I beg to move,
That this House notes that UK economic growth is forecast to grind to a halt next year, with only Russia worse in the OECD; further notes that GDP has fallen in recent months while inflation has risen to 9.1 per cent and that food prices, petrol costs and bills in general are soaring for millions across the country; believes that the Government is leaving Britain with backlogs such as long waits for passports, driving licences, GP and hospital appointments, court dates, and at airports; and calls on the Government to set out a new approach to the economy that will end 12 years of slow growth and high taxation under successive Conservative governments.
It is my pleasure to speak to the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, and those of me and my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Prime Minister told us at the weekend, speaking from the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda, that he was “actively considering” his third term in office. The shadow Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), replied that she was actively considering marrying Ryan Reynolds.
While the Prime Minister considers his future, here at home concerns are more prosaic and more real. In area after area of life, standards of service that used to be taken for granted have crumbled, leaving people facing delays and backlogs for basic services, and all this is coming on top of the cost of living crisis, which is biting deeper with each passing week. As each new backlog and delay builds up, the Government look more and more powerless to address them. Even the Government’s supporters do not seem to believe that the announcements made by No. 10 will be followed through with any proper delivery. The Government were supposed to take us forward to the future, but as we read the news each day, it feels more and more like a step back in time towards the 1970s.
In another, more candid remark, also on Saturday, the Prime Minister admitted that since the Conservatives took office the UK economy had
“not grown as it should”.
I had anticipated one or two interventions on strikes, so let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that whoever’s responsibility the strikes are, it is certainly not that of a party that has been in opposition for 12 years. He and the Ministers he supports will have to take responsibility for the industrial strife they are presiding over. I say that to him in the anticipation of other interventions in the same vein.
Not at the moment.
I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s candour on economic growth. That is a very important admission, because without good economic growth the country is less prosperous, the fiscal position is weaker—in fact, it is weaker to the tune of some £40 billion a year compared with the pattern of economic growth we had in the first decade of this century—and people’s wages are lower by thousands of pounds a year. We know that people are paying higher taxes due to the Government breaking their manifesto pledges, but let us see what they are getting for their money.
It is often said in this place that the first duty of Government is to protect their citizens and that justice delayed is justice denied. Both those statements are true, so let us look at what is happening with access to justice. Victims of crime have a right to expect a trial in a reasonable amount of time after that crime has been committed. In the year before the pandemic—I repeat, before the pandemic—the number of cases awaiting trial at Crown courts grew by 23% to more than 40,000.
I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.
As I have said, the number of cases grew by 23% to over 40,000 before the pandemic, and that number now stands at 57,000. For magistrates courts, the number is 364,000. The typical wait for a case of robbery to come to court is two years, and for rape it is often three years. No wonder that in a recent sexual offences case that had been delayed for more than three years the presiding judge, Patrick Thompson, branded the delays “absolutely farcical” and said:
“How this is justice is beyond me.”
He is not alone in his judgment. These delays leave victims without redress and without justice and with the crime that they have suffered hanging over them. They are not just a symptom of the pandemic: we must remember that in the year before the pandemic the number of cases awaiting trial had grown by 23%.
My right hon. Friend is making excellent points. Does he agree that the excessive delays in the justice system, in particular for rape, have a huge mental health impact on the victims yet our mental health system is also failing to respond quickly to those needs?
I will make some progress.
This is happening not just in the field of justice. Record numbers of patients are waiting for NHS treatment, and they are waiting longer than ever: the waiting list for NHS treatment is now 6.5 million, with more than 300,000 patients having been on the list for over a year.
Given that the system had to focus on dealing with covid, some might point to pandemic effects. There would be some justification for that argument if we had not gone into the pandemic with waiting lists that had already rocketed, but we went into the pandemic with waiting lists of 4.4 million patients, almost double the number on the lists when this Government came to power. Long waits and more people waiting are not just features of the pandemic. The number waiting more than 18 weeks is now 2.5 million, but even before the pandemic that number was nearly three quarters of a million. Some 840,000 patients were told in April that they will have to wait more than a month for a GP appointment—if they can even get through to the surgery in the first place. Millions of people are struggling to get any access to NHS dental treatment. Last year 2,000 dentists left the NHS, almost one in 10 across the whole country. There are 4,500 fewer GPs than in 2013, and Conservative manifesto promises to increase the number of GPs have been broken repeatedly. These delays are not the fault of NHS staff or the patients; they are the result of 12 long years of the Conservatives presiding over the system we have and it is time they took responsibility for the backlogs and the delays that have resulted from their long period in office.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The situation in our dental services is so dire that people are having to carry out do-it-yourself operations at home without anaesthetic or any other medical facilities. Does he agree that it is disgraceful that people are having to resort to such measures as a result of the Conservatives’ backlog given that we are the world’s fifth largest economy?
Is the situation not more nuanced? Healthcare is devolved in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, with four different parties running it, but all have suffered and seen waiting times go up not only during the pandemic but in the preceding 10 years. Does that not show that there is a fundamental problem across the western world, because the likes of Germany, the Netherlands and France are all struggling and suffering the same fate?
To govern is to take responsibility, and the problem with saying that it is all about the post-pandemic situation is that waiting lists had almost doubled before the pandemic. I could give the hon. Member the figures again, but I do not want to read them out twice.
It is not just about the NHS. There are also delays at our ports. We have seen long queues of lorries—the delays are well known—and increased costs and bureaucracy for exporters.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when the last Labour Government left office in 2010, satisfaction in the national health service was among the highest in the world and that through reform programmes, disruption and cuts in funding the Government have created problems in the NHS? They need to get a grip.
We also have chaos in the courts. I see that in my constituency, where the family courts are really struggling with long waiting lists because of shortages of judges and lawyers. We also have passport queues and disruption across the country. The Government have lost control and need to get a grip.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember seeing the driving down of waiting times and waiting lists in government, and never at any point did anyone say, “We can take our foot off the gas” because there might have been problems in Germany or somewhere else. We took responsibility for the system that we were running.
As I said, there have been large queues at the ports. The Government do not need to rerun the Brexit argument—Ministers should have realised that we can leave only once—but there are things that they could do. They could at least seek a veterinary agreement with the EU—even New Zealand has one—which would be a better deal for our farmers and our food industry and may cut the bureaucracy and delays at our ports.
Let us take the asylum system, which is of significant concern to our constituents. The number of cases taking more than six months to decide has been up every quarter since the Home Secretary took office, and the backlog has tripled in the last three years. That matters because delays cost money and leave everyone in limbo.
On ports, another aspect of the problem is the decline in business through ports in Wales and western UK ports involved in trade with Ireland. In fact, trade through Holyhead is down 34% as a permanent feature. It seems to me—perhaps to the right hon. Gentleman as well—that the Government are doing absolutely nothing about that.
Well, the Government have chosen the route that we discussed in the Chamber last night. I do not want to repeat that, but other routes are available to them to reduce the bureaucracy experienced by our farmers and exporters.
The delays in asylum matter because they cost money. Seventy-five per cent of asylum claims are eventually endorsed, but, until they are decided, legitimate claimants cannot make a positive contribution to the country by taking up a job, and claimants who are denied cannot be removed from the country. It is neither in the interests of those who seek refuge nor in the national interest to have a system so beset by delays and backlogs. It is certainly not value for money for the taxpayer, either.
On passports and driving licences, people are being asked to wait up to 10 weeks for a passport—a standard that was itself breached more than 35,000 times in the first quarter of the year according to the Home Office. That is where backlogs beget backlogs. There are reports of travellers being asked to seek emergency travel documents because passports have not been issued, but now—this is the least surprising news ever—there is a queue for those documents, too.
Three quarters of a million drivers are waiting for their licences to be processed because of the backlog at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. A large proportion of those drivers have medical conditions and need specific permission to keep driving. That is where the backlog begets workforce issues, because, until those people get their new licences, they often cannot return to work. I appreciate that none of that may be as exciting as the latest wedge issue thought up in No. 10, but delivering on basic governance is the Government’s job, and it is time to do that job. The duty of service delivery does not go away. At the heart of this are two issues: getting the workforce right and making the most of new technology.
The right hon. Gentleman touched on criminal justice earlier. Will he join me in asking Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, to take responsibility for the appalling situation that the criminal justice system is in, in Greater Manchester? It is not protecting vulnerable people or investigating crime, as a result of which my local residents are suffering. Will he join me in asking Andy Burnham to take responsibility and do something about it, which is his job?
I detect a pattern with these interventions. They seem to be saying that the problem is everyone’s responsibility except the Government’s. There is no escaping 12 years in office.
There are two issues at the heart of this: workforce and technology. Staff shortages are common in many areas. The unemployment figures have fallen, but so too has the overall number of people in employment. More than half a million people have left the labour market since the pandemic. They are from all age groups, but the biggest group is the over-50s, and their biggest reasons for leaving the labour market are ongoing health issues and caring responsibilities.
This is where the delays and backlogs become a vicious circle. I have already mentioned that when people with medical conditions cannot get a new driving licence approved, it can prevent their return to work. The Access to Work programme is there to help people with disabilities into work, but people face delays of up to 12 weeks in their application being processed, and the waiting list for decisions has quadrupled over the past year. That holds people back from taking up jobs and makes the staff shortages worse.
The NHS employs some 1.2 million people, but it went into the pandemic with 100,000 unfilled vacancies. We have argued for a forward plan for NHS staffing, and for training so that the vacancies can be filled. That was supported by the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee, but fiercely resisted by the Government. I have to say to the Minister that looking the other way will not make the workforce issues go away. Why are the Government so resistant to the forward planning needed by the NHS?
The question is how we make the most of our potential workforce, and help those who could go back to work to do so. Many people in this country are suffering from long covid. There are people with mental health issues, and people for whom childcare costs are a barrier. We support an expansion in mental healthcare, so that we get support to those who need it within a month, and we support mental health hubs in our local communities. More breakfast clubs and after-school activities would not only be good for children but would help parents get back to work, too.
The point of all this is that we should use the talent and energy of everyone who can make a contribution, and address any barriers to work that they face, but that is not the Government’s response to the backlogs; they have proposed staffing cuts of 20%. How will that help anyone to get a passport, driving licence or health treatment quicker, or get their case to court sooner? Is it really the best that the Government can come up with? Is it even a real response, or just another initiative thrown up to provoke a debate that distracts attention from the real issues that people face?
The issue is not just about the workforce; it is also about using innovation and technology to make public services better for the public. Covid has been described as the great acceleration. It was a time when years of change were compressed into months—in education, in the way we work, in the way we shop and pay for things, in accessing healthcare and so on. The question is how we make the most of what we have learned, and of all the other rapid changes in daily life that are powered by technology, to reform our public services for the future. Our ambition should not be just to return to where we were in 2019; it should be to improve, so that we can have high-quality public services for all.
We already knew that the Conservatives were running a high-tax, low-growth economy—we have said that many times—but the backlogs that I have outlined in public services, in area after area, show that it is also a high-tax, low-delivery economy. We have the highest tax burden since the 1950s, but people cannot get a passport or an appointment with a dentist. That is simply not a good enough deal for the British public.
The Prime Minister says that he wants another two terms in office, but our public services cannot afford another two terms of backlogs and chaos. This Government are not really governing any more. They are simply campaigning.
My apologies to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for attending the start of this debate tardily. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a Scottish dimension? We talk about the number of Governments we have had. Today, pregnant mothers have to make a round trip of more than 200 miles from Caithness to Inverness to give birth. Health services have gone backwards in my constituency, so all that is being said is also relevant to the Government north of the border.
I am glad that the hon. Member had the opportunity to make that point, whether he is wearing a tie or not.
The sole purpose of the Government is the survival of the Prime Minister. They have trashed standards in public life, as we have seen; they have damaged our standing in the world; and they are now trashing service delivery. When people pay the price for Government dysfunction in constant delays and backlogs, which have a damaging effect on quality of life; when the things that we used to take for granted become an endless slog and a debilitating battle; and when all this comes at the price of broken tax promises, people conclude that they cannot rely on the Prime Minister and on this Government. That is what is happening. As long as he and they remain in office, the chaos that has led to Boris Johnson’s backlog Britain will continue.
I hasten to say that we very much remain in office, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to respond for the Government to this debate. I begin by saying, as I have on many occasions, that we understand the impact of global inflationary pressures on the cost of living. We have already acted in many different ways to ease those pressures, and we will continue to do so; we are acting, as we see it, reasonably and responsibly to help UK households get through this. The reality is that we are experiencing a perfect storm of international supply shocks. High global energy and commodity prices, together with problems affecting international supply chains in the wake of the pandemic, have pushed up prices around the world, and consumers and businesses are feeling the pinch.
I thank the Chief Secretary for giving way. Is it his view that 10 years of austerity economics, which slashed the capacity of both central and local government to spend, left our Government’s public services with the resilience to meet the demands of the covid crisis, and the cost of living and inflation crisis?
I take the view that 10 years of responsible government made sure that this Government had the financial resources available to unleash £400 billion of support for the UK economy in response to the pandemic.
On top of the issues with supply chains, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has significantly worsened the situation. I know that the House is united in the view that we should stay the course with Ukraine and stand up for freedom and democracy there in the face of this barbaric onslaught, but that comes at a cost. Domestic factors have also started to play more of a role. For example, although our very low rate of unemployment is welcome and good in its own right, that contributes to the relatively high rate of inflation.
Rising inflation poses a challenge for the public finances, as it does for family budgets. As in many other countries, high inflation is acting as a curb on growth. The good news, which I will come to, is that the Government have the tools and the determination to tackle inflation and boost growth—namely, an independent monetary policy, a responsible fiscal approach and a focus on supply-side reform.
I notice that the right hon. Gentleman did not include Brexit in his little list. Last week, the Resolution Foundation said that by 2030, Brexit will cost the average worker more than £470 per annum in lost pay. Would he like to include that in his list?
Well, there have been many projections about Brexit, many of which have proved totally wrong. I certainly do not regret my vote to leave the European Union. We managed the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe; we are able to create our new freeports; we are free of the European Court of Justice; and we are not sending huge sums to Brussels, and can instead deploy that money for the public good. Frankly, those are all reasons why this Government were returned with a thumping majority in 2019. Crucially, it is a settled question, and it would be well for this country to move beyond it. There are all sorts of debates to be had about how we can take advantage of our decision to leave the European Union; those would be a more productive use of this House’s time.
We have a plan to grow the economy sustainably, boost productivity and improve living standards for millions of households in the years to come. In the past two years, the Government have demonstrated our determination to lead this country through the worst crisis—indeed, crises—in living memory. We will do the same as we tackle the challenges of today. As I have mentioned, the Government have taken steps to address the cost of living challenges. We are putting £37 billion into helping households, and are targeting that support at those who need it most. The households most vulnerable to high inflation will receive an extra £1,200 this year, with the first payments coming next month. Everyone will benefit from our energy support package, which will provide £550 for 28 million households.
I have had the good fortune to go to Hinckley jobcentre to see how things are functioning there, given the adversity that our constituents face. One of its strongest features is the household fund, which delivers to those who are most needy. It gives the officer who sits in front of an individual the flexibility and accountability to support them at that point. Is that not exactly what we should be doing—targeting our greatest support at those who are most vulnerable?
I completely agree. That has also been my experience at my jobcentre. It is really important that across the House we emphasise that our jobcentres are a fantastic source of support and not something to be scared of. The teams in my constituency could not be more committed to helping the public; I am sure that the same is true of those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That is a really important message, given our aim of getting as many people as possible into work.
Crucially, our package of support is more generous than what the Labour party suggests; that may be why there has been some chuntering on the Opposition Front Bench. The public, if they are in the 8 million means-tested benefit households, will receive £1,200 under our plans, compared with only £600 under Labour’s. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said of our intervention:
“On average the poorest households will now be approximately compensated for the rising cost of living this year.”
On top of that, we have cut fuel duty, and we have set aside £1 billion to help those who are most in need with the cost of essentials such as food, clothing and utilities through the household support fund, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) mentioned.
There are other ways of putting money back into people’s pockets. From next week, as the Chancellor explained in the spring statement, working people
“will be able to earn £12,570 a year without paying a single penny of income tax or national insurance…That is a £6 billion…tax cut for 30 million people across the United Kingdom”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 340.]
The Chief Secretary mentions ways of putting money into people’s pockets. Will he explain how he will recover the £26.8 billion that the Treasury has lost to fraudsters and error, and the £11 billion lost by failing to insure against interest rate rises? If the Government could recover that money, or if they had not wasted it through fraud and mismanagement, there would be billions of pounds in the public purse to support our constituents right now. Instead, it has been lost through incompetence.
I respect the hon. Lady from our days of old on the Treasury Committee, and I completely share her commitment to managing public money responsibly, but I gently disagree with those numbers. Clearly some fraud has been perpetrated during the pandemic, and we are managing it actively; indeed, in July, the new public sector fraud authority will go live, backed by some £25 million of additional funding, which is a welcome step. However, sometimes the figures cited in fraud debates capture items such as the write-down in value of the personal protective equipment that was purchased at an absolute premium at the height of the pandemic and that subsequently became worth much less in an era of much greater supply. We should be careful to take the issue seriously, but should not convey the impression that things are as bleak as the hon. Lady makes out.
I am going to make some progress at this point.
The Chancellor has also announced his intention to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20p to 19p in the pound from 2024. This will be the first income tax cut for 16 years, and it will be a £5 billion tax cut for 30 million people. The Chancellor has also said that he will set out his support for businesses in more detail in the autumn Budget.
Crucially, everything that we have done has been done responsibly, reflecting our continued commitment to strong and sustainable public finances. In direct contrast, the Labour leadership has so far promised £99.5 billion of day-to-day spending commitments—
I can provide the hon. Gentleman with the full details if he would like a list.
However, Labour has only announced £7.5 billion in revenue to pay for those commitments, less than one tenth. That leaves a £92.5 billion fiscal black hole of unfunded public spending commitments, which would almost double our current borrowing. This year we will spend £80 billion just paying interest on our debt. That is nearly four times what we spent last year, and those numbers should concern the whole House. The Office for Budget Responsibility made it very clear at the time of the spring statement that our fiscal headroom could be
“wiped out by relatively small changes”
to the “economic outlook”. Labour’s £92.5 billion black hole would mean an extra £3,303 per household in general taxation or extra borrowing. In opposition, parties have the luxury of promising it all and not being responsible for delivering any of it.
It is rather rich for the Minister to lecture the Opposition about funding when he has not even been able to tell us how much will be lost in fraud on his watch. His own counter-fraud Minister, after he resigned, said that it had been
“happy days if you were a crook”.
That is what his Government are doing—dishing out money to crooks. Perhaps the Minister could answer my earlier question: how much money has been lost to fraud and incompetence, and how will he recover that money?
We have set out a very clear plan to recover that money, and we have provided regular periodic updates on the progress that we are making against fraud, but we do not accept Lord Agnew’s characterisation of the situation. We continue to pursue this, and obviously the authorities reserve the right to pursue individuals and companies wherever it is clear that wrongdoing has occurred.
As a Minister, I am proud to be part of a Government who support people through difficult times, but that needs to go hand in hand with fiscal responsibility. The support that we are providing is timely, temporary, and targeted at those who need it most to avoid pushing up prices and interest rates further.
The motion lists a number of other issues, including passports, driving licences, GP and hospital appointments, court dates, and airports. Let me take each of those in turn.
Owing to covid-19, more than 5 million people delayed applying for British passports. Following the return of unrestricted international travel, there has been unprecedented demand for new passports, with 9.5 million applications forecast for this year. That compares with 4 million applications in 2020 and 5 million in 2021. Since April 2021, 650 additional staff have been brought in, with a further 550 arriving over the summer, and those numbers are starting to tell: more passport applications are being processed than ever before. In fact, between March and May alone, the Passport Office completed the processing of some 3 million applications. Since April 2021, people have been advised to allow up to 10 weeks to receive their passports, and 98.5% of applications have hit that target. For the small percentage of customers whose applications take longer than 10 weeks, and who are due to travel within a fortnight, there is an expedited service, at no additional cost, to ensure that they obtain their passports in time.
I am encouraged by the hard work of employees at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to clear the backlog in the processing of driving licence applications and waiting times for driving tests which built up throughout the pandemic and last year’s industrial action. I am confident that the DVLA remains on track to reduce waiting times further over the course of this year.
On NHS waiting lists, I want to take this chance to thank the NHS for the commitment with which it is tackling the backlog that built up during the pandemic. This Government are already instituting one of the largest catch-up programmes in the history of the NHS, spending more than £8 billion between this financial year and 2024-25 to tackle the backlog so that the NHS in England can deliver some 30% more activity in 2024-25 compared with pre-pandemic levels.
In the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, nearly 18,000 women are waiting for a breast scan that is overdue, largely because of a shortage of individuals who can perform those scans. Five full-time equivalent posts have been left vacant. Does the Minister agree that something needs to be done to tackle these workforce issues so that we do not fail to deliver key services and increase the risk of avoidable death?
I want to reassure the hon. Lady and her constituents that we completely agree that there is a need to ensure that those sorts of scans happen as speedily as possible. That is why the total budget of the Department of Health and Social Care in 2024-25—that is to say, at the end of this Parliament—will stand at £188 billion a year. That is a truly colossal sum of money and it equips the NHS to bear down on precisely these backlogs in a way that will help women in her constituency.
I sit on the Health Committee, and we were talking this morning about some of the problems with the workforce and the interaction between primary care and secondary care. One of the responses was that the 42 new integrated care systems that have been put in place will give us the flexibility to change the system. Does the Minister agree that this is exactly the kind of planning and foresight that allows us to deliver better for the future, and to future-proof our health service to try to deal with some of the problems that we all know are affecting western world medicine?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is crucial that the NHS continues to reform and, frankly, become more fit for a technological age, as well as for one in which we can anticipate these problems ahead of time. We should act to improve the use of all the technologies, which will mean that we get more value for taxpayers’ money. With an ageing society that is plagued by so many avoidable and preventable conditions, we need to be able to catch them in time, and that planning and foresight will be crucial for the future.
When I asked representatives of the Health Department how many chief executives there were in NHS England, they said that they did not know. Has my right hon. Friend had any more success than I have in finding out how much senior management there is, how it is aligned with the interests of patients and how wisely it is going to spend the extra money he is giving it?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that with this budget for the NHS comes a responsibility for that organisation to be absolutely open and candid—in a way that, frankly, it has too often not been—about where its resources are deployed, and certainly to avoid funding a culture of managerialism at the expense of the patients. We have had recent success in securing some of the data that we have been looking for, but this is a subject where ongoing pressure from across the House for greater transparency is welcome. Certainly if there is any data that we hold that my right hon. Friend would like to see, I will do my best to facilitate that.
I welcome the steps the Government are taking to address the challenges within the system. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a bit rich for Labour Members to be lecturing anybody on waiting times when waiting time targets in Wales have not been met for many years? As of May 2022, nearly 700,000 patients were waiting for care, which is a 50% increase since February 2020. That is a record to be ashamed of.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The performance of the Welsh Government in this area is genuinely concerning, but this also demonstrates a point about fundamental fairness. This debate is sometimes mischaracterised as everything being this Government’s fault, but as we have heard from the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), the performance of the Scottish healthcare system is blighted by many of the challenges that we are facing in England. Clearly there are also problems in Wales and significant problems in Northern Ireland. What matters is that we set out a clear plan to deal with them.
Our NHS elective delivery plan states that by next month no one will be waiting more than two years for elective care, except where patients choose to wait longer for some reason, and in a number of highly specialised areas.
We know that considerable progress has been made in achieving that target. The number who have waited two years or more in acute hospitals has fallen by 15,000 to 6,700, down from a peak of 22,500 in January. At the same time, the Government are on track to deliver our manifesto commitment for 50 million more primary care appointments by 2024. GP appointment numbers have already recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with 25.3 million taking place in April, of which 1.3 million were covid vaccinations.
The motion also mentions court dates, where we are also making good progress. We are providing almost half a billion pounds to address criminal court and tribunal backlogs.
The shadow Chief Secretary was reluctant to give me a straight answer to my question, so I wonder whether the Chief Secretary would tell me whether he believes the strike by barristers will lengthen or shorten the waiting times in our courts. Does he think strikes by public service workers more generally will do anything to help our economy and our recovery from the covid pandemic?
I thank my hon. Friend for his substantive question, and there was a certain reticence from the shadow Chief Secretary to answer it. The public will look in consternation at barristers striking when there is an offer on the table of a £7,000 a year pay increase for that profession. It comes down to a test of values: if they are serious about tackling the backlog in our courts, they should get to work, accept the pay offer and move forward. It would be helpful if the official Opposition, rather than looking at their feet or their phones, would get on with the job of persuading public service workers that the best interests of the public and those workers themselves lies in accepting reasonable pay offers, moving forward and not further gumming up public sector delivery by taking unnecessary strike action.
We are providing some half a billion pounds to address criminal court and tribunal backlogs. We have also extended 30 Nightingale courtrooms to help manage complex cases that would otherwise crowd out cases that are easier to answer. We are also investing £200 million to complete the £1.3 billion court reform programme. Reform is making our courts more modern, with a wide range of new online services to make the courts more efficient—this includes rolling out a new digital platform to manage 1.5 million annual criminal cases.
Finally, on airport delays, the reality is that we are seeing disruption globally in the travel sector as it is reopening, at pace, after almost two years of being shut down during the pandemic. Anyone who has seen the scenes recently at Schiphol or Dublin will recognise that, fundamentally, this is an international challenge. Where possible, the Government are supporting our aviation sector to manage the risk of disruption this summer. That includes using our post-Brexit freedoms to provide the sector with more flexibility when training new employees; working with Border Force to ensure preparations meet passenger demand; and allowing HMRC employment history letters to be used as a suitable form of reference check. Last week, we also laid regulations before Parliament that will help airlines prevent last-minute flight cancellations during the summer peak by allowing a one-off “amnesty” on airport slots rules.
While we are working around the clock to help people get on with their daily lives, the Labour party has, once again, chosen to side with its trade union paymasters and join the picket lines. During the pandemic alone, we delivered some £16 billion of emergency funding to keep the railways running, which is equivalent to £600 for every family in the UK. That level of subsidy is unsustainable and shows why reform is needed now, but instead of working together to achieve the reforms we need to make the railways fit for the future—and it is eminently achievable and fair, and really important—Opposition Front Benchers have backed the strike action and joined the picket lines. Those strikes have stopped people from getting to work, created additional stress for students taking exams and created untold problems for patients needing treatment. The shadow Front Benchers wish to form a Labour Government, but through their actions it is clear that a Labour Government would be content to see the country brought to a halt by militant union leaders. On this issue, the Opposition have displayed no leadership whatsoever.
I said that I would come back to the issue of inflation, and how the Government are addressing it. As the Chancellor told the House last month, we have three key tools at our disposal: independent monetary policy, fiscal responsibility and supply side reform. We have every confidence that the independent Bank of England will take decisive action to get inflation back on target, with it having averaged precisely 2% over the last 25 years. Our second tool is responsible fiscal policy. We know that any fiscal support we provide must be timely, targeted, and temporary, to avoid making the situation worse, by causing inflation, and interest and mortgage rates, to go up further than they otherwise would.
We are also taking an active approach to supply-side reform through initiatives such as the energy security strategy, which will reduce bills by increasing energy supply and improving energy efficiency; moving 500,000 jobseekers off welfare and into work; doing more to support older people back into the jobs market; and making our visa regime for high-skilled migrants one of the most competitive in the world.
The Opposition have no plan to tackle inflation. If they support double-digit, inflation-busting pay rises for public sector workers, do they accept the inflationary effect that will have? Does the shadow Chief Secretary accept that that would lead to higher and more prolonged inflation, hammering the incomes of more vulnerable households? How does Labour propose to pay for inflation-busting pay rises? Every Labour spokesperson who refuses to answer those questions—and they all do—is ducking questions that are fundamental to the running of our economy and our society. The public will draw their own conclusions.
We understand that growing the economy sustainably into the future is by far the best way we can support families in the long term. That is exactly why we will continue to invest in capital, people, and ideas, so that we can boost productivity and improve living standards. It is why we will cut the burden of taxation as we move out of the shadow of the pandemic over the years ahead. In his February 2022 Mais lecture and in the spring statement, the Chancellor spoke about his plans to create the conditions for private sector growth by supporting a culture of enterprise. Together, our plan for growth and our tax plan represent an ambitious strategy for boosting growth and productivity. By contrast, the Opposition call for a “new approach” to the economy. It is not a new approach: it is the same old Labour—uncosted spending, higher borrowing and a surrender to hard-line trade union bosses at every turn, every time. This Conservative Government will not make those mistakes. We will stick to our plan, make responsible choices and guide our country through difficult times to better days ahead.
In April the UK had a national net debt of £2.4 trillion—that is 12 zeros. The Chief Secretary was brave when he spoke about fiscal responsibility. The motion starts by noting that
“UK economic growth is forecast to grind to a halt next year, with only Russia worse in the OECD”.
That would be bad enough, but when one actually analyses what the OECD says, the position is even more stark. It says:
“GDP is projected to increase…in 2022, before stagnating in 2023. Inflation will keep rising and peak at over 10% at the end of 2022 due to continuing labour and supply shortages and high energy prices. Private consumption is expected to slow as rising prices erode households’ income. Public investment will weaken in 2022 as supply bottlenecks hamper...investment”.
It is a gloomy prognosis.
The IMF’s numbers make for troubling reading. The 1.2% growth forecast for the UK next year is the lowest of the advanced economies. That growth is also lower than emerging and developing Asian economies; lower than Latin America and the Caribbean economies; lower than the middle eastern and central Asian economies; and lower than sub-Saharan Africa. All of that at a time when, as the motion says,
“food prices, petrol costs and bills in general are soaring”.
Given that inflation in the euro area was at 8.1% in May, one could make a credible case that this is a global phenomenon. However, some of the problems are self-evidently self-inflicted. Only a fool would deny that many of the continuing labour and supply shortages are a direct result of the self-inflicted economic harm that is Brexit, leaving the single market and ending the free movement of labour. I know that the Minister said that Brexit is done and we need to move on, but I am not sure that there is a way to resolve many of those issues without addressing the freedom of movement and the single market issues.
Who pays the price of the failures? The OECD rather helpfully tells us:
“Vulnerable social groups have been particularly affected by the pandemic and poverty is set to increase as jobs are lost and self-employed see incomes dwindle”.
It will not be the Tory donors and cronies who benefited from the dodgy personal protective equipment contracts who will suffer. It will not be the bankers whose bonuses are proposed to be uncapped. They will not suffer, but then these people never do.
When the OECD talks about poverty being set to increase, we must also remember that this is not all by chance. It is not all a result of covid. It is not all because of external inflationary pressures. It is not all other people’s fault. It is a result of removing the universal credit uplift. It is a result of increasing national insurance. It is a consequence of the Tory policy of taxing the country more than it has been taxed for the past 70 years.
However, the motion before us also recognises that this failing and out-of-touch Government are leaving the UK with backlogs, such as the long waits for passports, driving licences, GP and hospital appointments, court dates and at airports. These things are all happening; we are seeing them with our own eyes. Many of these problems are of the Government’s own making, and their failure to understand, let alone tackle them is, I think, to their shame.
Let us look at the passport fiasco. Three weeks ago, I went to the pop-up passport office in Parliament with 24 cases. I went again last week with a further nine. Those are not unusual numbers; every MP has this. The staff there are incredibly helpful, but it is clear that the entire system is broken. Staff are drowning in the backlog of work. This is about not only families desperate not to lose hard-earned cash through cancelled holidays because they do not get their passports in time, but the impact that this is having on business. A local businessman told me recently:
“I travel abroad regularly for business and was unable to send off my passport for what could be 10 to 12 weeks. I was planning to use the fast-track service or online premium as my passport runs out in September. In the last six weeks, there has been no availability from Glasgow and I was planning to travel to Belfast or Durham, which were the only passport centres available.”
He told me a couple of weeks ago that
“as of last week, the passport website has been down with no access or availability. My current passport runs out on 11 September. I have business trips booked through May and June and, while I believe you can travel with up to three months on a passport, there is no guarantee that the airlines will allow you to fly.”
What sort of Government allow their Departments and agencies to fail like this, effectively stopping businesspeople travelling overseas to win new orders or to source raw materials or equipment?
And on an associated point—this is another Government failure—I have a local business that had advertised a professional management role. It told me that it did not receive a single eligible candidate from the UK in five months. It did, however, find a very good candidate in the United States and applied for a sponsor licence under the skilled worker immigration route, only to be denied on the grounds that they had not, apparently, provided all of the required information, while at the same time receiving no request for any additional information. This is Kafkaesque bureaucracy. It is a system that is designed to fail. The problem is, though, it was not just one person who did not get a job. The failure to bring this managerial role person on board has resulted in the business postponing the recruitment of other managerial and supervisory positions. What sort of Government would deny businesses and therefore the economy the opportunity to grow because they cannot issue a visa to someone who is self-evidently qualified to receive it?
Of course, the failures and backlogs are not all in passports and visas. I want to turn briefly to another constituent and the DVLA. This alludes to something that the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury said. A constituent who wrote to me yesterday said:
“I voluntarily surrendered my licence in June 2020 due to ill health, I have since reapplied...after I was advised that I should reapply for my licence. Since then, 19 weeks have passed and I have only heard from the DVLA to advise they had all the information required, this was on the 16th May when I made contact with them. I have enquired a few times since... I have contacted them via a special e-mail address that is set up for front line workers as this is meant to be a faster process.”
God help the poor souls who do not have access to the faster process. He went on:
“I am currently working as a community mental health nurse...my team works with severe and enduring mental health and requires a lot of travel for home visits, some of which are emergency situations. As you would expect this is having a massive impact on the service that I as a community mental health nurse can provide due to not being able to drive.”
This is not just backlog Britain; this is broken Britain. It is businessmen who cannot travel, businesses unable to recruit and mental health nurses unable to visit their patients.
Instead of the underlying problems being fixed—I am not talking about the short-term mitigation—what do we have? Threats of privatisation. At its heart, that is what this is all about: more private profit from the public purse going to the same people and, as I am sure none of us would be in any doubt, a yet more expensive and even poorer service for the people who depend on all these agencies.
I will keep to the eight minutes you have asked of us, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will take the opportunity to focus on three issues. Two of them, long waits for driving licences and backlogs at the airports, are mentioned in the motion; the third, delivery of rail, is not. However, while it may not have made it on to the motion, we are certainly all aware it was an issue for us last week and will continue to be so.
Looking first at the backlogs at the airports, there have been issues and challenges there. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury is absolutely right to say that we are not alone: Schiphol had a cancellation rate of about 11% during the period in question, while Gatwick’s, for example, was 2%. The situation has been poor across Europe, but it is particularly challenging for passengers to have their flights cancelled at the last minute.
One large reason for it is that only on 17 March did the industry get complete clearance for travel restrictions to be dropped in their entirety. Airlines were also required by Parliament to use 70% of their slots, or they would lose them. A combination of those two factors, and the fact that many airlines had taken out covid loans and had to start paying them back, led to a decision that they would ramp up over summer. However, it has been challenging for them to do so. There were 5,000 jobs lost in the international travel sector in this country on a monthly basis, and that has had an impact.
The airports collectively lost £10 billion, so it has been very difficult for them to ramp back up, and it takes a long time to get staff on to the frontline. It can take as much as three months to go through the vetting and clearance process. Of course, that has to be strict—it is for security—but I will shamelessly plug the Transport Committee’s recommendations here.
The first recommendation was for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to help with a personal statement where people cannot fill in all the parts of their five-year employment history as required. It is great to see that that is now in place. Many people worked in different sectors and parts of industry that have gone under during covid, and it has been difficult to get that five-year map. That is a great change, as is the ability to train workers while they are in their final vetting stage; again, the Government have accepted the recommendation for more flexibility. The ability to train more people within the line of sight has also helped. I praise the Government for the work they have done to make that easier.
However, the number of flights being cancelled at the last minute is just not good enough for passengers or for the industry. I welcome the steps the Government have taken to ease the 70% rule: for airlines that cancel with 14 or more days’ notice, that flight will go towards their 70% rather than counting towards them losing the slot. That is the kind of flexibility the industry needs.
I particularly praise Gatwick airport, which has taken the novel approach of capping the number of flights. It could see that the industry was trying to fly at 2018 figures but did not have the staff to do so, as I have just mentioned. The cap should make for a more bearable experience for passengers. The flights that are cancelled would just be those flying to the same destination on the same day; otherwise, the airlines would have to pay out. Sensible measures have been taken, and I welcome them. I would just say to those on the Front Bench: can we please get the Civil Aviation Authority more up-front powers? It is still going through the court process from the Ryanair industrial action of 2018 because it does not have the ability to stop poor behaviour when it occurs. However, I do welcome what the Government have done.
On long waiting lists for driving licences, as has been mentioned, drivers have been unable to take up work because there has been such a long delay to the paper-based process. According to the DVLA, at one point, due to social distancing, reductions in staff on-site and industrial action, the backlog got to 1.6 million. We have continued to write to the DVLA as a Committee and hold it to account. It last reported that the backlog was down to 890,000. It always has a run rate of 400,000 at any one time but assured us that the rate will get down to the business-as-usual rate by September. We will continue to hold it to account. At that time, it was the one sector of the civil service, or agency, that seemed to be struggling, and there are questions for the management as to whether people really can work from home in a manner that for other parts of the civil service and agencies seems to work quite well. Management are on notice that they need to do better.
The third aspect, which is not referenced in the motion but is so important, is rail. I talked about the 5,000 jobs lost each month in the airline industry because it had to make its own way through. We supported rail to the tune of £16 billion. There were no redundancies apart from a package of voluntary redundancy that was announced, and got a high uptake, last year. In direct contrast to what the airline sector saw, the rail system has been supported by us all. It is incredibly disappointing to see the strikes. I call for the unions to look at the reforms as not just a way of increasing productivity that will give their members a pay rise, but as making the railways safer for the workforce and for passengers. Why do we still require people on the track when technology can do it better, so it is safer for them and safer for passengers? We need both parties to work together to end the strikes. Rail is not being delivered, and it would have been nice if the Opposition had recognised that we all need to support it.
My last point is on the impact of inflation. In all three sectors I have talked about, industrial action has been occurring or is ongoing. Inflation-busting pay increases are completely counterproductive for those who are seeking them but also for the wider public who have to pay for them, because all they do is put up inflation even more and take away the pay rise at that end. They also have to be paid for. Let me give an example. The refuse strike at Wealden District Council in my constituency has been settled at a cost of 27%. That will be paid for by all council tax payers in my constituency. The last increase in council tax has all been eaten up by the previous pay settlement, so there will not be enough to fund this one, and all the benefits we could bring to the district council are being taken away. How will it be paid for? The council cannot go into deficit and therefore there could be job losses, so one person’s pay rise is somebody else’s job loss.
With the cost of living challenges, I understand that there will be pay demands in the public sector, but we all know—certainly Conservative Members do—that somebody has to pay for that, and it will be all our voters. We also know that inflation breeds inflation, and so it knocks out the pay rise. It effectively becomes a zero-sum game. I hope that all of us in Parliament can call for restraint—for people to be sensible and reasonable, and try to find productivity gains to pay for those increases—but if we are not careful things will get very bad indeed in the public sector and that will not benefit anybody in this place.
We pay taxes for the Government to run our public services, and many of my constituents are asking: what is the point? From driving licences, to passports, to immigration decisions, to dental appointments, to ambulances, to GP and hospital appointments, backlog Britain is a daily reality for so many people across the country. If Ministers were running these public services as private companies, they would all be bankrupt—and what is their response? It is to charge us more by putting up our taxes while cutting the number of frontline civil service staff providing those services. How Ministers can think that cutting staff and putting up the cost is the answer to backlog Britain, I do not know.
Ministers have said, and will continue to say, that they must take these measures—putting up taxes and cutting staff—because of the economic situation. But after 12 years of Conservative economic mismanagement, they have only themselves to blame. After 12 years of economic mismanagement, the national public debt has increased by billions, from only 60% of national wealth in 2010 when Labour left office, to 80% before covid struck, to now being nearly 100%—all under the Conservatives’ watch. After 12 years of economic mismanagement and repeated tax rises, tax revenue is projected to hit 35% of national wealth by 2025-26, which is the highest sustained level of taxation since the second world war. After 12 years of economic mismanagement, our economy has gone from flatlining to declining. Britain is becoming less competitive, less productive and less wealthy thanks to the Conservatives’ economic mismanagement.
Now more than ever, with the cost of living crisis affecting so many, the public want to know that their taxes are being spent well. Yet this Government’s disregard for public services is self-evident. Many of my constituents in Bristol North West have written to me over the past few months about the problems they have experienced at the Passport Office, which is just one example of a service in the reality of backlog Britain. All of them are desperate after weeks and months of delay. One was left waiting for nearly six months for their passport to be renewed, with their long-planned holiday in jeopardy and their formal complaints left unanswered. Another had their passport lost by the Passport Office for months, with the result that they were unable to travel to visit a sick relative. A third, also with their passport inexplicably lost, was unable to attend a relative’s funeral despite weeks and weeks of chasing.
I say to the public that they should keep a close eye on this lot in government, because rather than outlining how the Government will fix the problems, the Prime Minister’s response to backlogs at the Passport Office was to threaten the service with privatisation. Year after year, cut after cut, I worry that our schools and hospitals could suffer the same fate. We are an ageing population, and the British people will need to rely on our national health service and social care more in the future, yet right now our health service is struggling to cope.
A constituent recently wrote to me to share their experiences of needing an ambulance during an emergency. They reported that they had to wait for as long as 12 hours for an ambulance to arrive after first calling 999. They explained how they now worry about dying alone in the future. Another explained that they were forced to wait for two months, rather than the expected two weeks, for an urgent cancer referral to specialists. If we want Britain to be competitive in this globalised world, our young and working people need to receive the best education and healthcare available. However, because the Conservatives have left the economy smaller, poorer and more indebted, we will have less money to pay for those public services. Bit by bit, those who can afford to use private services, whether dentists, GPs, care homes or private tutors, will have no choice but to do so—many already do.
I have spoken before in this House about the breadth of problems my constituents have encountered in trying to access NHS dental services, which, in my view, have largely been privatised already by the back door. Constituents tell me that waiting times are getting worse and worse, and that the Government fail to intervene. Next, I am sure that the Conservatives will encourage those who can afford it to go private, leaving underfunded public services for those who cannot. Before long, our public services will be changed forever, with only those families able to afford to pay for the best from the private sector able to get the support they deserve.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, including on privatisation, but there is another point, which is that the poorest in our society pay the most for services. They pay the most for banking services, and they pay the most for energy through prepaid meters and other things. We have a further widening, not just of incomes, but of costs to the poorest in society, pushing them further and further away from being able to live decent lives above the breadline. Is that not a broader effect of what is going on?
My hon. Friend is right, and it is for the Government to do something about it. What is the point of having a Government or paying taxes if the Government stand by and say, “Oh well, this is just something that we cannot really affect”? Inequality is growing and it is now impossible for people to make themselves wealthy in our country without inheriting wealth. These issues are getting worse and worse, and the Conservative Government think it should just be left to the market and that the Government have no role to play.
In the backlog Britain that exists in reality today, whether that is passport services or elsewhere, Ministers sit by. They blame anyone else they can think of and threaten public services without taking any responsibility for their role as Ministers of the Crown. It is their job to fix these issues. Why are they not doing so? Until I see the Conservatives get a grip of the economy—[Interruption.] The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Minister for Security and Borders are chuntering, but they are welcome to intervene.
I am a Member for Bristol, but I point out that the Conservative and Unionist party ought to take some responsibility from here about what is happening across the country and the Union. Once again, however, its Members deflect responsibility and distract the public from the real cause of our problems, which is 12 years of Conservative economic mismanagement.
The facts may be uncomfortable, and Ministers may chunter, but they come from the Office for Budget Responsibility and the national statistician. Ministers have no answer to that evidence of the Government’s economic mismanagement of the last 12 years—they merely deflect and blame others. Until I see a Government who are ready to get a grip of the economy, with a plan to make Britain stronger, more successful and more sustainable, with the energy to not just survive until the next vote of no confidence, but invest in and modernise our public services, I have little hope that we will move away from the Conservative legacy of the high-tax, low-growth backlog Britain that we live in today.
I rise to speak against the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. I feel a sense of déjà vu, because I spoke in an Opposition debate last week on a similar motion. Once again, Opposition Members criticise and talk Britain down, but offer nothing constructive to deal with the problems that the country faces, having been impacted by the unprecedented pandemic and a global economic situation. They are also transparent in not attacking their own politicians who have power in this country, who face and acknowledge the same problem that we are talking about.
I maintain that it is only because of our actions since 2010 when the Conservatives took power that we could spend the money that we needed to insulate ourselves and our public services from the pandemic. We had to do that because Labour bankrupted the country in 2010, and our responsible approach from 2010 to 2018 allowed us to protect the services that we needed to protect and spend the money on them and vulnerable people throughout the pandemic.
The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) talked about this country’s indebtedness. I agree that this country is in a large amount of debt, but I remind him that in his constituency, people were kept in employment and businesses were kept in business because of the furlough scheme that the Government created. Does he think that should not have gone ahead?
It happened partly because we were investing in services. The hon. Gentleman said in his speech that the Government were woefully in debt. I take it, then, that he did not back the action that we had to take during the unprecedented pandemic and global situation to protect his constituents and the businesses in his constituency. The people out there will take what they need to from his speech.
The action that I have outlined led us to have 7.5% of economic growth in 2021, which was the largest increase in economic growth anywhere in the G7. That has now stalled, but that is because of the global situation in which we find ourselves. Let us remember that if the Opposition had been in charge, we would have come out of the pandemic more slowly, because they wanted to keep us in lockdown. We would have had a slower vaccine rollout—this Government spent the money necessary to get the vaccines onboard—and lower economic growth. Opposition Members now have the cheek to absent themselves from acknowledging the pandemic and the global situation. Once again, they present a vision full of hindsight that is lacking in any reality whatsoever.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the pandemic and growth as we come out of it. Will he comment on how the Government failed to lock down quickly at various key points, which prolonged the pandemic and made the related reduction in economic activity deeper and worse?
My comment to the hon. Gentleman is that this country lifted back up while his party was still calling for us to be in lockdown. We lifted up quicker than the Leader of the Opposition wanted us to; he wanted us to lock down again, so I will not take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman about what the Government have done in lifting us up and getting the economy moving.
The action I was outlining means that £37 billion has been invested in the economy; at no stage today was that acknowledged by the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). It means £650 for recipients of means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioners in receipt of the winter fuel payment and £150 for people in receipt of disability benefits—and we have cut taxes for 30 million people to the tune of £330 a year.
However, there is an issue on which I have some sympathy with Members and those outside this House. I am a Conservative—I do not think that I need to declare that in the House—but I am a Conservative who believes that we can grow the economy if we keep more money in people’s pockets. I gently say to the Chief Secretary that people are looking to him for tax cuts—for the economy, the middle classes and vulnerable people. We need to go further with tax cuts, so that we get the economic growth that we need.
The Labour party should not be allowed to be disingenuous with this motion; the Government have invested in public services. I want to pick up on two points that the shadow Minister outlined. What kind of world do we live in when the Labour party, the supposed party of the NHS, moans that we are under-investing in the NHS while consistently voting against the Government’s record investment in it? The Liberal Democrats voted against it, too. We put £36 billion of funding into the NHS, which is £12 billion a year of extra funding, and they opposed it at every turn. They opposed us in every Division we had on NHS spending, and now they say that we are not doing anything. That is not a consistent approach from the Labour party. There are record numbers of doctors—124,000 of them—as well as 300,000 extra nurses, and I remind the House that Labour Members, the Liberal Democrats and those from other parties voted against those measures.
In the passports debate two weeks ago, I said to the shadow Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), that although the Opposition say that the Government are not taking any action on passports, 700 extra staff are being recruited to the passport service. There are 500 already, and they are not privatised staff, but staff of Her Majesty’s Passport Office, whom we are investing in, so that passport applications are completed on time. Some 90% of applications are completed within six weeks; 98.5% are completed within 10 weeks; and 1 million passports were processed in March 2022. Seven million would be processed in a normal year. I say today what I said then: there is a lack of acknowledgment of the effect that the pandemic and lockdown have had on international travel. They have meant that more people are applying. However, we are taking the action necessary to make sure that passport applications are completed on time.
Today we have heard about Labour failure in Wales and Manchester. As this debate has gone on, we have heard about Labour failure in London; the Metropolitan Police Service is being put into special measures. It is controlled by a Labour politician, but nobody on the Labour side of the House criticises the Labour party, or those in power who have the budgets and the means to make the changes that the people they represent need. The Labour party attacks us. The public see that the party has no vision for this country, and that it does not play on a level playing field, given that its elected politicians are failing because of the same circumstances that Labour Members have mentioned today. What we see here is what the public will see, which once again is a carping Opposition with no practical, constructive or sensible solutions for the unprecedented problems of the day. They need to stop voting against measures that tackle the problems that they complain about. They complain about us not taking action, but why do they not march through the Division Lobby and vote with this Government for record amounts of money for public services, and then come up with a constructive solution afterwards? They have not done that at all.
Finally, it would be nice if, just once—even if they disagree with the core principles of this Government—Labour Members told the truth: that they would not, and could not, have done much differently, given the circumstances we faced in the pandemic, and with the global economic crisis. The public would respect this Parliament a lot more if we genuinely worked together, instead of Labour Members carping from the sidelines. This Government are taking action on the NHS and passports, and are making sure that the most vulnerable people in this country are looked after. That is why I was elected to this House, and why the Government were elected to office in 2019. Labour Members should stop criticising. They should come to the table and provide solutions, but I doubt we will ever hear them.
I congratulate the Labour party on bringing forward today’s debate, and acknowledge at the outset—I am seeking common ground with those on the Treasury Bench—that government is hard. Government means not being entirely in charge of events, and the Government must be responsible for things beyond their direct control. The SNP has been the Government of Scotland since 2007, and it has seldom been easy to achieve the results we wanted, but we see the verdict of the people of Scotland on the performance of the SNP Government: the 2019 Westminster election, the 2021 Holyrood election and the local election this year have been resounding SNP victories.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very fair point, but is that the reason why A&E waiting times in Scotland are at a record high? In May over 10,000 people were waiting over two years for medical treatment; is that not a shameful record for the SNP Government?
I was hoping to find common ground, rather than hear endless whataboutery. We could all swap stats about the performance of our relative Governments, but I am here to critique the performance of this UK Government and try to find solutions. Have there been challenges? Of course there have. Are we all facing common challenges from the international global situation with covid? Of course we are. It is how we respond to those challenges, the decisions we make, and how we resource our public services that we can be judged by. The people of Scotland judged the SNP Government, and resoundingly backed us. Of course there are challenges, but I am proud to stand by the SNP’s record.
To govern is to choose, and it is the choices of this UK Government that we can critique today. I endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) about the underlying causes of policy failure, the UK Government’s wrong decision in leaving the EU, and doing so in the way they did. That compounded a number of our difficulties, just as wrong management choices affected the delivery of public services. I will not belabour or repeat the points my right hon. Friend made, but the SNP remains very clear about our ambition for Scotland: we want an independent Scotland, back in the European family of nations. The people of Scotland will have a choice on that in October 2023. We will come back to that discussion at the proper time, I do not doubt, and I look forward to that.
I apologise for intervening on the hon. Gentleman, especially after I have just made a speech. Talking of delivering public services and the economy, the First Minister today outlined her plan for independence, but she failed to mention what currency the SNP proposes for an independent Scotland, and whether independence would have a negative or positive impact on the economic outlook of Scotland.
As I say, I look forward to the debates that we will have in the coming months, and I look forward to the decision of the people of Scotland on those matters.
I have said that it is difficult to be in government, and I acknowledge the problems the UK Government have faced. I am honestly not here to score political points. I will focus my remarks solely on passports and driving licences, because that has been a considerable difficulty for hundreds of the people I serve in Stirling—and, I suspect, for thousands, if not more, people across all our constituencies. I say hand on heart to the UK Government, constitutional politics aside, that I want this fixed. It needs to be fixed a lot more quickly.
I listened carefully to the Chief Secretary’s comments on passports and driving licences, and I am not sure that many of my constituents in Stirling would agree with his rather Panglossian analysis. There have been clear failures in the delivery of these services. I agree that the backlogs in both the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and Her Majesty’s Passport Office were unprecedented, but they were not remotely unforeseeable, and the scale of the Government response was inadequate. We need a laser-like focus on that in this discussion. We need far greater investment in these services, and far greater support for the hard-working staff who are swamped in trying to deal with the backlogs, which are having significant knock-on effects on the livelihoods and mental health, as we have heard, of many millions of the citizens we serve.
I have three examples from Stirling—this is just a selection from this morning’s postbag. One constituent applied for his child’s passport on 30 March—13 weeks ago this Wednesday. He was to travel on 25 June, but he cancelled, lost the money and rebooked for 6 July. There was no response at all to his requests to expedite the application, and with just seven days to go, there is still no passport.
Another constituent applied on 2 March for passports for herself and her four-year-old daughter, so that they could travel on 1 May—it was to be their first holiday. Their passports were late and they missed their holiday. In another constituent’s own words:
“I went to the Glasgow office today and waited for hours in the queue. They weren’t going to see me as I don’t travel in the next 48 hours. However, I pleaded my case and the lovely lady agreed to at least check everything was ok with my application. It was not. Though they received my supporting documents recorded delivery, HMPO have lost them (3 birth certificates). This resulted in me quite literally running down to the Glasgow registrar office”.
It said it could provide the certificates in 24 hours. My constituent continued:
“I am now on a train back to Stirling to go to the registry office there who have agreed to print them off…then I will head back to Glasgow to have them proceed with the application.”
Missed holidays are not the biggest crisis in the world, but missed livelihoods are, and the failures of the DVLA are even worse. A number of HGV drivers and people dependent on driving for their work have been unable to work and in danger of losing their livelihoods and employment because of the delays.
I always hope to find consensus and to suggest solutions. To solve a problem, one first needs to acknowledge it. I therefore urge a bit more humility and honesty from the Government in dealing with the passport and DVLA issues in particular. There has been investment—I acknowledge that—but it has not been adequate. We need more. The establishment of a Westminster helpdesk for MPs, while welcome—we have used it—reveals something of a Westminster-centric attitude. What we actually need is far more people on the phones, available to our constituents and citizens who need the advice. That advice needs to be properly resourced.
I acknowledge that there has been investment, but it has not been enough, so to talk about tax cuts in general, as an ideological point, is to miss the point entirely. This is a problem that hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of our citizens are facing right now. The Government have to deliver public services, and they have not done remotely as well as they need to. For hundreds of thousands of constituents, backlog Britain is a very real and pressing problem. I therefore congratulate the Labour party on bringing forward the debate and urge the UK Government to do better.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who seemed to argue that incompetence is justified as long as a party gets the democratic mandate to continue to act in that manner. I welcome his straightforward comments accepting that the SNP Government, who have responsibility for the matters that we are discussing, have faced the same challenges, including those resulting from the pandemic, as the rest of the world, and, like others, found difficulties in overcoming them, hence some of the bad figures that I quoted. I thank him for his straightforward response.
In talking about the delivery of public services—the Labour party, who brought forward the motion, do so with such certainty of criticism and purpose—we must look back to Labour’s previous actions as well as at its current actions, because clearly it must be doing something right. I gave the example—it is worthy of repetition—that Labour politicians criticise Conservative politicians for challenges regarding waiting times, yet in Wales 700,000 people are waiting for planned care, which is a 50% increase on February 2020, and no Opposition Member makes any reference to it. If the Welsh Government have any idea of how to address that, I would welcome Members sharing the news with us. What is the idea? What will they do? There is nothing on that. [Interruption.] I will not give way.
So we go on and look back further. The criticism in respect of the NHS is that, in effect, money has been put in but wasted in various ways. I thought, “I must look back at when Labour ran our NHS. I’m sure that there is a real record of investment and getting a really good bang for the taxpayer’s buck.” Although I am the very proud MP for Bury North, I am from Huddersfield and my local hospital was under threat under the last Labour Government because of the decision to build Calderdale Royal Hospital.
The hon. Lady talks about public opinion. Calderdale Royal Hospital was constructed with a £34 million private finance initiative deal that, at the last reckoning, cost the taxpayer £740 million. The last Labour Government wasted millions upon millions of pounds on the NHS that should have been invested in modernising and developing frontline services—it was absolutely criminal. We have made record investments throughout our time in government, as shown in the increased number of nurses and the increased services that my constituents are able to access, although there are challenges.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Surely he must be aware that his Government’s Health and Care Act 2022, which was enacted just a month or so ago, opens up the NHS to private sector takeovers that will be deeply inefficient because money that should be spent on patient care will be taken out and given to shareholders.
I remember another slogan from when Labour left office: “there is no money.” I agree with my hon. Friend.
We talk about figures all too often in this House, and we can come up with any figure. It could be £1 billion, £2 billion, £500 billion or £500 million. That is not the delivery of public services; it is just us coming up with figures. The question is: what delivery model will get bang for our buck and deliver services so that people in Scotland do not wait so long in A&E and so waiting lists are not as long in Wales? The delivery model is the issue.
The hon. Gentleman keeps referring to the healthcare system in Scotland. When will the English Government implement free prescriptions and free annual eyecare for the people of England? When will they implement free social care for the elderly in England?
There is record investment in the NHS in England, and it is for the decision makers, those who deliver frontline services and medical professionals to make those choices. The hon. Gentleman is saying that politicians, not medical professionals, should decide the right choices for patients. [Interruption.] It is strange that he is laughing, but he makes my point on the method of delivery.
I have a constituency example of what this Government have done to deliver public services. I have already spoken of the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s appalling supervision that led directly to my local police services, and the local police services of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), being put in special measures, and to the most vulnerable people in our communities being put at risk. My local council, a Labour council, was given £122 million to support people, businesses and frontline services during the pandemic. Under the £37 billion package that was before the House last week, 12,000 households in my constituency will get at least £600 to support them through this period, and most of them will get up to £1,200. When we talk about those figures and what the Government have done, we see that they are supporting the people in Bury to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. The problem is that the delivery model is Labour-controlled Bury Council, which is incompetent, I am afraid, and its record would suggest that. We therefore need a wider debate about how we link the money that the Budget and the Treasury gives to local and regional government and how that is spent in the most efficient way.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He rightly points out the grotesque incompetence of our Mayor. The second largest police force in England, Greater Manchester police, is failing; it is considered to be inadequate. I was wondering whether he could remind me who the Health Secretary was when people were drinking water out of flower vases at Mid Staffs and, apparently, satisfaction with the NHS was at its highest.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester has been consistent in his past and present career regarding the delivery of public services. The important point is that we have to learn from the mistakes that my hon. Friend highlights and make sure that public services are delivered in a different way.
The Government have invested more than £400 billion during the pandemic. Not only have they given the metropolitan borough of Bury the £122 million that I mentioned, but both constituencies in Bury have got upwards of £200 million. There are three free schools and there have been two levelling-up fund bids, as well as all sorts of other things—including the purchase of Gigg Lane, Mr Deputy Speaker—directly to help and support the aim of us all to make sure that public services are delivered in the best possible way. However, we cannot have this debate simply about figures. We have to work out a way to ensure that managers in the NHS and civil servants in various councils throughout the country deliver on the manifesto and the mandate that is given by the Government through record levels of investment in schools, the NHS and all the other things that we are discussing.
The Government’s record is something to be proud of. We heard from the Opposition what their plan is: nothing. There is no plan. This is simply an opportunity to read out a load of manufactured points, rather than supporting the Government in their efforts to level up and make sure that public services are delivered in the interests of constituents throughout the country.
It is a privilege to speak after the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly), who seems to take the line that because someone else is doing badly, it is okay for this Tory Government of 12 years to do badly; and that because somebody else is failing to deliver somewhere, it is entirely right for the Conservative Government to fail and not deliver for the public in this country. When questions are put to them about when they will deliver free prescriptions for England, free eye tests on a 12-monthly basis and free social care for everyone, they fail to address them. They use smoke and mirrors when addressing the 12 years of failures from this incompetent Tory Government.
Earlier this month, we discussed the unacceptable waiting times facing people who are seeking to renew or apply for passports. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government. During my contribution to that debate, I stated that the passport delays were but one instance of the backlogs being faced by my constituents under 12 years of this Conservative Government. For the past two years, I have spoken to hundreds of constituents whose visa applications are still outstanding, with some people waiting for more than a year without a word from the Home Office. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government. Even simple matters such as the issuance of a biometric residence permit are subject to mind-boggling delays. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
I was referring to how the Conservative party uses smoke and mirrors to blame everyone else for its failures.
I have spoken to asylum seekers who have not received a single update on the progress of their application for asylum. These are people who do not have the right to work or any recourse to public funds, so making them wait for months at a time without providing an update on their application is not only incompetent, but profoundly cruel. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
Things do not get any better when we look at services such as healthcare. I recently visited Sparkhill primary care centre in my constituency. Dr Al-Qazi, a well-recognised and respected GP, runs the practice. I spoke to patients and doctors there about the strains on GP surgeries. Capacity is a serious issue, with recruitment problems and growing patient numbers making it difficult for GPs to meet demand. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
Despite repeated promises of extra funding from this Government, Dr Al-Qazi had not seen an extra penny. An obsession with targets, without any of the promised extra resources, is tying GPs down and preventing them from prioritising patient care. I must say that the GPs and patients I spoke to expressed no confidence in this Government’s ability to deliver. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
In Birmingham and across the west midlands, NHS waiting times are the worst since records began. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
People are facing not only 12-hour waits at accident and emergency departments, but significant waiting times for hospital appointments. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
I have spoken to several constituents who, because of the long waiting times for life-changing surgery, are now turning to private providers, whether they are affordable or not. Recent research by the University of Birmingham on waiting times and operation backlogs has shown that more than 100,000 people in Birmingham are waiting for surgery or need invasive procedures to check for cancer. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
The research also points to the fact that many more people are on hidden waiting lists that are not represented in official data. It therefore concludes that growing waiting lists may become an inevitable feature of NHS care in future. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
All this means that people across the country are essentially being forced into private care because of the serious backlogs confronting the NHS. The burden of these backlogs is being carried by families and by those least able to afford it, while the Government flounder. Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.
To my mind, all these backlogs demonstrate two clear things. First, this Conservative Government are incapable of ensuring that even the most basic services are provided to constituents in a timely manner. Secondly, they are all so completely out of touch with the British public that they feel no urgency about getting a grip on the situation and introducing measures to relieve the backlogs. It seems that backlog Britain is here to stay as long as we have this rudderless Government standing in the way of solutions.
In summary, passport renewal times: up. Home Office application times: up. Driving licence times: up. GP appointment times: up. Hospital appointment times: up. Ambulance waiting times: up. NHS dentist times: up. A&E waiting times: up. Police waiting times: up. Cost of living: up. Mortgage rates: up. Food banks: up. Gas and electric bills: up. Court waiting times—
It is, of course, a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali). He talked a great deal about the need for free prescriptions; I think it must have escaped his notice that the Government have now vaccinated 150 million people with free covid prescriptions.
Listening to the Opposition, one would think that this was a Government who were failing at everything. We have heard nothing but doom and gloom. There has been no recognition that when the whole world was hit by the worst global pandemic for a century, this Government delivered the first approved vaccine roll-out anywhere on the globe. We have heard nothing about the fact that that was followed by the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe—and at the same time the Government delivered £400 billion of support for businesses, which preserved 14.5 million jobs: that is why unemployment is now at its lowest since 1974.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nor would we have come out of lockdown at the earliest possible moment, which has preserved the economy and jobs. The main point, however, is that we have heard no solutions from the Opposition.
The motion mentions GP and hospital appointments, and that is what I want to talk about today. In the health system, the Government are looking for new, innovative solutions to solve the problems that we are experiencing. Of course there are problems: we have just been through a global pandemic which saw the whole country in lockdown and our hospitals and GPs focused on treating millions of covid patients and on the vaccination programme that I have just been talking about, so inevitably there have been delays to regular and routine appointments.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous.
I wonder how much responsibility she thinks the Prime Minister should bear for that situation, given that in the very early stages of the pandemic he was coming in here and gloating about shaking hands with covid patients. That set the scene for the early response from the Government to the pandemic.
I think the hon. Gentleman is missing the entire point that I am making. I am acknowledging that our health service has quite rightly been treating covid patients. Now that the pandemic is over, we are of course looking towards dealing with the backlog.
In Southend West, I, like many Members in other constituencies, receive complaints every week from constituents who are experiencing delays in getting appointments with their GPs. One constituent who wrote to me had suffered a minor head injury and ended up having to call an ambulance and go to the local A&E because they could not get a GP appointment. I have raised the issue of ambulances in the House before. However, we have a Secretary of State who is focusing on the issue and is already making progress. That is why we were able to announce this week that we are set to eliminate two-year waiting lists by July, and that is why, because of our management of the economy, the NHS budget is set to grow by an average of 3.8% every year up to 2024-25. As we have heard, by the end of this Parliament we will be spending £188 billion on the NHS, up from £133 billion. That is an increase of £54 billion—over 40%. That is possible despite the poor financial circumstances that we inherited. This Government have increased investment in the NHS every year since we came into office in 2010.
In Southend West, which I represent, we are leading the way in improving people’s healthcare. Due to the actions of myself and other Essex MPs, we will have an increase of 111 ambulance staff over the coming months and 11 new ambulances will be on our roads by the end of July. Earlier this month, Southend Hospital began an innovative enhanced discharge service. This is a collaboration between the council, the clinical commissioning group and the hospital, and it is helping people to get home when they have been in hospital, and to stay there. It is a brilliant therapy-led assessment service that really puts people at the heart of ongoing care, and I am delighted that the Government are supporting the scheme.
The hon. Lady is talking about the discharge from hospital process that was brought into law through the Health and Care Act 2022. Is she aware that the Government do not even know the clinical outcomes of these people? I have submitted written questions on a number of occasions to ask how many patients who were discharged under the discharge to assess process were readmitted to hospital within 30 days, but the Government do not know. Does she agree that the Government should really have done the work and found that out before going ahead with a process that puts very vulnerable patients at risk?
I suggest that the hon. Lady should be congratulating this Government on delivering a £36 billion package to reform the NHS and social care and on tackling issues that Labour Members have ducked for years.
I want to return to the improvements at my own hospital. Patients are now being welcomed through the doors of a new two-storey outpatients building that is creating space for an extra 200 people every week. This state-of-the-art £1.2 million building includes 14 new consulting rooms, seven offices and a large waiting area. It is initiatives such as these that are leading the fightback against delays and waiting lists at the hospital, as opposed to just talking about them. There are also exciting new plans to build a brand-new £8.6 million entrance at the hospital, improving clinical provision, accessibility and the whole experience of patients, staff and visitors. This building will attract private capital funding. There will be no extra cost to the hospital trust or to the taxpayer. It is exactly this sort of innovation that we are looking for.
I am also pleased that our local GPs are looking at ways to improve their waiting lists. As I have mentioned, waiting lists are a huge problem. Having people waiting in a queue on the phone at 8 o’clock in the morning and being unable to book an appointment is something that none of us wants to see continue. The Pall Mall surgery in my constituency, which I had the pleasure of visiting earlier this week, has introduced a new e-consult scheme. Patients can enter their details online, which are then triaged by a clinician. This allows the surgery to triage 100 patients in the same time that traditional appointments would have taken to triage 15. The point of this is not to deny people who need to see a GP a face-to-face appointment but to ensure that our resources are used to their maximum effect so that the GPs can see as many patients as possible face to face.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I come to my final point, which is about the reconfiguration of the accident and emergency department at Southend Hospital. That will deliver crucial improvements, and the Government announced funding for it in 2017. The business case was approved by regulators and by the Treasury in 2019, and only last month the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), restated that we would be getting this funding. It would be wrong of me not to use this opportunity to ask, once again, that the Department of Health and Social Care releases this funding to Southend Hospital.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend West (Anna Firth).
I wish to speak in favour of the motion and to pick up on some of the serious concerns about backlog Britain, illustrating how it is linked to the long period of low growth and under-investment in key public services that goes back to the austerity period and the decisions made by Governments since 2010. Before I do, I wish to pay tribute to our public sector and public service workers, who have done the most incredible job for a very long time—for their whole careers—but particularly in the past couple of years, during this unprecedented crisis the country has faced. I am sure that all of us, across the House, want to wish them the very best and show our support for them. We respect them and think they do the most wonderful job for our communities across this country.
While I touch on the work that those workers have carried out, I want to ask Ministers to think seriously about what it feels like to be a frontline public sector worker. I ask them to imagine themselves into the position of a nurse in the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, of a local GP or of many other local public sector workers in my constituency. I ask them to think about that and respond in the fullness of time.
In particular, I ask Ministers to think about not only the pressures caused by the pandemic, but the long effect of austerity, the lack of funding and particular local problems we face in our area. For example, two GP practices have closed in my constituency and others are under severe pressure. We have a problem with looming GP retirements and other pressures arising from severe shortages of skilled staff. We have problems with numbers being reduced in Thames Valley police. Admittedly, the Government are recruiting more police, but they are doing so belatedly and there are questions as to whether they will be able to replace the officers who have been lost. There are serious problems with school funding and pressures on school budgets, because of the misunderstanding of the way in which the teachers’ pensions need to be funded by schools. There is a series of serious problems, and I ask Ministers to think deeply about that and address them when they respond to us later today. I hope they can learn the lessons of these mistakes and rethink Government policy.
In the time available, I wish to focus on one service that has caused serious problems in my constituency. I refer to the mismanagement of the passport service during the past few months, as we have come out of the pandemic. Let me illustrate some of the problems that I have encountered as a constituency MP. I have dealt with 59 cases in recent weeks of people waiting for passports, sometimes for up to 12 or 14 weeks. Those affected include not just families who want to go on holiday and rightly deserve to do so after the awful time of the pandemic, but people waiting to see terminally ill relatives and people who need to go abroad for urgent reasons. The delays are lengthy and there is a lack of communication with residents in my area, and I understand that colleagues from across the House have suffered with this as well. People are not being given updates. I have often had residents come to me saying, “I am about to go on holiday. I am due to go in two weeks but I still have not heard anything from the Passport Office.” That is not good enough and it reflects a wider lack of planning, which I want to pick up on in a moment.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. We know that the Government want to cut 91,000 jobs from the civil service. On 2021 figures, that would mean the loss of almost a fifth of all civil servants. Those cuts could mean more than 11,000 job losses in the north-west, where my constituency is based, with 3,500 in Merseyside and 400 in Wirral. Does he agree that if the Government go ahead with these job cuts, my constituents, the region’s economy and the level of services that people receive will suffer?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She is highlighting clearly the issues in her area, and the same applies across the whole country. The Government are expecting public service workers to catch up and deal with an unprecedented backlog, while threatening deep cuts. As she has rightly said, many of the services provided by the civil service are in Government agencies rather than in Whitehall, which employs only a tiny proportion of the overall headcount.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. To add to his point, it is foolish to suggest that there is somehow some unnecessary flabbiness in the civil service or in local service delivery, because so much that has been added was driven by the need to make trade deals, with teams being brought in to negotiate those deals, and to support the Afghan situation and now the Ukraine situation. That is why we have so many people in our civil service right now.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the need to respond to crises and the pressure on the public sector as a whole.
I thank the Minister for Security and Borders, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who is in his place, because he and his colleagues have been generous in supporting me in dealing with some of my constituency cases. However, the fact that Ministers have to intervene illustrates some of the management failures in the system, which ultimately reflect poorly on them and their colleagues in government.
I ask Ministers to think about the case study of the Passport Agency. It provides a vital public service, and it has been expected to catch up with a large backlog very suddenly. Why, when the pandemic was clearly coming to an end, was there not more planning, more foresight and a more strategic look ahead at the likely implications for the head count needed in the offices that process passports, as well as the implications for the public and the economy of severe delays in that vital public service? I am afraid that the Government have been found very wanting in that instance, and it illustrates the wider failure of leadership and management in the current Administration that dates all the way back to their election in 2010. I urge the Government to think carefully about the implications of the problems we now face.
That issue also links to the way the Government operate at a political level. It is interesting that many of the problems are occurring at the very time when we see turmoil in the governing party. All too often it suggests that Ministers are more bothered about the internal factional issues in their party—the Prime Minister’s survival or demise—than about managing public services in a responsible, sensible way. I ask them to get back to the day job and get a grip on those vital services, support public service professionals, provide them with the correct amount of resource, and encourage them in their vital work.
I am pleased to speak in this debate on public services, because it gives me the opportunity to thank everyone who serves my city, Peterborough, by working in our public services. There is little to be happy about when it comes to the motion. As usual, the Opposition moan, groan and clip their speeches for social media, but they have no plan whatever for the economy or the reform of our public services. It is spend more, borrow more and pile on more debts for future generations, but they say absolutely nothing on jobs. On this side of the House, we know that it is work that will grow the economy, increase tax revenue and fund public services.
It is worth reminding the House that every single Labour Government have left unemployment higher when they left office than when they formed their Administration. This Government have delivered the lowest unemployment since 1974. Opposition Members have completely ignored that and, on jobs and on work, they have nothing to say.
The debate gives me the chance to celebrate good public services in my constituency. A shining example is the Thistlemoor surgery, run by Neil Modha, who is an inspirational local doctor in Peterborough. The surgery serves 29,500 patients, 80% of whom do not have English as a first language. The surgery has just received an outstanding grade from the Care Quality Commission. I thank Dr Azhar Chaudhry, who works with local mosques and communities, along with Dr Lubna Salim, Dr Lubna Akbar, Dr Mohammed Mukhtar and Dr Syed Husseini. Paulina Janczura is the manager of a team of 85 staff, all from different backgrounds, mirroring the background of the population that Thistlemoor surgery cares for. These are doctors, nurses, paramedics and admin and clerical staff doing an outstanding job for my constituency.
Peterborough is also the home of the Passport Office. We have heard lots of Members talk about Passport Office failures, and they are absolutely right to raise frustrations expressed by their constituents when it comes to delays on passports. However, we must also remember that staff in the Passport Office in Peterborough and elsewhere are working incredibly hard. We must always remember that when we speak in this House and on behalf of our constituents, because, sometimes, they can be left feeling unsupported, especially by those who stand up and make overly critical speeches.
There is a disappointing example of public service delivery in my constituency. The residents of the beautiful village of Thorney have temporarily lost in-person services at Thorney Medical Centre. This is down to a lack of admin staff. It is worth mentioning that the staff do a wonderful job and certainly do not deserve abuse, which, regrettably, is becoming all too common across the NHS. Local people rely on the service. Local councillors and I are campaigning for this service, along with Jenner Healthcare, to reopen as soon as possible. A meeting has been set up on Friday, and I am confident about what will happen with this vital surgery on which so many people in Thorney rely.
If I may, I will tell the House one more story of public service delivery in Peterborough. Very sadly, this involves the Labour Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. We have already heard about Labour’s failure in public service delivery in Manchester, in Wales and in London, but, unfortunately, we now have to move on to Labour public service delivery failure in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The combined authority is the accountable body for Net Zero Hub projects across the whole of the south-east. That put the Mayor, Nik Johnson, in the lead for spending from Hampshire to Kent, and from London to Peterborough. For that reason, the Government handed him £80 million for energy projects and £118 million for sustainable warmth projects—more than double that of any other comparable authority. That should mean cheaper bills and warmer homes in Peterborough. He has had the money for months. It was his chance to make a difference, so what of that whopping sum of £198 million? How much has he used? Staggeringly, the answer is less than £6 million.
In fact, the Mayor has written a letter to the Government, begging for yet another extension to the deadline for spending it. But I am told that, because of his
“poor delivery performances and assurance processes”
the Mayor’s request will be refused, because it would break Her Majesty’s Treasury rules. It gets worse. The Government do not even believe that he has the capability or the capacity to deliver, because the hub has spent nothing on home improvements so far—nothing, zero, absolutely nothing. Thousands of homes in Peterborough will lose out as a result, but not so in Cambridge. Cambridge City Council put its own bid together for sustainable warmth funding and got just over £6 million, in partnership with some of the local councils close by. Unlike homes in Peterborough, they will get the improvements because they bypassed our failing Mayor—a Labour Mayor.
Cambridge City Council led this bid, and it obviously knew the Mayor well enough not to trust him. It takes Labour to know Labour. I am told that the Government have already received formal complaints from four different councils about the combined authority-run hub. More complaints are likely when other councils find out what our Mayor has done and the amount of money that he will be returning—unspent—to central Government. It really is a national scandal—a scandal covering a third of a national funding pot and a fifth of the country. Only Nik Johnson’s other scandals make this the least likely thing to prompt him to quit. Yet there is no longer any question but that he should. This is a failure of public service delivery. This is an example of Labour failure of public service delivery.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the motion today. The official Opposition termed the subject “Backlog Britain”, but “Backlog, broken, Brexit Britain” would have been a more apt and relevant title—they should shoulder their portion of responsibility for much of that, given their leader’s weakness and their inability to hold this shambolic Prime Minister and his Government to account.
The UK is the sick man of Europe, with a despot leader who does not rely on the rule of law to keep order—quite the opposite; he chooses to break it freely and consistently, whether international or domestic, with nothing limited or specific about it. As with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that came through this place last night, laws are being broken knowingly and willingly.
If I were to throw out the figure of tens of thousands, I would be speaking not about the opportunities made available to us via a post-Brexit bonanza, but the number of people waiting for their passports to be processed by this Government’s Passport Office—a number that grows by the hour. It is frankly staggering that this Tory Government have sunk to this new low, such a low that they now cannot even get the most basic of tasks, arming our citizens with their passports, sorted out. The reality is that I could have picked any Government Department to focus my comments on today. The DVLA, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Passport Office—the whole Government are in complete disarray.
Everyone could see that in excess of 5 million people would be applying for passport renewals this year in the wake of a pandemic which saw two lockdowns where people could not leave their house, far less the country. The impeccable foresight of this Government led them to do what? To create more backlogs than necessary by cutting the number of civil servants staffing those Departments by more than a fifth in the past couple of years. They have plunged the entire travel industry even further into chaos in the wake of their incompetent pandemic border policy, with people now forced to cancel flights and travel plans due to the delay in issuing passports.
It would be remiss of me, when touching on transport matters, not to put on record my solidarity with and support for the workforce and the members of the RMT union striking for a fair pay for a fair day. I also place on record my admiration for Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT union, in how he has handled the heavily slanted media reporting we have seen from some commentators across the Brit-Nat media outlets—for the avoidance of doubt, I am talking about Sky and the BBC. I also noted with some admiration his choice of socialist revolutionary.
Issuing passports and driving licences and keeping people on the move via public transport are the very basic asks of any Government. Yet this Government, led by a law-breaking Prime Minister, have utterly failed our constituents on every count. Families across the four nations of the UK, as we all know well, are already suffering under the turbocharged Tory cost of living crisis, and yet this Government are completely failing to even acknowledge their mismanagement of the situation.
Blissful ignorance works well for the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and it looks to be catching right across that Government Front Bench. The Government know fine well that the cost of living is rocketing and that, for the vast majority of those we represent, every penny is a calculated and measured spend. Yet my constituents have been left with the only viable option of paying extra of their hard-earned money, in the hope of obtaining their passport in time for travel. It is completely unacceptable—but, of course, an inhumane policy such as the despicable Rwanda plan, which costs half a million pounds for every empty plane sent, must be funded somehow, mustn’t it?
My constituency office in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill has been inundated with hundreds upon hundreds of passport, visa and immigration related inquiries. I have constituents who need to spend whatever little time is left with a terminally ill parent in Australia, met with intransigence; another who needs to access urgent specialist cancer treatment in Canada, met with intransigence by this Government; and another who needs to attend their brother’s funeral in India, met with inaction from the Government. Those are real concerns, real problems, real emergencies and real people that this Government do not have a shred of compassion for, let alone any attempt to understand or accommodate. While we focus on trying to sort this stuff, highlighting individual Government inadequacies along the way, that leaves less and less time for the long list of other issues that we need to deal with that are once again at the heart of this Government’s “steal from the poor and give to the rich” agenda.
I have heard enough from Conservative Members, and the hon. Gentleman has spoken many times, so I will push on and make the points that I am here to make.
The cost of living is getting higher and higher for our constituents. There is the cost of gas and electric, and of petrol. There are the soaring food prices for families and sky-high council bills, and inflation is soaring over 9%. That is all before the real implications of Brexit, which are staring us all right in the face, truly begin to bite. This is, without question, the most incompetent Prime Minister that this place has ever seen, but those on the Labour Benches do not get away scot-free. The Leader of the Opposition and of the supposed workers’ party is too busy banning his own MPs from picket lines to do so much as land a glove on the Prime Minister. We in Scotland know that both parties in this House shoulder some of the responsibility for the absolute shambles of Brexit, and of the Brexit negotiations thereafter. It is down to both the Government and Labour, with their “We will make Brexit work” mantra. Brexit will not work. It certainly will not work for Scotland.
Thankfully for the people of Scotland, we have a way out—another option. We have a choice. The people of Scotland will weigh up the potential of an independent Scotland in Europe, versus the pain of a backward, broken, Brexit Britain. There is no choice at all this time around; the day is fast approaching when we take back our independence.
There is an old saying that you cannot solve a problem if you do not know that it exists. While I hope that the contributions to this debate have spelled out in no uncertain terms where the problems are, there has been a failure right across Government to measure performance, which is part of the reason we are here now. To illustrate the point, I will highlight some of the written questions I have asked on these issues.
I will start with the most recent. Yesterday I got an answer to a question asking what the average waiting time is for an assessment for personal independence payment from the point of application. The answer I got was:
“the information requested is not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost.”
I am sure that Members recognise that phrase very well. People claiming PIP usually need immediate help, but how can the Department judge whether it is doing enough on that score if it cannot even tell us how long it takes to get to an assessment? I know some of the practical consequences of that. I have a constituent with multiple long-term conditions who was disgracefully turned down for PIP back in October 2019 and still has not had her appeal heard. She had another go at it last week, but the appeal was cancelled for the umpteenth time because no one from the Department was available to register their objection to her appeal. How is that justice for that individual? How is it anything other than a damning indictment of the way that the Department works?
At least the response to that written question was rather more straightforward than the one I got from the same Department on the average online journal response time for universal credit claimants:
“Universal Credit is a 24/7 digital service.”
Well, that is really helpful for understanding how long it takes people to get a response.
Moving on to the Department of Health, I asked it what the average length of time was for a resolution to complaints to the Vaccination Data Resolution Service regarding incorrect vaccination records. I was told that the information was not held centrally—again, a phrase that I am sure that many Members are familiar with. The Government need to get a grip on this, because I know people who have been trying to correct their records since last year, which means that they are having trouble travelling abroad because their vaccination records are not up to date. That shows that it is not just GP appointments, specialist referrals, ambulance waiting times and A&E waits that the NHS is struggling with. However, at least there is some kind of measurement of those issues, although it has not gone unnoticed that for quite a lot of them, the goalposts have moved in recent times.
As many Members have said, the biggest issue in the inbox at the moment is passport delays. It has been for at least the past couple of months in my constituency. I asked a written question about processing times for passports way back in April. Despite having a couple of weeks’ notice of the question, the Department could not get an answer to me before Prorogation, rather conveniently. Last week I finally got an answer to the question; I was told that between March and May, more than 90% of applications were processed within six weeks, with approximately 98.5% completed within 10 weeks. Obviously the Prime Minister told us a few weeks ago that everyone was getting them in four to six weeks, which was clearly incorrect, but I think we have done enough on his exactitude recently, so I will not go any further into that.
The issue has been live for many months now, but it was only last week that the Department was able to provide me with information on its own performance, which takes me back to the original point: the Government have either wilfully or negligently decided not to mention their own performance. I think they are doing that because they just do not want anyone to know how badly they are doing.
On the issue of the Home Office backlog, my constituency office phone bill last month was far larger than normal. It was more than £260. When we dug a little deeper, we found that most of it was down to my excellent caseworkers being put on hold for hours at a time when ringing various Home Office hotlines. If we multiplied that by all the Members here, it would mean that more than £2 million had been spent in one year on calls to one Department’s hotlines. If that is what it is costing us here, imagine how much the British public are having to pay. It is not just backlog Britain; it is rip-off Britain.
I am reminded of a constituent who told me about his passport renewal. Having paid an extra £70 to get it checked by the Post Office, he had to make an emergency dash to Durham on Friday, which cost him £100 in fuel, and then had to pay another £90 to the Home Office to get the passport issued, despite the fact that the application had been sent in more than 10 weeks ago. Just for good measure, he could not work that day, so he lost another £200 in earnings. He could not do his job because the Ministers could not do theirs.
Let us make it clear that the blame lies at the feet of Ministers, not with the hard-pressed civil servants who are doing their best. As we have already heard, the Government think that we can cut civil servants by 20%. One can only imagine the backlog we would face if that went ahead. This backlog is across every facet of life. The child waiting for their education, health and care plan; the teenager waiting months for a driving test slot; the young family waiting for their passport renewals; and the pensioner waiting for the ambulance to arrive—everywhere we turn, there is another person unable to get on with their life because the Government have failed them. It is not just the failure of the Prime Minister; over the past 12 years, each of his predecessors has decided, time and again, that public services are not a priority, and that they can get away without investing in those services and the people who run them.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. One of the learnings of the past two years, and one of the concerns, has been about the cuts to local government and our local administrations. They performed very well in the disbursement of support to businesses and so on, and were doing well with test and trace. The Government seem to be doing the reverse of what is obvious and logical, which is delivering services well.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I declare for the record that my wife is a member of the local authority. When we first entered the covid crisis, there was already a system in place for contact tracing through local authorities. Unfortunately that was not deemed good enough by this Government, who decided to spend an awful lot of money on private providers. On the Homes for Ukraine scheme, I get a lot of compliments from residents on how the council is reacting, and a lot of complaints about how slow the Home Office is to respond. The power of local government cannot be overstated, and we should value more the great service that it provides.
In conclusion, we have seen over the past few months that a decade of austerity has consequences, and the folly of it has been well and truly exposed. This Government should hang their head in shame and step aside for a party that believes in public services, and has a record of delivery in government that this lot can only dream of.
It is a pleasure to conclude the Back-Bench contributions to this debate. This Tory Government’s catastrophic Brexit and austerity agenda are fast pushing the UK economy into recession, as evidenced by the fact that the UK has the slowest growth of any G7 economy, according to the OECD. The chief economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been highly critical of the length of time it took the UK Government to act to help people with the additional financial pressures caused by inflation. She noted:
“Inflation continues to hit highs not seen since the early 1980s, heaping more pressure on millions of families who were already struggling…The support package announced last month shows the Chancellor is finally grasping the scale of the crisis. The continuing rise in food prices means the decision in April not to uprate benefits in line with inflation has left low-income households…facing a difficult”—
really difficult—three months until they receive their first payment in July.
It is extremely reckless and frustrating that the UK Government have decided to bring forward legislation that deliberately sets them on an entirely avoidable collision course with the EU. Risking a disastrous trade war in the middle of a cost of living crisis is unthinkable and indefensible. This news has been met with dismay by Scottish businesses, which stand to face months of uncertainty in a year with record increases in their input prices. Scotland has a direct interest in the Northern Ireland protocol, particularly with regard to trade and border control, yet despite repeated requests, the UK Government have shown absolutely no willingness to engage with the Scottish Government on those issues.
It is staggering that Labour and the Liberal Democrats remain committed to Brexit, even as it causes vast damage. Last week, the Resolution Foundation put out a report, “The Big Brexit: An assessment of the scale of change to come from Brexit”, which noted that the long-term aggregate impact of Brexit
“will be to reduce household incomes as a result of a weaker pound, and lower investment and trade.”
Scotland’s food and drink sector has borne the brunt of a hard Tory Brexit. In 2019, Scottish exports were growing consistently in all directions—to the rest of the UK, the EU and the rest of the world. We now know that Scotland’s total trade with the EU was 16% lower in 2021 than in 2019, and Scotland’s trade with non-EU countries fell by only 4% in the same period. An Office for National Statistics report found that Northern Ireland’s GDP grew by 1.4% from July to September 2021, compared with gains of only 0.9% and 0.6% in Scotland and England respectively. That may well be due to Northern Ireland having continued access to the single market.
Brexit is hindering the UK’s potential as a key 21st-century trader, and is actively disadvantaging UK producers and businesses. The UK’s new relationship with the EU implies an increase in trade costs of 10.8% for exports to the EU and 11% for imports from the EU, and those figures rise to more than 16% when accounting for the fact that the EU is likely to integrate further in future years. It is the SNP’s view that rejoining the EU at the earliest opportunity as an independent country represents the best future for Scotland. I am happy that more and more people in Scotland are coming round to that point of view.
Transport is being run into the ground, especially for people who travel by train or plane. There are vast queues at Dover, with people forced to wait in unsanitary conditions, due to Brexit delays and mitigating measures have been limited by the fact that the Transport Secretary—
No, I am not going to take interventions. I need to finish and allow the Front Benchers to fight it out.
With the UK Government’s failure to back a Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) to absolutely outlaw fire and rehire, they have shown that they actually have no time for this. They are encouraging this abhorrent practice—P&O being only one example—and we are now seeing this being carried out in other areas of the economy. Fire and rehire is a shame on this country and it is a stain on this Government.
I understand that I do not have much time so I want to move on briefly to talk about passports, or the lack of them, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. We have heard consistent examples from across the Chamber today and I have many examples of issues with passports. The one sticking in my craw right now is that of a father who is terminally ill and cannot get a passport to go and visit his daughter. I cannot do anything about this because there are two days of queries, and I have to sit and wait before I can go down to the hub. I have been down at the hub many times, and I have nothing but admiration for those who work there, but they should not be there. There should be no necessity for such a hub, and we should get this whole business of passports sorted out. It was an accident waiting to happen—it did not just appear out of nowhere —and there should have been forward planning for this.
The DVLA has been a thorn in my side for many years. One of the biggest parts of that, which has had an impact recently, is the fact that many of my constituents are applying to have their licence returned, but are left unattended in the vocational doctors queue. It is not unusual; I have had numerous complaints about this from HGV drivers over the years. They are signed off as fit to go back to work, but there is a shortage of doctors at the DVLA to sort this out. That also needs to be sorted.
What is the Prime Minister’s answer to these hard-working Government Departments? I do not know whether I can say this, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the word “arse” is a good Anglo-Saxon word. The Prime Minister has threatened to “privatise the arse” out of Government agencies—
Oh, right then: the Prime Minister has threatened to privatise a body part out of Government agencies, including the DVLA and the Passport Office as a result of the public facing lengthy waits for vital documents.
This Government have to go, this Prime Minister has to go, and when Scotland is an independent country in Europe, we will be much better off.
I would like to start by thanking all the hard-working people who keep our public sector and our public services going day in and day out. They are not responsible for the fact that our country is so bogged down in backlogs and bureaucracy. Indeed, as we have heard throughout this debate, their professionalism and dedication to public service stand in stark contrast to the shambolic performance of this Conservative Government.
I would also like to thank hon. Members, particularly those on the Opposition Benches, who through their speeches and interventions in this important debate have expressed genuine concern on behalf of their constituents about the desperate state of the Prime Minister’s backlog Britain, as opposed to those who have attempted to defend the indefensible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) made a thoughtful speech and pointed out that if Ministers were running a business it would be bankrupt by now. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) gave a barnstorming speech: “Welcome to backlog Britain, thanks to 12 years of a Conservative Government.” is the line that came through very clearly. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) called on the Government to learn the lessons and focused in particular on the chaos of the Passport Office. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) recounted the appalling costs to his constituents of the backlogs and dysfunction at the heart of this Government, demonstrated by the failure to answer his basic parliamentary questions.
Conservative Members consistently attempt to blame covid and the lockdowns for the mess in which we now find ourselves, but backlog Britain cannot be blamed simply on covid and the lockdowns. The reality is that the underlying causes of the mess we are in predate the pandemic and the challenges we now face have got worse since the end of lockdown. That is because backlog Britain has been created by two basic failures: first, a failure of resilience caused by a decade of underinvestment by the Conservatives in British businesses and public services; and, secondly, a failure of governance caused by Ministers walking away from their responsibilities and utterly failing to plan for the end of the covid restrictions. The combination of those two fundamental failures with the fact that we have a lawbreaking Prime Minister who has lost the confidence of 40% of his own MPs and has basically become a national embarrassment provides all the ingredients for a catastrophic breakdown in the systems and institutions that keep our country going.
On the failure of resilience, the decade leading up to the pandemic was defined by a staggering lack of investment by the Government in the private sector, which led to low growth and weakened British business—so much so that Britain became the European capital for hostile foreign takeovers. The Conservatives failed miserably to meet the average growth rate for similarly developed countries and as a result the Government unlocked less private investment than in all but two of the 38 comparable countries. If the Government had matched that growth rate, the Treasury would now have £12 billion extra in the Exchequer, and if they had matched the growth rates achieved by Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010, they would have an extra £40 billion to spend.
Low growth meant less money to invest in public services. NHS waiting lists were already at record highs, and as the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), pointed out in his opening contribution, there were already more than 100,000 staff vacancies while court backlogs were already growing by 23% in 2020. Lower growth inevitably meant weaker public services and less flexible local government, resulting in a less resilient economy and public sector. It also left our critical national infrastructure dangerously reliant on China for everything from personal protective equipment to our nuclear energy supply.
Resilience is about being able to absorb and bounce back from shocks when they hit, but that lost decade of underinvestment removed our shock absorbers: the British state was surviving hand to mouth—it was walking on thin ice; it was hollowed out by the toxic combination of incompetence and indifference that has characterised successive Conservative Governments since 2010. And now we see that this ice is breaking and the result is backlog Britain.
Given that there have been four Conservative election victories—or, at least, four Conservative Governments—is the hon. Gentleman saying that the people cannot be trusted, that the Conservative Government are not as bad as he says, or that the Labour party has been particularly hopeless at giving an alternative message? It must be one of those three things.
The British people participate in democratic elections, and when we see the desperately bad results that this Conservative Government are delivering, I am absolutely confident that at the next general election they will deliver a landslide Labour Government. Then we will see the changes our country needs, rather than the incompetence and indifference we see from the Conservative party.
That leads me to the second fundamental failure: the failure of basic competent governance. Mr Deputy Speaker, you do not have to be Mystic Meg to know that when the pandemic abated, the lockdown restrictions would be lifted. We all knew that GP, A&E and hospital waiting lists were skyrocketing, with 4,500 fewer GPs to take appointments than 10 years ago. We also knew that the court backlog was at a record high, with the victims of the most serious violent crimes, including rape, having to wait two or three years for a case to come to court. We also knew that people would want to go on holiday and that they would need passports.
There was no need for a crystal ball—it was happening in front of our very eyes—but while AstraZeneca and the NHS were rolling out the vaccine at speed, the UK Government were patting themselves on the back and wheeling suitcases full of booze into No. 10. Backlog Britain represents a shameful dereliction of duty by a Prime Minister who is utterly out of his depth. Instead of meeting Britain’s challenges, he prefers Government by gimmick. There are lots of big, flashy announcements, but nothing ever seems to get delivered. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is not designed to solve any of the immediate problems, and it will take months to get through Parliament. The Bill of Rights is an empty distraction that will just increase the backlogs in the courts system, and the Government have sent £120 million of taxpayers’ money to the Rwandan Government for a press release.
There is a world of difference between campaigning and governing, and the Government appear to be permanently stuck in campaign mode, constantly hunting for wedge issues that will enable them to pick fights and sow division, inflaming tension, rather than building consensus. They are not even campaigning for the Conservative party. No, their campaigns are focused on one aim and one aim only: throwing red meat to Back Benchers so that the Prime Minister can carry on squatting in Downing Street.
One of the many fundamental differences between Government Members and Opposition Members is that we believe in an active state. We believe that the state should work in partnership with the private sector and civil society to facilitate sustainable economic growth and the smooth running of the systems and institutions that underpin and empower our economy and our communities. We believe in investing to help the private sector to grow so that British businesses can create jobs, improve productivity and compete internationally rather than sell out to the highest foreign bidder We believe in investing in public services so that NHS hospitals do not have to choose between treating covid and screening cancer, and we know that the backlogs are clogging up our courts, our ports, our A&E departments, our GP surgeries, the Passport Office, the DVLA and our asylum system. That is holding our country back.
Government Members do all they can to avoid any state support whatsoever. They see government as the very last resort, and the result is the mess that we are in. The result is backlog Britain.
A Government who fail to plan are a Government who plan to fail. A Government who fail to build resilience are a Government who leave us exposed to shocks. A Government who blame anyone and everything for their own failures will never step up and take responsibility for cleaning up the mess they have made, and a Government led by a man who is utterly unfit for public office are bound to end in disaster. Backlog Britain is the consequence of all those failings. The British people deserve better than this.
The Government absolutely recognise the difficulties that families across the country are facing. It is a concerning time, and that is why we are taking concerted and wide-ranging action, the details of which I will come on to highlight, to ensure that people and businesses get the support that they need.
Countries around the world are seeing slowing growth and higher inflation, and I am afraid the UK is simply not immune. This month’s OECD economic outlook says:
“The world is paying a heavy price for Russia’s war in Ukraine. It is a humanitarian disaster, killing thousands and forcing millions from their homes. The war has also triggered a cost-of-living crisis, affecting people worldwide. When coupled with China’s zero-COVID policy, the war has set the global economy on a course of slower growth and rising inflation”.
Our priority is ensuring people get the support and help they need, continuing our responsible economic management and helping people to stay in jobs.
It is important to note what has happened in the labour market. Economists had projected that unemployment would peak during covid at somewhere close to 12%. In the event, it peaked at 5.2% and is now down below 4%. The unemployment rate is now close to historic lows, and youth unemployment is at near record lows, at nearly half the rate during the same period of 2010. Redundancies are at the lowest level since records began in the mid-1990s. Total real wages are 3% above pre-pandemic levels.
We must never forget that by far the most important thing for living standards, for fighting poverty and for the dignity of families throughout the country is having a job, and it was the decisive action of this Government that kept so many people in jobs through the pandemic. The furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, which together went to an estimated 14.7 million people, helped to protect jobs, businesses and livelihoods. Some £100 billion of loans and grants were made available to support businesses of all sizes. And now, as we find ourselves in another global phenomenon, the Government are rightly stepping up once again.
We understand just how hard the rising cost of living is for families across the UK, and we are taking significant steps to ease these pressures. Central to that effort is the £37 billion to help households, especially those most in need, with the cost of living. We know that the best approach to managing pressures in the long term is helping people into work, supporting them to increase their income and helping them to keep more of what they earn, hence the reforms to universal credit and the taper rate, the increased national living wage and the higher national insurance thresholds.
This has been an important debate, with good contributions from both sides of the House, and I thank everyone who has contributed. I thank the Opposition spokespeople, the right hon. Members for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) and the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), and I thank the hon. Members for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), for Stirling (Alyn Smith), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows).
I also thank my Conservative colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), with his Treasury Committee background, spoke with great authority and knowledge. He acknowledged some of the changes we have made to help the travel trade, to which I will return in a moment, and he reminded us of the lesson of history on wage price spirals and the ultimate importance of driving productivity to make sustainable rises in real wages.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes), in a very perceptive speech, noted the repetition we sometimes hear from Opposition Members, who do not always match it by voting with us to support investment in our key public services. He rightly said that every Member should acknowledge the problems we face and should work together on the issues, and I strongly agree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), in a similar vein, pointed out some of the issues facing both the Welsh Government and the Westminster Government, including on the national health service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) spoke of the great success of the vaccine programme. She rightly spoke with great respect of national health service clinicians and staff in her constituency, and she covered some of the innovation they are driving in Southend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) spoke of the importance of employment, and I echo and wholeheartedly agree with what he said about the hard work of staff at Her Majesty’s Passport Office, particularly in his constituency.
Let me turn to some issues that came up a number of times, starting with passports. We discussed the subject of passports across these Dispatch Boxes during an Opposition day debate two weeks ago. On that occasion, hon. Members may recall my acknowledging that although 98.5% of UK passport applications are being processed in 10 weeks, some of our constituents have clearly not received the level of service that they rightly expect. It is incumbent on us to do everything we can to address that.
To give some background, in a normal year before covid, some 7 million people would apply for a passport. During the period of covid, that number came right down. The projection is that 9.5 million people will apply for a passport this year, which is an unprecedented rate of year-on-year growth. The hard-working staff in HM Passport Office really have stepped up to the plate. In March, April and May, around 3 million applications were processed. I acknowledge, absolutely, that there have been difficulties with specific cases. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw spoke with compassion about a particularly compelling case. If she comes to me after the debate, I will make sure that she is put in touch with a Minister to discuss that further.
When I spoke about this two weeks ago, I said that on the most recent reporting, 650 additional staff had been added to HM Passport Office since April 2021. That figure, on the most recent statistics, is now up to 850, with the recruitment of a further 350 staff in train. Suppliers and contractors have also increased their resourcing and we have added a further service desk and added capability on couriering. The service has continued to improve, and more passport applications are being processed now than ever before.
It would be quite wrong for Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box and give analyses of and running commentaries on what is a sensible and important exercise to go through—[Interruption.] Well, it is. We have just been through two enormous events—leaving the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic—which have involved all manner of changes in how the civil service operates, some of which are temporary, whereas some are more sustained. Meanwhile, there have been opportunities, as there always are, to look afresh at how we do things. It is right for Government to do that on behalf of our taxpayers and all our electors, to whom we have a duty to spend taxpayers’ money as efficiently and effectively as we can.
Let me turn to airports, which a number of colleagues spoke about, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle. There has been a sharp increase in passenger demand after a very suppressed period. That has put considerable pressure on the aviation sector, resulting in some passengers experiencing unacceptable delays and, in some instances, airlines cancelling flights. As Members on both sides of the House have noted, we have seen some of these effects in other countries, including members of the European Union.
A number of operational challenges have contributed to the situation, including staff shortages, crew availability and issues relating, in some cases, to covid restrictions still being in place in other countries. Although the private sector—the aviation industry—is responsible for resourcing airports and airlines, we rightly work with that important sector, which supports a lot of jobs and prosperity, sustains business travel, brings tourists to this country and generates a lot of export earnings. We have worked with the sector to support it in a number of ways.
On 29 April, we laid a statutory instrument to make use of our new Brexit powers to allow Ministers greater flexibility over regulation. That allowed for temporary changes to permit certain training to be undertaken while background checks are completed, helping to speed up recruitment but without a change in security assurance. Having listened carefully to the industry, we were also able to agree that HMRC employment history letters could be used for a time as a suitable form of reference check, with safeguards, to reduce the time that recruiting takes.
On the inbound side, which is an area of Home Office responsibility, Border Force is working to a projection that demand will go back to pre-pandemic levels and is staffing accordingly. Our collective focus must be on ensuring that people can get away for business travel, to help to create prosperity, and for their well-earned summer breaks, on time and as hassle-free as possible.
On driving licences, let me first say that if the right hon. Member for Dundee East comes to me with the case that he mentioned of the community mental health nurse in his constituency, I will make sure that a conversation takes place with the appropriate Minister. More than seven in 10 people apply online for driving licences; there are no delays in those applications. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is also back to normal times for vehicle registrations and non-medical driving licence paper applications. The remaining area in which more improvement is needed is applications from those with a medical condition. As colleagues may know, that part of the operation was hit by industrial action, but it is anticipated that it, too, will be back to normal timings by September. In the meantime, the DVLA continues to recruit more staff and utilise overtime to reduce medical application delays, and has opened further customer service centres in Swansea and Birmingham.
On the national health service, it is true that following the disruption of covid, the elective waiting list has grown in England, in Wales and across the United Kingdom, as it has grown in other countries. I place on record my enormous appreciation, gratitude and admiration for everybody who works in our national health service: their contribution throughout the pandemic has been absolutely exceptional. GP appointment numbers have now recovered to pre-pandemic levels; as of April, there were 1.26 million GP appointments per average working day. The Government plan to spend more than £8 billion to support the NHS to provide the elective care that was delayed by the pandemic. With the additional £1 billion that we announced for the second half of 2021-22, that could fund the equivalent of approximately 9 million more checks, scans and procedures.
There is no doubt that these are difficult times. Covid-19 was a major, indeed unprecedented, time in global history. The war in Ukraine is devastating for the people of Ukraine, and the economic shockwaves are felt far beyond, too. As Ministers, we are here to be held to account for the Government’s response, quite rightly, but I must say to the Opposition that they cannot just will away these huge global challenges with wishful thinking and fantasy economics.
Calmly and determinedly, this Government are stepping up to face these challenges head on. We do not underestimate the scale or complexity of them. We will not waver. We will weather these storms. With the fortitude of the British people, the creativity and belief of British business and the innovation of British entrepreneurs, we will emerge stronger than ever. The British people know that dedicated public servants are working flat out for them. They can be assured that they have a Government who are taking the difficult decisions and who are on their side.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that UK economic growth is forecast to grind to a halt next year, with only Russia worse in the OECD; further notes that GDP has fallen in recent months while inflation has risen to 9.1 per cent and that food prices, petrol costs and bills in general are soaring for millions across the country; believes that the Government is leaving Britain with backlogs such as long waits for passports, driving licences, GP and hospital appointments, court dates, and at airports; and calls on the Government to set out a new approach to the economy that will end 12 years of slow growth and high taxation under successive Conservative governments.