House of Commons
Thursday 24 November 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
National Highways has been in contact with representatives of Spencer Academies Trust, the multi-academy trust responsible for George Spencer Academy, and has met in recent days with representatives on site to discuss their concerns about the A52 footbridge.
On Monday, I met National Highways at George Spencer Academy in my constituency of Broxtowe. As the Minister knows, the academy is separated by the A52 and is therefore connected by a footbridge. The footbridge has tragically been the site of several suicide attempts over the years, and it is essential that we look at new safety measures for the bridge. Although that was discussed with National Highways on site, my view is that the various solutions proposed were inadequate. A cage could be a safer solution. Will the Minister meet me to discuss a way to ensure we can have a future where tragedies do not occur?
National Highways’ suicide prevention strategy sets out a vision that no one should attempt to take their own life on our roads, and everyone who does is a tragedy. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to see whether there are further things we could do to prevent such events occurring in the future.
Ultra Low Emission Zones
Transport in London is devolved to the Mayor of London and Transport for London, which includes decisions about the London ultra low emission zone. It is the Mayor of London and TfL’s responsibility to consult and ensure that residents and businesses are fully engaged with the ULEZ and that their feedback is properly considered and responded to.
One way to build local support for promoting electric vehicles is by incentivising the switch to electric vehicles, but at the pace the Government are going, the UK is set to miss the target for 300,000 charge points not by one year or two years but by 17 years. This risks stalling the switch, and this week we learned that, far from charging ahead, this Government are slipping back, with rapid charging fund trials delayed.
Compensation is available to property owners affected by HS2, in accordance with the compensation code. We aim to be fair, while protecting the public purse.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his new responsibilities and offer him my sympathy that one of them is HS2. He will know that for those who find themselves in the path of this project, obtaining compensation is a painful and long drawn-out experience. That is particularly true for those subject to compulsory purchase, where payments are delayed. Where they are delayed, there are very low rates of interest, and valuations are heavily contested. That is not meeting the promise that he referred to, that the Government would be fair and that people would not be worse off as a result of this project. May I ask him to look urgently at this problem? In particular, will he look at those low rates of interest that are paid on delayed payments? The Government legislated to increase those rates but never brought the measure into effect.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his warm welcome of my entire portfolio; I am very proud to be covering HS2 and rail. Some £3.2 billion has already been paid out in land acquisitions, and more is to be paid out. The Government did recognise that there were problems with acquisitions, and a report was commissioned by a predecessor of mine. We will ensure that we can learn lessons. With regard to the payment of interest, HS2 Ltd pays interest at 0.5% below the Bank of England base rate, and there was a period of two years between 2020 and 2022 when no interest was paid because the base rate was below 0.5%, but I am willing to meet my right hon. and learned Friend to discuss these matters further.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his position. I remind him that Mark Thurston told the Transport Committee that the anticipated spend for the current year was within the envelope of £5.7 billion. My question relates to how that £5.7 billion is being used in terms of procurement. What can the Minister and the Department do to encourage or specify the use of British steel for rails and structures within the terms of the contract?
I thank the hon. Member, or should I say my hon. Friend, as he is indeed that. I recognise all the work that he has done and continues to do on the Transport Committee. I thought he might ask that question. Some £122 million of British steel has been purchased by HS2. I am keen that we talk to HS2 more about how it can further invest in British steel. I will supply him with figures on how much steel has been produced from outside the UK, because that is how we will end up holding to account. Some 60% of the HS2 procurement contracts will go to small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as large entities such as British Steel.
Dartford Crossing Closures
The protesters’ actions at Dartford in October put drivers, police and highways agency staff in danger and caused misery to thousands of ordinary people. National Highways works closely with the police to respond robustly to these incidents and to prosecute those responsible. In my first few days in this job, I instructed National Highways to seek a further injunction to cover the M25, to deal with those protesters, and I am pleased that the Court has granted it, to defend ordinary people going about their daily business.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer, and I welcome him to his position. He will know that the lack of crossings east of the Thames makes the Dartford crossing particularly vulnerable to not just protesters but all other kinds of incident. Does he agree that this makes it all the more imperative that we have the lower Thames crossing built as soon as possible, to provide some resilience to the existing system?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for the lower Thames crossing. He will know that National Highways has submitted a new application for a development consent order for that crossing to the Planning Inspectorate. A decision on whether to accept the application for examination is due next Monday. As it is a live planning application, I hope he will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the substance of it at this time.
Highways Maintenance in England: Local Spending
The Department for Transport allocates capital funding to local highways authorities so that they can most effectively spend it on maintaining and improving their respective local networks, based on local knowledge, circumstances and priorities. It is up to the highways authorities how they spend that funding to fulfil their duty under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980.
Is that not a rather complacent response? A lot of the £500 million allocated last year to local authorities in England for highway maintenance was not spent on highway maintenance, so it was effectively a fraud on taxpayers. Will my hon. Friend please ensure that next year, the allocations of money to highway authorities are made contingent upon them showing that last year’s allocation was spent on highways?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Local highways maintenance is a critical service provided by local authorities. In recognition of that, a central highways maintenance fund has an incentive element built in to drive best practice. However, it would be counterproductive for central Government to go beyond that and override local leaders, who have the best understanding of the needs of their local areas. This approach is in line with the wider Government funding framework led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Does the Minister not agree that flexibility in budgets is important? At the moment, many of us in the road safety campaigning area are very worried about the lack of representation in this House on road safety and transport safety issues. Could local authorities with some of this extra cash not be encouraged to take road safety more seriously?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. Flexibility is important for local need, which is why local authorities are the decision makers in this area. If local people do not like what local authorities are doing, they can make a change to local priorities at the ballot box.
Local Transport: Levelling Up
Local transport services are crucial to the growth and levelling-up agendas, which is why the Government are investing in our local transport services by providing more than £2 billion to support bus and light rail services throughout England, as well as investing unprecedented sums to enable cycling and walking. We continue to work with local transport authorities and public transport providers to ensure that these vital services reflect the needs of those who rely on them every day.
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituents. My officials continue to work closely with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority on the proposal to open a new rail station at Golborne as part of the £1 billion city region sustainable transport settlement announced earlier this year. Local partners are currently producing an outline business case to support the proposal, which we expect to receive and consider in due course. Bids to open Kenyon Junction station were submitted in the second and third rounds of the ideas fund, but were sadly unsuccessful.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. Unfortunately, I have had countless pieces of correspondence from my constituents about buses in my local area of South West Hertfordshire. Services are typically infrequent and consistently late. Can he update the House as to what he is doing to ensure that those services are more reliable so that we can continue to encourage people to use public transport?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue and I am sorry to hear about the difficulties that his constituents are facing in accessing bus services. I know from my constituency how vital bus services are for individuals to get to work and to access education and healthcare. We are engaging with bus operators and local authorities to help to resolve the challenges that they face. The national bus strategy sets out our vision for bus services across England to deliver better bus services. To that end, we are investing more than £1 billion to support local authorities to deliver their bus service improvement plans, including £30 million for Hertfordshire County Council, which will support improvements to bus services in his constituency.
Bus routes across Burnley and Padiham are vital to local connectivity and give residents a link to jobs, leisure and essential public services. Too often, however, they are late or cancelled, which has a particular impact on those in rural parts of Burnley, such as Worsthorne and Cliviger. Does the Secretary of State agree that buses are not nice-to-haves but an essential service for local residents? Will he ensure that they are given the priority that they need to continue to improve that service?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of local bus services. We know that the bus sector continues to face a number of challenges, including driver shortages, which are resulting in some services being reduced or cancelled. We are working with the industry to resolve that. As I said in my previous answer, we are investing substantially to improve bus services; he will be pleased to know that £30 million of the funding that we have supplied has been allocated to support improvements to bus services in Lancashire, including in his Burnley constituency.
The taxi and private hire sector provides vital services in many parts of the country, but it now faces the prospect of VAT on fares, which could have a damaging effect. I raised the issue at the last Transport questions and sought a meeting with a Minister, but the industry was offered a 10-minute surgery appointment. Can the Secretary of State ask his diary secretary to look at that again? This is an important issue that deserves proper investigation.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of taxi services for constituents. I will speak to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), to secure the hon. Gentleman a longer meeting so that he can discuss it in more detail.
The Secretary of State talked about £2 billion of investment in buses, and we know that 4,000 new buses have been promised, but will those new buses all have mandatory provision of audiovisual information? I have long supported the Guide Dogs’ “Talking Buses” campaign to help the blind to navigate their way on public transport. The Government have still not introduced secondary regulations for mandatory provision of audiovisual information on new buses. When will that happen and would he be willing to meet?
I am very familiar with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, having served for a period in this House as the Minister for disabled people. I do not have the specific information to hand, so I will write to him and then, if appropriate, a meeting can be secured with the relevant Minister.
The last Prime Minister but two—I think I have got the number right—promised we would have London-style bus services in constituencies such as mine. He said people would be able to go to the bus stop and they would not need a timetable as the buses would be that frequent. We do not need a timetable on many routes in Sheffield now because the buses have been scrapped altogether and routes cut, so instead of a bus improvement plan, we now have a disintegration of bus services. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the covid grant, which has been extended to early next year, will be extended for the whole of the next financial year, because that is the only thing now keeping some bus services running in my constituency? Will he also arrange the meeting I asked for during the last Transport questions with Ministers for myself, local MPs and the Mayor?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentioned the covid pandemic, because that has caused a number of issues for a range of transport providers. We are still seeing that bus users have not returned to using buses since the covid pandemic, and that puts those bus services under tremendous financial pressure, which is exactly why we put the support in place to deal with the pandemic. We have extended it through to the end of March, as he knows, and we will keep that under review, depending on what the situation requires. I know how important buses are, but the impact of the pandemic on buses and rail services is a challenge, and the important thing is to encourage people back to using buses to grow revenue and make sure the sector is financially sustainable.
There is no point in making promises to level up communities through transport if Ministers announce yet another punishing rail fare rise next month. A 3.8% rise, like this year, would mean £129 more for an annual season ticket between Chester and Manchester, and 8% would mean Swindon to Bristol commuters paying £312 extra. The retail price index figure—the usual figure used for rail fare rises—of 12.3% would burden Dover to London passengers by an additional £909 every year. Given that the rail recovery is fragile and given the Conservative cost of living crisis, does the Secretary of State agree with me that now would be the worst possible time for yet another brutal rail fare rise?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman raises that question because he flags up a very important issue. There are only two places that revenue can come from in the rail sector—the passenger, through the fare box, or the taxpayer. I am very well aware of the challenges facing people with the cost of living and inflation, but we also have to make sure that the cost does not fall on taxpayers, many of whom never use rail services. One of the things we will do as we are making this decision is to weigh up exactly those two things—the pressure on the passenger through the fare box but also the burden that falls on the taxpayer. We will balance those, and when we have made a decision, we will announce it in the usual way.
I welcome the Secretary of State and, indeed, his whole team to their places, particularly the new Rail Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) —who has gone from a colleague and a friend to an adversary in just a few weeks.
Last week’s Budget slashed funding for the Department for Transport by 30% in cash terms over the next three years. At a time when investment in net zero transport and boosting regional connectivity is more important than ever, to abandon a key part of national investment is reckless and irresponsible, and it will cause further damage to the economy. What representations will he make to his Cabinet colleagues in the Treasury about reversing these cuts and putting transport funding on a proper footing?
I simply do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I thank him for welcoming me to my position, but I was actually very pleased with the settlement in the autumn statement. The Chancellor confirmed that our capital spending remains as it was in the spending review. Yes, I do have to manage inflation pressures, but the Chancellor did not do what Chancellors sometimes in the past have been tempted to do, which is to cut capital funding in the short term. We have sustained that capital funding, and we are going to be spending £600 billion over the next five years on infrastructure spending to make sure we have long-term economic growth. I am very pleased that the Chancellor demonstrated that transport is part of our growth agenda in driving the economy forward.
There was certainly a massive slash in resource funding for the Department for Transport.
Many fear that HS2 is in the firing line for departmental savings. We have already seen the Golborne link ditched, with no replacement in sight, hitting journey times from Scotland and the north-west of England. Rowing back on HS2 again would be another hammer blow for regional connectivity, so what assurances can the Secretary of State give that HS2 will go ahead in its current form and that those of us outside the M25 may see some benefit?
Again, I do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Our resource funding was confirmed in cash terms as well, so I do not know what autumn statement he was listening to, but it was not the one that the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out at the Dispatch Box. On his general point, as the Chancellor said, we are committed to the HS2 plans set out in the £96 billion integrated rail plan. We will set out our response to the autumn statement to manage inflation pressure in due course.
Northern Powerhouse Rail and Leamside Line
As set out in the autumn statement, the Government are committed to delivering the Northern Powerhouse Rail core network outlined in the integrated rail plan. Reopening of the Leamside line would be best considered by north-east partners as part of a future city region settlement.
Yesterday, at the Great Northern conference, the Transport Secretary promised that Northern Powerhouse Rail will indeed go ahead. Since the Government know that it is going ahead, they should also know what that entails. Does it, or does it not, include the Leamside line?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I am aware that the Leamside line closed in 1964, that she and others across the Chamber have been campaigning for its reopening and that Transport North East is currently conducting a series of studies into the costs and potential benefits. I will restate that the integrated rail plan stated that it would be best dealt with as part of a future city region settlement. Of course, we will await further details from Transport North East as they come out.
I welcome the Minister to his place. When it comes to Northern Powerhouse Rail, can we remember that it is not Manchester Powerhouse Rail or Leeds Powerhouse Rail? It is Northern Powerhouse Rail and that includes the north-east. The Leamside line is a critical part of the infrastructure, which gets us resilience locally, resilience in connections to the Union and local transport initiatives. Could I encourage the Minister to meet me, Transport North East and other interested Members to appreciate its importance to the north-east fully and to ensure that it is considered properly?
My hon. Friend is a true champion for rail in the north-east, and I know that he has been campaigning for the reopening of the line. I agree that the northern powerhouse means the entire north and not just parts of the north; that is the culture that I see. I commit to meeting him, Transport North East and other bodies that he wishes to invite for further discussion. However, I remind the House that funding budgets are tight for the Department for Transport and that not every single project that Members will want to see can be brought forward.
I warmly welcome the new Secretary of State and the entire ministerial team—and in particular the former Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who I am sure will bring his expertise and experience to the team. Of course, the problem for him and the benefit for the Opposition is that we know what he really thinks. [Laughter.] Has he managed to persuade the Secretary of State that the integrated rail plan under-serves the needs of the north and lets down those who require change the most?
I thank the hon. Lady for her very warm welcome and her pledge to hold me to account on things that may have been written before. I am passionate about seeing the entire levelling up of the United Kingdom when it comes to rail. On the integrated rail plan, I gently remind her, using words from a Transport Committee report, that we welcomed
“the scale of the Government’s promised spending on improving rail in the North and the Midlands. £96 billion is a very substantial sum; it has the potential to transform rail travel for future generations”
and level up the country. Wise words; I still believe in them now.
I thank the Minister for that gentle reminder. He knows full well that that was not what was promised to the north and the midlands no fewer than 60 times and in successive Conservative manifestos. Not only are the north and the midlands not getting the infrastructure that they require, but rail services across the country are in freefall, experiencing record cancellations on top of fewer services than at any time since records began. One couple wrote to me this week and said they felt in danger from overcrowding and began to understand how real tragedies could occur. Will the rail Minister apologise for his predecessor’s signing off the decision to slash tens of thousands of services every month and confirm when those services will be restored?
It is of course the case, post the pandemic, that travel habits have changed. Rail is at only 80% of its pre-pandemic patronage but services have been reduced by only 10%, so we continue to subsidise on that basis to the tune of £16 billion. There is a great commitment to rail on behalf of the Government across the country, but we have to look at the entire taxpayer burden that is paying for that and difficult decisions will have to be made. I very much hope I can work with the hon. Lady in a constructive manner to ensure we talk up rail and try to get more people on the rail network, and that it continues to grow as it had before the pandemic.
Practical Driving Tests
There are 95,000 available car test slots at the moment, an increase of over 80,000 in the past six months thanks to the hard work of the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency and our brilliant driving examiners.
20 mph Speed Limits
We are reading the report with interest and looking into the details as we speak. Local authorities are best placed to decide where 20 mph limits will be most effective on their local roads.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but local community campaigner Nadia Fabri has organised opposition to an expensive 20 mph limit in Thorpe Bay in Southend. Will the Government consider suspending funding to projects that are not wanted, expensive and now proven to be ineffective?
Decisions on setting local speed limits on roads are a matter for local authorities and they are democratically accountable for them. They also have the power to decide and implement traffic-calming measures if they are more appropriate. Most central Government funding for local government is not ringfenced, so local authorities can make the best decisions relating to local priorities. My Department is providing £170 million this financial year to local highways authorities in England outside London and city region areas through the integrated transport block for small-scale transport schemes, but we will continue to look at all evidence provided to the Department on all sorts of road safety and transport schemes.
Ferry Services: Rosyth to Mainland Europe
The operation of international ferry routes is primarily a commercial matter and as a result I have not discussed it with either Cabinet colleagues or the Scottish Government to date.
The ancient nation of Scotland, independent for centuries before its coercive incorporation in 1707, was taken out of Europe against its democratic wishes. Yesterday, the UK state apparatus told Scotland it is not a colony and does not lack meaningful political process. So, will the Minister tell me what funding is to be made available to Scotland for direct ferry links from Rosyth to Europe, now that the EU motorways of the sea funding has been cut off? Can the Minister tell his Government colleagues that the British state may say no at every time, but the sovereign people of Scotland say yes, yes, yes?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking this question. I have granted consent to the Civil Aviation Authority to issue a licence to Britain’s first ever spaceport, paving the way for the first ever orbital space launch from the UK, or indeed from anywhere in Europe. The launch from Spaceport Cornwall remains on track for later this year. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who is in his place, for his tireless campaigning on this issue.
I welcome all the new Ministers to their place and join the Secretary of State in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on the work being done in Cornwall. That is another example, along with the SaxaVord spaceport in Shetland, of the UK Government covering the whole country in glory. SaxaVord spaceport has just completed the construction of the first launchpad to be built in Europe to support the orbital launch of four small satellites for a major European client. Does my right hon. Friend or any of his Ministers have plans to visit the site where construction is going on of the other two pads?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of the work that the UK Government do across the whole United Kingdom. The work at SaxaVord is very exciting and I hope to have the opportunity to visit it in due course. UK spaceports will launch highly skilled jobs across the United Kingdom while providing greater resilience for our critical national infrastructure capabilities.
The news that the Secretary of State will visit Shetland, I think for a second time, will be welcomed by all in the county and particularly in Unst. SaxaVord has three European companies testing their facilities for a launch, and it is an exciting development. When he visits, however, he will see the difficulties in developing something such as that on an island that requires the service of two ferries. When he leaves, he might therefore be prepared to support our campaign to have fixed links to replace the ferries in the future.
I would be very pleased to visit Shetland again, which my right hon. Friend—I will call him that, as we worked together in government a number of years ago—represents so ably. On his specific point, those issues are devolved to the Scottish Government. However, as has been said from this Dispatch Box, I look forward to working in partnership with colleagues in the Scottish Government to focus on the priorities of people across the United Kingdom, including his constituents in Shetland.
Rail Funding in Wales
This Government are investing through Network Rail up to £2 billion in the rail network in Wales over the current five-year control period to March 2024. That is twice the level of investment carried out in the previous five years.
The Minister will know that HS2 will reduce travel times from London to Manchester from two hours 10 minutes to one hour 10 minutes and by even more to Scotland, yet the travel time by train to Swansea, which I represent, will remain at about three hours. How is it that Scotland will get an additional £8 billion in Barnett consequentials but Wales will not get the £5 billion that it should get, given that in the past 12 years we have seen only 1.5% of the rail enhancements go to Wales? Will he look at that again and meet me to discuss it, so that we can have our fair share to deliver net zero, improve productivity and deliver levelling up?
The hon. Member is right that there are no direct Barnett consequentials from HS2 to Wales, but there are indirect benefits that I can explain when I meet him—to take up his invitation to meet. I welcome the fact that the Office of Rail and Road reports that Government funding for the operational railway was £1.27 per passenger kilometre in England and £2.39 per passenger kilometre in Wales and Scotland, which I am keen to support.
I welcome the Minister to his place. The Government are committed to levelling up, and that means improving transport and connectivity for my Ynys Môn constituents. How is the Minister using RNEP—the rail network enhancements pipeline—to improve north Wales journey times; will the scope be extended to include rail links to HS2 and the northern powerhouse; and when the Minister visits Ynys Môn, will he come by train?
I will certainly come by train to meet my hon. Friend, who is a true champion for transport in Ynys Môn and the wider north Wales region. She has secured a Backbench Business debate on the west coast main line in the Chamber on 15 December, and that demonstrates what a champion she is. I expect to have the business case for the project that she mentions on my desk in the new year, when I can talk to her further about it.
Spending Priorities: Autumn Statement
The Chancellor announced a plan in last week’s autumn statement to tackle the cost of living crisis and rebuild our economy. As I said earlier, the Government will invest more than £600 billion in infrastructure over the next five years to connect our country and grow the economy. Transport investment will play a huge part in delivering that, and I will work to deliver a stable, long-term plan to run, maintain and expand our transport network across the United Kingdom.
The Republic of Ireland is facing exactly the same global economic impacts as the United Kingdom, but the recent Irish Budget was able to increase support for transport across the southern part of that island. In contrast, the real-terms cuts we will see in the coming years will have a direct impact on transport spending in England and, significantly, in the devolved nations through the Barnett formula. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that the transport needs of other parts of the United Kingdom are not sacrificed for those in London? Does he agree that all public transport infrastructure spending in Scotland should be according to the priorities of the Scottish Government, who were elected for that purpose?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we will have to deal with the pressures of inflation, and the Government’s No. 1 economic priority is to reduce inflation as quickly as possible. Inflation is a global phenomenon, driven by the recovery from the covid pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine, but it is important that we deal with it.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I represent a constituency quite some distance from London. I am well aware that we need to spread transport investment across the United Kingdom, and I will make sure that I work closely with the Scottish Government on shared priorities, as set out in Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review.
I welcome my very good friend, the Secretary of State, to his place. Will he make spending in rural areas a priority? If we are to level up transport, we must not forget rural areas. On that point, will he look at the urgent need for Leicestershire County Council to build the Melton bypass, which is crucial to levelling up our transport? In addition, will he recognise that rurality matters when reviewing accident hotspots, because rurality can hide just how dangerous an accident hotspot is?
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, for her kind words. On the priority for spending on transport in rural areas, I represent a rural constituency myself, of course, and am well aware of the extra challenges in rural areas. We will take those matters into account as we develop our plans, following our settlement in the autumn statement.
As we have heard in concerns raised by Members on both sides of the House, a crisis facing millions of people across the country right now is the total absence of reliable and affordable bus services. How much of the promised bus service improvement funding has actually been handed to local authorities? When will the Secretary of State reopen applications to cover the 60% of the country that did not get a single penny in the initial round?
Local authorities put in bids for significantly more than the £1 billion that was allocated. We selected a total of 34 counties, city regions and unitary authorities to benefit from that funding. We wrote to offer further practical support to all areas to which we cannot offer new funding. We will look at a further round of funding in due course.
Strategic Importance of the A5
The Department and I recognise the significant strategic importance of the A5 to both the regional and national economy, which is why we continue to work with regional partners such as Midlands Connect to consider options to improve the route as part of our third road investment strategy—RIS3—investment plans.
I am grateful to the Minister for his encouragement on the strategic importance of the A5, because its improvement has political support from the parishes all the way to MPs of all colours. Economically, improving the A5 will drive our growth and, strategically, will deliver houses and prosperity in my area. Is he aware of Midlands Connect’s most recent report, which shows that, on average, there are 36 accidents on the road every year, and that one in five is serious? Will he meet me to discuss that as another reason why the A5 must be improved?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the report to me. I have seen it, and I will ensure that my officials consider it as part of the body of evidence to support the case for improvements to the A5. I would also be delighted to meet him and other colleagues to discuss this matter further.
On all A roads, as with the A5, there is a need for rapid charge points, but more widely we need more public charging points, as only 800 are currently being delivered per month. Will the Secretary of State update this House on his meetings with the Business Secretary on delivering this priority?
Meetings are in progress, and we will look further at this strategy and how we can more rapidly roll out electric vehicle charging points across the country, including rapid charge points, which are being rolled out to our motorway service station network as well.
Last week, the Chancellor delivered his autumn statement, which confirmed that the Department for Transport’s budget for the next two financial years remains unchanged. That means we will invest about £20 billion in transport infrastructure in each of the next two years and spend about £6 billion a year to maintain existing infrastructure and operate vital transport services. In the coming weeks, I will work with my ministerial team and officials to assess our portfolio of projects.
Let me say a word or two on rail strikes, which I know are of interest to many Members. I want a sustainable, thriving rail network, but with 20% of passengers not having returned following the covid pandemic, reform is vital. I urge all trade union leaders to get back around the table with employers to hammer out the detail of that reform. The Government will work to facilitate this, and to that end I will be meeting trade union leaders in the coming days.
I welcome the team to their places.
National Highways is planning to plough a road through the much-loved and used Rimrose valley, the only substantial green space in my very urbanised constituency, at a cost of up to £365 million—and that was before the current inflationary crisis kicked in. Perhaps the money could be better used to level up my constituency more constructively, rather than being allocated to a project that is at least 25 years out of date. So will the Department ask Highways England to scrap these plans, which are unwanted and unnecessary, and which will simply exacerbate—
Let me try to give a short, punchy reply. National Highways is well aware that there are a range of opinions and views about its proposals for the A5036, and it is committed to working with all stakeholders to try to achieve the right result for all. I am sure that it will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s clear opinions expressed in this House.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I can confirm that the Government’s proposed junction 10a of the A14 to the east of Kettering continues to be developed by National Highways as part of the pipeline of schemes being considered for development as part of RIS3.
Earlier this year, the then Transport Secretary said of the P&O scandal:
“we will never support those who treat workers with such callousness”—[Official Report, 30 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 842.]
I now have evidence that its competitor, Irish Ferries, pays its seafarers just £5.50 an hour, yet in September Ministers awarded it a contract worth tens of thousands of pounds. How can the Government condemn the scandal of seafarers’ pay and then hand over taxpayers’ money without conditions to a company whose business model is based on poverty pay?
My hon. Friend raises some important issues. The important thing from the Government’s point of view is that we tackle air quality. He will know better than me that how we do that and which schemes are run is devolved to local government, so it is devolved to the Mayor of London. I know that the Mayor has recently consulted on proposals to extend the ULEZ and is expected to announce the outcome, but those are matters for him. I know my hon. Friend will continue to campaign vigorously on them.
As well as committing to the core integrated rail plan, over the summer the Prime Minister set this Department the challenge of assessing options for Bradford with regard to a new station and better connecting Bradford. That is work that I am doing. It is an incredibly high priority for me, and I will come back to the hon. Gentleman with detail once that is ready.
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he does with regard to the campaign to reopen the Ivanhoe line and for the success in securing more funding for the Ivanhoe line project in June this year. Network Rail is undertaking development work to test different service and scope options and progress the business case. Decisions on this scheme and others in the restoring your railway programme are expected in the next year, but I just remind him of the financial envelope within which we are all working.
The hon. Member may have missed the announcement this morning that the scheme has just been opened. I shall be visiting a road haulage site this afternoon to launch the scheme for match funding across the country to improve lorry facilities for our truckers, who worked hard throughout the entire pandemic.
Highways England is now looking at much-needed safety improvements along the A38 between Carkeel and Trerulefoot in my constituency. I welcome that, but what this road really needs is major improvements to help our economy and the economy of Cornwall to level up. Will the Minister commit to start looking at the options to make this a reality?
My hon. Friend is a real champion for South East Cornwall and has been hammering away on this scheme for years. Highways England is developing a package of targeted safety measures for the A38, which will be considered for possible delivery within the third road investment strategy, RIS3. Although we are not considering further massive enhancements such as a bypass at this time, the work that we are doing at the moment would not prevent such a scheme in the future. I look forward to working with her on future road plans.
I have had similar issues in my North West Durham constituency with Arriva over the past few months. It is looking at some of these plans and, as part of the bus service improvement scheme, £163.5 million will be heading to the north-east. We are just finalising the details on that and looking at how we can improve transport services in the future. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and other colleagues across the region to deliver that.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement last week that capital transport investment will be a central pillar of the Government’s growth agenda. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he will be able to set out a little more detail on which projects he will be prioritising, and make a bid for the next stages of East West Rail to be among the early ones?
First, I am very pleased to welcome my hon. Friend to his place as Chair of the Transport Committee. I look forward to working with him and with all members of the Select Committee, whichever party they come from, to focus on these important transport issues.
Over the coming weeks my colleagues and I will be looking at our priorities across the whole portfolio of capital projects, and we will set those out in the House in due course. I have noted his bid; he will know that the Chancellor committed to East West Rail in the autumn statement, and I hope that gives him some comfort.
Commercial matters around car manufacture and delivery are up to the individual manufacturers. What we have seen in the UK recently is the Government putting in £100 million to help to support Nissan and the next generation of electric vehicles being delivered up in Sunderland.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that strike action on our railways will lead to more congestion on our roads. In Essex, that means more congestion on the A12 and A120. Will he kindly commit to meeting me and the leader of Essex County Council to discuss those two road schemes?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question and for her work when she was Home Secretary to strengthen the law to enable us to deal with those who cause disruption on our transport network. I would be delighted to meet her and the leader of Essex County Council to talk about those important road projects.
Research from the Campaign for Better Transport suggests that the Government are so far behind on their electrification plans that rolling stock leasing companies are being forced to destroy electric units that they cannot use. At the same time, the Government continue to introduce new diesel trains—more not zero than net zero. Will the Government ensure that they order no more diesel trains and get on with electrification?
The Government are committed to phasing out all diesel trains by 2040. That remains our aim and our ambition. There is electrification going on at the moment along the west midlands line, and we are certainly committed to ensuring that we can roll out more electrification, and indeed use hydrogen and battery power where appropriate, in the years to come.
The electrification of the Chase line means that passengers benefit from a more frequent service. However, passengers from Rugeley remain disadvantaged because the last train from Birmingham terminates at Hednesford. Will the Rail Minister meet me to discuss this matter and other issues that Chase line passengers face?
Last week the RMT voted overwhelmingly for strike action. Last night the Secretary of State said he would be prepared to meet the leader of the RMT. Some 50% of the public and passengers support those rail strikes. They should not just have been shaking hands last night, but they should be shaking hands today on a deal. The Secretary of State knows full well that he sets the flexibility and parameters for both Network Rail and train operating companies on the financial offer they can put forward. It is in his hands to end those strikes, and to do so today.
As I set out at the start of topical questions, I very much want the strikes not to take place. I have set out my ambition for the rail sector and I will be meeting trade union leaders in the coming days, including later today. In order to pay for a better offer for rail staff, we need to deliver reform. That is why I want trade union leaders to get back around the table with the employers and hammer out the detail of those reforms. Then a better offer can be put on the table and we can end the need for these strikes, which cause enormous damage to passengers and businesses across the country.
May I thank the Government for all that they are doing to improve connectivity at Darlington, including the £135 million invested in Bank Top station? However, my constituents in places such as Harrowgate Hill and Whinfield still suffer from congestion and emissions on the roads. Can my hon. Friend guide me on what more I can do to ensure that we ease this gridlock by delivering a northern link road?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he and I have worked closely together on many local transport issues. National Highways and Tees Valley Combined Authority have worked closely on developing proposals for the Darlington northern link road, connecting the A66 and junction 59 of the A1. The work to date will form part of a body of evidence informing the investment plans for RIS3—the third road investment strategy—for future roads between 2025 and 2030.
People expect the Government to be trying to help resolve these rail strikes, not block a resolution. How can the Transport Secretary claim that it is not his role to get involved when the Government are handing over tens of millions of pounds a day in indemnity payments to rail companies to back them up during this strike?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman listened to my earlier answers. It is not my interest to block a settlement at all. I want to resolve this issue. I want to facilitate the trade unions and the employers getting together to hammer out some reform measures to help pay for a better pay offer for the staff. I will do everything I can to end these damaging and unnecessary strikes, and I hope he will do what he can to persuade the trade unions to get back around the table with the employers.
Tomorrow I will be visiting Whitcombe Pipelines in Rowley Regis, which has just won a substantial contract for HS2 infrastructure. Does the Secretary of State agree that this demonstrates how HS2 is already delivering significant benefits to my constituency, through jobs and growth, and that it is important that that is maintained?
Before the pandemic, the rail services through my constituency suffered from chronic overcrowding, yet the Government used the pandemic as an excuse to cut peak-time services from my constituency without consultation of those rail users. What is he going to do to monitor the damage that he has done and to ensure that those services are restored when those trains get chronically overcrowded again?
Southeastern did indeed ask for a derogation to consult, and changes had to be made quite rapidly during the pandemic, although may I just say that, as a fellow user of Southeastern, the hon. Member will find that there are some benefits from that? It is not just about taking down some costs; it is also about simplifying the line structure, so that at Lewisham, for example, there will not be as many trains crossing. If he would just wait and see how matters progress, he and I might find that it has been a good timetable change after all.
Derby’s bid to be the headquarters of Great British Railways has huge support: more than 20 right hon. and hon. Members, 40 local authorities, and the businesses forming the largest rail cluster in the country, and maybe even in Europe. Will the Minister confirm when the announcement will be made to confirm which of the six shortlisted locations has won the bidding process?
We have had six excellent shortlisted bids, one of which of course is Derby. The Government remain committed to reform of the railways. We will be looking at all the options, and that includes looking at bringing forward legislation to make this happen and revealing the winning bid at that time.
The work, business, leisure, family and educational lives of my constituents are being hugely undermined by atrocious bus services. I heard the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), but the previous Secretary of State promised to meet me to discuss this as a matter of urgency. Will this Secretary of State keep her commitment and meet me?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question; I will certainly meet her. I know how important bus services are, and I will also be meeting, hopefully in the near future, local authorities across the north-east so that we can hopefully deliver that £163 million for them as well.
Two thirds of Londoners have said no to the Mayor of London expanding the ultra low emission zone to the whole of Greater London. Will my right hon. Friend join me and Conservative MP colleagues to tell the Mayor of London that it is not for the poorest Londoners to foot the bill for his financial failures?
As I said earlier, how to respond to the consultation and proceed is a matter for the Mayor to consider. I know that my hon. Friend has had a massive campaign on this issue, with over 5,000 people getting in touch with him about ULEZ. If hon. Members really want to see this policy changed, the best thing they can do is replace the Mayor of London at the next election.
Some 73% of guide dog owners have been refused access to taxis, shops and restaurants in the past year. What is the Minister and his Department doing to improve access and ensure that guide dog owners such as my constituent Robert, and his guide dog Winnie, can get out and about with confidence?
I am very familiar with that issue from my time as Minister for Disabled People. The behaviour that the hon. Lady describes is, of course, already unlawful. She has set out a specific case; if she writes to me with the details, we will look into it and see what further work we can do to make sure that the existing law to ensure fairness for guide dog owners is properly enforced across the United Kingdom.
I, many constituents and countless people up and down the land struggle each week with the poor and unreliable service provided by Avanti West Coast. People are missing interviews, appointments, family events and social occasions. Can the Minister give the latest Government assessment of Avanti’s performance and confirm that nothing will be ruled out, including stripping it of its contract if it does not lift its game?
I am sorry for my hon. Friend’s experience and that of his constituents. We are working very hard with the Avanti team to get more services restored. In December, with the good will of the unions and the workforce, we will see an increase in weekday services from the current 180 to 264, which would be a greater number than before the unions decided not to work to the rest day agreement, which is something I very much regret. I am committed to ensuring that Avanti services improve, which I know is important to you, Mr Speaker, and all Members of the House.
Covid-19: PPE Procurement
I remind all Members that “Erskine May” states that the conduct of Members of the House of Lords can only be criticised on a substantive motion, and therefore not during these exchanges. Also, as there is the prospect of further legal proceedings concerning some of the contracts entered into, I remind Members of the sub judice resolution and the requirement not to refer to live cases.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the due diligence and performance management performed on the public procurement of personal protective equipment during the covid-19 pandemic.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will try to stay in my lane.
Sourcing, producing and distributing PPE is, even in normal times, a uniquely complex challenge. However, the efforts to do so during a pandemic, at a time when global demand was never higher, were truly extraordinary. Early on in that pandemic, our priority was clear: to get PPE to the frontline as quickly as possible. All of us in this House will remember that moment, and how desperate we all were to see PPE delivered to the frontline.
During the course of the pandemic—nearly at its peak—400 staff were working on sourcing protective equipment, and tens of billions of items were sourced. We worked at pace to source new deals from around the globe, and we always buy PPE of the highest standard and quality, and at the best value for money. Over the course of the programme, due diligence was done for over 19,000 companies, and over 2,600 companies made it through that initial due diligence process.
With huge demand for PPE all across the world, and with many countries introducing export bans, our risk appetite had to change. We had to throw everything behind our effort to protect those who protect us and those who needed it most. We had to balance the risk of contracts not performing and supplies being priced at a premium against the crucial risk to the health of frontline care workers, the NHS and the public if we failed to get the PPE that we so desperately needed.
As well as due diligence checks, there was systematic price benchmarking. Prices were evaluated against the need for a product, the quantity available, how soon it was available and the specification. Many deals were rejected or renegotiated because the prices initially offered were not acceptable.
There are always lessons that we can learn from any crisis, but we must not lose sight of the huge national effort that took place—I thank the officials who worked on it—to protect the most vulnerable while we tackled one of the greatest threats to our public health that this nation has ever seen.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I welcome the Minister to his place—I think this is the first time we have met at the Dispatch Box—but to be honest, to his defence of due diligence I would say, “What due diligence?” Last night, documents seen by The Guardian revealed yet another case of taxpayers’ money being wasted, with a total failure of due diligence and a conflict of interest at the heart of Government procurement.
In May 2020, PPE Medpro was set up and given £203 million in Government contracts after a referral from a Tory peer. It now appears that tens of millions of pounds of that money ended up in offshore accounts connected to the individuals involved—profits made possible through the company’s personal connections to Ministers and the Tories’ VIP lane, which was declared illegal by the High Court. Yet Ministers are still refusing to publish correspondence relating to the award of the Medpro contract, because they say that the Department is engaged in a mediation process. Can the Minister tell us today whether that mediation process has reached any outcome, and what public funds have been recovered, if any? Will he commit to releasing all the records, both to the covid-19 public inquiry and to this House, once the process is completed?
Rightly, there are separate investigations into Baroness Mone’s conduct, but the questions that this case raises are far wider. It took a motion from the Opposition to force the Government to release records over the Randox scandal. Will they agree today to do the same in this case without being forced to do so by the House? Can the Minister say now what due diligence was performed when awarding the Medpro contract?
Today’s reports concern just one single case, but this Government have written off £10 billion just on PPE that was deemed unfit for use, unusable, overpriced or undelivered. Worse, Ministers appear to have learned no lessons and to have no shame. As families struggle to make ends meet, taxpayers spend £700,000 a day on the storage of inadequate PPE. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government’s new Procurement Bill will still give Ministers free rein to hand out billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash all over again?
The right hon. Lady asks two main questions, the first of which is what we are doing on PPE Medpro. It has been widely reported that it had an underperforming contract. Let me set out what we do in such cases. The first step is to send a letter before action, which outlines a claim for damages. That is followed by litigation in the event that a satisfactory agreement has not been reached. To answer the right hon. Lady’s question directly, we have not got to the point where a satisfactory agreement has been reached at this stage.
On the high-priority group, let us be clear about what it was and what it was not. Approximately 9,000 people came forward. All Ministers will have had the experience of endless people ringing them up directly to try to help with the huge need that there was at the time. Many of us, as Back Benchers, will have been approached by constituents who were keen to help and needed to be referred somewhere. All that the route did was handle the huge number of contacts coming in to Ministers from people offering to help. Let me be clear that it did not give any kind of successful guarantee of a contract; indeed, 90% of the bids that went through it were not successful. Every single bid that went through the route went through exactly the same eight-stage process as all the other contracts—it looked at the quality, the price and the bona fides of the people offering to produce.
On the point about PPE that has not been useful, I set out in my answer the extraordinary context in which we were operating. There was a global scramble for PPE. People were being gazumped: goods would be taken out of the warehouse if people could turn up with the cash quicker than them. It was an extraordinary situation in which we had to act in a different way. Loads of us will remember standing up in this House and saying to Ministers, “What are you doing to get more? More, quickly!” That was the context in which we were operating.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we had not wasted billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on PPE, we would not have to increase taxes as much as we are doing? What has happened to the £122 million that was spent on 25 million gowns supplied by the company referred to earlier? Those gowns were not fit for purpose and were never used.
That was the underperforming contract that I referred to in my previous answer, and I set out the process that we go through when we take action on underperforming contracts. There is the initial letter before action, and then a process in which we look to see if a satisfactory agreement can be reached. If not, that leads on to litigation. Of course, there was wasted PPE—my hon. Friend is absolutely correct about that—but I have already set out the context of the global scramble and the huge amount of PPE that was successfully delivered, saving lives and protecting workers in our NHS.
From the moment we learned about the existence of this VIP lane for the politically connected, it was almost inevitable that it would come to this. This get-rich-quick scheme to fast-track cronies, politically connected pals and colleagues was never going to end well. I suspect that today’s revelations, however shocking, are simply the tip of a very large iceberg—an iceberg that could yet sink this ship of fools.
Transparency International UK has flagged as a corruption risk 20% of the £15 billion given out by the Tories in PPE contracts at the height of the pandemic. As we have already heard, they are spending £770,000 every single day to store much of that useless equipment in China. One Tory politician who had absolutely no background in PPE procurement personally made millions from those contracts, so do the Government plan to investigate proactively how many others like that are in their ranks, or are they content to sit there and watch this dripping roast of sleaze, corruption and scandal unfold on its own?
Of course we take action whenever we find underperforming contracts, and I have set out how we do that. We are working our way through that. I say simply to the hon. Gentleman that we were all desperate to get PPE for our health and social care workers and for everybody who was responding to the pandemic. Inevitably, some of those contracts were not going to perform, and we are now taking action against all those underperforming contracts. On the idea that the “politically connected”, as he says, had some sort of greater success, they were our constituents—they were getting in touch with all of us, they had to be referred on somewhere, they had to be managed and they went through the same process as every other contract.
I think there is a little rewriting of history here. At one stage in the pandemic, getting PPE was the most important thing, and I remember Members on both sides demanding quicker action from the Government. The Minister has explained the situation fully, and I regret that the Opposition are making political points from what was actually a great success in protecting our NHS staff. Does the Minister agree with me or with that lot?
My hon. Friend is completely correct. Some have short memories. Many of us stood up in this House to chivvy Ministers, asking, “Why aren’t you going faster? Why don’t you do more? Take the risks, get the stuff—we need it.” That was the priority. Many Members want it both ways: they criticised us at the time for not going fast enough or taking enough risks, and now they do not accept that we are going through all the contracts that did not perform.
Is it not clear that slack management in the Department led to get-rich elements of the British ruling establishment taking money from the NHS at a time of national crisis? Their watchword was “greed” rather than “public service”. Where is the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock)—I have notified him of my intention to mention him—who was in charge of the NHS when all this was going on? Is he still in Australia getting his £400,000 for eating unspeakable parts of the anatomy of various beasties?
During my time as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, we have looked closely at the procurement of PPE. The National Audit Office found that
“ministers had properly declared their interests”,
and that Ministers were not involved in procurement decisions. Is the reality not that the civil servants making these decisions were doing their best to secure PPE supplies for the NHS and the frontline in the face of a global pandemic? While we need to learn lessons from how this was handled, some of the people commenting here seem to forget the intense pressure we were under at the time.
My hon. Friend is completely correct. When Mrs Justice O’Farrell went through these cases, she noted in her summing up that given the time-sensitive nature of the work, it was not irrational for the Department to decide that it was prepared to take more risk than usually would be acceptable, because of that extraordinary context that is so quickly forgotten in the questions we are hearing in the House today.
The Minister has made much of the context of the time and the speed and the calls for PPE, but what my and, I am sure, everybody else’s constituents wanted was PPE quickly and appropriately. Earlier this year the High Court ruled that the Government’s VIP lanes were not only inappropriate, but unlawful, and in breach of the obligation of equal treatment. Does the Minister appreciate that constituents across the country are calling for an explanation? Will he back the Liberal Democrat amendment to ban VIP lanes for all future Government contracts?
I have set out the challenge. We had a situation where MPs and Ministers were all being contacted by constituents who were desperate to help and who either had contacts with suppliers or were suppliers themselves of PPE. They could see on the TV every night the desperate need for PPE, and they were keen to help in that huge national effort. I have talked about the scale of the operation to supply and source that PPE in the extraordinary circumstances we were in. A way had to be found to manage all those contacts we were getting. All of us were getting in touch to try and offer help, so a way had to be found to manage all these things, and that is what I have described this morning. All these things, to reiterate, went through the same rigorous process as every other contract.
The Minister says that lessons will be learned about Government procurement from this PPE scandal. Will he look at the contracts that the Home Office has for accommodating and feeding asylum seekers, which are ripping off the hotels and the food suppliers, causing asylum seekers to live in malnutrition and squalor? These contracts have many of the same characteristics—vast profits and executive salaries, and an opaque network of subcontractors run by people who may not pass fit-and-proper tests—
Today’s revelations show further evidence that the Government’s VIP lane was possibly criminal and was exploited by Members of the Government party. Will the Minister today commit to publishing in full the names of the Ministers, MPs or officials who referred firms on to that fast-track lane? Stop being evasive. We need to know what corruption happened.
I heard what the Minister said earlier about the process and how meticulously it was followed for every company that applied for contracts during covid. What is it about the individuals or companies that had associations with the Conservative party or Ministers that made them so adept at getting through the process?
As I said, 90% of them did not get a contract, so it was not that they were being given some sort of guarantee of a contract. That scheme was a way of managing the contacts that were happening with Ministers. They were being directly contacted by MPs from across the House and all sides of it. There had to be a way of understanding what was happening with each of those bids, because otherwise it would have been completely overwhelmed. To reiterate: all the bids went through exactly the same process—not done by Ministers, but by civil servants—of checking the quality, the price and whether they could realistically deliver. There was no difference in the process that they went through.
These are issues that many Opposition Members in particular have been raising for a long time. My Ministerial Interests (Public Appointments) Bill, now in its third iteration, has its Second Reading next Friday. Given the current situation, and given that my Bill would help to address some of the issues of transparency, can the Minister assure me that the Government will now incorporate that into their programme?
At the same time as the Government were being obstructive and deliberately attempting to block Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in the north-east from providing PPE from a factory of its own, people who were closely connected to the Government were making millions from PPE. Minister, is that just a strange coincidence?
The people who came through the high-priority route were not politically connected people, except in the sense that they were being referred by MPs across the House. I do not know the exact details of the north-east supplier that the hon. Gentleman mentions. If he gets in touch, I will be happy to take that up and provide him with a full explanation of what the issue was with that bid for a contract.
I thank the Minister for the answers he has given. There was a heavy use of direct award contracts to purchase PPE items. As of April 2021, £371 million had been paid for PPE direct award contracts in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that, in hindsight, there should have been better insight into the supply chains of this PPE, where it came from and who was making it, given the reports that PPE contracts were given to Chinese firms using labour schemes?
The hon. Gentleman always makes constructive suggestions, and today is no exception. He knows that we have an ongoing inquiry into the lessons that can be learned and a dialogue with the Health and Social Care Committee about many of these issues. Given its heritage, Northern Ireland was an important supplier of textiles and PPE equipment. Inevitably, given the global balance of production, a lot of items did come from China, as he says, but as part of the lessons learned, we should be thinking about domestic supply.
We have all seen the shameful Guardian front page this morning, but the front page that sticks in my mind is the one showing nurses in bin bags—not PPE on the frontline, but bin bags. This was at a time when Luton Borough Council was facing another cut of £11 million. People are struggling, so why are this Government not lifting a finger to get our money back? They could start by releasing the records after the mediation process.
The hon. Lady’s question takes us back to that extraordinary moment when we had a huge crisis of PPE, and we were desperate and doing every conceivable thing we could to get the PPE that those nurses needed; that is what I have been referring to in my answers this morning. It is just not true that the Government are not lifting a finger to get the money back. We have a process, and there is a substantial team in the Department working on it right now.
The Minister said that constituents contacted many of us looking for the ability to access contracts to aid PPE procurement. He told the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) that the information was published last year. Can he confirm for the House how many Conservative MPs were able to provide access to the VIP fast-track line, and how many Opposition MPs were able to? It is a fairly simple question.
I do not have that information to hand, but I have a seat on the edge of Leicester, an important textiles town, and I had loads of constituents get in touch with me to ask, “Where can I go?” We sent them on to a mailbox, and after they were in that mailbox, they went through the usual process that every other supplier went through.
For Tory peers and other chums of the Conservative party to have been profiteering at taxpayers’ expense from shoddy, unusable PPE, especially through the VIP procurement lane, at a time when people were locked down in their homes and tens of thousands of people, including my loved ones, were dying is absolutely sickening, shameful and unforgiveable. Given that The BMJ estimates that the Government have written off approximately £10 billion in unusable, undelivered or shoddy PPE, will the Minister take the opportunity to apologise to bereaved families for the amazing lack of integrity at the heart of the whole process?
I set out earlier what the high priority route was and was not: it was absolutely not a guarantee of any kind of contract; it was a way of managing the huge numbers of contacts and offers for help that we were all receiving. It delivered something in the order of 5 billion items of PPE, all of which helped to save lives and protect workers in our NHS and social care settings. Of course, we had to take up those offers of help and respond to them when people wanted to help in the middle of a huge national and global crisis. We had to process those offers, but they were processed in exactly the same way as every other bid for a contract.
After Lord Agnew resigned, he wrote in the Financial Times:
“Fraud in government is rampant. Public estimates sit at just under £30bn a year. There is a complete lack of focus on the cost to society, or indeed the taxpayer.”
The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which is currently in Committee, is full of holes and the Government have refused sensible requests by the Opposition to fill those holes. Will the Minister reconsider those amendments in the light of the rampant corruption in Government?
We keep all those things under review, but the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill is part of addressing some of the issues that the hon. Lady is concerned about. We are blurring together two different issues slightly—[Interruption.] Let me finish the point. Lord Agnew was talking about the loan scheme, but that relates to the same issue of the need for pace, which all hon. Members were calling for at the time. There was a need to get loans out to small businesses, which saved tens of thousands of jobs in my constituency and, I am sure, her constituency as part of the huge and unprecedented £400 billion spend to preserve lives and livelihoods.
BCB International in my constituency, which is an accredited bona fide pre-pandemic supplier to the Ministry of Defence, adapted production lines to produce a range of PPE. It supplied the Welsh Government and other public bodies such as the police, yet in spite of repeated attempts, it did not get a look in—or even a reply—from the UK Department of Health and Social Care. Today, we might have heard why. Despite the shoddy way that he was treated, its managing director Andrew Howell has offered to meet the appropriate personnel to discuss any possible low-cost, legal and easy solutions to maintain British supply security of essential equipment. Will the Minister now facilitate that meeting?
The Welsh Labour Government received £874 million for PPE as its population-proportionate share, but spent only £300 million—about a third of the money given. That suggests, says Cardiff University, that the UK Government could have saved £8 billion, or £300 a household across the UK, had they used public authorities, health authorities and councils instead of private profiteering contractors known to Ministers. Will the Minister look carefully at the Welsh model and, in future, use the public sector rather than private sector cronies known to Ministers such as the former Health and Social Care Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who is out in the jungle making more money for himself?
My colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee are at an important evidence session this morning, otherwise I have no doubt that many more of them would be here. The report on PPE contracts, which was unanimously agreed by the Committee earlier this year, stated:
“At no point was consideration given to the extent of the profit margin that potential suppliers would be taking on payments for PPE. Neither was consideration of any potential conflicts between individuals making referrals through the VIP lane and the companies they were referring. We”—
the Public Accounts Committee, unanimously—
“are therefore unsurprised to see the reports of excessive profits and conflicts of interest on PPE contracts.”
Yet if today’s Guardian reports are correct, the extent of lobbying of Cabinet Ministers, one of whom is back in the Cabinet, by a senior Conservative politician went significantly further than the Public Accounts Committee was aware of at the time. Can the Minister confirm that the reports of additional lobbying in today’s Guardian are accurate and, if they are not accurate, can he come back with a statement to confirm that?
I read the same article as the hon. Gentleman. I notice that it did not lead to a contract—the case that was mentioned in The Guardian—but more generally, absolutely, there are many lessons to learn about this process. However, we were having to pay, in some cases upfront, for PPE because, as part of the global scramble for PPE that I have described, if we were not prepared to go that extra mile, we would simply not have had the PPE and we would have had more nurses without the vital protective equipment that we all needed.
I am sure that many MPs on this side of the House had no idea that a VIP lane existed for PPE contracts, but even if I did know about a VIP lane for referring contracts, if a constituent came to me and said, “Alan, I have never worked in a PPE environment. I’ve never ordered it before, but I’ve got a great plan. I can order it from China. Just refer me to a Minister”, I would not have done that because it would be impossible to do proper due diligence. So it beggars belief that this Government accepted recommendations from companies with no involvement and no expertise in PPE contracts, and still awarded these billions of pounds of contracts. Instead of mediation with PPE Medpro, is it not the case that a full investigation is needed and, if the Government are not going to do it, surely we need a public inquiry into PPE procurement.
We are prepared to litigate whenever a company did not provide. There is a process, which I set out earlier. In many cases, there were people who did have important contacts in China and in other countries where PPE was being produced, and it was important to pursue all those leads because we needed to have that. But, to the hon. Gentleman’s point, due diligence had to be done and was done on all those cases in the same way. I have talked about the scale of the challenge and the 19,000 companies on which due diligence was initially done, and the huge drop-off between that number and the 2,648 companies that actually made it through that filter. So we can see in the difference between 19,000 and 2,648 that there was a huge amount of filtering done by the team of 400 people who were working so hard to try to get the PPE that we needed to the nurses and doctors in our NHS.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 28 November includes:
Monday 28 November—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.
Tuesday 29 November—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill.
Wednesday 30 November—Committee of the whole House and remaining stages of the Finance Bill.
Thursday 1 December—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Counsellors of State Bill [Lords], followed by a general debate on World AIDS Day. The subject for this debate has been determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 2 December—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 5 December includes:
Monday 5 December—Remaining stages of the Online Safety Bill (day 2).
Right hon. and hon. Members may also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will now rise for the Christmas recess at the close of business on Tuesday 20 December, and return on Monday 9 January 2023. The House will rise for the February recess at the close of business on Thursday 9 February, and return on Monday 20 February. The House will rise for the Easter recess at the close of business on Thursday 30 March, and return on Monday 17 April. The House will rise for the coronation recess at the close of business on Wednesday 3 May, and return on Tuesday 9 May. The House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the close of business on Thursday 25 May, and return on Monday 5 June. The House will rise for the summer recess at the close of business on Thursday 20 July. I will announce further recess dates in the usual way. I hope that news is welcomed by the House.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business and the recess dates.
Tomorrow is the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls, which I have been involved with for decades, so it is desperately sad that we still have two women a week tragically murdered by partners or ex-partners, the same as in 1992. Laws have changed, but sadly too many attitudes have not. I also recognise Islamophobia Awareness Month and join my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) in urging the Government to produce the official definition of Islamophobia; it is three years since they promised to.
I must admit that a bit of infighting has hit the shadow Leader of the House team: a bit more than the Bristol channel divides us this week with England taking on Wales on Tuesday. The Leader of the House’s party will be far more prepared for division among colleagues than we are—because it has had plenty of practice this year—but may I take the opportunity to wish both home nations well? Who knows—maybe we will see each other in the final?
The Leader of the House’s business statement is testament to her Prime Minister’s poor judgment and weak leadership. Pulling Monday’s votes on their flagship Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill marks just the latest stage of the Tories’ long-running psychodrama. In one corner—the Prime Minister desperately trying to find at least some manifesto commitments that he can still deliver on. In the other corner—50 of his own MPs threatening to back an amendment against their Government’s own Bill. It is a complete shambles, with the Government running from their own Back Benchers, leaving the levelling-up agenda in tatters and, more importantly, the British people with a broken housing market. If he cannot stand up to his own party, how on earth is he going to stand up against vested interests? Do the Government even intend to continue with the Bill? If so, when will they bring it back?
Since I became shadow Leader of the House, I have had a ringside seat for the chaotic way in which the Government have dragged the Online Safety Bill through Parliament with the grace and decorum of a reversing dump truck. It was first mooted a decade ago and it has been four years since they promised it. In that time, online crime has exploded, child sexual abuse online has become rife and scams have proliferated. I now hear that, in a bizarre move, the Government want to send the Bill back to Committee to try to remove a crucial section that deals with legal but harmful content. The Bill was designed to deal with legal but harmful content, self-harm, suicide and racist content, so why are they trying to take that out? If the Bill does not come back soon, it risks falling entirely—it will run into the end of the Session. The Leader of the House knows that there is no option to carry it over in those circumstances. So will we have Third Reading on Monday 5 December? Will it come back to the Commons in time to finish remaining stages before the end of the Session? Will she guarantee that there will be enough time?
It is not just the Tories making poor use of parliamentary time. The SNP is busy debating independence and a plan to turn the next general election into a de facto referendum, rather than getting rid of Tories—and delivering a Labour Government. The NHS—Labour’s greatest achievement—was invented in Scotland. NHS bosses in Scotland have set out plans to privatise the health service. Should they not be working out how to sort out 15 years of SNP mismanagement and underfunding instead?
Another issue that I have raised before is the Government sending Ministers to answer questions who simply do not have answers. We had the latest incident on Monday. A Minister was dragged to the Chamber to answer an urgent question on the COP27 climate conference who said herself that she was “not the Climate Minister”. Members have important questions to put to Ministers on behalf of our constituents. I ask the Leader of the House—not for the first time—to press the Government on the importance of sending Ministers to the Dispatch Box who are actually able to answer questions.
If the Conservative party cannot fill its legislative programme effectively, it could make way for a party that can. Does the Leader of the House want to swap places? As Leader of the House, within the first 100 days of the next Labour Government, I would schedule an employment Bill—legislation for an economy built on fair pay, job security and dignity. There would also be a race equality law to tackle racial inequality and legislation to kick-start a credible strategy for fairer, greener growth. That is what we would get with a Labour Government. So she can swap at any time she likes.
I start by joining in the hon. Lady’s good wishes to both England and Wales for their matches tomorrow; I wish them all the luck in the world. It would be wonderful to see them both in the final, although we may be faced with difficulties if that comes to pass.
The hon. Lady mentions violence against women and girls, an incredibly important issue. Our nation can take great pride in the work we have done globally to combat it. In particular, I put on record my thanks to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office envoy. I think a summit is taking place very shortly to help consolidate a lot of the work on this and the work Lord Hague has done in putting it firmly on the agenda globally. This country has some great non-governmental organisations who are also doing fantastic work globally, supported by the UK Government, but we know there is still more to do. There are some nations in the world where perhaps only 1% of women and girls will not have faced horrific violence, so we must continue to do all we can to ensure every woman and every girl across the world can grow up in peace and security.
The hon. Lady mentions that it is Islamophobia Awareness Month. The Government are committed to ending all anti-Muslim hatred. Our work ranges from supporting Tell MAMA to our places of worship protective security fund, which for this financial year is £24.5 million. We are also bringing in new measures to protect faith schools. The work of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the definition of Islamo- phobia is progressing. My understanding—I will correct this if it is not the case—is that there is a difficulty with the definition formulated by the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims and its compatibility with the Equality Act 2010, but the Department is looking at that. If that is not the case, I shall make sure the hon. Lady knows the facts.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady has still not condemned the train strikes, even in the run-up to Christmas. Many people working over Christmas will want to visit relatives. For those who are completely reliant on train services, the strikes are very disappointing indeed. I still hope the Opposition will support our legislation to ensure that minimum standards on these important services are maintained.
As for other legislation, I will make an announcement on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and the Online Safety Bill in the usual way. They will still be making progress through the House. I hope that Opposition Members will support those important Bills.
The hon. Lady mentions what Labour has to offer in its legislative programme and its policies. On the Government Benches, we are tackling the serious challenges that our country faces. In contrast, Labour’s policies would make things worse. Labour’s policy is £115 billion of unfunded spending, which would fuel inflation. Labour voted against the effective £1,000 tax cut for low-income families, when it voted against reducing the universal credit taper rate. It is not on the side of working families. It has no plan on illegal migration. It voted against the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and would scrap the efforts we are making to deter and frustrate illegal migration. And I seriously doubt that a Leader of the Opposition who voted to block us leaving the EU 48 times really wants to deliver on the Brexit dividend. I think the public, when they are asked, will look at Labour and see it has no clue and no plan, and say, “No thanks.”
On Saturday, in the big football match, King’s Lynn Town are playing in the second round of the FA cup. The Walks will be full of fans backing the Linnets, and it will be on BBC 1 for anyone who cannot get there. In addition to joining me in wishing the team the best of luck for the match, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the importance of football clubs to their local communities?
What a timely question from my hon. Friend. I join him in sending congratulations. The World cup presents a huge opportunity to get people interested in the sport. Grassroots football is absolutely fantastic in giving people that opportunity, encouraging talent and, of course, contributing to health and wellbeing across the nations, so I thank my hon. Friend for raising that today.
I associate myself with the comments made about violence against women and girls and Islamophobia Awareness Month. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate for an independence referendum without Westminster’s permission. I make it clear that the Scottish National party fully respects and accepts the Court’s judgment. It should be emphasised, however, that the Supreme Court does not make the law; it interprets and applies it. The Court was not asked to decide whether there is a democratic mandate for a referendum, nor was it asked what democratic means remain by which Scotland can choose its future.
The ruling proves beyond doubt that it is no longer—if it ever has been—a voluntary or equal Union, so the situation we are in transcends arguments for and against independence. This is fundamentally an issue of democracy. Do the people of Scotland have a right to self-determination? If we do, will the Leader of the House tell us how that right can be exercised if the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to do so? If the people of Scotland keep electing a majority of pro-independence MSPs and MPs, what is the democratic route to realising that mandate? Will the UK Government recognise that democratic injustice and amend the Scotland Act 1998 so that the right to self-determination for the people of Scotland is protected, or will they continue to deny democracy?
Later this afternoon, a Westminster Hall debate is taking place on the infected blood inquiry and compensation framework. That terrible tragedy continues to devastate lives. Last month, following decades of campaigning, the Government paid interim compensation payments of £100,000 to those infected and bereaved widows and partners. However, the families, estates and carers of deceased victims are being excluded from any interim compensation, which is an enormous injustice that the UK Government are carrying out in plain sight. My constituent, Justine Gordon-Smith, is the executor for her late father Randolph’s estate. Justine was her father’s carer throughout his painful struggle and ultimate passing, and she has suffered enormous and lasting personal trauma. When will people such as Justine receive justice? Will the Government make an urgent statement on the specific issue of excluded family members such as my constituent?