House of Commons
Thursday 18 November 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
BBC Licence Fee
The Government have committed to maintaining the licence fee funding model for the duration of the charter period. Ahead of the next charter review process, we will undertake a detailed look at the TV licence model to ensure that it is fit for the future.
I warmly welcome the encouraging comments made by the Secretary of State, publicly and in the Chamber, on the BBC. There is the potential to cut or at least freeze the licence fee. It raises over £3.5 billion a year, much of which is used to create quality broadcasts. However, significant sums are used to squeeze out competition from the independent sector. This is the most regressive form of taxation, akin to the poll tax, so does she agree that a freeze or a cut would be not only a welcome boost to hard-pressed families, but a way of facilitating innovation within the BBC and encouraging competition from outside, creating a much more dynamic broadcast provision?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. My priority is to secure a settlement that delivers value for money for those hard-pressed constituents and for the licence fee payer, while making sure that the BBC can continue to provide those very high-quality services to which he just referred. I have been having constructive discussions with the BBC and I believe that we are close to reaching an agreement. I hope he understands that I am unable to comment further while negotiations are taking place and are ongoing.
When the Secretary of State is thinking about the future of the licence fee, will she talk to those in the independent sector that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned? Far from saying that they are being squeezed out, they will tell her that the BBC and the system we have of a mixed economy in our creative industries in this country are underpinned by the quality of the BBC. It exercises a gravitational pull that is the envy of the world. I know she thinks deeply about these things, but let me say that it should not be tinkered with just because of ideology; this should be a practical decision on her part.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his comments. He is absolutely right; I do speak regularly to the independent sector, including Channel 4 and other bodies within the sector. I take his comments on board and hear what he is saying. The BBC is a beacon for Britishness—for all that is British; it is a beacon across the world for broadcasting excellence. But even the editors of the BBC and those who run the BBC accept that there have been some problems. They are being dealt with and that is part of the ongoing discussions. I know that he is particularly concerned about this, but I am sure that he appreciates that while negotiations are ongoing I am limited in what I can say.
In 2017, the BBC agreed to take over the funding of free TV licences for over-75s in return for increased income from increases in the licence fee and other commercial funding streams. The BBC’s behaviour since, in abolishing free TV licences, shows that it cannot be trusted. For its disgraceful treatment of pensioners, will the Secretary of State use the funding review in 2022 to scrap the licence fee altogether and let the BBC compete on a level playing field with other broadcasters?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. On the charter review, the mid-term review does begin—and we will start discussions—next year. The charter renewal, which is the point at which the future of the licence fee will be decided, does not take place until 2027. As I have just said, in those discussions the editorial perspective and a number of layers and things recently highlighted during the response to the Serota review are all under consideration, and my hon. Friend’s comments have been noted.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
We have spent much of the past two weeks talking about standards in public office, and on this side of the House we care deeply about the independence and impartiality of the BBC. I know that the Secretary of State also cares, to the extent that she actually has the time to police the BBC political editor’s tweets and publicly rebuke her. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be highly inappropriate for a Government Minister overseeing licence fee negotiations to seek to influence editorial decisions, including how the Prime Minister was interviewed, and use the threat of reducing BBC licence fee funding while doing so?
There were four elements to that questions. On the tweet, I did not rebuke Laura Kuenssberg, somebody who is perhaps the best in the business—very professional; a very polite tweet. Some people, particularly some Opposition Members, do seem to have a problem understanding a composition of 240 characters; the tweet was completely misinterpreted. I was not rebuking Laura Kuenssberg and I never would.
LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Sport
I completely agree with the hon. Lady that sport is for everyone and inclusion is vital. We continue to see some progress in this area—for example, I pay tribute to Josh Cavallo for his leadership in becoming the first top-league male footballer to come out as gay while still playing professionally. I hope that we see others follow his lead.
At the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we work closely with Sport England and UK Sport to ensure that people from all backgrounds feel included in sport. As part of that work, the updated code for sports governance will soon require sports governing bodies to agree a diversity and inclusion action plan. That will further support LGBT+ inclusion in sport throughout the country.
I very much share the Minister’s sentiments regarding Josh Cavallo, who has bravely come out, but he is still the only male gay footballer in the professional game in the world. Given the fact that we still do not have any other openly gay male footballers, what message does the Minister think it sends that Qatar—a country that strictly represses homosexual people, with homosexual acts punishable by a decade in prison for non-locals and death for local Muslims—is set to hold the next World cup? Does he agree that nations that treat LGBTQ people in such an abhorrent way should not be gifted international competitions like the World cup?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we have frank conversations at international level with our counterparts around the world on issues such as human rights and, indeed, gay rights, and we will continue to have those conversations. I would also like to focus on the power of sport to highlight inclusion and diversity and to bring us together. I will focus on the positive things that sport can do over the major sporting events in the coming year, as will, I am sure, the whole House.
Inclusivity applies not just to the LGBTQ+ community, as the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) rightly highlighted, but to people of south Asian and, in fact, all minority heritage. With that in mind, does my hon. Friend share my consternation that the former chair of Yorkshire county cricket club had not even read the seminal Fletcher report on the lack of inclusivity at the county? Does he agree that the response to Mr Rafiq’s brave testimony given in this House must be not only to clear out the Augean stables at Yorkshire but to ensure that the institutionally racist blocking of minority-community talent is stopped forever? We need a Kick It Out for cricket, right now.
My hon. Friend makes some very important points. I applaud his Select Committee’s work this week in giving Azeem Rafiq a platform to make the comments that he made. It was difficult to hear because it was harrowing testimony. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Fletcher report, which is pretty old, was clearly not acted on and should have been. I assure him that we have had frank conversations over the past couple of weeks with the England and Wales Cricket Board and others involved in cricket. I have had reassurance that the ECB takes the issue seriously and will act, and Tom Harrison has promised me that, with every fibre of his being, he will take action. But he and I know that we will judge the ECB on its deeds, not its words, and if it fails to act appropriately, we will not hesitate to intervene further.
I am sure the Secretary of State will join the Minister in congratulating Josh Cavallo, the only top-tier footballer in the world currently playing to have come out publicly as gay. He will be an inspiration for LGBT kids everywhere who love football. Does she agree that it is a damning indictment of football in this country that no professional player in the game who is currently playing has felt safe enough to come out publicly? Will she join me in calling on football bodies on these islands to look urgently at why that is and to do all they can to create an environment in which players feel safe to come out and be the role models we all need?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; we investigated these very issues when we worked together on the Select Committee. It is a sad indictment of football that there has been an environment in which so many people do not feel they can express who they are—that is a terrible situation to be in. I agree that we all need to work together across all sports, not just football, to ensure that people feel comfortable in who they are.
Sports Bodies’ Bids to Host Major Sporting Events
The Government are fully committed to working with event organisers to bid for and host major sporting events. Over the past 15 years, some of the world’s most iconic events have taken place in the UK. That has cemented our position as a global home for these events, and we have an exciting programme of events in 2022, including the Commonwealth games, the women’s UEFA European championships, and something close to your heart, Mr Speaker, the rugby league world cup.
I thank the Minister for that response. It was great to see that the Department was successful in two of the bids in the spending review, but, as the Minister is aware, there was a third unsuccessful bid, which was to bring the Ryder cup back to England for the first time since 2002. Will the Minister confirm that it is still very much his ambition to continue with this 2031 Ryder cup bid? If it is, would he like to visit the Belfry in my constituency, which would be a perfect location for the event, so that he can see for himself the fantastic facilities that are on offer there?
It has to be a yes.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for all the work that he does with the all-party group for golf. As he mentioned, there is ongoing work to explore the potential of a possible English bid to host the 2031 Ryder cup for the first time in England since 2002. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and UK Sport are in close contact with the key partners and venues, and our collective teams continue to work together to conclude this feasibility work and decide on the next steps. It is about the work as well as the finances here, and we will continue to work on this matter in every way that we can. I would be more than happy to visit his constituency and the Belfry and perhaps get round quite a few holes, including the last one.
I call the shadow Minister.
Mr Speaker, you and I both support major sporting events coming to the UK, but I want to return briefly to the situation in cricket. The lesson for all sports is that those who fail to deal with cultures of racism and prejudice will ruin our country’s reputation, not build it. I know, Mr Speaker, that you and I, and all Members, Ministers and shadow Ministers in this House were heartbroken listening to Azeem Rafiq yesterday, but, as the Minister has said, it is deeds not words that will make a difference, and that goes for the Government as well. Will the Minister place in the Commons Library any and all correspondence that he has had with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and can he tell the House what discussions he has had with it about its powers and resources and whether they are enough to deal with what we know, and have known for a long time, are chronic problems in sport?
The hon. Lady and I are at one in terms of the intent and what she said there about the abhorrence of what we have heard in cricket this week and, indeed, over a period of time. She is also absolutely right about issues in broader sport. I will happily place whatever documents are appropriate in the Library—I cannot promise to do so with every single document or discussion, because, as the hon. Lady knows, there are sometimes confidentiality and frank discussion concerns that inhibit our ability to put out every single piece of correspondence, but I will happily talk further with the hon. Lady, one to one, about this issue.
Harmful Content Online
The draft Bill was published in May 2021. Pre-legislative scrutiny is under way, but we expect the Joint Committee to report by 10 December. This scrutiny is a vital part in ensuring that the Bill delivers what we need to protect people online. I look forward to hearing the Committee’s recommendations, which we will consider fully.
A Facebook whistleblower recently revealed that hateful political ads are five to 10 times cheaper for customers in what has been referred to as subsidising hate. Facebook has since banned companies from targeting ads based on users’ political beliefs, sexual orientation or religion, but these decisions should not be left to tech billionaires who could change their mood at any time. It is the Government’s job to regulate, so what proposals can they come up with to take account of the views of the whistleblower in calling for further action to end subsidising hate online?
I take this opportunity to thank the Joint Committee for the work that it has undertaken, particularly gathering the evidence from Frances Haugen and others. We have taken a huge body of evidence. The Joint Committee is doing that very work at the moment. I am confident that every one of the examples that the hon. Gentleman has just highlighted will be legislated for in the regulatory framework, which will be given to Ofcom, to regulate those online platforms once the Bill becomes law. I appreciate his interest. I would also appreciate his input when the Bill passes through the House.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the key principle of the online safety Bill should be that offences that exist offline should be applied online—not only to those who post content with the intent of harming others, but to the platforms that host such content—and that we need to have ongoing close parliamentary scrutiny of which offences should apply and how?
This is a novel and groundbreaking Bill that will legislate in a way that has never been done before, in a new sector and a new environment. Ongoing scrutiny on a regular basis once the Bill becomes an Act will be extremely important. We will look at how we are going to manage that within the Bill.
Gambling Review White Paper
I thank and commend the hon. Member for her energetic campaigning and leadership on this issue over many years as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for gambling related harm. We had a constructive meeting, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and a Member for a fine constituency in Scotland—the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan)—just yesterday. We are in the process of preparing a White Paper that will set out our vision for gambling regulation in the coming months. I look forward to working closely with members of the APPG on this issue in the weeks ahead.
The recent Public Health England report into the impact of gambling harm found that at-risk gamblers were twice as likely to gamble online than the rest of the general gambling population, so can we be assured that the forthcoming gambling White Paper will protect those most vulnerable to gambling harm by ensuring that restrictions to online stakes are introduced at the same level as those to on-land stakes?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to refer to those who suffer acute harm. Yesterday I met many people whose relatives have committed suicide, or who have lost their homes and whose families have been destroyed, to discuss the issue. I agree with the PHE report that online gambling can often be a lot more pernicious and addictive than in-person gambling. We will certainly be looking at that. We are acutely aware that the restrictions introduced to land-based stakes for fixed odds betting terminals could be applied online in some way, and are carefully studying how that could be calibrated.
Will my hon. Friend look seriously in the White Paper at the abusive use by gambling companies of VIP rooms, through which companies deliberately target those who are gambling massively and losing massively to encourage them to gamble more and lose more? It is an immoral practice. Will he make certain in the White Paper that the Government will deal directly and immediately with this issue?
I thank my right hon. Friend again for our meeting this week. I agree that actively encouraging—indeed, even inciting—people to gamble more without reference to affordability or their ability to pay is a damaging practice. We certainly intend to address that through the White Paper.
Football Index Collapse
The Gambling Commission has revoked BetIndex’s operating licence and senior members of that company have surrendered their personal management licences. The Gambling Commission has also referred the company to the insolvency service to consider whether the directors breached insolvency or even fraud laws. We look forward to the Insolvency Service’s report on the conduct of those directors.
Too many of my constituents have been in touch to say that they have lost substantial amounts of money on the Football Index, so will the Minister explain further what is being done to help the Gambling Commission to understand these complex betting propositions in order to ensure better protections for customers, such as my constituents?
The Government commissioned a detailed report by Malcolm Sheehan QC that was published towards the end of September. The report looked to ensure that all the relevant lessons are learnt, so that people who gamble are protected. Regarding those who lost money to BetIndex, the wind-up proceedings are ongoing at the moment and it is likely that some amounts will be available to be reimbursed to creditors, which would include customers. We should obviously let that process unfold.
Touring Musicians: Support to Work in Europe
We are working hard to help touring musicians to work in Europe. Arrangements are, in many areas, much more workable than has been reported. I am pleased to say that after this week’s very good announcement from Spain, 21 member states now offer visa and work routes for musicians and performers. Accompanied portable musical instruments do not require a carnet and splitter vans are not subject to EU cabotage rules. We recognise, however, that challenges remain. I had a very productive meeting with the sector yesterday to work through remaining concerns. We also continue to work with the remaining six member states that do not allow visa and permit-free touring.
I appreciate what the Minister says in terms of Spain, although it should be pointed out that the industry is saying that it has been working with its counterparts in Spain and actually the Government have not been terribly helpful, so it has been up to the community themselves. The Minister mentions cabotage rules. As she has been working with the industry, will she set out when these issues will be resolved? It is all well and good having meetings, but if things are not resolved, we are destroying options for our talented musicians to travel around Europe. They cannot take their speakers and mics and all the other things that they need in order to do their jobs. The Government really should be doing so much better on this issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising his concerns. I reiterate that there has been a real team effort on this. We have had fantastic working with our embassy in Madrid, with the industry and with Ministers from across Government, so I would push back on that. We discussed some of the technical issues on transportation only yesterday with the Department for Transport, and there are various things that I am going to take away and discuss with the Secretary of State for Transport. These are very live issues. There is a debate later today where we can discuss these things in more detail, should he be minded.
I wholeheartedly welcome the news that musicians will no longer need visas to go on short-term tours in Spain, and I am hugely grateful to those in the sector, particularly the Association of British Orchestras and Live, who have worked so tirelessly on the matter. This just goes to show that these problems are not insurmountable and can be overcome. However, as the Minister stated, there are still six member states where problems persist. Will she provide an update on the discussions she is having with those six member states so that musicians and touring bodies are able to carry out their work overseas?
Yes, we are hopefully going to use this moment with Spain to make progress with the remaining countries. As there are only six left, we think that we can make a lot of good progress, and we will be having meetings accordingly.
Internet Connections: Rural Communities
Thanks to the work of the industry and record Government investment, we are making phenomenal progress to deliver the biggest broadband roll-out in UK history, and also tackling the digital divide between rural and urban areas. Some 60% of UK homes and businesses can now access gigabit-capable speeds, and over 97% can access superfast broadband. But there is much more to do, and I recently updated the House on our Project Gigabit delivery plan to target early coverage of those without superfast.
I still have constituents in North Devon who are not part of either the rural roll-out programme backed by Building Digital UK or any commercial roll-out. However, some villages with commercial gigabit-capable fibre are being over-fibred by taxpayer-funded BDUK contracts. Will my hon. Friend work with organisations such as Connecting Devon and Somerset to give them more powers to edit contracts so that taxpayers’ money is not used to over-fibre?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a formidable campaigner for her constituents in North Devon. I was glad to respond in more detail to some of her concerns in a debate we had last week. The telecoms market is thriving, as she knows, and there is a lot of movement on the ground. I assure her that officials in BDUK are working extremely closely with Connecting Devon and Somerset and local suppliers in Devon so that we can avoid over-build where possible. I am sure that we will be in touch very closely throughout this process to make sure that her constituents get what they need.
The digital divide between cities and valleys is getting wider in south Wales. Gigabit broadband is essential for our economy, yet it has barely begun in Blaenau Gwent and we are being left behind. Will the Minister prioritise working with the Welsh Government and Ofcom to deliver better internet so that levelling up is not just a hollow slogan?
I am very keen to work with the Welsh Government, in so far as I can be helpful, with their roll-out. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of tackling the digital divide. This is going to be a real issue. We are very cognisant of it and looking to do all we can to make sure that there is not that disparity between those with great internet access and those who do not have it.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his continued active advocacy on behalf of British horse racing and Newmarket in particular. I am pleased to tell the House that racecourses are accessing £21 million from the sport survival package. They have also had £28 million in cash-flow and hardship funding, in addition to which the Horserace Betting Levy Board provided £97 million in 2019-20 to support the sport.
I am very grateful for the work that the Department and the Minister have done in the pandemic to support horse racing, but as a major contributor to the economy and soft power, and with one in three jobs in Newmarket in my constituency connected with horse racing, is it not vital that we strengthen further the horserace betting levy to ensure that all betting makes a contribution and to ensure that we get the support for horse racing, which is such a glorious sport?
I agree entirely about the importance of horse racing to the UK, both economically and more generally. As I have said, the levy contributed £97 million in the year before the pandemic, about 10% more than the forecast. Even in the pandemic year 2020-21, it contributed £80 million, so generally speaking the levy has returned more money than was initially expected. However, we are always willing to look at evidence, so if there is anything that my right hon. Friend would like to send in that we could carefully consider, I would be delighted to look at that.
Our world-class arts, culture and heritage received another huge boost in the Budget and spending review, with more than £850 million to protect museums, galleries, libraries and local culture in every corner of the country. The Budget also contained a number of measures to back our booming tech sector. The Budget also contained measures for football pitches and tennis courts, to the value of £205 million of investment across the country. In the meantime, we continue to make good progress on our trailblazing online safety Bill. I met the Joint Committee two weeks ago, and I look forward to receiving its report.
Culture and heritage are so important to our local communities, and that is particularly the case in my constituency of Burnley and Padiham. We have some real gems, like Townley Hall and Burnley Empire theatre. The latter would be a real benefit to our town centre, but it is in need of regeneration and restoration. What is the Department doing to help communities restore some of these assets so that we can make them better?
My hon. Friend raises an important question. Historic and cultural buildings, such as the Empire and Townley Hall, are at the heart of their communities, and we are determined to protect them for future generations. I am pleased that eight organisations in my hon. Friend’s constituency received just over £1 million from the culture recovery fund, as well as £20 million from the levelling-up fund, and a grant of more than £1 million from Historic England’s high streets heritage action zone initiative. I urge my hon. Friend to contact Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund to explore further funding opportunities.
I remind everybody that we need to be short and sweet in topical questions to get everyone in.
After the Owen Paterson scandal, where the Government did not like the fair process that was set up and just ripped up the rules, now the Government have changed the job description for the chair of Ofcom to give failed candidate Paul Dacre another go and put a lobbyist whose firm has represented Facebook, Apple and Sky on the panel to scrutinise candidates. Will the Secretary of State restart the process with the original job requirements and an independent panel free of any conflict of interest, and confirm that she will accept the recommendations of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport when it reports on the prospective candidate?
As the hon. Lady knows, the appointments process follows due process, is in line with the governance code for public appointments and is under the auspices of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We are very careful to follow that code to the letter, and that is exactly what we are doing. As the process has already been launched and is under way, as the hon. Lady knows, I cannot comment further.
It seems that theory and practice just do not add up. As we have repeatedly heard, Government corruption is not restricted to this place. The public appointments process has led to a litany of political appointments, notably Tory peer Baroness Tina Stowell as the chair of the Charity Commission after the DCMS Committee rejected her appointment. Her tenure was marked by political manipulation rather than independent governance. The current process for a replacement is being led by John Booth, who donated £200,000 to the Tory party. Will the Secretary of State recommence the appointment process, removing all political interests and ensuring full independence of the appointment panel, and then—
Order. I have to get other people in on topicals. It is unfair for people to take all the time, when it is Back Benchers’ Question Time as well. Please, we have to help Back Benchers. I call the Secretary of State.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The hon. Lady mentioned sleaze and this Government about four times: I thought she was going to enlighten us on the earnings from Mishcon de Reya received by the Leader of the Opposition, but she failed to do so. She also failed to mention that this Government appointed Vera Baird, the former Labour MP for Redcar, as the Victims’ Commissioner. The process is fair. It is overseen by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and a code of governance.
Can I have a meeting with the Minister of State to share my concerns about the telecommunications code?
I am sure it is a straightforward yes, and then we can move on.
Up and down the country, local councils are setting their budgets for next year. Due to the lack of help in this Government’s Budget last month, there will be more closures of leisure centres and swimming pools. When will the sports Minister step in to provide funding to stop these devastating losses?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we have stepped in to support sport to the tune of £1 billion during the pandemic, with £100 million specifically to support leisure centres, to enable them to survive during covid and then remain open. We are always willing to work together with local councils, which also have skin in the game and responsibilities for the delivery of local leisure facilities, to ensure that everybody can swim.
Last night I met the national Girl Guide advocates, who spoke passionately about the need to tackle online abuse and cyber-flashing, which is made much more scary when it is anonymous. I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State cares deeply about these issues. Will she meet me to discuss the ten-minute rule Bill I am introducing next week to look at choice of verification?
I am happy to.
Channel 4 makes an enormous contribution to job growth and region-based media production. In fact, of the 200 independent media production companies that Channel 4 has commissioned over the past two years, almost 140 rely on the broadcaster for at least half their work. Will the Minister concede that the privatisation of Channel 4 will endanger hundreds of jobs and make a mockery of the Government’s levelling-up agenda?
We are currently looking at all the consultation responses we have received on the question of whether to move ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4. We will look at the question of the independent sector and its health. The sector is thriving at the moment and the impact of the public service broadcasting sector on it is reducing, but it is something we will look closely at.
Joe Nihill, a 23-year-old former Army cadet from Whinmoor in my constituency, tragically took his own life after accessing so-called suicide forums. His mother Catherine and his sister-in-law Melanie are running an inspirational campaign to ensure that what happened to Joe does not happen to other families. As we wait for the online safety Bill to progress, will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Catherine and Melanie on their inspirational campaign and in sending a firm message to tech giants that they will now have to take action to remove these suicide forums that prey on vulnerable people?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating his constituents. He is absolutely right, and the online harms Bill and the regulatory framework that will accompany it will do just what he asks. Those online platforms and online giants have the ability right now to remove those harmful algorithms that direct children and young people to suicide chat rooms. I call on them to start that work, because if they do not, the Bill will be here in the new year and they will be subject to huge fines and possibly criminal action.
The actions of Football Index can only be described as scandalous. The Scottish National party called for an inquiry, and that has been delivered. Can the Minister guarantee that the actions the Government take as a result of the inquiry will ensure that such shameful behaviour by the gambling firms will never be repeated?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. We are taking this very seriously. As I said on an earlier question, a detailed review by a QC is being conducted already to make sure that the regulatory action—whether by the Gambling Commission or, in different circumstances, the FCA—is appropriate. It is important that these gambling firms are looked at very carefully, and it is our intention that the Gambling Commission do that.
Can I reiterate the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) about the collapse of Football Index, and reiterate the need for Ministers to look at the issues of better redress and the failings in this case, on behalf of my constituents affected?
Yes, it is being looked at extremely carefully, and I can assure the hon. Lady that that work is going on.
The Attorney General was asked—
Offences Against the Person Act 1861: Section 24
The recent rise in reports of spiking is incredibly concerning. The Crown Prosecution Service will always treat maliciously administering poison as a high harm offence. In 2020-21, the CPS brought 222 charges under section 24, which was an increase of 22% on the previous year.
It is truly horrendous to see reports in recent weeks about the huge numbers of people who are being spiked and then unable to find any sort of recourse to the criminal justice system. I am sure the Attorney General agrees with that. Does she further agree that it cannot be right to simply wait for the police to tell the Government how they can improve the levels of prosecution and bring about new charges? It really should be now for the Government to review the legislation to ensure that the victims are able to find redress and that those people who undertake spiking are prosecuted with the full force of the law.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, and I share his concern. I am really pleased that the Home Secretary has asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently review the extent and scale of the issue. Of note is that there was an increase of 46% in the number of prosecutions brought by CPS Wales for offences under section 24. On the point about the legislative framework, he will know of course that section 24 is not the only avenue for redress. There is section 23, and section 61 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which can be used in appropriate circumstances.
Women and girls in pubs and nightclubs understandably feel vulnerable to having their drinks spiked, being spiked by needles or being supplied with dodgy and illegal drugs. The maximum penalty under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is 10 years in prison. How many of those who have been prosecuted have been sentenced to 10 years?
As I mentioned, several legal bases may be invoked in regard to these circumstances. Section 23, which covers poisoning that endangers a person’s life, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. CPS figures show that there were 10 charges for that offence in 2020-21. Section 61, which is an offence to administer a substance to a person without their consent, again carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Again, there were 10 charges for that offence in 2020-21.
Chilling reports of women being spiked by injection are just the latest example of the epidemic of violence that has left women and girls feeling unsafe. The latest figures show there were 1,223 reports of spiking under this Act, yet only 88 convictions, so will the Attorney General confirm her Government’s support for Labour’s amendment, tabled in the other place, calling for a wide-ranging review into the prevalence of spiking and the response of the criminal justice system when investigating these offences, or will she continue to allow women and girls to be failed by this Government?
As I mentioned, the Home Secretary has already asked for an urgent review on the scale of this particular problem, about which we are very concerned. We are supporting the roll-out of pilot initiatives to improve the safety of women at nightlife venues. The £5 million safety of women at night fund and the £25 million safer streets fund will support projects that target potential perpetrators, seek to protect potential victims and deliver programmes intended to address offending behaviour.
Supreme Court Judgments: Scottish Parliament Legislative Proposals
I welcome the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court to agree with the Law Officers that all provisions raised by virtue of our reference under section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 were outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. It is for the benefit of all citizens throughout the UK that both Governments operate within their respective powers, as set out in the Scotland Act 1988. That is why this decision is important.
I thank the Attorney General for her answer. Many, indeed all of our laws are crafted carefully, thoughtfully, and often after vigorous debate, and many offer important protections. Will my right hon. and learned Friend reassure the House that any devolved gender recognition legislation will not constrain or reinterpret the protections under the Equality Act 2010?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about our devolution settlement, and the Government are clear on their position as set out in our recent response to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004. First, the protection of single-sex spaces is extremely important; secondly, we must ensure that transgender adults are free to live their lives as they wish, without fear of persecution, while maintaining checks and balances in the system. Finally—this is not directly related to the GRA, but it is important nevertheless—we must ensure that under-18s are protected from decisions that they could make that are irreversible in the future. Any legislation that the Scottish Parliament may pass in that regard will not affect this Government’s position on our Gender Recognition Act.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
To return to the original topic, perhaps the Attorney General should take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Parliament on voting unanimously to incorporate the convention on the rights of the child, and follow Holyrood’s example, instead of trying to stymie it. Three little subsections of the Act were ruled incompetent, as they would limit the powers of this Parliament and reserved public authorities to contravene children’s rights. Will the Attorney General explain why her Government fought so hard for the powers to breach children’s rights, and will she ensure that the powers are transferred to Edinburgh to complete the job? In short, let us prioritise children’s rights instead of this Parliament’s rights to trample all over them.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I take greater instruction from the President of the Supreme Court who stated in paragraph 77 of his judgment that there had been a decision by the Scottish Parliament to draft and enact a provision whose plain meaning did not accurately represent the law. That could not have been Parliament’s intention in enacting the Scotland Act 1998, and that is a decisive and emphatic statement from the Supreme Court. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that if the Scottish National party really cared about children’s rights, it would stop obsessing about constitutional division and instead focus on reversing the plummeting standards in Scottish schools.
Asylum Seekers: Channel Crossings
The traffickers organising these dangerous crossings are putting lives at risk, and it is vital that we do everything we can to protect them and prevent them from operating from France. We must break the business model of criminal gangs exploiting vulnerable people. Our position is clear: people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and they should not risk their lives by making these dangerous journeys across the channel.
There is a duty on ships to rescue persons who are in danger at sea, in both customary international law and in binding international conventions such as the 1974 international convention for the safety of life at sea and the 1982 UN convention on the law of the sea. Given the UK Government’s supposed commitment to an international rules-based system, how does the Minister square that with clearly flouting those rules?
The Home Office is taking lawful action in the channel to disrupt the traffickers’ life-threatening and criminal business model, and that really should not be in question. This Government are taking urgent and necessary measures to fix our broken asylum system, stop people traffickers, and deter illegal entry, and I am most disappointed that the hon. Gentleman and his party did not see fit to support that.
The Home Office proposals are immoral, dangerous and, as we have just heard, illegal, because they break international law. This Government want to force others to do their bidding by breaking international law on their behalf. Any QC and Attorney General worth their salt would be telling the Home Secretary to forget her plans and not to break international law. Why will the Attorney General not step up to the plate?
The UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and it discharges its international obligations in good faith. We have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it and to migrants who have a lawful basis to be here. My personal background is one such case of reference. Let me just say this. I have acted for the Government in court on several immigration and asylum cases—many, many of them—and I can tell the House that our asylum system is broken. Our Bill fixes it and it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman voted against it.
Does the Attorney General agree that it would not be practical or possible in law for international law to condone illegal immigration?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are international rules and conventions, which bind state parties, on our duties when it comes to maritime law and our obligations. We honour those duties and take them very seriously. We also have a domestic regime of immigration and asylum, which we are able to modify and change now that we have left the European Union.
Rape Conviction Rates
The Law Officers regularly meet ministerial colleagues, as well as the Director of Public Prosecutions and others, to drive forward progress on what we all want to see: justice for victims of rape and serious sexual offences. Last week, I went to meet RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—prosecutors at the Crown Prosecution Service west midlands, and was pleased to congratulate them on helping to secure several recent convictions, including that of a double rapist, Daniel Jones, who was later imprisoned for 17 years for his appalling crimes.
A recent report from the National Audit Office states that rape cases are most at risk of collapse as people withdraw. Does the Minister agree that the Government are failing rape victims, who can wait years for their cases to be heard, leading many of them to withdraw from the process? Can he explain why the Government opposed Labour’s proposals, which would have enabled the fast-tracking of rape cases and the pre-recording of victims’ evidence?
That is because there are already active measures to pre-record evidence, as the hon. Gentleman should know. He is absolutely right that we need to speed up the system. That is why “RASSO 2025” was published by the CPS; that is why there is a joint national action plan between the police and the CPS to improve file quality; that is why there is an end-to-end rape review; and that is why the Government have put £80 million into the CPS to ensure that justice can be done.
Local community safety partnerships across Devon and Cornwall estimate that in 2019-20 there were 23,000 victims of sexual assault across the two counties, including in my own constituency. How will the Minister ensure that local leaders are given the powers and tools they need to hold all criminal justice agencies, including the CPS, to account locally for delivering the progress that is so needed on prosecutions?
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent question. She is a tireless champion of this issue in North Devon. Every agency, from the police to the CPS to Whitehall Departments, has been mobilised to drive improvements in outcomes for these complex and sensitive cases. As well as launching “RASSO 2025” by the police and the joint national action plan, the Government are investing heavily in the recruitment of ISVAs—independent sexual violence advisors—to support complainants through the court process. I will just say this: it is early days, but initial data is positive. The number of rape prosecutions in the second quarter of this year was 14% higher than in the last quarter pre-covid, and the number of convictions 16% higher over the same period.
The rape review lumps together spending on tackling domestic violence and rape. The headline figure is £176 million, but £125 million of that is for refuge accommodation. That is vital, but it is nothing to do with improving victims’ experience of the criminal justice system or improving rape convictions. Can the Minister explain just how much new funding he has secured from the Treasury to support rape victims to get justice?
I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point. He is absolutely right that refuge accommodation is very important, but it is not everything. One of the things that I am very proud of is that an additional £27 million is going on recruiting 700 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic abuse advisers. Those individuals can provide critical support to people who, frankly, might find the whole process forbidding. Also, we have done work to publish the victims’ code in April 2021, which provides victims with the rights that they deserve.
I understand the Minister’s response well, but this is not just about cases going to court more quickly to have them processed. It is also about those ladies and rape victims who are very vulnerable and very lonely. What will happen in the time period until the case is heard to ensure that they have the assistance and help that they need, from every point of view?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. One of the other things that we have done is to increase funding for rape support centres by two thirds so that individuals know that they are not alone. The constant refrain from individuals will be, “I didn’t feel supported”, but it would be quite wrong for the message to go out suggesting that there is not that support. This is what victims said after a case recently in my county of Gloucestershire. Victim B said:
“I would just like to say how happy I am with the whole criminal justice system. The support offered is amazing.”
Victim C said:
“The support from the police and GRASAC (Gloucestershire’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre) has been amazing”.
That support is out there and we want to make sure it is there in ever greater quantities.
I welcome the Solicitor General to his place for his first departmental questions. He brings massive personal experience to cases of this kind and has prosecuted exactly these sorts of cases. Does he agree that there has been significant improvement in the treatment of victims, particularly after the revision of the Crown Prosecution Service legal guidance—for example, in the awareness of trauma and the impact that that has on victims—and in getting the right balance in dealing with digital evidence? Is it not important now that we maintain the capacity of the courts system to bring these cases to trial in the timeliest fashion in terms of judges, court availability and quality, experienced advocates to deal with these important prosecutions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. As always, he is absolutely right: we have to strike this important balance in respect of digital evidence to ensure that the evidence to put people behind bars is appropriately obtained without compromising the right to a fair trial. No one here wants to do that. He is absolutely correct about capacity as well. The Lord Chief Justice has made that point very powerfully and it is one to which we are acutely alive.
I also welcome the Solicitor General to his place. When asked by Sky News about rape prosecutions, the Prime Minister said that the CPS is not taking rape prosecutions seriously enough. He also refused to commit to the Government’s promise in their rape review to restore rape prosecution rates to 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament. Does the Solicitor General agree with the Prime Minister’s comments? Is this not just another example of victims being abandoned by this Government?
No, that is not the case at all. The really important thing is to look at the actions. One of the things that I was very heartened by in this year’s spending review is that the additional funding that is going into the CPS is extremely significant—it is £80 million. To put that into concrete terms, that means that there will be an additional 100 RASSO prosecutors. The ones I met in CPS west midlands were incredibly motivated, diligent, decent and determined individuals. The Prime Minister is very clear about wanting to see improvements, and he is getting behind it by providing pounds, shillings and pence.
County Lines Drug Dealing: Prosecutions
The CPS’s early investigative advice on county lines with the police is making a difference. The majority of county lines offending relates to drug convictions and human trafficking. This year—although these figures do not relate to county lines offending alone—the CPS has secured 36,000 drug convictions and 238 human-trafficking convictions.
I want to place on record my thanks to Norfolk police; last month, it arrested 12 county lines drug dealers in a week-long crackdown against drugs across Norfolk. That is to be hugely applauded. I just want to check: do the police have the right support and, more importantly, does the CPS have all the tools that it needs and the resources to prosecute drug-dealing across our country successfully?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I applaud his police team in Norfolk for their great results. In the east of England, Operation Orochi has led to significant terms of imprisonment imposed on 42 offenders convicted. As of October 2021, the number of county lines operations covered by the operation has been more than halved. They work closely with the police, leading to a high volume of convictions since November 2019.
Covid-19: Recovery of Criminal Justice System
The Law Officers frequently meet the CPS and colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and elsewhere to progress the recovery of the criminal justice system. It is welcome that the Government have significantly increased the budget for the CPS with an additional £85 million at the 2019 spending review and a 12% uplift over the period of this spending review, to help to recruit and retain prosecutors and modernise digital infrastructure. Court capacity plainly plays a part, too; I commend my hon. Friend for his work to increase the judicial retirement age, which will make an important difference.
You will know, Mr Speaker, that I was delighted that the Government took up the cudgels of my private Member’s Bill—the Magistrates (Retirement Age) Bill—and are now legislating to raise the retirement age of magistrates from 70 to 75. On its own, however, that will not solve the substantial backlog that we still have in our courts, particularly our magistrates courts. What other measures can be taken in the meantime, over and above what is already happening, to ensure that we can get through it? Justice needs to be done fairly, but also efficiently.
As always, my hon. Friend makes an important point. Magistrates courts hear more than 90% of all criminal cases—a point that is not always given the emphasis that it might be. In some parts of the country, magistrates courts have cleared their backlogs completely; indeed, some did so many months ago. To support that recovery, the Government took measures including sitting additional courts on Saturdays and installing plexiglass in more than 450 courtrooms. We want to keep up that momentum with the so-called trial blitz courts planned for later this year. We are fortunate in this country to have dedicated and public-spirited magistrates who continue to do an exemplary job in ensuring that justice is done.
Order. If we are brief, we might just clear all the questions.
CPS Prosecutions: Hate Crime
Hate crime can have a devastating impact on individuals and communities. In the last year, the CPS prosecuted more than 10,000 such offences; in 79% of those cases that resulted in a conviction, the court agreed to impose a sentence uplift to reflect this important aggravating factor. Let the message go out: those who seek to divide our society through hate can expect a robust response.
Hate crime is clearly a serious concern right across this country. Do local Crown Prosecution Service areas have all the resources that they need to take these measures on and prosecute people for hate crime?
Yes, and those resources are growing. CPS London North maintains hate crime co-ordinators and inclusion and community engagement managers to provide a single point of contact on all aspects of hate crime prosecution. It has achieved some of the highest sentence uplift statistics anywhere in the country, with increases handed down in 83% of cases.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
In 2021, the unduly lenient sentence scheme has continued to ensure that the seriousness of offending is properly reflected in the sentence imposed. More than 100 cases have been heard by the Court of Appeal this year. I have personally presented cases, securing an increase in the sentence imposed on a rapist earlier this year.
Along with many in this House, I have become increasingly concerned about unduly lenient sentences for rape, especially in relation to crimes committed against minors. Last month, a man was jailed after being found guilty of six counts of rape of a 14-year-old, two counts of sexual activity with a child, and other sexual offences; he was sentenced to only nine years’ imprisonment. That follows reports that last year a man was jailed after being found guilty of raping a three-year-old in a wood; his sentence, too, was nine years.
Those prison sentences are simply not long enough. Will the Attorney General agree to look at those cases and meet me to discuss what more can be done to ensure that the sentences match the crimes committed?
My hon. Friend raises some very grave cases. I assure her that such offences are within the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and that the Solicitor General and I will consider every such referral to us with the greatest care.
I am proud of our work in respect of offending against minors. In three recent cases concerning child sexual abuse, offenders’ non-custodial sentences were replaced with immediate custody, which I hope sends a clear message about how seriously such offending is taken.
CPS Prosecutions: Serious Crime
Through its three national central casework divisions and 13 regional complex casework units, the CPS continues to work with the National Crime Agency and other criminal justice partners to bring offenders to justice for a range of serious crimes, including serious and organised crime, terrorism, and serious and complex economic crime.
The Serious Fraud Office has made clear that a new criminal offence of failure to prevent economic crime would significantly increase the number of successful prosecutions for fraud. What steps are we taking to bring that about?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Economic crime is not a victimless crime; it strikes at the very heart of the society that we want to be. I am pleased to see that the Law Commission published its discussion document on corporate criminal liability earlier this year. Both the CPS and the SFO provided input, and took part in a series of events to share their operational insights. The Law Commission is aiming to publish an options paper early next year, and will then work with the Government to implement any next steps.
Northern Ireland Protocol: EU Negotiations
As the House will be aware, I have previously exercised my discretion regarding the sub judice resolution to allow references to the Northern Ireland protocol on the grounds of national importance. Although there are relevant live legal proceedings, I am further exercising that discretion today in relation to the urgent question.
To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the Northern Ireland protocol and negotiations with the European Union.
Let me begin by reaffirming the Government’s commitment to keeping both Houses of Parliament updated on the UK-EU relationship. We remain committed to doing just that. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Frost gave the House of Lords an update on EU relations last Wednesday, 10 November, in the form of an oral statement. Unfortunately, as this honourable House was in recess at the time, it could not be repeated here on the same day. The timing of that update was unavoidable, led by external international business. However, I recognise the importance of keeping both Houses duly informed.
I think that that answer was more remarkable for what it did not say than for what it did, but I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question. It is a shame that it was necessary, and that the Government have not seen fit to offer the House a statement. At the very least, we would have liked to hear some commitment from the Government today that there would be no triggering of article 16 this side of Christmas. The disruption that that would cause would be catastrophic, but still we hear nothing from them. I hope that the Minister will address that point when he replies to my supplementary question.
Listening to the Minister today, and to his colleagues on the airwaves in recent weeks, one could almost believe that the terms of our agreement with the European Union and the Northern Ireland protocol were nothing to do with them: “it was a big boy that done it and ran away”. It is almost as if those matters were negotiated by someone else, and were voted through the House in the teeth of Conservative opposition. However, we know that the truth is very different.
Article 16 does not exist as a “get out of jail free card” for the Government when they do not like the deal that they have done. It is a mechanism that allows for the taking of unilateral “safeguard” measures if either the EU or the UK concludes that the deal is leading to serious practical problems or causing diversion of trade. To invoke it in the way of which Ministers speak would be seen as an act of bad faith on the part of the UK Government.
What people and businesses in Northern Ireland want and need is pragmatic solutions to be reached and implemented in good faith, not more posturing. Businesses in Northern Ireland are crying out for a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement which would remove at a stroke the vast majority of the disruption for people on either side of the Irish sea, and that is where the Government should be devoting their energy. Will the Minister please update the House on the negotiation of that and other agreements under the protocol? In respect of the question of the role of the European Court of Justice in supervising this agreement, can the Minister explain why the Government now identify that as a problem when it was clearly within the protocol when it was negotiated and signed?
The problems of which the Government now complain are all of their own making. They chose to take us out of the customs union and to put a border down the Irish sea. It was a remarkable choice for a supposedly Unionist party to make, but they made it, and we now have to live with it. This is the time for posturing to stop and for mature government to start. A recent Queens University survey found that 52% of people in Northern Ireland support the protocol; I am sure the Minister will agree that that is a significant figure. Will he now get on and make it work?
With regard to the latest on the UK-EU relationship, my noble Friend Lord Frost and Vice-President Šefčovič met in London on 12 November to consider the state of play in discussions relating to the Northern Ireland protocol. Lord Frost noted that there remain significant gaps to be bridged between the UK and EU positions. He noted that it remained the United Kingdom’s preference to find a consensual way forward, but I must say that article 16 safeguards were and are a legitimate part of the protocol’s provisions.
The noble Lord Frost also underlined the need to address the full range of issues that the United Kingdom had identified in the course of discussions if a comprehensive and durable solution was to be found that supported the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is in the best interests of Northern Ireland. In that context, although talks had so far been conducted in a constructive spirit, Lord Frost underlined that, to make progress, it was important to bring “new energy and impetus” to discussions. Accordingly, intensified talks are taking place this week between teams in Brussels on all issues, giving particular attention to medicines and customs issues.
This week, Lord Frost has also been in Belfast, talking to political, business and civil society leaders and will meet with Vice-President Šefčovič at the end of the week to consider progress. I will continue to keep Parliament informed.
With respect to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who raised the urgent question, perhaps he does not know that, in line with what the Paymaster General was saying, Lord Frost appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee only a few weeks ago. We asked him questions about article 16 and the European Court of Justice and he answered them with great clarity.
It is quite clear that the EU has been intransigent. For example, it invoked article 16 with regard to the covid laws that it introduced some time ago, and disruption of trade has taken place. Regarding the European Court of Justice, we are more than entitled to ensure that we are not governed by it given the repeal in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020.
I agree with my hon. Friend. We want a negotiated outcome, but we are willing to use article 16. There is no change in the position that my noble Friend Lord Frost gave to my hon. Friend’s Committee only a few days ago.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for tabling the UQ. It is simply unacceptable and quite insulting to the House that Lord Frost would wait for this place to have risen to make a statement in the other place and that the Government would have to be dragged to this place to be subject to proper and timely scrutiny.
I turn to Northern Ireland, which has become a key pressure point in UK-EU relations. I sincerely hope that the change in tone from Lord Frost may be a sign that progress can be made, because these are fractious, painful times for Northern Ireland and we are at an unsettling moment. Political disfunction has left power sharing in a fragile state. Trust in the UK Government in Northern Ireland—an essential foundation of peace—has fallen away across all communities. Trust is hard won and easy to lose.
I say to the Minister, in the sincere hope that he listens, that this is not the context in which any responsible Government would force another high stakes, divisive stand-off. With a cost of living crisis and growing instability, the last thing the country needs is a damaging trade dispute with our nearest trading partners. Does he agree that jobs, stability and livelihoods in Northern Ireland depend on the EU and UK finding a deal in the days and weeks ahead that lowers the barriers that the Prime Minister created? Does he agree that the evidence increasingly shows that communities want a solution, not a stand-off?
Labour has called all year for solutions that would lower the barriers down the Irish sea that the Prime Minister personally negotiated. That is precisely why we need a deal. Communities know that invoking article 16 would not solve the problems. It would not end the dispute; it would simply prolong it. Therefore, to find that agreement, the people of Northern Ireland must be brought in. Does the Minister agree that it is simply unsustainable for a Government whom few trust to be making huge decisions about the future while Northern Ireland is excluded entirely from the talks? Will he confirm today that the UK and the EU will bring Northern Ireland leaders and communities into the process to speak for themselves? That is the path to a sustainable solution.
The Minister should remember what is at stake in the days ahead, and remember that those who have the most to lose from another poisonous stand-off are the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. It is in those interests and the national interest that the Government should get a deal.
We did not wait. This House was in recess and a written ministerial statement was tabled yesterday.
On the hon. Lady’s substantive points, of course people are concerned about the cost of living, but the Northern Ireland protocol has real-life consequences for the cost of living. Businesses know that using article 16, should we have to do so, would alleviate pressure on the movement of goods. It is a safeguard mechanism to improve an unsatisfactory situation; it is there not to cause disruption but to do the exact opposite. It is a mechanism agreed to by both parties to the withdrawal agreement, and it is an active part of an agreement with multiple articles—it is one article among multiple others. Article 16 is perfectly valid and available to use. However, we want a negotiated outcome. Our policy remains the same: acting within the law at all times, we are willing to use article 16 should we need to do so.
My noble Friend Lord Frost was in Northern Ireland on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, and he met all sides. I am advised that he met representatives of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance party, the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party and Sinn Féin. He is, of course, keeping everyone fully informed, and he travels regularly to do so. The basis of our negotiations is contained in the July Command Paper, which this House has seen.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend reaffirm that the priority for Her Majesty’s Government remains upholding the Belfast agreement, even if the European Union appears to hold it so lightly? On the subject of bad faith, cited by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), what does my right hon. and learned Friend make of the fact that 20% of the European Union’s checks still occur in relation to goods going from GB to NI, despite Northern Ireland having the equivalent of 0.5% of the European Union’s population? Does he agree that the bad faith the European Union is exercising in this matter makes it absolutely essential that we continue to keep under consideration the rescinding of articles 5, 7, 8 and 10, as outlined by the July Command Paper?
My right hon. Friend is a former Northern Ireland Minister, so he speaks with authority in this House. He is right that it is of paramount importance, as I am sure all sides would agree, that the Belfast agreement is respected and protected. That is certainly the motivation of Her Majesty’s Government.
It is right to say that the Northern Ireland Executive estimate that, from January to March, about 20% of all EU checks were conducted in respect of Northern Ireland, even though Northern Ireland’s population is just 0.5% of the EU’s as a whole. That speaks for itself.
Notwithstanding recess dates, it took until 16 November even to get a written statement on this subject, and that turned out to be a copy-and-paste job from Lord Frost’s earlier statement. I am shocked and appalled that it has taken until today for a Minister to come to the House to do Members the courtesy of answering questions on behalf of the Government. I am sick and fed up of hearing excuses for why this Government allow others to hear the business of the Government and their thinking before they come here to explain it. How long can we be expected to tolerate this discourtesy?
We have yet another statement and yet another rattle of the sabre on article 16. Of course, the deployment of article 16 would simply invite an equal and opposite response from the European Union, and it would simply reconvene existing discussions in another forum. Whether or not Conservative Members want to hear it, the best way to eliminate friction from east-west trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is for Great Britain to come back into closer alignment with the single market and customs union. Will the Paymaster General assure the House that, whatever discussions lie ahead, the Government will not in any circumstances allow Northern Ireland to become subject to the same trade friction between north and south as they have allowed to creep into the relationship between Great Britain and the European Union?
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong; the reality of the matter is that a written ministerial statement is informing the House, and it was laid yesterday. He makes a point about business. I think I am right in saying that in today’s Financial Times there is a report that Marks & Spencer says that the proposals by the EU would not cut red tape. It is important to bear in mind that negotiations are in progress; it is not the right forum, at this stage in delicate negotiations, to try to do that in this honourable House. What is right is that Lord Frost continues his discussions with vice-president Šefčovič, and that is exactly what he is doing.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on obtaining this important urgent question. May I take up a difference with him on one thing? Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General confirm that the triggering of article 16 should be based on circumstances and not on any particular date?
If the triggering of article 16 needs to occur, there are defined circumstances that would need to be ascertained—in my view, those circumstances are ascertained.
There is a certain irony in Ministers telling France to respect the trade and co-operation agreement in full when it comes to fish while threatening to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol. I hope only that the change in tone that I think we detect in the past week or so is a sign that the Government realise that they need to step back from the brink—both sides do, because a trade war with the EU is in nobody’s interests.
The question I wish to put is about the European Court of Justice. We have heard what businesses in Northern Ireland have said about the impact of the protocol, but can the Minister tell us how many of them have raised with him the role of the ECJ, which of course the Government signed up to when they agreed the protocol in the first place?
The right hon. Gentleman should understand, and I am sure he does, that the activation of article 16 is not scrapping the protocol—it is a valid part of the agreement. He asks who has raised the issue of the Court of Justice of the European Union. What people raise regularly is the issue of sovereignty, and they say that they want their laws decided democratically by the people of this country. In my limited experience of the law, it is not normal, where there are two parties, for the courts of one party to resolve disputes between the two in an agreement. So this is not a normal situation. The European Union has shown, in the infraction proceedings that it has already brought—in my respectful submission, in a precipitate manner—when we had essential cause to take actions to protect food supply in Northern Ireland, that this is not just theoretical; this is something the EU is prepared to do, as it has shown. We therefore need to take sovereignty seriously. Those on our side of the House do take sovereignty seriously and will continue to do so.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the answers he has given thus far. Lord Frost is clearly involved in delicate negotiations, but they are placing great strain on the Northern Ireland Executive and the various different sections of the community in Northern Ireland. So how long are we going to allow these negotiations to go on for before we take action? Can we set a timetable for completing these negotiations, so that people can get back to running their businesses and leading their normal lives?
I understand my hon. Friend’s desire to set a finite date but, as I am sure he will appreciate, that is not conducive to good diplomatic negotiations. I have no doubt that everything is being done as expeditiously as is reasonable.
A statement should have been made in this House at the earliest possible opportunity, but I welcome the point that has been made today as a result of this urgent question. Is the Paymaster General concerned that after the chiding the Government got for putting in place a protocol that has put a border down the Irish sea, we now appear to have a Joan of Arc-like stand-off, with the Opposition holding to the protocol as if it were something precious when it is destroying business and costing businesses in Northern Ireland £850 million? That is what is catastrophic: the friction of trade within the United Kingdom.
The Paymaster General mentioned sovereignty; I represent a constituency in the United Kingdom and so do all the Members in this House—we should not be doing Brussels’ work from these Benches. Brussels has destroyed part of the United Kingdom by insisting on the enforcement of a protocol in a disgraceful manner. I appeal to the Paymaster General, who knows that the Government’s Command Paper in July this year said that the conditions for invoking article 16 have been met: we are now in the jaws of December and those conditions remain met, so invoke article 16, and invoke it now. Stop dilly-dallying on this issue. Put businesses out of their misery in Northern Ireland.
I take this opportunity to apologise again for an oral statement not being made on Monday. I have mentioned that a written ministerial statement was made on Tuesday, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point on that issue.
On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, I agree that there is a major difficulty. The protocol is not delivering its core purpose and it is crucial that it has Unionist and nationalist party consent; otherwise, Northern Ireland cannot function, because of the power-sharing relationship with which the hon. Gentleman is extremely familiar. That is the foundation of the constitution and his point is understood.
On the business front, at least 200 companies in Great Britain no longer service the Northern Ireland market, so the hon. Gentleman’s point in that respect is perfectly valid. A significant number of medicines are still at risk of discontinuation. We saw recently in one of the national newspapers that even the trees for the Queen’s forthcoming platinum jubilee apparently cannot be supplied to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. There are problems with things that are, frankly, being shredded by the way the protocol is working.
Given that almost 100% of the roll-on roll-off lorry traffic from the EU to the Republic of Ireland goes through Great Britain—a lot of it past Kettering on the A14— would not a sensible negotiated agreement towards a comprehensive and durable settlement involve Her Majesty’s Government taking responsibility for the policing of goods that go across the Irish sea to the Republic, in return for the free passage of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if those goods are to stay in Northern Ireland?
I shall resist the temptation to ask my hon. Friend to join the negotiating team but, as ever, he speaks powerfully for his constituency, which I think is the centre point of this country, geographically, and also a centre for the movement of goods. My hon. Friend speaks with some authority on the matter and I have noted what he said.
This was all so predictable when, just under a year ago, we in this House voted for the agreement. Is it not the case, first, that the people of Northern Ireland want a compromise, and secondly, that in reality the Government just threw Northern Ireland under the bus when they went into negotiations in the name of Brexit?
To give him credit, the Paymaster General read his brief very well, but he knows very little about the sentiments of the people in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, Lord Frost held a meeting, among other meetings, with a group of people representing trade unions and civil society. They were from both loyalist and nationalist traditions and they told him very clearly, “Get on with making the protocol work.” The game and the rhetoric in which this Government are engaged in Northern Ireland is very dangerous. The Paymaster General has a duty to go back to the Prime Minister and tell him to tone down that rhetoric. It could be so disastrous that we should not even be thinking of going there.
I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the rhetoric. This is a negotiation. We want a settled solution. That is our preference and that is what the negotiations with Vice-President Šefčovič are currently doing, but we do have article 16 as a viable safeguard.
What assessment have the Government made of the damage to the UK economy as a whole and our standing in the world were the Government to trigger article 16 and it result in a trade war with the EU?
Article 16 is designed to alleviate problems, not cause them. It is a mechanism that was written in with the consent of both parties, so that it could alleviate and act as a safeguard. Threats that are emanating from other quarters about pulling out of the TCA and the like would, of course, do the exact opposite. They would cause disruption and that is not in the interests of the people of the province of Northern Ireland. It is this side that is seeking a negotiated preferential solution.
The Minister must know that the Tories are playing with fire. Threatening not to implement a deal signed 11 months ago would be outrageous. What does the Minister believe the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK have to gain by showing the UK clearly to be an untrustworthy and dishonest negotiating partner while it simultaneously seeks to secure international trade deals?
We are not seeking to secure international trade deals; we are securing international trade deals. We have secured more than 60 of them so far with countries all around the world. We are a trading nation. We enjoy trading with others and we always have done. That is what we will continue to do. But I do need to repeat: article 16 is not a threat; it is a part of the agreement that was signed between the parties. It is available and ready to use.
In any negotiation, it is best to have all parties round the table, so will the Government consider bringing in the locally elected Members in order to have a meaningful negotiation which really matches the sentiment, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), on the ground in Northern Ireland?
I am pleased to be able to confirm that, as I have already mentioned, Lord Frost has already engaged with the interested parties and even on Tuesday and Wednesday this week did so in Northern Ireland. All parties are being duly kept informed, including this honourable House and the other place.
A consequence of Brexit was always that we needed to erect a trade border between Britain and the EU, and there are only two places where that could go—either in the Irish sea, or a land border on the island of Ireland. As the Government are now trying to reverse the agreement that puts the trade border in the Irish sea, what other option are they actively pursuing—a land border, or rejoining the single market for the whole of the UK, not just Northern Ireland?
We are pursuing a negotiation and the hon. Lady will have to wait and see.
Finally, but certainly not with the least of questions, I call Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. You are most kind. The good wine always comes last.
I thank the Paymaster General for his answers to the urgent question. Back in July, the Government published a paper in which they stated clearly that conditions to trigger article 16 had already been met. He referred to M&S, which has indicated this week that extra costs and extra bureaucracy on products crossing the border will cost it £9 million. Speaking as the MP for Strangford, who has got his feet clearly on the ground and knows what is happening and what the people are saying, I want to put it on the record that some businesses face going to the wall as a result. The Prime Minister repeated that assertion recently. He said that time was of the essence and that, if the current negotiations with the EU failed to arrive at an agreed outcome in a short period, the Government would move and must move immediately to take decisive action to remove the barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I urge the Paymaster General to do just that: initiate article 16 and remove the barrier.
I like hearing from the hon. Gentleman, but his questions have to be shorter. If he wants to make speeches, I am sure that he will catch the eye of somebody in the Chair later.
The hon. Gentleman is right, Mr Speaker; you have saved the best till last.
Or longest till last.
The hon. Gentleman is right that Marks & Spencer makes a powerful point. Time is of the essence. Her Majesty’s Government will move to remove barriers if necessary. The article 16 application has already been met and we are alive to the time sensitivity involved.
Integrated Rail Plan: North and Midlands
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the future of the railway.
Today I am proud to announce our integrated rail plan. It is a £96 billion programme that will transform rail services in the north and the midlands—the largest single rail investment ever made by a UK Government, and an investment that, rather than being felt decades into the future, will arrive much, much sooner. This unprecedented commitment to build a world-class railway that delivers for passengers and freight, for towns and cities, and for communities and businesses, will benefit eight of the 10 busiest rail corridors across the north and the midlands, providing faster journeys, increased capacity and more frequent services up to 10 years sooner than previously planned.
When I became Transport Secretary in 2019, the HS2 project was already about 10 years old. I was concerned that costs were rising and newer projects such as the midlands rail hub and Northern Powerhouse Rail had not been fully factored into the plans. Under the original scheme, the HS2 track would not have reached the east midlands and the north until the early 2040s. Clearly, a rethink was needed to ensure that the project would deliver as soon as possible for the regions that it served, and that is how the integrated rail plan was born—through a desire to deliver sooner.
The Prime Minister and I asked Douglas Oakervee to lead the work and make recommendations on the best way forward. One of his key criticisms was that HS2 was designed in isolation from the rest of the transport network. The original plans gave us high-speed lines to the east midlands, but did not serve any of the three biggest east midlands cities. For example, if someone wanted to get to Nottingham or Derby, they would still have had to go to a parkway station, and change on to a local tram or train. Oakervee made a clear and convincing case for considering HS2 as part of an integrated rail plan, working alongside local, regional and national services, not just those travelling between our biggest cities. We accepted those recommendations and asked the National Infrastructure Commission to develop options.
The commission came back with two key suggestions: first, that we adopt a flexible approach, initially setting out a core integrated rail network, but that we remain open to future additions as long as expectations on costs and timing are met; and secondly, that strengthening regional rail links would be most economically beneficial for the north and midlands—connecting towns with the main railway networks, and bringing hope and opportunity to communities that have felt left behind for too long—and that we should bring these benefits to passengers and local economies as soon as possible. Those are the guiding principles behind the integrated rail plan that I am announcing today. It is an ambitious and unparalleled programme that not only overhauls intercity links across the north and midlands, but speeds up the benefits for local areas and serves the destinations that people most want to reach.
This new blueprint delivers three high-speed lines: first, Crewe to Manchester; secondly, Birmingham to the east midlands, with HS2 trains continuing to central Nottingham, central Derby, Chesterfield and Sheffield on an upgraded main line; and thirdly, a brand new high-speed line from Warrington to Manchester and the western border of Yorkshire, slashing journey times across the north. [Laughter.] Well, I know that Opposition Members will want to hear the detail of those journey times and also to explain why their constituents would wish to wait decades more to deliver a journey almost no faster at all than under these plans.
I have heard some people say that we are just going about electrifying the TransPennine route. That is wrong. We are actually investing £23 billion to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail and the TransPennine route upgrade, unlocking east-west travel across the north of England. In total, this package is 110 miles of new high-speed line, all of it in the midlands and the north. It is 180 miles of newly electrified line, all of it in the midlands and the north. I remind the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) of Labour’s 63 miles of electrified line in 13 years. We will upgrade the east coast main line with a package of investment on track improvements and digital signalling, bringing down journey times between London, Leeds, Darlington, Newcastle and Edinburgh, and bringing benefits to the north-east much, much sooner than under the previous plans. This adds capacity and speeds up services over more than 400 miles of line, the vast majority of it in the midlands and the north. We will study how best to take HS2 trains to Leeds as well. We will start work on a new West Yorkshire mass transit system, righting the wrong of that major city not having a mass transit system, probably the largest in Europe not to have one. We commit today to supporting West Yorkshire Combined Authority over the long term to ensure that this time it actually gets done.
In short, we are about to embark on the biggest single act of levelling up of any Government in history. [Interruption.] Listen to the numbers. It is five times more than what was spent on Crossrail and 10 times more than what was spent on delivering the Olympics, but Opposition Members still think it is a small package. It will achieve the same, similar or faster journey times to London and on the core Northern Powerhouse Rail network than the original proposals, and will bring the benefits years earlier, as well as doubling, or in some cases tripling, the capacity.
Let me set out a few of these investments. Rail journeys between Birmingham and Nottingham will be cut from an hour and a quarter to 26 minutes, city centre to city centre. Journeys between York and Manchester will be down to 55 minutes, from 83 minutes today. Commuters will be able to get from Bradford to Leeds in just 12 minutes, almost half the time it takes today. There will be earlier benefits for places such as Sheffield and Chesterfield. Trips from Newcastle to Birmingham will be slashed by almost 30 minutes, and passengers in Durham and Darlington will benefit from smoother, more reliable trains. The IRP delivers not just for our largest cities but for smaller places and towns. For example, Kettering, Market Harborough, Leicester, Loughborough, Grantham, Newark, Retford, Doncaster, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Huddersfield and Stalybridge could all see improvements, electrification or faster services, benefiting in ways they would not have done under the original HS2 programme.
We are not stopping there. Today’s plan is about those places that connect and interact with HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail and the scale of ambition, with many of these projects lying outside the scope. Only yesterday, I opened the first reversal of the Beeching axe. We will be doing the same in Northumberland for the Ashington-Blyth-Newcastle line and many others. We are investing £2 billion in cycling and walking, £3 billion in turn-up-and-go bus services, and tens of billions in our country’s roads. After decades of decline, with constrained capacity and poor reliability, this plan will finally give passengers in the north and the midlands the services they need and deserve.
It is not just about infrastructure; we are going to make train travel much easier as well. Today I can confirm £360 million to reform fares and ticketing, with the roll-out of contactless pay-as-you-go ticketing for 700 urban stations, including 400 in the north.
This is a landmark plan, by far the biggest of any network improvement and focused on the north and the midlands. With more seats, more frequent services, and shorter journeys, it meets the needs of today’s passengers and future generations. We are getting started immediately with another £625 million for electrification between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, bringing the total on the TransPennine route upgrade to £2 billion and counting, and £249 million to further electrify the midland main line between Kettering and Market Harborough, with work starting on the integrated rail plan by Christmas.
Communities of every size will benefit, right across the north and midlands, in many cases years earlier than planned. By taking a fresh look at HS2, and how it fits with the rest of the rail system, we will be able to build a much-improved railway that will provide similar or better services to almost every destination than the outdated vision drawn up for HS2 over a decade ago. This plan will bring the north and midlands closer together, fire up economies to rival London and the south-east, rebalance our economic geography, spread opportunity, level up the country and bring benefits at least a decade or more earlier. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. We will be going out shortly to collect the plan and scrutinise it. I am frankly staggered by how this statement started, with the Secretary of State saying he was “proud” to present it to the House—proud of what? Is he proud of the betrayal of trust, the betrayal of promises and the betrayal of the investment that the north of England and the midlands deserve?
We have all seen the reports over the weekend, each one setting out the betrayal being put forward today. There is no amount of gloss or spin that can be put on it. The Secretary of State promised HS2 to Leeds. He promised Northern Powerhouse Rail. He promised that the north would not be forgotten, but he has not just forgotten us; he has completely sold us out.
As someone who lives in Greater Manchester, I am not going to take lectures on what Northern Powerhouse Rail means. We know exactly what it means. We were committing to a new line connecting Manchester and Leeds, and within a month of becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said:
“I am going to deliver on my commitment with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route.”
We were promised a new line. He has broken that promise, and he has not even got the decency to admit it.
Let us be clear: the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail, coupled with the scrapping of the eastern leg of HS2, is a massive blow for our regions. The schemes would have created 150,000 new jobs, connecting 13 million people in our major towns and cities in our industrial heartlands. The then-Chancellor George Osborne first announced plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail in 2014. Since then, the Conservatives, including the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary, have recommitted and re-promised 60 times.
This is a once-in-a-generation chance to transform opportunity across the whole country, to rebalance the economy and make it work for working people, but that opportunity now looks set to be lost. They are the very same working people who will likely face a record increase when rail fares go up next year. They will be paying 50% more to get to work than they did a decade ago, relying on a crumbling, unreliable and overcrowded system that prioritises profit above passengers. It is the same with buses, with fares up 70%, use down and not a single one of the 4,000 zero-emission buses promised by the Prime Minister three years ago having been delivered.
What is on offer? Some £96 billion that we should be grateful for, but let us unpack that £96 billion, £40 billion of which has already been committed from London to Crewe, but is being labelled as investment across the north of England. Of the £56 billion that remains, if we compare that with what the north of England would have got over the past decade had it had the same investment as London and the south-east, we are still £10 billion short. We are not going to accept crumbs off the table.
Labour would reform our transport networks so that they work for working people, with investment spread more evenly across the country so that parents are not forced to see their children leave the places where they were raised to find opportunity that is denied on their doorstep. Most importantly, Labour would put working people first, using the power of Government and the skill of business to ensure good-quality jobs are created here and in every single region of Britain.
The Prime Minister was elected on a promise to level the playing field and make things better for households across the country. We were promised a northern powerhouse. We were promised a midlands engine. We were promised that we would be levelled up, but what we have been given today is the great train robbery—robbing the north of its chance to realise its full potential, robbing the next generation of the hope and opportunity they are due and robbing 15 million people across the north of the investment they have been denied for 11 years under this rotten Government.
I just want to make sure I understand the hon. Gentleman’s approach—his lines, as it were. This is £96 billion of expenditure, the single biggest investment ever. We have made no secret of the fact that some of that money is already the Birmingham to Crewe line, the Crewe to Manchester line; last time I checked, that benefits the midlands and north, does it not? That does help.
I realise the hon. Gentleman either wrote his response before hearing what was in the statement, or decided to ignore it, because this is a brand-new high-speed line—I just want to check the geography—from Warrington to Manchester to Marsden in the west of Yorkshire. To judge by his response, he does not think that exists.
What confuses me the most overall is that the Leader of the Opposition seems to be in a completely separate place. He said:
“I oppose HS2 on cost and on merit: it will not achieve its stated objectives.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 1006.]
So he opposes HS2. For transparency, he said that in 2015. What has he said more recently?
“The government should take this opportunity to cancel HS2”.
That is the Leader of the Opposition speaking. Before the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) gets carried away, why does he not have a word with the leader of his party and work out whether they agree on his position?
This is an enormous investment. It will create three new high-speed lines. It electrifies track; just today, nearly 400 miles of track electrification was announced within these programmes. What a contrast with the 63 miles of track the Labour Government managed to electrify in 13 years in office.
I will finish by talking about the importance of the overall transport approach. This is not just about rail, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, but about other means of getting around. We cannot get around without a roads programme, and we have a £20 billion-plus road building programme. Labour opposes it. They do not want to build any roads, so I am not sure where he wants to run those buses he keeps talking about.
I have already written to the hon. Gentleman, and I think I am right in saying I sent the letter to the Library of the House, because he will continue to go around saying that of these 4,000 buses, none are on the road. That is factually untrue. I have written to him with the detail: 900 of those buses are ordered, many of them already on the road. I know it is the Opposition’s job to oppose, but if he is already opposing his own leader, no wonder they do not have a cohesive transport policy.
The Prime Minister promised that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail were not an either/or option. Those in Leeds and Bradford might be forgiven for viewing it today as neither. That is the danger in selling perpetual sunlight and leaving it for others to explain the arrival of moonlight. On a stand-alone basis, this plan comprises some fantastic projects that will slash journey times and better connect our great northern cities, and for that the Transport team deserve much credit. My question is this: it costs us in this country £2 million to deliver a single kilometre of electrified track. The Germans can do that for less than £500,000 because they have a rolling programme of electrification. What steps has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that this new plan can be delivered to time and to this cost?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the improvements in journey times. For example, on Bradford, which has been talked about a great deal, it will be 12 minutes from Bradford to Leeds. What we called for, and what everyone was calling for, is London or south-east-style connectivity, and 12 minutes between two of the north’s great cities as a result of this plan is one of those potential upgrades—not potential; it is one of the upgrades in the plan.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the cost of electrification. A lot of these things seem to cost a lot more in this country. The rail Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris)—is carrying out an electrification challenge to bring the sector in and challenging it to build on electrification much faster than currently happens. Of course, in addition to electrification, we also have zero-carbon trains, electric trains and hydrogen trains such as the HydroFLEX, which will help to resolve some of the more difficult-to-electrify areas, although, as I say, we have full fat electrification on nearly 400 miles of line as a result of today’s plan.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, although I did read most of it in a newspaper beforehand.
I do admire the Secretary of State’s hutzpah for the most bullish U-turn I have yet seen in this place. He talks of Beeching reversal; this is nothing but an HS2 reversal. Bit by bit, HS2 and its grand vision for a rail network that might actually belong in the 21st century rather than in the 19th century is being salami-sliced until all that is left is a Birmingham to London shuttle with a few token services to Manchester, benefiting few, but costing us all.
Perhaps the Secretary of State should ask for some tips from the French Government, whose high-speed rail network is now 2,800 km long, or from the Germans, who have over 3,000 km. Denmark is building high-speed rail to link with Germany’s network, including an 11-mile tunnel under the Baltic sea. Meanwhile, the UK cannot even manage linking itself.
On electrification, the 2015 manifesto promised electrification to Windermere, south Wales and the midlands, and they were ditched, so forgive me if we are sceptical about today’s promises not meeting the same fate. For a country that started the railway age and produced Brunel, Stephenson and Joseph Locke, England is now badly served by its transport leadership—a leadership that no number of glossy reports and reviews can paper over.
Can I ask the Secretary of State what implications this will have for Barnett consequentials for both Wales and Scotland? Will Wales now receive its fair share of funding if HS2 money is being redeployed elsewhere? Can he confirm that Barnett will also apply to Scotland’s funding? Given that the Scottish Government are miles ahead of the UK on decarbonisation, electrification and active travel, at least we know something useful will be done with that cash.
Perhaps it is time that levelling up applied to the DFT. Move the Department up to Newcastle, Carlisle or Doncaster, and quickly find out at what level the rest of England operates when given a shoestring to run a public transport network that is in the 21st century in theory only. Experiencing the third class network the north of England is expected to endure every day as compared with that in Greater London might sharpen a few minds in the DFT as to where their priorities lie in the future.
As the hon. Member knows, the Treasury is going to Darlington and the DFT has actually gone to Leeds and Birmingham. We already have 70 staff up at our Leeds office, and they will be delighted to be able to travel around much faster as a result of this plan today.
I should mention that the plan involves £12.8 billion of upgrade of the eastern core. This is upgrading the east coast main line, digital signalling and the like. We are not near capacity on those routes yet. The £12.8 billion will help with the journey up the east coast. Of course, the plan today also confirms the west coast update—the HS2 part of it rather—meaning that journeys to Scotland will be a great deal faster as a result. There are lots of benefits, when it comes to Scotland, from bringing these journey times way down as a result of this investment in HS2, and this plan today delivers on that.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, which I think is a good balance between what was hoped for and what can actually be achieved. I am sure it was an oversight that he did not mention Cleethorpes in his statement. Can he assure me that the restored direct link between Cleethorpes and King’s Cross, which is in the London North Eastern Railway draft timetable, will indeed begin, I hope next year, but certainly by 2023? Can he also assure me that the east-west freight corridor from the Humber ports is still a priority?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I missed that out in my foreword and I apologise—Cleethorpes should certainly get a mention. I am working with my hon. Friend the Minister of State (Chris Heaton-Harris) on a potential direct service from Cleethorpes to London. Just a week or two ago I visited the ports, and I know the importance of connectivity with those ports.
The Prime Minister repeatedly promised that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail would be built in full. Today that promise has been broken, and Leeds and the north have been betrayed. Can the Minister explain—this is insofar as I understand the details; I have yet to read the full report—the logic of taking HS2 from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway, building a new high-speed line from Leeds to Sheffield, but leaving a huge great big hole in the middle, which would have Victorian railway engineers scratching their heads in disbelief, to save what The Times says is £10.3 billion? What is the purpose of doing that?
I think I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman. One of the purposes of Northern Powerhouse Rail, which we are delivering, is to slash journey times, for example from Leeds to Manchester, and we will deliver exactly that. We will provide a journey time of 33 minutes from Leeds to Manchester, which he will know is a very significant improvement. That is not the only thing. We will also cut the journey time from Leeds to London to one hour 53 minutes, and to Birmingham it will be an hour and a half. All those journey times will be coming down dramatically because of the steps we are taking today. We have also announced £100 million to look at the best way to run HS2 trains into Leeds, as well as to sort out the long-term problem that Leeds does not have a mass transport system—I think it is the biggest city in Europe without one. We know there have been many attempts at that over the years, but this time we intend to ensure it is followed through. There is a lot for Leeds in this package, which includes, as it happens, getting Northern Powerhouse Rail to run to Leeds, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents will feel the benefits of that.
The creation of economic prosperity across Keighley and the whole Bradford district is something I care deeply about, and it is linked to the creation of better transport connectivity. I am deeply disappointed by today’s announcement, and in my view, the Bradford district has been completely short changed. We are one of the most socially deprived parts of the UK, and we must get better transport connectivity. I still want Northern Powerhouse Rail to be delivered with a main stop in Bradford, so that we can unlock our economic opportunities. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House what the Government are doing to deliver better, more reliable, and cheaper rail services for my constituents in Keighley?
Let me make sure that my hon. Friend understands and appreciates the full relevance of today: a 12-minute journey from Bradford to Leeds, which is nearly half the current journey time; at least 30 minutes off the Bradford to London journey, after the upgrades are complete. There were other plans, which were not at all fleshed out—I know Transport for the North and others had talked about building all sorts of different versions of this, and one version was indeed the TransPennine route upgrade. However, there was a problem with those other plans: I mean no disrespect to my hon. Friend, but he may well not be an MP in 2043—perhaps he will be—to see those things delivered. The advantages I am talking about such as the 12-minute journey, and 30 minutes off the journey from Bradford to London, will be delivered in his first couple of terms as a Member of Parliament.
The Secretary of State knows fine well that the promised integrated infrastructure investment is about capacity as much as travel times. The Government are just not being straight, as they are asking northerners to put up with make do and mend, rather than the infrastructure we were promised. Is that because they continue to see the north as a problem to solve, rather than an opportunity to invest in? Is this not just another broken promise from this Prime Minister and Chancellor, who have seemingly cancelled levelling up because there are Tories on the line? It appears that the Prime Minister is once again driving a train into the ditch and off the track on his way to the north.
Listening to the hon. Lady, one would think I had just come to the Dispatch Box to announce that Newcastle will have a longer journey time to London. The answer is exactly the opposite. As a result of the plans I am announcing today, the journey from Newcastle to London will be 21 minutes shorter. One would have thought she would be standing up and welcoming today’s massive investment in the train services that will benefit her constituents. Even if she does not appreciate it, I rather suspect her constituents will.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and I look forward to reading the detail of the plan. He has given us a complex statement, because there are many changes to existing plans, but it is absolutely clear that no Government have ever invested on this scale in British history. He should not take any lessons from the Labour party, which did nothing on the issue. Will he provide a bit more detail on the timescales for delivery? Specifically, when will people in Yorkshire be able to take advantage of the enhanced services he is talking about? Can he comment a little further on the environmental benefits? I am thinking particularly about the improved clearances for rail freight.
On the environmental advantages, it will interest the House to know that HS2 is being built in as an environmentally friendly a way as possible. Section 2B west is intended to be a net positive carbon contribution, not just in its running but in its entire life cycle, which will be very important.[Official Report, 23 November 2021, Vol. 704, c. 4MC.] I refer the House and my hon. Friend to pages 134 and 135, which contain the full timescale for when the various different benefits will arrive at different locations. In every case, the advantages will start arriving much, much sooner than under the original plans. All the people who say we should have just carried on ploughing on with the original HS2 plan need to explain why it was right to wait until the 2040s for their constituents to feel the benefits. This way, the benefits will start to be felt by this Christmas, when work gets under way on the midland main line and from work already under way on the TransPennine route.
I want to follow up on the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). I want to understand the new east-west division that the Secretary of State has set out today. As I understand it, our constituents moving from Leeds to Manchester will travel by high-speed train south of Leeds, then change trains to get a train to Nottingham Parkway, and then get on a new high-speed train from Nottingham Parkway to Birmingham. I think that is what the Secretary of State set out. Since we approved this plan in Cabinet, China has built 23,500 miles of high-speed line. This Tory Government have built none. We have had a review every year and the Secretary of State has just destroyed the plans. Hundreds of millions of pounds in Birmingham is predicated on being at the heart of a network, not a mish-mash. How can we now believe the plan he has set out?
I should point out that China does not have the same health and safety approach as us. It has a slightly different view of how many people it is acceptable to kill per mile of track laid, and I do not think the right hon. Gentleman is seriously considering we go down that route. I know that he represents a Birmingham constituency and I know that the Mayor of the West Midlands has broadly welcomed this package. Birmingham does very well out of it. The connection that was not initially envisaged in the HS2 plan, between the biggest cities in the midlands, such as Birmingham and Nottingham, will now be complete with not just a parkway station, but with stations into the city centres of Nottingham and Derby connecting Birmingham. That will be fantastic news for his constituents. He asked about trains. No, people will not be changing trains. They will be on the same train all the way through.
I did not hear the Secretary of State mention the stretch between Birmingham and Crewe, which cuts straight through my constituency from top to bottom, causing massive misery to my constituents. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that discussions have taken place to improve the situation? Will he and the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) commit to continuing to listen to the proposed solutions, which would mitigate the misery and help to solve the problems faced by my constituents?