for a debate in Government time on public health? This is an issue of great concern in my constituency, particularly in matters of funding allocation, education, child obesity, type 2 diabetes and healthy diet. We do not have enough time to debate those general issues of public health, and I urge him to find some time.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Of course, Public Health England is being reorganised and will be changed in due course. We have in front of the House the Health and Care Bill, which will be an opportunity to raise some of these matters. In terms of an additional debate, I point him in the direction of the Backbench Business Committee.
Can we have a debate about what exactly is going on in this Chamber? Our constituents are beginning to notice what is happening here, and they are dumbfounded at what they see: on one side of the Chamber, nearly everybody with a face mask; on the other side, practically no one. It is as if keeping our workplace and colleagues safe has become an ideological and political position, and that somehow being a Tory MP makes someone exempt from contracting and spreading covid.
The Leader of the House knows the score. He was at a meeting with me on Monday, where we heard from Public Health England that there are high levels of carbon dioxide in this Chamber. That means the air that we exhale is being confined in here, leading to an increased risk. And those Division Lobbies are an absolute and utter disgrace—Members of Parliament trapped in confined spaces for several minutes, with card readers that are next to useless, as this bizarre and time-wasting headcount continues to go on. Come on, Leader of the House; help us keep the staff and the people in this House safe.
At that meeting, the Leader of the House said that he would wear a face mask to encourage the rest of his colleagues. Put that face mask on, Leader of the House. We have heard from doctors again today that the face mask is the most effective means to stop the spread of this virus. Tory MPs can be as cavalier as they want with their own health, but when it comes to their colleagues and the people who work in this House, that should be a matter for all of us.
We have to stop playing politics with covid. It is going on again today. Yesterday, this House quite rightly said that there would be covid vaccine passports for nightclubs in England. Today, in the socially distant, virtually inclusive Parliament in Scotland, there will be a vote on covid passports in Scotland. The Conservatives will support them down here and oppose them in Scotland. Has the Leader of the House got a word for that type of behaviour?
I had a feeling that the hon. Gentleman would be a bit grumpy this morning, because it is the anniversary of the battle of Flodden, which was not, it has to be said, Scotland’s finest hour.
As regards the wearing of face masks, the Government guidance is completely clear on when people should wear them and when people should not. It is said specifically in the guidance that a person might want to wear one when they are in a crowded space with people they do not—[Interruption.] Patience; listen to the end of the sentence—in a crowded space with people they do not normally meet. We are not in a crowded space with people we do not normally meet, and people are right to make a judgment for themselves as to whether they will wear a face mask or not. As I said before, there are circumstances in which I will wear one; I went to the excellent Thomas Becket exhibition at the British Museum, which was very crowded and in a small space, and I had a face mask in my pocket and put it on. But look around—the ceilings are high, the doors are open and the Benches are not particularly full; it is perfectly reasonable not to wear a mask in this Chamber and on this estate, in accordance with Government guidelines. The House authorities have done a great deal of work, consistently, throughout the pandemic, to keep everybody safe. This is how it should be. So I think we should allow people to make choices for themselves; I do not think we should always be told what to do by politicians. Allowing freedom and liberty, and encouraging freedom and getting back to normal, in a society that is primarily double-vaccinated, seems to me to be extremely sensible.
Yesterday, we rightly voted for more money for the NHS and for social care, but in lots of the trusts around the country the unaccountability of the senior management, many of whom are earning more than the Prime Minister, is completely unfair to those working with them within the NHS. May we have a debate on why, for instance, the Prime Minister was able to go to my trust and say that we can have a brand new hospital, only for my community and my constituents to be told that we are not going to get one and we will get a refurbished hospital because that is what the trust management want to do? It is not what the people of my constituency want.
My right hon. Friend raises a point that should concern us all; democratic accountability to this House is fundamental. I am glad to say that the Health and Care Bill, which is working its way through Parliament, will restore some elements of direction that may be given, because it seems to me that he who pays the piper should call the tune.
I am very grateful, as always, Mr Speaker. May I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business and for announcing the Back-Bench business for next week, on 16 September? This year, Baby Loss Awareness Week, on which we have regularly had a debate, will fall towards the end of the conference recess, so we are proposing, if we get the time, to try to allocate that debate on Thursday 23 September, before the conference recess. We would really appreciate it if that were to be facilitated.
Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Sir Brendan Foster and his team on, and encouraging all the participants in, this year’s—the 40th—Great North Run in Newcastle and Gateshead this coming Sunday? It is almost a unique event, which showcases Tyneside at its very best. We wish everyone taking part every success.
Yes, I would happily join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Sir Brendan Foster on the 40th Great North Run, as long as nobody expects me to do any running. I offer my warmest and most enthusiastic congratulations. I absolutely note the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of the Baby Loss Awareness Week debate. I cannot promise anything at the moment, but I have heard what he has asked for.
On a day when we remember colleagues, Mr Speaker will be fully aware that in the summer recess we heard the sad news of the loss of Austin Mitchell, my predecessor and the longest serving MP for Great Grimsby, with 38 years. Will the Leader of the House suggest something we could do in this place to remember the amount of work that Austin did, in the House of Commons and for Great Grimsby?
Thank you so much—Austin was not quite that old. He was a man of absolute, firm principle, enormous charm and great humour. His ability to entertain in this House and elsewhere was second to none. Like all of us aim to do, he fundamentally stood up for his constituency. He was a model of a constituency MP. Regardless of party politics, he put his constituents’ interests first, even to the point of changing his name—was it to Mr Haddock?
I just say to the Leader of the House that in all my years in the House of Commons, I have always found it very sensible to listen to what the Speaker says, and he has advised that masks should be worn around Parliament. I put that gently to the Leader of the House.
This week, the Transport Secretary very proudly tweeted out that old Pacer trains were being used for healthcare and school facilities for communities in the north. I very much doubt that Conservative Ministers would be proudly tweeting out that those clapped-out, knackered Pacer trains were being used for classroom facilities at Eton or Winchester or for healthcare facilities in the south of England, so can we please have a debate on what the levelling-up agenda that this Government talk about actually means for communities in the north?
I think the right hon. Lady has wrenched from its context what my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary was saying—that reusing old trains can be an enjoyable thing to do. People like seeing old train carriages. There is a former station in my constituency where a railway carriage is used as a cafeteria. It is part of the history of the railways to reuse old carriages. The levelling-up agenda is absolutely fundamental to what this Government are doing. There is the high street programme that is going to help high streets, the improvement in infrastructure, and the reversal of some of the Beeching cuts, as a railways matter. All these things are part of levelling up. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, in the House of Lords at the moment, is a further part of that to provide real opportunity across the country.
Can we have an urgent statement on the planning system and specifically on consultation with residents? An enormous 15-metre-high warehouse has been erected just metres from residents’ back gardens in Bynghams in Harlow, blighting their gardens and homes and having a devastating impact on their lives. The planning application was passed in 2017 and 2021 with little objection because the consultation process is weak and not fit for purpose. It should never have been allowed to pass and it can never be allowed to happen again.
Obviously, detailed planning approvals are a matter for local councils, not for the Government, unless they are called in. A planning Bill in this Session will provide plenty of opportunity to discuss and debate these issues, but it is of fundamental importance that we restore and reform our planning system so we have one that provides the houses and homes that people want to live in, that can restore our levels of home ownership in this country and that fairly represents the views of local people.