Wednesday 11 January 2023
[Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]
Fossil Fuels and Cost of Living Increases
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fossil fuels and increases in the cost of living.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert, and to open this important debate on fossil fuels and increases in the cost of living. As we start 2023, households up and down the country are facing extraordinarily difficult circumstances, as we all know from our constituency mailbags, thanks to the cost of living scandal that Government policy has too often exacerbated rather than alleviated. Hikes in energy bills mean that over 9 million people—18% of the population—spent Christmas in the cold and damp, unable to heat their homes, and facing a new year with little respite, with experts warning that high gas prices are here to stay.
At the same time, the climate emergency is deepening and accelerating. Last year marked a year of extremes. It was the UK’s hottest on record, with the average temperature topping 10°C for the first time and the summer’s scorching heat made 160 times more likely by the climate crisis. It is clear that something is fundamentally wrong here, yet shockingly, I note that the climate and energy crises were entirely absent from the Prime Minister’s priorities that he outlined last week.
Fossil fuels are at the very heart of both the cost of living and the climate crises, choking our precious planet while subjecting families to sky-rocketing bills. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels holds the key to not just ensuring a safer planet for future generations but creating warm and comfortable homes, bringing down bills and guaranteeing a supply of abundant green energy to deliver the transition to a zero-carbon economy. The bottom line is that, for a safe and prosperous future, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
I want to look more deeply at the cost of living crisis that is facing so many of our constituents. As the Minister will know, households are already struggling to cope, with almost 60% of people saying that their financial situation has deteriorated over the past year. The Resolution Foundation has warned that 2023 will be “groundhog year”, with further cuts to living standards. Indeed, even with the support announced by the Government last year, a staggering 7 million households will still be in fuel poverty this winter, rising to 8.6 million from April, with the most vulnerable hardest hit.
It is profoundly shocking that one third of people with disabilities live in cold, damp homes and that a quarter of those with health conditions that are exacerbated by the cold cannot afford to heat their homes to a safe standard. This comes with serious health risks and puts further pressure on our severely under-resourced health service, which, as we all know, is already in serious crisis. In my Brighton, Pavilion constituency alone, there are several thousand people living with a cardiovascular or respiratory condition whose health is at risk if they cannot afford to put their heating on. It is genuinely astounding that the Government are planning on cutting the amount of support available to the most vulnerable households next year, just when bills are set to increase again, reducing support by 10% from £1,500 to £1,350. Will the Minister commit to addressing that gap? Will he seriously consider providing further support for those vulnerable households, given that bills are set to increase by 20% from April?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. I have heard many similar testimonies from constituents, particularly over the festive period, including from young people who wrote to me as part of the Warm This Winter and Parents for Future campaigns. I heard heartbreaking stories of children seeing their breath in the morning and not being able to recover from colds and coughs because they cannot keep their houses warm. I fully agree with the calls she makes. Those people also recognise in that correspondence the climate crisis and the need, for example, to not start new oil and gas exploration, which the Scottish Government have this morning announced a presumption against. We have to find alternative, cheaper, cleaner, greener ways of keeping warm.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and join him in paying tribute to Warm This Winter, which has done fantastic work in gathering those case studies and presenting them to us. I congratulate the Scottish Government on their announcement this morning about a presumption against more fossil fuel exploration, because we know that getting more new fossil fuels out of the ground is driving both the climate crisis and—ironically, at a time when gas is nine times more expensive than renewables—the cost of living crisis.
The Government seem to have no money for working people, yet when it comes to fossil fuel companies they have been able to find—from somewhere—£13.6 billion since the Paris agreement. To give the Rosebank oilfield £500 million in taxpayers’ money is a disgrace when families face immense pressures. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is time for oil and gas subsidies to be phased out once and for all?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and she will not be surprised that I entirely agree that fossil fuel subsidies should go. Indeed, that has been said at several of the big climate global conferences—the conferences of the parties. There is supposed to be an agreement on getting rid of the subsidies, but we are certainly not leading by example, sadly.
I want to speak about prepayment meters, although I will come back to the subject of Rosebank. One of the ironies about Rosebank is that most of the oil extracted is for export in any case; we cannot even argue that it is doing anything to help us here at home. However, there is something serious going on with prepayment meters, and I am particularly alarmed by their forced installation. We have seen stories in the press, for example, of mothers returning home to find that meters have been installed while they were out. Locksmiths have come in and people have forced their way into homes to install prepayment meters. Not only that, but magistrates have been approving hundreds of warrants to install meters in just minutes—496 warrants in three minutes and 51 seconds, to be precise.
Prepayment meters should not be installed by warrant, and they certainly should not be approved en masse in such a manner, with no consideration of individual cases and individual vulnerabilities, but when I asked what assessment the Government had made of the impact on vulnerable people of the batch approval of warrants, I was shocked to receive an answer stating that
“the information which must be provided to the court is identical in each case”.
In other words, it makes no difference whether cases are considered individually or together, but that represents total disregard for individual people’s welfare and extraordinary complacency regarding the failings of the system. Surely the Minister sees that if magistrates are not provided with adequate information, they are unable to make informed decisions that take into account people’s vulnerability.
In answer to another question I asked, the Minister simply tried to pass the buck to Ofgem, but given that the Government have the power to implement a moratorium on the forced installation of prepayment meters by court warrant, that, frankly, does not wash. The forced installation of prepayment meters is hugely distressing; it is an invasion of privacy.
Will the Minister commit himself to introducing a much-needed ban and to putting an end to the intolerable situation in which vulnerable people are forced on to higher rates, which brings with it the added risk of self-disconnection? Citizens Advice has reported a significant increase in the number of people it sees who cannot top up their prepayment meters each month—from 1,119 in November 2021 to 3,331 in November last year. Forcing people on to prepayment meters quite simply should not be happening, which is why the ban is needed so urgently.
I want to emphasise that the difficulties facing households are not inevitable. Ministers are fond of blaming those difficulties on President Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, with the Chancellor pointing to what in his autumn statement he called
“a recession made in Russia”.—[Official Report, 17 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 855.]
While that is true in part, blaming it entirely on President Putin is, frankly, dishonest. The crisis is one of political choices—choices that have been made not just over the past 12 months, but during the past 12 years of Tory rule. As we now know, the decision by the Conservatives, under David Cameron’s regime in 2013, to cut the so-called green crap has added billions to household energy bills, with installations of loft and cavity wall insulation subsequently falling off the cliff by a staggering 92% and 74% respectively in 2013.
Indeed, while there were 1.6 million installations of loft insulation, for example, in 2012, that dropped to just 126,000 the following year. Installations of cavity wall insulation dropped from 640,000 in 2012 to just 166,000 in 2013, and in 2020 there were just 72 installations of loft and cavity wall insulation combined. That is a damning indictment of the Government’s approach.
The poor state of the UK’s inefficient housing stock meant that in June last year households at energy performance certificate band D or below were effectively paying what has been called an inefficiency penalty of about £900 on average per year. It is frankly unforgiveable that in response to the current crisis the Government have once again overlooked and paid insufficient attention to the importance of energy efficiency. Their own Climate Change Committee expressed regret in November that it was now
“too late to introduce new policies to achieve widespread improvements to the fabric of buildings… this winter.”
For almost a year, the Government refused to act on what was the cheapest and quickest way to cut energy bills and address the UK’s notorious leaky houses. This is nothing short of a scandal, and it is also such a wasted opportunity, because ending our society’s addiction to fossil fuels also brings with it an opportunity to create warm, decent homes for everyone, where households are not shackled to high energy bills or trapped in dank and draughty homes, unable to turn the heating on.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech, as she always does, and I could not agree more on the importance of energy efficiency. Does she also agree that those who are off grid and reliant on heating oil have the most to gain from piling into renewables and greater energy efficiency, because it would lower housing costs and increase climate efficiency?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and I entirely agree. I worry that people who are off grid in that way are essentially being hung out to dry. They are not being given the support they need, and they are some of the most vulnerable.
I am pleased that the Government have finally seen sense and committed to £6 billion of new funding from 2025 to 2028, but this is too little, too late for people who are struggling to stay warm right now and who will face the same situation next year. What is more, it is still not clear what that £6 billion will be used for, so can the Minister explain what exactly it will be allocated to? Is it for the establishment of new schemes or the continuation of existing ones such the social housing decarbonisation scheme?
Will the Minister also confirm when we will get more details about the energy efficiency taskforce? For months, I and many others have called for a nationwide, street-by-street, local authority-led, home energy efficiency programme to genuinely insulate households from high bills for the long term. It really is not rocket science. Just last week, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member—I am very pleased to see the Chair, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), with us this morning—released a new report calling for what we called a national “war effort” on energy saving and efficiency, with upgrading homes to energy performance certificate C or above to be treated as a national priority.
That would deliver a massive benefit to our constituents. Citizens Advice estimates that upgrading all UK homes to EPC C would save households nearly £8.1 billion a year at current prices. UK homes are notoriously leaky. They lose heat three times faster than those in other parts of Europe, which means that our constituents are more vulnerable to high global gas prices than their neighbours.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. She is referring to the appallingly bad standard of insulation in the United Kingdom’s homes. I do not know if she is old enough, but I remember protesting as a student in the 1970s against a new nuclear power station at Torness on the east coast of Scotland. Even at that time, it was identified that if the money that it would cost to build a nuclear power station had been spent on insulating homes and buildings, the energy saved would have been significantly more than Torness could produce. Does she agree that the short-sighted, almost religious zealot-like fascination with nuclear power in the United Kingdom has been damaging our energy prospects for a great many years and has got to stop?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, with which I agree 100%. The nuclear obsession is using vast amounts of money, diverting attention and also sending mixed signals to investors, who really do not know what kind of energy future this country is planning for itself. It is a massive white elephant. Nuclear power stations are not coming in on budget and on time anywhere, and the idea that we can now achieve that here in the UK, against all the evidence in so many other countries—and, indeed, against the evidence here at home with Hinkley, for example, which is massively over budget and massively late—beggars belief.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and on her important contributions to our deliberations on the Environmental Audit Committee. Just before getting diverted on to nuclear, she mentioned the importance of the energy efficiency taskforce, on which I completely agree with her. Does she agree that when the Government choose to respond to the report we published as a Committee earlier this week, which she mentioned, it would be most helpful if they took this opportunity to clarify what the taskforce’s terms of reference and primary objectives will be, so that it can be used as a Government-inspired device to accelerate this national mobilisation of energy efficiency, which we all agree needs to be undertaken?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and his kind words. I absolutely agree: the taskforce has a real potential to make a difference, but we are still in the dark about many of the details. If the Government gave us more information, it would give a lot of comfort to a lot of people to know that there is a guiding mind that will ensure we accelerate these urgent installations of energy efficiency.
I turn to oil, gas and fossil fuels. Just as it was political choices that led to families being unable to heat their homes, so was it a political choice by the Government to protect the oil and gas companies, whose profits have grown fat from the spoils of war. As households struggle to make ends meet and our planet burns, the Government have chosen to double down on the very thing that is at the heart of these multiple crises. The UK is set to grant more than 100 licences to explore for more oil and gas in the North sea. Although the windfall tax has been increased to 35%, bringing the total tax on oil and gas to about 75%—I note, in parentheses, that that is still lower than Norway’s, at 78%—it is genuinely incomprehensible that the Government have failed to remove what is being called the gas giveaway, which means that oil and gas companies will still be able to claim £91.40 in tax relief for every £100 invested. What is more, from 1 January, a company spending £100 on so-called upstream decarbonisation—essentially reducing emissions from the process of extracting oil and gas, which of course then goes on to be burned—is now eligible for £109 relief on every £100 invested. In other words, we are paying the oil and gas companies to do the decarbonisation that they should be paying for. They are not broke; they are literally saying that they have more money than they know what to do with. I suggest that they start actually paying their own way.
New oil and gas extracted from the North sea will neither deliver energy security nor bring down bills, but will inevitably come at huge cost to the taxpayer. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) mentioned Rosebank, the UK’s largest undeveloped oilfield. The costs to the taxpayer if it goes ahead are enormous. At triple the size of the neighbouring Cambo oilfield, if Rosebank is developed it would produce more emissions than 28 low-income countries combined, or the carbon dioxide equivalent of running 58 coal-fired power stations for a year. It is estimated that if it is developed, its owners would receive more than £500 million of taxpayer subsidies, as the hon. Lady said, thanks to the investment allowance—the gas and oil giveaway—in the energy profits levy. If that £500 million were not used for those subsidies—subsidies to burn our planet more—it could be used to extend free school meals to every child whose family receives universal credit. It could be used to pay the annual salaries of more than 14,000 nurses or build one new medium-sized hospital. It is genuinely baffling that the Government think that that is the best use of £500 million at any time, let alone now.
The Minister may try to argue that the development is required because the UK will continue to need gas in the future, but he knows as well as I do that 90% of Rosebank’s reserves are oil, not gas, and that it is likely to be exported, given that that is the fate of 80% of the oil that is currently produced in the UK. There are currently more than 200 oil and gas fields already operating in the North sea whose production would be entirely unaffected if Rosebank were not to go ahead, so this is not about immediately turning off the taps, as Ministers like to suggest. It is not legitimate for the Government to justify new oil and gas licences by saying they are needed. That does not reflect the reality of the situation. I know that, and I think the Minister does too.
It is patently clear that a crisis caused by gas cannot be solved by more gas. As the International Energy Agency clearly states in its “World Energy Outlook 2022”:
“No one should imagine that Russia’s invasion can justify a wave of new oil and gas infrastructure in a world that wants to reach net zero emissions by 2050.”
As a first step, the Government must scrap the so-called gas giveaway—the huge subsidy to the climate criminals who have benefited from Putin’s illegal war. Next, they must urgently work to end the age of fossil fuels for good, because time is not on our side. The Environmental Audit Committee report, which has been referred to, recommended that the Government consult on setting a clear date for ending new oil and gas licensing rounds in the North sea. Given that we are, in the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres,
“on the highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator”,
personally I think the time for consultation has gone. Will the Government explain exactly how new oil and gas licences are compatible with limiting global temperatures to 1.5°, when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
The Climate Change Committee noted:
“An end to UK exploration would send a clear signal to investors and consumers that the UK is committed to…1.5°C.”
Furthermore, now that the Government have resurrected the Energy Bill, will the Minister use this opportunity to legislate for an end to the maximising economic recovery duty—a woefully outdated obligation to maximise the economic recovery of petroleum, which can have no place on the statute books of a country that has any real climate ambition? Instead of that duty to maximise the economic recovery of petroleum, will he look at the need to effect a real, just transition for workers and an orderly managed decline of the oil and gas industry? Will the Government also fully harness the potential of renewables, which at the latest contracts for difference auction were at least nine times cheaper than gas?
I welcome the concessions on onshore wind made in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, but the Minister will know that a number of barriers still remain, not least the lack of targets and the strategy for this cheap and popular form of energy. Will he now also address those issues?
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. I may pre-empt what she was about to come on to. In concluding her remarks on alternative renewable energy sources, will she commend to the Minister the work the Government have already done in allowing contracts for difference to be available to tidal energy systems, to provide renewable baseload electricity supply, which at the moment is a critical shortcoming in the plans?
I certainly welcome that intervention and agree entirely on welcoming the use of the contracts for difference mechanism. Tidal has huge potential and that is one way to maximise that. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we will be looking this afternoon in the Environmental Audit Committee at ways in which we can unblock more solar power, for example, by enabling the batteries, alongside household solar, to be installed retrospectively at lower VAT rates. It is odd that, at the moment, there are reductions on VAT for solar panels but not for the batteries for households that want to store energy.
On that point, does the hon. Lady agree that the Government should seek to incentivise further private domestic installation of solar panels or ground-source heat pumps by considering an offsetting of the investment against income tax?
I thank the hon. Lady for that proposal, which is not one I have looked at, but which sounds interesting. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks of that.
I will bring my comments to a close simply by saying that, in responding to the multiple crises that I have set out this morning, it is important that we do not store up more problems for the future. Rather than harking back to the fossil-fuel era, I ask the Minister one more time if he will finally prioritise the quickest and cheapest way to bring down bills for the long term, and introduce that desperately needed street-by-street home insulation programme. Again and again, we have seen Government schemes that are not working. The green deal scheme and green homes grant both collapsed and did massive damage to supply chains, with businesses unable to have confidence in what the Government were introducing.
We urgently need an end to the fossil-fuel era, which was kickstarted by coal and colonialism. Instead, we need resilience for the long term, with good green jobs in every constituency, warm homes that are not vulnerable to global gas prices, and the abundance of renewable energy with which these nations are blessed. Only then can we avoid future energy crises, create a more prosperous society and ensure that everyone shares in a transition to a zero-carbon economy.
I remind Members to bob if they wish to be called in the debate.
Thank goodness, they are. I call Derek Thomas.
Thank you, Sir Robert. I commend the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this worthwhile and vital debate. It comes after a year in which the Government were exercised about how to address the cost of living and reduce the demand for energy in our homes. I think we have the solution here, in this room. I hope the Minister is listening carefully because I know he wants to do some great work while in post.
Everyone here, as well as the Government, knows that an effective way to reduce demand for fossil fuels, reduce both cost of living pressures and the demand for energy more generally is to improve the efficiency of our homes. I represent St Ives and when I was elected as an MP in 2015 I was told I had the leakiest homes in the UK, possibly in Europe. That came at the time of the Paris climate agreement, when we ratified our commitment as a nation to improve all our homes to EPC grade C by 2030.
I had a discussion yesterday with someone who has done research on how much my constituents pay for energy compared with other parts of the country. Part of my constituency is the most expensive place to live in the country because of the energy used and its cost, so this is urgent. I have raised that a number of times during my time as an MP, and I believe the solution is nowhere near as difficult as we make it out to be.
The Prime Minister would be interested in this topic because fuel-poor homes work against the vision that he set out on 4 January. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion referred to the fact that there was no mention in his speech about energy and so on, but he did talk about attainment, and we know that fuel-poor homes hold back attainment. He talked about the pressure on the NHS, and we know that fuel-poor homes contribute to poor health and wellbeing and increased demand on the NHS and social care. He talked about inflation and people’s incomes, and we know that fuel-poor homes absorb disposable income from the families that we have described in the past as just about managing, and we also know that fuel-poor homes reduce the availability of homes to rent. I will talk later about why that is.
Before the UK ratified the bold commitment to get homes up or down to EPC rating C, the need to retrofit homes was well documented and well understood in this country. ECO—the energy company obligation—and green deals have, as we have heard, helped in a significant number of homes, but those are often the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are easiest to do, but there are others, such as homes in my constituency and other rural areas, that need a much more deliberate focus. I ask the Minister to consider how this year can be spent on a more focused and determined way to impact on this huge problem.
The rocketing cost of energy to heat our homes must bring this vital issue to the forefront of the Government’s mind. As we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, work will be done to help people to reduce the energy demand in their homes. I hope that that includes a determined effort to understand how we can do that effectively, quickly, and without wasting huge sums of money on subcontracts. A company in Scotland, for example—I do not wish to pick on Scotland; this is an example that relates to Cornwall—will secure a huge Government contract and then identify companies further down the food chain to deliver the contracts, but, unfortunately, not very well. We had a huge problem with that, with the £2 billion that the Government announced during the covid time to address problems with our homes. We need, as has been suggested, a grassroots, street-by-street approach, perhaps local authority-led, to identify what can be done to improve the efficiency of the home and then get on and do it while making sure that the money is spent exactly where it is intended to be spent.
I do not intend to speak for long, but I want the Minister to consider the Government’s approach to improving our leaky homes. I am happy to suggest a pilot in Cornwall. The council has already suggested a pilot and has identified how much it would cost. It is quite a lot of money, but it would be good to test the water to see if that can be achieved.
Can the Minister say any more about what the Government plan to do to help us reduce the energy demand in our homes? Will that include support to retrofit and improve the efficiency of our homes? Can he update the House on plans to modify the EPC rating? I led a debate last summer on the problem of affordable housing and why in Cornwall, although this will be true elsewhere, the energy performance certificate drives landlords to flip their homes from long lets to short-term lets—not because the law does not apply to a short-term let, but because it is not properly enforced, whereas it is much better enforced for long lets.
The problem is not that people do not want to improve the efficiency of their homes, but the tool we ask people to measure their homes by is often a case of “computer says no”. It does not truly achieve what we are trying to achieve, which is to improve the efficiency of our homes and reduce costs. The current methodology around EPCs is flawed. BEIS agreed last summer to review the methodology and look at how we can improve that, so what progress has been made? If the Minister cannot tell us today, perhaps he will follow up with a letter.
We know that fuel-poor homes drive out the availability of long lets. That is exactly what is happening across Cornwall. We are still seeing landlords who cannot achieve EPC rating E, let alone C, so they are having to use the house for other purposes. That needs to be addressed, and quickly.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene during his excellent speech. On the subject of EPCs, in his constituency has he seen what I have discovered in my constituency? When a social landlord is faced with renovation costs to make their property legally lettable at EPC rating E, they discover that the cost is too great and consequently propose to sell the property and evict the social tenants. This is happening in a small village community where there is no alternative provision.
That is exactly my experience, and it has been my experience for a number of years. It is tragic. Our parish council contacted me in desperation because it fought long and hard many years ago to identify sites to build and set aside such homes, only to find that they are lost, partly for that reason. As a result, villages are being hollowed out, making it difficult to keep open the post office, the GP surgery and the local school. We should not reduce our ambition to improve homes, but there is an urgent need to understand how we can do that and fund it.
That is the experience I have had in parts of my constituency and it concerns me greatly, but I am not critical of social landlords. When I left school I learned to build homes. I built homes with blocks, cement and sand, and today lots of homes are built in exactly the same way. The insulation being put in has improved, but we are making nowhere near enough carbon-neutral homes. We can get there and there are better ways of building, but the building trade has not moved on enough to catch up with what is needed, but perhaps that is a subject for debate another day.
To touch on the problem of listed buildings, in Cornwall—I am not sure if this is true elsewhere—we are working hard to improve the quality of our homes, many of which are listed buildings or are in conservation areas. Property owners often request double glazing. Although it is now possible to get double glazing that is in keeping with such buildings, the flat answer is that it cannot be done, so we are retrofitting homes but not installing double glazing in homes that badly need energy efficiency measures.
Will the Minister provide guidance to local authorities, and perhaps even to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, about things that can be done to improve the quality of those homes? We need a better understanding of modern methods that can be used to achieve homes that people can live in while retaining their beauty, rather than simply saying, “No, that cannot be done. You must spend a huge amount of money replacing your windows with windows that are exactly the same and no more efficient.”
Finally, will the Minister consider setting up a taskforce to look at the barriers to households installing renewable energy and storage infrastructure? Are those barriers the cost to the household, the red tape put in place by the power distributors or the restraints of the national grid? I am constantly meeting people who are frustrated because they want to put infrastructure in their homes, farms or businesses, but reasons are given about why that cannot be achieved or the sheer cost is too great. Will the Minister look urgently at setting up some sort of taskforce to get to the nub of the issue, in order to unlock the potential for renewable energy in individual homes? That will address the cost of heating and energising those homes, as well as reducing the impact and use of fossil fuels.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this incredibly important debate.
In common with the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), I seek reassurance about the many homes in my constituency that are in conservation areas. I share his frustration about the “computer says no” approach to the installation of double glazing, which I have certainly come across in Lancashire. From Lancashire to Cornwall that is definitely an issue, and Government intervention could help a lot of families make their homes more energy efficient.
I will begin by talking about the Prime Minister’s grand five promises, which he made at the beginning of this month. I was incredibly surprised and disappointed that the environment did not really get any kind of mention, and I thought it was quite irresponsible to prioritise the stopping of small boats crossing the channel over climate change. Perhaps the Prime Minister has not heard, but the latest prediction is that we will have over 1 billion climate refugees by 2050, so constantly chasing the consequences rather than the causes is always going to be to the detriment of progress.
The Government have managed to use the war in Ukraine and the pandemic to absolve themselves of responsibility for the energy and cost of living crisis. There is no doubt that those events have exacerbated the situation, but the underlying causes of the crisis have been brewing for a very long time. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, the Government have had 12 years to build up our energy security and transition towards a net zero economy, but instead, they have espoused the rhetoric of commitment while not doing any of the things necessary to actually make that happen.
There are very obvious solutions, which have been stressed in this debate. Household insulation, for instance, has been shown to be an effective and efficient way of lowering energy demand and improving energy security, yet the Government have scrapped their campaign to insulate homes just six months after its inception. Now that the energy crisis has categorically proven the necessity of transitioning to net zero, the Government plan for 130 new licences for North sea oil and gas. That decision is already being challenged in the courts as being unlawful and incompatible with the UK’s international climate obligations. The UK cannot claim to be an international leader on the climate crisis while moving back towards fossil fuels: this simply proves the falsity of all Government promises on climate action.
Many of my constituents—I am sure other Members will agree—have been writing to me in opposition to Government plans to approve the Rosebank oil field. Quite rightly, they view it as a complete betrayal of our climate goals and responsibilities to the planet. When I wrote to the Government on this matter, the letter I got back from the Minister justified the use of additional oil and gas fields on the basis that a decline in domestic production would require us to import more oil and gas, but—as was eloquently said by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion—most of the gas from Rosebank is actually going to be for export. Given the wealth of evidence about the potential for clean energy sources to meet our energy needs, I find that response incomprehensible.
In my time in this House, I have frequently made the case for renewable energy projects in my own constituency, including tidal energy on the River Wyre. A barrage is proposed between Fleetwood and Knott End, which would be able to produce energy locally, and we have a number of great academics at Lancaster University who are working on renewable energy sources and have lots of good ideas about how we in Lancashire can be part of that energy solution. The only possible explanation for moving in the opposite direction to common sense is that a powerful few in the Conservative party are set to benefit from the expansion of fossil fuels, keeping Britain stuck in the past, rather than leading the future.
The Government response to the energy crisis has been short-term financial support. While that is necessary, it does absolutely nothing to address the root causes of the problem, nor to equip the country for success in the future. We need urgent investment in renewable energy to create the green growth that can save money on bills, while also equipping us for a future without oil and gas dependencies.
Apologies, Sir Robert, for missing the start of the debate. The hon. Lady is making a very powerful speech about the contradictions that we are seeing in the Government’s policies. I felt that very strongly during the energy statement regarding support for businesses, in that I have a business in my constituency that is very keen to make energy savings and efficiencies, but those projects are capital hungry, so without support to make those green investments, that business cannot move away from its dependency on fossil fuels. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government are being incredibly short-sighted on this issue?
Absolutely. I was present for that statement earlier this week, and the point that the hon. Lady raises about businesses struggling to make their premises more energy efficient ties in with all of this. Just before I went into the Chamber for that statement, I received my energy bill for my constituency office, which is in a very poorly insulated building on Lord Street in Fleetwood. My prediction is that my energy bill will increase fivefold in the next year. I am sure that colleagues in the room will realise that the budgets we get from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority are not the most generous in terms of being able to deliver a shopfront constituency office, and the price rise will put me in a very difficult position going forward.
Returning to the matter at hand rather than the challenges with my office budget, the support that the Government have needed to give has been quite poorly delivered. I want to speak on behalf of many of my constituents, because I have asked the Government numerous times for exact details and dates of the energy support payments for those living in park homes, marina boats and canal boats. The first response was, “In due course.” Then it was, “This winter.” The latest response was, “From January.” I soon expect the answer will be “February”, and the payments will come to an abrupt end in April. Promises of future payments do very little to placate the real needs and concerns of those who are struggling now.
High energy prices are also driving record-high inflation. The public and the planet are bearing the cost, while the oil companies are still making record profits. People can see it and they do not like it. We all know that lower-income households are the most affected by price rises, and we have seen appalling reports on the record use of food banks and the rising levels of destitution. It is a policy choice not to treat increasing poverty with the serious concern and action that it warrants, and I have been contacted by a number of constituents with particular concerns about children growing up in poverty. We need to invest in these children and provide them with the urgent support they need now, while creating a future of sustainable jobs and clean energy to ensure that their children do not end up in the same cycle.
It is often the poorest of my constituents whose homes end up being flooded when we see extreme weather events. Standing in people’s flooded living rooms when they have lost so many personal possessions, and holding them as they cry, has been one of the most difficult things I have had to do as a Member of Parliament. It is not something I expected to do when I was first elected in 2015, but the reality is that, with the increase in extreme events, it is something that I am likely to have to continue to do going forward. Indeed, we had a yellow weather warning for rain in Lancashire yesterday. Thankfully, I have not yet had any reports of any homes being flooded, but roads are certainly flooding at the moment. It is a consequence of our failing to tackle the climate emergency that is unfolding.
The Government are pursuing a strategy that accelerates climate change, harms our environment and does nothing to meet people’s energy needs and help them with the cost of living crisis. There are some very obvious solutions that have been put forward in this morning’s debate, and I hope that the Minister is open to considering making this a priority for his Government, meeting people’s cost of living crisis and stopping the climate emergency.
We now move to the Front-Bench contributions. I call Peter Grant.
Thank you, Sir Robert. I am pleased to begin summing up in this debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) again for securing it and for her measured but still passionate and, as always, very well-informed introduction.
I have not heard very much in the debate that I disagree with. I might not entirely agree with everything said by the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), but he used a very small and localised example to highlight what is possibly the biggest elephant in the room: if we think that we will tackle climate change and that everything else will continue in the way it always has, we are deluding ourselves. It is not going to happen. The hon. Gentleman explained how the social rented housing market is being disrupted because of steps being taken to improve the efficiency of buildings. We can argue about where we balance the various different needs—including the need to provide housing of some kind, and the need to make sure that housing is properly insulated—but we will not tackle climate change if we leave the way we do housing exactly as it is now. It is going to have to change. We will not tackle climate change if we continue with the transport provision that we have now. Far too many of us—me included—feel that we cannot do our job without flying regularly, but that will have to change.
The first thing that the Government have to do on climate change, which they have failed to do almost since the phrase was first used, is to start being honest with people and say, “Tackling climate change will hurt. It is not going to be easy, and it is not going to be cheap, but the alternative is even worse.” Far too often, the Government and their colleagues in the Opposition in Scotland seem to want to make people believe that there is a dead easy, quick-fix way out of everything—“If we vote for Brexit, everything will be great”; “If we vote for one Prime Minister after another, everything will be great”; “If we could just stop the boats coming across the channel, there will be plenty of jobs and money for all the people already here.” None of that is true. None of the significant issues that the Government have to face up to have quick and easy solutions. The Government need to start being honest with people and say, “If we are going to be serious about addressing climate change and fixing an energy market that is not fit for purpose, it will not be easy or comfortable.” It will be extremely uncomfortable for some of their pals in the City of London, and that is maybe where they need to start focusing their attention.
I represent a constituency that was one of the most important economic drivers of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the empire—to our eternal shame. It was one of the most important coalmining constituencies in the United Kingdom. Methil docks used to be one of the biggest coal exporting ports anywhere in the world. That is all gone. A lot of the traditions and heritage that went with coalmining are still there, but coal has not been dug out the ground in Fife for many decades. The constituency also played a major part in the oil and gas industry. The fabrication yard, known as RGC in those days, was a major source of the infrastructure for North sea oil and gas.
Both of those energy booms created billionaires by today’s standards. Very little of the benefit stayed in my constituency. We would not need to spend much time walking through places like Methil and Buckhaven to realise that the economic benefits of the oil and gas boom and the coal boom went elsewhere. The benefits certainly did not stay with the people who lived, worked and, in too many cases, lost their lives to make those industries effective. However we change the way we do energy in these four nations, we need to ensure that the benefits that come from being an energy-rich nation go to the people. I do not just mean a few directors in boardrooms; I mean the people who actually helped to produce that massive wealth.
The crisis we are facing has not just happened because Putin invaded Ukraine last year or because he invaded Ukraine in 2014—although perhaps if the UK and their allies had not turned the other way in 2014 and had stood up to Putin then, the most recent invasion might not have happened. The energy crisis and the cost of living crisis are a result of decades of long-term failure. It is now creating a day-by-day crisis. People are freezing in their homes today, so we cannot wait 25 years to come up with a strategy to fix that. There needs to be significantly more emergency help going to people now. We need long-overdue recognition that our entire energy system—from the way energy is produced, distributed and supplied to the way the price is controlled, or not—is not fit for purpose. None of it is working to the benefit of our constituents. It is not working for the people who rely on it most and the people who cannot afford 100% or 150% increases in their fuel bills.
Once this—I hope—short-term crisis has been addressed, we need to start looking at what we can do to change the energy market so that this can never happen again. Why is it that in a country such as Scotland, which produces 85% of its electricity need without gas, the change in gas prices has such a disastrous impact on electricity prices in Scotland, when very few of my constituents use electricity that has ever been anywhere near a gas field? Why is it that in a country such as Scotland, which exports more gas than it imports, when the price of gas goes up, our people get poorer? That does not make sense. It does not make economic sense, and it certainly cannot be morally or ethically defended.
Since 1990, the Scottish Government have delivered a reduction of well over 50% in our CO2 emissions. We are more than halfway towards net zero. Clearly, the second half of the journey will be more difficult. They are doing that by accepting, and they formally accepted this in an announcement made over the past day or two, that oil and gas are not the future. There is now a presumption in Scotland against any further exploration or development of oil and gas facilities. There are still significant potential economic reserves under the North sea, but the Scottish Government have taken the decision that the price to the planet of exploiting those reserves is just too high. It does not take a genius to work out that that is not an easy thing for the Scottish Government to say. It has not been an easy decision to take, and it will not be universally popular in Scotland, but it is the kind of hard decision that we have to be prepared to take. We have to be prepared to say that there are times when the economic benefit or certainly the short-term economic benefit, of exploiting those oil and gas reserves will be outweighed by the longer-term damage that that does to the planet and, ultimately, by the longer-term economic harm that that causes.
I will give an indication of how severe the energy crisis has been in Scotland. Between 1 and 18 December last year, the Scottish Ambulance Service answered 800 999 calls from people with hypothermia. Eight hundred people in Scotland were admitted to hospital because they were literally freezing to death. That is in a country that has more energy than it needs. How can it be allowed to happen? How can it possibly be justifiable? I will put that figure of 800 people into context. At the moment, and as in England, Scotland is seeing probably the highest levels, or certainly among the highest levels, of covid hospitalisations that we have had, almost at any time, and exceptionally high levels of hospitalisation with influenza. About 1,600 or 1,700 people in Scotland are in hospital with either flu or covid; and in the space of 18 days, we sent another 800 people in because they were freezing to death. That is the extent to which the climate crisis, the energy crisis, is putting additional pressure on an NHS that does not need additional pressure put on it. As well as the sheer inhumanity of allowing people to get to a stage where they are in danger of freezing to death in their own homes, there is a knock-on impact on public services that are already under enormous pressure.
I can predict what the Minister will say. I can certainly predict what he came into this Chamber intending to say; I do not know whether he will have changed his answer after listening to any of the arguments made today. The Government will blame the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yes, that has had an impact, but it has not had as big an impact as the Government might try to pretend. The United Kingdom does not depend on Russian oil or gas to anything like the extent that some other countries do, and those other countries are not faring any worse than we are.
The Minister might well throw the barb that was very popular on the Tory Benches towards the end of last year—that this is all the SNP’s fault because we will not allow any more nuclear power stations in Scotland. But apart from the fact that if we started planning and building a nuclear power station today, it would not help the 800 people who were hospitalised in December, or the 800 who might be hospitalised later this month if there is another cold snap, the Scottish Government’s opposition to nuclear power is because of two facts. In Scotland, we do not need it; and it is by far the most expensive form of energy that this country or these four countries have ever used.
Therefore, I hope that the Minister will not demonstrate what I think the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion described as the previous “obsession” with nuclear power. Nuclear power has never been the answer. It is certainly not the answer now. As I mentioned in an intervention, there have been times when it has been shown that if, rather than building a nuclear power station, we had spent the money insulating people’s homes, we would have got more energy out of it. That is not sexy, and it does not make anyone look clever in the eyes of the United States if they can say that they have the best insulated homes anywhere in the world, but economically it makes a lot more sense than building nuclear power stations. At the moment, we still literally do not know how much it will cost to decommission the ones that we already have, so why on earth would we start to build any new ones?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion on initiating this debate. A great deal more could be said on this issue. I have no doubt that on a different day, or possibly if we had been able to get time in the main Chamber, a lot more Members would have wanted to speak. My single request to the Minister, and the message that needs to go back to the Government about the issue, is this: start being honest with people about where the energy crisis has come from, because if we are not honest about what has caused the crisis, we will never get any closer to finding answers to it. I do not want to see another 800 people in Scotland at risk of freezing to death next time there is a cold snap. But at the same time, when I move on from here, I want there to be a world left that is fit for all our families and all our constituents’ families to continue to inhabit for a hundred years to come. If we continue going the way we are just now, that cannot be guaranteed.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Robert. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. This is certainly not a one-off debate on this topic; it is something that affects us all as constituency MPs, as well as being very much about the underlying issue of what we do to tackle the climate crisis.
The hon. Member reflected that very well. She talked about the global fight and the fact that weening ourselves off fossil fuels is key to tackling many of the problems that have been flagged up today, but she also got down to detailed issues affecting her constituents. She talked about the forced installation of prepayment meters by court warrant and the consequent rise in self-disconnection. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response on that issue, because many of us are concerned about it.
The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) also talked about specific issues in his constituency, including retrofitting homes. Again, I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to the hon. Member’s criticisms of the energy performance certificate regime and its impact on the letting market in Cornwall. I will come on to retrofitting homes that currently do not meet standards, but another issue is that we are still building homes that do not meet standards. Since about 2016, more than 1 million homes have been built that do not meet standards. That seems ludicrous, and I hope the Minister will address that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) talked about the impact on people living in park homes and conservation areas—how it is not always easy for them to adapt their homes and how sometimes the cost is far greater. I thought that reflected just how good a constituency MP she is. Before the debate started, we were talking about farmers as well.
The most powerful thing that evoked memories for me was when my hon. Friend talked about the floods in 2015 and 2016, when she was a newly elected MP. As the then shadow Environment Secretary, I visited the constituencies of other newly elected Labour MPs, including my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I saw the devastation that those floods caused for families. In Halifax, they had been told that the floods a few years earlier were a once-in-a-century experience, and that they would never see flooding like that again. They showed me the marks on the wall to show not just that the floods had happened again, but were worse than before.
A few years prior to those floods, we had floods on the Somerset levels. Again, it was seen as an almost freak event. Oliver Letwin was given—as he usually was—a taskforce to chair that was going to bring up all the answers. Then, of course, it dropped off the agenda when we had a few years without floods. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood was quite right to warn that we should not be complacent. That there is a constant fear that flooding could return, which is very much connected with the climate crisis.
My hon. Friend also pointed out the Government’s ludicrous argument—I know the Minister is fond of this—that domestic fossil fuel extraction is somehow a green measure. I think he also tried to claim the same about fracking during that infamous debate when we were going to frack and then not frack, and when it was a vote of confidence and not a vote of confidence. The idea that we can get around fossil fuel emissions by claiming that there are no transportation costs associated with imports is silly, especially when much of what is produced will be exported. My hon. Friend did flag that up.
Returning to the opening remarks from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, she said that last year was very much dominated by soaring energy prices and a worsening climate crisis. It exposed our reliance on dirty and volatile fossil fuels. Gas prices soared to 10 times their level in the first half of 2021, meaning that the price of gas was nine times higher than the cost of cheap renewables such as wind and solar. That is an important message to get across to people. Renewables are not the expensive option any more; they are way cheaper than the fossil fuel route.
As has been said, the Minister will mention the illegal war in Ukraine. Of course, that was a major factor, but it does not explain why leading economists are predicting that the UK will face one of the worst recessions and the weakest recoveries in the G7. According to the OBR—the previous Chancellor and Prime Minister were keen to avoid telling us what the OBR thought, and now we know why—the UK has already fallen into recession and is facing the biggest drop in living standards since records began. The reality is that we simply were not prepared for the energy shock that we saw last year, partly because we have had years of wasted opportunities to develop cheap, clean and renewable energy sources and to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
Instead of a green sprint for renewables, the Government launched a failed attempt to bring back fracking, so that they could extract the most eye-wateringly expensive gas without considering the wishes or safety of our local communities. The Government issued more than 100 new licences for expensive and polluting oil and gas extraction. On top of that, they attempted to ban new solar developments and keep the ban on new onshore wind, which would have blocked the cheapest available forms of energy.
I know that there have been U-turns on quite a lot of that—although it is difficult to keep up sometimes—but ordinary households are now paying the price for the dithering, delay and years of inaction on renewables. New research suggests that households could have saved £1,750 a year if the Government had moved faster to reduce emissions through support for renewable energy, energy efficiency upgrades and other green investments. For the 9 million households now living in fuel poverty, that £1,750 could have made a world of difference.
Labour led the way in calling for a windfall tax in January last year. The Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, was pretty reluctant to introduce one. Eventually, he brought in a half-hearted measure, but even then, oil and gas giants avoided paying fair taxes due to the huge investment allowance loophole that was snuck into the tax. I read recently that Shell is paying taxes this year for the first time in something like five years. Clearly, something is very wrong. The loophole, which applied only to polluting fossil fuels and not to cheap renewables, allowed fossil fuel companies to avoid paying any windfall tax on 91p of every £1 they made.
The Chancellor has now confirmed that support with energy bills will reduce from April next year. That means that households, many of which are already at breaking point—not just because of energy bills, but because of increases in rent, mortgages, food prices and interest rates—are expected to suffer another increase in energy bills from April.
Labour has been clear that the only solution to the cost of living crisis is a green one. We talked a bit about retrofitting homes; it is estimated that 9 million homes could have been insulated since the Government scrapped home insulation support schemes in 2012, a decision that is now costing households up to £1,000 on their annual energy bills.
Yesterday, I met a range of people involved in the housing sector, from people running housing associations to people from building societies. They are crying out for certainty. They want to invest in retrofitting loans, green mortgages, or whatever we want to call them, and they want to renovate properties. We have seen an absolute shambles from the Government over the past decade or so, with things such as the green homes grant being dropped and cowboy builders moving into the market. Unless the Government provide certainty, consumers and the companies that will need to deliver the retrofitting programme will not have confidence. We need a clear sense of direction. That is why Labour has promised a decade-long programme that would invest in insulating 19 million homes, with £6 billion invested over that decade to give that sense of certainty.
Labour would also double down on cheap, clean renewable energy through our pledge to achieve a clean power system by 2030. That would mean doubling onshore wind capacity, tripling solar capacity and quadrupling offshore wind capacity. We would achieve that goal by establishing a publicly owned renewable energy generator, GB Energy, so that the profits of those investments actually benefited the British public.
That is a clear, long-term strategic plan. We are not hearing anything like that from the Government. I hope that today we will hear a serious response from the Government setting out not just how we will tackle the cost of living crisis in the short term and help people with their energy bills, but how we will put fossil fuels to bed once and for all and support the sprint towards green energy.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this important debate and I thank the other hon. Members who have taken part for sharing their constituents’ thinking on fossil fuels and the cost of living.
However, listening to quite a lot of the contributions to the debate, I felt as if we were in some sort of parallel universe, away from the reality of the world we live in today. Three quarters of our energy comes from fossil fuels. That is the reality now. The cost of living crisis is driven by a global shortage of fossil fuels, which is driving up their price. We are moving faster than any other G7 country to decarbonise, which no one would have understood from listening the contributions from those on the Opposition Benches. We led the world in passing legislation for net zero, and in putting in place the Climate Change Committee and the rest of it to keep the Government honest on the route to getting there, which is a tough one.
The reality is that this economy, like every developed economy, is dependent on fossil fuels today, and it will be all the way through to 2050 on net zero, when we will still be using a quarter of the gas that we use today and we will still need oil products. That is the context, which people just absolutely would not have got a glimpse of from the contributions by Members on the other side of the Chamber today. We heard them all pat each other on the back on their ideological opposition to nuclear and their objection to a source of baseload energy that is clean—for what reason? We heard an absurd world view, co-ordinated between the SNP, the Greens and His Majesty’s Opposition. Frankly, it is bizarre. Get real about where we are actually at.
To talk, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) did, about the crisis and its impact on the most vulnerable people in his constituency and not be honest about the context or the need for oil and gas in the meantime, and not to engage with the fact that producing oil and gas from our own waters with ever-higher efforts to reduce the emissions from that production, is simply wrong. And for the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) to say that it is laughable to suggest that burning domestically produced gas with much lower emissions attached to it, when we must burn gas and we will be doing so under net zero in 2050, is somehow not the right thing to do is, again, frankly absurd.
I hope to return to my actual speech, but I must address the reality of the impact on ordinary people and the most vulnerable. Those people are ill-served if we do not recognise the actual realities of the economy and society that we live in today and, instead, just pose to the public in a kind of virtue signalling.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) totally condemned every action by this Government, as though nothing the Government have done has helped in the journey to net zero or in tackling climate change. This Government have done more than any other and taken action on the woeful situation on energy efficiency in homes. We are still way behind where we need to be, but where were we in 2010? I will tell people where we were: just 14% of homes had an energy performance certificate of C or above. If people want something risible or laughably poor, that is it. What is that figure today? Forty-six per cent. We heard nothing but condemnation from the hon. Member for Bristol East, who spoke for the Opposition, about the “shambles” of this Government’s policy. Well, under our policy, we have moved from 14% to 46%.
This Government are committed to setting up an energy efficiency taskforce—further details will be coming soon—precisely to deal with the points that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) was so right to raise. His contribution was grounded not in the unreal parallel universe presented by Opposition Members but in a real understanding of his constituents in Cornwall, their homes and the rules and barriers that stand in the way of those people being able to have more energy-efficient homes. Those rules and barriers need to be identified and removed to ensure that those people who can and will invest themselves to green their homes are better able to do so.
That is what we need—practical, focused, real and honest engagement with the challenges. People have to accept the wider context, and they have to recognise what this Government have done after the woeful performance previously, which can be seen in all the numbers. Where were we on renewables in 2010? Practically nowhere. Where are we now? Leading Europe. I did not hear that in a single contribution from the Opposition Members who say they care so much about this issue, but care insufficiently to share any of the vital facts.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I want to say how utterly disappointed I am by the tone that he has taken. I think that we have all been pretty constructive this morning. We have given the Government credit where some progress has been made, but the Minister cannot stand there and pretend that either the green deal or the green homes grant were successful—we know that they were a disaster. He cannot keep going back to 2010 and suggesting that somehow history was frozen at that point. Any other Government would probably have done a hell of a lot more than this Government have since then.
The suggestion that we are virtue signalling, when we are the ones who are saying that our constituents are living in freezing homes right now—some are actually dying from hypothermia—in a country that exports more energy than it uses, is intolerable. Why is the Minister suggesting that we are on the wrong side when we say that gas is eight or nine times more expensive than renewables? That is what is hurting our constituents. Will he really stand there and defend the Rosebank oil development? That is for export; even if we do get more oil and gas out of the sea ourselves, it does not necessarily get used here, and Rosebank certainly will not be used here. Will he address that point and some of the other real points that we have been making this morning?
I thank the hon. Lady. The cost of living crisis is because of the global position on the price of gas, driven by supply and demand, as every market is. She speaks as if there is a switch, and a wilful failure by people in my position to press the button that ends all fossil fuel. We hear careless suggestions—“From your friends in the City of London to your friends in the oil and gas industry”—as if there is some button we have not pressed. That is not true. This economy, like every developed economy, is dependent on fossil fuels, and it is a transition to get out of that. Pretending it is not does not serve those people who are suffering as the hon. Lady said.
The Government are driving a reduction in our demand for fossil fuels, and we have achieved a lot on our road to net zero already. Between 1990 and 2019 we grew the economy by 76% yet cut our emissions by 44%, decarbonising faster than any other G7 economy. But oil and gas will remain an important part of our energy mix, and that needs to be recognised. People should not suggest that there is some button that we are wilfully failing to press. We cannot switch off fossil fuels overnight and expect to have a functioning country. If we do not have a functioning country, we will have more people who cannot afford to heat their homes properly. That is the reality, and I do not think that has been properly reflected by Opposition Members today.
Supporting our domestic oil and gas sector is not incompatible with our efforts on decarbonisation when we know that we will need oil and gas for decades to come. What is laughable is to suggest that it is somehow morally superior to burn liquid natural gas imported from foreign countries, with much higher emissions around its transportation and production, than gas produced here. Why would we want to do that?
There are 120,000 jobs, most of them in Scotland, dependent on oil and gas. I was delighted to witness the signing of a memorandum of understanding with three major oil and gas companies looking to decarbonise their operations west of Shetland and bring down their production emissions. Emissions from oil and gas production in this country—remember how fast it is waning—are still around 4% of our overall emissions. The idea is to incentivise companies that are massively taxed to invest in electrification of their production. We need oil and gas for decades to come. If we can, we should produce it here rather than import it from somewhere else, and we should incentivise and ensure that production here is as green as possible. That is why it is not incompatible.
We are a net importer of oil and gas, and we will continue to be. New licences simply help us manage a fast declining basin. Even with new licences, the production is falling by around 7% a year, and I think the IEA suggested that it needs to fall by 3% to 4% globally.
It is a bizarre argument made by the Scottish nationalist party. The hon. Member for Glenrothes is right to say that it is not popular. It is not popular in Scotland because it is insane. It does not make any sense for us to import oil and gas, because we are going to be burning it. There is no button to stop us burning it. If we are going to keep burning it, we should burn oil and gas that we produce here if we can, and we should incentivise our producers here to operate to the highest environmental standards. That is the right thing to do morally, for the environment and economically, and it makes sense. That is why the SNP’s policies, as re-announced this morning, are so completely out of kilter with reality.
I am grateful to the Minister for finally giving way. I tactfully point out him that that he has seriously misrepresented the position of those of us on this side of the debate. Nobody is suggesting that we should turn off oil and gas production immediately. What we are saying is that we have to stop the headlong, insane rush towards more and more oil and gas production.
I also remind the Minister that his country is a big importer of energy and my country is a big exporter of energy. On that point, will he answer this question? How is it that a country that has more gas than it needs—a country that is an exporter of an increasingly scarce, and therefore increasingly valuable, natural commodity—is becoming poorer when something that we have an excess of has become more valuable?
As we know, the price of oil and gas has gone up, and hopefully it will go down again and become more affordable. Scotland is an integral part of this United Kingdom, which is why the hon. Gentleman is present in this United Kingdom Parliament. That is why we are in it together. That is how we are able to support Scottish households and families through the power of the Exchequer and the Treasury of this country, which, as he knows, provide much higher levels of public expenditure and support the Scottish nationalist party to take credit for every single penny spent, a large part of which is able to be spent only because of Scotland’s participation in this United Kingdom. We are in this together.
Hon. Members raised the idea that oil and gas firms are being subsidised, but we have raised the level of tax. I think £400 billion has come so far from the oil and gas companies. They are not being subsidised when we encourage them—
Of course they are.
A reduction in tax from a level that is way above that which any other type of company pays in this country is not a subsidy, and anyone who suggests it is is dealing in semantics and not helping. Hon. Members can say they want to tax those companies higher, and they can say, “I absolutely do not want to encourage them to electrify their operations offshore and reduce the emissions around their production,” but they cannot say we are subsidising them.
Even when our net zero targets are met in 2050, we will still need a quarter of our current gas demand. As we have seen, constrained supply and dramatically increased prices do not eliminate demand for oil and gas. We will still need oil and gas, so it makes sense for our domestic resources to retain the economic and security benefits. Most importantly, hon. Members should look at what we are doing in the North sea basin. We are transitioning, but we will need all that offshore expertise. We need the engagement of the major oil players, which have now made commitments to their journey to net zero. We want them to produce the oil and gas that we will be burning for decades to come here in a green way.
We want to retain those 120,000 jobs. We want to retain the people with subsea and platform knowledge, because we will need that for carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and the transition to the green economy. Again, it is an absolute betrayal not only of the interests of those workers in Scotland and elsewhere but of our transition to suggest that there is a kind of brake. It is a transition, and we are moving through it. Thanks to the Climate Change Act and the carbon budgets, we are on track to reduce demand.
That is another point: hon. Members talk as if oil and gas exploration drives the world’s use of oil and gas, but it does not; the demand side does that. Petrol cars need to be filled, which is why we are encouraging electric cars. Methane-burning boilers demand gas, so we need to replace them with heat pumps and green our electricity system. It is the demand side that we need to focus on. I just think the whole conversation nationally has been focused on how oil and gas exploration drives usage, but it does not. Putting the price up massively and having a shortage does not massively drop usage because we are so dependent on this stuff. We are moving as fast as we can to get ourselves off that dependency, and we are leading the world in doing so.
Through our COP presidency, we have encouraged the rest of the world to follow us. Just 30% of global GDP was covered by net zero pledges in 2019, when we took on the COP presidency, and it is now 90%, so the world is following us. We are leading on those policies. We are a world leader in tidal, which was mentioned. I am delighted that we have now been overtaken by China in offshore wind, but we are the leader in Europe. We transformed the economics of it thanks to our contracts for difference—the mechanisms that this Government put in place. The truth is that this country has done comparatively a fantastic job. The data shows—notwithstanding the sometime mis-steps in energy efficiency—that, overall, our performance compared to what came before has been transformative,
I look forward to the energy efficiency taskforce, my colleague Lord Callanan, and a co-chair who will soon be announced taking these matters forward and listening to colleagues’ practical, proper suggestions on everything from getting the right balance between conservation and installing energy efficient windows to looking at issues such as solar installation on homes, planning and other aspects. We are working together on all those things and also ensuring that we take an holistic approach around our coast as we make plans and aim to ensure that we have a strategic spatial understanding of the North sea and its role in the transition.
This country is doing a fantastic job, and the vision for the future is that we should be an exporter of electricity. I hope to see us being an exporter of hydrogen. I see us as being potentially able to export, as it were, our carbon storage capability to our European friends and allies, and recently I was delighted to witness the signing of a memorandum of understanding on North sea co-operation with all the other countries involved in the North sea. That shows that we are working constructively with our EU allies.
On so many fronts, this country—and this Government, I am proud to say—is doing a brilliant job in leading the world in understanding the importance of getting to net zero, in tackling the reality of the transition from our dependence on fossil fuels, and on the need to keep producing those things in the greenest manner possible while doing everything we can to drive down demand, because it is the demand signal that we need to eradicate, rather than worrying about whether Rosebank, Cambo or anything else goes ahead. We have ensured through the climate change checkpoint that we look closely at that, and I am confident that our approach is compatible with the journey to net zero.
Several of us around the Chamber have said that the vast majority of the energy extracted from Rosebank is for export, so will the Minister stop pretending that it will somehow address any of the crises that we face in the UK? He has painted a picture suggesting that none of us on this side of the Chamber has talked about the demand side. The vast majority of what all of us have been talking about has been energy efficiency, which is precisely about reducing demand. Will he start to address some of the points that I made in my speech, and which many other hon. Members did too?
For example, will the Minister address the issues around prepayment meters? Will he address whether there will be a much ramped-up energy efficiency programme? Will he address the questions I asked about how the £6 billion will be used? Will there be more money coming? Lots of questions have been asked in a constructive spirit—believe me, we could have been an awful lot less constructive if we had chosen to be—and I would be grateful if the Minister did us the courtesy of answering them.
Order. The Minister will complete his concluding remarks and the hon. Lady will get a few minutes at the end of the debate, which I am sure she will wish to use.
To deal with prepayment meters, which the hon. Lady raised, Ofgem has rules in place that restrict the forced fitting of prepayment meters on customers who are in debt, except as a last resort, but prepayment meters do have a role to play in helping people to ensure that they do not go into debt. There are strong rules about that, and Ofgem is engaging with, and has done a review of the performance of, suppliers in supporting vulnerable customers and seeking to ensure that those suppliers fulfil their licence requirements.
In 2021, the Government published a progress report on the delivery of the EPC action plan. We aim to complete all actions by the middle of this year, following necessary amendments to legislation. That, to answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, is in hand. On the issue that came up around warrants, clearly, the legal side of that is a matter for His Majesty’s Courts Service and the Ministry of Justice, but following the debate I will raise the matter with colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, ask them to look at it and go from there.
On the energy efficiency taskforce, we will come forward—I hope pretty soon, in answer to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion—with the terms of reference, the membership and so on. Things will then become clearer. We do not want to prejudge how the taskforce will inform policy making in order to deliver the best use of the additional £6 billion, which I am sure Members welcome, in addition to the £6.5 billion being spent on energy efficiency in this Parliament.
I will make a final point and then sit down before you force me to, Sir Robert. We need top-down, we need the high-level policy and we need the funding. We have that from His Majesty’s Treasury, and we have the commitment on the energy efficiency taskforce, which has a positive role to play, but it also needs to look at how we galvanise the real will and desire there is across different parties running councils across the country, in different communities, to have a bottom-up approach to empower and enable communities and regions to do their bit to tackle net zero. A big focus of their work will be energy efficiency, understanding and surveying their housing and other building stock to come up with plans to build the required skills base, ensuring a career for people who enter that world. Through that, we can make a real difference.
At Government level, local government level and local community level working together we can accelerate the reduction in demand. Hon. Members did not mention the Chancellor’s announcement setting a target of reducing energy demand by 15% by 2030. I hoped that might have been commented on and welcomed; I certainly welcome that.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I also thank the Minister, although for most of his response he misjudged the tone of the room. We were genuinely trying to find areas where we can move issues forward, particularly as they affect our constituents.
On energy efficiency, we know it is win, win, win. It gets people’s fuel bills down, addresses the climate emergency, creates jobs and, as many have said, it would also solve many of the health problems faced by people living in cold and damp homes. I hope the Minister will take away serious acknowledgement of the fact that the Government need to do more on that subject.
He prayed in aid the Climate Change Committee several times. It was that Committee that expressed regret last November that it was now too late to introduce policies to achieve widespread improvements in the fabric of buildings for this winter. On the points he made about fossil fuels, we are not going to agree but it would help if we spoke the same language. For example, the Minister spoke about us making up the idea that the Government subsidise fossil fuels. If he looks at the definition of a subsidy used by the International Monetary Fund and the OECD, he will find that what the Government do is classified as a subsidy. We can have that debate, but to suggest that we are simply barmy for suggesting that that is a subsidy is not helpful.
The Minister talked of our better standards when extracting our oil and gas. He will know that most of our imported gas comes from Norway, which has lower production emissions than the UK. A bit more honesty about the situation would go a long way. No one is suggesting that we turn off any switches or buttons on oil and gas overnight. We recognise that cannot happen. We also recognise that, for as long as the Government have a duty to maximise economic recovery of oil and gas, continue to subsidise oil and gas, and plan 100 new programmes in the North sea, the problem is exacerbated not addressed. I urge the Minister to look seriously at some of the proposals that many of us have put forward this morning and to act on them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fossil fuels and increases in the cost of living.
Improving Driver Safety
I will call Andrea Leadsom 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 as is the convention for 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of improving driver safety.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Robert.
Imagine that you are at home, and you have just cleared away the dinner. There is a knock at the door, and you look at your partner: “Are you expecting anyone?” “No.” You answer the door, and a police officer is standing there to deliver the most dreadful news that anyone could ever hear: that your son or daughter has been killed in a car accident. I am sure everybody here would agree that the loss of a child is the very worst thing that could happen to anyone. It goes against the very order of things, and no family ever recovers from their loss.
Sadly, I have had a number of grieving parents come to my surgeries over the past 12 years to talk about the terrible impact of the death of a child who was either a passenger in a car or driving alone or with friends. My heart goes out to every parent who has ever had to receive that terrible news, and in particular my constituents Chris and Nicole Taylor, who lost their beloved daughter Rebecca in 2008. Chris and Nicole came to see me soon after I became an MP in 2010, and I have tried to support their brilliant campaign that seeks to significantly reduce the risk of any other young, inexperienced driver dying on our roads.
Evidence submitted by the Department for Transport to the Transport Committee’s young and novice driver inquiry in 2020 revealed that while young drivers account for only 7% of full driving licence holders, in 2019, they were involved in 23% of fatal and serious collisions in the UK. In 2021, the AA surveyed its members, asking them what they thought were the greatest safety risks to teenagers. The responses that came back were clear: members thought that drugs and gun and knife crime were the greatest risks to young people, but in fact, road deaths are far and away the greatest risk. They account for 17% of deaths of five to 19-year-olds, compared with 9% of all deaths being alcohol and drug related, and 7% being due to homicide. Road deaths clearly pose the much bigger risk.
Now, my constituents Chris and Nicole have joined forces with Radd Seiger, another constituent, who campaigned so tirelessly with Harry Dunn’s family to achieve justice for Harry following his tragic road death in 2019. Their campaign calls for new arrangements for young people as they learn to drive and become used to our busy and dangerous roads. First, they recommend that any learner driver should complete a minimum learning period of 50 hours’ driving, or six months in time, before they can take their practical driving test. During that time, they should complete a logbook of driving under different road and weather conditions. Secondly, they recommend that young drivers who have just passed their driving test should wait for a period of time—up to a year—before being allowed to carry other young passengers. Statistics have shown that young drivers are more likely to be involved in a collision when a similar-aged passenger is in the car. In 2016, 25% of casualties among those aged 17 to 24 were passengers.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point about the so-called graduated driving licence and support her calls for it. Emily Challen, whose parents live in Normanton in my constituency, was killed when her friend had only had a driving licence for eight months, three of them were in the car, and they drove, tragically, into the back of a heavy goods vehicle. We need to protect our young people, because the significance and the responsibility of driving others is far beyond what I recognised to be the case when I was a young driver. As my right hon. Friend says, the stats clearly show that we need to protect our young people, so that they can protect their friends and loved ones. I ask the Minister to reflect on graduated driving licences in his response.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling the story of her constituent. Across the country, there are far too many similar, tragic cases.
The third recommendation of my constituents’ campaign is that young drivers should not be allowed to drive between midnight and 4 am. The risk of a young driver being involved in a collision is eight times higher between 2 am and 4 am on both weekdays and weekends. My constituents and I recognise that there will need to be exceptions to any such restrictions, such as for young parents taking their children out in a car or young people who are travelling to work between the hours of midnight and 4 am. It would be perfectly easy to create those exceptional circumstances. I have every sympathy with the aims of my constituents’ campaign, and I urge the Minister to look at the merits of these modest but potentially incredibly effective measures. A further recommendation that has been made to me by many others is that the use of black boxes for young drivers should be compulsory when they are first on the roads.
I apologise, Sir Robert, for being a little late; I had a chemotherapy session at Guy’s, and it overran.
The right hon. Lady knows I am a great supporter of this. The first 1,000 miles that a young person drives are the crucial ones, and we must do anything we can to support them and make sure they are safe. People forget this, but she will know better than anyone else here that this is the biggest killer worldwide of children and young people. It is not any disease; the biggest killer of children and young people worldwide is death on the roads.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point and for rushing across here straight from his procedure, which demonstrates his great regard for the importance of this subject.
Black boxes are the “good spy in your car”. They record data about a driver’s driving style, such as whether the driver is taking corners safely and whether they are keeping to the speed limit. Furthermore, data from the British Insurance Brokers’ Association shows that black boxes in cars can result in savings of more than £1,000 a year in insurance costs for some young drivers, so they are a real win-win. In evidence to the Transport Committee in 2021, telematics insurance provider insurethebox confirmed that its technology has assisted 80,000 young drivers to reduce speeding per mile by 21%, which it estimates has resulted in 700 fewer crashes and 22 fewer serious injuries.
The Minister will be aware that the concept of graduated driving licences was the subject of a full Transport Committee inquiry in 2021. The GDL proposes a minimum supervised learning period, an intermediate licence period that places quite strong restrictions on the newly qualified driver, and then a full unrestricted driving licence that is only available after completion of the first two stages. International evidence was put forward to the Committee at the time showing that the GDL can reduce collisions and trauma from accidents involving young drivers by 20% to 40%. The main concerns about the GDL are that it reduces access to employment and education, that it impacts on young people living and working in rural areas and that the restrictions may be hard to enforce. Nevertheless, the Transport Committee’s report recommended that the Department for Transport should resume a study into the social and economic consequences of the GDL, which it committed to in its 2019 road safety statement.
Many people will argue—indeed, the Minister may seek to—that a GDL is not enforceable, but I would say that the vast majority of young people learning to drive are extremely sensible, if not actually a bit scared of getting behind the wheel. They have no desire to crash their car, and they certainly have no desire to harm themselves or cause harm to any other young person. While there may understandably be some reluctance to change the rules, it is my view that young people would, on the whole, comply with new rules around learning to drive. As a result, we would see a massive decrease in the number of deaths and injuries on our roads.
I am grateful to the many in this House and the other place who have shown a significant interest in this area. I am sorry that this debate is relatively short because many were keen to contribute to it. I am delighted that the noble Lady, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, will also be tabling a question in the other place on the same topic, demonstrating her concern and interest.
I pay tribute to all the parents, including Chris and Nicole, who have shown such determination, and to Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn for their passion in making sure that no other family has to suffer the terrible losses that they have all endured.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) for opening this debate on improving driver safety, and for her sensitive speech. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Robert.
I begin by offering my condolences to the bereaved families who are the driving force behind today’s debate: to Mrs Sharron Huddleston, who tragically lost her daughter Caitlin; and to Chris and Nicole, who are here in the hall, who lost their 18-year-old daughter Rebecca, both in road traffic incidents. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) for mentioning her constituent, Emily Challen.
Sadly, as a constituency MP, I am no stranger to helping bereaved families in similar circumstances. I continue to support my constituents John and Karen Rowlands, whose son Andrew was killed when an acquaintance was able to purchase a car without even holding a driving licence, and drove it with tragic consequences for Andrew. To lose a child is the worst thing imaginable, and I commend all the families on their bravery and determination in wanting some good to come from their grief.
My right hon. Friend is right about road deaths being the greatest killer and greatest threat to the lives of young people, which is something the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and I have spoken about before. Any death or serious injury on our roads is unacceptable, and our deepest condolences go to all road collision victims and their families. I reassure right hon. and hon. Members here today that the Government take road safety for all road users very seriously. It is at the core of the Department for Transport’s agenda and is something that I am honoured to work on. I am committed to doing as much as I can to improve road safety.
My intervention is merely to make a plea. When I was a very young MP, we introduced the compulsory seatbelt legislation and banned children from being carried in cars without restraint. Does the Minister agree that we have been a wonderful exemplar of good practice, but it is slipping a bit? There is not as much interest in Parliament as there used to be in road safety, and our figures, after plateauing, are getting a little worse. Does he agree that it is worrying that not wearing a seatbelt is a factor in 30% of deaths in cars?
I thank the hon. Member for raising that point, and he and I were both at the recent reception on that subject. The fact that 30% of deaths are related to seatbelts when it is compulsory to wear them is totally unacceptable. We have made great progress in this country, but we need to do more. He is right about plateauing, which I will address a little later in my speech. I am glad that hon. Members are present here today for this short debate. They are all committed to this issue, and I urge other hon. Members to join the hon. Member for Huddersfield and get involved in his campaigns.
In November in Portcullis House, I presented the annual Livia award, which was established in 1999 in memory of George and Giulietta’s 16-year-old daughter Livia, who was killed in Enfield by a driver who mounted a pavement while she was walking home. The award recognises excellence in road fatality or serious injury investigation and the contribution to the investigation through family liaison work by police officers in the Met. I learned about the challenges faced by officers in bringing to justice people who had been driving in a criminal manner, leading to the death or serious injury of others, and gained an insight into the dedication required to effectively support families who have suffered from bereavement because of a dangerous driver. As a constituency MP, I now know the importance of that family liaison.
In December, I was fortunate to spend a day with Sussex Police and to see at first hand its work on drink and drug enforcement, which is another important aspect of road safety, as part of their wider drink-drive campaign. In fact, the chief constable is the national lead on road safety, alongside their police and crime commissioner. The chief constable has a personal story, as her father was a victim of a road traffic incident when she was a teenager.
My constituency work, my work in the House and now my role as a Minister have all enabled me to gain a greater understanding of the operational and strategic challenges faced in this area. I am committed to ensuring that Government can support those who are affected and do everything we can to reduce incidents.
Before the Minister concludes, may I remind him that Brake, which is based in my constituency, is a national organisation that supports victims of road accidents? I hope he will come to Huddersfield soon to meet the wonderful people who run that lovely charity.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mention Brake, which does great and amazing work. I am sure my officials have noted his request for a visit; they know I am keen to get out and about as much as possible, so I hope to be able to visit the hon. Gentleman in his constituency and meet the campaigners at Brake.
I am committed, as are the Government, to supporting families and, crucially, to making a difference to the number of deaths and serious injuries that occur in the first place. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield knows, I had the pleasure of attending the Project EDWARD—Every Day Without A Road Death—parliamentary reception with him to present the Government’s views and outline our keenness to act. I have learned a great deal from listening to other Members, and in his speech the hon. Gentleman highlighted the importance of seatbelt compliance in making a difference. I am grateful to him for being here today.
We are rightly placing an emphasis on drivers. In discussions about road safety, a misplaced responsibility is often placed on roads rather than drivers, so it right that we are talking about how we make drivers safer. However, there are some junctions and roads that are inherently dangerous; one such road is the A52 at Bottesford in my constituency. The problem in rural constituencies, such as mine and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), is that decisions about whether to invest in safety upgrades to junctions depend on how many fatalities take place there. If the junction that is outside the small village of Bottesford were outside Loughborough, there would be far more accidents because there would be far more people using the junction. I know we have discussed this before, but would the Minister kindly look at taking rurality into account when deciding whether the number of fatalities is significant enough to invest in infrastructure and safety upgrades?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I grew up in a rural area myself with a job, like those that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire mentioned, that finished after midnight and that I had to drive home from. I now represent a rural constituency, and this issue is a concern to my constituents. They want road safety—road traffic accidents are the biggest killer of young people in my constituency, as they probably are in everybody’s—but they also want the safe and sensible approach outlined by my right hon. Friend. As I move towards my concluding remarks, I will pick up on the details of what she and the family who are here today have proposed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton is right to point out that road safety is a particular issue in rural areas and we have to do more to make rural roads safer. That is why, as part of our consideration of the call for evidence on road traffic offences and their policing, we are considering testing all sorts of different proposals. One of them is about making not wearing a seat belt an endorsable offence, which should help to squeeze the very small number of people who do not wear seat belts. Given the potential for deaths and serious injuries, that is a major concern. It is especially a concern on some of our rural roads, where people think, “Well, there’s nobody else on the other side of the road, so I might be all right.”
Turning to the subject of the debate, we know that young drivers are massively over-represented in collisions, as my right hon. Friend made clear with the statistics. That is the case not just here in the UK, but around the world. Among OECD countries, road traffic crashes are the single greatest cause of death among 15 to 24-year-olds. As Members have mentioned, young drivers in the UK account for around 6% of licence holders, but around 22% of fatal and serious collisions—those statistics are from 2021. Fatalities among young drivers have fallen over the decades and are around half of what they were in 1990, but we are still seeing far too many young drivers killed—78 in 2021—and we have much more to do to address this issue.
Although the reductions are encouraging, we really are not complacent. A focus for the Government is to make roads safer for all users, but especially for new and novice drivers. This group was one of the four key road user groups outlined in the road safety statement in 2019, and it continues to be so. The Department’s broad aim for young road users is to improve road safety through technology, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, through the research that we are conducting at the moment and by developing better learning opportunities and targeted messaging for them.
We have made good progress with the actions set out in the road safety statement. We have commissioned research to explore the potential of the graduated learning scheme, which was awarded to the Driving Instructors Association. This is now a modular learning project that uses a comparative trial to assess whether a modular approach to learning is feasible to deliver, and whether it can improve novice driver competence and safety. The trial commenced in the spring of 2021, and the findings are expected later this year. I am sure that Members present will be very interested in the results.
What form will the results of that survey take? Will there be a written ministerial statement? Will the Minister come to the House and tell people what the results are? Obviously, that is key to what action we take.
My right hon. Friend asks a very good question. I will write to her on exactly what form we are expecting the results to take, but I would certainly be delighted to address the House on this issue, because it is something I am particularly interested in. I will write to her, and perhaps we could do another Westminster Hall debate after that if there is not going to be a formal statement on the Floor of the House.
The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency continues to ensure that the practical driving test allows for the assessment of candidates’ ability to drive safely and responsibly, and the agency has reviewed its national standards to ensure that they reflect what is required of safer and responsible drivers and riders. Its “Learning to Drive” publication was refreshed and published alongside the online driving record in 2020. Last year, refreshed guidance to help approved driving instructors to conduct mock tests was also published.
The pinnacle of our work on improving driver safety for young and novice drivers is, of course, the Department’s £2 million research project, Driver2020. Around 16,000 new drivers and 12,000 novice drivers have taken part in the project, which began in 2019 and trialled five non-legislative measures to help understand what works best to improve learning and pre-test experiences for young drivers. That is a huge number of young people to reach out to, and so far we have research involving guardians, with mentor agreement; mutually agreed driving restrictions, if applicable; a log book, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, to record the amount of time in different learning situations, including driving at night or on motorways; and a telematics-based app, to record and coach driving behaviour. My right hon. Friend mentioned some of those in her speech.
We are also providing extra classroom-based tuition to enhance young drivers’ learning, and extra hazard protection training to help young drivers understand risky situations on our roads. Members have mentioned the first 1,000 miles. From my personal experience, I know that driving in one type of road condition can be very different from driving in a totally novel one, so this is particularly important for young drivers.
May I press the Minister on driving in different conditions? Is that intended to become a prerequisite prior to drivers being let loose on the roads?
We are looking at the evidence and the research. We will see what works best, and that is what we want to do. Some things could be superb and the best thing to do; others might not be as suitable. When the research is published, we will be able to see what is most effective. It will probably be a combination of measures, but I do not want to prejudge the report.
If we are to have good behaviour on the roads, we need laws to be enforced. Will the Minister talk to the Home Secretary about having more police on the roads? People do not see police cars on the roads any more.
I thank the hon. Member for making that point. Enforcement is obviously a major issue and it cannot be done just by automatic number plate recognition cameras. When I was down in Sussex recently looking at the impact the police are having on drink and drug driving, I saw that those enforcement issues are particularly important. It is about having more police, which the Government are putting in, but it is also about being able to get quick processing, particularly on drug driving, because the processing times can be longer than the charge period for some of these offences. It is a combination of different enforcement measures, but he is right to raise that issue.
As I mentioned, all the issues that are being looked at are potentially valuable tools in helping our young drivers as they embark on their lifelong road safety journey. Because of the pandemic, the research sadly had to pause. That is why we expect the final report to be published by the DIA later this year, and that will help to inform our young driver policy.
Turning to future work, the Department is working on the road safety strategic framework, which it also aims to publish in the spring. The framework will establish a safe system approach. As part of that, we are considering what might be appropriate and we are supporting indicators on casualty reduction. The key principle of the safe system approach is to recognise that people make mistakes and things go wrong. The approach accepts that responsibility is shared, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton mentioned, and that collisions are the result of a combination of factors, which can be mitigated. The road safety strategic framework will provide the structure needed to deliver a safe system approach effectively and efficiently. This approach is proven and accepted in many other sectors, including health and safety and public health. It has already been adopted as best practice in other countries, which have subsequently seen significant reductions in road deaths and casualties.
Safer road users are one of the five pillars of a safe system approach. Young and novice drivers will therefore feature in the framework, as well as rural road users, which hon. Members have mentioned. It is on rural roads that many of our young and novice drivers are tragically killed or seriously injured, often after they have had driving tests in suburban locations and then moved out on to rural roads in constituencies such as mine.
Safer roads and road signs form another of the safe system pillars. Since 2018, the Department for Transport has provided more than £100 million for the award-winning safer roads fund to improve the top 50 most dangerous roads in England, many of which are rural roads. Many in the first round of the scheme are now complete, and all of those in round two are under way. At some point, I hope that I can announce more of them, because they are important for improving specific junctions and roads. I hope that all this excellent work not only by the Department and DVSA, but in conjunction with research partners, TRL, the Road Safety Foundation, voluntary organisations and others, reassures hon. Members that the Department takes driver safety seriously. I look forward to sharing more of our future plans with hon. Members on all these different aspects in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
Spiking Incidents: Prevention
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: e-petition 598986, Make it a legal requirement for nightclubs to thoroughly search guests on entry; and e-petition 597143, Fund free drink spiking test kits for all bars.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the prevention of spiking incidents.
It is very good to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. It is also good to see colleagues present, including recent former Home Office Ministers from several parties, despite competition from Select Committees and other vital business of the House.
The truth is that it should not have been necessary to have this debate. I do not intend to run through all the evidence showing why spiking is such an increased modern risk, particularly to young females and particularly in the night-time economy, because that is all on the record, including in Home Affairs Committee papers and in my ten-minute rule Bill on spiking offences, which I promoted almost exactly a year ago.
I will briefly mention, however, recent findings, the most striking of which are the data presented by the National Police Chiefs’ Council. For the year from 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2022, it has recorded 2,581 reported cases of spiking by needle; 2,131 reported cases of spiking by drink; and 212 reported cases of spiking by other means, particularly food. That is a total of almost 5,000 reported cases for the last year on record, and if that is not an indication of how serious this issue is, I struggle to understand what is serious.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work on this very important issue. Following the announcement that he had secured this debate, I received a message this afternoon from the police and crime commissioner for Dyfed-Powys, Mr Dafydd Llywelyn, informing me that the number of spiking incidents has been increasing over the last few months.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He and his Plaid Cymru colleagues epitomise why so many of us from all parties in the House are concerned about this issue, despite the problem of data collection, which I will come on to.
Let me now give a tiny bit of context. After I promoted my ten-minute rule Bill almost a year ago, a Home Office Minister promised me that the Department would research this issue and come back to me. By the way, very similar promises were made to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who is with us in Westminster Hall today. That feedback has now come, but last autumn Ministers were intimating that they were working on a positive solution to confirm that spiking or any attempt at spiking is illegal, and that this simple amendment to existing law would provide a very clear message in words that the nation could easily grasp.
I thank my hon. Friend for all his work on this issue. Chelmsford has a very busy night-time economy and I was really concerned to hear before the end of last year about experiences that many young women have been reporting online about spiking in one Chelmsford nightclub. I visited the club and I was really pleased that it had put in CCTV and a lot of other things to keep women safe. It is important, however, that spiking is clearly recognised as a criminal offence, so I want to put on the record my support for this campaign. Also, I encourage anyone who has been a victim of spiking to come forward quickly, so that evidence can be gathered and the perpetrators held to account.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because she has said what I think many Members of this House are saying. Indeed, I know that the daughter of one colleague has been spiked and that a Minister has been spiked, so this is something that, unfortunately, is not remote from us at all. It has happened to people in this House, it has happened to their families and it has happened to our constituents. That is why I was so encouraged when Ministers were saying last autumn that there was a positive solution within their grasp. I believe their intention was to come back very early this year with a specific proposal, but, alas, that has not come to pass.
Instead, the Minister for Safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines), who is not in her place because she is attending a Select Committee hearing, has written to me and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, whose Committee has done such valuable research on spiking, which I will come on to. The Minister’s letter was six dense pages of argument that amounted to two letters: no. In almost 13 years as an MP, I have not read such an extraordinary letter. The Minister in attendance is the Minister for Security, but, to be frank, his portfolio has the least relevance to spiking. He should be focused on major threats to the nation, such as terrorism. I am sure he is grateful for this hospital pass. For his sake, it is relevant to comment on the letter. The Select Committee has today put in the public domain, so other Members may not yet be aware of it.
Let me first say what is helpful in the letter to those of us concerned about the prevalence of spiking, the lack of knowledge about relevant law and the lack of data about instances of spiking.
After the pandemic, the first students to return to university in my constituency saw a huge increase in spiking—both of young males and females, and both by needle and in drinks. West Yorkshire Police responded by buying testing kits because they had no evidence base at all. Surely part of the solution is that all police forces should have testing kits and test in all incidents, so that we can collect data. We are not getting very far with prosecutions under the current law, because there is no evidence base.
The hon. Member makes good points. I was going to mention this as the first point that was constructive in the Minister’s letter. To be fair to the Home Office—this is the first constructive point in the Safeguarding Minister’s letter—it has
“supported Universities UK and the Department for Education to provide guidance to universities on spiking published ahead of the Autumn term and the ‘freshers’ period.”
That is precisely because of the point the hon. Member made about the sharp increase in spiking before term started in 2021. That is a positive.
It is also positive that the Minister has proposed, subject to consultation, amendments to section 182 of the Licensing Act 2003, which
“could include explicit reference to spiking, providing a government definition of the crime, highlighting the existing offences which can be used to prosecute incidents of spiking including examples of spiking”.
She suggests that the Government could also direct licensing authorities to send a strong and explicit message that
“no matter how you spike someone…it is against the law.”
I agree. That is exactly the message that we need in law through a simple amendment to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, so why do the Minister for Safeguarding and the Home Office not get it?
The letter then puts out various straw man arguments, which I will deal with in turn. I place the first point the heading, “Existing offences coverage”. The letter goes into considerable detail and concludes that
“all methods of spiking are already covered within the current legislation.”
It highlights section 24, which includes a crime described as
“Maliciously administering poison, &c. with intent to injure, aggrieve, or annoy any other person.”
That could cover, the Minister argues, a potential gap regarding spiking done “for fun”. Personally, however, I believe that proving an intent to annoy could be easily met by the defence, “I didn’t mean to annoy or upset”. Should we not recognise that spiking is, at the least, annoying, full stop, without prevaricating about it? Most importantly, cannot all of these sections of the 1861 Act be grouped under a single, compelling umbrella statement very similar to that proposed for the guidance to the night-time economy?
I place the second point under the heading, “Absence of the word spiking in law”. The Safeguarding Minister recognises, while arguing that existing law already covers spiking, that there is currently no agreed definition of spiking. But she has also suggested that Government provide a definition for section 182 of the Licensing Act, so that point is already dealt with—the Government have already promised to provide that. She goes on to say that introducing a new offence would “overlap with existing offences”, but I am arguing that adding a grouping to include existing offences under the simple term “spiking” would do the job. We do not need a new offence; we need to amend existing law, not create a new law.
The Minister acknowledges that the law does not actually reference spiking, but she argues that, while it can be tempting to “reflect modern terminology”, effectively we should not do so. But we have done exactly that with legislation on upskirting, a term I am confident did not exist in 1861 any more than spiking by needle in nightclubs did. We do reflect modern terminology in law. We can do so and we should do so.
Thirdly, on the name of the offence, the Minister goes on to say that the general public
“believe that spiking is illegal, even if they cannot name the specific offence it comes under.”
If the first part of that were true, I doubt any of us would be here, nor would my and many other Members’ constituents—one victim is here today—be pressing us to action, such as Dawn Dines, founder of Stamp Out Spiking, and our police and crime commissioners and the police lead on this issue would not be saying that they believe action is necessary.
The second part of the Minister’s letter on naming the specific offence shows precisely why an amendment is necessary. The offence is known to the public as spiking, and that is what the law should reflect. Although the detail of a 162-year-old Act may be fine, the law can also play a vital role in behavioural change. An amendment reflecting modern language would do just that, making the law unambiguous, especially for a younger generation, who are largely the victims and sometimes the perpetrators of spiking offences.
Fourthly, on data collection, data is critical to understanding both why we need laws and what is happening in society. The Minister writes that a specific spiking offence would
“add to the existing offences…hence potentially confusing the data analysis picture further.”
But that is not what the Select Committee was told. I will quote from former deputy chief constable and lead for drugs at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Jason Harwin, who highlighted to the Select Committee that it is near impossible to get reliable data on drink spiking, saying:
“A challenge is that if it goes on to a second offence—rape or other offences—the original offence that could be linked to spiking, while recorded, is no longer identified in terms of how we flag it within our records.”
In answer to a question from the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) about a specific criminal code for spiking helping, he said that
“we cannot get the data together as quickly, because it might be spread over a number of offences.”
He went on to say:
“The reality is we cannot readily connect offences or offenders straight away”,
and that having a separate offence—effectively, as I would call it, an umbrella offence—
“would help us identify the picture quickly now.”
One of the arguments I have heard about them not needing a separate offence is that section 61 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes it an offence for somebody to administer a substance to, or cause it to be taken by, another person without their consent and with the intention of stupefying or overpowering them to enable that person to engage in sexual activity with them. Could my hon. Friend comment on how his proposed offence is different? I would be grateful for further clarification.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The other aspect of the offences that we are dealing with is committing the offence for sexual gratification. That has undoubtedly been a driver in many cases. I do not have the data to hand, but other colleagues may be able to recall how many instances of rape there have been that started with a spiking offence. In fact, a Government adviser on some of these issues was herself both spiked and raped. This is close to home, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that.
That leads on to the very important point. It is not just women; in an increasing number of instances, it is young men who are being spiked in order to gain access to their bank account. They are sometimes robbed of many thousands of pounds. Trying to link this offence to sexual offences only would provide even less clarity. The spiking could take place for the purposes of entertainment, robbery or some other reason, so we cannot link it to sexual offences only.
My right hon. Friend has made two correct points. First, it happens to men as well as women. When I promoted my ten-minute rule Bill, I highlighted the unfortunate case of a Christian Indonesian in Manchester, Mr Sinaga, whose videos later revealed to police 58 cases of men being sexually assaulted. Many of those men did not know they had been sexually assaulted until the police showed them the video evidence. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right on that point. Her second point, on spiking taking place for all sorts of reasons, including that of entertainment—“It’s cool, it’s fun, it’s a dare”—is absolutely valid. That is why we need to ensure that any attempt to spike, or any spiking act, is completely illegal, whatever the motive. She is right to highlight that point.
I will finish on the question of data collection, with a quote from the response of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. It was given in response to the Home Affairs Committee report by the joint leads for the APPC’s addictions and substance misuse portfolio —one is from Durham and the other from Dorset—who said that
“we agree that the creation of a separate criminal offence for spiking would send a clear message to perpetrators that this behaviour is not acceptable and could encourage victims in coming forwards to report incidents.”
That is critical. I know from my constituent Maisy that a lot of young people who have been spiked do not, for various reasons, want to come forward to report the incident. They are frightened of the repercussions and do not believe it will necessarily get anywhere. I believe that the almost 5,000 reports that I mentioned earlier is almost certainly an underestimation of the volume of incidents.
The hon. Member is making an excellent speech and I thank him for the huge amount of work that he has already done on this issue. Does he agree that women in particular are tired of being told that it is our responsibility to protect ourselves from male violence, and that we have to be careful where we go, how much we drink, use anti-spiking straws or even flag down a bus if worried about being victimised? Does he agree that it is time to focus on the perpetrators and on educating men, tackling the root cause, which is misogyny, and actually prosecuting crimes?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point, although, as we have heard, there are young males who are also victims of spiking. As a father, when my daughter was young and first going out to nightclubs, I advised her to be very cautious. I gave her a list of things she could do to reduce the possibility of inadvertently getting mixed up in spiking and all sorts of other things. The hon. Lady is right to highlight that we should be focusing on the perpetrators and where the problem is, which is why it is so important to have spiking as an overall offence. She is right to say that this is not in any way about telling young women that they cannot go out and have a night of fun.
That leads me on to the next point I want to highlight from the Minister’s letter, which is about violence against women and girls. The Minister writes that the Government are focused on practical rather than legal action, and goes on to list various funding streams for VAWG initiatives. I believe that all of those are important, but they miss the specific point. I, my constituent Maisy, her mother Rosie, so many other constituents of colleagues here—including the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who sent me a case from her constituency—the Stamp Out Spiking group, which is represented here today, and many other colleagues who are not able to be here but would have wanted to, all want to see legal action as well as practical action in the form of a simple amendment such as I outlined earlier.
Such an amendment would also be very practical, I believe. It would enable media, social media, local government authorities, police, licensed victualling associations and nightclub managers to say, absolutely correctly and for the first time, that spiking is a named legal offence—that those who even attempt to do it might be cautioned or prosecuted, and might therefore be convicted of a criminal offence, which would seriously damage their chances of keeping or winning a job. I believe that will be very powerful, particularly for students. That message, clear and unambiguous, is what I believe the law should say, not just as guidance to the night-time economy managers but to everyone. It can be done through a simple amendment, which Government and parliamentary lawyers will be able to quickly come up with. I believe work was already being done on that by previous Ministers. It will add to the commitment made by the Prime Minister and this Government to reducing violence against women and girls, as well as affected males—a point that was made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes).
So, Minister, will this Government see the light, recognise the value of a simple amendment—not a new law; I get the point on that—and recognise that it is both desirable and necessary to get the message out there? This Government and Parliament could be the ones that make spiking completely illegal for the first time. I believe that other Ministers understood that, and I call on Ministers at the Home Office today to finish the job, and avoid the need for further debate and my wasting their precious ministerial time again. That is the challenge today, and I hope very much that the Minister and the Department will rise to it.
There are a great number of Members wanting to speak in this debate, so I will have to impose a maximum limit on speeches of three and a half minutes, to allow everybody to get in. I will remind people of the times. I will call the Front Benchers just before 3.40 pm, to allow Richard Graham to wind up at about 3.58 pm. I also want to mention that there could be a vote; if so, I will suspend the sitting for that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this very important and timely debate. I echo the concerns about spiking in the night-time economy. Action is needed, especially a specific criminal offence of spiking. The Government did promise that in their announcements last year, but they have now decided against that much-needed change. Recent figures pointed to almost 5,000 spiking incidents in just one year. Those figures are shocking, but they are likely to be the tip of the iceberg, with some reports estimating that as many as 97% of incidents go unreported.
In some settings, that non-reporting is because the possibility of spiking is never explored with the victim, and reporting is never suggested or is not easily available. I am referring specifically to outdoor music festivals. Festivals are big businesses and are now seen as a rite of passage for many 16 to 17-year-olds, who attend events with camping for days on end. Under-16s, too, attend with an adult, but that condition is likely to be checked just once, on entry. Recognising this, the Home Affairs Committee’s report on spiking recommended that all staff working at music festivals, including vendors, be given compulsory safeguarding training, and that that be a requirement that licensing authorities consider when approving events. Sadly, the Government’s response did not support taking those recommendations forward. I ask the Minister to think again.
Festivals are huge pop-up towns, but the police and emergency service presence is often minimal. Police often stick to traffic calming, for obvious reasons, rather than policing the festival itself, as the organisers provide event security and medical facilities. For a successful prosecution of a suspected spiking indecent to be a realistic option—for evidence to be gathered and victim support given when potentially dealing with a child—arrangements at festivals need re-examining.
Ministers instructed police forces to record spiking incidents at festivals last year and report back via Operation Lester. I ask the Minister to share that data and other outcomes of Operation Lester as soon as possible. Much better data would be welcome, as it is currently not gathered centrally. My research of police forces shows just 10 spiking reports from a decade of festivals. It is unrealistic that it is just 10. The same data recorded 193 sexual offences, almost a third of which were against children under 18—the youngest was just 12 years old. The incidents were nearly exclusively against women and girls.
I acknowledge that there is some good practice at some festivals, but in general they are a legislative and response blind spot when it comes to spiking and sexual offences. What response would be expected in any other setting? I suggest that it would be very different indeed. It is time that the Government act to protect young people from these evil spiking predators wherever this crime occurs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for all his work and his very significant and assiduous campaigning. When I was Home Secretary, I had the privilege of working on this issue with him and my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), who was Minister for Safeguarding.
There is a lot I could say, but our time is limited. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has presented figures and statistics on the prevalence of spiking. Although we started to see the first cases of spiking materialise in 2021, particularly in parts of the country such as Nottingham—the student population and young ladies, in particular, were being targeted—the evidence base for spiking with needles is still underdeveloped, and a lot more work is required.
I want to make some general and some specific points. Spiking incidents are obviously unacceptable. They now include a multitude of examples involving food, drinks and now spiking with needles, as we have heard. The prevalence of such incidents is deeply worrying, and the numbers are going up. At the same time, we know that women are involved in this, as well as men.
The Government need a coherent approach to address spiking and criminalise it through law. That can be done through amendments to existing legislation—we do not need to reinvent the wheel here, folks. Work undertaken for the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Act 2022 has laid the foundations for a lot of good work, with which the Minister will probably be familiarising himself today. I think that can be a really strong approach for the Government.
That also links to the violence against women and girls strategy. We cannot lose sight of that work. We have heard about some of the practical measures that have been put in place, and that leads to the policy intent and what that means, in terms of the full force of the law. We absolutely need to acknowledge the courage and determination of the victims who have given voice to this issue, and ensure the campaigning organisations and groups that are represented here today are heard. That must come into force in law too.
In the short time I have left, I want to speak about the end-to-end criminal justice system. A lot of work has been undertaken, including the rape review, to ensure the criminal justice system delivers what it says on the tin: justice for victims. A great deal of work is still required to ensure the police and the Crown Prosecution Service join together to recognise the severity of spiking and the range of offences—the umbrella offences, to use my hon. Friend’s phrase. That would give victims the confidence to come forward and would ensure that they are trusted and that the evidential base that they bring forward is heard.
I will close because I am conscious of time. Offenders and perpetrators must be caught and brought to book. At the same time, as we have heard today, we must give victims the confidence and assurance that when they come forward, they will be treated with respect and all seriousness. We must also go after the perpetrators and ensure that much more work is undertaken to deal with perpetrator behaviour.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate on spiking, which is faced by both men and women, and which must be addressed as part of a wider campaign to prevent violence against women and men of all ages.
The offence of spiking is one of the most repugnant that can be knowingly committed by a criminally minded individual against an unsuspecting victim, who may or may not be known to them. It is also known to have been committed by family members. It goes against all social norms of decency, and our natural social sense, as a betrayal of trust. It goes to the heart of the notion that we should all feel safe and secure, particularly, although not solely, at social occasions where alcohol is often consumed.
There are several reasons why someone might decide to spike another’s drink with alcohol or drugs. It might be as a prank or joke, or to make it easier for them to commit a criminal offence of violence, sexual violence or robbery. Although the public perception may be that this is an offence generally perpetrated by men against women, perhaps in a night club or similar environment, against someone they have only recently met or become casually acquainted with, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is a problem for all sections of the community.
That is terrifyingly and tragically illustrated by the case of Reynhard Sinaga in Manchester in 2020. He was convicted of 159 sex offences, including the rape of 136 young men, who were almost entirely heterosexual, after befriending them and offering to let them stay in his flat, where he drugged them with gamma hydroxybutyrate —commonly known as GHB and well known as a date-rape drug—and raped or sexually assaulted them.
A further case of spiking being used against men is highlighted by the conviction of Stephen Port, who befriended men through the dating site Grindr, and in 2016 was convicted of the murder of four young men, the rape of three others, 10 counts of administering a substance with intent, and four sexual assaults. Most, if not all, of those offences were carried out by Port surreptitiously administering GHB, amyl nitrite, mephedrone and methamphetamine—also known as crystal meth—to his victims. Such cases are extremely rare, but they highlight the potentially dangerous misuse of substances for spiking and their ready availability.
I am aware of calls for a new specific offence of spiking. It is already illegal to spike drinks with GHB, GBL and 1,4-BD, which are commonly used as spiking agents. From April 2022 in England and Wales, people found in unlawful possession of those drugs face sentences of up to five years behind bars. Those involved in supply and production face up to 14 years in prison. That is also an offence under section 61 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
Despite those existing offences and the punishments available, I would support the introduction of a new specific offence of spiking, drawing all the current offences together to make it clearer for the public, police, prosecutors and courts to understand fully the severity of the crime and the public disapproval of anyone who commits such an awful offence, reinforced by high-tariff penalties.
In the meantime, we need a more targeted and determined effort by police services to use existing laws in this new context, and where evidence is available, for the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute offenders proactively, and the courts to impose significant sentences to deter others from committing this heinous offence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I rise in support of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), and I congratulate him on securing this important debate and on his recognition in the recent new year’s honours.
I mainly wanted to join this debate about spiking, date rape and all that comes with it because I and many in my constituency of Stroud are working really hard to tackle violence against women and girls. Our local police, Stroud Women’s Refuge, the Nelson Trust, campaign groups such as This Ends Now, Safe Space, businesses and local schools are all urging for societal and legislative change to protect women and girls and change behaviours, so I know they will expect me to be active on this issue.
According to YouGov, one in nine women claims that they have been a victim of spiking and 6% of men have also been targeted, so it is right that this issue receives some serious attention in this place. The date rape cases are probably quite familiar to most of the public—as covered in the soaps, Rohypnol and GHB are commonly used and are undetectable in drinks—but other drugs are now being used, with people becoming more and more creative in their use of spiking to commit assault. People have long been aware of how to deal with drink spiking. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, the advice goes out to young women that if they go to a nightclub, they should put their hands over their glasses and not leave their drinks, but it is nigh on impossible for them to protect themselves from somebody brushing up against them with a needle. The police are left literally trying to find a needle in a haystack.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has previously spoken movingly about his constituent Maisy Farmer. It is anybody’s worst nightmare to not know what happened to them the night before, but then they have to go through the absolute hell of worrying about whether they have contracted HIV or hepatitis and waiting for the results. That is a double horror.
We are dealing with faceless criminals, and the police are really stuck with what to do. We need to raise awareness about reporting incidents, going and getting help, and being tested very quickly, but we also need to help our nightclub staff, police and medics, because it is clear to me that they are asking for support. A legislative change would raise the bar and completely change the game on these offences.
I pay tribute to the Gloucestershire police and crime commissioner, Chris Nelson, who quickly gripped this issue. He was the first in the UK to launch an operation to tackle spiking in the nightclub economy. In Stroud, we are reopening our nightclub after a very long period because of the pandemic, and I will be working with the police to ensure that the police and crime commissioner’s work is known well throughout our towns.
I welcome the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester on this issue, and I will continue to watch closely and to see how we can find more ways to protect men and women in Stroud, Gloucestershire and beyond. I love the fact that we have raised it to an issue of national security by accident and that we have such an eminent Minister in our midst, but this is very serious and I am pleased to see so many Members present. Well done to my hon. Friend for bringing it forward.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. It is a privilege to follow the contribution from the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), which I agreed with wholeheartedly, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. The number of Members who have turned up to speak is a testament to the importance of the subject, and I know that many Members who wanted to speak could not do so, which just goes to show how vital this issue is. We need to take action today.
I want to talk about the victims of this crime, because behind every spiking incident is a traumatised victim, very often a young woman. As we have heard, however, men are victims too. My heart aches for every single victim. I want to place on the record my overwhelming admiration for Sharon Gaffka, the anti-spiking campaigner, who has led the way on this issue over the past few years. She recently wrote about her own experiences, and her bravery in speaking out about her personal experience of spiking has inspired countless others to come forward and talk about their experiences. I thank her for bravely speaking out.
The prevalence of such horrendous acts is sickening, and I am disturbed by how normalised it is for women and girls to take measures to prevent spiking from taking place. As we have heard, women are often advised to cover their drinks, to wear a denim jacket to prevent being spiked by a needle, to not wear provocative clothing, to not take a drink from a stranger and to wear special nail varnish. How many more times do we have to tell victims to take action against being abused, against being spiked, or against being raped or murdered? I am sick and tired of women—it is particularly women—being told to take responsibility for actions and behaviours being perpetrated against them.
Enough is enough. It is about time we focused on perpetrators, which is why I wholeheartedly support the report of the Home Affairs Committee and, as other hon. Members have said today, creating a new offence for spiking. Every woman deserves to enjoy a night out without living in fear that a predatory man—let us be honest, it is almost always a man—will slip a drug into their drink, or spike them, just as shockingly, with a needle. They could be anywhere, any time, any place.
I thank the nearly 2,000 victims who came forward and participated in the Committee’s survey on spiking. Their bravery has paved the way for this debate here today, and will hopefully, in turn, pave the way for a new offence to be created. They are to be commended. I thank each and every victim for coming forward and talking about their experience. We can all agree that a new offence would go a long way to deter perpetrators and empower the police to conduct more investigations. We need to end the culture of victim blaming and make sure that allegations of spiking, attempts at spiking and spiking itself are taken seriously.
I commend my own local business improvement district in Pontypridd. It has taken direct action, working with the night-time economy. It has delivered spiking awareness training to the Pubwatch team. It has highlighted known or alleged perpetrators. It is well known locally, and South Wales Police are to be commended on the action they are taking, but it is not enough. We need a joined-up, holistic approach from the UK Government that ensures consistency across our police services. We need to empower our police forces to prosecute perpetrators and record spiking rates. As the Committee report also argues, we need to collect data from perpetrators on motivation; as we have heard, spiking is not always sexually motivated.
Without the UK Government leading the way here, we will be failing the victims of a hugely under-reported crime. I urge the Government and the Minister to show leadership and tackle the scourge of this largely hidden crime. We need to make sure of a long-lasting legacy for the victims, and ensure that no one faces this horrendous crime.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and all colleagues who have spoken. I will never forget my visit to Gloucester at my hon. Friend’s invitation, to meet his constituent Maisy and her mother and to hear her story first hand, and to speak to Sharon Gaffka, as many of us have, and to Dawn Dines, who I am delighted to see is with us today.
We need a holistic response to this crime. I want to use my time to point out some of the fantastic things that the Home Office has done and is doing, as well as to ask some questions of the Minister and point to where he and his colleagues can go further.
We did a great job in the festival sector last summer. The sector came together to protect young people in their first summer of fun after the pandemic—the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and I spoke about this issue. We know that when the education, support and guidance is put in place, and when work takes place across the night-time economy with the police, that can make a real difference. A lot of young people went out and had a great time, safely.
I thank all those partners and pay tribute to businesses in the night-time economy. They have stepped up to the plate, working in their local areas, making use of Government funding pots such as the safer streets fund and the safety of women at night fund. They have put practical measures in place. We need the legislative change that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester spoke about so clearly, and we need to keep going with that holistic approach, making sure that police forces can gather data and mount prosecutions using forensic capabilities, which need to be boosted.
The response from the National Police Chiefs’ Council highlighted the lack of a clear criminal offence for spiking. Will the Minister expand on the Home Office’s view that no criminal offence or change to the law is required, given that expert advice from frontline policing? If it is not the position to introduce a new offence—I also served in the Ministry of Justice, and I understand that there are arguments and nuances here—what other measures should be introduced to enable the police to investigate and record crimes more accurately and bring more perpetrators to justice? There is clearly a lot of work to do.
What concrete actions can the Minister take with colleagues to make sure that police forces are recording data accurately so that we can develop the right policy and make sure that the considerable amount of Government funding—multimillion pounds of funding are going into these support services—is going to the right places at the right time, and that data is being gathered quickly?
The Home Office is to run a consultation on the statutory guidance on licensing premises. That is a good idea. Will that cover restaurants? Members might recall that Sharon Gaffka was spiked in a Mayfair restaurant; so was Emily Hunt. We need to ensure that we are covering all the places where women, girls and men can be spiked. What has been learned from the phenomenal work—I pay tribute to the Home Office officials who did that work—in the festival sector? Is that being rolled out again and what more can be done? What are the universities doing? We know that they play a crucial role.
There was a fantastic suite of cross-Government working with the higher education Minister, with public health and with the emergency and urgent care response. We need to stand that up and learn from it. Finally, what has been learned from all the money that has been spent on what actually works to stop this in a particular area? I want to thank Maggie Blyth, who is the Government’s policing lead for violence against women and girls, for everything that she has done with her colleagues in the police force to ensure that there is a response. She said clearly, “If you are spiked, you must come forward. If you have taken illegal drugs, still come forward and report it.”
I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for bringing this issue forward. He deserves credit for his perseverance, commitment and dogged determination to ensure that we get change, and we are all here to support him and ensure that he gets that—well done to him. Spiking is not an issue that applies to a certain location or region. This is a nationwide issue that has impacted the lives of many young people. It is important to be here today and I want to add a Northern Ireland perspective to the debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Spiking over the past couple of years in the UK has unfortunately become a common occurrence. A report in April 2022 showed that as many as 43,000 people have been spiked in the UK over the past year—more than double the figure for 2018. That underlines the point made by the hon. Member: this needs to be legislated for, and that needs to be done sooner rather than later. I have been in contact with constituents in relation to spiking incidents in Northern Ireland, especially in the nightclub scene. I am far too old for nightclubs, but my constituents have contacted me so I can refer to that with some credibility and honesty. The Police Service of Northern Ireland revealed that there have been up to 17 spiking incidents in one nightclub in Londonderry alone, which is frightening not only for young people, who want to go out and enjoy themselves, but for their parents, because families are affected by this issue as well.
There are evil people out there who will make irresponsible decisions to make committing crimes easier. If taken at a low dose, a spiking drug can disappear from someone’s system in 12 to 24 hours. With an increased dose, victims are induced into a coma-like state. Spiking has often been used in places like clubs and at raves to enable perpetrators to commit sexual assault. There was a story in the news today—I am not smarter than anybody else; it was on the news this morning—about a venue in London being closed because young males were being spiked with drugs and their money was being taken. The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) spoke about that—I had it written down in my notes, but she beat me to it. I thank and support her in what she has put forward. I agree that there needs to be greater co-ordination between the Government and nightclub staff, owners and bouncers, so that this issue can be minimised and dealt with to the best of our ability.
That is the first time I have heard anyone mention bouncers, and they have such a crucial role to play. A constituent of mine who was spiked was picked up in the ladies loo and dumped on the pavement because they thought she was drunk, not drugged. That is such a crucial thing, and we need training for bouncers as well.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is important that we take a holistic approach that involves all those who have a role to play, including bouncers, and that it is done in a positive way. The spiking I mentioned earlier in Londonderry was in relation to Ulster University students. There is most certainly a spiking problem in universities, particularly for students. There has been an initiative by the Government, the Home Office and the Department for Education to help nightclubs tackle spiking. I understand that this issue is not directly the responsibility of the Minister, but perhaps he could ensure that the Minister responsible provides some clarity as to whether this strategy would apply to Northern Ireland or whether any scheme would have to go through the Department of Justice back home. Again, I want to ensure that what happens here happens in Northern Ireland.
I have two examples. Some nightclubs in Scotland have introduced paper dip tests that change colour if a suspicious substance is added to a drink. In addition, I have been made aware by some of my younger members of staff that there are cup covers that cover the top of a cup and only allow a hole for a straw. Those are some things that we can do. However, the most important thing is that today, in this Westminster Hall debate, through the office of the hon. Member for Gloucester, we start the process of change.
Many of the points I was going to make have already been made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I will cover some other points in the short time that we have.
I recently went out into Loughborough with the Street Pastors, a Christian organisation that does excellent work in Loughborough and around the country. It offers help and assistance to those on a night out who have perhaps lost the friends they came with, who are feeling a little worse for wear or who have been spiked.
While I was out with the Street Pastors, the local police had a knife arch in place at one of the pubs. They had been moving it from one venue to the next to attract attention and introduce people to it. Visitors to the pub, security staff, police and owners were all very much in support of the knife arch, and residents told me that it made them feel safer. With that idea in mind, I am interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on a knife arch scheme and on the other things that we are talking about to do with spiking.
Before the debate, I contacted Loughborough Students Union for its views on the matter. In response, the union’s president, Harry Hughes, said:
“As much as we don't like to admit it or recognise it spiking is a serious issue that can have serious consequences for the safety and well-being of all our students. It is important for everyone especially pub and club staff and security to be aware of the risks of spiking and to take steps to protect themselves and their patrons against the ordeal. It is also important for the general public and students alike to feel comfortable around venue staff and police officers so they are more likely to report any incidents of spiking and seek medical attention as early as possible, giving us a more accurate reading of the current crisis and allowing us to begin to form change.
The government, local authorities and licensing authorities need to do more to safeguard our students and the wider population against individuals who commit this crime. We believe more can be done and Student Unions across the country are all singing from the same hymn sheet on this issue."
He also set out a number of recommendations from the union on how the situation could be improved. First, it would be beneficial if training for the current Security Industry Authority—the SIA—included a section on spiking awareness, and went into more detail on the signs and symptoms of spiking. The union also feels that greater training is needed for door supervisors on the topic in general, to ensure that they take each reported concern seriously.
Secondly, the union would like to see section 182 of the Licensing Act 2003 updated to encourage local licensing authorities to consider placing additional conditions on licences to safeguard patrons against spiking. Thirdly, the union is keen to see significant data collection on the use of local licensing authorities’ powers to impose conditions or revoke premises’ licences when venues do not take sufficient measures to protect and provide support to customers in spiking incidents.
Fourthly, the union thinks that local authorities and licensing groups should have the power to enforce the use of pub and club watch schemes. It should be considered mandatory for all venues to be part of such a scheme to ensure that adequate communication takes place. That could be extended to include student unions that operate any form of pub or night time activity.
There are varying responses to this issue in towns and cities across the country. Some venues provide little or no support, while others do much more. Ensuring that each venue has a spiking response procedure as part of its licensing agreement is key to venue safety, and I am interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on those suggestions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing the debate and for attempting to introduce a Bill on this issue. As the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, I have a particular interest in this issue, as women and girls make up 74% of all victims, although men are also affected, especially gay men, who are very vulnerable to this.
Last year, it was reported that almost 5,000 cases of spiking occurred across Britain, and in Bolton there were over 50 reported cases of spiking—almost five people a month—in the last year. We know that, realistically, the actual figure is much higher, as a survey by the Home Affairs Committee found that 72% of victims do not report the incident. I wrote to licensed institutions in my constituency, imploring them all to carry out Ask for Angela training, which can help to protect women and girls who are concerned about their safety. The increased incidence of spiking makes that training vital.
Members across the House will know someone or have a colleague or friend who has had this happen to them. The pioneering Manchester news outlet, The Mill, covered spiking at length late last year. It told the personal stories of people such as Charlotte, who woke up in the morning after a party with her legs covered in bruises and her memory patchy, and Hannah, who sipped a drink that caused her heart palpitations and prompted her to collapse, feeling paralytic. I also know two people who have had their drinks spiked. One of those incidents occurred in the ’90s, so this is not a new problem. It has been in existence for a very long time; it just has not had the attention that we are now giving it.
It is important to make this a crime. It will not be the complete solution to the problem of spiking—other things need to be done—but it is a vital start, to ensure that this is criminalised. Once it becomes a crime, it will be recorded properly, and we will have a better picture of the extent of spiking. We all know about the incidents that occur in universities, and it is something that people are so vulnerable to. One of the two people I know who have been subject to spiking said that she felt so paralytic and so unwell that she was very grateful she had friends with her, and the bouncers in the nightclub were exceptionally good and helped her. I urge the Minister to make this a crime as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing a debate on this very important issue. As he said, spiking is illegal, but as it has become a serious problem in the United Kingdom, with thousands of young people falling victim to this disgusting crime, causing considerable fear and anxiety among many more, there are, understandably, calls for spiking to be made a separate offence.
As we have heard, almost 5,000 reports of needle and drink spiking were made to UK police forces over the course of 2022. However, that does not represent the scale of the problem, as most victims of spiking do not report it to the authorities. I was perturbed to read recently that Sussex has the seventh highest level of drink spiking in the UK. Most victims say they do not report it because they are embarrassed or ashamed, because they do not remember what happened or because they do not believe anything will be done about it.
Many things need to change so that our young people can feel safe while socialising. The culture around spiking needs to change. We need anti-spiking measures at UK nightclubs and bars, and they need to become commonplace. Convictions for spiking need to increase, with the most severe sentences handed down. The education of young people is a key starting point, to prevent the risk of harm in the first place. Clubs and bars can take many safety measures to reduce the threat of spiking, and the training of staff, for example, is crucial. They are likely wise to the effects of increased alcohol consumption and, as such, can read when someone is reaching their limit, but spotting a potential spiking is different; greater awareness is therefore required.
I will point out the Ask for Angela scheme, which is a brilliant safety initiative that protects people if they feel unsafe, vulnerable or threatened in a bar or club. The codeword is a signal to staff that someone requires assistance or help. Many establishments have adopted the initiative, and I hope that it becomes much more commonplace. I thank Sussex police for its work in highlighting the scheme.
I am also aware of some clubs using spiked drink test strips to test random, unattended drinks, or the drinks of concerned customers, for substances. Some bars and clubs have fully qualified first aid responders or medics on site throughout the night; however, that is rare, and we need to look at more initiatives on this. It is crucial to have more co-ordinated support from venues, police and health services. When someone believes that they have been spiked, they should be able to access health services as quickly as possible. They should be tested quickly for substances, because spiking drugs pass through people’s bodies so quickly that it is hard to collect evidence and prosecute offenders.
Clubs, bars, pubs and individuals can all take action to protect their customers and themselves against spiking, but I urge the Minister to expedite progress on legislation, which is also required. Spiking largely affects women and girls, although men are victims too; we must stand up for women and girls, and for their rights and safety, and show that we have zero tolerance. This Conservative Government have done much to fight violence against women and girls, and further legislation—or a change in legislation—should be part of our armour.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The debate may continue until 12 minutes past 4.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on his determination and perseverance on this issue. The fact that this debate has been so well attended shows the strength of feeling on spiking. It is important to note that the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and the former safeguarding Minister, the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), have taken part in this debate and made their views very clear, which is helpful.
The Home Affairs Committee carried out an inquiry on spiking last year, which reported in April 2022. Some 2,000 victims and 1,400 witnesses of spiking responded to our call for evidence. It is interesting to note that 75% of the victims had not reported the spiking incident to the police. We made a number of recommendations; I want to go through them quickly, and then refer to the letter from the Government dated 20 December. The first recommendation was on education, training and awareness—to aid prevention, detection and reporting of spiking. We also talked about action by local authorities and reviewing the guidance under section 182 of the Licensing Act 2003. I am pleased that we have heard reference today to door staff, because they are very important in how spiking incidents are dealt with.
We talked about a national strategy on prevention. There is much good work done locally, but nationally we do not have an overarching strategy. We talked about a duty on all police forces, so that when incidents of spiking are reported, there is access to rapid testing. We also asked the Government to consider whether a new offence around spiking was required. From the letter from the Government dated 20 December, published by the Home Affairs Committee this morning, I was very pleased to learn that the Government plan to have a review of section 182 of the Licensing Act, but I ask the Minister to set out the timetable for that consultation, and to say when we are likely to know the results.
I am disappointed that the Government do not accept the arguments for a new specific offence. They say that there is sufficient legislation on the statute books, but it is clearly not working; it is not being used, reporting is low and prosecutions are very rare indeed. The hon. Member for Gloucester has made a very clear and compelling case for a way forward on a specific spiking offence. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government target is for increasing the use of existing legislation to hold perpetrators of spiking to account? Also, what increase would show that the Government were successfully dealing with spiking offences?
We are told that data can be collected centrally, and that there is a development of central procedures. Can the Minister explain to the House what the process will be, how it will work and what the timetable is for this data to be captured?
In the letter from the Minister, the Government say that their public awareness campaign on violence against women and girls, which is known as Enough, and to which I pay great tribute, covers spiking, but anyone looking online at the information about that campaign would have to search very hard to find any reference to spiking. I ask the Minister to go away and have a look at it for himself, to assess how clear it is that the Government take spiking very seriously in their fight against violence against women and girls.
Some work has been done, which we welcome, but there is much more to do. This is an ongoing issue. It needs to be properly resourced, and Government and statutory responses to the problem need to be embedded, so that the Government uphold their commitment to combatting violence against women and girls.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), not only on securing this debate but on his committed campaigning on this issue.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said that she is sick of young women being told to take precautions. I am sick of that, too, but I am even more sick of the seemingly endless number of ways of intimidating and hurting women that some men think up. I have seen so much of it in my last three years as an MP. We need to be as creative when it comes to stopping them—indeed, to stopping all spiking offences, because, as colleagues have said, although those affected are mostly women, they are not only women.
Sadly, it did not surprise me to see my constituency near the top of the list when it came to support for the petitions related to this debate, because Nottingham saw a spate of spiking in autumn 2021, and last year it had one of the highest number of reported incidents of needle-spiking.
The better the data we have, the better our response will be. I am pleased that the Government asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to establish a reporting mechanism, so that all police forces can report incidents of spiking centrally. That will help us to gain a better understanding of the scale and nature of the problem. The Government have also worked with clubs, bars and universities to raise awareness of spiking, to help to prevent it. For example, Nottingham Trent University has funded intervention training for staff in city-centre venues, and many other universities have increased bag searches at events, and provide drinks protectors and kits to test for spiking.
Rushcliffe has benefited from the Safer Streets Fund; West Bridgford and Trent Bridge have received nearly £250,000, which has provided new safer street wardens in the evenings, and more closed circuit television. I am a strong supporter of the Enough campaign, which highlights the different forms of violence against women and girls, including spiking, as well as the simple acts that anyone can take to challenge perpetrators of abuse, because at the end of the day only a society can change a culture. However, I take on board the comments that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee made about the campaign; I hope that the Home Office will review its content on spiking. I am also pleased that the Government have reclassified GHB, the date-rape drug, so that offenders face up to five years in prison.
On the issue of a specific offence of spiking, there are already a range of offences that could cover spiking in certain circumstances. However, what we really need to understand from the Government in the report that I think is being published at the end of April is how effective efforts to prosecute incidents of spiking are under existing laws. We also need to know what the average sentence is for spiking offences prosecuted under these laws—not the maximum penalties for these offences, which is what the Government are publishing in response to parliamentary questions. That is the only way we can gauge whether the existing penalties are likely to provide sufficient punishment for offenders. We need to send a very clear message from this House that spiking is a vicious attack. If someone is going to attack people in this way, whether their weapon is a pill slipped into someone’s drink or a needle jabbed into their arm, they should expect a custodial sentence.
I thank all Members for keeping to the time limit and enabling everybody to speak in this well-attended debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and to be in a debate in which the majority of speakers are women. Unusual as that is, it perhaps reflects the fact that this is seen as a women’s issue. It largely is, but we could do with more male allies. That is why I am even more grateful to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for all the work he has done.
There are two others here!
And indeed there are other male Members here. I am getting myself into trouble before I have even started.
This is an important issue, and we have said that men are affected by it. Yesterday, I was reading in the Evening Standard about people being drugged in a club and having vast amounts of money stolen from them, so spiking is also used as a means to steal, but it still largely affects women. Stamp Out Spiking says that four out of five victims are women.
This crime has historically been dismissed, although it has been around for years. As has been said, it is often seen as the fault of the victim for going out, having too much fun and drinking too much. The stigma that attaches to that means that lots of people do not come forward. Spiking happens because of criminals. It is a violent act with damaging physical and mental health consequences. Women and men should be able to go about their business and enjoy their nights out without fear. It is pernicious and a route to further criminality, be it acquisitive crime, robbery, sexual assault or, in some cases, rape.
We need leadership on this issue. The hon. Member for Gloucester, the Home Affairs Committee and Members on both sides of the House are calling on the Government to act, and move further faster. Just shy of 5,000 cases were reported in the 12 months to September 2022, but as has been said, there is massive under-reporting; many people do not come forward. As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee said, the majority of people who came forward in her Committee’s consultation did not report anything to the police. That lack of confidence in authorities—that pessimism that nothing will be done—is a real problem, so I ask the Minister, following on from the Select Committee’s recommendations, what more work the Government can do to improve the reporting of spiking, and to support victims in coming forward.
The lack of a specific offence is obviously the main topic that we have been talking about. Last year, Labour added to calls for the Government to introduce a specific offence of spiking and intent to spike. We tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill calling for urgent action, and a review of the prevalence of spiking and the criminal justice system’s response to it. The Government sadly did not agree to it.
The Government could commit today to referring spiking sentencing to the Sentencing Council. Analysis of how many prosecutions occur is very difficult because we do not have all the figures, but there were only 36 prosecutions and 20 convictions over 2020 for what is called “other miscellaneous sexual offences”, of which spiking is one category. In the 10 years to 2020, there were only 286 convictions under that offence. Only three people were prosecuted under section 23 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 in 2020, and there were only 104 section 24 offences of administering poison with intent to injure or annoy. There is a wide range of offences that spiking can fall under. It is complicated. As the hon. Member for Gloucester argues, we should call a spade a spade and introduce a specific offence for spiking.
There is good work being done across the country on this. I went to the west midlands and walked about Birmingham with PCC Simon Foster, who is doing some really good work. West Midlands police have a system in which they attend all allegations, and triage victims in Birmingham safe space areas, which are staffed by security and medics throughout the night. Drugs screening is prioritised, and urine samples are taken within 72 hours. The speed with which those drugs leave our bodies makes evidence gathering far harder, but the police react with a speed that keeps up with that.
In Northumbria, Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness has placed dedicated officers on patrol in Newcastle’s bustling night-time economy, which I enjoyed when I was at Durham University. They are there to protect individuals and target those who commit offences. We have talked about the Ask Angela scheme in places such as Leeds; more than 650 night-time economy providers have signed up to those scheme, through which those who feel unsafe, vulnerable or threatened can seek help discretely by approaching staff and asking for Angela.
While spiking is a horrid and invasive crime, it is just one of the threats to women engaging with the night-time economy. All too often, bouncers throw out young women, or young people, because they are too drunk, with little care for their safety, when in reality they are under the influence of something that was slipped into their drink. Even when they are leaving because they have had too much to drink, they are still vulnerable and need support. There is some really good work around the country that I would like the Government to look at rolling out. For example, if someone leaves a nightclub in Birmingham, there are lots of phone numbers that the bouncers and others can use to get someone from St John’s Ambulance to come and make sure that person gets home safely. That is simple but really effective.
There is a great epidemic of violence against women and girls in this country. Spiking, as a violent act, in many cases is based on misogyny and lack of respect. When done with a needle, it involves a weapon, too. The Labour party has repeatedly pushed the Government to go further, faster, on violence against women and girls. Labour has produced a comprehensive violence against women and girls White Paper, setting out our vision of a Britain that is safe for women and girls. We have consistently called for VAWG to be part of the strategic policing requirement that has been promised by the Government but not delivered. Police forces are not yet required to tackle crimes against women as a priority. That is unforgiveable, and yet another example of a Tory Government refusing to take concrete action to protect women.
Following on from the Select Committee recommendations, what work are the Government doing to improve reporting of spiking? Will the Minister accept the arguments for making spiking a specific offence? Will he go further on violence against women more broadly, not least by making it a specific strategic requirement?
Yesterday, I was in a youth centre in Croydon, and as always there were a range of leaflets there. I picked one up, and it said, “Keep an eye on your drink. You won’t know your drink has been spiked until it is too late, so be careful.” It can no longer be solely the duty of our women and girls to keep themselves safe. After years of neglect in this area, the Government must step up and take action.
The Minister should be mindful to leave two minutes for a winding-up speech.
I am entirely mindful of that, Ms McVey. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) quite rightly stated at the beginning of the debate, this is not normally an area I have taken the active interest in that I have today. The reason is that it has been covered by many other brilliant Ministers, and I am delighted to see several of them in the Chamber, notably my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who has done so much for the protection of women and girls in her role in the Home Office. She has spoken out in many other ways and at many other times for the protection of women and girls, not just in the United Kingdom but around the world. If I may, I pay personal tribute to her on the record and thank her for the protection she offered Afghan women and girls, when she was instrumental in helping so many escape that terrible moment in 2021 when the Taliban were doing more than anyone has done in decades to reverse the rights of women and girls.
Many powerful voices have spoken out. She did not speak today, but I speak in particular praise of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who has spoken out on the record publicly about her own experience of spiking and the reason it matters so much to her and many others. She has exposed a very important truth, which is that, although we have spoken a lot about women and girls today, this crime is not about women and girls, but about our whole society. It affects many young men as well, and it affects many more people in our community than just those who are spiked. It affects families and loved ones. It affects partners and friends, who deal with the pain of seeing a victim suffer and with the trauma that affects a community afterwards.
I place on the record the importance I attach to this crime, as I know the Safeguarding Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines), also does, as does the Home Secretary, who has been very clear in her defence of not just women and girls, but all people in our society over the months in which she has been in post. This is an enormously important issue, and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester and to all other Members who have spoken out today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) put it, this is a crime of violence, and violence should be punished.
There is an awful lot that is already being done. We should be especially grateful to people such as Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth, who is the national policing lead in this area. She has done huge amounts of work to make sure that, in cities across England and Wales, uniformed police officers visit venues and work closely with those who are guarding them. The SIA has also made it part of the conditions for licensing in the industry, including for bouncers, to consider the importance of standing up for women and girls and knowing how to act in certain circumstances. That change was brought in by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham—that was another moment when she was active in defending people who require assistance in moments of emergency and trauma. I am extremely grateful for the work that has been done.
I am also grateful for the work done with groups such as Eurofins, which has developed a rapid testing capability. Forgive me for going on about it, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham was again instrumental in that development. I am also grateful for the work of police forces around the country, in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, in making sure that police officers are properly trained and ready to respond.
It is absolutely right that we now look at where the law is. Last year, we reclassified the so-called date rape drug GHB and two related substances from class C to class B, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which made those drugs harder to access and increased the maximum jail sentence from two to five years. Spiking is one of the crimes that is affected by those drugs, and that change was an important step in addressing the use of those drugs and their availability.
Since 2021, £30 million has been invested in projects with a particular focus on protecting women in communities. This Government have also been absolutely adamant about setting up a tackling violence against women and girls strategy, to ensure that women and girls are safe on our streets and in our night-time economy. It is worth saying that action taken to protect women and girls protects all people in our night-time economy, which is absolutely essential.
It is also important that the Enough communications campaign has been having an impact. It is good to see so many different groups supporting it and pushing out the different ways in which it can been helpful.
Another aspect is the additional £50 million invested into the 111 projects through the safer streets fund, which has focused on tackling violence against women and girls in public places, as well as neighbourhood crime and antisocial behaviour. I am very grateful that so much of that funding has gone through and has now been seen in a range of interventions, including bystander training programmes, taxi marshals, CCTV and street lighting, drink protectors and educational training for night-time economy staff.
Public safety is of course paramount, which is why we worked so closely with festivals and festival organisers and the outdoor events sector last summer to ensure that the necessary protocols, training, communications and guidance were in place ahead of events, and why so much work has been done with universities ahead of freshers week. Sadly, it is a time when events can lead to offences, and we need to ensure that everyone is aware of the challenges that we face and the dangers that some people bring. I am extremely grateful for all the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has done to highlight the issue, not least through introducing a private Member’s Bill last year.
The Home Office, and the Home Secretary in particular, is committed to examining whether, in addition to the existing range of offences that can be used to cover spiking, there is need for a further criminal offence. The Home Office has told me that it has carefully considered the case for further legislation, and the Minister for Safeguarding has written to the Home Affairs Committee. There is clearly more that has come out today. There is clearly a strength of feeling in the House and a voice that is coming from so many parts of this Chamber that needs to be listened to. I am sure that the Minister for Safeguarding will listen to this debate and hear exactly what has been said.
I am interested to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has mentioned that, given the strength of existing legislation, he is not of the opinion that a new offence is required. I will listen carefully to his point and his suggestion that a so-called umbrella amendment may be possible. This is not an area on which I have spoken to officials, so I hope he will forgive me, but my understanding is that this would come under the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and would require—I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham is nodding, as she is more aware of this than I am—conversation and discussion with the Ministry of Justice. I will take that away and come back to him, or ask the Minister for Safeguarding to come back to him to look at where different aspects could be investigated, because no one wants a gap in the law. No one wants to see crimes going unpunished and no one wants to see victims unable to achieve the level of protection that is absolutely essential.
Having heard the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), and the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), make such powerful points in the debate, I think there certainly are areas in which we could investigate further opportunities for co-operation and ensuring that spiking is not only reported but counted in the data, so that we can target responses in exactly the way we should for the protection of others.
This morning, the Home Affairs Committee published the letter from the Minister for Safeguarding, which is dated 20 December—sent just before Parliament rose for the Christmas recess. Is the Minister now saying that he is moving away from the unequivocal position set out in that letter, which said that there was going to be no change to the law because existing legislation stands and is sufficient? From what the Minister is now saying, it sounds that way to me. If he is, can he please write to the Committee and to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), because we were under the impression that that was not the Government’s case at all?
My position and the Government’s position on this is that the Minister for Safeguarding has written clearly to the right hon. Lady, but I was merely identifying the fact that the whole point of this Chamber is to debate and explore ideas, and ideas have been explored this afternoon. As new ideas come forward and new issues are raised, it is appropriate that we respond to them. I am sure the Minister for Safeguarding will be delighted to respond to them, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has raised other issues that could offer a different way of looking at things. There are always areas where we can engage in debate and discussion. After all, that is the point of this Chamber.
I am going to leave it there, because my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester will want to wrap up, but I will very briefly go through the facts that have been laid out so clearly. First, this is a crime that sadly affects far too many people in this country and seems to be growing. Secondly, this is a crime that disproportionately affects women and girls, but does also affect many others. Thirdly, the Government take this extremely seriously. In many ways, over many years, they have sought to tighten up the defence of women and girls, of those enjoying the night-time economy and of individuals who may find themselves vulnerable. In that light, I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex, for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) and for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham, for the work that they have done in this area in safeguarding others, because it is hugely important not just to the Government, but to all Members of this House.
I believe that today the Government have heard a very clear message from colleagues from five different parties that something more should be done in law about spiking. I accept that we do not need a new and separate law, and I think most other Members do too, but I also believe that the Minister has registered the strength of feeling about our arguments for amending the existing law to include the offence of spiking in all its different forms.
I thank all colleagues who came and spoke in the debate, some of whom are not here now, understandably. I am particularly grateful for the contributions from the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel); the former safeguarding Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean); the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson); my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who rightly highlighted the good work done by our police and crime commissioner in Gloucestershire; the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans); and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). They all raised different issues, and the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) made a particularly important speech.
The point of everything that was said in today’s debate is that we have all spoken with one voice in order to represent the thousands and thousands of people across the country who have been spiked. Although some of them are men, they are mostly young women, such as my constituent Maisy Farmer and Lorna Street, who is in the Public Gallery. Many victims have not reported their cases and their hurt, and we have therefore given them a voice today.
We also heard from the Minister that the door is open a fraction, which I appreciate. I believe—I hope that colleagues will join me—that we must now do what we can to push that door further open and reach the success of an amendment.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
British Council Contractors in Afghanistan
I will call Mr John Baron to move the motion and then call the Minister. There will not be an opportunity for John Baron to wind up, because it is just for the Minister to respond.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered British Council contractors in Afghanistan.
Thank you, Ms McVey. I thank Mr Speaker for granting the debate and you, Ms McVey, for chairing it. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I declare a slight interest, in that I am chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group.
Since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, Members and peers of all parties have been united in our efforts to do right by those who worked on behalf of the UK in Afghanistan. I opposed the morphing of the mission into nation building once we had rid the country of al-Qaeda in 2001, but whatever one’s views, those people were the visible face of Britain in their country, promoting our language, culture and values. We owe them a debt of thanks and gratitude as well as having an obligation to look out for them.
I wish to raise the specific issue of the 200 or so British Council contractors who remain stranded in Afghanistan. Although all eligible British Council employees were evacuated as part of Operation Pitting, to this day around 200 contractors and their families remain in Afghanistan, often in fear of their lives, moving from one safe house to another as they are hunted by the Taliban. Those 200 have been deemed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the British Council as in the very high-risk or high-risk categories.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his perseverance. Whenever he has raised the matter in the Chamber or Westminster Hall as a question, statement or query, I have been here to support him, as have others. Following on from what he said, last month it was reported that the Government had not granted a single Afghan citizens resettlement scheme application since the programme was opened. Fewer than 10 staff in the FCDO are working on the matter. Does he agree that 18 months on from the fall of Kabul is too long to wait for asylum for individuals whose lives are threatened by Taliban reprisals? As he said, we have a duty of care to those people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and kind words. He is absolutely right. The scheme has existed for a year now—it was introduced in January 2022—and not one single contractor has been relocated under that scheme. I shall refer to that later.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. That British Council contractors and their dependants remain in Afghanistan, despite eligibility for the ACRS, shows that the Government’s policy on Afghan refugees is lacking. Does the hon. Member agree that the Home Office needs urgently to review the effectiveness of refugee policy for the region, and make swift adjustments?
I agree that, sadly, the Government are failing these people. I am trying to use the normal channels to add some urgency. I do not think it is just the Home Office; a few Departments, including the FCDO, are involved. I hope to hear some positive news from the Minister and I will certainly prompt him in that direction when I resume my address.
Although I can understand why the Government are worried about eligibility, does my hon. Friend agree that our reputation globally is at risk? Although we make promises about their welfare and support for their rights, we do not honour them. The people who worked for us in Afghanistan worked for the good of their own country. If we want to help Afghanistan in future, we will depend on their goodwill.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We asked these people to step up to the plate and are looking away when it is our turn to do so. That cannot be right and does not create a good impression of our country’s approach to such matters on the international stage.
Last summer, after activity from the British Council all-party group in particular—I thank the APPG and its members for being so hardy in this cause—the Government opened an application window for the contractors to apply for a place on the ACRS. The British Council worked at pace with the FCDO, as the Minister will know, to winnow out genuine applicants. By September, around half had heard that they had a place on the scheme, pending security checks, but they have heard nothing since. Certainly, that was the case up to Christmas. The other half of applicants—around 100—had simply heard nothing at all. Their papers were stuck in a bureaucratic mishmash in Whitehall. Following pressure from the British Council all-party group in particular and from others, I understand that over the Christmas recess around half of the contractors had their ACRS applications acknowledged and granted, and I look forward to hearing whether the Minister can confirm that.
Barriers remain. People will apparently require the necessary ID and travel documents to leave Afghanistan. They left their homes at short notice and are in fear of their lives, moving from one safehouse to another, and I am sure the Minister will be sympathetic to the case that they might not have all their paperwork. The idea of applying to the Taliban for passports is, as I am sure the Minister will realise, just not feasible. Meanwhile, new-born children may have arrived, bringing further complication for paperwork.
In the interest of brevity, knowing that others might want to contribute to this very brief debate and wanting to allow the Minister plenty of time to respond and take interventions if necessary, I have four questions for the Minister. I hope he will take note of them and answer them in turn. First, am I right to understand that around half the contractors have been given the go-ahead? It is a simple yes or no.
Secondly, have they been told they can make for the border? If so, I ask the Minister what he and the wider ministerial team at the FCDO are doing to encourage Governments in third countries to offer a greater degree of flexibility on paperwork for those seeking to cross the border out of Afghanistan. Such arrangements were previously agreed with the Government of Pakistan, which allowed individuals under the predecessor Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme to cross the border without ID if their names were on a list approved by the British Government. Is it going to be as simple as that?
Thirdly, I understand that around half of contractors are yet to hear anything. By when can they expect to be contacted? It is totally unacceptable, as Members have already heard and will continue to hear. It is totally unacceptable—a view widely held in the House—that those people have had to hold on and wait for so long. It is just inhumane.
Finally, may I make a plea to the Minister? In my various deliberations, I have heard some unedifying, if not distasteful, talk of quotas. Will he ensure that quotas do not prevent those who worked for Britain and their families seeking safety in the UK? After all, there was no talk of quotas when we asked for volunteers. There is no talk of quotas when it comes to the extent of these people’s bravery in stepping up to the plate when we needed them. We should therefore not be talking about quotas when it is our turn to stand by them.
In conclusion, although I do not doubt Government or the Minister’s good intentions—it is often an issue of cock-up rather than conspiracy—the sad fact is that after the scheme was introduced, for the whole year of 2022, not one person was relocated. I will not accept any of the talk I have heard previously of many hundreds or thousands being helped. That is disinformation. People who got out under Operation Pitting have been retrospectively shoehorned into various schemes. I hope the Minister will not recite those figures to me. The sad fact is that during 2022 nobody has been relocated under the scheme.
As we reach the first anniversary of the ACRS, I urge the Government finally to get all those contractors and their families to safety. Recent talk in certain circles of the number of Taliban being killed has not helped them at all. After all, the ACRS was a flagship scheme announced with great fanfare, but nobody has yet been relocated. The litmus test of the success of the scheme is how many people have been relocated over the course of the past year, and that figure is a big fat zero. Now is the time to put that right.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so near to the end of his speech. I just wanted to remind Members that this is very similar to what happened with Afghan interpreters, where there was a redundancy scheme—this was before the fall of Kabul—and an intimidation scheme. While considerable numbers were brought out under the redundancy scheme, none was brought out under the intimidation scheme, at least until the fifth report of the Defence Committee of 2017 to 2019, which was published in May 2018 and recommended a more generous approach. As the Minister was a member of the Defence Committee that drew up that report, I am sure he will be sympathetic to a request for a meeting to discuss all these matters—as has already been offered by his ministerial colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell).
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I completely agree: there are many similarities, and one would have thought that we would have learned the lessons by now.
Having finished my address, I look forward to the Minister answering those four specific questions.
I am mindful of time, but permission has been given for Sarah Champion to make a short speech.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), not just for allowing me to speak today but for all the work he has done to champion the British Council. He is absolutely right to do so: it is an institution that gives us pride around the world. It teaches English to so many and opens up potential for thousands, if not millions, yearly. We are right to fight for it.
The Select Committee on International Development, which I chair, did an inquiry into the ARAP and ACRS schemes and found that they are far too restrictive and slow, especially when it comes to non-governmental organisations such as the British Council. Those schemes are failing the very Afghan citizens who implemented UK development and stabilisation programmes, to whom we have a moral duty to get them out safely. They were out there on the ground, acting on our behalf, and the situation is rapidly getting much worse. Members will have heard that over Christmas the Taliban brought in very restrictive bans on women workers in non-governmental organisations, so many of the main NGOs have now had to withdraw, leaving their Afghan staff behind. I urge the Minister to explain how exactly the FCDO and Home Office will ensure that more Afghan NGO workers are entitled to come to the UK under the resettlement scheme, because at the moment, it is just not working.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms McVey. I very much welcome the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) has secured, which is terribly important. His words are powerful and moving, as have been his writings on the subject, and I commend him on that.
I will not waste Members’ time by reiterating the comments about the support we should be offering those still in Afghanistan, but will focus on the wider damage the situation is causing. My broader point is about the damage we are doing to the very principle of asylum. The public are rightly incensed that we have not done enough to put evil people traffickers—those traders in human misery—out of business. Personally, as I have said many times in many different spaces, I think we need boots on the ground in France; we have people on the ground, but we need to negotiate with our French neighbours and get those boots on the ground in France.
Notwithstanding that, the Afghan contractors were our allies, and in my view, failing to support them at a time when our asylum system is being abused through illegal crossings brings the whole system into disrepute. People rightly expect us to honour our commitment to people such as those highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay. If we do not do that, our asylum system will be more and more attacked, and I can only see the tide of isolationism rising once again here in the UK during the next election.
Finally—I am indeed being very brief—I would say that the whole mess should never have taken place. The west should not have abandoned Afghanistan in the abrupt manner it did. It is very likely that if we had not, we would not have seen Mr Putin abuse perceived western weakness and wage war in Ukraine. This is what upended the international energy market and, of course, is hitting the cost of living. After all, everybody is now looking at their energy meter with some nervousness and we can trace that anxiety back to the international community over-relying on American defence expenditure, abandoning our obligations in Afghanistan and allowing a rogue regime to return to government and threaten these contractors. I am keen to hear from the Minister exactly what we will do to support people in that country, including women—from whom rights are being daily removed—religious minorities and our allies on the ground, who I believe the west shamefully abandoned.
I am very grateful to be able to respond to this important debate. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his continued advocacy of these people and this issue. He has a long-standing track record of interest in global affairs but also our Afghan policy. I am very grateful for his raising these issues today and I will try to answer his questions very directly.
First, on the proportion of British Council contractors who have been notified and processed, I can confirm—that is a yes—a considerable number of principals have been processed and informed and granted forward processing. Their dependants number almost 300, so, in the round, it is quite a considerable figure.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 2MC.] As to my hon. Friend’s third question, about when the other half will hear, I can confirm that some 47 have recently been contacted to start that process. We are making progress; they have been contacted. Notwithstanding the difficulty of the situation in which they find themselves, we are trying, in terms of communication and administrative support, to ensure that they can also start that journey of resettlement. I hope that I have answered that question very directly.
In his second question, my hon. Friend asked what support we are providing through our work with third countries, because of course he has rightly identified our work with Pakistan and the support that it afforded to our efforts to extract these benighted people. During the worst of the chaos of August last year and the heroic efforts of those involved in Operation Pitting, the role of Pakistan was much appreciated. It is a very sensitive issue, as regards placing strain on our diplomatic relations with Pakistan, because it has very considerable security and diplomatic equities involved. It is not always easy, but Pakistan has been very, very helpful, and we look forward to that help—that mutual help—continuing. We put a huge amount of diplomatic effort into it. Of course, we have also worked with other countries, such as Uzbekistan. Considerable diplomatic effort has gone into that, so we hope that those relationships will continue, despite the considerable strain that is sometimes brought to bear.
My hon. Friend asked a very reasonable and direct question about the utility of quotas. I of course share his concern. None of us in this room, a room in which a long-standing interest in Afghanistan is represented, would not. We all share a sense of needing to nourish those who helped us in our hour of need in Afghanistan, especially in terms of the work done by the British Council in teaching English and giving educational opportunities to Afghans. We would all want to see the best possible outcome for those who stood up and took risks for the sake of not British but Afghan interests, affording educational opportunities to young Afghans. We all want the best outcomes for those people. None of us want to see any limits placed on safe refuge for those who stood up and took risks for their benefit.
We can see some of the numbers that the Home Office uses to process the cohorts as more of a measuring tool. We have referred to 1,500 initial places for pathway 3, which runs into June of this year. That is helpful as a measuring tool, but I would not see it as an upper limit because another cohort will be established from June of this year. Let us see it not as a limit, but as a measuring tool. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay knows that strong representations are being made from the Foreign Office to our colleagues and friends in the Home Office to ensure that maximum flexibility is given to afford spaces to our friends and colleagues who are British Council contractors.
For absolute clarity, will the Minister correct me if I am wrong in any of this? Taking his first two answers, about half of the 200 contractors have been given the green light to head to the border. No ifs or buts—they have been given the green light. Up until very recently, none of the other half had heard anything at all, but now around 47 have been contacted and that ball is rolling. Am I right in saying that?
That is correct.
In that case, I seek clarification on my second and fourth questions. On the second question, is the Minister saying that getting across the border will be as it was previously? There was simply a list and no expectation that those fleeing Afghanistan, who had been approved by us but told to go to the border, would need travel documents in hand, whatever they may be. Will their entry into a third country be unimpaired? Will it be unhindered because, as I raised with the Minister, there will be a list of those names? The priority is to get them out of the country and sort out the paperwork once they have arrived in that third country. Is that what he is saying?
I do not think it is useful for me to be drawn in on the details. I do not want to undermine any possible facilitation of any process that may or may not have been put in place. I will not comment on the details, but I will say that it is our firm intention to facilitate the onward movement of those people, notwithstanding the extreme political, diplomatic and security constraints faced by everyone right across Afghanistan on a daily basis.
That is question four. I do not wish to make life difficult for the Minister because I know him to be a decent man, but at the same time, we have waited for so long and this is an opportunity for clarity. He can correct me if I am wrong, but he has made it clear that on the paperwork, travel documents will not hinder access to third countries when the contractors reach the border.
May I come back to the issue of quotas? In my travails on this issue, I have heard quotas mentioned a few times. Will the Minister give us an assurance at the Dispatch Box that quotas will not limit the number of contractors and their families who are deemed very high risk or high risk as per the FCDO British Council categorisation? Will there be no limit on those people being able to get out, provided we are happy they have met the deemed criteria?
It is clear to me that the constraint—the limiting factor—will be the deplorable security situation. Regrettably, there are crippling and pernicious constraints on the ability of any Afghan to move and travel, and those are outwith our control and ability to influence. The situation is getting worse, not better. Of course, that is the constraint on the numbers able to travel, rather than any procedural, bureaucratic or quota constraint from the British Government.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 3MC.]
The Minister is being generous in giving way again and I appreciate his generosity. When he talks about security, I understand what he is saying; all of us in this Chamber fully appreciate the fact that these people have to be security-checked. However, they have already been identified as legitimate, and at very high risk or high risk. I take on board his point that there has to be a security check, but once these people have gone through that, what I am sure he is saying to the Chamber is that there will be no impediment from a quota point of view to getting them out of the country. Am I right?
That is my firm expectation. I reiterate the fact that the constraint will be the highly unpredictable, regrettable and deplorable lack of security, and the actions of a regime entirely at odds with everything these people represent. That will be the constraint. I hope that is clear.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 4MC.]
I do not know how many minutes I have left, Ms McVey.
You have just under a minute left.
In that case, I reiterate my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay and my thanks to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the Chair of the International Development Committee.
Suffice it to say that the lever we have is our considerable humanitarian spend. Clearly, the recent deplorable announcements by the regime about the role of women are deeply regrettable and will even more aggressively disadvantage the ability of women to access and provide humanitarian assistance. We will continue to make representations as best we can and we will seek to utilise our humanitarian spend to impact positively the lives of those adversely affected by the regime.
I am very grateful to other Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and for Clacton (Giles Watling)—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
M1: Junction 28
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of improvements to junction 28 of the M1.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and I hope that today’s discussion is suitably blue-collar for you.
I am absolutely delighted to be joined by my neighbours, my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills). I send the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who is unfortunately unable to be in Westminster Hall today. However, I know that he is incredibly supportive of the discussions that we are about to have and the case that we are about to make.
I am particularly delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), is responding to the debate and I will pre-emptively butter him up. I know that he very much shares my passion for investing in roads and infrastructure, and for levelling up. He also understands the importance of the Bolsover constituency to this country; I look forward to his just signing off on this project on an ad hoc basis.
I was elected on a manifesto that was about levelling up places such as Bolsover. The former mining communities that I represent are a hidden gem in the heart of England. We are blessed with great people and great potential, but there is a need to unlock some of that great potential. We have low unemployment locally, but average wages are low and many jobs are low-skilled. I want to deliver high-skilled, high-wage jobs and allow every young person in my constituency to fulfil their potential. The essential ingredients for levelling up are good infrastructure and transport links, which I will return to, good housing stock, a skilled and educated population, and skilled jobs and investment—all underpinned by a culture of aspiration. The Bolsover constituency is fortunate to sit close to Sheffield, Derby and Nottingham—all cities undergoing a renaissance, with the East Midlands airport and a soon-to-arrive freeport attached, and major companies such as Rolls-Royce powering the regional economy—but that means nothing if residents and businesses cannot get to and from those places due to inadequate transport links.
I am here to make the case primarily on behalf of the residents of South Normanton and Pinxton for the long-overdue upgrade of junction 28 of the M1. I say “primarily”, because a wide-ranging list of stakeholders supports the upgrade of the junction, including, but not limited to, the Conservative county council leader, the Co-operative Group, National Highways, the Labour district council leader, local district councillors, local parish councillors, Councillor Julian Siddle, the county councillor for South Normanton and Pinxton, Midlands Connect, a McDonald’s franchise and dozens of other businesses, not to mention the thousands of people inconvenienced by the junction every day, not all of whom live in the Bolsover constituency.
Junction 28 of the M1 was built in 1967 as the key strategic node linking the M1 and the A38, connecting north and south, the east and west midlands, and facilitating the movement of goods and services between local, regional and nationwide locations. Locally, it links South Normanton and Pinxton to the motorway network and the A38, which, heading eastwards, goes past various major distribution and business parks as well as the McArthurGlen shopping centre outlet, before leaving the safe confines of Derbyshire, a mile or so down the road, and entering Nottinghamshire, first into Ashfield and then into Mansfield. Heading westwards along the A38, a person will soon reach Ripley, then Derby and then the west midlands and Staffordshire, beginning with Burton upon Trent.
This junction of major strategic importance acts as the gateway to the south of my constituency, including communities such as Tibshelf, Newton, Blackwell, Pilsley and Morton. It also acts as a major logistics and employment hub for the whole region, yet it is simply not fit for purpose and is over capacity. When it comes to safety, delays, air pollution or reliability, junction 28’s design is causing problems. It is an all-too-familiar sight, particularly for those of us travelling south from places such as Clowne, where I live, to see the signs approaching junction 2 state: “Queues on sliproad”. It is not infrequent that the queues stretch back to Tibshelf services, three miles back from the junction.
As one constituent wrote to me,
“I’ve had several incidents on my way to work, where I was forced to join the back of queuing traffic that extended from the junction slip road on to the slow lane of the M1 motorway. Many cars were using the hard shoulder to queue, to avoid being stationary on the M1 itself. It was evident to me that the stationary vehicles were being passed by cars and lorries travelling at high speed. The risk of injuries or death from a multi-vehicle collision is very high.”
That sense of danger when using the junction is almost ever-present. Twenty-nine per cent. of local residents said their experience of the junction was very unsafe, and 41% said it was unsafe. Tellingly, only 1% said it was very safe.
The situation is no better from the northbound carriageway. Queues often trail back on to main carriageway. One resident, Emma, from South Normanton, who uses the junction every day, wrote in her survey response:
“the daily situation of queuing on the M1 northbound to get on to the slip road is very dangerous and has been shown as such with the recent serious accidents.”
Residents often tell me that they avoid the roundabout as it is unsafe, with one even describing it as “treacherous”. This sense of fear plays out in the data. There have been 16 serious accidents—the highest category—in the past 10 years. Many other minor scrapes and near misses are not recorded, but anyone who has used the junction, particularly heading into South Normanton on Mansfield Road, will know how dangerous it can feel.
Councillor Julian Siddle, who shares my passion for upgrading the junction, sent me a note ahead of the debate, highlighting how the problems have been aggravated in recent years. A lot of new housing has been built locally and a number of new businesses have understandably invested in the area, such as the Panattoni park complex. It joins others like Alloga and the McArthurGlen shopping outlet, which have expanded locally. That is not to mention that attractions like the Peak District have grown in popularity, all increasing usage of the junction and the surrounding areas. Some parts of the network have been improved to cope with these pressures, such as the A38 around Derby and the move to make the M1 four lanes—albeit under a smart motorway scheme that I think local residents would prefer to do without—but this junction connecting those critical roads remains outdated.
The stationary traffic has a huge impact on local air quality. South Normanton has been an air quality management area since 2001. That was fortunately removed in March last year because of improvements to vehicle emissions, but as a letter from South Normanton parish council said last year,
“the queuing caused by this junction is nothing short of an environmental disaster for the local people”
—a sentiment I hear regularly across South Normanton and Pinxton. The same letter points out that the knock-on effects of the queuing mean that drivers take alternative routes that can become rat runs, which are often close to the local schools. I hasten to add that Pinxton also suffers tremendously from the number of heavy goods vehicles that travel through it, causing air and noise pollution—though that is a slightly separate argument from the one I am making today.
This issue becomes more acute for residents when there are problems or works on the network. Any issue south of junction 28 sees a diversion towards Derby on the A38. Maintenance work or accidents on the A38 see traffic diverted through South Normanton. More than once I have seen the entire region become one long traffic jam. Alongside these dangers and inconveniences for local residents, an economic cost is involved. There are delays to the traffic heading north and south on Britain’s main motorway and east and west on the main arterial route that connects the east and west midlands, not to mention the impact that the congestion has on the wider region around Bolsover, Chesterfield, Ashfield and Mansfield.
I am extremely grateful to the team at Midlands Connect, who work across the midlands on behalf of the Government to recommend the most important transport investments to the Secretary of State. Midlands Connect has recognised that improving junction 28 is a priority and has been working proactively with me on putting the case forward for the necessary investment. It has produced the following data, which helps underline the strong case for investment. Analysis by Midlands Connect shows that delays at junction 28 of the M1 lead to over 1,100 hours of delays every day at peak times. Simply, in monetary terms, that costs the local and national economy over £4.5 million a year. Thousands of pounds every day are being lost from unnecessary delays, and many stakeholders have identified issues with that junction as a barrier to investing in our constituencies. In an independent survey, over half of the residents of South Normanton and Pinxton thought that improvements to the junction would be “very important” to businesses.
The Co-operative Group has a major depot just off the junction. In a letter to me in April last year, it said it makes around 135,000 vehicle movements through junction 28 in a year. It estimates that the average four-minute waiting time per vehicle amounts to 9,000 lost hours, or 900 driver shifts, that could be saved by making improvements. Strata Products, which has a factory in Pinxton and a warehouse just off junction 29 in Holmewood, in my constituency, runs an average of 12 return trips between the two every day. It believes that the delays at junction 28 add five minutes per trip, costing the company two hours of productivity every day. Those are just two examples, but there are hundreds of businesses located in the area, and the delays are costing our economy so much money.
As an aside—I appreciate that this is slightly wide of the debate’s scope—junction 29, in my constituency, is another junction in desperate need of improvement; the residents of Holmewood, Heath, Bramley Vale, Doe Lea and Glapwell, and particularly Councillor Suzy Cornwell, would not forgive me if I did not mention that. The case for improvements is not the issue with the junction; rather, it suffers from two complications: the walkways that run underneath the junction, which affect the design, and the land that surrounds the junction, which is currently tied up, somewhat ridiculously, by High Speed 2 safeguarding on a line that we all know is dead.
I hope that the Minister will be in post for a very long time so that he will be present at a future debate on junction 29, in which I can make similarly thrilling arguments to him. However, both National Highways and Derbyshire County Council are aware of the overwhelming case to improve the junction, and I will continue to work with both of them in the meantime.
I return to the delays at junction 28, which are costing the economy £4.5 million a year and deterring investment locally. Vitally, that is happening in the context of economic research showing that the gross value added per head and job density in the districts nearest to junction 28, which are represented in the Chamber today, are lower than the east midlands average and significantly below the UK average. Indeed, Bolsover is the most deprived district in Derbyshire. I know that the Minister shares my passion for levelling up, and improvements to junction 28 clearly fall into that category. Indeed, in an independent survey, 80% of local residents said that they saw improvements to the junction as levelling up in action.
The Department for Transport will soon receive a whole range of bids for projects to be part of RIS3, or tranche 3 of the road improvement scheme. It will not surprise the Minister that I think junction 28 should be top of the pile, and if he feels inclined to skip the process and approve it today, I will be very happy to accept that.
In 2021, initial projections by National Highways, which was then known as Highways England, showed that £21 million of investment in junction 28 could deliver benefits of around £150 million, although those figures are now two years out of date and the former probably needs updating to closer to £30 million due to inflation. Based on the economic delay figures outlined today, we would be looking at a return of investment in around five to six years. The project has a very solid benefit-to-cost ratio, and it clearly makes commercial sense to improve the junction.
As an aside, it is slightly ludicrous that we rely so heavily on central Government for regional transport issues, and on funding over such long timeframes. My constituents would like to see junction 28 improved today, but unfortunately we will be involved in a process that takes a number of years. I am just one of many MPs in the east midlands who support a devolution settlement for our region, which would unlock a lot of additional funding for the region and help to provide a more convenient approach to investment and infrastructure through a regional mayor.
Perhaps central Government should be involved in a project such as junction 28, where we are talking about investment of £20 million to £30 million, although that seems too low a threshold. However, on the other side of Whitwell, in my constituency, sits Darfoulds bridge, where the road simply needs lowering to prevent HGVs from taking detours through small villages. The project will cost around £2 million—too much for our local authorities, but too little for central Government—yet the benefits would be extraordinary for businesses and residents. I hope the creation of a regional mayor will help to unlock the stalemate.
Since being elected, I have worked solidly on improving junction 28. I have met National Highways several times, I meet our local authorities regularly, I have bothered Ministers until I am blue in the face, and I have spoken continuously to Midlands Connect. I have surveyed local residents, held a business roundtable, collated business testimony and brought together the case that I have presented today.
There is a real case for the Minister to consider. This is an affordable scheme, it is popular—84% of local residents support it—it has a strong business case, it will help investment and save us from losing £4.5 million per year, it is supported by many local MPs, councillors and business groups, and it will help the environment. Barry Lewis, the leader of Derbyshire County Council, says:
“We wholeheartedly support the bid for Government funding to keep this part of Derbyshire moving by easing congestion to improve journey times for businesses, commuters, residents and visitors alike and cut carbon emissions generated by vehicles caught up in lengthy queues.”
This is the sort of levelling up the Minister could and should be delivering. On behalf of the residents of Pinxton and South Normanton, I say: let us get this done.
Order. We look forward to future debates on other junctions on the M1, but the question today is that this House has considered the potential merits of improvements to junction 28 of the M1. We will go to the Front-Bench speakers at 5.25 pm, with the winding-up speech at 5.40 pm. For now, I call Nigel Mills.
Thank you, Ms McVey, for calling me. We have plenty of time to make our case. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) on securing the debate and making so comprehensive a case that there is not much left for the rest of us to say, so we could get an early finish. But hey, we are parliamentarians—we should use the time we are given.
The junction is not in my constituency—it is 2 to 3 miles from the border—but, conveniently, I can look at the live traffic on Google Maps, and at 5 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon the delays have made it back to my constituency. That highlights the seriousness of my hon. Friend’s case. This is not an occasional problem; it is a daily problem. At peak times, the congestion backs up several miles in every direction from the junction. Something really does need to be done.
Every day, the congestion gets back to part of the A38 at Alfreton and Swanwick where there are houses literally as far from the M1 as I am standing from the Minister. Those people are blighted during the day and night by noise, and at busy times by fumes. At the very least, we could find a way of taking the congestion away so that they are not in that horrible situation.
The Minister probably does not know the junction—although perhaps he has driven along the M1—but it is actually a very large area, so there is plenty of scope for improvements. The reason such significant improvements are needed is that every time there is a new housing development anywhere remotely near the A38, the developer’s prospectus says, “Easy access to the A38. Great connectivity to Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, the M1.” What it does not say, of course, is that at peak times that connectivity is not quite so great, because vehicles will get stuck in a queue for quite a while.
Access to the road infrastructure—the A38 south, the M1 north, and the A38 going across the M1—is key to the attractiveness of investment in new housing and industrial development. If we cannot improve the situation so that people do not suffer all these delays, that will hold back the local economy. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover that there is a compelling economic case for improvements to the junction. If we want to drive the growth of the region, we need to sort out the congestion on the junction. It is not just about convenience and quality of life; it is about economic growth too.
My hon. Friend tried your patience, Ms McVey, by talking about other M1 junctions. The only other M1 junction I get near is junction 26, when I have to go the other way, past the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). We have long campaigned for a link road to connect the A38 to that junction, which we have never had. In the absence of such a road, all the traffic that wants to get on to the M1 has to go up the A38 north. If they are not doing that, they are going down the A38 south to get to Derby and Birmingham.
If we do not get connectivity right, we push people into bottlenecks. If there are ever any problems on the M1 south of junction 28, or even on the M42, a lot of traffic will try to nip down the A38 to get on the road to Birmingham, which makes the daily problem even worse. People try to find alternative routes around a horribly congested road network as they go through the east midlands.
I agree that the case for improvements is compelling and really important to provide connectivity to residents of not just Bolsover but Amber Valley and other areas around it. We are not that greedy about the scheme that we would like. I would love to stand here and ask for a flyover on the A38 so that people can just keep driving and not stop at the M1 junction unless they actually want to go on to the M1, but I suspect that would be quite expensive—perhaps there is a business case for it.
We have rightly found a business case in Derby for an underpass and an overpass at the island to the south of my constituency. The problem with those schemes is that they will speed up traffic through Derby on the A38 north that will then just hit this queue. All that traffic will do, if we do not fix junction 28, is get to the end of the queue a bit faster and make it a bit longer. Sorting the junction out will improve the case for the schemes that the Government already have in progress.
As I said earlier, junction 28 is a very large junction, and the traffic island in the middle of it is huge; I think it is the place where loads that need an assistance vehicle to take them further north must wait. They park in the middle of this huge traffic island because there is nowhere in South Yorkshire for them to wait for the police escort handover—they are all done there. There is plenty of space to put more lanes on the island, or to reconfigure the lanes to try to avoid queues conflicting with each other and causing unnecessary tailbacks.
I have not seen any designs, and I do not know whether there are any in place, but there is scope to make some pretty significant improvements without spending a fortune on major re-engineering. We could just add a couple of extra lanes in the right place on the island and on the access roads to get traffic moving more freely and not conflicting. That would not cost tens of millions of pounds, but it would give much of the benefit that we need, and I suspect it could be done relatively quickly. We would not be waiting years, as we have in Derby, for complicated schemes to get planning permission and funding and have their logistics sorted out.
My case in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover is that there is a very real need here. This problem is happening on a very regular basis and causing significant tailbacks that impact the lives of people who live near the A38 and those who try to use it. It is constraining development of both housing and industrial economic growth in the area. There are solutions that are pretty easy to conceive and not that expensive, so I say wholeheartedly that the scheme should be brought forward as soon as possible. It will clearly meet all the various cost-benefit tests that are normally set for this sort of infrastructure improvement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) for securing this important debate, and I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for speaking passionately for the past 10 minutes or so.
I have lived near the junction for all my life. It is about 200 metres from the village of Huthwaite, where I have spent most of my life. I have been impressed with the Minister so far during his brief tenure, and I think he is the man to move this forward. He is the sort of man who has the chequebook ready to sign this off—there is no pressure there. If we as a Government are serious about levelling up in places such as Ashfield, Bolsover and Amber Valley, we must start getting our infrastructure and transport systems right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover is quite right that this was built in 1967. I think my dad worked on the M1 in the ’60s; that is how old it is. It was fit for purpose then, because there was hardly any traffic. The M1 is the second-longest motorway in the country and the A38 is one of the longest roads in the country, and they meet at junction 28. The amount of traffic that comes through there is quite incredible. We live within 20 minutes of Derby, Sheffield and Nottingham—and Leicester is probably 35 minutes away—so it really is a gateway to the whole of the east midlands, South Yorkshire and Derbyshire. The amount of traffic that comes through that junction is absolutely phenomenal. I travel through there in the morning, and every time I get there I think, “My goodness, why did I come this way,” because the traffic goes straight back.
Our area is quite successful at the moment, with the levelling up that we have secured with the towns fund and the future high streets fund. Ashfield is a bit of a go-to place. Businesses are looking to set up. There are all the old colliery sites. We have got businesses like Amazon, which have set up and provided nearly 2,000 jobs. We have got the Co-op in Bolsover, on junction 28, which is a massive transport depot. Logistics is massive in our area; we are like a warehouse for the country—particularly places such as Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. All those companies are setting up, but we have substandard roads and a substandard motorway junction.
If we look at all the old colliery sites—the pit sites—in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, I guarantee that 90% of them are now industrial parks. Many years ago when the pits were open they had the railway line. They were quite smart then; they had a railway line that would bring materials in, and then they had a railway line that would take the coal out to the power stations. But what did successive Governments do? We shut the pits, we ripped out all the railway lines and then—hey presto!—30 or 40 years later we start putting factories in these places but there are no railway lines, so we have to use the roads. It is absolute madness. We should all hold our hands up and say that is wrong and we should have learned our lesson.
We are living in 2023, and we have colliery sites that employ thousands of people across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, but the only way we can get materials in and out is through the roads. The majority of that in my area comes through junction 28, and the road is not fit for purpose.
I will make another plea to the Minister—I am going to hijack the debate a little. With villages such as Huthwaite, Pinxton, Tibshelf and South Normanton, as well as the little villages around Ashfield, Amber Valley and Bolsover, I strongly believe that the amount of traffic that goes through them is damaging our roads. It is playing havoc. It is noticeable that the closer we get to the motorway on any junction, the roads get worse. Next to a motorway the roads are shocking, because there are thousands of lorries and buses coming off every day, bringing minerals and materials to those industrial places. When we move out to the shires, the roads get better and better.
I suggest that the Minister takes that thought away when he is working out his funding formulas for road repairs. He should bear in mind that when we live next to places like junction 28 our roads are absolutely shocking, as are the roads leading into the motorway, such as the A38, which runs past the top of Huthwaite—the top of Common Road. There are craters in that road. Someone only has to sit there for a couple of hours to see how many lorries come by on that road every single day. It is absolutely phenomenal, yet the north of the county is not getting that sort of traffic. I put that plea to the Minister.
The Minister knows that I am going to talk about cycle lanes and hijack the debate a little more. I drive up to the motorway—up to junction 28—and I see cycle lanes being installed when we should be spending that money on the junction and proper road repairs and resurfacing. I hope that gives the Minister food for thought.
In Ashfield, which I represent, we have had over £100 million of investment from this Government, which I am incredibly proud of. That is through the towns fund and the future high streets fund. We have two new schools being built. We have had money spent on the hospital. We are doing really well under a Conservative Government; we are getting lots of money.
I share that junction with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, and as many of my constituents use that junction as do people from Bolsover or Amber Valley—if not more. I pay special attention to it. I have lived there all my life; I have seen the changes, the extra traffic and the extra investment that has come into the area. People want to come to our area, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said, we are close to three cities, there is an airport and there are good rail links close by. If we want to attract more investment and get more businesses coming in and spending more money—and if we are serious about levelling up in places like Ashfield, Amber Valley and Bolsover—we need to sort out our transport. Transport is the most important thing—it is key to everything.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship again, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) on securing this important debate, and on his tireless campaigning on this important issue for his constituents. I have much sympathy with him and with the comments he made, particularly about the 1,100 hours of delays, which are obviously going to impact the productivity of that area and the economic levelling up promised in the manifesto on which he was elected. I also thank the two other hon. Members who have made contributions today—it has been a very lively debate.
Motorways are vital to the British economy. Despite accounting for only 2% of our road network in England, they carry approximately one third of all traffic each year: they are essential in connecting people to jobs, and businesses to goods. The hon. Member for Bolsover eloquently told us about the barriers to growing productivity, the issues with air quality, and particularly the high cost of providing those improvements—I think he estimated it would cost £30 million in today’s figures, which is not small change by any means.
Years of short-sighted cuts to our transport budget by successive Conservative Governments have left many of our roads unfit and underfunded. Expenditure on local roads by council authorities has fallen in real terms by approximately 30% since 2010, yet those authorities are responsible for managing 98% of all roads in the country. That fall in expenditure has led to a huge backlog of repairs, estimated to have cost over £12 billion to clear. The number of bridges on our roads classified as substandard has risen by 5% since 2020 alone. There is an estimated cost of £1.6 billion to repair all those substandard bridges, but due to cut after cut to our local authorities, only a fraction of those bridges will get the necessary work carried out within the next five years. As the Government continue to slash budgets as we enter the coldest and wettest months of the year, conditions on our roads will only get worse.
The Department for Transport’s own figures show that a third of all local B and C roads in England need repair. Research by the Asphalt Industry Alliance found that preventive maintenance is at least 20 times less expensive than reactive maintenance. It is both economically and socially responsible to ensure that our transport network is in the best condition possible, yet motorists up and down the country are faced with poorly managed and decaying roads every day. Nine in 10 road users have experienced issues with at least one pothole in the past year, and one in three reported that they had changed their daily routine to avoid them. While the pothole problem gets worse and worse, the Government have been asleep at the wheel, with 75% of motorists surveyed now believing potholes to be a bigger issue than they were three years ago. Why will the Government not take action and reverse their highway maintenance funding cuts?
Labour has long demanded action on the issue of smart motorways, and it is a tragedy that lives have been lost waiting for the Minister to act. The Office for Rail and Road has found that stopped vehicle detection technology is failing to meet National Highways’ minimum requirements.
Order. I remind the hon. Lady that the debate is about junction 28 of the M1. We are going slightly out of scope.
I would like to carry on talking about smart motorways, Ms McVey.
Order. They are not the topic of the debate; today’s debate is about improvements on junction 28 of the M1.
It is absolutely vital that the Government do something about this issue. I think they will have listened to the hon. Member for Bolsover, but in the end, as I have highlighted, commitment has not been shown when it comes to funding ways of maintaining roads, growing productivity and delivering the levelling-up agenda promised in the manifesto on which many Members were elected. I urge the Minister to explain to us whether he is going to support this project, following the eloquent speeches that Government Members have made.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and to respond to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher)—the best of Bolsover. He has raised some very important points, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), who have helped the hon. Member for Bolsover champion improvements to junction 28 of the M1. It is a tribute to my hon. Friend and his ability to pull in colleagues that they are here to support him.
Junction 28 is an important intersection with the A38, connecting the communities of Alfreton in the west and Sutton-in-Ashfield and Mansfield in the east to the vital strategic road network. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover is a passionate advocate for his constituency, and indeed for the wider region and all those areas that the last Labour Government—in fact, several Labour Governments—left behind for so long. I congratulate him on securing this debate. More broadly, he is clearly not only a fantastic political champion but a real local champion, getting Midlands Connect onside and achieving local cross-party support. That shows exactly the sort of MP he is, standing up for his constituents in Bolsover.
The M1 is Britain’s oldest and longest motorway. I think my hon. Friend will agree that it is possibly one of the most significant pieces of national infrastructure in our country. It is the spine of our country’s road network. It has connected north and south for more than half a century—long enough to have had the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield work on it. It will continue to play that vital role for decades to come. Therefore, the importance that the Government place on this junction cannot be understated, nor can its role in supporting national, regional and local development, particularly across both the Derbyshire and the Nottinghamshire areas.
I am sure we can all agree that reliable, resilient transport links can be a catalyst for enterprise and growth. That is why this Government have invested record amounts in our country’s strategic road network since the first road investment strategy was announced. RIS1 took place between 2015 and 2020 and invested £15.2 billion. RIS2, which we are currently in, has almost double that investment, at £27.4 billion I am very hopeful that, with the entreaties of Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, the Treasury will listen and ensure that we get extra funding in RIS3 from 2025 onwards.
Of the £24 billion currently being invested in this period, £12.5 billion is being spent on operation and maintenance—to answer to the questions posed by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss)—and the renewal of the existing network, including beginning the structural renewals and concrete road surface replacements where the network is reaching the end of its design life following its creation decades ago. Over £10 billion is being spent on improving the performance of the network, supporting the Government’s broader levelling-up agenda and underpinning national and regional growth.
It was an absolute pleasure to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield and for Bolsover about their positivity for their areas and about what they want to see for their communities. They want to see jobs and investment. They are not asking for handouts for the day to day. What they want to see is investment to deliver jobs and opportunities for the long term for their constituents.
Work is well under way to prepare for the third road investment strategy beyond 2025. Negotiations are literally happening over the coming weeks between the Secretary of State for Transport, Treasury officials and Ministers. As part of these preparations for the future network, we are seeking to identify ways to improve it and important schemes.
The case for improving junction 28 of the M1 is well understood, and the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover and regional partners has been exemplary, with extensive parliamentary engagement to work with key stakeholders, such as the roundtable he hosted last year, which brought together businesses and local authorities to consider and strengthen the case for improvements. This work has been supported, as he mentioned in his speech, by the regional, sub-national transport body, Midlands Connect, which highlighted the scheme as an investment priority for the midlands within its strategic transport plan, and the strong local support for improvements to the junction.
As we plan for the future of the strategic road network, National Highways, as the network operator, is required to produce a series of strategies covering the country, which will inform its assessment of the current performance of the network and its future needs. Strategies review the performance, pressures and opportunities on each part of the network, and the issues associated with junction 28 and the potential interventions to alleviate congestion and improve safety will be considered principally in the London to Scotland east route strategy. As part of the process, National Highways has spent much of 2021 and 2022 engaging with vital local stakeholders in the region.
Using the evidence gathered as part of the development of the route strategies, National Highways has been conducting extensive analysis and preliminary study work on junction 28 already. This will assist its understanding of what options are feasible and also can address key safety concerns in the short term, which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley, among others. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has been party to this work as it has developed and has provided helpful insights to National Highways. I can confirm that a significant proportion of the preliminary study work will conclude in February. I encourage my hon. Friend and other hon. Members, as well as local stakeholders, to engage with National Highways to discuss its findings.
As I am sure my hon. Friend understands, considerable effort and work is required to develop solutions from the ground up, and when dealing with the significant sums involved for even a comparatively modest investment in the network, investment decisions cannot be taken in isolation. Rather, they need to be considered as part of the wider development of the road investment strategy.
The core principle of our strategy is to create a road network that is safe, accessible and reliable for all road users and that meets the needs of those who use it. Ultimately, final decisions on the balance of RIS3, the third road investment strategy, and possible enhancement schemes to be included in it will not be finalised until the road investment strategy is published in 2024, accompanied by the significant analytical work that has got us to that point. My hon. Friend has made a very important contribution to that today.
Perhaps junction 29 is for another Westminster Hall debate, as my hon. Friend suggested. I know that he enjoys seeing me almost as much as I enjoy seeing him, so I hope he will be successful in that venture. I urge him to write to me about his local road lowering project, because even if it is not something that the Department would involve itself in directly, I would be very happy to engage with local stakeholders to see if we can do more in that sphere.
I would like to close by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover and my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield and for Amber Valley for supporting him in this debate. I also thank him for his commendable efforts on behalf of his constituents, the region and the whole country. As someone who regularly drives from Westminster to County Durham, I can tell him that I have seen those queues on the M1 before weaving off further north and merging into the A1 as I head to my constituency. It is vital for the whole country and its connectivity, not just the region.
I want to make clear that the Government recognise the concerns regarding junction 28 and the many positive benefits of seeing it improved, as my hon. Friend highlighted, including its benefits-cost ratio and other factors. My hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover, for Ashfield and for Amber Valley have really shown their commitment to the long-term project that is levelling up the UK outside London via jobs, accessibility to education, training and skills. Transport, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield said, is a vital part of that. My hon. Friends epitomise the positive 2019 generation of Conservative MPs who want to make a real difference to their communities.
I will ensure that my officials work closely with National Highways as its study work concludes to understand the feasibility of options for the junction, and that all Members are fully engaged and kept up to speed with its progress. I encourage my hon. Friends and local stakeholders to continue to advocate for improvements as the investment plan for RIS3 develops over the coming year or so—not just for his constituents in South Normanton and Pinxton, but for the wider region and, in fact, the whole country.
We have had a fantastic debate in which we have all agreed about everything, and the Minister is going to go forward and sort this project out. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley for first of all giving us live traffic updates—that is a first for me in Westminster—but for also touching on some of the east-west connectivity issues. He mentioned the regional economic argument and the housing issues, and in particular issues about the design of the roundabout, which National Highways has been looking at in some detail.
I feel like my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield had his Weetabix this morning. We heard of his family connections and he gave us a tour de force on levelling up and what is happening in our region. We are, of course, the warehouse of the country, although we have great aspirations for other industries, including many green industries, to come to our region as well.
I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, whom I am incredibly fond of. Indeed, she is a Sheffield MP, although she did not out herself as such, and so is part of this regional debate. I am slightly bereft that she got cut off in her flow on smart motorways, because I felt like she was just getting to the good bit.
I would also, of course, like to thank the Minister. He has done a number of Westminster Hall debates this week and is a superb operator and a fantastic Minister. I feel safer with him in position when it comes to investing in our road network. I thank him for his many kind comments.
Most of all, I would like to thank you, Ms McVey, because this was by far the best chaired Westminster Hall debate I have ever been to.
The question is, is there no end to Mark Fletcher’s buttering up?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of improvements to junction 28 of the M1.