House of Commons
Tuesday 9 May 2023
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
I would like to inform the House that the Chancellor is not with us today because he is at the G7 in Japan.
The refocused investment zones programme will grow the UK economy and bring investment to areas that have traditionally underperformed economically. The programme will catalyse 12 high-potential, knowledge-intensive growth clusters across the UK, including four across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in our key future sectors.
I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement that the Tees valley will be the location of one of their new investment zones, and this £80 million investment will unlock new opportunities for my region. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is further evidence of levelling up for Darlington and the Tees valley? Can he outline a timescale for when we will see things start to happen?
The Tees Valley investment zone will boost productivity and drive sectoral growth while providing benefits for the local communities that my hon. Friend represents. The Government want to make rapid progress on delivering investment zones. We are engaging with partners to ensure that we can support those with the ambition to move at speed, and we intend to have all proposals agreed by the end of the financial year, and sooner if at all possible.
Business investment and wealth creation will clearly be central if we are to rebalance the economy and close the gap between less successful and more prosperous areas. Would the Minister therefore agree that prioritising investment zones in areas that need a helping hand is the right course of action? And does he envisage an investment zone in the borderlands area in the near future?
My hon. Friend is tireless in his advocacy for his constituents. The areas of England that are eligible to host an investment zone were identified through a rigorous analytical assessment that reviewed every place in England and shortlisted based on their strengths in innovation, productivity, potential and levelling up need, as well as the strength of local leadership, knowledge assets and sectoral strengths.
The borderlands area is already benefiting from the £452 million borderlands growth deal, which was signed just two years ago and aims to create 5,500 jobs. My hon. Friend is also familiar with the recent £134 million investment signed off through the housing infrastructure fund, leading to 10,325 homes in St Cuthbert’s garden village.
The Minister mentioned the four investment zones, including one for Northern Ireland, in his opening answer. Of course I make a plea for my constituency, as everyone will. What discussions has he had with the Department of Finance back home about a potential investment zone in Strangford, to ensure that people in my constituency can have the same opportunities as people across the United Kingdom?
I think the whole House will agree that the hon. Gentleman must be the most effective advocate for his constituents. We will see what happens. There will be a rigorous process, including wide consultation, and we expect to have an outcome that benefits his constituents and people across Northern Ireland.
The incentives offered by investment zones include 100% business rates relief and enhanced capital allowances. With the exception of reduced national insurance contributions, it is hard to see the difference between an investment zone and an enterprise zone. What additional fiscal support are the Government providing to differentiate these investment zones from enterprise zones?
The key distinction is that we have identified areas that have clusters, often relating to a university, and that have potential in a key sector. The investment zones will be worth £80 million over five years, and we are obviously working very closely with partners. It is difficult to be precise about the numbers, because there will be bespoke collaborations depending on which sectors are involved.
I thank the Minister for his answer but, of course, enterprise zones and, indeed, their near cousin, the freeport, also spoke about clusters in the same kind of language. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that investment zones do not suffer from the same problem as enterprise zones and freeports, which was a woeful failure to deliver the number of permanent, good-quality jobs that was initially promised?
That is a legitimate concern to raise and it is why we have followed the analytical approach to which I referred. We will be working closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at each proposal by the end of the year. We will be having that certainty on the tax incentives over those five years and making local authorities an accountable body for the delivery of this. The right hon. Gentleman’s whole political doctrine is about the distinctions that exist in different communities around the United Kingdom, and that is why we have a variety of interventions designed to make an effective impact in different places across the UK.
School Meals: Impact of Inflation
The Chancellor has regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues. The autumn statement 2022 provided an additional £2.3 billion in funding for schools this year and next, over and above the totals announced at the spending review in 2021. That means that school funding next year will be £58.8 billion, exceeding 2010 levels of per pupil funding in real terms. That will help schools to manage costs, including those of school meals.
Since Liberal Democrats in government rolled out universal infant free school meals in 2014, funding for them has increased by just 11p. Given the soaring food costs, that is resulting in a real shortfall in meeting schools’ costs, which is having to be subsidised by cutting teaching budgets. The shortfalls range from 11p per meal in my local authority area of Richmond upon Thames to as much as 39p per meal in Hampshire. Will the Treasury provide the extra cash so that free school meal funding reflects the true costs that schools face or will the Minister continue to leave our schools and children short-changed?
I do not agree with that analysis. The free school meals funding for 2023-24 was set in line with precedent every year, using inflation forecasts in the autumn prior. About 1.9 million pupils are claiming a free school meal at lunchtime, which equates to 22.5% of pupils in state-funded schools; together with the 1.25 million infants supported through the universal infant free school meal policy, this is having an impact. However, I recognise the pressures across the whole economy, which is why, as I said, the Government gave those additional funds in the autumn statement last year.
Financial Services Sector: Regulatory Framework
The Edinburgh reforms take forward the Government’s ambition to maintain the UK’s position as a world-leading global financial centre, while ensuring that our financial sector remains robust in the face of market shocks. In particular, they introduce a new secondary duty of facilitating growth and international competitiveness, which is a first for UK regulators.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, the culture and performance of regulators is one key consideration for firms when they choose to invest in the UK. What steps is he going to take to introduce key performance indicators for financial regulators to report on their delivery against the new growth and competitiveness objective in the Financial Services and Markets Bill? Is he considering adding any measures to the Bill that would strengthen the independent scrutiny of regulators?
My hon. Friend does great service as chair of the all-party group on personal banking and fairer financial services, so he knows of what he speaks. Today, the Government published a call for proposals on the metrics that regulators should publish to support scrutiny of their work; as every business leader knows, what gets measured gets managed. That responds to the significant interest shown by industry and Parliament in ensuring that appropriate and transparent public measures are in place to support scrutiny of the regulators’ performance. The Government are clear that with great power must come greater accountability.
One measure that would improve the regulatory framework for mutuals in the financial services sector, such as Royal London or Liverpool Victoria, would be the introduction of permanent mutual shares. Given that such a reform would allow a new safe route to access the capital that such financial mutuals need to expand—and without having to demutualise—will the Minister explain why the Treasury is still dragging its feet on the introduction of such a significant reform?
The hon. Gentleman and I have talked a number of times about this. I do not think it is fair to say that the Treasury is dragging its feet. We have supported reform of the mutuals sector. We welcome a diversity of provision, which involves a greater expansion of and more commercial freedom for the mutuals sector. With the Law Commission, we are looking to take its work forward to see whether we can help, and I am always happy to sit down with him, or with any representatives from the sector, as part of my widespread programme of engagement.
Energy Costs: Support for Businesses
The energy bills discount scheme will provide all eligible businesses and other non-domestic energy users with a discount on high energy bills for 12 months from 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024. It will also provide businesses in sectors with particularly high levels of energy use and trade intensity with a high level of support. The scheme will help those locked into contracts signed before recent significant falls in the wholesale price manage their costs and provide others with reassurance against the risk of prices rising again.
Speaking to businesses in my constituency of Edinburgh West over the past week, I have been hearing that they are not finding the help that they need. The combination of the cost of living crisis, energy costs and business rates is pushing them towards a crisis. The Federation of Small Businesses estimates that 93,000 small businesses could go out of business this year because of high energy costs. Do the Government accept that more will have to be done, particularly to help small companies renegotiate tariffs, and will they tell me what they intend to do about that?
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point, and this Government are very alive to the issues that businesses face across the country. She will be aware that, last year, the energy bill relief scheme was unprecedented in its nature and scale, and that the Government were always clear that that would be time limited and intended as a bridge for businesses as wholesale gas prices come down. Those prices have now come down quite significantly, but we do have the energy bills discount scheme, which strikes the right balance between supporting businesses for another year, but also limiting the taxpayers’ exposure to volatile energy prices.
The Treasury was quick to act during the pandemic when hoteliers in Aberconwy told me that banks were directing them to their premium lending products instead of the Government’s coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. Now those same hoteliers are telling me that the energy supply market seems to have failed. They are seeing their bills tripling just as market rates drop below Government support levels. They fear that the supplier’s thumb is on their side of the scales. None of this will be new to the Minister, so can he please tell me what he is doing and can he meet me and sector representatives to make sure that some common sense is brought back to energy supply contracts?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of businesses in his constituency. In the first instance, I advise businesses always to contact suppliers to discuss their contracts. We are alive to the fact that some businesses are having difficulties securing the benefit of falling wholesale prices from their energy suppliers. In January, the Chancellor wrote to Ofgem, which oversees the energy market for consumers, and Ofgem has now launched an investigation into the non-domestic energy market. We await its conclusions, and, at that point, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend.
The Government’s three economic priorities this year are to halve inflation, grow the economy, and get debt falling. This will require patience and discipline. Countries around the world are facing rising prices and we will not be able to make that go away overnight, but by sticking to our plan, we will halve inflation this year and help to ease the pressures that people are facing.
Food price inflation is increasing far faster than the overall average increase in prices. This is affecting the poorest the hardest in Kettering and across the country. Is there any good news at all from His Majesty’s Treasury about the prospects for food price inflation over the next 12 months?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituents. The Office for Budget Responsibility this year does expect food, tobacco and alcohol inflation to fall significantly, and that is not all. The Government recognise the challenges facing households due to the elevated cost of living in general, including food, so we took action at the spring statement to support struggling families. Taken together with previous action, support to households to help with bills is worth an average of £3,300 a year across this year and next.
The Government are absolutely right to prioritise reducing inflation given the significant impact it is having on families and businesses across the country. I welcome the support that the Minister has just outlined for families in my constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup. Can he confirm what assessment has been made by the Treasury of the impact of more than a decade of abnormal monetary policy following the global financial crisis?
As my hon. Friend knows, monetary policy is the responsibility of the independent Monetary Policy Committee and the Bank of England. We will continue to work closely with them to ensure that monetary and fiscal policy are well co-ordinated. The Chancellor reconfirmed the inflation target of 2% at the autumn statement and confirmed that this Government will not change the target.
While inflation is now heading in the right direction, the effect of the price rises is still being felt by Fylde’s older people. What steps is my hon. Friend taking and what conversations has he had with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that Fylde’s retired residents are well protected?
I and my colleagues work closely with colleagues in the DWP, as my hon. Friend knows, on behalf of pensioners in Fylde. More than 8 million pensioner households will receive a cost of living payment of £300 this winter, but more than 12 million pensioners have benefited from a 10.1% increase to their state pension. That is the biggest percentage rise in the state pension for more than 30 years and its biggest-ever cash increase.
As the Minister rightly said, monetary policy is made independently by the Monetary Policy Committee in this country. However, the Government are responsible for economic stability, and for that we need investment. What policies of the past couple of years does the Minister believe have got us into this position with inflation, and how are the Government going to make sure that we have better economic stability, given their recent record?
The hon. Lady omits to mention both the headwinds from the global pandemic and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Any financially literate conversation on this subject has to acknowledge that we see very similar rates of increase in inflation and rising interest rates across the developed world. In that context, this Government are focusing on stability, ensuring that we continue to pay down debt over the cycle and do not do as the previous Labour Government did and leave a note behind for their successors saying that there is no money left.
Food price inflation stood at 19.2% in March, up from February. That is causing severe problems for many in my constituency, particularly those who have no recourse to public funds status, meaning that they are not entitled to any support from the Government whatsoever. What will the Minister do to help those people, who are struggling and heading for the food banks because they cannot afford to make ends meet?
In the interest of time, I will not repeat for the hon. Lady the support for households, which averages £3,500 across the United Kingdom. If she has constituents with particular needs, the Government have recently extended the £1 billion household support fund and I suggests she works with her local authority to try to meet their needs through that.
Inflation is hitting not just individuals and families, but councils and potentially infrastructure projects. Lodge Hill junction on the A34 in Abingdon is one such key piece of local infrastructure, and when completed, will support jobs and housing across Oxfordshire and Science Vale and the economy as a whole. Homes England and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities say that the final piece of that funding now sits with the Treasury in the brownfield, infrastructure and land fund. Will the Minister meet me so that I can explain why this is such an important piece of funding to be released, and please can the Government supply the last piece of this puzzle so that we can deliver Lodge Hill junction once and—
Hair and Beauty Sector: Disguised Employment Practices
As the Minister responsible for His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, may I wish His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen a very long and successful reign and say that its 63,000 members of staff will be proud to try to help His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, as they are bound to do? The Government are aware of concerns about employment practices in the hair and beauty sector. The concerns are largely focused on the so-called rented chair model, which is a long-standing practice and a legitimate alternative to employing stylists, provided that the parties involved follow the relevant rules. The Government are committed to tackling disguised employment and HMRC will consider any evidence suggesting that businesses have misclassified individuals for tax purposes.
It is estimated that 70% of the hairdressing industry is currently operating under a self-employed model to avoid pay-as-you-earn, national insurance and VAT. According to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs guidelines, those salons often amount to disguised employment. The problem is that all apprentices—and 90% of hairdressers learn through apprenticeships—must be trained in salons that pay their tax, an increasingly unattractive model. Will the Minister consider how we can taper VAT rates or enforce disguised employment rules more stringently to ensure that we have appropriately trained hairdressers in future?
I am sure that I am joined by all Members of the House in thanking my hon. Friend for her interest in ensuring that we have hairdressers in 15 years’ time. We recognise the important role that hairdressing salons play in the education and training of apprenticeships. Indeed, funding for employer-led apprenticeships will grow to £2.7 billion in 2024-25, which will help to pay for the cost of training and assessment. However, she is quite right to pinpoint the need for those participating in the hairdressing industry to ensure that they are following the rules correctly. It is not their choice; there are very strict criteria, and they must make sure that they follow them. I very much look forward to discussing this in further detail with my hon. Friend later this week or next week.
The hair and beauty industry is characterised by a high percentage of female entrepreneurs and young people. However, that workforce continues to be at risk of disguised employment. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that self-employed individuals are aware of their tax expectations so that women and young people can continue to thrive in that sector?
Is it not wonderful that we have so many women setting up their own businesses and taking that step into entrepreneurship? [Interruption.] Oh, there is chuntering from those on the Labour Benches; they seem to disagree. The hon. Lady is right that we should ensure that we help entrepreneurs, whether male or female, to understand the rules when it comes to tax. That is why we provide guidance and support for customers to help them understand employment status, and we have agreed guidelines specifically with the National Federation of Hairdressers to help it communicate with its industry about which rules apply to which hairdressers.
People on Lower Incomes: Financial Support
The Government are taking action to protect struggling families by providing support, worth £3,300 per household on average over this year and last, to help with higher bills. That includes targeted support for the most vulnerable in our society through additional cost of living payments and the uprating of benefits by 10.1% this year. The Government have also increased the national living wage by 9.7%, representing an increase of more than £1,600 in the annual earnings of a full-time worker on the national living wage.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best support in the cost of living crisis, beyond the £94 billion that the Government have already spent, is the cutting of inflation to ease pressures—especially on food, fuel and energy—for families in Rother Valley and up and down the country?
I absolutely agree. The Government are doing three things to reduce inflation: we are remaining steadfast in supporting the independent Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England as it continues to take action to return inflation to target; we are making responsible decisions on tax and spending, so that we are not adding fuel to the fire; and we are tackling high energy prices by holding down energy bills for households and businesses, alongside investing in long-term energy security.
Lowest-income households in my constituency are the biggest beneficiaries of a strong economy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that reducing debt, reducing inflation and balancing the books are the most effective Government interventions to support low-income households?
Absolutely. It is right that we continue support for the cost of living challenges. I have mentioned the energy price guarantee; we are also sticking to that plan to avoid unnecessary inflationary pressure. [Interruption.] On average this year, as a result of Government decisions made from—[Interruption.]
As a result of Government decisions made from autumn statement 2022 onwards, households in the bottom half of the income distribution will see, in cash terms, twice as much benefit from Government support as households in the top half of the income distribution.
I listened with interest to the answer that the Minister gave about support for households, but it does not match the reality in Rotherham, where constituents have had increases in rent, mortgages, fuel and food, as well as cuts to public services. What is he going to do to deliver the support that we need to make ends meet, because the offers on the table are not cutting it?
Everyone can see that the Government have made a range of interventions over the past two years, which means support for all of those on means-tested benefits—8 million people. Eight million pensioner households will benefit from the non-discretionary payments, effectively. The household support fund, which we repeated, provides another £1 billion to give local authorities discretion in individual circumstances to offer supplementary support. Of course, I recognise that this is an incredibly challenging time for the most vulnerable, but we have tried to target those interventions on them, listening to the Low Pay Commission and increasing the national living wage to £10.42. We recognise that these are difficult times, but we will get through them.
Tax System: Fairness
It is right that everyone contributes to sustainable public finances, and the Government are ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share. The spring Budget took steps to tackle avoidance and to improve the ability of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to collect tax debts. That is alongside taking millions out of tax altogether by consistently raising personal tax allowances. An average of more than £3,300 of assistance per household in the UK has been provided for help with the cost of living over this year and last.
Last week, energy companies announced record profits—some £60 million a day from North sea oil and gas. Today, the Daily Mirror reports that last month 2 million people were unable to pay a bill, so why on earth do the Government not close those huge, huge holes in the levy on North sea oil and gas profits, and get that money to the people who need it?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is being quite fair, as he neglects to tell the House the rate of levy for those companies. He will understand why we have said to businesses that want to invest to improve energy security in the United Kingdom that we will support such investment. That is in our interests, as we have heard today concerns raised by Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents about the cost of living and the impact particularly of energy prices.
The Government recently announced a huge tax giveaway to the very wealthiest, allowing them to stash vast sums in their pensions tax-free. The £1 billion annual cost of that handout would cover the cost of free school meals. Food banks gave out a million food parcels for children last year, so why do the Government think that this tax cut for the super-rich is a priority?
I gently remind the hon. Gentleman of the conversation that happened at the Budget—I hope he recalls it—about the need to get doctors, consultants and those in the public sector back into the NHS. We heard from doctors themselves—the British Medical Association and others—that there were barriers in the pension tax rules which stopped them continuing to serve. I am delighted if those rules help more doctors to serve our NHS and help our constituents who are patients—helping doctors to continue to serve in that vital public service. The difference between Conservatives in government and Opposition Members is that we listen to people, and we deliver what we need to keep the economy going and help our NHS.
One of the best ways to ensure fairness in the tax system is to let people keep more of their hard-earned money. Last summer, the Prime Minister outlined a plan that would cut the basic rate of income tax to 15p in the pound by the end of the decade. Can the Minister let me know when that plan will be outlined in more detail?
I hope my hon. Friend has been listening to what the Chancellor said at spring Budget and in speeches since then about the need for fiscal responsibility. We have to be fiscally responsible; we have acknowledged that. We have had to make some very difficult decisions along the way, but we are clear that halving inflation, tackling our debt and growing the economy will enable us to make the sorts of tax cuts that he and I both want to see so much.
Tens of thousands of people have been affected by the loan charge, with some having faced well-documented distress and harm as a result of HMRC’s approach. At the same time, HMRC has been issuing fewer than two fines a year against the architects and enablers of failed tax avoidance schemes. It is absolutely right that disguised remuneration schemes are tackled fairly and effectively, so how on earth can the Conservative Government justify such a light-touch approach for the promoters of such schemes, while many of those caught up in them face such a nightmare?
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the strengthening of HMRC’s powers to tackle promoters of tax avoidance in the Finance Acts of 2021 and 2022, with a further tough new package of measures to ensure that promoters face stronger sanctions much more quickly. These measures will raise £130 million over the next five years and are already being used. We have already published the details of promoters and tax avoidance schemes in order to help consumers, and we have also published HMRC stop notices, because we want to help taxpayers who want to do the right thing to understand which promoters should be avoided.
Inflation and Economic Growth Forecasts: G7 Countries
Compared with the G7, the UK had the highest rate of growth in each of the past two years. The International Monetary Fund UK growth forecast for 2023 has been upgraded by more than that for any other G7 country, and the IMF has said that the UK is “on the right track” for economic growth.
The Minister paints a pretty picture. The British people want hope for the future, but all they see is Britain continually lagging behind on the global stage and prospects for their families getting worse. The IMF says that Britain will have a smaller economy by the end of the year and the poorest growth of the G7 over this year and next. In March, UK inflation was the highest in western Europe, and projections show that it will be the highest in the G7 this year, while food prices are rising 50% faster than in the G7. Whose fault is it?
It is certainly the hon. Gentleman’s fault if, having asked that we assess performance across the G7 and we do precisely that, he does not like the answer. The reality is that across the G7, growth has fallen and inflation has risen, but we know the sources of that—it is not this Government; it is the fault of Putin and the global covid pandemic, whether the Opposition like it or not.
My hon. Friend is right to ignore the gloom and negativity coming from the Opposition Benches. They will always find a reason to talk down the British economy. Is it not the case that today, with more people in our country going out to work than ever before, our economy is demonstrating a dynamism and resilience that few other economies around the world can emulate and a dynamism that we do not get with a Labour Government?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Resilience is a strong word, and thanks to the actions that this Government have taken over the past six months, the Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed that the UK is now expected to avoid a recession this year.
Withdrawal from the EU: Economic Impact
The UK has grown faster than France and at a similar rate to Germany since leaving the single market. It remains challenging to separate the effects of Brexit and wider global trends on the UK economy, such as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, adding pressures to trade, prices and the wider economy. We continue to support businesses trading with the EU and help them to seize new opportunities with fast-growing economies around the world, including through our free trade agreement negotiations.
Happy Europe Day, Mr Speaker. In recent months, we have seen tech companies attack Brexit. The world-leading chip company Arm opted to float stock only in the US because of how bad a place the UK is to do business, so we have culture, tourism, the NHS and now tech all suffering because of Brexit. How grateful does the Minister feel that the Leader of the Opposition has dropped his and his party’s principles and are supporting this costly Brexit?
Crikey, I am going to leave it to the Leader of the Opposition to flip-flop his way through that particular policy. What I can tell the hon. Lady is that we are the best place in Europe to invest in tech. We are only the third economy in the world with a $1 trillion tech sector; we are ranked as the world’s fourth most innovative economy; and we have created more unicorns than France and Germany combined.
Unicorns and fantasies are largely what we hear from Members on the Government Benches these days. The reality is that the Music Venue Trust reckons that grassroots venues are closing at a rate of one per week, bands from Europe find it increasingly difficult to travel here, and our hospitality sector more generally is experiencing catastrophic staff shortages. Is Lord Heseltine not right when he says that Brexit has been
“a classic mistake, a terrible”
horrible miscalculation, and the
“elephant in the room of our present economic difficulties”?
I am interested that the hon. Gentleman dismisses these incredibly successful unicorn start-ups in the UK economy. I hope that he will not dismiss their continuing success as we continue to support them through the various tax reliefs we are offering them and investment, including our most recent research and development tax reliefs. I would also point out to him that of course Scotland will benefit from some 73 trade deals secured with non-EU countries—benefits that include control of our fishing waters, something that I know is a matter of great concern to Scottish residents.
I am never quite clear why, if we do not like trade barriers, the answer is to erect even more of them. The Government said that through the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, they would get rid of 4,000 laws built up during our time in the EU. The Prime Minister even got his shredder out to show us what this would look like, and the Government said there would be a sunset clause to make sure all this happened by the end of the year. Voices from both business and the trade unions have said that this could cause even more chaos and uncertainty and undermine workers’ rights, in breach of the promises made by Ministers at the time of the referendum. Can the Minister confirm whether, after marching their troops up to the top of the hill and getting the Back Benchers very excited, the Government are keeping the sunset clause to have all this done by the end of the year?
I do not know whether I can speak on behalf of the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, who is the portfolio holder for that piece of legislation. What I do know is that the Bill is currently before the House of Lords, and will no doubt be scrutinised very carefully by their lordships. I can also reassure the House that we are taking a careful and considered approach to the benefits—the regulations, the laws—that Brexit presents to us, and we know from our discussions with businesses that business certainty is something that we all want to strive for and achieve. I am sure that once this Bill has been scrutinised by the House of Lords—[Interruption.]
I think business certainty might be improved by an answer to the question.
Inflation is at 10%, the highest in the G7, and food inflation is at 19%. The former Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), to avoid confusion, because there are a few former Prime Ministers—promised us that
“there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade”,
but we already know that many small businesses are giving up exporting to the EU altogether because of costs and delays. With inflation already at those levels, the Government have picked this moment to impose a new system for checks on EU goods that is estimated to add £400 million a year to the cost of goods coming into the UK. Can the Minister tell us why the Government are picking this of all moments to add these new costs and price rises to UK consumers who are already struggling to make ends meet because of the biggest cost of living crisis in decades?
Just to clarify, I was being respectful of not just this House, but the right of the other House to scrutinise legislation. I hope the right hon. Member would agree with that, as the fine parliamentarian that I know he is. On business certainty, through this legislation, and also importantly through the measures we are setting out through the Windsor framework and the arrangements at borders, we are seeking to give businesses exactly the certainty they need after Brexit. We all accept that leaving the European Union and the single market was a generational change—a seismic change in how we wish to do business—but unlike the Opposition, we believe in Brexit and the opportunities it can provide our businesses, and that is why we are taking these measures through carefully and considerately with businesses.
Public Spending: Value for Money
As the Minister for public spending, I oversee the Government’s budgeting system, and a key element of that is incentivising Departments to manage spending effectively so that value for taxpayers’ money is maximised. That is why the Government launched an efficiency and savings review at the autumn statement 2022. Through the review, Departments re-prioritised and identified further efficiencies, building on the 5% efficiency challenge set out in the spending review 2021, to better deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
The then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, spent £1.3 million of public money on focus groups, which included asking what the public thought of him. Following the public’s resounding rejection of the Tories in last week’s elections, we now know what the public think of him. Will the Government stop wasting taxpayers’ money to boost the Prime Minister’s ego, do the right thing and call a general election?
Some £7.9 billion was wasted on useless and overpriced personal protective equipment; meanwhile, opportunists who saw the Tories coming are now profiteering on the back of the public purse. Does the Minister regret that this money was not spent wisely? Nearly £8 billion could buy us 20 new hospitals.
Our priority was clear throughout the covid crisis, and that was to get PPE to the frontline as quickly as possible. Due diligence was carried out on all companies that were referred to the Department. Despite all those steps being taken, some instances of fraud did occur with unscrupulous suppliers taking advantage of the situation. This Government take that fraud seriously, and the Department of Health and Social Care is exploring every available option to bring those who commit fraud to account. We have also made a number of other interventions, including investment in the taxpayer protection taskforce to normalise higher compliance activity in HMRC, alongside other measures to deal with fraud elsewhere in some of the emergency schemes that we set up to help this economy and this country get through covid.
Last week, the Public Accounts Committee revealed that our country lost £9 billion-worth of tax revenue during the pandemic because HMRC redeployed 4,000 staff members whose jobs were to chase down tax avoiders. The Prime Minister was Chancellor at the time and presumably signed off that decision. Can the Minister tell me whether the Prime Minister did that as a deliberate act to give the green light to tax avoiders, or is it just another example of Tory incompetence?
I think that is a ridiculous suggestion, to be honest. HMRC received £863 million to modernise the tax system, and that included £136 million invested over the spending period to deliver improvements in terms of a single customer record and account. On what happened over covid, I have already set out the investment we made, including the £100 million in the taxpayer protection taskforce. We take fraud very seriously. Now it is about HMRC looking at financial records of excessive trading to come to terms with those businesses that used some of those schemes fraudulently. We will continue to work on that.
Three of the Prime Minister’s five priorities are economic priorities: to halve inflation this year, to grow the economy and to reduce debt. We are on track to halve inflation this year to ease the cost of living. We have taken the difficult, but responsible decision needed to get net debt falling and secure the future of public services, and we have a clear plan to grow the economy to create better paid jobs and opportunity right across the country.
The consumer voice organisation Which? has recently found that 2 million UK households missed a key payment for their mortgage, rent, loan or credit card. Last month alone, 700,000 of these related to housing, so when will the Tory Government wake up to the fact that the cost of living crisis is far from over and what do they intend to do about it?
In previous answers, I have set out a number of the interventions the Government have taken to help the most vulnerable. I have mentioned the household support fund, the benefits that accrue to all those who are on means-tested benefits, particularly pensioner households, and those who are eligible for disability benefit. As I have also said, the money that the Government have made available is designed to focus on those who are most in need, and we will continue to look out for the most vulnerable through this difficult time.
I could not agree more. Responsible public spending is at the core of getting our economy into a state where it can grow, and the £90 billion of unfunded spending pledges made by Opposition Members will be scrutinised very carefully, I am sure, by many in the months ahead.
The Conservatives have now had 13 years in office—wages lower, the weekly food shop astronomical, energy bills unprecedented, 24 Tory tax rises and the national debt has ballooned —so can I ask: after 13 years of Conservative Government, does the Minister think that people feel better off, or worse off?
What I can tell the right hon. Lady is that, since 2010, there has been a 25% increase in real take-home pay for workers on the national living wage and, recently, the national living wage increased to £10.42 an hour—a 9.7% increase—for those over the age of 23. In 2009-10, there was a deficit of £158 billion. Before we got into covid, it was down to £38 billion. We have gone through the most tremendous challenges that this country has seen for about 100 years. I think most people in this country understand that this Government have acted on the challenges we have faced in office.
The Government have had 13 years, and the answer to the question “Do people feel better off?” is a resounding no. This morning, I met 22 newly elected council leaders from the Labour party, who are creating emergency plans to help to tackle the cost of living crisis in their communities. Why will the Conservative Government not play their part, do the right thing, close the loopholes in their oil and gas tax and help working people in Britain, as a Labour Government would do?
I congratulate those successful across the country in last week’s elections, but what business leaders want and what the country wants is steady policy making, delivering growth in the economy, dealing with the biggest scourge on the economy, which is inflation—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that we have had 13 years. We spent £400 billion when we had a global pandemic, where we had to shut down the economy. When we came out of it, we had high inflation consequential on a war that we have not had in Europe for over 70 years. Those are the realities and that is what this Government have responded to.
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on his leadership of his council candidates last week and the excellent result that he secured. Of course, we have invested in many coastal communities across the country, and we are keen to discuss the specifics of how the Government can support him as he drives that local constituency and economy forward.
No, I do not recognise that characterisation. What I recognise is that the Government are determined to see the economy grow. I see investment in investment zones focused in the hon. Lady’s region, working with the excellent universities that she is familiar with. I see a Government who are putting £100 million into the foundation model taskforce, £900 million to invest in a supercomputer to fund AI, a quantum strategy that is generally seen as world leading, as well as £160 million of investment in the tech sector. So this is a Government who are committed to the growth industries of the future.
Delivery of new hospital infrastructure and prioritisation within health budgets is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care, but I know from frequent conversations with the Secretary of State that he is working tirelessly to ensure as many new hospitals as possible, and that wider improvements to the health estate can occur. I shall make representations to him after these questions.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury knows that the long hidden business case for East West Rail represents a bad deal for taxpayers, and that MPs from across Parliament have written about greener, better alternatives for growth in the Ox-Cam arc. He will know that on Thursday the Conservatives won the mayoralty in Bedford for the first time because the Conservative candidate, Tom Wootton, called for a review of Bedford Council’s working and its support for East West Rail. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss that further urgently?
We are clearly falling pretty short of where we need to be if we are to tackle net zero. Recent research by E3G and the World Wide Fund for Nature into clean investment showed that the gap is currently between £81 billion and £111 billion between now and 2030. That is equivalent to a quarter of the investment required in that crucial economic sector and every other sector of the economy. Public investment clearly needs to be a key driver in reaching net zero, so I wonder whether Ministers would consider increasing the capacity of the UK Infrastructure Bank on that.
The Government are leading the way with the recently published green finance strategy, but that stands as part of a broader piece of work, unleashing productive finance into all parts of the economy and in particular funding the transition, which is capital intensive.
I thank the Chancellor for two weeks ago meeting Leicestershire MPs and the senior leadership of the county council to discuss funding there. Of particular concern is the core funding of special educational needs and disabilities, social care and transport such as buses. What more can the Minister do to address the problems with county council funding that we have in Leicestershire?
I know my right hon. Friend the Chancellor welcomed that meeting on 25 April. The Government remain committed to improving the local government finance landscape, and in doing so they will work closely with local partners, including Leicestershire, and take stock of the challenges and opportunities across the sector. I thank my hon. Friend for his deep thinking into how improvements can be made.
I hope the hon. Gentleman knows that we are spending record amounts on the NHS. We are also mindful that non-doms pay some £7.9 billion in UK taxes on their UK earnings and have invested some £6 billion since 2012. So we are mindful of the very real impact that they make on our revenues, but we have managed to tighten the rules around non-dom status, and that is why—
Day one on the job and Labour in Stoke-on-Trent talk about cancelling the £56 million of levelling-up funding, which is UK-leading, going to the great city of Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirm that the Conservative Government will have the backs of the people of Stoke-on-Trent and deliver this important levelling up?
We are very committed to the people of Stoke-on-Trent and recognise that enormous investment, thanks to my hon. Friend’s work in campaigning for investment through the levelling-up fund. It is down to the council to deliver on that significant investment and make a difference on the ground.
The transition to net zero should be the overarching priority for all of us. With that in mind, when will the Treasury finally get its act together with the Acorn project in the north-east of Scotland and accelerate its funding to ensure that the people of the north-east of Scotland do not just have to listen to warm words about the just transition, but can get a job in the just transition?
The Financial Times is reporting today that there have been meetings between the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care about compensation for victims following the infected blood inquiry. Will the Minister confirm that those meetings have taken place and who was present, and offer reassurance to those who were infected and affected that compensation will be implemented in full, as Sir Brian Langstaff has recommended?
This morning, before I left my constituency, I attended a rally organised by “Hands off Howden Park” and “Save our Pools”, which are two incredible campaigns in my constituency trying to protect our arts venues and pools from closing. Unfortunately, they have been mismanaged by the Labour and Conservative administration, and those results are the reality to be faced after a decade and a half of austerity has decimated public funding. When will the Government stop wasting money on things like Brexit and nuclear weapons and properly fund our pools and arts venues?
We do not typically make specific decisions on local authorities from Whitehall, but we have committed to significant additional funds for local authorities and funding for the Scottish Government through the Barnett formula. I will leave the hon. Member to continue to lobby and campaign with her constituents to get those decisions made on the ground.
Coronation: Policing of Protests
The coronation was a once-in-a-generation moment, a moment of national pride and a moment when the eyes of the world were upon us. It was a ceremony with roots over a millennium old, marking a renewed dedication to service by His Majesty the King in this new reign. The coronation went smoothly and without disruption. I thank the 11,500 police officers who were on duty alongside 6,500 military personnel and many civilians.
Today, Commissioner Mark Rowley has outlined the intelligence picture in the hours leading up to the coronation. It included more than one plot to cause severe disruption by placing activated rape alarms in the path of horses to induce a stampede and a separate plot to douse participants in the procession with paint. That was the context: a once in a generation national moment facing specific intelligence threats about multiple, well-organised plots to disrupt it. The focus of the police was, rightly, on ensuring that the momentous occasion passed safely and without major disruption. That was successful. All plots to disrupt the coronation were foiled by a combination of intelligence work and proactive vigilant policing on the ground. I would like to thank the police and congratulate them on that success.
At the same time, extensive—[Interruption.] Wait for it. At the same time, extensive planning ensured that protests could take place. That was also successful. Hundreds of protesters exercised their right to peaceful protest, including a large group numbering in the hundreds in and around Trafalgar Square. Where the police reasonably believed they had grounds for arrest, they acted. The latest information is that 64 arrests were made. I will not comment on individual cases or specific decisions, but the arrests included a person wanted for sexual offences, people equipped to commit criminal damage with large quantities of paint, and arrests on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, often backed by intelligence. The Met’s update last night included regret—to use its word—that six people arrested could not join the hundreds protesting in Trafalgar Square and nearby. The Met confirmed that those six people have now had their bail cancelled with no further action.
The police are operationally independent and it is primarily for the Mayor of London to hold the Met to account, but let us be clear: at the weekend officers had to make difficult judgments in fast time, in a highly pressured situation against a threatening intelligence picture. I thank the police for doing that, for delivering a successful a coronation and for enabling safe, peaceful protests.
On Saturday, millions of people greatly enjoyed the coronation ceremony. Others, who wish to see a republic, chose to protest peacefully, as is their right in a democratic society. Protests in Glasgow and Edinburgh went off without incident. In London, however, protesters who had gone to considerable lengths to liaise with the Metropolitan police in advance of their protest to clear both the nature and the location of the protest, were detained, searched, arrested and held in the cells from 7 am until after 11 pm. All six of those arrested have now received letters saying there will be no further action taken against them. There were a number of other arrests of concern, but because there are no legal proceedings in respect of the six, and therefore no reason for Parliament not to begin today to address what happened to them, I will focus on them.
Graham Smith, the leader of the group Republic, tells me that the arresting police showed absolutely no interest in contacting the liaison team and seemed focused on luggage straps holding placards together, which they said might be used to lock on. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has repeatedly stressed that public authorities, including the police, are under a negative obligation not to interfere with the right to protest unlawfully and a positive obligation to facilitate peaceful protest, so why did police arrest protesters who had gone to such great lengths to clear their protest in advance, and why did they do so on grounds that they now admit were not sufficient to charge them and without following up with the liaison team? What do citizens need to do now to clear a protest in advance?
On the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme, Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, said that what happened has to be seen in the context of media, political and public pressure on the police. He referred to what he called
“some pretty direct and personal feedback”
brought to bear on Sir Mark Rowley before the Home Affairs Committee on 26 April by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson)—I have notified the hon. Member that I would mention him, Mr Speaker. So, was political pressure brought to bear on the police? Sir Peter also said that the legislation, the Public Order Act 2023 and the policing Act, is very poorly defined and far too broad. That was what Opposition MPs warned of, particularly regarding offences such as locking on. Will the Minister review the legislation and set up an inquiry into what happened to those six citizens on Saturday?
I have the greatest respect for the hon. and learned Member and take her questions seriously. She asked about pressure; the police are operationally independent and make decisions independent of Government. Ministers received a briefing, particularly as the intelligence picture escalated in the 24 hours before the event. The Mayor of London also received briefings, as did the shadow Home Secretary on Friday, I believe. There is nothing out of the ordinary in Ministers receiving briefings, not least because the police and other security and civilian agencies need to co-ordinate. The House has just debated and scrutinised the legislation at some length, and there are no plans to change it.
On the six people arrested and the question of protests more generally, I repeat the point I made in my initial answer: hundreds of people exercised their right to protest peacefully. As the hon. and learned Lady said, that was done following engagement with the Republic protest group. The fact that hundreds of people were able to protest peacefully is testament to the right of peaceful protest.
I do not want to get into the details of the six people because, frankly, neither the hon. and learned Lady nor I has all the facts. But clearly, when the arrests were made, the police reasonably believed that there were grounds to do so. I emphasise again that several hundred people were able to peacefully protest on that day, as is their absolute right.
Nobody should question that it was a difficult time and a difficult task for the Metropolitan police. Nobody should question that, to a large extent, they carried it out brilliantly and gave us a marvellous occasion this weekend. That being said, within one week of the Public Order Act entering the law, and in its first serious use, we end up with the head of the Met having to apologise to people who were wrongfully arrested. In the event that the Home Affairs Committee reviews this matter and comes back with recommendations on how to change guidelines and perhaps laws, will the Home Office take that on board?
I caution my right hon. Friend against asserting that those people were wrongfully arrested. That is a legal threshold and it has not been established that it was met. On the issue of testing the legislation, I draw the House’s attention to the fact that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, which took place against an intelligence backdrop that suggested that there were multiple, well-organised plots to cause serious disruption. Had they proceeded, they would have been taken very seriously by this House and been seen around the world. I do not think one can infer from what happened at the weekend that the recently passed legislation is defective.
The coronation of King Charles III involved the largest police effort ever undertaken. I thank the thousands of police officers who ensured that so many people were able to enjoy such a historic occasion without incident. Rightly in our democracy, the police had operational responsibility and had to take decisions at pace and under pressure. Rightly in our democracy, we have scrutiny and accountability where problems arise. Hundreds of people who chose to do so were able to protest. As the Minister stated, some plans to disrupt were foiled, but serious concerns have been raised about some of the arrests.
The six people from Republic were arrested under new powers in the Public Order Act for
“being equipped for locking on”,
which came into force two days before the coronation. They have now been released with no further action, and the Met has expressed regret. The Minister knows that I have warned him and his colleagues repeatedly that the new powers mean that people might be arrested for the wrong thing, such as carrying in their bag a bike lock or, as in this case, some luggage straps. Many former police officers have warned that the powers put the police in a difficult position and risk undermining the notion of policing by consent.
The arrests raise questions that we want answers to. Why did the arresting officers not know or take into account that Republic had been working with the police? Why were those people held for 16 hours? Does the Minister support the Mayor of London’s review, so that Parliament can see the lessons to be learned? Will the Minister ask the inspectorate and the College of Policing to monitor and review the new public order powers and report back to Parliament? Will he support the recommendations in the inspectorate’s report for more specific training on public order for our officers?
This weekend was a celebration, and one that could not have happened without the dedication of our police service. But just as important to our British democracy as our constitutional monarchy is our historic model of policing by consent, trust and our freedom to protest peacefully. It is our job as Members of Parliament to come up with laws that solve problems rather than creating them. I urge the Minister to learn the lessons and take responsibility for protecting that careful balance between the police and the people.
I agree with the shadow Minister that it is important to maintain the balance to which she refers, but as I said in my opening and subsequent responses to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the right to protest was, for those hundreds of people, protected. The protests did happen, and indeed there is no question, in principle or in any legislation, but that the right to peaceful protest is sacrosanct. In recent months, however, we have seen that right being stretched into acts that were deliberately disruptive, when people have sought to close down the M25 and to close down the streets of London, not so much as an act of protest as to deliberately inconvenience the public. That is where we draw the line.
At the weekend, broadly the same test was applied. Peaceful protest is, of course, absolutely fine, but activity that was designed to seriously disrupt the coronation—including potentially causing a stampede of horses or covering the ceremonial procession in paint—was not acceptable. I think we can agree that this was a unique situation. The police had to make very difficult judgments and decisions in a very short time, against an extremely threatening intelligence picture, and the facts were often unclear at the time. I think all of us here should accept that those are difficult decisions. While it is for the police to answer operationally, I think that if they were here, they would say that they acted lawfully at the time to the best of their reasonable belief. However, I do want to put on record that the right to peaceful protest is sacrosanct, and I am sure that no one on either side of the House would ever seek to undermine it.
Does the Minister agree that, as a matter of law, the police are entirely within their rights to arrest individuals in order to prevent a crime? That happens somewhere in the country pretty much every day. Obviously, the police do not wait until a crime is committed—until the active offence is committed—before acting. If they know from intelligence received that an armed robbery was about to take place, they do not have to wait until it is taking place before acting, and the same applies here. Does the Minister agree that the police did an excellent job in very difficult circumstances? This is a Government who support the police; we will leave the Opposition parties to support those who do not follow the law.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that the Public Order Act is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and it is deeply disappointing to hear both Labour and the Conservatives make it clear that they are wedded to legislation that undermines our rights to protest. Graham Smith, the CEO of Republic, has said:
“These arrests are a direct attack on our democracy and the fundamental rights of every person in the country… The right to protest peacefully in the UK no longer exists. Instead we have a freedom to protest that is contingent on political decisions made by ministers and senior police officers.”
That is entirely unacceptable.
In the statement that he has issued, Sir Mark Rowley said:
“Having now reviewed the evidence and potential lines of enquiry we do not judge that we will be able to prove criminal intent beyond all reasonable doubt.”
So these arrests were not necessary. Sir Mark also said:
“I support the officers’ actions in this unique fast moving operational context.”
That suggests that there is no certainty that if similar circumstances occurred, the same thing would not happen again. Will the Minister tell me what protections people can expect when they, in good faith, engage with authorities before protests to prevent this kind of thing from happening, only to find it happening again, and does it concern him that a journalist was among those arrested?
It is entirely inaccurate to say that the right to protest does not exist. As I pointed out, hundreds and hundreds of people did peacefully and lawfully protest on coronation day. They did so unmolested and unimpeded, which goes to show that the idea that the right to protest does not exist anymore is absolute nonsense. What does not exist is the right to cause disruption to other members of society. That is what our laws seek to prevent.
In relation to the Human Rights Act 1998, and particularly articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights, the Public Order Act 2023 has a section 19(1)(a) statement on the face of it, saying that legal analysis finds the Act is compatible. If the hon. Lady studies articles 10 and 11, particularly the second paragraphs, she will see that qualified rights are able to be balanced against the right of democratically elected legislatures to legislate to prevent criminal activity, including disruption.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the Metropolitan police did a great job? They took the necessary action to protect the public during a unique state event. We have heard not one word from Opposition Members—and will not hear anything in what is yet to come—that provides evidence to the contrary. It is reassuring that, for once, the Metropolitan police acted on the side of the hard-working public who want to have the opportunity to enjoy events, rather than being the victims of left-wing protest groups.
I add my thanks to those involved in the arrangements for the coronation and keeping the public safe. However, the Home Affairs Committee will no doubt want to look at the policing of protests at the coronation and, in particular, the specific provisions in the Public Order Act 2023, brought in just last week and used to arrest members of Republic.
We have heard a lot about the operational independence of the police this afternoon. Will the Minister explain why on 27 April the Home Office’s police powers unit sent an official letter to Republic, ahead of the coronation? Republic has no history of its members locking on. How many other organisations and groups received such letters? On what basis were they sent those letters? Will that practice now be the norm for the Home Office?
I do not believe that any such letters were sent in my name, so I cannot comment on who may have received them. I suspect, although I am not certain, that those letters related to clarifying the new statutory provisions that were recently brought into effect through the Public Order Act 2023. The operational independence of the police is important, because Parliament legislates and it is then for the police to apply those laws without fear or favour, and they did so on this occasion.
There has clearly been a misunderstanding, despite the police doing a brilliant job, and that is why there has been an apology. But would the Minister not expect that misunderstanding to have been resolved well within the 16 hours for which the six were incarcerated? Surely there should be some questions asked about that.
Again, exactly what happened is an operational matter for the police. Clearly, last Saturday the police had a lot going on in central London, policing the largest public event we have ever had in our country’s history. I do not know—in fact, no Member of this House knows or can know—precisely what inquiries were being undertaken while the decision ultimately to release those individuals was taken. Complaint processes are available if any individual member of the public wants to follow them. They are available to anyone who is arrested or encounters the police. If someone feels that the police have behaved unreasonably in a particular situation, they are able to use those complaint procedures.
Is it not the case that the arrests of peaceful protestors at the weekend were not an aberration, but exactly what the Public Order Act is designed to do—to clamp down on legitimate peaceful protest, which should be a basic democratic right in this country?
No, that is not the purpose of the Public Order Act, which is designed to prevent people from deliberately disrupting the daily lives of their fellow citizens, as we have seen with the locking-on on public highways, which causes enormous traffic jams that stop people getting to hospital, getting their children to school and getting to work—we have seen 10-mile tailbacks on the M25. We had specific intelligence that people planned to disrupt the coronation by creating a stampede of horses and by covering the ceremonial procession in paint. The Public Order Act is designed to stop such disruption while, of course, allowing peaceful protest. That is its purpose.
Given the heat of this debate, I must add, as a Greater London MP, that it is complete and utter nonsense to say that people can no longer peacefully protest in London. I attended my first protest a couple of weeks ago, against the Mayor of London’s disgraceful ultra low emission zone, and we were left to protest peacefully. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, over the weekend, the 11,500 police officers and armed forces personnel did an excellent job of policing and keeping the public safe during the fantastic coronation celebrations?
My hon. Friend puts it very well, and I join him in opposing Sadiq Khan’s appalling ULEZ idea.
The police and armed forces did a great job of policing the coronation. Between the Metropolitan police and Thames Valley police, who policed the Windsor concert the following day, almost 30,000 officers were deployed at one time or another during the relevant period. I think 11,500 officers were deployed on the day of the coronation itself, in addition to 6,500 armed forces personnel. There were 312 protected people who came to this country from around the world, and we deployed almost 1,000 close protection officers. All those officers did a fantastic job in a moment of national pride for all of us.
I am a little surprised that the Minister apparently accepts, without question, the proposition that the Metropolitan police now apologises to people who have been lawfully arrested. Even by his standards, that is something of a novel departure.
The Public Order Act has given police officers broad and sweeping powers, which in turn require the police to exercise discretion and judgment with no context or guidelines. If there is no change to this legislation, such things will keep happening. There should have been better pre-legislative scrutiny of the Act, but there was not. Will he now commit to allowing post-legislative scrutiny?
Many pieces of legislation require on-the-ground interpretation, whether by the police or subsequently by the courts in case law. Indeed, the new Act contains much more precise definitions of what constitutes serious disruption, which was previously extremely ambiguous. The police and others had called for that clarity. Obviously, the House is welcome to conduct scrutiny whenever it wants. It is standard for new legislation to be subject to post-legislative scrutiny some time later, but in many areas this new Act, which recently received Royal Assent, provides additional specificity, clarity and precision that were previously lacking.
The Minister rightly said that hundreds of people protested against the once-in-a-generation coronation. Hundreds of thousands of people were present to celebrate the coronation, and millions in the United Kingdom and around the world were watching. I am getting pretty fed up with the police apologising all the time. Ordinary police officers who do a decent job, as they did on Saturday, find their morale at rock bottom when, after being instructed by the Metropolitan police on 3 May that
“We will deal robustly with anyone intent on undermining this celebration”,
someone apologises because they did just that.
I recommend that Members on both sides of the House read the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s article in today’s Evening Standard robustly setting out the background and defending the police’s approach to the coronation. My hon. Friend refers to the expression of regret that those six people were unable to join the hundreds of others who protested peacefully. Those hundreds of others were exercising their right to peaceful protest, as they are perfectly entitled to do. It is worth mentioning in passing, as he did, that they were in a tiny, tiny minority, but that does not undermine their right to protest if they so choose.
This is obvious to anyone who looks at it; we take a piece of draconian legislation, such as the Public Order Bill, we rush it through this place, via an unelected Head of State, who gave it consent, and we hand it to a failing institution such as the Metropolitan police, who then decapitate the leadership of the republican protest movement. What do we expect? This piece of legislation is doing exactly what it says on the tin: it is stopping peaceful protest.
That is absolute nonsense. This legislation is preventing disruption to the lives of our fellow citizens. I wholly repudiate the suggestion that it was rushed through; there was extensive ping-pong, which I do not recall the hon. Gentleman turning up to, although he is so concerned about scrutiny. As for his comment about the process for a Bill gaining Royal Assent, I will not dignify that with a response.
I cannot think of a greater waste of time than an inquiry into this matter. The police did a fantastic job over the weekend. They took actions under pressure, having to make decisions quickly to ensure that a great national event went ahead without any kind of negative event—I am glad that that happened. Does the Minister share my concerns that some Just Stop Oil protesters think they might have found a loophole in the Public Order Act and can get away with slow marching? Will he assure me that that is not the case and that we will not continue to see Just Stop Oil protests cause havoc in our towns?
Just Stop Oil has adapted its tactics since it blocked the M25 in November, causing 10-mile tailbacks, after which a number of arrests were made, with some of the people involved then being remanded in custody. It has changed to these slow walking tactics, but the police are applying cumulative disruption tests to those, using section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986 and making notices under that Act. Following recent disruptions in the past 10 to 14 days, the roads have typically been cleared within 10 minutes, which I am sure Londoners, my constituents and others, will welcome strongly.
The Minister just said that the right to peaceful protest is sacrosanct and no one would seek to undermine it, but I put it to him that that is exactly what his Government have just done: Ministers are criminalising protest. Just because some people were allowed to protest, that does not mitigate against the fact that a number were not. Let me just correct him: those who were arrested and kept in were not causing an obstruction, which is presumably why the police went to apologise to them afterwards. Does this not show that the powers the Government have handed to the police are dangerously broad and liable to gross misuse, as many of us have pointed out? I urge him again to review this legislation urgently.
I do not accept that analysis. The powers are designed to prevent disruption where it might occur or where it is occurring. That includes things such as locking on, which we have seen cause huge disruption on the streets of London. The law allows peaceful protest where it is not disruptive and where people do not plan to cause disruption, which is why hundreds and hundreds of people, albeit a tiny minority of the total there, were able to protest peacefully. Where someone is preparing to commit or is committing a criminal offence, such as disrupting a procession, it is reasonable for the police to act.
As the secretary of the National Union of Journalists’ parliamentary group throughout the passage of the public order legislation, I asked for and was given assurances by Ministers that it would not impede upon journalistic freedoms. Yet, on Saturday at least one journalist was stopped and searched—nothing was found. He was handcuffed, he had his credentials torn off him and he was then detained for 16 hours. He is a member of Bectu and a professional film maker. Will the Minister investigate why the assurances this House was given on media freedom were not adhered to?
The new legislation contains a specific clause, added during its passage, protecting journalistic freedoms. An incident took place in Hertfordshire a few months ago, in November, I believe, where a journalist was incorrectly arrested and the relevant police force, Hertfordshire, apologised subsequently. The Government then legislated in the recent Bill, with a specific clause protecting journalistic freedom. I do not want to comment on an individual operational matter, not least because neither the right hon. Gentleman nor I have the full facts. As I said, if an individual or others feel that they were not fairly or properly treated, there is a complaints process they can go through. Parliament, however, has made its view clear.
Does the Minister agree with the former Greater Manchester police chief, Sir Peter Fahy, who has extensive experience of public order policing, who previously said that the Public Order Act was
“poorly defined and far too broad”
and who added this weekend that we now
“see the consequences of that”?
The Minister has repeatedly used the example of hundreds being able to protest as evidence that our right to protest has not been undermined. But when people can be pre-emptively arrested on the flimsiest of pretences and then thrown in a police cell for the best part of 24 hours, how can he reassure people who are attending a protest, or even walking near a protest, that the same thing will not happen to them? How can he claim that our right to protest is not being undermined by his Government?
I have mentioned the ECHR compatibility, particularly in relation to articles 10 and 11. Before the police can arrest anyone, they have to have reasonable grounds for suspicion that an offence has been committed. Obviously, individual operational decisions—in this case relating to six people—are something that can be looked into subsequently if that is necessary, but the Public Order Bill, as passed by Parliament, does nothing to criminalise lawful protest. As I have said, hundreds and hundreds of people did exercise exactly that right, although they were in a tiny minority.
There is no doubt that the police have a difficult job in making swift on-the-ground judgments, but their job is made harder when they do not act in a consistent manner. I had an eyewitness account that a protester was allowed to go in among the republicans unchallenged, jostling them and acting in a provocative manner right in front of the police for about 10 minutes before the police intervened. There was no doubt that that was disruption, but the police did not act for quite a long time. Does the Minister agree that that sort of thing creates the impression that some types of protest are more equal than others?
I have not heard that particular account before. It is not really appropriate for me to comment on something that I have just heard about on the Floor of the Chamber. However, I have already drawn the attention of the House to the procedures that are available to members of the public. I do appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s opening comment that the police had a very difficult job. They were under enormous pressure; they were dealing with a number of intelligence threats that I outlined at the beginning of my response. Things were moving very quickly. Often the picture was confusing, and often things had to be done in a rush, so I do appreciate his acknowledgment of the very difficult job that the police had to do, but I think they rose to the occasion
I voted against the Public Order Bill at every stage, but as a former police officer I highlighted, from Committee onwards, the need for training to give police officers the capacity and capability to exercise their powers so that those dynamic pressures that the Minister has just referred to can be dealt with appropriately. How many officers, at what rank, were trained in relation to this legislation prior to attending the coronation on Tuesday, and what did the training consist of?
The overall gold commander at the event is one of the Metropolitan police’s most experienced public order commanders—at the rank of commander. Many officers have had specialist public order training in the course of their career, but training must keep up with legislative changes. The College of Policing and others will be issuing the relevant guidance to ensure that that is addressed.
Does the Minister agree that the Metropolitan police’s expression of regret regarding the arrest of six anti-monarchy protesters this weekend is an admission of guilt, and does he accept that that is a chilling violation of basic democratic rights that demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Public Order Act should be immediately repealed?
The Minister has a real brass neck. The Tory Government brought in this draconian legislation, yet he tells us that the police are operationally independent of the Government, as if this is nothing to do with their actions. Human Rights Watch has said that what we saw was,
“something you would expect to see in Moscow not London.”
Given that reportedly only 6% of those arrested for protesting against the coronation were charged with anything at all, does the Minister agree that the new legislation is nothing but an advert for how to impede people’s right to protest?
With great respect, that is nonsense. Comparing the policing of the coronation with Putin’s Russia, where opposition figures are incarcerated and people such as Alexei Navalny are in prison and suffering the most appalling and inhumane treatment, is an insult to the appalling treatment they are suffering and not at all respectful to those being oppressed in Russia. Hundreds of people peacefully protested against the monarchy—they were a tiny minority, but they did protest—and the police only made arrests, 64 in total, where they had reasonable grounds to believe that a criminal offence had been committed or was in preparation. If anyone feels the arrest they experienced was not proper or appropriate, there are mechanisms they can use to complain and to seek redress.
I appreciate that this was an exceptionally challenging weekend for the police, but I am particularly concerned about the arrest and detention of members of the Westminster Night Stars team, volunteers out in central London helping to keep people safe. Communication between local authorities, the police and other agencies is critical. Can the Minister assure me that he will find out what went wrong in that communication to ensure that lessons are learned, so that volunteers who are out supporting the police in their work do not get arrested because of a breakdown in such communication?
I agree that communication between local authorities and the police is important and that that join-up needs to happen. The question the hon. Lady asks is probably best directed via the police and crime commissioner for the Mayor of London, who I am sure will be happy to take up the query.
No one will wish the new commissioner of the Met success more than London MPs, whose constituents have suffered a catalogue of institutional harm under his predecessors, but his statement in the Evening Standard today is political somersaulting from start to finish, including justifying arrests because celebrating crowds “applauded and cheered” them. Is that not a direct result of the undue pressure put on the commissioner by a Conservative party that increasingly picks and chooses when it follows the rule of law?
I do not accept that. I have already pointed out the operational independence of the police and I have said that briefings by the Met on the coronation were received not just by Home Office Ministers, but also by the shadow Home Secretary and the Mayor of London, all of which was completely proper.
The whole world could see on Saturday the effects of the public order legislation on policing, trying to prevent legitimate peaceful protest in a democracy. Will the Minister reply in a considered and reasonable way to say that he will undertake a full review of the operations of the Public Order Act thus far on preventing peaceful protest in this country, as an example of how a democracy is prepared to admit it has got something wrong and change it?
There is an unwritten law in Scotland that the best policing is carried out with the consent of the public. What is it about the Met that means that the policing of public events is heavy-handed and often completely wrong in its tone? When that becomes part of the policing approach, does that not undermine public confidence in the police itself? Will the Minister review urgently the basic training needs at the Met, and does this Government diktat through the Public Order Act not get in the way of good policing?
Training is very important, as the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) mentioned a little while ago, but, once again, I do not think we saw any trampling on the right to protest. We saw hundreds of people exercising their right to protest. I urge the House to keep in mind that this was a unique, once-in-a-generation event. The eyes of the world were upon us and there were numerous intelligence reports, which I was briefed on and perhaps the shadow Home Secretary was briefed on too, indicating well-developed plots to disrupt the coronation. The policing response needs to be considered in that context.
Following the arrests of peaceful pro-democracy campaigners on the route of the coronation on Saturday, the Security Minister’s claim that the weekend would “showcase our liberty” has fallen flat. Can the Minister explain why the Home Office, and not the Metropolitan police, wrote what protest groups have referred to as “intimidatory” letters about the public order powers, and will he provide a comprehensive explanation of why journalists are now being arrested when section 17 of the Public Order Act prohibits it?
As I said earlier, those letters were not, as far as I can recall, sent in my name. They may well have been attempting to be helpful by clarifying recently enacted legislation that some groups may not have been familiar with; it is not unreasonable to try to ensure that relevant parties know when the law changes. On journalistic freedom, as the hon. Lady says, this House—supported by the Government—voted particularly and specifically to protect journalists, and that is the right thing to do. If anyone feels that that has not been properly implemented, complaints procedures are available.
Among those arrested on Saturday was Rich Felgate, a documentary filmmaker, who identified himself as a journalist. He claims that a police officer ripped off his press credentials, and that he was then arrested and detained. The Minister will know that Rich was one of four journalists and filmmakers who were arrested and detained in or near my constituency in Hertfordshire last November. It is incomprehensible to me that after the outcry last November, police forces can keep getting the basics wrong when it comes to protecting the freedom of the press and the right of journalists to do their jobs. Will the Minister look again at the legislation and consider the proposal for a statutory duty on police to facilitate peaceful protest and for a code of conduct so that the police and protesters know where they stand?
As I have said two or three times already, the new Public Order Act contains a section—the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) suggested a moment ago that it was section 17—specifically to protect journalistic freedom. Of course, that came after the incident in Hertfordshire. If there are particular individual cases where the new law, and indeed the wider ECHR and common law right for journalists, is not being applied, there are complaints mechanisms. But this House, supported by the Government, has legislated specifically to protect journalistic freedoms.
Given what happened to the six individuals on Saturday who were clearly not involved in any plot to use rape alarms or paint to disrupt the coronation—otherwise, why would the police have apologised to them—what confidence can the organisers of any future protest have that what they are told in advance planning meetings with the police can be relied upon on the day?
Without wanting to go into too many specifics, I believe that the police assessment at the time did not relate in this particular case to rape alarms or paint but to locking-on equipment. The right hon. Gentleman says that it is clear, but of course, many things are clear with hindsight; they are sometimes less clear in the heat of a live operation. In terms of assurance on the right to protest, the Public Order Act does not in any way infringe or undermine the right to protest. Indeed, we saw on Saturday quite a reasonably sized group—a few hundred people—protesting at the coronation event without any impediment, and these days we see Just Stop Oil protesters protesting almost daily, so there is evidence in front of us showing us how the right to protest unfolds on a near daily basis.
On Saturday, we saw Metropolitan police officers pre-arresting people whose only offence was to want an elected Head of State. Despite their planned peaceful protests being pre-authorised, UK citizens who had committed no crime whatsoever were taken off the streets and detained simply because of their political beliefs. Is that not exactly how this anti-democratic, draconian and authoritarian piece of legislation was designed to work, and is it not proof of what makes the legislation so dangerously wrong?
No, the legislation does not in any way criminalise or prevent protest. We see protests happening on a daily basis, including on Saturday. The legislation enables the police to prevent disruption. They need to have a reasonable belief in order to do that. If anyone feels that in this very small minority of cases—a tiny minority of cases—those powers were misapplied, there are complaints procedures, but the vast, vast, vast majority of people wishing to protest on Saturday did so.
Does the Minister accept that the troubling scenes witnessed during the coronation vindicate Opposition Members who warned that the Government’s new anti-protest laws would be used to stifle dissent and limit freedom of expression? Does he accept that if we are to protect the most fundamental right of free speech, the Public Order Act must be scrapped in its entirety?
I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on securing the urgent question. The seemingly random way in which the Metropolitan police can apply the law only to fully exonerate those arrested soon after is something that one might see in an illiberal democracy like Hungary or Turkey, and all this just a week after the Security Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the coronation was a chance to “showcase our liberty”. Does the Minister agree with their colleague? Are these arrests a showcase of British liberty?
The fact that hundreds of people protested against the monarchy, albeit they were a tiny minority of the crowds, demonstrates that the right to protest is unfettered, as does the fact that, as I speak, and as we have this discussion here in Parliament, I suspect there are Just Stop Oil protesters somewhere in London no doubt up to their protesting activities. The right to protest is sacrosanct, and it is protected, not least by the European convention on human rights, but also by our domestic legislation, which is something we should all be pleased about.
The Minister has repeatedly told us that there was evidence of, in his words, a well-developed plot to misuse activated rape alarms in a way that would clearly have been criminally reckless, which no one would condone. Given that that plot was so well developed, with the exception of three Night Stars volunteers who have been mentioned, can the Minister tell us, of all the people arrested, how many were found to be in possession of rape alarms, how many have been charged with intent to use those rape alarms for criminal purposes, and how many rape alarms were seized on Saturday? If the answer to all those questions is nil or next to nil, does he accept that in this case the police intelligence was badly and dangerously misinformed?
I think that there is an update on all the arrests on the Metropolitan police website, which provides some of the information for which the hon. Gentleman asks. Some arrests were made close to the ceremonial footprint, including people who had large quantities of paint. Other arrests were made at locations away from the ceremonial footprint at what might be described as a safehouse. The briefings that I received from the Met the night before—I believe the Mayor of London received them and possibly the Home Secretary; I am not sure—indicated multiple, well-developed and credible plots materially to disrupt the coronation, and it is greatly to the credit of the Metropolitan police that they prevented those from unfolding.