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Commons Chamber

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2023

House of Commons

Tuesday 7 February 2023

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

We come to questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I call Danny Kruger—not here. We will start with Marco Longhi, who is here.

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Financial Services Sector: Support Post Brexit

2. What steps he has taken to help support the financial services sector since the UK’s departure from the EU. (903514)

Mr Speaker, I did check that my Department still exists before coming along today, and you will be pleased to know that the great ship of state that is the Treasury sails serenely on.

In December, I announced the Edinburgh reforms, which take forward the Government’s ambition for the UK to be the world’s most innovative and competitive global financial centre.

Can the Chancellor please describe any relationships, or plans for them, to deliver the United Kingdom as a global financial hub, especially given the lack of equivalence with the EU?

I am very happy to do that for my hon. Friend. The flexibilities that we have since leaving the EU mean that we are able to do the Solvency II reforms, which mean that potentially £100 billion of extra investment will go into UK companies. Indeed, the whole of the Edinburgh reforms give us the opportunity to rethink our regulatory structures so that we do not just remain the world’s second largest exporter of financial services, but go from strength to strength.

Concerns have been raised that legislation furthering deregulation of the financial sector is paving the way for an economic crash. Revocation of rules on commodity trading is a key concern. What steps has the Chancellor taken to ensure the Financial Services and Markets Bill, when passed, does not cause economic mayhem?

We have taken enormous trouble in our Edinburgh reforms package to make sure that we learn the lessons of the 2008 financial crash, but I would say to the hon. Member that financial services employ 21,000 people in Scotland. In fact, we called this set of reforms the Edinburgh reforms because they will be good not just for London, but for the whole of the UK.

Economy: Impact of UK Withdrawal from EU

3. What recent assessment his Department has made of the impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on the economy. (903515)

Busy day for me. With permission, I would like to answer this with question 16.

Leaving the EU has enabled the UK to realise an array of economic opportunities—not just the Solvency II reforms, but 71 trade deals with non-EU countries worth £240 billion to the UK economy in 2021.

I thank the Chancellor for that answer, but analysis by Bloomberg estimates that Brexit is costing the UK £100 billion a year in lost output. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts the UK economy will be 4% smaller in the medium term, again due to the impacts of Brexit. The Centre for Economic Performance has warned that Brexit has added almost £6 billion on to UK food bills in the two years to the end of 2021. How much more damage will need to be done before this Government take off the red, white and blue goggles and see the reality that Brexit is an economic drag of disastrous proportions for the countries of the UK?

And very important, too, if I may say so.

There is a certain irony in the SNP opposing Brexit at the same time as advocating separation for Scotland, which would have a far bigger impact. But as the hon. Member has talked about our economic performance, since we left the single market, our growth has actually been higher than that of France or Germany. There are other things that have happened since then as well, but I do not think it is the doom and gloom that he suggests.

Last week, I was a bit unkind to one of the Treasury team, and can I apologise for that? I shall be very nice this morning.

Does the Chancellor agree with former Home Secretary Amber Rudd? Yesterday, she said that in order to be a Conservative today you have to have a few drinks and then say that Brexit actually works, or if you have really had a few drinks you can admit it does not work. Could we on all Benches admit that we are poorer in this country because of Brexit and do something about it?

All I would say is that, if Labour really are against Brexit, they should have the courage of their convictions and say they want to re-join the EU. That is the problem: because they do not believe they can make a success of it, they will never be able to run the British economy under it.

I welcome the fact that this Government are so committed to making the UK an innovation nation that they have just today set up a whole new Government Department to promote innovation, science and technology. I have about 400 life science companies in my constituency, and there are some reservations about the reform to the research and development tax credit, introduced to try to tackle fraud in the sector. Can my right hon. Friend reassure them that the Government are still committed to supporting research and development companies while tackling fraud?

My hon. Friend is a formidable advocate for that sector and I do want to give him that reassurance. That is why we protected our R&D budget in the autumn statement at its highest ever level. We are continuing to look at how we can support the R&D small companies sector without allowing that fraud to happen. Thanks to his campaigning and the work of this Conservative Government, last year, we became only the third trillion-dollar tech economy in the whole world.

May I thank the Chancellor for awarding Morecambe £50 million for the Eden project? It will transform my whole community. My question is about VAT tapering. When I was David Cameron’s small business tsar—a very long time ago—I came up with a formula for VAT tapering. Would my right hon. Friend like to meet me to talk about that further?

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his extraordinary campaigning for Eden Project North, which is a model for MPs standing up for their constituencies; he deserves huge congratulations on that. I will happily look at his proposals on VAT tapering. We already have the highest VAT threshold in the G7, but anything we can do to help small businesses, this Conservative Government always do.

Tax System: Fairness

4. What recent steps he has taken to ensure fairness in the application of the tax system. (903517)

There we go; what is going on with the Order Paper today?

It is right that everyone contributes to sustainable public finances in a fair way. The autumn statement tax reforms mean those with the broadest shoulders contribute the most by ensuring that energy companies pay their fair share, and by making the personal tax system fairer through changes to the income tax additional rate threshold and reforms to dividends and capital gains tax allowances.

Researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of Warwick have found that ending the UK’s antiquated non-dom rules could gain as much as £3 billion a year for the Exchequer. At a time when the Conservative party wishes to put up taxes on working people, will the Minister at least commit to publishing the Government’s own estimate of the cost of the non-dom policy, so that small businesses and big businesses can be on an even playing field?

If I may correct the hon. Member, in fact, individuals on, for example, an average salary of £28,000 will pay £900 less income tax and national insurance in 2027-28 compared with the personal allowance and personal thresholds rising in line with inflation since 2010-11. These are concrete measures we have taken to ensure that the spread of tax burdens is borne by those with the broadest shoulders. On her point about non-doms, of course we keep all tax policies under review, but I again emphasise that our economy needs to be open to people around the world who come to the UK to do business. What is more, they pay UK taxes on their UK incomes, which last year was worth £7.9 billion.

While UK households face the heaviest tax burden since the 1940s, the Tories refuse to scrap non-dom status or end tax breaks for private equity bosses and private schools. Labour would do that and use the money for more doctors, teachers and nurses. Does the Minister agree that, far from being the party of low taxes, the Conservatives are the party of unfair taxes?

Again, I refer the hon. Lady to the autumn statement, in which we attempted to ensure that those with the highest wealth pay their fair share in taxes, including by increasing corporation tax for the most profitable 30% of companies. We have ensured that the small profits rate protects smaller businesses and those that are not the most profitable, so only about 10% will pay the full main rate; that remains the lowest in the G7.

I welcomed the new measures announced in the autumn statement to tackle tax avoidance. Will the Minister update the House on how those new measures are being implemented?

Very much so. The hon. Member knows, I hope, that I used to prosecute tax fraudsters for a living, so this is a cause close to my heart. In the autumn statement, we announced even more investment in compliance teams to ensure that we are investigating, prosecuting or finding other remedies for those attempting to defraud the taxpayer, because these are crimes committed against the whole of society.

Constituents of mine face having their land and livelihoods taken from them by compulsory purchase order to build a reservoir. Compulsory purchase orders may sometimes be necessary, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is not morally right for the state to take the land and then tax as a capital gain the money given in compensation, leaving the landowner with the invidious choice of paying a hefty tax bill, or trying to find a way of rolling over that land money into an overinflated market?

My hon. Friend has raised this with me before orals today and, if she writes to me, I will be happy to look into it further for her.

In October 2021, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), as Chancellor, welcomed the OECD global agreement on a global minimum corporation tax rate. The then Chancellor’s press release made it clear that

“The aim is for these historic rules to be implemented and effective from 2023.”

Yet now we hear rumours that some senior Conservatives are agitating against the deal being implemented, and we have all seen the Prime Minister’s weakness when facing resistance from his own party. Can the Minister confirm that pillar two of the OECD deal will be in place, as promised, by the end of this year?

Economy: Impact of Changes in Energy Support Schemes

5. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of changes in the Government’s energy support schemes on the economy. (903518)

Inflation is our primary challenge, and I can confirm that the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated that the energy price guarantee has reduced the peak in inflation by 2.5 percentage points and that inflation is still nearly two percentage points lower than it otherwise would have been in Q2 this year, when the generosity of the scheme is reduced.

The Government are clawing back from the already pitiful financial assistance offered to businesses. Under the new scheme, businesses will now save only a few pennies for each unit of energy they use. Small businesses in my constituency of Airdrie and Shotts are already struggling to stay afloat under the new scheme. The owner of a small family-run café described to me how they have had to dip into personal savings to meet payments. Will the Minister reconsider the Government’s plans to change the energy support scheme and instead expand support to better meet the needs of small businesses?

Of course it is important that we are cognisant of the challenges facing small businesses. The hon. Lady describes our support as “pitiful”. In the current period—the last six months—the available support for businesses with energy bills has been worth up to £18 billion. That is an extraordinary level of support, but we were absolutely transparent that that was not sustainable, that we would review it and that we would then have a less generous scheme but one that was still significant. To underline that, we will still have a scheme worth up to £5.5 billion. That remains a significant intervention and is worth, for example, up to £2,300 for a pub, or up to £400 for a small shop.

Many will have heard the appalling stories of the forced installation of prepayment meters, which is precisely why Labour had called for a ban. But there is another scandal: the fact that those using prepayment meters pay more for their energy than those paying by direct debit. Why should those with the least pay the most? Labour will end this—will the Conservatives?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I know this will be an important matter for the new Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero. As for the Treasury position and our assistance in this matter, we should remember we have given the greatest support with energy bills to those with the greatest need. In the current financial year, we have given a cost of living payment of £650 for those on benefits, and in the next financial year there will be £900 of support. It is significant and it is comprehensive.

I have a constituent with a number of shops. He has seen his four-weekly energy costs rise from £12,000 last October to £27,000 today. Moving on to lower tariffs, but with the reduced energy support, he will still see that £12,000 every four weeks doubled, to £24,000. What advice would the Minister give to my constituent? How would he find the £140,000 off the bottom line in a business already operating on tight margins?

With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he was there when I gave the statement about the new scheme. I was clear with him about the fiscal position overall. He is welcome to write to me on that specific case. Obviously, I cannot comment on the detail of that individual case. What I can say is that we continue to put in place up to £5.5 billion of support with the energy bills discount scheme. That is a significant intervention and it remains a universal scheme with targeted support for the most energy and trade-intensive sectors.

Therein lies the problem: this will go to high energy users. The Federation of Small Businesses described the changes as “catastrophic” and

the beginning of the end for tens of thousands of small businesses”,

the British Chambers of Commerce said that

“an 85% drop in the financial envelope of support will fall short for thousands of UK businesses who are seriously struggling”,

and UKHospitality criticised the sudden and sharp drop in support, estimating the move would cost that sector £4.5 billion in the next 12 months. Why does the Minister think they were all wrong and he is right?

As I said to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar), we were clear when we created the scheme to support businesses with their energy bills that it had to be time limited because of the generosity of the support—£18 billion over six months. We were absolutely transparent about that. But we have maintained a universal scheme covering businesses, charities and the public sector. Yes, it is less generous, but it remains significant. As I said, he is welcome to write to me with the specific case he raised.

VAT: Electric Vehicle Charging

6. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) representatives of the motor industry on the level of value added tax for electric vehicle charging. (903520)

The Government are committed to supporting the transition to net zero emission vehicles to help the United Kingdom to meet its net zero obligations. That includes committing £2.5 billion since 2020 to support that transition, to fund targeted vehicle incentives and to fund the roll-out of charging infrastructure.

We know that Scotland has many more public electric vehicle chargers per head of population than England; according to the Department for Transport’s January figures, it has 23% more per head and 73% more rapid chargers per head than England. However, we also know that those of us, like myself, who can charge their cars at home pay 5% VAT as part of our domestic energy bill, while those unable to charge at home—those who live in flats and so on—have to pay 20% VAT on often already significantly more expensive chargers. If the Minister agrees that that acts as a disincentive to switching to EVs, will it be fixed in the upcoming Budget?

I hope the hon. Gentleman reflects on the considerable advantages his constituents gain from being in the United Kingdom, because the Scottish Government receive 25% more funding per person than equivalent UK Government spending in other parts of the United Kingdom. On his challenge about the electric vehicle transition, introducing VAT relief for charging points in public places would impose additional pressures on the public finances, to which VAT makes a significant contribution. Indeed, it is expected to raise £157 billion in 2022-23, helping to fund the key public services we all care about. I welcome his support for the UK Government’s work to reach net zero targets, but I ask him, please, to work with the UK Government to help us to achieve this across the United Kingdom.

Loan Charge: Impact on Mental Health

7. If he will make an assessment of the potential impact of the loan charge on the mental health of people affected by the charge. (903521)

The loan charge was independently reviewed in 2019 by Lord Morse, who considered its impact on individuals affected. The Government recognise the impact and have accepted 19 of the review’s 20 recommendations. His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs puts support for those affected at the core of its work in collecting the loan charge; that includes support from trained advisers in its extra support teams.

HMRC has acknowledged that there have now been 10 suicides connected to the loan charge. Can the Minister confirm whether loan schemes like those that the charge was set up to stop are still in operation? What are the Government doing to stop further such tragedies?

On the point about the deaths that the hon. Lady understandably raises, we have made referrals to the Independent Office for Police Conduct in relation to those 10 events. The first referral was in March 2019. In the eight concluded investigations, no evidence has been found of misconduct by any HMRC officer, but we are very sensitive to the pressures that people are under, which is precisely why we have the extra support teams in place: teams of trained advisers who can, where appropriate, support taxpayers towards voluntary and community organisations that can help. Of course, people can also ask for help such as time to pay.

Whatever the hopes were on the loan charge scheme’s introduction, the process has now gone on for a considerable time, raising questions about its efficacy and drawing HMRC into areas of moral hazard. Will my hon. Friend look at ways in which this HMRC scheme can be drawn to a conclusion?

May I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work as Economic Secretary and thank him for it? The difficulty is that a large sum of money is still outstanding from these disputes. We have had an independent review of the matter, through which we have been able to reduce the number of people affected, but the issue of outstanding tax remains. I encourage anyone affected by these historic issues to please talk to HMRC so that we can find a resolution for both sides.

Energy Bills: Support for Households

The Government have taken significant action to help households with rising energy prices. The energy price guarantee caps the unit price that households pay for electricity and gas and will save a typical household in Great Britain approximately £900 this winter, based on forecasts made at the time of the autumn statement. That is in addition to the £400 energy bills support scheme, paid in six instalments from October last year to March this year.

The high price of energy disproportionately affects those who are on the lowest incomes. Will my hon. Friend outline what steps his Department is taking to ensure that those who earn the least are supported?

My hon. Friend is a consistent champion for his constituents, particularly for those who are on the lowest incomes. He is quite right: I think we all accept that they will have faced the toughest challenge in the face of the very high cost of living, given the global inflationary pressures. In addition to the £1,300 that a typical household will receive this winter—the £900 energy price guarantee saving and the £400 energy bills support scheme payment—I can confirm that those households will have had £650 in the current financial year, if they are on benefits, and will have £900 next year. That is very significant and comprehensive support.

Support for households is incredibly important, but in the past half-hour Willow Wood Hospice, which provides hospice services to my constituents, has emailed me to raise the plight of the UK hospice sector, which faces up to a fivefold increase in its energy bills even after the Government’s energy bill relief scheme, which is due to end in March. What more can the Minister do to ensure that Willow Wood Hospice and hospices around the country get the extra support that they need?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important case; I am more than happy for him to me to write to me with the specifics. I obviously cannot comment on individual cases, but what I would say is that when we set up the energy bill relief scheme—the original scheme, which is currently providing up to £18 billion of support not only for businesses, but for hospices, charities and organisations in the public sector—we were very clear that it could not be sustained at that level. It is extremely expensive, although it is very important and generous. In setting it up, we had a number of choices; we chose to maintain a universal scheme. Yes, there is some targeting in energy and trade-intensive sectors, but it is a universal scheme, meaning that hospices continue to benefit.

Lower-income Households

In the next financial year there will be a number of measures to help households with the lowest incomes, including a £900 cost of living payment, a 10.1% increase in benefits in line with inflation, and an increase in the national living wage to £10.42 an hour, which represents an extra £1,600 for someone in full-time work.

Notwithstanding the collective amnesia on the Opposition Benches, those of us on the Government Benches remember that when we took office in 2010, roughly £1 in every £4 spent by the Labour Government had been borrowed; nor will we forget being told “There is no money left.” Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are only able to take the steps he has outlined—as well as the steps we took during the pandemic—because of careful management of public finances by successive Governments?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is because we took difficult decisions to reduce the deficit by 80% in the period leading up to the pandemic that we were able to allocate £400 billion of help to families and businesses during the pandemic and £99 billion to families during the energy crisis, which means an average of £3,500 per family this year and next. There is a phrase for that: it is “fixing the roof while the sun is shining”.

A plethora of economic statistics highlight UK inequality and how it affects households. In Ireland, the poorest 5% of the population are 63% richer than their equivalents in the UK. In France, the lowest-earning third earn 20% more than their UK equivalents, while the middle-income third earn 25% more. Low-income households in Germany are 21% richer than those in the UK. No wonder the workers are striking! Why are the Government maintaining a system that keeps workers in the UK poorer than their equivalents in France, Germany and Ireland? Why are they not paying the workers, and why are they not sorting out the strikes?

That is exactly why we are taking difficult decisions to give this country a high-skill, high-wage economy—measures that the Scottish National party opposed at every step.

Businesses: Energy Costs

11. What fiscal steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support businesses with energy costs. (903525)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is good when a Treasury Minister gets the numbers right.

I can confirm that the Government are supporting businesses with energy costs during the winter by means of the energy bill relief scheme. The scheme came into effect on 1 October 2022, and will run until 31 March this year. Following the review of the operation of the current scheme, we announced that we would launch a new energy bills discount scheme, which will provide eligible, non-domestic energy users—including eligible hospices—with a discount on their energy bills for a further 12 months from 1 April until 31 March next year.

Businesses in my constituency are grateful for all the support that the Government have given them over the past few very difficult years—they appreciate that—but what steps are the Government taking to protect energy-intensive industries from high energy prices, about which they are concerned?

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight not only the generosity of the support but the issues facing specific sectors. The Treasury recognises that some businesses are highly exposed to both energy prices and international competition, which means that they are unable to pass on or absorb these higher costs. Following the review of the operation of the current energy bill relief scheme, we decided to target additional support beyond April this year at the most energy and trade-intensive sectors, which are primarily manufacturing businesses.

Metal finishing is a vital component of many strategic industries, including defence, aerospace and energy. Although the process is extremely energy-intensive, businesses such as MP Eastern in Lowestoft do not currently qualify for the additional support that is available, and are therefore losing business to overseas competitors. In order to stop that, strengthen our own supply chain and enhance national security, will my hon. Friend review the support that is available to metal-finishing businesses?

My hon. Friend and county colleague is always championing his local businesses in the Chamber—[Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) agrees with me that my hon. Friend is a stalwart champion of his constituency businesses.

We have taken a consistent approach to identifying the most energy and trade-intensive sectors, with all sectors that meet agreed thresholds for energy and trade intensity eligible for ETII support. The firms eligible for the scheme are those operating within sectors that fall above the 80th percentile for energy intensity and the 60th percentile for trade intensity, and those operating within sectors that are eligible for the existing energy-intensive industries compensation exemption scheme. As ever, my hon. Friend is welcome to write to me about the specifics.

St Wilfrid’s Hospice in Eastbourne has just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Some 70% of its running costs are met by the generous public, who love and appreciate all that it does at the end of life, and next month they are literally walking over hot coals in its support. The nature of the setting means that the hospice cannot readily change the thermostat. It has pursued renewables, and the building is efficient. In short, it is doing all it can. After May, its energy costs are predicted to soar by 285%. What support can my hon. Friend outline for St Wilfrid’s, so that energy hikes will not cost therapies, in-patient beds or nursing hours in the community?

I pay tribute to St Wilfrid’s Hospice, and to all those who fundraise to support it. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. As I said to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), we could have chosen to have a much more targeted scheme, which we said we would consider, but in fact we have continued with a universal scheme, covering not just businesses but charities and the public sector. That includes hospices. This new scheme will enable hospices locked into contracts signed before recent substantial falls in the wholesale price to manage their costs and provide others with reassurance against the risk of prices rising again.

Arts organisations have been hit by rocketing energy bills at the same time as audience footfall remains depressed by the cost of living crisis and the residual effects of the covid pandemic. The current rates of cultural tax reliefs were introduced to help theatres, orchestras, museums and galleries to recover during the pandemic, but some orchestras are now saying they are unlikely to survive if the tapering of that 50% orchestral tax relief goes ahead. Will the Minister and the Chancellor look at this urgently and review the reduction from 31 March of this vital support to arts organisations?

On Friday I met representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses and of small businesses in my constituency, and the message from them is that they are extremely worried about their future, about their sustainability and about energy costs. One of the points they highlighted was their concern about what will happen to their energy costs after April. Will the Minister look at matching what the Labour party is proposing, which is cutting small business rates to enable small businesses to save up to £5,000 a year, to ensure that they can continue not just for this year but going into the future?

I have also met the FSB. The one crucial point I would make is that I understand why businesses are concerned in these very challenging times—I ran a small business myself before entering Parliament—but we have to balance out the costs of these schemes to the Exchequer. We have to run sound public finances, not least because that engenders a platform of stability and confidence, which is in the interest of every single business in this country.

I may have missed it, but I do not think the Minister even attempted to answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) a wee while ago. How can a small retail business possibly be expected to survive if it is facing an increase of more than £100,000 a year on its overheads while at the same time its customers cannot afford to support it because they cannot afford their own electricity bills? Could it possibly be related to the news that BP shareholders are today celebrating the biggest profits in the company’s long history? Does that give the Minister an indication as to where he might look to find the tax revenue to support small businesses and householders?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we have already introduced two new levies: the energy profits levy, which relates to North sea oil and gas; and the electricity generators levy, which relates to the exceptional returns that generators will have received because of the exceptional prices following the invasion of Ukraine. I said to the right hon. Member for Dundee East that he was more than welcome to write to me with the specifics of the case he mentioned, and I look forward to receiving that letter.

Wind and Solar Energy: Short-term Investment

12. What fiscal steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to maximise short-term investment in wind and solar energy. (903526)

The Government are committed to encouraging investment in the UK energy sector. The contracts for difference scheme has been hugely successful in driving the deployment of renewable energy while rapidly reducing costs. It is an established and successful mechanism that provides greater confidence to investors in renewable electricity projects, and to date CFD generators have received almost £6 billion net in price support through the scheme, enabling world-leading renewable deployment and lowering the cost of capital to investors.

Since 2016, the Government have handed out over £10 billion in oil and gas exploration and extraction subsidies. In contrast, major economies such as the US and the EU are putting together huge investment plans to accelerate the renewable energy transformation, and Britain is lagging behind. Is it not time that the UK phased down subsidies for new oil and gas exploration and invested that money in renewables to accelerate the transition? The Minister knows we are not transitioning fast enough and that we are missing many of our net zero targets.

I respect the hon. Lady’s consistency in asking these questions, but I beg to differ when she says we are lagging behind. We have reduced our emissions faster than any other G7 nation. Last year, 40% of our energy came from renewables and just 1.5% came from coal. We have seen huge investment in renewables. Our new Department is called the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero because it is about not just net zero but energy security. On the transition to net zero, we still need to invest in the North sea and our domestic energy sources.

I am proud of this Government’s track record on renewable energy, and I welcome today’s announcement that there will be a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. Does the Minister agree that nuclear baseload is key if we are to decarbonise the transport and manufacturing sectors and deliver this Government’s net zero 2050 target?

I say it again but, if anyone is a champion of the nuclear sector, it is my hon. Friend, who has consistently championed it. She is right that renewables are crucial but that we need baseload energy. Surely, on both sides of the House, if we have learned anything from the past 12 months and what has happened following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is that we need policy not only on renewables but on overall energy security, to which nuclear is crucial.

Payroll Employees: Economic Growth

15. If he will make an assessment of the potential contribution of payroll employees to supporting economic growth. (903529)

Unemployment is at a record low of 3.7%, although we recognise that there are labour shortages due, in part, to a rise in working-age inactivity. Tackling that inactivity and supporting growth remains a priority for the Government, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is working on a thorough review, which will conclude very shortly.

I am glad my right hon. Friends have taken up the urgent issue of economic inactivity. Does the Minister agree that support for disability and poor health must be improved to help people to start, to stay and to succeed at work? Will he ensure that spending on Access to Work keeps pace, and will he look at a disability employment endowment fund?

Absolutely, I will look at that. The Government have already committed £1.3 billion of funding to help those with health conditions or disabilities to get into work and to thrive. This is a complex area with a number of interlocking factors, at which we are looking very carefully at this moment.

In-person Banking Services

We want everyone to have appropriate access to banking services. Decisions on branches are commercial decisions for firms to take, but we have ensured that the regulatory structure treats customers fairly. As well as digital and telephone banking channels, alternative in-person services are available via the Post Office, through industry-driven initiatives and through new shared banking hubs.

Following a string of local bank branch closures in recent years, news of yet another branch shutting up shop in Amersham on 1 March has caused great concern to my constituents. Some of those affected will struggle to make the journey to the next nearest branch, and they are not confident that the promised alternative provision will meet their needs. Does the Minister agree that the creation of banking hubs should be triggered by the communities that need them? Will he meet me to discuss the need for such a hub in my constituency?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about the challenges her constituents face. In its information pack about the closure, Barclays revealed that only 22 customers use the branch regularly, and that 92% of users are able to fulfil their services through other means.

The work to deliver a new banking hub in Knaresborough is progressing so well that we are looking at an opening date in only a few months. Will my hon. Friend come to Knaresborough when the hub is open?

I will be delighted to visit, and I commend the good work done by Link and the access to cash action group.

Financial Inclusion: Under-18s

For under-18s, financial education is a key part of building financial capability. The statutory citizenship curriculum provides essential knowledge so that 11 to 16-year-olds are prepared to manage their money well.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Cambridge University has demonstrated in its research that it is actually primary school education that is vital to prepare young people for financial education, but at the moment only one in five children has access to this. Will he consider using part of the dormant assets fund, which I believe totals £880 million, to gain access for children to financial education?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about it never being too early to start the important work of financial inclusion. I am convening the financial inclusion policy forum next week, and I look forward to engaging with him on this all-too-important topic.

Levelling-up Fund Projects: Impact of Inflation

18. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the impact of inflation on projects to be delivered under the levelling-up fund. (903532)

The Government recognise that inflation has created a challenging delivery landscape for capital infrastructure projects, including the levelling-up fund. That is why we have made £65 million in delivery support available to successful applicants to ensure that local residents see the benefits of the Government’s investment.

Thank you for getting me in, Mr Speaker. As the Minister said, there have been significant inflationary costs since many of these projects were announced. The feedback I am getting about many of the capital projects in the Swansea bay area is that the same can be said for the city deals. What discussions are taking place with delivery partners to ensure that sufficient central support is available for projects that are in the pipeline to be completed?

There is a constant dialogue at a central and local level to evaluate projects and look at what can be done to maximise delivery in the anticipated timeframe. Obviously, inflation affects the whole economy and every Secretary of State who comes to see me raises the same issue. That is why the Government are so determined to halve inflation and set the conditions for growth.

Following the recent levelling-up round 2 announcements, in which all five bids from Birmingham were refused, as were both bids from the great city of Wolverhampton, but, miraculously, the one from the Prime Minister’s constituency was approved, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Andy Street, said:

“Fundamentally this episode is just another example as to why Whitehall’s bidding and begging bowl culture is broken”.

What is the Chief Secretary’s response to the Conservative Mayor’s comments?

My response is to explain that there is a rigorous process of scoring and evaluating all bids very carefully, as there has been over both rounds. In rounds 1 and 2, 45% was given to constituencies held by Opposition parties and 66% was targeted at category 1 constituencies. I recognise the disappointment some colleagues will feel and, therefore, there is another round. Details of that will be made available in due course.

Right now in the United States, job opportunities and investments throughout the country are being driven by the Inflation Reduction Act. The European Union is responding with an incentive package of its own. But the new Energy Secretary describes both those policies as “dangerous”. Does the Chief Secretary agree that the Inflation Reduction Act is dangerous? Or does he think that the UK needs a response that makes sure that we do not lose out on the green transition and that we, too, need a Government who want to see investment and jobs from the green transition in every part of the UK?

The Government are totally committed to meeting our net zero obligations. In the comings weeks, as we prepare for the Budget, the Chancellor will be considering these matters in the decisions he brings to the House. Every economy will have a different set of pressures, but we will do everything we can to address the need to find the conditions for growth, deal with inflation and ensure that we set the economy fair for the future.

Topical Questions

Ten days ago, I announced the four pillars of our plan to transform productivity and make the UK one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. They all begin with the letter “e”, to help Opposition Members remember them easily: an enterprise economy with low taxation; world-class education and skills; high levels of employment, to reduce our dependence on migration; and growth spread everywhere, from South West Surrey to Leeds to Chorley.

Does the Chancellor recognise that it is his responsibility to deliver what people want, which is a fair tax system where everybody plays by the same rules? Will he disclose how many Government Ministers have personally benefited from non-dom tax status over the years, and how many have used overseas offshore trusts to reduce the taxes that they owe Britain?

I can tell the hon. Lady that, since 2010, no Member of Parliament has been allowed to benefit from non-dom status.

T2. I noted the Financial Secretary’s earlier comments about the implementation of the OECD’s global minimum corporation tax, but can she or the Chancellor provide some kind of clarity over the plans for the dispute resolution mechanism under pillar two and, importantly, say something about the assurances that will be given to businesses that will be affected by it in the next financial year? (903539)

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. The pillar two rules mean that large companies—these are defined as businesses with revenues of €750 million or more—are subject to a top-up tax if the profits that they make are not subject to at least a 15% tax. The reason that the international community is coming together to draw up these rules is precisely to do with the new shape that all our economies are taking, with international businesses spreading out around the world. We are trying to find a way to ensure that those very profitable businesses pay their fair share of tax.

Last week, Shell announced profits of £32 billion, the highest in its 115-year history. Today, BP announced profits of £23 billion, the highest in its history. Meanwhile, in April, energy bills for households will go up by £500. The cost of living crisis is far from over, so will the Government follow our lead and impose a proper windfall tax to keep people’s energy bills down.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady asked about windfall taxes, because our plans raise more money than she was advocating in the autumn, and they are also balanced and fair. Anything higher will stop investment, increase dependence on Putin and increase energy prices. I am afraid that it is more clean energy with the Conservatives and more expensive bills with Labour.

There we go again: the Government shielding the energy companies and asking ordinary families and businesses to pay more. Shell has spent more on share buybacks than it has invested in renewables. Last year, BP’s dividends and share buybacks were 14 times higher than investment in low carbon energy. The Government are allowing energy companies to make profits that are the windfalls of war, while ordinary families and businesses pay the price. Is it not the case that the Tories cannot solve the cost of living crisis because they are the cost of living crisis?

No, Mr Speaker. The total tax take from that sector is £80 billion over five years, which is more than the entire cost of funding the police force. The shadow Chancellor can play politics, but we will be responsible because we want lower bills, more investment in transition and more money for public services, such as the police.

T3. The Financial Conduct Authority is currently advertising for a personal assistant to its chief executive, to work alongside another PA, a chief of staff, a head of office, three private secretaries and a PA to the chief of staff. Given the largesse in their own affairs, what is my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary doing to hold financial service regulators to account? (903540)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is why the Financial Services and Markets Bill rightly improves the accountability of regulators to Parliament. It is about not just the cost of regulation, but the speed and efficiency of it. I read with concern work from TheCityUK suggesting that 90% of industry respondents thought that the speed of authorisations was either “somewhat” or “extremely” detrimental.

T4. It has been two weeks since it was revealed that the Treasury provided special dispensation for a sanctioned Russian warlord to use British lawyers to threaten a British citizen, Eliot Higgins. What has the Chancellor done in that time to get to the bottom of this outrageous scandal of the Treasury undermining sanctions and aiding our enemies to use aggressive lawfare tactics designed to intimidate those exposing the truth? (903541)

I answered the urgent question on this matter and said that we would consider what more can be done in these types of cases. That work is ongoing, but we will report in due course, when we have more to say.

T7. I only have to look at the Bench behind my right hon. Friend to know that the needs of Torbay will be at the centre of the Treasury’s thinking. What fiscal steps will he take in response to the “Communities on the Edge” report produced by the Coastal Communities Alliance? (903544)

I take that report and my hon. Friend’s advocacy for the needs of coastal communities seriously, and I look forward to meeting him shortly. Alongside the rural England prosperity fund, the £2.6 billion UK shared prosperity fund gives local leaders in coastal areas the freedom to target local issues, but I look forward to further conversations with him.

T5.   Last year’s register of overseas entities was meant to crack down on corrupt elites using the UK to launder illegal wealth, but today’s BBC and Transparency International report shows that it is clearly not working, with less than half the required firms making declarations and others fudging it. That brings into question the Government’s commitment to tackling illegal wealth and wealth inequalities. What will the Government do about this? (903542)

This Government bow to nobody when it comes to cracking down on tax evasion. It is wrong and illegal, and the Government do not support it.

T8. The Chancellor was right to argue last autumn that the NHS needs to help people into work. Will he bring forward more thinking on this as part of his inactivity review or in the Budget? (903545)

I discussed this issue with my right hon. Friend when she was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I would be delighted to engage with her further ahead of the Budget to tap into any sensible ideas she has in this important area.

T6. According to the Resolution Foundation, the previous Prime Minister’s unfunded tax cuts cost the economy £30 billion. Will the Chancellor confirm that he will not capitulate to her allies who are calling for the reintroduction of tax cuts for their wealthy cronies in next month’s Budget? (903543)

What I can confirm is that there will be no tax cuts funded by borrowing. I can also confirm that those of us on this side of the House, unlike those on the hon. Member’s side, believe in lower taxes.

T9. Businesses that had to renegotiate their energy contracts in the second half of last year did so at the top of the market, so how can we prioritise those businesses in particular for energy efficiency measures? (903546)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have already discussed energy support, but efficiency is also key. Businesses can take advantage of the £315-million industrial energy transformation fund, which supports industrial sites to invest in energy efficiency and decarbonisation projects. There are several important capital allowances that may help businesses to make energy-efficient investments, such as the annual investment allowance, which has been set permanently at £1 million, the structures and buildings allowance, and, until 31 March, the super deduction—

The recent inquiry by the child of the north all-party parliamentary group found that, under this Government, children in the north live in greater poverty, many in destitution, and that that problem is likely to keep growing. Why is it that, when it comes to children, this Government’s mission is always to level down rather than level up?

I gently say to the hon. Lady that there has been less poverty and inequality under this Government. We demonstrated that in the autumn statement, with a huge package of support—£99 billion—for houses and families up and down the country, targeted at the lowest paid.

Given the serious condition of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn, does the Chancellor agree that it would be better value for money to build a new hospital rather than to patch this one up? Will the Treasury back the plan by the Department of Health and Social Care to do just that and include it in the new hospitals programme?

As we discussed when we met two weeks ago, it is a top priority for us to resolve the profile of spending for hospitals like that one, in which reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete was used and which need that urgent work. We are working on it quickly, but I do not want to steal the thunder of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who will ultimately make those decisions.

The Public Accounts Committee has expressed concerns about the difficulties taxpayers face in getting timely responses and action from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. My constituent Kirsty Lloyd and her former employer Llion James have missed out on thousands of pounds-worth of statutory maternity pay support, which they feel is because of delays and poor communication with HMRC. Their case has now timed out. Would the Treasury consider extending the time during which a claim can remain active in cases where there is a dispute with HMRC?

Would the right hon. Lady do me the very great honour of writing to me about it, so I can look into the detail for her?

My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) has run a tenacious campaign for a freeport. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the benefits of such a freeport would be felt across north Wales and comment on the benefits that students in my own constituency might feel when considering a future career in north Wales?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that freeports offer tax relief, simplified customs processes and business rates retention. The evaluation process for the three bids that came in at the end of November is well under way and I hope that conclusions will be made in the very near future.

As the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, some businesses have bought in energy at a very high rate because of when they sealed their contract. Many of my local pubs and hospitality businesses will go bust in the beginning of the next financial year because their bills are so out of kilter; they say they would have to charge £15 a pint to survive. Even in London—even in Shoreditch—that is just not feasible. What extra support is the Treasury even considering as we approach the financial statement next month?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and, though I do not know the specifics of her cases, she is welcome to write to me. On the hospitality sector and pubs in particular, we have done two key things: we have kept the reduction in rates, increasing it to 75% relief in the following year, and we have renewed our support with energy bills, saving a typical pub up to £2,400.

The Treasury Committee recently published a report titled “Fuel Duty: Fiscal forecast fiction”, because we do not think the Chancellor will really be able to raise fuel duty by 12p, as is currently baked into the Office for Budget Responsibility numbers. Will the Chancellor be able to respond to our report before the Budget?

It is worth stressing that, when we reduced fuel duty at the last spring Budget by 5p on both petrol and diesel, it was only the second time in the past 20 years that both rates had been cut. Future changes will obviously be determined at the appropriate fiscal event.

Interest in purchasing electric vehicles has escalated significantly and is expected to escalate further in the next 12 to 18 months. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that greater provision of public-facing EV charging points is rolled out right across the United Kingdom?

I am pleased to be able to announce that, through the more than £2 billion of funding the Government have committed to electric vehicle transitioning, 30,000 public charging devices have been made available with the help of industry. Of course we will look to do even more over the coming years.

May I appeal to the Treasury team to do everything they can in the forthcoming Budget to prevent people on fixed-rate mortgages from facing financial disaster when the fixed-rate term comes to an end?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. That is why I met Martin Lewis and the six big mortgage lenders before Christmas. We are very alive to those concerns and will monitor the situation closely.

It would cost around £1 billion to give nurses an inflation-matching pay rise. Scrapping the non-dom tax avoidance scheme used by the super-rich would raise more than £3 billion. Why, then, is the Chancellor putting non-doms before nurses?

The Chancellor is not doing that. There is a clear process in place, and we continue constructive dialogue with all professions in dispute with the Government and with their employers. This is obviously a challenging circumstance and we recognise how difficult it is.

When the Chancellor acceded to the Treasury throne, he appointed a panel of four advisers drawn from the City. Has the panel met, has he added anybody from small business or industry, and where can we find the minutes, please?

The economic advisory council has met, I believe, three times. I will write to my right hon. Friend with the details of what was discussed.

Turkey and Syria Earthquake

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement to the House on the situation in Turkey and Syria.

On Monday morning at 1.17 am UK time, a major earthquake struck south-eastern Turkey and north-western Syria. Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake’s impact was felt hundreds of miles away in Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Israel. Just nine hours later at 10.24 am London time, a second major earthquake struck the same region, with a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale. The first tremor centred on the Turkish city of Gaziantep, some 150 miles north of the Turkish-Syrian border. The epicentre of the second quake was approximately 80 miles further north.

Earthquakes of this severity have not been seen in that region for 80 years. The effects of the two earthquakes have been devastating. At least 2,291 deaths have already been confirmed by the Turkish authorities, and at least 15,834 people have been reported injured. Those numbers are, I regret to inform the House, highly likely to rise significantly. I know that the House will join me in offering our sincere condolences to the people of Turkey and Syria.

Across the region, which is inhabited by more than 12 million people, more than 6,000 buildings have collapsed. Electricity and gas infrastructure has been severely damaged. Many of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey reside in the affected provinces. Turkey’s outstanding disaster relief response capability has been severely tested by the sheer scale of the catastrophe. The Turkish Government have declared a state of emergency, and they are requesting international assistance on a scale that matches the enormity of the situation that they are facing. Turkey will lead the disaster relief response in the areas of Syria where it has a presence.

As of this morning, we know that three British nationals are missing. The Foreign Office’s crisis response hub is working to support the at least 35 British nationals who have been directly affected by the earthquakes. We assess that the likelihood of large-scale British casualties remains low. The Turkish Government have contacted His Majesty’s Government to request support, and we are working closely with our Turkish allies to provide them with the help that they need as swiftly and as effectively as possible.

I have been in direct contact with my Turkish counterpart, and I plan to speak to the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordination this afternoon to discuss future steps. Our 77-strong urban search and rescue team, with four dogs and state-of-the-art equipment, is due to arrive at Gaziantep later today. I have also authorised the deployment of a UK emergency medical assessment team.

In Syria, the UK is in contact with our partners on the ground to establish their need and decide how best to help them. The conflict stability and security fund will provide an uplift to the opposition Syrian civil defence, commonly known as the White Helmets, to support their emergency response operations across north-west Syria. We are also providing support to Syria through the International Medical Corps, Save the Children and, of course, the United Nations agencies.

We will continue to stand by the people of Turkey and Syria. We will deliver aid to those in need, wherever they are, and as we do so, we will work with our allies and partners around the world to ensure the most effective humanitarian response. I undertake to keep the House updated on the situation in Turkey and Syria as it evolves. I commend this statement to the House.

The massive earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria on Monday have caused utter devastation: more than 5,000 people are likely killed, tens of thousands injured, and vast numbers of buildings and much infrastructure destroyed. A frantic rescue effort is under way, with courageous first responders combing through rubble to try to find those buried in debris and dust.

The Labour party, along with the whole House, sends our deepest condolences, thoughts and sympathies to all those whose lives have been devastated by this tragedy. It struck at night, when families were sleeping. It struck in winter, with biting winter temperatures and ice and snow hampering relief. And it struck a part of the world that has already known great tragedy and suffering in recent years. Not only have thousands of lives been lost, but it has caused anxiety for all the people of Syria and Turkey, with towns cut off as roads have been split in half. The people of Syria have faced a decade of conflict and violence, and there is simply not the infrastructure to cope with the fall-out from this disaster.

Turkey, of course, is a close ally of the United Kingdom, and there are many close ties of family and friendship between Britain and the people of Syria. My own constituency is home to a thriving Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian community. There are an estimated 500,000 people of Turkish origin living in the United Kingdom. I know the pain and anxiety that they are now feeling. They will want to know that we have in place all that we can to support and help them.

When an international humanitarian emergency arises like this, Britain of course must play its full part, so will the Foreign Secretary set out what additional financial support will be made available to relief efforts in the region, and when are those funds likely to be made available? Will he also set out what discussions he has had with international organisations working on the ground to ensure that that aid is delivered, and whether our sanctions regime for Syria will hamper some of that delivery?

The Foreign Secretary has said that, sadly, he expects the number of British nationals involved to rise. Does the figure take into account the vast number of dual nationals in our country? He has explained the efforts being made by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure that concerned Turkish and Syrian families in the UK are kept informed. Will there be a constituency hotline to support that?

In December it was reported that the FCDO Syria team had been instructed to cut between £6 million and £8 million from its overall budget. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether he intends to pursue that cut in the face of this disaster? As well as updating the House on the immediate response—we are grateful that he has done so today—will he also come back with a long-term plan?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his tone and the points he has made. He is absolutely right, and reflects the mood of the whole House, in saying that we pass on our thoughts not just to those in the affected region but to people here in the UK and further afield whose friends, families and loved ones may have been affected by this terrible situation.

With regard to financial support, as I have said, we have already given an uplift to the Syrian civil defence, the White Helmets. We will assess what other assistance will be needed, in close co-ordination with the United Nations and other non-Government delivery partners on the ground.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions sanctions on Syria. The response will predominantly be led by the Turkish Government in the areas that they control, and through Syrian non-Government agencies and international agencies. I will check that this is the case, but my estimation at the moment is that our ability to support will not be hampered by our sanctions regime.

On the future allocation of funds for Syria and further allocations of official development assistance, we are working through that process, as we do each year. I am not able to give the right hon. Gentleman a complete answer at the moment, but of course we will look at all allocations in response to what we are sadly seeing unfold on the ground. I will, of course, endeavour to keep the House updated.

My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones, those who are still searching for loved ones, and the British nationals affected. The people of Syria have lived through 12 years of bombardment, chemical weapons, barrel bombs and rape. But how does Assad, who has already decimated healthcare services by double tapping and bombing, respond? Yesterday afternoon he bombed Marea, an area affected by the earthquake, in a truly callous and heinous attack and an opportunistic continuation of his attempts to destroy the moderate opposition. This is truly heinous, and it was something I warned about yesterday afternoon.

First, can the Foreign Secretary confirm what we are doing and what repercussions there will be for Assad for these appalling acts? Secondly, how will we shame Russia and China into reopening the humanitarian corridor that has now been closed for two years? Finally, when we look at the integrated review refresh, where Syria has been notably absent as we tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, will he look at the fact that Syria has turned into a narco state because we have not kept our eyes on it? Those drugs are making their way to Europe, whether we like it or not.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the completely unacceptable bombing of areas in the immediate aftermath of this natural disaster. Sadly, it speaks to a long-standing pattern of behaviour by the Assad regime, which we condemn and have sanctioned. We will continue to bring about sanctions, working with our international friends and partners, to try to prevent such behaviour occurring again. Sadly, she and the House will know that the behaviour of Assad and the Syrian Government, in this as in so many other areas, is completely unacceptable. I assure my hon. Friend that we have not lost interest in this. The situation in Syria and the response of the Assad regime is a topic of conversation that regularly comes up when I speak to interlocutors in the region and beyond.

The earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria yesterday are truly devastating and have been on all our screens. I have just heard from Sky News that at least 5,000 deaths have been confirmed, and that toll will undoubtedly rise in the coming days. Our thoughts, prayers and sympathies are with all those affected. Footage shows acute and widespread destruction across central and south-eastern Turkey. In Syria, a country still suffering from more than a decade of war, the cost to human life and infrastructure is unthinkable. Reports have emerged of survivors calling out to rescue teams, texting loved ones and sending voice notes to journalists for help. Many of them cannot be saved due to a lack of rescue equipment. This is truly tragic.

The SNP welcomes the FCDO’s decision to send a team of search and rescue specialists, equipment and rescue dogs to Turkey and the co-ordination with the UN in support of those in Syria. The international community must continue to listen to those on the ground—such as the UN, the Red Crescent and the White Helmets—in the coming days and weeks, so that the best possible relief and assistance can be delivered.

A main barrier will be access to Syria in the first place, with only one crossing point on the land border between Turkey and Syria. What are the UK Government doing at UN level to try to open additional crossing points for humanitarian assistance? Additionally, getting aid and humanitarian relief across frontlines and rebel-held areas will require a humanitarian corridor. Can the Minister detail what negotiations are taking place to agree that for affected communities?

Furthermore, Turkey and Syria are in the middle of a brutal cold snap, with many roads and cities already covered in snow and now damaged in the disaster. Is the FCDO organising food supplies, further medical aid and, in particular, cold weather equipment for survivors and affected communities? Finally, given that thousands have been left homeless and lost everything, are the UK Government considering short-term family scheme visas for those survivors with families in the UK to support them?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the point he made about the speed of our technical response. The urban search and rescue team that we have dispatched are world-class, and they have world-class equipment. With regard to the humanitarian access routes, I will be speaking to Martin Griffiths at the UN later this afternoon. I know that at both ministerial and official level we will be liaising with our international partners to ensure that we co-ordinate on what Turkey needs for the response. I have already authorised the deployment of a medical assessment team. We will work closely with our international partners to make sure we address the further stages of requirement, and the requirement will evolve over time.

In Syria, we will deploy support by working through organisations such as the Red Crescent and the UN. On what more we can do for those dislocated people, we will co-ordinate with the Turkish authorities and those active in Syria as best we can, and we will make any decisions in due course.

Yesterday I was able to contact my opposite number in the Turkish delegation to the Council of Europe. He described the situation in Turkey as “overwhelming”. He has written to us to thank us for all that we have done. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should do as much as possible to help the Turks in this terrible situation?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The scale of this catastrophe is one that we are unused to. Sadly, this situation is almost unprecedented for the very reasons mentioned: the fact that this part of Turkey and Syria—particularly Syria—has been on the receiving end of a huge amount of violence already; the time of year; and because we are seeing multiple shocks and it is entirely feasible that there may be more. We will, of course, work very closely with our Turkish friends and allies and our international partners in the ongoing assessment of need and our response to that.

The human toll of this disaster is immense. I thank the Secretary of State for the speedy dispatch of British search and rescue and medical teams. Like many members of the British Kurdish-Turkish community, my family, after waking up and hearing the news yesterday, were trying to find out whether our relatives in Malatya in Turkey were safe. We are very lucky that the majority of our family are safe. I spent the whole day with Turkish-Kurdish members of the community in the local community centre. Hundreds of people were desperately trying to find out if their loved ones are safe. The Foreign Office has provided a helpline, but only for British citizens stuck in this disaster. Thousands of British people have been impacted, so what support, if any, will be available to British Kurdish people who are trying to find out about family in Turkey? What can he do?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about how disconcerting this is for those with friends and loved ones in the region. Obviously, the responsibility of the FCDO is to provide support for British nationals overseas—that has to be our priority. If people, whether in the UK, in the region or beyond, are fearful for British nationals who may be caught up in this, our advice is to get in contact with the FCDO. As the hon. Lady said, a team has been set up to respond. I appreciate how disconcerting it is, but we do not have the capacity to extend that support to non-British nationals. However, we are working very closely with the Turkish authorities and organisations on the ground in Syria to try to provide the maximum support that we can for those non-British nationals who, sadly, have been caught up in this terrible situation.

I commend the Foreign Secretary for his speedy response and that of his Ministers and officials. He will know that the tragedy is still unfolding. There have been stories of great courage and survival, but there has also been an opportunity for international co-operation and diplomacy from perhaps unexpected sources, such as the Government of Greece, who sent 21 firefighters and other humanitarian and rescue workers, and the Government of Armenia. Does he agree that this is the time for the region to come together in a common effort to save their fellow human beings?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We are seeing over and again real acts of solidarity with the people of Turkey and Syria who have suffered so much as a result of the earthquakes. I have no doubt that a number of terrible stories will unfold in this awful situation. I also think this is an incredible opportunity for us to demonstrate our shared humanity and our desire to maximise the effort to prevent further loss of life. I commend those countries in the region that have put aside whatever difficulties they may have, to come together and support Turkey and Syria in their time of need.

It is hard to imagine a worse place in the world for this disaster to have happened. Gaziantep is only about 100 km from Aleppo in Syria. I know that the Foreign Secretary and all Ministers, like Opposition Members, will be thinking of those refugees who fled the horrors of Aleppo and Idlib, only to be faced with a horrendous natural disaster. Can the Secretary of State think again about the White Helmets? I wholeheartedly welcome what he has said, but that brave organisation has really struggled to maintain its sustainability. I know that he will be sympathetic, and I implore him to look again at funding for the White Helmets and ensuring we do all we can to help.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend the hon. Lady for her long-standing commitment to that part of the world and the refugees there. We have been a long-standing supporter of the White Helmets, as she will know, and we have given a financial uplift in direct response to this situation. We will look at the longer-term implications of the earthquakes as we assess what our international support will be in future. I cannot give her a hard commitment at this point, but we will look very seriously at the implications of this terrible situation.

The situation is truly horrific, and it is good to know that the UK is contributing not just manpower but expertise. We know that, without further help, thousands more people will die. I see that an appeal was launched this morning by Oxfam, the British Red Cross, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and ActionAid. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging the British people to dig deep into their pockets, because every pound will make a difference?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the long-standing tradition of generosity, and I have no doubt that the British people will provide a huge amount of philanthropic support to those affected. The UK Government have already made a commitment to fund direct support to people in the relief effort. Our teams of experts will be a force multiplier, working with state-of-the-art equipment and techniques and some of the best urban search and rescue teams in the world. We will have an ongoing assessment of what further needs Turkey and Syria have.

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House so that we can express our sorrow and solidarity with the people of Turkey and Syria, and with families up and down this country who are desperately worried about those back home. I welcome the support offered and the potential offer of more, but may I press him on Syria? Organisations on the ground are ill-equipped to hand out the support that is desperately needed. Many of them are also affected by the earthquakes. The Foreign Secretary said that this is exceptional—one in 80 years—so although we are not planning to send personnel and equipment into Syria itself, I urge him to think as creatively as he can to make whatever exceptions he can, so that we do not hurt those who have already been hurt so much.

As the Development Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), said this morning, we are working closely with the United Nations. We will look creatively at what we can do to support it and our partners on the ground to maximise our ability to get humanitarian aid and support to the people who need it most.

I commend my right hon. Friend for coming so swiftly to the House and for the action that he and the Department have already taken. This would have been a terrible enough set of circumstances on their own, but to be overlaid by a brutal civil war in the same area and a very terrible winter makes it worse beyond almost imagination.

Like many Members of the House, I have many Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot constituents who are very worried about their families and are finding it difficult to get proper information. I know that my right hon. Friend has set up a hotline. I am being contacted, as I am sure are colleagues across the House, so may I suggest that it might be helpful to have a specific MPs’ hotline, so that we can help our constituents to find out as much information as possible and put their worries at ease?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We will, of course, look at the most effective way of providing information. One of the learnings from past consular challenges or acute situations such as this is that having one point of convergence is often most effective. I will not be hide-bound, though, and whether it is people in the UK trying to get information about British nationals or people of Turkish or Syrian heritage trying to get information about non-British nationals, we will look to facilitate that. Obviously, we do not necessarily hold the information for non-British nationals. I will look carefully at what he says about ensuring that parliamentary colleagues have swift and accurate access to information and update the House on that in due course.

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I want to express my condolences for all those who have lost loved ones. My thoughts especially are with the large Turkish diaspora who call Edmonton their home. Will the Minister commit himself to giving regular updates in the House for those who are worried, and will he update us on what additional aid will be provided once the initial assessment has been done?

The hon. Lady makes a sad but important point. This situation will evolve, and sadly, it is highly likely to get much worse before it gets better. I will make sure that my office liaises with Mr Speaker about the most effective way to provide timely updates to the House, whether it be via the Dispatch Box or in some other format. I recognise that over the next few days and next week, when the House is not sitting, the Dispatch Box might not be the most effective way of doing so. I also recognise that this situation will be coming to its peak over the next couple of days, and Members, rightly, will expect to have updates, so I will try to find a way of most effectively facilitating that.

A situation of this sort in a fellow NATO member would seem to be tailor-made for military assistance from us to their civil powers. Do we not have any Royal Navy ships in the area, and are there not Royal Marine contingents that could be put quickly to work, with the agreement of the Turkish authorities?

I will take the ideas that my right hon. Friend put forward very seriously. The initial assessment of need is very much in urban search and rescue, and the UK, along with a number of NATO and non-NATO partners, is putting forward that capability. I suspect medical assistance will be next, but we will continue liaising very closely with the Turkish Government and the United Nations about what is needed on each side of the border.

My heart goes out to all those who have suffered and continue to suffer in this dreadful earthquake. The loss of humanitarian aid routes to north-west Syria, which went down from four to one in 2020, has had an immeasurable impact on the effective delivery of aid to the area. It has meant virtually no resources and help for those in what was already a dreadful humanitarian situation and who are now coping with the impacts of this truly awful earthquake. How will the Secretary of State ensure that aid gets to the people who need it?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point, and it is one that I raised in my last bilateral meeting with Martin Griffiths. As she said, this has had a significant detrimental effect on the international community’s ability to provide humanitarian support to some of the neediest people in the world, particularly in winter and in the light of these earthquakes. I can assure her that when I speak with Martin Griffiths later today, this is one of the topics we will discuss.

This is a stark reminder of the importance of resilience and our ability to deal with these acute events if they happen to us or to help others. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. As he knows, the first 72 hours are critical. Military assistance has been mentioned. We have assets in Cyprus, including rotary systems, that could be put to use. Could we offer those to the Turkish authorities in this critical period?

We have been in close contact with our Turkish counterparts from very early on in this situation. Obviously, we have a very close military relationship through NATO. Turkey has a large and sophisticated armed forces in its own right. What it has asked us for most is in one of the areas where we provide world-class capability, and that is our urban search and rescue teams. As the situation evolves—as I say, sadly, there is a high likelihood that it will deteriorate—we will listen carefully to what further requirements Turkey has and respond in due course.

In just a matter of weeks, the holy month of Ramadan begins, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, yet Muslims and others in Syria and Turkey are in the middle of harsh weather conditions, with many roads and cities covered in snow and now damaged by this disaster. Does the FCDO plan to work with international partners to organise the provision of hygiene products, including sanitary products, as we know that natural disasters disproportionately impact women and girls? Will the Foreign Secretary join me in commending charities such as Islamic Relief, which has mobilised teams in both Syria and Turkey and since Monday has already raised over £1 million to help those affected?

I am happy to pay tribute to Islamic Relief and other charities and non-governmental organisations that are active in the region. The hon. Lady is right that, sadly, whether it be natural disaster, conflict or man-made disaster, women and girls always bear the brunt; it is one of the sad truisms of development and humanitarian relief, so she is right to raise the specific needs of women and girls. I am very proud to say that, throughout my time as a Minister and as Secretary of State, the plight of women and girls has been at the heart of our foreign policy and development policy. We will seek to ensure, whether directly or through partners, that we put forward plans to specifically address the needs of women and girls in these incredibly difficult circumstances.

I have watched, as everyone across the UK and around the world has, with horror and heartbreak the scenes from the earthquake in Syria and Turkey. Whenever a disaster happens, the UK always steps up, and people are so generous in wanting to help. Could my right hon. Friend confirm what steps people in Watford and across the UK can take to donate so that it reaches the frontline and helps those who are currently suffering the unimaginable?

We have already discussed Islamic Relief, Red Cross and Red Crescent, and I have no doubt that a number of organisations will be putting forward appeals. We recognise that, for many people in the UK, the economic situation is difficult, but I have no doubt that notwithstanding the domestic circumstances, the British people will do what they always do, which is rise to the occasion and support people around the world who are in even greater need than they are.

Like the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) and others, members of the Kurdish-Turkish community in Newport are desperately worried about family members and friends, and our hearts go out to them. I reiterate to the Secretary of State the need for clear channels of communication to help us make urgent inquiries for constituents, whether it be drop-ins upstairs or other means, and support in-country for UK citizens and dual nationals, as well as the need for us to do everything we can on a humanitarian level.

I completely recognise the desire of Members of the House to be kept informed and to be able to provide a service to constituents who, quite understandably, will be very worried about friends and loved ones. I will take that on board, and my team will be making a note of what the hon. Member and other Members of the House have said on this.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in Turkey during my lifetime, may I share in the comments that the Foreign Secretary has made and say how much I agree with them? I echo calls for the White Helmets to continue to receive funding in the long term. I met them in October last year, and they said that British funding was absolutely key to their continuing their good work.

On the statement, may I ask how many people the Foreign Secretary is intending to deploy from the medical assessment team? May I also commend all the volunteers who have gone from our rapid response unit in the Foreign Office to help in Turkey at such short notice? Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), may I ask that we signpost where and how the British public can give money and aid to people in Turkey? Lastly, will the reporting mechanisms coming out of Turkey be given in real time, so that Members of Parliament can help constituents to find out about loved ones and how to help most effectively?

On my hon. Friend’s specific question about the size of the medical response team, I do not have that figure at the moment. It is inevitable that the numbers—both, sadly, of fatalities and injuries, and of British experts that we put in to support—will change over time. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the figures I outlined at the Dispatch Box at the start of the statement are now, sadly, already out of date. I completely take the point that he and others have made about the need for accurate, ongoing and timely information, and I will endeavour to make sure that I provide that to all Members of the House.

I send my thoughts and condolences to all those who have suffered and lost loved ones in the tragedy in Syria and Turkey. This horrific disaster does not discriminate in its victims, and political obstacles must not be allowed to define who receives our support. Can the Secretary of State explain what he is doing to secure humanitarian corridors to ensure all Syrians receive humanitarian aid, and will he respond to appeals for more heavy lifting equipment and fuel to run those machines?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that disasters like this do not discriminate, and neither will we. We will work closely with the United Nations. Obviously, we do not have a relationship with the Assad Government in Syria, but notwithstanding that, we will work with those organisations—whether the White Helmets, the United Nations or others—that are on the ground in Syria. Of course, we will also work closely with the Turkish Government in response to that.

My thoughts are with my constituents who are so desperately worried about loved ones. I echo the comments made by Members across the House about the need for that timely and accurate information to help Syrian, Kurdish and Turkish nationals living in the UK who have been affected by this. Can the Secretary of State say what representations the UK is making to drive humanitarian access to Syria from Turkey up the international agenda and open new flows of aid to north-west Syria?

I will be raising this specific subject with Martin Griffiths when I speak to him later this afternoon. Humanitarian access routes have been constrained over recent years, which has caused more suffering, and it is something we will seek to address.

First, given the immense scale of this terrible tragedy and the reports this morning that people are using their mobile phones while trapped under the rubble as they cry for help, do we have the capacity to send a further search and rescue team, because I think it seems, given the scale, that that would certainly assist? Secondly, does the Foreign Secretary expect the Disasters Emergency Committee to issue an appeal?

On the right hon. Member’s last point, I will certainly look at that and ask my officials to liaise on raising a specific appeal. What future assistance we give will be very much guided by the requests of the Turkish authorities and the feedback of the initial wave of experts that we have provided.

I realise that I failed to fully answer the question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) about heavy lifting equipment and the fuel for it. Again, we will listen carefully to the requests from the Turkish authorities about that. One of the reasons our USAR team is so valuable is that we have state-of-the-art search and rescue equipment that co-ordinates closely with other equipment that is easier to get on to the ground for those partners who are physically closer to the incident.

The Foreign Secretary has been really helpful this afternoon, as has our Front-Bench spokesman and everyone. We are not experts, but when I see these pictures on television and hear the voices of children calling for help, the crisis is now. Can we get people, heavy lifting equipment and the right expertise there now—in planes, getting there now—so we can rescue these little children and their families?

The hon. Gentleman’s desire to help and help quickly is completely understandable, and I can assure him that it is shared by everyone across the House and across Government. As I say, first thing yesterday morning, I had an exchange of communications with my Turkish counterpart. Our urban search and rescue team were mobilised and convened yesterday, and the assessment is that they will be on the ground and operational by today. This is a very swift response. I recognise, however, that the challenge will be enduring. Of course, the feedback from them about what else we can do, and do quickly, will be incredibly important, and we will do that in close co-ordination with our international friends and partners.