Wednesday 19 October 2022
[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
Scottish Devolution Settlement: Retained EU Law
I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. The question whether provisions in the draft Independence Referendum Bill relate to reserved matters under the Scotland Act 1998 has been referred to the Supreme Court and a judgment is anticipated in the coming months. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair to allow reference to the issues concerned, given their national importance.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the impact of retained EU law on the Scottish devolution settlement.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this morning’s debate, Mrs Murray, and I welcome the Minister to his new post.
Should this shambles of a Government manage to stumble on past the weekend, we are being told that their Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will come before the House on 25 October. The Brexit freedoms Bill, as the Government like to call it, will give UK Ministers unprecedented powers to rewrite and replace almost 2,500 pieces of domestic law covering matters such as environment and nature, consumer protection, workers’ rights, product safety and agriculture, and that will be done with the bare minimum of parliamentary scrutiny. It is, in short, an ideologically driven deregulatory race to the bottom that will do enormous damage to our society and our economy.
The Bill, taken in conjunction with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, will fundamentally undermine and alter the devolution settlement by giving primacy to UK law in areas that are wholly devolved, such as environmental health, food standards and animal welfare. Today, I thought it would be useful to consider the Bill to examine what it could mean for Scotland and for the devolution settlement. I believe that any objective analysis would see not only that it puts at risk many of the high standards and protections that the people of Scotland have enjoyed and come to expect from more than four decades of EU membership, but that it is part of the Government’s long-term plan to undermine the devolution settlement and weaken our Scottish Parliament.
Under the Bill, and with the 2020 Act already in place, any legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament could be undermined by a Government here in Westminster whom we did not elect, even in matters that are wholly devolved. I will give a few examples. In the area of food standards, if the Scottish Parliament decided that we would remain aligned with the European Union and would ban the sale of chlorinated chicken, but this place decided that cheap, imported, chlorine-washed chicken was acceptable, there would be almost nothing the Scottish Parliament could do to stop lorryloads of chlorine-washed poultry crossing the border, with that chicken then appearing on our supermarket shelves.
Similarly, if the UK agreed a trade deal that saw the UK flooded with cheap, factory-farmed, hormone-injected meat, but the Scottish Parliament decided to protect Scottish consumers and Scottish farmers by adhering to the standards and protections that we have up to now enjoyed, under the terms of the Bill—again, backed by the 2020 Act—Westminster could override that and Scotland’s supermarkets could be inundated with inferior-quality cheap cuts of meat that under existing EU law would get nowhere near our supermarket shelves.
Is it not the case that this is not just about standards? On farming and farmers, we have only to look at the trade deal signed by the UK with Australia and New Zealand, which allows them a higher quota for importing lambs to the UK than is allowed for the entire EU. The EU is protecting our farmers whereas the UK Government are throwing them to the wind.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is correct, and I will expand on his point in a moment.
This Government and the Bill are an existential threat to Scottish agriculture. Scotland could decide to stick to long-established best practice in the welfare and treatment of animals, and retain the stringent checks on animals entering the food chain. However, if this place decides to deregulate, animals whose provenance is unknown, and whose welfare history is unaccounted for, can and almost certainly will enter the food chain. Most worryingly, if the Government decide to change food labelling standards, Scottish consumers not only could be subjected to chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-injected beef, genetically modified crops and animals of questionable provenance, but will probably not be able to tell what they are eating. The labelling regulations could be so diminished that the protections consumers now enjoy could be completely removed.
On Friday, I met with the Argyll and Bute regional board of the National Farmers Union Scotland. Its message was stark: farmers feel forgotten and undervalued. They have been battered by Brexit. They are barely surviving the energy crisis. At a time of falling incomes, they are at a loss as to how they will cope with the skyrocketing costs of feed and fertiliser.
Farmers know, too, that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is a potential death sentence for an agricultural sector that requires a hefty subsidy. It needs that subsidy because it manages the land, keeps the lights on in our hills and glens, provides employment in rural communities, and helps stem the tide of rural depopulation while producing high-quality, high-value beef, lamb and dairy products. They know—we all know—that the lowering of food standards, the relaxation of rules on labelling and animal welfare, and the mass importation of inferior products will be an unmitigated disaster for Scottish agriculture. They are also painfully aware, as we are, that there is precious little that their democratically elected Scottish Parliament can do about it.
The hon. Member will know that his opinion and mine greatly differ on this precious Union. I understand that, but it does not make us friends any the less; we are dear friends, and work on many things together. One of the reasons for that difference of opinion is seeing the impact that being slightly removed has had on constituents, which he has referred to. Undoubtedly there are some businesses that will thrive in dealing with the EU, but for the vast majority, basics are more expensive to come by. It is simply wrong to have no representative to speak on our behalf on EU legislation. We are painfully aware of that in Northern Ireland. It goes against everything we in a democracy hold so dearly and believe. Does he agree that no nation can knowingly subject itself to law with no voice?
I thank my dear hon. Friend, and reciprocate the feelings that he has expressed. Every community needs a voice, and his community and farmers need a voice. His farmers need protection. I would caution that his farmers will look at the situation and also be extremely worried that, if the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 are spread across into Northern Ireland, as they may well be, they will face the same threats as Scottish farmers.
Angus Robertson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, has already raised the Scottish Government’s serious concerns with the Secretary of State. The Minister will be aware that if the UK Government act in wholly devolved policy areas, they will do so without the consent of Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament, and that will significantly undermine the devolution settlement.
As I said earlier, we will be in a deregulatory race to the bottom, a race in which individual citizens will surely lose out to the spivs and the speculators—and no doubt to the politically connected, who will be fast-tracked into making a quick buck at citizens’ expense. The Government say that the Bill will give the UK the opportunity to be bolder and go further than the EU in securing consumer rights and environmental protections, but there are clauses in the Bill that actively prevent Ministers from imposing any new regulatory burden, including any “administrative inconvenience”, on anyone.
Those clauses suggest very strongly that this is headed in one direction only, towards deregulation, and that that deregulation will make it easier to circumvent our legal obligations on food labelling for allergens, or not to pay holiday pay, or to roll back on the safe limits on working hours, or to change hard-won rights to parental leave. The Government will be aware of the fury that will follow should they move to weaken existing controls on polluting substances, or attempt to lower existing water or air quality standards, or dare to dilute the essential protections that defend our natural habitat and our wildlife.
Let me stress again: this is not a road that Scotland has chosen to go down. Rather, it is a road that Scotland is being dragged down. Our nation rejected this Tory Brexit fantasy, but our democratic wishes have been ignored at every turn. This is not of Scotland’s doing, but because of the constitutional straitjacket we find ourselves in, we are having this done to us by a Government that we did not elect.
The Minister cannot dismiss this as SNP scaremongering, because organisations as diverse as the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Food Standards Scotland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have all warned about the adverse impact that the Bill will have. Frances O’Grady, Trades Union Congress general secretary, has described the Bill as “reckless” and said that
“vital protections could disappear overnight”.
The RSPB has warned that if the Government push ahead, they will be undermining the long-established and vital laws that are in place to protect nature. Food Standards Scotland said that the Bill poses
“a significant risk to Scotland’s ability to uphold high safety and food standards.”
Yet it seems that, in their desperate, deluded pursuit of the mirage of a Brexit Shangri-La, this Government are prepared to put at risk our natural environment, our food and animal welfare standards, consumer protections and workers’ rights. That is why the SNP will oppose the Bill every step of the way.
Not only are this Government coming for those rights and protections that we have enjoyed for decades, they are also coming for our Parliament. I repeat the call from the Scottish Government for the UK Government, even at this late stage, to perform one of their trademark—almost legendary—U-turns, and abandon this disastrous Bill. The Bill not only undermines the devolution settlement, it also diminishes the role of MPs here, with the plan to deal with everything via secondary legislation, conveniently avoiding the intense parliamentary scrutiny that the measures require. The Secretary of State claimed in his letter that this was about “taking back control”, but I have to ask: who is taking back control? It is not this Parliament.
As the Government have already gleefully announced to the press, the amount of parliamentary time required has been dramatically reduced. It seems that, for this Government, taking back control means putting a group of hand-picked party loyalists on to a delegated legislation Committee—a Committee with a built-in Government majority, which will be able to bulldoze through change after change after change, as instructed by the Government. The history of delegated legislation Committees is not particularly encouraging. In the past 65 years, only 17 statutory instruments have been voted down in DL committees. The last time that happened was in 1979. While there is certainly a role for DL Committees, I do not believe it extends to making wholesale and fundamental changes to vast swathes of the law on everything from environment and nature to consumer protection, workers’ rights, product safety and agriculture, just to help this Government avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Of course, the reason the Government are avoiding scrutiny is because, in their fervour to rid themselves of any lingering European influence, the zealots at the heart of this collapsing Government have arbitrarily put a sunset clause of 31 December 2023 in the Bill. Unless 2,500 pieces of legislation are removed and replaced—unless the Government give themselves an extension, of course—they will simply disappear off the statute book, leaving huge holes in UK law. It is a tactic fraught with danger as it once again introduces another totally unnecessary Brexit cliff edge that will be welcomed by nobody outside the inner sanctum of the European Research Group—sorry, I mean the Cabinet. It is further evidence of the panic at the heart of the Brexit project. They know the wheels have come off and that the Government are disintegrating before their eyes. Thankfully, Scotland has a way out and we will, as soon as possible, rejoin the European Union as an independent nation. I sincerely hope that the rest of the United Kingdom will find its way back to the European Union as well.
I will conclude with a number of questions for the Minister. Will he confirm that, should the Scottish Government decide to preserve all retained EU law, that would be respected and upheld by the Government here in Westminster? Does he accept that, as it is currently written, the Bill threatens sweeping controls here in Westminster over areas that are wholly devolved? Can he explain why, despite issues raised over the summer by the Scottish Government, the Bill was published with powers to undermine devolution? What impact assessment has been carried out on how the Bill will affect the sectors of the economy that will be most affected by it, particularly farmers in remote, rural, economically fragile areas? Will the Government accept and honour the legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament? If they do not, why will they not?
Finally, does the Minister agree that by allowing the UK Government to act in policy areas that are wholly devolved, and to do so without the consent of Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament, that is in direct contradiction to the 1998 devolution settlement and particularly the Sewel convention, which was given a statutory footing in 2016?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to welcome the Minister to his post. He will be missed from the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, which he has chaired so ably for the past few months or more. It is a pity he is not enjoying the solidarity of his colleagues from the Scottish Conservatives, who might have wanted to show an interest in this issue, stand up to defend the Government and extol the virtues of Brexit, which so few people in Scotland supported—but, apparently, there is no sign of them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on securing the debate. It is particularly important, given the chaos engulfing the Conservative Government and Westminster more generally right now, that we take this opportunity to shine a spotlight on an issue that might risk going under the radar. Perhaps that is what the Government—and particularly the Secretary of State—are hoping for: to dress it up as a relatively technocratic, legalistic reform of the statute book and hope that nobody pays too much attention.
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute has said, many stakeholders—not just those who might be dismissed as part of the anti-growth coalition, which now appears to include the President of the United States and the Chancellor—and a whole range of financial services are particularly concerned about the impact of so much regulation simply dropping off the statute book without any clear mechanism for its being replaced. As we have heard, it is not a technocratic, legalistic reform of the statute book. The Government’s proposals to reform retained EU law represent an Executive power grab on a colossal scale: a power grab from Parliament, from the devolved legislatures—particularly Scotland—and a complete mockery of the claims that Brexit was ever about the House of Commons taking back control of anything.
The concept of EU retained law was created by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Members might recall that the vast majority of MPs from Scotland took quite a bit of exception to that Bill when it was progressing through the House. I looked back at Hansard and, although the Minister will not remember because he was not here at the time, the House was detained on multiple points of order on 12 June 2018, when the Government railroaded through amendments to the Bill that undermined the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The next day, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) led the majority of Scotland’s MPs out of the Chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions in protest at the power grab that had been enacted.
The precariousness of the Government’s position during the 2017-19 Parliament meant that they were forced to make certain concessions in passing the Act, including the establishment of the European Statutory Instruments Committee, which made a nod in the direction of enhanced parliamentary scrutiny. In reality, the EUWA itself represented a significant power grab, with the UK Government taking on powers over legislation that would otherwise have been subject to scrutiny across the EU institutions by our representatives in the European Parliament, and by this Parliament and the devolved legislatures. That is why the Act also enacted a significant undermining of the devolution settlement by reserving powers for Westminster that should otherwise have been devolved to Scotland and the other devolved institutions as the UK left the European Union.
Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute said, Scotland never voted to leave the European Union in the first place. The blatant disregard shown by the UK Government of the differential in results across these islands, their unwillingness to compromise on issues such as membership of the single market, instead rushing headlong into the hardest of Brexits that nobody could have had evidence to vote for and did not represent what had been proposed by several of the Leave campaigns; all of that demonstrated a contempt for devolution and any notion of a respect agenda.
Now, having invented the concept of retained EU law, the UK Government want to abolish it. They want to introduce a concept of assimilated law, which to the “Star Trek” fans among us will probably have a particularly sinister overtone—the legislative distinctiveness will be added to our own, as the Borg queen may or may not say. They think that by introducing this concept they can erase the legacy of the UK’s time in the EU. Of course, it is not by some strange doublethink that they want to erase the legacy of EU membership: they literally want to sunset every provision accumulated over the past 50 years if it is not reviewed or retained by the end of next year. Never mind that we do not know who the Prime Minister will be at the end of next week, or that the House has sat for little more than four weeks since July; the Government seem to expect us to believe that they can effectively and efficiently revise and update this entire corpus of law in less than 12 months.
They do not pretend that there will be much of a role for this House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute said, they want to create massive powers to railroad through statutory instruments and other secondary legislation, or let retained EU regulations drop off of the statute book completely. Never mind if they provide fundamental protection for workers’ rights, food standards or the natural environment across all of these islands; the arbitrary deadline from the Secretary of State cannot be met, so off they will go, without any consideration of the consequences for businesses or organisations that are trying to operate or trade in a legislative vacuum. The Secretary of State was previously the Minister for Government efficiency, but this is not efficiency: this is ideology.
That brings us to the specific impact on Scotland and the other devolved administrations. The Northern Ireland Assembly is barely functioning, so it has practically no path of resistance or opposition to this. Sensible voices are already calling for the expansion of the capacity and powers of Senedd Cymru, but the Tories seem determined to stand in the way. That leaves Scotland; because Scotland already has the greatest degree of devolution on these islands, it faces the biggest power grab of all from the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute said, the UK Government asserted primacy over a whole suite of policy areas that were previously understood to be devolved. All of the concerns about the capacity and time available for scrutiny in this place apply equally to Scotland’s Parliament. The Scottish Government already have their work cut out trying to mitigate the most devastating impacts of Tory economic and social policies in Scotland, and now they need to find time and space to deal with everything coming down or coming up the road in this Bill.
The Scottish Government have committed to remaining aligned with European Union regulation wherever possible. Alignment makes trade in goods and services easier and more beneficial for all. It will also make the process of Scotland rejoining the European Union as an independent country much more straightforward. Perhaps it is not surprising that the UK Government want to ensure that as much of the UK as possible diverges as much as possible from the EU acquis as quickly as possible.
Surely the whole point of Brexit freedom, if that is what the Government think this is, should be to identify naturally and organically where reform of retained law was needed, through the usual processes of engagement with our constituents, consultation with stakeholders and the small matter of political debate and deliberation in Parliament. Instead, what we see exposed is the ideological determination of this Government to erase the UK’s membership of the EU from history, irrespective of the outcomes.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute that the Second Reading of the Bill might take place as early as next week. Will the Minister tell us whether it is the Government’s intention to commit that Bill to a Public Bill Committee for scrutiny, or whether, like the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, it will be committed to the whole House for scrutiny? That Act received eight days of scrutiny in a Committee of the whole House and two days on Report, because the Government recognised its constitutional significance.
If this Bill is as significant as the Government try to claim, it should be subject to the scrutiny of the whole House through all its stages. In reality, I do not think that is what the Government are interested in. The explanatory notes are always a riveting read, and I pay tribute to the civil servants who pull them together for the benefit of those of us trying to get our head round the legislation. The explanatory notes say it all. Paragraph 28 says:
“There is no definitive list of general principles recognised in the Court of Justice of the European Union case law, but examples include the protection of fundamental rights, and the equality principle.”
Paragraph 30 says:
“This Bill abolishes these general principles in UK law by the end of 2023, so that they no longer influence the interpretation of legislation on the UK statute book.”
That is the abolition of fundamental rights and the abolition of the equality principle. Brexit really does mean Brexit after all.
Among the Westminster chaos, the people of Scotland can see what is happening and want no part of it. Their chance for a different kind of repeal Bill—repeal of the Act of Union 1707—is coming very soon indeed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on introducing the debate. It is incredible, in an hour-and-half debate on such an important subject, that I am standing to sum up less than half an hour after it began. That shows a lack of care from many Conservatives, particularly the Scottish Tories.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, where are the Scottish Tories? They continually challenge the SNP when we talk about power grabs by the Westminster Government. They always ask us to name one power that has been taken away from the Scottish Parliament. As we have heard, this abolition of EU retained law is not a single power grab, it is a carte blanche undoing of devolution. It allows the UK Government to force standards in Scotland. When trade deals are signed and Westminster wants to diverge from the EU, the Internal Market Bill, for example, can be used to railroad and force those standards on Scotland. It is disgraceful that the Scottish Tories are not here to make a case for the Government and why they want to do this.
It could be argued that Scotland did not technically have full powers in all these remits because it was EU law, but the point of EU law in regulations is that it was agreed by member states. Scotland will no longer have the facility to keep EU retained law and that alignment, if the Westminster Government have their say. We have to remember that the EU single market is the biggest single market in the world. Why do the UK Government want to diverge from standards that allow access to the biggest market in the world? It makes no sense, but again it is a throwback to the British empire and bringing back British sovereignty. It is a falsehood—a fallacy.
We previously heard from Brexiteers that the good thing about being able to diverge from the EU is that we can improve environmental standards. I spoke last week in a debate about sewage discharges into watercourses and on beaches. Before coming to this place, I was a sewerage civil engineer, and I saw at first hand how the Tory Government back then resisted EU legislation to clean up beaches. The UK was known as the dirty man of Europe, and it is no surprise that, now that we have left the EU, the rest of the UK is having a problem with sewage discharges. It cannot be a coincidence. Given that you represent a coastal community, Mrs Murray, you must have concerns about water quality and the sewage discharges that this Government seem to be allowing.
Another Brexit falsehood is the so-called sea of opportunity. Fishing communities were told that they were going to benefit from Brexit, but unfortunately they were sold a pup, to mix my metaphors. That again is proof that whatever the Brexiteers promise never comes to fruition—they are just false promises.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute pointed out, it is ridiculous that we are looking at overturning almost 2,500 pieces of legislation by some false 2023 deadline when we do not even have a functioning Government. That process is retained under the control of the Secretary of State. Previously, he was all about parliamentary sovereignty and scrutiny, but that seems to have gone out the window now that he is a member of the Cabinet. We only have to look at the Henry VIII powers inserted into the Energy Prices Bill on Monday to see that the Government are taking back control on one level—they are taking back control from MPs in the House of Commons. I have grave concerns about that.
As my hon. Friend said, this is about food standards and animal welfare. It is about maintaining standards and having checks in place. Another Brexit dividend is that we do not have enough vets because we have ended freedom of movement—it is ridiculous, and it just shows Brexiteers’ blinkeredness. As my hon. Friend said, this is an existential threat to Scottish agriculture. It is actually an existential threat to the devolution settlement.
On deregulation, I mentioned workers’ rights, and Frances O’Grady of the TUC has highlighted concerns about that. In his speech on the ten-minute rule Bill yesterday, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) attacked workers’ rights and said that the EU working time directive has allowed idleness. That is the attitude. I am sure you have read “Britannia Unchained”, Mrs Murray, which was co-authored by the Prime Minister, who attacked British workers for being lazy, idle and unproductive. That is the attitude at the top of the Government, so what hope do we have when EU retained law is completely abolished?
That brings me to the official Opposition. Of course, Labour has promised to make Brexit work. It is also in favour of a hard Brexit. It does not want freedom of movement or to be in the single market, so what does it stand for when it comes to EU retained law? What is Labour’s vision for the future? It seems to me that it mirrors the Tory vision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North rightly pointed out that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was forced on Scotland, but at the time we were reassured that the idea of retained EU law was somehow going to give us some continuity. It was going to give us protections, and it was shown that we were not going to diverge from the EU. Now the Government’s motives are absolutely clear: that was just another Brexit falsehood, and it is all about divergence and free market opportunities. Who cares about standards as long as it is a free market and prices come down? That is all they care about, not protecting workers’ rights, agriculture and food standards and hygiene.
Another silly example of this Government’s obsession with divergence from the EU is the weights and measures consultation. Why would we want to go back to imperial weights and measures? Scotland exports more manufactured goods to the rest of the world than to England, and weights and measures are important in that. Alignment with metric measurements is the way we do things. Why would we want to change? Last week, an article in New Civil Engineer magazine noted that using thumb measurements or inches might have been fine for a 16th-century carpenter, but today we have alignment with the biggest single market. Even the United States, despite being one of the few countries that still uses imperial measurements, aligns measurements for its exported goods with the metric system. Why would we want to go back on that? How much money would it cost to rip up what we do now? Again, it just shows the Brexit fantasy and falsehoods.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for raising this, because it is a fallacy that people would want to go back to those kinds of measurements. What the Business Secretary is trying to claim about going back to those measurements is just farcical. Could we perhaps talk about this matter in the bar tonight over 568 ml of beer?
The hon. Gentleman is being slightly flippant, but he makes a good point. That is the thing: the EU did not force the UK to go metric. It was done willingly. The EU allowed pints and other things to be retained as measurements because it was not about the EU imposing its will, but about a sensible way forward over alignment. Of course, it is a rare thing for me to enjoy a 568 ml drink—or a pint—but I might come back and do that at some point.
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman, who is the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, telling us about Labour’s vision for making Brexit work, and why it will not align with the EU, why it does not want to rejoin the single market and why it does not want freedom of movement. I shall conclude there, because I really do want to hear from him and from the new Minister, whom I welcome to his place. Who knows how long he will be in his post, given the current chaos? I hope he will address these serious points and explain this Government’s rationale.
It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair for the first time, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) on bringing this debate. We never know during these debates which Minister will actually turn up, because we are never quite sure who the Minister is. We are always online trying to search the departmental webpages, if they are ever updated properly, to find out who the Ministers are. I welcome the Minister present to his place.
It is very strange that no Scottish Conservative MPs are here to take part in this important debate, but maybe this is a vision of the future after the next general election, where there will be no Scottish Conservative MPs available to be here. I am very disappointed that it was not put on record earlier that the entire contribution of the Scottish Labour party is here participating in this debate, unlike the SNP—only a small fraction of that entire party is present. I think Labour wins that particular battle.
I want to say a few words about this particular debate, which is similar to a debate we had in this Chamber a few weeks ago on the devolution to Scotland of employment law. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute can correct me if I am wrong, but I think that this matter boils down to two things: one is an ideological attack on the rights and protections we have all enjoyed, whether in or out of the EU; the other is the Conservative Government who are putting these changes through. My contention in the previous debate was that this matter is not about two Parliaments up against each other, but about a UK Conservative Government making decisions that we find to be deplorable and not in line with what we would like to see. Perhaps a change of Government would make these things an awful lot easier to achieve.
Does the hon. Member agree with my substantive point that this is actually a power grab from this place against the Scottish Parliament? It is a power grab that gives primacy in law to what happens in Westminster, as opposed to areas that have hitherto been wholly devolved.
The powers argument is a consequence of what the UK Government are trying to do. They want to get rid of all this EU law and this is the way they want to do it, so it is an ideologically driven piece of legislation and policy. The consequences of that are all the consequences he laid out in his speech.
There is one thing I want to say about power grabs. We have an argument—whether it be in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which is now on the statute book, or in this debate—where the Minister stands up and says, “This is a powers bonanza” and the SNP says, “It is a power grab”. It is probably neither, and it will depend on the decisions made by both Governments about what will happen, which is driven by the desire of the Scottish people. In the past few polls, nearly 70% of Scottish people want both Governments to work together. It surprises me that when the Scottish Government were talking about a power grab in the Internal Market Act, they were hiring all these new civil servants to deal with the new powers that were about to arrive. Of the 157 powers that have been repatriated from the European Union, 130 or 135 of them currently sit with the Scottish Government. These bland statements about power grabs and power bonanzas are rather unfortunate and are probably not of any use to the debate.
I agree with the hon. Member about the consequences that could happen if decisions in Westminster are made in line with how we think they will be made. We only have to look at our inboxes over the past few weeks to see the emails from all the nature organisations, such as the RSPB, as the hon. Member mentioned, Greenpeace and others, which were apoplectic at the possible consequences for protections from this attack on nature across the whole of the UK. The Minister has to tell us the driving force behind this. I think the Minister or the Secretary of State said that the reason for this piece of legislation is that if it was not in place removing or amended outdated EU laws could take several years. I ask the Minister to give us an example—if we did not have this Bill—of a piece of EU law that would take several years to repeal. I bet he cannot give us one because it is just another line from the Secretary of State’s speech that makes no reference to the reality of the situation.
The key point is that we were all told at the Brexit referendum that EU law would be repatriated to the EU, but it would be the minimum standard and it would be built on. We seem to have a bonfire of regulation and a clumsy drive from this Govt and the previous two Conservative Governments since the EU referendum to rip up regulations and turn the UK into the Singapore of Europe. Rather than working in the national interest, it is always about what is in the party’s interests.
Hon. Members have asked some questions. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) rightly talked about the impact on devolution. All these things have an impact on devolution. Asymmetric devolution across the United Kingdom gives us these kinds of issues, and it is driven by a Government that wishes to create them. We have a situation where the UK Government and the Scottish Government want to rip up the devolution settlement. That is just a fact. Whether the Government realise it, every time they bring a piece of retained EU legislation to this House, they just give succour to the nationalists who wish to rip up the devolution settlement to deliver independence.
While we have just had a huge discussion about this Conservative Government wrenching the UK out of the European Union with a hard Brexit, we have the hard Scexiteers here, who want to do exactly the same. [Interruption.] They like that, don’t they? They are hard Scexiteers who wish to do exactly the same, and it is not my words: it is the words of the economic paper that the First Minister launched on Monday. There would be a hard border between Scotland and England for goods, services and probably people. They want to seamlessly rejoin the EU with a 12% deficit, using someone else’s currency with no central bank as a lender of last resort with no money. The paper itself has been trashed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It was trashed by Robert McAlpine, who is a massive supporter of independence, who asks, “How do we get out of this crazy mess?” While we have a discussion about hard Brexiteers, we have three hard Scexiteers here—I will give way to one of them.
I am trying not to bite here, but I will go back to the question I posed. The hon. Member mentioned a hard Brexit and said it is what the Tories are doing. Is it not the case that Labour favours a hard Brexit? The hon. Member has not mentioned why Labour is against re-joining the single market, nor defended why Labour is against freedom of movement. Does the hon. Member agree with the shadow Chancellor who thinks that the UK needs to process and deport people back to their countries more quickly? That seems to be the Labour view, and it is no different from the Government.
That is more fantasy from the SNP. I find it strange that, when we have a Government on their knees bringing forward a piece of legislation that ultimately could undermine devolution, the main part of the hon. Member’s speech was an attack on the Labour party. That maybe tells us that our ascendancy in Scotland is worrying the SNP.
Let me say what would have happened. The hon. Member calls the Labour party hard Brexiteers; had the SNP not abstained on the amendment for the customs union it would have passed in Parliament—a matter of public record. The SNP spent less on the EU referendum than it did on the Shetland Scottish parliamentary byelection—to win 3,400 votes. The SNP asks about where we are as a country at the moment. It is perfectly practical for the Labour party, who wish to be the next Government, to try and make Brexit work. The first day that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) walks into No. 10 as the Prime Minister, he is going to face the circumstances of the day, not those that we may wish to find. The first task will be to make what we have got work, the second task will be to build and deepen that relationship with Europe, and the third task, which overarches all of that, is to do what is in the national interest. That is clear.
That shadow Chancellor was actually saying that part of the problem we have in this country with the immigration system is the Home Office not processing applications for asylum quickly enough, which leaves the massive backlog of tens of thousands that we have at the moment. If hon. Members had listened to what she actually said, that is what she was referring to—which I think is SNP policy? If the Home Office was processing applications in a timely manner, and in a humane way, we could get through applications much quicker, lessening those issues.
Where was I with the hard Scexiteers? I think we had gone through that. I will get on to some of the issues raised about what the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will do. I hope the Minister will tell us what the Government’s plans are, because this is essentially a theoretical Bill about trashing, amending, or otherwise, EU retained law in this country. The Government always have those grand phrases, but they do not tell us what they are going to do. Can the Minister answer my first question: what would take several years if it was not in the Bill? Will the Minister give us an example about what he wishes to do with some of those regulations? I would be happy to listen to that.
The Labour party wants to use that platform to put in a new deal for working people. That is a prime policy example. That would give people workers’ rights from day one and it would build on EU regulations that we have already had. Incidentally, the UK has always gold-plated EU regulations. In fact, Conservative Governments have always gold-plated EU regulations. The Labour party would end fire and rehire and zero-hour contracts—is that part of the Government’s strategy? We would make work more family friendly and flexible. We would strengthen trade union rights, which would raise pay and conditions. We would roll out fair pay agreements, and we would use Government procurement to ensure that we could lift standards, pay, conditions and skills right across the country.
Our new deal for working people is a practical example of what we would do with regulations, rather than a Bill that says we will rip up every piece of EU regulation without saying what we would do instead, while, at the same time, undermining devolution.
I will ask one final, two-part question to the Minister. What discussions is he having with the devolved Administrations about the Bill, and about trying to achieve a consensus so that legislative consent motions can be passed? The Sewel convention—which was right—was put on a statutory footing under the Scotland Act 2016 by an amendment brought forward by the Labour party. We cannot just disregard that; the Sewel convention is clear that the UK Government will not legislate in devolved areas where they do not need to. If they do, a legislative consent motion must be positively passed by the Scottish Parliament—not the Scottish Government. What discussions is he having to make sure those legislative consent motions can come forward?
I am grateful that the debate has been brought forward, and that we have had the hard Scexiteers and hard Brexiteers arguing over the EU. However, yet again we have had a combined 37 minutes from three SNP Members, and they have not told us one iota about how they can get back into the European Union with the huge deficits they have, no currency, no central bank, no lender of last resort and no immigration policy—[Interruption.] Now they are claiming that I am slagging them off, but they spent a lot of their speeches slagging off the Labour party. I look forward to the Minister answering some questions, and maybe at some point in the future we will get some answers from the SNP as well.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I have to say, I have quite enjoyed this debate. I will respond to as many of the questions as possible. Given the fact that the Leader of the Opposition is likely to push to form a coalition with the SNP, I do not quite know how the divide that has been so clearly created today will be filled.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) on securing this important debate. I am grateful to him for the opportunity to debate this very important topic ahead of the Second Reading of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. I look forward to continuing discourse with him, his SNP colleagues and others during the passage of the Bill. I intend to cover as many of the points raised by the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) as possible.
I will start with a clear message: the Government are absolutely committed to the devolution settlements and to safeguarding the Union. It is our mission to deliver economic prosperity for every citizen in every part of the UK. As my colleagues are undoubtedly aware, the Government are committed to devolution and to working collaboratively and constructively with the devolved Governments. That is the way to deliver better outcomes for citizens across the UK. The people of Scotland rightly expect both the UK and Scottish Governments to work together and focus on the issues that really matter to them.
We have the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and global economic slowdown, which has created incredible challenges for the UK—for Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens. The Government are committed to working towards economic and legislative solutions that work for the whole of the UK. Accordingly, the Government remain fully committed to the Sewel convention and the associated practices for seeking consent for the devolved legislatures.
Retained EU law, the subject of today’s debate, was brought on to the statute book as a bridging measure to ensure continuity as we left the European Union. It was never intended to sit on the statue book indefinitely. Its existence has created legislative anomalies that we must now address. On 31 January, the Government announced plans to bring forward the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. It is a culmination of the Government’s journey to untangle ourselves from nearly 50 years of EU membership, and it will provide the tools for the Government to fully realise the benefits of Brexit. We realise that those benefits for citizens are paramount, especially for businesses across all four great nations of the UK.
I thank the hon. Member for asking that very clear question. There are many benefits. In fact, on the EU dashboard there are over 2,500 pieces of legislation that we can start to look at. The key point of this Bill is to create a framework to enable us to look forward at how we can get the best out of Brexit. It will affect every citizen across the UK, and the Bill will make sure that we are covering that. I will come to points raised earlier, if I may.
I thank the hon. Member for that question. The key point about the Bill today is to talk about the framework, and what we are trying to ensure is that as the framework goes through, we will then be able to look at the individual pieces of regulation and legislation—all of those pieces that will then be looked at.
There are many, many, many, but I will not be drawn on the specifics today, because it is, of course, important that the conversation happens for the UK Government, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Government, to make sure that we are getting the right output from this, and it would be wrong of me to pre-empt that. However, I am sure that within the coming weeks and months we will have lots of conversations, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will himself be listening to many of them in the coming years.
The Bill will abolish the constitutional and outdated special status that retained EU law currently has on our statute book by 31 December 2023. It will empower the UK and devolved Governments to amend, repeal and replace their retained EU law more quickly. It will also include a sunset date by which all remaining retained EU law will either be repealed or, if a decision is made to keep it, stripped of interpretive provisions associated with retained EU law, and assimilated. I noted the comment of the hon. Member for Glasgow North, being a fellow “Star Trek” fan; although I disagree with his analogy, I understood the concept of the Borg, which probably has not been mentioned in Parliament very often. The key point is that any retained EU law that we keep will be assimilated into domestic law.
The Bill will enable the Government and, where appropriate, the devolved Governments to take back control of the UK statute book. The powers in the Bill will enable swift reform of the laws—more than 2,500 in total—derived from the UK’s membership of the EU. Many of those laws are outdated; some are even inoperable or not fit for the UK’s economic circumstances. That is why reform is needed.
Without the Bill, there is a risk that retained EU law becomes an immutable category of law on the statute book. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 preserved EU laws as if they had effect in domestic law immediately before the end of the transition period following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It is manifestly sensible that we all have the power to repeal or reform those laws and that we do so without delay.
Surely the point is that if this Parliament has regained sovereignty, in the way that the Brexiteers claimed it has, it has that power and can do it on a case-by-case, piece-by-piece basis, as people come forward with allegedly sensible improvements to the retained EU law. Having the end of next year as a sunset clause is just completely arbitrary; it is not necessary. The whole point of the Brexit case, as I understood it, was that this Parliament could take its time and assert its sovereignty, and change these hangover regulations as and when it saw fit, and not with an arbitrary sunset clause.
I thank the hon. Member for his comments, but no—we need to make sure that there is certainty on this issue. Having that date is absolutely essential to make sure that we are working towards it and ensuring that there is commonality in the way we work across these regulations and laws. Ultimately, however, this is what the British people—people across the United Kingdom—voted for. I appreciate that saying that may open up a whole load of new interventions, so I will hesitate to go down that rabbit hole.
This Bill will provide both the UK Government and the devolved Governments with the powers to amend, repeal and replace these laws more quickly and more easily than before. It will enable the devolved Governments to establish a more nimble, innovative and UK-specific regulatory approach, in order to go further and faster to seize the opportunities of Brexit.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned devolved Governments quite a few times and I understand the reasons for that. I just want to make it absolutely clear, and I will reiterate this because it is so important, that the decisions for those in devolved Governments to make—the choice to preserve, amend or repeal retained EU law in their areas—are theirs to make. I will come on to this again a bit later in my comments.
The measures in the Bill are UK-wide. This will ensure that citizens and businesses across all four nations of the UK are able to realise the benefits of Brexit. Nothing in our proposed legislation affects the devolution settlements. The proposed legislation will not restrict the competence of either the devolved legislatures or the devolved Governments. In fact, the powers in the Bill will give the devolved Governments greater flexibility to decide how they should regulate those areas that are currently governed by retained EU law in the future.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) wants to make the same point. The Minister is refusing to give us examples, so let us give him an example and he can tell us whether it would be allowable. Say food regulations were reduced and chlorinated chicken in this country was allowed. What would stop a Scottish supermarket selling chlorinated chicken even if the Scottish Government, under those rules, would not allow that to happen in terms of their food safety responsibilities under devolution?
I shall assume that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute wanted to make the same point. To be absolutely clear, the premise of the Bill is to enable the conversations to happen among the UK Government and the devolved Governments and to enable us to look at the best way to ensure that we have very high standards in our approach around a whole load of areas. It is not about trying to reduce the quality of food or any of those things. The UK has always had very high standards. I will come to that later in my speech.
The Minister has failed to answer the question, which is very specific. He talks about conversations being had, but this is not about conversations. It is about where decision making and power lie. If the Scottish Parliament decided that chlorinated chicken was banned, but the UK Parliament decided that chlorinated chicken was okay, what would stop chlorinated chicken appearing on supermarket shelves in Scotland? That is a very specific question.
I take the intervention. The key point here is that this is about the Bill, and the conversations between the UK Government, through devolution, with the Scottish Government and others are yet to be had. We have to have those conversations, and the Bill will enable them to be had and to look at how we put those regulations in place. The idea that the UK is somehow going to start to reduce quality with respect to food or any other area is a rehash of old, proven-to-be-untrue Brexit arguments, and it is not the case here. I am going to make progress and I will come to some of those points later.
The majority of the powers in the Bill will be conferred on the devolved Governments. Conferring those powers will provide the devolved Governments with the tools to reform retained EU law in areas of devolved competence. That will enable the Scottish Government to make active decisions about the retained EU law that is within their devolved competence, for the benefit of citizens and businesses throughout Scotland. When using the powers of the Bill, the Government will use the appropriate mechanisms, such as the common frameworks, to engage with the devolved Governments. That will enable us to take account of wider context and allow for joined-up decision making across the UK.
The Government believe that a sunset provision is the quickest and most effective way to remove or amend all retained EU law on the UK statute book. That will incentivise genuine reform of retained EU law. The reform is needed, and it will help to drive economic growth. It will also enable us to capitalise on the rich vein of opportunity afforded to us via Brexit.
The sunset provision will of course not include Acts of Parliament, or indeed Acts of the devolved legislatures. It is right that an Act that has received proper parliamentary scrutiny should be the highest law of the land. Most retained EU law, however, sits on our statute book as a constitutional anomaly—somewhere between primary legislation and secondary, neither here nor there. It never received proper parliamentary scrutiny, and unless we actively want it, it ought to be removed.
The power to preserve specified pieces of retained EU law will also be conferred on the devolved Governments. That will enable the Scottish Government to decide which retained EU law they wish to preserve and assimilate, and which they wish to allow to sunset within their devolved competence.
Time is pressing, so I appreciate the Minister giving way. Given what he has just said, will he confirm now that should the Scottish Government decide to preserve all retained EU law, that would be respected and upheld by the Government here at Westminster?
I will come to that later, so the hon. Gentleman will get his answer. Ultimately, we are saying that where there is devolved competence and where there is engagement on that, absolutely we will work together on it.
I want to assure the House that the Government are committed to ensuring that the Bill works for all parts of the UK. We have carefully considered how it will impact each of the four nations, in close discussion with the devolved Governments, and it is of paramount importance that our legislatures function in a way that makes certain that we can continue to work together as one.
The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that the Bill is consistent with the devolved arrangements, and we remain committed to respecting the devolution settlements and the Sewel convention. Indeed, the Business Secretary has made that commitment clear in his engagement with Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Angus Robertson. The Government have sought legislative consent from the devolved legislatures for the provisions in the Bill that engage the legislative consent motion process. Both I and the Business Secretary look forward to engaging with the devolved Governments on the process of seeking legislative consent as the Bill progresses through Parliament. Alongside that, the Business Secretary and I remain committed to engaging with our devolved counterparts as the Bill moves through. We will work together to address any concerns and ensure that the Bill works for all parts of the UK.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked about devolved settlements. We are not changing the constitutional settlement. The Scottish Government will still have control of areas within devolved competence, including food standards. On workers’ rights, the UK has one of the best records on workers’ rights—those high standards were never dependent on the EU—and we intend to continue them. Environmental protections will not be weakened. We want to ensure that environmental law is fit for purpose and able to drive improved environmental outcomes.
The Minister has been hugely generous in taking interventions—he is a friendly Minister—but he is not quite answering the questions. He is pretending to answer the questions, but is not quite doing so. Let me give him a practical example. Before 31 December 2023, the EU law on food standards is revoked. The UK Government decide that chlorinated chicken is allowed into our food system in this country—currently, under EU retained law, it is not—and the Scottish Government, under their food standards devolved powers, decide that they will not allow that to happen. What happens? Do we end up with chlorinated chicken in Scotland? Or, with the Scottish Parliament having made that decision, will there be no chlorinated chicken on the shelves of Scottish supermarkets?
To be clear, as I understand it, the preservation will be respected. If the Scottish Government want to preserve legislation within their competency, the UK will respect it. I think there is clarity on that. I am happy to write to hon. Members to confirm in more detail, but that is my understanding of the Bill. The premise at the moment is that we have to make sure that we get the Bill through to enable those activities to happen—to enable the work between the Governments and to deliver on those benefits for our citizens and businesses.
On food standards, the Government made a clear manifesto commitment that, in all trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. In any case, that is always going to be a high bar that we will deliver on.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked about impact assessments. There will be an impact assessment of the measures in the Bill during the passage of the Bill. The Bill is an enabling Bill. Further work will be done by Departments, while reviewing specific rules. That is why I am not getting drawn into specifics, because this is the framework for those conversations to be had and those conversations will then have impact assessments aligned to them.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun made some comments about sewage. I want to be clear: we will not weaken protections. The UK is a world leader in environmental protections and we are committed to delivering our legally binding targets to halt nature’s decline by 2030. The Government have a clear environmental and climate goals set out in the 25-year environment plan and the net zero strategy. Any changes to environmental regulation will need to support the goals. This whole nonsense is repeatedly put out—that somehow we have voted as a Government to put more sewage in waterways. We have put more protections in place to stop it happening and we are the first Government to do that in decades. We have to be really clear in the accuracy of the language we use in Parliament. We have not voted to do that; we have actually improved measures around the environment.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North—I consider him a friend and would address him as my honourable friend—asked about the Public Bill Committee. I cannot say at the moment whether there will be a PBC or not. I am sure that will be decided in a matter of weeks.
For me, this is about ensuring that we help growth and that businesses can focus on doing business and not filling out forms. Ultimately, we need to ensure that individuals across the country know where they stand and that when they vote for their parliamentarian—their MP—they know that they have the right to change the rules and the law and do not have to wait for unelected bureaucrats elsewhere to do so.
The Bill is an essential piece of legislation. It will enable all four nations of the UK to capitalise on the regulatory autonomy offered by our departure from the EU and fully realise the opportunities of Brexit. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate in this debate that the Government are committed to devolution and working collaboratively and constructively with the devolved Governments. We need to make sure we are moving on and that the UK has the ability to make the laws that we were elected to do. We have an opportunity collectively to seize the opportunities of Brexit and cement ourselves as a leader in the global world.
I thank everyone who has taken part this morning. What we lacked in numbers we certainly made up for in quality. I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and even the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who, despite his best efforts to go on a fishing expedition very early on this Tuesday morning, will have noticed that I and my colleagues are far too long in the tooth to bite, particularly this early in the morning.
I thank the Minister for what he said. I am delighted that he confirmed that, should the Scottish Government decide to preserve all retained EU law, that would be respected and upheld by the Government here in Westminster. But nothing that he has said has altered the fact that on the rights and protections—
I just want to be clear on the wording that the hon. Member used. I said that if the Scottish Government want to preserve all areas within their competency, the UK Government will respect that. I want to be clear that that is what was being repeated back.
Okay—as we dance on the head of a pin this early in the morning. What it does not change is the fact that our rights and protections that we have enjoyed for 40-odd years in the areas of food standards, animal welfare and environmental protections are under threat. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun says, why would the Government legislate to ensure that we cannot get access to the biggest market in the world sitting on our doorstep? Nothing the Minister has said changes my position that they are coming for our Parliament. The sooner we are out of this Union and rejoin the European Union, the better.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the impact of retained EU law on the Scottish devolution settlement.
Off-grid Homes: Energy Support
I will call Fay Jones to move the motion and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate, as is the convention in 30-minute debates. I can see that a lot of Members want to make interventions, but I ask them to keep them snappy to be fair to the Member leading the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered energy support for off-grid homes.
It is lovely to see you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I am delighted to see the Minister here; I welcome him to his place. He and I have a history of working together; the last time we did a double act was in moving the Loyal Address back in May. There are many Members present, and I intend to be as generous as possible in taking interventions, as I want the Minister to be fully aware of the strength of feeling on this issue. It is evident that this subject has cross-party support.
As a country, we have faced a multitude of challenges over the past few years. Although we often faced bleak forecasts, the Government have done well to steer us through the obstacles, and the global energy crisis is no different a challenge. Russia’s aggressive and brutal invasion of Ukraine shocks us with its barbarity, and it has had very real impacts on our energy markets. As we and others adjust and rightly manoeuvre away from dependence on Russian energy, we must overcome the logistical challenges in our way.
We are fortunate in this country that our dependence on Russian gas was minimal. However, global supply disruptions, high energy prices, geopolitical turmoil and an as yet unrealised transition away from carbon-intensive energy sources are causing real concerns for my constituents and many others across the United Kingdom.
The fact that so many Members are here is an indication of how important the issue is. The hon. Lady asked me before whether this issue will affect Northern Ireland—of course it will. Some 68% of people in Northern Ireland are oil-dependent. I live in a rural constituency, and on its outskirts, “off grid” refers to those who depend on coal. I appreciate that the Government have taken massive steps to help, but does the hon. Lady think that they need to monitor the situation over the next few months to ensure that the people who need help most get it?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important issue to the House. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, two thirds of Northern Irish homes are on oil, and half of the remaining third use keypad meters. My Assembly colleagues have brought forward a proposal to issue a voucher, consistent with the support we are giving to gas customers and based on the Northern Ireland high street voucher scheme, which we used last year. Is the hon. Lady aware of any modelling being done to allow the Government to issue support directly to households that they can use with oil suppliers in their area?
As I say, we discussed this in great depth on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and I hope we continue to do so. I am not aware of any modelling, but I am keen for the Government to explore all options to see how this can be rectified. All hon. Members are keen to ensure parity.
There is a feeling of unfairness among the many rural households across the country that we collectively represent.
It is vital that those who live off grid, of whom there are 12,000 in my part of the west country, get additional support to reflect their increased vulnerability to price rises. That includes those who use heating oil, those who live in park homes and those who use solid fuels. The £100 offered by the Government simply does not come close to the scale of price increases we have seen, but I am concerned about the speed—
I think the Government have done extremely well—the issue of park homes has been rectified, and I firmly commend them for that—but I want to see further support for off-gas-grid homes.
The Government mobilised a rapid response to the energy crisis earlier this autumn and are supporting all households through a variety of means. This is the right thing to do and I commend the Government for their approach. However, I am concerned that not enough is being done to support rural households.
I will make a touch more progress, and then I promise I will bring my hon. Friend in.
The cost of heating oil has skyrocketed this year. Consumers are experiencing a 21% increase from two months ago, and a nearly 60% increase compared with prices before the war in Ukraine. That is unsustainable for many households. People in rural areas are, on average, five years older than the national average in urban areas. They are often vulnerable and especially susceptible to changes in energy prices.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate about a very important issue for all our areas. In her part of the world, and in rural Cumbria, off-grid households and businesses rely on heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas, biomass, wood and so on. We welcome that the Government have recognised that, but does she agree that the £100 support must be looked at? People often have to make minimum orders of 500 litres. We urge the Government to do more to address the issue.
My hon. Friend’s constituency is much like mine, with often challenging topography and older housing stock that leaks energy. He and I share the same concern, and I want the Government to look at the amount of support offered to rural areas.
The Government have so far introduced a series of short-term measures designed to assist the lowest-income households through extraordinary times. It is an ambitious and comprehensive package of support, necessitated by the severity of the situation, and it rightly supports the most vulnerable in the short term; however, for rural homes, it is lacking. Only £100 has been announced so far. I am confident that the Government can go further.
On Monday, the Chancellor announced a review of the energy price guarantee, so that it will apply not for two years but for six months; in April, we will look to introduce a targeted system of support. My concern is that, if we do not do more now, we will increase the number of people who are considered more vulnerable later this year.
The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. It would be very well received in my vast and very remote constituency if a Government Minister agreed to come north and meet with citizens advice organisations. That would mean a huge amount to people. I am willing to offer bed and breakfast—and maybe a dram—to any visiting Minister.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I am sure that the Minister will cover it in his speech. I will talk about some of the groups that can input into this debate once I have taken the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately).
I commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Many of my constituents, particularly those who use heating oil and those who live in park homes, are extremely worried about how they will cope with costs. I am grateful to the Government for the support that has been announced, but it is not enough. We need more clarity and further certainty about the protections that will be available for these residents.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The Government have taken some extraordinary, comprehensive steps, but there are some gaps, which she is right to highlight.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, in the past few days I have met Liquid Gas UK and National Energy Action. It is apparent that the Government’s short-term approach is universally welcomed, but there is more to do. NEA was quick to outline that my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire has one of the highest levels of off-gas-grid properties in the UK: up to two thirds of my constituents are dependent on heating oil to heat their homes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. A lot of Members are talking about very rural constituencies. Mine, which lies on the edge of York, is not amazingly rural, but we still have a lot of off-grid communities that are reliant on off-grid energy support. Does that add weight to her argument? We are not talking just about remote rural communities; the issue affects vast areas of the country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am glad that he made that very important point. My constituency is heavily rural, but people need only live half a mile or a mile outside one of its larger towns to be off the gas grid. This is not a remote rural problem; it affects a huge amount of the population. I would be remiss not to say, Mrs Murray, that it probably affects a large number of your constituents too, which gives us even more reason to be delighted to see you in the Chair.
The Country Land and Business Association reports that 70% of rural housing across the United Kingdom is off the gas grid and has to use alternative heating methods, such as oil. We must not forget those heating their homes using LPG or wood pellets. They are currently not receiving equity of support with more urban households or those on the gas grid.
Like many others here, I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured the debate. My constituency of Eddisbury is like hers, with a high proportion of people off the grid. There is a particular issue with how dual-purpose properties, where a farmhouse might provide accommodation or there is accommodation above a pub, could be supported by the Government’s welcome scheme. It would be helpful if the Minister addressed that point.
I have never had such a workout in Westminster Hall! I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his intervention; the Minister will have heard his point. It is also important to consider the commercial aspect of this issue, because a lot of businesses heat premises via heating oil, LPG or pellets. We forget the rural economy at our peril.
I want to mention the case of a constituent who contacted me about the cost and availability of heating oil. She lives high up in the Black Mountains, where the weather is colder and more severe. Her home is in a beautiful place, but it is in an austere position, without a connection to mains gas. She told me earlier this month that she had bought 500 litres of oil, costing £500. That will barely last her through the winter. She is deeply concerned about how she will afford to heat her home this winter and the remainder of the year.
Between May 2020 and May 2022, the average price of heating oil in the UK increased almost 250%. Some communities are reporting increases in LPG costs of around 200%. The price of logs has more than doubled for many. It is therefore vital that off-grid homes in rural areas do not lose out on this support.
I thank my hon. Friend for leading this debate. I have had many constituents on Ynys Môn write to me, as 60% of them rely on off-grid energy for heating. The average cost of filling an oil tank has almost doubled this year. Although they are grateful for the £100 heating oil payment, that is simply not enough. On behalf of my constituents and those of other rural constituencies across the UK, I ask whether the Minister agrees that a price cap should be applied to off-grid heating oil and LPG, mirroring that applied to gas and electricity.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I, too, hope that the Minister addresses that point. It is important to remember that those living off the gas grid are not subject to the protection of the energy price cap. I hope the Minister acknowledges that point.
I want to allow some time for the Minister to respond, but a point I would like to press this morning is that rural areas are not wealthy. It is misleading to think that, because we live in beautiful homes, we do not suffer some of the social pressures that the rest of the country does. Rural poverty is often masked by the relative affluence of rural areas, and by a culture of self-reliance in rural communities, but self-reliance cannot be how my constituents stay warm this winter. Rural homes are often older, damper, draughtier and more poorly insulated than those in urban areas. In the long term, it is right that those issues are addressed, to improve overall energy efficiency, decarbonise our homes and save money for our constituents. However, the short-term needs of people who live in rural areas need to be addressed now.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way just before she reaches her conclusion. Her constituency, albeit in Wales, will be similar to mine in Angus, where the 3,500 houses that rely on oil are in the more remote places, further up the glen where the weather is much colder. It is a double whammy for people. Does she agree that, when the Government review the situation, they should accept that £100 does not cut it and that we need a far more significant intervention in the oil market?
I do. We have heard a chorus of unanimity this morning, and I hope that the Minister has heard that message. The hon. Gentleman underlines my great concern that if we do not do more now, we will create a bigger cost for the Treasury later in the year, when the Chancellor moves to a targeted package of support for the most vulnerable. We will increase the number of those people if we do not do more now. I am very concerned, and I look to the Government to take more urgent action.
It is clear from the debate that there is unanimity right across the House. It is imperative that we speak for rural communities and ensure that we deliver equity between those who live in rural homes and those who live in urban homes. I urge the Government to reconsider whether more could be done to support rural households. Perhaps the Minister will also outline how the £100 payment will be delivered. We do not yet have that detail from the Department, and I would like to see that uncertainty ended.
I am so grateful to my hon. Friend, who is doing a wonderful job of representing the interests of millions of rural and urban residents around the country who are not on the grid. Last Friday, I held a winter support summit in my constituency, where I brought together all the organisations that can help people, from charities and businesses to schools and councils. To help the Minister, there are some schemes that large energy companies are running to help the most vulnerable. I encourage hon. Members to look into that, because there is some help that can support the work that I am sure the Minister will tell us about.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, which gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to all those supporting vulnerable individuals through this winter, whether in rural or urban areas. We could not get by without the support of many of the charities and social organisations that are supporting those who deal with fuel poverty issues.
I will sit down shortly—I hope that I have allowed all Members to speak—but I hope that the Minister is clear about the strength of feeling on this issue. It is imperative that the Government come forward with a package of measures that matches their ambitious and comprehensive support for those who live on the gas grid; I would like to see that replicated for my constituents who live off the grid.
It is a great pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray—for the first time, I think. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing the debate. We can see how motivated rural colleagues are across the House; we have the Liberal Democrats here, we have Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the SDLP and of course a large mass of Conservative Members. It is pretty shocking, given the importance and topicality of the issue, that His Majesty’s Opposition did not even bother to turn up. I thank everyone else for doing so, and for taking this issue seriously.
Colleagues will know that I have long been involved in this issue. My constituency has a lot of people who are off grid; I have spent a lot of time fighting the inequities of Government systems of support, which too often are shaped around urban needs and ignore or try to fit the rural into some urban pattern. That does not work, and too often the system, under successive Governments, has failed properly to recognise the needs of rural areas that, because of their natural grittiness, put up with it more than they should.
I welcome the Minister to his position, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on a brilliant debate. The Minister talked about the equity between off grid and those who have access to the grid. For people in South Suffolk on heating oil who have contacted me, one of the key issues is that it is not regulated; there is no cap and so on. Is it not the case that in practice that may be difficult because of the size of the producers, and therefore the issue is competition? Can he assure us that he keeps the competitiveness of the market under review? The worry I have is that as it gets tougher, we get more agglomeration, and that is how we get higher prices in the long run.
As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and has gone to the heart of the issue. The Government recognise and understand the pressures that people are facing with the cost of living. This is a deeply worrying time for many of our constituents, and we will continue to listen to their concerns, which have been well expressed by many colleagues today.
Wholesale energy prices have been rising due to global pressures, and the UK is hardly alone in feeling the pinch. It is important to recognise how significantly this Government have stepped in. Back in May, £37 billion of support was announced, which altogether means that the most vulnerable households are receiving £1,200 a year—£100 a month—before we get to the energy price guarantee and the alternative fuel payments. It is important to put that on the record. There is a lot of support for all of our more vulnerable and rural constituents. The hare that is running—and this has been repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire today—is that it is inequitable. On the face of it, that £100 intuitively does not feel right. However, I will take colleagues through the numbers and explain why there is equity, while also recognising the issue of monitoring. That is important, and the Government are going to monitor the situation going forward.
Heating oil prices have risen more than prices for other alternative fuels such as coal, biomass and others. The Government have picked a point in time; we looked at what the situation was going into winter last year and compared it with this year—then we have sought to provide protection. We have looked at the numbers for September last year to September this year. LPG, coal and biomass have risen less than heating oil. The average price of heating oil in September 2021 was 40.6p per litre in Great Britain. A year later, that average price is 100.3p. For those colleagues who have talked about a 60% rise, it actually comes to a 147% rise. The average use of heating oil over a year is 1,514 litres; that used to cost £615, but has gone up to £1,415. That has a serious impact on those with the least. I have already talked through the £37 billion package. The difference in the current bill is around £100—that has been the rise.
The cost of heating for the average on-grid home would have increased by approximately 220% in that same year to October. The energy price guarantee lowers that increase, through unparalleled Government intervention to support people, which I think we can be proud of and should do a better job of trumpeting. Over the same period the price of heating oil rose by 150%. It has been dampened by the EPG for on-grid homes to 130%. Probably due to market competition and lack of Government intervention—I am not saying that that is the only explanation—heating oil rose by 150%. That is where the £100 comes in. I beg colleagues on all side of the House to stop the hare running; there is comparable support. I can say that as someone with many oil-heated and LPG homes in my constituency; it is comparable.
The question is about going forward—what if prices spike? That is why, quite rightly, colleagues have pressed me and the Government to monitor the situation and to be prepared to intervene if necessary. I cannot pledge precisely that that intervention would happen, but we are going to monitor the situation with a view to being able to intervene if necessary and maintain the equity that I assure colleagues is in place.
I thank my right hon. Friend for putting that explanation on the record. The £100 figure has been totemic. As that is a very technical response, it would be ideal if he were able—with his copious free time—to provide us with a “Dear colleague” letter that we could all share with our constituents. I also acknowledge the enormous help that the Government have provided to people on the grid. The energy price guarantee and the vulnerable household payments that the Minister set out are incredibly helpful. The next question I am bound to ask—I sense some parliamentary questions—
Let me return to my scripted speech, which I seem to have entirely ignored so far, and hope to get to that answer. The energy bill support scheme—there are so many; I struggle with the acronyms myself, and I am responsible for them—provides £400 per household to assist with the cost of rising energy prices and in most cases is being delivered automatically through domestic energy suppliers.
There is a small proportion of households, including off-grid homes, that will experience increased energy costs but do not have those domestic energy supply contracts. I assure hon. Members that the Government are committed to ensuring that they receive support for energy costs. We are working rapidly to ensure that off-grid households will be able to apply for the scheme. We do not have a centrally controlled society. We do not have a database of everybody—they are not forced to register—so we are finding practical ways and looking to find designated parties to help to administer the scheme, and to do so in real time, this winter; having a perfect system next winter is of no help to people who need help now.
I am going to press on as I have so little time left. The alternative fuel payment is an additional one-off payment of £100, which is provided equally. Both schemes will be delivered across the UK and we have been working with devolved Administrations to understand how best to deliver it. It is important that all households receive support from the Government this winter, including harder-to-reach households that are not benefiting from the energy price guarantee or automatic energy bill support.
There were questions earlier about park homes and farmers. Our aim would be a system that ensures that each household receives the support. We are looking to find the right counterparties in Northern Ireland and GB to make sure that that is in place. Some forms of delivery will be more burdensome administratively than others, but for the most part, where we are able to do things automatically, consumers have to do nothing.
Will the hon. Gentleman bear with me? I have so little time left and I would like to get these points on the record.
The Government are seeking to ensure that nobody is inadvertently excluded from the generous package of support that is being provided. As the Chancellor emphasised in his statement on Wednesday, the Government’s priority will always be to support the most vulnerable. That is why we are ensuring that individuals not covered by other schemes will be able to apply for the £400 of energy bill support and, if relevant, the additional £100 alternative fuel payment.
I looked at these schemes as Exchequer Secretary in the Treasury, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the complexity of helping people who are off grid, as well as about the competition in the heating oil market. It is very helpful that he has set out the figures and the rationale for that help. Can I push him to address the need for reassurance on what happens if prices go up further, and on the need for clarity, for people in park homes for instance?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. As well as getting the policy right, a lot of government is about communication and I hope there will be a “Dear colleague” letter, working with colleagues, to get those messages out. I am sure no one would want to say that maintaining something was not fair, when it in fact was—we have to get the information out there and it is our responsibility to do that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and there are two parts to our interventions, one for business and one for homes. If the homes scheme is complex, the business one is even more so. There is a vast variety of contracts. Coming into this Department from elsewhere in Government, I have been amazed at the quality of work done by officials. They have been working nights and weekends, day after day. I am just on the receiving end of the submissions and feel a bit knocked down; they are producing the schemes succinctly, and dealing with very complex issues and delicate balancing acts, to make sure that we balance timely intervention against perfection. Perfection is not possible. What we can do and what we will work on, with the help of colleagues, is to be transparent.
We are trying to get payment to those who have bought ahead. In terms of timing, we cannot time payment exactly with when they are purchasing. What we can seek to do is to make sure that they are getting comparable levels of support and that we are monitoring the situation going forward.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Transport in Nottinghamshire
[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Transport in Nottinghamshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate the Minister on her inaugural Westminster Hall debate. I thank colleagues from across our great county for attending this debate, and I look forward to hearing their contributions. I know that there are other county colleagues who would be here had their ministerial obligations allowed them.
If I may, Sir George, I want to take you on a journey to the heart of England, to a place where the English civil war began and ended. It gave the world Boots the chemist, D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Sir Paul Smith, Torvill and Dean, Ken Clarke and Ed Balls. The strapline of Nottingham City Council used to be “Our style is legendary”. I submit that, across the arts and sciences, from medicine to sport, from politics to business and literature, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire compete on not only a national but an international stage.
In a global world, connectivity is key. It is therefore appropriate to talk about transport in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. I will talk about recent successes and what more we need to do. Our great county is not one of forests and bows and arrows; its legendary style is taking us into the future. Nottinghamshire is to host the world’s first fusion energy power plant at a site near Retford, bringing billions of pounds and thousands of jobs to the region. The East Midlands freeport, including the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station site in Rushcliffe, is the UK’s only inland freeport and promises to position the region as a green tech trailblazer, driving significant new job growth in the region as well as local and international trade.
But we need the funding to match those ambitions. The East Midlands Chamber and east midlands councils analysed the Treasury’s latest public expenditure statistical analysis for 2021. They found that there was a particular deficit in transport infrastructure spending, at just 64.7% of the UK average for 2020-21—the joint lowest of any UK region or nation. If the east midlands were funded at a level equivalent to the national average, it would have an extra £1.26 billion a year to spend on transport.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a growing gap in transport spend between the east midlands and the west midlands, where spend has been rising. In 2016-17, the £217 per head spent on transport in the east midlands was two thirds of the £322 received by the west midlands, and by 2019-20 that proportion had declined to 61%.
Before speaking about how we might remedy that, I want to praise the good news. I welcomed the publication of the integrated rail plan in 2021, which offered a £96 billion package. The Sun newspaper described the east midlands as the big winners of the plan, and I am particularly keen to see High Speed 2 come to Nottinghamshire to reduce not only travel times to London but the journey time from Nottingham to Birmingham from 74 minutes to 26 minutes. John Lewis might have closed its store in central Birmingham, but residents of Edgbaston and Selly Oak will have no trouble coming to Nottingham to shop.
I also welcome the integrated rail plan’s inclusion of the full electrification of the midland main line. It has been a long time coming. I remember as an 18-year-old attending my first Conservative parliamentary selection meeting for the 2001 general election and hearing the campaign hopefuls talking about it then. We seem finally to be making progress on that. I ask the Minister to confirm that the Government remain committed to delivering the integrated rail plan in full, including the plans for the east midlands generally and Nottinghamshire in particular, and that recent announcements about Northern Powerhouse Rail will not affect the county.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate on such an important topic. Does he share my concern that we have been promised investment in east midlands transport many times, only to be disappointed? Schemes such as the electrification of the midland main line have been promised and then withdrawn. Does he share my concern that we are having to wait longer and longer for the improved transport services that our region needs? Does he share my hope that the Minister will commit to some timescales for the completion of the electrification and the HS2 link to the east midlands?
The hon. Lady comes to this debate with more experience than me of being a Nottinghamshire MP, having been in this House for some time. Also, as a former Chair of the Transport Committee, she speaks with some experience of this issue in particular. However, I come here optimistic and hopeful that we will see the progress that has perhaps eluded us for too long.
Our railways are not just about inter-city travel; getting into and out of cities from suburbs, towns and villages is equally important. The integrated rail plan offered, business case permitting, investment in the Robin Hood and Maid Marian lines. Can the Minister say whether these schemes are included in the Department’s acceleration unit’s portfolio of projects?
In my constituency of Gedling, we have three railway stations—Burton Joyce, Carlton and Netherfield—that are not being used to their full potential. They are pleasant stations, but local residents complain that if they have a train to take them to work in the morning, they will not necessarily have one to take them home. Too many trains pass through Gedling stations without stopping and rail services do not run late enough for the train to be an option for those travelling to the city of Nottingham for leisure.
This can and must be remedied. Improvements on the lines between Nottingham, Lincoln and Grantham can help to make rail journeys competitive with car journeys. I know that the Minister will receive a business case from Midlands Connect in the new year on how to make improvements on this line. Can she make a quick determination on that proposal? If she would like to visit any of those stations to help her to understand the problem, she is more than welcome to visit.
Netherfield station stands on the Grantham line, which runs south from Nottingham, which brings me to another serious topic: crossing the river. In “Henry IV, Part One”, Hotspur speaks of
“the smug and silver Trent”.
I would not describe the Trent as “silver” these days, but perhaps the river had reason to fill “smug” in February 2020, when it succeeded in bringing gridlock to Nottingham. There are three bridges across the River Trent in Greater Nottingham. The latest was opened to traffic in the early 1980s, having originally been built as a railway bridge in the 1870s. Over time, the growing city has had to rely on these existing connections, which lie in the centre of the western city.
In February 2020, it was discovered that water damage had corroded steelwork under the Clifton bridge, which is the only dual carriageway crossing in Greater Nottingham. That caused the temporary closure of the east bridge, which carries all eastbound traffic and one lane of westbound traffic, while the bridge was repaired. The closure of the Clifton bridge brought large parts of the city to a standstill at rush hour, including traffic on the A612 in Gedling, which is on the other side of Greater Nottingham. Natalie Fahy, editor of The Nottingham Post, wrote at the time:
“The closure of Clifton Bridge means traffic has been chaotic, with journeys of just a few miles taking people hours to complete. The QMC has been hard to reach, being stuck right at the epicentre of the crisis. Throw into the mix a high-stakes Forest game at home and you’ve got a big Nottingham problem.”
“The problem we’ve got is that there is no slack in our traffic system. We are incredibly vulnerable.”
Ms Fahy’s analysis is, I submit, entirely right. One remedy would be to construct a fourth crossing for road traffic across the River Trent in Greater Nottingham. A fourth Trent crossing to the east of the city would relieve the pressure on the existing system. If it was constructed in, for example, Colwick, that would complement the recently built Gedling access road, while also providing better services and better access to the A46 for residents in the eastern side of Nottingham.
Midlands Connect has described the A46, which runs from Somerset to Lincolnshire, as one of the country’s most important trade routes, performing an important local, regional and national function. The Government have previously signalled their commitment to the importance of the A46 in Nottinghamshire by widening the single carriageway section between Newark and Widmerpool, and there are plans for an A46 Newark bypass. A fourth Trent crossing would connect Gedling to the A46 corridor. I spoke earlier about the East Midlands freeport and the thousands of green jobs that it is destined to create. I want my constituents to be able to access those jobs, which a fourth Trent crossing would help them to do.
A full bridge would be costly, and I appreciate that infrastructure projects take time and need to progress step by step. However, I would be grateful if the Minister signalled her support for a strategic outline business case for such a project, which even in these financially straitened times would come in at a much more manageable £150,000.
I must resist the temptation to be too Gedling-focused in any debate about Nottinghamshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) cannot contribute to today’s debate, let me also mention Nottinghamshire County Council’s £40 million levelling-up bid to finance the planned Toton link road. The new link road would consist of a one-mile, single carriageway track between the A52 east of Bardills island and Stapleford lane, taking the form of a high-quality, landscaped boulevard with significant tree planting and walking and cycling routes. I know from the recently opened Gedling access road, which cost a similar amount, how transformative such a scheme can be. The Minister will be instinctively coy about commenting on levelling-up funding, but I gently ask whether the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is aware of the merits of these proposals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe would have also mentioned bus services and the vital lifeline they provide for elderly and vulnerable constituents, citing particular concern about the withdrawal of the L10 and L11 services in Bramcote, and now the withdrawal of the number 21. Other Members will likely also mention bus services, but locally in Gedling, I welcome the Government’s support for the bus service improvement plan, which will support a number of routes, including the 39, 53 and Lime Line services from Arnold to the city of Nottingham.
So far, I have focused on the south of the county. As someone who was born in Nottingham and lives in Arnold, I hope that is forgivable—I have tried to speak about what I know. I have also covered projects that might be considered high level. However, in any discussion about transport in Nottinghamshire, I ought to mention the concern of the average road user: potholes. It is no secret that Nottinghamshire’s roads need a bit of tender loving care, and the issue has been the subject of numerous local newspaper reports.
I will highlight two recent developments. The county council decided to replace—where possible—the much-hated, temporary “tarmac out of a bag” pothole repairs, which seemed to disintegrate as soon as workmen had tended to them, with a new patch repair way of cutting and filling, which works much better, lasts longer and is much neater. I also applaud the Conservative-run Nottinghamshire County Council’s decision to spend an extra £15 million on road repairs. Residents in and around Westdale lane in Carlton, to give one example of many, will much appreciate that forthcoming transformative investment.
We will hear shortly from the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), and others who will speak knowledgeably about the entire county, particularly the north. In general, I am positive about the future possibilities for transport in Nottinghamshire, and the forthcoming Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire devolution deal, which will see transport decisions made more locally. Nottingham and Nottinghamshire’s leaders have worked in partnership with the Government to deliver a series of announcements for our region. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ contributions on how we can make sure that not only our style, but our transport, is made legendary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) on securing this timely debate and welcome my hon. Friend the Minister. I feel sure that our transport woes are about to be magicked into thin air as she takes hold of her brief. I thank her for being here today.
The 20th century will be remembered for many things: the telephone, the television, the internet, two world wars, one World cup, Beatlemania, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and the second Elizabethan age. But it will also be remembered as the century where our public transport policy—pardon the pun—lost its way. Convinced as we were that the car was king, public transport infrastructure was neglected or destroyed. From Beeching to Blair, railways bore the brunt. Buses were brushed aside, and cycling and walking were relegated to the second division of transport choices.
It is only since the Conservative Government came into office in 2010 that this 20th-century, feet-of-clay thinking has been replaced with 21st-century, forward-looking optimism. That optimism reimagines our transport system around car-free journeys and reinvests in our public transport system. It is behind the Government’s drive to make record investment in transport to and from Nottinghamshire.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling mentioned, last autumn the integrated rail plan confirmed the delivery of HS2 right into the heart of Rushcliffe, to East Midlands Parkway station. That is also the heart of the new East Midlands freeport. We will get up and down our country faster. Train times from Nottingham to London will be cut by two thirds. We will get across our country faster. Train times from Nottingham to Birmingham will also be slashed by two thirds. It is a package worth more than £10 billion for the east midlands.
The arrival of HS2 will help to level up a region that has historically suffered from one of the lowest transport spending rates per head anywhere in country, and that is not all. We are also powering ahead with the electrification of the midland main line. As a result of that investment, travel to and from Nottinghamshire will be much faster than before. The Government’s vision for building big infrastructure is impressive, but smaller and—crucially, in the current climate—much cheaper investment is also needed to improve people’s daily journeys.
I am quite surprised to hear the hon. Member talking as if there were no investment in transport in Nottinghamshire under the last Labour Government, because of course Nottingham City Council was able to create its tram lines in that period, which have obviously been expanded in recent years. Does she share my concern, however, that I will have retired, and perhaps she will have too, before future improvements such as the electrification of the midland main line and HS2 actually appear in our constituencies?
Not at all. I looked up the last Labour Government’s delivery of miles of track, and it was something absolutely pathetic—something like 63 miles—so I have every faith that the delivery of the midland main line electrification and HS2 will come a lot faster than they would if Labour were in charge.
For my constituents, getting around Rushcliffe and into Nottingham, Loughborough and Melton is also key, and there are two issues I want to touch on in this debate. One is the train service from Radcliffe-on-Trent to Nottingham; the second is the issue of rural buses, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling highlighted.
In Radcliffe-on-Trent, we need a more reliable, frequent train service on the Poacher line, with trains every hour between 6.30 am and 10 pm, and every half an hour at peak times. Constituents have told me that the early finish to train services and the long gaps between trains mean they are not a realistic option for commuting, or for going into Nottingham in the evenings. There is also only step-free access on one side of the station for customers going into Nottingham. How those who cannot use steps are supposed to cross the railway tracks once they get back to Radcliffe is not entirely clear. We applied to the restoring your railway fund, but were refused on the grounds that our railway was already up and running. That is fair, but it seems a shame not to invest what must be a fraction of the cost of restoring a derelict track in order to enable more people to use an existing one.
I have been working with the Department for Transport and with East Midlands Railway, and we have made some good progress. Earlier morning services have been introduced, as has an additional peak service and evening service, and we have more services on Saturday and Sunday. However, we are still short of the regular service we need. DFT is working on a business case to extend the service, and East Midlands Railway has told us how popular the new services have been. I have been fortunate to have great support from previous rail Ministers, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the new ministerial team at the Department will continue to support the project to get more trains running to and from Nottingham and Radcliffe-on-Trent, serving this fast-growing community in my constituency.
Many of my constituents also rely on rural bus services to go to work, doctors’ appointments and the shops, and to visit friends and family. Last month, out of the blue, Trentbarton announced that it would be cutting the Skylink bus service between Nottingham and Loughborough. That service links many of my constituents in villages such as Sutton Bonington and Normanton-on-Soar to vital services in those centres. I would like to share with Members a couple of stories from constituents who rely on that service. Carol Payne says:
“I live on my own in a housing association property in the village and don’t drive. I also have a son with SEN who has recently started uni at Brackenhurst NTU, we chose this so that if he needed support we could meet in Nottingham. This is now not the case as the weekend service is cancelled and there is the worry the service could be cancelled altogether…I myself work in Loughborough”,
at the college,
“and rely on the bus to get to work and back. Without this service I cannot work which ultimately means I could lose my job and possibly my home if I can’t pay my bills. I cannot afford to move to Loughborough, as I would need to rent privately…I travel on this service twice a day…people use this particular service for work but it is also used by several young people who are using it to access Loughborough college and some schools.”
Jodie Warrington writes:
“I for one, and I know many other residents, use the bus to get to QMC for hospital appointments on a regular basis. I also use the bus to get into Loughborough to do the shopping. With two villages only having one corner shop and two very small community shops, how are we meant to shop cheaply with the cost of living? As far as residents are aware, no consultation has been sent regarding losing this bus service. I can’t afford taxis everywhere. How do we get to doctor’s appointments, hospital appointments, food shopping, top up gas and electric? I can’t walk the mile there and back to Pasture Lane stores in Sutton Bonington from Normanton with my disabilities. I have no family that I can really rely on.”
I am extremely grateful to Nottinghamshire County Council and the leader of said council, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who is sitting next to me, for stepping in to provide the funding for this service until April, while a review of bus services across the county is undertaken. I know that work patterns have changed for many people since the pandemic. Many routes that used to be commercially viable and could cross-subsidise those that were not, no longer make enough money.
We need to look at new ways to provide these services, such as the on-demand bus model being trialled in Nottinghamshire. We also need to address the issue of shortage of labour, because Trentbarton is struggling to get enough drivers to maintain its timetable. Buses have become irregular to the point where the timetable is part fact and part fiction. It is making daily tasks and journeys very difficult for my constituents. Just this morning, constituents from Cotgrave told me that last night lots of people were unable to get home as all the buses were suddenly cancelled, due to a lack of drivers.
Trentbarton is not the only bus company facing this problem. Having spoken to them, I understand that the main issues in recruiting drivers are people no longer wanting to work unsociable hours after the break over the pandemic, and the higher wages being offered to HGV drivers. Businesses up and down Rushcliffe in all sorts of sectors—transport, farming, hospitality and social care—all tell me of their difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff.
The tight labour market is one of the biggest supply-side issues facing businesses and inhibiting growth at the moment. I urge the Minister to take that feedback to colleagues, and also ensure that we have strong plans to encourage more people into careers across our transport sector. I also hope the Minister will be able to commit to a meeting with Nottinghamshire colleagues and Nottinghamshire County Council to discuss how we can continue to fund and deliver a strong rural bus network, right across the county.
We are getting funding but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield will set out in more detail in his speech, it comes with caveats, such as that the funding must be spent on bus lanes. On many of Rushcliffe’s rural roads there is no space for bus lanes—we would rather have the buses in the first place, please. Reliable buses and regular trains, accessible stations and timetables that mean that people who took the train to work can also get home: I accept those are not the sexy announcements that make the front page, but they are the vital bread-and-butter services that enable our constituents to use public transport to get to work, to take their family on an outing, to do their weekly shop, or to visit their doctor, dentist, hairdresser or dog groomer. Get the picture: it is important.
If we want to promote the use of public transport, it needs to be regular, reliable and convenient. Otherwise, why would people use it? The Government are trying to encourage more car-free journeys, so it is vital that investment is made in the local transport that people use every day, if we want to encourage people to use that instead of the car. I met a gentleman at a parish meeting in Keyworth last week, who told me that he used to get the bus to work in Nottingham. The bus had become so irregular and unreliable that it was taking him longer than it took his partner to drive from Keyworth to Coventry. He no longer takes the bus.
Strong public transport networks become even more vital when we consider the record number of new homes being built. In Rushcliffe we have seen far more new homes and developments than the national constituency average. They have been built without the infrastructure to match. Reform of the planning system is an issue for another debate; I can hear the Minister breathing a huge sigh of relief at that. The wider issue that is relevant today is that resilient public transport networks and infrastructure are even more vital in areas with significant numbers of new houses being built—areas such as Rushcliffe.
That brings me to my fourth point, which is, happily, about the fourth bridge—the one over the Trent, that is, as showcased earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling. My hon. Friend described the chaos that rained down on Nottinghamshire the weekend when Clifton bridge was shut for emergency repairs. I think I remember reading at the time that, on that weekend, Nottingham was the most congested city in not only the UK and Europe, but the world.
In conclusion, at the moment our infrastructure for crossing the Trent is stretched to capacity. I really hope that the Minister will commit to delivering the initial assessment of proposals so that we can consider our options, including costs and timescales. We have made fantastic leaps forward with big infrastructure investments, but we now need to focus on the issues that affect people getting around our constituencies every single day. Buses and trains need to be reliable and frequent; if they are, I am sure people will use them more and more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) on securing this important debate. I echo his words about the fourth Trent crossing; he is a keen campaigner on this issue and has been lobbying hard for several years to bring forward an idea that he has discussed with me in my role as leader of the council. The project is well beyond our local budget, but I would welcome the opportunity to work with the Government and bring forward a business case in the way my hon. Friend has described. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, who, even during our short seconds of conversation before this debate, has already made me decide that she is a breath of fresh air. I hope that will continue.
As colleagues have mentioned, I am the leader of the local transport authority, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to bang on at length about these issues—I think I have about an hour left to go through them all. I want to start with the very local and raise a couple of Mansfield-specific issues with the Minister. The first is the Robin Hood line. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) and I have been banging on about this now, in our various capacities, for about 12 years. We have made a lot of progress: the project has inched forward significantly, but it has only inched. We have had a commitment for a long time, but progress is slow. It was finally announced in the integrated rail plan, most recently, as part of the connections around Nottinghamshire in Toton, which are hugely important.
There is now further potential to link the existing Robin Hood line—it is still in place; it just needs upgrading—to projects such as STEP Fusion in the north of the locality. There is the opportunity to bring in billions in investment, jobs and growth and link all that together. We can improve on the issue and take local control over through our devolution deal, but should take any opportunity to accelerate the process or bring forward what is a smaller and perhaps less widely strategically vital project for the locality and the region, but hugely important to local communities, who just want to access work and leisure opportunities that they cannot at the minute without a car. Many cannot afford a car in those areas. The issue is hugely important to us and I welcome any opportunity to accelerate the project.
The second issue is the Sainsbury’s junction, as it is known locally, on the A60 in Mansfield. Frustratingly, at one point I had actually secured the funding the fix it. We worked hard prior to the pandemic to come up with a workable plan that we thought would improve the situation resulting from the district council’s helpful decision to put about 20 different businesses, including two supermarkets, into a retail site with one entrance and exit on to a busy trunk road. People can queue for up to an hour at Christmas to get out of it.
We came up with a plan and submitted it to the Government’s pinch point fund and were promptly told that we would get the money. That was the day before the pandemic hit, and the money was promptly—and quite understandably—reprioritised to other things. But the plan is there and the money was there. If we could get the money, we would crack on and do it. The issue is hugely important to my constituents. Does the Minister know whether such pinch point-type funding opportunities are likely to be revisited?
My final point, a positive one, is about the significant upgrades to the A614—the spine road up through the north of Nottinghamshire that allows many of my constituents to get to work—that are starting this year. We are keen to deliver those and accelerate the outcomes and the growth they will unlock around those communities. People will not be surprised to hear that inflationary pressures will have an impact. Are the Government minded to give support to deal with inflationary pressures around such projects? The good news is that work will commence later this year.
My colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) and for Gedling, have touched on the issues I want to raise, beyond Mansfield and into the county. The first is highways maintenance. A good quality highway network is absolutely key for residents in Nottinghamshire. It is always the number one thing that comes up in county council elections and in surveys; I imagine it will be the number one issue that people raise in our budget survey later this year. Although our care services are vital, they touch only a very small proportion of our residents, whereas everybody uses the roads.
We undertook a massive review about 12 months ago. It has now finished and has resulted in 50 different actions that we will take forward, including a longer-term programme of works and improving the way we repair local roads, including residential roads, with a move to a “right first time” approach where we make the more expensive, long-term repair that delivers the quality residents expect, instead of temporary repairs, wherever we can. We are also working hard to communicate better with residents to make sure they understand what is happening on their street and why and how long it will take, in advance of it happening, which has perhaps been lacking up to now. I am pleased we have been able to do that.
We have invested an additional £12 million over the next four years, on top of the £18.5 million annual DFT funding, to start to tackle the historic backlog of repairs. In truth, there is some £150 million-worth of repairs. If the Minister can find that down the back of the sofa, I can get it all sorted. It is a challenge. Dare I say that this is what happens when 32 years out of the last 40 have been Labour-led in the county? I knew Opposition Members would enjoy that remark.
The changes we have introduced are starting to make a real difference to residents on the ground. We have reduced the number of temporary repairs, which everybody hates to see, by nearly 60%, while doubling the number of square metres of high-quality repairs that we have been able to do over the past 12 months. Those outcomes are great, but we have thousands of miles of road to cover, so that is a really long-term project. We are making good progress. I welcome the announcement that the pothole element of the DFT funds will continue into next year. I hope we will get a good share to be able to tackle the backlog and continue to deliver this work.
On wider transport, and particularly buses, it is often forgotten how important they are—not just the local economy in terms of jobs, industry and the supply chain, but for connecting people to health and leisure opportunities and as support for my constituents in tackling health inequalities and having better lifestyles. That is hugely important to all of us.
We had a relatively good bus network around the county pre-covid, with high levels of satisfaction. The county council was consistently rated in the top three upper-tier authorities in the country. We annually invest more than £4 million into bus service provision, supporting 80 services that, pre-covid, carried nearly 2 million people. The commercial sector would not provide those services and we have worked really hard to sustain them and to provide lots of new infrastructure.
This year, we have provided further temporary support to another 20 services to help bus recovery. That is the thin line that prevents those services from being withdrawn, because they are not commercially viable. As with many parts of the country, there are increasing challenges for bus companies and the provision of services, including inflationary costs, driver shortages and passenger confidence, which has taken a massive hit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe described. It is increasingly difficult for bus companies to show up on time, or even at all, and deliver a service. We get a daily constituency report of all the different bus routes that have been cancelled that day, with less than a day’s notice. That makes it incredibly difficult for people to be able to get around and get to work.
Local bus companies have undertaken big recruitment campaigns and lots of new drivers are being trained, and hopefully we will get there in time, but the viability of the routes is a huge concern. I welcome the Government’s support for the sector. We have been able to prop up some of those services because of that support. We are also trialling on-demand responsive transport, which has to be part of the future of the networks to make them sustainable, so that we are not running empty buses around fixed routes all the time. We have been able to pilot that as a result of the national bus strategy rural mobility fund. That seems to be going really well, to the point that the residents who sit just outside the pilot areas are asking when they will get access to these new services, which is really good news.
We have been indicatively allocated £30 million under the bus service improvement plan, for which I am grateful. The truth is that many fixed-route services are not likely to be viable in the future if trends continue. There are really challenging times ahead for bus services. The current combined funding will not support them all from April next year. I have asked the Government to look at greater flexibility in BSIP funding to tackle services being withdrawn in rural areas and market towns. It is really difficult to justify investing in bus lanes and other infrastructure when at the same time services are being withdrawn.
I have recently written to the Secretary of State for Transport to ask for the flexibility to spend that money on a viable bus service, rather than on bus lanes for buses that I have not got. That would be really helpful, and I hope it would be common sense. I have written a very long letter to the Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, laying out a number of ways we could use local money that already exists more flexibly, rather than having to splash the cash on lots of things. We could certainly make it simpler for ourselves.
The final thing I will touch on is the macro bit—the regional bit—which is where the good stuff is happening. It speaks to what the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said earlier on about the commitment to get these things done, and that is the devolution deal we secured this summer. It is massively meaningful, because it gives us local control over delivery of lots of these projects. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling touched on earlier, the figures around investment in the region make for stark reading, both in terms of transport and wider public spending and private sector spending. Even for the year 2020-2021, if we were to have the average level of national funding that would be an additional £1 billion into our region to support those services, so it is really meaningful.
That is why I am so pleased that we have been able to secure the largest gainshare investment fund in any devolution deal anywhere in the country ever, which is brilliant. It is worth just over £1.1 billion to our area, with a further transport pot yet to be determined. In the west midlands they recently got another £1 billion on top of that to invest in their local transport, which would be absolutely fantastic. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) for signing off and making that commitment to Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the east midlands when he was Secretary of State.
It gives us the opportunity to do all sorts of really good things, such as joined-up ticketing across the network on all types of service. Someone should be able to get from Arnold or West Bridgford to the Peak District on one ticket, across bus, train and tram with one day rate in a really simple and joined-up way in the future, and that will be hugely meaningful and impactful to local residents. It also gives us the opportunity to lay out those key routes around employment in particular, to fill the gaps on that key route network and to link up our transport systems to the sites of future jobs and investments—I mentioned STEP fusion earlier on.
We have a £20 billion investment; we can not only build the skills pipelines and support that industry, but connect people into work from the surrounding villages and towns and ensure everybody has access to those opportunities. We can also accelerate long-awaited projects such as the Robin Hood line and the Maid Marian line.
Take the Toton site, for example, which I know the Minister knows well. It is the site of significant jobs and investment in coming years. It has been in the integrated rail plan, and there is new station investment and all sorts of commercial and housing investment going on there. We need a link road, which we put in a levelling-up fund bid for and which I hope the Government will look favourably on, but we then have the ability to install that road network and public transport network to deliver projects, such as the Maid Marian line, that connect surrounding towns and villages into Toton. We will have that in our local control for the first time; that is hugely important and meaningful, and tackles some of the concerns that the hon. Member for Nottingham South laid out earlier.
We will have responsibility for the wider area transport plan by March 2024. Being able to build a joined-up strategy across the whole area is really important, because it means that residents living in Broxtowe, Mansfield or Ashfield—who may just as well travel into Derbyshire as into Nottinghamshire for work and leisure—can have a joined-up system that actually works and connects them to the places they get to, and not be constrained by boundaries.
I agree with many of the points that the hon. Member has made, but if the region is to be successful in planning for the future and developing the transport network that we need in Nottinghamshire—and, indeed, those links across to Derbyshire and other parts of the east midlands—do we not need certainty from the Government about investment in the future? As he will know, we spent a great deal of time planning around an HS2 station at Toton, only for it to move to East Midlands Parkway. Would certainty about both timescales and locations not enable us to do a better job in the region?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling said, she knows the area incredibly well and knows the transport issues incredibly well from her own experience. She is right, of course, that certainty would be hugely helpful; she pointed to the midland main line, where we perhaps have not had that in the past. I was really pleased to see that as one of the accelerated projects in the recent Budget announcement, which I am really grateful for.
What this devolution deal gives us is certainty; we know we will have that funding over the next 30 years, and we know it will be within our local control to deliver some of these projects. We have been given overall control over the integrated rail plan, which means that those HS2 stations, what we build around them and the transport connectivity to join it all together is, for the first time, within our local gift, instead of relying on Government to do that. That is a good thing because it means we can focus on our local priorities.
I totally get what the hon. Member for Nottingham South is saying, but there are some answers in this devolution settlement that can help us achieve our priorities. As I say, we will have that integrated rail plan and the HS2 element, so there is a huge growth potential. If we can get that right, that would be meaningful for investment, jobs and opportunities in our area, so I am excited about that.
I would welcome a conversation with the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), about the options and that certainty around HS2. So far, we have gotten to Parkway, Nottingham and Derby, and then Sheffield to Leeds, but there are still some options on the table for the bit in the middle. I have a view as to what those options should be, as I know many colleagues, Midlands Connect and others will have, but the timescales to make that decision are uncertain, so I would welcome the chance to have that conversation.
To summarise, there are significant challenges on a local level where we need support to maintain networks—not least bus networks, in the short term—to improve highways and to help our communities, but I welcome the long-term opportunities that come from that devolution settlement to deliver more investment and growth, to improve our transport links and to have more local say over how it all works.
I hope the Minister will take away the requirement to ensure those two things are joined up. That would enable us to sustain and protect local services while we put together those plans and strategies over the next 18 months before our devolution deal comes into force, and ensure that those things are not lost and we do not end up with a big gap in the middle. If the Department for Transport and wider Government can help us to overcome those challenges, the future for investment and transport links in our area is bright.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for securing this important debate, and to all those hon. Members who have contributed. I also thank those who have listened intently; I allude to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) and the new shadow transport Minister, my good Friend the Member for Wakefield (Simon Lightwood), who have a passion for the region and wider transport systems in our country. I welcome the Minister to her place; this is the first time we have met in a Westminster Hall debate since her appointment. I have been in my role for almost three years, and I seem to welcome a new opposite number most years, but I shall not take it personally.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate on transport in Nottinghamshire, and it seems appropriate, given the economic situation. Perhaps if the Government had adopted the economic principles of Robin Hood instead of doing the exact opposite, they might not be in this economic crisis. Although the area is nearly 150 miles from my Slough constituency and a few hours from it by train, I know that constituents in the region have suffered badly from the same mismanagement of our national transport system that my constituents have, as have countless communities across our country.
When it comes to transport, overpromising and underdelivering more than epitomise this Government’s policy direction. Trying to follow the recommitments, U-turns and cancellations is enough to make anyone dizzy. Northern Powerhouse Rail was launched, and then scrapped. Then the Prime Minister promised that it would be built in full, but that is being put into question by her new Chancellor. High Speed 2 was promised in full and then scaled back, and the Toton rail hub was removed. The east midlands is chronically underfunded and receives the lowest amount of public funding in the whole of England, and there is a lack of certainty for transport industries, which are eager to deliver on key transformative projects for the people of Nottinghamshire. It is an utter shambles.
Like the hon. Member for Gedling, I will try to decipher the ambiguities of the Government’s policies and to figure out exactly what their plan is for long-neglected midlands communities. As he rightly said, funding needs to match the ambitions of the people in the region, especially with regard to HS2. It is clear that for decades Nottinghamshire has been sidelined when it comes to funding viable transport solutions for residents. In spite of the excellent work of local leaders, organisations and local enterprise partnerships, the east midlands has consistently received the lowest public spending allocation in England, according to the Government’s own figures. The region ranks bottom or near the bottom for spending per head of population almost across the board.
The East Midlands Chamber and East Midlands Councils have produced a statistical analysis that shows that transport infrastructure spending in the region was just 64.7% of the UK average for 2020-21—the joint lowest of any UK region or nation. If the region had been funded properly and fairly, it would have had an extra £1.26 billion to spend on transport alone.
Sadly, that neglect is also reflected in national policy announcements. On rail, opportunities have been missed or delayed. HS2 commitments for the midlands have been vague or missed. Can the Minister provide clarity today? What are her Government’s proposals for HS2 in the midlands under the new leadership? How will she ensure that they are delivered on time, within budget and with minimal disruption to local residents? Is there an update on the proposed railway station at Toton?
I am becoming increasingly concerned that the draconian cuts that the Chancellor has confirmed will take place may include cuts to HS2 spending. Rowing back further on half-baked plans will not benefit Nottinghamshire, or any other region of our country. When the integrated rail plan was first published, Transport for the East Midlands noted:
“full delivery of the Eastern Leg of HS2 as originally proposed is the best way to connect the towns and cities of the Midlands and the North, address transport poverty and ‘level up’ the eastern side of Britain”.
HS2, including the eastern leg to Leeds, should be built in full. Fulfilment of that project would also open a door to improved rail services elsewhere, releasing much-needed capacity. When HS2 is running, it may be possible to double the number of services between Nottingham and Lincoln to two per hour. As the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) noted, the region needs more train services. She also spoke about the criticality of bus services for rural areas, and gave some excellent examples from constituents. Under this Government, there have recently been 19,000 cuts to rail services and 5,000 cuts to bus services.
On Northern Powerhouse Rail, it seems that the Government do not know whether they are coming or going. Will the Minister confirm that a link to the midlands will be included in the Northern Powerhouse Rail proposals when the project is looked at again? We need reassurances that promises will be kept. The Prime Minister committed to the project in full; when will we have confirmation of that? When will the Minister be able to comment on the business case submitted in May 2021 for a line between Nottingham, Leicester and Coventry? That project is supported by 87% of local people, and has an initial delivery time of just four years. It would cut journey times and reinstate a direct rail link, so I hope that her Department looks at that proposal favourably.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) spoke about various local projects, including the Sainsbury’s junction, funding for local transport projects, the A64 and potholes, which are a perennial problem across our country. As the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, he is looking to build on the good work of previous councils. Hopefully, there will be clarity from the Minister on those projects.
There has, however, been some progress. I am pleased that there has been progress on the electrification of the midlands main line. That must form part of a rolling annual programme of electrification that brings down costs, ensures a sustainable supply chain and helps us to tackle the climate crisis. What are the timescales for electrification? That question was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the former Chair of the Transport Select Committee, no less? She has vast experience. Many constituents in Nottinghamshire and beyond need certainty about the programme of electrification. Will the Minister elaborate and give us that certainty?
Transport can be transformative to people’s livelihoods and wellbeing, and can increase the opportunities available to them, particularly during a cost of living crisis. That is particularly true of bus services. In Nottingham, key services have been preserved, due to the hard-working, Labour-run local authority managing to secure much-needed funding. That is in the face of 5,000 services being lost nationally. Nationwide, almost 60% of areas missed out on funding altogether, which will do long-term damage to bus networks. Great Britain is the only country in the developed world where private bus operators set routes and fares with no say from the public.
The Labour party would put the public back in control of the public transport that they heavily depend on; they would have the power to set bus fares and routes, which is as it should be. Local communities and leaders know best when it comes to the transport services that they use every day, so I hope the Minister has heard what hon. Members have said today about the local council’s bid for the Toton link road. It would bring benefits to the tune of 400 jobs and 2,700 new homes, and has a potential completion date of 2026. Will the Minister look at the application very carefully and consider the significant benefits that it could bring?
We face impending cuts, and the Government have form on slashing transport commitments, but I remind Ministers that our commitments to net zero, a thriving economy and a levelled-up north and midlands cannot be achieved without transport investment. It is always the communities outside our capital hubs that get left behind, so I hope the Minister has positive news for the future of transport in Nottinghamshire.
It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for securing this debate. He has demonstrated his passion for what has been his home county—man and boy? I see him nodding. It has been a thoughtful and interesting debate, and I thank everyone who has contributed.
I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for his warm comments welcoming me. In many respects, his remarks have epitomised the debate. He highlighted the investment in London and the south-east in previous years. Perhaps, offline, he will let me know what the people of Slough and London would not have wanted to happen that would have allowed for investment in Nottingham. However, I want to stay positive.
Colleagues might not be aware, but Nottingham is close to my heart. It is where I went to university, and every Saturday I played amateur sport all over the county. As I listened to the contributions, I remembered the practicalities of trying to get from point A to point B in the county. I recognise many of the points that hon. Members have raised on behalf of their communities.
As a civil engineer’s daughter and a northern MP, I appreciate in both a practical and intellectual capacity what a positive impact good transport links have, and the need for certainty and investment to make them happen. The Department is committed to using transport to drive economic growth across the country. We are also determined to play our part in making transport greener—for example, through the electrification of rail lines. I am proud that this Government are investing in transport for people, including those in Nottinghamshire and the broader east midlands. Today’s debate highlights how crucial the interconnections are between transport modes. Responsibility for much transport connectivity in the area rests with Nottinghamshire County Council, working closely with the bus partnerships. There is a significant role for national operators such as Network Rail and National Highways, as well as regional transport. I was delighted to hear the emphasis that my hon. Friend and leader of Nottingham City Council, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), placed on the devolution deal.
I apologise profusely to the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council—of course, Robin Hood Energy is not something that he would have put in place. Perhaps some of that funding might helpfully have been used to improve transport, but that is a conversation for another day.
There is lots to be positive about in Nottinghamshire. The devolution deal that has been agreed with some of the authorities in the east midlands is great; the commitment of local leaders, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, in agreeing that deal and working together to deliver it is really important. There is an exciting public consultation this year, in advance of formal proposals to Government. When implemented, that deal will see a new combined authority formed, with an elected Mayor and significantly greater transport freedoms, as has been highlighted. For example, the Mayor will have the power to decide whether to introduce bus franchising, or integrated ticketing across public transport areas to join up the multiple local authorities in the region. As a northern MP, joining up the dots in regional transport is, and will continue to be, a passion of mine.
We will also provide funding to the combined authority, so that it can create a new local transport plan that integrates transport in Nottinghamshire with transport in the surrounding authorities, and can target transport funding at the areas that need it most. Once the Mayor and the combined authority are in place, the deal will include a Government fund of £38 million a year over 30 years to be invested by the combined authority, so that it can drive growth and deliver its priorities. That will provide the region with the certainty regarding investment and the power that many Members have mentioned. That east midlands investment fund will be monitored to make sure it is driving economic growth and levelling up, but given the energy and ideas that have already been displayed in the Chamber, I am confident that it will do that.
I turn to issues raised in the debate, starting with the roads projects, as I am the roads Minister. Improving road connectivity, enhancing safety and reducing congestion are important priorities, which is why we are already investing in the roads around Nottinghamshire. We are boosting economic growth; we want to reduce delays and incidents by improving the A46 Newark bypass. National Highways will soon launch a public consultation on its latest plans, and I would be grateful for the input of anybody watching this debate and of Members present.
Another example of progress being made is the A614/A6097 corridor scheme—try saying that after a couple of beers—on the major road network. It was identified in the Chancellor’s recent economic growth plan as a scheme that the Government want to accelerate as fast as possible, because we recognise its importance. Those improvements are designed to deal with increasing traffic volumes, to relieve congestion, and to improve safety for all road users. That work will bring about important employment and, potentially, housing opportunities. Department for Transport officials will discuss with Nottinghamshire County Council how progress with the scheme’s business case might benefit from acceleration, potentially through planning reform, regulator reform and other improvements. I look forward to engaging with my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield on that issue. The Government are investing over £24 million in that scheme, with approximately £4 million more coming from the county council and private developers. It is a real example of quick delivery; we need to get on with it.
A number of Members also mentioned the fourth Trent crossing—as someone who has got stuck in Nottingham when traffic grinds to a halt, I recognise the points they made. My hon. Friends the Members for Gedling, for Mansfield and for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) all highlighted that issue and mentioned wanting to pull a business case together in order to go ahead with the investment and ease congestion. I am happy to take that away. The proposal is in its embryonic days, but perhaps I can write to Members with the routes and the opportunities there are to build an investment case locally and get that on to the DFT’s slate. I will follow that up with official help.
The Government recognise how important the issue of potholes is, not least for cyclists pursuing active travel. I am a cyclist myself, and when you go over a pothole, it can be painful—never mind the economic and practical damage that potholes do to cars. We have been investing £950 million per year, which has been committed for three years. Crucially, that is outside London and the mayoral combined authorities. The Department is committed to allocating this funding to local highways authorities so that they can spend it most effectively on maintaining and improving their respective networks, based on local knowledge and circumstances. Since 2015, the Government have allocated over about £110 million to Nottinghamshire County Council for local road maintenance. To answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling directly, Nottinghamshire County Council will in the future receive over £18.6 million from a new fund to enable it to consider work on bridges, cycleways and lighting columns, as well as fixing potholes.
The Department has long advocated that highways authorities should go risk-based on their asset management plans and is committed to helping to support the production of those where possible for highways assets, including road resurfacing, because well-maintained roads are important for the safety and security of all road users. I recognise that Nottinghamshire County Council has worked hard in recent months and years to develop and deliver its highways improvement plan, and I hope it will reap significant benefits.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield mentioned a number of specific schemes, not least the junction with access into the retail park. He will forgive me if I do not use my debut to riff on Government policy on specific schemes. I am happy to write to him with a little more detail.
Buses are a huge passion of mine. They are often the easiest and quickest piece of public transport to put in place. As set out in the national bus strategy, we are determined that everyone everywhere should, in time, have access to a great bus service. That is why £3 billion has already been committed in this Parliament to drive improvements, which is the largest investment in buses in a generation, highlighting their importance. More than £1 billion of that fund is going directly to local transport authorities such as Nottinghamshire County Council to support the delivery of their bus service improvement plans.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield highlighted the substantial funding that the BSIPs across both Nottinghamshire County Council and Nottingham City Council received—a combined £30 million. I note his request for flexibility in the BSIP funding and, rather than answering from the Dispatch Box here, I will pass that on to Baroness Vere, who is the Minister responsible. I would comment that these were high-quality bus service improvement bids and that the £18.7 million and the £11.4 million allocated are a recognition of the quality of the work that has gone into them. The initial funding will support bus priority measures on key routes, such as the A60 in Mansfield and the route between West Bridgford and the city. That is important and will provide for better connections and integration, as well as bus stops—we should not forget the humble bus stop. It is all important.
The Government also recognise that the bus sector continues to face significant challenges. The pandemic had a massive effect on bus patronage across the country, and although it is now stabilising and steadily increasing, it still remains below pre-covid levels. The Government have therefore provided £2 billion of funding to bus operators and local transport authorities to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and to continue supporting services. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield highlighted the idea of a gap, and we are committing significant funding to prevent one.
This funding was due to end in October but, because of the challenges facing the sector and because many households are struggling with the rising cost of living, the Government have announced a further £130 million, six-month extension to the bus recovery grant to continue to support services until March 2023. That will help millions of people who rely on bus services, as highlighted so articulately by my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. Nottinghamshire County Council is allocating around £690,000 of that support between April 2022 and December 2022 alone, with further funding until March 2023 to be confirmed in due course.
We are also very aware that the needs of passengers in urban and rural areas differ, as highlighted by colleagues, and that traditional local bus routes may not be financially sustainable in rural settings. That was put beautifully during the debate: are fixed, empty buses beneficial for everybody?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield referenced the rural mobility fund, worth £20 million, which we created to trial more demand-responsive services and allow people to have a different way of accessing the public transport they need. Nottinghamshire County Council was awarded nearly £1.5 million from the fund to launch its Nottsbus On Demand service, which started operating in August in the villages around Retford, Ollerton and Newark. It also provides an evening service to Mansfield and is due to be extended to the rural areas west of Rushcliffe in the coming months.
I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe invited me to a meeting. I am extremely happy to pass that on to Baroness Vere, as the Bus Minister, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend in a private capacity to buy her a coffee for being nice to me at the start of the debate.
Would the Minister also pass on our thanks? I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) about Gedling buses, and the funding that has been provided by the Government for the next six months through to April has genuinely saved routes in all our constituencies that would otherwise have been unviable. Various services, including Stagecoach and Trentbarton, announced the closure of many services prior to that funding, as they were unable to support them. As much as there is uncertainty into the future, that intervention has saved those routes in many of our communities.
I would be very happy to pass that on.
I will turn now to rail, which was the subject of much of the debate and which is another important component of the public transport system. My Department has been working on some exciting projects in Nottinghamshire. East Midlands Railway will be introducing the new bi-mode trains to the midland main line by late 2024, so passengers can expect a smoother, quieter and more reliable journey than those on diesel trains. The further electrification of that route, which was raised by a number of Members, is also under development. As announced in the recent integrated rail plan, it is planned to be completed by around 2030. That will directly address the points raised by the hon. Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for Slough.
The hon. Member for Slough raised the HS2 proposals and commitments. The integrated rail plan is what is going to get delivered—that is the plan moving forward, and I think it is the appropriate one. With regard to East Midlands Railway, my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe raised the importance of the Poacher line, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling mentioned the current service on East Midlands Railway. I am happy to reassure Members that East Midlands Railway services are being kept under review. The Department and EMR have the opportunity to improve the frequency of services, should the evidence base be there, and that is being kept under review. We want to have enough clean, reliable and punctual trains running where they are needed most. The integrated rail plan is a step towards making sure that that practical, on-the-ground delivery is there, and masthead projects.
I would also point out that work has begun on developing a new high-speed rail line to the east midlands. Unlike previous plans, this will enable HS2 trains to serve both East Midlands Parkway and the city centre of Nottingham directly, which is an improvement on the original proposals. It will also cut journey times and provide more seats for passengers.
During my time in Nottingham, I worked in Toton and cycled to and from the city centre, so I recognise the need for improved connections and the opportunity for regeneration and investment in the area, and I have had a close look at the map of the plans. I recognise that local leaders had plans for economic development around the previously proposed station at Toton, and that has been improved on in the integrated rail plan. The Government are committed to accelerating the transport improvements in Toton.
As for the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield for a meeting with the Rail Minister, I am happy to pass that on. Rail is not in my portfolio, but I will make sure my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) is aware of the request.
I want to take the opportunity to thank the Government, because they have been really helpful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling said, we are probably one of the places in the country that is happiest with the integrated rail plan, which delivers the connectivity that he talked about and includes an ongoing commitment to Toton. Our development corporation has since been given a huge amount of capacity funding to redo its plan on the basis of the integrated rail plan, and that work is progressing at pace. I want to put on the record my thanks for that investment, because the Government really are backing Nottinghamshire and the region with those long-term plans.
My hon. Friend is approximately five lines ahead of me in my remarks. I thank him for his contribution.
The mixture of options for local and regional rail services and the scope for capacity on high-speed services will attract significant private sector investment. With 50:50 match funding with the taxpayer, what my hon. Friend highlights sounds extremely exciting.
In addition to considering station options, we have committed resources to the study, as my hon. Friend highlights, to exploit the linkages with any other investment in Nottinghamshire, including proposals for reopening the Maid Marian line. We are continuing to develop the study and scope, and we are working closely with local railway stations. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling kindly invited me to visit Nottingham railway stations, but in all honesty I should probably pass that invitation on to the Rail Minister, although I may be there shortly, in which case I will have a quick look myself.
My hon. Friend mentioned the levelling-up fund bids and tempts me to talk about an ongoing departmental process. I recognise his passion and commitment, but the bids are currently under evaluation and I cannot comment on them. I can assure him that Ministers’ evaluation of the shortlist stage is criteria-based and absolutely bias-blind. His passion is clear to see, and I am happy to pass on that enthusiasm, but I am not able to comment.
The East Midlands freeport is the most exciting project when talking about economic growth and thinking about regions holistically. When it is completed, it will be a national hub for global trade and investment and will promote regeneration and job creation. It is uniquely placed to capitalise and innovate on the region’s commercial and industrial strengths. Once operational, those three sites may be the best-connected freeport in the UK. It is exciting to see this all starting to come together in a regional debate.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to debate the successes and aspirations of the transport sector in Nottinghamshire, of which there are clearly many. I hope I have answered hon. Members’ questions, but given that this is my first time out, if there are any that I have missed or further points that I have not fully addressed, I will be happy to review the debate and write to hon. Members afterwards.
It is clear that Nottinghamshire is a place with many excellent champions, including Ministers who could not attend the debate and the Members who have come and contributed so well, and organisations doing dedicated work, such as Nottinghamshire County Council, Transport for the East Midlands and East Midlands Connect. I leave this debate optimistic about the future of transport in the county, and I look forward to working with hon. Members further to improve connectivity for local people.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. There was a bit of political back and forth with the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), but despite a degree of political bickering, we all spoke passionately and with one voice to get the best for our city and county.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) illustrated with vivid examples from her constituents some of the key transport issues affecting Rushcliffe. We are very much on the same page when it comes to improving train services and getting better stopping services. The examples she gave clearly set out the extent to which so many rely on the bus services, which can play a vital role in everyday life.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for his contribution. With his wide-ranging and roving brief across multiple portfolios, he not only gave us a bird’s eye view of the east midlands, but went right down to the level of Sainsbury’s junction to talk about the issues there. I thank him for the progress report on highways maintenance, which has been a common thread and key issue in the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for being a candid and critical friend in many respects and for the points the Opposition raised. I tried not to mention Robin Hood as an historical figure, because there is more to Nottinghamshire than Robin Hood. I regard him as fighting a corrupt regime to restore the status quo while Richard was fighting in the crusades, but I am not sure he was the socialist visionary that the Labour party would like him to be.
I again welcome the Minister to her place, and I welcome her commitment to join up the dots in transport, as she put it. I welcome the further discussion about road schemes, of which many have been mentioned during the debate. I particularly welcome her comments about exploring opportunities to build further crossings over the River Trent. I look forward to receiving further correspondence from her Department on that matter.
The comments the Minister made about potholes and bus stops vividly illustrate the point that we can talk about grand projects, but the issues that are important to a lot of people are the state of their own streets. We have to cover both of those. The Minister said that the Government are committed to using transport to drive economic growth, which we can all get on board with. The debate has been an opportunity to celebrate what we have achieved but also to start a conversation about further things that need to be done. I look forward to continuing that conversation in other forums.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Transport in Nottinghamshire.
Vehicle Taxation Reform
[Relevant document: Fourth Report of the Transport Committee of Session 2021-22, Road pricing, HC 789.]
I will shortly call Wera Hobhouse to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. I remind hon. Members that there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reform of the vehicle taxation system.
I am delighted to bring this matter to Westminster Hall for debate. There is an urgent need for reform of our vehicle taxation system, for both fiscal and environmental reasons. The public understand that change must come; they look to the Government for clarity on the path to be followed. I hope that the Minister will be able to aid that process today. She will recognise that the future of travel is changing every year; Britain’s transport networks and habits are moving into the net zero era.
Electric vehicle ownership is rising, as people try to help the planet and their wallets. Battery electric vehicles, or EVs, made up 14% of the new cars sold so far this year, and more electric vehicles were sold last year than in the previous five years combined. 2030, the year in which polluting vehicles will no longer be produced or sold, is fast approaching. The Government must act to reform road tax if they are to avoid yet another huge black hole opening up in their finances.
No form of change will be easy, but the sooner change is made the easier it will be. The main form of vehicle tax in the UK is fuel duty, which is nearly 53% added to every litre of fuel paid for at the petrol pump. Fuel duty raises approximately £28 billion a year for the Treasury. That is alongside the 28% VAT that is paid on fuel sales.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. The issue of how we tax road usage is very important, but I am deeply concerned about what is happening right now. In rural areas such as mine, where cars are essential to get around, we see people being hammered at the fuel pump. In part, that is due to limited competition and because there are fewer forecourts. Does she agree that we need to expand fuel duty relief for rural communities, so that it brings down prices immediately and eases the cost of living in the short term?
Absolutely. We see that people are facing great problems in rural communities and it is important to make short-term interventions to help them. However, I am really talking today about what vehicle taxation will look like in the long term, once we transition to net zero. Nevertheless, I fully take the point made by my hon. Friend.
On the other hand, drivers of electric vehicles pay no fuel duty. The Government need to continue incentivising the use of electric vehicles for environmental reasons. However, there are many ways in which that can be done without subsidising fuel duty. One option is to increase the number of public electric vehicle charging points. So far, the UK has only 31 electric vehicle charging points and only six rapid charging points per 100,000 people. If the Government are serious about encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles, they must ensure that the infrastructure is there. That would be of great benefit to my constituents in Bath and to the wider south-west, as our region is the second largest in the country for electric vehicle uptake.
Other incentives could include providing grants for electric car conversion. The conversion of old cars has significant benefits. For example, the carbon footprint of producing a new car is far higher than that created by continuing to use an old car. Currently, buying a new electric car is not an easy option for many people who do not have off-road parking or their own charging facilities. The conversion of older cars would help lower-income families who are struggling with the cost of living crisis, while also being part of the movement to less carbon-intensive transport options.
If we are to transition to net zero sustainably, the Government must find a way to fill the taxation income gap caused by declining fuel duty. The Government’s own net zero strategy from 2021 states that the taxation of motoring must keep pace with electric vehicles. I understand that the Treasury has said in the past that the level of income from motorists should stay about the same in future, but how can that be achieved?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this excellent debate. The Select Committee on Transport, which I chair, has put a series of recommendations to the Treasury, and we work closely with it. In advocating a form of road pricing, she rightly says that there will be a fiscal black hole. Some 4% of the entire tax take comes from motoring taxes. The evidence we received from the Treasury was that that figure would plummet to zero by 2040, so that means a loss of investment not just for roads, which account for just 20% of that total tax figure, but for schools and hospitals. Does she agree that the reason why we need road pricing is not just to fill the hole, but because devolved Mayors, in using their powers, are creating a patchwork of road-pricing schemes, and it will be difficult for the Government to get into that space with that patchwork already in place?
I totally agree. We need some clarity and something that motorists across the country can see as a coherent strategy, rather than the patchwork that the hon. Gentleman spoke about. One approach would be a scheme based on mileage. Other factors, such as emission levels or road type, could be added into the mix. Road pricing, as it is often referred to, is not a new idea. The Liberal Democrats proposed a version of it in our 2010 manifesto. It has been explored in depth many times. So far, no noticeable progress has been made towards its adoption and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to act and find ways forward quickly.
Nearly 20 years ago, the then Transport Secretary said that road pricing was 10 years away, but we do not have another 10 years to waste. The motivation then was to cut pollution and reduce congestion, particularly in larger cities. Our most urgent need now is getting to net zero and, while doing that, looking at the immediate financial implications that I have mentioned.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to an excellent report released just a few days ago by the Campaign for Better Transport. The report tested options for a national road pricing system with a large cross-section of the public. The good news is that the public appear to be open to the idea of road pricing, otherwise known as pay-as-you-drive. In the survey, nearly 50% of respondents felt that fuel duties were unfair. That is unsurprising. Low-income households are more likely to have older, more polluting and less fuel-efficient cars and to pay more fuel duty per mile travelled. That is in contrast to wealthier households with newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles. According to Policy Exchange research, someone with a new car could pay half the amount of fuel duty compared with the owner of an older car. Other findings from the report show that 65% of those surveyed believe that electric vehicle owners need to pay tax to use the road system. Drivers felt that people with electric vehicles are effectively driving tax free, while those who are unable to switch—largely for financial reasons—must pay.
We must encourage the take-up of electric vehicles to reach net zero. However, the public are acutely aware that Britain’s finances are under pressure after the recent economic shocks. Money must be found somewhere. There is evidence that the current vehicle taxation system is not fit for purpose, and the public agree. In the Campaign for Better Transport report, 60% of respondents agreed that there was a need to reform the vehicle taxation system. What options are available to Government and are these options fair in the eyes of constituents? Pay-as-you-go, or pay-as-you-drive, is worthy of consideration. It is widely regarded by experts as a progressive step forward. A pay-as-you-drive system could charge drivers directly per mile driven with a set distance charge. Another alternative could be smart road pricing, whereby the charge per mile varies depending on different factors. The Treasury would have the option of applying this equally to all vehicles. Alternatively, it could create a series of levels based on emitting status and/or the location where the person is driving.
The Climate Change Committee report to Parliament this year noted that road pricing “will be necessary” in the longer term. It recommended that the Government implement it “later this decade”. The Select Committee on Transport has recommended smart pricing, as has the Policy Exchange, the AA, and the Social Market Foundation.
For the first time in a long time, consensus is beginning to emerge. When pay-as-you-drive was initially pitched in the Campaign for Better Transport survey, 42% of respondents supported the idea, with 21% saying “No”. After the concept had been explained and questions answered, the percentage in favour rose to 49%, with opposition dropping to just 18%.
Pay-as-you-drive can come in many forms, but there are three options worth considering. One is a flat per-mile charge for electric vehicles. That would keep fuel duties as they are for existing petrol and diesel vehicles, and those duties would wither away as those cars disappear from our roads. Another option is replacing fuel duty and vehicle excise duty, with a set per-mile charge based on the emissions level of the vehicle. That could be estimated at the annual MOT mileage check. Lastly, we could replace fuel and excise duty with a smart per-mile charge that varies with vehicle type, emissions, location and time of day.
The main argument in favour of pay-as-you-drive comes from the need to reduce the number of people driving to lower congestion and reduce air pollution and carbon emissions. The transport sector is now the biggest source of domestic greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for 28% of all emissions. Cars make up 55% of that figure, while lorries and vans make up 32%. Buses, coaches, and rail collectively account for just less than 5%, according to Government figures.
A system based on rewarding those who drive less, rather than a flat rate, could lead many members of the public to use their cars less and use public transport more. The idea that drivers who drive more should pay more in tax, and that those who drive less should pay less, was popular in the survey and it is clearly the right direction to take.
There is no doubt that ensuring investment in public transport, including reforms to the integration of bus and rail ticketing systems, is critical to a functioning pay-as-you-drive system. Those reforms cannot exist in a vacuum and must be part of a wider conversation on how we move people away from private cars and on to environmentally friendly public transport.
In the Campaign for Better Transport survey, 69% of respondents stated that a key element of making the entire system fairer for drivers was to make public transport cheaper. The Liberal Democrats would seek to give new powers to local authorities and communities to improve transport in their areas. That would include the ability to introduce network-wide ticketing, like that in London, and greater powers to franchise bus services and simplify the franchise application system. We would also reverse the ban on local authorities setting up their own bus companies, which should give councils the tools to make transport accessible for everyone.
Reforming the system towards pay-as-you-go would also bring transparency to vehicle taxation. Many drivers are unaware of the level of fuel duty that exists within the price that they pay for fuel. It is important that we bring clarity and openness to the vehicle taxation system when we reform it.
We must do everything possible to reach our net zero targets. However, that transition needs to be sustainable and accessible. Pay-as-you-drive is a progressive way of solving the problem of declining fuel duty revenue. In particular, it would encourage much more sustainable transport habits. Clearly, pay-as-you-drive schemes must be combined with more investment in public transport and environmentally friendly infrastructure. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, on my first outing as a Treasury Minister in Westminster Hall. I will begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and thanking her for securing this important debate on vehicle taxation. As today’s discussion has demonstrated, it is a highly topical issue.
These taxes bring in some £35.5 billion to the Exchequer every year—money that is essential to fund high quality public services. That sum is worth about 4.3% of our total tax take, so it is critical. As the hon. Member for Bath said, the taxes have a crucial role to play in our transition to net zero, to which this Government are absolutely committed. Vehicle taxation and its future are a matter of great public interest. Road vehicles in Great Britain covered almost 300 billion miles in 2021, underscoring our need to maintain high-quality infrastructure while minimising emissions. As we transition to net zero, it is vital that we also consider how we continue to pay for our roads, as well as our schools, hospitals and armed forces.
Let me begin to outline the background by exploring the present system of vehicle taxation. We have two main vehicle taxes in this country: fuel duty and vehicle excise duty. Fuel duty is currently the largest yielding excise regime, raising £26 billion in 2021-22. Vehicle excise duty, or road tax as it is sometimes known, is worth a further £7 billion a year. Altogether, those revenues equate to just under 40% of the total education budget for this entire financial year, as we have an Education Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), present in the Chamber.
We also have other smaller taxes, most notably company car tax, which raises some £2.5 billion a year. That tax applies when a car is made available to an employee for private purposes, since that represents a taxable non-cash benefit. The funds raised from all those taxes contribute to both road maintenance and the resourcing of other vital public services. The Government have refined those taxes both to help families and businesses navigate cost of living pressures and to support our net zero ambitions.
At spring statement 2022, the Government announced a temporary 12-month cut of 5p to fuel duty on petrol and diesel, worth £2.4 billion. That is the largest ever cash-terms cut to fuel duty. Perhaps I can use this opportunity to address a few points made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord). First, we asked the Competitions and Markets Authority to undertake an urgent review of the market for road fuel. Its findings suggest that the fuel duty cut was largely passed through, but Government have asked it to do a fuller market study on the supply of road fuel, and Government will react to those conclusions.
I draw the hon. Member’s attention to the rural fuel duty relief scheme, which gives support to motorists by compensating fuel retailers in some select rural areas that meet certain criteria. If they qualify, there is a 5p per litre reduction for the retailers. We have also adapted those taxes to incentivise take-up of electric vehicles. Road transport accounts for a massive 24% of UK carbon emissions, so reducing those emissions is essential to the UK’s transition to net zero.
Industry statistics suggest that more than 1 million battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are now registered in the UK, which is a huge success, but we need to go further and faster. To support that, we will introduce a ZEV mandate in 2024, and end the sale of petrol and diesel-powered vehicles by 2030 and of hybrid vehicles by 2035. At that point, all vehicles sold will be zero emission. In all, the Government have committed £2.5 billion since 2020 to support the transition to electric vehicles, with targeted funding to offset the higher up-front costs and to accelerate the roll-out of charge point infrastructure. That includes £500 million to support local charge point provision, £950 million to support rapid charging on motorways and major A roads, and funding for charge points in homes and businesses.
In addition to those measures, the Government also use the vehicle tax system to incentivise the take-up of vehicles with lower carbon emissions. In 2017, the Government introduced a reformed vehicle excise duty system for new cars. Under that system, zero emission models pay nothing on first registration, while the most polluting pay more than £2,000. In subsequent years most cars move to a standard rate, currently set at £165 per year; meanwhile, zero emission vehicles pay nothing, either on first registration or subsequently. Company car tax, too, is adapted to the pursuit of net zero, and it has been effective in incentivising the uptake of electric vehicles and ultra-low emission vehicles. Company cars comprise a significant proportion of electric vehicles and ultra-low emission vehicles on the road today. Those cars will filter through to the second-hand market, increasing the supply of used electric vehicles and making the transition more affordable for consumers.
I will move on to the future of motoring taxes. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) who, as Chair of the Transport Committee, has done a lot of work on that topic. As more road users switch to electric vehicles, tax receipts from fuel duty and vehicle excise duty will decrease if the present system remains unchanged. The net zero review indicates that tax receipts from fossil fuel-related activity will eventually trend towards zero. Revenue from fuel duty is projected to decline from 1.2% of GDP in the middle of the decade to 0.2% by the 2040s, and revenues from vehicle excise duty will also fall. The Government are committed to ensuring that revenue from vehicle taxes keeps pace with that change, with taxation simultaneously remaining affordable for consumers. That will ensure that we can continue to fund the public services and infrastructure that people and families across the UK expect. In considering how to replace those lost tax revenues, the Government will also consider the secondary impacts of existing vehicle taxes, not least in reducing road congestion.
I am sure the hon. Lady will recognise that we have a medium-term fiscal plan coming up in about 10 days, and at this stage we will not commit to anything ahead of that plan.
I conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Bath for the opportunity to have a fruitful discussion about vehicle taxation. We are all aware of how important the issue is, given the fact that motoring taxes account for 4.3% of total tax take and £35 billion—a significant sum. We are also all aware that our constituents have a strong interest in any changes to vehicle taxation. I welcome the widespread support that hon. Members have expressed for using vehicle taxation to facilitate our transition to net zero, and I am grateful that so many hon. Members appreciate the need to reform vehicle taxation to maintain tax receipts while achieving net zero. We will listen to our constituents and to hon. Members as we continue to refine vehicle taxation and adapt it to the Britain of net zero, economic growth and fiscal responsibility.
Question put and agreed to.
Apprenticeships and Teacher Training
I beg to move,
That this House has considered apprenticeships and teacher training.
I am looking forward to this very important debate about apprenticeships, specifically the role that I hope apprenticeships will play in our education sector in future. Expanding apprenticeships in a way that delivers for all our communities is going to be really important.
Apprenticeships are a vital but criminally underutilised part of our education mix. They drive productivity and growth in our economy, as well as allowing young people to earn while they learn. They have the ability to attract the widest cross-section of society, and they benefit disadvantaged young people more than any other group, making them a fundamental building block of levelling up and social mobility.
Today, I will talk about why apprenticeships are so important and how an increase in their number would benefit those outside London the most. Most critically, I will talk about why creating an undergraduate apprenticeship route into teaching is so important not only to the sector but to the enthusiastic young people it would attract and the wider economy.
Apprenticeships are a great part of individual development and are a unique route to gaining valuable skills. They cultivate knowledge, develop skills, allow young people to use their initiative to manage projects and develop good communicators who can make strong decisions and become role models to others. Importantly, apprentices can earn while they learn without acquiring university debt or a graduate tax, and they still get a degree qualification at the end of it. That means that apprenticeships can attract the widest possible pool of talent.
Better still, apprenticeships are great for employers. Hiring an apprentice is a productive and effective way to grow talent and develop a motivated, skilled and qualified workforce that can be moulded to an employer’s bespoke needs from day one. Furthermore, studies show that apprentices are far more loyal than university graduates. Perhaps our Prime Minister would welcome a few more coming through that route on to the Back Benches of the Conservative party.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech that I wholeheartedly agree with. It is deeply disappointing not to see a single Member of the Labour party, other than the shadow Minister, or of the Lib Dems in the Chamber. My hon. Friend is talking about the aspirational element of what apprenticeships can offer. Does he agree that it is essential that we ensure that local places of education are linked up with local businesses so that we can offer, present and platform those opportunities?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Studies show that more than half of young people looking to apply for higher education are interested in apprenticeships but they often find it difficult to access the relevant information. Some colleges and sixth forms are not interested in helping people pursue that option, and I will come to that later.
Apprenticeships are an effective means of achieving long-term growth and improved productivity—two of the core elements of what the Government are driving for. If we are truly to upskill our workforce while levelling up by turbocharging productivity and growth across the country, apprenticeships are absolutely key, especially in the education sector.
My successful apprenticeships fair with Derwentside College last year was attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart)—the predecessor of the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). Prior to that, he attended Parkside Academy in my constituency to talk to the young people there about apprenticeships as an alternative route to academic sixth form.
I recently held another apprenticeships and jobs fair at Crook in North West Durham to help forge connections between young constituents looking at post-school options and local employers. Derwentside College in my constituency is one of the best examples, and I urge the Minister to come and visit. It does excellent sector-based work academies and apprenticeships that are tied into local firms, like those that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) was talking about.
After seeing that at first hand, it is clear to me that having local apprenticeships working with local businesses is critical to boosting local economic activity. I am running a “How to run an apprenticeships fair” event for staffers in Parliament on 7 December, so if anyone wants to send their staff along, please do so. In constituencies across the country, we do not want to see young people constantly having to migrate in order to find work.
I apologise for having two bites of the cherry, but just two weeks ago I held my own careers fair at a local further education college—South Devon College—in my constituency of Totnes and south Devon. It was a fantastic example of how to join up local apprenticeships and local businesses and explore the opportunities in the area. Will my hon. Friend come down and see what we are doing in the south-west—a sometimes overlooked area—so that, across the whole country, we might join up this idea of linking up apprenticeships, colleges and businesses?
Order. Obviously, the decision whether or not to take interventions is for the hon. Member who is moving the motion. I would point out, however, that there are five people hoping to speak, and each intervention means that the time limit may be reduced for those people.
Thank you for your guidance, Sir George. I will just say that, when I was in the Department for Education, I visited South Devon College with the then Education Secretary’s special adviser, and I can definitely recommend that my hon. Friend the Minister does so too.
Far too often we hear stories of young people leaving our communities, particularly in constituencies such as North West Durham, to go away to university. They are out of the jobs market for three years and sometimes end up right back where they started, having accumulated student loans in the process. A three-year residential course is not the right route for everyone—actually, it probably is not the right route for the majority of people—but at the moment, in too many cases, it is the only option for those who want to be seen to get ahead. That is specifically the case for the teaching profession, where there is not currently an undergraduate apprenticeship, although there is a postgraduate one. I want to see young people become apprentices so they can earn a degree and valuable skills while earning a stable income right away, rather than continuing on the traditional university route first.
Despite the multifaceted benefits that apprenticeships can clearly provide, we could do more to encourage apprenticeships, particularly in constituencies such as mine, which have seen apprenticeship starts fall in recent years. That really concerns me. I want to see as many people as possible in North West Durham, and across the country, in apprenticeships. The fall in apprenticeship starts also demonstrates that the north has the most to gain by increasing apprenticeships, particularly in areas such as teaching, especially if people can do them through local universities and schools so they do not have move away. If we want to look at different ways to deliver on levelling up, then increasing apprenticeships is critical.
Clearly, an undergraduate apprenticeship route into teaching is a no-brainer. Currently, someone who wants to be a teacher must have a degree and either do a postgraduate apprenticeship or a postgraduate certificate in education. That may make sense for a group of people for whom a few drinks is the right option for their first year at university and who then finally settle down to study, but many of my constituents need to be earning from day one. For so many young people who go into certain FE courses—particularly young women in my constituency—it feels as if their choices are limited from that point, especially if they are interested in education, as they cannot take the final steps into the full teaching profession.
As I have said, the traditional route is not the right one to ensure that as many people as possible can access the profession. That means we are missing out on huge talent in vast swathes of the population, some of whom might be some of the best teachers from the earliest stage of their career. We need to unleash the potential in this broader base of the population. That will also help the sector with vacancies, particularly in certain subjects, possibly including some technical subjects. I do not see any reason why we could not have some of the important academic subject bases as part of that mix; it is about design.
The hon. Gentleman raises an innovative idea. Will he expand on it a little? Previously, when we were looking at maths teachers, people who had a maths degree would be seen as suitable to do the maths part but would have to go away to do a PGCE in order to learn the teaching part. How does he foresee that we would ensure that people who had not done a degree were capable of providing that technical knowledge?
The hon. Gentleman rightly picks up an important point about subject specialism, which I will come to a little later. We want to ensure that the teaching profession is delivering the full knowledge all the way down. I do not think that is necessary in exactly the same way for pre-school or, perhaps, primary school teachers; while they have to have subject knowledge, it does not have to be to the depth of degree level. I think that knowledge could be gained, perhaps, as part of a four-year teaching apprenticeship. In a couple of years’ time, doctors will be able to do degree-level apprenticeships —that provision has already been made—so I do not see why we could not have the same provision for teachers, particularly those teaching early years and in primary schools.
I have visited so many schools in my constituency since I was elected—about half my primary schools and all my secondary schools—and I have noticed that a lot of them have an early years setting alongside them. I make the point to the Minister that an early years teaching apprenticeship could be a first look at this, perhaps as a pilot scheme. So many people go in, perhaps with a level 2 or level 3 qualification, but that is where their opportunity ends. It is a particular issue when someone with qualified teacher status can look after 13 four-year-olds, whereas someone without qualified teacher status can only look after eight. Some of those ratios are really difficult; they restrict the ability to pay more, when childcare costs are already so high, but they also put extra costs on families. Providing an early years apprenticeship route could be part of the answer to the issues around childcare, which everyone knows is a major issue in the country at the moment, particularly with respect to cost.
The broader point is that having a degree apprenticeship would bring teaching into line with other professions. With accountancy, someone can get an Association of Accounting Technicians qualification and then go on to the full accountancy course. It is the same with architecture and engineering. Someone can go into the legal profession right at the bottom end and work their way through to becoming a fully qualified solicitor. No one is suggesting that those other sectors have a prestige issue. People can do apprenticeships all the way through those professions, but they cannot do one in teaching. That is a particular issue.
I can provide an example from personal experience in respect of the solicitor apprenticeship route. In my previous business, I recruited a young lady at the age of 18 who did not want to go to university. I am delighted to report that she is about to qualify as a solicitor, having gone through all the necessary steps.
My hon. Friend provides a superb example of exactly what I am talking about. In the teaching profession and the education sector there are already a lot of people who have done level 3 qualifications, or even level 4 or 5 qualifications, in all sorts of teaching assistant and some advanced teaching assistant roles. That is a natural progression. It can be done in nursing as well, with healthcare assistants moving through into nursing. There are so many ways that this is done in other professions. We are almost holding teaching back from so many people with many different talents who just did not want to choose a particular route at age 18; we are stopping them being able to progress their careers.
For so many young people, an apprenticeship is a particularly good option if they need to earn while they learn. So many people in our communities, in constituencies such as mine, do not have the option of going away. Even if they would get all the support of student loans and grants, they want to be earning from day one. They may have commitments to their family that they want to maintain. The apprenticeship model might mean that they do not have to remove themselves from the job market in later life to go and do training or professional qualifications, because they can earn and learn on the job.
Having spoken to so many people across the sector about my plan, I have heard some reservations. The first is that apprenticeships would somehow dilute the teaching profession. The issue of prestige perniciously permeates apprenticeships across the board, but with companies such as Goldman Sachs now taking on apprentices and people able to do an apprenticeship to become a doctor, that is being eroded. That reservation is particularly frustrating because it is demonstrably untrue.
While a three-year residential degree and one year of training provide an in-depth understanding of academic study, surely four years of working in a teaching apprenticeship in a school environment, while doing those academic studies on the side, would help teachers get a greater understanding of teaching. That is particularly true for early years and primary, which I have already touched on.
What is more, the apprenticeship model already exists in the public sector. In 2017, undergraduate degree apprenticeships became the main route into nursing and, as I have said, the Department of Health and Social Care has approved an apprenticeship, to be rolled out next year, as a route to becoming a doctor. That addresses the grievances of those concerned about the lack of prestige or academic credentials. I understand those concerns. We want to ensure that people with really good subject knowledge are going into our professions. I just think that we can do that with a proper, well-thought-through degree apprenticeship route too.
While it is difficult to object to the idea of apprenticeships in principle, some have expressed concern about funding. However, this is where I am probably most optimistic about the viability of my proposal. Since 2017, the Treasury has allocated an annual apprenticeship budget to the Department for Education, which is used to fund apprenticeships at small employers and incentive payments, among other things. If it is not used by the end of the financial year, it is returned to the Treasury. I have spoken to Ministers and officials in the Department, and it is estimated that around £200 million in unused levy funds has been returned, although a specific freedom of information request recently suggested that the figure could be as high as £2 billion over a five-year period. There are hundreds of millions of pounds, at least, in the Department for Education’s budget to do this. Without having even to look far, we have a silver bullet to fund an undergraduate teaching apprenticeship pathway and unleash the potential of enthusiastic apprentices who could shape the future of the children of today and tomorrow.
One big issue with apprenticeships in general—I think this is one of the most important points—is that they are often not considered a prestigious option post-school. Schools often strongly encourage students to go down a traditional three-year residential university route, even though it might not be the best fit for them. That is natural—that is where all the teachers came from. Einstein’s definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. This is groundhog day in our education system. We put people who have degrees into schools and then, naturally, teachers say that is the route into teaching that people should go down. We need to stop doing this; it is a disservice to the people we are trying to represent and to apprenticeships more broadly.
If our children’s role models were themselves living examples of successful apprentices, that could surely change how apprenticeships are perceived, particularly in the education sector. Therefore, teaching apprenticeships could unlock a new generation of apprentices, not only in the teaching profession but more broadly in all sectors of society. That would address the broader issue with apprenticeships that results in them being seriously under-utilised and thus create far-reaching benefits beyond the teaching profession itself.
I believe that creating an undergraduate teaching apprenticeship degree route would have extensive and multifaceted benefits. It is an astonishingly simple solution to many issues in the sector, from getting people into apprenticeships who should be in them to helping out in the early years and with the financial pressures on families and, obviously, on the Government. It would boost productivity, it would provide a pathway into a well-paying job with a good pension for so many young people who have not historically gone down the teaching route, and it would really help to address some of the vacancies in our already overstretched teaching sector. Furthermore, it would create a route into teaching for enthusiastic young people who currently have no path to progression. Primarily, a teaching apprenticeship would benefit the most disadvantaged, who feel that they cannot afford to take a degree or that, for varying reasons in their lives, teaching has not been an option for them. Most importantly, there is already a considerable tranche of funding available to make this happen.
Finally, as I have already said, having apprentices as ambassadors in schools would provide a huge boost to the entire sector, reaching well beyond the profession itself. I want to see apprenticeship starts increase wherever possible. I know the uniquely valuable role that teachers play in children’s lives—both my parents were teachers—and I see this route into teaching as essential to helping us address some of the gaps that we see in our country at the moment.
Thank you, Sir George, for calling me to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on setting the scene.
May I say what a pleasure it is to see the Minister in his place? We have become great friends over the last few years. I know he is a good man who will do a good job. If he were not a Minister, he would be on the Back Benches supporting us in this debate. He is very much poacher turned gamekeeper, so we are pleased to see him in his place and we look forward to his contribution.
There are certain professions that are not jobs but callings or vocations, and teaching is one of them. Although I adore my grandchildren and enjoy giving talks to classes interested in politics, I can think of nothing more challenging than teaching nine classes of 30 different children five times a week. To progress those children, to understand how best they learn, to be able to teach the brightest while bringing along those who struggle—it is all beyond me. I really applaud the teachers who are involved in that—well done.
In these debates, I always try to give a Northern Ireland perspective. I do it to add to the debate, ever mindful that the Minister does not have any responsibility for education in Northern Ireland, because education is a devolved matter. It is getting much harder to be a teacher in Northern Ireland, as the needs of our children have changed. Statistics released by the Northern Ireland Education Authority in January outline those changes, with a 26.4% increase in the number of pupils accessing a placement in a special school since 2015-16, and a 24.1% rise in the number accessing a placement in special provision in mainstream schools. Other statistics show that 20,505 pupils have a statement of need where there were once only 16,500, an increase of 23.7%.
That is not the subject of the debate, of course, but I say those things to give a perspective on how education has changed since I was young. Any teacher training now does so in the knowledge that they will have to teach the subject they choose to pupils with a range of skill levels and learning processes in one classroom. An essential component of making that work are the classroom assistants who aid those children who need to learn differently. There is a lot of pressure on the teacher to know how best to utilise that help in the classroom. The classes are large and the teaching aids and funding are low. Schools are feeling the pinch. It is quite a grim picture. I have served on the board of governors of Glastry College for nearly 36 years, and in that time I have seen how the needs and demands of the pupils, parents and teachers have changed.
In England, the pupil to teacher ratio has increased from 17.6 in November 2010 to 18.5 in 2021, and the teacher vacancy rate has risen over that period. I believe those things are linked, with greater pressure on time spent outside the classroom for teachers and, increasingly, for classroom assistants. That must change through increased funding, which would reduce class numbers and increase classroom assistants’ hours in class and time for preparation. I know the Minister is keen do that, and I believe he will. Every penny spent on education is a penny invested in our children and, subsequently, in ourselves and the future of this great nation.
It is time that we again focused on the outcomes for us all, which would be better if a teacher were not singlehandedly trying to teach 30 children with three different teaching needs and a number with behavioural needs. A rising tide lifts all ships. Minister, we must ensure that we can entice people who love education and children into teaching, by showing the support and help that will be granted to them, not simply in private schools, if they can get a job there, but in every mainstream school in this nation. The job is clear; the question is whether the Government will put their shoulder to the plough and deliver. Knowing the Minister as I do, as a friend—I welcome him and wish him well in his new role—I believe that he will be the first to do just that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Sir George. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for bringing forward this important debate. I will focus today on education, but I also totally agree with what he said about the apprenticeship levy and the opportunity, by making that more flexible, to open up a range of employment and training opportunities that do not currently exist. We should definitely have done that a long time ago, to be honest.
There are two things I wanted to raise today. The first is helping people to access teaching as a career, regardless of background. Insistence on degree qualifications makes for a less diverse workforce, although not less diverse in terms of physical characteristics—which the Minister knows I have all sorts of issues with, which I will come to in a minute—but less diverse in terms of background, views and experience.
Other areas of education, such as independent schools and colleges, are free to bring in a broader range of teachers and lecturers with different backgrounds. We regularly see colleges bringing in people from industry, for example, into teaching settings. That is sometimes to support more vocational or technical qualifications, or to support and advise on business or getting into private sector roles or entrepreneurship. I often hear businesses say that schools struggle to teach effectively about being in business, about entrepreneurship, and about being work ready and the expectations of private sector employment. In reality, that is less about qualifications and more about engagement, character and extracurricular interests.
Many groups and charities are working to get more business experience into schools, which is good. Even better, we could get that experience into teaching. To have a wider variety of routes and ways to get into teaching, without having to take years out to take a degree, would be incredibly beneficial. Giving schools more flexibility to employ a wider range of people would also be beneficial. It would help us to give our young people a wider range of options, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham said, and a wider and better range of careers advice.
Often, the most effective role models for young people are those from their community. A young person who grew up on an estate who has done well, and who is capable and engaging and understands the local context and issues, is perhaps better placed than a graduate from another, very different area to mentor young people—to be a role model. Often, people get to grips with learning and qualifications later in life, having struggled at school. That is particularly true in very disadvantaged communities, where levels of post-16 qualifications can be very low. People being able to access teaching through apprenticeships and shorter courses, to transition from other sectors such as business, to work as a teaching assistant while they learn and qualify on the job, and opportunities such as those would help those people to get on, to give back to their community and to teach where they grew up, instead of going to do something else elsewhere. I extend that to other professions, as well—the police, for example. I would make the same case in that sector, but I do not have time to go into that today.
In other areas of education, having new ways into teaching could be hugely beneficial and create new opportunities. Just last week, I visited Crocodile Rock Day Care, an early years setting in Mansfield, where we spoke about a variety of things, including the challenge of recruiting and retaining staff. We spoke about the challenge of offering appropriate training and development with very tight budgets, and how many staff in the sector end up moving into retail or going to work at Amazon because it is better money. If those young people entering early years education could progress into primary teaching, for example, by learning on the job—by transferring their training and qualifications in early years to schools through apprenticeship-type options—we could open up a whole world of new opportunities, and also improve recruitment and retention in the sector.
If people could progress from an entry-level role in early years education to become more experienced and qualified, work in a nursery or reception setting at a school, gain experience with older children, learn as a teaching assistant and become a newly qualified teacher, and do all of that on the job, it would mean people would not have to take career breaks to requalify. It would also remove financial barriers and enable people to progress in settings within their own community—the community that they most care about—and then perhaps teach in their own area, not leave and go somewhere else. That is a real challenge for schools, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, so I hope the Minister will take those points away. I fully support what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has said.
In the short time I have left, the second thing I want to raise with the Minister is the importance of male role models in teaching, which relates to this teacher training issue. I do not need to go into my issues with the Equality Act 2010 and the perverse outcomes it has led to: there are countless examples of trying to support women into university or into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, for example, but next to no examples of trying to support young men into teaching, even though the profession is 75% female, and even more so in primary education.
In the east midlands, 30% of schools do not have a single male teacher. That is really upsetting when we consider that in some of the most disadvantaged communities, that male teacher might be the only decent role model that a young man has. It is difficult and confusing to learn how to be a man in modern society when there is no male role model, or when the male role model at home is involved in domestic violence, for example, or unhealthy relationships. Where do young men learn those things from? I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to also take that point away, and look at how we might encourage more male role models for the children in those disadvantaged communities who most need them. Most importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has said, we need to open up access to teaching to a much broader range of people, to make that easier for all our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing the debate.
We all know good and bad teachers: they shape our lives, and therefore can be considered the most important influence after parents and carers. Our economy depends on skills and apprenticeships, and I welcome ways into career paths that open them to people from a range of backgrounds. However, I have huge concerns about the number of ways of getting into teaching, and whether they all guarantee the preparedness of teachers. Depending on what equivalence we attach to similarly operating pathways, there are around 10 ways of getting qualified teacher status. It is now proposed to introduce a level 5 associate teacher apprenticeship aimed at teaching assistants, both as a route into teaching and a continuing professional development activity. We should remember that most TA roles are based on a level 3 qualification, or level 4 in some cases.
If, as I have said, teaching is the most important influence, we should be making sure that teachers are well trained and motivated. Teaching is a vocation, but that does not mean that everyone is good at it. There needs to be rigorous training over years to enable good teaching, which includes child pedagogy. It requires a mixture of sciences, such as child development, as well as subject teaching. Finland, which comes top of most education surveys, has primary school teacher training for four years and secondary school teaching programmes for five years. Candidates then have to do a year of pedagogical training; alongside that, they do a research thesis on a topic of their choice and spend a full year teaching in a university-affiliated school before graduation.
This gives status to teachers, and confidence that teachers are well prepared. Compare that with the lack of that foundation in some routes in England, which particularly concerns me, because we cannot rely on stretched schools and their teachers to provide additional support to newly qualified teachers who are expected to learn from others on the job. Additionally, we cannot put children and young people in a position where they may have an unqualified or struggling teacher for a whole year. The new apprenticeships specification builds in so much overlap with the qualified teacher status that it is inevitable that the distinction will be lost or overlooked.
We lose far too many of these valuable recruits early in their careers because they feel unprepared in the classroom. The average rate for teachers leaving the profession is around 10% per year. However, among early career teachers the rates are a lot worse; some 12.5% have already left within a year of qualifying. Some 17%—
No, we do not get a minute back in here, I am afraid.
Some 17% will have left within two years. After five years a third have left, and 40% of teachers who qualified 10 years ago have left teaching. Besides being a failure of current policy, this also undermines our ability to develop a cadre of experienced teachers who can help the next generation.
I am a huge fan of apprenticeships, vocational education and learning while working, but the stakes are so high in education that we must be cautious. Classroom-based professional development can help qualified teachers learn themselves and stay in teaching, but it is not a substitute for giving teachers a solid foundation at the start. We certainly should not be circumventing routes to it, which I am concerned the kinds of apprenticeships now being proposed will do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I begin by congratulating my County Durham colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), on securing today’s important debate.
Over 30,000 individuals enter initial teacher training in England each year through several routes. However, it is regrettable that in general, over the past decade or so, the overall number of qualified teachers in state-funded schools has not kept pace with increasing pupil numbers, with recruitment and retention of teachers still being a significant issue. This is of particular concern in the north east, where we have seen the sharpest reduction in the number of teacher training places in the country, with nearly a third of our places at risk. With 92% of teachers in the north-east coming from the north-east, we know that this will result in reduced teacher supply, and significantly impact the ability of schools in the north-east to continue to improve and develop. Given that we know schools in disadvantaged areas have the greatest problems in recruiting staff, the impact on disadvantaged children will be even more significant than on the system as a whole, compounding the problem.
With this in mind, I have been made aware of a number of concerns about the recent re-accreditation process for providers of initial teacher training. I will take this opportunity to highlight the issues Carmel College in Darlington is currently experiencing. Carmel College’s teacher training programme has been running for 20 years, delivering over 100 new teachers each year. I am deeply concerned that this outstanding school in my constituency now faces the removal of its teacher training accreditation from 2024. It is essential that outstanding schools such as Carmel College are able to continue their teacher training programmes, so that we can ensure that children in the north-east are not let down because of a lack of teachers to fill vacancies. I greatly appreciate the engagement that I have already had on this issue from the Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and I wish Carmel College good luck in its appeal.
More generally, I am committed to helping the people of Darlington to secure employment and training opportunities. Further to this aim, and like my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, who led the debate, I recently hosted my second apprenticeship and training fair at Darlington College. I was delighted to have almost 50 organisations represented, which were collectively recruiting for well over 700 opportunities in and around Darlington, alongside helpful tips and advice for job seekers. Such events are hugely important for ensuring that our constituents are fully aware of the job opportunities and training available to them to enable them to reach their full potential. The apprenticeship levy allowance has been a great tool for encouraging employers to commit to apprenticeships, allowing them to fund apprenticeship training or else lose the funds.
While apprenticeships are a great way for schools to improve the skills of their non-teaching employees, the funds are not currently available for schools to fund teacher training costs, which seems a missed opportunity. I encourage the Minister to look at the feasibility of that measure. We must ensure that we can tackle shortages in teachers if we are to enable children up and down the country to fulfil their potential.
I want to see us encouraging more businesses to establish apprenticeships and opening up more opportunities for people seeking employment and training. I know that the Minister and this Conservative Government share those views, and I know the Minister will have listened closely to all the contributions today. I look forward to hearing his response to this excellent and timely debate.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) on securing a debate on this important matter. Apprenticeships are dear to many of our hearts. The pressure on teacher numbers is also an issue we are all very conscious of. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman was able to secure this debate. It is a shame that the “back frack or sack” debate in the Chamber has overwhelmed many of us. As a result, there were rather more Labour Members there, and maybe some Conservative Members were hiding away in here. I cannot imagine that there is anyone here who does not want to let everyone know what they think about fracking, but we never know—it is possible.
The hon. Member for North West Durham raised some important points. I want to dwell on the importance of apprenticeships for learners from deprived communities. He is absolutely right that level 2 and 3 apprenticeships are incredibly important. There are real issues in the expansion of level 6 and 7 apprenticeships; there has been a huge middle-class grab of those. I welcome degree apprenticeships, but we need to be careful that we do not end up with a twin-tier system where level 2 apprenticeships are for working-class kids and level 6 and 7 apprenticeships are what someone does if their parents are ambitious. None the less, his central point about the value of apprenticeships is an important one.
The hon. Gentleman touched on the fact that apprenticeship numbers are falling. At our recent conference, the Labour party outlined new proposals on flexibility around apprenticeships. The apprenticeship levy is not working in its current format, and we want to see apprenticeship numbers driven up. He was right to say that.
I take this opportunity to welcome to his post the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). I hope that he lasts rather longer than the Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman), appears to have. I know he has great passion in this area, and we look forward to hearing his thoughts going forward.
The hon. Members for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke of their commitment to apprenticeships. I know that commitment is found across the House.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) is a great example of someone who covets another job when in one; throughout the years I have known him, he seems to have been almost constantly campaigning for the next job. I know he would like to be my Mayor in Nottinghamshire in the future, and will no doubt have been hugely excited about Labour’s announcement of devolution of skills funding to Mayors at our recent conference. Whether he gets that opportunity, time will tell, but I know he has a genuine commitment to this area of policy, and it was good to hear his contribution.
The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) made a point about the retention of teachers, mentioning that the sharpest reduction in teacher training is in the north-east, and that there are often particular pressures on teacher recruitment in town communities and areas that are further away from universities. That is an issue of real importance. The hon. Member for North West Durham talked about the value of apprenticeships; I completely agree with what he said. Apprenticeships are a hugely important opportunity for people to work while they learn. Ensuring that both employers and learners get access to those opportunities will be a key priority for the Labour Government. A lot more can be done to ensure that all students coming out of school are aware of apprenticeship opportunities, which is a real passion of mine.
There is a particular missed opportunity for public sector apprenticeships. I asked a number of parliamentary questions to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), about the amount of levy left unspent in the public sector. I was shocked to discover that the Government did not have those figures to hand. I had to try to establish them on an organisation-by-organisation basis. It should be a matter of strategic interest to the Government.
Our health sector trusts, which pay huge amounts of levy, also have a huge staffing crisis. How much do they have unspent every year in their apprenticeship levy pot? In that context, the hon. Member for North West Durham made an important and innovative suggestion for teacher training. We need to think a huge amount more about how to do it, but he has raised a topic of real importance. It is vital that we attract more people into the teaching profession, and such innovative solutions are definitely to be explored.
Over the past decade, the number of qualified teachers in state schools has fallen behind increasing pupil numbers. At one time, it was guaranteed that there would be no more than 30 pupils in a class, but that is now commonplace in schools that I visit. The rising teacher vacancy rate over that period has seen more and more schools struggling to recruit. I have met schools in my constituency that have advertised vacancies two or three times and not had a single application. We need to stop for a moment and consider why that is. Is it the workload, the burnout that teachers experience, the highly pressurised environment, or the extent to which schools have become extensions of social work services? Rising poverty means that schools are expected to feed as well as educate our children, which is a massive social problem. It no doubt has huge consequences for teacher retention.
We have a great generation of teachers, but never have the Government expected so much while offering so little. Many teachers in my constituency, knowing about this debate, wanted me to express the sense that they are drowning in work and facing unimaginable pressures, due to the crisis in children’s mental health, the cost of living issues, and the number of families struggling to feed themselves and afford the basics. Our teachers are very much on the frontline of that economic crisis. It is crucial that we recognise the vital role that teachers play in our communities and do more to address the poverty behind many of those issues. We need to recognise the shortage of teachers that we have.
The last large-scale survey of teachers, administered by the OECD in 2018, found that full-time secondary teachers in England reported working on average almost 50 hours a week. Full-time primary teachers reported working 52 hours a week—more than any other participating country except Japan. In our country, the amount of time that pupils spend in school is less than it is for many of our competitors, but the amount of time our teachers spend working is more. That is simply a recipe for failure.
Recent recruitment campaigns to the teaching profession have tended to target those already in work, but many of the desired recruits, as the hon. Member for North West Durham said, will already have family commitments and all the other expenditure that makes it difficult to get away from the world of work to pursue full-time education. I absolutely agree with the principle that non-possession of a degree should be a barrier only where there is a specific reason why a degree is needed. I am someone who never went to university, and yet, despite having been a senior manager in business, I know from subsequently attempting to get into the public sector that there were a number of jobs there that I did not even have a chance to apply for, regardless of my abilities, because I do not have a degree.
The Labour party views apprenticeships as the gold standard, so we want to see further investigation of these important ideas, but there is a number of considerations that will need to be made to make the idea work. In conclusion, we are broadly supportive of the suggestion of apprenticeships for teacher training and we look forward to exploring these ideas in future.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and to make my first appearance as the Minister for School Standards. It could not have been sweeter that it was my next-door neighbour in the parliamentary offices, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), who managed to get me at the Dispatch Box in Westminster Hall for the first time. I thank him and I thank his parents, who are obviously excellent teachers, for producing such a wonderful son. Most importantly, I thank all the teachers, teaching assistants and support staff who time and again go above and beyond in their incredible dedication to those amazing young people, who will be the future of our country and drive that economic growth that we are so keen to see.
This important debate has been secured by my hon. Friend, who is not just a great champion of his local schools, having visited 22 out of 40 in his constituency to date, but the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships. I was a member of that group for a period of time before starting in this role. I want to put on the record the fact that I am lucky, as the representative of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, to have my own apprentice in my parliamentary office. Jessica is on the verge of completing her qualification, and I felt that I could not preach about apprenticeships if I was not going to support one myself.
The debate is an important one, and my hon. Friend will know that there have been over 13,000 apprenticeship starts in his constituency since the beginning of 2010. They have provided fantastic opportunities for his constituents to enhance their careers and, as he says, earn while they learn. The Government are committed to providing world-class education and training for everyone, whatever their age or stage of life. Since 2015, we have transformed apprenticeships into a prestigious, sought-after option designed to meet the needs of employers and learners across the country, and we have seen over 2,600 starts on the level 6 teacher apprenticeship since its inception in 2017.
Thanks to our transformational reforms, millions of people in a wide range of sectors have benefited from these industry-led routes to earn and learn. In the last academic year, there were 37,000 new trainee teachers—10% more than the last pre-pandemic cycle in 2019-20. To support this, we recently announced a new package of financial incentives worth over £180 million for the 2023-24 academic year. That support for teacher training will include bursaries worth up to £27,000 and scholarships worth up to £29,000, and these incentives will encourage talented applicants to teach key subjects, such as chemistry, physics and mathematics. We are also offering a £25,000 bursary for geography and languages, a £20,000 bursary for biology and design technology, and a £15,000 bursary for English, all of which will be tax free.
I should declare an interest, having been a teacher myself and having got my postgraduate certificate in education at the Institute of Education only in 2011. Never in my wildest dreams—or theirs, probably—would I have thought that I would be standing here as the Minister for School Standards, and I am absolutely honoured to be guiding that next generation of young teachers on their journey, because they are so important.
I am very grateful for the time that my hon. Friend spent at the Department, meeting me and officials on 22 September. I heard and learned more about his idea and what could be done. I will set out the work that the Department has undertaken to date to consider that option. Between 2018 and 2020, a sector-led trailblazer group considered the viability of an apprenticeship with a pre-degree entry point leading to qualified teacher status. In 2020, after detailed consideration and wider stakeholder engagement with initial teacher training providers and schools, including a survey among headteachers, the group rejected the creation of an undergraduate teacher apprenticeship. That was due to its prohibitive costs, the duration required and insufficient demand from the sector.
The Department is always willing to listen to the sector, and as the Minister for School Standards I am absolutely putting teaching degree apprenticeships on the table. However, I need to ensure that there are benefits and take account of the wider views of schools, pupils and prospective teachers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to clarify. From my understanding, it was headteachers who reported that there was not a massive desire—and nor did they believe that there would be—within the sector. The cost was definitely the main problem. A regular apprentice gets 20% of time off to undertake further learning, but that figure is 40% when applied to the school year, because there are 13 weeks when teachers are not physically in the classroom with their pupils. The cost to a school was felt to be too great to have someone off timetable for 40% of the time. However, allowing a teaching assistant to take a teaching qualification through a level 5 apprenticeship, which we are exploring, could be a way to deliver teachers through an apprenticeship scheme. We would be using people who are already in the school system—those 200,000-plus teaching assistants who do a fantastic job up and down our country.
Where there is employer demand for new apprenticeships in education, including a route to teaching for those without a degree, we will work with employers and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to consider how those proposals could be delivered. We are currently engaging in detailed work with a new trailblazer group to explore the viability of the new apprenticeship standard at level 5. That apprenticeship would enhance training opportunities for existing teaching assistants. It would also offer a route for high-potential individuals without an undergraduate degree, providing them with a career pathway to gain a qualification to train to teach.
I look forward to continuing discussions with school leaders, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham on how best to support talented non-graduates to gain the necessary qualifications to train to teach.
I want to ensure that I address the points raised by hon. Members, because that is important. I thank my good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for his kind words and his continued passion for state education, a sector that I am proud to have worked in for eight and a half years. To declare an interest, my partner is a member of that sector as well. It is a fantastic career. I hope that anyone watching today who is not yet a teacher will be able to understand what a great profession it is. Not only is the new starting salary for this academic year over £28,000, but I have supported the pledge in the 2019 Conservative manifesto to ensure that a £30,000 a year starting salary is enacted for the next academic year.
On top of that, there are bursaries. The levelling-up premium is available in education investment areas. That can give someone up to £3,000 tax free, on top of their salary, depending on the subject they teach. We should really promote that. I believe that take-up is really good so far, but we are checking those numbers. I want every Member in those education investment areas to drive those reforms by getting people to sign up as quickly as they can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) is a fine champion for his local area, and I am glad to have been able to spend time with him to learn about the work he has been doing for education. We have no plans in place yet to look at what we are doing specifically for men. However, my team in the Department are looking at diversity, which is not just about ethnicity; it is about gender as well. It is about men getting into the profession, particularly in primary schools, as well as women getting into leadership roles in the sector. It is also about socioeconomic backgrounds and those white, working class, disadvantaged boys who we want to see representing the profession in schools, as well as people from other ethnic minority groups who, tragically, are falling out of the profession at a quicker rate than their white counterparts. We are going to do a big piece of work in that area. I look forward to visiting Lambeth Academy tomorrow to meet Leon, one of those inspirational headteachers, and understand what he has done throughout his career journey.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) was a teacher—
They were the ones I dreaded when I was in the classroom. It is absolutely brilliant that she has that insight into the profession. I understand the importance of maintaining that high-quality education and ensuring that that the skill and knowledge base is there, particularly with the important reforms that we have made to GCSEs and A-levels. That is why I am certainly intrigued to explore further what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham said about primary education as potentially a pilot route.
I thank the Minister for giving up a few seconds. On the primary environment—the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) touched on this earlier—the challenges in disadvantaged communities mean that teachers are often seen as social workers, and some of the issues that come through the door are more akin to those experienced in an early years setting than in what we would traditionally associated with a teaching setting. Does the Minister agree that the opportunity to drag people from those care and early years settings and place them in those primary environments might be of huge benefit? That is slightly separate to the discussion about academic excellence and brilliance at post-16, which has been mentioned.
My hon. Friend makes fantastic points. I visited a school in Wolverhampton recently to hear how the multi-academy trust had hired its own social worker to work among its schools. I found that very inspiring. Absolutely, looking at how we can build that relationship between the early years sector and the primary school sector—that knowledge base, that understanding and that familiarity with the local people—is so important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) is a doughty champion. He has been lobbying and banging the door over Carmel College and its fantastic CEO, Mike Shorten. We know that an appeal is coming, so my hon. Friend will appreciate, as I have said before, that I cannot make any comment, but his and Mike’s comments have been heard and will be taken into consideration when the appeal is made.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), who also represents Staveley, for his kind words. I am sad that my natural counterpart, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), is not here. I assume that he is still in detention with the Commissioner for Standards, having been a bit of a naughty boy recently when he sent a letter about me to The Guardian before she had made a comment. However, I really do appreciate the opportunity to hear the fine words of the hon. Member for Chesterfield and about his passion for level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships, which are absolutely important and should not in any way be seen as unimportant by this Department. Yes, we have put a lot of work into the degree level, but we want those take-ups at level 2 and level 3, and we are very pleased that that is continuing.
Finally, on teacher numbers, we have 466,000 full-time teachers on the books. That is a record number and 24,000 more than in 2010. While there are, of course, rising teacher vacancy rates, it is important to understand the context. The situation across all sectors is challenging, but I will ensure that we challenge that head-on with recruitment and retention strategies.
I welcome the Minister’s pledge to continue to engage. I thank all hon. Members who took part today. Some important matters were raised.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised teacher workload. In an intervention, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) raised the importance of getting employers working with colleges and dealing with apprenticeships. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned recruitment issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) spoke about how we have to ensure that standards are maintained at all costs, to ensure that children get the education they need. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) spoke of being a champion of real diversity in the teaching profession and in communities.
It was also good to hear from the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) that the Labour party is open to this, too, and want to look forwards. I share some of his concerns, in particular about things such as executive MBAs and cash from the apprenticeship levy being used for them by some very high-end companies, instead of driving skills for the people who really need them. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who I think is in his first gig as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, sitting behind the Minister.
In conclusion, I say to the Minister that there have been studies on this matter. I ask him to reach out to the vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire. It was doing work with multi-academy trusts in this space, and I think there is a lot more that can be done. I do not expect the Minister to rush into anything, but I think that this is a real opportunity for the entire sector to turbocharge apprenticeships and open up the profession to so many more people who would be great teachers.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Apprenticeships and teacher training.