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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill (First sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Esther McVey, † Graham Stringer

† Bowie, Andrew (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)

† Brock, Deidre (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)

† Churchill, Jo (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

† Clarke-Smith, Brendan (Bassetlaw) (Con)

† Duguid, David (Banff and Buchan) (Con)

† Fletcher, Katherine (South Ribble) (Con)

† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)

† Green, Kate (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

† Howell, John (Henley) (Con)

† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)

† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)

† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)

† Jones, Ruth (Newport West) (Lab)

† Lewis, Clive (Norwich South) (Lab)

† McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol East) (Lab)

† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)

† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)

Abi Samuels, Huw Yardley, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee


David Exwood, Vice President, NFU (National Farmers Union)

Dr Helen Ferrier, Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs Adviser, NFU

Professor Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Adviser, DEFRA

Professor Robin May, Chief Scientific Adviser, Food Standards Agency

Professor Jim Dunwell, Chair, Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 28 June 2022


[Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

We are now sitting in public and the proceedings are being broadcast. I have a few preliminary announcements: Hansard colleagues will be grateful if hon. Members could email their speaking notes to; I ask hon. Members to switch electronic devices to silent; and a reminder that tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings. I have also been asked if hon. Members may remove their jackets: you have my permission to do so—it is quite warm in here.

We will first consider the programme motion on the amendment paper, then a motion to enable the reporting of written evidence for publication and a motion to allow us to deliberate in private, if we so wish, about our questions before the oral evidence session. In view of the time available, I hope that we can take those matters formally. I ask the Minister to move the programme motion standing in her name, which was discussed yesterday by the Programming Sub-Committee.



(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 28 June) meet—

(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 28 June;

(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 30 June;

(c) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 5 July;

(d) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 7 July;

(e) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 12 July;

(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following Table:




Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 10.10 am


Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 10.35 am

Professor Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Advisor, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 11.00 am

Food Standards Agency

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 11.25 am

Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 2.35 pm

The Royal Society; The Royal Society of Biology

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 3.15 pm

Angus Wheat Consultants Ltd; Rothamsted Research

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 3.50 pm

Organic Farmers & Growers; Soil Association

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 4.30 pm

NIAB; Crop Science Centre

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 4.50 pm

British Society of Plant Breeders

Tuesday 28 June

Until no later than 5.10 pm

The Center for Aquaculture Technologies

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 12.15 pm

The Roslin Institute; Genus; The Pirbright Institute

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 1.00 pm

Nuffield Council on Bioethics; Dr Madeline Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Interactions and Ethics, Royal Veterinary College; Compassion in World Farming

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 2.20 pm


Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 2.50 pm

Beyond GM/A Bigger Conversation

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 3.30 pm

Professor David Rose, Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Systems, Cranfield University; Michael Edenborough QC, Serle Court Chambers; Professor Sarah Hartley, Associate Professor, University of Exeter

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 3.50 pm

Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC)

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 4.10 pm

Paul Temple, Farmer, Member of the Science Agriculture Advisory Group

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 4.30 pm

Benchmark Genetics

Thursday 30 June

Until no later than 5.10 pm

NIAB; John Innes Centre; KWS

(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Tuesday 12 July.— (Jo Churchill.)

Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room and will be circulated to Members via email.


That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Jo Churchill.)

Informally, I discussed with the Minister and the shadow Minister whether the Committee might wish to sit in private to consider the structure of the questioning, but both agreed that there is no need for that, so I will not put that motion. We can therefore now commence the oral evidence session. If Members have any relevant interests to declare, now is the time to do so. No.

Examination of Witnesses

David Exwood and Dr Helen Ferrier gave evidence.

We will now hear evidence from David Exwood, vice-president, and Dr Helen Ferrier, chief science and regulatory affairs adviser, both of the National Farmers Union. Thank you for coming this morning. I can see that you are both there—both our witnesses are appearing via Zoom.

Before calling the Minister to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We must also stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed. This session will finish at 10.10 am. With all witnesses, I will first call the Minister and then the shadow Minister, before opening up to questions from others in the Committee.

Q Good morning, David and Helen, and thank you very much for attending this morning. I will start with a broad question, if I may. What are the views of farmers on precision breeding and how the Bill is likely to impact across both the crop and the livestock sectors? Perhaps we will go to David first.

David Exwood: I think farmers welcome this Bill, because of the possibilities it offers. I am really clear that the big gains, the big changes, in farming are all around breeding. Yes, there are gains in productivity around my machinery, but really the exciting things in the future are all around breeding and the possibilities that brings, and the Bill will help with that.

For all my farming career, I have used pesticides as part of the process. I am very happy about that, but we now genuinely have an opportunity to produce as much food as we do now but with much less impact. So I think farmers welcome the Bill, which opens a world of possibilities and addresses the challenges we face at the moment. There is so much pressure on land use, and the ability to produce the same amount of food as we do now but with less environmental impact and more sustainably is something all farmers welcome.

Dr Ferrier: Ultimately, the market will decide whether this technology is adopted here, but I think that, before that happens, the regulatory system and the legislative process will decide whether farmers and growers have access. The technology is clearly being developed around the world, and regulatory processes are being reviewed and put in place around the world. Farmers and growers are not going to be able to access the products of the technology and realise those benefits that David has talked about if companies are discouraged or regulation is not enabling. So the impact of the Bill depends on how well it is written and whether it will be proportionate and fit for purpose and will therefore encourage the investment of breeding companies that then enables farmers to adopt the products of the technology.

I have other questions, but I would like this process to be collegiate, so perhaps we should go to others, because they may ask the same questions as I will.

Q Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our witnesses. I would like to go straight into a real-world example. One example cited of a possible real benefit is in the sugar beet sector. I come from the east of England; I am sure you are familiar with the issues in that region about neonicotinoids, virus yellows and so on. Could you talk us through the potential there, but also comment on the issues that might arise in trade terms if our friends, our European partners, take a different view and what the risks might be?

David Exwood: Virus yellows in beet is something carried by aphids into the sugar beet crop in the spring and it can have a dramatic effect on yield. We saw two years ago reductions of up to 80% in the beet yield in affected fields. So that is a real-life example of a pest that can dramatically affect the productivity of a crop. We produce about 1 million tonnes of sugar beet in this country each year, and that can be dramatically reduced through virus yellows.

Through precision breeding, we have the ability to breed in genes resistant to virus yellows so that the plant just will not be impacted and all the issues of neonicotinoids and using synthetic insecticides to try to control the aphids and control the impact of virus yellows will disappear. That is a real gain in an industry that clearly needs support and could be really impacted. That is the really clear gain and potential of this technology that the Bill will allow. And there is the point about the sustainability of that business. It is such a concentrated business in a certain area of the country.

To move on to the trade environment, this technology absolutely has to be one that is used widely. I am really clear that the EU is moving on gene editing and precision breeding; it is very clear about that. Actually, my greatest worry is that the UK gets left behind on this technology. The rest of the world is moving, and we need to move with it. We absolutely live, work and trade in a European environment and a world environment, but, given that the EU is moving, my concern is more that we get left behind, rather than us moving ahead of them and nobody coming with us.

Dr Ferrier: Obviously, it is very difficult to predict, but the indications from companies are that, should this legislative change happen, it would be at least five years before products start come on to the market for farmers and growers to use. Clearly, the international trade impacts will depend on the harmonisation across trading partners in terms of the legislation in their jurisdictions. I believe that within the period necessary for those products to come on stream commercially, there will be much more harmonisation. As David said, that will also happen in the EU, which plans a legislative proposal by quarter 2 of 2023. We are not concerned about imminent trade issues, because no products are available for us to use at the moment.

Q Thank you, Mr Stringer. Mr Exwood, the Minister asked you about your members’ views. Have your members been surveyed on the Bill, and if so, what did they say? Is there a difference in views on this matter between, say, organic farmers or small family farms, and larger farms?

David Exwood: Absolutely. We run our consultation process and work up our policy as one organisation that brings in all sectors—organics being one of them. I think everybody recognises the advantages of technology; everybody recognises the benefits that breeding brings. That goes for organic farmers and smaller farmers as well as large farmers. We have to co-exist alongside organic farming in all circumstances—we are very clear about that. We do not see that as a challenge; we already run slightly separate systems and it does not significantly alter business in any way.

The key element of the Bill for small farmers is that it is drafted in such a way as to make it as widely available as possible. It needs to be open to as many farmers as possible—that is how it will bring the most benefit. Breeding actually brings benefit to all farmers, and a good variety of wheat or sugar beet, say, is something that all farmers will benefit from, regardless of their size.

Q Do you agree that sufficient safeguards can be put in place to protect organic farms from what they might see as a sort of contamination—if I can call it that—from those products?

David Exwood: Yes, I do. As I said, we run existing codes, and conventional and organic already co-exist. This does not change that in any way. We have to make sure that we are able to do that. There has to be a co-existence—I am very happy about that—which is a key part of our policy and our ask. I do not see the Bill as being a challenge to that.

Dr Ferrier: The market for organic versus conventional or other systems currently enables segregation for different specifications that the market might ask for. We see that continuing to run as it does at the moment. When a buyer has particular specification, there is certification for organics. As we understand it, the certification for organics would not currently allow the use of precision bred organisms. Obviously, that could change, allowing for segregated supply chains, just as with food-grade versus industrial-grade oilseed rape, or with sweetcorn and forage maize, which are kept apart.

If you are getting a new variety of a particular crop, for example, and you grow a crop for seed multiplication purposes, the high-purity requirements for that seed are there and are managed within the supply chain. We see that continuing to apply for organic farmers.

Q Earlier, you were asked about our relationship with the EU on this matter, and you mentioned progress in precision breeding across the world. How does that fit together, where is most of the research taking place, and which countries should we look at to make comparisons with the UK?

Dr Ferrier: Certainly, the most recent development in countries reviewing their legislation, and one that I think would be really useful for you to look at, is what Health Canada, the Canadian authority, has done. It has recently reviewed its legislation and put out some technical guidance. The key thing is that it confirms that precision bred organisms do not pose any additional safety risks compared with conventionally bred plant varieties. That is driving Canada’s regulatory process. It is not proposing different authorisation and risk-assessment processes. It does not believe that that would add any significant benefit for consumers or the environment, because the science does not show any additional risks—that is very similar to the European Food Safety Authority opinion from the end of November 2020.

Argentina is certainly a very interesting case. Since it has put in place proportionate and enabling regulations—such as those that the Government propose in this Bill—it has seen a real increase in the number of small and medium-sized enterprises and public-good breeding R&D activities taking products through that regulatory process, so that it is not just the preserve of the largest companies that are able to pay for and absorb any uncertainty in a less ideal or dysfunctional regulatory process.

Japan is another example of where a product—a tomato—has been through that process. In countries that put in place proper regulation, the actual process is functional and works well for the companies. Those countries then see investment in R&D and into commercial companies. That is bringing through the products. South America, North America and Japan are investing in this. It is interesting to see how quickly the science develops into commercial opportunities once the regulations are right.

David Exwood: The challenges that we face as farmers in the UK—sustainability, climate change and so on—are the challenges faced by farmers across the world, and we are all looking for solutions to those problems. It is interesting that across the world, there is a move on this technology, which we are seeing quite widely. That is because everybody is looking for answers and solutions to the challenges that we all face.

Q I thank the witnesses for their time. I want to turn to animals specifically, which some people are surprised to see included in the Bill so early on. Animal welfare charities are anxious that using gene editing to improve productivity and disease resistance could lead to more intensive farming. What would you say to that?

Dr Ferrier: There is no evidence that that would be the case, but we understand that people have concerns about existing farming systems. We see that expressed, and we work hard to address it. To me, that is a separate issue from the Bill. We can have discussions about how to improve animal welfare, but I really do not think that it would be sensible, I guess, to design special elements of this particular Bill to address general concerns about farming systems.

The other important thing to be aware of is all the existing animal welfare rules and activities within Government and industry. Obviously the Animal Welfare Act 2006 applies, so we need not duplicate elements of that in the Bill, and there are codes of practice for each sector that are being reviewed all the time. Also, the action plan for animal welfare is in place, and the animal welfare pathway is being developed. We therefore think that concerns in the area, which are freely expressed, are being, and can be, dealt with through appropriate parts of legislation and industry action.

The Bill, which relates to just one particular technology, is not the place to address those areas. We have talked about the challenges. It is not just a challenge for growers of crops; there are a lot of difficulties that are climate change-related, and disease, health and welfare-related production challenges for farmers. There are genetic solutions to some of those challenges that we would like to see explored. We would like farmers to have the benefit of them, but we will only be able to explore them if the legislation enables companies to invest in the technologies to work out whether some of them could help. We can only see benefit from using this technology to address some of those problems.

Mr Exwood, do you want to add anything specifically on gene editing and animal welfare?

David Exwood: I understand the concerns about animal welfare, but it is really important to say that with animals the ability to produce sustainability with less impact applies just the same as with crops. I have dehorned thousands of cattle in my farming career, and the ability to breed out horns in cattle is a clear gain for people and livestock. It would be good for everybody. I would be very happy if I never had to dehorn another calf again. I understand the nervousness, but there are things that this Bill will offer that are clearly a gain. It is wrong to assume that it will just lead to an intensification of production.

Q We have already spoken this morning and asked a question about regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU. Your response was that you were not concerned about that so much as you were about the UK being left behind. Some of us are quite concerned about areas of the United Kingdom being left behind, given the Scottish Government’s reluctance thus far to look at doing the same sort of thing that we are doing, so I want to ask our two guests: do you have any concerns about regulatory divergence within the United Kingdom?

David Exwood: Yes, we do have concerns. The main concern is that farmers across the UK should have access to this technology. I would urge that the gains we see are available to all. I understand the politics of the situation, but again I think that the fact that the EU is moving on this and has made clear signals about the direction of travel gives us some reassurance that across the whole continent we are moving to a different position on this technology. Therefore, the other countries of the UK should be looking to where everybody is moving and our market is moving, and think about how they might want to be in line, alongside what we could do in England.

Dr Ferrier: To be honest, I think it is a real shame, because clearly some of the best scientists and geneticists are operating in Wales and Scotland. There is a real strength. A lot of investment goes on under our devolved Administrations to invest in the science, but in order for there to be a return on that investment, it needs to lead to some kind of commercial adoption. It is a real shame for those scientists to consider that their work will not go beyond the lab if those Administrations’ positions remain the same. I do not think this should be a political issue, because it is about recognising a technology that has a lot of potential to do good things for the environment, society, animals, and farmers and growers; it would be a shame if it were a political issue. We will see. Time will tell whether movement within the EU—which certainly for the Scottish Government, as you know, is a key place where they are looking to see what approach they should take—will change the position. It would be a shame if this were derailed for political reasons when the issues are not political.

Q Would gene editing give us the ability to grow things in this country that we currently cannot? I am thinking particularly of the situation as we adapt to climate change. Is it the case that there are there crops that, because of weather conditions, soil conditions or whatever, do not flourish in the UK, but where this would mean we might be able to enter those markets in the future?

David Exwood: A key example might be soya beans. The current situation is that people have tried over a number of years to grow soya beans. Clearly, it is desirable to grow more of our own homegrown protein, but given that that is quite difficult, it is the sort of opportunity that this technology could give us—the opportunity to make varieties better adapted to our climate, so that we can grow such crops. I do not want to promise too much, but clearly breeding, as I said, offers some of the big solutions in the future. It is those sorts of solutions that we perhaps cannot quite see yet but that may well help us to be much more sustainable in what we do.

Q Is the UK is geared up for research into that side of things? We do not put an awful lot of money into food research and research on crops. I do not want to put words into your mouth. It is one thing for the opportunity to be there. Do you think that we are actually geared up for making the most of the opportunities?

Dr Ferrier: We have really excellent scientists. We have some really world-leading plant science organisations here. An example is NIAB in Cambridge, as Daniel Zeichner will know very well. The scientific capability is certainly there. Obviously, it needs funding, and increasingly research funding is seeking to enable impact from research—impact beyond the academic world, but on society and the economy. Based on that, if research funders see that there is a route to market eventually for the science that they are funding, that will increase the investment in research and development. Of course, the statutory instrument passed a few months ago will enable and make easier the R&D for these particular technologies, which is a good first step. Then, if we have a clear route to market, that will be a further incentive to explore those funding streams.

Of course, with funding comes greater capability, because research organisations are then able to recruit the best researchers. When we were doing our consultation of our members on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation last year, we had scientists come and talk to our members, including a wheat scientist from the John Innes Centre, who explained the science he was doing and the potential for that to address some of our members’ challenges. We have seen in the food White Paper the reference of protein crops and finding ways to get sources of plant-based protein. Some considerable investment in R&D is required in order for that to become a greater commercial proposition for growers in this country.

Q Organic food was mentioned earlier. In shops and supermarkets, organic food tends to attract a higher price than other food. Where would the costings of genetically modified food sit? Would it sit between those two or lower than the current standard food price, if you will?

Dr Ferrier: I guess we are talking about a new, not genetically modified food. I have not done a comparison of current GM foods on the market—the chocolate bars and the oils, for example—so I am not sure where they sit. Organic commands are premium partly because of the greater cost of producing organic. Maybe David could talk about that. On potential products that might come through precision breeding, it depends on the product. I think there is potential, as we have already seen with some conventionally bred products, such as a broccoli with higher antioxidant levels or eggs high in nutrients, for some premium products that have nutritional benefits, but initially there may not be any difference in the final price in shop.

Q When you say any difference, is that from “normal” food or from organic food?

Dr Ferrier: From conventionally produced wheat, for example, for baking a conventional loaf. It depends on the products that come through. It is difficult to judge, but there are examples, such as a heart-healthy tomato in Japan that has an extra benefit that may command a premium in shops. It is very difficult to tell. I think organic always has that premium. As I said, currently that premium will include the fact that they do not use biotechnology. They do in some of their veterinary medicines, for example, but I mean in the actual production of organic food.

There is a premium for organic. I do not know whether there is a premium for GM or if it is cheaper. Clearly, if it is easier to grow a food product, there is potential to pass that on to the consumer. One relevant element that we may come to later is other requirements around the marketing of precision bred organisms. For example, extra labelling always increases the cost of getting food on a shelf. That could be a cost for the final consumer.

David Exwood: Could I just add to that? It is worth pointing out that, rather than perhaps massively increased yields, what this will increase is the sustainability and reliability of crops. Being able to grow crops consistently with less volatility is the real gain here. You will not see wild swings due to crop impact, or maybe a pest impact such as we were talking about with sugar beet earlier. Its sustainability is the great offer, and that is clearly a real advantage at a time when the global food supply chain is under pressure. That is probably one of the main advantages offered by this technology.

Q Just to finish off on that point, then, obviously worldwide prices of grain and wheat—whichever staple it may be—have grown considerably with the situation in Ukraine. Would this actually disassociate itself from those prices, or is it still totally reliant on world events, no matter what the sustainability and yield may be in the UK?

David Exwood: It is really interesting. What is happening in the world grain market is a coincidence of problems: the political situation in Ukraine, obviously, but also production problems in the rest of the world. We have serious drought in the US midwest and problems in India, so it is that combination of climate and politics that has created the current spike in prices. Clearly, for example, if we can breed varieties that are more drought-tolerant, that will help with the food supply chain. Again, it has the potential to offer quite significant gains in the sustainability of our food supply.

Dr Ferrier: It is many years away, but I am sure these kinds of shocks will return. Obviously, whatever happens with this Bill, we are not going to have an immediate silver bullet to answer our current issues and shocks within the supply chain.

I have three Members indicating that they want to ask questions, and we have nine minutes left, so the time allocation is fairly obvious.

Q Thank you to the witnesses for the excellent information so far. Obviously, you represent NFU England. This is an England-only Bill, and we welcome the opportunity for devolved Administrations to take part in the process, but I was wondering, from an NFU perspective—this is for Mr Exwood—what engagement have you had with your counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for example? Is there any divergence at all between the different NFUs?

David Exwood: I can make you aware that my counterparts—the presidents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—wrote to their respective Ministers in support of the Bill, and urged them to support this legislation. I hope that gives you comfort that farmers across the UK see the benefits of the Bill, want to have access to this technology, and are urging—as Helen said—that politics should not override the clear gains here. Yes, we have consulted: we all agree as the four unions, and we would all like to see this technology adopted and available to all farmers in the UK.

Q I have another question, if I may, for Dr Ferrier. I think you said something earlier in response to Deidre Brock’s question about being able to keep gene edited crops separate from organic crops, for example. Are the quality control measures that are already in place—separating seed barley from feed and malting barley, say, or different varieties of seeds and suchlike—enough to provide the safeguard that people may be looking for?

Dr Ferrier: Yes, they are. We are having to ensure that at the moment, as I said, the certification requirements are obeyed and can be delivered on. It is the same as for other things that the organic sector cannot use that the conventional sector can, or for certain specifications, so I definitely believe that the current segregation arrangements would also apply here, enabling that certification rule to be followed.

Q I would like to come back to the labelling, which Dr Ferrier touched on. Why is the NFU opposed to this? I have heard the argument about costs being a key issue, but I would have thought that, with a new technology, you would want to achieve public confidence. Transparency and—dare I say it?—genuine consumer choice would be something that you would want initially, as the public came to terms with something scientifically different from anything else that they may have come across in recent years. Why would you be opposed to that transparency?

Dr Ferrier: We are definitely not opposed to transparency, and we are very much in favour of the notification arrangements that are set out in the Bill. That is something that we worked with Government on over a period of time—to be able to have a system within the supply chain, from breeder all the way along, as far as it needs to go, so that the supply chain is aware of the particular breeding technology used. That enables the transparency and the traceability to be there.

We are also not opposed to labelling, as such, because a lot of voluntary, market-led labelling exists already, outside of the statutory system, enabling a retailer, manufacturer or producer to alert the public to something that it particularly wants them to see to try to persuade them to buy that product. Market-led labelling is definitely something that could be achieved, if the market demanded it at the point where products were being used, because we have the notification transparency system within the Bill.

We are opposed to statutory labelling—I guess that position is in line with DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency—because there is no scientific basis for statutory labelling for products that could have been produced through conventional breeding or natural mutations. We therefore believe that, actually, it would be misleading for consumers to have products that were labelled as different when they are not different from their conventionally bred counterparts. We are pleased to see that in the Bill—that any marketing of these products must not mislead the consumer. Of course, the food information to consumers regulations mean that producers of food cannot mislead consumers anyway. So, there is not a scientific basis for statutory labelling, and it would not benefit the consumer. It is really about the safety of the food, so it would not apply to this particular technology because all of those authorisation processes would be in place.

On consumer surveys, which are often quoted, if you ask, “Would you like this particular thing to be labelled?” consumers will generally want that. However, with lots of other breeding techniques, such as radiation-induced mutagenesis, polyploidy induction—don’t ask me to explain what that means—or somatic hybridisation, if you asked consumers “Would you like to see that on a label if it is being used?” they would say yes. We need to be led by the science of whether these products are actually different if you are going to put a statutory labelling requirement in place. If the market wants to label when the time comes, that will certainly be possible with the transparency arrangements in place.

Q There is an argument for greater transparency in food production, not less. I am struggling with the NFU’s position of leaving it to the market. Markets can do lots of things, but the reason we are here, as regulators and legislators, is to try to ensure that this has public confidence. I would have thought that the NFU would want public confidence on this. If this were the same as other food production mechanisms, I could just pack up and go home now because I would not need to be here, but clearly there is an issue. I am trying to tease out why you do not think that transparency is needed. You have made your case and your arguments, so nothing more needs to be said, unless you want to add anything in the 15 seconds you have left.

Dr Ferrier: I just do not think labelling is a way to deliver policy. It is very blunt.

Thank you, Dr Ferrier and David Exwood, for your time and valuable contribution. We now move on to our next witness.

Examination of Witness

Professor Gideon Henderson gave evidence.

We have before us Professor Gideon Henderson, the chief scientific adviser at DEFRA, who is on Zoom. For this session, we have until 10.35 am. Professor Henderson, would you like very briefly to introduce yourself for the record?

Professor Henderson: Hello, I am Professor Gideon Henderson, and I am chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Apologies for not being in the Committee Room with you.

Q Good morning, Professor Henderson. Are you content that this Bill is based on the best available science? Would you like to explain the input you have had into the Bill?

Professor Henderson: Yes, I would. I think I can reassure the Committee on both those questions. I have been involved since the very early stages of the preparation of this Bill in consulting widely with the scientific community, advising Ministers and officials in my Department and others, and talking to stakeholder groups about the science and its implications. The Bill has taken into account the science and the most expert views of it in a very diverse way. I am personally content that it is fit for purpose and will ensure the continued safety of the environment and food.

Q Good morning, professor. It is very good to see you. You will appreciate that one of the big discussions about this Bill is likely to be about definitions. I want to go into some of them, because you will be aware that some of the learned societies—the Royal Society of Biology, for instance—have questioned the very existence of the concept of a precision bred organism. Can a precision bred organism contain exogenous genetic material? If so, can you explain how that is different from a genetically modified organism?

Professor Henderson: There is an interesting question about how far deregulation into genetic technologies ought to go in one step. Some groups of scientists would certainly favour a model in which you relax the regulation much more widely and base all the outcomes on the traits that are produced through that technology—the outcome in the product—rather than having any view about the technology or the process by which the product is made. That is certainly a view that some scientists would hold.

The view of Government—this has played out in a number of stakeholder groups— has been that moving more cautiously to deregulate or lower the regulation of some aspects of genetic technologies first is a cautious and stepwise way to move. That takes account of the science, enables us to be aware of the issues as they arise, and most importantly builds the confidence of the public as those technologies are used more widely in food production. That is the justification for moving first into the use of technologies only to mimic breeding processes through precision breeding, as described in the Bill.

There is a difficulty in describing the limits of what is possible with breeding. It is clear that some things that are possible—we know they are possible because we have done them—are very similar to things that have been done, and they are therefore clearly in scope. There are other examples that are clearly not possible through breeding. In between those, there is something of a grey area. There is now detailed advice from an expert group—the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment—that lays out the definition of the circumstances in which something would be considered possible through breeding, and therefore would be considered a precision bred organism, to define the line within that grey area.

You also asked about exogenous material, by which I take it you mean material from another species. That sort of material can occur entirely naturally, and it can occur during breeding processes as well, but in general it does not lead to any functional change or any phenotypic change. The Bill is designed not to allow exogenous material, if it has any functional or phenotypic outcome in the product. In that way, it does mimic the action of traditional breeding. I hope that answers your question.

Q It starts to answer it, yes. I have the technical guidance from ACRE in front of me, which I will pursue with a subsequent witness. Most of us have understood that the Bill has been brought forward in order to preclude the inclusion of exogenous material. However, I think from what you are telling us that the Bill, as drafted, does not do that.

Professor Henderson: The Bill is designed to exclude the intentional inclusion of exogenous material, or the residual accidental inclusion that has any outcome that matters. That is probably the shortest way of summarising it. If there happens to be a bit of exogenous material in there that is similar to what might happen through the natural breeding process, or entirely naturally, but it has no functional outcome—no phenotypic change on the crop or the livestock—that is not considered an issue. Any intentional or accidental change that leads to a phenotypic outcome—the crop being different in a way that could not have been possible through traditional breeding—is not allowed under the terms of the Bill.

Q I think we will probably be coming back to that as we discuss the Bill line by line. Finally, what is your definition of the difference between what you have just described and a GMO?

Professor Henderson: GMO is a broad church of definition. A thing that is clearly outside of the terms of the Bill is the intentional insertion of a transgene—genes from another species—in order to create the effect that you wanted. That would be in order to make the product different in some way by bringing in an—[Inaudible.]

Q It is beginning to sound to me like the difference will come down to whether it is intentional or unintentional.

Professor Henderson: It is to do with intentionality, but it is also to do with the outcome—[Inaudible.]

Professor Henderson, I do not know if you can hear me, but you are frozen on our screen.

Perhaps we can ask Professor Henderson to dial off and dial back. Let us see if we can retrieve him.

You are back, Professor Henderson. We move on to the SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock.

Q The Scottish Government have stated that they will wait to assess the outcomes of the EU consultation on gene editing and GM. Some feel that the UK Government are rushing ahead with the Bill, potentially to the further detriment of trade with the EU. The UK Government are clearly very confident in the evidence they have received on this, because they are pushing ahead with it. Will you tell us about the peer-reviewed evidence that the Government are relying on that supports the claim that gene editing can make farming sustainable and environmentally friendly? Can you point to that evidence?

Professor Henderson: I can. There is a very wide range of peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates the benefits that can arise from the use of gene editing for precision breeding, for building better crops. The list is long and I would be happy to share a long list of some of the references. There was a review paper published in Nature in 2019 that I often refer back to, which summarises the many routes by which we can use gene editing to enhance crops.

I am wary of time, but I could talk at some length about the different sorts of crops that might be beneficial in this context. There is also an extensive peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates the safety of these technologies and the fact that the unintended consequences through precision breeding are generally lower than those through traditional breeding, and particularly some of the more extreme mutagenic forms of precision breeding. There is very extensive scientific literature.

You started your question by pointing to the differences of opinion politically on the different sides of the national borders within the United Kingdom. I should say that scientifically, there is not a difference of opinion as you change nations in the country and certainly leading scientists in this sector in Wales and Scotland have also been very instrumental in the peer-reviewed literature that I have mentioned, and they agree with the sense of direction of this Bill, although their political leaders do not.

Q And the potential impact on trade with the EU?

Professor Henderson: As a scientist, trade is less my area of expertise, but to some extent you could argue that this Bill would enable more trade, because it will enable better crops and more crops to be produced, and therefore they could be more readily traded overseas, giving more market opportunities for UK farmers and markets. [Inaudible.] Therefore, I do not see an immediate problem with any trade with the EU, either.

It is also true to say, as I believe your previous—[Inaudible.] Sorry, are you still there?

We are. We missed a little towards the end there, Professor.

Professor Henderson: I am sorry; if it happens again, I will switch wi-fi on to my phone. I do apologise.

I was saying that, from an EU perspective, the final thing to say is that the EU itself is of course consulting on changing the law in a way similar to the way that we are considering, and it is quite likely to change on the same timescale that we will be producing marketable crops.

Q Thank you, Chair, and thank you, Professor Henderson, for your time this morning.

I note in the Bill that the definition of “animals” is not restricted to farm animals; therefore, it follows that it is obviously not just farm animals that we are talking about here. I just wondered what you see the Bill actually covering in terms of applications beyond farm animals—what sort of areas do you see the Bill taking us in?

Professor Henderson: I am sorry; could you repeat the question, please?

Yes, okay. In the Bill, the definition of “animals” is not restricted to farm animals. Therefore, it follows that if we are not just talking about farm animals, we are talking about animals outside farms. What sort of applications you were thinking of? As you said, you have been involved in the development of this Bill. What sort of areas are we looking at in terms of the application of gene editing here?

Did you hear that question, Professor Henderson?

Professor Henderson: I heard something about—[Interruption.] The application for animals outside the farm is something that will need to be addressed before secondary legislation can be enacted. It is not something that I am willing to discuss now, because I—[Interruption.]

I understand, Gideon, that you are on a visit. May I suggest, with the Committee’s indulgence, that we slot you in on Thursday, if people are agreeable and you have the time? Your evidence is both welcome and vital, and we would like to hear from you.

Professor Henderson: Again, I can only apologise for the bad wi-fi I have here. I would be happy to come back to you at any time that suits the Committee.

We have 10 minutes left in this session, so let us have one more try. If that is unsuccessful, then, with my co-Chair, we can consider changing the programme motion. We have agreed a programme motion so it would have to be formally changed. Will you ask the question again, Ruth?

Did you hear the question, Professor Henderson?

Professor Henderson: I think your question was to do with animals that are not on farms—non-livestock animals—which I take to mean things like pets. In that area, there is a piece of work still to do to ensure that animal welfare is looked after and continues to be well looked after following the passage of any Bill on precision breeding. That is a piece of work that scientific information will need to feed into.

There is a body of evidence on animal welfare, including on-farm and off-farm welfare. That is a process that I believe will have to take place before secondary legislation can be enacted. The process for that is laid out in the Bill, and the timescale will be something like two to three years where scientific input will feed in.

Q Just to be clear, did you say this piece of work will take two to three years to take place?

Professor Henderson: That is our expectation.

Q Continuing on the animal front, we know that some animals, such as pets, including some of the brachycephalic dogs, are bred to have traits that are not desirable from a health point of view. There is increasing concern about the popularity of pugs, French bulldogs and creatures like that. On the farm animal side, you have poultry that is bred to an immense size and cows where the milk yields are going up year on year—they are bred to produce more than they would naturally.

What do you see as the parameters of that? How will the Bill protect animal welfare? Because of the popularity of those dogs, breeders may make use of the new technology to breed even more extreme examples. Would that be desirable? How can we prevent that from happening? You may have answered that in response to my colleague and said that it needs more time, but how do you see that in terms of the desire for increased yields and increased production on farms? Is there not an argument for not including animals in the Bill while this further research takes place?

Professor Henderson: Scientifically, the application of these technologies to cross to livestock or other animals is identical in terms of the changes it can cause. It can mimic the impact of breeding more efficiently, effectively and rapidly. In the livestock and animal area, this has identified more clearly a problem that was already there and the fact that we know, with respect to animal welfare, there are some negative outcomes that come from traditional breeding processes. If we are able to speed that process up through precision breeding, those negative outcomes may occur more quickly.

The passage of this Bill has pointed to those problems in animal welfare and made them clearer, and made it necessary to deal with them quite explicitly before we can enact legislation about precision breeding for animals. That is not because the science is different but because the existing regulation around animals differs from that needed around crops. That is why the instrument is set up as a secondary instrument, so that there is time to fully consider and deal with the animal welfare processes before that is changed in law.

Thank you, Professor Henderson. We will end the session there. It has been a difficult session because of the technology. I will consult the Front-Bench spokespeople and we will consider whether to change our programme motion and possibly invite you back, if you would be good enough to return. Thank you for the information you have given us and for your time.

Examination of Witness

Professor Robin May gave evidence.

We now come to Professor Robin May. We have until 11 am, so we have gained five minutes. Thank you for giving us your time and expertise this morning. Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Professor May: Certainly. I am Robin May, chief scientific adviser at the Food Standards Agency and a professor of infectious disease at the University of Birmingham.

Q Good morning, Professor May. I will start with a broad question. Why is it necessary to create a new regulatory framework for precision bred food and feed products, and how will the FSA balance safety in doing so?

Professor May: There are probably two answers to why this is necessary. Currently, precision bred foods and feeds will be encapsulated within the existing GM framework. If they are moving out of that framework, it is important to be sure that those products are safe. The key difference here with traditional breeding is one of pace. The entire point of this technology is to do things that could have been achieved through traditional breeding, but much faster. It is important that we have safety checks along that pathway.

On your question about balance, I think the key balance to strike here is between supporting innovation and ensuring safety. At the moment, our thinking around this is to have a two-streamed process for regulation, where there is a very light-touch process for anything where there is unlikely to be a substantive change in the food and more scrutiny of anything where the final food product is different. I think that is quite appropriate for this blend of technology.

Q Good morning and welcome. You may have heard some of the previous discussion around labelling. Indeed, it is something the Food Standards Agency has looked into. Could you tell us what work the Food Standards Agency has done on assessing the public view on labelling and what conclusions you have come to?

Professor May: We have undertaken quite a lot of consumer research in this area, as have many others. There are various take-home messages from that. The first is that there has been a perceptible shift in public views over the last 10 or 20 years, and there has been more interest in the potential benefits of this technology. That is mirrored by a really strong view that the public want some level of regulation and safeguards in this and other genetic technologies.

Specifically around labelling, there is a very strong majority of the public that we have polled, and that others have seen, who would like labelling of these products. There is some difference of views about what that labelling should entail, but there is a strong feeling around it. From an FSA perspective, we would in principle support that, because we stand very strongly for transparency. The problem, sitting here as a scientist, is that this is not really achievable for this particular group of foods, because the entire nature of the precision breeding legislation is to consider things that could have been produced traditionally.

Consequently, you may end up in the future with two apples, for instance, and one was produced by precision breeding that involves gene editing and the other was produced by traditional methods. It would be scientifically impossible—at least, at the moment—to tell those two apart.

Then, from my perspective, my view is that a label that is not enforceable and that might be misleading is actually worse than no label at all, because you then start to spread doubt about the validity of other labels in the food system: allergen labels, nutritional labels. While in principle I think labelling would be a good thing, the fact that we cannot enforce it makes me feel that this is not appropriate for this type of food.

Q Could you say a little bit more about distinctions between the new nutritional labelling and the other labelling? I think that is important for the Committee to understand.

Professor May: Labelling in the UK is quite a complex system. There are different legislative responsibilities in the different devolved Administrations, for instance. Broadly speaking, there are a whole variety of things, as we know, on a food label. The most obvious that most of us look at are things such as calories, fat content and salt content. There are very tight legal guidelines around what must be present on the label and that it must be accurate. Clearly, if you say that it contains 6 grams of salt and it contains 7 grams, that is not legal.

That holds also for other aspects. There are safety aspects of labelling, such as allergen information, which is critical for many of us, and country of origin. Then there are a raft of labels that may not have a legal framework, but which have recognition under guidelines—Red Tractor and animal welfare standards, those kinds of things. There is quite a lot on the label already. Under the current legislation, any food that is approved as a genetically modified food is labelled as such.

Q May I press you on one final example that has been brought to my attention? It is one of a tomato that could be genetically edited to boost vitamin D content, for instance, and then the cases where some people sadly have an issue with vitamin D. Is there a danger that we could end up not alerting those people to those problems if we do not label properly?

Professor May: That is a good example of somewhere where I think we would have a different approach. Just to go back on the approach we are currently proposing—I stress that there is nothing set in stone yet. This is an approach that we are working quite closely on with our advisory committee on novel foods and processes to develop firm guidelines. At the moment, our thinking is around this two-tier process. Tier 1, for instance, would be foods where there is no compositional change in the thing you eat. A strawberry with a different root system, but the strawberry itself is identical, would not need substantial regulation. In contrast, with the vitamin D tomato that you mentioned, the thing you eat is now different; there is vitamin D in there. Those would be risk assessed and under that risk assessment the key issue there would be one of safety.

In an example such as that one, where there may be a subset of the population for whom this is dangerous, absolutely, we would incorporate that into the risk assessment and our guidance to Ministers then would be that it would be entirely right and appropriate to label that food, possibly with a label that says, “Not suitable for certain groups.” You could imagine a scenario where a food is not suitable for pregnant women, for example, and we would certainly stand strong on the fact that the bottom line is that the food needs to be as safe as it is today. Anything that might compromise safety should clearly be labelled as such.

Q All that is very interesting and very good, but I do not actually see that this is covered in the Bill as it stands. This is all going to have to follow through secondary legislation, is it not?

Professor May: That is correct. At the moment, part 3 of the Bill encompasses the direction of travel, but not the details. That is something we are working on at the moment.

Q Food Standards Scotland produced a paper in March of this year that pointed out potential for regulatory divergence between the four nations of the UK and that the Bill could result in Ministers in England taking decisions on the approval of genome-edited food and food products with little or no involvement from Food Standards Scotland or, indeed, Ministers in Scotland. It is an independent authority, as you know. Can you tell us how that relationship will be approached and managed, if the Bill becomes an Act?

Professor May: Happily, I am here as a scientist, so I can say that, scientifically, we have an extremely close working relationship with FSS and other regulators around the world, but the closest is with FSS.

If I give an example, at the moment, risk assessments that we might do in FSA are shared very closely with FSS. All that process is done together. Often we are using the same sets of experts—for example, to provide information. Once the risk assessment is done, it passes to a risk management process. I cannot think of an example where there is a difference in the risk assessment part between nations, because the science is the science.

Where there are sometimes differences is in the risk management area. A current example is raw drinking milk, because the science around the risks of drinking such milk is the same, but England and Scotland have different views on how much risk is acceptable. Under this framework, I would fully intend that we would share all the science around the risk assessments of a precision-bred product. Ultimately, though, the decision on a risk management basis and whether to authorise it would fall to Ministers in each of the individual countries.

Q Thank you for your time this morning, Professor May. We heard from a previous witness that the EU is likely to develop its work on gene editing along similar timescales. Given the need to share information, how will the FSA and the European Food Safety Authority share information as we go down this path?

Professor May: Previously, prior to Brexit, everything was handled at the European level. As I just mentioned, we share informally the scientific advice, which is very international. Often the people who are providing evidence for a risk assessment are the same people—they may not even be within the EU, but wherever that expertise is available in the world—so there is quite a lot of sharing at that level. Currently, our only formal arrangement with the EU on food safety is around alerts. An alert for a food safety issue that may have an impact on the UK is passed to us, but something that affects countries outside and has no impact on the UK would not necessarily be shared.

I think all of us hope that there will be a reciprocal arrangement for sharing information in future. It is in everyone’s interest to share as much evidence and data as possible, but that is obviously not in my gift to control. There is recognition in the EU that the current GM framework is not fit for purpose for these kinds of products, so the process is already rolling in the EU to look at how it might be changed. How long that will take, and what the outcome might be, will obviously be very different. I would anticipate that it is going to take longer than it will in the UK to get resolution on that.

Q You mentioned alerts. Obviously, nobody wants to leave it until there is an alert situation, but what about developing more formal mechanisms as we go forward, rather than relying on the good will of scientists?

Professor May: Sitting here as a scientist, obviously I hope very much that there will be good sharing. As I said before, it is in everyone’s interest to share the best science and the best evidence around this. Happily, building those relationships is not in my purview to organise, but I hope that there will be sharing, particularly around the horizon-scanning function. For us as a regulator, it is really critical to think about not just what is on our desks now, but what will be there in two, three or five years’ time. What is the science that we will need to assess the potential risks of products that I have not even thought of yet? Collaborative agreement around what might be coming down the road is really critical for all of us.

Q Something occurred to me when I was looking at the Bill again last night. Do you feel that you have sufficient capacity to be able to cope with the extra responsibilities that you are taking on? Have the Ministers given you further guarantees that you will be supported in that?

Professor May: That is a very good question. It is hard to predict based on the estimation of what might be coming to our desks. On the one hand, the Bill will remove a tranche of products that would otherwise have been assessed as GM products. We already regulate GM products, and there is the capacity. On the other hand, the purpose of the Bill is to stimulate development in this area, so we may end up with a lot more applications, in which case we are going to need additional resource. We have taken steps in that direction, including recruiting independent experts in this area to provide scientific expertise, but if there were a large volume of applications needing consideration, we would need additional support.

Q Good morning, Professor May. To return to the discussion that we were having a few moments ago about information for the consumer, to what extent does the Food Standards Agency have a role in providing general public information and education? If that is not the role of the FSA, who should be doing it and how important is it?

Professor May: Our statutory mandate is to protect consumers and represent their interests as they pertain to food. That includes a communication role ranging from allergy alerts and food withdrawals through to a more nuanced understanding of the food system—food security, food poverty and those kinds of questions. At the moment, we do a fair bit of public communication around issues that we know consumers are interested in. Precision breeding, on which we have done some work, is a good example. An explainer on what genome editing and precision breeding are, and what impact they might have, is available on our website, for example.

We do a limited amount of work with schools—particularly in some regions of the UK—mostly on food hygiene. There is an opportunity to do more to explain to people the honest truth about food, and to help them to make decisions about safety and their purchasing decisions in that space. There is always room to do more. There is a lot of consumer interest in this class of foods, and I anticipate that we will do more to make sure that people have the facts about it that they will want.

Q To what extent would it be your responsibility to intervene in the event of misinformation? We are particularly concerned now about online misinformation.

Professor May: That depends very much on the type of misinformation. Local authorities usually enforce in that area. When a product is not what it says it is, for instance, it gets seized or withdrawn from retailers at local authority level. We issue alerts, and we have a national food crime unit that is very actively involved in looking at deliberate crime in the food sector, including people selling things that should not be sold or that are misrepresented. We also do quite a lot in the detection and enforcement of large-scale issues, including supply chain problems, incorrect labelling and so on.

In the case of precision breeding, it will clearly depend on what Parliament decides, but if there were a regulation on labelling, we would need to look carefully at how that responsibility goes out to the different regulators. We would undoubtedly have a view, and we would issue information for local authorities to enforce on what should and should not be on a label.

Q I have two sets of questions. First, I want to go back to labelling, because I have been mulling over your response. Is the objection to labelling the two apples that you cannot, at the moment, have a test to tell them apart? Is that, in principle, the reason for not labelling, or is there another reason?

Professor May: That is exactly right. As the legislation stands, you might introduce what is called a single base pair chain—a tiny, one letter change in the DNA code of that apple. Those single letter changes happen all the time. If you have a field of apple trees, they will all be slightly different, even if you cloned them all initially, so we would not be able to take that apple, sequence the DNA and definitively say, “This one was created by someone using genome editing, and this one just turned up by chance in the field.” As you cannot tell those two apples apart, if there were a label on one saying “Precision bred” and a label on the other saying “Not precision bred”, I could not, as a scientist, say that that was true. That therefore raises questions in my head about why you would have a label if you cannot be sure, in the first place, that what it says is true.

Q I get that, but if there were a genetic marker that you could identify, would that give you a mechanism for doing that?

Professor May: In principle. There are ways that you might do that. One way that some developers are thinking of—in the context of protecting their intellectual property—is to make that single letter change in a background of lots and lots of other single letter changes that you already know, as a kind of barcode. Then, the concept would be to mount a defence, so that if someone steals my apple, I would be able to say, “But this apple that you are selling has that single letter change, and the other 15, all of which were in my original stock apple, so this is my apple, not yours.”

That is a reasonably good way of protecting intellectual property if you are trying to claim that something is yours. It is very difficult to use that the other way around and say, “That is definitely precision bred.” I could be growing my apples and say that those 15 changes occurred spontaneously. Again, it is not currently possible to say definitively that they cannot have appeared naturally.

Q Thank you, that is helpful. My second question is about the register established by the Bill, which the Food Standards Agency is required to maintain. The Bill is fairly light on explanation as to the purpose of the register. Could you explain what you think its purpose is and who is likely to use it?

Professor May: The idea behind the register is to have a public awareness of the products that are going through this pathway and are ultimately out on the market, in a similar way to the public registration of foods at the moment. To take a current example, if you applied to us with a novel food, you would apply with a dossier of data that says, “This is the food. This is how I produced it. Here is how I have considered safety risks.” At the point that we say the dossier is complete and sufficient for us to consider, we publish and say, “This company has put its proposal in. We are now considering that product.” In the fullness of time, we will either recommend approval or not for that product. If we recommend approval, that will get registered publicly as well, so people can see what this novel food is and where it came from, and be reassured that there has been a due process behind it.

My view as a scientist is that this should be the same for precision breeding. We should have a register that says, “Here is a product that has been considered. We have looked at it; it hasn’t rocked up without any kind of due diligence around it.” It is there in the public domain for people to see what process it has gone through and be reassured that those products have had some level of scrutiny.

Q I am slightly sceptical here. I imagine one of my constituents going into a garage and buying a chocolate bar that was produced with some genetically edited sugar grown in eastern England. I am not convinced that they would check the public register to find out whether that product had been produced in this kind of way. Is the register really aimed at consumers?

Professor May: It is aimed at some consumers, and that is true now. On average, most of us spend less than six seconds considering each food item we purchase in the supermarket, which is not enough time to consider the label. Some consumers, depending on their concerns, spend more time looking at labels. If you are an allergen sufferer, you spend a lot of time looking for allergens. If you are a vegetarian, you check that the label says it is vegetarian. We know most consumers are a bit uninterested in some of these issues, so they probably will not stop in that garage and check whether the product is on the register or not, but there will be some consumers who have strong views on this, and they may or may not wish to purchase something accordingly. It is important that the information is available for them, so that they can pause if they want to and find out. Even if most people do not, it is available, should they wish to do so.

Q But that is the difference between having it on a label and on a register, isn’t it? A register requires a bigger effort to check, frankly.

Professor May: There is a slight threshold—yes, that is true. That is not unique to precision breeding. People are quite rightly demanding more and more information about their food. The labels are not getting any bigger, and certainly my eyesight is getting worse, so there is already a shift, and we see that. Many of us are doing more and more of our purchasing online. We actually never look at the sticky label on the food item because it is on a webpage instead. People are getting more used to looking elsewhere for information, so it is not the hurdle it used to be. You are quite right: there is a limit on how much we can fit on a physical label, and it is jostling for space with allergen, nutritional and the country of origin information, so there is limited real estate on the back of the label to get this information across.

Q But as far as you understand it, the purpose of the register is to give that public reassurance. It is a public information issue.

Professor May: That is correct, yes.

Q What learnings have you taken from looking at countries that already have taken this technology forward? I am thinking in particular of Canada, Japan and Argentina—places where we holiday and are very comfortable with eating foods there. What have we learned from looking at other countries across the world, and how have you referenced that learning in the proposal you have put forward?

Professor May: There is a range of approaches across the world. It is probably true to say that no two countries have exactly the same approach at the moment. Perhaps I may give some examples.

At one end of the scale, you would have the current approach in the European Union, where all genetic modification, even genome editing that would fall within precision breeding, is regulated as GM and goes through a full risk assessment, often involving toxicology and quite a lot of analytics. At the other end of the scale, you have the US, for example, which has a default setting: if it is similar to something that was traditionally bred, there is no regulation.

Perhaps in between, the Canadian example is an interesting one. In Canada, they regulate the product and not the technology that has created it. They ask—let us go for an apple—“If you have created this apple, is it different from an apple I can buy currently?” If it is not different, it is not a novel food and it is not regulated; if it is different, it is a novel food and it gets assessed, regardless of how you made it. If I made that apple by precision breeding and it is different, it would be regulated; if I made it by crossing two apples in my orchard and creating a new apple tree that was different, it would still be regulated through that process. Scientifically, that is a very valid approach, but it means that you encompass within it all of traditional breeding and all the things that are done but not regulated in that way in this country.

That brings us to the end of this session. Thank you for your time, Professor May, and for the contribution that you have made.

Examination of Witness

Professor Jim Dunwell gave evidence.

Good morning, Professor Dunwell, and thank you for giving us your time. We will finish this session at 11.25 am. Will you introduce yourself briefly?

Professor Dunwell: I am Jim Dunwell, professor of plant biotechnology at the University of Reading. I am also chair of ACRE, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, and have been for the past nearly three years.

Q Welcome, professor, and thank you for coming this morning. One of the challenges is that people hear that this will be swifter, and that concerns them. However, does the increased speed of the precision breeding method make the technologies less safe?

Professor Dunwell: Absolutely not. Some people suggest that speed, when it is applied in this kind of science, somehow has an intrinsic risk attached to it. That is slightly strange, as in most areas of science and innovation we are striving towards efficiency, whether it be in producing better vaccines or better batteries for electric cars. We are in a competitive world, and we can be sure that, as a nation and a scientific group, we are up against people who are having the same discussions elsewhere. If you are a plant breeder—not that it is a particularly profitable business—the ones who are successful are those who make genetic gains more efficiently and more quickly. Ever since we have known how genes control plant development, there have been advances in plant breeding to try to go through generations more quickly, so that people can capture, create and select genetic variation more quickly, and get their products to market more quickly. This is another element in that, which allows further increase in efficiency. Therefore, I have no intrinsic doubt about it.

Q Have you identified any greater risks involved in precision bred organisms, when compared with traditional organisms?

Professor Dunwell: No, not at all. It is something that ACRE as a group has had discussions about in the past decade, saying that the traditional methods of regulation were not really keeping pace with the change in the scientific information. Some 10 years ago nearly, we produced a report leading the way on that. Some of those issues have now fed through into the present proposal for regulation. Something you do with gene editing is to make slightly different, smaller genetic changes—that is the precision—enabling you to take a good variety and make it slightly better, just by making an existing change. In the past, you would have to put together different hybrid combinations. You would then have to go through massive selections of the best progeny, and that takes time. In terms of breeding a new variety, it may take five, eight or 10 years. That, now, can be cut back substantially.

Q I hope the Committee will indulge me as I ask my final question. Is this a good time to be bringing this legislation forward, given that you have highlighted to the Committee that we perhaps needed to look at our regulation a decade ago?

Professor Dunwell: I think it is very appropriate. Obviously, it follows on from our removal from the EU. As for the legal case that created this, I suppose, concern, most scientists in the UK and the EU realised that it was a sort of perverse judgment when it comes to traditional so-called mutagenesis, where you apply chemicals or radiation—that is considered a traditional method and has been for 50 years. If you go back to the ’50s, there was a society of atomic gardening. That was when atomic energy was “good”. There was a very popular and interesting character who set up the atomic gardening group. She used to demonstrate her plants at Chelsea; she used to have dinner parties and carry round irradiated peanuts to offer to people. It was considered a good thing, but it was a complete unknown. But there was no evidence of any problems relating to it. We can now make particular small genetic changes in a much more precise way, and I think it is a good time for the UK to take a lead and apply the best scientific principles that we have at our disposal.

Q Welcome and good morning, Professor Dunwell. I am going to try to pursue some of the vexed issues of definition at the start of the Bill, and I will ask you first the question that I asked Professor Henderson earlier. Can a precision bred organism contain exogenous genetic material, and if so, how is it different from a genetically modified organism?

Professor Dunwell: I think this comes back to our understanding of genomes. Some of the wording in here comes out of the discussions that we have had within ACRE and the recognition that, probably 20 or 30 years ago, we assumed that one crop had one genome and that was it, but we now know, because you can sequence genomes very easily and quickly, that in fact there is an enormous underlying diversity of genetic material. The number of genes in one variety of maize or corn is different from the number of genes in another. There are also structural rearrangements. You can have great pieces of chromosomes interchanged or moved; it is still a maize plant. These so-called structural variations are an intrinsic part of plant breeding—and also animal breeding. The more we see the diversity of this variation, the more we pick up the fact that many, many plants have DNA that has come from other organisms throughout their evolution; it is the same with animals. Plants have segments of DNA from, say, virus infections hundreds or thousands of years ago perhaps. They have been incorporated into the genome and so, in old-fashioned definitions of GM, those organisms would be considered genetically modified organisms, because they have material from another organism in them. But we accept now that that is the baseline—that many, many organisms have small parts of DNA from many, many organisms. We have nematodes that have plant DNA. We have insects that have plant DNA. These have been moved around during evolution. They do not change the purity of the species. In evolutionary terms, they create the diversity that enables evolution to take place.

That is the background in which the term “natural transformation” has been created. The simple presence of a small fragment or a bit of DNA from another species, which might have been there anyway, is not something that has any impact on hazard or risk.

Q That is helpful. The problem that I and others have with the Bill is that it was explained to us at the outset as addressing a particular issue—allowing gene editing within one specific species. The assurance given was that it would not open the door to transgenic material being introduced, but I have to say that from hearing the evidence of you and others this morning, and from looking at the Bill, I am not entirely sure that is what it does.

I want to press you a bit further on some of these vexed issues of definition. We have “precision bred organism”, “qualifying higher plant”, and the EU now has “new genetic techniques”. We have three new definitions, which the learned societies have suggested in their evidence do not really mean very much. I may be being slightly unkind, but they are not very precise in their definition. The evidence that your committee, ACRE, produced to give guidance, which unfortunately came after the statutory instrument a few months ago, makes for very interesting reading. I will not read it all out—I assure you, Mr Stringer—but it is a very nuanced account of how you might go about coming to conclusions about what any of these things are, but it lacks precision and certainty. As legislators, we are trying to put into a Bill some fairly precise definitions. Am I wrong about that?

Professor Dunwell: No, it is a nuanced approach. It is nuanced because it takes account of the developing science. That is something that our committee does; part of the responsibility of all committees is horizon scanning. We want to see where techniques that we think of as traditional now are in a few years. There will be even better means of changing not just bits of DNA, but perhaps epigenetic effects, which is where you change not the sequence of the DNA but whether the DNA is expressed in a particular cell. That can also have an advantage.

What you see in these definitions is something that takes account of the advance in science. As I said, it takes account of the background genetic variation that exists. There were a couple of papers recently in Nature, for which something like 50 potato genomes were sequenced, and something like half a million quite big genetic variations were identified, in terms of the position of genes. It is against that background that this definition is pitched. That is where we have to take account of the variation. You cannot say now that one particular fragment of DNA is going to produce any particular risk.

Q The Scottish and Welsh Governments have clearly stated their intention at present for precision bred organisms to be regulated as GMOs. How will ACRE’s advice on releases to the environment take account of the fact that the Welsh and Scottish Governments currently have a different approach from Westminster on this?

Professor Dunwell: Well, we realise that the jurisdiction is different. We have observers at ACRE meetings from the devolved authorities—not at every meeting, but they are clearly invited to attend, and some of them do. They can add their own input into the discussions, even though it will not apply within their jurisdiction. Then of course we have the fact that much of the good science goes on at the James Hutton Institute, the Roslin Institute and elsewhere. Those are world-class centres of science doing this type of research. I am sure that among those scientists there is an intrinsic frustration about the political environment that exists, but I am not going to comment on the policy at that level. ACRE as a committee had sessions in Edinburgh some three or four years ago, and we have spoken to the relevant committees directly. I was part of those discussions.

Q Is there a counterpart for ACRE in the EU Commission that you have regular dealings with? Obviously, the devolved Governments—certainly, the Scottish Government—are waiting to hear the outcome of the consultation that the EU is undertaking on this area. Can you tell us a little about how that is working currently?

Professor Dunwell: Under the EU system a lot of the discussion was part of EFSA. Obviously it is different now, but in those days it fed back information to ACRE. Even though we have kind of split, we still take account of and look at the EFSA reports on a regular basis. We keep up to date with the discussions in the whole area of science looking forward, because it is our responsibility to make sure that ACRE is not just an isolated UK silo. We have those reports and there still are UK people who sit on EFSA committees, even though we are not part of the official system. It has not disqualified the scientific input from the UK into the EU, which is an interesting element in its own right.

Q Yes, indeed. I am glad to hear we are not completely cut off. That is great. Getting back to genetically engineered crops, some say that when they are grown on a commercial scale, the risks of escape and contamination are greater. Is that something that you agree with?

Professor Dunwell: Well, it is the terminology “escape”. Perhaps it comes from releasing things into the environment, which has some implication to it, but there is no evidence that any existing genetically modified things that are on the market have any greater impact on the environment either through pollen dispersal or propagule dispersal than any existing variety has. Just because it is genetically modified or, in the future, gene edited, it will not intrinsically expand the danger of gene contamination, which is often an objection.

Q So the fact that these are expanded and grown on a commercial level will not have—

Professor Dunwell: It is not relevant. There is no evidence for that.

Q Okay, thank you. Can you tell me a little bit about the old-style GMOs and whether all of them would be included in the definition of a precision bred organism?

Professor Dunwell: No, they would be excluded. You have taken a gene or genes, and you accumulate the numbers of genes. Some of the things that are being grown in the States now might have eight or 10 transgenes —separate genes—all inserted into the same variety. That is completely different from what we are discussing today, which is minor changes that are much more equivalent to forms of mutation that have existed for ever. The domestication of crops relied on mutations, but we did not know at the time what they were. Agriculture and what you eat today is a product of natural mutation.

Q Forgive me, but could you expand a little on what you said about the US and the insertion of seven different—sorry, I am not a scientist.

Professor Dunwell: There are lots of maize varieties that have been proposed and are grown commercially in the States over large areas. Initially, 20 or so years ago, they just had one or two genes, which were to do with insect resistance or herbicide tolerance, but over time the numbers of genes have been pyramided together, either by introducing them all at once or by crossing together a transgenic plant that has one insert and one that has two, so there are varieties now with six, eight or 10 different genes from different sources in one commercial product.

Q So that has developed over that 20-year period.

Professor Dunwell: Yes, and it has been done by—

Order. May I just say that there are a number of people who wish to speak? If there is time at the end, I will come back to you, Deidre. I call Andrew Bowie.

Q Thank you, Mr Stringer, and thank you, Professor Dunwell, for coming today. To follow Ms Brock’s question, ACRE’s advice is the same across the United Kingdom, no matter which Administration you are speaking to, and your advice is that this is safe and is a sensible way to proceed?

Professor Dunwell: Yes. The science is clearly not different. A plant grown in England or Wales or Ireland or wherever is no different. But there are differences in jurisdiction. Where you have devolved authorities, that element of allowing or not allowing cultivation is a devolved issued.

Q Professor Dunwell, on gene editing, why, as a scientist, do you believe that the precautionary principle has been resolved and seen through to its conclusion and therefore we can now move forward? I am thinking particularly in reference to some of the information that was provided on the unintended introduction of DNA into various species.

Professor Dunwell: We could debate the precautionary principle for a long time.

But you are obviously happy that it has been resolved.

Professor Dunwell: Yes, but the discussions and the recommendations we have had are proportionate to the scientific debates that ACRE takes part in. Under the traditional remit, our major remit is to advise on potential risks of GM to human health and the environment. That is the core of our debate. At the same time, we have to do that in this area of moving scientific expertise. We continually adjust that, but those are the core features in what we are tasked to do. Clearly, more tasks might come out of the Bill. In that area, we have for years had flexibility about elements of those core principles. Yes, we are satisfied that the precautionary principle is not an issue.

Q Thank you for your time, Professor Dunwell. I am going to cough up that I have a biology undergraduate degree. Listening to some of the questions from Opposition Members, it strikes me that you are in quite an invidious position. You have to describe the messy complexity that is biology—how we evolve and how bits of DNA exist almost in their own right, and that it is humans that say that something is a species or a plant, and so on. We have to try to describe that and codify it into law in a way that allows people to have confidence that they are safe, but also allows for opportunities for scientific innovation, using fewer resources and so on.

This might not be a fair question, but has science ever got to the point where it could effectively give us a legal definition that we could use to erase some of the confusion on the Opposition Front Bench, or is biology itself too complicated?

Professor Dunwell: Biology is not physics—you cannot measure every charge of every atom. The appearance of any plant depends on not just the genes that are in it, but where you grow it.

On what gets switched on and what does not.

Professor Dunwell: Yes. The so-called genotype-environment interaction is what determines how big the weeds in your garden grow. It depends on whether they are watered, whether they have fertiliser, whether they get mildew on them and so on. The plant itself is a consequence of that interaction.

As you say, that is an extraordinarily difficult thing to put down in words to be subject to legal enforcement. I am not a lawyer; I admire the people who put our advice into this Bill. There may be bits that people can tweak, but it is the job of the lawyer to try to compose something that fits legal standards but is also compatible with the kinds of—

Q But would you say that a lawyer may look at a definition and say it is vague because the very nature of biology is vague? Is that fair? I do not want to put words in your mouth.

Professor Dunwell: I have not spoken to the drafting lawyers, but I imagine they have struggled at times with trying to pin down something that is, as you say, flexible and messy. Biology is something that perhaps does not always fit or meet strict definitions.

Q I want to go back to the idea of environmental release, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith talked about. To my mind, that implies something that would not have been there as part of nature. You are releasing something into the environment—a transgenic animal; a plant that has genes from different species in it that would not be there in nature. Is there anything that would come under that definition of “release” that the Bill allows?

Professor Dunwell: Taking one step back, any form of agriculture and any form of domestication and multiplication of a crop in the last 10,000 years has been to put something into the environment that was not there. In the case of maize 10,000 years ago, someone somewhere in Mexico found a unique plant with characteristics that they had never seen before, and he or she—that very bright individual—said, “This has got attributes that I can see are good and I want to keep.” That was the beginning of the agricultural system.

And she—let us make it a she—almost environmentally released it into a field.

Professor Dunwell: Yes. That is the context, and I think it is important just generally that people—well, that is me producing a sermon. That is the context in which we are now working.

Q I am interested in the environmental release side. Your advice to DEFRA was that “different parameters” should be applied to the environmental release of gene editing micro-organisms because of the increased risk of gene flow. Can you explain that point about gene flow? Does that mean that micro-organisms are outside the remit of the Bill?

Professor Dunwell: That is a whole other area. Science in this area has not been applied in the same way to a micro-organism. Obviously, it has been applied to animals. You talked before about asking the question about gene edited animals. One of the things I should add before I get to the other question is that the best example of that on the market at the moment is gene edited fish in Japan. There are two varieties of fish whose growth rate has been modified through gene editing, which have been on the market—I do not know whether successfully commercially, but they are one of the prime examples of that.

On micro-organisms, we hope at the next ACRE meeting—we have not had an in-person meeting since covid started—to start to explore the applications in the microbiology area. We have invited people along from outside, as we do quite regularly, for consciousness raising at a scientific level, to get the best experts to say where they see this type of technology going. Microbiology at the moment is not specifically described in here. It will develop over time because there is an increasing interest in applying different microbes—often ones that have been selected, because the soil is full of tens of thousands of microbes, and some of them are good and some are bad. Many companies now have huge collections of hundreds of thousands of microbes that they go through to try to pick ones that may have an antagonistic effect on other microbes, so they can be applied as inoculants into the soil to improve soil health.

All that is really admirable and exciting stuff. It depends, again, on our ability to identify, extract and sequence genetic information. I went to a meeting probably 20 years ago in Paris, when somebody for the first time said that their PhD student, having spent three years, had got the sequence of one bacterium. He was so proud of that student. Now, you can probably do hundreds in a day. The rate of change is orders of magnitude just in 20 years. It is in what grows out of that and how we develop the regulatory boundaries that the challenges lie.

That brings to a conclusion this morning’s session. Professor Dunwell, thank you for your time and evidence.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Jo Churchill.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Fifth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Mr Peter Bone, Sir Mark Hendrick, Mrs Sheryll Murray, † Ian Paisley

† Andrew, Stuart (Minister for Housing)

† Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

† Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

† Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Henry, Darren (Broxtowe) (Con)

† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

† O'Brien, Neil (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

Bethan Harding, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 28 June 2022


[Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Before we begin, I have a couple of reminders. Colleagues should switch off telephones, or at least switch them to silent. No food is allowed, although Members are allowed liquid refreshments. Our Hansard colleagues would be delighted if Members emailed their speaking notes to

We are about to begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list for today’s sitting is available in the room, here in front of me. The selection list shows how the selected amendments have been grouped for debate. Grouped amendments are generally on the same or a similar issue. Please note that decisions on amendments are taken not in the order in which the amendments are debated, but in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper.

The selection list shows the order of debates. A decision on each amendment will be taken when we come to the clause to which the amendment relates. Decisions on new clauses will be taken once we have completed consideration of the existing clauses of the Bill. I hope that is clear.

Members wishing to press a grouped amendment or new clause to a Division should indicate when speaking that they wish to do so.

Clause 1

Statement of levelling-up missions

I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) the independent body that Her Majesty’s Government proposes to use to evaluate progress in delivering those levelling-up missions (“the independent evaluating body”).”

This amendment would require the Government to commission an independent body to scrutinise their progress against levelling-up missions.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 5, in clause 2, page 2, line 37, at end insert—

“(aa) include the independent evaluating body’s assessment of the progress that has been made, in that period, by Her Majesty’s Government to deliver each of the levelling-up missions.”

This amendment would require annual reports on the delivery of levelling-up missions to include the evaluation that the independent evaluating body has made of the Government’s progress in delivering each of the missions.

Amendment 10, in clause 5, page 5, line 18, at end insert—

“(ca) state whether the independent evaluating body considers that pursuing the levelling-up missions in that statement is effectively contributing to the reduction of geographical disparities in the United Kingdom,”

This amendment would require the report on a review of statements of levelling-up missions to include the assessment of the independent evaluating body.

Amendment 12, in clause 5, page 5, line 31, at end insert—

“(iii) so that it includes the guidance from the independent evaluating body on this decision”

This amendment would require the Government to publish the guidance from the independent evaluating body on this decision.

New clause 1—Independent body to monitor levelling up missions—

“(1) The Secretary of State must assign an independent body to assess the Government’s progress on levelling-up missions and make recommendations for improvements to delivery of them.

(2) The body must prepare parallel independent reports for each period to which a report under section 2 applies.

(3) Each parallel independent report must—

(a) assess the progress that has been made in the relevant period in delivering each of the levelling-up missions in the current statement levelling-up missions, as it has effect at the end of the period, and

(b) make recommendations for what the Government should do to deliver each levelling-up mission in the following period.

(4) The Secretary of State must lay each report under this section before Parliament on the same day as the report under section 2 which applies to the relevant period.”

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to establish an independent body that can provide reports on the Government’s progress on levelling-up missions and outline recommendations for their future delivery.

It is a pleasure to begin our line-by-line consideration with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley.

The first two parts of the Bill deal with levelling up. I think it is safe to say that levelling up is an area in which there is considerable public interest. It has been at the core of the Prime Minister’s agenda and was at the heart of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, but, many years on, there remains considerable interest in what it really means. In February, we received the White Paper, “Levelling Up the United Kingdom”, which has 297 glossy pages comprised of broad missions that all of us could support, such as addressing inequalities in health and life expectancy, and in pay and productivity, and boosting local pride and more. I think there would be broad political consensus on those things.

The White Paper was heavy on narrative—lots of history, although some of it seemed to be directly from Wikipedia—but there was little clarity on how those worthy goals would be met. That was set against the frequent negative briefing we have seen in the media by ever-present Government sources about levelling up, as well as a clear reduction in commitment from the Treasury with little or no new money being made available to power the programme. We meet at an important point at which there is a lot of public interest in what levelling up is going to mean, but no little cynicism about whether anything is really going to change.

The Bill was supposed to represent the moment when that cynicism would be arrested, and the Government would demonstrate beyond doubt that they really were committed to levelling up the United Kingdom and were going to deliver their promises. I fear that the Bill has not yet met that moment.

As I said on Second Reading, the levelling-up Bill is now the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. Essentially, the Bill has been bulked out with a planning Bill, which is a sign of what we are going to be doing here over the next three months. If that point is contested, the doubt could be erased by considering how much time the Minister for Levelling Up and I, as his shadow, have spent talking compared with the Minister for Housing and his shadow. Today, tomorrow and next week, I am afraid that we might hear more from me. However, we have a duty—we also have lots and lots of time—to make the Bill better, so that it might serve this important agenda. With that in mind, I have tabled amendment 3, which I shall turn to now.

The amendment is about independent scrutiny of this important agenda. We on the Labour Benches are concerned that the Government will seek to demonstrate levelling up not as hard-and-fast, real and meaningful change that unlocks the potential of the United Kingdom, across all the nations and regions, but in a political sense. We are concerned that they will seek to write up whatever happens as a huge political success, but nothing will really get better. We see that as a stock in trade for this Government; every Prime Minister’s Question Time is an exercise in hearing how well our economy has done and is doing, but we know the reality. We see in our communities anaemic growth, real-terms wages stagnating and rampant inflation. We are constantly told how great things are, but the reality is anything but. That cannot happen with levelling up, and the Government should be keen from the outset to show that they do not intend for it to. Our amendments would help them considerably in that.

Clause 1(2) requires the Government to establish levelling-up missions through a statement from a Minister of the Crown. It says that the statement must include the Government’s objectives in tackling geographical disparities and the metrics they intend to use to measure progress. That leaves the Government to mark their own homework—they can say what they are trying to do and how well they are doing it. Amendment 3 would improve that by requiring the statement also to detail an independent body to evaluate whether the Government are achieving what they say they will.

Independent oversight is a cornerstone of good governance. Clear, trusted and impartial analysis makes better policy, delivers better outcomes and is a good thing for democracy. An independent body that can sit alongside the programme could be a real anchor for the development and progress of the agenda. Such a body is not a particularly unimaginable prospect, as we already have good examples of such independent oversight. I will draw briefly on two of those examples: the Office for Budget Responsibility; and the Select Committees in this place.

In different ways, but with similar impacts, the OBR and the Select Committee system have been vital in holding the Government of the day to account by providing analysis and reports on issues such as the state of public finances in the case of the OBR, and for various policy matters across every Government Department in the case of Select Committees. They can act without fear or favour, and since their introduction they have significantly improved debate on policy, the development of good policy and the proper implementation of good policy.

Governments, as is their wont, seek to drive their agenda forward each day with announcements of different policies or achievements, but Select Committees in particular have been important forums for us to step back, assess the evidence, evaluate what has worked, take evidence from around the world or from different systems to see what has worked, and to reach informed conclusions about how to improve outcomes. The Government, with their legislative mandate, can then choose whether to accept those conclusions.

I am sure that the recent Public Accounts Committee report into levelling up so far will come up during the proceedings. It was made clear by the Minister for Local Government, Faith and Communities, the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) in questions yesterday that the Government have no intention of taking that report on board. That is fine; there is independent scrutiny, and then the Government must make their decision, as they have a mandate to do. The scrutiny process also takes some of the partisanship out of situations, which is always a good thing.

During our final evidence session, Will Tanner, who on political matters would normally be closer to the Minister than to myself, said:

“The area where I think the Committee could make a real difference is around the levelling-up missions and the overarching framework around the Bill. I am not sure the Minister will necessarily thank me for saying this, but I think the reporting requirements and the architecture around the levelling-up missions could be strengthened considerably in two primary ways. First, we have seen through the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Climate Change Committee the importance and strength of an independent body to hold the Government to account for delivering against its own targets, and I think the levelling-up missions would benefit from that level of scrutiny and accountability. At the moment there is a bit of a risk of the Government setting out its own interpretation of progress rather than us having an independent view.”––[Official Report, Levelling-up and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 23 June 2022; c. 144, Q179.]

That is the first of two points Will Tanner made; I will raise the second under the clause 2 stand part debate. That first point is right, and it is a view shared by the Local Government Association. We are keen to avoid the issue that Will Tanner finished with in that quotation: the risk of the Government setting out their own interpretation of progress. There is a risk of that in the Bill currently.

We know that the Government are in that space to an extent; they value external voices through the Levelling Up Advisory Council. I hope the Minister might make some references to its work and how he sees that following Royal Assent. The body brings together respected individuals from their fields to advise on levelling up. The Minister can tell us how useful that has been so far. I trust it has been very useful. The amendment gives the Government significant discretion. I have offered an OBR model and a Select Committee model. The advisory council itself could be a model, provided the Government could demonstrate suitable independence. I see no harm—only positives, in fact—in maximising the process of, say, the advisory council and building on its independence and distance from Government.

The timescale, size and importance of levelling up necessitates independent scrutiny. As we have heard from the various speeches from Ministers setting out to define levelling up, this is a vast project that cuts across various Departments. Policy in the White Paper concerned economy, crime, health, education, devolution, employment and much more. Indeed, the White Paper spoke of how Government decision making would have to be “fundamentally reoriented” and that wide-scale system change was required in Government for levelling up to succeed. It says:

“System change is not about a string of shiny, but ultimately short-lived, new policy initiatives. It is about root and branch reform of government and governance of the UK. It is about putting power in local hands, armed with the right information and embedded in strong civic institutions.”

That is a very noble pursuit—titanic, I might say. Clearly, purely in policy terms, it is going to be very big. Some independent support would be welcome. That quote from the White Paper recognises that levelling up is not a project for Government alone, neither in the execution nor the analysis. That is why we think the introduction of an independent voice would add to that.

It is not just about size. Levelling up will take some time to deliver. The Government’s levelling-up missions in the White Paper set targets for 2030. I do not want to open a political debate this morning—yet—but such a target is likely to outlive the Government. Having an independent and constant scrutineer, which would be part of the process, whether Ministers moved on and Governments changed, would help with the implementation of long-term policy objectives. It would provide a sustained focus, unencumbered by changes. We are well placed to do that, because the principles of levelling up happily enjoy cross-party support and are here to stay. Certainly, we will find much common ground in these sessions on the broad principles of what we are seeking to achieve. Why not embed those principles in an overarching independent body?

Amendment 5 mirrors amendment 3. We will have opportunities to debate clause 2 fully subsequently, but it requires annual statements on the Government’s progress towards the levelling-up missions. A Minister of the Crown has to make those statements each year. That is a very good thing. There is a danger with medium-term goals; I am always a bit sceptical about them. I remember that at the turn of the century, we always had to have 2020 visions. I was always quite sceptical of 20-year programmes. It is often the work that is done in the first years that is as important as the work done in the last years, and the last thing we want is to get to 2030 and realise we have not achieved what we have set out to do. Annual reporting is therefore a good thing to ensure that we are on track. If we are not, we can evaluate why and make some changes to get back on track. That will give us a good tool to hold Ministers to account.

Clause 2(2) says that the annual reports must include the Minister’s view of progress so far, description of actions taken so far and plans for the future. In short, the Government mark their own homework—getting the chance to trumpet the actions they have taken and herald the future actions they will take. If we judge the Government on their current standards, we are likely to see a cycle of subterfuge and self-congratulation. Amendment 5 would remove that risk by requiring annual reports on the delivery of levelling-up missions to include an independent evaluating body’s assessment of the Government’s progress. As I said, independent oversight is a really important factor in good governance, and clear and trusted analysis would lead to better policy and outcomes.

We should look to Budget day, and to the OBR, as a model. Why should a Minister’s annual reports on the progress of levelling up not be accompanied by a booklet featuring clear, factual information and independent analysis? That is what we get on Budget day from the OBR, so why not replicate it with levelling up? Levelling up is a transformative economic project that is supposedly at the centre of the Government’s domestic policy, so its profile could be seen as equal to that of major annual economic events. If we are to be transformative, let us try to raise the significance of levelling up.

We would all agree that debates on the Budget and financial events are enriched by the information provided by the OBR. In this case, the debate around levelling up—whether we are going in the right direction and whether we will get there in the time we have set for ourselves—would only be enriched by providing similar information. Again, it would give Members opportunities to scrutinise, to give real-time feedback on how things are feeling in their constituencies, and to create a conversation with the public. I think all hon. Members would agree that we do a better job—on making policies or scrutinising them—when we have a bit of independence supporting the system.

I dare say that a theme of these debates will be that levelling up will not be a success if it is something that central Government do to the nations and regions. There will have to be a partnership. Part 2 of the Bill seeks to establish sub-regional bodies. Again, that will be a partnership between the Government and the sub-regional bodies. Sub-regional bodies, their councils and communities—the whole family; all of us—all have a stake in things getting better. There therefore needs to be some impartial assessment in the Bill, certainly for the public—it is their money, after all—to be able to see the progress that is being made, so that there can be a conversation. Sometimes that conversation will be about holding central Government to account and saying, for example, “We don’t think you’re making the right resourcing decisions to drive changes in crime,” but it is also about saying to local communities, “What is your part in that?”

Impartial assessment is not just about having something with which to evaluate the Government, but about holding ourselves—mutually, in partnership—to account, but we cannot do that if the only assessment of progress and impact is made by the central player in the field. The Public Accounts Committee report commented on the wisdom or otherwise of, or the lack of criteria in, the way in which a significant sum of public money has been spent. Impartial analysis, including of the finances, would help us to build trust that levelling up is something that the Government want to do in and of itself, not for any other purposes.

I turn briefly to amendment 10. We are discomfited by clause 5, which allows Ministers to revise the levelling-up missions. If Ministers do not think the missions serve levelling up, they can be dispensed with. That offers a mechanism for the Government to dodge accountability when the reality of their lack of success fails to measure up to their press releases. That is a huge power for the Government to ask for. The White Paper is full of lofty rhetoric, and there is supposedly a stake in the ground about the centrality of the levelling-up missions, but we now see in the Bill that there is an asterisk saying that the Government might want to change the missions later. We are being asked to accept that, and we will probe that issue fully when we come to the clause 5 stand part debate.

The intention behind amendment 10 is to say that if the Government want to reserve a pretty significant power to diverge from what they have said they are planning to do—presumably, they built the missions based on the evidence, and on conversation and engagement with the public—an independent body should report on whether it thinks the Minister’s decision is sound.

That is a modest brake on such a broad power. Again, the Minister would still be in a position to say, “Sorry, we don’t agree with you. For these very good reasons, we intend to make the decision that we said we were going to.” That is the democratic right of the Government of the day, but it would at least build confidence on the Opposition Benches and in the country more generally that the clause is not just about letting Ministers and the Government out of meeting their obligations.

As a counterpart to that, amendment 12 would mean that, when the Minister of the Crown makes the statement on missions, the advice of the independent body must be added to it. That is to get round the idea of taking an independent report but not publishing it.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on proposed new clause 1 from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). That essentially targets the same goals, but perhaps in a slightly different way. It would establish an independent body to assess the progress of levelling up, to offer suggestions, and to report alongside the Government reporting periods established in clause 2. If the Minister feels that is more elegant and simpler than accepting our amendments, that would be acceptable to us.

What cannot be acceptable is for the Government, having made such a song and dance about establishing these missions, made commitments to deliver them and created such public interest, to mark their own homework and spin their way through the difficult times that there will doubtless be on at least a few of these missions, rather than showing the country that they have delivered on their centrepiece commitment or, if they have not, why they have not and what might be done about it. A good, self-confident, well-meaning Government would be enhanced by having these provisions, and I hope that the Minister is minded to accept them.

I intend to call Back Benchers first, and then the Front Benchers. You do not need to bob, but if you are a Back Bencher who wishes to speak, please catch my eye.

Thank you, Mr Paisley. I want to stress the importance of the legislation before us. In particular, I want to speak to amendments 3 and 5, and to new clause 1.

Clause 1 deals with the levelling-up missions, the foundation to the Bill and to building a stronger and more equal society. Representing a constituency in the north, I cannot stress enough the importance of this agenda in addressing the regional disparities that we see, and the inequality that my constituents experience. Across the House, we recognise the intergenerational lack of investment and the cost that has caused, biting particularly hard through the past decade of austerity, covid and now the cost of living crisis.

Clause 1(2) deals with levelling-up missions: what, when and how. However, the “who” is omitted. In taking evidence last week, the Committee heard leading experts repeatedly highlight the need for independent evaluation. In the very last evidence session, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said, Mr Tanner drew attention to the importance of independence in the scrutiny of the levelling-up missions. That was a consistent theme throughout the week, with good reason.

First, no Government should mark their own homework. The Government clearly want to succeed, and therefore the matrices through which the comprehensive auditing process is undertaken could skew, or even conceal, the extent to which progress has been made. I am sure that if Government Ministers were sitting where we are, they would make the exact same argument about wanting rigour and independence through the scrutiny process of the levelling-up agenda. If the agenda is of such importance, the Government should welcome independent scrutiny of it.

Secondly, objective, independent scrutiny for such complex examination would provide Government with better insight into the progress made, and set out the path forward to address emerging inequalities or struggling areas that need concentrated focus to address those inequalities. It would give the Government the opportunity to step aside and then to invest in those areas. With the Government being so close to wanting levelling-up to succeed, there is risk of skewing the objectives.

Thirdly, I will make the comparison, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North did, to the Treasury establishing the Office for Budget Responsibility. That organisation has enabled independent scrutiny of Treasury assessments and has enabled Parliament and the public to hold the Government to account and to scrutinise the workings of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and wider Government respectively. In addition, the Climate Change Committee now has such authority that the nation looks to it: we know that academia particularly focuses on it, the Government certainly focus on and adhere to its calls, but so does industry. Having that rigour across industry enables us to see the seismic change that is necessary to meet our climate objectives. Seeing such scrutiny at work demonstrates the importance of independence. We can look at the power of COP26: had the Climate Change Committee not undertaken its vital work, we might not have seen the outcome that we did.

It is crucial that we see independent scrutiny not just of climate issues but across other national agendas. It does not matter who the Government of the day are; we want to bring about this change in order to apply that scrutiny to them. In order to tackle the inequality and injustices that we see across our communities, we must ensure that we set the right foundations for long-term measurement, and that the methodology is robust and independent, can attract cross-party support and is useful for all—not only in this place, which is often where the focus is, but across the country.

When we are dealing with such issues as those relating to criminal justice, housing and health, there are of course huge communities looking for robust measurement in order to understand how to advance those agendas. As we see more devolution in areas such as health, with the new integrated care systems, there needs to be a collective understanding of the mission that we are going on, not only through setting out the levelling-up missions but in scrutinising and measuring them as they advance. This is not just of use to the Government, or to the Opposition in scrutinising the Government; it is useful to all those parts of our society that move our levelling-up agenda forward.

In the light of the complexities of measuring levelling-up missions, it is of course necessary for measurement not just to be placed on the Government. There needs to be inclusion of, for instance, ICSs, local government, mayoralties and so on, so that there can be robust determination of how they feed into the levelling-up missions and how their work is scrutinised, given their arm’s length role in delivering many of these functions and the missions and aspirations of Government. As my hon. Friends on the Front Bench have set out in amendment 4, with proposed new subsection (4A), the Government must also publish an action plan to enable objective scrutiny of the missions’ impact. This is about not just looking backwards but projecting forwards, which helps to set the rhythm of Government but also of our nation.

The regeneration community—the professionals who will implement many elements of the Bill—talk about those golden threads where analysis is required not just in the silos of individual missions or Departments, but across them, to determine how they will intersect and work together so that, together, they are more than the sum of their parts. I am talking about drawing in multiple Departments to address inequality. We know that many of these issues are intersectional, so we need a body that can hold everything together and highlight the opportunities, because the Government are often too close to them to identify them.

It might be worth noting that the Hackitt report in relation to Grenfell takes that approach. It looks at intersectionality, which is so important for a robust response. Clearly, with such complexity as levelling up presents, having a space for independent scrutiny is all the more important. The independence will then, of course, build confidence across the country. This will not just be seen as a headline, a tweet or the next moment to talk about levelling up; it will gain public recognition and will bring focus across Government and beyond. Independence will take away suggestion of unconscious bias in Government decisions, and will give delivery partners greater confidence in the process and in Government. It will restore trust, which the Government are seeking and we all want to see. It will thus reduce conflict and increase motivation.

We have independent scrutiny across most functions in society. We have heard about the OBR and the Climate Change Committee, but I draw the Minister’s attention to Ofsted, Ofcom, Ofgem and the Care Quality Commission—independence is absolutely at the heart of all they deliver, so why not have it for something as fundamental as levelling-up missions? This is now recognised as the mechanism by which performance can be judged nationally, regionally and locally. A mature Government therefore have to understand the rigour of independence.

I move on to proposed new subsection (2)(c). We have had the what, the when, the how and the who, and we now need to talk about how much. It is vital that the Government quantify the resources available for investment in the nation’s regions, sub-regions and local areas. The entrenched disparities we see across the country are not due to a lack of aspiration or ability but are in large part down to a failure to invest in more than a generation. The Resolution Foundation has spoken in the past 24 hours about the importance of the scale of investment. When resources are concentrated, their impact is multiplied and we see decades of inequality being addressed.

As we know, London and the south-east suck in the lion’s share of resources. We have seen the evolution of the booming south at the cost of the north; that is what this agenda is all about. In the evidence sessions, Professor Leyser and the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, highlighted how to build a cluster economy to invest and create wider opportunities. Although the mission of levelling up is to address regional disparities, reviewing the impact it has on local inequity is so important, which is why independent scrutiny is vital.

If all that is achieved in the most affluent areas, then clearly, in order to extend opportunities for wealth, health and education, levelling up will need to be translated across the board. I truly recommend that we focus on opportunities to level up under the purview of an independent body, as opposed to the internal scrutiny systems of Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I will not say very much, except to express my support for the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North.

It seems to me that it is entirely appropriate to push much of what is in the Bill through legislation—that would be normal for any Government—but for certain aspects, particularly those in part 1, it is quite unusual for a Government to choose this means to achieve their aim. If they want to level up, invest in regions and improve the quality of life in rural and urban communities in the north, the south-west and other areas where we feel that there has been a disparity of opportunity, they could simply do it. It does not take a Bill for us to invest and choose to act differently. The Government could just do something very novel: govern. They could invest and choose priorities to get behind.

Given that the Government have chosen this route, it seems odd that they should want to have their cake and eat it. They want to go down the legislative route but then not do anything commensurate with it—in other words, they do not want to allow themselves to be scrutinised and held to account. It seems entirely appropriate to me that there should be an independent body that is able to judge the success—or otherwise—of the levelling-up missions. It would see whether, for example, we are tackling the huge disparity, in every region of this country, between different age groups’ and income groups’ access to affordable housing, to allow them access to all other parts of society—that is what a decent, affordable, secure home does.

I want to be in a position where the Government can be held to account by an independent body. The public will take with a pinch of salt what the Government say, and what we on the Opposition Benches say, about the achievements of this Government in so far as the levelling-up missions are concerned. They will perhaps take with more seriousness, and have a degree of confidence in, an independent body.

Surely, if the Government are successful in these missions and go out and trumpet their success, they do not want the electorate to discount that simply because it was the Government who said it. Surely they would want the kudos of an independent body indicating, via various metrics, their success in meeting the housing needs of different generations, income groups and geographical groups.

I will not say much more than that, other than that it would seem odd for the Government to not wish to be independently scrutinised by a body established to do just that, so that those on both sides of this House, and everybody in the country, can get a sense of whether levelling up has been a success, sector by sector.

There is a lot of interest in the idea of levelling up and its lofty and laudable aims, but warm words and good intentions, of themselves, will not reduce inequality across the UK. There is a real flaw in the Bill’s lack of accountability and ownership of each of the 12 levelling-up missions on the part of individual UK Government Departments. Amendments 3, 5, 10 and 12 and new clause 1 seek to address that lack of accountability.

Of course, the Government have given themselves the power to move the goalposts, change their targets, and look as if they are doing what they said they would do even if they are not. Rather than merely marking their own homework, they are also ready to lower the pass mark of the test if they fail it. That tells us how important the Government’s levelling-up plans are. If they really had the confidence in this flagship commitment that they profess to have, why would there be any baulking about objectively measuring their progress on levelling up?

These amendments seek to lock independent scrutiny of the progress of levelling up into this flagship Bill. Here we are, having to debate it, when it should be taken as read. The Institute for Public Policy Research has also called for an independent body, established in law, to oversee and judge the UK’s progress on levelling up. What Government with true confidence in their ability to deliver their goals, as this Government say they have, would resist that kind of scrutiny and accountability? Surely they would exalt in it; it would be the opportunity to demonstrate their success. What have this Government to fear from transparent and objective allocation mechanisms for delivery? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the Government know that there is more bluster here than actual substance.

True levelling up, of course, requires actual investment, but the necessary financial backing appears to be absent. Any investment must be delivered in a non-partisan and transparent way. Let us not forget that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that departmental budgets will actually be lower in 2025 than they were in 2010. How that chimes with and supports the idea of levelling up is something that I am struggling to understand.

Levelling up is an admirable principle, but if the Government are confident that they can deliver, as they say they are, what possible objection can there be to scrutiny? With such attempts to avoid independent scrutiny, it feels as if there is agenda beyond levelling up. If the levelling-up missions do not have the effect of reducing inequality across the UK, then they will have objectively failed in their goal. These amendments seek to measure that progress. Who can object to that?

If the very foundation of the Bill—the ability to deliver greater equality across the UK—is not open to full and transparent, evaluative, published scrutiny, and if that is not written into the Bill, the very principles on which it purports to stand are built on sand, will not inspire confidence and, I fear, will not deliver. I absolutely agree that we do not need the fanfare of a Bill to reduce inequality; it could just be done—a Bill is not needed. A Bill whose stated aims are not open to transparency and independent scrutiny is definitely not a Bill we need, and we are right to be sceptical.

It is a pleasure to begin line-by-line scrutiny of this important Bill with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. We have a very distinguished Committee and I look forward to some thoughtful and enlightening debates.

The Government’s defining mission is to level up our country—to close the gap in productivity, health, incomes and opportunity between different parts of the country. That goal is made all the more urgent in the face of cost of living pressures and the inequalities laid bare and deepened by the pandemic.

The levelling-up White Paper sets out that levelling up is a moral, social and economic programme for the whole of Government, not just one Department, to spread opportunity and prosperity more equally throughout the country. The Bill sets out the framework for delivering on our levelling-up missions and places a statutory duty on the Government for the first time to set missions to reduce geographic disparities and to produce an annual report on our progress.

The Government absolutely recognise that scrutiny and seeking expert advice will be important to ensuring that we deliver on our missions and level up the country. That is why we have established the Levelling Up Advisory Council, chaired by Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, to provide the Government with expert advice to inform the design and delivery of the missions.

The council is made up of an expert and distinguished group of people. It includes Katherine Bennett, chief executive officer of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and chair of the Western Gateway, which brings together the research and development strengths of the Bristol region with south Wales; Sir Tim Besley and Sir Paul Collier, two of our most distinguished economists from the London School of Economics and Oxford; Cathy Gormley-Hennan from Ulster University; Sally Mapstone, principal of the University of St Andrews; Laxman Narasimhan from Reckitt Benckiser; Sacha Romanovitch from Fair4All Finance; Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering; and Sir Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal and General. These are very independent-minded people—serious people with deep expertise. The reason why we have brought them together is that we respect and value independent, thoughtful, expert advice.

The Government are committed to enabling Parliament, the public and other experts outside the advisory panel to fully scrutinise progress against our missions. The proposed initial set of metrics have already been published in the levelling-up White Paper, in the technical annex—40 pages, which give all the different ways we will measure all the different missions in incredible, unprecedented detail. I do not remember such detail under any previous Government. The metrics were published in the White Paper and will be refined over time. The analysis included in the annual report to Parliament will be based on the metrics that are here and included in the statement of levelling-up missions that will be laid before the House.

Given the level of transparency and reporting, and the level of input from deep experts, it is unclear what value an independent body would add. The Government will be required to report on set missions within set metrics and methodologies. Instead of creating a new independent body, the Government believe that levelling-up missions can be better supported by focusing on delivering those missions themselves—by getting on with it, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said. It is also wrong to argue that without an independent body, the Government’s progress towards delivering missions will not be subject to independent external scrutiny. Parliament, the public, think-tanks and civil society will all have an opportunity to comment and report on how well the Government deliver missions, in response to our annual reports.

This has just occurred to me as the Minister has been speaking. I am curious: if child poverty does not reduce, will the levelling-up programme and mission be considered a success or a failure?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point. The last Labour Government had a statutory child poverty target; that target was literally locked into legislation. Was it hit? It was not hit, no. That is why we have adopted the approach that we have; just writing something into law does not mean that it happens, unfortunately. That is why we have created the independent architecture around levelling-up missions: to provide both really serious external expertise in the work that we are doing—I do not think anybody disputes the fact that these are really independent, serious people; and an unprecedented level of detail, to give everybody who wants to criticise the programme all the resources and exact detail they need to do just that. I do not remember any of those things happening under previous Governments.

Missions are intended to anchor Government policy and decision making to level up the UK. However they should not be set in stone. As the economy adapts, so too might the missions, to reflect the changing environment and lessons learned. Of course, some of these things can be tightened over time; we have made remarkable progress on our missions to roll out Project Gigabit and the Shared Rural Network, which are a £5 billion intervention and £1 billion intervention respectively. Over the course of just the last two years, they have transformed the availability of gigabit internet and rural 4G.

Opposition Front-Benchers said, “Why do you have to change some of the missions? That seems very dodgy to us.” Some of the missions will literally have to change. For example, one of the missions that I am very proud of is the one to increase domestic public R&D spending outside the greater south-east of England by a third over the period covered by the spending review. Of course, that prompts the question, “What will happen after the spending review?” We will have to change that mission, otherwise it will just become meaningless. Things have to adapt over time, of course, and I think that everyone recognises that levelling up is a long-term mission; nobody thinks that any of these things, some of which are century-long problems, can be solved in the course of one or two years.

However, the Opposition Front-Benchers made a very important point: the Bill sets out that any changes to missions should be—indeed, have to be—fully and transparently explained and justified through a statement to Parliament where they occur. Nothing will happen without Parliament knowing about it.

Hon. Members on the Opposition front page—Freudian slip; Front Bench—would recognise that some of the missions will just have to change over time; there is no point locking in a three-year mission for the next 30 years. This layer of transparency enables the public and civil society at large to comment on the Government’s decisions. It is unclear what additional benefit an independent body would bring. The Bill sets out that any changes to missions should be fully and transparently explained and justified where they occur. The missions will be rolling endeavours.

The big challenges facing our society, such as climate and the economy, have independent bodies, but inequality and the injustices that come from it will not. What do the Government see as the value of independence when it comes to the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Climate Change Committee that they do not see with this particular agenda?

That is an extremely good and useful question. Everyone remembers the backstory about why we created the OBR. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown changed the assumption about how fast the UK economy would grow, to prop up and justify to the public extraordinarily high levels of public spending. When the financial crisis happened, his decision to change the assumption about how fast the UK economy would grow proved catastrophic, and we ended up with the largest structural deficit of any major developed economy in the world going into the financial crisis, with catastrophic effects on public spending and public services that lasted for a generation.

We changed that because it is very difficult for anyone outside the Treasury to challenge or see some of the forecasting assumptions being made; the macroeconomic and technical work that was happening only within the Treasury prior to the OBR was difficult for anybody to scrutinise externally. Anybody, even Opposition Front-Benchers, could tomorrow update every single bit of data in this document. All these things are public sources; it is straightforward for anybody to hold us to account for them.

However, when it comes to the OBR, it is not quite so straightforward to say, “No, I think the output gap should be different. I think that your assumptions about the fiscal impact of excise duty changes interacting with changes in consumer behaviour are wrong.” That is a fundamentally more difficult thing to do. Ultimately, the OBR was created to protect the Treasury from the kind of behaviours that, I am afraid, we saw under the last Labour Government.

We are going to have to make progress this morning, I am afraid, because we have a lot of clauses to get through. The Opposition amendments are well intentioned—given who the shadow Ministers are, it could not be otherwise—but they are unnecessary and that is why we must resist them.

Rachael Maskell, you can make another speech, as this is line-by-line scrutiny.

Thank you, Mr Paisley. I want to develop the argument on what the Minister was saying about the Office for Budget Responsibility. The reality is that, over generations, we have seen entrenched inequality that successive Governments have been unable to address. It was the same with climate challenges, on which successive Governments have not placed a focus. Yet through the OBR and the Climate Change Committee, that focus has started to bring about change.

The Government’s determination to have a levelling-up framework through which to assess the levelling-up missions does not meet the same kind of scrutiny that will pivot society towards seeing the importance of levelling up. That is why I want to hear from the Minister why inequality, which is so entrenched in our society, and regional disparities, which are so well known and yet have not shifted for generations, do not deserve the importance given by Government to other elements, such as the climate and the economy. Surely, inequality and people’s lives are of equal importance.

Before I call Matthew Pennycook, I remind Members that this is line-by-line scrutiny; it is not like the Chamber. We have time to go through these issues and we are not under any pressure in that regard. If there are matters that need to be raised, please let us consider them. That is what the Committee is for and what the public expect.

If Members wish to make a speech, they can make a speech and use that opportunity now. I call Matthew Pennycook.

Noted, Mr Paisley.

The Minister dwelled on the OBR in his response. I understand why: he is much more personally familiar with it. He did not touch on the Climate Change Committee, but that should be brought into the debate, not only in terms of the rigour the Committee provides for holding the Government to account on climate targets, which change over time—as when the House updated the Climate Change Act 2008 to take into account the net zero target—but for what it does for the consensus around those goals. It is extremely important.

This is the Minister’s first piece of legislation. I hope he will want it to stay on the statute book and the levelling-up missions and the wider agenda to outlive him, this Parliament and the legislation itself. Surely he can see the benefit. That is why I urge him to think again about the amendments to do with an independent body that, by passing consensus about those aims, brings in independent rigour in a way that is accessible to the public, allowing the agenda to be more properly and adequately scrutinised.

Does any other Member wish to catch my eye? Does the Minister wish to respond?

I start by saying—given that one of my Whips is in the room, I should not say this—that, for the reasons mentioned, I enjoy these Bill Committees. I am not sure whether I will enjoy them in a few weeks’ time, because we will have been at it for a long time.

Exactly, so I am very much enjoying it at the moment because we can fight these battles outside the rarefied atmosphere of the Chamber. However, one consequence of my liking these Committees is that I have frequently volunteered to take Bills on—something is not quite right with me, probably. The one thing I have learned from them, which is particularly interesting for a Bill with 200 clauses, is that a person can tell from the first amendment to the first clause how the rest of the discussions are going to go and how minded to take on change the Government are going to be. With that in mind, I am disappointed to hear that the Minister is not minded to accept the amendments.

Our discussion has been good. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central made excellent points about the impact of the Climate Change Committee and COP26. The points about arm’s length bodies and the broader partnership involved in levelling up are important. This legislation is not just about holding the Government to account, but holding to account all parties involved in levelling up, including all of us in this room, in whatever guise—be it as Members of Parliament, as volunteers in our communities, or in local government, as a number of us have been. We all have different stakes in and must hold each other to account on what is a shared endeavour rather than an endeavour of the Government of the day.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. This is not just about Government, but about the whole of our society, across party lines, including mayoralties and local government. Does it not make sense therefore to have a framework that all partners can buy into and have confidence in when scrutinising their functions?

That is very much the spirit in which I tabled the amendment, which is the first Opposition amendment to the Bill. That might be construed as the Opposition wanting to make life hard for the Government or wanting a stick with which to beat them, but far from it. The amendment would ensure that partners all have a mutual responsibility to each other, and that is partly about holding each other to account and having difficult and supportive conversations about why we have not been able to do things that we have sought to do.

The Minister made a point about unconscious bias being woven out with independence, and that is important. The listed regulators—Ofsted, Ofgem, Ofcom and so on—are good comparisons for this space. We have offered the Government a kind of menu of comparisons, and I am surprised that none of them is seen as the right one. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central finished her remarks by addressing the particularly pertinent point about inequalities. It is hard to understand why those inequalities are not considered to have same level of importance as the other agendas. That is disappointing.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made an interesting point, which I hope will come up later in the debate. Part 1 of the Bill is a bit unusual. We have not yet had the clause 1 stand part debate, but I am not sure why those provisions have to be in the Bill. Usually, Ministers argue that things do not need to be in the Bill and the Opposition argue that they do. I will not argue against them, but it is unusual that the Government should have chosen to include the provisions.

I dare say that what is involved is the trick of planting a stake in the ground and saying, “We are going to deliver on these important things.” However, when we consider the point made by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, we see that there is an asterisk against this part of the Bill: the Government still want the flexibility to mark their own homework and change it if they want. Those two things are a little oddly juxtaposed. The Government want to put their head above the parapet and make the legislation central to what they want to do. That is quite a brave and risky thing to do, so I am surprised that they are not able to go a tiny bit further.

The Minister mentioned the Levelling Up Advisory Council and the esteemed people on it. We are lucky that they have chosen to take part in public life in that way, and we are grateful to them. I completely agree with all that has been said about their independent-mindedness and capability to speak for themselves, but I say gently to the Minister—this is not a point against him personally, but against the Government—that it is not those people who we do not trust. Of course we trust their independence, but how on earth can we know what they are saying and what their views are? That is the problem.

As we have seen before with various such advisory bodies, in reality the Government will sit on the difficult things and trumpet the good things. Perhaps there is an element of human nature in that—there is huge element of sadness in it—but that is what will happen. If the Government are really committed to delivering on this matter, why not go that little bit further?

I accept the point about the technical annex and, as the Minister put it, the unprecedented detail. This is a saddening thought in many ways, but I would probably go so far as to say that if I thought he was going to remain in his Department until 2030, a lot of my anxieties would disappear—although, I would have anxieties about how we had managed to lose another two elections. Putting that to one side, because I do not think it is likely to happen, I have no doubt about the Minister’s personal commitment to the agenda, his personal probity, and his willingness to have difficult conversations and to explain on the record where things have not gone as they ought to. However, I would argue strongly that that is not a characteristic that applies across Government—I do not think anybody could say that is really a feature of this Government. He says that I could go through and update each technical annex every year—I am surprised that I should have to do that on the Government’s behalf. The problem is that what we will see overtime is the booklet getting thinner, because the difficult ones will drop out or they will be replaced by another one—that is what we normally see. The Government will say, “We have got advanced metrics now that better understand the nature of life in the UK.”

Housing need, as my hon. Friend says, is a good example. The metrics change to suit the outcome. The Minister knows that, which is why it needs to be in the Bill. He said that these sorts of things will accompany a statement from the Government, and that that will do in place of independent scrutiny. Those two things are not the same. There should not be the level of trust that means we would solely, on the word of Ministers, take what they say they have done as read. When our positions are swapped, I do not think the Minister would take that from us—and I do not think he should either. The need for a level of independence is obvious and clear.

I will not press the amendment to a Division, because I really want Ministers to think again about this. There will be other opportunities in this process to look for a proportionate level of independence. The Opposition have been non-prescriptive. I offered three different versions of independent scrutiny, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South offered a fourth—there may well be other versions. I hope that Ministers will reflect and come back, either at the next stage or in the other place, and put a provision in its place. The case for that is a very good one. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 13, clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) the resources made available by Her Majesty’s Government to nations, regions, sub regions and local areas in order to level-up.”

This amendment would place a responsibility on the Government to publish the resources made available to communities in order to level-up.

Clause 1 requires a Minister of the Crown to establish levelling-up missions for the Government. This amendment proposed a new paragraph that would require them to publish alongside those missions what resources are being made to the nations, regions, sub-regions and local areas in order for them to level up. The point that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran made about the current trajectory of departmental resources, with those in 2025 being less that their 2010 levels, is a very good argument for the provision.

The work of levelling up will not be done alone—certainly not by central Government. From Whitehall, we cannot command and control our way to a more balanced country. Indeed, that model of development is a huge part of why we have such an imbalanced country. The proper allocation of money will have a large say—probably the largest say—on whether levelling up can be a success and be a truly transformative project for the whole country.

As the Government’s White Paper identified, the deep-rooted problems in the UK economy, which are holding back our regions, towns and villages, create greater imbalance than in most other comparable countries. Our country’s economic and social geography demonstrates that imbalance, and it can also be seen across multiple measures, whether pay, educational attainment or health—they light it up like a Christmas tree. As the White Paper outlines, our urban areas and coastal towns suffer disproportionately from crime, while former mining areas and areas with outlying urban estates, such as my constituency, are often communities of high deprivation, with poor opportunities for younger generations. The imbalances in our country are plain to see. The current economic settlement just does not work.

In order to rectify that, the devolution of power back to local communities will be vital, so that they have a proper say over decisions that affect their lives. In blunt terms, levelling up will have to be a targeted return of money, funding and resources back into the parts of the UK that need it. Without that investment, levelling up has no hope of succeeding. The stakes are really high. We need to get good jobs back into home towns, so that young people do not have to get out in order to get on. We need to have our high streets thriving, by kick-starting local economies with good local businesses and money back in people’s pockets. We need to better connect our towns and villages through good transport, digital infrastructure and affordable housing. All of that needs power to be taken out of Whitehall and put into the town hall, because local communities will make better decisions. All those things require significant resources alongside that hard, local graft.

The amendment would therefore require the Government to publish the resources that will be available to communities in order to level up, for the sake of transparency and proper scrutiny of Government spending in this area, so that we might have a sense of whether we are setting up our communities to succeed or not. That point on transparency holds over well from the previous discussion.

For those in Government who implement policy and make decisions about investment in our communities, it is important to demonstrate the use of the best criteria and the most effective practice, so that they deliver on the project they want to and we get value for taxpayers’ money. Our constituents deserve that. We know that billions have already been spent on the levelling-up programme, and that that figure will rise. Those are vast sums of money that must not be wasted. There is an argument on whether that will be effective and whether we use finance properly.

That issue is currently in question. Just a few weeks ago the Public Accounts Committee released a damning report on how Government Ministers have spent taxpayers’ money through the levelling-up funds. It says that billions of pounds have been squandered on ill thought-out plans, forcing areas to compete over pots of money, small refunds for the money that has been stripped from communities up and down the country by the Government over the past 12 years. The Chair of the Select Committee said that the Government are just

“gambling taxpayers’ money on policies and programmes that are little more than a slogan, retrofitting the criteria for success and not even bothering to evaluate if it worked”.

In departmental questions yesterday, it was clear that the Government do not accept that characterisation. I hope that it would at least give them pause, because the Public Accounts Committee is a weighty body. Maybe that is a guide to why independent oversight and input is less welcome on the levelling-up agenda; perhaps it is the experience so far.

The Public Accounts Committee also highlighted that realistic bids to the levelling-up fund have missed out at the expense of projects claiming to be shovel-ready, which have since been beset by delays—perhaps the Bill should also bin the phrase “shovel-ready”, because it is really unhelpful in this space. We are talking about £1.7 billion of taxpayers’ money. That is the thin end of the wedge, in the context of what will be spent over the next eight years to the 2030 target. That money must be spent properly.

This is not the first time that the Department has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee. In November 2020, that Committee reported that the selection process for awarding the towns fund—very much a predecessor of levelling-up funding—had not been impartial, and it raised concerns about the lack of transparency over the towns selected. That, again, should really give Ministers pause to reflect. In 2019 the Committee highlighted how the Department did not know the impact of its £12 billion local growth fund but had also decided not to evaluate it. The Committee now says that accountability for levelling-up outcomes remains unsatisfactory. Those are significant and rather damning criticisms about the programme so far.

The amendment seeks to right that and put the programme back on a more ordered footing, because we can do much better than that. To an extent, this represents one of the significant points of difference on levelling up between the Opposition and the Government. My goal is to see reliable, targeted, sustained central funding going to local communities to help them level up, based on need and where the impact will be greatest.

What we have seen from the Government so far—I have read nothing in the White Paper to suggest this will change—is a never-ending stream of debilitating beauty parades. We have the ludicrous situation in Nottingham where, like every other community, we ready our bids for high street funds, brownfield site funds, levelling-up funds or towns funds, and dare not talk to Derby and Leicester. For all our parochial concerns, especially on football, those communities are very similar, in terms of experiences and social demography, but if we talk to them we risk them getting our great idea, and then they win and we lose. What a ludicrous way of promoting development.

Council officers have had it hard over the past 12 years. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to keep writing these bids and to work out what the council actually wants to spend the money on in order to fit the criteria of the bid. We should be more honest that that is happening up and down the country. All of that is inefficient and a wasteful way of getting money out of the door. It is clear from independent assessment that we do not have the criteria to know whether that works. I think we can do better.

Running through the amendment is the sad reality of levelling up: that even the winners lose. I hope to hear from the Minister that he will draw a line under that. That is the cruelty of making communities dance for the entertainment of Ministers, in order to pick winners, all of whom are losers.

I have in front of me the document that outlines the change in central Government funding against which each community has to offset any gains they have made from the towns fund, the levelling-up fund or the community renewal fund since 2018. For example, Birmingham gained £52.6 million from the levelling-up fund, which is wonderful news, great for the city of Birmingham and I know that will be spent well. The reality is that, set against the cuts to the council, the real-term reduction over just four years means that Birmingham is £241.7 million worse off. Birmingham has been told it is a winner, but goodness me, it is a loser.

Let us get out of the cities and into the shires, to see whether that gets any better. Gloucestershire has had £52.8 million from the levelling-up fund, which is wonderful news, but in real terms it is £54.7 million worse off. It has been told that it is a winner, but it is anything but.

Let us look at one more example before I finish this point. What if somewhere was a winner in the towns fund, the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund? Given that wonderful outcome, we should really be asking for the lottery numbers. East Sussex was a winner to the tune of £43.6 million, £40.5 million and £2.6 million respectively in those three funds, but it is still £20 million worse off over the last four years. Goodness me—this is incredible.

The point of the amendment is to say, “Let’s be honest about the resourcing that we have.” If we are going to have levelling up, it will have to be properly resourced. The amendment has two points. First, we need honesty about how we are resourcing communities to deliver. Are we just creating public expectation that is setting up our local leaders to fail? We have seen that the national leaders are not going to let themselves be held accountable for that. Secondly, are we doing this in a way that is transparent and effective, and that the public can rely on as a best-value assessment?

Do any Back Benchers wish to catch my eye before I go to the Opposition spokespeople?

Thank you, Mr Paisley, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North for his excellent speech; I will continue his theme about making the right judgments on investment.

During the seven years that I have been in this place, we have seen little pockets of money being distributed in different ways to different parts of the country. Some of that will have had value, but essentially it is about addition rather than multiplication and is not necessarily getting the best out of public resources. As we have seen, the high street fund has gone to various places in the country, as opposed to investing to achieve the economic growth that would benefit a community in the long term, which is what the levelling-up agenda is about.

We have seen competitions for funding being set out and we know the level of resource that local communities are putting into them. For example, the headquarters of Great British Railways was going to come to York because of the high-tech economy on rail there, and to develop that rail cluster. Suddenly we had a competition and local authorities are now spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money in order to try to win the bid. At the end of the process there will be only one winner, which I trust will be York, but hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money has been spent on those bids and disappeared from the wider economy. That cannot be a wise way of spending public money—our constituents’ taxes—whether locally or nationally. They want greater value for money out of the Government.

A more consistent approach to growing the economy is important when it comes to where Government place their investments. The drawdown—this is what the whole agenda is about—in London and the south-east, has a cumulative impact, with the heating up of the economy there at the expense of similar interventions in the north. That is the powerful point that Professor Leyser and Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, made about the importance of the cluster economy.

I congratulate the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on pouring its focus into that and on working with UK Research and Innovation to ensure that we bring together the components of an economy for the future, making sure the investment goes in the right place and building on the assets of a local community—the skills base, the industry, and what academia can bring. That can create the jobs and the skills for the future, to address the inequality that is so entrenched in our communities.

In my city of York, we are looking at the biotech industry, the rail and transport cluster, and the creative arts and digital creative sectors. Investment in those areas brings not just addition but multiplication—we are seeing inward investment, international investment and academia coming from overseas. The amendment is about putting the investment in the right place, ensuring that it goes to the nations, regions, sub-regions and local areas to ensure that we truly get the levelling up required, which will reach the Government’s objectives.

I believe that the amendment is important to ensure that the resources are available in the right place. We will then see economic disparities dispelled, health inequality reduced, educational attainment gaps closed and a better society as a result. I certainly see that getting this wrong has a significant cost. There are areas of York that need levelling up. While looking at regional disparities, we cannot ignore the local disparities.

My question for the Minister is this: does levelling up address all those socioeconomic inequalities? If there is investment in a particular region, city or town, but the affluent people get the gains rather than the people living in deprivation, we will not have levelled up the country; all we will have done is level up parts of it. We see that today in London: the greatest affluence in this city is just across the river, but we do not have to go far to see some of the greatest deprivation. We must ensure that levelling up is not just about the sum of the regions but the parts of the regions, to ensure that those individuals get a share of the wealth. I see how that can happen.

BioYorkshire, a project in York that we are taking forward as a green new deal, will see the upskilling of 25,000 people and the creation of 4,000 new jobs, getting people out of low-paid, insecure jobs and into good-quality jobs, which will bring significant benefit to my city and my region. We have to ensure that no one is left behind and that the impact is on everyone. Therefore, the investment is foundational. Where it goes, and how it goes, has to be a strategic decision, which is why the amendment is so significant, because otherwise we will see widening inequalities. I certainly see that in many places across the country.

I would also like to point out how investment in the right places can address other forms of inequality. We know, for instance, that single-parent families experience the greatest deprivation. How will the missions address that? How will the missions relate to disabled people, women and ethnic minority communities? We need to make sure that the methodology applied is robust, and that it looks not only at geography but at other areas, to ensure that investment is right and that it is measured. That goes back to our previous debate about independent scrutiny.

Economic disadvantage has a wider impact on other outcomes we want to see. I draw the Minister’s attention, in particular, to the integrated rail plan and where the investment in that is going. Increased Government investment in rail and connectivity is welcome, of course, but we are seeing not only a north-south divide, but a new east-west divide. Yorkshire and the north-east missed out on the investment in rail, which will hold back those local economies. We were expecting not only Northern Powerhouse Rail, but phase 2b of HS2 going east to York. The Government have cancelled those programmes and the opportunity for our city to level up has been taken away. We have to think about how the whole jigsaw fits together and how the component parts make up a stronger, better economy, so that York can be the gateway to the north.

Finally, I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to the work of Professor Philip McCann of the University of Sheffield, which he must be familiar with. Professor McCann has repeatedly highlighted how investment in the wrong places brings addition, but investment in the right economic engines brings multiplication. It is therefore vital that we look at the scale of the resource and at where it is invested, so that we get the maximum benefit to address the inequalities we are talking about. That is why I highlighted the points from Professor McCann and Professor Leyser and the powerful evidence that Andy Street gave to the Committee. We have to see investment in clusters, so that we have the economic opportunity to truly level up. That is why amendment 13 is vital.

This is an important amendment because it allows the Government to be up front about the level of resource that they seek to deploy region by region. It is also important because it refers to areas below the level of region. As the hon. Member for York Central has set out, there is a danger that the Government might sound somewhat patronising when they talk about levelling up, thinking from their London seat that the provinces are all terribly deprived and they should throw some money at them and level them up. Of course, the reality is that inequalities within regions are greater than inequalities between them.

Members will not be surprised by my focus on rural communities. The Minister might be aware of research that has come out in the past couple of days from the Rural Services Network. It has looked at the Government’s own levelling-up metrics and on that basis it reckons that, were rural England to be a separate region, it would perform more poorly than every other geographical region of England. Not only would it perform more poorly, but it is disadvantaged for different reasons. The metrics that the Government are seeking to deploy in order to understand deprivation and inequality do not do the business when it comes to understanding the issues that face rural communities.

In my constituency there will be fewer than 500 people unemployed. We have got very close to full employment. We also have average house prices that are between 10 and 15 times average incomes. We have people in work and in poverty. The clear, huge majority of people on universal credit in my constituency and in other parts of Cumbria are in work, and not just in work but in multiple jobs, seeking to make ends meet. Potentially, they will not tick boxes when the Government’s metrics are being considered and they may not be recipients of the resources that the hon. Member for Nottingham North seeks to get the Government to be explicit about.

Let us think about some of the needs that are present in that rural region of England, which is more needy than every other geographical region of England by some distance. We are talking about incomes. We are talking about house prices. We are talking about the fact that in the south lakes alone—a community with nearly full employment—5,500 people are on a council house list, waiting for their first home. By the way, an educated guess is that there are about 10,000 second homes in the same district. It is important to understand that the discrepancies and inequalities are of that order.

It seems very black and white to say, “These are the homes of people who already have one and these are the people who haven’t even got the one,” but if we care about inequality we are going to care about that. In a property-owning democracy, we might champion people’s liberty and their right to own more than one home, but when there is a conflict between someone’s right to a second home and someone else’s right just to have any home, we know whose side we should be taking, don’t we? If we do not, this Bill means nothing at all, and nothing to rural communities in particular.

Let us look at some other issues in respect of which rural communities are disadvantaged. The vast proportion of people in Cumbria are not on the mains for their heating; they are on oil—liquid fuel—and there is no price cap for that. There is no way of taking into account inflation beyond that which most of us are experiencing when it comes to energy prices. There is nothing to assess that, nothing to allow for it, nothing to ensure that resources are available to help communities so that they can be protected from the cost-of-living crisis that is particularly hard in rural communities.

In cities such as London, Manchester and Newcastle—wonderful places—it is possible to live without a car, and many people do. That is probably good for the environment and for people’s pockets as well. Mobility is more straightforward in a community like the one we are standing and sitting in now, but in a community like mine, people need cars. The chances are that people do not live in the village in which they work, and they need to get from one place to another. Fuel prices are higher and the distances are longer, and the bus journey from Kendal to Ambleside is the second most expensive in the country, so it is very expensive to travel whether via private car or public transport.

Let us also think about access to services. For people living in Sedbergh, for instance, the nearest FE college is 10 miles away and there is no bus, so their access to services is restricted in a way that the access of people in other parts of the country is not. What about health services? What about the one in two of us who at some point in our lives will end up with a cancer diagnosis, and the one in two of those who will need radiotherapy? In a community such as Cumbria they have to make a three or four-hour round trip to Preston every day to get life-saving treatment, for weeks and weeks on end.

The things I have outlined will not be taken into account if we are not honest about what regions actually are, about the categories of places within regions—sub-regions—and about how parts of the country, even though they might be in Northumberland, Cornwall, Cumbria or Kent, have commonalities despite geographical disparity. Without being clear about the resources, we are not going to tackle that need. We are not going to tackle the lack of connectivity that puts people at risk in rural communities, where we do not have the broadband roll-out the Government have promised. We do not have the commitment to bring health services and education close to home or to address transport costs. Above all, a massive flaw throughout the Bill is inadequacy when it comes to tackling the biggest driver of inequality in this country: lack of access to affordable and available housing.

I urge the Minister to look at the Rural Services Network report and to take into account the fact that rural England counts as the most deprived region of England, compared with the geographical regions. I urge him to accept the amendment, and in doing so to ensure that resources are allocated appropriately to every part of every region of this country.

Amendment 13 would place

“a responsibility on the Government to publish the resources made available to communities in order to level-up”.

Who could argue with that? In not arguing with it, I cannot help reminding the Minister that Scotland was promised a £1.5-billion-a-year bonanza as part of the Brexit windfall. Of course, the reality is that Scotland has received 40% less funding than it did under the EU funding agenda, and it has suffered a 5.2% cut in its resource budget and a 9.7% cut in its capital budget. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how that supports the levelling-up agenda, because I certainly cannot understand. It is quite galling that as this Government show disrespect to devolved Parliaments—democratically elected Parliaments—by impinging on devolved powers and bypassing the democratic will of the Scottish people in devolved areas, they simultaneously cut their budget in the context of levelling up.

Despite the stated goals of the legislation, the Minister has been unable to say—perhaps he will do so when he gets to his feet—whether the levelling-up missions would result in a reduction in inequality to the point where we would see a reduction in child poverty. What kind of levelling-up commitment would not address the basic social scourge of child poverty? I cannot think what the point of any of this is if we are not committed to tackling that most basic and serious ill.

Of course, as we have heard, we do not need a fanfare to tackle inequality; we just need to get on and do it. We can exalt in our success if indeed we have it, but we do not need a Bill that runs to hundreds of pages but cannot even commit to transparency or to publishing details of the resources that it is willing to use.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government have tried, with their limited powers, to instigate levelling up—for example, with the Scottish child payment of £20 per child per week. That is real levelling up, and these are the kinds of measures that the Bill really ought to tackle to build a more inclusive society. As food bank use rises, we have a real opportunity if we are serious about levelling up, but it takes targeted political will and a determination to tackle the causes of inequality. That is not an easy thing to do—we have to put in a real shift—but a Bill that runs to a few hundred pages with vague missions that objectively cannot be held to account will not convince anybody.

It is clear to see that the resources for true levelling up will not be made available, certainly from the Scottish perspective with the figures I have cited. For all the warm words, and there have been many, it is difficult to have confidence that our communities will see any tangible difference as a result of this fanfare—sorry, this Bill. The Government should have no problem with amendment 13, because they know that no levelling up can happen without resources. Presumably, if they are serious about levelling up, those resources will be committed, so why not publish them? Why do the Government not exalt in their success and the resources they are willing to expend? If this levelling-up Bill and agenda do not reduce inequality or tackle poverty, child poverty or child hunger, I honestly cannot see the point of them.

I agree completely with the spirit behind the amendment, and we are actively working to bring about what Opposition Members want. However, we do not think the amendment works, and I will explain why. Official statistics about public spending in different places are widely available already. Her Majesty’s Treasury already publishes a regional breakdown for total current and capital identifiable expenditure per head through PESA—Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses—which is my favourite regional statistical document.

We are also taking steps to improve the quality of spatial data. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has established a new spatial data unit to drive forward the data transformation required in central Government. It is frustrating to us that many of the types of data that should have existed for years still do not. The spatial data unit supports the delivery of levelling up by transforming the way the UK Government gather, store and use sub-national data, so that it can underpin transparent and open policy making and delivery decisions. It is completely in that spirit that we are acting to improve data on all levels.

There are so many frustrations. For example, on R&D spending we can find quite reasonable data at international territorial level 1 and some data at ITL2, but there is nothing at ITL3 or at local authority level. We want to change those things and get the data we need to level up, so we are completely with the spirit of what the Opposition are talking about.

The problem is that the amendment talks about

“the resources made available…to nations, regions, sub-regions and local areas in order to level-up.”

There is an interesting and important philosophical point here. Robert Martin of the University of Cambridge would say that one of the key things that has gone wrong in previous regional policies, despite the fact that they were well-intentioned and we all agree they were good ideas, is that people thought about regional policy in a little silo or little box, and that there was a sum of money for levelling up, or for the northern way, or whatever it was called that the time, whereas what we needed to do was think about the totality of Government budgets. We need to do what we are now doing, which is review the Treasury Green Book and think about the processes that have caused transport and housing spending to be relentlessly pushed toward already affluent areas.

To fulfil the mission of the White Paper, we need to think about how to reverse the long trend in R&D spending, for example, of greater concentration in just three cities: Oxford, Cambridge and London. Do not think that there is a sum of money for levelling up and then there is all the rest of Government spending, which is much bigger; instead, think about how we can change the much bigger pie by changing the underpinning rules, such as the Green Book, and changing investment allocation processes. We are working on that and ensuring that there is no hard and fast distinction between levelling-up spending and other spending. That is the whole point of the White Paper.

I will address the points that Front Benchers made about the PAC and other things, but first I will respond to the important points made by Back-Bench Members, starting with those made by the hon. Member for York Central about sub-regional differences being just as important as regional differences. We totally agree, and that is a key part of the White Paper. Through the York and North Yorkshire devolution deal, which we are working on and which is making great progress at the moment, we are picking up some of those locally specific and locally particular issues that are so important for the future of York, some of which the hon. Lady has talked to me about—things like BioYorkshire, which is incredibly exciting.

The hon. Lady also mentioned Phil McCann, who I have talked to a lot and whose work hugely informs the White Paper. His work has been central in forcing Ministers to confront the nature of the UK economy. He makes a strong argument that there is a connection between the fact that the UK is one of the most spatially unbalanced economies in the world and the fact that it is one of the most politically centralised. That insight is baked into our White Paper.

The hon. Lady asked about Yorkshire rail and transport investment. We are investing £5.7 billion through the city region sustainable transport settlements, which West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire are already benefiting from hugely. We hope to reach an integrated budget for York, North Yorkshire and the rest of Yorkshire soon. Through the £96 billion investment—quite a lot of money in anyone’s language—we are making huge improvements to transport in Yorkshire. Journey times between Leeds and Manchester will come down from 55 minutes to 33, Leeds to Bradford will go from 20 minutes to 12, and we will get the benefits sooner than under previous plans.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale gave a great speech—I was almost punching the air for most of it—in which he brilliantly brought out the challenges of rural areas, which have been overlooked all too often. I completely agreed with all his comments. However, I will say that the Opposition parties have sometimes taken different views on this. Through the levelling-up fund index and the allocation of the shared prosperity fund, we have baked in to those transparent allocation mechanisms the importance of rurality, but we have been criticised for that, particularly by the Welsh Labour Government, who were not happy that we were taking into account the needs of rural places and thought that more should go into the urban areas. There is a choice there, but I think the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made really good points about some of the challenges facing rural areas, which we can see in the low earnings figures, which have sometimes—because of, I think, some problems with the index of multiple deprivation—gone unnoticed before. I agreed with much of what he said.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran also made important points. It is tempting to reel off a big list of the scale of the investments: the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, the £3.6 billion towns fund and the future high streets fund, the £2.6 billion shared prosperity fund, the £5 billion for Project Gigabit, the £1 billion for the shared rural network—I could go on and on. I hope the hon. Lady will accept that a large scale of investment is happening, and it is strongly steered towards poorer areas. If we look across the UK as a whole—we cannot use the IMD, because it does not exist for the UK as a whole—we see that the poorer half of local authorities, where median pay is lowest, received 71% of the UK SPF and 74% of round 1 of levelling-up funding. The areas in that poorer half are getting nearly three quarters of the pie; the funding is targeted at poorer areas.

The shared prosperity fund is allocated through an index, which is published on a website, so people can work out how it is done. It is completely transparent. The levelling-up fund has an index with a place-based metric, which is one of the four considerations. There is then a competitive process in which—on a transparent, published basis—civil servants analyse bids that come in and rank them, and the amount of money entered into the system determines how far down the ranking an authority is placed. I sometimes hear accusations from Scotland that it is done in a politically partisan way. I think that every single funding bid in round 1 of the levelling-up fund went to an SNP constituency, so it is not done in a partisan way; it is just allocated by civil servants objectively analysing bids.

That takes me to a really important point, raised by the Opposition Front-Bench team, relating to the PAC report. The Opposition are saying two different things. On one hand, we hear them saying, “Well, the PAC—how will you prove that there will be great value for money for all your spending?” If one takes that thrust, we need to say, “Ah, we need to have four Treasury business cases. We need to analyse this thing. We need to run it through WebTAG. We need to put tons of bureaucracy on this thing to squeeze that VFM out of each of these bids through a competitive process.” Okay, that is one way of doing things, but that is in tension with the other comments made by the Opposition Front-Bench team, when they say, “We want to get away from beauty parades. We want to do more things like the SPF and have allocated funding that just goes to places, with minimum bureaucracy, so that they can use it to fund local groups and small charities.”

In the design of things such as the SPF, we have been careful to ensure that we strip away some of the problems with the European funding—we are not going to relitigate Brexit here—that I think everyone shares the same view on, including the match funding requirement that disadvantaged poorer areas, and the many different layers of audit that made it difficult for small local charities to get in on the action.

Those two arguments are in tension with each other, and our belief as a Government is that we want a balanced diet. Yes, there are some advantages from competitive funding—with some of the best bids, we are getting good VFM—but there are costs in that process, which the Opposition have raised. For example, it brings bureaucracy, and difficulties for smaller organisations, smaller councils and smaller places.

It is not the case that we ignored or had pause, as the Opposition said, when we got the PAC report. It is just that there is an inescapable choice here. We have tried to have a balanced diet of some competitive funding, with the advantages that that has, and some non-competitive funding, which has a different set of advantages.

I am listening carefully to the Minister, who has talked about input as opposed to outcomes. In the light of our seeing gross inequalities and life expectancy for some people in our poorest communities decreasing, there is clearly something that is not working in the Minister’s methodology to deliver the outcomes we want to see to close the inequality gap. Will he expand on how he sees the shifting of the dial, as opposed to what we on the Opposition Benches perceive as more of a scattergun approach in terms of where the money still seems to be going through the methodologies he has described?

We are the Government who are creating—literally, through the Bill and the clauses we are debating this very morning—a mission to close the gap in healthy life expectancy between local areas, and between the highest and lowest areas, and to raise it by five years by 2035. These are the missions that the Bill will be getting us to report on every year to Parliament, so we are addressing the hon. Lady’s point. Through the health disparities White Paper and the other things the Government are doing, we are addressing as one of our central priorities the underlying causes of lower life expectancy and the inequalities she mentioned.

To summarise, while we are completely with the spirit of the Opposition’s amendments—we are trying to get better data and have processes in place that are generating better data, because we recognise its importance to the levelling-up agenda—there is, in truth, no hard and fast difference between levelling-up resources and the rest of Government resources. Indeed, philosophically, it is important to recognise that one should not think just about levelling-up funds. Much as one can rattle off an impressive list, one should think about how we reform the totality of Government spending.

That is one of the novel aspects of the White Paper’s approach. For a long time, people thought of science funding in a science policy silo, and thought that it should be allocated to science excellence, with no spatial dimension. We are the first Government to set regional targets for science spending, recognising its importance to potentially addressing some of the inequalities that the Opposition have mentioned this morning. We have changed the Treasury Green Book. We have started to allocate housing and regeneration spending differently so that we can get out of the cycles that Tom Forth and other regional economic policy experts have talked about: some bits of the country are overloaded and people cannot get on a train or buy a house, while other parts are crying out for investment and have lots of scope to take on growth.

I hope that I have given the Opposition at least an honest account of why we are resisting the amendment, even though we absolutely agree with its spirit.

I am really grateful for the contributions to what has been a good debate. I will cover some of the points made by my Opposition colleagues and then move on to what the Minister said. Turning to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, Great British Railways is a brilliant example of what we are talking about. We remember the press release on, I think, 5 February, which came shortly after the White Paper and was seen very much as an element of the levelling-up agenda—indeed, it says that on the Government’s website. The location of Great British Railways will be determined through an online public vote. It is like “Love Island”, Mr Paisley. Anyone watching this series knows that we badly need a vote to try to shake things up, but I do not think it is how we should determine the location of—

I apologise, Mr Paisley. I will get straight back to Great British Railways and levelling up. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central made a strong case for York and, if the hon. Member for Broxtowe promises not to tell my constituents, I might make a strong case for Derby. We are generally not allowed to do such things, but that is my one for the year—[Laughter.]

Happily, it does not look like the hon. Member for Broxtowe is going to grass me up.

The whole process—we can already see this because people are being encouraged to use a hashtag—will involve TikTok videos and be nauseatingly modern. I know that the Minister does not like things as nauseatingly modern as that, so I cannot believe it for a second—he is sitting sphinx-like, which is of course fine. The constant beauty parade and artificial competition just take energy out of things. Of course, someone will win, and that will be wonderful news, and I will be very pleased for them, but multiple places will lose as a result. That cannot be the best way to level up. I know the Minister talked about a balanced diet, but I will cover that shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central spoke about where she sees the future for her community and her region, with an emphasis on biotech, rail and the creative sector, and that will be different in Nottingham, Leicestershire or West Yorkshire. That is a good thing. Part of levelling up will be about, as we understand it, sub-regions taking control of where they think their local economies are going to go and the skills they will need to ensure they get that. Getting the resources to make sure they can do that, which is what this amendment is about, is fundamental. This is about resource going to those communities so that they can make those decisions for themselves. I think that the people of York and the sub-region in which my hon. Friend works will have a better say about that than Ministers themselves.

My hon. Friend mentioned the local disparities, as did the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and they are crucial. It is important to state that is not a “north versus south” or “rest of the UK versus London” sort of debate. This is not a competition in that sense and we should not fall for that. The hon. Gentleman’s points about rural poverty and sub-regional poverty were well made. Part of the problem with the kind of criteria that the Government are using, and with making communities come to the Government within criteria set by the Government, is that the poverty in towns, in outer estates, in inner cities, in rural communities and in coastal communities, with all the levelling-up challenges that come with that poverty, manifest very differently. I am not sure that the idea that all those communities can bid into one set of criteria and have an even competition even stands up that far. That is challenging.

As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, we are stuck with the reality that the quantum itself has been squeezed so drastically over the past decade-plus that we are seeking to roll back many decades of deindustrialisation and to adapt to many decades of globalisation, and we are seeking to do so with less than we started with. It seems hard to say that we are not building in our defeat in that respect.

On what the Minister said, I am really pleased about the in-spirit commitment to what we are talking about in respect of the amendment. He also said the Government are actively working on the issue; I hope he will keep us engaged and updated on that so that we can have confidence in that work. He talked a little about some of the mechanisms that he and his Government are the first to do. I am never that persuaded by this Government’s Ministers talking about being the first to do something, because their competition is largely themselves and does not seem to be hard to beat. If the Minister is trumpeting beating the record of the past decade—or even the past 50 years; as I say, it has been mostly his lot rather than my lot—I am not sure that is so good. I am not convinced he is going to set many Olympic records if his only competition is his colleagues.

The Minister was kindly brave enough to say that PESA is his favourite regional dataset. I think those who are in second place will be upset about that, but it is helpful to know where he looks. I hope we can tease something out of that. We heard a commitment from the Minister on the sub-regional understanding of data and the finance that comes with it, and I am pretty sure that we heard a commitment on understanding the totality of spend in this space. We will perhaps have an opportunity in future debates to tease out from the Minister a little more on how we are going to understand that. He said we should not think of it as levelling-up funding, and that is completely right: we do not think of it as that. It is, of course, a whole-Government programme that will require spending in all sorts of spaces. I would not want to think, though, that it is therefore so diffuse that we will never be able to understand what is going into levelling up the country. That would make it impossible to have the debate about whether we are sufficiently committed to it. With the finances we have before us, it would be hard to make the argument that the commitment is sufficient.

Let me finish on the Minister’s point about the inconsistencies that he perceives in our positions. Our positions are not inconsistent; they are entirely clear. We want to move away from the beauty parades and to proper funding, based on need, for communities to shape their own direction. That is our position. The Minister said that contrasts with the points that I made about value for money and the spending so far that pushes us instantly to half a dozen analyses, but that is not the point I was making. I was making the point that the Government spend so far has barely passed even the most basic financial tests.

The PAC reported on the levelling-up fund. Are there any particular levelling-up fund bids that we are funding that the hon. Gentleman would like to say represent bad value for money and should be withdrawn?

The Minister knows that is unkind. I am not going to stand here and pick at one. We could go down the entire list of 157 local authorities, virtually all of which are significantly worse off, by tens of millions of pounds; I am not going to turn around and say that one of their projects should not happen. Please—of course I am not going to say that. The Minister says that the Public Accounts Committee picked up on the levelling-up fund, but that is not true: it has reported on the towns fund, too. This is a long-running issue and there are more than three years-worth of reports.

It is not just about money that is coming from the centre into individual projects. The Government need to take note of the point that it is surely about enabling and empowering local authorities and bodies to make their own determinations about where the money is best prioritised. Whether it is from the shared prosperity fund, the levelling-up fund or the future high streets fund, a local authority might be in the best position to determine how the pot is spent in its local economy to drive up and level up, as opposed to the Government making a central determination about the governance of that funding.

That is exactly the argument we have been making. We want that to be locally determined. I would be surprised if the Government in general really want to defend what they see from the Public Accounts Committee. We of course await the Government’s response, and if the Minister wants to debate it, we would be very keen to—if he makes a statement, we will all be there—but I suspect that will not happen. The reality is that the basic checks have to be passed, and I am not sure we are fully assured of that yet.

In the spirit of what the Minister said and of ongoing co-operation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.(Miss Dines.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Sixth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Mr Peter Bone, † Sir Mark Hendrick, Mrs Sheryll Murray, Ian Paisley

† Andrew, Stuart (Minister for Housing)

† Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

† Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Henry, Darren (Broxtowe) (Con)

† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

† O'Brien, Neil (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

Bethan Harding, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 28 June 2022


[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Before we begin, I have a few reminders for the Committee. Please switch any electronic devices to silent. No food or drink is permitted during Committee sittings, except for water, which is provided on the tables. Hansard colleagues will be grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to

I beg to move amendment 29, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) details of how Her Majesty’s Government will ensure that the levelling-up missions are aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.”

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Mark. The amendments simply ask that the Government align the levelling-up missions with the United Nations sustainable development goal to end hunger and ensure access by all people—the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants—to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round. The amendments also ask that that be measured by tracking the prevalence of undernourishment and moderate or severe food insecurity in the population, based on the food insecurity experience scale.

It is astonishing that in a Bill that attempts to level up all parts of the UK, not once is hunger or food insecurity mentioned, despite the Prime Minister acknowledging that it is not possible to level up the country without reducing the number of children living in poverty. There are 14.5 million people living in poverty across our country. Poverty among children and pensioners was rising for the six years prior to covid, along with a resurgence of Victorian diseases associated with malnutrition, such as scurvy and rickets.

Surely the Government must have grasped that in order for at least five of their own missions to succeed, people need to have access to food. Living standards, education, skills, health and wellbeing are all deeply impacted upon if people live in a household marked by hunger. Pre-pandemic, over 2 million children started their school day with a gnawing hunger in their stomach. No matter how impressive a teacher is, if a child is worrying about where their next meal may come from, they simply do not learn. Overall, the physical, emotional and mental health links to hunger are well documented.

The Government’s own reporting in the family resources survey, which was only made possible after years of campaigning to implement my Food Insecurity Bill, shows that households in the north-east are more likely struggle to afford food than those anywhere else in the country. It would be completely misguided to think that we can level up the country without addressing this issue. Due to the pandemic, soaring inflation and limited Government support to mitigate the impact of rising living costs, those figures will be far worse in the coming years, without concerted and committed Government action.

By making a clear commitment in the Bill to tackle growing levels of hunger, the Government are signalling that they understand and are willing to act, and to be held to account for that action. They signed up to sustainable development goal 2 in 2015, with the aim to end hunger. The Minister for South Asia, North Africa, the United Nations and the Commonwealth—in the other place—recently reconfirmed the UK’s commitment to achieving the goals by 2030, stressing that the SDGs remain a globally recognised framework for building back better from coronavirus, in line with the Prime Minister’s levelling-up priorities. That makes it even more surprising that hunger is missing from the Bill.

If not in this Bill, how will the Government measure the prevalence of hunger in line with their levelling-up commitments? Or are the Prime Minister’s comments just more of the empty rhetoric that we have become so accustomed to from this Government? So far, the Government’s performance has been inadequate to combat hunger and food insecurity. The SDG tracker figures for 2020 to 2021 show that over 4 million people are regularly going hungry or do not have access to nutritious food on a regular basis. The Food Foundation has found that the number of food-insecure households is rising, with figures for 2022 so far show prevalence in nearly 5 million households, with 2 million children suffering. If it were not for the estimated 2,300 food banks in this country, those adults and children would be completely without food. That should be a source of great shame for those on the Government Benches.

The regional disparities that the Bill supposedly aims to level out are most stark when we consider the fact that life expectancy in my part of the world, the north-east, is six years less for men and seven years less for women than it is in the south-east. The pandemic has revealed the serious underlying health inequalities in this country. Increasing healthy life expectancy is a huge challenge, and public health funding was a crucial part of achieving that mission. However, the most recent allocation saw councils receive a real-terms cut—another example of the Government’s actions not matching their levelling-up rhetoric.

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee reported in 2019 that, when it came to sustainable development goal 2,

“the UK is not performing well enough or performance is deteriorating”.

The Government-commissioned national food strategy found that diet is the leading cause of avoidable harm to our health, but the Government have ignored Henry Dimbleby’s recommendation to increase eligibility for free school meals. Adult and child obesity levels are one of the metrics used to assess the success of the mission to improve life expectancy, yet today, on the anniversary of the Government’s child obesity plan, it has been reported that 70% of commitments have been delayed or have disappeared.

If the Government are serious about levelling up, tackling food insecurity is vital to achieving the levelling-up White Paper’s missions on education, skills, wellbeing, living standards, health and life expectancy. As Anna Taylor, chief executive of the Food Foundation, has said:

“If the Government wants to really get to grips with the issue, a comprehensive approach to levelling-up must tackle food insecurity head on.”

Accepting this simple and cost-neutral amendment would signal that this Government accept, at long last, that people are going hungry on their watch and that they are prepared to do something about it. I sincerely hope the Minister has carefully considered my amendments, and I look forward to his response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields on tabling these two really important amendments, which it is right for this Committee and the Government to consider. I want to reflect on the source of food poverty and some of the challenges we face.

Fifty years ago, 20% of household income was spent on food, roughly speaking. Today, again roughly speaking, that figure is 10%. That is not a comment on our leaving the European Union; it is an observation that over the past 40-odd years the UK has effectively subsidised food without ever really debating whether that was a good thing or the correct policy. The fact that direct allocation of funding to food production in this country is being phased out is going to have an impact on the price of food, and if we care about levelling up within and between communities, and about tackling poverty and all the consequences that the hon. Lady has rightly mentioned, we are surely going to care about that impact.

I wonder whether Ministers consider that ensuring the United Kingdom does what it can to tackle the rising cost of food, not least by being able to produce more of it itself, is part of their brief and their mission. It depends on who one believes, but about 55%, roughly speaking, of the food that British people eat is produced in the United Kingdom. If we are moving away from a form of direct payments to farmers and towards payments for producing public goods—which, in principle, I am in favour of—we need to be mindful of what the consequences will be. As the Government seek to withdraw direct payments for farmers as they move towards their new scheme, unless they do so well and carefully, there will be consequences. We will see fewer farmers and less food produced, which will have an impact on the price of food on supermarket shelves across this country.

Also, when levelling up our own country, we surely do not want to be responsible for adding to global poverty in the process. If we by accident or design reduce the amount of food we produce as a country, we will add not only to need in our country, but to our demand for food imported from other countries. Getting on for 100% of the grain consumed by people in north Africa and the middle east comes from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, so we can see a huge problem there. The United Kingdom fishing in the same market as north African and middle eastern countries for its food—food that we could be producing ourselves—is a reminder that if we, by accident or design, produce less food ourselves, we are actively putting the world’s poorest people in an even more marginal position.

I am keen for the Minister to accept the hon. Lady’s amendments and to consider the impact of levelling up as a whole, not just on the poorest people in our communities, but across the world.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields on her amendments and the powerful case she made for them. I agreed with her completely. She is absolutely right that there will be no levelling up if we have hunger in our communities. Just as a child cannot do much hungry, in our communities people will not be able to access those better opportunities that we hope for them, and that we believe levelling up will drive for them, if they are hungry. Measures in her Food Insecurity Bill would do much to tackle such issues. I hope the Minister is minded to reflect on that.

My hon. Friend’s points about the obesity strategy were well made. That is a salutary case, which tells us a little about some of the risks ahead with levelling up. A year ago, I was the shadow Minister in that area, and that strategy was the big priority of the day for the Government—“Don’t worry about us. We’re going to drive that forward and it will make all the difference”—because at the time the Prime Minister had personal investment in it. Now the Prime Minister’s personal focus is considerably elsewhere from whether the nation is overweight. As a result, a number of things have been dropped—every Sunday we find out which more have been dropped—perhaps in recognition of political considerations, rather than public health ones. That is what we risk with levelling up, if we do not get such things on the face of the Bill, instead relying on good will and trust, which today there might be plenty of, but tomorrow different people will be in our chairs and the agenda will have moved on. That is important.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the points he is making, and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. A bigger point should be made: while the second sustainable development goal is clearly for zero hunger, the first goal is for no poverty. Here we have a matrix of 17 ambitions that will, in effect, level up areas across the world. We are talking about having levelling-up missions. Given that the Government are way off target on many of the SDGs, first, is there not a risk that we might well be repeating that exercise in the levelling-up agenda and, secondly, with two sets of matrices, should they not be integrated so that the levelling-up missions can be mapped on to the SDGs?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. If as a nation we are genuinely seeking to do both those things—as I hope the Minister will say that we are—they need to be done together. As my hon. Friend said, they should be mapped on to each other, so that the actions that we will talk about shortly drive the activity and the outputs that we all want to see.

Turning to the amendments, and reflecting on the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields and for York Central, it is important to state that the sustainable development goals are for all of us. They are not a worthy set of indicators and actions held at a global level that apply to those around the world who have the least and need the most support; they are analogous to levelling up in the sense that they apply around the world and in every community in some way, even if that way is different. Climate, for example, is an area to which we all need to contribute in our different ways, yet all of us will benefit. Those with the most, of which we are one, might have the best means to make the strongest contribution.

We hope that, with all our resources and wealth in this country, we would not need to worry about goal 2, on ending hunger, but actually we do, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields set out. FareShare estimates that one in 10 of the UK’s population—nearly 7 million—struggle to get enough food. Goodness me, what does that say about us? Similarly, one of the developments over the last 12 years of this Government has been rampant food bank expansion. My hon. Friend mentioned the number of food banks. It is also startling to look at the number of three-day parcels. In 2010-11, 61,500 people used Trussell Trust foodbanks for a three-day parcel. Last year, that was nearly 2.2 million people. Even if we go back to before the pandemic and all the impact it had on people’s lives, it was still 1.9 million people—an extraordinary expansion.

That is the legacy of the last 12 years and having an unbalanced economy, poorly thought-out welfare and essentially zero wage growth. That is what we are left with and what we seek to level up from, and actually that is what will make our work here much harder. It is present in all our communities and, frankly, all of us should be very angry about it—I know I am.

If we are levelling up, surely we are addressing hunger, and amendment 29 would be a welcome way of doing so. If we are going to do that, and I reference previous discussions, we need to be honest about the scale of the problem. Amendment 30 does that well. The level of denial across the Government on this issue is staggering. Hunger is happening every day, and it is avoidable. Reading the same tired, discredited stats about it, which the Prime Minister will do tomorrow at Prime Minister’s questions, and saying, “We’ve never been doing so well economically,” will not do, frankly. We need to be honest, and amendment 30 would do that. This pair of amendments would move us forward considerably, and I hope the Minister is minded to listen.

Let me start by addressing some of the wider and important points made by the hon. Member for South Shields and then move on to the narrower issue of the amendment. The hon. Member made an impassioned speech and some important observations about the big differences between life expectancy in different parts of the country. The differences were also highlighted in our White Paper. We are doing a number of things to directly tackle those problems, both on the income side that she talked about and the health side.

With regard to help for poorer households, the universal credit taper rate cut will help lower-income families keep more of their earnings. It makes nearly 2 million households about £1,000 better off if they work full time. The increase in the national living wage introduced by this Government makes full-time workers about £1,000 better off, and as it goes up towards two thirds of medium earnings, it will be one of the highest minimum wages in the world. We are investing about £1.1 billion over this spending review for employment support for the sick and disabled, and we have the £1 billion support fund for those households that are most in need during this difficult period.

We are all keen to do everything we can to try to reduce the reliance on foodbanks. That is why we have reviewed the role of sanctions in the benefit system. There will always be sanctions and rules in the benefit system, but we need to ensure that they are proportionate and avoid people unnecessarily finding themselves without benefits. We have expanded free school meals to all five to seven-years-olds, benefiting about 1.3 million children. We have spent £24 million on extending school breakfasts.

We are taking action on the health side of the ledger. The introduction of the soft drinks industry levy—the sugar tax, as some call it—has led to the average person consuming the equivalent of one fewer 250 ml sugary drink per week. It has been a huge success, and one of the most successful of its kind anywhere in the world. Through the forthcoming health disparities White Paper, we will continue to go further on that issue. Community diagnostic facilities will be a part of the story, as well as the overall increase in NHS investment. There are a lot of things happening on the vital agenda that the hon. Lady talked about.

Likewise, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made a profound point: the fundamental questions of food security and production, and the way they have been framed for the last 40 years, have changed. There is now a global under-supply challenge. He was quite right to say that that must make us rethink, and that is why we are investing heavily in our farm transition plan, spending about £270 million on innovation to help farming communities and farmers. However, there was a bigger and more profound point in what he said.

The hon. Member for York Central talked about the need to integrate the agendas of the sustainable development goals and the levelling-up missions. We are doing that, although in a different way from that suggested in the amendments. The country is committed to delivery of the UN sustainable development goals by 2030, including the goal to end hunger and ensure access by all people to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.

The Bill is designed to establish the framework for missions, not the content of the missions themselves. The framework provides ample opportunity to scrutinise the substance of the missions against a range of Government policies, including the sustainable development goals and health data. All Departments are responsible for aspects of the sustainable development goals that relate to their respective remits. Departments articulate how they are working towards those goals in their outcome delivery plans.

The last outcome delivery plan from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office included information that is relevant to the goals raised in the amendments. The next iteration of those departmental outcome delivery plans will also include information about how Departments are working towards their levelling-up mission. Those documents will simultaneously address progress on the UN missions and on our levelling-up mission, so we will have an integrated view. We think that is the appropriate place in which to make the link mentioned by the hon. Member for York Central between levelling-up missions and the UN sustainable development goals.

Mission 7, which addresses healthy life expectancy, is already linked to nutrition and food. The Government’s food strategy, for example, committed to reducing the healthy life expectancy gap between local areas, where it is highest and lowest, by 2030; to adding five years to healthy life expectancy by 2035, as I said earlier; to reducing the proportion of the population who live with diet-related illnesses; and to committing to increasing the proportion of healthier food that is sold. In its forthcoming health disparities White Paper, the Department of Health and Social Care will set out missions to address, among other things, diet-related ill health.

All those measures will feed through to healthy life expectancy data, which already underpins the health mission. As a consequence, the amendment is unnecessary, so I ask the hon. Member for South Shields to withdraw it.

I will keep my comments brief as I do not wish to detain the Committee too long.

The Minister listed ways in which the Government are helping, but I politely remind him that people on universal credit have a five-week wait with no money at all. Pensions, benefits and wages are nowhere near keeping pace with inflation. The fact that the Government have had to put in emergency support funds to help families is indicative of their failure to help the hardest hit for such a long time.

I will not press the amendments to a vote on this occasion, but this is not the last time I will talk about this topic in Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 14, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—

“(2A) The first statement of levelling-up missions must include—

(a) a requirement to improve pay, employment and productivity of every UK region by 2030, with the gap between the top performing and other areas closing,

(b) a requirement to increase domestic public investment in Research and Development outside the Greater South East by at least 40% by 2030 and at least one-third over the Spending Review period,

(c) a requirement by 2030 to improve local public transport connectivity across the UK with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing,

(d) a requirement by 2030 for there to be nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the majority of the population,

(e) a requirement by 2030 the number of primary school children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths to have significantly increased so that in England 90% of children will achieve the expected standard, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas will have increased by over a third,

(f) a requirement that by 2030 the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have significantly increased in every area of the UK,

(g) a requirement that by 2030 the gap in Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE) between local areas where it is highest and lowest will have narrowed, and by 2035 HLE will rise by 5 years,

(h) a requirement that by 2030, well-being will have improved in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing,

(i) a requirement that by 2030 people’s satisfaction with their town centre and engagement in local culture and community, will have risen in every area of the UK, with the gap between the top performing and other areas closing,

(j) a requirement that by 2030, renters will have a secure path to ownership with the number of first-time buyers increasing in all areas; and for the number of non-decent rented homes to have fallen by 50%, with the biggest improvements in the lowest performing areas,

(k) a requirement that by 2030 homicide, serious violence, and neighbourhood crime will have fallen, focused on the worst-affected areas,

(l) a requirement that by 2030, every part of England that requests one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement, and

(m) a requirement to build Northern Powerhouse Rail, a high-speed rail line, between Leeds and Manchester.”

This amendment would require the statement of levelling-up missions to include the levelling-up missions detailed in the Levelling Up White Paper.

One of the quirks of the Bill is that although the Government have kept their commitment to enshrining levelling-up missions in law, they have not enshrined “the” levelling-up missions in law. Clause 1 states only that a Minister of the Crown will set out those missions at some point, but there is no sense of what that means, so I want to explore that and hear from the Minister about it.

So much effort, light and heat went into heralding the new dawn of the levelling-up mission, and into the release of the White Paper and all the press releases—each releasing a bit of the same information every time—and so much work went on in the Chamber, including all the oral questions, but all we ever hear about is the Secretary of State and those missions that drive him out of bed every morning; he cannot do anything but those missions. They are the whole reason we are here—the centrepiece of the Government’s domestic agenda—but they are completely absent from the Bill.

Indeed, the Minister himself nearly fell into that very trap in the debate on amendment 13, when he addressed a point from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central and said, on one of the missions she is very enthusiastic about, “That is why we are putting it into the Bill.” In fact, we are doing no such thing. We are not putting anything into the Bill. We are putting missions into the Bill, but there is no sense or prescription of what they are. The Committee is being asked to fly blind and trust that these will be very good things that really ought to be the focus of the Government of the day, but we just do not know what they are.

That is compounded by the fact that we are also working without an impact assessment. I raised that point on Second Reading, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), when she asked the Minister for Housing, who was winding up the debate, to confirm that an impact assessment will be published and when that would happen. The Minister responded:

“Yes, there will be, and it will come at the second stage of Committee.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2022; Vol. 715, c. 914.]

I am not quite sure what “the second stage of Committee” means in that context, but I do know that we do not have an impact assessment now. We are in a really odd situation where the Government are telling us that they have this centrepiece domestic commitment to levelling up that will right all the wrongs of everything they have done over the past 12 years—“Don’t worry, we’ll get this right now!”—but they cannot even tell us what impact it will have.

I put it to the Minister—hopefully he will tell me I am wrong—that none of this will make much of a difference, will it? The Government want to enshrine the missions in law, but the Minister cannot even say what they are. The Government want to change the missions themselves without the engagement of Parliament. They set them for five-year cycles, but they want to be able to move away from that, too. They do not want any independence in the system either—we have had that debate already.

This legislation is light and substance-less. Both the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and myself have been criticised by the Secretary of State for saying, “Is this it?” when it comes to this agenda. However, once again, we are left to ask, “Is this it?” There seems to be no substance to the legislation; there is certainly no demonstration of it. I hope the Minister can address that.

In the absence of even the most basic analysis of what the Government themselves think they are going to deliver, we are being told that they ought to be left unfettered by ministerial decree to set the direction for levelling up. However, they cannot even tell us what they are seeking to achieve. That seems so odd and indicative of qualified commitment; we hear of strong commitment, but this is qualified commitment.

Amendment 14 is not the most elegant amendment that I have ever managed, but it seeks to address the issue that I have outlined. It does nothing more than add back to the Bill the Government’s own levelling-up missions—plus another of their centrepiece commitments that they have discarded along the way, because it was in my mind. Those commitments were important enough for the White Paper, so I think they might be important enough for us to have a quick look at them today. I will not go through them all.

The amendment would add back in a commitment to improve the pay, employment and productivity of every region in the UK by 2030, while closing the gaps between the best and worst off. We know from the recent Resolution Foundation report that, outside of London, no progress has been made in this area during my adult lifetime. In fact, this lack of overall income change hides growing gaps in investment and self-employment income, driven by richer households in London and the south-east. The report also found that the Government’s investment plans will not move the dial on this issue. Again, it is perhaps no surprise that that commitment is not on the face of the Bill.

The second commitment is to research and development investment. The Minister made reference to research and development spending outside the south-east to at least three different witnesses that I can think of, and he has referenced it in two debates we have had so far. We support him in this venture, as it is really important. Why is the commitment not in the Bill? I cannot imagine that will change. When he mentioned it earlier, he talked about it in the context of the spending review period and the fact that that spending review will end at some point. Surely, the one-third element at least will be met in that time and the 40% element will be met by 2030. Otherwise, why has it been set so often?

Moving on a little, it is, perhaps, not a huge surprise that pledges around education, healthy life expectancy and wellbeing no longer feature in the legislation, given the record over the last decade. We will have plenty of time to talk housing, but that is not much better either.

I had hoped we would be able to probe the commitments, if they were on the face of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister will give us a commitment or a direction of travel on that. It might save us the bother of drafting a new clause, if we heard a commitment that the Minister and his colleagues were going to make levelling-up missions a statutory objective of the Homes and Communities Agency—Homes England to its friends. Indeed, they might be minded to say that all non-executive agencies that sit under the Department will have levelling up as one of their core missions. I hope the Minister can address that point. Then at the end of the amendment, we also make reference to Northern Powerhouse Rail—an oft-promised, core part of the levelling-up programme that has been downgraded too.

Those missions are not my words; they are the Government’s own words. It is their Bill. I find it is quite strange that the two do not meet. The Minister will make his case. It could be that he feels the missions do not need to be explicitly in the Bill. Perhaps, as we heard in earlier debates, the priorities will change. Amendment 14 only mandates the first statement. In fact, it only mandates that on the very first day of the levelling-up programme, the Government ought to be keeping the promises they made so publicly when they committed to the agenda. I think it is reasonable for the Opposition, Parliament and the British people to expect that on at least the first day of levelling up, the Government demonstrate that they will do the things they say they will do.

I am not inclined to withdraw the amendment, but I will hear the case made. We want at least to hear a cast-iron, on the record and to the letter—frankly, to the comma—commitment that, following Royal Assent, the missions referred to in the first statement made under clause 1 will be identical to the missions in the White Paper, down to each semicolon and full stop. I cannot see the case for diverging. The Minister can avoid all that by accepting the amendment. We would all be better off if he did.

I thank my hon. Friend for his opening remarks on amendment 14, which I wholeheartedly support. I want to talk first about the importance of the Bill. There are 325 pages about levelling up, yet not a mention of the indices that the levelling-up agenda will be focused around. That seems somewhat bizarre when they are so fundamental to addressing the inequalities and disparities across the country. Therefore, it is crucial that in clause 1 of the Bill we talk about what we are going to be focusing on.

The National Health Service Act 1946—right up to the Lansley changes in 2012—talked about all the areas in which healthcare would be delivered. When that was taken out, we suddenly saw a postcode lottery. I certainly do not want to see postcode lotteries around levelling up, because that would defeat the objective of the exercise. I believe it is really important to sew the missions into the Bill, so that we know what we are focusing on. I appreciate that the Minister may want to consider some of them again, so I will come on to that shortly.

Earlier today, I talked about the drivers to levelling up and their importance. We heard in evidence about the cluster economy, and I have talked much about the levelling up that that will bring to my city. The economic investment would bring inward investment and booming research in academia around those key cluster pieces, creating jobs, opportunities and skills. That will have a substantial impact on people’s income and ability to have agency in our society. It will also address the grotesque inequalities and injustices across all our communities.

We heard the Minister earlier listing off the Government investments. It is not just about capital spend. It has to be about revenue spend. Revenue spend, which we have seen from other funding sources, has a significant impact on shifting inequalities. I think about the skills agenda and other areas. I trust that we will have the right focus when we look at where to place those investments to accelerate opportunity for our constituents.

Sitting within the employment framework is the transport framework, which we had a discussion about earlier. In amendment 14, proposed new paragraphs (c) and (m) demonstrate the difference that good transport infrastructure could make to where investment goes and how that relates to communities. For example, the distance between York and Hull is just 37.1 miles, and yet the fastest train takes 54 minutes and the average journey is one hour and eight minutes. If those two cities were connected by better transport links, the bioeconomy of York could fire the energy and fuel economy of the Humber and vice versa. We would then start seeing real intersectionality and those economies would be more than the sum of their parts. We would then start to see opportunities coming to areas of significant deprivation in Hull, and to my city of York. Such connectivity is crucial, which is why I welcome the aims of the amendment.

If we think about London, we see how easy it is to connect over such distances, and we see its booming economy. The evidence pays out: where the infrastructure is lacking, that impacts on the opportunities otherwise available. I say that about the hard-core transport infrastructure, but the same could be said about the digital infrastructure. The further people are from urban cores, particularly from London, and particularly in rural areas, the weaker the digital infrastructure.

Let me turn to proposed new paragraphs (e) and (f). A skills economy is important to the creation of a stronger economy. Higher York is an initiative that brings together the two further education colleges as well as the two universities and together they are working to build the economy of York. I hope that the Minister can start seeing the pieces of the jigsaw come together as the cluster economy, the skills and the transport infrastructure have the multiplier effect. The amendments are so crucial to Labour because we want to ensure that we are building the picture as opposed to pieces of it being in different places. This is about the connectivity between them.

Proposed new paragraphs (g) and (h) relate to the physical and mental health of our communities. I want to draw on the work of Professor Sir Michael Marmot. I am sure that we all are familiar with the work that he has conducted over a significant time, which has demonstrated that economic disparity is the greatest contributor to health inequality. Alongside that work is that of Dame Carol Black and the epidemiologists Professor Kate Pickett and Professor Richard Wilkinson. They have made the case to demonstrate how living in particular regions and nations determine people’s life chances, and in turn that disparity dictates people’s opportunities in some many different respects.

If we look across the nation, we know that in 2010 the disparity in male life expectancy in the most deprived areas of England was 10.3 years. I have to say that that disparity has shortened and that the gap for women is now 8.3 years. Those are important indicators, and that is why a measurement of life expectancy should be included in the Bill—so that we can focus on what can be achieved from it. Just in York, I know that there is eight-year life expectancy gap between those who live in Copmanthorpe and Wheldrakes and those who live in Clifton and Westfield—affluence versus poverty. We know that is a driver of other negative factors.

On top of people’s wellbeing, their satisfaction in their own local community is also important. That is why proposed new paragraph (i) is so important. I know that the Professor Kate Pickett has been looking at the inequality of power. I hope much of the Bill will address that inequality, although I have some concern about that.

Our constituents are not able to determine their destiny. They do not have agency or a voice in the future of their communities, and that includes decisions about the type of housing being built and whether it is for external investors to buy, as opposed to being for them to have a foothold. We must look at this point of agency and opportunity in order to build satisfaction. When people are happier, that builds identity and pride in place, which is important for the wider cultural context of society, so this is an important thing to hardwire into the legislation.

I recognise proposed new paragraph (j) talks about housing security. I am sure we will talk about that a lot over the course of the coming months, because it is too important not to keep bringing up. I know the impact it is having on my communities, with more and more people being pushed out and their identity and opportunities being taken away. It is important to draw on what we heard in the evidence sessions about that, and from our own experience, as we seek to amend the Bill. I trust the Minister will be more open to amendments as we work through the Bill, because it is crucial that we get this right. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us in this place and for our constituents, as they seek the main thing that is important for future stability.

Publicly funded projects should not suck money out of a locality, but regrettably that is what is happening. They take land for profit and leave little by way of legacy, frustrating the opportunity such projects have to make an impact in a local area. In future debates, I will refer a lot to York Central, where public land and public money does not guarantee either levelling up or public good. As a result, we want to see significant change in the legislation to ensure that we are maximising our public assets to benefit communities. Housing is such an example.

External investors will purchase luxury developments on the York Central site, and Homes England has indicated that the area could well turn into “Airbnb Central” in the middle of York, fuelling the hen and stag economy we are trying to steer away from, while denying people in my city the chance to get a franchise into housing. Even worse, the situation is heating up the housing market, meaning that it is running away from people in my community. That is why I hope we can bring the significant change we need to the legislation.

When the Government invest in projects, we want to ensure that they level up communities and provide opportunity. That is why these clauses are so important. They are looking at the housing context but they focus on optimising the social, economic and environmental benefits for communities, and we heard much in the evidence session to support that.

I am glad that the Government have recognised the importance of criminal justice and, I trust, will address such issues through a public health approach. To break the cycle of crime, we need proper investment in communities. The work of Professors Pickett and Wilkinson draws attention to how socioeconomic disadvantage pushes people into criminality. Therefore, it is important for us to look at how we disaggregate that to ensure the right interventions are put in place to draw people out of that environment and into a safer place.

Proposed new paragraph (l) addresses the disparities in devolution, which we will explore later in the Bill. It is really important that we look at that. Part 2 focuses on the different powers that combined county authorities are going to be able to draw down. Of course, our local communities’ existing powers are often drawn up and taken away, as opposed to more powers being given. Disparities in the powers of the CCAs start to mean that we are not talking about levelling up, because they have different authorities, controls and abilities to invest.

I want to draw on the thoughtful contribution from Dr Benwell last week. He made a compelling case about natural capital and the environment when it comes to levelling up, and how they play a central role in levelling up and life enhancements. I hope that the Government will reflect on his evidence and consider how nature and the environment, alongside our heritage, culture and the arts—we also heard evidence on that—have a significant role to play in the levelling-up agenda. It is not in this amendment, nor within the Government’s missions, but I hope that the Minister will reflect on the opportunity to bring that forward. The climate challenge is the most important issue facing us all, and our natural environment gives so much back to us and will therefore certainly enable us to level up.

This amendment is essential to ensure that we have a clear understanding of what the legislation is about and a context in to focus its work, and so that we are able to deliver exactly what the people of our country need in order to level up.

I hope that I can make the hon. Member for Nottingham North happy—that is my main goal in life—but I do have to point out that there is a tension at the heart of the amendment. On the one hand, he wants us to commit to saying that our levelling-up missions will be the levelling-up missions, but his amendment changes those missions in a number of ways, to add in, as he said, various things that were in his mind at the time as he was drafting it. He said he could not see the case for diverging from the levelling-up missions and I agree, which is why we will not be able to accept this amendment, which seeks to change the missions.

We have said on numerous occasions that the missions in the White Paper are our missions for levelling up and uniting the country. It has always been the Government’s intention—this is where I hope I can make the hon. Member happy—that the first such statement would contain the missions from the levelling-up White Paper. If that is the intent of the amendment, I am happy to say that I can reconfirm that that is what we are doing here.

The hon. Member also asked about public bodies. As he will probably remember, we committed in the White Paper to introduce a requirement for public bodies to have an objective of reducing geographical variations where they are relevant to their business area. The Treasury and Cabinet Office are taking that objective forward as part of the public bodies reform programme. That work is ongoing.

It is not that we disagree with some of the objectives in the amendment; we want to stick to the missions that we set out in the White Paper, rather than change them via the amendment. For example, it is worth picking up his point about Northern Powerhouse Rail, a project that is hugely dear to my heart, and the hon. Member for York Central also made an important point. When we make these huge improvements and major investments, particularly in the section between Leeds and Manchester, the benefits radiate out to a much wider area—everywhere from York to Liverpool, up to the north-east and across, for those of us coming up from the midlands as well.

The wider story about what happened with rail in the north is that we inherited a situation where the rail franchise for the north had been let in 2004 on a no-growth basis, based on pessimistic assumptions about growth in the north. As a result, we had this scenario where someone would be at the top of the escalators in Leeds station looking down on a “Ben-Hur”-style crowd of a huge number of people, and a tiny train with two carriages would turn up and they would all try to cram on it. It was unsatisfactory, and we put that right in subsequent franchises.

We also had the infamous Pacer trains from my childhood still rattling around the north, giving northerners a second-class rail service. I am glad to say that, through ministerial direction, we got rid of those unsatisfactory trains and now have sleek bullet trains running the trans-Pennine service. Of course, we are now going further through the integrated rail plan and building an entirely new line between Warrington and Marsden as part of the £96 billion investment, which will cut journey times between Leeds and Manchester from 55 minutes to 33 minutes.

As part of the wider investments, we will cut journey times between Leeds and Bradford from 20 minutes to 12 minutes, and there will also be big improvements between the midlands and the north. For example, journey times between Leeds and Birmingham will go from 118 minutes to 79 minutes, but the improvements go right across the north. It is not that we do not share the exciting objective to improve northern rail, as first set out in the then Chancellor’s speech in 2014, but we want to do the other thing that the shadow Minister asked us to do, which is to stick to our levelling-up missions, as worked out with great care in the White Paper. That is why we oppose the amendment.

To take on some of the wider points that have been made, it is true that missions may need to evolve over time, and we may talk more about this in subsequent parts of today’s session. If the missions were to appear in legislation—I know that the amendment talks only about the first statement—the process to adjust them in the future would become unhelpfully rigid and time-consuming, potentially meaning that they would not be revised and would become less relevant to policy. Previous Governments have known this too, as public service agreements were not set out in law but were still a powerful tool to organise Government policy.

Flexibility is about ensuring that missions remain relevant and ambitious. Missions should ratchet up, not down, as performance improves. For example, fantastic progress is being made towards the gigabit broadband mission, with more than two thirds of homes and businesses covered—up from single-digit figures just a couple of years ago—so it may well be appropriate to increase the ambition of that mission in the future as our certainty levels increase.

None of the missions we talked about earlier is necessarily bound by the spending review period, so they will need changing over time. As drafted, the Bill gives Parliament and the public the opportunity to scrutinise the missions when the statement of levelling-up missions is laid. The hon. Member for Nottingham North implied that there would be subtle changes without anyone debating them, but we would have to make a statement to Parliament, so Parliament will debate them; there is no lack of transparency whatsoever. I hope that by recommitting to our levelling-up missions, I have put his mind at ease, and I hope that I have also explained why we oppose the amendment, which would change our levelling-up missions.

I am grateful to colleagues for their responses. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central made a good point about focus, but she also mentioned revenue spending, which I know is something that Ministers understand. That is part of understanding that these things will be not just a priority of the day, but a priority for the years ahead, which means having them written down. I asked only for a day, but I am sure we could a little better than that. There is still a strong case for them to be there in statute for all to see.

My hon. Friend also mentioned York to Hull, and the arguments that she made are similar to arguments that I could make about Nottingham to Leicester or Coventry, but they also make me think of other broken rail promises. The midland main line electrification has been announced, unannounced and re-announced so many times, and HS2 involves broken promises. The Minister talked about these being programmes delivered from first promises in 2014, but the reality is that it feels like some of the promises are coming on Pacer trains up to the north, and they do not all get there. That is what leaves me with a slight lack of confidence.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central talked about the laying of the jigsaw, which was an elegant way to put it. That is what we are trying to do here. It is not a series of disparate engagements, but one collective one. She also talked about Marmot, and that is why we should put things in law rather than just have reviews and advisory exercises. If we spent the time implementing Marmot that we have spent debating the outcomes—and not seemingly disagreeing very much—goodness me, we would be levelling up from a much higher platform.

My hon. Friend made a point about the environment, Dr Benwell’s evidence was so important. It is one of those little things that I wish I could just click my fingers and do for my community. I represent the outer estates of a big city which, like many cities in the midlands and the north, is surrounded by country parks and former pits, and there are so many that we cannot get to from the estate because there is no way of getting in. I wish we could just do those things. Those are the kinds of simple interventions that would really make a difference if we really committed to them, and I am sad that we have not got that in statute.

Line 7 of the Bill says that a “statement of levelling-up missions” will be made. Obviously, that means that there is not anything in statute or in secondary legislation. This is something that Government are clearly pouring in a lot of energy and time into just to make a statement. Is that not a bit weak?

That is certainly what I had in mind when I tabled the amendment. It is not enough for me. We have already said that we are not going to have any independence in the system and are not going to be able to codify the resourcing for levelling up, and we are now being asked not even to codify what levelling up really is. It is just too much to ask.

That is an important point on which to segue to what the Minister said. He said that he seeks to make me happy, and I am very glad to hear that. I can at least reassure him that I am always happy—certainly in this place. I am also optimistic and hopeful about doing better, which is why I come to this Committee with such a spring in my step. I seek to help him to do that.

The Minister said that the Government cannot accept these amendments because they have gone through the filter of my head. I think that is a little naughty, in the sense that these are the Government’s own promises—this is not freelancing on my part—but if that were the case, he could of course have tabled his own version that is closer to the original version in the White Paper. If he did that, we would accept it and move on to the next item on the agenda. He could have done that in the published Bill or through an amendment. He has not sought to do that, so I am not sure the drafting is the issue; I think it is the point of substance.

I am grateful that the Minister committed that the first edition will be faithful to the White Paper. I appreciate that and take it as it is intended. The problem, however, is that it will not be sent to us until some point later this year—I am not sure when precisely, but it will certainly be a lot colder than it is now—and the reality is that the Minister may not be sat there in that point. There may be a reshuffle. We read that online every day. The Prime Minister has got to keep his MPs in line in some way, and he is going to have to work out how all the jobs he has offered to people, which in many cases will be the same ones, will work. Once he has done that, the Ministers will change. The Minister will be very suitable for promotion to the Cabinet—I have no doubt about that—so he is asking me to take it on trust with the person who follows him when I do not know who that person will be. As I say, the culture of the Government is not strong, and as a result I cannot accept it on that basis, so I will press the amendment to a Division.

Before I finish, I am grateful for what the Minister said about the non-exec agencies and housing. I appreciate him addressing those points.

Question put, That the amendment be made.