House of Commons
Wednesday 19 October 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Maternity and Neonatal Services in East Kent
That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, That he will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Report, dated 19 October 2022, entitled “Reading the signals: Maternity and neonatal services in East Kent—the Report of the Independent Investigation”.—(Jacob Young.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am honoured to take my first questions as Secretary of State. I ask the House to remember that Friday will mark the 56th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, which, even with the passage of time, remains searingly painful. We will never forget, and we will still mourn, all those who lost their lives.
My Department has worked alongside the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that the freeport offer works for Wales. Over the summer, we successfully agreed a prospectus for Wales with the Welsh Government, which was launched in early September. This takes us one step closer to investment, growth and long-term prosperity.
May I be the first to welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to his place and to align myself with his comments about the Aberfan disaster? I remember being taught about it in school as a child of roughly the same age: it made a deep, profound and lasting impression on me.
By making it easier and cheaper to do business, freeports drive not only local and regional growth, but national growth—growing the pie, as we have learned to call it. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give further details on how freeports in Wales can help to level up local areas and help their prosperity?
We are committed to establishing at least one freeport in Wales by the summer of next year, with £26 million in seed funding. The bidding process is still open; I am sure that we will see some excellent bids. The estimates for the Teesside freeport and Freeport East initiatives are that they will both create more than 18,000 jobs and provide a £3.2 billion boost to their local economy. I anticipate a similar boost to the Welsh economy.
I have just returned from the World Trade Organisation in Geneva as a rapporteur for the Council of Europe. There is some concern there about how freeports might undermine internationally agreed labour standards and might be a safe haven for carbon-intensive production. What meetings has the Secretary of State had with the WTO about the matter? Will he meet me about it? Can he give an assurance that there will be no reduction in labour standards and no dirty production in these freeports?
I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have enjoyed lively exchanges over the years. I assure him that in the prospectus he will see a specific reference to the Senedd’s Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Along with giving assurances as to our UK Government’s standards, I can assure him that the sort of concerns that have been outlined are unfounded and that he will find encouragement in the green initiatives that I am sure will thrive with the freeports project.
May I say on behalf of the Labour party, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), that we are all thinking of the community of Aberfan this week?
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. He must be very pleased, following his summer U-turn, that the Prime Minister has been taking daily lessons from him. The Welsh Government’s Minister for Finance and Local Government, Rebecca Evans, is now dealing with her sixth Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Can the Secretary of State explain how it is possible to progress the Welsh freeports prospectus with such an appallingly chaotic and unstable UK Government ahead of the 31 October Budget announcement?
I assure the hon. Lady that the time that I have had as Secretary of State has been time well spent. Throughout the summer, I made sure that the prospectus process for the freeports initiative was maintained. I worked with the then Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), to make that so.
I assure the hon. Lady that we have not lost a beat in my time in office. The fact that there may be changes in personnel does not change the Government’s growth strategy, which remains on course and which I think deserves the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The Budget has been ripped up and the manifesto has been ripped up, but there we go. The UK Government’s original approach was to ignore devolution and impose a freeport on Wales; the Welsh Government put a stop to that and to the harm to the environment, to workers’ rights and to Wales’s finances that it would have caused. The UK Government’s latest version of freeports appears to be investment zones. Has the Secretary of State actually seen any evidence that proves his Government’s claim that they create growth, rather than just displace it?
I find it concerning that the hon. Lady does not share my enthusiasm for freeports and investment zones. I think of examples from the past in Wales, when inspirational Secretaries of State such as the late Lord Crickhowell, Peter Walker and Lord Hunt of Wirral demonstrated that, through enterprise zones and, for example, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, the economy could be transformed and regenerated. I am confident that our approach to investment zones will ensure that Wales shares in the growing prosperity that we want to see throughout our United Kingdom. I believe it will generate more investment and grow that economic pie, which is the aspiration of this Government.
This Government have been forced to U-turn on their fundamental ideology that slashing taxes magically leads to economic growth. That same ideology underpins freeports and investment zones. Both will shrink the UK Government’s tax revenue and, in turn, the Welsh Government's budget, which is already facing a £4 billion shortfall. With inflation now over 10%, what is the Secretary of State doing in the Cabinet to protect Wales’s budget?
I yield to none in my admiration for the right hon. Lady, but she has just laid bare Plaid Cymru’s ideological approach. Her party believes that there should be an ever-shrinking share of wealth, which means that our public services would decline. We on this side of the House believe that the way in which to pay for public services is to grow our economy, and it is through initiatives such as the freeports and investment zones that we will do just that. I hope that the Welsh public will note Plaid Cymru’s ideological opposition to growth.
The Secretary of State is on record as saying that he believes it is right to make cuts in public spending—and that was before last week's multiple U-turns. According to the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, the last Tory austerity experiment led to 335,000 excess deaths. How many excess deaths is the Secretary of State prepared to justify this time round?
I am sorry, but hyperbole from the right hon. Lady does not help her case at all. We are not talking about so-called austerity; we are talking about ensuring that the money allocated in the public spending round that was agreed last year is spent efficiently and wisely. I said that it was right for each Department to look carefully at its priorities to ensure that frontline services—the sort of services in which I know she and I believe—are maintained for the benefit of the citizens whom we serve.
Cost of Living Crisis: Devolved Budget, Households and Businesses
We have taken action to support households and businesses across Great Britain, including Wales, through schemes such as the energy bill relief scheme and the £400 energy bill rebate. The Welsh Government have been very well funded to deliver their devolved responsibilities, with the largest ever block grant of £18 billion in the 2021 spending review.
The Secretary of State’s U-turn during the Tory leadership election was indeed truly eye-catching, but the U-turn about which people in Wales are most concerned at the moment is the Government’s U-turn on properly protecting benefits and pensions against skyrocketing inflation. Will the Minister be U-turning on that commitment as well, or will he fight the good fight in favour of proper uprating?
This Government will always be committed to supporting the least well off, which is why we have come forward with schemes such as the £650 payment for those on benefits, the £300 for pensioner households and the £150 for those who are disabled. If the hon. Gentleman is really worried about the cost of living, perhaps it is time he persuaded his Government to start supporting new nuclear and the new oil and gas fields that we so desperately need for the energy that people want.
I have just come from chairing the all-party parliamentary group on poverty, which has heard that the cost of living crisis will exacerbate the digital divides experienced by so many people in poorer communities. Will the Minister agree to meet the APPG to discuss how that affects people in Carmarthenshire, in Carmyle, and throughout these islands?
I meet stakeholders who are dealing with poverty all the time, but if the hon. Gentleman is interested in dealing with poverty, perhaps he will be able to find out from his own Scottish National party Government why poverty levels in Scotland are rising, and why even the Labour party in Wales is making a better job of dealing with child poverty than his Government.
The Secretary of State loves to tell a good story, does he not? The UK Government have already slashed devolved budgets by billions this financial year, and on Monday the Chancellor announced that plans for the millions of pounds that were meant to go to devolved nations for cost of living support were now to be abandoned. How does the Secretary of State think that slashing devolved budgets supports the supposed levelling-up agenda?
The hon. Lady gave me a bit of a promotion there; I am the Minister, not the Secretary of State. I am not telling stories. The figures about child poverty in Scotland come from Audit Scotland, which is responsible to the Scottish Government. I suggest that she takes a look at the other figures, which show that far from cutting Wales’s devolved budget the UK Government have increased it every single year, and did so by £2 billion in the last financial year.
Hundreds of thousands will find themselves in fuel poverty should average energy costs rise next April to the estimated £4,347 a year, as a result of the Government rowing back on their own proposals. How can the Minister claim that his party is fighting the cost of living crisis, when his Government are cutting back on the few measures that they have announced before they are even implemented?
I am afraid that I did not hear all of the question, but I believe the hon. Gentleman mentioned fuel poverty. I remind him again that the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that people in this country can access the cheap gas, cheap electricity and cheap petrol that they need. It is members of his Government in Scotland who are doing their best to prevent that from happening.
In welcoming the contributions from our friends from the Scottish National party to Wales questions, may I politely remind them that in March 2020 the Government stepped in to save thousands of businesses in every single one of our constituencies, protecting hundreds of thousands of jobs? Does that not demonstrate the value of staying part of a strong United Kingdom, and that the Government do not walk away from serious challenges but meet them head on?
Nearly 60% of my constituents on Ynys Môn rely on off-grid energy for heating. The average cost of filling an oil tank has almost doubled in the last year. On behalf of my constituents, will the Minister look at more targeted support for those on off-grid heating and liquefied petroleum gas?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Government have already come through with a £100 payment for those who are off-grid, but I believe that there are genuine issues there, and she makes a very good point. I am sure that our colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury will look carefully at what she has said.
The Minister referred to the significant increases in the Welsh block grant over the past 10 years, which equate to £120 for every £100 spent in England. In spite of that very fair settlement, accepted and recognised by the Welsh Government, health waiting lists are longer, education standards are falling compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, and the economy is growing at a much slower pace. Does he agree that the Welsh Government need to focus on the right priorities: investing in public services and getting value for money?
My right hon. Friend was responsible for ensuring that the Welsh Government got a more generous package than they had previously—£1.20 for every £1 spent in England. It is therefore very hard to understand why, under a Welsh Labour Government, health service waiting lists and ambulance response times have got longer. People have lower standards of healthcare in Wales than they do under a Conservative-run NHS in England, and Welsh Labour needs to take responsibility for that.
Rail Infrastructure Funding
The Secretary of State and I regularly engage with Cabinet Ministers on a range of transport measures. Over £340 million has already been provided for rail enhancements in Wales, including at Cardiff Central station and for the electrification of the Severn tunnel.
HS2 is of course a UK-wide project, which is partly being brought forward in order to enable the maximum number of people to get out of their cars and on to the trains, to use public transport, which I hope the Liberal Democrats would fully support. At the same time, the UK Government have been spending money to improve not only the rail service in Wales but rail services for travellers who go from Wales into England, such as through the Severn tunnel electrification. The UK Government have an extremely good record on supporting railways in Wales.
Avanti trains sometimes trundle along the rail infrastructure of north Wales, but these days it is an increasingly infrequent occurrence. Avanti has provided a shockingly poor service to the people of north Wales, and many of my constituents were deeply unhappy when the Department for Transport decided to extend its franchise for a further six months to give it a further chance. Will my hon. Friend please urge his counterpart in the Department for Transport to make sure this is Avanti’s last chance?
A number of colleagues from north Wales have discussed Avanti’s performance in colourful terms, and I am sure Avanti will have listened to what my right hon. Friend has had to say, as will the Department for Transport, which I can confirm will be assessing Avanti’s performance before any further contracts are given out.
It seems that rewarding failure is this Government’s guiding principle, and even Conservative Members agree. Avanti West Coast is the worst performing operator on the rail network, but Ministers spent an eye-watering £4 million of taxpayers’ money on bonuses to company executives for
“customer experience and acting as a good operator.”
Does the Minister agree that this is simply not good enough for the businesses and people of north Wales?
I have already said that I accept many concerns have been raised about Avanti’s performance, but it all goes to show why it is important to modernise the rail network across the whole of Wales. That is exactly what the UK Government are doing at the moment.
Mortgage Interest Rate Rises
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of topics. Of course, interest rates are rightly a matter for the independent Bank of England. We have announced unprecedented support for households and businesses. Through our cut to stamp duty, the Welsh Government are expected to receive £70 million, enabling them to follow suit with cuts to land transaction tax in Wales.
At the weekend, I met a young couple in their early 30s who are coming off a five-year fixed mortgage rate. Their mortgage is going up by more than £300 a month, and they squarely blame the Government and the Prime Minister’s poor mismanagement of our economy. It is the Conservative Government’s U-turn that caused economic chaos, it is the Conservative Government who caused mortgage rates to go through the roof and it is the Conservative Government who are causing mortgage firms to withdraw all their support. Will the Secretary of State now apologise to my constituents and people across the land who are being crippled by huge mortgage increases every single month due to this Conservative failure?
It is a Conservative Government who, through Help to Buy, have helped more than 361,000 first-time buyers on to the housing ladder. It is a Conservative Government who led to unemployment at record lows. It is a Conservative Government who have increased the national living wage to £9.50 an hour. And it is a Conservative Government who will lead to interest rates being controlled, which will help mortgage holders, too. The hon. Gentleman’s hyperbole does not serve him well.
Domestic Energy Costs: Differential Between Wales and Rest of UK
Most recent data demonstrates that households in Wales pay a price broadly on par with the average across Great Britain for variable unit costs and standing charges for gas and electricity. Our energy price guarantee will save households hundreds of pounds this winter compared with current wholesale cost projections.
My constituent Mr Evans in the town of Kidwelly cannot benefit from a lower tariff for the electricity he uses in off-peak times because, as the engineers have explained to him, the smart meter he needs will not function owing to the almost non-existent mobile phone signal in the area, which is due to the UK Government’s failure to roll out mobile phone technology, while allowing smart meters that work only on mobile phone signals. Will the Secretary of State now have urgent talks with ministerial colleagues to put it right and end this discrimination?
I will be interested to take up that case in more detail with the hon. Lady. However, the Government, in acting radically on energy price intervention and with our Energy Prices Bill, which seeks to break the link between electricity and gas prices, are taking the sort of action that is absolutely necessary to help households such as her constituent. Of course, I will be happy to talk further about the particular disadvantage that her constituent faces.
Cost of Living Rise
I have frequent discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of matters, including the cost of living. As I have previously said today, we are supporting households and businesses across Wales with the cost of living challenges, including on energy costs.
People in Carmarthenshire who are off the gas grid have seen huge increases in heating costs—for oil, LPG and solid fuels. The alternative fuel payment of £100 does not seem to be equivalent to the cap for gas. Will the Minister write to Welsh MPs outlining the methodology used by the British Government to calculate the AFP rate?
I am sure that my Treasury colleagues will be able to help with that, but there is one thing that the hon. Gentleman could do as well if he wants to support people on the cost of living challenges in Wales: persuade his Plaid Cymru colleagues to vote against Welsh Labour’s proposals to revalue council tax bands in Wales, which are going to be catastrophic for the finances of hundreds of thousands of people across Wales.
The four Welsh police forces are adequately funded and will receive combined funding of up to £826.7 million in 2022-23, an increase of up to £45.1 million on the previous financial year. Gwent’s funding will be up to £159.1 million, an increase of £9.1 million on the previous financial year.
South Wales police’s area contains Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, yet it gets no extra resources for the extra responsibilities that comes with that. Will the Secretary of State make representations to his Government colleagues to address this anomaly?
South Wales police’s funding will be up to £352.5 in 2022-23, an increase of £19 million on the previous financial year. If the hon. Gentleman wants to do something to support police forces in Wales, may I suggest that he talks to the Welsh Labour Government about their failure to hand over the apprenticeship levy, which is being held back by them and should be passed on to police forces so that—[Interruption.]
Floating Offshore Wind Locations in Celtic Sea
Floating offshore wind projects in the Celtic sea will contribute to our net zero ambitions and our energy security, and will generate economic growth and create highly skilled jobs in our coastal communities. I regularly meet the Crown Estate to discuss progress on bringing forward the ambition of 4 GW of projects by 2035.
In order to realise the full potential of the Celtic sea, we need a timely consenting process from the Welsh Government. What discussions has my right hon. and learned Friend had with his Welsh counterparts on the consenting process for the development of floating offshore wind sites?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her consistent advocacy for projects in the Celtic sea as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Celtic sea. The necessity for securing timely consents is an imperative, and I will continue to work with the Welsh Government and all stakeholders to ensure that the huge opportunities that this presents are capitalised upon.
North Wales Growth Deal
The Wales Office has been fully supporting the north Wales growth deal as it begins to deliver projects on the ground, and my officials will work closely with all partners in north Wales to ensure that the deal continues to deliver growth and investment across the region.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Perhaps inevitably, not all projects initially identified for delivery through the north Wales growth deal can be progressed, and that applies to the Bodelwyddan key strategic site. Will he encourage a flexible approach to diverting the £10 million of funds that had been earmarked to Bodelwyddan to other economic development projects within Denbighshire?
Obviously, it is for Ambition North Wales to bring forward projects for the UK Government and the Welsh Government to approve, but we have taken a very flexible view of the whole thing. I assure my hon. Friend that despite the international financial problems, which all countries are facing at the moment, this Government remain absolutely committed to support jobs, driving growth and levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom, including in his constituency.
Investment Zones: Impact on Welsh Economy
The Prime Minister was asked—
When the penny dropped for the Prime Minister on Monday and she realised that her Budget was responsible for crashing the economy, she should have come to this House to explain herself and to apologise to the millions of people who will now be paying hundreds of pounds extra a month on their mortgages because of her mistakes. Now that she is here, can she tell us, given the absolute chaos that her Government have created, why the previous Chancellor lost his job but she kept hers?
I have been very clear that I am sorry and that I have made mistakes, but the right thing to do in those circumstances is to make changes, which I have made, and to get on with the job and deliver for the British people. We have delivered the energy price guarantee, we have helped people this winter, and I will continue to do that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we will abolish the top-down housing targets. We want decisions about homes and infrastructure to be driven by local people, not by Whitehall, and that is why we are setting up new, locally driven investment zones.
I have been in office for just under two months, and I have delivered the energy price guarantee, making sure that people are not paying £6,000 bills this winter; I have reversed the national insurance increase; and I have also taken steps—and we will be taking steps—to crack down on the militant unions. I think that is more of a record of action than the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his two and a half years in the job.
Last week, the Prime Minister ignored every question put to her. Instead, she repeatedly criticised Labour’s plan for a six-month freeze on energy bills. This week, the Chancellor made it her policy. How can she be held to account when she is not in charge?
Our policy is to protect the most vulnerable for two years. I had to take the decision, because of the economic situation, to adjust our policies. I am somebody who is prepared to front up. I am prepared to take the tough decisions, unlike the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who has not done anything on businesses and who has done nothing to say he will protect people after one year. He has got no plan.
Last week, the Prime Minister stood there and promised absolutely no spending reductions. Conservative Members all cheered. This week, the Chancellor announced a new wave of cuts. What is the point of a Prime Minister whose promises do not even last a week?
I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that spending will go up next year and it will go up the year after, but of course we need to get value for taxpayers’ money. The Labour party has pledged hundreds of billions in spending pledges, none of which it has retracted. He needs to reflect the economic reality in his policies.
Those spending cuts are on the table for one reason and one reason only: because the Conservatives crashed the economy. Working people will have to pay £500 more a month on their mortgages, and what is the Prime Minister’s response? It is to say that she is sorry. What does she think people will think and say: “That’s all right; I don’t mind financial ruin, and at least she apologised”?
I do think that there has to be some reflection of economic reality from the Labour party. The fact is that interest rates are rising across the world and the economic conditions have worsened. We are being honest and levelling with the public, unlike the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who simply will not do that. What is he doing about the fact that train workers are again going on strike? The fact is that he refuses to condemn the workers. We are bringing forward policies that will make sure our railways are protected and that people going to work are protected. He backs the strikers; we back the strivers.
The Prime Minister is asking me questions because we are a Government in waiting and they are an Opposition in waiting. There is no getting away from this. Millions of people are facing horrendous mortgage repayments and she has admitted that it is her fault. She should not have conducted an economic experiment on the British public. But it is not just her; Tory MPs put her there. They are keeping her there. Why on earth would anyone trust the Tories with the economy ever again?
I notice that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not actually objecting to a single economic policy that the Chancellor announced on Monday. He is refusing to condemn the strikers. We are on the side of working people. We will legislate to make sure that we keep our railways open. The right hon. and learned Gentleman refuses to do anything.
The only mandate that the Prime Minister has ever had is from Government Members. It was a mandate built on fantasy economics and it ended in disaster. The country has nothing to show for it except for the destruction of the economy and the implosion of the Tory party. I have the list here: 45p tax cut—gone; corporation tax cut—gone; 20p tax cut—gone; two-year energy freeze—gone; tax-free shopping—gone; economic credibility—gone. Her supposed best friend, the former Chancellor, has gone as well. They are all gone. So why is she still here?
I am a fighter, not a quitter. We have delivered on the energy price guarantee—[Interruption.] We have! We have delivered on national insurance. We are going to deliver to stop the militant trade unions disrupting our railways. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has no idea. He has no plan and he has no alternative.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Leigh Centurions on their return to the super league. I had the huge privilege of meeting the Lionesses last week—a fantastic team who won a major tournament for us—and we will host a Downing Street reception as soon as their training programme makes them available.
After 10 U-turns in two weeks, we are left with a Prime Minister in office but not in power, and families are paying through the teeth for her mistakes. Her latest broken promise has put pensioners in the frontline of Tory cuts. Can she perhaps turn to her Chancellor right now, get permission to make another U-turn and commit to raising the state pension at the rate of inflation?
It is not surprising that the Prime Minister’s approval ratings are collapsing with an answer like that. She has the worst polling result for any Prime Minister in history. She has just thrown 12 million pensioners under the Tory bus, and it is not just pensioners feeling the pain. In the last week alone—[Interruption.]
It is not just pensioners feeling the pain. In the last week alone, inflation has risen to a 40-year high, mortgage rates are at the highest level since the financial crash and people’s energy bills are about to rise to more than £5,000. Can the Prime Minister answer one simple question: why does she expect everyone else to pay the price for her failure?
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman can take yes for an answer. I have been clear that we are protecting the triple lock on pensions. If he is concerned about the economy, why does he continue to advocate for separatism, which would plunge the Scottish economy into chaos?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we build new houses, we need to make sure there are GP surgeries, schools and infrastructure. That is why we are introducing a new infrastructure levy to make sure that more of the money from developers goes on supporting local communities.
Millions of family carers have been forced to cut back on food and heating. One told Carers UK:
“My son is incontinent… if we don’t wash him in warm water several times a day this will cause him to physically decline. So how do we pay for the gas to heat the water if we are currently at max budget?”
Vulnerable people and carers are struggling enough already in this cost of living crisis, so will the Prime Minister guarantee that support for the vulnerable, including carer’s allowance, will rise by at least today’s inflation rate of 10.1%?
People are struggling. It is difficult at the moment. That is why we put in place the energy price guarantee to make sure the typical household is not paying more than £2,500. It is why we have supplied an extra £1,200 of support to the most vulnerable. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will always support the most vulnerable. They will be our priority.
I join my hon. Friend in thanking everybody at Brecon barracks, which organises Exercise Cambrian Patrol each year. It is a world-class training exercise. I congratulate Brecon’s Gurkha soldiers on their fantastic achievement of a gold medal—well done!
I am completely committed to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. It deals with the very specific issues we face in Northern Ireland, the free flow of trade and making sure that the people of Northern Ireland are able to benefit from being part of the United Kingdom. I can tell my right hon. Friend that any negotiations will reflect the same position that is in the protocol Bill.
We do face very difficult economic times. I have been honest about the mistakes I have made, but what I do not apologise for is the fact that we have helped households through this winter with the energy price guarantee, the fact that we have reversed the national insurance rise and the fact that we are taking action to get our railways running rather than being disrupted by the militant trade unions that the hon. Lady supports.
We are compassionate Conservatives. We will always work to protect the most vulnerable, and that is what we did with the energy price guarantee. We are going to make sure that the most vulnerable are protected into year two, and I am sure that the Chancellor has heard my hon. Friend’s representations on the contents of the medium-term fiscal plan.
I agree very strongly with my hon. Friend. I know he cares deeply about this issue. I assure him that we will consult on a robust system of local consent and give clear advice on seismic limits and safety before any fracking takes place. The consultation will consider all the relevant people—the regional Mayors, the local authorities and parishes—and the concerns of those who are directly affected. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary will say more about this later today.
I thank Julia and her team for the fantastic job that they are doing, and my hon. Friend as the local Member of Parliament. Apprenticeships are a fantastic way for people to learn and gain experience, and I am proud that we have created 5.1 million apprenticeships since 2010.
The Prime Minister’s chief of staff is in hot water after lobbying on behalf of a Libyan warlord and big tobacco. It turns out that he has also lobbied for personal protective equipment giants Sante Global. Is it wise to have a lobbyist at the centre of Government?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the fantastic work that he did as International Development Secretary. I am proud that we have rebalanced our international development budget to focus more on humanitarian aid and more on women and girls. No doubt more details will be set out in due course.
The last Tory Prime Minister was forced out after a series of dodgy dealings and failing to take responsibility for any of it, so what is this Prime Minister getting the boot for—her plan that crashed the economy or forcing fracking on communities that do not want it? Will she do the decent thing and go, and call a general election?
Every single Member of this House will have constituents waiting for treatment in the covid backlog. The Health and Social Care Secretary’s priorities are absolutely right, including her B—tackling the backlog. Can the Prime Minister reassure me that the Government are committed to the series of elective hubs that we have promised, including at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in my Winchester constituency?
My right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary has set out her plans to deliver on dealing with the covid backlog. She will continue to work on that and make sure that we deal with what was a massive pandemic that created a backlog. We will deal with it.
Since the mini-Budget, thousands of my constituents have been in mental anguish and despair. I recognise that the Prime Minister has faced a week of mental anguish and despair herself. People have been angry with her and people have mocked her. Having had that experience, what will she now do to improve the mental healthcare for people in this country, so that the anguish that they face in the coming months is properly responded to and dealt with?
My right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary has set out a clear plan of how we are going to deal with the backlog created by covid, how we are going to make sure that people get timely GP appointments, and how we are going to improve the services in our hospitals, including mental health services.
The Government are facing tough choices, but people living with dementia face unlimited care costs, and that is not a choice. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that she is committed to social care reform to end that worry and relieve pressure on the NHS?
It is always better to see a Prime Minister at her desk rather than underneath it. Now that she is here, can she tell us why, next week, this House will discuss legislation that will abolish vital protections on pension payouts, our right to watch the Olympics free of charge and airline consumer laws? How is any of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill in the British interest?
I think we have yet another example of somebody who does not want to support the British public’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016. Is it not quite incredible that, six years after people voted to leave the European Union, there are people who object to taking EU law off our statute books? Now, I am a democrat. I respect what British people voted for. I suggest the hon. Lady does the same.
Thirty years ago, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was created out of the war in Bosnia so that democracy could flourish, and freedom and prosperity come with it. This evening, in your rooms, Mr Speaker, we celebrate that anniversary by hearing directly from our country representative in Ukraine, the chair of the Taiwanese foreign affairs committee and the leader of the opposition in Uganda—a good example of the range of contacts that this great cross-party body, funded by Government, is working with. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a vital contribution by our Government and our people to democracy around the world, and will she encourage Members around the House to join us this evening?
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy does a fantastic job, and I think we know from what has happened in Ukraine—the appalling war perpetrated by Vladimir Putin—just how precious democracy is and how much we need to do to work with our friends and allies to protect democracy around the world. I do encourage colleagues from all sides of the House to attend the event tonight.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for catching your eye on this, and I seek your guidance. Yesterday, the Minister for the Americas and the Overseas Territories was, in a way, dragged to the House to answer a question about what the Government would do over the brutal attacks that took place inside a consulate in Manchester, in which Chinese representatives were assaulting an individual, and also tearing things down and creating vandalism outside.
The Minister said that the officials would be called to the Foreign Office to meet a Minister of the Crown, instead of which we discover today that they met an official, who simply rapped them over the knuckles by saying they should stand by the freedoms we have in this country. Can I therefore ask whether it is feasible for us to get the Minister back to the Dispatch Box to ask why they were not told that, if they do not follow our rules, they will get expelled, and to say that all those responsible for the assault in Manchester will be expelled from this country?
Obviously, it is not a direct matter for me, but what I would say, and I think there are many avenues that could be pursued, is that an urgent question could possibly and likely be submitted. I am not saying it would be accepted, but it could be looked on favourably, because I think we were all appalled by those images and, quite rightly, action needs to be taken.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning, the Transport Committee heard from the Transport Secretary that the Government will axe their commitment to create Great British Railways in this parliamentary Session. There has been no written statement to announce the decision, and I am not aware that an application has been made to you for an oral statement by the Secretary of State. We were expecting a transport Bill in this Session to facilitate the transition of the operations of rail to Great British Railways and to create a controlling mind for the railways out of the chaos that has existed since the Conservative Government fragmented and privatised rail in 1993. As part of the process, the former Transport Secretary launched a competition with huge fanfare for a future headquarters of the railway. Some 42 locations applied, and six were shortlisted and have expended huge amounts to win this—
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Speaker. Thousands of jobs could be at stake as a result of this matter, so could you please advise me on how I can take it forward, since the Secretary of State seems to have failed either to issue a written statement or to bring forward an oral statement to the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me notice of her point of order. She has put her point on the record, and I recognise that it is a very important issue, including for other Members. If there is an important policy development on this issue, I would expect it to be announced to this House first. I am sure that those on the Government Benches will have heard this exchange, and that the hon. Member will pursue the matter through the different avenues available to her.
On a point of order, On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a procedural matter, yesterday morning I was successful in securing a debate in Westminster Hall on the motion
“That this House has considered British passport ownership by Northern Ireland residents.”
I have taken this matter up over many years and it remains unresolved. On every other occasion that I have taken the matter up, Home Office Ministers responded, and I had hoped that the words “British passport ownership” might have given the Home Office a clue, and ensured that a Home Office Minister replied to the debate. While I was glad to have a reply from a Northern Ireland Office Minister, can you ensure, Mr Speaker, that the appropriate ministerial Department responds to such debates in future?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving notice of his point of order. The decision about which Minister should respond to a debate is unfortunately a matter for the Government rather than the Chair. I am sure, however, that those on the Government Benches will have heard those comments and will bear them in mind. I know the hon. Member will also pursue the matter through different avenues.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may be aware, Sir, that today the Government Deputy Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), has written to Conservative Members telling them with regard to the debate this afternoon on fracking that:
“This is not a motion on fracking. This is a confidence motion in the Government.”
Will you give guidance to all sides of the House, and to the Prime Minister in particular, about what would happen in the event that the Government were to lose that vote this afternoon? If the Government have lost the confidence of the House, surely—and I would be grateful for your guidance, Mr Speaker—that would mean that the Prime Minister must then go to the palace, see His Majesty the King, and ask for a dissolution of Parliament and a general election. Am I right? Will you give clarity on that?
First, I am not going to enter into a debate on internal communications. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will have had some communications of his own. That happens within in all parties, and if it doesn’t, I would be shocked. Let us not pre-judge the decision that may take place later. You asked the question because you knew the answer.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In response to some of the questions today, the Prime Minister claimed that no household would pay more than £2,500 a year. That £2,500 is an average, and therefore almost half of households will pay more. How do we go about getting the Prime Minister to correct that on the record? She said that no one would pay more, and that is incorrect.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Clearly, UK politics now more resembles Germany, with a Chancellor effectively in charge. So why was the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) answering for the Government during Prime Minister’s questions, when in fact the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) is in charge?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is further to the point of order made by the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). You are, of course, quite right that it is not for you to comment on internal communications among Conservative MPs. However, by tradition, when a motion is declared a motion of confidence by the Government, the Prime Minister makes that announcement at some point during the debate. Is there any means whereby the Prime Minister could do so today? That is how I understand it and, as I look across to the faces on the Conservative Benches, they all seem to think that it is a motion of confidence.
Historically, lots of different things have been made confidence motions, including the conduct of war and various Bills. Traditionally, every single time that happened and the Government lost, that led to a general election. Is that not just factually correct?
Energy Costs (Pre-payment Meters and Social Tariffs)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish higher standing charges for customers with pre-payment meters; to require energy companies to provide social tariffs for low income customers; and for connected purposes.
Energy costs are the social and economic issue of our time, yet the steps taken to mitigate the pain of rises are far from adequate. Fuel poverty is soaring and winter is nearing. That Scotland, which is energy rich, should find over half its people fuel poor is absurd. The pain is likewise felt south of the border, even if the climate is less severe and the natural bounty less kind. Additional action is therefore required across the country, and urgently, especially for those most desperate and most vulnerable.
The £2,500 figure is not the cap but the average cost. Past support has provided modest finance, but it has been inadequate for most to keep pace with soaring costs. As bills escalate, fear is turning to horror in the knowledge that even that support is there only until April. Beyond the Government soundbites, hardship remains, and the cost of energy will bite many severely, if not devour them. Anomalies and injustices remain, which must cease. The most appalling is the perversity of prepayment meters having higher standing charges. A social tariff for those poorest and most vulnerable, as exists in many other countries, must also be introduced. That is what lies at the heart of the Bill. It is supported by both Energy Action Scotland and National Energy Action, who know the fuel poverty faced by those whose interests they represent, as well as by Age Scotland, which advocates on behalf of older people. I am grateful for their endorsement.
Scotland, with some 500,000 prepayment meters, is disproportionally affected, but the numbers across Britain are still significant with 4 million households having higher costs imposed by PPMs. Action to address these injustices is both right and necessary as fuel and energy are not luxuries but necessities. Their implications in our modern society go far beyond heating a home. Power and energy are required for so many basic aspects of life. The inability to provide them undermines the ability to function in our society or to maintain dignity and self-respect.
Of course, a new euphemism has entered our lexicon: the phrase “self-disconnection.” It is misleading and it is insidious. It is akin to those other phrases that are meant to hide horror or injustice such as collateral damage when what is meant is the killing of innocent civilians.
What does self-disconnection mean in reality? It is not someone who simply chooses not to switch on the heating, nor does it refer to the past generational—though no doubt fast-returning—parental demands to switch off lights or turn off the shower. Instead, it is the situation in which many now find themselves where they simply cannot afford either to buy a power card or to turn on the heating or any other powered appliance. It is not voluntary. It may not be imposed through any law or enforced at the barrel of a gun, but it is forced on them through circumstances over which they have no control. That is why the Bill and the actions that it requires are necessary.
Disconnection, or more likely self-disconnection, has widespread implications that are horrific yet masked by benign euphemisms. It is not simply the horror of choosing between heating and eating this winter, although that alone is bad enough. The implications of being unable to access power go far beyond that. It is the mother who wishes to wash her children’s clothes for school, so she can keep them clean and smart. It is the youngster who needs to charge their phone to access employment opportunities they desperately seek. It is the parent who wants to power up the iPad given by the school, so that their child can improve their education and hence their life chances. It is the dialysis patient who requires to switch on the machine that they require for life itself, never mind others suffering from cancer or sick from other illnesses and who feel the cold more, yet are unable to provide, or are even denied, that modest comfort during convalescence—or even, shamefully, at end of life.
Compounding that injustice are accrued standing charges even when users have been sparing in their consumption. Many will find that their power card or savings are immediately consumed by paying debt before they get even a modicum of power. As I said, fuel and energy costs are about more than just heating or eating. They are about dignity, they are about opportunity, they are about life itself. This has not come about through some climatic disaster as has tragically afflicted Pakistan. Nor can it be blamed solely on Putin and the war in Ukraine. These are policy issues overseen by the UK Government where injustice and iniquity have been allowed to take root. Much of that can be addressed by the ending of higher standing charges for pre-payment meters, and through the implementation of a social tariff for those with the least and who are most vulnerable. After all, it is not just unjust but perverse that those with least should pay most for energy, especially when those with most are paying least in their tax burden.
I accept that some have found pre-payment meters helpful for budgeting, although the strength of that argument has been sapped, if not ended, by the arrival of smart meters. There is also the situation of private landlords who wish to ensure that they avoid costs if a tenant should depart without paying their bill. Again, smart meters offer some solution, but again the issue is not the meter itself but the tariff charged. Some 13% of smart meters are on pre-payment tariffs. Technology is meant to liberate us, not perpetuate injustice. Pre-payment meters, whether smart or otherwise, can remain. What must end are the higher standing charges and tariffs. They are simply unacceptable anytime, but most especially now.
Both Ofgem and energy suppliers testify to the technical capacity to make that change. What is required is the political will, which is why I have proposed this Bill. It has widespread support within and without Parliament. It would, of course, require a very modest tariff increase for those paying on credit, but the numbers involved, and the amount of energy consumed through PPMs, make it a very small burden upon those of us more fortunate. Likewise, a social tariff is a concept whose time has come. Ending the burden on the poorest and most vulnerable through changes to PPM tariffs must be matched by the availability of a social tariff, one where the poorest and most vulnerable can access energy and at affordable rates. It is a concept that has the support of the organisations I mentioned earlier with regard to action on pre-payment meters—Energy Action Scotland, Age Scotland and National Energy Action—and is also argued for by the Fuel Bank Foundation and Fair By Design, organisations working for those at the heart of the fuel and energy crisis who are being hit hardest.
It is not impossible, let alone unheard of—even before the current energy crisis and emergency measures being invoked, other countries provided for the poorest and most vulnerable. A federal law in Belgium
“protected residential consumers with low income or precarious situation”.
That social tariff saw almost 10% of electricity users pay 34% less and a similar number of gas users pay between 38% and 48% less. Those were the poorest and most vulnerable and certainly those facing the most acute need and difficulties. In Belgium, the social tariff covers people receiving minimum income benefits; people receiving an income replacement benefit; people with disabilities receiving integrated support; and people in receipt of an income guarantee benefit. Who would quibble with those priorities or dispute that those people have additional need for fuel and energy that requires them to be charged on a tariff that recognises that?
Belgium is not alone in operating a social tariff. Again, even before this crisis, Spain provided a social bonus scheme whereby a 25% discount was available on electricity bills for vulnerable energy customers, including disabled customers, with a 40% discount for severely disabled consumers. Other countries also take the appropriate action, even if criteria, eligibility and amount may vary. However, the urgent need remains that, in this time of crisis, the poorest and most vulnerable require the most support and should pay the lowest tariffs. That and the injustice of higher charges being imposed upon them must end.
That is why the Bill is necessary. Energy, fuel and power are fundamental—
Indeed. The fact that Scotland is energy-rich yet Scots are fuel-poor is absurd, and it is shameful that that should be replicated across the UK. Worse than that is the perversity that the poorest and most vulnerable pay the most. That must end, and this Bill will ensure that.
Question put and agreed to.
That Kenny MacAskill, Neale Hanvey, Richard Burgon, Angus Brendan MacNeil, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Liz Saville Roberts, Margaret Ferrier and Alison Thewliss present the Bill.
Kenny MacAskill accordingly presented the Bill
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March 2023, and to be printed (Bill 166).
5th Allotted Day
Economic Responsibility and a Plan for Growth
I beg to move,
That this House regrets the long-term damage to the economy as a direct result of the mini budget, where mortgage rates for households have risen and the stability of pension funds has come under threat; notes that despite substantial U-turns in policy since the mini budget, the Government’s funding position has deteriorated, the cost of borrowing is expected to be higher for many years and the UK’s fiscal credibility has been undermined, all while many energy producers continue to make record windfall profits; therefore calls on the Government to take all necessary steps to stabilise the economy and make it work for ordinary working people and business through a plan for growth that puts them at its heart; and further calls on the Government to publish the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts immediately alongside Government estimates of windfall profits for the next two years from energy producers in the UK.
We are here because of a Tory crisis made in Downing Street but paid for by ordinary working people. The Conservative mini-Budget of 23 September will go down in history as the day that the British Government chose to sabotage their own economy. We saw the Conservatives hurl unfunded tax cuts towards the wealthiest, with excessive borrowing and yet more Government debt. The Government set our economy ablaze and, as a direct result, in the past four weeks we have experienced chaos in financial markets, repeated emergency interventions from the Bank of England, warnings from the ratings agencies and rebukes from the International Monetary Fund. Those costs are passed directly on to working people.
I thank the hon. Member for being generous in giving way so early. Does she join me in welcoming last week’s employment statistics, with the highest rate since 1974? In my constituency alone, 920 extra people were in work compared with 12 months ago.
The truth is that a million people are missing from the labour market and half of those have long-term health conditions. We need to do much more to get those people back to work. One reason why unemployment is low is that so many people are not even looking for work because they are waiting for NHS operations, with waiting times at an all-time high.
Today, we learn that inflation has gone above 10% again; food inflation is at more than 14%; and in the last year alone, electricity prices are up 45% and gas prices have doubled. Despite all the extraordinary and unprecedented U-turns in recent days, the damage has been done. This Conservative Government have wrecked people’s finances and snuffed out the dream of home ownership for millions. Some 1.8 million people across the UK will pay higher mortgage bills by the end of next year—on average, they will pay £580 extra every single month—because of the reckless actions of the Government. In my Yorkshire constituency, the cost will be £360 extra a month. In the constituency of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith)—who is about to respond to me—it will cost people £640 extra every single month in higher mortgage payments. Families cannot afford to pay those higher mortgage costs, and they certainly cannot pay them with apologies from the Prime Minister. The public will not accept that the arsonists who inflicted this damage can put out the fire. The Tories can never be trusted with our economy again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the motion that she has tabled. It seems utterly unarguable that the crisis being wrought upon our constituents is to be laid squarely at the feet of the Government. It would appear that the Government agree, because according to briefings on Twitter, they do not intend to vote against the motion. Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that the Chancellor has not turned up to defend the record and that Conservative Members do not even seem to disagree with the motion means that we can all agree that this is the Government’s fault?
I agree that it is a shame that October’s Chancellor is not in his place today. This crisis has been co-written by every single member of the Cabinet and every single member of the Government. The Minister for the Armed Forces and Veterans was crystal clear yesterday in pointing out that all Cabinet Ministers had approved and are responsible for Government decisions, including the disastrous mini-Budget. There is no credibility or stability with this Government, just a shambles. All the time, businesses are looking at the state of the Government and deciding where and whether to invest. The Tories’ recklessness and enduring incompetence will cost jobs and investment here in Britain. The Conservatives should not be put in charge of a tombola, let alone the British economy.
I commend the hon. Lady for what she is saying. Let me back up her comments on economic growth. We need small and medium-sized enterprises to be able to survive and to get through this period. In my constituency, a business—a Japanese restaurant—opened some two months ago. It is doing really well and it employs staff, but its bills are going up from £900 to £3,000. It is clear that unless something happens soon for businesses that are productive and create jobs, they will no longer be there. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to have a process that helps businesses?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Small businesses, such as the restaurant that he mentions in his constituency, are the backbone of all our constituencies and our economy more widely. An energy bill increase from £900 to £3,000 is not affordable for small businesses. The Government need to do more to help.
I know that the hon. Member takes economic issues very seriously. Protecting pensioners will obviously be a key priority. Does she join me in welcoming the Prime Minister’s confirmation that the triple lock will be protected, and can she set out Labour’s policy on that vital area?
On Monday, the Chancellor said that he could not rule out breaking the triple lock, and on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said something else. We do not know which one speaks for the Government, but Labour is clear that we support the triple lock. It was in our manifesto and, unlike the Conservative party, in government we would stick by what we promised.
Strong and independent economic institutions are essential for making Britain a great place to invest. That is why undermining the Bank of England, sacking the respected permanent secretary at the Treasury and gagging the Office for Budget Responsibility have all added to borrowing costs for Britain—for Government and for families.
On Monday, we saw yet again the ridiculous spectacle of a Conservative Chancellor coming to the House of Commons to announce huge changes in Government economic policy without any sort of independent forecast. Failing to publish a forecast was a significant contributor to the lack of market confidence when the Government unleashed their mini-Budget three and a half weeks ago, yet no lessons have been learned.
The Government cannot build confidence in Britain by flying blind. That is why we are asking all MPs to vote today to publish immediately the current assessments and forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility. For the sake of our economic stability, they must not remain hidden for a further two weeks. If the Chancellor refuses, the country will rightly ask, “What have they got to hide?”
My hon. Friend touched on the point that one of the new Prime Minister’s very first decisions was to sack the permanent secretary to the Treasury. Can my hon. Friend shed any light on why that decision was made? Was it, as appears very likely, because he was set to warn the new Chancellor about the consequences of the policies that he wanted to announce?
As a former Treasury Minister, my right hon. Friend knows how things are supposed to be done. We cannot ask September’s Chancellor why he sacked the respected permanent secretary, because he is no longer in his place, but a Labour Government would respect the Bank of England, respect the independent civil service and remove the gag on the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Today’s inflation numbers show the impact that higher gas and electricity bills are having on family finances. The Government’s mistake when they announced their package a month ago was putting its entire cost on Government borrowing. Under Labour’s plans, energy producers—including the oil and gas industries, which have said themselves that they have more money than they know what to do with—would have been asked to pay their fair share. Our plan did what a responsible Government should: it put forward a fully costed and fully funded package to freeze bills this autumn and winter.
The Conservatives have left tens of billions of pounds on the table and have pushed all the costs on to current and future taxpayers for years to come. Now, because of their irresponsible and reckless approach, they have gone back on their word. According to the Resolution Foundation, that could mean that a typical bill will rise to at least £4,000 from next April.
The point is that the Government are leaving billions of pounds of unneeded and unnecessary borrowing on the table. Why leave that money on the table when even the energy giants are saying that they have more money than they know what to do with? All that money has been put on borrowing and debt to be paid back by current taxpayers. Tens of billions of pounds have been left on the table by this Tory Government.
It has always been a question of who pays for support with bills. The Conservatives always put it on the never-never, but in the end it is working people who pay the price. In August, Bloomberg reported that the Government’s estimates of energy company windfall profits in the UK over the next two years could be £170 billion. The last Chancellor disputed that and so did the one before, but neither of them confirmed the actual figure. Why not?
Labour’s fiscal rules would protect the economy and protect families. We should not borrow a penny more than is absolutely necessary. That is why our motion
“calls on the Government to publish the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts immediately alongside Government estimates of windfall profits for the next two years from energy producers in the UK.”
Doing so is in the public interest. Refusal to publish will only confirm that the Government are again putting the profits of energy giants ahead of the sky-high bills for families, pensioners and businesses.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have still not learned a single thing? If they had learned anything from their mismanagement, the Prime Minister and the new Chancellor would have committed to using the profits of energy companies. That is what they should be doing: as my hon. Friend says, the companies want to be taxed to pay for the Government’s failures, rather than the Government cutting public services and hiking mortgage interest. Does she also agree that the Government need to get their priorities straight when it comes to getting rid of the cap on bankers’ bonuses?
As a member of the Treasury Committee, my hon. Friend understands the issues well. The chief executive of BP says that his company is like a cash machine at the moment. We should be ensuring that companies pay their fair share. The war in Ukraine and the illegal invasion of Ukraine mean windfall profits that they could never have dreamed of, but they also mean the highest bills ever for families and pensioners, so the energy companies should pay their fair share.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Professor Sinha, the author of the Institute of Health Equity’s report on fuel poverty, has said that there is no doubt that children will die this winter. In July alone, 12,000 more people phoned the Samaritans. Those are the dire consequences of these political actions, yet our energy companies are taking the profits.
My hon. Friend leads me on to the important issue of public services, which the Chancellor has been quick to put in his sights. This week, the respected Institute for Government gave its assessment of the state of public services after 12 years of Conservative Governments:
“Public services are in a fragile state…Patients are waiting half a day in A&E, weeks for GP appointments and a year or more for elective treatments. Few crimes result in charges…Pupils have lost months of learning”.
What an absolutely devastating verdict on the Government’s stewardship of our public services.
Even the Home Secretary, when she is not arguing with tofu, admits that police forces are so stretched that they cannot respond to the victims of crime. The Tories are living on another planet if they think that after a decade of imposing austerity they can come back with season 2, wildly swinging the axe over the country’s already struggling public services.
My hon. Friend is spot on and Conservative Members should be listening to her speech. We have seen 12 years of cuts to our public services and facilities, but one small glimmer of hope for people in my city was the successful levelling-up bid for a leisure centre in the outer west of Newcastle. However, the project has now been undermined because of the disastrous economic outlook and soaring inflation costs, which are partly a result of the mini-Budget. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must not backtrack on their promises? They must support such projects despite the rising inflation costs that are now undermining local government’s ability to deliver them.
Levelling up has truly been replaced by trickle down, and my hon. Friend’s constituents are paying the price.
We need strong public services focused on early intervention and prevention, reducing greater demand with better outcomes for people. We need the Government to stick to their manifesto commitments, including uprating benefits and pensions in line with inflation. It should not be working families, pensioners and the most vulnerable who pay the price for these Tory mistakes.
I will make a bit more progress.
Labour will get value for every pound of taxpayers’ money. That is why I announced last year that a Labour Government will introduce an office for value for money, tackling the endemic waste that we have seen under the Tories. Under the Conservatives, £11.8 billion of public money was handed to fraudsters and organised criminals because of a refusal to include the most basic security checks for covid support. That is before we get to the £7 billion spent on unusable personal protective equipment, the £13 billion wasted on failed defence procurements and the millions and millions flushed down the drain by this Government’s outsourced Serco test and trace system.
This week, we have read reports that the Treasury is shutting down the taxpayer protection taskforce that it belatedly set up in March to try to retrieve the money that the Government gave to the fraudsters. The taskforce should not be shut down; it should be empowered to get taxpayers’ money back.
As for the £3.5 billion handed out to friends of and donors to the Conservative party, many of whom failed to deliver on those contracts, in business if you award a contract and it does not deliver, you claw the money back. The Government must now strain every sinew to get that money back, because taxpayers demand it, and that comes before the cuts and the austerity that this Government are about to unleash.
The Government say that working people now have to put up with eye-wateringly difficult decisions, but there are so many easy decisions that the Government could make to stop families feeling the pain. Why keep in place an outdated and unjustifiable non-dom tax status loophole which means that some of the wealthiest pay no tax on their incomes while ordinary working people face the highest tax burden in 70 years in this low-growth, high-tax economy? Labour’s principle is clear: if you make Britain your home, you should pay your taxes here. Research carried out at the London School of Economics and Warwick University has shown that the UK’s non-dom system costs us £3.2 billion a year.
Look at the tax break for private equity managers, which was cooked up in the 1980s by a Conservative Government—a tax break of nearly £200,000 each for 2,000 private equity bosses every single year! It is not right that bosses pay a lower rate of tax on their bonuses than workers do on their wages. It is indefensible, so Labour will abolish it. At present, private schools enjoy charitable status which makes them exempt from both business rates and VAT at a cost of £1.7 billion every year, but here is the truth: private schools are not charities. We will end that exemption, and put that money back into our state schools.
That is what a fair tax system looks like, and that is what Britain will get with a Labour Government: fiscal responsibility, and a fair tax system that puts working people first. Labour will stabilise the economy by being responsible with public finances through our strong fiscal rules. It is on that foundation that our green prosperity plan will invest in the jobs and industries of tomorrow as we meet our climate obligations and secure our energy supply here in Britain. There are great opportunities for the industries of the future, and opportunities for Government to partner with industry and invest in, for instance, domestic renewables such as wind, hydrogen and carbon capture, and nuclear as well. Labour will create a national wealth fund so that when we build British industry, the public will have a stake and receive a return on those investments. The next Labour Government will buy, make and sell more here in Britain, with an industrial strategy that is pro-worker and pro-business. We will breathe new life into our high streets by calling time on the outdated model of business rates. That is a real plan for the future, not lurching from crisis to crisis like the Conservatives.
No. I have almost run out of time. I have been speaking for 20 minutes, and I have taken a great many interventions.
So much damage has been done to our economy by the Conservatives’ reckless mini-Budget, but the Government can prevent things from becoming even worse. Today they can show that they have listened, and publish the OBR forecasts and assessments that they are sitting on so we can know the true state of our public finances and our economy. They should publish the assessments that they already have of the windfall profits of the energy giants in the next two years, and then set out clear steps to introduce a proper windfall tax. It is a sign of how far off the road of competence and responsibility this Conservative Government are that they have not already done those basic things.
People can no longer afford the cost of Tory failure. We need a stronger and fairer economy from a Government committed to financial responsibility, and a serious plan for growth that puts working people first. The very least the Government can do is publish the numbers, and I urge all Members to support this motion to ensure that they do exactly that.
Our constituents are worried about what the current global turbulence in the economy means for their jobs, their prospects and their families. They want to know that they can afford to get by, and that once the economic storm clouds have passed—which they will—they can thrive. It is these concerns, those of our constituents, that we are thinking about, rather than—I say this in all due seriousness to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), because I think she knows better—misrepresenting global trends. We are focused on protecting the most vulnerable and looking after our economy.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend noted, as I did, how little was said about the real cause of the current issues in the global markets: Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, driving energy prices up across the globe, driving inflation up across the globe, and driving interest rates up. There was no mention of that from the Opposition. Whose side are they on when it comes to these situations? It is clear to me that they are not paying attention to the real issues underlying the global markets, and they do not understand what is going on.
My hon. Friend has made a very important point. I think the whole House will want to acknowledge not only the impact on our economy of covid and the measures that Members on both sides of the House supported, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It does us a great disservice to try to be over-partisan about the impacts of global trends that are happening in every western economy.
The Minister has a strong track record of being knowledgeable about finance in the private sector, so will he acknowledge that the mini-Budget caused huge chaos in the markets? Notwithstanding the international issues which are a backdrop to this, this Government have scored an own goal by making the position a hell of a lot worse. Surely the Minister, with his financial background, will acknowledge that.
The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee has made some fair points. We have acknowledged that mistakes have been made—the Prime Minister herself has said that—and I am happy to say it in the spirit in which the hon. Lady acknowledges that there are wider factors at work in the economy. It ill behoves the House to make those over-partisan points when our constituents are looking to us collectively for what we are able to do.
I will make a little progress and then come back to hon. Members, if I may.
The most important thing we can do now, in the national interest, is cement that financial and economic stability. That is what is vital for all those who are concerned about their jobs, those who have to pay their mortgages, and those who are saving for retirement. It is essential for businesses investing for the future, and for society as we get through the bout of rising prices.
Last month the Bank of England had to step in with a promise to buy up to £65 billion of Government debt after pension funds managing huge sums on behalf of retired people across the country came close to collapse amid an unprecedented meltdown in UK Government bond markets following the Government’s mini-Budget. Last week the Bank had to step in again. BT’s pension scheme has revealed that the value of its assets has plummeted by an estimated £11 billion in recent weeks. Will the Minister apologise for the chaos that his party has brought to the pensions sector, and what can he say to my constituents to reassure them that their pensions are actually safe?
I think we all have constituents who are rightly worried in these times of global turbulence and increasing interest rates in every part of the world. The hon. Lady will forgive me, I hope, if I do not comment on the specific operations of the Bank of England, which I think would be inappropriate—other than thanking hard-working officials for the intervention that they have made over the last couple of weeks.
I am grateful to the Minister.
Of course global factors meant that the situation was dangerous, but will the Minister acknowledge that it is precisely because of those global factors that the new Prime Minister and Chancellor had to tread very, very carefully? That is why what they did was so reckless and so damaging.
I am not sure that I can fully accept what the hon. Member says, but the Government are committed to the independence of our institutions. It is very important that people understand that. Both the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility have a valuable role to play, which is why when the Chancellor presents his forecast to the House in just eight parliamentary days’ time he will ensure that it has been fully presented to, and signed off by, the Office for Budget Responsibility.
I recognise the value of stability and predictability. Given the changes to the corporation tax rate, and given that under the previous Administration my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) was going to reduce the bank corporation tax surcharge from 8% to 3%, could the Minister confirm the Government’s intentions, and the assessment made of the effect for banks on competitiveness in financial services?
I will make a little progress and then give way. As the Chancellor said, at this point all measures remain on the table. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) will indulge me if I do not announce that policy at the Dispatch Box today. His point is well understood, and others have made it to me, as Financial Secretary.
May I simply point out that, if the rate is retained as an 8% surcharge, banks will be paying 33%? When added to the employment costs for national insurance, they may have issues in terms of competitiveness. If that is necessary, could the Minister please make it clear to banks and the markets, so that they can plan for the future?
As I said a moment ago, we have just eight sitting days now until the statement. Part of my role is to stay in very close touch with our highly valued banking community, and to continue to drive the competitiveness of the United Kingdom as a place for the financial services sector to make the prodigious contribution to the economy that Conservative Members particularly value. As the Chancellor said, we will continue to prioritise fiscal stability, and the United Kingdom will always pay its way. We will fund our promises, and we remain committed to fiscal discipline. That means that we will do whatever is necessary to ensure that debt as a share of the economy comes down in the medium term.
I know that the Minister is relatively new to the job; I hope that he lasts longer than some of his predecessors. The Bank of England has made it clear that the mini-Budget has caused a material risk to the UK’s financial stability. As has been said, our constituents’ mortgages have gone up, and will be going up by £500, and by up to £900 in London and the south-east. Will he tell us what his Government will do to bring down those mortgages rates, many of which will be a direct consequence of the mini-Budget’s failures and fiasco?
I was in the process of telling the hon. Lady exactly what the Government will do. No one should trivialise the impact of rising global interest rates on mortgages. The last time mortgages were at this level was under her Government, and not after the backdrop of a global pandemic and a war on European soil.
No, I think I have been relatively generous in taking interventions from the Opposition. I will make some progress, because I am sure that many people would like to speak. As the House knows, we will publish the medium-term fiscal plan, which will be fully reported on by the OBR and will set out our approach to fiscal responsibility: the variable that we can control in Government to help to reduce rates of interest going forward. We remain committed to pursuing growth as the driver of prosperity for all.