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Westminster Hall

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 22 February 2023

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Energy Suppliers: Customer Credit

I beg to move,

That this House has considered regulation of customer credit retained by energy suppliers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. In this debate, I am not going to focus on what I have focused on many times in the Chamber, which is the myriad failures of the UK Government in dealing with the energy cost crisis for people in their homes and the cost of living crisis. That is well documented, and it was underlined by a poll yesterday showing that nearly 70% of people across the nations of the UK feel that the Government are failing on this. That is not what this debate is about. The issue that I want to highlight is something that affects many people in their homes and is manifestly unjust.

I want to start by saying that I am grateful to the Minister for graciously taking the time to discuss this with me before the debate; it says a lot that she was willing to be informed about the perspective that I want to bring to this. I am hopeful that she will work with us to try to sort this and that we will be able to work together to aid people.

I have been asked to feel sorry for energy suppliers. I have been asked by energy suppliers to think of them and their financial position, as they are keeping customers’ money in their bank accounts that they are not due through bills because it aids their business. I do not feel sorry for energy companies. I cannot imagine any other industry where companies are allowed to keep customers’ money without any accountability and think that that is okay or, indeed, that we should feel for them. I understand their wish to protect themselves. For example, Octopus told me that it holds £660 million of customers’ money in credit, but because of the outstanding balances, only £150 million of that is a cushion for them. I am sorry, but that does not cut it—it is not the company’s money to do that with.

I am more concerned about people facing the fear of the cost of living crisis. I am more concerned about people’s frustration over their household incomes and the hardship that they are expected to face in these times. People are turning off appliances and heating when it is cold to save money, because that is what they have been told they have to do, when all the time, energy companies are keeping vast amounts of their money in their bank accounts while people struggle.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does this not speak to a need for wholesale reform of how people are charged for and pay for their electricity? He is right that customers who pay by direct debit build up significant credit balances, and the energy companies can earn interest on that, but customers who pay by prepayment meters are paying up front for energy that they have not used, and they often pay a higher premium and higher standing charges. The people who can least afford it, which is often customers on prepayment meters, are paying the most. This is another injustice that has to be resolved.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. It speaks to the way the cards are stacked against consumers and users in favour of the energy companies. The position that people find themselves in does not seem to be met with any sympathy across the industry—it is just a fact of life; they are collateral in the game of business. That is not the way we should look at people. As I said, people are turning appliances off even when they are in credit with the energy companies.

Customers have reported being made to jump through hoops to get their credit back, and the only rules for timescales implemented by Ofgem apply when accounts are closed. Does the hon. Member agree that Ofgem should have the power to be stricter with suppliers, in line with its purpose to protect customers?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will spend a bit of time later talking about Ofgem and powers that the Government might take forward in relation to working with Ofgem.

As I said, people are turning things off even when they are in credit. I believe every Member of this House should be more concerned that the property of customers of energy companies is being held hostage, without the explicit permission of those customers; the money does not belong to the energy companies. Things should and must change.

I started this campaign in January. By coincidence, Alex Lawson, a Guardian journalist, did some research into the subject and uncovered the fact that

“suppliers had hoarded an estimated £9 billion of customer cash by November last year”.

In his investigation, he pointed out that Centrica had £400 million of customer deposits; Octopus Energy had £660 million; and E.ON, OVO Energy, EDF and ScottishPower refused to say how much money they had from customers whose accounts were in credit. It is not the energy companies’ money.

I contacted the suppliers in preparation for the debate. The response I received from Utilita about high credit balances defended its customer service and the way it looks after its customers, but I was struck by a paragraph in which it said:

“Other companies such as Ovo, Octopus and Bulb have significant customer credit balances in their accounts. Indeed Octopus recently published its accounts for the year ending March 2022 in which it shows £221 million—strange to have such high credit balances at the end of winter! Perhaps their ‘innovative practices’ are not working as intended. The article by George Nixon that appeared in the Times on Saturday 28th January 2023, ‘How to get your money back from your energy supplier’ mentioned virtually all the larger suppliers (all of which had either minor or no weaknesses in their direct debit processes according to Ofgem).”

I am not giving Utilita a free pass, but it is telling that it is willing to make that comment.

In the highlands and islands, a great number of people subscribe to what used to be called the hydro board. When Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks took that over, many accounts simply transferred, and OVO Energy recently took over all those accounts. Because of that, I may receive a particularly high number of complaints about practices at OVO, so I state that at the outset. At the start of the pandemic, OVO received an £8.9 million fine for communication and billing issues. As mentioned, OVO has declined to give an average customer credit balance. Again I state: that is not its money and it is refusing to tell us how much it has.

My inbox shows that constituents’ problems with OVO are manifest regarding billing and metering. I have picked a sample of messages from people who have come to me, one of whom has allowed me to use their name and details, for which I am grateful. To get through to OVO, many of my constituents have had to spend up to

“4.5 hours on hold on the telephone.”

This is a company that says there are simple things people can do to sort their accounts.

OVO will not send some customers monthly bills, insisting that “Total Heating with Total Control” bills are provided quarterly. One constituent received three bills in one month: one showed that they owed £680, which they paid; one showed £300 in credit; and another in the same month said that they owed £1,000. I will return to this issue, because it is an important factor in the way these companies work with people’s money. They have consistently failed to fix faulty meters, with 18 months of changed dates and timeframes in one case.

The constituent I mentioned, to whom I am very grateful, is Mrs Frances Raw, who is a widow on a state pension. The Minister will be aware that the state pension is £611.64 per month. She has been asked to pay more than £236 a month, and the company wants to raise her direct debit. It thinks that she is going to use more energy, which is the justification for putting up her direct debit, but Mrs Raw is sitting on a credit balance of £1,796.36.

By any measure, it is a disgrace to put somebody under that kind of pressure. It is a failure in a duty to care, and a failure to do good business; and it is a failure that it is not being properly regulated, as we need to prevent that happening to people such as Mrs Raw. She has been brave enough to allow me to use her name, and I thank her one more time. I know how difficult it is for constituents to come forward and say they have an issue, and that it is okay to talk about it. It is very rare for people to do that, and I am extremely grateful to her.

Mrs Raw’s problems do not stop there. OVO keeps delaying changing her Total Heating with Total Control meter as well. This is destined to continue. I met Mrs Raw and she asked me if it would be possible to get some of her money back. I said, “No, Mrs Raw, you are entitled to all of your money back.” That is what everybody should get in these circumstances. It should not be a matter of someone begging to get their money back; it should happen automatically.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The £,1000 or more credit balance on his constituent’s account is not just sitting there doing nothing. It is sitting in a company’s bank account earning interest, and contributing to the profits of that company. I wonder how the companies would feel if they were required to apply interest to customers’ credit accounts. Perhaps they would suddenly be incentivised to support the customers.

My hon. Friend makes a terrific point, which has been running through my mind. When these companies hold customers’ money, they are using it for whatever purpose they might have, rather than the customers being able to earn interest or pay their bills. These companies may well be using it for gaining their own interest. Some people might consider that theft. Some people might consider that using other people’s money to benefit themselves, without the permission of the people who own the money. That is not good enough. It is not their money; it is the customers’ money and it belongs with them.

The hon. Member makes a very good point. These companies are using that customer credit as spending capital. Does he agree that it could be propping up unstable or unsuitable business models? That is why they are reliant on that money, but at the end of the day it belongs to the consumer.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. There has been a great deal of debate in the industry about the practice of ringfencing, and whether that should be carried forward. I might touch on that shortly. The fact is that this money is being used in an incorrect way, whether it is propping up a company or aiding a company that needs it to survive, in a way that is not normal in business.

Notwithstanding the good point made by the hon. Lady, it is almost beside the point. The fact is that this money should not be used by companies, without the explicit permission of the people who have that money with them. Do not forget, they are not offering a shareholding to those customers. They are not saying, “Because you have a credit, as other people might have a credit with our company and have bought shares, we will give you back a dividend.” They are not applying any dividend. They are just keeping the money, and it is not their money.

I have some personal experience with OVO because, having started this campaign and looked into what was happening, I studied my own account, and lo and behold, I had a credit sitting on my account that I was not aware of, so I did some digging around. I have a smart meter that was installed and, despite several complaints and even a change of meter, OVO has still not been able to rectify the issue, so I have some sympathy for people who are not getting correct readings and are getting incorrect bills.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The absolute crux of this is, as he says, protecting customers’ credit. I have an example of the opposite thing. I went to switch supplier, then I got a bill for £1,000 because I had been inaccurately billed for so long. That could have tied me to that supplier for a long time, because I might not have been able to afford to switch. It shows another failure in the market and failure in the billing process. Does my hon. Friend agree?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to say this, but the point that he makes underlines the fact that in certain parts of this industry, these companies are behaving like it is the wild west. Almost anything goes; almost anything is okay for them to get away with regarding customer service, accuracy and the errors that they make. By the way, undercharging is not uncommon. It is something that constituents have brought to me. People suddenly finding that they have been undercharged is also an issue and it is just as unfair. However, I want to get back to the main thrust of the debate, which is the fact that companies are holding on to money.

Part of the problem is the confusion around billing. I mentioned my own experience. I wanted to check what was happening, because some of my constituents were saying that they were getting email bills and they did not tally with what was coming through on the apps that they were being encouraged to use. I want to touch on apps and other things in a moment, but I looked at my 15 January bill and, according to the email bill that I received, I was due £181.95 for electricity. That is fair enough, but I looked it up on the app for the same period, and I was due £215.03 for electricity. What chance do people have if that is the kind of information that we are allowing energy companies to deal with? I did not come as a constituent with a complaint; I did this after investigation on my own account. There are lots of people out there who are seeing this on a monthly basis or, as I said, on a quarterly basis sometimes; they are seeing that their bills are inaccurate or confusing. That confusion is a key point, because if there is a wish to avoid paying back money that people have paid into the account and is too much, in certain quarters it might be considered convenient that people might be confused about what they actually owe and what is actually in credit.

Centrica’s response was that it wanted to see customers’ funds that are paid in ringfenced and it was disappointed that Ofgem had rowed back on that requirement. It mentioned that customers can request a refund from companies, but again, I come back to the main point—it is not their money. Why should customers have to go begging for a refund? They should be entitled to get that money back as a matter of course.

ScottishPower does not pay back, but at least it adjusts direct debits downwards where customers have a credit balance. It says:

“Some…companies, while claiming that they provide credit back at the click of a button, may not be taking account of a customer’s credit balance when setting that customer’s monthly charge. If they had a customer whose credit was £500 and their annual energy bill was projected to be £2,000, they set their monthly payment at £167. This results in a £42 a month higher charge or £504 extra per year. This means the credit doesn’t go down and the supplier keeps it on their balance sheet”.

I am grateful to Scottish Power for that comment, but it is also guilty of keeping people’s money.

E.ON has also talked about favouring ringfencing, which means that customers’ money is kept in a separate place in their business, not in the main account, so there is some protection in case of bankruptcy, for example. E.ON says it refunds on request, and that it can flex direct debits by 10%. I am sorry—that is not enough. E.ON goes on to say:

“We are aware that a number of companies have used balances in the past to fund their own commercial activities.”

That should just simply not be allowed. They are using customers’ money.

Shell Energy says that all requests are triggered so it will pay them back; it talks about the licence conditions

“that ensure we don’t allow a customer to build up debt which guides us to set an appropriate DD to cover usage across the year and adjust if it won't cover usage”,

and about the option to choose a variable direct debit. There are some meagre attempts out there to try to smooth out this situation for people, but it is simply not enough.

We have to look at how Ofgem regulates. Ofgem was happy to respond to me on this issue, but its letter said:

“Unfortunately, Ofgem does not advise on or get involved in individual cases.”

It is my belief that Ofgem does not look at individual cases; it is not looking at the real lived experience of people in the energy market at the moment. It is just not doing that, and that is a view backed up by Christine Farnish, a former Ofgem board member, who says firms are collecting more than they absolutely need.

Ofgem suggests that customers who believe suppliers have amassed too much of their money contact the firm to ask for their money back—to ask for their money back! It is not good enough. The response from Ofgem is weak, and not good enough.

I hope I have laid out clearly today some of the problems out there. I am only scratching the surface of customer issues; I have not mentioned a number of people who have been in touch with us. We need a mechanism for returning automatically overpaid amounts. The energy companies should print credit balances in green at the top of bills, with a notice advising customers of their rights; there should be a mandate for direct debits to account for credits when being sent out; and there should be a duty on suppliers to declare their total credit balances openly to the public.

Finally, I repeat this point: this money is not the energy companies’ money. I tell everybody out there to check their bills: look at them carefully. If they do not understand them, make a call, or get in touch with an MP or anybody else—Citizens Advice, or anybody who can help. Check the bills. If there is a credit amount, the bill payer should alert the company to the fact that they want every penny of that back, because that money is not the energy company’s money. I say to all those people: it is your money.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful to be called at relatively short notice. I echo a lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) has said and I congratulate him on securing the debate.

Many people nowadays are used to paying subscription models for services or products, for mobile phones or the use of the gym, or for online streaming services, but, by and large, what you pay for is what you get. The energy model is slightly more uncommon.

Of course it is very helpful for customers’ budgeting and planning to know that if they are on a direct debit and paying into that model, a regular amount will come out of their bank account over the course of the year. Yes, perhaps there will be a small credit balance, because generally energy usage during the summer will be slightly less than during the winter, but over the course of the year we would expect that to balance out. But what my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey has demonstrated—and what many of our own inboxes will demonstrate as customers start to pay close attention to their bills because of the high cost of energy and the other increasing costs of living—is that people are starting to discover a very significant failure in that model. Perhaps, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) has suggested, they are even discovering failures more widely in the energy market and system as a whole.

What is particularly disappointing is the number of issues that people seem to be having with their smart meters. By the sound of things, several of us here have personal experience of these matters, let alone the cases that come to our surgeries and our inboxes. Smart meters were supposed to make all these issues a thing of the past; people would know exactly what their usage was and would pay exactly for what they had used, and as a result would be incentivised to be more efficient with their energy use, which is better for their own personal finances—and, of course, much better for the environment, if we can reduce energy consumption and emissions.

Instead, people are getting readings that make no sense—that do not appear to match with their own perceived usage, at least—and the energy companies, for whatever reason, are using the opportunity to adjust direct debits, sometimes without any say-so; people sign up in advance for an adjustment of a direct debit and suddenly find that it has gone up, or maybe gone down. That negates the whole point of smart meters enabling them to budget. Smart meters were supposed to avoid such problems entirely, but in fact those problems seem to be increasing.

I heard from a gas engineer that some models of smart meter were designed to operate in climates that are very different from ours, so if they have been installed outside that can be a reason why readings do not make an awful lot of sense or do not appear to match up.

As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, although we are largely talking about people who pay by direct debit or in arrears, this situation is also affecting customers who pay by prepayment meters. The issue of prepayment meters has been discussed at great length, so I know the Government are aware of it and are trying to take action, but we have all argued repeatedly that there is more that they can do, which comes back to my hon. Friend’s recommendations.

For people who use prepayment meters in the way that they are designed to be used, the companies are getting that money up front—when the energy has not even been used. That is one of the key questions that the energy companies ought to answer and perhaps ought to be required to answer, either by the Government or Ofgem, or by any other mechanism by which they can be held to account. What are they doing with that money? I ask that question because, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend, it is not a balance just sitting there on an account; it is clearly not there for a customer to draw down as they see fit. It is clearly being used for other purposes: either to prop up the company elsewhere in its operations, or to earn very tidy interest because of course interest rates are going up. It is either contributing to the vast profits of the company or it is being used to shore up other parts of the company that may be having difficulties.

If the energy companies were required, as we suggested, to consider what benefit they gain from maintaining that money in their accounts, and had to recognise that in the form of discounts or an interest payment back to the customer, perhaps they would suddenly start moving a lot faster.

I agree with all the recommendations that my hon. Friend has made about how bills should be published and presented to consumers, so that they know exactly what their balance is and have the opportunity to draw that money down as quickly and on demand as they want. The company should have an obligation to do that. If they do not have such an obligation, we should look at how they can be incentivised to do so, or penalised if they are not going to respect their consumers. We want an energy market that functions effectively and well. We want to encourage people to reduce their demand on the system, which helps the environment, the ageing infrastructure, and the bank balances of our constituents—the consumers. The energy companies have to realise that they have got away with a lot of these things for too long, and the wider market now needs to be scrutinised in serious detail.

I end by quoting my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, who said several times during the debate: this is not the energy companies’ money; this is money that our constituents—their consumers—have earned and have paid, expecting a service in return. It is not for companies to keep and profiteer from that money. If it is not being spent and does not reflect the consumer’s energy usage, it should be returned to the consumer so that they can use it to meet the increasing cost of living and other personal expenditure.

We move on to the Front-Bench spokespeople. They have about 20 minutes each if they really want to take it, but that is entirely up to them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I reassure you that I will not take 20 minutes, which I am sure will please everybody.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) for bringing forward this important debate. As he said, the debate is about people’s money and their legitimate access to it. As you alluded to, Mr Betts, it is surprising that we are hearing from the Front-Bench spokespeople at 10 o’clock in the morning in this important debate. Given how many of us have been contacted by constituents who feel that they have been fleeced, and who are worried about turning on their heating and being able to eat, that is surprising. I suppose we can deal only with who is here.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey on how he set the tone for the debate. He said he would not list Government failures or attack the Government, and that he wanted to work with the Minister. That is commendable. I am not sure that I will be able to avoid criticising the Government, but we will come to that later. As my hon. Friend said, this debate is about people’s money; it is about people’s credit and what the companies do with it. I will turn to some of the examples he gave, particularly those in which people are in credit—effectively, companies owe them money—who should be secure, yet they are so frightened that they do not turn on their heating because they hear about the cost of living crisis. That struck me.

I pay tribute to the Wise Group, which works with vulnerable people. I was at an event last night, and heard an example of somebody the organisation engaged with. This individual was on a prepayment meter. They were so concerned about the cost of energy that they were scrimping on what they were eating so that they could put a £700 credit balance on their meter. They wanted to build up some form of insurance, as they saw it, by building up a £700 credit on their prepayment meter—a massive up-front payment. I cannot understand why that individual was not contacted by the energy company and asked why they had put so much money on their meter and whether everything was okay. It took engagement from the Wise Group to resolve the issue.

My hon. Friend’s point about fear is something that I perhaps did not cover enough in my remarks. The issue is not only that people fear not having enough to pay a bill. It has been in common parlance that we should be worried about energy costs, and people are really worrying. There is also the fear that, when people are struggling to get by—I do not know how many people in this room this will resonate with—and a bill comes in, they sometimes do not want to look at it or acknowledge that it is there; they put it away. People might panic about their bills without realising that they actually have money. My hon. Friend’s point about people’s fear is central to the fact that people should be getting their money back.

I absolutely agree. That fear and the stress that comes with it were observed by the Wise Group in its report. Some 66% of people the group engaged with believe that their mental health has suffered because of the fear and concerns they have about dealing with the cost of energy. That has further detrimental impacts on individuals, but also consequential effects for the NHS and society.

In his fine contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey mentioned the struggle to get proper information about the companies’ credit balances and how that is not transparent. Why is that? Back in 2018, Ofgem estimated that companies would hold surplus credit balances of somewhere between £600 million and £1.4 billion. How can the regulator itself look into the matter and not get an accurate figure? It beggars belief. We are now nearly five years down the line, and we still have no idea how much money these companies are holding. It is outrageous. I call on Ofgem to fully get a grip of this matter.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said, there should be transparent reporting, because we need a clear understanding of what these companies are holding. Had we had that understanding previously, we would not have had so many retail companies going bust because they did not have sufficient money and capital. Just reporting customers’ credit balances would give an indication of that, as well. It is concerning to hear about these companies’ performances, particularly OVO. I also pay credit to Mrs Raw for allowing that example to be given. Imagine a customer who is £1,000 in credit being asked to increase their direct debits.

I just want to underline the point that it is £1,796—nearly £2,000. That is nearly a year’s worth of bills. It is an absolute scandal.

I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying that. It brings me to the two points: first, the credit balances; and secondly, the direct debits being increased. As The Times reported in December 2022, there is a real fear that companies were basically gaming the system by massively increasing the direct debits. I know this from anecdotal evidence from constituents, and I have tried to raise this with Ministers. I was afraid that when companies saw the Government energy support coming down the line, they were increasing direct debits and putting people on higher tariffs, because that would give them a bigger subsidy back from the Government. I really hope that the Government will look at that. It is commendable to give energy support to each household, but we need to ensure that householders, taxpayers and bill payers get 100% of the benefit of that, instead of companies gaming the system. That is another aspect to consider.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey for doing the work up front, and speaking with individual companies to try to get details about individual policies. It is certainly concerning that ScottishPower has said, “Yes, we’ll adjust the direct debit, but in doing so we are actually still keeping that credit balance,” which is the company keeping money for itself. I disagree slightly on Centrica and E.ON, because it is commendable, at least, that they want a system that ringfences and protects customers’ credit balances, although that should be the bare minimum. Why should customer credit not be protected? That should not even be up for debate. Some companies do automatic returns at year end, such as EDF, which is probably an acceptable way to work.

Returning to the key issue, this is the basic principle: credit is customers’ money that they have paid in advance to the energy company. It is logical that their money should be protected, and that they should be able to access it if needed. However, we also have to acknowledge that a system that allows customers to build up credit does allow smoother, equal payments over the calendar year, equalising payments over summer and winter. There are benefits in such a system: it allows steady, monthly payments, so that people can understand what they are paying and—in theory, if the smart meter and billing system work properly, which is unfortunately not always the case—will not get sudden increases in bills landing on their doorstep, causing further concern. We have to admit that allowing customers to build up credit is also to the customer’s advantage, because it smooths out their payments. We should not lose sight of that.

To be fair, if every single customer decided to access their credit at the end of the summer, the system would not work properly either. If customers withdraw all that credit, and then build up debit in the winter, companies will need to capitalise more, which means borrowing more, which means actual bills will go up. There needs to be some sort of balance overall, whereby we ensure customer balances are protected and accessed, otherwise bills will unfortunately end up going up in the long run anyway.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. I am taking advantage of the time that we have, Mr Betts—I apologise for the number of interventions, but this is an important point to clarify. The point he makes about having a fair mechanism in place to ensure that people are not being treated punitively over their credit balance is important. I hope the Minister will look at that to ensure that people are protected.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend, and it will be good to hear the ministerial response. I said that I did not think I would be able to get through my speech without criticising the Government, so here it comes: companies using customer credit as working cash flow is what caused the market failure. That market failure was on the Government’s watch, and Ofgem was asleep at the wheel. Since the retail energy market has failed, we still have an inadequate response on how the Government and Ofgem will deal with this. It is outrageous that these companies went bust having used customers’ credit and then walked away, but then there is the double whammy of all the other bill payers paying the next company to restore the customers’ credit. We are paying twice, with other bill payers footing the bill.

I am also a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Initially, we had a one-off hearing when companies started to go bust. The then Secretary of State and now former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), appeared in front of the Committee. His attitude was that, “Companies come, companies go. It is a free market; that is what happens. We know that some companies tend to go bust when it is time to pay their renewables obligations.” That laissez-faire attitude that the free market knows best is just ridiculous, and it shows that he was unsuited to be the Chancellor. It is funny how he did not like how the free market operated when he saw the effects of his policies. That meant he was putting his hands up and saying, “It is okay. We don’t mind companies going bust, owing customers money or owing money for renewables obligations”. The renewables obligation is supposed to fund energy-efficiency upgrades, help us towards net zero and help lower people’s bills. It was a dereliction of duty, and what he said in front of the Committee genuinely shocked me.

It was crystal clear at that time that companies must have sufficient capital and a robust assessment must be in place for any new entrants to the market. There needs to be an ongoing assessment, especially as we have seen the cost of buying energy increase, and Ofgem needs to clearly and periodically check that companies still have access to enough capital. I am trying to be balanced, though. There is another benefit to companies having some customer credit on the books, and that helps in the advanced purchase or hedging of energy—for looking ahead—which smooths out risk. Again, as long as companies are not overly reliant on customer credit balances and there is a robust system in place that assesses how much customer credit is being used for that hedging and that look-ahead, that is okay but, again, this is unfortunately another failure of Government. When Bulb, the seventh biggest energy company, went bust, it was too big to go through the normal process of another company picking it up, so it was the first company to begin the supplier of last resort administration process. The Government did not allow them to hedge ahead, costing taxpayers up to £1 billion more. Companies must be able to operate and hedge ahead, but that comes back to having the right capital in place.

It is unfortunate that Ofgem has flip-flopped on customer credit and how to deal with this since 2018. Of course, in that period from 2018 to 2022 30 companies went bust, while Ofgem was still dithering and wondering what to do. It is time that Ofgem came up with a solution. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey for what he has proposed. As he says, this is customers’ money. I refer the Minister to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report published in July 2022 called “Energy pricing and the future of the energy market”. Key recommendations 117 and 118 address customer credit, particularly 118, which is about Ofgem coming up with a system that manages these complexities and reporting back to the Committee and Government to agree a way forward. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response because there has not been a suitable Government response to the report as yet—I look forward to hearing more. The point is that customers’ money should be protected. To throw in one last request, it is high time we got a social tariff to protect those that need it most and a much fairer system of paying for our energy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) on securing the debate. I share hon. Members’ disappointment that the Chamber is not more full this morning, because this issue is really important as regards the overall life of energy companies. Most importantly, as the hon. Member said—I am happy to repeat it—it is not the companies’ money but the customers’ money that is being used in such a way.

We know from the record what the large sum floating about in energy companies’ bank balances is used for—we cannot get an accurate picture, but £9 billion is probably not too far adrift—and we know how disastrous that is on occasion for the overall operation of those companies. Between the middle of 2021 and the summer of last year, we had the unfortunate experience of 28 energy companies going bust. Some research was done into what those bust companies had been doing with credit balances. A company called Oxera, commissioned by Ofgem, did a research project on seven failed energy suppliers that found that most of the companies did not just use credit balances, but were reliant on them for their business models.

Oxera stated that the companies,

“relied on receiving customer balances prior to the provision of services. Suppliers used these prepayments to fund the ongoing costs of the business and to act as a buffer against any short-term shocks. They then relied on growth in the customer base to keep ahead of future liabilities, making the strategy unsustainable in the long term during times when growth slows down”.

This was not just an accident of balances appearing in companies’ accounts because they had not accurately worked out what to do with direct debits. It was an integral part of the companies’ business model—or so they thought at the time—to accelerate their progress by using customers’ money to borrow ahead and fund their expansion, and of course they came horribly adrift as a result of the slowdown in the market.

The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), underlined the other part of that dreadful arrangement. When those companies went bust, the credit balances that they held had gone. The companies that took over through the supplier of last resort arrangement looked at the books and found that there were no credit balances in the books because the companies had borrowed and then gone bust, and they had to restore the balances to their new customers. That is what they did in most instances, but they then billed Ofgem for the work they had done to restore credit balances to those customers after the companies had gone bust, and they were paid for doing that. Guess who paid for those companies to restore the credit balances? The customer. It was socialised across their bills, so bills went up as a result of companies borrowing money, going bust and having to have those credit amounts restored.

The system is not just thoroughly rotten but systemically rotten. I do not want to resort to anecdotes, but I will talk about a recent experience I had—a small straw in the wind—when I changed my parliamentary flat. It is a one-bedroom flat that I inhabit now and again. I went to set up a direct debit, and the company quoted me £350 a month to start. I am sure it is a coincidence that it is exactly the sum that the Government have put up for the average household bills. I said, “This is just not right. You can’t start a direct debit at £350 on a small flat like that. I think I would prefer a smaller sum of £150.” We had a long argument on the phone, and the person eventually agreed, but I found when I went into my account that they had stuck with the £350. I had to have further phone calls to say, “I am not paying that amount of money in a direct debit per month. Can you put it down, please?”

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman is talking about his personal experience. I looked into this on a personal basis and found that what my constituents were saying was true. What he has just relayed is the real difficulty in communicating with companies that are setting these arbitrary figures, and of course in the process building up credit balances. Does he agree that this poor communication and confusion is a far more common problem than perhaps even we in this Chamber expect?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Had I not had a reasonably informed view of how direct debits work, I may well have just said, “Okay, I’ll go with that,” with the inevitable result that I would have built up a huge credit balance. That would have been good for the company’s working practices. I do not know whether it was an instruction from the company that the person should start with a high direct debit and then argue down, but it looked to me like they should not have been engaging in that practice.

After various companies went bust, Ofgem started looking at companies’ financial resilience, and that process is continuing. There have been a couple of reports and processes. Among them, Ofgem suggested a couple of arrangements that might help with this scandal of how much is in credit balances—money that is not for companies to use. It proposed that credit balances should be restored to nought at the end of each contract year, even if customers had not requested it. I take the point that, in general, it is often in the customer’s interest to smooth payments out over the year, so that higher bills in certain parts of the year are countered by lower bills at other times, and the overall account can be smoothed out, but there is no justification for a large ongoing credit balance in the company’s books after the end of the contract year.

That seemed a good plan from Ofgem, but it decided not to proceed, on the grounds that quite extraordinarily—guess what?—a number of companies responded to the consultation saying, “We would really like to keep the credit balances because it is very helpful to us.” Ofgem concluded that the proposal might be a bit complicated, so it has not been proceeded with, so the situation of rolling credit balances in companies’ books continues.

Another financial resilience proposal from Ofgem was that a company’s customer accounts should be ringfenced. The company might hold the credit balances on its books for the purposes of smoothing customers’ accounts, but they should be in a separate account, since that was not the company’s money; the money should not be usable for other purposes. The company may get some interest, but the money should not be used as working capital.

Ofgem consulted on that proposal. Again, a number of energy companies responded and said, “No, we don’t think that is a good idea, because that might cause us some problems with our working practices.” So Ofgem decided not to proceed with that proposal either, and there is no ringfenced money—except where, and I am finding it hard not to laugh, a company is thought by Ofgem to be in some financial distress. Then it might decide to ringfence the balances so that they could be rescued when the company went bust and not be used to pay further bills in cases such as those when the supplier of last resort took over the bust company only to find that all the money had gone. Presumably, thanks to Ofgem’s intervention, all the money would not be gone in these cases. That is perhaps a sort of progress, but it is not exactly the sort of progress anybody in this Chamber would see as a serious attempt to address the issue.

My concern is not that the matter has not been looked at by the regulator; it is that the regulator has failed to implement the more or less common-sense measures necessary to ensure that where there are credit balances, they are used for the purposes for which they are intended—smoothing over accounts and nothing else. After all, as the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said, this is not the companies’ money. The companies should use it on the basis that they have permission from the customer to keep it on trust for the customer, for their bills, and not for the company’s own purposes. That should be the central principle of this whole arrangement in the future.

I congratulate the Minister on her good practice in talking to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. I hope that that good ministerial practice will wash over into good practice on energy companies. She might have a quiet-ish word with Ofgem and say, “Maybe your consultations and discussions on financial resilience did not work out quite as we all hoped. Could you reopen the matter and have another look?”

The principle on which we all agree is that people’s money is there in trust. It is not there for the companies to use; it is there only for the purpose of smoothing out bills. That is the principle that Ofgem ought to apply to protect customers, but I am sorry to say that in this instance that has not happened. It would be great if the Minister addressed that. I hope that she will respond positively and get on the phone to Ofgem to see what can be done.

It is a pleasure to be here. I thank the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) for securing the debate and for meeting me yesterday to discuss the matter. That was important for me, because I am new in the role and it is important to have our eyes wide open when we take such a role on. I want to make it clear that the customer has to be at the heart of all we do. If there is any point to which I am unable to respond, given my newness in the role, I am happy to write to hon. Members.

The Government welcome steps to increase customer awareness and engagement. We believe that energy suppliers need to ensure, now more than ever, that customers do not build up large credit balances. Suppliers should not be sitting on money that is not needed to pay for the energy that a customer is using. An account might move between credit and debit over the course of a year, in line with energy demand, but accounts should not build up an excessive credit balance. I concur with the hon. Member: it is the customers’ money.

The Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero wrote to the energy suppliers in November and urged them to ensure that their IT systems are more responsive to changes. I note the point about the app; I had not heard about that, but we will look into it. The Secretary of State called on suppliers to ensure that direct debits are more accurate and that customers do not end up with large credit balances on their accounts. He has also urged Ofgem to ensure that suppliers are complying with the rules.

Ofgem requires energy suppliers to review their customers’ direct debit arrangements at least once a year. Most review them twice a year. As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey has mentioned and has noted in his campaign, it is important to have accurate and regular meter readings. That is easily done by having a smart meter fitted so that readings are sent automatically to the supplier and stored electronically. I note, and will look into, the comments about smart meters not always being fit for purpose.

With the combination of a smart meter and an online account, customers and suppliers both have an accurate and up-to-date record of energy usage to hand. That is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that direct debits are at the right level, but I note the examples of customers not finding it to be the easiest of things. I have been reflecting on my father, who will not like my admitting to his age of 88; it is certainly a problem for older customers and others who will not necessarily have access to the app or the IT, so I will look at that. Elderly customers and those who are less able to engage have a dedicated helpline run by the supplier or the citizens advice bureau. However, I understand from my conversation yesterday with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey that customers might not always know that, so we need to look into that.

In August 2022, Ofgem changed the licence conditions on suppliers to ensure that direct debits are based on the best and most current information available in all cases. The tightening of the licence conditions should reduce the likelihood of suppliers accruing excessive credit balances. Ofgem requires suppliers to explain the reasons for any changes that they make to a customer’s direct debit arrangement and to inform them of any change at least 10 days in advance. A customer may challenge a proposed increase and ask for a revised level. However, as has been acknowledged in today’s discussion, that option is not always readily available and the customer may not always recognise that it is there, so we need to reach out to ensure that they know how to ask for it.

A customer can ask their supplier to refund a credit balance at any time. Suppliers must do so promptly. If a supplier refuses to give the customer a refund, it must explain why it is unable to do so. If the customer is not happy with the situation, they should lodge a complaint with the supplier. I am aware that there are often complaints about suppliers increasing direct debit amounts; I have said as much to the Secretary of State, who has urged improvement. We must ensure that refusal by suppliers is not allowed. My understanding is that suppliers have so far not refused to refund a credit balance. I discussed the matter yesterday with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, but I am happy to look into it more fully.

If a customer remains unhappy with the outcome of their complaint to their supplier, they can reach out to the energy ombudsman. Ombudsman Services, an independent body that provides dispute resolution and is free for customers, can investigate and where appropriate oblige the supplier to rectify the situation. Customers can also contact their supplier at any time to request a review of their direct debit arrangement. The review should be based on their annual consumption, using actual data or, where that is not available, estimated data. Customers can often change the direct debit themselves via the supplier’s website, over the phone or via their bank. However, it is much better for the supplier to get it right in the first instance, and that is what I want to see.

As has been acknowledged, the advantage for customers of paying for energy with a fixed direct debit or standing order is that they pay the supplier the same amount at regular intervals—usually monthly—irrespective of how much energy they have consumed. Customers typically build up a credit balance on their account over spring and summer because they use less energy for heating during those warmer periods. The credit balance is then drawn on during the colder autumn and winter periods, when more energy is consumed. Actual energy use will vary and is dependent on weather conditions. We must be mindful that this is the customer’s money we are talking about.

It is important to clarify one thing. There is no dispute that energy suppliers, if pushed, will return credit balances, but “if pushed” are the active words. Many of my constituents have told me that there are sometimes barriers to getting their money back. “You don’t want to do that, do you? You should really take a smaller amount”—that is the message. As I commented earlier, Ofgem seems to be missing on the issue.

I noticed that point in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Maybe we should look at whether there could be some automatic repayment. I believe that that has been looked into before, but I am certainly prepared to do so and to give an assurance on that.

Everybody here welcomes what the Minister says about looking at automatic refunds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) said, Ofgem does not currently require refund requests to be processed within a specific time. It is only if a customer closes their account to switch that there are stipulations on the time period in which their credit must be returned. The issue in the short term is that the companies are not obliged to keep to a timescale to return the credit, so I welcome the Minister’s comments about automatic refunds.

I thank the hon. Member. This is an important debate, not only because it is on an important topic, but because it is important for me to listen and understand the issues.

Ofgem recently provided a progress update. It has opened formal compliance engagement with 12 suppliers and has required them to submit remedial action plans to address its concerns. To date, Ofgem has satisfactorily resolved 95% of the concerns and has secured several supplier improvements in relation to policies, processes and controls, credit balance arrangements and staff training.

Ofgem has proposed further measures to protect consumer credit balances. The reforms would require suppliers to have enough working capital to run without needing to rely on customer credit balances, about which concern has been illustrated today. The reforms should further ensure that suppliers do not gain a financial advantage from holding credit balances. Ofgem’s reforms will mean that when an energy supplier fails and Ofgem’s safety net quickly moves the customers to a new energy supplier, the customer credit balances with the failed supplier are limited in size and can, where necessary, be ringfenced.

I was unaware of the problem with smart meters, which I will certainly look into. I mentioned the app problem; I was unaware that there was an inconsistency between the reports from the app and from the website, but I am happy to look into that.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey for securing the debate and for his campaign to encourage customers to take more control over their energy account balances. I also thank him for noting that we must ensure that we are as helpful as possible. Customers must be at the heart of this, because it is the consumer who is affected.

The Government and Ofgem are taking clear and firm action to ensure that customers are treated fairly, are protected and receive good service. The Energy Security Secretary has written to energy suppliers about the importance of setting direct debit payments more accurately. He has also made it clear that protecting consumers is a top priority for this Government. Finally, one of the early meetings that I will have in my new role will be with the Ofgem CEO. I shall press him on what can be done to ensure that customers get their money back swiftly and easily, and to prevent suppliers from building up consumer credit balances.

Once again, it has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I will not speak for long, but I want briefly to cover a few points from the debate.

I thank the Minister for the open and helpful way in which she responded. Such a response is a breath of fresh air in this place. I look forward to working with her to solve these problems for people who are struggling in their homes. I thank the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), for his comments, which were spot on.

All hon. Members in this debate have shown—perhaps more diplomatically, in the Minister’s case—that Ofgem is not stepping up to the plate. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for their comments, which were helpful in underlining the plight that people face. People’s money is being held captive. It is their money and they should have it back.

May I again be clear about some of the asks? An easy ask is for a clear, printed credit balance at the top of bills so that people can see their credit. That is easy to solve right away so that people can understand their bills. We need plain language billing. A click of a button is not the answer for everybody out there, because not everybody can do it. I have constituents who do not have email, let alone a computer or a smartphone, so that is not the answer for everybody.

The Minister talked about helplines. She is absolutely right that helplines should be available, but the problem is that often they are not. If they are available, they can be quite obstructive and there can be enormous delays getting through. There has to be a better system.

The Minister referred to having the best available information for direct debits. She is right that that is how it should be, but the system is clearly not working. There are many examples of information not being taken into account.

The debate has been helpful in raising the issue, and hon. Members’ contributions have been welcome. I hope we can go forward, working together as a group to ensure that we solve the problem and make it clear to people that the money that is being held by companies does not belong to those companies. I say to every consumer, “Check this out, because it is your money.”

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered regulation of customer credit retained by energy suppliers.

Sitting suspended.

Smart Motorways

[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Transport Committee of Session 2021-22, Rollout and safety of smart motorways, HC 26, and the Government response, HC 1020; Oral evidence taken before the Transport Committee on 20 July 2022 on Smart motorways: progress update, HC 606.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered smart motorways.

As ever, it is a real pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Betts. I know that, as the MP for a neighbouring constituency, you are very aware of this topic, so thank you.

On the morning of 7 June 2019, Jason Mercer said goodbye to his wife, Claire, and left for work. While travelling on the M1 near Rotherham, he was involved in a minor collision. Two years prior to the collision, the hard shoulder on that section of motorway had been converted into a full-time running lane. Local authorities, emergency services and local people had all objected to that, but were ignored. With no emergency refuge nearby, and with the hard shoulder removed, Mr Mercer and his fellow motorist stopped on the inside lane of the motorway to exchange details. Minutes later, both were dead. With a steep bank immediately behind the safety barrier, Mr Mercer was unable to move out of the live lane. Their vehicles were hit by a lorry, and both men were killed instantly. The stationary vehicles were not detected by the then Highways England for more than six minutes. The lane in which they were stranded was closed only after both men had been killed. Mr Mercer’s was one of 79 lives claimed on Britain’s growing smart motorway network in the period up to July 2022.

Since their inception, the alarm has been raised repeatedly about all-lane-running motorways. In 2016, the Select Committee on Transport found that the attendant safety risks of all-lane-running motorways had not been addressed. It recommended:

“The Department should not proceed with a major motorway programme on the basis of cost savings while major safety concerns continue to exist.”

Five years later, in 2021, the Committee again criticised the smart motorway programme, noting that

“the promised safety improvements were delivered neither efficiently nor effectively.”

It argued that safety risks

“should have been addressed before those motorways were rolled out.”

It is hard to escape the conclusion that had they been addressed, Jason Mercer might still be alive. Multiple inquests into deaths on smart motorways have said as much. In recording a verdict of unlawful killing, the inquest into Mr Mercer’s death listed five contributing factors, including the absence of a hard shoulder, the lack of stationary vehicle detection technology, and insufficient driver training on how smart motorways work. The inquest into the death of Sheffield-based Nargis Begum, killed in 2018 on the same stretch of the M1 as Mr Mercer, found that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to her death. Yet National Highways, inexplicably, continues to claim that smart motorways are safer than conventional motorways. Data that it offers to support that conclusion is misleading, to say the least.

The 2016 Select Committee report noted:

“The ‘smart’ in smart motorways does not come from the loss of the hard shoulder…It could be seen as disingenuous to present this change as part and parcel of ‘smart’ motorways. The Department cannot use a reduction in risk in some hazards to justify an increase in risk in others.”

The implementation of new safety features is of course welcome. The installation of stopped vehicle detection technology in particular is a much-needed safety feature. But it is far from a magic bullet. Although SVD can reduce the time that it takes to identify stopped vehicles, it is far from perfect.

The lack of a hard shoulder is inherently dangerous, particularly without frequent emergency refuges to provide a place of safety. The spacing of emergency refuges is one of the most concerning aspects of design changes made as the all-lane-running programme has developed. The initial pilot project saw refuges spaced at 400-to-800-metre intervals. In later designs, that was expanded to a frankly staggering 2,500 metres between refuge areas. That is more than 1.5 miles.

I commend the hon. Lady, who brings to Westminster Hall and the Chamber many issues that I support, and this is one of them. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. There are conflicting opinions on smart motorways and their safety. Northern Ireland has seen the introduction of smart motorway techniques, which in Northern Ireland are referred to as intelligent traffic systems. We have that on the A12 Westlink. We cannot ignore the fact that many fear smart motorways because of the arguments about no hard shoulder. Does the hon. Lady agree that before smart motorways are implemented, the Government must ensure that there is sufficient signage to make drivers aware of that? They may be driving on roads they have never been on before and not notice the change. More signage is needed before any more people panic or become involved in road traffic incidents.

I agree with every word the hon. Gentleman says.

Just imagine that someone is having a heart attack, their car is breaking down or they have been in an accident, and they then have to drive a mile and a half to get to a safe space of refuge. It is difficult to fathom. The only explanation that I can come up with is that a decision has been made on cost grounds, and that is hard to reconcile with the repeated claims of National Highways that its overriding priority is the safety of motorists.

The 2021 Select Committee report recommended that the roll-out be paused pending the collation and analysis of five years of safety data. The Government’s acceptance of that recommendation was welcome, but misleading. Not only do all-lane-running motorways continue to operate but, as the hon. Gentleman said, new schemes are being built and brought online. By spring of this year, four new sections of all-lane-running motorways will begin operation. While the Government dither, constituencies like mine continue to host death-trap roads. Make no mistake, all-lane-running motorways are death traps.

In 2014, with the road operating as a conventional motorway, an average of 14 vehicles became stranded in live lanes each month between junctions 32 and 35A of the M1. In 2018, the first year of all-lane running for the same stretch of motorway, a staggering 81 vehicles per month were stranded in live lanes. Each of those incidents represents a potential tragedy. Each saw a motorist stationary in high-speed traffic, hoping and praying that other motorists would see them in time—staring in terror at their rear-view mirror as vehicles hurtled towards them. And what is National Highways advice to motorists stranded in live lanes? Hon. Members will not believe this, but it is: “Keep your seatbelts on, turn on your hazard lights and call 999”. No place of refuge is available. Motorists are forced to wait and hope.

We are told that technology mitigates the risks—that stranded vehicles will be spotted quickly, that lanes will be closed and we will be safe—but even with stopped vehicle detection technology, it can still take several minutes to detect a stationary vehicle. Almost 10% of vehicles stopped in live lanes on smart motorways are not detected within a minute. Almost 2% are not detected within five minutes. Still worse, SVD does not even work properly. The Office of Rail and Road has disclosed that SVD has failed to meet key performance requirements on detection rates, speed of detection or even the number of false alerts. That is simply not good enough, and it makes the claim that all-lane-running motorways are safer than conventional motorways difficult to comprehend.

The hon. Lady is illustrating the issue well. I was sitting here and thinking about when someone is stuck on the hard shoulder and vehicles are going by at a speed in excess of 70 miles an hour. Does she agree that the speed factor contributes to how quickly they can stop, and that compounds the panic and fear?

If we have to stop on the hard shoulder, having those cars racing by is terrifying. If there is no hard shoulder and we are stuck in a live lane, we can see them coming, but we have no control other than to hope that our seatbelt works.

The claim that smart motorways—all-lane-running motorways—are safer than conventional ones is ridiculous. It is based largely on offsetting the safety risk that is introduced by removing the hard shoulder against the safety improvements that a managed environment delivers, but those two things are not mutually dependent. As a 2016 Select Committee pointed out, it is perfectly possible to introduce a managed environment while retaining the hard shoulder. National Highways should not continue to offset the safety improvements delivered by technology against the risk of removing the hard shoulder in an ever desperate effort to justify what it does.

Roads with safety features in place that retain the hard shoulder do exist, and they are called controlled motorways. It would seem logical to use them as a realistic point of comparison when determining relative safety, but that is a comparison that National Highways seems hugely reluctant to make. I have repeatedly questioned it about this and have requested a direct comparison between the rates of fatal incidents involving stationary vehicles in live lanes on controlled motorways and on all-lane-running motorways. It was with much kicking and screaming that the data was eventually published in the second year progress report. The comparison is truly shocking. The rate of incidents involving stopped vehicles in which someone was killed or seriously injured on controlled motorways was 0.06 per 100 million vehicle miles travelled. For all-lane-running motorways it was a staggering 0.19 per 100 million vehicle miles travelled.

In the name of increasing capacity on the cheap, National Highways has more than tripled the likelihood of serious incidents involving stationary vehicles. Given those risks, it is hard to overstate just how important the proper functioning of the managed environment is, and yet the technology is far from reliable. For the month of September 2022, the national availability of stopped vehicle detection technology was recorded at 98%, and for warning signs 90%. That might sound reassuring, but for crucial safety equipment, a failure rate of 2% and 10% is shocking. Would we trust a seatbelt that worked 90% of the time? It is not unreasonable to ask that those features work reliably before placing our lives in their hands.

Last month, technology across the network was down for several hours during planned maintenance on National Highways’ DYNAC system. No advance warning was provided to motorists. This was the latest in a series of outages that whistleblowers have reported and that have deeply alarmed National Highways staff. Those whistle- blowers have said that the technology is out today, but I am unable to verify that. It is hardly surprising that the public lack confidence in these roads.

E-petitions calling for smart motorways to be scrapped and hard shoulders restored have received more than 10,000 signatures. Research conducted by the RAC has shown that 85% of motorists believe that safety is compromised by the removal of a hard shoulder. Worse still, just 46% of respondents felt confident that they knew what to do in the event of a breakdown in a live lane. The consequences of that lack of public awareness were shockingly exposed during the inquest into the death of Nargis Begum. The inquest heard that 153 vehicles passed the stranded vehicle, but no one reported it to the authorities. Why? Because they believed the vehicle would be detected by CCTV. That is not unreasonable in the face of National Highways’ repeated claims about the efficiency of its technology, and yet National Highways testified to the inquest that detecting a stopped vehicle using CCTV was not “practicable”.

National Highways belatedly recognised the importance of public education in ensuring that smart motorways can operate safely. The result was a public information campaign in which actors dressed as insects smeared on windscreens sang to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”. Understandably, this staggeringly misjudged campaign was condemned by those who had lost family members on smart motorways.

During the recent Conservative leadership campaign, it was a relief that both the former Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—and the current Prime Minister expressed concern about these roads. The current Prime Minister branded them “unsafe” and committed to banning all new smart motorways. Campaigners and bereaved families were left bitterly disappointed when, just weeks later, he U-turned, with the Secretary of State for Transport reverting to the familiar refrain of waiting for evidence.

How much evidence do the Government need? How many more people have to die? How many more families will be left to grieve for their loved ones? We cannot continue to gamble with the lives of motorists. Removing the hard shoulder greatly increases the risks for motorists. The technology that is meant to secure their safety is unreliable, incomplete and ineffective. Tinkering around the edges, tweaking designs and rolling out flawed technology will not remove the inherent risk that the Government have chosen to introduce to our motorways. People are dying and yet the Government continue to delay, searching for an answer that is staring them in the face.

Had Jason Mercer been able to pull on to a hard shoulder, he would still be alive and Claire Mercer would still have a husband. The Government can prevent further loss of life, but to do so they need to recognise something that even the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), the former Minister who commissioned these smart motorways, has admitted, namely that they were a mistake. Nothing will bring back Jason Mercer, but the Government can at least put right their mistake and restore the hard shoulder across the motorway network. I plead with the Minister to do so right now, before more lives are needlessly lost.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Because your constituency neighbours that of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), I know you also have an interest in this issue. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham for securing this debate about smart motorways. I will make some general points before I address the ones that she and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made.

The strategic road network—our major motorways and A roads—is the safest part of the country’s road network. Data shows that there are far fewer incidents and casualties per mile on the strategic road network than on the rest of the network. However, that does not detract from the fact that every death on our roads is a tragedy and one death too many.

The M1 is a route that I use regularly to go to and from my constituency of North West Durham. Recently, I visited junction 28 to see the issue with traffic backing on to the motorway, which hon. Members from the region raised recently in Westminster Hall. I have every sympathy for those who have lost loved ones in road accidents and particularly Jason’s widow, Claire, who is here today. I promise to listen as they and others continue to press for greater improvements in road safety.

Hon. Members will be aware that in 2021 the Transport Committee conducted an inquiry into the roll-out and safety of smart motorways. We have agreed to take forward all the Committee’s recommendations. Most significantly, we have paused all new schemes that are yet to start construction until we have built up further safety and economic data. That pause continues and the data continues to be gathered.

I am listening acutely to what the Minister is saying. He must be aware that the pause is not impacting the schemes that have already left the drawing board, so smart motorways continue apace. If the Government are concerned enough to pause the new ones, why are they not pausing all of them?

The hon. Lady is right that several schemes are well under construction. National Highways felt that it would be more detrimental to stop construction, because doing so would perhaps cause more incidents than continuing with construction as planned.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I thank the Minister for giving way. I also thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this debate.

On that point, Baroness Vere, the roads Minister from the Department for Transport, came to the Transport Committee—I am a member of that Committee and was involved in both its reports on smart motorways, in 2016 and 2021—and said that all schemes would be paused. Why has National Highways changed the remit?

My understanding of the commitment made is that any new scheme would be paused. To stop an ongoing scheme would potentially be more detrimental than to finish it.

I want to address the statistic that the hon. Member for Rotherham raised about deaths on smart motorways. The 78 fatalities she mentioned are across all smart motorways—that is all-lane running, dynamic hard shoulder and controlled. Removing the controlled element, that figure is 47; even on controlled motorways, there will be issues. However, the motorway network per mile is far safer than dual carriageway or A road options, or anything that is not a controlled environment. I just wanted to put that on the record as a clarification.

The hon. Lady made important points about breaking down on the motorway and stopped vehicle collisions. Although collisions involving a stopped vehicle are rare, I recognise that they are a major concern for drivers, and that there is a higher number of such collisions on smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder. We have therefore committed £900 million to bolster safety features across smart motorways, including rolling out additional technology to help to spot stopped vehicles— I have been at the control centres and seen that in action myself—and putting in an additional 150 emergency location stops. In 2020, we changed the design stats on spacing to a maximum of 1 mile, and three quarters of a mile where feasible. In our response to the Transport Committee’s 2021 report, the Government committed in January 2022 to an extra 150 emergency areas by March 2025, on which work has already started.

I will turn to a few of the hon. Lady’s questions. Road users expect high standards for response times on the motorway network. It is worth remembering that the interrelated system of features on smart motorways are not present on conventional motorways, such as stopped vehicle detection radar technology. This new feature has been rolled out across the entire all-lane-running network to improve the detection of stopped vehicles and reduce the duration of live lane stops. As the hon. Lady said, National Highways detects around two thirds of stopped vehicles within 20 seconds, and almost 90% within 60 seconds, allowing it to quickly set signs and signals, such as the red X, to keep drivers safe. That feature is not available on conventional motorways.

National Highways does recognise that stopped vehicle detection can perform better, which is something I have been pushing it on, and it is working hard to deliver further improvements by the end of June this year. Right now, I can report that we have made further strides in attendance: the time it takes a traffic officer to attend has fallen from an average of 17 minutes to under 10 minutes in December 2022. As with any technology, there are occasions when something does not work as expected or improvements need to be made. National Highways is fully aware of that. It is investing £105 million over the next two years to improve CCTV and other technology, not only enhancing the management of the network, but improving drivers’ day-to-day experience with other issues on the motorway network. However, when the availability of technology on smart motorways is reduced, we need to find the root cause and plan ahead.

National Highways has well-rehearsed mitigation measures to deal with operational challenges, including those relating to technology, whether that is increasing the number of traffic officers on the network or reducing speed limits on certain sections and enhanced monitoring of CCTV. We will continue to expedite every effort to ensure that technology on the network is as reliable as possible. I recognise that drivers need to feel confident on smart motorways, and we are using all the evidence we can to act to ensure that those concerns are addressed. We have listened and will continue to listen to concerns. We will make as many mitigations as possible. We are hugely enhancing stopped vehicle technology and the pull-in areas. We are absolutely committed to making our busy motorways as safe as possible for everyone who uses them across the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Electric Vehicles: Infrastructure

[Peter Bone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered electric vehicle infrastructure cost and availability.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. Today, I am raising what I think is an important point about electric vehicles and their supply, charging, cost and implications. The Government have, in my opinion and that of many of my constituents, rightly committed to securing net zero by 2050—that is the easy bit. A big part of that commitment is the move to electric vehicles by phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and all new cars and vans will be zero emission by 2035. That was announced by the then Prime Minister in response to the Climate Change Committee in November 2020.

Transport is, of course, the largest carbon-emitting sector in the UK, making up 27% of greenhouse gas emissions, with 91% of that stemming from vehicles. It is obvious that tackling that is a key part of the route map to decarbonisation. However, there are many concerns about the cost, availability and infrastructure that must be taken into consideration as we look to meet the 2030s targets. Are we really ready to fully transition to electric vehicles? Some may question whether we want to, and they can contribute if they wish.

Last March, the Government’s electric vehicle infrastructure strategy highlighted the fact that 300,000 public electric charging points would be needed by 2030 across the UK to meet the demand, following the phase-out of petrol and diesel vehicles. However, in January—just last month—it was reported that just over 37,000 such devices have been installed. Will the Minister update the House on that, as those figures clearly suggest that the infrastructure is lagging a little behind schedule? It is not unreasonable to question whether the UK will be able to meet that target.

Since 1 January 2022, the number of devices increased by 8,500—a 31% increase. That is the good part, but that is clearly not at the rate we need to meet the 2030 target. To give the Government credit, I was very pleased that they announced a further 2,500 charge points yesterday —well done—but we are still off the pace setter. Further to those numbers, there is a huge disparity in the geographical distribution of charging devices in the UK.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. This is a really important topic because, as he says, we are not just behind the Government’s target, which most people in the industry say is lower than what is needed, but way behind what is going on in Europe. That is really concerning, in terms of increasing vehicle production and getting vehicles into the market for consumers who want to do the right thing.

I thank the chair of the all-party group for electric vehicles for that intervention. I hear what he says. Ultimately, it is a race to this prize—this technology—and once we fall behind, there is no point in reinventing it. I think it is quite an ambitious target. Certainly, given the pace that we are setting behind it, it is quite ambitious. If the Labour Front Benchers have a more ambitious target, I am sure we will hear it from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi).

The distribution of charging points is quite unequal across the UK: London and Scotland have the highest provision. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers should urgently invest in charging points to ensure parity across the regions and therefore make EV ownership look more attractive and feasible to the public?

I will come on to that. The hon. Lady’s point is absolutely accurate. I will make some progress, and then she will hear what I have to say about that.

There has been significant activity from local authorities in developing regional low-carbon transport strategies, and enabling charging infrastructure in some places. Hampshire County Council, which covers the whole of my patch, has implemented an EV charger framework. About £124,000 of Government funding has been awarded to my Winchester constituency towards that, and we are very grateful for that. However, to echo the hon. Lady’s point, that is not the case for all. Some local authorities have bid for funding from the Government while others have not, so there are disparities, as she says. The Government need to keep a beady eye on that trend to ensure that it does not continue.

Most of the installations and much of the infrastructure for EVs have been market-led; many individual charging networks and other businesses have chosen where to install charging points. As a Conservative MP, I believe that that has to be right—Government cannot and should not do everything—but we cannot overlook the fact that it has added to geographical disparities, for obvious reasons. It is not dissimilar to the high-speed broadband roll-out—it follows the money—but Government have a role here.

I looked at the statistics ahead of today’s debate. London is far ahead of other areas in the UK, with an average of 131 charging points per 100,000 people, but the next country or area has an average of only 69. We clearly need further intervention to tackle that inequality and help the rest of the UK to catch up with London as we make the desired policy move to EVs. My constituency has 78 charging points, and only 13 are rapid charging points. Winchester has 76 charging points per 100,000 people, which I admit is higher than most areas and in the top 100 in the UK. It has 1,270 registered EVs and a ratio of EVs to public charging points of 16:1. That needs to improve as the number of registered EVs increases; even a 16:1 ratio means a serious wait time to charge a vehicle if that cannot be done at home, and it cannot always be done at home for reasons I will come on to.

I appreciate that the number of charging points in an area can fluctuate for many reasons—faults, maintenance, other restrictions or just the market. Owners and operators can choose to temporarily or permanently decommission or replace devices with no controls in place. Do the Government need to act on that? If we expect everyone, as we do, to switch to an electric vehicle, people cannot be left without access to charging points.

I thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. The Government told Birmingham that we needed a clean-air charging zone in the city centre; we resisted that, but obviously that did not succeed. We now have charging zones, which makes it difficult for families and ordinary people to get in without paying. Bus services are not as good as they should be. Above all, as the hon. Gentleman rightly mentions, the price of electric vehicles makes it very difficult for ordinary families to get into the market. We need to resolve that properly, and the Government need to help.

I will come on to the pricing of electric vehicles, which was my motivation for applying for the debate in the first place. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that many people want to do the right thing, but the economics do not stack up right now. Is there a role for Government? Partly, and I will come on to where they have made moves in that space. I realise that I am raising lots of problems, but that is because the Minister will answer all my problems and then we will all go away happy.

As we increase the number of charging points across the UK and get ahead of our ambition, it is vital that we future-proof our energy system. Great thought must be put into the pressure that the move will have on the grid so that we protect consumers as new challenges and vulnerabilities present themselves. Obviously, the transition to EVs will massively increase the demand for energy. We have some of the greatest wind, wave and tidal resources in the world. Should we promote the use of domestic energy production, rather than relying on imports, so that we can ensure our domestic renewable energy is used to guarantee the security of our EV ambitions? I appreciate that the Government have promised vast sums of funding for the transition and implemented schemes, but perhaps that issue could be revisited.

In June 2022, the Government pulled the plug on the car grant scheme, which provided over £1.4 billion and supported nearly 500,000 sales of electric vehicles. Although I appreciate that it was said at the time that that measure was always a temporary one, it increased the sale of EVs from less than a thousand in 2011 to almost 100,000 in the first five months of 2022, which meant that uptake exceeded projections. Surely that is a policy success and if something is working like that, I ask the Minister today whether people will be offered further support.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On that particular point, does he agree that in very rural areas, such as Suffolk and—I would imagine—parts of Hampshire as well, the practicalities of having public charging points are difficult and the reality is that if we are going to incentivise this switch, it has to come through helping people to charge their vehicles at home?

Yes. In my constituency, as I am sure is the case in my hon. Friend’s constituency, charging at home is obviously the ideal, but there are lots of challenges to people being able to do that, because the three-point plug is not always the answer; a three-point plug can lead to a 30-hour charge. Of course, if someone does not have a nice secure driveway where they can park their Tesla and plug it in to charge overnight from the solar panels on their roof, it is difficult. That is all very tidy and ideal, but it is not the reality.

May I tell my hon. Friend the Minister that that is a kind of a theme of the debate? The ambition is great, but I worry about the practicalities of the roadmap to get there, and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) has expounded that very well.

From our end of the country, we see things through the other end of the telescope. We have an enormous surplus of renewable energy generated in Orkney but no way to feed it into the grid because of grid constraints. Using the availability of that energy to charge cars and other electrical devices is a real opportunity for us. We have the ReFLEX project, which was born of that very opportunity. However, does this situation not tell us that we need to have a fundamentally different way of thinking about the grid and how we use energy, and a greater degree of decentralisation than we have ever had?

Without question, and the right hon. Gentleman makes his point well. That is another reason for my wanting to have this debate. I am pleased to see so many colleagues here today, because I think the ambition was set out and some things were done, such as the grants that I talked about and the way in which they increased the number of sales, but I am not sure that enough thought has been given to the wider picture of how we make these electric vehicles available, how we charge them and how we find the energy sources to do that. In a massive constituency such as his, I can see why the scheme he talked about works and I would like to hear more about it, if he would tell me more; I am sure that he has already told the Minister about it.

The subject of production has been raised and I will say more about it. The Government have stated that they have plans to set out a legally binding annual target that manufacturers must meet in the form of a zero emissions vehicle mandate, or ZEV mandate; in saying that, I recognise that this debate has become even more nerdy than I had imagined.

The Department for Transport states that auto manufacturers will be required to produce a certain number of zero-emission cars and vans from 2024, and it launched a ZEV mandate consultation in 2022. Next year, which is 2024, that would equate to a 22% uptake for cars and an 8% uptake for vans; in 2030, it would equate to an 80% uptake for cars and a 52% uptake for vans; and both cars and vans would reach a 100% uptake in 2035. The mandate also details the arrangements for a tradeable element, which will allow manufacturers to buy credits to make up for any shortfalls in the required production of electrical vehicles.

However, we have not heard about any real progress since then. The consultation website states that the Government are still analysing the responses. As stated, the ZEV mandate is meant to be implemented by 2024, so we need further details of what will be required from manufacturers and what exactly the targets will be, because—dare I say it?—2024 is fast approaching. Can we have an update on that from the Minister?

I just wanted to clarify the accounting on carbon dioxide, because the aim is CO2 reduction. If a lot of people destroy diesel and petrol cars before the end of their useful life, and acquire new electric vehicles, that is a huge amount of CO2 for the two processes. Is that accounted for? If those people then drive those electric vehicles on days when 70% of our electricity comes from fossil fuels, how does that help?

That, may I tell my friend, is a question that the Minister will be delighted to answer. Net zero is exactly what it says: net zero. The production of electric vehicles is part of the net zero calculation, but the Minister understands that better than I do. I wonder whether the Minister would update us on the ZEV mandate.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. I want to reference the ZEV mandate, particularly in relation to van production. The hon. Member mentioned manufacturers; I am alive to the fact that van production in Luton is currently diesel, but we want to see a transition to electric vans. That is the target, but we need to see Government support for the electric van manufacturers to ensure that we can make that transition. Does the hon. Member agree?

I agree with that point. I would expect the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) to raise van production for obvious reasons. The mandate is a fine idea, but we need the response to the consultation on the mandate. I suspect the companies that the hon. Lady talks to in her constituency want to know the rules of the game before they can work with those rules. I am sure she is looking forward to that point being raised.

The transition to electric vehicles brings into question fuel and excise duty. It is well known that the Treasury is set to lose a lot of money and a new source of revenue will be required. Fuel duty revenues pre-pandemic were about £28 billion per year, and vehicle excise revenues were approximately £6 billion. I cannot believe this has not been discussed in the hallowed halls of the Treasury, but does that mean that road pricing is a serious possibility? There has been no mention of that as a solution from the Government. Does the Minister concur?

It is interesting to hear the hon. Member talk about road pricing. Does he actually support something like “pay as you drive”, in order to charge people for the miles that they drive rather than anything else?

No, and before the Liberal Democrats try to produce another attack leaflet to say that is what I was saying, the hon. Lady can strike that from the record. That is certainly not what I was saying, but I am asking the Minister whether the Government are considering it. Surely the Treasury are considering that loss of revenue. From his previous role as Chair of the Transport Committee, the Minister will know that that was laid down as a challenge to the Government. I know that the Committee is still waiting for a response to that. I am rather cheekily asking the Minister whether he has yet to respond to himself. Could he do so today?

I will raise some more concerns about the availability of electric vehicles. Certainly in my constituency, consumers are embracing the change to electric vehicles as people are understandably more and more concerned about the environment. However, we have already heard about the supply available to buyers. The current average waiting time for an EV is seven months, according to the Library. Companies such as Volkswagen have at least a 10-month wait from the time the car is bought to its delivery. I would suggest that that is a barrier to purchase. It is concerning, because forcing people to make the change to EVs will once again increase the waiting times as demand increases. People cannot be expected to bear a cost that is due to factors out of their control.

There is a current fall in demand for EVs because of the dip in the economy and the spike in inflation. I asked a previous Minister in the Department about this. What conversations are the Government having with industry to try to help them meet demand? I realise that the pandemic has hugely got in the way of that, but what conversations are the Government having with industry to try to stimulate demand?

Tesla has recently smashed the cost of EVs by a reported £7,000. There has been an expansion of EVs, but only 24 models are priced under £32,000 due to the cost of the battery technology. Even the UK boss at Kia, Paul Philpott, has said that car makers are finding it “economically difficult” to bring affordable smaller vehicles to market due to the high cost of batteries, despite the ban on the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars looming in 2035.

I will gently remind the Minister about the up-front cost and a serious lack of a second-hand market for electric vehicles. That is a whole other subject, with only 3% of used car transactions involving EVs in 2021. I hope that that market will start to emerge as we make the transition, so that many lower-income families will not be priced out of even having a conversation about switching to an EV. It is hugely unfair that they want to do the right thing, but they know they cannot.

In closing, I support the move to electric vehicles, and I know that my constituents do. I see more and more EVs on the streets of my constituency. The phasing-out of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2035 has my support, but it is clear that the infrastructure is far from fully developed, with many complaining about teething problems. It is obvious that to meet the target, and seriously increase the rate at which the infrastructure is being implemented, especially the distribution of charging points, we need to see a step change to meet the current ambition.

I thank my hon. Friend for calling this timely and important debate. I am sure the Minister is aware that last week Welsh Labour, propped up by their Plaid chums in Cardiff, cancelled all major building projects, including plans for a third bridge across the Menai Strait. Does my hon. Friend agree that their priority should be increasing the number of electric vehicles, and that means better scrappage schemes, grants and rolling out more EV charging points? That is the responsibility of Labour in Cardiff as a matter of urgency.

I hope other Governments around the UK will be listening to today’s debate. My hon. Friend mentions the issue of scrappage. There are many different subjects I could have covered in today’s debate, but I did not want to go on for another 20 minutes and test the Chair’s patience. This is long enough, surely. She is right that scrappage schemes in Wales would be good to see. I look forward to her updating the House.

There does need to be consideration of the loss of revenue in Treasury. What conversations have been had about the change in vehicle excise duty? I am concerned that the Government have said that they plan to set out a legally binding annual target that manufacturers must meet up to 2035. We have no idea of what that will take. The cost to consumers needs further consideration, at a time when we face cost of living challenges. Supply and cost are major barriers right now to people who want to do the right thing. We can all support the phasing-out of combustion cars. I suggest that the current target of 2035 may be beyond us. I look forward to the Minister’s response to disabuse me of that thesis.

It would help me greatly if hon. Members who wish to be called, stand. They have done so. It is also very good for their health if they bob up and down.

It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing the debate. I could wax lyrical about the woes of being an EV car owner who is not able to charge at home, because I live in a block of flats, but I will resist the temptation to vent about that and stick to some of the facts.

As we have heard, we have seen a bit of a success story, with the number of EVs on the road exceeding expectations, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to charge. I have a lot of questions for the Minister, but one is about regulation and ensuring the reliability of charging points. Perhaps he could say something about that. In addition, to what extent should the charging point provider be blamed if the wi-fi is not working or there is no access to the premises? Where are we with that?

Thankfully, charging points are mostly more accessible, in that drivers do not have to join lots of different schemes, and they tend to work better. The downside is that there is very often a queue. If I am going to see my mother in Milton Keynes, I no longer just cross my fingers and hope that the charging point is working; I now also have to worry about whether someone will already be there charging for 45 minutes, with someone else queuing to charge for 45 minutes.

We are also seeing, with the Tesla points coming along, that service stations sometimes just do not have the power to keep all the points open at once. We need to ensure that the number of public charging points is keeping pace. It simply is not at the moment, particularly on rapid and ultra-rapid chargers.

In Bristol, we are ahead of most places other than London on having public charging points in places such as Morrisons car park or in parks and public places. That is probably better than trying to do on-street charging, with everyone fighting for one or two spaces by a lamp post. The problem with on-street charging is that if someone attaches their car to a charger when they get home from work and it finishes charging at 1 am, they are not going to go out and move their car to allow their neighbour to charge theirs. That is why I particularly like the quick chargers.

The Government set a target in March last year of making 300,000 public charging points available by 2030. That means we need about 30,000 to be installed per year. Last year, only 8,800 were installed. That is clearly not good enough, and the Government need to step up.

This is also a levelling-up issue. A year or two ago, when I held the green transport brief, I asked a series of questions to try to find out which local authorities had not applied for grants to install public charging points, but nobody would tell me; they just kept telling me which authorities had them. There are a number of pots of money, so I was trying to piece it all together, but quite a lot of councils were not mentioned anywhere. That is partly a capacity issue, because it can be quite difficult for some councils to do the analysis and just to have people whose job it is to fill in the forms and make the applications. There may also be an issue about political will and some places not seeing this as a priority, but that just means that provision is really patchy.

EV charging points should be treated—I was talking to National Grid about this this morning—as strategic infrastructure. This is not just about where people can charge their cars; it affects remote tourist areas, such as Devon and Cornwall. Five years ago, when I first got my EV, I thought I would go on a trip to Dartmoor to run it in, but I realised that there was one charging point in the whole area and that if that was not working, it would get a bit scary. Obviously, we want people to use public transport where they can, but if we are to keep tourism going down in Devon and Cornwall, we need those charging points—in Scotland, they have put some in on the strategic road up to the north—because, otherwise, people will not be able to make those trips any more, and that will have an impact on the local economy.

On grid connectivity, again, we need a strategic vision. There is no certainty about future funding for charging infrastructure. There is a big queue for grid connectivity—it is about 10 years—and all sorts of people have done the equivalent of putting their towels on sunbeds to reserve spaces. There is a whole separate debate to be had about how National Grid can prioritise applications for grid connectivity. However, I am told that motorway service stations are not joining the queue to expand their connections to the grid for rapid charging, because they are not sure what funding will be available in the future.

In the next seven years, we will need five times as much grid connectivity as in the last 30 years because of the move towards clean power and things such as EVs, but I just do not see a strategy. It is good that we have a new Department that is prioritising energy security and net zero, but we need to see a strategy for grid connectivity, for the sake of green investment, house building and EV charging points.

The £950 million rapid charging fund, first announced in March 2020, is meant to be focused on areas where it is less economical to put in charging infrastructure. As I understand it, it is still yet to issue any funds to projects that applied. It was announced nearly three years ago, so it would be good to know what is happening on that front.

The final thing I want to mention is manufacturing. I spent the first 40 years of my life in Luton, so Vauxhall Motors was very much a part of my upbringing, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) on all the work she does to push on that point. I want to know the Government’s ideological approach to support for our green industries, but particularly for electric vehicle manufacturing. We saw a pretty successful intervention in the market with the ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030 and of hybrids by 2035, although there are questions about the proportion of EVs that are being bought by fleets rather than for private ownership. We need to make sure that the second-hand market develops.

The ZEV mandate has been talked about, and there were plug-in grants, but there seems to be a move away from that sort of intervention. There is the issue of the cost of owning and operating an electric vehicle, alongside the cost of buying one; we are seeing electricity prices increasing and car tax being brought in for EV owners. It seems that the Government are stepping away.

What particularly concerns me is that we now have a very interventionist Government in the US—Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is giving $369 billion a year to areas to create green industries—and the EU is rapidly following suit, but I do not see any sign of that here. I have asked questions of the Minister’s colleagues in other Departments; I asked a named day question on the very first day back in January and got an answer, in the end, that said, “We are very worried about it.” The approach of the Secretary of State for Business and Trade seems to be to tell Joe Biden off for being protectionist, which does not get us very far. I asked about this at Scottish questions today, and I do not think the Minister knew what I was talking about. We absolutely need a response to the Inflation Reduction Act to support our green industries, including our car manufacturing.

I am delighted to speak in this debate; I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing it. I speak as an unabashed enthusiast for the expansion of electric vehicles, but I want particularly to speak for those of my constituents for whom they are still an expensive aspiration. About 25% of my constituents do not have their own driveway and cannot charge easily.

As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, it is good that the Government have committed to 300,000 public charging points by 2030. I like the scale of that ambition, as I do the commitment to 6,000 ultra-rapid charging points on our strategic road network by 2035. Those ultra-rapid charging points are generally able to charge a car in about 30 minutes. For most of us, a stop at a motorway service station—after we have answered the call of nature, got a coffee, and sorted out children and dogs and anything else that needs to be attended to—often takes about that time; if there a few minutes left over, we can always check a few emails while we wait. That charging time is excellent, and we need to push forward on it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to chair a meeting in the House of a number of significant electric vehicle charging point installers. They were quite enthusiastic. They had a number of problems, which I will speak about, but they said that there is no shortage of private capital looking to fund this work, which is excellent. Investment funds and wealth managers around the world have absolutely got the direction of travel. No one wants to be found holding stranded assets when the music stops, and this is absolutely the direction for the future. It can be monetised, and there is a lot of private money willing to flow into the sector if we can get the overall public policy architecture right. That is reasonably good news.

There is a case—perhaps this might be an early Budget submission by the Minister—for cutting VAT on public chargers, which is more expensive than on private chargers. That would help, and it would be a sensible policy intervention. I would also like to see a requirement for interoperability if charging points are going to receive public funds. I thought we had committed to that a while ago, but we are still not quite there yet. That would be a sensible move because, as the hon. Member for Bristol East said, sometimes it is difficult enough to access a charging point; if we then find that it is not in our network or not for our car, that just adds to the stress and anxiety. It does not help us get where we need to go.

In his last Budget statement, the Chancellor announced that, from 2025, EVs will no longer be exempt from vehicle excise duty, paying the lowest rate in the first year and the standard rate from the second year, and that they will lose their exemption from the expensive car supplement. As that will come some years before the complete phase-out of petrol cars, does the hon. Member think that it could impact the public’s willingness to prioritise purchasing an EV?

The hon. Lady makes a sensible point, in that we must clearly phase in these two moves together. There will be a serious loss of revenue to the Treasury as the number of electric vehicles increases, and we all have to be sensible about how we will replace that revenue, but we must do it in a way that encourages the transition that I think all of us here want to see. I thank the hon. Lady for making that point.

Before the debate, I contacted Stephen Mooring, the excellent head of sustainability at Central Bedfordshire Council, and he raised four points that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention. The first is connection costs for public charging points. It is not uncommon in central Bedfordshire for the grid to quote up to £45,000 for a connection. That is simply not economical for local authorities, so we must ensure that the grid is working with installers to make the continued roll-out of charging points economical.

An issue remains about people who do not have off-street parking. There is a lack of clarity about the position with cables running over pavements. To me, that is clearly a serious trip hazard. We do not want anyone to fall over and be injured, so that issue must be addressed. I think that there are some solutions—

Like my hon. Friend—and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who introduced the debate—I am a passionate believer in public access to charging points, but he is right. We allow utilities and others to put all sorts of cables across our streets, in most cases safely. One of the simplest ways to increase access—this is relevant to the levelling-up point—is for local councils to change byelaws to allow people without off-street parking to use cables safely in order to charge EVs. That is a very popular campaign across my constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend, who obviously has great experience in this area, for that sensible point. It is also possible to put cable gullies into pavements so that people can charge safely. That is a relatively straightforward technical proposition, so we should see more of it. I think clarification is needed on that, to help the many people who do not have off-street parking with charging.

When they grant planning permissions for new supermarkets, retail parks and so on, local authorities can require the installation of electric vehicle charging points, but the position with existing supermarket car parks and so on is less clear. There is a lack of clarity on that front. I would think that having charging points would be a competitive advantage. A number of my supermarkets—Tesco in Leighton Buzzard springs to mind, and I hope the others will forgive my not remembering them—have moved forward and installed them, which is very welcome. This is a big opportunity, and I think that some direction from the Government would be helpful.

Installing charging points in rural areas is more challenging, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, but there are opportunities in village hall car parks and elsewhere. We must ensure that that is a possibility—certainly, it is sensible to have one charging point among a number of neighbouring villages—so that we are fair to people in rural areas.

I want to mention something important that the EV charge point installers said to me when I met them a couple of weeks ago, which is about the capacity and capability of local authorities. Some very good authorities have really got this and are powering ahead; others are still struggling because they do not have sufficient officers in this area, or their officers are not sufficiently well versed in what to do.

My final point is about the second-hand market and, perhaps, slightly greater assurance for consumers about battery life and warranties on second-hand batteries to encourage that market. As we get greater take-up in the fleet market, there will be many more vehicles coming on to the second-hand market, which will offer real hope to our constituents on lower incomes. Again, some support or assurance that the Government could assist with battery warranty would be helpful.

Order. This is a really important debate, and four Back-Bench Members still want to speak, but I have to start the wind-ups at 3.30 pm. I will not impose a time limit, but if people could work to that, it would be most helpful. I call Jamie Stone.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I want to start with the North Coast 500 tourist route, with which many Members will be familiar. The route takes tourists around the whole of the top of Scotland—the north, east and west coasts—and we hope that tourists will come and use electric cars that they hire or own.

However, I am worried by the fact that the Highland Council has recently been debating an increase in the price of charging. At present, rapid charging points are charged at 30p per kWh, and the slower chargers are 20p per kWh. The council is looking at taking that up to an eye-watering 70p and 35p respectively. Earlier in the budgeting process, it was even thinking of 84p. A price rise of that scale would have a devastating effect not just on locals but on tourists coming up, because it starts to get pretty expensive to charge the car. For rural constituencies such as mine, we have to be careful about this.

My first point is that it seems that the Highland Council is in an invidious situation. It would be easy for me to point out that it is an SNP/independent council, but that would not be fair. That would be a cheap political point. Any administration would be faced with this problem. I believe that the cost of charging the car is a bit like the cost of paying for electricity from SSE. It should not vary by council area; it should be a constant. It is more like the railways, and I believe it should be applicable right across the nation.

I appeal to the UK and Scottish Governments to look at this issue and see if we can smooth it out. If that means that there has to be a budgetary consideration for authorities such as the Highland Council or others in the UK, let us look at that. This links back to what the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) was saying. Some councils are better equipped to do this than others, and that is something that national Governments—perhaps devolved Governments working with the United Kingdom Government—have to have a good look at.

Turning back to the North Coast 500, we have charging points around my vast constituency, but if someone were to take a map of the top of Scotland and stick a pin in the middle of Sutherland, they would come to a village that I have often mentioned in this place, called Altnaharra—it is the coldest village in the UK every winter, but that is not my point—where there are no charging points. It is 17 miles from Altnaharra to Tongue on the north coast going one way, and 21 miles going south to Lairg. Think of a tourist who is having a great holiday and arrives in Altnaharra when they are a bit low. What are they going to do? It is not great. It is kind of a personal point, but I do hope that somebody, some day very soon—perhaps next week—will get in touch with the owner of the Altnaharra Hotel and say, “Wouldn’t you like to have a charging point? This is how we’ll help you to get it.” Having spoken to him only this morning, I think that would be exceedingly well received.

My second point is that, as other Members have said, we have to think about the distribution. I have the widest and most far-flung constituency, perhaps rivalled only by that of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), and it is a real issue for my constituents with where they live and work. It is about not just the tourists, but the local people.

My third point is linked to what the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said. He mentioned the rate of VAT, and it is my belief that something similar should be done on the purchase price of an electric car. It might have to be tapered, we would have to be clever and think about what it would mean for the Exchequer, and the point is well made that as sales increase, we will have to look at doing it differently; but I believe that strong consideration should be given to that proposal, because at the end of the day most of my constituents simply cannot afford to get into that market. An electric car is just too expensive.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said that we need to think afresh about the approach. He mentioned the grid, and he is absolutely correct. Because it is my wont to forever name-check my constituency, I point out that we have a freeport in the Cromarty Firth—I thank His Majesty’s Government for that. It is for generating hydrogen, which can be either stored and exported or used to create electricity when the wind is not blowing. My final point—my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) is urging me onwards—is that, in looking for a solution, we must have an overall view of the grid and hydrogen.

At the outset of this debate, the question was rightly posed, “Are we ready?” The emphatic answer is, “No, we are not.” We are not ready for the EV revolution that is fast coming, and we need to be prepared for it.

Northern Ireland’s electric infrastructure is antiquated. It was developed in the 1960s and it is not fit for purpose for what the Government have planned on electric vehicles for 2025, 2030, 2035 and 2040. With the best will in the world, it will not be fit for purpose by then, so we need to wake up to the unmovable fact that the infrastructure in Northern Ireland, where I come from, will not be able to cope with the electric vehicle revolution, which we so desire to see. There is little point rushing forward with higher, new and better standards if our infrastructure cannot cope with them, so we need to have work done on it. The National Franchised Dealers Association described Northern Ireland’s infrastructure as ruinous for this revolution. We therefore have to address that important matter quickly.

How can we do that? How can car traders advance the green electric vehicle revolution on such a narrow platform? There is a huge roadblock coming. Hybrid vehicles, which people think are the answer at the moment, will be outlawed by 2035. People will not be able to buy a hybrid; it is over. How can we deal with this on such a narrow platform? We need more space to advance the argument and the alternatives. We need opportunities set aside for alternative fuels, which also need to be part of this debate—there is not just one answer. We need to put in place a more extensive network to give consumers confidence that if they invest in an electric vehicle, they will be able to use the thing to their advantage to get them to the far-flung parts of the United Kingdom and back again without anxiety about running out of electricity.

If we get this wrong, we destroy—in Northern Ireland, at least—the Northern Ireland retail motor industry. It will shock some people to learn how poor the Northern Ireland charging infrastructure is. The gap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is significant, and it will soon be impossible for Northern Ireland to catch up. In October 2022, Northern Ireland had 18 working charging points—18 publicly facing rapid charging points in the whole of the Province! They are antiquated, unreliable and first-generation, and not all of them work with the new vehicles that are available. Scotland is doing tremendously well: it has something like 66 electric vehicles per rapid charger. England has 155 vehicles for every rapid charger, but Northern Ireland has something like 600 vehicles per rapid charger. The gap is rapidly increasing, so we need to catch up.

There is therefore very little consumer confidence in electric vehicles. The roll-out is far too slow. Planning for electric vehicle charging points is complex and hardly works. NFDA did a survey in Northern Ireland and found that 76% of people found it difficult to find a working charger. Some 68% said they had to wait too long, because there was someone else in the queue, and 53% said that charging is a barrier to them purchasing an electric vehicle.

The situation also puts tourism at risk. Tourists want to be part of the green revolution, but they cannot be without proper planning to enable them to find electric vehicle chargers along their route. We are creating a rural versus town divide in the provision of chargers.

I chair the all-party parliamentary motorcycling group in the House. The Government are urgently encouraging electric vehicle solutions for motorbikes but, again, they are setting a standard that is far too high and could end up destroying the marketplace. We need them to take this forward in hand with the traders to ensure that we have the proper solution at the proper time, not the proper solution too far in advance of the time.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. As we have heard, it is no secret that we are approaching one of the biggest changes to the structure of the car industry in its history. The UK’s commitment to ending sales of new carbon-emitting cars could make us a world leader in this space. It is a crucial step for not just this country, but the entire world. As we have heard, the transition is crucial on both the manufacturing and consumer side, and it must not be forgotten when we are discussing electric vehicles that manufacturing is critical in all this.

A report published back in 2013 outlined an industrial strategy for the automotive sector and emphasised the need to prepare for the transition. In some ways, that has been a success; I need look no further than my own constituency and the Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Port, where we are in the middle of converting the production lines to produce electric vehicles. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) will have the same experience in her constituency in the not too distant future, and Nissan in Sunderland has also taken such steps.

Those are encouraging signs, but I am afraid there are far too many other examples where we are missing out. Only a few days ago, Ford announced plans to axe 20% of its UK workforce. Not so long ago, Britishvolt announced that its plans to set up a gigafactory were on hold; I know there have been some developments with that, but it is still in the balance. BMW have announced that the electric Mini will not be produced in Oxford, and Jaguar and Honda have closed their vehicle production plants in Castle Bromwich and Swindon. From a position of great strength a decade ago, we are now in a position of great struggle.

What is the reason for this malaise? There are a number of factors in play, which I will not be able to rehearse in the time we have, but one of the fundamental problems is a lack of Government commitment to the strategy we have discussed. It seems to me that the central impediment is a mistaken belief that things should be left to the markets. The two positive examples that I have given of investment in new production were not left to the market; there was Government intervention, and that needs to be continued on both the manufacturing and consumer side.

In the minds of consumers, there is a hesitancy about making a huge financial commitment when the initial cost and convenience of running an electric vehicle are still up for debate. Brand new electric vehicles are far more expensive than traditional vehicles and, although they are becoming a greater proportion of sales, there is a natural ceiling to how much ordinary families will be able to afford.

I am afraid that I do not have any time for interventions. As technology has progressed and electric vehicles have become more numerous on the roads, focus has turned to the availability and practicality of owning one and the concerns arising about access to on-street parking and charging. About a third of UK homes do not have off-street parking, and that means that we need a more holistic approach to charging for the significant numbers of people who, at the moment, do not have off-street access. We have to deal with the iniquity that they will pay up to four times more in VAT than those who can access electricity directly.

The Government’s commitment to building 300,000 new charging points is welcome, but the vast majority of those are in London. Indeed, in boroughs such as Westminster, London has exceeded the 2025 target by 358%, whereas in places such as western Cheshire, which I represent, local authorities reach only 28% of the 2025 target. That is not a good record for a Government that stood on a platform of levelling up the country.

It appears that there is a lack of strategy to deal with those disparities. The Government’s infrastructure report claims that:

“Installing and operating chargepoints requires several parties across the energy sector, local government and the transport sector to work together effectively.”

That is correct, but what are the Government going to do about those challenges? Where does the responsibility ultimately lie?

I believe that in order to achieve the transition to electric vehicles, local authorities need to be given the capacity, the resources and the authority to plan and deliver what is needed. The necessary powers must be backed by proper funding. From my rough calculations, what the Government have set aside so far will fund about a third of the requirement for electric charging points. However, it is about more than just cash, because there needs to be leadership and a proper national strategy. This will ultimately be a major change in the country’s infrastructure, and it cannot simply be left to the market as it is at the moment.

Owning a car is a lifeline for many people. We need to encourage people to use their cars less and public transport more, but I am not blind to the need for cars. Car journeys are here to stay, but they need to become net zero. The transition from petrol and diesel to electric vehicles is at the heart of this effort, and it is an important step towards decarbonising the transport system and getting to net zero.

The Government’s pledge to end the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and hybrids by 2035, has acted as a powerful signal to the car industry and the markets, but the failure to prepare the ground for the transition to EV charging infrastructure is now threatening that target and, indeed, our net zero targets. Like the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), I am absolutely in favour of the transition to EVs, but we need to prepare the ground. We cannot say, “The target cannot be achieved, so let’s just throw it out altogether.”

Until now, drivers have charged at home around three quarters of the time. However, as we shift from early adopters to the mass market, policy needs to support people who do not have the space for their own charge points. We have already heard about the regional disparities: there are many more charging points in London compared with the rest of the country, and yet two thirds of the new infrastructure is proposed for London. The lack of EV chargers is a concern for more than half of motorists. Volkswagen has noticed that, apart from the cost, the key concern for buyers today remains charging anxiety.

The lack of charging infrastructure is leading people towards do-it-yourself charging, and I want to throw that in. Electrical Safety First has found that 90% of EV owners have used domestic multi-socket extension leads and three quarters have daisy-chained extension leads. That is highly dangerous, because daisy-chaining, whereby multiple extension leads are used together, can increase the risk of socket overload and electric shock, so we are putting people at risk. Don’t do it, guys! It is really dangerous, and we need to make sure that this is not happening.

In last year’s EV infrastructure strategy, the Government made no firm commitment to ensure that EV infrastructure roll-out is in line with EV market uptake. The main problem is grid capacity. The Liberal Democrat council in Bath has worked hard to build more charging infrastructure, but it is constrained by the weak grid in the region. National Grid wants to upgrade the grid in the west of England, but Ofgem has not accepted the funding proposals. The Government need to encourage Ofgem to be part of the solution and not the problem. We need a reform of Ofgem’s remit to allow for pre-emptive investment in grid infrastructure.

A publicly funded network needs to prioritise fairly priced and equitable access. If we simply prioritise capacity over the number of locations and usefulness, we risk locking lower-income drivers, who rely on public chargers, into the most expensive rapid charging options. The Government must stop penalising people who are not able to charge their EVs at home. These people currently have to pay 20% VAT to charge their vehicles at a public charge point, compared with the 5% VAT for people charging at home. The Government must end this unjustifiable discrepancy and equalise the VAT rate at 5% for all electric vehicle charging.

Transport is responsible for nearly a third of the UK’s carbon emissions, with more than half of emissions from domestic transport coming from private cars and taxis. The quicker we get people using EVs, the closer we get to meeting our net zero targets. The benefits of owning an electric vehicle must outweigh the costs. From infrastructure to incentives, the Government need to meet words with actions and drive the electric vehicle revolution forward.

I am very grateful to Members; you have been very good. I will now call Gavin Newlands, the SNP spokesman, who will also be very good.

That is the aim, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing the debate and highlighting a crucial part of these islands’ journey to net zero.

As has been highlighted, the hon. Gentleman posed a question: are we really ready to transition to zero-emission vehicles? As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, any objective respondent would have to say an emphatic no. I hear what he said; having studied the figures many times over the last few years, I know that those for Northern Ireland are atrocious. I certainly would never have switched to an EV if I was living in Northern Ireland with that network. His points about road pricing were also well made.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who is no longer in his place, made a good intervention about excess renewable energy and problems accessing the grid. That is becoming an ever-increasing problem, and the Government and National Grid need to get a grip on the issue of the grid. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke of the improvements to charging and the strategic road network in Scotland.

I agreed with almost every word that the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said. This is one of the very few debates in which I have listened to Conservative Members and found it hard to disagree with a single word. Well, the Minister is still to speak, but hitherto I have not disagreed with a word that a Conservative Member has said. [Interruption.] It is probably me who needs to resign, rather than the hon. Member.

My Scottish colleague, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), made some very good and fair points about charging. The highlands—apart from Altnaharra—have benefited from enhanced infrastructure over the last few years, compared with probably anywhere else in the country outside London. In my county, Renfrewshire, we still have free public chargers. We are moving to a paid model, but at a reasonable price. The figures that he mentioned seem quite high when we are trying to move people over to electric vehicles.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) spoke of the discrepancy between domestic and on-street VAT, which the Government need to get a grip on. Lastly, the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) spoke of a different inequity in charging infrastructure—not just from a postcode lottery point of view, but for those homes without a driveway on which to park their car.

I am the SNP member of the Transport Committee, which has been engaging with this subject over a number of years, including in our current “Fuelling the future” inquiry. The resulting report was agreed just yesterday and will be hitting the bestseller list any day. It is clear that Scotland has led the way compared with England and, indeed, the rest of the UK outside London; London has had great results for some time. Over the last year, the number of public charging points per capita has increased by no less than 33% in Scotland. That is ahead of England, even allowing for Scotland’s head start. Inner London has largely dragged England’s figure along with it.

The hon. Member for North Antrim mentioned the figures for rapid chargers. We have 73% more rapid chargers per capita than south of the border, and in just the last quarter of last year there was an increase of 15% in the number of rapid chargers. The UK Government’s target of 300,000 public chargers by 2030 is looking more and more like a pipe dream rather than a reality in making the switch to net zero. We can also see the difference that a wider network of public chargers makes to the uptake of battery electric vehicles. In the year to September 2022, there was a 16% higher increase in the number of EVs on the road than there was in England. There is still a great deal to do in Scotland, and an ever-diminishing timeframe in which to do it, but that progress should be encouraging.

I have said many times here and in the main Chamber that the Scottish Government’s approach should be exported down south, because they are doing something right while the UK Department for Transport is lagging behind. Moreover, if the UK Government were to get anywhere near their annual targets for charger installations, that would allow Scotland to ramp up our charger installation to a point where we were getting close to the required amount. 

We are also lagging miles behind Norway, where more than 50% of new car sales are now fully electric, with another quarter coming from hybrid. They are on course to meet their goal of phasing out all private petrol and diesel cars within the next two years, which is a phenomenal achievement in such a short period of time. I would say this, wouldn’t I?—but imagine that: a small, energy-rich, independent northern European country with control over its own finances and infrastructure, setting ambitious targets and taking the radical steps needed to meet those targets. It will never, ever catch on.

We can’t agree on everything!

On electric public transport, it is only due to the Scottish Government’s continual action that the UK Government feel able to proclaim that they might meet the 4,000 buses targets set by the previous, previous Prime Minister, three years ago. Only this week Ayrshire has benefited from another two dozen zero-emission buses serving local communities, which will be on the road next month—they are not added to the stats while awaiting a tender, which I am afraid has been the Department for Transport’s way of pockling the stats whenever anyone—more often than not, me—asks how the 4,000 buses target is being met.

The former Prime Minister may have forgotten the words, but the wheels on the electric bus are very much going round and round in Scotland. Indeed, without the hundreds of buses funded under the Scottish Government’s ScotZEB and SULEBS—the Scottish zero emission bus challenge fund and Scottish ultra-low emission bus scheme —the UK Government’s target would be in tatters, despite them having no control over those Scottish schemes.

Even with smaller-scale initiatives, such as the extra financial support available for domestic charge points in Scotland compared with elsewhere, there is a clear gap, and it shows no sign of being closed. That extra support for domestic infrastructure is particularly well targeted to rural areas where the additional need for state support in transitioning to electric is well recognised.

I should declare that, as an EV owner myself, I was able to access the interest-free car loan scheme in Scotland that was available at the time, in addition to the home-charging top-up grant. That is the key difference in approach. When we have such important environmental targets on shifting drivers over to zero-emission cars, which are still usually more expensive—some often far more expensive and beyond the reach of most households —we need a Government that make zero-emission driving available to all without slashing and then ultimately removing any carrot they had dangled before the market was mature enough and costs low enough to ensure much more equitable access.

Whether it is rural or urban, what is clear is that, across a spectrum of measures, the UK Government’s offering is just not up to scratch, either to fulfil current needs or to take on board future demand. On the Government’s 300,000 chargers target, with current figures, we need to install 32,860 per year to meet that target. Last year, despite an increase on the previous year, 7,680 were installed. That is miles behind the target, and that sort of progress will prevent the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars by the same year.

There is still time to ramp things up and accelerate deployment. As I said, the Transport Committee’s “Fuelling the future” report will be out shortly, but we can look at its “Zero emission vehicles” report from 2021, where we see recommendations that have been ignored by this Government. It was an excellent report, ably drafted by the Chair at the time—I am not sure what happened to him.

Time is against me, so I will raise two or maybe three points from that report. The Committee recommended that the Government intervene to support the second-hand market in electric vehicles. The Scottish Government did that with their interest-free loan scheme. The Committee recommended that all charge points should be interoperable. We spoke about that point at length, but we are getting nowhere fast on interoperability. People who rely on public charging infrastructure should get value for money. Finally, and more importantly, the Government have to address the discrepancy between the 5% VAT and the 20% VAT incurred at public charge points.

I hope to hear the Minister address his own report when he responds. I hope he does respond to those issues, because if we are serious about a net zero economy, it cannot just mean action at one end of the supply chain for the end consumer. It has to include an industrial strategy that reflects innovation and modernisation of production and supply. Unfortunately, that is currently just not happening in the UK. We are falling way behind the curve. We need to make Project Rapid move a little less glacially, and we need to do so as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this debate on electric vehicle infrastructure cost and availability, and thank him for providing an opportunity to draw attention to this vital issue. Climate change presents one of the biggest threats and greatest challenges facing humanity. However, the greatest barrier to progress today is not climate denial, but climate delay. We are at a critical juncture in our journey to legally binding net zero targets. Now is the time for bold and ambitious policy that will unleash the huge opportunities that the transition offers, but that is a far cry from the reality under this Government.

Does my hon. Friend agree that so much has been promised by Government on this issue, but in so many constituencies—including my constituency of Birmingham, Hall Green—people are missing out on being part of delivering the climate change agenda? When will the Government deliver on those promises by delivering EV charging points for many households?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is an amazing champion for his constituents. I could not agree with him more. In fact, I will be delving into that very topic —regional disparity—later in my speech.

As the largest emitting sector in respect of greenhouse gas emissions, transport has a crucial role to play in getting to net zero. In 2020, transport accounted for almost a quarter of total emissions, at a time when the pandemic meant that domestic travel was at just a fraction of usual levels. Petrol car journeys produce similar emissions per capita to aeroplanes—that is a startling fact—and over three times more than electric cars. Therefore, ramping up the transition to EVs is imperative if we are to meet our climate goals. But the roll-out of electric vehicles is only as good as the roll-out of the charging infrastructure supporting it. There is no time to lose, as the EV enthusiast, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), explained, along with pointing out the VAT anomaly for charging outside one’s house. It is of course true that most drivers charge their EVs at home, but even those with home chargers need to be able to rely on a nationwide charging network, or they will be held back by range anxiety. In addition, we must not forget the estimated one third of households without access to off-street parking. They must not be left behind. Charging at home or a workplace has a huge role to play, but it is no alternative to a truly nationwide and reliable public charging network.

This Government are asleep at the wheel while the UK falls behind on the infrastructure that motorists need. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) highlighted, as did the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), that areas such as Northern Ireland are being failed and left behind. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group, highlighted how we are falling further and further behind our European neighbours.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) eloquently highlighted—in a very powerful speech, because she speaks with a great deal of experience on this matter—we need to install 37,000 charging devices a year to meet the Government’s own target of 300,000 by 2030. However, last year we achieved just a quarter of that. At the current pace, Ministers will miss their own target by a staggering 20 years. There are now 30 electric vehicles for every charging device, compared with 16 at the start of 2020. Motoring groups have been calling for a mandate on the installation of charging devices, to complement the upcoming net zero emission vehicle mandate. Motorists and manufacturers alike are crying out for clarity on the timescale for the transition to electric cars and charging infrastructure. Will the Minister consider targets in this area? I look forward to hearing his views on that.

Furthermore, the public charging devices that are available are highly concentrated in London, at the expense of the north and other areas of our country. There are now more public charging devices in Westminster alone than in 11 of the biggest northern cities combined, and this gap is stretching out wider still. Over the last three months, for example, more devices have been installed in Westminster than in any English region outside London. While this Government sit on their hands, the regional divide continues to get worse and worse. If the Government do not get a grip on this, those in more rural and less affluent areas are destined to be excluded from this transition, as was ably demonstrated by the hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and for Bath (Wera Hobhouse).

Even when motorists are able to find a charging device, all too often they find out that it is too expensive, complicated to use, or not even working. Research carried out by the RAC showed that the cost of rapid charging on the public network rose by 50% in the eight months up to January 2023. Indeed, the AA has warned that the cost of public charging could become comparable to high-emission alternatives. That should be a huge cause for concern. Cheaper running costs are a major selling point for switching to electric vehicles. To lose that means risking the transition.

Turning to consumer experience, many have called for stronger regulation to standardise payment methods, and set minimum standards, so that public charging is as simple as filling up a petrol tank. It is unacceptable that many charging devices do not accept contactless card payments and force users to download an app or carry multiple membership cards. I can attest to that from my own experiences of driving my electric car. That would not be tolerated in any other industry and puts up yet another barrier to the transition.

In addition, all too often charging devices are not acceptable for people with disabilities. That must urgently be addressed, if we are to achieve a just transition. We welcome commitments made in the EV infrastructure strategy for new consumer experience regulations. In particular, it is vital that proposals for a 99% uptime requirement are followed through. Will the Minister confirm that those commitments will be delivered in full, and that there will be no scaling back? Will he also provide a timescale for their implementation? It is imperative that these crucial steps are not watered down or kicked into the long grass.

On funding, will the Minister take this opportunity to announce when the local electric vehicle infrastructure scheme will be up and running? Many local authorities are awaiting this funding to get their own roll-out going, particularly in areas where the business case for the private sector is weak. When will the rapid charge fund, first announced years ago, finally be delivered?

More widely, there are a number of other factors threatening an effective transition to EVs. As my hon. Friends the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) rightly lamented, car manufacturers are being left in limbo by the lack of clarity from the Government on their zero-emission vehicle mandate. The mandate will come into force in less than a year, but 11 months out we are still waiting for details on what the mandate will be and what penalties it will carry. That uncertainty is adding to the challenges facing the car industry. Will the Minister confirm when the Government will finally respond to the ZEV mandate consultation? Delay after delay and a lack of clarity risk stalling the transition to electric, and reversing the momentum built up behind it. Manufacturers and motorists need confidence in a reliable, affordable and accessible nationwide network of charging infrastructure.

Labour stands ready to turbocharge the electric vehicle roll-out. A Labour Government will support new gigafactories, leveraging private sector investment and creating thousands of British jobs. We will offer interest-free loans for new and used EVs, to those on low and middle incomes. We will support a truly nationwide and accessible charging network, so that range anxiety is ended everywhere and for everyone. We stand on the precipice of a major change to the way people drive. In under seven years, the sale of new purely petrol and diesel cars will end. Motorists and manufacturers are ready to make the switch, but they need a Government who are ready to make the switch. This Government have failed to rise to the challenge. Labour has a plan, and a Labour Government will deliver on that plan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) for securing this important debate, and I thank every participant for their words. It may not be possible to answer all their questions, but I hope we can cover the bulk of them.

The Government are committed to decarbonising transport and to phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, becoming the first G7 country to do so. The benefits of zero-emission motoring are there to be won: improved air quality in our towns and cities, economic growth through our automotive industry, and ultimately cheaper and cleaner driving for all. Getting to that point will require Government and industry to furnish this country with an accessible, affordable and secure charging infrastructure network.

Perhaps I can give you some reasons to be cheerful, Mr Bone; I fear the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) also needs cheering up. Industry data shows that in December 2022, 32.9% of new cars sold were fully electric. That was the best ever month for new battery electric car registrations, with more sales than in all of 2019 combined. The UK had the second highest battery electric car sales in Europe in 2022, with Germany being first and France third. A survey by Zap-Map found that only 1% of EV drivers want to switch back to a petrol or diesel vehicle. One in five public charge points in the UK are rapid or ultra-rapid, and under our plans, new homes and non-residential premises undergoing renovation will have to install charging infrastructure at the point of construction. That should lead to 145,000 further charge points across England every year. Those are some reasons to be cheerful.

Last March, we published our strategy and set out our plans to accelerate the roll-out of the network. To answer one of the questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, the Government expect at least 300,000 public charge points to be installed across the UK by 2030. We do not regard that with the same cynicism as my good friend from the SNP, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). A recent industry report by New AutoMotive, “On the Road to 2030”, found that the charge point roll-out is

“progressing at an adequate pace, growing by a third every 12 months, and the UK is on track”

to meet the expected 300,000 public chargers by the end of 2030. So do not just take my word for it.

That will all be achieved thanks to billions of pounds of investment by industry. There are more than 37,000 open access public chargers already on UK roads, hundreds of thousands of charge points in homes and workplaces, and more than 600,000 new chargers added to our road network each month on average. In fact, public charging devices have more than tripled in the last four years. We are on track to meet expectations.

On electric vehicle uptake, Government grants have supported drivers to buy plug-in vehicles for over a decade, with more than £1.4 billion already having been invested in the early market. Colleagues at the Treasury are committed to ensuring that motoring tax revenues keep pace with the changes brought about by the switch to electric vehicles, while keeping the transition affordable to consumers.

I will touch on local charging infrastructure, which has been raised. This debate is a timely one. Lack of access to off-street parking should not be a barrier to owning a plug-in electric vehicle. We are working with local authorities to ensure local provision meets local needs. Just yesterday, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned, we announced that drivers across the UK will benefit from a further £56 million of public and industry funding to support the roll-out of electric vehicle charge points across the country.

I will not give way due to time, I am sorry.

The funding will expand the current local electric vehicle infrastructure pilot, boost the existing on-street residential charge point scheme, and help councils across England secure dedicated resources to develop in-house expertise and capabilities to co-ordinate charge point plans and work with private operators. This will lead to thousands of new chargers and plans for tens of thousands more, helping more people than ever to make the transition.

Turning to rapid charging, alongside local infrastructure the tipping point for mass adoption of EVs also relies on the ability of motorists to access a reliable, long-distance charging network. Today, those making long-distance journeys on England’s motorways and A roads are already never more than 25 miles away from a rapid charge point, and more than 99% of motorway service areas in England have electric vehicle charging available. However, more work needs to be done. The rapid charging fund will futureproof electrical capacity at strategic locations to prepare the network for a fully electric car and van fleet, ensuring that the private sector can continue to expand the charging network at pace.

People’s experience of public charging has been referred to in the debate. We have heard motorists and we are listening to their complaints that certain charge points do not work and that it can be difficult to find the right charge point at the right time. As a result, the Government have announced new regulations to improve confidence in the charging network and to make the user experience truly seamless. This includes regulating to deliver 99% reliability across each rapid charging network; to simplify payment methods through introducing contactless payment and to encourage roaming, which relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about interoperability; and to make public EV charge point data freely available. These changes will give drivers the information they need about price and location.

Accessibility should also be embedded in public charge point design from the outset. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Slough about those with disabilities, we know that disabled EV drivers face specific barriers when using public charge points and that many of them are likely to be dependent on the public charging network. That is why the Government have co-sponsored an accessible charging specification alongside Motability, the national disability charity. We are pleased to see that charge point operators are already considering how to incorporate these standards into their data and charge point design.

Before I close and give time to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester to wind up the debate, I will just pick up on a few more points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and others referred to the grid. Ofgem’s upcoming distribution network price control includes £3.1 billion of funding for strategic network upgrades, which will help to deliver EV charge point roll-out across Great Britain. We are committed, in the British energy security strategy, to work with Ofgem to accelerate connections to the network. Ofgem has also decided to change the connection charging regime from April to make it cheaper for EV charge points and solar photovoltaic systems to connect to the electricity distribution network, where reinforcement of the distribution network is required. We recognise that there is work to be done, but we have put in place work that we believe will deliver the grid for all.

Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol East and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, have referred to local authority uptake of funding. Some local authorities have taken up funding, but it is true to say that others have not done so. We understand that uneven level of engagement, capability, resource, political buy-in and certainty about EVs across England means that the roll-out of charging infrastructure is also uneven. Under the LEVI—local electric vehicle infrastructure—capability fund, which we announced yesterday, we are keen to provide an injection of up-front resource funding to help to ensure that local authorities in England have dedicated staff to undertake the planning and delivery of local electric vehicle charge points in their areas. I say to all right hon. and hon. Members present that the way to do that is for us to contact our local authorities and make it happen, as I have done. My local authority said that it did not have the funding or the capability, but with a bit of work it was able to do it. This fund will help that process a lot more, so I ask Members to please advertise it.

The Government will soon publish more details about the design of the ZEV mandate, including uptake in trajectories and accompanying CO2 emissions regulation regarding how the targets will be set and enforced. That comes back to the point about philosophy. We are moving away from subsidising individuals buying electrical vehicles, towards a mandate that will incentivise car manufacturers to produce EVs, and if they do not do so, they will end up being penalised. That is our future philosophy.

Finally, what will replace vehicle excise duty and fuel duty? That is a matter for the Treasury. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester very kindly referred to a Transport Committee report, but I am unable to answer his question because that report was written for the Treasury. I understand that the Treasury will respond shortly.

I will close there, to allow my hon. Friend his 30 seconds to respond, and I thank all Members present.

I am very glad that the Minister managed to keep hold of his folder and that it was not mislaid. [Laughter.] I had to say that. He has, characteristically, covered a wide range of issues that are not part of his brief, and I thank him for doing so. We have talked about charging, power, cost, availability and investment, and we have asked whether we are ready and on track. I am encouraged by the Minister’s response. This is not his brief; it is another Minister’s brief. It is great that the Government have a plan. I know from being a Minister that it is great to have a plan with staging posts to make sure it is adhered to. I encourage Ministers to stay on it—

Order. I am really sorry, but time has beaten us. We must move on to the next debate.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Child Literacy: Disadvantaged Areas

I beg to move,

That this House has considered improving children’s literacy in disadvantaged areas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I rise to argue that we need to consider the access that every child in the UK has to a school library or even a book, as that has consequences for their literacy attainment.

I am sure we all agree that reading is at the very basis of our daily existence, from reading delayed train notices to the daily news. It would seem almost impossible to function in our society today without that necessary skill. That is why I am sure hon. Members will be as shocked as I am to learn that three quarters of a million school-aged children in the UK still do not have access to a school library. That is quite frankly an alarming statistic, given that reading makes up a fundamental part of how we operate in our everyday lives and of how future generations will continue to operate.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised libraries. Last year, staff and pupils at Woodchurch Church of England Primary School in my constituency were supported by the children’s laureate and the BookTrust to transform an unoccupied area of corridor into a fantastic reading space with mushroom cushions, dragon wall art and hundreds of books. The school has embedded reading for pleasure into its culture, and it reports that that has been a key part of improving outcomes for some of its most vulnerable children—particularly those with special educational needs. It also told me that children now see reading not only as a skill for learning but as something that helps their mental health. Some have described the library as a haven and a safe space. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is important to develop a culture of reading for pleasure at a very early age to improve children’s educational attainment and to ensure that they feel part of wider society.

The hon. Lady summed up in a matter of minutes what I am planning to say in half an hour. That is a summary version of my speech. I could not agree more.

The focus must clearly be on how primary school libraries help improve children’s literacy in disadvantaged areas. They are indisputably a vital part of the education system. Numerous studies have shown a clear correlation between having a good school library and not only academic achievement and literacy performance but a child’s attitude to learning as a whole. Improving children’s literacy clearly relies on the availability of school libraries and access to books. Sadly, the reality is that availability and access to books for children relies on efficiently allocated funding.

The Government’s recent levelling-up White Paper indicated that by 2030, the number of primary school children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths will have significantly increased. In England, that will mean that 90% of children will have achieved the expected standard, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst-performing areas will have increased by over a third. Without efficiently allocated funding, that mission seems unlikely to reach its full potential.

Early childhood, from birth to the age of five, is instrumental both in itself and as a foundation stage for language and literacy development, which is why funding channelled to early-years education is essential. The Prime Minister—then Chancellor of the Exchequer—said in his autumn 2021 Budget speech:

“The evidence is compelling that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are the most important.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 277.]

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. In the short time he has been here, he has shown himself to be an assiduous Member, and he is very good at bringing things forward that we are happy to respond to. I endorse what he said. I am a grandfather with six grandchildren, and it gives me a wee bit of insight into their insatiable desire for books. They want to learn and know about the world. They show an eagerness that I did not see in my boys—perhaps it was because I was not there enough for them. I commend the hon. Gentleman for what he is saying. It is really important for literacy to be part of the primary school curriculum. By making books available, we are building adults for tomorrow. Some of the children at those schools might even grow up to be Members of this House!

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having six grandchildren. I have only two children, Persephone and Charlotte, but one day I hope to have six grandchildren or more. I hope that they, too, will have a love of books and learning.

At present, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are already behind their more affluent peers when they enter primary school. That is extremely concerning, especially coupled with the 40% development gap between disadvantaged 16-year-olds and their peers that emerges by the age of five. The primary school rate is currently set at £1,385 per pupil, whereas the early years rate is only £342. That deeply affects the access to books that children have in their early years, as well as their chances of developing strong literacy skills. Ultimately, the funding currently allocated to early years does not reflect the evidence on child development or sectoral need.

My constituency of Rother Valley is by no means the worst-performing area in the UK in literacy and education rates—it has some great schools—but its literacy scores are certainly below the national average. On a recent visit to Dinnington Community Primary School, I was joined by Cressida Cowell—a former children’s laureate and the author of the hugely popular series “How to Train Your Dragon”—to discuss children’s literacy. A vast proportion of our conversation concentrated on the inequality in children’s access to school libraries. Yorkshire and the Humber holds the unenviable place of being the geographical area of the UK with statistically the lowest children’s book ownership: some 9.2% of children do not own a single book. It is particularly concerning that two in every five children in England are eligible for free school meals, but many of them do not have a dedicated library in their school.

I make it clear that prioritising the availability of books in primary schools should not be confined to disadvantaged areas. While there are apparent regional differences in library provision between the north and south of England, it should be a priority across the whole UK. It has been estimated that if all children were to read for pleasure, the economic impact of their increased skills, and therefore increased potential, would raise the UK’s GDP by £4.6 billion a year within just one generation. National Libraries Week encapsulates this notion with its most recent theme, “Never Stop Learning”, which seeks to draw attention to the valuable role that libraries play in supporting not only primary school children, but lifelong learning. If we prioritise children’s literacy, the whole UK will reap the benefits in every aspect of our society, most notably economically and socially.

A school library is a driving force for so many opportunities for children. It is essential for it to possess a wide range of books, from novels to graphic novels and even comics. It also needs to be an inviting place—we need to move away from the idea of a small, dark, gloomy room. It is not simply that if children have access to a primary school library, they will have a higher probability of attaining good literacy levels. It goes beyond access; it is also about quality, engagement with children, and the books on offer. Children need to be drawn to a library and to what it has to offer.

School libraries and efficiently allocated funding are critical, but I accept that they are not the only things that matter. Primary schools up and down the country are doing incredible work to boost literacy levels, but there is only so much that they can do, especially as much of what influences children and young people is beyond the school gates: it happens at home and in their day-to-day interactions with their local community and environment. That is why it is necessary for the private sector to play an active role in helping to boost literacy levels. Through their products, services and charitable initiatives, businesses have channels to influence children and young people that schools simply do not have.

A prime example of this multi-partner approach is the National Literacy Trust’s work with McDonald’s since 2013 as part of the McDonald’s Happy Readers campaign. Some 61 million books have been distributed as a result of that initiative, which is based on McDonald’s swapping toys and happy meals for books and including a book offer on the box. That is an undeniably strong example of the outcomes that can be achieved through a multi-sector, multi-partner approach.

The rewards of access to books are not confined to academic and economic achievement. Reading is a vital aid to a child’s mental wellbeing. There are proven, identified links between children’s literacy engagement and their wellbeing. Children who are most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of good mental wellbeing than children who are least engaged. I believe that engagement with literacy relies heavily on libraries being a place to which children have access during their lunch breaks—a “third space” away from the classroom.

For me, a library is a wonderful form of escapism—indeed, just like the best books. As a result of my strong belief that the availability of primary school libraries, as well as books at home, is instrumental to improving literacy attainment, I have canvassed many schools across Rother Valley over the past couple of months to assess their reading facilities. I was delighted with the level of engagement. It was encouraging and confirmed to me that, with the right support, schools are receptive to prioritising reading.

Initiatives such as Michael Morpurgo Month—a competition where schools enter to win a live virtual event with the author—are incredible ways to engage children, even those who do not consider themselves natural readers. I am extremely proud that some primary schools in Rother Valley will enter this competition, and I urge other Members to encourage their primary schools to start thinking outside the box and to engage with similar initiatives that bring reading to life for children.

Ultimately, we need to challenge the outdated notion that reading is boring or irrelevant. My strong belief in prioritising children’s literacy prompted me to meet the National Literacy Trust and the World Book Day charity. I was incredibly pleased to learn of the invaluable work they do to raise awareness not only of the significant role libraries play in helping children reach their full potential, but of the benefits that reading for pleasure can bring. The annual World Book Day, which takes place on Thursday 2 March, is dedicated to reading for pleasure. It witnesses 15 million book tokens being distributed each year, with an impressive 90% of schools participating throughout the UK. I strongly encourage Members to attend the parliamentary event on 28 February to show their support for World Book Day.

It can be easy to think that World Book Day is an isolated day that comes round once a year, but the charity’s work challenging the notion that reading is outdated continues throughout the year. It releases book club content, reading recommendation lists and video stories with the aim of helping parents engage their children in reading beyond the classroom. A distinct aspect of the charity is how it introduces children to comic books and graphic novels for those who perceive reading as not for them. I was surprised to learn that research from 2015 found that reading a Dickens novel and a manga comic book have exactly the same impact on a child’s development because of the way they engage the brain with pictures and tests to open up their imagination in a new way. I am in the process of becoming a World Book Day champion, and I urge all other Members to do what they can and to consider joining as well for the good of the children.

The National Literacy Trust works to address low literacy rates in disadvantaged areas by combining a range of evidence-based programmes with community-driven, place-based solutions. Across the UK, the trust has 20 literacy hubs in areas with the highest levels of deprivation and literacy vulnerability. The hub’s approach is characterised by a mix of strategic local partnerships, community campaigns and targeted programmatic activity in earlier settings than schools, run by local teams that have strong existing networks in these communities. Literacy hubs are leading the way in breaking cycles of intergenerational low literacy by engaging the entire community, which encapsulates the innovation we all should be striving for.

In October 2021, the National Literacy Trust, together with Penguin Random House, launched the Primary School Library Alliance, which strives to address the chronic lack of investment in primary school libraries and to change the narrative where one in seven primary schools in England does not have a library by transforming library spaces. As of 2022, the alliance has worked with more than 330 schools, and its mission is to help transform 1,000 primary school libraries by 2025 by giving them the books, training and support they require to make that possible. The fact that the programme is worth over £5 million and is supported by many children’s authors, publishers and private companies proves the extent of support on prioritising improving children’s literacy skills.

One aspect of its work that should be noticed is its intense focus on engaging parents to encourage their children to read, such as in early morning reading groups for parents, by having books in the house and the school library being open in holidays. These are all innovative ways to encourage parents to see the value in reading and for children to view the library as their third space outside the classroom. The success of the scheme speaks for itself, and I am sure Members will join me in advocating for the expansion of such a wonderful scheme, which is pioneering in creating not just a library space, but a reading community.

Having argued the merits and value of primary school libraries, what can be done to ensure their secured future in our educational institutions? We all want to reach the end point of a statutory requirement for all primary schools to have an adequately sized and well-resourced library. That would greatly complement the White Paper published in March 2022 and help achieve its aim of improving literacy rates across the UK. However, it is recognised throughout the sector that we must transition towards that through the support of public-private schemes, such as the Primary School Library Alliance.

Secondly, the Government must recognise the importance of early years for language development. That needs to be reflected in the funding invested in resources, which should result in early years receiving the same rate as the primary school rate. As a consequence, the early years rate should equate to the £1,385 per pupil received by primary school children.

Thirdly, the Government should ensure that the allocation of funding across the UK is weighted towards disadvantaged areas to target the pupils who are persistently disadvantaged. One of the ways the Government can do that is by taking a multi-sector, multi-partner approach to activate private sector investment. In practice, that requires the Government to support initiatives such as the Primary School Library Alliance, to try to further their goal of reaching 1,000 schools by 2025. That support would prevent the statutory requirement from being solely tokenistic, since it strives to engage pupils, teachers and parents. The Government need to form partnerships to create a readers’ community throughout the whole United Kingdom.

Ultimately, I propose that we must ensure every child in Rother Valley and across the whole of the UK has access to an adequately sized and well-resourced library at their local school to achieve high levels of literacy attainment. We must do more to help every child fulfil their potential—that was a pledge of the school White Paper. I firmly believe that introducing the statutory requirement for all primary schools would be a force for change to make that truly possible, and improve not only the quality of our children’s access to books, but the rest of their lives. Children are the future generation, so it is crucial that we ensure they are provided with adequate resources to excel fully and change the narrative of 25% of 11-year-olds leaving primary school being unable to read at the expected level. That figure rises to 40% among disadvantaged children.

Reading is a simple, cost-effective and powerful tool to unlock prosperity in Rother Valley and across the UK, and it is our duty to make the United Kingdom the world’s foremost reading community. I hope that my sponsoring today’s debate can be in the first chapter of the very exciting story of children’s literacy.

Order. Sir John, I have not been notified that you wish to speak in the debate. I have not been told by the Member that he has your permission, nor have I heard it from the Minister.

Unusual is my middle name, Mr Bone. I am immensely grateful for your indulgence. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) spoke about the debate earlier this afternoon; I had not expected to be here, but when he told me the subject I felt that I ought to be.

The way in which we store, exchange and use information has changed immeasurably in my lifetime. The internet has done good but, of course, much more harm—not least because, paradoxically, it makes finding information more straightforward but simultaneously makes serendipity less likely, as the pursuit of speed replaces the journey of discovery. Search engines mean that we are directed to exactly what we need when we need it, rather than the business of finding out things that one did not expect, which might stimulate all kinds of thoughts, ideas and adventures, and that is just what a library does. When someone enters a library or a bookshop, they do not always necessarily know what they will come out with; in fact, they very often come out with much that they did not expect to.

Libraries play a critical part in exciting and enthralling and seeding dreams and memories. School libraries are particularly important in that regard, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley made clear. T. S. Eliot said, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” If he was alive now, he would say, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in data?”, as we drown in a sea of data. Libraries—whether they be public libraries, such as the one I helped to save in the Deepings, my constituency, which is now flourishing, or school libraries in the schools in my constituency—are places where children, often for the first time, encounter the canon of English literature. No childhood—no rich and enjoyable childhood —is complete, surely, without knowing C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, dear Enid Blyton or Tolkien, so I congratulate my hon. Friend on this motion. Every child in every school should—

Thank you, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) on his very thoughtful speech. He will know that I am standing in for the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb).

My hon. Friend does incredible work as an active champion of literacy in Rother Valley. He is right to draw attention to fantastic initiatives, such as Michael Morpurgo Month, a competition to highlight the importance of literacy for all children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In my own constituency of Harlow, I run a Christmas card competition. I met the winners recently, and I always give them books by Tolkien, who was just mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes).

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley says that if we prioritise children’s literacy, the whole of the UK will reap the benefits. The Government wholeheartedly agrees with him. That is why we have strengthened the national curriculum to focus on developing reading and writing ability, and put phonics at its heart. There is sound evidence that systematic phonics is a highly effective method for teaching early reading, and I pay real tribute to the Minister for Schools, who has done so much work to drive up standards and drive so much change over the past few years.

The Minister is talking about phonics. He might come on to this, but in a primary school in my constituency, which I mentioned earlier, I have witnessed a huge drive to encourage reading for pleasure. The children are not being tested; nobody is monitoring them. We get these lovely pictures of children sitting around, sharing books and reading books on their own, and it has really ignited their interest. Would the Minister agree that embedding reading for pleasure in the curriculum is massively important?

The hon. Member is absolutely right and is showing, in essence, how libraries can play an important role in reading for pleasure and encouraging children to read. There is no doubt that reading for pleasure brings a range of benefits—it is something that I did as a child—and that is supported by the Department.

In 2018, the Department launched the English Hubs programme. So far, the programme has intensively supported 1,600 schools, with those schools having an above-average proportion of pupils on free school meals. That includes schools in Rother Valley, which are supported by two English Hubs—Learners First and St Wilfrid’s, which have intensively supported more than 100 schools.

The success of our increased emphasis on phonics and early reading has delivered results on an international scale. England achieved its highest ever score in reading in 2016, moving from joint 10th to joint eighth in the progress in international reading literacy study rankings. That improvement is largely attributable to increases in the average performance of lower-performing pupils and of boys. It follows a greater focus on reading in the primary curriculum, and a particular focus on phonics.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley has highlighted the importance of reading for pleasure—as has the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) —and of enabling access to books. My hon. Friend talked about World Book Day and the National Literacy Trust working tirelessly to raise the profile of reading for pleasure in our country. The National Literacy Trust’s partnership with McDonald’s is a brilliant example, as he highlighted, and I am sure that he would not mind me saying that I’m lovin’ it.

The Government believe that all pupils deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum that promotes extensive reading, both in and out of school. The national curriculum promotes reading for pleasure, with evidence showing that that is more important for children’s educational development than their parents’ level of education. Libraries are absolutely an important way of promoting reading for pleasure. I spent my childhood in libraries, so I completely get where my hon. Friend is coming from.

I had better not, because I have not got much time; I hope the hon. Lady does not mind.

It is for individual schools to decide how best to provide and maintain a library service for their pupils, including whether to employ a qualified librarian. Head teachers often recognise the important role that school libraries can play in improving literacy, by ensuring that proper library facilities are provided. I absolutely agree that school libraries are important, but they are not the only thing that matters. We recognise the vital importance of the teaching profession and are committed to offering the very best professional development. The national professional qualification for leading literacy was launched in October last year to train existing teachers and leaders to become literacy experts and to drive up standards of literacy teaching.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley is absolutely correct when he talks about the importance of early intervention. The early years foundation stage reforms aim to improve outcomes at age five, especially in early language and literacy, and especially for disadvantaged children.

On funding, my hon. Friend will know that we have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on our early education entitlements to support families with the cost of childcare. At spending review 2021 we announced three years of additional funding increases, which come to £510 million in total over the funding provided in 2021-22, for local authorities to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers. He will also know that the early years pupil premium will be up to £353 per year for each eligible child, an increase from the £342 made available this year. We have made £180 million available to improve early language and train early years staff.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the pandemic has had a wide-reaching and uneven effect on attainment, including in his constituency. The fall in attainment in 2022 was anticipated, sadly, and does not diminish the hard work of teachers, support staff and pupils in challenging circumstances. He will also know about the £5 billion recovery plan, with the recovery premium and the national tutoring programme, to try and support catch-up.

The Department is sending almost £2.9 billion of pupil premium funding to schools in 2023-24 to improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged pupils. In my own area, some schools have used that for library facilities; some schools in Harlow have bought black and white Kindles to help pupils to read. We constantly review and assess the effectiveness of our approach to targeting funding towards deprivation.

Given that I am the Skills Minister, I hope that my hon. Friend does not mind if I mention that we have also improved literacy and English skills. Disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to leave school without a GCSE grade 4 or higher in English, so our resits policy ensures that colleges, sixth forms and training providers support those young people towards achievement. From the introduction of the resits policy in 2014 to 2019, there was an 80% increase in the numbers of students achieving level 2 in English by 19 who did not have it at 16. We have also hugely improved the number of apprentices achieving functional skills.

I want to reflect on the recent changes made to some of Roald Dahl’s work. I support the Prime Minister’s sentiment that

“we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.”

My hon. Friend talks about libraries. I hope very much that people choose to read the original Roald Dahl texts in the school libraries that my hon. Friend is promoting. There are many Roald Dahl books.

The Department is committed to improving literacy levels for all pupils, because reading and writing are an essential foundation for success in all subjects. We are determined to drive progress further still and ensure that all children can benefit from high-quality teaching, giving all children a solid base upon which to build as they progress through school.

Question put and agreed to.

Overseas Aid: Child Health and Education

I beg to move,

That this House has considered overseas aid, child health and education.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate about this important subject. I want to start with a moment’s reflection. All of us here today are lucky to live in the developed world, and in the United Kingdom in particular. So many people around the world face such enormous challenges, and it is important to remember that many of those challenges are getting worse, as far too many people struggle with the effects of the climate emergency, war and natural disaster. It is our responsibility in the developed world to help those who have not had the same opportunities that we have had. Indeed, that is a duty for all of us.

That duty has been thrown into sharp relief by the recent tragic events in Turkey and Syria, and I turn first to the earthquake before addressing longer-term development issues. It has been simply heartbreaking to watch the horrific images of the earthquake in Turkey and northern Syria. The recent quake was the worst for nearly 100 years, and measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. It was, quite simply, an incredibly powerful natural disaster, and sadly the effects seem to have been made worse by what can only be described as apparent shoddy building practices and lax regulation.

I pay tribute to all those taking part in the response to this dreadful disaster—both those in Turkey and Syria, and those across the whole world. The Disasters Emergency Committee in Britain, local branches of charities, local communities and local residents who have taken part in collections are all doing their bit to help those in need at this most awful time. It falls to us to help, both in emergencies such as the earthquake or the recent floods in Pakistan and over the much longer term. I am sure that everyone in the United Kingdom shares those concerns and that commitment to help.

Let me turn to wider development issues, which are the subject of today’s debate. There is no doubt that the world is changing, but although many countries are developing, there is still enormous economic and social inequality across the world. It is truly sobering to consider the scale of this enormous problem. Even today, nearly one in 10 of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, despite considerable steps forward in the last 40 or 50 years. That poverty is found in many countries, and in particular blights the lives of people living in rural areas and many of those who have migrated to the enormous cities that are emerging around the world. There remains extreme inequality in health and education, as I will return to later.

I want to make some broader points and recap the recent direction of Government policy. Turning to recent history, the last Labour Government made real steps forward. They brought in the 0.7% target for aid, so that the proportion of GDP spent on aid matched the amount recommended by the UN—picking up on work that went as far back as the Brundtland commission in the 1980s. It is important that Britain led on that policy, and there were very real results: 1.5 million more people received improved sanitation and water services, and this country helped 40 million children go to school. I also acknowledge the very important work that Cameron’s Conservative Government did in continuing that policy.

Sadly, the 0.7% target was scrapped by more recent Conservative Governments, which has left the UK presiding over a declining aid budget. Worse still, there have been attempts to rebadge other spending as aid, including the deeply mistaken plan to spend £3 billion from the development budget on the cost of housing refugees. That mistaken approach has knocked down the pillars on which the UK’s international leadership was built, and it has damaged Britain’s credibility around the world. Added to that, a botched merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has undermined delivery.

Development spending is not only a force for moral good, as I mentioned earlier, but sensible policy. Aid from the developed world is helpful and important, and although it is not the only answer, it can be a significant force for good. British aid has played an important part in helping those in need around the world. Our contribution has declined, and our influence and ability to be a force for good are in retreat.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate; he always brings very important subjects to Westminster Hall and the main Chamber. Does he recognise that, although the Government have a role to play, there are many non-governmental organisations and charities—I think of many church groups in my constituency—that come together to make significant contributions to health, education, job opportunities and ensuring that young girls have an equal opportunity to young boys? I can speak for the Elim church mission in my constituency as one example. We cannot ignore what they do in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland. They make a contribution alongside Government, and that cannot be forgotten.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his words. Of course, the work of community, voluntary, church and other faith groups is so important and makes an enormous contribution, and in many ways plays a leading role in aid around the world.

As I was saying, I am afraid that our influence is in retreat, as is our ability to be a force for good. That sad reality should be—and I hope will be—a cause for reflection and a much-needed reassessment by the Minister and his colleagues.

I might expand on this point later. I was struck in a conversation I had with someone working in one of our embassies who remarked that, from their perspective, the D in FCDO is currently silent. They were worried about their ability to do other things in that country as a result. Is that similar to conversations the hon. Gentleman has had with others in this space?

The hon. Member makes an excellent point. There is a real risk that the development work of the Government gets downplayed due to the reorganisation. As I said earlier, there are also issues with delivery and capacity in the new merged Department.

I would like to spell out what this retreat means in real terms on the ground for the very poorest. We now know that bilateral aid on education fell from £789 million in 2019 to just £545 million in 2020. That is a reduction of nearly a third. Final spending in 2021 was just £457 million. That falls way short. The UK’s £430 million pledge for the Global Partnership for Education for 2021-25 was an increase on previous commitments, but lower than many had expected. Further analysis by charities indicates that education programmes were cut by 30% in the first round of cuts in 2020. Those are severe cuts.

Many local and international NGOs have spoken about the impact of cuts on children’s education and health. For example, the Dhaka Ahsania Mission, after seeing 100% of its funding cut, said that 1,250 out-of-school children living in flood prone areas in northern Bangladesh will not have access to quality non-formal primary education. It said,

“Within weeks…our project would have enrolled 700 out-of-school girls (and 560 out-of-school boys) into rural-based, non-formal primary education centres.”

All that has been cut.

In another case, an NGO that preferred to remain anonymous saw a 100% cut to funding for a programme that protected the rights of children and enabled them to grow up healthily. The project improved access to inclusive quality education for 1,700 children marginalised by ethnicity, gender and/or disability in three rural villages in Laos.

Again on health, in 2022 the UK pledged £1 billion to the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which is £400 million less than in 2019. I remind colleagues that every minute of the day a child dies of malaria, and hundreds—around 600—are estimated to die every day of TB. I hope I have set out what the current policy means to those who are most in need of help.

I turn to some of the principles that I believe should guide our wider strategy, at a point when, as I said earlier, I hope the Government are able to rethink their recent approach. It is clear that current policy is simply not working, and Ministers should start again. They should think again about how the world has changed, at the same time building on what we know has worked in the recent past.

We need to take a sensible and strategic approach to this important issue. First, the UK should lead by example, not break our word or commitments. That means not reducing our development spending or asking others to do more in our place. It also means not preaching about net zero without a credible plan to get there. Secondly, our strategy should mean rediscovering our core principles, which should always guide us, and our commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Thirdly, our approach to development needs to reflect the world we live in—a world that, as I said, is quite clearly changing. We should focus on where we really can make a difference, and our approach should be grounded in an understanding of the wider world and of how aid can be delivered in partnership with local communities and developing countries.

There is so much I could say about innovative work in partnership with local community-level initiatives. However, time is pressing and I want to sum up, because I appreciate that many other colleagues want to contribute. As I said earlier, we are responsible for supporting people in need around the world. This is about responding in an emergency, and I thank those who supported people in Turkey and Syria following the recent earthquakes. However, there is a much longer-term need that we need to acknowledge and address properly.

Sadly, I am afraid the current Government are failing, and the cuts have set back vital work around the world. This is having a very real effect on communities and, indeed, on the most vulnerable, and the failure to continue with the 0.7% target is harming the education, health and economic opportunities of the very people who need our support the most. We need to get Britain back on track to meet its commitment to the UN’s 0.7% target as soon as the financial situation allows. What is needed now is a reassessment of the situation and a new strategy, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

We have to start the wind-ups at no later than 10 past 5. I have the names of only two Members who have notified the Chair that they wish to speak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone, and to follow my excellent colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda). In his powerful opening speech, he reminded us why funding for overseas aid is so critical.

I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, and it is good to see one of my fellow co-chairs, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), present today.

Four decades on from the start of the AIDS crisis, the global HIV response is caught in a perfect storm of waning political and public engagement, diminishing funds and the global shock of covid-19. It is fair to say that the reality is that, in many countries, the AIDS crisis never ceased. Currently, a child dies from an AIDS-related cause every five minutes, and only half of children living with HIV are on life-saving treatments. In 2021, 160,000 children newly acquired HIV. Children accounted for 15% of all AIDS-related deaths, despite the fact that only 4% of the total number of people living with HIV are children. Adolescent girls and young women are disproportionately impacted by HIV—for example, around 4,200 adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa acquire HIV every week. This is not right, and it should not be happening in 2023.

The cut in ODA spending—from 0.7% to 0.5%—and further raids on the ODA budget have come at a critical time for the HIV response. There have been significant cuts across all the UK’s multilateral, bilateral, and research and development funding. As highlighted in a joint report from the APPG on HIV and AIDS, STOPAIDS and Frontline AIDS, the cuts have disproportionately impacted key and vulnerable populations, including children affected by HIV. I hope the Minister will realise that the cuts are damaging our soft power while others are on the rise. UNAIDS estimates that $29 billion will be required in 2025 for the AIDS response in low and middle-income countries, including countries formerly considered to be upper-income countries. This funding is desperately needed to get us back on track and to end AIDS as a global health threat by 2030.

I want to ask the Minister whether the Government’s actions are in line with the UK delivering on its commitments on girls’ education and on ending preventable deaths. What assessment have the Government made of the UNAIDS “Education Plus” initiative? Will they commit to the Global Alliance to End AIDS in children? Will the UK Government give political and financial support to these mechanisms? Britain can and must do so much more.

This is one issue that unites us across the country and across this House. At a time when we are seeing the country and the world facing critical threats and competing challenges, the Government must restore this funding. I urge the Government to rethink these cuts.

It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who gave a powerful speech on the significant impact of the cuts on the fight against HIV and AIDS. I very much hope that her points are heard and acted on. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing the debate and for his opening remarks, rightly praising all those from the UK, in particular, doing their level best to help the peoples of Turkey and Syria to deal with the terrible impact of the earthquakes. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also rightly praised the many church groups that help to keep all of us in this House focused on these issues—I can think of a number in my constituency that do just that.

I share the views of my hon. Friends the Members for Reading East and for Vauxhall, in that I think we need a timetable to get back on track to 0.7%. I certainly think we need to re-establish an International Development Department as a separate Department, which perhaps reflects the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). Perhaps slightly unfashionably, I also think we should renew support to the World Bank, which saw one of the biggest cuts in multilateral aid as a result of the UK’s cuts in development assistance. I will return to that in a moment.

I have always believed that our first responsibility in this House is to our own citizens. However, there is surely also a moral responsibility for us, as one of the richest nations in the world, to do our bit to help those in the poorest countries and the worst circumstances to access better lives, too. I have also always believed that it was in our self-interest to do so. DFID was a global leader in development throughout its existence, which certainly enhanced UK soft power. Development assistance helps to build up markets, creating job opportunities not just in country but, as a result of trade, that benefit people here in the UK. It helps to reduce the pressures on those in the poorest places to migrate and seek sanctuary in the UK or other developed countries. In the light of covid, better healthcare in developing countries also helps to reduce the threat of diseases that may start in other places having a significant impact on our citizens too. The charity ONE estimated that, as a result of the cuts in development assistance, some 3.7 million girls worldwide would no longer receive a decent education —surely a matter of significant shame for the UK.

The International Development Committee looked particularly at the impacts of the decline in UK aid on specific countries and sectors. It noted that the biggest cut in long-term development assistance would be to Pakistan, where the largest sectoral decrease as a result of the cut to aid spending would be in education, and that there would be

“significant and abrupt cuts to programmes focused on education, economic empowerment, and sexual and reproductive services targeted at women and girls in Pakistan”.

While earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have rightly caught the world’s attention, it has not been that long since the terrible floods in Pakistan were on our television screens. More than a third, at least, of the population in Pakistan were very directly affected by those floods. Surely Pakistan, a fellow Commonwealth country, is worthy of continuing and significant support from the UK. I stress that nearly 23 million Pakistani children aged five to 16 do not attend school, because of teacher shortages, distances and parents’ safety concerns. Surely we have a particular responsibility to provide increased support there.

Another area of development assistance that does not always get the attention that it deserves is the support that we give in the Palestinian territories—particularly support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency with investment in education in the west bank and Gaza. Education is very highly valued by families across the Palestinian territories, and there is very high enrolment in basic education, but there are issues with the quality of education. The protracted nature of the conflict, the significant threat of exposure to violence and the many other humanitarian issues affect the quality of schooling that can be provided. Again, British support to UNRWA has been fundamental in helping to keep the Palestinian education system moving in the right direction. I gently encourage the Minister to take a particular interest in that issue.

As a Palestinian myself, I fully agree with the hon. Member about the value of education to a community that feels completely abandoned and let down. Will he join hon. Members across the House in condemning the fact that schools have been torn down by the Israeli Government illegally, and in saying again to the FCDO that we thank it for its support in saying that that is illegal, but that saying that and then doing nothing more about it is frankly a bit toothless?

Any school being torn down, particularly in a developing country and particularly in the circumstances that the hon. Member describes, is devastating for the communities affected. We need to support the people of the Palestinian territories to get those schools back up, because education gives hope—it gives a route out of poverty and hope of a better future. Surely that is something that the whole House could row in behind.

I am privileged to have a very large Indian community in my constituency. India has seen huge growth and development over the past 20 years, with massive progress on access to education along the way, but there are still significant issues with access to the necessary quality of education on occasion. British development assistance can help to provide support to address some of those issues, in particular by providing the ideas to improve them. Clearly that is done in partnership with the Indian authorities and other multilateral players.

The World Bank developed what is called the learning poverty indicator, which flags, as a key statistic for each country to be measured against, the proportion of 10-year-old children who are unable to read and understand a short, age-appropriate text. The World Bank’s ambition is that the number who cannot read and understand a short, age-appropriate text by the age of 10 should halve by 2030. That is a significant target that the UK should get behind. I suspect we will need an increase in development assistance to the World Bank to support that. I urge the Minister to look again at reversing the cut in funding to the World Bank as another way of addressing the challenges of access to education in developing countries.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I start by declaring an interest. Last week, I went to Kenya with STOPAIDS and Unitaid to look at public health projects in and around Nairobi. The details are submitted and will appear on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as soon as they can be processed.

I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this incredibly important debate. Liberal Democrats have always made the case for the UK to meet its commitments to the world’s poorest: it was we who proudly introduced, during the coalition Government, the private Member’s Bill that was adopted by the Conservative-led Government of the time to enshrine 0.7% in law.

Helping those most in need not only changes lives, but ensures that we build a stronger, safer and more sustainable world for us all. It is in our self-interest as much as theirs. That point seems to be missed constantly by this iteration of a Conservative Government, who have reneged on a promise in their own manifesto. They seemed to be very happy to keep others, but this one they were very happy to lose.

The scale of the cuts has been utterly eye-watering. In Lebanon, aid has been cut from £85 million to £13 million; in Ethiopia, a country dear to my heart—my family lived there for three years—aid has been cut from £350 million to £100 million; in Yemen, one of the most war-torn areas of crisis across the world, aid has been cut from £240 million to £100 million. These are huge sums. It is impossible to talk about these millions and billions of pounds that are being slashed.

What gets lost in debates is the stories of the individual people who are affected. Development is about helping the poorest and the most vulnerable around the world. Sometimes it is the smallest of actions that make the biggest impact—something as simple as providing a mug of porridge before school can help a young person to stay in school and receive a better education, and can transform their life. We are campaigning for that for children here, but it applies even more elsewhere, where the children have even less.

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about the impact of the cuts, particularly on children’s health and education. I will start with a country-specific example, in Malawi. Cuts to BRACED—the building resilience and adaptation to climate extremes and disaster programme —meant that budgets plummeted from £25 million in 2019 to just £5 million in 2022. Water Witness International, which also works in Malawi, reported that early warning systems funded by BRACED had failed in the run-up to Tropical Storm Ana in January 2022. In the wake of that storm, 84,000 people were displaced. The flooding exacerbated the outbreak of cholera; 1,160 children contracted the disease and 184 died. These cuts have had a real, tangible and mortal effect.

As I mentioned, I was in Nairobi last week and the power of education, particularly for women and girls, was plain to see. We visited a Government-run healthcare facility on the outskirts of the city and met women carrying their babies. All those women were miracles in their own right, because they were living with HIV. It was very moving.

One mother came over to talk to us. She could not wait to tell us her story. She said that she had received little education about HIV in school. She had got HIV from her second husband, after three children. She did not understand that the treatment was now so sophisticated that the viral load could be suppressed sufficiently to save her fourth child from getting HIV in the first place—she had no idea. It was possible only because of healthcare professionals, trained with money that we give via the Global Fund and the money put in by the Kenyan Government to fund community health workers and peers who were able to get that message across. It was really amazing.

Is the hon. Member aware that the UK was sadly one of the only countries to reduce its funding to the Global Fund, so the excellent work that she has just highlighted could be impacted further?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. We want to celebrate the fact that we are a big donor. It is vital work that is literally saving lives, and it is such a shame that the funding is being cut.

The good work is not just in Kenya. The charity STiR Education does fantastic work in India and Uganda by supporting education systems through training and development for teachers. One teacher, Juliet, said after taking part in its programme:

“I have now fallen back in love with my job, and believe in helping my learners perform beyond their limits!”

But in March 2021, STiR was given just three weeks’ notice that the entire remainder of its FCDO grant was to be cut. It lost £828,000 with three weeks’ notice. It was forced to make a number of redundancies, cut back on its programme spending, move to smaller officers and postpone all salary increments and promotions. That all meant fewer resources available to help people like Juliet. The fundraising team worked hard, but that was just to keep STiR afloat—imagine what it could have done if it had that funding basis and could spend the fundraising money on doing even more work.

It is not just delivery of projects but research that is affected. Research and innovation is a vital part of the international development landscape and helps us to understand what kinds of interventions work, thereby making sure that projects deliver value for money, which I am sure the Government are very keen on.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that the cuts have a terrible impact because there is not only the immediate impact on the specific project, but often a multiplier effect? The cuts are made very abruptly and, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, they affect other agencies, which may come from a faith or other background, as well as local groups. There is a dreadful multiplier effect that cascades through the aid and development provision in countries that often have a very great need to develop.

When NGOs that are based here have had to make cuts, the in-country staff have usually faced the deepest and quickest cuts. That is a real shame, because it takes expertise out of that ecosystem.

The Government are clearly worried about value for money, and they should be, because our constituents are, too. The Institute of Development Studies, which is based in Sussex, carried out research into projects that work to support teachers, students and school communities in crisis-affected areas. The research found a measurable and sharp increase in the number of students in schools where ODA funding kept education free. Even research projects of that kind are now under threat. The Institute of Development Studies here in the UK has had its budget cut by 50%.

What does this all mean? The United Kingdom used to be an international development superpower, but the D in FCDO is silent. We hear it nowhere unless a debate such as this one is initiated by Back Benchers. It is clearly not a priority for this Government. The aid cuts continue to hit budgets in terms of research and project delivery.

The bottom line is that this is not just the moral, compassionate thing to do, but the smart thing to do. At a time when we should be more muscular on the world stage, we are retracting in all areas. The Liberal Democrats are proud of our record of championing international development and will continue to call for an immediate reinstatement of the 0.7% target that would deliver so much more that is appreciated around the world.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which I am pleased the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) secured.

The speech that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) has just made demonstrates the importance of MPs going on visits to see for themselves what is happening around the world. Although we are often criticised for such trips, they are really important so that we can get a grip on what is happening.

I recently benefited from a trip to Washington, where, as the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) will be pleased to know, I visited the World Bank and had a very good conversation with its representatives. I made the point to them that they must do better on selling their own message and making clear the outcomes from what the World Bank does. We have to acknowledge that the public have moved away from the view that large global organisations are automatically a force for good. Many people have formed the view that actually they just gobble up money and do not achieve outcomes. I do not think that that is the case in relation to the World Bank, but it has to sell the outcomes that it achieves much more clearly, and we have a role in that.

I think Members of all parties actually did a very good job in relation to the Global Fund. I fully appreciate that hon. Members may think that the sum given was not enough, but let us be honest: it could have been less if it had not been for the active lobbying of many Members from all parties. I certainly believe that the Global Fund is the best way to deliver across the world in relation to malaria, HIV and TB, but we have to make the positive case for it.

As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) mentioned, I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS; I am also co-chair of the APPG on nutrition for development, which is the successor to the APPG on nutrition for growth. That APPG and others lobbied very effectively to ensure that the UK made a pledge to the nutrition for growth summit; it came right at the final hour, but the UK made a £1.5 billion pledge. That pledge, for which I will hold the Minister and indeed all FCDO Ministers to account, needs to be delivered, because, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall said, nutrition is at the heart of everything we deliver for young people and women. The statistics are very clear that if children are undernourished, they will not benefit from the school experience to the extent that they could. Nutrition has an impact on every aspect of what they are doing, and on every aspect of the support and development that we can provide.

I fully concur with what the hon. Lady said about HIV and AIDS. The battle is not over. The situation in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly among women and children, is very concerning, and we must play our part in addressing it. I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to visit South Africa and see the situation on the ground, although I know that it is not positive.

Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about the impact of these cuts, particularly on the LGBT community? We know that there are Governments in sub-Saharan Africa who have moved politically in a direction that suggests that they will not be as open to funding programmes as they might previously have been, particularly with respect to men who have sex with men. I met a man who said that he had been taught at school that it was not possible to get AIDS, because they did not talk about men having sex with men. Surely this is an area in which our Government should be able to step in where other Governments may feel that politically they cannot?

I think our Government have a very good record on championing LGBT rights internationally. The most significant thing, as the APPG has recognised, is decriminalisation. The criminalisation of gay sex with men, and of sex workers, is the single biggest impediment to people getting the support that they need. I think this Government are taking forward as many measures as they can, but we have to continue to lobby in that regard to ensure that more is done, because the hon. Lady is right that this is a serious issue.

I am sure hon. Members welcome the fact that the International Development Committee is about to produce a report on ODA budget spending on refugees in the UK. The current situation is not acceptable: every £1 that is spent on a hotel for a refugee is £1 less for HIV, for nutrition or even for the World Bank. That is not a situation that we can tolerate. As hon. Members, we must highlight it so that people fully understand the link between that budget and the international budget.

Finally, I commend what other hon. Members have said about the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. There is so much to be done, and we must play our full part.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this important debate.

The cumulative impact of covid-19, conflict, the climate crisis and poverty means that more children around the world need humanitarian assistance than at any time since the second world war. UNICEF recently provided an overview of the situation:

“Across the globe, children are facing a historic confluence of crises—from conflict and displacement to infectious disease outbreaks and soaring rates of malnutrition…Meanwhile, climate change is compounding the severity of these crises and unleashing new ones.”

In 2022 alone, children across the world have been affected by war and conflict in Ukraine, in Palestine, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in Tigray, in Afghanistan, in Myanmar and in Yemen. Then there are the climate-induced natural disasters: the floods in Pakistan, the drought in east Africa and the Sahel, the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, and the extreme tropical storms in the Philippines and in Latin and North America. It is children who are bearing the brunt of a planet in crisis, with millions struggling to survive.

Rather than rising to meet the challenges head on, the UK Government continue to oversee devastating cuts to the UK’s overseas aid budgets. This Conservative Government like to portray themselves as a compassionate force helping the world’s most vulnerable communities, but the reality is that they are falling far short of the image that they like to project. As we have heard, the Conservative party vowed in its 2019 manifesto to maintain official development assistance spending at 0.7% of gross national income, but in 2021 the Government cut their international aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5%—an overall cut of between £4 billion and £5 billion.

The effects on children’s health and education of those cuts are extremely stark: 7.1 million children, including 3.7 million girls, are losing out on education, 5.3 million women and girls are losing access to modern family planning methods, and more than 11 million children, girls and women are losing out on nutritional support. Those examples are just a snapshot of the damage that these aid cuts have caused to children across the globe.

The FCDO’s international development Minister, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), wants the UK to become a “development superpower”. His Department could achieve that very easily just by standing by the very Tory manifesto funding pledge on which the Government were elected. To spare even more children from being left behind in education and healthcare, the UK Government must urgently restore their aid budget to a 0.7% level. The SNP believes that that is a bare minimum requirement.

SNP Members wholeheartedly support increased funding for refugees and asylum seekers here in the UK, but it is completely unacceptable to divert money from ODA budgets for that purpose. Our unwavering support in Scotland and across the UK for those who are fleeing war and persecution in Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere should not come at the expense of international development efforts. Instead, the ODA budget should be ringfenced for spending abroad, and the Home Office should be given increased funding to drastically improve its asylum processes.

We know that the system is broken. It needs to be fixed, and it needs the finance to fix it. The UK Government have already cut international health and medical funding during a global pandemic, cut food programmes during a global food security crisis, slashed environmental projects in the midst of a climate crisis, and reduced conflict resolution projects at a time of renewed war.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his point about the current food crisis. One of the background points that are so important to today’s debate is the dramatic increase in the cost of food, which is having a huge effect in many countries that have been mentioned today, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should be more mindful of the huge crisis that is facing so many people living in poverty around the world?

I thank the hon. Member for his excellent intervention.

I agree wholeheartedly. The cost of food crisis is impacting on people in this country, let alone those in less developed countries across the world. He makes an excellent point.

The cuts to conflict resolution projects come at a time when the world has renewed war, as in the invasion of Ukraine. Those cuts have cost lives. The Government should not wait any longer before they reverse that devastating policy direction.

It is an absolute honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this important debate and for his absolutely excellent speech.

The past two years have shown us just how damaging and dangerous a short-term approach to aid can be. So many Government decisions have caused havoc with children’s lives, including slashing the aid budget, suspending so-called “non-essential” aid payments just last July, allowing the Home Office to consume £1 billion in aid in 2021—£1 billion going to the Home Office—and, let us not forget, the badly managed merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.

All those decisions will continue to cause catastrophic damage to children’s lives in some of the poorest parts of the world. The cuts have let down children in Yemen, where there are regular outbreaks of cholera and more than 9 million children lack access to safe water. They have let down millions of children in Bangladesh, where floods and cyclones cause devastation year in, year out. There have been impacts in so many other countries across the world, but I am the shadow Minister for Africa, so it will be no surprise that today I want to focus on that beautiful continent that has so much to offer.

Africa is home to 60% of the poorest people in the world, but aid budgets for the continent have been cut dramatically. African countries experience climate disaster, poverty, child malnutrition and conflict, but they were not spared from those cuts—and we know it is children who pay the biggest price.

Only this month, we have seen reports that the funding cut to a climate disasters response programme has contributed to a major cholera epidemic in Malawi. The epidemic has so far killed more than 1,000 people, including 184 children, but it gets worse. Funding to prevent catastrophic levels of death by starvation has also been slashed. In 2017, UK funding to support people in Somalia and the wider region during the famine was £861 million. Late last year, one person was dying of hunger every 36 seconds in the horn of Africa due to drought. We now expect a sixth failed rainy season—the region’s longest drought in four decades. Millions of young children are badly malnourished, but I fear that the Government’s response has been truly abysmal: they are providing only a fifth of the support that they gave in 2017.

Hunger has an especially damaging impact on children. It is likely that thousands of children died of hunger last year in Somalia. It is not an easy death. Parents had to watch their malnourished babies die in agony, and then the exhausted mothers buried their children at the side of the road as they continued a frantic search for food and water. Even when children survive malnutrition, it marks them for life, causing permanent, widespread damage to their health and development. Hunger makes children more vulnerable to a raft of illnesses and diseases and can cause permanent blindness. Malnutrition affects brain development, and even when children manage to get to school in areas of mass hunger, hungry children simply cannot learn. A desperately hungry child is far more vulnerable to recruitment by armed gangs if those groups can offer them food, and much more vulnerable to child marriage—and we know where that can lead.

We have a moral argument for wealthier northern countries to help developing nations. Now, let us take that moral argument away, just for a while. It is so short-sighted not to understand that our prosperity as a nation and our ability to tackle climate damage are reliant on the economic growth of the African continent and on our partnerships with it. By 2030, nearly half of the world’s young will be living in Africa. African children will shape our future. Labour recognises that when we talk about development support. We know that overseas aid has to happen within a long-term and sustainable plan if it is to be effective. There is no room for opaque decisions or last-minute announcements, and no room for wasteful spending by the Home Office. It needs to get a grip. Labour will put an end to this chaos.

Order. The shadow Minister knows that she has only five minutes. She has already run over to six, which reduces the time for the Minister. I am afraid that it is now the turn of the Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Bone, and I am sorry that the shadow Minister was cut off in her prime. I have a huge amount of respect for her, and our friendship extends outside this room as well, so I am sure that our conversation will continue. She makes important points. Indeed, everyone has made important points. This is an important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on securing it. It is unusual for me to debate with him on this subject; just a few months ago we had quite a few exchanges on the Floor of the House on matters related to the Department for Work and Pensions. It is good to see him in what I consider an unfamiliar setting, but this is clearly, for him, a subject close to his heart. He made his points incredibly well.

Those who know the subject area well will know that our Minister for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), would normally respond to this debate. He is in country, travelling on his ministerial duties, not the least of which was a recent visit to Turkey, where he thanked international partners and UK responders for their amazing work in response to the terrible tragedy in Turkey and Syria. We all thank them. Tomorrow there is another debate on that, which I think some of us will look forward to. It will highlight the important work that has gone on.

I am grateful for the contributions to the debate, and I will endeavour to respond to the points that have been made. Given the economic impacts of the pandemic and Russia’s barbaric attack on Ukraine, the UK’s aid budget currently sits at around 0.5% of gross national income. That equated to over £11 billion in 2021, and we are proud to remain one of the world’s biggest aid donors. Over the last 18 months, the UK has provided enormous support to people fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine and seeking sanctuary in the UK. Across the House, people will recognise that those are huge priorities. However, it has not come across so loudly in the debate—I understand that there will be political differences—that that support has without a doubt placed significant pressure on the aid budget. It has placed significant pressure on some of our communities. I think any right-minded person would recognise that these are incredibly challenging circumstances. Among those challenging points, the good news is that the Treasury has provided an extra £2.5 billion of official development assistance over two years—£1 billion in 2022-23 and £1.5 billion in 2023-24.

Does the Minister accept that the point about a percentage is that as the economy shrank, the amount of money was always going to shrink?  The issue with taking it down to 0.5% is that it was an even greater cut, but it is wrong to say that the money was not always going to decrease to recognise the pressures on our communities as well.

We have been through the pandemic, which has conveniently not been talked about in this debate. That has had a huge impact on public finances. Some really difficult choices had to be made; it would have been the same for whoever was in government at the time. I think we can all recognise that. Even with this extra money, we are having to make difficult decisions. That was the point I was making in response to the contributions today.

Our decisions and approach to spending are guided by the international development strategy. That means focusing our work on the priorities set out in the strategy, including, as many hon. Members have highlighted, women and girls and global health. We will do that in a way that maximises the positive impact of the available resources and our ability to respond to emerging issues, which is important. As the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) highlighted, it has meant that we have been able to respond to the cholera outbreak in Malawi with £500,000 of funding and an emergency medical team. We want to be agile; we have that support available in Turkey and Syria as well.

We continue to support work through multilateral organisations, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. That point was raised by my colleague—my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) —and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi). We want to make sure that we can empower UK development experts across the world to recommend which bilateral programmes to prioritise.

There has been a lot of talk in this debate about 0.7%. That was an important contribution from the Conservative-led coalition with the Liberal Democrats. We remain absolutely committed to protecting the most vulnerable and to returning to spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA as soon as the fiscal situation allows. Those conditions have been set out by the Government. In terms of the reductions of the ODA budget, we will ensure that we focus on the poorest and most vulnerable, the humanitarian programmes and supporting women and girls, which fits neatly with many of the priorities that have been raised today.

Our work around the world is helping to improve children’s health and delivering on our commitment to end preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030. Health remains a key priority for our development assistance. Through our £340 million core voluntary commitment to the World Health Organisation, we are strengthening primary healthcare services, which are the first port of call when a child becomes sick.

As part of the Nutrition for Growth summit in December 2021, we pledged to spend at least £1.5 billion between 2022 and 2030 to improve the nutrition of mothers, babies and children. In recognising that immunisation is one of the most effective ways to protect a child’s health, we have committed £1.65 billion to support Gavi’s core mission between 2021 and 2025—the biggest contribution by any donor. We have heard about the important Global Fund. We pledged a further £1usb billion to that fund, which will protect children and families from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria and prevent over 28 million new infections. We remain the third largest ever public donor to the Global Fund—a point made by my right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

We use our position on the global stage and work with our partners to support innovative approaches to ending preventable child deaths and ensuring that children can thrive. We co-led a landmark joint statement with 71 signatories at the UN General Assembly, committing to protect and promote sexual and reproductive health and rights and bodily autonomy.

A key priority is our work on global education, and we continue to stand up for the right of every girl everywhere to access 12 years of quality learning. Although we have had to make difficult decisions, we have prioritised programmes giving direct support to children’s learning. We have mitigated the impacts of budget reductions by reprofiling or delaying spend where possible, rather than cancelling education programmes, with a view to scaling them up in future years if further funds become available.

We are committed to improving health and education for the poorest children in the world. We remain a world leader not only through our financial support, but through our partnerships, expertise and, of course, civil society, such as Churches, faith groups and others that have been highlighted today. It is a comprehensive approach that helps to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

Once again, it has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank Members across the House for taking part in what has been an important and detailed debate covering a wide range of aspects of this issue. I hope the Minister will take back the messages from today to his colleagues and will think about how we can get back on track with the 0.7% target.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).