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Commons Chamber

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

House of Commons

Tuesday 28 June 2022

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

VAT: Domestic Fuel

1. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) stakeholders on the potential merits of zero-rating VAT on domestic fuel. (900757)

The hon. Member’s question is about the Government’s support for those who are struggling with the cost of living. The Government recently announced an additional £15 billion-worth of additional support, targeted particularly on those with the greatest need. Government support for the cost of living now totals £37 billion this year.

VAT on domestic fuel continues to be levied on rising fuel bills while one in three Scots households live in fuel poverty. With 8% of the UK population, Scotland has 96% of the UK’s crude oil reserves, 63% of the UK’s natural gas reserves, 90% of the UK’s hydropower and 25% of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal resources. Scotland’s vast energy potential far exceeds the needs of our people yet we receive no revenue. Can the Minister tell me the true value of Scotland’s energy to the UK Treasury, and set out how the Government will service their massive debts when they can no longer fleece Scotland of its energy resources following a vote for independence in 2023?

We of course recognise Scotland’s contribution to energy across the country and the fantastic industry that we have in Scotland, but the hon. Member will know that Scotland has a record sum this year in terms of money that comes through the Treasury, through the Budget and through the Barnett formula.

The original question was about heating fuel, and I wonder if the Minister could let us know the proportion of people in London who use heating oil compared with those out in rural areas such as Lincolnshire or even in Scotland?

My hon. Friend is right: more people use heating oil in rural areas, and the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are looking at energy across the board to ensure that all people are protected.

Alcohol Exporters: Customs Requirements

2. Whether his Department is taking steps to reduce Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs paperwork for alcohol exporters. (900758)

The 2025 UK border strategy sets out the Government’s vision for the UK border to be the most effective in the world. We are investing £180 million to build a UK single trade window, which will streamline how traders share information with the Government, making it as straightforward as possible for business to comply with customs requirements.

We all understand the need to protect revenue and to prevent fraud, but some alcohol exporting companies find that their exports are being hindered by HMRC’s refusal to accept standard invoicing as proof of tax paid. HMRC, in requiring additional letters of confirmation, is therefore causing companies considerable hindrance to their exports. Will the Minister agree to meet me to find a way forward that can both protect revenue and facilitate exports?

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Member and look at the specific issues that she has raised, but I reassure her that HMRC is currently in a programme to ensure that traders have to fill in fewer forms and that forms are prepopulated, so that customs can be streamlined for the trader.

Does the Minister agree that a trade agreement with India would be a huge boost to our exporters, including our alcohol exporters?

The Government are very much committed to trade agreements across the globe and would welcome a trade agreement with India.

Cost of Living: Northern Ireland

3. What fiscal steps he is taking to help reduce the impact of rises in the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (900759)

The UK Government are providing £37 billion-worth of support to help families with the cost of living, and most of that support is being provided directly to households across the United Kingdom. Indeed, we are legislating to ensure that our one-off payments to those on welfare that are worth up to £650 can be paid directly to households and families in Northern Ireland.

As the Chancellor will be aware, the energy bill support scheme cannot currently be extended to Northern Ireland due to the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, so can he update the House on what steps he is taking to put in place measures to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can avail themselves of that support? I appreciate that it is not due until October, but there is a long lead-in time required in that respect.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we want to ensure that equivalent support is provided to all Northern Irish families, and that it will be of the same value. We are currently in discussions with a variety of organisations to see how best to deliver that support, but I can give him the reassurance that it will be there in the same quantity, in the same value and at the same time.

The combined impacts of the £37 billion package that my right hon. Friend has referred to, plus tax reductions such as the cut in fuel duty, are providing really significant support to people in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that that is an illustration of why people in Northern Ireland are better off as a result of the Union and of the fact that we are stronger together as a group of four nations?

My right hon. Friend speaks with authority and experience on this topic, and of course she is absolutely right: the UK Government are ensuring that families across the United Kingdom are benefiting from the support we are putting in place. More broadly, we will do everything we can in government to protect and support the United Kingdom.

Many of the fiscal levers the Government could use to support Northern Ireland are not available, because we are under the EU VAT regime and still subject to EU state aid rules, which would rule out many of the measures the Government would take. Is that not a reason why the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that is going through the House of Commons is essential, in order to enable the Government to use fiscal levers across the whole UK to benefit all of the people, be they Unionists, nationalists or any others in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. As I said from this Dispatch Box at the time of the spring statement, we were unable to extend our VAT cut on energy-saving materials to Northern Ireland because of some of the provisions in the protocol. He will know that the legislation we have put before this House, which I am glad received support last night, will address exactly those issues.

SMEs

Small and medium-sized businesses are at the heart of our economy, creating jobs and prosperity across the UK. We continue to give substantial support to SMEs by raising the employment allowance; extending the £1 million annual investment allowance; providing business rates relief for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses; and with the Help to Grow programme.

A couple of weeks ago, I met people from a number of hospitality businesses at Nailcote Hall. They expressed not only their gratitude for the support the Treasury gave during the pandemic, but their concerns about the cost of living and about supply-chain costs, which they cannot necessarily pass on to consumers. What assurances can my hon. Friend give the businesses in my constituency, especially those in the hospitality sector, that the Government will keep them in mind in terms of future support?

It is good to hear that my hon. Friend has been speaking to the hospitality sector in his constituency, no doubt drawing on his expertise in those conversations. As he said, we provided substantial support to that sector during the pandemic. We recognise the ongoing challenges for businesses as we recover, which is why we are giving thousands of hospitality, leisure and retail businesses a 50% cut in business rates this financial year—worth up to £110,000 per business.

There are more than 7,000 businesses in my constituency, producing excellent products and services in a range of industries. I have held several informative high street walkarounds in towns across my constituency, hearing at first hand from local entrepreneurs, many of whom are worried about competition from online businesses. Will my hon. Friend explain what steps the Department is taking to support our high street businesses in the face of online competition?

I commend my hon. Friend for his campaign in his local high streets and for the work he is doing with local businesses. I agree with him on the importance of high streets and the businesses on them, which is why we are supporting high street businesses with our 50% business rate cut for thousands of retail, hospitality and leisure businesses; our freeze to the business rates multiplier; and funding through the community renewal fund, towns fund and levelling-up fund.

I hope the Minister is aware that one problem facing small and medium-sized employers in Cumbria and elsewhere, certainly in rural Britain, is a serious lack of workforce. Cumbria Tourism reported that 63% of its members last year had to operate below capacity because they could not find sufficient staff to keep going and so they missed out on vital demand. Does she agree that the two key areas are a lack of affordable housing so that people can live close to the place where they need to work in rural communities, and the fact that the Government have yet to come up with adequate visa provisions to allow employers to supplement a local workforce with an overseas one? What action will she take to support small and medium-sized businesses, especially in hospitality, in Cumbria and elsewhere?

There was a great deal in that question, but broadly it was about access to the workforce for businesses. We have a really successful story on jobs, with record numbers of people in payroll employment, but I also hear about the work that businesses are doing to fill vacancies. We are supporting businesses, for instance, with our successful Way to Work scheme and the investment we are making in people’s skills to ensure that they align to the vacancies that employers are looking to fill.

A big concern for small businesses in my constituency, especially those in construction and engineering contract work, is that they finish the job, the main contractor gets paid, but the people who did the work sometimes wait months to get paid. If the main contractor fails during that time, the money disappears with it. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the possibility of making sure that those moneys are kept in a protective bond, so that if we cannot prevent the main contractor from going bust, we can at least stop it dragging down hundreds of small businesses with it?

I do have conversations with the construction sector and more widely about infrastructure investment in this country. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about the specific suggestion he has to help the construction sector.

If the Chancellor really wanted to help British businesses, he would back Labour’s plan to scrap business rates and replace them with a fairer system. He could reverse his tax on jobs and scrap the national insurance hike, and he could use public procurement and other tools to buy, make and sell more in Britain. He has imitated Labour’s policies before: why not follow Labour’s lead again and help struggling businesses?

Business rates and national insurance are an important contribution to paying for public services, which I am sure the hon. Lady’s constituents, like mine, feel very strongly about. I remind her of the scale of support that we are providing to businesses, including a business rates cut worth £1.7 billion this year.

I appreciate that the Chancellor cut fuel duty by 5p per litre, but that did not really touch the sides. I urge him to be bolder and cut fuel duty by at least 20p per litre, as requested by FairFuelUK, which would make a huge difference to individuals and businesses in my patch, not least hauliers for whom the cost of running a single truck has increased by 17% in the past year.

I hear my right hon. Friend’s request. The combination of the freeze on fuel duty in the Budget and the cut in the spring statement is essentially a £5 billion tax cut. That is substantial support with the cost of fuel for businesses. As I have also said, we are taking further steps to support businesses with business rate cuts. I also remind her of our cut to national insurance, increasing the employment allowance by £1,000, supporting around 500,000 smaller businesses.

I call Clive Efford.

We have a slight problem. Can the Chancellor answer the question as if it has been asked?

Inflation

6. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of trends in the level of inflation on the UK economy. (900762)

We are not immune to the global inflationary shocks that many countries are experiencing. Indeed, eurozone inflation is north of 8%, and inflation in the United States is closer to 9%. We have the determination we need to combat inflation and reduce prices, and we have the tools at our disposal, namely strong and forceful monetary policy, responsible fiscal policy and supply-side reforms.

One of the really insidious effects of inflation is that it imposes more costs on the poorest in society. What steps will the Chancellor take to make sure not just that we protect people today, but that inflation expectations are not locked in, locking in high inflation for the future, which would be the worst thing we could do for the poorest in our society?

As ever, my right hon. Friend makes an excellent and thoughtful point. He is right about the regressive nature of inflation, which is why our recent announcements have been specifically targeted at those on the lowest incomes—the most vulnerable in our society—to help them manage through the challenging months ahead. He is also right that inflation expectations are critical, and I know that the Bank of England will act forcefully, in its words, to restrain inflation and inflation expectations, because the quicker we get through this the better for everyone, particularly the most vulnerable.

It is true that inflation is affecting a number of countries, but why does the Chancellor think that the UK has the highest inflation in the G7, and why is UK economic growth forecast to be lower than in any country in the G20 next year, with the sole exception of Russia?

When it comes to inflation, there is a variety of reasons. [Interruption.] I was very clear with the House at the time of the recent announcement that we are experiencing not only the energy shock that Europe is experiencing, but the tight labour market that the United States is experiencing. The fact that we have very many people in work and low unemployment is something to celebrate, but, obviously, that contributes to inflationary forces. Beyond that, there are smaller technical things, such as the timing of how the price cap works here and the degree of interventions in energy being upstream or downstream. When it comes to growth—we have had this debate multiple times—the Opposition seem to cherry-pick the figure that they like. Let us look at the period since the pandemic and at our growth performance. Indeed, on the OECD’s most recent figures, which the right hon. Gentleman cherry-picked, where were we in that table? We were the second highest in the G7.

The Chancellor said “celebrate”. I am not sure that there is much to celebrate in the figures that I quoted to him. Does he accept that the weakness of the pound, which increases the prices of our imports, is a major contributory factor to the inflation being experienced by our constituents, along with a continuation of the trade frictions caused by the Government’s Brexit deal? Does he have any plans to address that? I am not talking about rerunning the Brexit argument. He could take one step, which is to reach an agrifood agreement with the EU, as New Zealand has. That would reduce costs and bureaucracy for our farmers, for our businesses and, most of all, for our constituents.

What the right hon. Gentleman said was very telling. We on the Conservative Benches do celebrate people being in work. It is critically the most important thing that we can do to help manage the cost of living, so every week in this place, we will champion those who are working and we will get others into work and support them. When it comes to the EU and our trading relationship—it is nice to hear from the Labour party that it does not want to rerun the Brexit arguments—it is very clear that there is now a growing faction on the Labour Benches that wants to do one thing and one thing only, which is to take us back into the single market.

Both Labour and the Tories are Brexit parties now—a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for and wants nothing of. This year, the Scottish Government have faced more than a 5% real-terms cut in resource funding compared with last year’s Budget, and the spending review took place when inflation was at only 3.1%. It has now tripled and continues to rise. That increase will impact on Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic and place severe pressures on public services and public sector wages. Will the Chancellor increase funding to the devolved Governments in recognition of this record inflation over which he presides?

I am so pleased to have a chance to answer Treasury orals for the first time since we saw the Scottish Government’s spending review, which was a couple weeks ago. It was interesting to read through that, because in spite of the largest increase in public spending in the United Kingdom for some decades—record increases in public spending—it is clear that the Scottish Government are now imposing austerity in local government, in education, in justice, and in the environment. All budgets are growing slower than inflation, and that is not happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The health budget, the people’s No. 1 priority, is now growing in England two or three times faster than it is in Scotland. Scotland is not passing on the income tax cut. We might ask: why is this? Why are these choices being made? It is because, in Scotland, the welfare budget is being increased by 50%. That is why.

The Chancellor knows fine well that the Scottish Parliament, along with the other devolved Administrations, operates on a fixed budget. We do not have the levers that he has to increase budgets, yet we operate on that incredibly well. [Interruption.] We have a balanced budget in Scotland every year, which says a lot about the Scottish Government than his Government.

Inflation is a global problem, but individual Governments can make it easier for people to make ends meet. Ireland, for example, has cut public transport fares to allow people to save money on ticket and petrol prices, while those have soared under this Chancellor’s Administration. That is an independent country using its powers to ease the burden on commuters. The Scottish Government have already made bus travel free for under-22s, but we are at the limits of what we can do, because of that fixed budget and because of those real-term cuts to the block grant. If the Chancellor will not provide more money to the Scottish Government, will he give us the full powers so that we can do that?

We all have to operate with fixed budgets—that is news to the hon. Lady—but there have been record Barnett settlements for Scotland of £4.5 billion a year. Beneath that, however, are the choices that Governments make. On the Conservative side of the House, we choose to support the NHS and public services; in Scotland, they are choosing to impose austerity on public services. That is the difference between us and the SNP.

Following the welcome launch of Help to Build yesterday, fulfilling a commitment that the Chancellor made to me when he was still Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the early part of 2020, does he agree that making it easier for more people to commission their own houses will result in more, better, greener and cheaper houses that cost less to run, thus making a significant contribution to battling inflation?

My hon. Friend is without doubt the House’s expert on that matter. I am pleased that the Government have listened to him. I still have the brochure he first gave me with the marvellous pictures of the custom self-build—in Switzerland, I think. There is a £1.8 billion fund, I believe, within the home building programme, and a good chunk of that will go to support exactly what he said: more homes, quicker homes and cheaper homes for all our citizens.

Economic Inequality

The Government understand that millions of households across the UK are struggling to make their income stretch to cover the rising cost of living. As part of the £15 billion support package being provided by the Government, almost all the 8 million most vulnerable households across the UK will receive support of at least £1,200 this year, including a new, one-off £650 cost of living payment.

The Economic Secretary will know that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs payroll data shows that the pay of the top 1% rose three-and-a-half times faster than the pay of those in the bottom 10%, whose meagre pay increases have already been wiped out by inflation and price rises. When we look at wealth, during one year of the pandemic each UK billionaire saw their wealth grow by £630 million on average. While the rich get richer, the working-class communities I represent get poorer. When will the Treasury look at raising taxes on the highest incomes and taxing the wealth of billionaires in order to invest in communities and UK infrastructure?

Most mainstream understanding of how the economy works recognises that we need wealth creators, but we also need a Government who recognise the strains that the country is facing. That is why three quarters of the support will go to vulnerable households, including specific additional top-ups such as the £12 million going to Liverpool for the household support fund. This Government will stand by wealth creators and innovators, however, because we need growth in the economy and a more productive economy.

One way to tackle regional economic inequality is to ensure that our regional businesses are able to attract investment. Will my hon. Friend outline what more we can do to ensure that we unlock more private investment into Britain’s firms of the future?

The Government are constantly looking at new ideas. The regional angels programme and our reforms to financial services to make FinTech and banks more accessible to regional businesses are at the core of this Government’s agenda, and I will bring further measures to the House in the next few weeks.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) highlights, the handouts from the Government to support families are already being wiped out by the rise in inflation and cost of living. One in two children in my constituency live in poverty. From what the Minister just said, he believes in trickle-down from those billionaires to help those people, but they are on low wages and, for many of those who are working, universal credit has been cut. That is not doing enough to support them. What further steps will the Treasury take?

What I believe in is a Government who make targeted support available to the most vulnerable. The Chancellor and this Government have on a number of occasions used fiscal events and bespoke interventions to support those vulnerable people. We have always been clear that we will not be able to ameliorate the full extent of the challenges facing the country, but we will continue to strive for greater growth and productivity that will bring us back to where we need to be.

Levelling Up

The levelling-up White Paper set out a clear plan to level up every corner of the United Kingdom by 2030. At the spending review last autumn, the Government showed how we would deliver our ambitious plan by delivering over £600 billion in gross public sector investment over this Parliament. That includes £4.8 billion in increased investment in local communities through the levelling-up fund, £1.6 billion for the next generation of the British Business Bank’s regional investment fund, and £2.6 billion for the shared prosperity fund.

Wrexham’s levelling-up gateway bid has been supported by a 16,000-signature petition to create the first international sporting stadium in north Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people are at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, and that the amount of people who have signed that petition demonstrates the need for such a scheme in places like Wrexham, which has been ignored by the Welsh Labour Government for 20 years?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Wrexham. I remember her coming to see me to talk about the merits of this particular bid, which obviously has enormous popular support; the number of people who have signed her petition testifies to precisely that.

Real levelling up requires money, and that means everybody paying all the tax they owe. So why did the spring Budget allocate three times more additional funding to the Department for Work and Pensions than to HMRC to deal with fraud, when we know that every £1 spent on fraud in the DWP recovers £6, but every £1 spent on fraud in HMRC recovers £18? Why are the resources not prioritised to bring the greatest reward?

This is undoubtedly an important issue, and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. Clearly, we are at a very important moment in the fight against fraud. Only next month, the new Public Sector Fraud Authority reporting to this Department and the Cabinet Office will go live, backed up by an additional £25 million over the spending review period. This represents increased resources for further support in terms of active measures on data, intelligence, risk and enforcement—all the things we need to do to crack down on fraud and to pursue the perpetrators.

UK Infrastructure

We are driving economic growth through investment in infrastructure, innovation and skills. The Budget and spending review confirmed £100 billion of public investment in economic infrastructure to benefit every part of the UK. We are launching a UK infrastructure bank with a financial capacity of £22 billion to crowd in private finance to support more than £40 billion of investment in infrastructure over the next five years.

It is clear that when done right, the Government’s levelling-up programme can make a real difference to people’s lives. Does my hon. Friend share my enthusiasm for the proposed Atherton, Leigh and Tyldesley cycling upgrades that will connect local people to job opportunities right across the area, especially because there is such local support for it and it is not an anti-car programme?

Yes, I do share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for helping his constituents to access jobs and for cycling as a way of getting to and from work. At the spending review we announced £710 million of new funding for schemes like the one he described, but Bolton is also receiving £30 million through the towns fund and the shared prosperity fund, and work on the electrification of the Wigan-Bolton line has begun, supporting economic growth for his constituency and the wide area.

In the integrated rail plan announced just six months ago, the Government promised to invest in the east coast main line—a vital route connecting London, Newcastle and Scotland and bringing high-skill, high-wage jobs to our area. However, Ministers are already backtracking on some of these investment promises in other parts of the country, so will the Government make a firm commitment today to fund the delivery of east coast upgrades to provide much-needed confidence and resilience in our line?

As the hon. Lady points out, with our investment in infrastructure—particularly rail, in the £96 billion integrated rail plan for the midlands and the north—we are showing how the Government are supporting the growth of the economy, including through providing the transport infrastructure that we need for that.

Labour welcomes the principle of a UK infrastructure bank moving to a statutory footing, but it is crucial to make sure that public money supports decent jobs that people can raise a family on. Will the Minister therefore support our proposals for all projects funded by the infrastructure bank to come with a good jobs plan and for working people to be given a voice on its board?

We have many measures in place to support people’s jobs. We know about the figures for record levels of payroll employment and also the increase in the national living wage earlier this year. I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman’s support for the UK infrastructure bank that we are currently legislating for, which is a really important part of our determination to drive regional and local growth across the UK.

Credit Unions

The Government support the credit union sector and recognise the contribution that they make to our financial services sector more broadly and to the communities that they serve. The Government have released £100 million of dormant assets funding to Fair4All Finance to support the financial wellbeing of people in vulnerable circumstances.

I should declare an interest as a former chair of a credit union. Credit unions are some of the largest providers of low-cost credit and are more important than ever given the cost of living issues at the moment, but there are significant barriers hindering their growth, not least legal restrictions on the size of their common bond area. I know that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary is amending the Credit Union Act 1979 soon, so what plans does he have to look at issues such as this to support credit union growth and to give as many people as possible an opportunity to stay away from doorstep lenders and loan sharks?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is an expert in this area, given his role in Barrow. We will be amending the Credit Union Act 1979 shortly, which will allow credit unions to offer more services such as hire purchase, conditional sale agreements and so on. With respect to the common bond—that being the link for all credit union members—we will need to see evidence that it supports the needs of the sector, but I have been working closely with the Association of British Credit Unions Limited, the trade body for 70% of credit unions, on its “Vision 2025” document. I visited its conference recently, and we will bring measures forward shortly in the financial services and markets Bill.

Further to the excellent question from the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), I say gently to the Minister that Ministers have always had warm words for credit unions, which I welcome, but have been somewhat slow to give them or other mutuals, such as friendly societies, the Whitehall and parliamentary support for the legal reforms to drive significant expansion. Will the Minister now back the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) and require all public bodies to promote credit unions going forward?

Over the years, we have had considerable dialogue on many of these measures. As I said, the legislation that the sector is looking for will be introduced in the next few weeks. I am aware of the Bill of the hon. Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick), and I am seeking to have a meeting with him imminently—in the next few days or next week—to discuss it and to see what we can support.

Cost of Living

11. What fiscal steps he is taking to help reduce the impact of inflation on households’ cost of living. (900767)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of his Department’s fiscal policies on the cost of living. (900769)

17. What fiscal steps he is taking to help reduce the impact of inflation on households' cost of living. (900774)

19. What fiscal steps he is taking to help reduce the impact of inflation on households' cost of living. (900776)

The Government understand that many families are struggling with rising prices. That is why we have announced £37 billion-worth of support, with the bulk of that targeted on the most vulnerable in our society, and those families receiving around £1,200 of help this year.

The Government’s failure to increase social security benefits in line with the current rate of inflation has resulted in a real-terms cut. Many of my constituents who are in receipt of social security now face a shortfall of around 6%, based on today’s inflation rates. The Chancellor could take action now, for example by reviewing the rate of social security every six months, rather than annually in September, while we are in this cost of living emergency. Will he commit to an emergency in-year uprating in line with the rates of inflation?

I gently point out to the hon. Lady that just a few weeks ago we announced £15 billion-worth of additional help, particularly for those on means-tested benefits, who are receiving a one-off payment of £650. The aggregate amount spent on that proposal is in fact more generous than simply uprating with inflation as she suggested, so those families will get more help under our plan than with her proposal, and that money will arrive first in July, with the second payment later in the autumn.

The cost of living is affecting individuals and business, particularly small business, across our society. Many small cafe owners, who are important for the service sector in Edinburgh South West, are struggling. One small cafe owner wrote to me recently to say that over the past few months, every single one of her suppliers has put their prices up—from bread, to cakes, to bacon, to coffee, to waste collection and energy. My question for the Chancellor is this: is it not time that he looked at his options for further cuts to VAT to help small businesses, especially small cafes in Edinburgh South West?

We have provided significant support to the hospitality sector over the past two years, and I am glad that the sector at least emerges from the crisis in a much stronger shape—in terms of employment, cash balances and insolvencies—than anyone had anticipated, which is something to celebrate. With regard to support at the moment, we have of course put in place a £1.7-billion business rates holiday—the 50% discount—for cafés and restaurants in England, and that money is being Barnett-ed to Scotland to provide similar support to restaurants there.

Public sector workers and care workers in North Tyneside say that the Chancellor’s package on the cost of living crisis does not address their daily financial struggles, because under his Government, their pay has not kept pace with inflation. What practical steps will he take to address that overriding problem for my constituents?

As I said, we are providing an enormous amount of support—around £1,200—which is targeted at those who most need help. Of course, no Government can make the challenges go away completely, given the scale of the problem that we are facing, but I am confident that the support we have put in place is significant and will make a meaningful difference to those who most need it. The hon. Lady talks of the practical steps that we can all take to help with the cost of living. Perhaps her party could start by opposing the crippling rail strikes of the past week or two, which are doing nothing to ease the burdens of the cost of living on public sector workers.

My constituents in Bury South have had inflicted on them tax and national insurance rises—the inadequate 5p cut to fuel duty barely touched the sides—by a Chancellor who has clearly run out of ideas, as we have just heard. With energy costs at record highs, and an expected further rise of up to 50% in the autumn that will mean the cap has almost trebled in under a year, what further assistance can be given to my constituents to ensure that nobody is cut off?

I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that £37 billion of support is being targeted at the most vulnerable and will come over the next few months, from the summer through the autumn and winter, to help with the price cap. As we said, we do expect the cap to increase significantly in the autumn, which is why we have put the support in place. He talked about taxes, so he will be pleased to tell his constituents that in just a couple of weeks’ time, they will have their taxes cut when the national insurance threshold rises to £12,500, which will deliver a £330 tax cut to around 30 million people in work. That will start to put more money in people’s pay packets in July.

The tax rises that the Chancellor has introduced are making the cost of living worse for everyone. How can he defend raising taxes on working people and urging against pay rises for most people, while his colleagues recommend scrapping the cap on pay rises for FTSE 100 bosses who earn millions?

Again, 70% of workers in this country will have a net tax cut. That is what the Government are delivering. In just a couple of weeks’ time, the first £12,500 that anyone in work earns will be free of any tax or national insurance. That will deliver a £6 billion tax cut for 30 million people. As I said, for 70% of all workers, excluding the most wealthy, it represents a net tax cut, because we are on the side of hard-working people.

The Chancellor knows that a significant part of inflation is not within this Government’s control, and indeed not within the country’s control; it is a result of international energy costs, particularly oil and gas. That is happening globally because there is an imbalance between supply and demand across the world. What is the Treasury’s approach, working with other countries and major energy companies, to try to bring down those prices overall in the coming years? Unless we do that, increasing energy costs will be inimical to the economic growth that everybody in this House wants to see.

My hon. Friend makes a thoughtful point, and he is right. As the Bank of England recently pointed out, the bulk of the excess inflation that we are seeing is being driven by global inflationary forces. He is also right that in the long term, the best way to combat that is to increase the supply of energy. In particular, the Prime Minister’s energy security strategy sets out a plan to do exactly that, which will have an impact on bills next year and beyond. Between now and then, we have the support in place to help people.

We all know that energy prices, such as oil and gas prices, are being driven by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. I welcome the extra £37 billion of support for households and the cut in fuel duty. One thing that affects my constituents, particularly district nurses, is the differential between the terms and conditions for NHS workers and the normal mileage allowance, which means that an NHS district nurse in my patch doing 12,000 miles a year gets about £1,400 less than if they were on a normal mileage allowance. Will the Chancellor make representations to the Health and Social Care Secretary to try to improve that position for my district nurses?

My hon. Friend, as always, is right on the point, and he makes a good observation. He knows from his discussions with me that the mileage allowance rates are advisory, and organisers and employers can provide whatever support they think is appropriate and justified under the circumstances. I would be happy to talk to the Health Secretary. As my hon. Friend knows, the NHS has received a record funding settlement. Where we can find efficiencies to support people, we should do so.

Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), may I urge the Chancellor to think again about the cut in fuel duty? Although the one he introduced was welcome, it has not really been noticed by many people, so will he consider a much more substantial temporary cut in fuel duty, as has been done in Germany?

I am glad that my hon. Friend is supporting my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey). I will take all his recommendations under advisement. As my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary pointed out, a cut of £5 billion, together with the freezing of fuel duty, is significant, but we appreciate that that is not being felt at the pumps because of the rise in wholesale prices. I assure him that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is in dialogue with the Competition and Markets Authority to ensure that the fuel duty cut is being passed on.

Topical Questions

In common with countries around the world, the UK is experiencing global inflationary forces. We are taking action to support the country through that, with £37 billion of support targeted at the most vulnerable, but also focused on the long term in combating inflation and reducing prices through supply-side reforms, responsible fiscal policy, and a strong and forceful independent monetary policy.

Many people are grateful to the Chancellor for all the support he has given to help people with their energy bills, but many businesses are also struggling with very high energy bills. Will he consider giving further support to businesses to help them through that, preferably through cutting their taxes? It would be a tragedy if the Chancellor kept all those businesses going, at huge cost, through the pandemic, only to see them come a cropper after the pandemic because of the inflationary cost pressures caused by those lockdowns.

My hon. Friend is a champion of all the small businesses in his constituency, and rightly so. They have endured the pandemic and are bouncing back strongly on the other side, and we want to support that. On tax cuts, I hope he can reassure his small businesses that this year they are benefiting from two specific tax cuts—a cut of about £5,000 in business rates for a typical pub; and with the increase in the employment allowance, a cut of £1,000 on national insurance contributions—and we will of course support them in the years to come.

Consumer confidence is at its lowest level since records began because working people have less money to spend, but we are not all in this together. Pay for the top 1% of earners is increasing at 20 times the rate for the bottom 10%, and all the while the Prime Minister eyes up luxury tree houses instead of fixing the broken economy. Does the Chancellor realise that, to avoid a cost of living calamity, he must address the stagnant wage crisis created by Tory policies?

On wage policy, this is the Government who introduced the national living wage and, this year, increased the national living wage by about £1,000 a year. Combined with the cut to the universal credit taper rate and the increase in the national insurance threshold, that is significant support to those on the lowest earnings. It is right that we increase people’s wages, but the hon. Lady should start in her own office, where, I heard, she is perhaps not quite paying her own staff properly.

Some 4.8 million people in Britain are paid less than a real living wage. That includes cleaners, caterers and security guards employed by the Government. They work hard, they pay their taxes—in Britain, Chancellor—and they have been taken for granted for far too long. Will the Chancellor guarantee that all those who work for Government, whether directly or through a contractor, will be paid a real living wage from now on so that they can afford their bills, put food on the table and support their families?

We want everyone to be paid the national living wage. That is the law in this country. I am proud that we have increased it by £1,000 this year, which, combined with our tax cuts, is putting more money in the pockets of the lowest paid. I say again that there are lots of people being paid less than the national living wage but they should not include people in the hon. Lady’s own office.

T2. The Chancellor is familiar with the opportunities in northern Lincolnshire and the wider Humber region to advance economic growth; what plans does he have to develop the infrastructure and support local authorities to achieve that? (900748)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his region and his support for a freeport on the Humber has been noted across Government. We are of course investing in our levelling-up programme, which has a direct bearing on areas such as the Humber. Crucially, we want to advance devolution within England to allow areas such as his to reap the full rewards and take full control of this exciting opportunity.

T4. Recently, it was revealed that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is failing to use the third-party data information that we get through international agreements to investigate how much tax is being evaded through offshore assets. Given that £850 billion is held offshore, with two thirds of it stashed in known tax havens, either Ministers are content for the super-rich to evade paying their fair share in the knowledge that their offshore wealth is not being systematically checked, or they will direct HMRC to use this reporting data, as is done in the US and Denmark, to uncover tax evaders. Which is it? (900750)

I am proud that HMRC is a leader in tax transparency, has a number of double tax treaties and co-operates with a large number of countries and international organisations to share tax information to ensure that people pay their fair share.

T3.   The global cost of living crisis is affecting many of our constituents, so it is welcome that those on means-tested benefits—one in three households—will receive £1,200 in support from the Government this year. When will that vital support be hitting bank accounts? (900749)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need to target support on those who most need it. I am pleased to tell him that the payments will be made for those on means-tested benefits in July, with the second of those payments following a few months later, in the autumn, for those on tax credits, so that deduplication can be done.

T5. In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), the Chancellor seemed actually to be boasting that unlike the Scottish Government he is not willing to invest in tackling child poverty or in supporting carers. May I therefore suggest that instead of boasting about his poverty-inducing social insecurity system he tries looking at and replicating the Scottish child payment and the carer’s allowance supplement? (900751)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out very clearly the choices the Scottish Government made at their most recent spending review, on which they can be judged. Let us be very clear: it is the Scottish Government and the Scottish Government alone who are wasting millions of pounds of this country’s and indeed their country’s citizens by pursuing a referendum. That is the last thing that Scotland or the UK needs, soaking up resources that should be spent on people who need them.

T7. The east of England is the only region in the country without a dedicated children’s hospital which is why I am delighted that the Government have committed £100 million to building Cambridge children’s hospital. It has recently got planning permission and its exciting designs were shown last week to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate. Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor or the Chief Secretary to the Treasury commit to working with me to make sure the hospital is built on schedule? (900753)

This Government are determined to deliver for the people of Cambridgeshire. My colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments about the importance of this facility, and that is why we are investing £4.2 billion in new hospitals over the course of this Parliament.

T10.   The recent announcement by the Chancellor on support with energy bills was welcome as far as it goes; however, I remain deeply concerned about my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran who live in park homes, many of whom are elderly and vulnerable, who have no clarity as to whether they will receive the same support for energy bills as every other household in the UK. Will the Chancellor put an end to this uncertainty and confirm today that he will make a firm commitment to ensure that park home residents do not miss out on this vital support? (900756)

The hon. Member makes an important point about people living in park homes—I also have constituents who live in park homes—and we are determined to ensure that people receive the help that they need with the increase in energy costs. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been consulting on how we deliver support to people living in places such as park homes that do not have the same electricity or energy supply as others.

T8.   Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure of hosting a roundtable discussion with farmers from my constituency in collaboration with the National Farmers Union. My constituent Andy Cornthwaite informed me that he was struggling to employ extra staff to grow his business due to the current £85,000 VAT threshold. I am aware that my right hon. and learned Friend recently responded to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on the subject, but will she consider an early review of the VAT threshold due to the increase in labour and/or materials costs for small and medium-sized enterprises? (900754)

The Government recognise that accounting for VAT can be a burden on small businesses. That is why we maintain the highest VAT registration threshold in the OECD and as compared with EU member states. At spring Budget 2021, to give businesses certainty, it was announced that the VAT threshold would be maintained at its current level until March 2024. Although there are no plans to change the VAT threshold at this time, we keep all taxes under constant review.

Last year, at the spending review, the Government announced that after years of austerity there would be a small real-terms increase in local authorities’ spending power—but that was when inflation was around 2% to 3%. Has the Chancellor seen the recent assessment from the Local Government Association showing that, with inflation at a somewhat higher level now, it will cost local councils £2.4 billion extra this year? What steps will he and the Levelling Up Secretary take to have talks with the Local Government Association about extra help for local authorities so that we do not get another round of austerity imposed on our constituents?

Of course, we invested £1.6 billion in local authorities in each year of the spending review precisely to help them with all the responsibilities that they must discharge. I would say to all Departments and devolved Administrations that, if we are to live within the spending review, it is vital that they make responsible choices about how to deliver services at best value to the taxpayer. We cannot be in a situation where we chase after inflationary pressures as that will only worsen and prolong the crisis that we face.

T9. My constituents want to see a low-tax, high-growth economy where work and productivity are prioritised and incentivised. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the next move in taxes will be downwards and that that will happen at the first available opportunity? (900755)

The Chancellor set out at the spring statement that he would be cutting taxes. We have seen that already in the universal credit taper rate and in the increase in the national insurance contributions threshold to £12,570, which will come in just a few weeks. We have also seen the announcement that income taxes will be cut in 2024.

Small businesses in Ceredigion have told me how increasing electricity and fuel costs are having a direct impact on their operating costs in addition to an indirect impact in reduced demand for their goods and services. They are concerned that those costs are being disproportionately felt in rural areas. Does the Treasury share that assessment? Will it consider bringing forward bespoke measures to support the rural economy?

The hon. Member and I met recently to speak about the cost of fuel in rural areas. As I also represent a rural constituency, I appreciate his point. As he knows, the cut that we made to fuel duty is benefiting people in rural areas as well as those across the whole country. That, combined with the duty freeze, is £5 billion-worth of help for people. As we have discussed today, we are also providing targeted support to people: in particular, there is the £1,200 for 8 million households on benefits to help with the rising cost of living.

Our country is facing its highest tax burden since the 1950s, although it should be acknowledged that, more recently, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been bringing taxes down rather than putting them up. Does he agree that, with the elevated level of inflation, now is not the time for dramatic cuts, but that once inflation starts to recede—hopefully at the end of the year or into next year—that will be the opportunity to come forward with serious tax cuts to get growth and jobs going and to support our constituents?

I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for his constructive and thoughtful dialogue with me on these issues. He makes an excellent point, and I direct him to the tax plan that we published at the spring statement to indicate the direction of travel on tax. There will be tax cuts in, I think, a day’s time to help people with the cost of living, tax cuts in the autumn to drive growth in business investment and innovation, and further cuts to personal taxation thereafter, once the situation stabilises.

Unpaid carers have seen their bills soar during this cost of living crisis. Many carers find it impossible to reduce their energy use, because the person for whom they are caring relies on electricity to power a wheelchair, a hoist or other vital equipment, yet last month the Government decided to exclude hundreds of thousands of unpaid carers of state pension age who are not in receipt of a means-tested benefit from the £650 cost of living support package by leaving carer’s allowance out of the qualifying benefits. Will the Chancellor reconsider this unfair decision, which risks putting even more carers into financial hardship?

The hon. Lady is right to pay tribute, as we Conservative Members do, to those who care for others. She should be reassured that of the 1 million people in receipt of carer’s allowance, 60% or more will be in a household that receives the £650 or, indeed, the disability payment. Carer’s allowance itself is not a means-tested benefit.

Investment in clean, low-carbon energy infrastructure will be crucial to creating long-term, rewarding jobs in coastal constituencies such as Waveney. Has my right hon. Friend carefully considered the impact that changes to tax policy on electricity generators would have on investment in the UK?

The Chancellor is looking very carefully at this industry, and he engages with industry stakeholders. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) will know that there are a number of ways in which the tax system supports low-carbon energy infrastructure, including through the super deduction, research and development tax relief, our consultation on broadening the emissions trading scheme, and the £1 billion investment in the carbon capture and storage fund.

The rural fuel rebate was introduced 10 years ago at 5p a litre and remains unchanged. With inflation and the cost of living crisis, what thought has the Treasury given to increasing the rural fuel rebate to at least 10p a litre?

The hon. Gentleman is probably talking about the rural fuel relief scheme, which is specifically targeted at a small number of locations where fuel prices are much higher than the national average, perhaps because they are a long distance from the refinery. In proposing an extension to the scheme, he should consider the potential unintended consequences. For example, people might drive out of their way to go to a petrol station in these rural areas.

Thanks to this Government, we have record low unemployment and more job vacancies than jobseekers, but almost 9 million people are economically inactive, including many who can work and many who have worked in the recent past. Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting more of this group back into work is key to filling the labour shortages that many Members have spoken about today, and to strengthening our economy for the longer term?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he knows about this from his time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. There is no doubt in my mind that the work we are doing, through the spending review, to provide more than £1.1 billion of measures to support disability employment and the effective management of health in the workplace will be important. The Government’s Way to Work programme is yielding fantastic results, and is a sign of our intention in this space.

Some £11.8 billion was lost to fraud during the pandemic, according to a plethora of organisations such as the National Investigation Service and the Insolvency Service. I know the Chancellor is keeping tabs on public money, but will he publish a real-time dashboard on the recovery of public money?

We provide regular updates on the amount of money lost to fraud because all Members on both sides of the House want action to pursue perpetrators. We have shown our intention in this space with a series of targeted interventions against fraud, the most recent of which is putting in place the new Public Sector Fraud Authority, which goes live in July.

The laws around IR35 are loosely defined, and it looks as though Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is using the tribunals and courts to pin down the case law on it. The effect is that I now know of a number of people whose legal bills are many times what their original tax bill might have been. This is impoverishing them, and in some cases bankrupting them, and obviously it is terrifying them. Will the Chancellor institute a review of this procedure? Although it is important that HMRC raises all the money necessary, it should not do so by destroying lives.

As my right hon. Friend will know, IR35 was brought in to ensure that people doing the same job paid the same tax. I understand that he would like to discuss some issues with me, and I look forward to doing that this afternoon.

TaxWatch UK has just published research showing that on a like-for-like basis, the tax gap—or the money lost every year through unpaid tax—has gone up for two years in a row. That is before we include in the figures the estimated amount lost to error and fraud through the HMRC-administered covid-19 support schemes. The tax gap resulting from fraud is now 45% and stands at £14.4 billion. When will the Government do something about that? They could perhaps create a fraud Minister with the remit of tackling this growing problem, which takes money from other parts of the economy.

The Government are taking a number of steps to tackle fraud, including coronavirus fraud, which the hon. Member mentions. The taxpayer protection taskforce was set up to do specifically that. I will have a cross-governmental meeting this afternoon to understand how we can we work across Departments to tackle fraud.

Rape: Criminal Prosecutions

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, if she will make a statement to the House on the incidence of rape cases not taken forward for criminal prosecution.

I thank my right hon. Friend for posing this important question. Last year, in the end-to-end rape review, the Government committed to more than doubling the number of adult rape cases reaching court by the end of this Parliament. We are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, but we are starting to see early signs of progress. More victims are reporting cases to the police. The police are referring more cases to the Crown Prosecution Service, and the CPS is charging more cases. Rape convictions are increasing: there has been a 67% increase since 2020. Timeliness is improving; the time between a charge being brought and cases being completed continues to fall—it is down five weeks since the peak in June last year.

That is encouraging, but it is just the start. That is why we have identified eight levers that are driving the change. First, we are increasing victim support. We have quadrupled the funding for victim support since Labour was in power—it will rise to £192 million by 2024-25—and we are increasing the number of independent sexual and domestic violence advisers to more than 1,000 by 2024-25.

Secondly, we are rolling out pre-recorded cross-examination for rape victims to all Crown courts nationally. That will help to prevent more victims from being retraumatised by the experience of giving evidence in a live trial. Thirdly, suspect-focused investigations—this is known as Operation Soteria—are being rolled out nationally. That will be completed in the first half of next year, and it will mean that the police focus on the suspect’s behaviour, rather than on the victim’s credibility. Fourthly, we have reformed and clarified disclosure rules, and are working with the police to make sure that victims’ mobile phones are examined only where strictly necessary.

Fifthly, we are reducing the stress of intrusive requests for third-party information—for example, medical or social services records—and are working with the police and the CPS on ensuring that they are gathered only when relevant. Sixthly, we are boosting capacity and capability by increasing the ranks of our police and the number of specialist rape and sexual offences roles in the CPS. Seventhly, our efforts to expand Crown court capacity will continue with a £477 million investment over the next three years to reduce victims’ waiting time for trials. Eighthly, our criminal justice system delivery data dashboard is increasing transparency and giving Government and local leaders the information that they need in order to do better for victims.

We are going even further than the commitments that we made in the rape review, because we have listened to victims and those who work with them. We recently announced a pilot of enhanced specialist sexual violence support in three Crown court centres. This Government are on the side of victims. We want no rape victim to feel as though they are the one on trial. We want every rape victim to feel that they can come forward and seek support. We want to lock up the rapists who commit these abhorrent crimes. We want to protect the public. We will make our streets safer.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply, for coming to the House to set out the additional measures that the Government are putting in place, and for allowing hon. Members to probe the effectiveness of those measures and what is being done to address the unacceptable decline in rape prosecutions in recent years.

The figures show that more than 67,000 rapes have been reported—the highest figure on record, but probably still only the tip of the iceberg. Despite the measures that my hon. Friend has announced, victims still face the trauma of knowing, when they report, that in the past, police, court staff and many others have not been properly trained to support victims—hence the high drop-out rate among victims taking cases forward. The measures that my hon. Friend has introduced will start to help, but rebuilding trust with victims cannot be done overnight. That is why it is so important that Ministers talk about the measures that they are introducing and come to this House to enable us to inquire about their effectiveness.

The Government’s independent adviser on the rape review said recently that

“no one involved thinks where we are is good enough—because it is not even remotely good enough”.

She said that a year on, we are

“doing better, but still pushing further.”

By coming to the House today, the Minister is enabling hon. Members to hear more fully what she and other Ministers are doing to rebuild trust among victims and, importantly, to deliver the Government’s ambition to double the number of rape cases that reach the courts by the end of this Parliament—an ambitious plan on which we need to hold the Government’s feet to the fire.

I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend for asking this urgent question. She is absolutely right to identify the need to rebuild trust in the system among victims. The golden thread that runs through all our work is non-defensive transparency. That is why, in our forensic examination of each stage of the criminal justice system, we are working with the police, the CPS, the judiciary, as constitutionally appropriate, and all the agencies, as well as the vital victim support charities and agencies. We are working together so that at each and every stage we can measure the impact of our efforts and try to communicate it to victims.

I understand that people want us to do more and go faster, and that they want to see improvements. However, I ask colleagues across the House to please bear in mind that what we say in this place has a resonance with victims. We must ensure that we are being accurate about progress when it is happening, so that we encourage victims to come forward, and so that they know that change is happening in the system.

This feels like groundhog day. Yet again, we are debating this Government’s appalling record on tackling rape. As the latest scorecard shows, court delays are still at near-record highs, rape convictions are still at near-record lows, and countless prosecutions are not being taken forward. The Government promised to restore 2016 charging levels, but they are still way off target. When does the Minister think that they will meet that pledge?

The Conservatives first commissioned the end-to-end review of record low rape prosecutions back in 2019. Two years after that, we got a report that recommended only piecemeal changes. One year later, little has changed and only a fraction of what was promised has been implemented. When does the Minister expect this to be delivered in full?

The typical delay in the completion of cases in court has reached three years. The number of rape trials postponed with a day’s notice has risen fourfold, and 41% of rape survivors withdraw their cases before they even get to court. Labour pledged to roll out specialist rape courts across the country, but the Government have produced just three pilots. When will they extend this to every Crown court?

Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 has finally been rolled out, but to just 26 courts. Why has it taken so long, and why only 26 courts, when 77 Crown courts already have the equipment and facilities to support this? Furthermore, the joint inspectorates’ report found that section 28 has not been used consistently by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service. Why is the necessary awareness and training not already in place?

Labour has a plan to tackle rape because we are serious about ending violence against women and girls. That is why we published, more than a year ago, a survivors’ support package containing detailed measures to drive up prosecutions, secure more convictions, and put rapists where they belong: behind bars. This is a Government who are still tinkering around the edges, three years after recognising the shocking scale of their own failure. This is a Government with no serious plan to bring justice for victims of rape, and no serious plan to tackle violence against women and girls.

One of the disappointments of the hon. Lady’s responses, and indeed her advocacy last week, is that in the past we have been able to find cross-party consensus on matters that are of great interest to Members on both sides of the House, particularly in relation to the Bill that became the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. It is disappointing, to put it mildly, when Labour Members either insist on using figures that are not correct—not up to date, for instance—or seek to criticise the Government, perhaps not realising that in doing so they are also criticising the police, who are operationally independent—

They are criticising the Crown Prosecution Service, which is operationally independent, and the courts, which are constitutionally and operationally independent. All three of those agencies in the criminal justice system are working together to make the difference.

On the national roll-out of section 28, the hon. Lady is wrong. We now have 47 Crown courts operating section 28, and we are rolling out section 28 recordings across the country, nationally, far faster than we anticipated in the rape review. On enhanced specialist support in courts for victims of sexual violence, again, we have worked closely with the judiciary. We are piloting it, as we are obliged to do, and I am sure that others in the House will understand why we have to tread carefully, but we hope and expect that the result will justify further rolling out. As for Operation Soteria and suspect investigations, we will have rolled that out in a further 14 police forces by September, and we will have rolled it out nationally, across all forces, in the first half of next year.

When the hon. Lady criticises this Government, she is, I am afraid, implicitly criticising those who are working on the frontline, making these changes happen.

A male Member of the House is shouting at me across the Dispatch Box while I am trying to explain. This is a deeply serious subject, and it must be—I would hope—a matter on which we can find measured and constructive ways of working together in order to improve justice for victims, because that, surely, is what we should all be focusing on.

Support for victims of rape is essential to ensuring that more of these crimes are brought to prosecution, but rape victims often say that, having gone through the trauma of the assault, they are then dehumanised by being treated, effectively, as a piece of evidence when they report it, and then have to prepare themselves to be traumatised yet again when they appear in court. What discussions is my hon. Friend having with the Department of Health and Social Care to make good the NHS’s commitment to giving all victims of rape a lifetime care pathway, so that they can be confident enough to appear in court?

I thank my hon. Friend for identifying not just the immediate impacts of sexually violent attacks but the lifelong impacts that they can have. The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England are involved in all the discussions that the Deputy Prime Minister and I have on this. NHS England is particularly keen to roll out support to victims longer term as well as short term, and also to roll out the further provision of more independent sexual violence advisers, which we have committed to do by 2024-25, bringing the total to more than 1,000 ISVAs nationally. They will be critical as part of the recovery process. Having met many of them recently, I understand how valuable they can be for victims both in their recovery and in giving them the support they need to take these important criminal cases forward.

I am sure the Minister will realise that the whole House welcomes any new measures, but could she say what is being done about some of the older cases that have been stopped in their tracks? Will she ensure that adequate resources are there for those legacy cases where justice has not been done?

I thank the right hon. Lady for raising those historical cases. They are in the system and the injection of investment—£477 million in the overall Crown court system—will help with those particular cases. One of the reasons we selected the three pilots as we did—I should say that the Lord Chief Justice very much worked on this—is that we looked at the backlog of sexual violence cases within courts. For those courts with a lot of sexual violence cases—through no fault of anyone; we are not alleging that there is any fault within the system—and with these backlogs, we hope that this enhanced specialist support will give us some evidence as to whether these measures work, with a view to going further if need be.

I have absolutely no doubt of my hon. Friend’s commitment and dedication to this cause, and I am grateful to her for that. A lot of the figures she quotes are encouraging, but the fact is—she says it herself—that we have a long way to go. As she said, key to this is confidence in the system. Victims need confidence to come forward in the first place and then confidence to stay the course through the process, which can be fairly punitive, as she would be the first to admit. What more can she do to drive that confidence among victims?

There are many ways in which we can support victims. One is through specialist support such as ISVAs and the victims charities that do such a vital job of working with women and victims of sexual violence. Another thing that we are in the process of setting up is a 24/7 support line for victims of sexual violence, and I am extremely grateful to Rape Crisis for its help on this. We are testing it carefully over the next couple of months to ensure that we understand when peaks and flows will necessitate proper staffing, but we are absolutely committed to providing those services so that victims can get the help they need when they need it.

On the basis of what the Minister said earlier, will the number of rape prosecutions be doubled by the end of this Parliament?

We have measured it very carefully and we have committed to doubling the number of cases received in the Crown court by the end of this Parliament. This is a work in progress.

When we talk about this distressing subject, there is the potential to go into abstraction and talk about statistics when, in fact, behind every one of those figures is a shattered life. What is being done to ensure that people dealing with victims of rape and sexual assault understand fully the trauma that the individual going through the process is experiencing, so that they can help them to stay in the process?

The focus of Operation Soteria, the police technique of focusing on the suspect rather than on the witness’s credibility, is critical to the increased understanding that my hon. Friend talks about. He is right to say that when we talk about percentage increases and so on, it can take away from the individual person or people who have been so hurt and traumatised. If I can just translate this into English, from October to December last year, 467 people were convicted of a rape offence. That represents a 15% increase on the previous quarter. Those 467 people were convicted and sentenced by the courts, thereby protecting the public from their violent behaviour.

I would like to thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for bringing forward this vital urgent question today, and to thank the Minister for her comments from the Dispatch Box and her update on what is happening. But given everything that is facing the Secretary of State—record court backlogs, appallingly low conviction rates for rape and women losing faith in the criminal justice system—is it not a bit odd that his main priority seems to be going on the media to defend the indefensible Prime Minister and overhauling human rights laws? What does that say about the priorities of this Government?

I worked with the hon. Lady on the Domestic Abuse Bill and I know how committed she is to ensuring that victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence secure the justice they deserve. The whole of this Government are committed to this piece of work, from the very top. From the Prime Minister down, this is an absolute priority for the Government. I welcome scrutiny—I welcome hon. Members asking me questions at the Dispatch Box—but I also ask please that we acknowledge it when there are early signs of progress, precisely because I want to encourage victims to come forward and get the support they need.

Yesterday, I met the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, who singled out my police force, Dyfed-Powys police, for its early engagement with the Crown Prosecution Service as it seeks to secure charging decisions. The CPS is urging police forces to be proactive and to seek advice as early as possible so as to improve the number of cases that can progress. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Dyfed-Powys police on this and urge other police forces across the country to adopt this practice?

Very much so. My hon. Friend has enjoyed the success of ensuring that cyber-flashing will become a criminal offence when the Online Safety Bill is passed. In relation to her police force, this is precisely why we are publishing local data dashboards. I genuinely want Members across the House to scrutinise what is happening in their local area so that they can help us to hold the police, the CPS and others to account for decisions such as taking a police referral to the CPS. We will be trying to disaggregate that data even further, so that where there is a request for advice as opposed to a charge, for example, we are making that clear. This is a whole-system effort to improve at every single stage of the criminal justice system, and I would like to thank the police, the CPS and the courts for all their efforts.

I am pleased to see both the Home Office and the Department of Justice represented on the Treasury Bench for this urgent question. The Home Affairs Committee produced a report in April on the investigation and prosecution of rape, with several recommendations that I hope the Government will find helpful. Unfortunately we are outside the eight-week deadline for that report to be responded to by the Government, so could I raise two of the recommendations that I think will help the Government in their aim to sort this out? The first is to have specialist rape investigation teams in all police forces. The second is for the Government to ensure the publication of all specialist trained officers so that we know that there are sufficient officers in our police forces to do this important work.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee most sincerely for her Committee’s report. We will be responding, of course. I hope that she will bear with us. I am assured by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), who is sitting just behind me, that we want to ensure that our response is as thorough and positive as possible, so please watch this space. In terms of specialist police officers, I completely understand why this is a suggestion that people raise. My only caveat is that I want every single police officer in every single force to be trauma-informed and aware of how to investigate these cases, for the simple reason that when an officer first comes to the scene of a crime—on a busy Saturday night, let’s say—I want that officer to be an expert in how to treat victims in the aftermath of an attack. I want to be more ambitious than simply having a specialist in the force; I want every single officer to be aware of this, which is what we are trying to achieve through the roll-out of Op Soteria.

Our tackling violence against women and girls strategy has set out our objective to make the streets safer for women and girls, but the need for confidence in the justice system has been mentioned time and again. Can my hon. Friend make it clear that this is a priority for the Government and also tell us how we can use technology to deliver the justice that is needed?

I reiterate that this is a priority for this Government, from the Prime Minister downwards. It is also a priority for colleagues on the Back Benches from across the House, who have raised it. I am very grateful to Conservative colleagues who have raised issues such as cyber-flashing and the use of intimate imagery on the internet, which we will no doubt be discussing as the Online Safety Bill makes its way through this place. There is huge support on the Back Benches for ensuring that victims of domestic abuse get the justice and support they need, and I am extremely grateful to every Member of this House who can join us in our efforts to improve justice for victims of these horrendous crimes.

I have had too many cases where survivors of rape have not reached the evidence thresholds demanded by the CPS and, as a result, their cases have collapsed or not even been able to be taken forward. That clearly has an impact on confidence in the system, particularly on the issue of consent and with one word being played off against another even if there is forensic evidence,. What measures is the Minister taking to improve a victim’s opportunity to take their case forward in that context?

The hon. Lady hits on a sensitive point, in that the “Code for Crown Prosecutors” sets out the tests that prosecutors must apply, not simply in cases of sexual violence but across all criminal cases, and the threshold of 51% or thereabouts for the evidential stage. This means that, as we know from speaking to victims, there are occasions when the CPS does not believe that test has been met, which is why the roll-out of Operation Soteria, both across police forces and across CPS regions, is so important. In this effort for non-defensive transparency, the CPS is looking at its own actions and ensuring that the right standards are being met, for example in the application of the test and in disclosure. All of this is being lined up to ensure that the law is applied properly and appropriately. We have also reformed disclosure guidelines recently, in order to help the police and the CPS make important decisions about whether material needs to be gathered at all and, if it does, whether it meets the very specific circumstances in which it falls to be disclosed.

I welcome the increase in the conviction rates. Having worked closely with my hon. Friend, I have witnessed her determination to address the underlying issues and find solutions for victims of serious sexual offending throughout the country. The issue we have missed out of this debate is that the vast majority of cases are not even referred to the CPS by the police. My concern is that unless there is a slam dunk, an overwhelming case, victims are being penalised, so that those who have addiction or mental health problems are being viewed as unreliable witnesses by the police and their cases are not even being referred. How does she feel about that? What steps are being taken to address the issue?

I thank my hon. Friend, who brings his professional expertise into this Chamber. He is right to say that the focus on a victim’s credibility has in the past meant that too many cases are dropped when they should not be. We have therefore had the roll-out of this suspect-focused investigation technique, Operation Soteria, across the first five forces, and that learning is being shared nationally ahead of the national roll-out next year. This is what will make the real difference, both to the police and to the CPS.

The Minister will be aware that Warwickshire has the lowest conviction rate in the country and was one of the first forces to close its rape and serious sexual offences unit, doing so back in 2014. I have a case where an individual has been charged with two counts of rape. Originally, the plea hearing was back in December 2021. The court date was set for this August, but that has now been put back to May 2023, causing great distress to the victims, as the Minister can imagine. Beyond the dashboard she mentions, what is she doing specifically to address the issues in Warwickshire?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot comment on an individual case. On local policing, the local CPS and the application of all the measures we have talked about in this urgent question so far, the point of the dashboards is precisely to give him, me and others that data, which otherwise has not been collated, so that we can start asking those questions about individual areas. For example, we know that West Yorkshire is doing better than the national average on the police referring cases to the CPS. My question is: why can we not replicate that nationally? We are having those sorts of conversations, with non-defensive transparency, which, I hope, will really begin to see results for victims.

I commend my hon. Friend for her emphasis on local facts. This morning, I was talking to Suzanne Llewellyn, the chief Crown prosecutor for Wessex, who told me that currently 12 people are being prosecuted for rape in Dorset, which is twice as many as in the same period of 2016, and that in three of the past four quarters the rape conviction rate in Dorset has been 100%, which obviously compares very favourably with the national average of 68%. So there is good news at the local level, and we need to do more to bring that to the public’s attention.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that. I genuinely encourage every Member to look at the figures and have those conversations with their local police and CPS to understand what is happening in their local areas. I welcome this scrutiny; it is absolutely the right way to drive change. I thank him for his particular focus on his local area.

First, I thank the Secretary of State for her answers and her clear intention to address the rape criminal prosecution backlog—that is well done. What additional support can be offered to victims and their families, who can be intimidated by the perpetrator and their family connections? Does she agree that a case will often rely on a victim’s ability to testify well, and that that pressure can deliver opposite results and victims who feel that they are unable to cope or to challenge?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for my temporary promotion.

The best way this can be dealt with is through the section 28 roll-out. For those who are unfamiliar with it, let me say that this is the provision whereby victims of serious sexual violence and modern slavery offences can pre-record their evidence—for examination in chief, cross-examination and re-examination—perhaps months ahead of when the case will be tried in the Crown court in front of a jury. That means, first, that the victim is not giving evidence in a live trial, which can bring its own pressures, and also that they give their evidence much sooner in the process, thus helping with our victim attrition rates. We are examining this very carefully and rolling it out as quickly as we can, but I very much hope that by the end of this Parliament we will really begin to see some dividends from it.

Women’s Rights to Reproductive Healthcare: United States

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make representations to the Government of the United States of America about ensuring that women’s rights to access reproductive healthcare are protected as part of her Department’s work on promoting human rights internationally.

Access to abortion services in the United States is a matter for the US Supreme Court and for authorities in individual states. The US Supreme Court opinion of 24 June in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation does not make abortion illegal across America. Rather, it removes federal protection for abortions, hence allowing individual states to determine their own laws. Thirteen states have so-called “trigger laws” that will automatically outlaw abortion, seven of which are already active. We understand that in total 26 states are likely to ban or restrict abortion, or have bans that predate Roe still technically on the books. As the Prime Minister has said, this is not our court, it is another jurisdiction, but this is a big step backwards—I share his view. The UK’s position is that women and girls in the UK should have the right to access essential health services, including those relating to sexual and reproductive health, which includes safe abortion care. More broadly, the UK’s approach is to support sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion for women and girls around the world.

I thank the Minister for her reply. It is because of our special relationship with America and the domestic and international importance of the Supreme Court decision that I made the application for an urgent question. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing it.

The United States of America leads the world in promoting human rights. Hillary Clinton famously said:

“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”

America’s leadership around the world means that the overturning of Roe v. Wade sends a stark message that women’s reproductive rights, which are fundamental to their physical, psychological and social wellbeing, are not worth protecting. In effect, the state has taken control of women’s bodies and denied them bodily autonomy. As we all know, restricting access to abortion does not remove the need to end a pregnancy. One in four women in the United States will need an abortion in their lifetime. The decision will result in more dangerous abortions, a rise in maternal deaths and the criminalisation of women and clinicians. Those from marginalised communities will be most affected, as many will not be able to travel to states that will continue to provide that essential reproductive healthcare.

It is also clear that there is growing concern that the decision may lead to the overturning of rights in other areas, including access to contraception and same-sex relationships. Does the Minister believe that the decision is consistent with the declaration on the elimination of violence against women, of which the US is a signatory? Can the Minister confirm that the Government will continue to support and fund reproductive healthcare programmes, including access to terminations, around the world in light of the decision? With far-right American groups already organising on rolling back the Abortion Act 1967 in this country, the decision will give their work renewed impetus. Will the Government look again at protecting women attending abortion clinics through the introduction of buffer zones, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq)? Finally, will the Government confirm their commitment to women’s rights to access reproductive healthcare, including abortion? If the Government plan to change human rights legislation in the UK, will they completely safeguard the rights of women to bodily autonomy?

I reiterate the point that I made in my reply: the decision was made not by our court but by one in another jurisdiction. As the Prime Minister said at the weekend—and I share his view—it is a big step backwards. The UK is proud to defend and promote universal and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion, which are fundamental to unlock the potential agency and freedom of women and girls. We will continue to press for strong and supportive language in the UN and other international forums.

Experts have denounced the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade as a dangerous roll-back of human rights and a monumental setback for the rule of law and gender equality. As we are co-signatories to the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, which includes sexual and reproductive health, can my right hon. Friend outline what she plans to do to hold the US Government to account at the UN, and can she confirm that the UK Government would view any change as a breach of its inalienable international obligations?

The judgment will be distressing for women in the US. As the Prime Minister set out, and as I have said, we also see this as a big step backwards. We are proud to promote and defend universal comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we will continue to push for supportive language in international forums.

I am sure the whole House is grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) for asking the urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the application.

The great story of the 20th century is how different groups, who were historically denied their rights, won those rights for the first time through protest, organisation and democracy. Those groups included working people, and our party is partly a consequence of that; ethnic minorities, which brings me to the Chamber today; LGBTQ people, in the week in which we celebrate Pride; and women. Heroic leaders of the feminist movement, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, secured women’s right to vote after two major concessions, in 1918 and 1928. For decades, women could choose which political party to support, but did not have the freedom to choose what to do with their own bodies. It was a story of women criminalised, back alleys and a black market, illegal abortions, dirty implements, disease, prison and death. It is a plight that affected women across the globe, certainly in our own country, and it affected poor women particularly, including my late mother.

It was not until 1967 that women in Britain won the right to a safe and legal abortion. In 1973, the United States followed. It is an abomination that, almost 50 years later, 36 million women in 26 American states were stripped of their right when Roe v. Wade was overturned. In America, an organised hard-right and global political movement is seeking to overturn rights hard won in the 20th century. That is happening in our country too. In 2019, 99 Westminster MPs voted to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland, and the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) says he is “completely opposed” to abortion.

Will the Minister confirm that the UK will make representations at the United Nations? The UK is a signatory to the universal declaration on human rights, so why has the Foreign Secretary said nothing about this issue? Will the Minister confirm that as the United States Agency for International Development surely departs—

Order. I allowed the UQ, because I thought it was important, but the right hon. Member should not take advantage of the rules. Two minutes means two minutes. I keep telling both sides, but Front Benchers get carried away. I have all these Back Benchers, who matter to me, that I need to get in. I remind the shadow Secretary of State that I expect him to stick to two minutes, and just ignoring me does not help.

The Prime Minister was clear about his view at the weekend, including in an interview on CNN. It is clear where we stand on this. In terms of Northern Ireland legislation, the issue is a matter of conscience, and colleagues have an opportunity to vote based on that. The Prime Minister’s view is clear, and it is one that I share.

It is a failure of politics in the United States that, after all these years, it still relied on Roe v. Wade to guarantee abortion rights. The failure is to continue to allow the debate to be seen as an ideological pro-choice or pro-life position. We are not in a strong position to lecture the United States on that point, because we have done much the same ourselves. Is it not time that we led by example and reviewed our abortion laws, which are now more than 50 years old, and based them on a safe framework for terminating pregnancy in the interests of women, rather than their being characterised by absurd moral extremes?

In terms of our domestic policy on abortion, legislation in this House is a matter of conscience. Our policy is to ensure that women can access health services in a safe and secure way. That remains a key priority. We will work closely with abortion providers and other stakeholders on the provision of those services.

I despair at the overturning of Roe v. Wade, because the undermining of women’s reproductive rights anywhere is a threat to women everywhere. The truth is that we cannot ban abortions—only safe abortions. I welcome the abortion care summit held by the First Minister earlier this week, and I pay tribute to Back Off Scotland, to Green MSP Gillian Mackay and to COSLA for their work in securing buffer zones to protect everyone accessing healthcare and staff from the hostile anti-abortion activists who have been causing such distress outside healthcare facilities, such as the Sandyford and the Royal Infirmary in my constituency.

What is the Minister specifically doing to prevent the creeping influence on these islands of US-based extremist groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been described by the Southern Policy Law Centre as a hate group, but which was shockingly given a platform by BBC Scotland on several occasions this week?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As we have said, it is important that legislation is in place enabling women to have an abortion. Women should have control over their own bodies. That is why we have the legislation we have in this country.

I recognise the degree of distress and concern felt by many Members in the House over the Supreme Court’s decision. The fact is, though, that I probably disagree with most Members who have spoken so far on this matter. They think that women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy in this matter. However, I think that, in the case of abortion, that right is qualified by the fact that another body is involved. [Interruption.] We can disagree on that question. [Interruption.] We can disagree on that question, but I offer to Members who are trying to talk me down that this is a proper topic for political debate. My point to the Minister on the Front Bench is that I do not understand why we are lecturing the United States on a judgment to return the power of decision over this political question to the states—to democratic decision-makers—rather than leaving it in the hands of the courts.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I say, this is a matter for the US. It is not within our jurisdiction, but the point is that we can rightly have a debate in this House and vote according to our own conscience.

The hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) asks why we are discussing this decision, as it is a political debate. Fundamentally, for many of us, this is a human rights issue. Roe v. Wade gave American women a constitutional right to have an abortion. Currently, here in the UK, only women in Northern Ireland have their constitutional right to an abortion protected as a human right. But we can change that, and that is what this place and this urgent question can do today. I ask the Minister a direct and simple question. If an amendment is tabled to the forthcoming Bill of Rights to protect a woman’s right to choose for every single woman in the United Kingdom—by those of us who recognise that it will be a conscience issue, and therefore a free vote—will she join me in voting for it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Actually, I wish to pay tribute to her for everything that she does to promote women’s rights, and for the work that she has done in relation to abortion services and the right to have an abortion. I will not pre-empt what will be in future legislation, but I will say that, as she well knows and as we have discussed, these are matters for our conscience.

For me, the former First Lady, Michelle Obama summed this up in her open letter when she said that, when we do not understand our history, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes. As ever, it will be the young, the poor and the vulnerable who will be the biggest victims of this terrible, terrible decision. Our Prime Minister has said that it is a backward step, but to me it is a case of actions speaking louder than words. Surely there is more that we can do to use our so-called special relationship with the United States to push back against this decision, which is against reproductive rights, against women’s rights and against human rights.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. As I have said on numerous occasions and, indeed, as the Prime Minister has said, and as she rightly pointed out, this is a backward step. Over the weekend, the Prime Minister also said that it was a matter for the US courts and for individual states. None the less, at the same time, our personal views on this matter will have been heard loudly and clearly.

I politely say to my right hon. Friend that this decision will not stop abortions. All it will do is make it very unsafe for women to go through that process, and we will end up with more deaths. Will she please tell the House what conversations she has had with international colleagues on this matter and on women’s rights to reproductive healthcare in general?