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Commons Chamber

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023

House of Commons

Tuesday 5 September 2023

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

HS2: Cost

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the cost of HS2. [R] (906193)

The Chancellor launched the efficiency and savings review in the autumn statement to focus on the Government’s priorities and identify ways in which to work more efficiently and help to manage budgetary pressures from higher inflation. The Secretary of State for Transport and I discussed the costs of HS2 during the review, which helped to inform the decision to rephase certain parts of the project as part of balancing the nation’s books.

The travel between north and south is the bit of transport infrastructure that works; it is the travel across the north that does not work. What would the cost of HS2 have to reach for the Government to conclude that it no longer represents value for money for the taxpayer, or are the Government pursuing the essentially socialist policy that they will keep paying for this ridiculous white elephant irrespective of the final bill?

I took the precaution of researching my hon. Friend’s interest in this subject, and I note that he was issuing challenges on it 14 years ago. The Government remain—as they were then—fully committed to delivering HS2 and the integrated rail plan. This is a long-term investment that will bring our biggest cities closer to each other. It will boost productivity, and will provide a low-carbon alternative to cars and planes for many decades to come. As my hon. Friend knows, we are also working, through the IRP, on a £96 billion package to improve inter-regional rail connections, which obviously affects his constituents.

Does the Minister agree that this country’s performance on productivity has been pitiful over the last 10 years? There has been virtually no improvement in productivity, and one reason for that is our lack of investment in national infrastructure. Slowing down HS2 is a bad move when it comes to improving our infrastructure, and it is years since we agreed to a third runway at Heathrow. Does the Minister agree that if we are to improve our productivity, we have to invest in infrastructure?

I can agree with the hon. Gentleman that the investment of £600 billion in infrastructure in all parts of the country to which the Government are committed is critical to easing the productivity challenge that has faced successive Governments, and the Chancellor will introduce measures in the autumn statement to address it further.

HS2’s costs have ballooned since it was first conceived under the last Labour Government. As my right hon. Friend has said, owing to pressure from the Treasury the project has had to be rephased, and trains will now go from west London—not central London—to a station not in central Birmingham, which negates the benefits that the scheme’s proponents said it would bring. With costs ballooning still further, we just cannot afford it, can we?

I am sorry, but I do not agree with my hon. Friend. I certainly recognise that infrastructure investments of this scale and with this level of ambition are never easy to deliver. I have set out the changes to the profile of the investment, but all the key elements are still on track, and we will continue to work with the Department for Transport to ensure that that remains the case.

Is the Minister not also concerned about cost-benefit analysis? Have not assumptions behind the pattern of business travel demand been changed dramatically by the pandemic, working from home and video conferencing? Is the Minister satisfied that the Department for Transport has properly re-evaluated HS2 to take account of such changes?

Yes, I am content with that. I recognise those changes in patterns of behaviour when it comes to the use of public transport, but we also face cost of living challenges. That is why we are working so closely with the Department for Transport to, for example, continue investment in buses over the next two years, and continue to spend £200 million on capping fares to £2 outside London. We must bear in mind, however, that continued investment in transport infrastructure is key to greater connectivity across the United Kingdom and dealing with the economic growth imperative.

It has been reported over the last couple of days that accommodating HS2 will mean fewer trains between the north and London. One station affected is Wilmslow in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that were that to happen, HS2 would no longer be value for money or good for the north? It would certainly take longer and cost my constituents more.

HS2 is going to happen. The question is what additional investments across other parts of the rail infrastructure might benefit my right hon. Friend’s constituents additionally and more directly. I set out with the integrated rail plan the £96 billion package to improve rail connections, and many elements of that will have a direct impact on her constituents in Cheshire.

As the Minister is well aware, North West Leicestershire has suffered under the blight of HS2 for more than a decade, and the whole project has recently been declared to be undeliverable. It has been unaffordable for some considerable time. Will he urge his colleagues in Government to cancel the remainder of the eastern leg and reallocate just a small portion of that budget so that we can reopen the Ivanhoe line?

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has strong views on this, and I know that he has been personally affected by it in the past. The project, although it has been rephased, will continue. There are a number of issues involved in ensuring tight management of that budget, and I am working closely with the Department for Transport to see that that happens.

Climate Change: Economic Impact

2. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of climate change on the economy. (906194)

The Treasury’s 2021 net zero review noted that unmitigated climate change damage has been estimated to be the equivalent of losing between 5% and 20% of global GDP each year. The costs of global inaction significantly outweigh the costs of action, and McKinsey estimates that there is a global market opportunity for British businesses worth £1 trillion.

A recent report from Carbon Tracker found a huge disconnect between what scientists expect from climate change and what our financial system is prepared for, with flawed economic modelling leading pension funds and others to seriously underestimate the risks. Meanwhile, Energy UK warns that we are lagging behind on green energy investments. Surely the Minister agrees that to revive our economy and avert climate catastrophe we must rapidly phase out fossil fuels and invest in a green new deal to reach net zero.

It is important to point out that we are the fastest decarbonising economy in the G7. Since 1990, we have decarbonised by 48% while growing our economy by 65%, but the hon. Lady is right: this will take a balanced approach involving both public spending and private investment, including pension fund investment. The recent pension fund reforms, for example, should unlock some new assets for green infrastructure.

I agree with the question about the Carbon Tracker report. It has found that policy decisions are being based on 1990s literature. That is 30 years old. Will the Chancellor review the data and the thinking that the Government are using to make sure that all strands are in line with the climate science of the 21st century?

The data that I look at shows that last year 40% of our electricity was generated from renewables. That is an amazing achievement, but we are alive and present when it comes to decarbonising our economy. We have great plans and we are building on our great track record. We will continue to do that.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does my hon. Friend agree with my Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituents that Mayor Khan’s ultra low emission zone expansion hits families and businesses without any significant environmental benefit?

Let me welcome my hon. Friend to his place. He has wasted no time whatsoever in advocating for his constituents against a Labour tax that is hitting households and businesses in his constituency and throughout the south-east. It is a massive tax bombshell at a time when families just do not need it. It is simply not right, and we would urge the Leader of the Opposition to tell his Mayor of London to stop it.

The shadow Chancellor has said that she will not rule out mandating the use of pension fund money for the pet schemes that the Labour party thinks will achieve net zero, putting at risk the savings of many pensioners in this country. What does my hon. Friend think the impact of that will be on the British economy?

Pension funds have a fiduciary responsibility to deliver a financial return but also to be mindful of the values of their pensioners. I have every confidence that pension funds will continue to invest in line with the risk that is presented by climate.

This Tory Government effectively banned new onshore wind, which is vital for net zero, energy security and getting bills down. We now learn this could change because one fine group of Tory rebels is shouting louder than another group of Tory rebels. There is no leadership, just a Government led by their Back Benchers. Can we finally get an answer from the Government on whether they will dither and delay or join Labour in leading the way and acting on onshore wind?

Onshore wind has an important part to play, and we are already deploying 14 GW of energy from onshore wind. The cost of onshore wind has come down significantly. It is one of our cheapest energy sources. The hon. Lady does not have long to wait for the Energy Bill, which we are considering later today.

Growth Plan: Mortgage Interest Rates

3. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the growth plan of 23 September 2022 on mortgage interest rates. (906195)

Over the course of 2022, high inflation from Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine saw interest rates increase across most western economies. The path to lower rates is through low inflation, which is why the Prime Minister made halving inflation one of our five priorities for this year. I am pleased that the latest Bank of England forecast shows that we are on track.

Mortgage and associated rental costs are soaring in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, and the Government like to claim it is all due to global shocks or the war in Ukraine, but the latest Bank of England data from July shows that the cost of lending to buy a home remains higher in the UK than in Germany, Italy or France. Will the Minister finally concede that this difference is because those countries did not have the devastating growth plan or mini-Budget last year, and that it is because of this Government’s wider economic failure that my constituents face these costs?

I am glad that the hon. Lady’s constituents, among many others, will benefit both from our mortgage interest support and from there being almost double the number of mortgage products on the market now than in October 2022. I repeat the comment of my colleague, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury: if the hon. Lady is so worried about her constituents, what better way of helping them with the cost of living than to do away with the Mayor’s ULEZ tax?

In the UK, homebuyers are overwhelmingly dependent on short-term fixed rate mortgages of just two, three or five years, which means that in times of rising interest rates, as we have at the moment, they are hard hit by massively increasing mortgage bills. In most other countries, homebuyers have long-term fixed rate mortgages of 10 or 20 years, or of the entire length of the mortgage. Does my hon. Friend agree that the regulators should ensure a level playing field between short-term and long-term mortgages to give homebuyers a free choice of the sort of mortgage they want, so they can choose to have greater protection against rate rises if they want?

My hon. Friend has great knowledge of these matters. It was a privilege to work with him and the sector on how we can offer consumers and homebuyers more choice. That choice includes the opportunity of long-term fixed-rate mortgages, and my officials and I continue to work on how we can reduce frictions and barriers to those mortgages.

It is estimated that 140,000 households will face a rise in their mortgage bills this month. If someone in a random constituency, say Mid Bedfordshire, were to remortgage their house in the next six months, they could pay an average of £300 more per month compared with before the disastrous Tory mini-Budget this time last year. What can the Chancellor and his team do to reassure the country that, if the Conservatives were to win the next election, they would not just mess up the economy all over again?

I am sure the constituents of Mid Bedfordshire will be very pleased to know that more than 90% of mortgage providers have signed up to our mortgage charter, which offers the opportunity for relief, to term-out mortgages and to have interest-free periods, if they face adversity at this time when interest rates are high across the world. What will not help the constituents of Mid Bedfordshire is unfunded spending promises that we know will push up the cost of borrowing and defer the point at which inflation falls.

That is a bit rich from the Government, and it is no answer whatsoever to the people of Mid Bedfordshire who will not be able to afford to pay their bills over the coming months. It is one year ago today that the former Tory Prime Minister took a huge ideological gamble and sabotaged Britain’s economy. They crashed the pound, put pensions in peril and exploded a Tory mortgage bombshell under the homes of millions of working people. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to the British people, on behalf of the Conservative party, for wrecking their hopes and aspirations?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position. He has had a feisty morning reading his Walworth Road brief. Let me offer him the opportunity to correct the record, because Labour has spent the past 12 months talking down our economy but it is now larger than it was when we entered covid and it has recovered and grown faster than the economies of both France and Germany.

Brexit: Economic Impact

5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of withdrawal from the EU on the economy. (906197)

Good morning, Mr Speaker. Brexit was a choice made by the British people and it remains a big opportunity for the economy. Rather than relitigating that debate, this Government are committed to embracing those opportunities.

Prior to the EU referendum, the Bank of England warned that Brexit would seriously damage the UK economy, weakening the pound and causing inflation. The Government have now delayed import checks on animal and food products for the fifth time, because the costs would add to inflation. Does that mean the Chancellor finally accepts that Brexit is contributing to the UK’s cost of living crisis?

No, but of course we are sensitive about the timing of introducing those changes because of cost of living pressures. I am sad to have seen, since we last met in the House, the hon. Lady announce that she is stepping down; we have much in common on patient safety. On the NHS, she will know that because of Brexit an extra £14.6 billion is being directed to public services every year, including the NHS and including in Scotland.

Adam Posen, a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee, has described Brexit as a

“trade war by the UK on itself”.

This unnecessary trade war has had a real impact on small businesses in my constituency such as Guild Antiques & Restoration, which has found that its orders from the EU have fallen off a cliff edge and its costs have increased. Scotland did not choose Brexit and we are all worse off as a result. What can the Chancellor do to fill the economic gaps his hard Brexit has caused?

There is a certain irony in the Scottish National party opposing Brexit at the same time as advocating a far more draconian separation for Scotland, including a new currency and border checks. On businesses in Scotland, as part of the UK, Scotland is now an independent coastal state for the first time in nearly half a century; the 21,000 people in Scotland who work in financial services are benefiting from the Brexit freedoms in the Edinburgh reforms; and there is extra support for Scottish pubs, because, for the first time, we have a lower beer duty relative to supermarkets.

It is not just Brexit trade barriers having a devastating impact on Scotland’s economy, because the loss of freedom of movement has hugely damaged our businesses’ ability to recruit staff. Many businesses have had to reduce their offer, cut their opening hours or close altogether. It is estimated that over the bank holiday UK pubs alone lost out on £22 million because of staff shortages. Does the Chancellor accept that small businesses such as those cannot keep picking up the tab for his Government’s disastrous Brexit? What is he doing to solve these staff recruitment problems?

May I gently say to the hon. Lady that this country has actually grown faster than France or Germany since we left the single market? This is a bit of a smokescreen for the SNP’s economic policies, which have led to more people out of work and fewer people in work in Scotland than in England.

Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to modernise our regulations and adapt them to local and national domestic interests, but we will seize the benefits of doing that only if we deliver on regulatory reform. So will my right hon. Friend drive that across Departments so that we can increase prosperity and raise living standards as a result?

No one knows more about regulatory reform than my right hon. Friend, who wrote an excellent booklet on it. We look at that booklet ahead of every fiscal event, be it autumn statement or Budget. I hope that she noticed in the Budget big reforms to our medicines regulation. We will continue to learn from the things she advocates.

For generations, Britain’s world leadership on financial services and financial markets has been a key part of our economy. I agree that the post-Brexit initiatives such as the Edinburgh review have made excellent strides on making sure that we keep that world leadership. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to look at the report from UK Finance on the tokenisation of markets, as being the world leader in that innovative area would reduce costs for investors, enable money to flow into less liquid assets and fundamentally unlock future growth?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. Thanks to the excellent work of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, we have repealed 100 EU rules and regulations in the financial services sector, and we will look very closely at the opportunities when it comes to tokenisation.

Last week, the Government admitted that their planned introduction of food import checks from the EU would lead to an increase in inflation, hitting the pockets of ordinary people during the worst cost of living crisis in our lifetimes. In the Labour party, we believe that a bespoke veterinary agreement would cut red tape from business and avoid pushing costs on to ordinary people. Are the Government planning to negotiate a veterinary agreement, and if not, why not?

I gently say to the hon. Lady, who I have a lot of time for, that the last thing business wants is the upheaval of a huge renegotiation of our trading arrangement with the EU, which is the largest tariff-free free trade deal by volume in the world.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Chancellor claims that it is a success that inflation in the UK has risen higher and remains more stubbornly so than in the EU. Adam Posen, formerly of the Bank of England, has underlined that up to 80% of the UK’s additional inflation woes can be laid at the door of Brexit—something the Tories and Labour are united on. All the while, food price inflation is crushing household budgets. So why have this Government done nothing? Why have this Government learned nothing from countries such as France, which has worked with food suppliers to keep food prices capped to help those most in need?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position. His constituency predecessor served as a Minister in the Treasury—whatever greatness the hon. Gentleman goes on to, I am sure he will not sully himself with that role. When it comes to inflation, we have a high level of imported food, like Germany; a high level of imported gas, like Italy; and low unemployment, like the United States. These factors have come together to give us the inflation rate we have. When it comes to growth, the hon. Gentleman will have noted last week’s numbers, which show that we have recovered better from the pandemic than France, Italy or Germany, and we are doing extremely well, despite all the pressures we face.

I notice that the Chancellor did not say anything about food inflation hurting families. Well, Tory and Labour “little Britain” attitudes do not stop at food price inaction. Energy costs are a key driver of inflation and costs for families. Energy bills are too high. The Spanish have taken bold steps by cutting VAT and introducing a social tariff to help their people. This Government plan to do nothing for this winter, which is particularly galling for people in Scotland who will continue to pay more for their energy than elsewhere in the UK. Will the Chancellor act on our demands for a £400 energy price grant to be introduced this winter?

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing for his constituents, and indeed all the people of Scotland: around £3,000 of support for the average family up and down the country, including in Scotland; paying half people’s energy bills, on average; and a huge amount of support through the benefits system. Nearly £100 billion of support shows that we are stronger together.

Inflation: Public Health and Wellbeing

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the potential impact of inflation on public health and wellbeing. (906198)

The Government are committed to supporting individuals to live healthier lives. High inflation is the greatest immediate economic challenge that we must address. The Government have made it a priority to halve inflation this year. We are on the path back to the target of 2% and consumer price index inflation fell to 6.8% in July. We will continue to work with all Departments to deal with the inflationary pressures they face.

Being unable to pay for essentials such as food, heating and rent has an impact on physical and mental health. It can lead to delayed diagnosis, malnutrition and serious mental health problems. As the former Health Secretary will know, prevention is better than cure, but austerity flies in the face of a preventative approach. What discussions has the Chancellor had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ensure that the NHS has prevention at its heart? Will we see a rise in funding in the autumn statement?

Yes, I have frequent conversations with the Secretary of State and other Ministers about health budgets. We will be increasing the public health grant to £3.575 billion for the next financial year. That is to ensure that we have that real-term funding protection over the next two years, but there are a number of other interventions that we are making on delivering services more effectively, ensuring that we have the provision of additional staff with the long-term workforce plan for the NHS. None the less, I do recognise the challenges that a post-covid NHS faces in terms of the legacy of demand that is yet unmet. We are continuing to work to bring down waiting lists and we have seen significant progress recently, particularly with two-year and 18-month lists.

A key part of improving the public health and wellbeing of my local residents in Kettering is the redevelopment of Kettering General Hospital. Can the Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirm that the £400 million-plus redevelopment of KGH remains on track for completion by 2030, and that the standardisation of the design of the 40 new hospitals will help to reduce costs and increase deliverability?

Kettering General Hospital is always at the top of my mind when I come to Treasury questions, but the bigger challenge, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, is how we ensure the efficiency of the expenditure of every pound of taxpayers’ investment in the health estate. I shall continue to work with the Secretary of State on that plan for the 40 hospitals to make sure that we achieve that.

In the many discussions that the Minister says he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what figure did they discuss with him that he estimates inflation will be at in the next financial year?

There are a range of forecasts, but we have to deal with the reality. I am trying to ensure that, across all of the decisions that Secretaries of State make, we reprioritise effectively and deliver frontline services, but I do not have a number for the hon. Gentleman this afternoon.

People in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke find that mental health is a huge barrier to getting back into work and obviously helping to produce economic growth. That is something that the Chancellor is reported to have been considering carefully over the summer recess. My friend James Starkie and I have launched a No Time To Wait campaign to use some existing health and social care funding to get specialist mental health nurses into GP surgeries to help support people in a more preventive way—something the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) asked about earlier. What support will the Treasury give to help the Department of Health and Social Care to enact those plans?

My hon. Friend always has constructive suggestions in this difficult area. The Chancellor brought forward a number of interventions in the Budget to get people back into work after some of the behavioural shifts that we saw following the pandemic. We look forward to continuing to work with my hon. Friend on solutions for his community.

Investment Zones

Investment zones are part of our industrial strategy to make sure that the benefits of our national strengths in our five growth priority sectors are spread throughout the UK.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. The north-east of Scotland has long been an exemplar of innovation in the fields of food and drink and energy, to name a few. Can he confirm that the north-east Scotland investment zone will lead to more innovation to promote these key industries not just in Aberdeen City, but in the wider north-east, including my constituency of Banff and Buchan?

I know that the Acorn carbon capture, usage and storage project is based at St Fergus in my hon. Friend’s patch, and that Banff and Buchan is within the north-east of Scotland region, which is one of two eligible areas and has been a long-standing global centre for excellence in clean energy, so I wish him every success as those discussions with the Scottish Government continue.

Does the Chancellor agree that my constituency of Clwyd South, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) and the rest of north-east Wales represent one of the best candidates for a new investment zone? Will he also consider making this cross-border, given our very close economic, commercial and cultural ties with the north-west of England?

I know there are some great businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency—I much enjoyed meeting Robin and Helen Jones of Jones’ Village Bakery at a recent reception in No. 10, and I know they are going from strength to strength. I holidayed in Clwyd last year, and from the top of Moel Famau I saw a very impressive offshore wind farm. I completely agree that there is enormous potential in Clwyd for clean energy and, as discussions continue about investment zones, I wish him every success as well.

The UK’s first investment zone is in South Yorkshire, where the Mayor is working hard to develop our world-leading advanced manufacturing and innovation district. I am sure the Chancellor will agree that if we are going to create a growth area, we need to make sure people can access the jobs there via transport links, particularly by bus. Will he make sure that included within the financial package available is money to assist with local public transport?

I very much enjoyed my visit to South Yorkshire to open that investment zone. It is incredibly impressive what is happening there and it was wonderful to welcome new investment by Boeing as part of that. The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about transport; that is why we involve local authorities in all our investment zone decisions. It is also vital to have universities involved, which is why the University of Sheffield is playing such a key role.

I was present on the day the Chancellor came to launch the investment zone in my constituency, and of course I too welcome the investment into Boeing there. Does he accept that one of the other areas for future development in the investment zone is small modular reactors? A consortium is being developed in Sheffield with Sheffield Forgemasters, Rolls-Royce and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to look at the future—not merely to develop the techniques for SMRs, but to start building SMRs in Sheffield. Would he be willing to look at that proposal and hopefully offer support for it?

I enjoyed meeting the hon. Gentleman when we opened that investment zone. Let me reassure him that I am a big supporter of nuclear and I am very excited about the potential of SMRs. There is a competition going on this year, which we hope will be completed by the end of the year, to assess the viability of the various SMR manufacturers, and we want to get going as quickly as we can.

Freedom of Speech: Financial Sector

The Government have been clear that debanking customers on the basis of political views is unacceptable. During recess I met banking executives to discuss debanking and lawful freedom of expression, and they have committed to comply with the changes I published on 21 July. In parallel, the Financial Conduct Authority is conducting an urgent review of debanking practices, which will report back to the Chancellor in the next couple of weeks.

Last week the Met Police chief finally seemed to confirm that the job of the police should be to police and not to seek to align themselves with entities or ideologies. Does the Minister agree with me that banks and the corporate world should follow that example and focus their efforts on their core business, rather than play the sinister cancelling agenda of the woke brigade that saw Nigel Farage have his account wrongfully closed?

My hon. Friend represents the views of his constituents in this place clearly. He is quite right; although they are private entities, banks benefit from a privileged place in society and they should focus on doing their core functions brilliantly, treating customers fairly and making a sustainable return for shareholders, rather than taking sides on politically contentious matters.

Today it is because some people may have a different political view; tomorrow it could be the fact that someone has a different religious viewpoint. I am a Christian, and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I stand up for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs and those with no beliefs, because I believe sincerely that they have a right to have that belief. If ever the day came when banks censured anybody because they had a different religious belief, I would stand up against that. Does the Minister agree?

Let me be clear: yes, the Government agree with that. No one should be debarred from access to banking facilities in our society because of a lawfully expressed view. If he and other hon. Members wish to make representations, the Financial Conduct Authority is currently conducting a review of this matter.

Plastic Packaging Tax

In April this year the Government announced that we would conduct a formal review of the plastic packaging tax through analysis of environmental and tax data and customer research to assess the impact of the measure. More information about the evaluation will be published later this year.

I am pleased to share that a business in my Eastbourne constituency has made many important changes in the way it operates in order to meet its own environmental ambitions, but when it comes to the transportation of food and pharmaceutical products, industry standards linked to public health regulations require such products to be transported in sterile packaging, which necessitates the use of virgin plastics and brings the containers that the business produces into scope for the plastic packaging tax. Is there a new direction I can share with that business, or will ongoing policy reviews look at such cases?

The aim of the plastic packaging tax is to provide a clear incentive for businesses to use more recycled plastic in packaging. Following extensive consultation, we looked at a range of possible exemptions and decided to limit those exemptions because we want to encourage innovation in the industry. Put simply, the more exemptions, the less innovation. However, all taxes remain, of course, under review.

A proactive approach to a circular economy could create hundreds of thousands of jobs and cut our consumption emissions. What circular taxation measures is the Treasury looking at to help us achieve those outcomes?

We are clear that we want all taxes relating to the environment to have an impact. The plastic packaging tax, for example, will clearly have an impact on the amount of recycling that takes place and on the amounts put into landfill. Those are all things that we assess as part of evaluations, and the plastic packaging tax will be evaluated this year.

Pension Schemes: UK Investment Incentives

At Mansion House, the Government presented a series of pension reforms that will increase returns for savers and enable the financial sector to unlock capital for some of the UK’s most promising industries. The Department continues work to build on the initial package of measures and will set out further details in the autumn.

I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome those measures. Have the Government considered what more can be done to unlock surpluses in defined-benefit schemes to allow employers to use that money more effectively, rather than having it end up going into insurance companies on buy-outs? There is a huge tax penalty on unlocking surpluses. Is there a way of relieving that to encourage the money to be invested more efficiently?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. With the right precautions, it is right that we look at that to incentivise employers to deliver the highest returns for pension savers.

The Government have to date taken £4.4 billion from the mineworkers’ pension scheme. The then cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee concluded that the Government should not be “profiting from mineworkers’ pensions.” How does the Secretary of State justify their continued profiteering?

I am not familiar with the issue that the hon. Lady speaks about. I would be very happy to meet her to understand it in more detail.

Pubs: Tax System

We are ensuring that pubs remain a key part of our local communities by providing support through the alcohol duty and business rates systems. That includes a new draught relief that provides a significant duty discount on alcohol sold on draught in a pub, and the expanded retail, hospitality and leisure relief means more than £10,000 in relief for the average independent pub.

After a busy summer knocking around South Ribble and speaking to people, I have often popped in for a pint, including in Croston’s famous Wheatsheaf pub. From housing MP surgeries—as many pubs do—to being our community living rooms, pubs are absolutely vital. I have spoken to landlords, including those at the Black Bull and the fabulous Fleece Inn in Penwortham—

There is a pub crawl there for us all. They need our support, so may I invite the Minister to South Ribble—I will even offer to buy her a pint—to speak to Chris, the landlord at Longton’s fabulous Golden Ball, to hear about his business?

As you know, Mr Speaker, I regard Lancashire as my home, and it would be a delight to return to South Ribble. My hon. Friend has named just a few of the roughly 37,000 pubs in England and Wales—perhaps if we had given her longer she would have been able to name them all. All those pubs will benefit from the Brexit pubs guarantee, which means that the duty on a pint sold in a pub will always be lower than in a supermarket.

Following the question from my dad’s MP, I confess that I have been to all the pubs that the hon. Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) mentioned. The biggest burden on pubs in the lakes and the dales is the fact that they cannot find any staff or sufficient staff. It is a crisis that affects the entire hospitality sector, 86% of which say that the recruitment of staff is a major problem for them. The solution will include more affordable homes for workers, more intelligent visa rules and funding new training and skills initiatives. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the hospitality industry to look at a bespoke package to solve the workforce crisis in the lakes and the dales?

I would go further and give as an example the truly transformational programme that the Chancellor set out at the spring Budget to transform childcare policy in this country. We know that childcare responsibilities hold back many people from entering the workforce, and it is through policies such as this, as well as the work being led by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to help people back into the workforce, that will help pubs in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and across the country.

Topical Questions

On Friday, the Office for National Statistics published an update to the UK’s GDP growth figures, which shows that the UK economy was 0.6% larger than pre-pandemic levels by the fourth quarter of 2021. It means that our economy had the fastest recovery from the pandemic of any large European economy, thanks to decisions such as furlough that protected millions of jobs. For that growth to continue, we need to halve inflation, which I am pleased to report is now nearly 40% below its 11% peak. I can also tell the House that I will deliver the autumn statement on 22 November.

Staying on the subject of pubs, Carshalton and Wallington is also lucky to be home to some excellent pubs, including the Hope, which is this year’s Campaign for Real Ale Greater London pub of the year recipient. Will the Chancellor expand a bit more on the work that the Treasury is doing to support pubs not just in the tax system but further afield, and will he join me in wishing Carshalton and Wallington’s pubs good luck in the local pub of the year competition later on?

I very much wish my hon. Friend’s local pubs the best of luck in that competition, second only to my desire to encourage South West Surrey pubs to do well. I want to reassure him that we believe that pubs are central to our national life. That is why we have provided relief on business rates of up to 75% for pubs, and as we heard earlier, the Brexit pubs guarantee helps on their duty pricing.

Last week, thousands of parents were told that their children’s schools were unsafe and at risk of collapse. The defining image of 13 years of Conservative government: classrooms propped up to stop the ceilings from falling in. Capital budgets have halved in real terms since 2010, with warnings ignored and repair programmes slashed. Do this Conservative Government take any responsibility for any of this?

Let me start by reassuring the right hon. Lady that the vast majority of pupils in the 156 schools affected are at school normally, and we are acting fast to minimise the impact on the rest.

Let me answer the more general question that the right hon. Lady raised. Yes, we made cuts in spending in 2010 because, as she knows well, the last Labour Government left this country with an economic crisis. Despite that crisis, the Department for Education budget has gone up by 15% in real terms, and overall capital spend—

Order. This is topicals. All your colleagues on both sides of the House want to get in. Topicals are meant to be very short, not a full debate between both sides. I say to everybody: think about others. I think we can move on. I call Rachel Reeves.

I will repeat: capital budgets have halved in real terms since 2010. I understand—indeed, I know—that in the lead-up to the 2021 spending review, the Department for Education made a submission to the Treasury about the dangers of the deteriorating school estate, including from reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. Those warnings were ignored by the then Chancellor—the current Prime Minister—and we have seen the consequences, so will today’s Chancellor do the right thing and publish the Department for Education’s submission to the last spending review?

Capital spending at the Department for Education went up 16% in real terms in that review. Is the difference not that, with the fastest recovery in Europe, the Conservatives build an economy that can pay for our schools and hospitals, and Labour runs out of money?

T2. For months, we have had the Labour economics team running down British businesses, berating them for not growing fast enough and ignoring the fact that the OECD shows that the British economy has grown faster since 2010 than Germany, Italy, Spain or France. With the recently announced Office for National Statistics upgrade that the Chancellor just referred to, what is his more hopeful message to British businesses? (906219)

It is very simply this: since 2010, we have become the strongest economy in Europe in film and television, life sciences and technology, and the opportunities are great with a Conservative Government.

T3. This week, schools have failed to reopen due to the threat of collapse. Worryingly, the danger does not end there, because 95% of schools and public buildings are estimated to contain asbestos, which is described by Mesothelioma UK as a “silent killer”. Will the Chancellor stop ignoring his own Department and commit to providing the necessary funding so that our children can be prevented from being taught in crumbling, asbestos-ridden deathtraps? (906220)

I do not accept that characterisation at all. I do understand the impact of mesothelioma, as my father died of it, but this Government have invested £15 billion to keep schools safe since 2015, and the Chancellor has set out other figures as well.

T4.   Some 10 million calls went unanswered at His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs last year. Of those who did get through, two thirds had to wait more than 10 minutes; meanwhile, four out of five HMRC staff are working from home. What is being done to improve the appalling level of customer service at HMRC? (906221)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which I take very seriously. Just to put it in context, last year HMRC received 38 million telephone calls; around 3 million of those were to do the simplest of tasks, which can be done digitally if at all possible. If we are able to move people on to digital channels, that will free up at least 500 people to help with more complex tax affairs and help the most vulnerable. This is a period of transition for the organisation, and one that we take very seriously.

T5. I recently conducted an energy survey in Dalmarnock, which brought heartbreaking stories of pensioners going to bed early to save money on their energy and many households struggling to pay the bills, even in summer. Does the Minister not agree that Dalmarnock residents and people right across Scotland would benefit from a £400 energy rebate this winter, as the SNP proposes? (906223)

We stepped in during the energy crisis with £94 billion of support, including the energy price guarantee, which effectively paid for half of people’s energy bills. That was important while energy prices were high; wholesale gas prices have now come down.

T6. As the Minister knows, free access to cash is a vital lifeline for many people, including some of the most vulnerable in all our constituencies. Can he confirm what steps he is taking to ensure that free access is protected and continues to be available across the country, particularly in North Warwickshire and Bedworth? (906224)

During the summer, we announced that we have given directions to the Financial Conduct Authority in respect of access to cash: it should be no more than 1 mile in an urban area, and no more than 3 miles in my hon. Friend’s rural constituency of North Warwickshire. That is the first time that the statutory right of access to cash has existed in law.

T8.   Prison officers tell me that they are at breaking point. A key source of despair and anger is their pension age of 68, which we should all agree is far too late. As the Treasury leads on public sector pension scheme policy, will the Chancellor allow the Ministry of Justice to restart negotiations to resolve this grossly unfair and dangerous situation? (906227)

I have not heard that matter raised before, but I am very happy to take it back and correspond with the hon. Lady on it. Obviously, we have taken advice on the state pension age and have made clear our policies previously, but I am happy to look at any specific cases she raises.

T7. Can I ask my right hon. Friend when a fiscal review of all offshore energy activity will be carried out to ensure that we are maximising investment opportunities in critical energy infrastructure such as offshore wind, carbon capture and storage and hydrogen, as well as—while we still need it—domestic oil and gas? (906225)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. I actually had a breakfast with clean energy industry representatives this morning to discuss their concerns. There is a huge amount of potential investment, and he is right to say that maximising the use of our own oil and gas reserves during transition is a vital part of our energy security policy.

Will the Chancellor consider introducing a windfall tax on banks’ excess profits? The profits of the big four banks for the first half of this year were up 700% compared with 2020, yet the Bank of England is forecast to pay out as much as £42 billion in interest on reserves to banks in 2023, at the same time as the Government have cut the level of surcharge on banks’ profits by 60%.

With millions of British jobs dependent on financial services, including an estimated 20,000 jobs in Brighton and Hove, I hope the hon. Lady will join me in celebrating a sustainably profitable financial sector. It is only that that gives us the ability to invest in skills and technology.

Will the Economic Secretary update the House on the progress he is making to enable our constituents to access personalised financial guidance if they are among the 93% of our constituents who cannot afford regulated financial advice?

My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Treasury Committee, makes a really important point about what is called the advice gap. Treasury officials, the FCA and I are consulting on that, and I will publish an update this autumn.

It has been revealed that Integrated Debt Services, a company set up by the UK Government to recover personal debt, saw its profits increase by a staggering 132% last year. Do Ministers think it is right that this company should be able to profit to that extent out of the misery of the cost of living crisis?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to a company that works with the Government’s Crown Commercial Service and that works on debt across central Government. It has to operate within a very specific framework and, indeed, it is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. I very much understand the point he has raised, and I will be making inquiries on that point myself.

Research and development tax credits are vital to help businesses grow and invest, but I have received a large number of complaints from businesses across Essex saying that they are facing complexities and delays in processing claims with HMRC. May I please ask the Minister to meet me and some of these businesses to work through the delays and ensure that these businesses can continue to thrive and grow, because they are vital to our economic growth?

I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend and those businesses. In fact, the UK is leading world economies with our focus on life sciences and on tech. In that little golden triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London, we have more tech businesses than anywhere else on the planet other than New York and silicon valley. I hear the cheers opposite, so keen are Labour Members to support British business, but I would be delighted to meet her and to underline the support that this Government give to such important businesses.

I welcome the new focus on engaging pension funds with productive investment, after many years when regulation has pushed the funds into Government gilts instead, but does the Minister have proposals specifically to secure those investments for UK businesses rather than their going overseas?

The right hon. Member makes a significant contribution to the debate about the nation’s pension funds. Our objective to increase investment—to drive increased returns for pension savers, but also to benefit the wider economy—stops short of mandating. There is a philosophical difference between this side of the House and the Opposition. We do not believe it is right for the Chancellor to tell pension funds where to invest, but it is our job to knock down barriers, frictions and impedances to pension funds investing in brilliant British companies.

The Economic Secretary told my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) that he is going to underwrite the statutory right of access to cash, but 6,000 bank branches will have closed by the end of the year, leaving only 4,000 in place, and 15,000 ATMs have closed in the last five years. How is he going to make sure that this actually happens, rather than it just being an empty promise?

The FCA has significant sanctions in respect of the closure of ATMs that would leave communities without the right of free access to cash. On the closure of bank branches, we are seeing a significant change, and I hope my right hon. Friend would respect the fact that technology is changing and consumer patterns are changing. During the recess, I had the privilege of visiting the excellent community banking hub in Brixham, which I think is a brilliant opportunity. There should be more than 100 on their way, and that is my objective.

Does the Chancellor accept that many people see income tax rates at the moment as exceptionally punitive, and does he also accept that there is a need to move as quickly as possible into a growth-based economy and to supercharge our economy in the United Kingdom?

As a Conservative, I want to bring taxes down as soon as we can afford to do so, and I am very proud that for the first time ever people can earn £1,000 a month without paying a penny of tax or national insurance.

As we want to expand our financial services industry not only in this country but abroad, we need to build confidence among consumers that the right thing to do is invest. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is vital that regulators respond to and deal with complaints to them and actually impose sanctions against those who breach the regulations?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend on this matter. It is one reason why we have beefed up the role of the financial regulators review commissioner, and we will also be requiring the regulators to publish regular operating metrics on their performance, to give consumers the trust they need.

Back in 2017, both the Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority knew there were problems with the prepaid funeral plan market. Since then, my constituent Gary Godwin of Nantyglo lost over £6,000 to the collapse of a company called Safe Hands. Across the UK, thousands more have lost millions of pounds altogether. Will the Minister please meet me to discuss this scandal and Mr Godwin’s case?

Yes, I will be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. What happened with Safe Hands is a scandal, and that is why we have enlarged the regulatory perimeter to bring those who seek to sell funeral plans within the regulatory conduct.

Over the summer ports have been bidding to the Government’s infrastructure fund to help them get ready for the delivery of the new floating offshore wind industry. May I encourage Ministers to look favourably on the bids from the Celtic sea ports of Milford Haven and Port Talbot, because those two ports are key to unlocking the enormous economic benefits of this new clean energy industry?

I am absolutely happy to do that, and I agree with my right hon. Friend about the enormous potential of those areas.

Some GP practices are at risk of being priced out of city centres, including in places like St Albans, because of outdated Treasury rules that prevent integrated care boards from spending the money they want to on a GP practice location. Health Ministers have confirmed to me that their officials are happy to work with Treasury officials. May I ask for a personal assurance from Treasury Ministers that they will encourage their officials to look at this and resolve it by the end of this year at the absolute latest?

Dialogue is ongoing on this matter and I can confirm that we will continue to work on this in the coming weeks.

Andy Haldane, the former Bank of England chief economist, recently said in a Sky News interview that the Bank of England kept on printing money for longer than it needed to. It is clear that central banks across the world have been addicted to cheap money and that this has contributed to inflation across the world. Does the Chancellor agree that printing cheap and easy money has not been without consequence, and instead our monetary policy must focus on important growth factors such as productivity?

I agree with what my hon. Friend says. The Bank of England itself has said there were problems with its inflation forecasting. It is learning the lessons from that and we must support it every step of the way as it brings down inflation.

Sorry I was late today, Mr Speaker: British Airways cancelled my flight.

When the Chancellor’s predecessor, now the Prime Minister, was Chancellor there was huge fraud in the bounce back loans. Has he got any of that money back yet?

We are always ferociously determined to recover money obtained through fraud, but because of those bounce back loans we have the fastest recovery of any major European country.

I have recently been contacted by several self-employed constituents expressing concern about heavy fines being imposed for filing tax returns late even though no moneys are owed. Will the Treasury meet me with a view, perhaps, to reviewing this policy?

I will of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend. I hope he understands that I cannot intervene personally in any case, but I will of course look at the general principle he sets out and see whether there are systemic issues here.

Nutrient Neutrality: Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities if they will make a statement on the Government’s decision to use the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to scrap environmental protections on nutrient neutrality.

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up tabled a written ministerial statement yesterday on the Government’s plans, but I am happy to provide an update to the House. In proposing these amendments, we are responding to calls from local—

Order. May I just say that it is very good of you to offer to give that update? I decided that it was an urgent question—I expect Ministers to come to the House, as I did not think a written ministerial statement was the way to inform the House.

I am delighted to be here to answer this urgent question.

In proposing the amendments, we were responding to calls from local councils, which want the Government to take action to allow them to deliver the homes their communities need. At present, legacy EU laws on nutrient neutrality are blocking the delivery of new homes, including in cases where planning permission has already been granted. This has affected home building of all types, whether that is the redevelopment of empty spaces above high street shops, affordable housing schemes, new care homes or families building their own home. The block on building is hampering local economies and threatening to put small and medium-sized local builders out of business. Nutrients entering our rivers are a real problem, but the contribution made by new homes is very small compared with that of other sources such as agriculture, industry and our existing housing stock, and the judgment is that nutrient neutrality has so far done little to improve water quality.

We are already taking action across Government to mandate water companies to improve their waste water treatment works to the highest technically achievable limits. Those provisions alone will more than offset the nutrients expected from new housing developments, but we need to go further, faster. That is why, as well as proposing targeted amendments to the habitats regulations, the Government are committing to a package of environmental measures. Central to that is £280 million of funding to Natural England to deliver strategic mitigation sufficient to offset the very small amount of additional nutrient discharge attributable to up to 100,000 homes between now and 2030. We have also announced more than £200 million for slurry management and agricultural innovation in nutrient management and a commitment to accelerate protected site strategies in the most affected catchments.

In our overall approach, there will be no loss of environmental outcomes, and we are confident that our package of measures will improve the environment. Nutrient neutrality was only ever an interim solution. With funding in place, and by putting these sites on a trajectory to recovery, we feel confident in making this legislative intervention.

I find it extraordinary that the Minister can stand there and make that statement with a straight face. Over the past eight years, Ministers have stood at that Dispatch Box and promised time and again that leaving the European Union would not lead to a weakening of environmental standards. Those of us who raised our concerns have repeatedly been told that we were scaremongering. As recently as 12 June, the Solicitor General said in relation to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill that

“we will not lower environmental protections.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2023; Vol. 734, c. 828.]

Yet here we have it: proposals to unpick the habitats directive and to disapply the nutrient neutrality rules that protect our precious rivers and sensitive ecosystems.

The Office for Environmental Protection has itself made clear that the proposals

“would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law. They are a regression.”

I underline that point to the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), who is chuntering from his seat on the Front Bench. The proposals go directly against the “polluter pays” principle by forcing the taxpayer, rather than house builders, to foot the bill for mitigating increased water pollution from house building in environmentally sensitive areas. What is particularly infuriating is that, as the name suggests, the nutrient neutrality rules were not even about improving our environment, but simply about trying to prevent pollution from getting worse.

Let me ask the Minister some important questions. On transparency, will the Government follow the OEP’s call for them to make a statement, as required by section 20(4) of the Environment Act 2021, admitting that they can no longer say that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill would not reduce environmental protections in law? Will the Minister explain how the Government will meet their objectives for water quality and protected site condition when they are at the same time weakening environmental law? What advice did Ministers receive from Natural England before the amendments were tabled? Will she explain why there has there been a complete lack of consultation with environment groups? Will she also explain what consultation there was with house builders, whom Members will have noticed are cock-a-hoop about the announcement and the subsequent boost to their share prices?

Will the Minister admit that it is a false choice to pit house building against environmental protection when there are successful projects under way to address nutrient pollution? Will the Government provide evidence for their unsubstantiated claim that 100,000 homes are being delayed as a consequence of these rules? Will she recognise that money, which can easily be taken away at a later stage, is not the same as a legal requirement to stop pollution getting into our rivers?

I thank the hon. Lady for her long list of questions; I am happy to respond to all of them in detail. On our approach, I stand by what I and the Government have said: we stand by our pledges to the environment, and we do not accept that, as she stated, we will weaken our commitment to the environment at all. It is important to consider what we are talking about here, which is unblocking 100,000 homes that add very little in terms of pollution. To be clear, our approach means that there will be no overall loss in environmental outcomes. Not only do the measures that we are taking address the very small amount of nutrient run-off from new housing, but at the same time, we are investing in the improvement of environmental outcomes. We do not agree that this is regression on environmental standards. We are taking direct action to continue to protect the environment and ensure that housing can be brought forward in areas where people need it.

The hon. Lady asked about engagement. Ministers across Government, the Secretary of State and I have had numerous meetings with all parties involved, and we have had meetings with environment groups as part of Government business. It is worth the House noting the significant enforcement steps taken on the water companies by colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 59 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies, securing £150 million in fines. The regulators have recently launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage. We are taking action against water companies to protect our rivers, leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and build the affordable houses that the country so desperately needs, including in her constituency.

The Minister will recognise that I and many other colleagues on the Government side of the House share the admirable objectives of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) in ensuring that the water quality of our rivers improves year by year under the Government and their successors. The Minister’s proposals to amend the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill are not about damaging the status of our rivers; as I understand it, they are about dealing with a particular and specific interpretation of the EU habitats directive by the European Court of Justice in connection with a case in Holland prior to the time we left the EU. If that is the case—she has referred to the litigation and measures she has undertaken—does she agree that in special areas of conservation such as the River Clun catchment in my constituency, where no planning consent has been granted for nine years, these measures will help to unlock that while preserving the quality of the river in the catchment?

I thank my right hon. Friend very much. He is right in his observation that this has been a judgment imposed on the United Kingdom after we left the European Union. This is not a long-standing convention in any shape or form. He is also right to highlight the measures we are putting in place to protect our rivers and the environment more broadly. We are also putting in place a substantial package to help farmers to farm more sustainability, manage their slurry infrastructure more effectively and be able to drive the circular economy in farming that we all want. He mentioned specific catchments in his area. We have committed to bring forward a Wye catchment plan shortly, which I hope will address the issues he is referring to.

Oh, sorry. It has taken so long, I thought we must have moved on to Back Benchers. I call the shadow Minister.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As a result of the Government’s failure over many years to make decisive progress in tackling the main sources of problem nutrients, namely farming and waste water treatment works, the requirements for nutrient neutrality in sensitive river catchments present a challenge to securing planning permission for new housing development. It is therefore right in Labour’s view that the operation of the rules around nutrient neutrality is reviewed with a view to addressing problematic delays and increasing the pace at which homes can be delivered in these areas.

However, we have serious concerns about the approach that the Government have decided on. Not only does it involve disapplying the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, but it does not legally secure the additional funding pledges to deliver nutrient management programmes and does not provide for a legal mechanism to ensure that housing developers contribute towards mitigation.

I put the following questions to the Minister: what advice did the Government receive from Natural England about potential reform of the laws around nutrient neutrality? Did it offer a view on the Government’s proposed approach? Given the amount of mitigation currently available in the pipeline, which is estimated at allowing for approximately 72,000 homes, did the Government consider an approach based on the habitat regulations assessment derogation and a revised credit mitigation system to front-load permissions and provide for future compensatory schemes? If so, why did they dismiss that option? What assessment have the Government made of the impact of their proposed approach on the nascent market in mitigation credits, and investor confidence in nature markets more generally? Why on earth do Ministers believe developers will voluntarily contribute to mitigation under the proposed approach?

Finally, the Government claim their approach will see 100,000 planning permissions expedited between now and 2030. Given that house building activity is falling sharply and the pipeline for future development is being squeezed—not least as a result of housing and planning policy decisions made by this Conservative Government—what assessment has the Department made of the number of permissions that its disruptive approach will unlock within the first 12 months of its operation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions and remarks. I take them to mean that he will support the measures when they come before the House. I am delighted to hear his support for our sensible, practical and pragmatic approach to unblock much needed housing across the country. He asked about our engagement with Natural England; we have had detailed discussions. He asked about the current legal framework; we have looked at and discussed a number of options to make the changes, and we are taking what we believe is the right approach to unblock planning permissions more quickly than the current situation allows.

The hon. Gentleman referred to nature markets; he is right to highlight the groundbreaking work we are doing across that piece. We are continuing with our commitment to those nature markets, which are a very important part of the Government’s plan to keep our environment, protect it and leave it in a better state than we found it. That is what the Conservative Government have always been committed to and continue to be.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have spoken to developers, who, of course, support our objectives. We have very constructive dialogue with the developers, who are happy to contribute. We will have those discussions with industry, as I am sure he has heard from developers, because I know he has spoken to them all. We are on the side of those builders. It is important to say that the developers most affected by the disproportionate ruling from the European Court of Justice are not the big developers but the small and medium-sized enterprises—the small builders—some of which have gone bust. It is right that we stand behind them.

I warmly congratulate the Government on taking action on this very serious issue. I welcome sincerely the remarks from the Opposition spokesperson offering qualified support for what is being done. We have an issue whereby 100,000 homes, spanning 74 council areas, are being blocked. Those homes have planning permission already granted, but cannot be built because of the perverse legacy ruling. More to the point, could my hon. Friend confirm that there is no environmental impact, because we are doubling investment in the nutrient mitigation scheme? That is as well as developing protected site strategies for those catchment areas affected most severely by the nutrients issue, which overwhelmingly is not caused by new housing. Does she agree that the real challenge should be laid down to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on what she would say to all the hundreds of thousands of young families out there who cannot buy a home in the places they need and want, at a price they can afford?

My right hon. Friend has considerable expertise in this matter. He is right to focus on the mechanisms we need to bring forward to enable the much needed planning permission to take effect. His region in particular is affected by this issue, and I know his constituents and people across the region will be desperate to see those homes built, to allow people a step on the property ladder. We are about building a property-owning democracy.

My right hon. Friend is also right to say that we can do that at the same time as protecting the environment, which is why we have doubled the funding for Natural England’s nutrient mitigation scheme. We are investing £200 million in slurry management infrastructure and we are helping farmers with a £25 million sustainable package to help them invest in innovative farming techniques to manage their nutrients more sustainably, which can be of benefit to their farms and agricultural processes. We are going much further on those protected sites, so that we deal with the problem at source. That is what we need to focus on.

This is hardly a new problem, is it? The Court decision was in 2018, yet last year we had the levelling-up Bill, which was really a planning Bill with a bit of levelling up added on—no mention of the issue there. In December we had major consultations on changes to the national planning policy framework—no mention of the issue there. The Committee wrote to the Minister and asked how many more consultations on planning issues there would be this year. We were given nine of them—no mention of the issue there. If it is such a serious issue, why has it taken the Government so long to act? It looks like the Government are making it up as they go along. This is a panicked response from the Government to the collapsing numbers of housing starts which the Minister simply wants to do something—anything—about.

I very much value the hon. Gentleman’s scrutiny of the Government’s record and I very much enjoy coming before his Committee. We have discussed this issue, and many others, with his Committee in the past. It is right that we are taking this action. It is a serious and complex issue, and we needed time to consider all the legal aspects of it. However, what I come back to time and time again is that we need to unblock planning permissions. We need housing all over the country. We are doing that at the same time as protecting the environment and I very much hope to have further dialogue with him about this in the future.

It is always baffling to hear those who believe in environmental improvement saying that only the EU way works. Does the Minister agree with me that outside the EU we have been able to adapt our laws to what works for this country, and also make improvements such as marine protected areas and provide support to agriculture outside the common agricultural policy? To say that leaving the EU has meant a degradation in our approach to the environment is simply nonsense.

My right hon. Friend speaks from vast experience on this issue. I can do no more than agree strongly with every word. Leaving the EU allows us to make the laws that are right for our country, most specifically in the area of building the homes we need across his area and across the whole country. The point here is also that the EU legacy judgment has not improved the quality of the water. That is why we are taking further steps to mitigate the problem at source. Everybody who cares about the quality of water should welcome that.

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The Government have just set up the Office for Environmental Protection—I was on the Environment Bill Committee when we did that—which says that this planning change is a regression in environmental protections. We should not just throw out the rules when they are a bit difficult. What advice did the Government receive from Natural England—the Minister said she spoke with it—on its approach to problem nutrients? Did Natural England green-light the proposals or is it being ignored, along with the Office for Environmental Protection?

Natural England is a Government partner. We work very closely with it, as well as with local planning authorities. We rely on Natural England to carry out some of the mitigation schemes, the nutrient credit schemes, and many others. In response to the Office for Environmental Protection, we have a different view. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) set out very clearly her response to the Office for Environmental Protection. We do not agree with it. Fundamentally, we do not agree that this is a regression in environmental outcomes overall.

It is perfectly possible to make housing development nitrate neutral in the first place. Bearwood development in my constituency contains over 2,000 new houses and is nitrate neutral through sustainable drainage and building techniques, so we can have new homes without compromising our environment and without taking good-quality farm land out for mitigation. Will my hon. Friend ensure that planning law matches that ambition?

I thank my hon. Friend very much. She is right to focus on some of the very good work that is already taking place through some individual projects I am aware are being brought forward. She is also right to highlight the role that sustainable drainage can take and we have committed to looking at that more broadly to see what more can be done with that particular policy. Planning law is very clear. It has to leave the environment in a better state than it finds it, not only in her area but across the country.

Of course we need more housing, but in my constituency the sewers are over capacity, Victorian and clapped out. I invite the Minister to meet some of the households where in times of heavy rain raw sewage not only pollutes the environment but floats around the streets, the gardens and even the kitchens. It is simply not acceptable to imagine we can somehow wave a wand to solve the housing problem. Finally, may I draw the attention of the House to an excellent website called “Top of the Poops”, which states that in my constituency there were 4,468 hours of sewage last year alone? That is completely unacceptable.

DEFRA Ministers have been at this Dispatch Box multiple times to update colleagues on the work that the Government are proud to do as part of the plan for water. This is the most ambitious and stringent package that has been brought forward to tackle this abhorrent issue. We agree with the hon. Gentleman that storm overflows and sewage overflows are wrong. That is why the £2.2 billion of new accelerated investment will be directed into vital infrastructure. We are clear that the volume of sewage discharge into our waters is unacceptable and that is why we have taken action in terms of stronger regulation, more fines and tougher enforcement across the board to tackle every source of river and sea pollution.

As the Minister knows, the levels of Somerset are some of the most environmentally enhanced areas in the UK. Natural England has destroyed chances for development. We are about to start building the Tata factory, the largest factory that this country has seen for a long time. That needs to be sorted and I would like the Minister’s thoughts. Conversely, the reality also slips. South West Water, which is an abomination, has just announced it will stop pollutants from 120,000 hectares by 2025. Can we please have a grip on the reality of both sides of this issue? If we do not, nothing will be developed in parts that are environmentally sensitive.

I am aware that my hon. Friend represents an area with acute environmental sensitivities and he is right to raise those concerns on the Floor of the House. We work across Government not only to tackle the storm overflow issue to which he refers, but to find a way to allow house building and other types of building that is much needed to drive jobs and investment, and to support businesses in his constituency, without that having a weakening effect on our environment.

I wonder if I could pick up on something the Minister said a moment ago. Natural England is not a Government partner; it is a Government agency. So far as this issue is concerned, it is literally the Government. This rule has existed since 2019 and the Government’s guidance on it has indeed got in the way of genuinely affordable, environmentally sustainable housing schemes in the Lake District and, I am sure, elsewhere. The answer was not to scrap it but to change the guidance to make it more intelligent, so that we protect our waterways and our landscapes from pollution without preventing vital development. Why did the Government spend four years dithering before panicking, overreacting and then acting in line with their own nature by damaging British nature?

The hon. Gentleman makes his points in his usual way, but without confronting the reality of the situation that affects his constituents. Of course Natural England is a Government partner and a Government body. We work in partnership with Natural England. We work constructively with it to tackle these complex legal issues. I am sure he would be the first to jump up and complain if we took action too quickly without considering the consequences. As it is, what we are doing is a sensible, proportionate measure to allow much needed development in the Lake District: homes for his constituents that have the planning permission to be built—finally.

Labour-run Kirklees Council is sitting on millions of pounds of unspent section 106 developer contributions for local infrastructure. Much of that unspent cash is for environmental projects. What confidence should we in my area have that our shambolic Labour-run Kirklees Council will be able to deliver these mitigation environmental projects when it is actually not delivering for our local environment as it is?

My hon. Friend is completely right to raise the record—in his words, the shambolic record—of his local Labour-run council. What I can say to reassure him and other colleagues is that I have engaged with local authority leaders to explain to them exactly what this change means for them, what we expect them to do, and what they should be doing on behalf of their residents to make sure the money is spent properly to protect the rivers, seas and lakes, and get houses built.

Is it not the case that the only ones blocking the development of the houses that we need, including genuinely affordable social housing—a pitiful number were built last year; I think it was just over 7,000—are those on the Government Benches? It is the Tory Government who are the blockers of housing development to meet housing need. That is the case, is it not, Minister?

It might sound very nice on the hon. Gentleman’s Facebook clip, but if he actually looks at the facts he will find it is Conservative-run councils that have, on the whole, delivered more houses over the last few years in responding to the needs of their constituents, and Labour-run councils that are experiencing significant failures in delivering the houses that their residents need.

The Minister has lifted a blight from my constituency, but as a result of these measures we are all going to be swimming in cleaner water as well, aren’t we?

We are, and I look forward to joining my right hon. Friend in swimming in some cleaner water very soon.

The Minister rightly said that too many house building companies were going bust, but may I gently suggest that that is a consequence of the Government’s crashing the economy last year, inflation pushing up the cost of materials, and a skills shortage? The Government claim that their approach will see 100,000 permissions expedited between now and 2030, but given this context, what is that assessment actually based on, and has the Minister consulted local authorities?

Yes, we have consulted local authorities, and I make no apologies for standing up and taking action when it is needed to help small builders in particular. The diversity of the sector in this country, unlike that in other countries, is disproportionately skewed towards larger developers, and it is therefore right for us, as a Conservative Government, to back small businesses. We understand what people go through to start a business, which is why we are taking action to help them.

I welcome the Government’s balanced approach, which will improve the long-term quality of the River Stour in my constituency while allowing much-needed planning permissions for new homes to start again. Thousands of people, very sensibly, want to live in Ashford, and they want to see new homes built, not least in accordance with the local plan rather than being built opportunistically around the place, which is what the delays in permissions have led to. Can the Minister give us some indication of a timescale and when councils such as Ashford can start granting planning permissions again?

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct and I thank him for his support. We need to wait for the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to achieve Royal Assent—it must, of course, undergo parliamentary scrutiny in both Houses—but we are working apace. We have already started that engagement with local authorities and partners, Natural England and others, to ensure that they have all the operational detail that they need. What we need to see are spades in the ground as soon as possible.

It is clear from the Minister’s replies that her statutory adviser, Natural England, opposed this move, so will she please publish its advice? Instead of letting developers and water companies off the hook and pouring even more sewage into our waterways, why does she not take the advice of her right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) and reverse the Prime Minister’s disastrous decision to scrap local housing targets, which has given nimby councils carte blanche to do nothing?

What I take issue with in the right hon. Gentleman’s questions—plural—is his comment that we scrapped housing targets. We have done no such thing. We are committed to building 1 million homes during this Parliament, and we have the target of building 300,000 homes every year. That is a very important target that we stand by. What we are doing, unlike the Labour party, is taking account of local communities. What Labour would do is build all over the green belt, and I can tell the House that its own MPs are not in favour of that: they are blocking developments in their constituencies. What we have is a sensible, proportionate approach—to build the right houses in the right places.

What the negative social media debate about all this has masked is the fact that a significant amount of work is being done to create, conserve and improve wetlands around the country. The all-party parliamentary group for wetlands, which I chair, is supporting the drive by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust to create 100,000 additional hectares of wetlands in this country, and we would also like to see a dedicated domestic wetlands team in DEFRA to repeat its successes in peat productivity. Will my hon. Friend give us more information about how expert organisations such as the WWT in Slimbridge, in my patch, can apply for the £280 million to continue positive progress on environmental matters, and will she assist my efforts to get the wetlands team up and running?

I know that my hon. Friend does extremely good work on behalf of Slimbridge and other wetlands in her area. I should be delighted to meet her, and to read any of the reports produced by her APPG. I think it important to stress again that the packages to be delivered through the work of Natural England and the credit scheme must continue, and we will be boosting them because we know of the benefit that they have for my hon. Friend’s area and many others.

Does the Minister accept that the proposed investment in the Natural England nutrient mitigation scheme covers only 15% of the total mitigation requirement to 2030? Where will the additional funds required to address the shortfall come from?

I do not accept that figure, and I do not know where the hon. Lady got it. Those schemes are very much in progress at the moment, on an ongoing basis. We are working through some of the details. I should also mention that as well as the Natural England scheme we have the Government’s own scheme, administered by my Department, which we will be able to deliver throughout the country.

Does the Minister agree that there is a flaw in the way in which the Office for Environmental Protection has reached its determination in this matter? It can take into account only what is in the Bill. It cannot take into account the other measures that the Minister has mentioned, the Natural England nutrient neutrality programme and the investment in slurry management. Surely, to form a more coherent view of the environmental impact of these measures, it is necessary to look at all measures in the round, not just legislative measures.

My hon. Friend is of course extremely perceptive and he is absolutely correct. We presented an ambitious package overall, and that means we can meet head-on the challenge of delivering the much-needed planning permissions that my hon. Friend will no doubt welcome in his area—which I know needs more housing—and also protect and enhance our environment. In its recent comments, the Office for Environmental Protection has interpreted this in a very narrow fashion, and we do not necessarily agree with its assessments.

I know that the Minister has struggled previously with what constitutes retained EU legislation, but what we are talking about today is an amendment to the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. The challenge before the Minister is that this Government pledged, on the record, not once but seven times during the debate on the Bill that became the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act 2023, that they would not reduce those explicit environmental protections. Will she say now whether that pledge to match those environmental protections directly remains, or does she want to take this opportunity to correct the record and admit that the Government’s word on the environment is not worth the paper it is written on?

I think that what I am struggling with is the fact that the hon. Lady clearly did not listen to my previous comments on this matter. I have said a great many times that we do not agree that this is a regression in environmental outcomes, and we stand by that. We are the Conservative Government, and we are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than the one in which we found it. That is backed up by a strong package of action across numerous areas.

My constituency was one of the worst-affected places in the entire country, with 2,000 planning applications held up and thousands of people at risk of losing their jobs. We are talking not about large construction companies, but about everyday jobbing builders—people with families to feed. This is a great step towards getting the country moving again and solving an intractable problem.

May I ask the Minister a very simple question? If I build a small house, or put a little extension on the side of my current house, am I really damaging the watercourses to the same degree as pig farming and chicken farming? Are these well-intended laws completely missing the mark of what they were intended to do in the first place?

The simple answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that he is right. The existing legal framework that has been hindering us has had a disproportionate effect on planning permissions and house building when the main source of the pollution lies elsewhere. Overall, this package will be able to deliver house building and extensions in my hon. Friend’s constituency, help the smaller builders and, of course, protect our rivers.