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Commons Chamber

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 8 February 2024

House of Commons

Thursday 8 February 2024

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Seafaring Support: Red Sea

1. What steps his Department is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support seafarers working in the Red sea. (901406)

Let me first take this opportunity to offer my support and best wishes to His Majesty the King for a swift and full recovery. I look forward to seeing him out and about again on his public-facing duties.

This is a challenging time for seafarers. Their welfare is central to our concerns during the Red sea crisis. Their bravery has ensured the continued supply of vital goods to the UK. We have engaged with organisations that represent seafarers, working closely with the International Maritime Organisation—I have met its new secretary-general twice this year. We will not hesitate to take action to protect innocent lives and preserve freedom of navigation. In response to the Red sea crisis, the RAF has engaged in three waves of proportionate and targeted strikes against Houthi military targets with the United States and other allies. My Department continues to work closely with industry to provide the best possible advice and support.

I associate myself, and the people of Banff and Buchan, with my right hon. Friend’s remarks wishing His Majesty the fullest of recoveries. Could he set out in more detail precisely what engagement the Government have had with British companies across the UK on not just the attacks but the threats of attacks in the Red sea?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have been engaging regularly with shipping companies to ensure that they have as much advice and support as possible, so that they can take informed commercial decisions about vessel movements based on a full consideration of recent events. We provide security advisory notices and convene meetings with the sector at both official and ministerial level. I have met sector leaders to discuss these critical developments.

I thank the Minister for that positive response. It is clear that the Government are taking the right steps to broadly address the issue, but what is being done to ensure that individual seafaring companies with responsibility for crews have access to up-to-date advice? I would go so far as to suggest protective measures to enable them to keep their routes open—perhaps protective staff on boats, or helicopters or planes overhead.

The hon. Gentleman is right to put the safety of ships and seafarers at the centre of the issue, as we and the IMO do. We work very closely with the sector to ensure that it has the best possible information, both at policy level and in the region. We are taking further steps to ensure that the best advice is available on the ground, so that individual captains as well as their companies can make the best decisions commercially and, importantly, for the safety of their crews.

Transport Connectivity: North-west England

2. What steps he is taking to increase transport connectivity between towns and cities in the north-west. (901407)

Network North will see a further £19.8 billion- worth of investment in the north of England following the redirection of funding from High Speed 2. That is in addition to what has already been committed through the £3.5 billion to northern city regions from the first round of the city region sustainable transport settlements; the development of Northern Powerhouse Rail, which will transform rail connectivity between the north of England’s key economic centres; and £11 billion for the trans-Pennine route upgrade.

In the light of the Government’s commitment to level up through Network North, will my hon. Friend commit to a meeting with me and other key stakeholders to discuss reinstating the Burscough curves rail link, which would connect Southport to Preston and the wider north of England, fulfilling our economic potential and helping us welcome another million visitors a year to Southport?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to his doughty campaigning on the reopening of the Burscough curves. It is for local transport authorities to consider whether such projects are the best way to meet local transport needs and, if so, whether they wish to develop the schemes from the significant new transport budgets that the Government will shortly be allocating from HS2 savings.

When the Prime Minister made the decision to scrap HS2, the Department for Transport said that the plan would “lead to increased capacity on the west coast mainline.” That is not correct, is it? I have a leaked document from the Minister’s own officials that proves it. In it, they admit that the decision will mean fewer seats than today, with Glasgow and Manchester badly hit, and because HS2 trains cannot tilt, they will be even slower than current trains. Does he not owe it to the north finally to admit that? Does he accept that he will be the high-speed rail Minister who left behind slower trains and fewer seats?

Obviously, we do not comment on documents that may or may not have been leaked. What I can say is that the HS2 train design has always had capacity for 500 seats; if the trains had doubled up to 400 metres in length, the capacity would, of course, be 1,000 seats. The Network North document committed half a billion pounds to look at unlocking further capacity. Let us be quite clear that the 140 miles of HS2 being built to Birmingham will reduce the journey times not only to Birmingham, but to Manchester by another 27 minutes, and to Liverpool by 26 minutes. As far as the tilting is concerned, as the Department made clear to the Public Accounts Committee, we are looking at where those speeds can still be achieved on the west coast main line without the need to tilt.

Taxi Licensing

16. What steps he is taking to ensure consistent standards of taxi licensing across local authorities. (901427)

The Department for Transport issues guidance to licensing authorities in England to help them regulate the sector, including the statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards and the best practice guidance, updated in November 2023. Last year the Government enacted legislation requiring licensing authorities in England to use a national database to share information, in order to prevent drivers who have lost their licence from applying to other authorities that would not know about their previous wrongdoing.

Local taxi drivers in Barnsley are having their prices undermined by cross-border taxi drivers who do not have to abide by the same regulatory measures. Local councils have no jurisdiction over out-of-borough hires, and concerns have been raised about differences in the training and safety precautions required. The Labour party has committed to action. When will the Government do the same?

There is already a database and already a duty on local authorities to share information. Licences can be taken away in the particular circumstances the hon. Lady identifies.

Taxis and private hire vehicles are a very personal service, and it is important for customers that both the vehicles and the drivers have proper safety checks, so that if things go wrong they can take a complaint to the licensing authority. The problem is that when that authority is 100 miles away in Wolverhampton, the system simply does not work. When will the Minister legislate to ensure that journeys can be made in a licensed vehicle only when they either take place or finish in the licensing authority area?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have already brought in changes to the rules that mean that individual authorities can take action against an individual operating in another authority, which is something I think he should welcome.

As we have heard from colleagues, the cross-border issue remains a real problem right across the country. We have the additional problem of the potentially changed relationship between operators and drivers, which is highlighted by the press campaigns about the possible imposition of VAT on private hire journeys. Does all this not show that the Department should have modernised taxi and private hire legislation ages ago, rather than waiting for companies such as Uber to drive a coach and horses through regulations that were, frankly, written in the time of coaches and horses?

I would not refer to regulations written in 2020 and updated in 2023 as written in the time of coaches and horses—perhaps the hon. Gentleman should check his history. On the Uber case that he rightly identifies, that is clearly a court case that the Government have to address and will therefore consult on thereafter.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s best wishes to His Majesty the King.

During my time in this House, I have worked alongside victims and survivors of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. Following the scandal, Rotherham council set very high standards for its taxi drivers, including installing CCTV in cabs and requiring national vocational qualification level 3 on child safeguarding. Those standards are being undercut by the Government’s deregulation of taxi standards, and nothing the Minister has set out this morning will stop that. Does he not agree that the Government’s position is putting the safety of women and girls at risk? Is it not time for robust legislation and national minimum standards to protect them?

With respect, on 27 April 2023 a new law came into force that requires licensing authorities in England to use a database to record refusals, suspensions and revocations made on safeguarding or road safety grounds. The new requirements mean that individuals who are not fit and proper to hold a taxi or private hire vehicle licence will be unable to apply for a licence with other authorities without that authority being made aware of past safety concerns. That change will help to protect passengers, including women and girls, as well as the reputation of the majority of drivers, from those who are unfit to hold that office.

Bus Services

The Government are providing the largest public investment in buses for a generation, providing more than £4.5 billion-worth of services in England outside London since 2020, as we rebuilt post covid.

My constituents are deeply concerned about the proposed cuts to the 78, 79 and 200 bus routes linking villages and towns in Bedfordshire. That is in the context of the Government’s own latest bus statistics, which show that in the last decade the bus sector in England outside London lost 15,000 workers and had around 600 million fewer annual bus passenger journeys. The Government’s bus strategy, published in 2020, is not reversing that decline. Will they commit to reversing the ideological ban on municipal bus companies and ensure that all local authorities get sufficient funding to deliver the bus services our communities need?

The hon. Lady seems to have forgotten the covid pandemic. The number of local bus passenger journeys in England increased by half a billion—that is 19%—in the financial year ending March 2023. Her local authority received extra BSIP-plus—bus service improvement plans—funding of £19 million. I urge her bus operators to sign up to the £2 bus fare, which has been transformational across the country in raising bus numbers.

Would the Minister be as surprised as I was to learn that, of the £3.722 million long-term BSIP Government cash given to Blackburn with Darwen Council, only £180,000—less than 5% of the entire budget—is being spent in the town of Darwen? It is all very well for the Minister to give money to councils such as Blackburn with Darwen, but will he ensure that it is spent fairly among the populations they represent?

My right hon. Fried makes a very good point. This is money that the Government give to ensure that communities across a particular constituency receive support. It should not be solely focused on one area. I will take up that point and write to the local authority myself.

Bus mileage has dropped by just 5% in London since 2010, yet astonishingly it has fallen by more than 30% in the north-east, as the Minister will know. Kim McGuinness, Labour’s candidate for North East Mayor, is keen to fix that as a priority, if elected in May. Is it not beyond time to let local communities have power and control of their own local bus services?

Clearly, that we are to have a regional Mayor for the North East is good news, but I did not think the hon. Lady would be celebrating the fact that she has a disastrous police and crime commissioner as her candidate and that the previously Labour Metro Mayor of North of Tyne is now running as an independent against the Labour party. However, it is without a shadow of a doubt the

“best-funded devolution deal in the country.”

Those are not my words, but those of the previously Labour Mayor. I genuinely believe we are building back better post covid, with enhanced bus company usage in circumstances where the £2 bus fare is making a huge difference.

Recent statistics show that the Bee Network is already making a daily difference for bus passengers across Greater Manchester, with an 8% rise in patronage in the first month of franchising alone and more bus services running on time than before. Liverpool and West Yorkshire are now following in Greater Manchester’s footsteps and exploring their own franchising plans to revolutionise local transport for thousands of residents. Does the Minister agree with Labour’s plan to give every local authority, not just Metro Mayors, the same freedom to take back control of their own bus services? If not, what does he say to the millions of people whose bus routes are being so badly cut back under this tired Tory Government? Does it not prove that while the Conservatives dither, Labour delivers?

With respect, the number of bus journeys in England increased by half a billion to 3.4 billion in the financial year ending March 2023, and that happened because of massive Government funding, which has effectively doubled since 2009. The hon. Gentleman is actually lauding something that is funded by this Government. It is unquestionably the case that we have allowed certain local authorities and Mayors to engage in franchising—something we introduced—but there has to be a way of paying for it, and it has been demonstrated repeatedly that when Labour organisations are challenged on this, they struggle to find out how they are going to deal with the funding, because, quite simply, they do not have a plan.

Speed Limits

In England, this is primarily a matter for local authorities. The 20 mph limits work in the right places, such as outside schools, and following the right consultation with the public. They do not work as blanket measures. We do not want them to be set indiscriminately on all roads, without due regard for the safety case and without local support.

The 20 mph limits can work in quiet, narrow residential side streets where there is local consent, but London’s Labour Mayor and boroughs are increasingly inflicting them on wide roads and main roads where they are not justified. Now Barnet Council wants to introduce a big 20 mph zone in Whetstone without adequate consultation. Will the Secretary of State intervene to ensure that these speed limits are introduced only in appropriate circumstances, and only when they have strong local support?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Imposing blanket 20 mph zones without local support—which is what Labour has done across Wales and in London—is bad for drivers, but it also risks reducing the specific protection for vulnerable road users which operates, for example, near schools. As our policy paper “Plan for drivers” explains, we will be providing stronger guidance to ensure that blanket 20 mph zones are restricted, and we will consider further action against councils that do not comply with it.

On one hand the Secretary of State acknowledges the ability of local authorities to deliver their own local transport strategies such as low-traffic neighbourhoods and 20 mph zones where they fit, but on the other hand this “Plan for drivers” weaponises such policies. Will he stop weaponising them, and consider those who are not in vehicles but are using our roads and the safety measures from their local authorities? Will he recognise that we are all road users, whether or not we are in a vehicle?

I think that question had the disadvantage of being written before the hon. Lady had listened to my answer. I said very clearly that I supported 20 mph zones in areas where they make sense. Outside a school, for instance, they make perfect sense. What does not make sense is imposing blanket policies that bear no relation to the circumstances, which, as I have said, is what Labour has done in Wales. It has implemented blanket policies that are very unpopular, do not carry public support, and damage the acceptance of 20 mph zones in places where they do make sense—

The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, refers to conspiracies. My constituency is next door to Wales, and I can tell the House that that is not a conspiracy; the 20 mph zones are incredibly unpopular in Wales. This is a blanket policy that makes no sense and is not supported by the public.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

6. What steps he is taking with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to improve the allocation of resources between the production of sustainable aviation fuel and other uses of biomass. (901415)

In developing the biomass strategy and our forthcoming low-carbon fuel strategy, my Department has worked closely with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, whose policy paper on the biomass strategy was published last year. Sectors that are harder to decarbonise, including aviation, should be priority uses for biomass. We are continuing to work across Government, and with industry experts, to ensure that policies that increase the supply of sustainable aviation fuels deliver on our climate change commitments.

As the Minister will know, the sustainable aviation fuel mandate will come into force in 2025, but meanwhile the Government have not yet responded to consultations on how it will work, and there is no real-world fuel sourcing analysis or plan that would take account of the changing nature of municipal waste arising from the already allocated uses of municipal and agricultural feedstock for purposes other than the production of SAF. What steps is the Minister taking to develop a realistic plan for feedstock availability and use?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question. As I have just said, we will shortly publish the low-carbon fuel strategy, which will set out the different sources of low-carbon fuels. We will publish our response to the SAF mandate by the spring. A great deal of detailed analysis and work is being done in relation to different fuel sources. We will also publish a revenue certainty mechanism to ensure that we have a UK SAF industry. We engage regularly with the industry on this, and it is very confident about and supportive of the Government’s policies. We do have a detailed plan, and I want to commiserate with the hon. Gentleman, because I am sure that as Energy Minister he too had a plan, but the Opposition’s plans seem to have been U-turned today.

Rail Fares

Since 2010, regulated fares across Great Britain have decreased by around 7% compared with the retail prices index. The Government continue to intervene to keep fares affordable, and to encourage travel, by capping increases below inflation and delivering initiatives such as the second great British rail sale. We have to strike a balance between encouraging passengers to use our rail network and supporting the rail industry to get back on a good financial footing as it continues to deal with a revenue shortfall following the pandemic.

For a period last year, Urmston train station in my constituency was one of the country’s 10 worst performing train stations for service reliability. Given the level of service experienced by my constituents who use Urmston and other stations on the line, why are they set to face an inflation-busting fare increase in March?

If we take the current year’s fares as an example, we delivered the biggest Government intervention on rail fares since privatisation by capping fare increases at 5.9%, which was 6.4 percentage points below the July RPI. It is all about striking a balance, and I believe that balance is a fair one.

In the last three years, the UK taxpayer has contributed £45.9 billion to keep the railways going. This year’s figure of 4.9% is, again, below inflation. It cannot be that bad, because Labour-run Wales has done exactly the same. It is better than Scotland, where the SNP has put up fares by 8.7%.

If a person were to get a train from Market Rasen to London later this morning, not only would they be hit by a hefty rail fare, as we all know, but, worse, it would take them over three hours and two changes. My hon. Friend has repeatedly promised me and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) that he will give us a through train to London. I understand that he has now approved that—he can confirm it today—but it is held up on the desk of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We do not want some bean counter in the Treasury stopping our train.

I fear a career-limiting response. My right hon. Friend’s campaign is strong, and he is absolutely right that it has this team’s support; I am sure that it will have support across Government. It is currently being looked at, and I hope to be able to give him and his colleagues good news.

I apologise for the disruption to normal service: my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) is on Committee business, so the House will have to put up with a spokesperson replacement service this morning.

Last October, peak fares were scrapped across Scotland’s railways for six months. That has been extended to nine months, until the end of June. As a result, ScotRail services are 4% busier and demand has shifted across the service day. Meanwhile, Department for Transport-owned London North Eastern Railway has pushed up prices for thousands of tickets in the name of simplification, in some cases costing passengers going to and from Scotland hundreds of pounds extra. Will the Minister look to the lessons that Scotland has learned from scrapping peak fares, and apply that policy across Anglo-Scottish services?

I am delighted to talk about things that are being scrapped, because perhaps we can shift towards rail freight. The SNP budget has just been set. Mode shift revenue support has always been given to rail freight, to move freight from road to rail, but the SNP Scottish Government have just announced that they are axing that subsidy. Not only that, but for the year to come, the cross-border subsidy between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain is being scrapped, too. We stand by the rail freight subsidy, so we will fund the Scottish element.

What are the Scottish Government doing? They talk about decarbonisation while shifting more freight on to the roads, because they refuse to support rail freight. That is an absolute shocker. That, along with the 8.7% increase in fares and the £80 million cut to ScotRail, means that the hon. Gentleman is in no place to lecture anyone when it comes to rail.

Road Resurfacing

As part of the Network North plan, the Government are providing a record funding increase of £8.3 billion for local highway maintenance in England over the next decade to enable local highways authorities to resurface roads up and down the country. Over that period, Nottinghamshire will get £138.44 million of additional funding over and above what it would have received. In the current financial year, most highways authorities in England will get 30% more funding than they did in the previous year.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, and for the billions that have been redirected to the midlands for road repairs from HS2. Conservative-controlled Nottinghamshire County Council, in difficult financial circumstances, is endeavouring to spend millions, beyond its regular highways budget, on road repairs. May I impress on him that this remains perhaps the top issue raised with me in my inbox? Will he bear that in mind, particularly when he has his conversations with the Treasury? Will he join me in my campaign to carry on fixing Gedling’s roads?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue, and for pointing out how effective Nottinghamshire County Council is in spending the £2.3 million that it is getting this year and will get next year; this is revolutionary long-term funding. Interestingly, this is happening because we have a plan, not just for delivering better roads, but for paying for that. Having a plan for delivering and paying for things is important, as the Labour party is finding out today; it has no plan and no way to pay.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks wishing His Majesty the King a speedy recovery?

Potholes in Broxtowe are incredibly bad; my constituents raise this issue all the time. The ongoing situation has been compounded by multiple recent flooding events in Nottinghamshire, which have resulted in five times more damage to our roads than has occurred in other years. My office gets calls and emails constantly about this plight, from constituents in Beeston, Stapleford, Strelley, Nuthall and Kimberley, to name a few of the areas I am contacted about. This week, I met my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, to raise this issue. What more are the Government doing to work with local councils to tackle potholes in Broxtowe?

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) raised the issue of flood damage with me as well, and we are looking at what we can do. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) raised the issue of the importance of funding for improving local roads. We made a big decision on that, and improving the road network over time and allowing local authorities to spend that money shows an important sense of priorities. We are also making sure that reporting requirements are in place, so that highways authorities have to set out to the people to whom they are accountable what they are spending the money on.

The pothole situation is a metaphor for what the Government have been doing with public investment in the past 14 years. The roads have got worse and worse, with the Automobile Association describing October as the worst month for pothole breakdowns on our roads. If the Government were really concerned about this issue, they would not have starved local authorities of the resources to deal with the problem. Is that not correct?

No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on that at all. We have given local authorities more than £5 billion of funding for local road maintenance. The £8.3 billion in the Network North plan is over and above that. I would have thought he would welcome the fact that when we announced the money for local road maintenance, I decided that in London, 95% of that extra funding would go to London councils, rather than Transport for London, so that it gets spent on fixing the roads, rather than being wasted by the Mayor of London.

The Secretary of State seems to have forgotten the extensive cuts to the road repair budget that his Government have presided over. Let us consider the example of Northamptonshire, where the Government have cut £16 million from highways maintenance since 2020 alone. That is leaving 330,000 potholes unfilled. He knows that the Network North announcement will give Northamptonshire back only £2.5 million of that £16 million over the next two years. As for Wellingborough, the last time Peter Bone mentioned road repairs was in 2015. After 14 years of neglect by the Conservative Government and their former Conservative MP, is not the best advice for people in Wellingborough who want action on potholes to vote for Labour’s Gen Kitchen next Thursday?

It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that I do not agree with him at all. Before the Network North announcement, the Government were already investing over £5.5 billion of capital funding in highways maintenance between 2021 and 2024-25, and in the Budget last year, the Chancellor found an extra £200 million for eligible highways authorities. The £8.3 billion is on top of that, so I would urge voters in Wellingborough to vote for our fantastic candidate, Helen Harrison, who will make a fantastic Member of Parliament to serve on the Government side of the House.

Road Safety

In January 2022, the Government updated the highway code to improve road safety for people walking, cycling and riding. The changes aimed to make a positive shift in road-user behaviour, by making road users aware of their responsibility to use roads safely and to reduce the dangers they may pose to others. The Government’s flagship multimillion-pound road safety campaign, THINK!, also plays a crucial part in reducing the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads.

Are the Minister and his team aware that our country, once known to be one of the best places in the world for road safety, is now, after 14 years of neglect, no targets—in fact, there is a hatred of targets—and little enforcement, a very dangerous place to be a vulnerable road user? When will this Government wake up and start doing something about that?

With no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, who I like as a person, he is simply wrong. In the last year, ending June 2023, there was a decline of 9% in fatalities compared to the year ending June 2022. Look at the specific measures taken: we have toughened up the driving test, made the highway code more robust and introduced tougher criminal sentences. Those are the actions of a Government who are listening and taking action.

Unused Rail Capacity

12. Whether the Office of Rail Regulation has identified unused rail network capacity for open-access services. (901421)

The Office of Rail and Road has been working with Network Rail and the Department for Transport to identify unused access rights. That work will support the release of under-used capacity on the rail network, which may then be used by potential operators in the development of open-access proposals.

It is great to hear that there is work under way, but I notice that my hon. Friend did not say how far it had got. I know that he understands that this is a huge opportunity to improve our over-subsidised, post-pandemic railways, so that passengers can get a better deal, but if we do not move faster it will slip through our fingers. The only people who are happy with the status quo are middle-aged men who want to carry on playing with trains at the expense of taxpayers, and the Labour party, which wants to run rail for the benefit of rail unions rather than passengers, so please can we get on with this a lot faster?

I thought he was referring to me with that “middle-aged man” point, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working at pace. Since we met in November with the team, which included my hon. Friend, to see what further we could do, we have written to operators to clarify that unused access rights should be released. With regard to Department for Transport operators, we have hundreds of unused access rights that we have identified for release. We also talked about speeding up the entire decision-making process, and the ORR and Network Rail now have a draft service level agreement to do that. I will write to him with more detail, but a lot has happened in the last month.

Transport for London: Funding

Transport in London is devolved to the Mayor of London. Since 2020, the Government have given TfL £6.6 billion of funding to support transport services. It is the responsibility of the Greater London Authority to hold the Mayor and Transport for London to account. The Department is in regular contact with TfL and monitors its finances in accordance with the terms of our funding settlement letters.

Clearly, the £6.6 billion to subsidise TfL came with strings attached, including raising fares in line with the rest of England. No sooner did the last instalment of the money arrive than the Mayor managed to find £30 million to pay off the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which threatened strike action, storing up problems for the next negotiations. He then found £120 million so that he does not have to raise fares in line with the rest of England. He has now come up with a crazy policy of reduced fares on Fridays, without having talked to anyone before introducing it. Will my right hon. Friend have a meeting with the Labour Mayor of London and ensure the money provided by the Department is used for the benefit of Londoners?

My hon. Friend is right: it is important that the money is used for the benefit of Londoners. We have provided very significant support, as I have set out, but it has not stopped the Mayor of London from putting up taxes on the poorest motorists, with the extension of his ultra low emission zone scheme to outer London. Rather than my having a meeting with him, the best way to hold the Mayor of London to account is for voters in London to vote for Susan Hall and kick him out.

Transport Connectivity: North Yorkshire

Because of the Prime Minister’s decision, Network North will see £19.8 billion of extra transport investment in the north of England, including a brand new £2.5 billion fund to transform local transport in 14 rural counties, smaller cities and towns in every part of the north outside the big city regions. This is in addition to what has already been committed through the integrated rail plan and the £11 billion TransPennine route upgrade.

I thank the Minister for visiting my constituency back in January. Following that visit, he became aware of the important economic impact of the A64 on York and North Yorkshire. May I stress to him again how important the upgrade is to safety on the road? A few days following his visit, the road was again closed due to a serious accident. Sadly, that followed another fatal accident on the road in December. This is becoming an ever more frequent occurrence, so when he looks at the upgrade of the A64, will he ensure that the safety impact plays an important role?

It was a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and meet him and other parliamentary colleagues who were so passionately concerned about the improvement of the A64 and its safety issues. I take the point he raises on board. I know that National Highways is developing options to address the concerns that he, local people and businesses have identified with the road. We will look at them very closely. I welcome the fact that he continues to champion this important matter.

Support for Motorists

The Government are helping low-income motorists by keeping down the cost of motoring. There has been no increase in fuel duty since January 2011, 13 years ago. Furthermore, recognising the fuel price volatility after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we cut 5p from fuel duty in March 2022. This was extended for another year in March 2023. This cut, along with the inflation freeze, has saved the average car driver around £100 this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Months after the Mayor of London’s ULEZ expansion came into effect, some of Uxbridge and South Ruislip’s most hard-working and least well-off residents continue to be penalised by it. As part of the Government’s work to help motorists, will he commit to continuing to work with me and colleagues from across outer London to ensure that we are doing all we can to lessen the financial burden on all motorists?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am very sorry to hear about the burden that the Mayor of London has forced on the poorest motorists in London, particularly when we hear that his scrappage scheme is underfunded and slow to process payments. This is a direct consequence of a Labour Mayor who did not keep his word to Londoners. The only remedy for Londoners is to vote him out and vote in Susan Hall in May.

We need to incentivise people from all incomes to participate in the green transition. However, electric vehicles are totally out of reach for most car owners, especially those on low incomes. In addition, people who rely on public charging points are still paying a lot more than those who can charge from home. Will the Government close this gap to ensure that everybody is getting a fair deal, including those on low incomes, to make sure that we get to net zero? Those on low incomes also want to help the country get to net zero.

I thank the hon. Member for her question. It is my responsibility to help roll out electric vehicles. We introduced the zero emission vehicle mandate to ensure that 22% of vehicle sales this year are zero emission. I should say that, throughout the life cycle of an electric vehicle, they are cheaper than petrol or diesel cars to drive. This Government have given £2 billion-worth of support to owners of electric vehicles and to charge point companies to help smooth that introduction. The specific question that she raises is about VAT, and that is a matter for the Treasury.

Rail Connectivity: Cambridge and Norwich

Greater Anglia currently operates an hourly direct rail service between Norwich and Cambridge using its new rolling stock, with a journey time of around 80 minutes. It is also possible to travel between Norwich and Cambridge at other times by changing trains at Ely station. When the Ely area capacity enhancement scheme is delivered, it could create improved regional journeys for passengers across East Anglia.

Costs are rising for growing a business in Cambridge, yet Norwich, a finer city, is just down the road and, more importantly, just down the railway. We need a greater frequency of trains, and faster trains, to make the Norwich-Cambridge tech corridor a greater reality. It is being held back by the delays in getting the Ely junction fixed. How soon will that be sorted out by the Department?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s campaign for the Ely junction capacity enhancement scheme, which is one of the schemes referenced in the Prime Minister’s Network North plan. Network Rail has developed the scheme to outline business case stage, and next steps will involve further investment case development and delivery planning. I am keen to see it delivered, because it will deliver for rail freight.

Topical Questions

This week, the Government showed once again that we are on the side of Britain’s drivers. New measures from our plan for drivers will make it simpler to charge electric cars, with schools and colleges receiving grants to boost charging and the release of the first payments from our £381 million levy fund. We are also consulting on speeding up charge point installation.

We have a plan to decarbonise transport that is working. The Labour party is in disarray. Its leader, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), would ditch Labour’s flagship spending promise, despite only committing to it on Tuesday. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) must feel uncomfortable, having said weeks ago that it was very important. It is not the first time that she has been in that position. She said a month ago that cancelling phase two of HS2 would make transport worse; the very same day, the leader of the Labour party overruled her and agreed with the Prime Minister’s plan. Labour has no plan, no direction, no clue—

Order. Just a second, Secretary of State. You know that you have no responsibility for the Opposition, and I am sure that you would not want to take it on as part of your portfolio. I need to get through topical questions.

I am pleased to hear about the Secretary of State’s plans, but does he have a plan to deal with some of the apparent traffic jams in responding to consultations on private Members’ legislation in his Department? In 2020, the consultation on pavement parking closed. Pavement parking causes huge problems for guide dogs, wheelchair users and everybody else. When will we have a response to that? On the Parking (Code of Practice) Act 2019, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), when will we see the plans to cut down on cowboy parking enforcement companies? When will that traffic jam be eased?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those issues. We will come out with a response on pavement parking very shortly. I cannot give him a specific date. On roadworks generally, we will consult on plans to improve the measures that stop utility companies causing roadworks to overrun, putting more pressure on them to ensure that our roads can keep moving, to support drivers.

What does the Secretary of State think that it says about the performance standards in the contracts that he signed with failing operators that senior executives at Avanti, whose cancellations now run at 17%, could boast about the “free money” from the taxpayer that is

“too good to be true”?

Two things: first, Avanti does not have any money under the performance regime, because it has not delivered appropriate enough quality, demonstrating that we pay only for good performance. On the specific issue that the hon. Lady raises, the Rail Minister and I raised that with Avanti. Senior executives at FirstGroup agreed with us that those comments were appalling, and they are taking steps to deal with that issue within the company.

They were disgraceful comments from Avanti, but the problem goes to the contracts that the Secretary of State is signing with such failing operators. Last year, Govia Thameslink failed on every single performance measure at its stations, but rather than enforcing the standards in the contract and demanding better, he lowered them so that Govia would still potentially receive its bonus and performance fee, at a potential cost of millions to the taxpayer. Is that not the perfect symbol of the Conservatives’ broken rail network: failure rewarded, and passengers and taxpayers paying the price?

It absolutely is not. The hon. Lady referred to Avanti West Coast, I gave her the answer to the question on Avanti and then she just repeated something that simply was not the case. According to the service quality regime under which Avanti West Coast operates, it has not received any payments, because it has not been hitting the quality targets—[Interruption.] If she would listen to my answer, Avanti has not hit the quality targets, so that is exactly the performance regime working.

T2.   The Cumbrian Coast railway is vital to the energy coast, for both passengers and freight. I welcome the extra funding and services that Network North will bring, but could the Rail Minister update me on the latest progress? (901433)

I would be delighted to update my hon. Friend. She will know that the upgrade of the energy coast line was one of the commitments in the Network North document. The Department is now working closely with Network Rail and local stakeholders to revisit the scope of the interventions, which were presented in the 2022 outline business case, and we expect that work to conclude later this year.

The A701 relief road realignment is a key regional infrastructure project with knock-on national benefits, not to mention the major improvements it would make in Midlothian. So-called levelling up round 3 did not even allow the project to bid for funding, and I know that the leader of Midlothian Council and the leaders of all the councils in the Edinburgh and South East Scotland city region deal have written to the Levelling Up Secretary to express their disappointment. Will this Secretary of State add his voice to theirs in calling for that critical infrastructure to be supported?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the primary responsibility for delivering road transport in Scotland is the responsibility of the SNP Government, because it is devolved. I am pleased that he has welcomed the levelling-up bids that have been delivered in Scotland—this Government delivering for the people of Scotland where his Government have failed. On the specific issue he raises, I will of course draw his remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State.

T3. Fraserburgh-based Gray & Adams is the UK’s pre-eminent manufacturer of refrigerated trailers—I am told they were involved in the design of regulations in the early days of refrigerated transport. Will the Minister meet me and Gray & Adams’s management and engineers to see what can be done to ensure that regulations are updated at a pace that keeps up with the ongoing innovations made by that great example of British manufacturing? (901434)

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion for Fraserburgh and for that business in particular. I know very well the issue in respect of longer semi-trailers and compliance with the regulations. I would be delighted to meet him and the company, and I assure both the company and the wider industry that we are working to find a way forward on this question, because it matters and we want to support that business.

T4.   His Majesty the King is well known and much loved in my constituency, and on behalf of my constituents I wish him a full recovery. Do the Government agree that the sustainability of transport links, particularly air links, between Scottish airports and the rest of the UK are very important? For example, flights in and out of Wick John O’Groats airport are crucial to the economic development of the far north. (901435)

Indeed; aviation is important for economic development across the entirety of the UK, including links between Scotland and England. However, the hon. Gentleman’s question was about Wick John O’Groats airport, and the public service obligations for that airport lie entirely within Scotland and are a matter for the Scottish Government.

The roads Minister will recall a meeting I had with him, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) and for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), about resurfacing the A180 and removing the concrete surface. I have had many meetings with roads Ministers over the years who have promised that. Will he be the one who can deliver it?

T5. One SME owner in my constituency told me that, if he has meetings in London, he now often travels down the night before, because he cannot rely on Avanti’s train service. Even if the trains are not cancelled, as we learned recently, Avanti is Britain’s least punctual train operator. Given that terrible service, does the Secretary of State now regret his premature decision to extend the contract for the west coast main line? (901438)

The decision to extend the Avanti contract was taken because its performance had improved dramatically. At that time, its self-induced cancellation rates were at 1.5%, down from 13%. Avanti is in the process of hiring 70 drivers per year. I have spoken to Avanti about matters that have been raised in the Chamber today, and about its recent service. We know that it needs to do better, and we are holding it to account to ensure that it does so.

The proposed west London orbital network could enable trains to run from Hendon to Hounslow and take millions of passengers off the underground, and will be a boon to all people in west London. Has my hon. Friend had a look at the proposal, and will he give it the green light?

We have had a presentation on the plan, and I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to update him. It is a matter of interest, and I like to see such proposals brought forward—although, of course, we have to balance them with ensuring that the taxpayer is not at extra risk.

The dualling of the A47 at Blofield was fully funded and ready to go a year ago. Since then, a former Green party parliamentary candidate has bogged it down in a series of legal challenges. Once they have been overcome, will the Department be right behind that much-needed dualling scheme?

The Government are utterly committed to the A47. The court case to which my hon. Friend refers is also linked to the A57. We are passionately committed to both roads. We await the judgment, which we believe will come within the next month or so.

T6. Bedford borough could become the home of the only Universal Studios theme park in Europe, bringing enormous prosperity and many jobs to my constituency and the eastern region. Although road infrastructure funding has already been allocated until 2025, will the Government commit to supporting that exciting project by funding the substantial road improvements that will be necessary for the plan to go ahead? (901439)

I am familiar with that scheme, on which I have been briefed, and I know that the Chancellor has been involved in it as well. The Government will look carefully at the proposals that are brought forward and will want to do what we can to ensure that that exciting proposal comes to fruition.

Will the Minister update the House on what measures are being taken to reduce the amount of litter and debris blighting many central reservations and grass verges on our major highways?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. It is absolutely vital that the great British public stop throwing litter—that would be the first and most important thing. I can assure him that National Highways is utterly committed on this matter, and gave evidence to the Transport Committee about the dozens and dozens of people it has clearing up the litter every single day. However, it is fundamentally up to the public to stop littering.

T7.   Heathrow airport saw a significant increase in noise complaints last year. Residents in my constituency are regularly woken up in the middle of the night by the roar of jet engines overhead, and there are well-documented impacts on their physical and mental health. Will the Secretary of State finally commit to banning night flights between 11 pm and 6 am? (901440)

On noise, it is important to strike a balance between the negative impacts of aviation on local communities who live close to the airport and the economic benefits of flights around the UK. We will shortly publish the results of a consultation on night flights, and the hon. Member should wait for it.[Official Report, 19 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 7MC.] (Correction)

Vehicles parked on pavements continue to have a negative impact on disabled people, especially those who are blind or partially sighted like myself. It has been four years since the Government’s consultation on that, yet still no action has been taken. The Minister said that they were going to respond to that consultation soon. “Soon” is not good enough. When will they bring forward a plan to ban pavement parking?

The hon. Lady will understand that there are already provisions in place permitting action by local authorities. We intend to publish the Government review very shortly.

Has the ministerial team seen the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety’s recent report on the growing number of accidents involving e-scooters, and if not, will they look at it? Not only are e-scooters an increasing danger to all our constituents, there is a lack of police follow-up when accidents happen.

The use of private e-scooters on public land—on roads and pavements—is illegal in the UK, and it is up to the police to enforce that law. We have 23 different legal trials of rental e-scooters around the country.[Official Report, 19 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 7MC.] (Correction) We recently announced the extension of those trials, and we are using that data to learn more about the dangers or otherwise of e-scooters, which will inform the policy for the future regulation of e-scooters.

The Mayor of London has frozen fares for five out of the eight years he has been in office, meaning that they are 14% below national fare increases. Should I take it from the Secretary of State’s earlier answer to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that he is opposed to those fare freezes, and that he expects a Conservative Mayor to put fares up if elected?

No. What I find surprising is that the London Mayor spends an awful lot of time pretending that he does not have any money, so he puts up taxes on hard-working motorists in outer London, and then just before an election, he finds a secret war chest that enables him to do popular things. Everyone knows that if he were to win, he would put up taxes again on the poorest motorists as sure as night follows day, which is why they should vote for Susan Hall.

I thank Ministers for all their answers. Regarding accessibility for disabled passengers, being ever mindful that we are in an age of equality and that disabled people deserve the same opportunities as everyone else, has consideration been given to ensuring that taxi firms have an obligation to provide vehicles for disabled people in every shift pattern?

It is always good to have the hon. Gentleman winding up proceedings. I will take away that point and have a very detailed look at it, and get officials to give me a detailed answer that I will provide in writing.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 19 February will include:

Monday 19 February—Second reading of the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 20 February—Remaining stages of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill.

Wednesday 21 February—Opposition day (5th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party, subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 February—A debate on the civil nuclear road map, followed by a general debate on premature deaths from heart and circulatory diseases. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 23 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 February includes:

Monday 26 February—General debate, subject to be confirmed.

Tuesday 27 February—Remaining stages of the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill.

Wednesday 28 February—Second Reading of the Pedicabs (London) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 29 February—A debate on a motion on language in politics on International Women’s Day, followed by a general debate on Welsh affairs. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 1 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I start by offering my best wishes to His Majesty the King and all the royal family at this difficult time. I wish him a speedy recovery.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business, but yet again, there are a few things missing that we have long been promised. I was glad that the motion on risk-based exclusion of Members was laid before the House last week, but when will the Leader of the House schedule a debate and a vote? Once again, there is no motion on the Procedure Committee’s recommendations on holding Secretaries of State in the Lords to account. Report stage of the Renters (Reform) Bill was promised by early February, but it is nowhere to be seen, and the football regulator long promised to clubs and their communities is still not in the upcoming business. The Leader of the House said a few weeks ago that that legislation would be brought forward “very soon”.

Will she also confirm that the Government will make a statement as soon we are back on progress in exonerating victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal, and that it is still the intention of the Government to bring forward legislation to exonerate victims? We are getting a written ministerial statement today on infected blood, yet time and again she has promised oral statements to update the House. The business she has announced is not exactly going to fill all the days, so surely she can find time for these important matters.

This week, we saw the launch of the Popular Conservatives, who apparently have not heard of irony or oxymorons. They are headed by the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), the least popular Prime Minister in the history of British polling. I know the Leader of the House is a fan, but in the six weeks she was in office she managed to totally crash the economy. Who exactly do they think they are popular with: mortgage holders coming out of fixed rates and now paying hundreds of pounds more a month, shoppers seeing the prices of food and essentials soar, or renters seeing massive hikes? Let us be honest: poll after poll shows there is absolutely nothing popular about the current Conservative party, although I did notice that the Leader of the House herself ranks as the most popular Conservative with voters. So maybe she could offer the Popular Conservatives some advice: show some contrition for the economic mess they have caused and stay off the airwaves.

Perhaps more sombrely, the Prime Minister has this week made some serious misjudgments. On Monday, he shook hands on a bet to deport migrants to Rwanda before the next general election. Betting on people’s lives was grim to watch, and the ease with which the Prime Minister agreed to a £1,000 bet when so many are suffering through the Conservative cost of living crisis was a gross spectacle. Does the Leader of the House think betting about the plight of desperate people is a good advert for her Government?

In that interview, the Prime Minister also inferred that the Leader of the Opposition was a terrorist sympathiser. Actually, when he was the Director of Public Prosecutions, my right hon. and learned Friend oversaw the first convictions of senior members of al-Qaeda, the jailing of the airline liquid bomb plotters and the deportation of countless terrorists. All the while, the Prime Minister was making money as a hedge funder in the City during the global financial crisis, as ordinary people paid the price. I know who I would rather have in charge. Only last week, we agreed in here that civility, respect, decency and truth in politics matter, so will the Leader of the House distance herself from such malicious mud-slinging?

This week, in Prime Minister’s Question Time, we hit a new low. In the week of the first anniversary of the murder of Brianna Ghey and while her mother was in the Public Gallery, the Prime Minister tried to score cheap political points at the expense of trans people, which Brianna’s father condemned as “absolutely dehumanising”. Many of us found it deeply offensive and distasteful, including many Government Members. The Prime Minister has been given plenty of opportunity to apologise to Esther Ghey and her family, and has refused, while the Minister for Women and Equalities, whose job it is to stand up for the marginalised, doubled down and dismissed the cries of the family. The Leader of the House has a better record than many in her party on this issue, and I know she will be appalled, too. So will she take this opportunity to apologise on the Prime Minister’s behalf, and call out using minorities as a political punchbag?

We are about to go into recess, and I think it is restorative to spend time with our constituents, and to escape the Westminster and social media bubble.

Since Parliament returned this year, we have witnessed the nation rally behind a group of people mightily wronged, who took on those in powerful positions to fight to get justice for themselves and others. The hon. Lady mentioned the Post Office Horizon scandal. She will know that there is a debate this afternoon, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), will take the opportunity to update the House on progress made towards that legislation. I confirm that that is still our intent. I also know that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), is working at pace with regard to infected blood. I understand he had a meeting with the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) about that earlier this week.

We have also seen the crew of the Prince of Wales aircraft carrier cancel plans, leave, and time with their loved ones to do their duty. We have learned that thanks to the graft and grit of the British people and businesses, our economy has turned a corner. We have seen our monarch respond to his cancer diagnosis, as many other Brits have, with courage, duty and cheerfulness, and with family rallying around, and I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks and good wishes, as well as all Members and the British public who have sent their best wishes to His Majesty.

We have also seen a mother meeting the brutal murder of her child with the most profound grace and compassion, turning her anguish into positive action to protect other children. And we have seen a father speak about how the love for his child enabled him to overcome his worries about them being trans. Those are the things that our nation is made of: compassion, fairness, tolerance, responsibility, service, and love. We see those things every day in the people who sent us here, and we look on them with pride. Sometimes that pride is reciprocated, as I am sure it was for my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) in what he said yesterday. Sometimes that pride is not reciprocated. Whatever the rough and tumble of this place, and whatever the pressures and mistakes that are made in the heat of political combat, we owe it to the people who sent us here to strive every day to make them proud of us and this place.

The Prime Minister is a good and caring man. I am sure that he has reflected on things, and I understand that he will say something later today or perhaps even during these questions. It is not just about Mr and Mrs Ghey that he should reflect on; I am sure he is also reflecting on people who are trans or who have trans loved ones and family, some of whom sit on these green Benches. I hope the Leader of the Opposition will also reflect on his actions. This Government have been right to protect the safety and dignity of women, and at each stage of doing so they have sought to bring certainty and assurance to trans people. This Government are also right to hold the Opposition to account for their multiple inconsistencies and U-turns on their policy platform.

Today supposition has ended, and reality has landed about the Schrödinger £28 billion—a policy that for months and months has been both alive and dead, and is now confirmed as dead, at least for now. There will be questions over whether the shadow Energy Secretary’s tenure in that role is also alive or dead. “Politically, it’s strategically incompetent” as the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) called this sorry saga, and that description could also apply to Labour’s costings on its insulation programme and its council tax policy and modelling. It is more confirmation that not only does Labour not have a plan, it has no hope of arriving at one either.

The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) asked me about risk-based exclusion, and we have tabled that motion on future business. She knows that we will bring forward a debate and vote on that after recess, but I want Members of the House to have time to make themselves aware of the issue and to ask me, and other members of the House of Commons Commission, questions about it.

Regarding scrutiny of the Foreign Secretary, I am in touch with the Leader of the House of Lords about that matter and I hope to update the House soon.

Finally, today marks the start of marriage and family week, and it is appropriate that we send a big thank you to all those who support us in this place and who quite often put up with a great deal. Further business will be announced in the usual way.

The Leader of the House knows that I am a member of the programme board on restoration and renewal, and she is the responsible Minister. There is a debate due on the business case, and she might now tell the House when that will happen. It is imminent. We will also have a debate on whether we will have a decant, but not until 2025, and even if we do decant, that will not be until 2031, and I doubt I will personally live to see it, although I wish Members well with that project.

I do not want to get involved with whether we decant, but ask a specific question. This matter has now dragged on since 2015 and could drag on until 2031. Meanwhile, the building is decaying around us. Three options were delivered to the Speaker’s Commission on this matter, and one is planned maintenance around us. We have successfully done good work on parts of the building, and I urge the Leader of the House now—she might make an announcement on this—to press ahead with proper planned maintenance, so that we can repair the building and make it good for future generations.

May I start by thanking my right hon. Friend and other colleagues for all the work they have done on the programme board? The new governance structure—I hope Mr Speaker would concur—has enabled us to make good progress on getting a proper grip of what needs to happen to this building and the activity and costs associated with that. We will bring forward further news to the House shortly on where we are with the plans and the programme, but that should not get in the way of concurrent activity. He will know there are some early projects that we think we can get on with that are perfectly within the boundaries of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, and we should get on and do them. I hope that the House will welcome a more pragmatic approach to taking care of this important UNESCO heritage site.

May I associate myself with the shadow Leader of the House’s comments about Brianna Ghey and her remarkable parents?

Last week, I asked the Leader of the House about the cost of the Tories’ secret and highly sensitive report to Cabinet on the state of the Union. Hansard records that not one word of her answer reflected my question—not one syllable. Instead, she read out to the Chamber a video script about bingo and made a joke about monkeys. The week before, I asked the Leader of the House about the Electoral Commission’s concerns over Tory voter ID plans. Again, there was not one word in Hansard about Tory voter ID—not a peep. Instead, she read her prepared script attacking the SNP. In fact, Hansard reveals that week after week, not only do my questions go unanswered, but they are completely ignored. Week after week, we get a clickbait video for her personal YouTube channel. Surely that behaviour demeans her office and disrespects this House. She is here to answer questions from Members.

Returning to that state of the Union report to Cabinet in July 2020, it aimed to undermine the Scottish Government and the Scottish independence cause, which were apparently a Tory top priority at the height of the pandemic. It came to light last week, and no wonder the Leader of the House’s Government wanted to keep it under wraps. It contains more grim news for any remaining supporters of the Union. My questions again are: how much did it cost taxpayers, what was its purpose, and what strategy was it asking the Cabinet to endorse? Do the Union strategy and operations committees still exist? While she is at it, I would be pleased to know the details of the “highly professional attack dogs”, as described by one journalist, who were employed around that time in an attempt to counter independence support. Unlike the Prime Minister, I am not a betting woman, but I would wager £1,000 that I will not get answers to those today, either.

I will be writing to the Leader of the House with all the questions she has ignored just this year for starters. My question today, though, just needs a simple yes or no, and I challenge her then to sit back down and resist the video script. Will she at the very least attempt to find answers to my questions when she receives them in writing, as she refuses to do so here? Can we have a debate on the role and function of the Leader of the House?

The hon. Lady can have a debate on the role and function of the Leader of the House every Thursday at approximately 10.30 am. I hope it is colleagues’ experience that when they ask me questions, I either furnish them with answers if it is about the business of the House or I follow up with Departments and write to them. I am afraid that, as Hansard will show, her questions to me and to various Departments are sometimes hard to fathom.

The hon. Lady asked me about a particular piece of polling. I can certainly write to the Cabinet Office, although she indicated that she may kindly save me the trouble; in that case, I will just send her letter to the Cabinet Office for it to respond to her. But it comes in a week when the Scottish Government’s own costs for polling have been exposed.

I hope that hon. Members disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment that I demean my office, although that is high praise indeed from the Scottish National party—I think my party has some way to go before we reach 22 live police investigations. While it may be true that those who live in Labour areas are 40% more likely to be a victim of crime, I think SNP politicians are probably 40% more likely to be investigated for one.

I do not need to join the new organisation pointed out by the shadow Leader of the House because, as my friends the hon. Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) know, I am already popular and conservative.

Will the Leader of the House organise a statement on pernicious political correctness? Mr Speaker, you will be as surprised as I was to note that the Environment Agency has removed the words “mother” and “father” from all its documents because it believes they should be non-gendered. My dear mother, looking down from a greater place, will be spinning in her grave to have been designated non-gender. Can we have a debate on that? It sounds like nonsense, but it is actually much more sinister. Free speech is at stake.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that important question. While our legislation and the things that arm’s length bodies use need to be legally accurate, it is important that people can use language and words such as “mother” and “father”. Actually, that is not only the right thing to do but what the guidance they operate under says they should do. May I ask him to let my office have the details of that case? In addition to perhaps having a debate—he will know how to apply for one in the usual way—I could follow that up for him with relevant arm’s length body.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing two full weeks’ business. That is welcome.

Last week, we had to pull a debate due to shortage of time. That was understandable, given the importance of the Government business tabled for that day, but the sad point from our perspective is that unless we are allocated time other than on Thursdays for Back-Bench debates, we will probably have no further time to allocate in the Chamber before the Easter recess. Monday 26 February might fit the bill, since a general debate has been announced for that day. We are of course open for applications, particularly for business in Westminster Hall.

I know this has been mentioned, but could the Leader of the House give an indication of the progress made on bringing forward legislation for the appointment of the football regulator? I have a particular interest in that. Television’s impact on travelling football fans is worsening, with Newcastle United fans alone—I am one of them—having had inconvenient and almost unworkable away-game fixtures imposed on them no fewer than eight times this season. We have had away kick-off times of 8 pm on new year’s day, 5.30 pm in Brighton and Bournemouth—this is when travelling from the north-east of England—and Saturday night kick-offs in London at 8 pm on two occasions and 7 pm on one occasion. Those times makes it unworkable for people to get back from those fixtures on public transport, and it is happening on a much more regular basis. The football regulator is much needed, and I am sure that is something that it would like to focus on.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for all his work on the Backbench Business Committee and for welcoming two weeks of business—nothing makes me happier than to come to the House and announce that. He knows that I take very seriously our obligations to provide the Backbench Business Committee with time to have its debates on the Floor of the House. I hope to update him shortly on when we can give him some additional time.

The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point about football, and I find it amazing that it has been allowed to endure for some time. It is probably very unfair on not just the players but the travelling public. I will make sure that the Secretary of State has heard his concerns, and he will know that the next Culture, Media and Sport questions are on 22 February.

Collecting food waste from domestic properties is an expensive service both to set up and to carry out. Every local authority in west London has had the service for a long time—certainly before March 2023. In west London, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is providing £230,000 in funding for Hounslow, £201,000 for Brent, £406,000 for Ealing and a massive £606,000 for Hillingdon. In my borough of Harrow we have had zero, yet we provide food waste collection to 4,136 flats, and the borough wants to roll out the service to over 18,000 more flats. It is clearly unfair that Harrow has been singled out. It is not getting the funding it deserves, and has not for many years. Could right hon. Friend arrange for the DEFRA Secretary of State or a Minister to make a statement on the Floor of the House on how that funding is allocated, and why Harrow does not receive its fair share?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and for giving me advance notice of it—It is helpful and diligent of Members to do that. I have uncovered an administrative saga that I will not bore the House with, but I will update my hon. Friend. The fact that he has put the situation on record will help it to be resolved. I have received some reassuring news from the Department.

Further to a question at last week’s business questions from a Conservative Member about SSB Law, I have at least 10 constituents affected by this issue. What can only be described as cowboy outfits offered constituents cavity wall insulation, and put it into homes where it should not have been, resulting in mould, damp and damage to properties. Those constituents were then approached by SSB Law, which took on those claims in a no win, no fee basis. When it went under, my constituents received enforcement notices telling them that they owed up to £19,000. It is a scandal on top of the scandal.

I wrote to the Justice Secretary as a matter of urgency back in December, but I have not had a response. Can the Leader of the House help me to find ways in Parliament to co-ordinate all those across the north who have been affected—we expect there are hundreds, if not thousands—and to get a response so that we can look after those people, some of whom are among the most vulnerable and have received extortionate bills telling them that they owe thousands of pounds?

I am very sorry to hear about this ongoing situation. From memory, I wrote to the Department last week about this issue, and I will make sure that the hon. Lady is cited in the reply. I will also raise it again with the Justice Secretary, and chase up the hon. Lady’s correspondence. My office stands ready to assist her in getting this matter resolved for her constituents.

It is both intolerable and heartbreaking that hostages remain in captivity in Gaza after more than 100 days. Who knows what horrors are being inflicted on them as we sit here today? Can a Minister come to the House to make an urgent statement on what the Government are doing to get the hostages home?

I thank my right hon. Friend for what she has just said and for her ongoing work to keep our eyes focused on those individuals. Yesterday marked four months that they have been in captivity.

This week, I met Annabel, who is helping the Sharabi family, who lost multiple members of their family in the 7 October attack. Very sadly, the family recently confirmed that another relative, Yossi, who was taken hostage, has been murdered. Yossi was described as a pillar of their family; he was also a football fan, and a supporter of Manchester United. The family are hoping that Eli Sharabi, who was also taken hostage, will be returned to them, and that eventually Yossi’s body will be returned to them so that they can bury him. Sadly, Eli’s ordeal will not end there, as his wife and two daughters were among those murdered in the attack, which I do not think he will know yet.

I thank all those working to bring the hostages home, and all Members working to keep the spotlight on these individuals and to resolve the tragedy continuing to unfold in Gaza. I will ensure that the Foreign Office has heard what my right hon. Friend has said today and that this House is kept informed.

May I also wish His Majesty the King a speedy recovery? He was brave to share his health news—he has shown his own vulnerability and humanity, and I am sure people across the nation will thank him for that.

The household support fund provides grants to households struggling to make ends meet, but local authorities still do not know whether funding will continue past the end of March. More than 100 organisations have warned that there will be devastating consequences if the fund is not extended. Can we have a statement to clarify the future of the household support fund?

I thank the hon. Lady for her words about His Majesty the King. Many Members will know the merits of the household support fund, which was given to local authorities to provide them with the flexibility to respond to particular situations where people have fallen through the cracks for other types of support. That is why we have provided the fund. It is still in operation, and I know the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Treasury will want to ensure that Members are given good notice about what will follow. I shall ensure that both those Departments have heard what the hon. Lady has said today.

Local plans are the foundation on which planning authorities make their decisions. Despite the fact that they shape our villages and towns across the country, few people take part in the consultations that take place ahead of their production. Can we have a debate in which to exchange ideas about how we might involve more people in the formation of those plans?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter and for all the work he does to empower his community to get more involved with shaping their local plans. He will know that our revised national planning policy framework addresses some of those concerns and the weaknesses in the planning system. The next questions to the Secretary of State will be on 4 March, where my hon. Friend can raise this matter directly with the Minister himself.

The life expectancy for the less well-off in south-east Northumberland barely scrapes 70 years of age, due to the industrial heritage and legacy in my region, like many others. Right-wing think-tanks are mooting the idea of increasing the pension age to 71, which would basically mean that people in my constituency and other constituencies would pay in all our life and get absolutely nothing from the pot. Can we have a debate in Government time to discuss the huge discrepancies in life expectancy and the potential for people to receive no pension for a lifetime of contributions?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. There are clearly legacy issues in certain parts of the country because of the industries that were there. People in certain professions in the modern workplace, such as shift workers, are also at a disadvantage in terms of their health. All of that needs to be fed in when policy is made, which is why it is important that we have evidence-based policy and a system across Government so that every Department is involved in the formulation of policy. Given that the question session to the relevant Department is not for some time, I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has heard the hon. Gentleman’s point today.

Since being elected, I and many colleagues have spent much time raising issues that affect men and boys. However, this House has barely raised the importance of dads and the challenges they face. They play a vital role in bringing up their children, supporting their family and supporting our country. Too many are blocked unfairly from seeing their children after a divorce and too often their role in bringing up children is not seen as important, yet we all know families need their fathers, daughters need their dads, and lads need their dads. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate on the vital role dads play and the challenges they face?

I thank my hon. Friend for the campaign he has been running on this issue and his diligence in holding all Departments to account for what they are doing to recognise the vital contribution fathers make, not just to their families but to wider society. That would be an excellent topic for debate and he will know how to apply for one. He will also know that he can continue to raise this issue directly with Ministers at Question Time. It is highly appropriate that he has spoken about this issue; as I said in my opening, we are starting a celebration week of the family. We know that when families have strong father figures and role models, they are strengthened.

The Leader of the House promised that she would table a motion on risk-based exclusions for Members. It was published last week, the future business is light and there is plenty of parliamentary time available, so will she tell us why she has not scheduled the debate yet and why there is no sense of urgency in ensuring that Parliament is a safe workplace and its reputation is restored?

I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave to the shadow Leader of the House. I think that if she were to ask colleagues about their awareness of the motion and the detail within it, many will not have registered it. What I and other members of the Commission are doing is talking to colleagues about it. I have had meetings with colleagues who still have some concerns about aspects of it. I want to bring it to the House and for it to be understood when the House makes a decision on it. I will do that very shortly after recess, but I do want to allow right hon. and hon. Members the time to study the motion and understand what the scheme is. I think it stands a better chance of gaining maximum support in the House if that is the case. I will keep the hon. Lady updated.

Farmers in my constituency are in uproar and my Welsh Conservative colleagues across Wales tell me that they are hearing the same thing. The source of farmers’ distress is the new proposals from the Welsh Government for a new farming subsidy scheme to be introduced in 2025. An independent economic assessment published with the proposals says that the scheme will result in a 10.8% reduction in livestock and an 11% reduction in labour—a number that the National Farmers Union in Wales says is equivalent to about 5,500 jobs. I know how important farming is where I am, even if the Welsh Government do not seem to appreciate how important it is in Wales. Given the close ties within the farming community across the UK, and given the fact that we enjoy a single UK labour market, will my right hon. Friend consider providing time for a debate on the vital contribution of farming to the UK economy when the House returns?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he continues to do not just to champion the interests of farming communities in Wales, but to highlight their critical importance to our resilience as a nation. When we study the potential job losses and the potential reduction in livestock numbers, the assessment of the NFU in Wales—that the plans are “catastrophic”—is right on the money. I will certainly make sure that the Secretary of State has heard my hon. Friend’s concerns. I encourage him to keep campaigning against the plans. He will know that the next Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions are on 14 March.

I respect the Leader of the House, and I note that there is a written ministerial statement today, but what the House needs is an oral statement from the Cabinet Office Minister so that we can ask questions about what the Government are doing.

I also want to raise a separate issue: the devolution deal that is being consulted on in my area of East Yorkshire and Hull. Apparently, we are to receive an extra £13.3 million a year over 30 years, shared between the two councils in the area. Constituents have pointed out to me that the Government’s economic development deal with Rwanda averages about £54 million a year over five years. They are wondering why the Government are putting that amount of money into Rwanda, given that they were elected in 2019 on the basis of a policy of levelling up, and why my area is receiving so much less.

Let me first thank the right hon. Lady for her kind remarks about me, and say to her that the feeling is entirely mutual. She will know that I keep in close contact with the Paymaster General regarding infected blood, and I will ensure that he has heard what she has said today. I understand that he met her this week, and I know that the whole House will want to be kept informed and updated about the progress that he is making.

I will also ensure that those at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities have heard what the right hon. Lady has said about the devolution deal. Such deals are a vital tool, along with the many other sources of funding that we are putting into communities that need it and will do something good with it. However, as she will know, the devolution deal is not the only source of the funds that her constituents will receive: they will be getting many more streams of funding in many other areas and from many other Departments.

However, the Government have a finite amount of money, and it is important that we are directing it to where we want to spend it and alleviating pressures on public services that we do not want to see. Where we have porous borders and people—for example, economic migrants who are not fleeing persecution—are for understandable reasons abusing our asylum system, we need to close those loopholes. The Rwanda scheme is designed to be a deterrent, and if it is stood up and successful it will benefit the right hon. Lady’s constituents.

For some time I have noticed a growing sense of frustration among Members who ask a question and are given an answer that bears no relation to it. It is as if Ministers are applying some sort of Jedi mind trick to suggest that this is not the question they were looking to ask. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made on what steps the Government will take to ensure that Ministers actually answer the questions that they are asked?

I think that when one is presented with a question like that, it is quite hard to answer it. If the hon. Gentleman would like to furnish me with some examples—any examples—of where that is happening, I will of course respond to them. This is business questions, so his question is in order, but I would point out to him that it is actually quite difficult to answer.

I want to pay tribute to my constituent Loyd, who is in the Public Gallery this morning. He is a remarkable young man. Every time the Ellesmere Port Wombles have a litter-pick he is there, come rain or shine. I also want to record my appreciation of another young constituent, Heidi, who is nine years old and who, on Sunday, will complete her cycle ride—the equivalent of London to Paris—to raise funds for Alzheimer’s Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support. She has already raised nearly £6,000, which is a fantastic achievement.

There are so many other young people in my constituency and, I am sure, every other Member’s constituency who do fantastic things for their communities and for good causes. May we please have a debate to celebrate the great work that our young people do?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for affording me, and the whole House, the opportunity to join him in praising Loyd and Heidi and congratulating them on all that they are doing. Young people in this country sometimes get a bad press, so it would be very good to have time on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall to celebrate all that they do.

A recent report by London Councils found that Wandsworth is one of the boroughs worst affected by falling pupil roll numbers, with a 12% drop in demand for reception places. Many parents in Battersea have shared with me their concerns about their children’s education. It is vital that the Government ensure that every local area has excellent, financially viable schools. May we have a statement on how they will address the fall in pupil roll numbers?

I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Education has heard what the hon. Lady says, and I will draw her attention to that report. I think that is how I can best serve the hon. Lady today.

In the midst of a cost of living crisis of his own making, the Prime Minister this week placed a £1,000 bet with a TV presenter. What message does that send to our constituents, many of whom are struggling to pay their bills?

The hon. Lady accuses the Prime Minister of causing a cost of living crisis. She knows that the pandemic had knock-on effects because of the spending we had to do, including on the furlough scheme, which the Prime Minister designed when he was Chancellor. That scheme kept people, families and businesses going throughout that period and enabled us to make a swifter economic recovery than many comparable nations. The Prime Minister is not responsible for the war in Ukraine or any of the other geopolitical and global shocks we have to endure, which are causing financial pressure on the nation and on households. During this time, we felt it right to stand up an enormous package of support for households to alleviate the cost of living. More than £100 billion, and growing, has gone towards supporting people, which shows that this Government understand what they are going through and will do everything we can to support them.

The Leader of the House may not know this, but when I first received my cancer diagnosis just after the last election, I thought it was the end of the world; that I would be unable to carry on my job of representing the people of Huddersfield, and doing all the stuff I love about being an active parliamentarian. May we have a debate in the House on how cancer treatment has changed dramatically because of science, technology and the wonderful care from the NHS, including the wonderful team at Guy’s and St Thomas’s? Whether it is immuno- therapy or robotic surgery, which I had, the world is now much brighter than it had been for people diagnosed with cancer.

In a way, I want to send a message to His Majesty that it is not the end of the world. I have had a very active life since my diagnosis, and I can still make myself a real pain to Mr Speaker and my colleagues in the House of Commons. May we have a debate on how things have changed? Let us give a little good news to His Majesty.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for sending such a positive and thoughtful message not only to His Majesty the King, which I am sure is very welcome, but to all Brits who are living with cancer. There is a huge amount to celebrate, including treatments, our amazing research base and our fantastic third sector organisations. It is not just about the treatments, the drugs and the healthcare professionals; it is also about the financial advice and moral support that are often provided by our fantastic cancer charities. Of course, it is also about the people who work in the NHS and the agencies that support them. I think this would be a wonderful topic for a debate, and the hon. Gentleman will know how to apply.

May we have a debate on the death of Opposition politics and the rise of the uniparty? The tired pantomime of this House is played out in this Chamber by second-rate actors, but behind the scenes there are elite directors and scriptwriters. And we know the script, Mr Speaker: uncontrolled immigration will be seen as inevitable; eye-watering taxes for the many but tax evasion for the few is just a fact of life; the religion of net zero was to be indulged, whatever the cost; the forever wars will be supported, even if we have to hand over our children and our treasure; and there is no appetite for an investigation into the excess deaths around the world, and woe betide anyone who points out the inconvenient truth that the excess deaths are being suffered only by nations that succumbed to the magic juice.

I am tempted to say, in response to that, that it takes one to know one. I say to the hon. Gentleman that our democracy is strong. No matter whether someone agrees or disagrees with people who sit on these Benches, the views they have or the political party they represent, they are here because their constituents have sent them here. In the vast majority of cases, they are good people who are serving their constituents to the best of their ability, and they should not be tarnished with slurs against their character that they are working for some international Illuminati or that they do not care about people in their constituencies. Our democracy is the best in the world and it will remain so, not just because of the people on these Benches, but because of the people who sent them here.

I would like to add my best wishes to His Majesty the King.

This week, the Secretary of State for Education said that she was “confident” that 15 hours of free childcare would be delivered by April, but she then refused to guarantee it would be in place on time. Nurseries in Barnsley have raised their concerns about how they will deliver the policy, and this is creating yet more uncertainty. So may we have a statement on the delivery of the Government’s childcare policy?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question on an important matter. This Government are undertaking the largest expansion of childcare entitlements and support to the people of this country. This matter is of great interest to Members in all parts of the House. I will ensure that the Secretary of State has heard what the hon. Lady has said, and she will know that the next Education questions is on 11 March.

May I add my call for a statement from the Paymaster General about the contaminated blood scandal on the day we get back after the recess? I am delighted that the Leader of the House has announced two weeks of business for when we return the week after next, but we have been promised that the football Bill is imminent and it does not appear in the business for those two weeks, and there is also no sign of the Third Reading of the Renters (Reform) Bill. Will the Leader of the House explain what is going on with those two Bills?

Those Bills are being worked on and are making progress. I fully appreciate that both are eagerly anticipated and I hope they will get support from Members in all parts of this House. The hon. Gentleman will know my particular interest in the football governance Bill, and I know that many Members met stakeholders in the past couple of weeks regarding that Bill. I hope to update the House on it shortly; I hope we will bring forth that legislation shortly, and I will announce future business in the usual way.

In an increasingly cashless society, access to cash from free-to-use ATMs is increasingly scare. That is a particular issue in Old Trafford, in my constituency, where the main shopping parade on Ayres Road has no cash machine at all. May we therefore have a statement from the relevant Minister on how the Government will ensure that, as technology means we are increasingly cashless, people will continue to have access to their hard-earned money for free in their local communities?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point because access to cash is an absolute lifeline for particular people in our communities. He will know that the Government have issued the sector with guidance and expectations about making free-to-access cash machines available. That is monitored and mapped, and I will ensure that the relevant Secretaries of State in both Departments have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Last week, from across the Chamber, we heard unanimous expressions of deep disquiet at the prospect of a foreign state—and not a particularly friendly one—gaining control of The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph. I am unlikely to be a recipient of favourable coverage in either publication, but the Leader of the House just referred to us being the best democracy in the world, so it strikes me that freedom of speech, proper debate and a free press, not controlled by a foreign state, is part and parcel of that. May I respectfully request that we have a debate on the matter?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising awareness of that important point. I know that many Members have grave concerns about this situation. He is absolutely right that a free press and a competitive media sector are vital to our democracy; that should be a concern not just to everyone in the House, but to all our citizens. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has an obligation to intervene in media transactions where there is a public interest to do so. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has put his views on the matter on the record today. There is a statutory judicial process underway, so it would not be right for me to comment further, but I will ensure that the Secretary of State has heard what he and many other hon. Members have said.

I am sure that the Leader of the House is comforted and heartened to hear that where her party leads, the Labour party is sure to follow in major policy areas, such as the retention of tuition fees, Brexit, retaining the House of Lords and, of course, protecting bankers’ bonuses, while maintaining the two-child cap and rejecting universal free school meals for children. I appreciate that she does not speak for the Labour party—although, in truth, in important policy areas she might as well—but will she make a statement setting out why she believes it is okay to cap support for the poorest and most vulnerable children in our society, but not for bankers?

The hon. Lady does not appear to have got the memo from her party’s First Minister of the Scottish Government, because I think her party and the Labour party are planning to work together, perhaps to try to form a coalition in the not-too-distant future. An organisation that has conducted research into Scottish households with an income of less than £20,000 has said that 53% of those households feel they are not getting value for money from the Scottish Government. I would ask the hon. Lady to reflect on what the Auditor General said this week about the Scottish Government’s performance, what they are doing with their budget and the value for money that the poorest in Scotland are getting.

It is always a privilege to come to the House and ask a question of the Leader of the House because, as she says, this is the mother of Parliaments. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. This week we have been highlighting the rising persecution of those practising religion in Nicaragua, about which Lord Alton is admirably chairing an inquiry on behalf of the APPG, and working to develop a report on the conditions there, as religious leaders face arrest and religious groups face increased persecution by the Government. Will the Leader of the House join me in condemning Nicaragua’s actions against FORB, and ask the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to support Lord Alton’s inquiry into such persecution and ensure that there is a Government response?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for again raising these incredibly important matters, as he does diligently every single week. He will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) does great work in this important area as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, so I will make sure not only that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has heard what he has said today, but that my hon. Friend has as well, given her role. No one should experience discrimination for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will know that we take the matter very seriously, and we will work through the UN to promote those rights and raise his concerns on every occasion.

I thank the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for their participation this morning. Will Members leaving please do so quickly and quietly?

Protest Measures

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall make a statement on new Government measures to tackle unacceptable behaviour at protests.

In the aftermath of the horrific attacks on 7 October, many people took to the streets to make their views heard. Many did so peacefully and respectfully. I had the great privilege of marching alongside many people, including some in this House, against antisemitism on the streets of both Manchester and London. Sadly, those protests do not tell the whole story.

Over the past few months, we have all seen disturbing and distressing examples of hateful abuse, of serious damage, and of law-abiding citizens being intimidated and prevented from going about their daily life. The right to protest is fundamental to our democracy, but when we see people hurling racist abuse, desecrating national memorials of great significance to our country, or taking flares to marches to cause disruption and fear, the only reasonable response is outrage and disgust. Tolerating these actions would be radicalising in itself. This Government will not stand by and allow a small minority to incite hatred and commit crimes, undermining our proud tradition of peaceful protest.

Today, the Government have announced a package of measures to put a stop to this criminality for good. Protesters have for too long been able to claim in law that protest is a “reasonable excuse” for criminal behaviour. Blocking roads, preventing ambulances from getting through and stopping people from getting to work or visiting loved ones are breathtakingly selfish acts. The British public certainly do not see an acceptable justification for that level of disruption to their life. That is why we are removing that defence for relevant crimes. Protesters will no longer be able to cite the right to protest as a reasonable excuse to get away with disruptive offences, such as blocking roads.

Through the package that we are announcing today, we will crack down on those who climb on war memorials. In recent months, we have seen cases where individuals have broken away from large protests and scaled national monuments. War memorials belong to all of us. They are the altars of our national grief, and it is clearly not acceptable to disrespect them in that way; it is an assault on the memory of so many who gave their life for our freedom and to defend our nation. Attacking our national memorials goes beyond the legitimate exercise of free speech. We must not give those who commit criminal acts at protests the ability to get away with it by simply hiding their identity.

Once the legislation comes into force, the police will have new powers to arrest protesters at certain protests who wear face coverings to conceal their identity. Those who shout racist abuse and extremist rhetoric will no longer be able to hide from justice. We are also protecting the public by putting an end to people bringing flares on marches. Flares have been used during large-scale protests, and have been fired at police officers, posing significant risk of injury. A new offence will ban the possession of flares, fireworks and any other pyrotechnics at protests. Anyone who flouts the new rules will face serious consequences, including up to three months in jail and a £1,000 fine for those who climb on war memorials.

The changes that we have announced today build on the legislation that we introduced last year to help the police tackle disruption from protests. We criminalised interfering with key national infrastructure through section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023. Since we passed the Act last year, the Metropolitan police have made more than 600 arrests to minimise the disruption caused by Just Stop Oil. On Tuesday, the Home Secretary met policing leaders to thank them for their work, and to encourage the use of all existing powers at their disposal, as well as these new measures, to maintain order at protests. I am very grateful to frontline officers across the country for their efforts and successes in keeping the British people safe during an immensely challenging period. I know that policing these events on a regular basis is both complex and demanding. It takes officers away from crucial work preventing crime and protecting vulnerable people in our communities.

As I have made clear, freedom of expression is vital to our democracy, and this House champions it every day. People must be able to speak without fear, and have their right to peaceful protest protected, but those freedoms and rights are not absolute, for very good reason. There is no freedom to commit violence or intimidation, or to harass others. This country has laws against vocally supporting terror organisations for a very good reason, and last month, the Government proscribed Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organisation. That group actively celebrated the 7 October terrorist attacks in Israel that led to the rape and murder of many, many people. It is an organisation that has poisoned minds for far too long.

We must, and we will, continue to stand with communities who feel threatened, and ensure their safety wherever they live and work. The Government are sticking to the plan to give police the powers that they need to crack down on crime and keep our streets safe. We will never tolerate hateful, dangerous or intimidating behaviour. We will always put the decent, law-abiding majority first. We will do what is right and fair. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for his statement, and for advance sight of it. The Labour party absolutely respects the fundamental freedom to make legitimate, peaceful protest, but when that freedom is abused to intimidate, harass and harm others, safeguards must be put in place to protect the public. It is essential that the police be able to maintain public order while safeguarding the right to legitimate, peaceful protest. We will therefore scrutinise the details of the proposals to ensure that any new measures are applied appropriately and proportionately.

I will respond to the measures that the Minister has outlined. First, there are the new powers for the police to arrest protesters using face coverings to conceal their identity. While we understand the genuine concern about protesters committing public order offences while wearing face coverings, we are also concerned that there might be, at times, legitimate reasons why some protesters would want to wear face coverings. Let me give an example. When dissidents protest outside foreign embassies—the Minister will know which ones I have in mind—they may well want to conceal their identity to protect their family back home. The UK is, and should always be, a safe haven for dissidents opposing oppressive regimes. Can the Minister provide more detail about how that new power will be applied appropriately?

Secondly, the Opposition welcome a ban on flares and fireworks, which have been used to fuel public disorder and intimidate police officers in recent months. However, the policing of large protests could pose a challenge to enforcing the ban effectively, so I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what guidance will be issued to police forces on enforcing that at large protests with thousands of people in attendance.

Thirdly, on measures to protect the sanctity of war memorials, I know that the Minister will agree—as will, I am sure, every right hon. and hon. Member in the House—that they are extremely important places. They are places to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country, and they must always be respected. During protest activity last year, a very small minority of protesters desecrated the sanctity of war memorials, which understandably sparked outrage right around the country.

Protest activity also raised the issue of what is defined as hateful extremism. Despite promises, the Government have not so far been forthcoming with their definition of hateful extremism, which would help the police forces to police protests better. Can the Minister say when that will be brought forward, and outline when the Government will bring forward an updated counter-extremism strategy? The current one is eight years out of date.

The right to peacefully protest is a fundamental freedom in our country. It must not be abused, but it must not be curbed unnecessarily, either. The Opposition will scrutinise these measures further to ensure that they strike the right balance between safeguarding the right to protest and the important duty to safeguard the public.

I thank my hon. Friend—and he is my hon. Friend—for his support and comments. He is quite right that protecting peaceful protest and the right of free citizens to express their views on our streets is essential to the Government’s mission, and it is one of our priorities. The points that he raises are fair; in some cases, I will have to write to him with more detail, but I will cover some of the areas that I think matter greatly.

On face coverings, my hon. Friend raises important questions about when there might be a legitimate reason for somebody to cover their face. The guidelines and the legislation that we are setting out will cover that, because police officers will have discretion to give an order requiring a face covering to be removed. Those commanding the policing of protests will therefore have discretion over when they ask for that instruction to be carried out.

Secondly, on pyrotechnics, the instruction is quite clear: the measure relates to those participating in the protest. If, particularly around Diwali or Guy Fawkes’s day—not a day that I think anybody in this House would ever celebrate—people who have bought fireworks happen to pass a protest, they will not be caught by the offence. It refers to participation in the protest.

On my hon. Friend’s point about war memorials, he and I know far too many names that have been etched on to those stones. We also know that protests on war memorials can tear open extremely painful wounds that have long been closed. That is why I think the British people, quite rightly, saw the protests on war memorials as so offensive. That is why it is right that the Government act against the small minority desecrating such an important place in our hearts.

On my hon. Friend’s question about counter-extremism, the work being done by Robin Simcox is hugely important, and we are doing an awful lot to tighten up various elements of our counter-extremism policy. Indeed, I hope very much that I will be leaving the Chamber very shortly to have a meeting on that subject. The reality is, however, that it is a very complex subject; the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is currently working on a definition of extremism alongside the Attorney General. There is an awful lot that we must do to ensure that groups that pose the danger of extremism are addressed in other ways. That is where cross-Government working has been so important in ensuring that groups are transparent in what they are doing, in who is funding them and in where they are targeting their attention.

It is an honour to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who has just put a question to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister for Security.

Some demonstrations are perfectly acceptable. For example, in my early years as an MP, in order to get a relief road, I escorted mothers and their prams down a major road. We went at three and a half miles an hour, which was faster than the traffic would have gone had we not been there on a demo. It was a Friday evening and people were trying to leave London. We got the relief road.

I also led a march from Speakers’ Corner to Trafalgar Square for the Cambridge Two—two social workers who were wrongly convicted and jailed for helping the homeless.

That is different from the kind of disaster that happens when there are crowd surges, especially if they are created by explosions, be they from firecrackers or other things. I was present at Óscar Romero’s funeral, when 14 people died around me from crushing because explosives or fireworks went off.

I was present at the Heysel stadium in 1985 when 39 Italians were crushed to death. Being able to control demonstrations, which should be held by agreement and understanding with the authorities, is vital for them to be safe.

On a more minor scale, there was a flash protest outside my constituency office yesterday by good-natured people who care about the people in Gaza. Had there been one young worker in that place when suddenly a flashmob appeared around them, it would have been discomfiting. I am sure that that would not be caught by these measures, and nor should it be, but I say to those doing such protests: “Think of others.”

I ask my right hon. Friend to remember a last point about disruption. When there was one of the Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, in which people were allowed to sit around in the streets here—for far too long in my view—I said to one person who had flown in from Vancouver to join the protest that flying halfway across a continent and an ocean to help Extinction Rebellion was odd. I said, “What about the ambulances?” They said, “We’ll let them through.” I replied, “The ambulances are stuck 2 miles away. You can’t let them through. You must let people go about their ordinary business to save lives and for the prosperity of the country.”

I back the Government’s measures, and I hope my right hon. Friend knows that he will have support from across the House and the country for what he has proposed.

First, I thank the Father of the House for his support for these important measures, and indeed for his entirely correct observation that protest is not only necessary but important across the country. Every day, many protests happen politely, courteously and in ways that make their point without causing the kind of societal harms that, sadly, some cause. His longevity in this place, and indeed outside it, is a blessing to the House. He remembers the funeral of the late St Óscar Romero, whose extraordinary work was an inspiration to millions around the world. My hon. Friend reminds us not only that crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is not an expression of freedom of speech, but that, in this context, making an explosion in a crowded area can lead to human tragedy beyond expectation. The co-operation between protesters and the police is incredibly important for the protection of the public.