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Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

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Wednesday 14 October 2020
[Derek Twigg in the Chair]

Lord Chancellor’s Oath and the Rule of Law

Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice, in order to support the new call list system and ensure that social distancing requirements can be respected? Members should sanitise their microphones before they use them, using the cleaning materials provided, and respect the one-way system around the room, which goes anti-clockwise. Members can only speak if they are on the call list, and this applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches.

I also remind Members that there is less of an expectation that they should remain for the next two speeches once they have spoken; this is to help manage attendance in Westminster Hall. Members may wish to stay beyond their own speech, but they should be aware that in doing so, they may prevent Members in seats in the Public Gallery from moving into the horseshoe. That obviously will not be the case today, because we are not over-subscribed.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Lord Chancellor’s oath and the rule of law.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.

I should start by declaring an interest, as a non-practising member of the Scottish Bar, the Faculty of Advocates; as an honorary bencher of the Middle Temple; and as the lead petitioner in the case of Cherry v. Advocate General, in which connection I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The Lord Chancellor is required to make an oath that no other member of the Cabinet is required to make, and it reads as follows:

“I…do swear that in the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain I will respect the rule of law”.

When the Lord Chancellor took office in July last year, he took that oath at the royal courts of justice. Yet the past year has not been a happy one for the United Kingdom Government in respect of the rule of law.

In September last year, the Government suffered defeat in the Supreme Court of Scotland and the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, when the Prime Minister’s Prorogation of Parliament was ruled unlawful. Rather than a contrite response, what we saw was a combative one, laced with denial. The fallout of those cases—the Miller case and my own case, and the first Miller case—has led to repeated attacks on the legal profession and the judiciary, and now to proposals to restrict the right of judicial review of Government action.

That was the start of the Lord Chancellor’s first year in office. It has been bookended this September by the resignation of the UK Government’s Scottish Law Officer. It will be recalled that the Advocate General resigned last month with a letter informing the Prime Minister that he found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his obligations as a Law Officer with the Government’s policy intentions, and he is yet to be replaced.

The Advocate General for Scotland tendered his resignation in the wake of the statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill would

“break international law in a very specific and limited way.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]

Of course, that admission was elicited from him by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill).

In addition to the UK Internal Market Bill, we currently have two further Bills before Parliament that are unprecedented in legal terms. Both the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel And Veterans) Bill and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill seek to create special classes of defendants in domestic law in respect of whom the criminal law will not apply as it does to you, Mr Twigg, or me.

We also have reviews pending in administrative law and human rights that would appear to threaten the scope for British citizens to challenge unlawful actions of this Government in court. Of course, part 5 of the Internal Market Bill already seeks to do that in respect of certain aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol.

There are concerns that the Internal Market Bill will undermine the Good Friday agreement. It certainly runs a coach and horses through the devolution settlement and makes a nonsense of promises made to Scottish voters during the 2014 independence referendum.

Last week, I spoke at a webinar organised to discuss the implications of the Internal Market Bill for the rule of law. It was organised by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. The webinar was attended by more than 1,000 lawyers from across these islands, and a further 1,000 in the waiting room were unable to get in. Among the speakers who expressed concern about the implications of the Bill for the rule of law were not just lefty lawyers like me, but Baron Howard—Michael Howard QC—a former leader of the Conservative and Unionist party and of Her Majesty’s Opposition, who I do not think by any stretch of the imagination could be described as a lefty lawyer.

Therefore, the concerns that I am articulating today are felt across the political spectrum. It was very noteworthy that during the seminar, Lord Neuberger, a former President of the Supreme Court, expressed very grave concerns about the implications of the Internal Market Bill for the rule of law. Such concerns, when expressed by a former President of the United Kingdom Supreme Court in such trenchant terms as have been widely reported, are of some significance. They reflect the huge and widespread concern across these islands, expressed by the Law Societies and the Bars of Scotland and England and Wales, about the Bill, but also about rhetoric employed by the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister in respect of the legal profession.

At the beginning of September, the Home Secretary claimed that “activist lawyers” were frustrating the removal of migrants from this country. Days later, an immigration solicitor was the subject of a violent racist attack at a London law firm, and the Law Society of England and Wales wrote to the Home Secretary, warning her that inflammatory rhetoric has consequences. Nevertheless, the Home Secretary has doubled down on her rhetoric, and she has been joined in it by the Prime Minister.

At the Conservative party conference, the Home Secretary criticised people who make

“endless legal claims to remain”

in respect of asylum cases, and in the same speech she referenced those who

“lecture us on their grand theories about human rights”,

as well as referencing do-gooders and lefty lawyers. The Prime Minister, in his conference speech the next day, reiterated the sentiment, saying that the Government were

“changing the law…and stopping the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtless and rightly”

says the Prime Minister

“call the lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders.”

The leader of the Scottish Bar, the dean of the Faculty of Advocates, was so concerned about the comments that he has written what I would call an unprecedented letter to the Prime Minister in which he has expressed grave concerns on behalf of the whole Scottish Bar. I would like to read it out, because it is a short but powerful letter. It starts as follows:

“Dear Prime Minister

As I hope you know, the Faculty of Advocates represents the Scottish Bar. All Advocates qualified to practise before the Scottish Courts are Members of Faculty. All are bound by the cab rank rule.”

He explains that the cab rank rule means that advocates must be available for instruction by all and cannot pick and choose their clients. He goes on to say:

“Against that backdrop, I require to intimate, as Dean of Faculty and on behalf of all Members of Faculty, that I deprecate the recent pronouncements—from the Home Office, then from the Home Secretary, and latterly from the Prime Minister himself—to the effect that there is a problem with ‘lefty lawyers’ or ‘activist lawyers’ who are ‘hamstringing’ the justice system. Whether the topic is immigration, or crime, or the constitution, lawyers that act against the State are not being ‘lefty’, nor ‘activist’: they are doing their professional duty. It is simply unconscionable for Her Majesty’s Government to decry in this way the actions of professionals who, as the comments of Lord President Inglis”

in the famous case of Batchelor v. Pattison and Mackersy

“make clear, are not at liberty”

to pick and choose their clients. The dean of faculty goes on to say:

“In this country”—

by which I presume he means Scotland, but I think he would also apply it to the whole of the United Kingdom—

“(and the same cannot be said of all countries), instances of violence against lawyers are, fortunately, rare. However, in a climate of increasing populism, this sort of rhetoric is not only facile and offensive: it is potentially harmful. With great power comes great responsibility, and I have to say”

says the dean of faculty

“—with great respect—that I simply cannot fathom why it is thought in any way appropriate to attempt to vilify, in public, those that are simply doing their job, in accordance with the rule of law. I would accordingly, and again with great respect, ask each of you to eschew such unhelpful language, and to recognise that challenges to the executive are a necessary part of our democracy. Anything less would be a confession that we no longer live in a democracy.”

That letter was signed by Roddy Dunlop QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates. As he is an old friend of mine, I can assure Members that he is not, unlike me, a lefty lawyer. He is simply somebody who cares about the rule of law.

As I look around, I realise there are many lawyers attending this debate. I do not need to take up too much time by defining what the rule of law is. The great English jurist, Lord Bingham, set it out finely in his eight principles of the rule of law. It is worth reminding ourselves, in relation to the Internal Market Bill, that the eighth of Lord Bingham’s principles is that the state must comply with its obligations in international law, as in national law.

The responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor for the rule of law were set out very well in our December 2014 report from the House of Lords Constitution Committee:

“The rule of law is a fundamental tenet of the United Kingdom constitution. In the context of the Government, it means more than simple compliance with the letter of the law: it means governing in accordance with constitutional principles. The Lord Chancellor has traditionally had a key role to play, both by defending the independence of the judiciary and by ensuring that the rule of law is respected within Government. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 substantially changed the office of Lord Chancellor.”


“is no longer the head of the judiciary or speaker of the House of Lords, and since 2007 the office has been combined with that of the Secretary of State for Justice. Yet the duty of the Lord Chancellor in relation to the rule of law remains unchanged. This duty extends beyond the work of the Ministry of Justice and requires the Lord Chancellor to ensure that the rule of law is upheld within Cabinet and across Government.”

The Committee also emphasised that the Lord Chancellor has traditionally performed an important oversight role in relation to the United Kingdom constitution as a whole. I would argue that that is highly relevant to the implications for Northern Ireland and for Scotland’s place in the Union, which arise from the Internal Market Bill.

The Committee heard evidence from Lord Falconer, who was very much involved in reforms that took place under the previous Labour Government. His evidence stated that the Lord Chancellor had a “special role” to protect the rule of law, and that to think otherwise was

“to undermine what the Constitutional Reform Act had sought to do.”

In summary, the Lord Chancellor’s duty to respect the rule of law extends beyond the policy remit of his or her Department and requires him or her to seek to ensure that the rule of law is upheld within the Cabinet and across the Government. My purpose in holding this debate today is to draw attention to the very real threats to the rule of law currently posed by the actions of this Government and to ask the Lord Chancellor, having regard to his oath, what he intends to do about them.

There has been trenchant criticism from various quarters, fully rehearsed in debates in this House, about the legal implications of part 5 of the Internal Market Bill. For example, the Bar Council and the Law Society of England and Wales have said that the clauses contained in part 5 of the Bill,

“enable ministers to derogate from the United Kingdom’s obligations under international law in broad and comprehensive terms and prohibit public bodies from compliance with such obligations. They represent a direct challenge to the rule of law, which include the country’s obligations under public international law”.

As we have heard, that is why the Advocate General for Scotland tendered his resignation.

The Attorney General for England and Wales has attempted to justify her support for the Internal Market Bill by reference to the legal doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament and the judgment of the UK Supreme Court in the first case brought by Gina Miller on the circumstances surrounding the triggering of article 50. In that case, the Supreme Court held that, to be binding in domestic law, treaty obligations require to be enshrined in an Act of Parliament, but it also held that treaties between sovereign states, such as the withdrawal agreement, have effect in international law and are not governed by the domestic law of any state. It was clear that such treaties are binding on the UK under international law. I believe that the Attorney General has selectively quoted the case in order to justify her view of the Internal Market Bill. I want to know whether the Lord Chancellor agrees with me that a proper reading of the case makes a clear distinction between the domestic law and the doctrine of supremacy of Parliament, and the United Kingdom’s international legal obligations.

What I am talking about was made very clear when Professor Catherine Barnard, who is the professor of European Union law at the University of Cambridge, gave evidence recently to the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union. She was crystal clear that while the United Kingdom Parliament may be sovereign under domestic law that does not impact on the rules of international law, and articles 26 and 27 of the Vienna convention mean that in international law international legal obligations take precedence. Professor Barnard also explained that there is a strong argument that the very existence of the Bill itself puts the United Kingdom in breach of its duty of good faith under article 5 of the withdrawal agreement.

I emphasise that because I have no doubt that it will be argued later today that the Government amendments prompted by the action of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst cure any problems that part 5 of the Internal Market Bill poses for our international legal obligations. I shall argue that that is wrong for a number of reasons, one of which is the argument outlined by Professor Barnard that the very existence of the Bill, evincing an intention unilaterally to breach an agreement freely entered into less than a year ago, is in itself a breach of the withdrawal agreement and our duty of good faith under it.

I know that many cheerleaders for the Bill in Parliament have been keen to emphasise section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which restated the principle of the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. Of course that doctrine is a doctrine of the domestic law of England. It does not reflect the Scottish constitutional tradition, but that is perhaps an argument for another day. However, it is worth mentioning, because this Parliament is a Union Parliament, created by a treaty between two sovereign nations, Scotland and England. The United Kingdom is not a unitary state. It is a state of two countries that came together to form a Union. That fact is of relevance when we come to look at the impact of what is now clause 47 of the Internal Market Bill on the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session in Scotland. It is also a point that may be of some relevance should the Scottish Government carry out their threat to litigate over the terms of the Internal Market Bill.

The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) with whom I have in common a great respect for Lord Bingham—although otherwise, in relation to many matters of law, we rather part ways—has been peddling a line in Parliament that there is a history, albeit a limited one, of Acts of Parliament that have broken international law. I was pleased to hear Lord Sumption say trenchantly in a recent interview on “World at One” that that argument is “absurd” because it ignores the fact that sovereign states such as the United Kingdom can limit their freedom of action by treaty and frequently do, just as the Prime Minister did last year when he signed the withdrawal agreement. Lord Sumption stressed that there is no right to pull out of a treaty unless the treaty itself enables a party to do so. A party to a treaty cannot disregard parts of it at will. That is a matter of international law.

There is also a potential problem, and I would like the Lord Chancellor and his representative here today to address the problem of the ministerial code. Again, I will not say what I think about the ministerial code; I will say what the former deputy Prime Minister, Sir David Lidington, said in a letter to The Times last month. He said:

“Sir, My old friend Sir Bernard Jenkin is mistaken in believing that revisions to the ministerial code in 2015 removed the duty to comply with the UK’s international legal obligations. My clear understanding as a serving minister at that time was that international law continued to be covered by the general duty placed on ministers to uphold the law.

In 2018 a campaign group sued the May government…alleging that the 2015 change meant that we had abandoned our international legal responsibilities. The Court of Appeal found their case to be ‘unsustainable’ and ruled that a minister’s ‘overarching’ duty to comply with the law included international law and treaty obligations even though those were no longer explicitly stated in the code.”

The Lord Chancellor’s Minister will know that Sir David was referring to the Gulf case. What I want to know is: does the Lord Chancellor’s Department accept that Sir David Lidington was correctly stating the law? If so, what does the Lord Chancellor make of his duties under the ministerial code in relation to a Bill of this Parliament, the very existence of which is, according to Professor Catherine Barnard, a breach of international law?

The Lord Chancellor has endeavoured in the public domain to justify the fact that he has not, unlike the Advocate General for Scotland, resigned as a result of the Bill. He told Sky News last month that he would resign if the Government broke international law “in a way that cannot be…fudged”.

Can the Minister explain to us whether the Lord Chancellor’s position is that the UK Government are already breaking international law, but he is happy with that because they are doing it in a way that can be fudged? He also said that he will resign only if the Government break the law in a way that is “unacceptable”. What is an acceptable way of breaking the law? I am sure the thousands of ordinary members of the public who have been fined for breaking lockdown regulations, while Mr Cummings did so with impunity, would like to know from the Lord Chancellor’s Department how he distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable breaches of the law.

The Lord Chancellor has also tried to argue that the amendments drafted by the Government and prompted by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mean that the powers now contained in part 5 of the Bill will be used only if the European Union is in material breach of its obligations. He has described it as a

“‘break glass in case of emergency’ provision”.—[Official Report, 22 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 783.]

I would argue that there are a number of problems with that argument. First, there is the evidence of Professor Catherine Barnard, who told us at the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union that there is a strong argument that the very existence of the Bill is already a breaking of the obligation of good faith in the withdrawal agreement. Some of the other arguments have been made well in a speech by our former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), in the Commons just a few days ago. She said:

“I recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) has taken every effort to ameliorate the impact of these clauses,”—

she was referring to part 5—

“and the Government have accepted and put down their own amendment. But, frankly, my view is that to the outside world, it makes no difference whether a decision to break international law is taken by a Minister or by this Parliament; it is still a decision to break international law.”—[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 667.]

We have seen very much from comments not just from the Irish Foreign Minister, who described the amendments as “smoke and mirrors”, but also from senior Democrat and Republican politicians in the United States of America, that what really matters is the international perception of the Bill. I think the former Prime Minister was trying to persuade her colleagues in Government that the amendments do not make any difference to the international perception of what the Bill seeks to do.

The former Prime Minister also reminded us that an arbitration process is set down in the withdrawal agreement. She said:

“There is an arbitration process available. Under article 175, the ruling of the arbitration panel should be binding on the UK and the EU. The Government have acknowledged the existence of the arbitration procedure, but they are saying that they would enter into that in parallel with the operation of the elements of this Bill. The message, it seems to me, is very clear, which is, if we do not like the outcome of the arbitration panel, then we will break international law and we will not accept it. Yet, again, that is breaking the international treaty—an agreement that UK Government signed—because it is breaking article 175, which says that the view of the arbitration panel shall be ‘binding’ on both parties.”—[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 666.]

Those are the words of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead—not mine. In the light of this very distinguished criticism, I wonder how the Lord Chancellor can reconcile his support for the Bill with his oath of office.

Finally, I want to turn to look at the implications of the UK Internal Market Bill for the Union between Scotland and England and for the position of Northern Ireland. In addressing the implications of the Bill for Northern Ireland, I make no apologies for quoting again what the former Prime Minister said in her speech about the Bill in the Chamber. She said:

“I believe that the Government’s willingness unilaterally to abandon an international agreement or parts of an international agreement they have signed and their willingness to renege on an agreement they have signed will lead, as has already been made clear in an intervention, to some questioning the willingness of the Government to fully uphold the measures in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That, in turn, will lead to some communities having less willingness to trust the United Kingdom Government, and that could have a consequence on the willingness of people in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. So far from acting to reinforce the integrity of the United Kingdom in pursuit of trying to appear to be tough to the European Union, I think the Government are putting the integrity of the United Kingdom at risk.” —[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 666-667.]

Those are the words of a former British Conservative and Unionist Prime Minister, describing the implications of the Bill for the Good Friday agreement.

There are also very concerning implications for undertakings made in respect of human rights protections in the north of Ireland from the British Government, both in the Good Friday agreement and in the withdrawal agreement. Once again, that is not just my view; it is the view of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, who have advised that the Bill undermines

“the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement commitment to ensure incorporation of the ECHR, including access to the courts and remedies for breach of the ECHR rights. The Commissions are further concerned that the proposed amendments risk diminishing the commitment in Article 2(1) of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol to ensure there is no diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity as the UK leaves the EU.”

It has been made clear in the Chamber by hon. Members representing the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party in the north of Ireland that concerns about human rights implications of the Bill go right to the heart of the Good Friday agreement. Indeed, litigation is already contemplated by a group of concerned Northern Ireland citizens, who have instructed solicitors and counsel.

I turn to the position of Scotland, which is of course a particular concern to me as the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South West and the Scottish National party’s justice and home affairs spokesperson. As well as breaking international law, the powers that the UK Government seek to give themselves in the Internal Market Bill constitute an unprecedented threat to the powers of Scotland’s Parliament and the devolution settlement. Why is that relevant to the Lord Chancellor’s oath to uphold the rule of law? It is relevant because—as we saw from the House of Lords Constitution Committee report—the Lord Chancellor also has an important role in protecting the constitution of the United Kingdom. The constitution of the United Kingdom includes the devolved settlement.

Last weekend in Scotland we marked the 20th anniversary of the death of the distinguished Labour party politician Donald Dewar, who was Scotland’s first ever First Minister under devolution. He was also the architect of the scheme of devolution set out in the Scotland Act 1998 whereby every power not specifically reserved to this Parliament is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Bill introduces—for the first time—a new principle into the devolution settlement by providing broad cross-cutting powers to allow Ministers to enforce internal market provisions across devolved fields. That is not my analysis, I am reading from the analysis of Professor Michael Keating of the Centre on Constitutional Change.

Clause 50 reserves state aid to Westminster, after a dispute in which the Welsh and Scottish Governments argued that it had been devolved. Clause 48 gives UK Ministers wide powers to spend in devolved fields, which changes the previous assumption that they would spend only in reserved fields and that—with a few exceptions—financial transfers to the devolved administrations would go through the block allocation governed by the Barnett formula. That succinct analysis by Professor Michael Keating is the explanation of why the Bill undermines the devolved settlement. Holyrood is not getting any new powers that it did not already have, but Westminster is getting back sole control over state aid, and—in order to enforce the internal market—UK Ministers are getting an explicit power to cut across decision-making by the Scottish Parliament in a whole range of devolved fields.

It seems that what we are seeing, by virtue of those provisions in the Bill, is a rebalancing of the constitutional settlement as far as devolution is concerned, and a tearing up of the clear delineation between reserved powers and devolved powers that was devised by the late Donald Dewar, and set out in the Scotland Act 1998. That is important not just because it undermines the devolved settlement, but it is also important from a wider constitutional perspective, because in 2014—when people living in Scotland were asked whether they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom or return to our previous status as an independent sovereign nation—various promises were made by those urging us to remain part of the United Kingdom. One promise in particular was that if we did so our Parliament would get more powers, we would be strengthened, and we would become—to quote another Labour politician—

“the most powerful devolved parliament in the world”.

These were not promises made just by Labour politicians, they were promises made Conservative and Unionist politicians who, of course, are now the party of Government in the United Kingdom. A further Scotland Act was passed in 2016 that puts the Sewel convention on a statutory basis, and entrenched the Scottish Parliament against abolition. In terms of section 63A of the Scotland Act it cannot be abolished without a referendum in Scotland. The Internal Market Bill circumvents these protections not by abolishing the Scottish Parliament, but by removing the power it previously had to act unilaterally across a whole range of competencies that impact on the day-to-day lives of people living in Scotland. It is a very significant change, and some would say a complete and absolute undermining of the devolved settlement voted for by 75% of the people in the 1997 referendum. Thanks to the decision in the United Kingdom Supreme Court in the first Miller case, we now know that the Sewel convention was not justiciable despite being put on a statutory footing.

We also know, because of the Government’s subsequent actions, that the Sewel convention cannot protect the devolved settlement. The Sewel convention says:

“Westminster would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters…without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 791.]

Recently, however, that has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Last week, the Scottish Parliament withheld legislative consent to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, but nobody seriously thinks that the Bill will not proceed because of that.

Indeed, the Institute for Government recently said that the

“Sewel Convention has been broken by Brexit”,

but I would argue that the Bill breaks the devolution settlement. That is important because, as I said, the constitutional relationship—the constitution of the United Kingdom—is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. The constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is about not just devolution but the Act of Union, which continues because of promises made in 2014 that are broken by the Bill.

I suggest that many people in Scotland have suspected for a long time that the British Government’s word is no longer their bond, and that perception is reinforced by the Bill. The problem for the Lord Chancellor is that that perception is reinforced not just in Scotland, but across the world. In Europe, and as far as the United States of America, there are concerns about the implications of the Bill for the rule of law.

I have written to the Lord Chancellor about the Scottish aspects of the Bill and have not yet received a reply. He is a busy man, but I am keen to know his position. I, like many lawyers in Scotland, not all of whom, like myself, want to see an independent Scotland, but all of whom care about the independence of the Scottish legal system, are concerned about the provisions in part 5 of the Bill and their implications for the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session and for judicial review. In Scotland, judicial review is part of our system of civil justice, which is a devolved matter under the Scotland Act 1998 and therefore the preserve of the Scottish Parliament.

More importantly, in the constitutional and pre-devolution context, the authority and privileges of the Court of Session, including its inherent supervisory jurisdiction, are protected by article 19 of the treaty of Union between Scotland and England, which states:

“That the Court of Session, or College of Justice, do after the Union, and notwithstanding thereof, remain in all time coming within Scotland, as it is now constituted by the laws of that kingdom, and with the same authority and privileges as before the Union, subject nevertheless to such regulations for the better administration of justice, as shall be made by the Parliament of Great Britain”.

It is a widely held view that legislation that sought to narrow the scope of the Scottish Court’s powers of judicial review and to curtail the right of judicial review could scarcely be described as for the better administration of justice. Accordingly, should the United Kingdom Government seek to circumscribe the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session, they would be interfering with not only the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament, but the treaty of Union.

I respectfully remind the Lord Chancellor, as I did in my letter to him, that there is a large and respectable body of legal opinion to the effect that some parts of the treaty of Union between Scotland and England, including article 19, are so fundamental that the United Kingdom Parliament does not have the power to legislate in contravention of them. That argument has been discussed in a number of cases, but never definitively ruled on. If the intention is to restrict the right to judicial review in Scotland, I would venture to suggest that that might be the opportunity to get a court to definitively answer the question about the entrenchment of fundamental parts of the treaty of Union. Of course, the outcome of such a litigation could have knock-on effects for the Union itself.

To summarise, we need to see the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill in relation to Scotland through the prism not only of devolution, which is a modern development, but of the treaty of Union between Scotland and England. Without a Scottish Law Officer in place, this is an area in which the Lord Chancellor would be well advised, I respectfully submit, to take more of an interest.

I do not want to take up any more time; I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I finish by saying that there is a pattern of the United Kingdom finding ways to worm its way around laws and agreements freely entered into. Because of his oath to respect the rule of law, the Lord Chancellor is in a different class of Minister. What is he going to do about that pattern? What is he going to do to honour his oath? On taking office, he spoke of his illustrious predecessors as Lord Chancellor of England and drew a comic veil over some of the less illustrious ones. I guess my question for the Lord Chancellor today is: does he want to be remembered as a Thomas More or a Richard Rich?

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will call the hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), in that order. I would like to call the Opposition spokesperson, and then the Minister, at around 10.40 am, and to give the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) a minute or two to respond at the end.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Twigg, and to follow the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). I have great respect for her as a lawyer; we do not always agree in our political views, but I take seriously what she says on legal matters. I ought to mention my interests as a non-practising member of the English Bar, as a consultant to a law firm and as a bencher of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. I will start with the topic of the debate: the Lord Chancellor’s oath. The hon. and learned Lady ranged widely in her speech, and I am sure she will forgive me if I do not follow some particular matters that she understandably raised relating to the constitutional settlement and devolution.

The irony of this debate is that the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 does indeed place the Lord Chancellor in a different position from that of other Ministers, both because of the oath and because of their obligation under section 17(1) of the 2005 Act to respect the rule of law and defend the independence of the judiciary. Ironically, the Blair Government in 2005 never actually defined the rule of law in the Act. The late Lord Bingham, who has been much quoted already in this debate and probably will be again, noted that that was interesting and rather unusual, as it placed great reliance on a concept that was set out in statute but never defined. That, he concluded, clearly was not an accident; it was clearly because it was probably impossible, if not unhelpful, to find a pithy statutory definition that could be put in an Act of Parliament of something that has evolved over time. His conclusion in his admirable book, which I brought along this morning, is that it was desirable to leave the matter to be decided—as courts might need to, from time to time—in the practical, rather than purely in the abstract, as issues arose. That, perhaps, is wise.

That means that it was wrong for some in recent weeks, since the arrival of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, to make rather unjustified ad hominem attacks on the current Lord Chancellor—first, on his conduct throughout, and secondly, in making an assertion that the rule of law is potentially breached. An assertion is, of course, no more than that, and a legal argument, however distinguished, be it made by academic or legal commentators, is no more than that either. I have known the Lord Chancellor for his whole professional career, and the reality is that he is absolutely rooted in his commitment to the rule of law and to the profession, as he made clear when he took his oath and repeatedly since. I will come to part 5 of the Bill in a moment, about which my views are well known. However, I believe and am satisfied that the Lord Chancellor has acted diligently throughout all this to ensure that we deal with a potentially difficult situation proportionately and consistent with our obligations.

Since taking, the Lord Chancellor has also been clear in his support for the independence and integrity of the judiciary. Not all his predecessors in recent years have been; I say that frankly. There are people in all jurisdictions that we might wish to brush over, as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West put it. For every Lord Rich there is a Lord Braxfield, perhaps, and others who we might not wish to dwell upon. The reality is that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), has been meticulous in this. I welcome his clear commitment in his letter to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to the Government’s continuing support for the provisions of the European convention on human rights. He has been willing to be outspoken on that.

Reference was made to the risk to the rule of law being undermined by the Government’s proposals to examine the scope of judicial review. When I started my law degree at the London School of Economics—which was, I hate to say, in the early 1970s—judicial review was a very new and evolving legal concept. There was little of it in those days. It grew, as many of us will remember, through the Gouriet judgment, the Grunwick case and so on, and perhaps rightly so. There has never been a fixed corpus of law in this area, as there is in others, such as jury trial. There is nothing wrong in that; the advantage of the common-law system is that it can evolve.

No one would seriously say that, prior to the development of the current system of judicial review in, let us say, the 1970s through to the beginning of this century, Britain was not a country that was subject to the rule of law. A willingness to review the way in which judicial review as a concept operates, and what are or are not the proper limits, cannot be regarded as an assault on the rule of law per se, on any objective basis.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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I take that on board, but the difficulty is that the individual who has been put in charge of the review has evinced very strong criticisms of the Supreme Court’s decision in the prorogation cases and has also evinced hostility to the European convention on human rights, notwithstanding what the hon. Gentleman has already said. There is a widespread perception in the legal profession that what is intended here is to circumscribe the rule of law, not just because Lord Faulks is the chair but because of the Government’s rhetoric. Surely the hon. Gentleman must see that.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill
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Lord Faulks is a fellow bencher of the Middle Temple and a distinguished lawyer. That does not mean that one always has to agree with everything that he says. It would not be fair or reasonable to judge somebody by past comments until we have seen the results of the panel as a whole. Lord Faulks is the chair of the panel, but there are other very distinguished people on it as well. I respect what the hon. and learned Lady says, but this is a classic case of not prejudging the issue until we have seen the outcome of the deliberations.

I am a great believer in judicial review, in appropriate cases. Has it sometimes been abused? Many people would say that perhaps that can be the case. When I was the junior Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, I was critical of the attitude adopted to some decisions by the then Secretary of State, the noble Lord Pickles, is he is now, in relation to the removal of regional spatial strategies. We were judicially reviewed by large commercial housebuilders, undoubtedly in pursuit of their own vested commercial interests. They sought to prevent our removing the comparatively easy route, so they could impose large housing developments on communities that did not want them. I was critical of those house builders for doing that and for undermining in law the wishes of local residents. The courts found that they were entitled to do it, but that does not mean that we were assaulting judicial review as a concept, simply by criticising the motive behind some of the people who bring it.

There is an important distinction, which I recognise. We criticised the clients—the people who brought the judicial review—but I did not criticise the lawyers who were instructed on their behalf. I would not seek to do so. It is important to say that we should not, whatever our views in politics, use political arguments to attack lawyers generally or by taking broadbrush approaches. The attacks upon the judges, which were not perhaps called out as much as they should have been at the time of the early Miller litigation, were wholly disgraceful and unacceptable. The current Lord Chancellor has made it clear that he would not countenance such attacks and such language without speaking out. That is very much to his credit and entirely consistent with his own personal integrity. I do not care for the use of language such as “lefty lawyers” or the broadbrush approach of saying that systems are being hijacked. That is not language that I would use. However, I am a Member of Parliament; I am not a speech writer.

I gently observe that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West referred to the taxi rank principle at the Bar. That is something that I have always worked under as well. To be fair, there have always been sets of chambers that would not prosecute, or would not act for landlords, for example. Some might ask whether that is in theory inconsistent with the taxi rank rule. It probably is, yet it is not something that warrants a great deal of personal attack. I just make the observation that those matters cannot be seen in a purely academic sense. I would not make too much of that, but that is where I stand as far as that is concerned. It is pretty clear where the Lord Chancellor stands, and where I suspect my hon. Friend the Minister stands as well, as far as those matters are concerned.

The other issue raised is part 5 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, about which I was not a little critical when it was first introduced. I believe we have sought to improve that Bill. Is it perfect? As yet, that I do not know. Would the use of the powers in part 5 be wise politics? That is a very big question mark. However, that is not the same as, say, that it is per se constitutionally improper to put those clauses in the Bill, provided there are appropriate safeguards. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West might disagree upon that, but I think it is a legitimate area of legal dispute and the Lord Chancellor is entitled to have a different view from her and, indeed, perhaps from me in that regard, without it being suggested that he has failed to uphold his oath of office or his constitutional obligations.

I note the views, which have been referred to, of Professor Catherine Barnard. She is a distinguished academic and her views are worthy of respect. By their nature, however, she not being a judge or legislator, and valuable and worthy of respect though they are, they cannot be determinative of the point. It is one side of an argument that can properly be hooked. If, on those matters, there were no scope for difference of opinion, no scope for difference of legal interpretation, no scope for legal argument, there would scarcely be any scope for litigation and scarcely any scope for lawyers at the end of the day. It is perfectly possible for respectable lawyers to hold different opinions around matters of this kind, particularly in emerging areas of law or new legislation as it comes forward, without it being appropriate for us to say that either side is seeking to undermine constitutional principles or their professional or governmental responsibilities. That is the proper way to look at the position, as far as that is concerned here.

I am glad to say, in response to some of the endeavours, which I may have had a small hand in, the Government have made it clear that, effectively, they will only be using those powers should they ever be needed. I hope to heavens that they are never needed because we will get a deal, but should that be the case, there will be certain triggers that would have to be met, both in procedural terms but also in terms of substance. In particular, we would only do so had the European Union, in our judgment, demonstrated bad faith. Bad faith is recognised in international treaty law and in the Vienna convention as being a ground under which it is possible to derogate from an otherwise binding commitment.

The fact that we will be using this as a shield rather than a sword is important—it is the doctrine of equitable estoppel, in some respects. The Minister may well have more to say about that, but that is an important shift and one that I welcome. Therefore, the suggestion that the mere putting of those clauses on the face of the legislation is itself a breach of law is not one that is universally accepted, and I do not think therefore that it can be regarded as an act of impropriety on the part of the Government or of any Minister. As I say, there is a proper political debate as to the wisdom of using them, if we ever come to that, but that is not for today.

I want to say one final thing in relation to this. Lord Bingham was very clear that the rule of law itself is something that can evolve and must be flexible, but there are certain fundamentals. I do not think anyone would suggest that anything we are doing here alters the basic fundamentals. I am conscious of his eighth principle, but I do not think we are at that stage, and I hope we will not be. Moreover, he accepted that parliamentary sovereignty was a fundamental part of the rule of law too. There is always a set of checks and balances in that regard.

I have no problem with certain circumstances where the actions of Ministers properly should be reviewed by the courts, but I do not think this is really going to change that. Lord Bingham made it quite clear, though, that he did not accept the view advanced by, for example, Lord Steyn or Baroness Hale of Richmond that there are some concepts so fundamental that even Parliament cannot legislate to change them. He did not take that view. Again, there is a perfectly respectable dispute there and disagreement between highly distinguished former jurists, which makes the point that none of the arguments powerfully advanced by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West are determinative of any failing by either the Lord Chancellor or any other Minister in respect of their constitutional obligations.

This is a worthwhile debate to have. In a sense, an hour and a half is not enough to do it justice, because as we go forward, we are going to have to think about our constitutional and legal settlements in a broader sense, how we will operate the separation of powers in a post-Brexit world and how, continuing, as I hope, as a unified state with devolution within it, we can perhaps refine the arrangements that are required to make that work in practice too. Those are all proper matters for further consideration, but do not, I think, impinge upon any proper allegation of any failure by the current Lord Chancellor or his Ministers to act in accordance with their constitutional duties.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Before I call Rob Butler, I remind him that I intend to take the Front-Bench speakers around 10.40 am, so if he could keep his speech to around six minutes, so that the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) can get in, I would be very grateful.

Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler (Aylesbury) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.

I am not a lawyer, let alone one with the esteemed reputation of other hon. or right hon. Members, nor am I an academic steeped in the study of centuries of history or intricate international treaties. But for 12 years before I was elected, I served as a magistrate and for about 18 months was the magistrate member of the Sentencing Council; consequently, I set great store by the need to obey and respect the law.

I approach today’s debate as a layman, albeit one with a firm idea of justice and a clear sense of right and wrong, and I also do so with great respect for the seriousness of the matters being considered. The rule of law is a central tenet of the UK’s constitution. The office of Lord Chancellor carries such prestige as an officer of state that it comes higher than the Prime Minister in the order of precedence.

The twin subjects of today’s debate are the oath of the Lord Chancellor and the rule of law, and I will consider those in a fairly narrow sense, which perhaps reflects the naivety of a new Member of Parliament. The first element of the Lord Chancellor’s oath is to respect the rule of law. Despite that being a term with which we are all familiar, its meaning is, as we have already heard, subject to considerable debate.

A typical dictionary definition will elucidate straightforward principles, such as that all people in institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced. Eminent jurists have emphasised the principles of accessibility of power exercised in good faith and of equality before the law, whether prince or pauper. Indeed, I well recall the emphasis on the last from taking my own oath as a magistrate, when I promised to

“do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”

However, probing a little further reveals that the concept of the rule of law, and specifically in the context of the Lord Chancellor, is not as simple as it might at first appear. As we have heard, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which fundamentally changed the role of the Lord Chancellor, does not define the existing constitutional principle of the rule of law, nor the Lord Chancellor’s existing constitutional role in relation to that principle.

Like the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), I have read the 2014 report from the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution on the office of the Lord Chancellor. In addition to what she said, it also noted that

“the rule of law ‘is not readily defined or readily understood.’ Not all lawyers will agree on what the rule of law entails; differences of opinion will undoubtedly also occur between different Lord Chancellors… ‘the rule of law remains a complex and in some respects uncertain concept’.”

Those words are significant in the context of the matters we are debating, indicating that we should not try to oversimplify and must accept that there is room for nuance of opinion.

Another aspect of the Lord Chancellor’s oath is to defend the independence of the judiciary. Rare indeed is the suggestion that the British judiciary is anything but independent. Indeed, sometimes the press, the public or, dare I say, politicians feel the judiciary is a little too independent. Many have been the tabloid headlines that criticise judges for imposing a supposedly light sentence on an offender whose crime has outraged public opinion, but that judge has invariably used their experience and knowledge to pass a sentence according to the law and sentencing guidelines, which can be appealed through higher courts but not influenced by any political opinion.

Even if there are protestations by hon. Members at the level of a sentence, there is never seriously a proposal to have a form of political accountability for the judge or magistrate. This remains the case, even in judgments that go against the Government, of which we have seen more than a few in recent times. I submit that the independence of the judiciary is further reinforced by the role of the Judicial Appointments Commission, the independent body that selects candidates for judicial office in courts and tribunals in England and Wales on merit, through fair and open competition.

The final element of the Lord Chancellor’s oath is to discharge his duty to

“ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts”.

Now, all of us who have served in the courts in recent years know that they have experienced considerable reduction in resource, as a result of necessary spending restraint by the Government of the time, but there is now an ambitious programme of court reform, which aims to bring new technology and modern ways of working to the way that justice is administered that involves the investment of £1 billion in the courts and tribunals system.

I take this opportunity to highlight the fact that, during the current coronavirus pandemic, the courts have risen to the challenge from the Lord Chancellor to ensure that justice could continue to operate. In particular, magistrates courts are responding magnificently. Consequently, disposals have outstripped receipts since the end of July. I also, unashamedly, highlight the initiative and imagination of staff at Aylesbury Crown court in my constituency, who have adapted their layout and ways of working, so that they can return to working at 100%.

Behind today’s debate seems to be a question whether the Lord Chancellor is in compliance with his oath. I have not been an MP long, but in my short time here I have met the Lord Chancellor on several occasions, questioned him in the Justice Committee and on the Floor of the House, and heard him speak from the Dispatch Box on all manner of topics. One thing is abundantly clear to me: the Lord Chancellor is a man of the highest integrity. He has spent his entire career in the law and respects the law to the core of his being. Indeed, at the ceremony to mark his swearing in, he said that he had sworn an oath to defend the independence of the judiciary and respect for the law that had far more than formal relevance. It is my firm conviction that he demonstrates his absolute and unwavering commitment to that oath day in, day out.

I said a few moments ago that I wanted to address the specific nature of today’s motion. In the few seconds that remain, I must recognise that it would seem odd were I not to say a few words about the Internal Market Bill, which, in many respects, prompted this debate. Clearly, that was a matter of profound importance for me, given the concerns that were raised about international law being broken.

Probably the first thing that I learned in my time on the Bench was that it is important to listen to both sides of the argument before reaching a decision, not jump to a verdict immediately after the prosecution has presented its case without hearing from the defence. I am grateful for the time that the Attorney General, in particular, spent talking to me about what was going on. I must say that the parliamentary lock that was achieved largely through the efforts of the Chairman of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), combined with the knowledge that such a course of action would only ever be a last resort, provided me with necessary and sufficient resource.

The law is precious. It is both fragile and robust. Overseeing the rule of law is a profound responsibility marked by the weighty oath of the office of Lord Chancellor—an oath, I submit, that is fulfilled with distinction by the current holder of that great office of state.

Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on securing this important debate.

I should say at the outset that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), I am not a lawyer, but as a journalist I have written a lot about international law, the making and breaking of international treaties, and EU law in particular, as Europe correspondent for The Times. I have also instructed a lot of lawyers. I spent perhaps tens of millions of pounds instructing lawyers on international legal disputes—some with foreign Governments—and I am proud to say that I have won every single case in which I have been involved. Dealing with all that is a painful experience, and I have quite a lot of experience.

I will make just two points because my comments have to be brief. I will start with the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which prompted the debate, but I will not address all the points that the hon. and learned Lady made, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury answered some of them. Secondly, I will address the impact that the Bill has on the UK’s standing, which we have not talked about much today, even though that was very much part of the political debate.

On the question whether clause 5 of the Bill breaks international law, I draw the attention of hon. Members to article 6(2) of the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement, which states:

“Having regard to Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom’s internal market, the Union and the United Kingdom shall use their best endeavours to facilitate the trade between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom”.

The lawyers present will know that “best endeavours” is a legal term and a much stronger requirement than just doing one’s best to agree.

The Government included clause 5 as an explicit response to the threat from the EU’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, that the EU would not actually recognise the UK as a third country for agricultural produce, which would effectively have made it illegal for the UK to sell goods into the single market area, particularly Northern Ireland. That would have meant a ban on trade in agricultural produce from England and Scotland to Northern Ireland, which was unconscionable.

If the Government had immediately used the powers granted by clause 5, that would have been a breach of international law, but that is not what they did. There are three triggers for using those powers: first, if no deal is reached, which we do not yet know, although I certainly hope, as does the whole House, that one is reached; secondly, if there is no agreement of the Joint Committee on the border controls in Northern Ireland; and thirdly, after a vote in Parliament, if the EU breaches best endeavours and carries out its threat not to recognise the UK as a third country for agricultural produce.

If the EU did carry out that threat, I think it would be in breach of its treaty obligations, which would release the UK from its obligations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) mentioned. If we ever used those powers in those circumstances, in no way would they be a breach of international law. I am grateful that the Government recognised the importance of a parliamentary vote to ensure that that does not happen. I really do not think that the Bill is a breach of international law.

My second point is about the impact on the UK’s standing, which is what a lot of the political debate and concern have been about. I have written a lot about international law, and the UK has been one of the bastions of law abiding in the international community for centuries—certainly for decades—and is very well regarded by other countries.

One issue that I wrote about was the Maastricht treaty in 1992, which Sweden signed before holding a referendum on joining the euro. Sweden was committed by international treaty to joining the euro, but unfortunately, the people of Sweden said no in the referendum. Sweden said, “No, we are not going to join the euro,” and it is in permanent breach of its international treaty obligations, but that does not make Sweden a pariah state. One has to be grown up about these obligations.

I really do not think the Internal Market Bill breaches international law. I have taken advice from lots of legal friends about it, and they have reached the same conclusion. Even if it did break international law, it would not affect the UK’s international standing.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Thank you for your brevity.

David Lammy Portrait Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab)
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I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on securing this important debate. I declare an interest as an associate tenant at Doughty Street chambers, a non-practising member of the Bar, and a visiting professor in practice in the department of law at the London School of Economics

Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest, habeas corpus, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, the system of common law—for centuries, the United Kingdom has led not only in the creation of the rule of law, but in spreading that around the world. That simple but revolutionary idea was born out of two others: first, that there should be no power beyond or above the law and, secondly, that the law applies equally to all people—women and men, rich and poor, black and white.

Today, it is too easy to assume these principles always existed; they did not. For many parts of the world, they still do not. Ask the people of the Congo, China, Russia or Venezuela how life is without the rule of law. It was won in this country only as a result of human ingenuity, struggle and tremendous sacrifice.

I am shocked to be standing here today debating the importance of the rule of law with a Conservative Government. I have never been shy about my disagreements with Tories, but this is an issue on which I have previously respected the party now in government. The rule of law used to be fundamental to capital “C” Conservative thinking. It was the basis for all that Tories once valued—the ownership of property, security, the right to personal liberty, the freedom to live in a society without anarchy, fairness in business, law and order. From Edmund Burke to Margaret Thatcher, and even up to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the rule of law has been just as valued on both sides of the House.

So bipartisan was the British devotion to this idea that we became the global home of the law. The UK has the second largest legal sector in the world, second only to the United States of America. It contributes £60 billion to the UK economy and is one of our strongest global exports. Businesses and individuals from all parts of the globe flocked to this country to write contracts in English law and settle disputes in our courts. They did that because they trusted us. Whichever party was in government, the rule of law would be respected. That is no longer the case.

There are previous political decisions that were made by Governments when the law was not entirely clear and when it was arguable either way whether an action was lawful. That is not what we are talking about today. Last month, a Cabinet Minister stood up in the House of Commons and stated openly that the Government will deliberately break the law. That did not force the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to resign. It was a decision plotted in No. 10 and supported by the whole Cabinet. Most shamefully, it was backed by the so-called Attorney General and the so-called Lord Chancellor. Both ignored the special obligations of their offices in order to keep the keys to them.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s comments were not an aberration. They were a statement of intent from a Government who appear to believe in lawlessness and disorder. The country will not forget the Government closing down Parliament unlawfully. The public will always remember the arrogance with which Dominic Cummings broke the law after months of national sacrifice—we will not forget the shamelessness and mendacity with which he explained away the breaking of a law that he helped to create.

Under this Government, the public are all thinking the same: one rule for us, another rule for them. One fool for us, and another for them. The law must be the same for everyone. If it is not, respect for the rule of law ends. That should be self-evident. It is a great shame that a principle this fundamental now has to be fought for once again.

It is not only the law that is to be targeted by this Government, but the lawyers and judges who spend their time dedicated to upholding it. When Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rammed a law through Parliament undermining the independence of the country’s judiciary, we all condemned the regime’s shift towards authoritarianism. When the Polish Government passed a law to make it possible for judges to face disciplinary measures when they make rulings that the Government do not like, Labour and Conservative supporters were equally appalled. Brits from all political traditions should be just as outraged by the UK Government’s attack on judicial review, because it is from the same authoritarian playbook.

On 3 September, the Home Secretary said that deportations were being “frustrated by activist lawyers”. In saying this, she was not attacking activists, but inciting anger against immigration lawyers for representing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Words have consequences. On 7 September, a man with a large knife entered a London law firm and threatened to kill an immigration solicitor—cause and effect. The Law Society was forced to write to the Government to say:

“It must be ensured that no further lives are endangered as a result of her untruthful and deliberately inflammatory rhetoric. Put simply, this must stop now, before innocent lives are taken and other irreparable damage is done to those who work in this field.”

Who will stand for the law? Not the Prime Minister. At the Conservative party conference, he launched his own attack on “lefty lawyers”. This debate is not about partisan politics; it is about the future of our democracy. It is about the safety of our communities and the freedom that order can bring. Respect for the rule of law is for the benefit of every person in this country, whatever their political views. Without it, we descend into barbarism: the rule of the jungle, anarchy, lawlessness, disorder and mob rule. Attacks on the rule of law undermine the very basis of our civilisation. Enough is enough. This Conservative Government must remember their principles before they are lost for ever. As Margaret Thatcher once said:

“Being democratic is not enough, a majority cannot turn what is wrong into right. In order to be considered truly free, countries must also have a deep love of liberty and an abiding respect for the rule of law”.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and to respond to a debate back here in Westminster Hall. I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on securing the debate and thank her for her wide-ranging but tightly-argued important representations. I have 12 minutes to respond to her points, which were made quite properly at greater length, and I hope she will forgive me if I am unable to touch on every point she raised.

As its title indicates, this debate focuses on the Lord Chancellor’s oath and the rule of law. It is important to note a point that will not be lost on the people in this Chamber, but which bears emphasis: the role of the Lord Chancellor is different from that of the Law Officers who provide legal advice to the Government and assist them to find lawful and proper ways to achieve policy objectives. The Lord Chancellor does not provide legal advice to the Government of the day. His duties, while very important in their own right, are different.

The Lord Chancellor’s oath, as we have heard, was set out in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which preserved the principle of the “rule of law”, and as the hon. and learned Lady has already stated, it continues:

“I will respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge my duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which I am responsible.”

As is immediately apparently, the Act does not define specifically the constitutional duty in respect of the rule of law. To say there are arguments might be overstating it, but there are certainly differences of emphasis about the scope and content. The 2014 report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which has been referred to, discussed this very issue of scope. Interestingly, it was Dominic Grieve who said in his evidence that the duty was

“currently considered to relate to his or her department, rather than an overarching guardianship role”.

However, as the hon. and learned Lady said, Lord Falconer took an entirely different view, and the Committee overruled and thought that it was wider.

The Cabinet manual is silent on this particular topic. It refers to the role of the Law Officers in

“helping ministers to act lawfully and in accordance with the rule of law”,

but it makes no mention of the Lord Chancellor’s duty in that respect.

One thing that is tolerably plain is that the role has evolved since the judicial roles fell away. As the report noted in paragraph 63, because of those changes,

“the roles of other individuals and institutions have taken on a greater importance in this respect.”

None of this is in any way to downplay the role of the Lord Chancellor, which remains very important, but that role has to be set in a wider context.

So, that is about the scope.

What about the content? The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the distinguished Chairman of the Justice Committee, have referred to Lord Tom Bingham’s magisterial work, “The rule of law”, in which he identified the core principle of the rule of law as being

“that all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly and prospectively promulgated and publicly administered in the courts.”

As the hon. and learned Lady said, Lord Bingham went on to outline eight principles; we have heard reference to the eighth today. It is also correct to say that other formulations exist; for example, Professor Lon Fuller wrote a distinguished treatise on the authority of law.

Even if lawyers debate its precise parameters, the expression “the rule of law” is generally accepted to include the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and upheld. It is important that we do not disappear down a rabbit hole on this. The expression is apt to include: one, equality before the law, which is the point that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) powerfully made; two, access to independent and impartial justice; and, three, a Government subject to the law, which is a point I will return to. These principles are indeed the bedrock of the freedoms and protections we enjoy in a modern and mature democracy. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West is a lawyer, the right hon. Member for Tottenham is a lawyer, and so is the Chairman of the Justice Committee. I recognise that lawyers play an important role in upholding those principles. As we know in this Chamber, lawyers have a primary duty, indeed an overarching duty, to the court. Thereafter, they are obliged to fight their client’s corner without fear or favour, and that means doing their best within the law to defend their clients’ interests, and doing so whether or not they agree with the substance of the claim, or indeed the matter.

The Lord Chancellor made comments that particularly resonated with me in his Temple speech at the opening of the legal year earlier this very month. He said that

“it is wholly wrong for any professional to be threatened, harassed or worse, attacked simply for doing their job—we must call it out and deal with it. And make the point that those who attack people providing a professional service will be subject to that very same Rule of Law.”

I entirely agree with that.

Of course, the rule of law is not a purely British notion, although we might like to be proprietorial about it. Students of history will remember that the future President of the United States, John Adams, famously took on the role of defending British soldiers accused of the Boston massacre at the end of the 18th century. It was a deeply unpopular thing for him to do personally, but he was absolutely right to do it.

Let me turn now to the principles that I have rehearsed. The first is equality before the law. Let me take the opportunity to restate the Lord Chancellor’s commitment to our long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, and that our international human rights obligations are fulfilled. This was mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West as regards Northern Ireland. As the Lord Chancellor set out in his letter to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights:

“The UK remains committed to the convention”—

that is, the European convention on human rights—

“and will continue to abide…by our obligations under it.”

After all, and I am sure that we all know this, it was a Scots Conservative lawyer, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who played a central role in the formulation of the first draft of the convention after the horrors of the second world war.

The important point that I want to make is that the convention contains a number of rights, not all of which I will restate here. One of them, of course, is article 14, which determines that

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

That matters, because it is relevant to article 6, which for lawyers is perhaps the pre-eminent article in the convention—I suppose that the right to life is quite important as well—and that is the right to a fair trial. Our courts must do justice and uphold the fairness of proceedings without discrimination. The Lord Chancellor himself is very conscious of that, and I pause to note that he has himself sat as a recorder of the Crown Court.

My second point—I will speed up—is about access to independent and impartial justice. An independent judiciary is the cornerstone of our constitution and democracy. Our judges are selected following a rigorous, independent, merits-based process, which is key to maintaining the quality, integrity and independence of the judiciary. Our constitution recognises that. A point that is sometimes lost is that judges of the High Court and above cannot be removed from office without an address passed by both Houses of Parliament. Judges are also largely immune from the risk of being sued or prosecuted for what they do in their capacity as a judge. They also benefit from immunity from being sued for defamation for the things they say about parties or witnesses in the course of hearing cases. They can and must dispense justice fearlessly, without fear or favour. They do that magnificently well, and we are extremely fortunate to have them. The protections exist for a good reason, and the Lord Chancellor jealously guards them.

The Government are subject to the law. In his speech earlier this month—the one at Temple Church at the opening of the legal year, to which I referred—the Lord Chancellor said:

“Sometimes a lawyer will find the argument they advance to be at odds with the Government of the day—but it frankly is a strength of our mature democracy underpinned by the Rule of Law that such debates can occur.”

Reform, which I accept that the right hon. Member for Tottenham takes issue with, is not, we would submit, automatically to be rejected. Many arrangements can benefit from a considered examination, and the Chair of the Select Committee made that point particularly powerfully. The independent—I stress the word “independent”—review of administrative law endeavours to look at that, but let me say this: the baby will not be thrown out with the bathwater. Judicial review is at the heart of the rule of law in this country. It allows citizens to challenge the Government and other public bodies. The Lord Chancellor is clear that the Government need to be challenged.

I listened to the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West about the panel to which she referred, which had a former Supreme Court judge, Dominic Grieve, Lord Howard and others—including Jessica Simor, I think. Reference was made to ouster clauses, and I want to make the point that there is nothing in the relevant sections that seeks to ouster completely judicial review. Indeed, if a challenge were brought on the basis of procedural impropriety or all the other familiar grounds, those are not ousted. It is important to keep those concerns in proper context.

On the provision of resources, I know the Lord Chancellor is personally committed to supporting the courts through this pandemic. I mention that because it is part of his oath—adequate resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) was absolutely right. People seem not to have picked up this point, but the magistrates courts are doing an incredible job. Since the end of July, disposals have exceeded receipts, and that is to their great credit. We accept that it is much more difficult in the Crown court, but the boost that has gone into increasing the amount of technology in the system, and indeed the maintenance budget, is very welcome. It replicates a tripling of funding. We are making progress across all jurisdictions. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, even if the current volume of cases is not, and it could be necessary to look to further creative solutions in the future.

I shall turn to UKIM in the minute that I have left available to me. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West is right: Catherine Barnard did say that the very existence of the Bill is a breach of duty of good faith. She said there is a strong argument to that effect, but, respectfully, there are strong arguments in all sorts of directions. As the Chair of the Select Committee said, that is not of itself dispositive.

Before turning to part 5 of the Bill, let me state in general terms that the Bill has been designed to offer businesses the certainty they need and to protect trade and jobs in every part of the UK. I do not accept for a moment that it undermines the devolved settlement, notwithstanding the powerful points that were made. When the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West mentioned Donald Dewar, I pause to recall that, yes, he is sometimes referred to as the “father of the nation”. However, I remember his son saying of his father, with great power, in a 2014 article in the Daily Record:

“If he was with us today, dad would be an eloquent and passionate campaigner for Scotland to keep her place within the union.”

I hope the hon. and learned Lady will forgive me for making that point. The key point about part 5 of the Bill was set out by the Government on 17 September. It would be used

“only in the case of, in our view, the EU being engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations, and thereby undermining the fundamental purpose of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Let me close by thanking the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West for securing this important debate. On a personal note, I am very pleased that the Lord Chancellor is in post. He has practised as a lawyer and served as a recorder, and he understands the law’s central role in a fair, free and ordered society. The rule of law matters, and the Lord Chancellor has an unshakeable commitment to uphold it.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Joanna Cherry, you have nine seconds.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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It has been a good debate, but I do not think there have been any answers to my pointed questions. What we need to remember is that it is not a question of growing up; it is a question of the weight of legal opinion. The weight of legal opinion on the Bill is clear.

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

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I suspend the sitting for two minutes. I remind Members to leave via the entrance on the right-hand side.

Sitting suspended.

RAF Valley: Funding and Employment

Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of funding and employment in RAF Valley.

Bora da—good morning. It is an honour and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I must declare an interest, as I am a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme.

Anyone who wants to spend time in my beautiful constituency of Ynys Môn should know that there is an RAF base there. They might never have seen or even heard of it, but they will know it the first time one of the Hawk jets goes overhead. That is also a great way to spot a local because locals rarely look up when the planes fly over. They simply pause their chat for a few seconds and resume naturally when the noise has passed. Visitors, on the other hand, stand there with a shocked look that says, “What on earth was that?” My children hear the jets as they fly over our home near Valley, and I say to them, “It’s the sound of freedom.”

RAF Valley has long been a flying training station for the RAF and Royal Navy. It is the home of No. 4 Flying Training School, where No. 25 Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander Tim Simmons, and No. IV squadron, commanded by Wing Commander Jamie Buckle, provide advanced jet training for the next generation of RAF and Royal Navy fighter pilots. They train in the BAE Systems Hawk TT jet, which has advanced avionics and is the perfect leading trainer for pilots moving on to frontline aircraft, such as the Typhoon and the F-35 Lightning.

No. 72 Squadron, led by Wing Command Chris Ball, joined the base last year and carries out basic flying training in the Texan T1 aircraft. RAF Valley provides two thirds of the UK’s fast-jet training, delivering basic and advanced courses. The pilots trained at RAF Valley go on to secure the skies, protect UK airspace at home and defend UK interests overseas. The station is home to the UK military flying training system, one of NATO’s most advanced fighter pilot training programmes, and RAF Valley is an acknowledged centre of excellence. It is Britain’s equivalent of “Top Gun”.

RAF Valley is the base for the RAF mountain rescue service, which is expertly led by Squadron Leader Ed Slater. His team is on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to save lives and support the UK and local emergency services. Barely a day goes by in the summer without the Daily Post citing another daring rescue in Snowdonia—the kind of press coverage that my team can only dream of. The 202 Squadron is also based at RAF Valley, where, under the leadership of Squadron Leader Martin Jarvis, it teaches UK military helicopter crews highly skilled maritime and mountain flying techniques. There has been an RAF base there since world war two, when it was established as a fighter station to defend Merseyside, the industrial north and the Irish sea from enemy air and sea activity. From 1943, it was a major staging post for United States army air forces arriving from the United States to help the war effort. It has long been established as an operational training base.

Ynys Môn is rightly proud of its RAF heritage and RAF Valley is an integral part of its fabric. I declare a further interest, as my grandparents were in the RAF during world war two—indeed, it is where they met—so I have a real passion for the service, as I would not be here without it.

RAF Valley is more than just a military base. It is the second largest employer on Anglesey after the local authority. It has a Whole Force of about 1,500 personnel made up of approximately 350 military and civil servants and 1,150 industry partners.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. In the short time that she has been in the House, her industrious efforts on behalf of her constituents have been recognised by everyone, including me. I put that on record. She just referred to the numbers. Does she agree that the work carried out by the 1,500 RAF service personnel, civil servants and contractors shows that it is essential for the area—for not just the RAF station, but the community—and that the relationship between the RAF and the community is important? Does she also agree that the Minister should help her in his response?

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. It is my privilege to support Ynys Môn. I agree that the RAF plays a significance role on the island.

Many other local people are reliant on work in the station’s supply chain, and many large companies support its output, such as BAE Systems, Babcock International, Ascent Flight Training, Affinity Flying Training Services, Airbus Helicopters and Eurest Support Services. From highly skilled engineers to kitchen staff and cleaners, every single one of them plays a key role at RAF Valley. It is a critical part of the island’s economy. Many children from the base go to local schools and learn Welsh, and staff and their families integrate within the community. Many return to live on the island when they leave the RAF.

The Whole Force team, led by Group Captain Chris Moon, intentionally develops close formal and informal local connections. Engagement activities include community council briefing days, working with Bangor University on history research projects and liaising with Wales armed forces covenant stakeholders. It has actively supported the local island games team which, we have just learned, has won its bid for the 40th anniversary of the International Island games to be held on Ynys Môn in 2025. RAF Valley organises safety campaigns, works closely with the local aviation society and provides personnel to support the local Royal National Lifeboat Institution, mountain rescue and first responder groups.

The rural outlying nature of Ynys Môn means that activities for young people on the island can be sparse. There are high levels of youth unemployment and school attainment is generally below average, particularly for boys. Seeing a clear gap in the market, RAF Valley operates extensive youth engagement programmes involving many local groups. Civilian and military personnel from the base, in particular June Strydhorst and Squadron Leader Graeme Muscat, are proud to support the Jon Egging Trust, with its inspirational and award-winning outreach programme for 14 to 16-year-olds. RAF Valley has hosted the under-16 and under-18 Welsh Rugby Union training camp and offers junior football and tennis camps in association with the Isle of Anglesey County Council.

With Bangor University, RAF Valley supports the Profi project, an experiential learning and mentoring programme aimed at 18 to 24-year-olds, and STEM Cymru projects. It also works closely with Careers Wales to support youth projects across north Wales and help young people to establish transferable skills and find employment. For local schoolchildren, the station hosts on-site STEM activities and school days, and is actively involved in the air cadets, girl guides and scouts. Many of the military personnel volunteer with local youth organisations while they are based at the camp.

Indeed, RAF Valley has an active station charities committee, and many charities across north Wales have benefited from funds raised by the station. Charity track days, aviation society spotters days and the Tour de Môn cycling event are just a taster. I cannot wait to stick on my white beard and face mask and join them on their Santa drop to Ysbyty Gwynedd this Christmas. From organising beach cleans to their thrift shop recycling project, to acting as custodians for a section of the famous Anglesey coastal path, RAF Valley is definitely part of day-to-day life on Ynys Môn. Indeed, the Padre —Mike Hall, who I met recently—told me that they even support entrepreneurs in their community centre.

I am fortunate that the RAF community embraced and welcomed me. I visited the station recently and was taken around by Group Captain Moon, who proudly showed off his station, and particularly his dedicated and devoted staff. He told me:

“Whilst the RAF might seem to be high tech equipment focused from the outside, it is our people, from across the Whole Force, that really give us our edge. Some of our people have worked here for over 40 years, and if you cut them open it would say RAF Valley on the inside!”

While there, I saw and spoke to members of the Whole Force carrying out a range of duties, and from the minute I arrived on station, the site’s “one-team” approach was clear. While visiting 72 Squadron, which played a key role in the battle of Britain, I met many of the military and civilian personnel of Ascent and Affinity. They are rightly proud of the heritage of their squadron. There was a real team atmosphere, and it was great to meet the dedicated workers of “Menai Cleaning”, proudly wearing their 72 Squadron name badges.

It was a privilege to have a go in one of the station’s state-of-the-art flight simulators. Although my flying was not perfect, I was told that it was similar to that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. I am thinking of giving them a “Top Gear”-style leader board to track the parliamentarians who visit.

Warrant Officer Nikkie Jones showed me around the air traffic control tower, where the professionalism and ability of the controllers was evident as they safely and efficiently directed all the Hawk, Texan and helicopter activities through the skies. Wing Commander Nikki Parr summed up the view of the team best when she said to me:

“In a career of over 28 years within the Royal Navy and the RAF, Valley is the best place I have ever served, with absolutely everyone pulling together to achieve our aim of getting Pilots to the Front Line; safely”.

Skilled jobs are obviously critical to the operational effectiveness of the base, and to the economy of Ynys Môn. Our island is over-reliant on tourism, which, as we have seen only too clearly this year, is a fickle mistress. We need good-quality, well-paid and reliable jobs for our young people to move into when they leave school. Too many are forced to leave the island to seek work elsewhere. RAF Valley, with its innovative technical partners, has provided a much-needed source of employment locally. The teams provide excellent opportunities, with high-quality training apprenticeships and long-term career progression possibilities. I will give a couple of examples.

Laurence Peers was raised in Holyhead and left school with no qualifications. He started working at RAF Valley in 2002, and today he is an experienced supervisor in the avionics and electrical trade. Indeed, it was Laurence who got me in and out of the flight simulator when I visited the station. Laurence said to me,

“please do all you can to keep giving the young people of this island the best chances in life if they wish to stay and live and make a reasonable living where they were brought up.”

John Patchett was posted to Valley in March 1984 and stressed that the Hawk team workforce has 40 years’ experience, and that the force needs to retain and build on that collateral. He told me that he and his colleagues chose to remain at Valley because

“it’s not only a workplace [or] a job to us, but a way of life. The island and nearby mainland is our home, or has become our home.”

His team wants to stay on the island and pass their skills on to new generations of young people who desperately need the kind of training and support that RAF Valley can give them.

Ian Blackie, who works on the T1 planes, told me that the RAF Valley team is absolutely critical to putting RAF and Royal Navy aircrew on to the frontline safely and on time. He said:

“To maintain these 45 year old fighter training jets requires a knowledgeable, highly skilled and dedicated workforce. This knowledge and skill set are developed over many years and are unique to the RAF Valley workforce, with both hands-on maintenance and technical support cells.”

I recognise and appreciate that the BAE Systems contract is currently under negotiation, and I in no way wish to interrupt those discussions. However, I wish to impress upon the Minister the importance of RAF Valley to Ynys Môn. RAF Valley is not “just an employer” but a team, a family; and like all great teams, it operates efficiently because every part of it performs its own role, and does it brilliantly. The people of Ynys Môn want RAF Valley to grow and flourish. We are the energy island, an incubation of innovation, a place for technological creativity. RAF Valley is part of our DNA.

This debate is not just about current jobs. It is about ensuring the long-term future of RAF Valley. It is about keeping RAF Valley as a centre of excellence for training pilots for both the RAF and Royal Navy. It is about retaining and encouraging investment in both the base and its workforce. It is about ensuring that RAF Valley has the most up-to-date equipment, the best planes and, of course, the exceptionally high calibre of technical staff that it has spent years developing. I ask the Minister to tell me not only how jobs will be maintained at RAF Valley but, more importantly, what jobs, apprenticeships and other opportunities he expects to be created for the next 20 years. I ask the Minister to acknowledge the importance of RAF Valley, and to give us his absolute assurance of the MOD’s recognition of Anglesey’s appreciation of the station.

Although I appreciate that negotiations are under way at this time, I want the Minister to acknowledge the significance of the RAF to Ynys Môn. The people in my constituency are rightly concerned about the implications of the negotiations and the timescales to which they are being conducted, so I ask the Minister to set out exactly where the negotiations stand at this time, and when those affected will know what is being decided. Finally, I want to look beyond 2025 and ask the Minister whether he will work with me and ministerial colleagues to get further operations to RAF Valley.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I call the Minister.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Order. Have we been given notice of the hon. Gentleman’s wish to speak?

Jeremy Quin Portrait The Minister for Defence Procurement (Jeremy Quin)
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Mr Twigg, I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) had communication from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). This was also cleared by my office. But I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman made it clear—he can speak for himself, of course.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David
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Yes, I had submitted to speak, in fact.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I had not been given notice, but okay. My apologies, Mr David.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
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Thank you for your forbearance, Mr Twigg.

Let me begin my short contribution by congratulating the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) on so accurately and passionately presenting the case for RAF Valley. My particular interest in and concern with RAF Valley stem from the fact that last year I completed the armed forces parliamentary scheme and I was seconded to the RAF. Having completed the scheme and graduated, I am left with huge admiration for the RAF and the tremendous service that it provides to this country. As part of the scheme I visited RAF Valley, and as the hon. Member has suggested, I was struck by the tremendous commitment of the entire workforce there, but also by the huge contribution that RAF Valley makes to the wellbeing of the local economy. It is absolutely central to the future of Anglesey as a community. I was enormously impressed that there is a special focus, as we have heard, on pilot training. It is the centre for pilot training for the RAF and, to some extent, the Navy in the United Kingdom.

However, I have a concern, too. The concern is that 180 jobs could be cut from the essential Hawk contract at RAF Valley by 2033. The fear among the workforce stems from the contract negotiations, which I understand are taking place, between BAE Systems and the Ministry of Defence for the T1 and T2 Hawk aircraft. For the T1 Hawk there is an active proposal, I understand, to move all the T1 depth maintenance to RAF Leeming by 2023. That move alone could accelerate the loss of between 50 and 70 jobs at Valley. It has been suggested by people who work there that that proposal makes no sense, either financially or from an operational perspective. I would like the Minister to comment specifically on that.

Unite, the trade union, suggests that the move is not only ill thought out. There has been a suggestion—no more than a suggestion—that perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer has had some influence on the decision making that is taking place, because Leeming is part of his constituency, of course.

There is also concern that a further 100 jobs could be lost by 2033. That relates to the T2 Hawk. Therefore there could be, in total, a loss of 180 jobs. Of course, because the base is so central to the wellbeing of the island and the local economy, that would be a huge body blow to Anglesey. We know full well that the island has suffered a number of very difficult economic and job losses over the last few years, and this would be a further and significant body blow to the island. Therefore, like the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, I am looking for reassurance and clarification from the Minister on the points that we have mentioned.

Jeremy Quin Portrait The Minister for Defence Procurement (Jeremy Quin)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Twigg. I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). I knew her before she arrived at this place. I thought she would be a brilliant advocate for her constituents and she has proved to be so, in the way that she has been tackling me directly about this vital base and vital employer in her constituency, and in securing the debate. She will be a redoubtable representative for Ynys Môn. I am also delighted to hear that she is a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, with the RAF. I am sure that she will learn from them, and that that will be mutual. I wish her well with the course.

I am grateful, Mr Twigg, that you allowed the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) to make a contribution. It was good to see him here. He is another alumnus of the scheme. There is great cross-party support for defence and what it means to Wales. It is incredibly important, as the hon. Gentleman said, and I shall come on to his points.

There are few better examples of the value of defence to a community than the situation at RAF Valley. My hon. Friend made some points about the station’s history, but I shall not dwell on that. I shall dwell on the present and future, as she would wish me to do. British pilots and jets are occupied day in, day out in the defence of our country, our interests and the free world. In the future, wherever those planes are taking off to protect our airspace or that of our NATO allies, taking part in critical combat missions or flying from the decks of our two deeply impressive new aircraft carriers, the people of Ynys Môn will know that those pilots trained and won their wings among them, on the island.

RAF Valley, as my hon. Friend mentioned, works as a team, harnessing the talents of its cadre of service personnel, civil servants and contractors to train the pilots of the future for both the Royal Navy and the RAF. A crucial aspect of generating that team is the strong working bonds with the local communities and employees and—critically, as my hon. Friend said—the employees of the future. I know that my hon. Friend and all who wish RAF Valley well want ongoing investment and the provision of state-of-the-art aircraft, to make manifest our commitment to the base’s future.

As a threat evolves, the training to meet the threat evolves, and the planes required for training evolve. We are committed to ensuring that RAF Valley is at the core of that evolution. The evidence already, at the base, is apparent. As a result of the decision to concentrate basic flying training at RAF Valley—moving assets, incidentally, from RAF Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire to the island—more focus and investment has been delivered into the base. The station has not only benefited from a sizeable part of the £3.5 billion set aside to deliver military flying training; we have recently also, specifically, spent £20 million on refurbishing the runway.

RAF Valley pilots are trained on the modern and sophisticated Texan and updated Hawk T2 aircraft. Those are a great leap forward from the platforms that they replace, with heads-up display that can accurately simulate weapon attacks and other threats, which ensure the maximum training benefit from every sortie. The Government committed, in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, to increase the number of fast jet squadrons and, thereby, pilots to fly them, all of whom will be trained at the expanded training system at RAF Valley, with more Texan aircraft coming on stream to deliver the training. All levels of fast jet training at RAF Valley are being complemented by advanced synthetic training that can accurately replicate the complex and detailed realistic scenarios that pilots need to train for.

It is not only fast jet training that has had that treatment. The lifesaving search and rescue training that also takes place at RAF Valley has also had a valuable boost, in the form of the new Jupiter helicopter. The overall result has been aircraft and facilities that are among the most advanced in the world. Through the hard work of its staff and the students themselves, RAF Valley is preparing to award Royal Navy and RAF wings to the first six pilots to graduate on the Texan next month. That is a fantastic achievement and a huge moment in a young pilot’s career, and it is the culmination of years of effort and preparation.

The impact of our investment in RAF Valley, on the ground, has been clear. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20 our industrial partners who undertake the critical roles of servicing the aircraft and running the training systems grew the number of their employees at the base from around 450 to just over 600, so nearly 150 additional personnel are being employed at RAF Valley to support the Texan and Jupiter aircraft. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, those new colleagues at the base, whom we welcome, are part of a total team of some 1,500, delivering for the base.

We recognise the importance of investing not only in infrastructure and the jobs of today, but in the skills of tomorrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made that point very powerfully and she is absolutely right. At RAF Valley, we are proud of the work done on STEM training. Across Wales, some 90,000 students had access to the RAF’s first-rate STEM training programme last year. I know the value of investing in people in north Wales and how it can generate lasting loyalty and an inspiring workforce.

A Babcock-sponsored two-year apprentice programme, in partnership with Coleg Menai in Bangor, has run for four years, generating, to date, 29 apprentices who qualified in aeronautical engineering. I am proud to say that 28 of those are still working at RAF Valley. A further 19 apprentices, currently in training, will graduate in the next two years. Babcock is constantly alive to the need to recruit and retain talent at the base. Seven employees remain who were redeployed from RAF Linton-on-Ouse, and cash awards are paid to employees who successfully refer new colleagues.

Set against the context of that positive background of new assets who have moved to RAF Valley, of new roles created and skills training being delivered, I shall now address the understandable concerns that brought my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn to this debate, regarding the recent speculation around the future of Hawk T1 maintenance and what that might mean for those currently employed by one of our commercial partners, BAE Systems. As she is aware, Hawk T1s are no longer used operationally from RAF Valley. The remaining Hawk T1s used operationally are based at RAF Leeming, at the royal naval air squadron at Culdrose, and in Lincolnshire with the Red Arrows. While every capability is subject to the current integrated review, the Red Arrows T1s are expected to reach their out-of-service date in 2030 and the rest of the fleet in 2027, as set out in the strategic defence and security review 2015.

The RAF is currently undergoing a review of how best to deliver all aspects of servicing and maintenance for the Hawk T1s through to their OSDs. My officials are in discussions with BAE Systems and we are determining potential options for a Hawk 2020 support contract. I emphasise that, at this stage, no decisions have been taken. Any future decision will be based on a range of factors.

Making the right operational decision is critical. The RAF needs to ensure that its planes can be reliably serviced and are constantly available. That emphasises the vital importance of continuing to grow the skills base to provide the engineers that we need at RAF Valley and more widely. Naturally, we also need to consider value-for-money arguments, and we are also keenly focused on the UK Government’s commitment to levelling up the whole of the UK and supporting the Union. Discussions are ongoing and we will update the community as soon as any decisions are made. I re-emphasise that no decisions have, as yet, been made.

The personnel of RAF Valley have a deep commitment to working with and supporting the local community, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn touched on that. There are many examples of that close working relationship. I know that there is a strong team at RAF Valley, delivering for defence and also delivering many benefits to the local community. The bonds are very strong. I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to set out the current situation and I thank all Members for their interest and the recognition of the vital need to continue to train our military jet pilots to the highest level of expertise and of the vital role played by RAF Valley. I had hoped to be able to give the hon. Lady a couple of minutes to reply, but I do not believe I can under the rules of the House. I apologise to her and thank her again for bringing the matter to this Chamber. As I say, the bonds around RAF Valley are very strong, as is our commitment to that vital and internationally highly regarded base.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Jet Zero Council

Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]
Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them and respect the one-way system around the room. Members should only speak from the horseshoe and can only speak if they are on the call list. That also applies to this debate, for which we are fully subscribed. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups. I remind Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the next two speeches following their own once they have spoken to make sure we manage attendance in the room.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
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I beg to move

That his House has considered the work of the Jet Zero Council.

May I say what a huge pleasure it is to serve under what I understand is your first Westminster Hall debate, Mrs Miller? It is also great pleasure to have this debate responded to by my the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). I am particularly pleased to see him come on to the Front Bench, because it is the first parliamentary engagement that I have had with him. I know he will do us all proud and cares a lot about this issue. I am also grateful to Mr Speaker for allocating me this debate. London Luton airport is close to my constituency and is an important source of jobs for my constituents.

The UK has the third biggest global aviation network in the world, and we are a leading aerospace nation. Aviation contributes more than £52 billion a year to GDP and the sector directly contributes 230,000 jobs, which are largely high value and high skilled, in airframe development and manufacturing. All of that will be a continued requirement for the industry as it decarbonises. At the moment, however, as a result of the pandemic, there has been a massive reduction in the number of flights, but passenger numbers are expected to recover to 2019 levels by 2023-24 or possibly earlier, depending on the progress of scientific breakthroughs in dealing with the virus. Industry projections also show passenger numbers rising by 65% from 2018 levels to 2050. The UK also has a legally binding net zero target for 2050, and we need to reconcile that vitally important target with the projected increase in demand. Progress has already been made: between 2005 and 2016, Sustainable Aviation member airlines carried 26% more passengers and freight, with carbon dioxide emissions rising by 9%. That is still 9% too much, but it shows that improvements are possible.

Speaking to the International Gas Turbine Institute last September, the Prince of Wales said

“the need to decarbonise flight must remain at the top of the agenda”

and issued a challenge to do so by 2035. In February this year, Sustainable Aviation members made a public commitment to reach net UK aviation carbon emissions by 2050, becoming the first national aviation body anywhere in the world to make such a pledge. In June, the creation of the Jet Zero council was announced, with the objective of developing and industrialising zero-emission aviation and aerospace technologies. The first meeting was held in July. The council has an impressive membership of the great and the good of the aviation and aerospace sectors, and given its importance for aviation and aerospace employment, I think it would be sensible to have a worker representative on the council as well.

It could be said that the scale of the challenge is too big and that we should all fly less and that our aviation and aerospace sectors should contract. I disagree. Instead, we should harness our huge strength in aviation technology and engineering to find new solutions to allow us to fly without wrecking the planet. I want our constituents to carry on enjoying the pleasure and freedom of a sunny holiday, and I want UK exporters to find new markets for British business all around the world as they continue to fly on business travel.

But it is important that all that is done responsibly, so that we can fly with a clear conscience. That is why the work of the Jet Zero Council is so important, and why this debate matters so much. Not only do we need to turbocharge the science and technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, we also need to ensure that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of sustainable aviation so that the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future are provided here. We cannot leave that to chance, as has unfortunately happened with other technologies in the past. Germany, France, Norway and Indonesia are already making progress in that direction.

Calor’s parent company, has already partnered with the Dutch airline KLM to build Europe’s first dedicated plant to produce sustainable aviation fuels in the Netherlands. A by-product of the plant will be low-carbon fuel for homes and businesses in the rural off-gas grid. Sustainable aviation fuels are a here-and-now solution using proven technologies that can be used in existing engines and transport pipelines, requiring no modifications to aircraft or refuelling infrastructure. At present, sustainable aviation fuels are the only option that can decarbonise long-haul flight, from which two-thirds of UK aviation CO2 emissions currently arise. It is important to note that second-generation sustainable aviation fuels do not rely on feedstocks that should be used for other purposes. Current sustainable aviation fuel is developed from sustainable feedstocks, waste oils, fats, greases, industrial gases and—I am told—even municipal solid waste as well as agricultural and forestry residue.

The UK’s first commercial sustainable aviation fuel facility, Alt Alto in Immingham, received planning permission in June. It is the first of its kind in Europe and is a collaboration between Velocys, British Airways and Shell. Other UK facilities such as the LanzaJet project in Port Talbot are also under development—it seems to help to have a Californian or holiday-sounding name for these new sites. Sustainable aviation have asked for £429 million in Government-backed loan guarantees to support the establishment of the first flagship sustainable aviation fuel facilities in the UK. A grant of £50 million is being sought to move this work to higher technology-readiness levels, and to enable providers to move to commercial scale. A further £21 million is being sought to establish a UK clearing house to enable sustainable aviation fuel testing. By 2037, there could be 14 sustainable aviation fuel production facilities in the UK, which would create 13,600 jobs and add £1.9 billion to GDP when overseas export opportunities are included.

Alt Alto Immingham hopes to be producing fuel by 2025 and many of these jobs would be in our industrial heartlands, contributing to levelling up in areas such as south Wales, the north-west, Teesside, Humberside, St Fergus, Grangemouth and Southampton. There will also be a boost to the rural economy where feedstocks for facilities would be processed before final upgrading at an industrial plant. Electric and hydrogen technologies also have great potential to deliver zero emission short and medium haul flights.

The world’s first hydrogen-powered flight has taken place in God’s own county of Bedfordshire. As part of the HyFlyer, project, ZeroAvia commissioned at Cranfield University the first on-site hydrogen fuelling system capable of producing green hydrogen used to power zero-emission flight. In 2023 ZeroAvia will bring to market the first hydrogen-electric powertrain capable of flying aircraft with up to 19 seats in a certifiable configuration design for a range of airframes currently in use. It has the potential to generate significant new employment and investment in the aerospace sector. For example, easyJet, a major company at Luton airport, continues to work with Wright Electric on an all-electric 186-seat passenger jet, and only last month Airbus unveiled designs for hydrogen-powered aircraft that could be flying by 2035.

Technology improvements through fleet upgrades represent the largest long-term aviation decarbonisation solution in the sector. The Aerospace Technology Institute wishes to see funding doubled to £330 million a year to enable the UK to become a world leader in developing more efficient engines as well as hybrid electric and hydrogen aircraft. Every £1 of Government investment in aerospace research and development brings in another £12 in private research and development spending—pretty impressive leverage.

Airspace modernisation also has an important role to play in making use of aircraft performance capability and reducing emissions and noise. Today’s advanced aircraft still rely on old navigation technologies because the airspace structures they use were designed for the fewer slower aircraft flying in the 1950s. The new Whittle laboratory in Cambridge, and the national centre for propulsion and power that it will house, will ensure that the UK leads the development of zero-carbon flight and will play a central role in supporting FlyZero.

However, as I said earlier, the challenge from overseas is there. The German Government are already planning a large investment in a low emissions aviation research centre that will operate in direct competition with the new Whittle laboratory. The new laboratory will ensure that the new technologies are used across the industrial networks in Newcastle, Lincoln, Derby, Bristol, Glasgow and Lancashire as it partners with Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Siemens, Dyson and the Aviation Technology Institute. The new laboratory will co-locate with the aviation impact accelerator, the design of which is based on what Cambridge has learned from Dame Ann Dowling’s silent aircraft initiative. The residents of the villages of Kensworth, Studham and Whipsnade in my constituency will be particularly pleased to learn about that, because they are all under the flight path of London Luton airport.

The aviation impact accelerator will help speed up the delivery of new technology and scale up the infrastructure, investment and policy necessary for that. The new Whittle laboratory has already raised £23.5 million from its industrial partners, but it needs an additional £25 million from the Government to commence building in February next year. I hope that may be possible, because in the briefing in which the Secretary of State for Transport announced the formation of the Jet Zero Council, he said he was

“excited about a Cambridge University and Whittle labs project to accelerate technologies for zero-carbon flight”.

To speed up the council’s work, the Government should consider an airline scrappage schemes, with airlines encouraged to buy less polluting jets when available and take more polluting models out of service.

It is good to see hon. Members in the Room today. I look forward to their contributions and hope we have cross-party support for this important initiative.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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To ensure that all Members here and on the call list have the opportunity to speak, I advise people to take seven to eight minutes, if that is okay, so that we have enough time to move to wind-ups just before half-past three.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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Thank you very much, Mrs Miller; it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first of what will be many occasions in this now reactivated Chamber. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on successfully calling for this debate and on leading it with huge aplomb and great detail and knowledge of how important jet zero is to the United Kingdom.

It is worth putting the debate into context. At the moment, we face the crisis of the pandemic, with huge economic and employment crises coming quickly towards us. Just as in the second world war, when we laid down the foundations for huge education and health reforms, so too our current duty in Parliament is to think about the longer term and about how we can help to create an economic strategy that drives growth, jobs and innovation for a global Britain that can still play a major role in the world’s modern transport systems. That is precisely where jet zero comes into play. This is the nation that delivered the world’s first jet engine, and this is the nation that can deliver the fastest and best jet zero project. It is encouraging therefore that, on the one hand, the Government are committing funds to invest in the necessary research and development and that, on the other, industry and manufacturing are committing huge resource to doing the same.

As the Member of Parliament for Gloucester, where many years ago, Frank Whittle’s first jet engine limped down the Hucclecote runway for its first flight, I am delighted that just down the road at Gloucestershire airport, in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), huge work is going on between Electroflight—an entrepreneur and innovator-led company—and Rolls-Royce, to create the world’s first electric aviation engine. That project, which uses the acronym ACCEL—Accelerating the Electrification of Flight—is one step towards the goal that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire outlined.

It is an exciting project, but it is not just about Electroflight and Rolls-Royce. It also involves Airbus, which is the giant that effectively creates a network of mainframe contractors across the west of England—broadly, up the M5—and, when it comes to sub-contractors, across the whole country. The opportunities are therefore considerable, because Airbus stretches across the world. The project will impact all of us who have the privilege of serving as the Prime Minister’s trade envoys, particularly in Asia, where aviation will carry on growing, creating huge demand for all sorts of new aircraft.

New aircraft will probably be smaller compared with the previous tendency to buy larger aircraft. Of course, earlier this week, we effectively saw the end of the Boeing 747, which is the start of a trend in a different direction. The world expects to be able to travel, but also to be able to do so in a much greener way than in the past. For those of us who, like me, were airline managers in the ’80s, when it was unimaginable that anything other than carbon fuel would be used as the means to drive our aircraft, this is an especially exciting period.

What we all find exciting about this project is the way that industry is really excited to be working with the Government on an industrial strategy in which everybody’s aims are aligned. I am sure that the Minister will say more about the White Paper, which I believe will be published shortly and will lay out the Government’s ambitions for industrial strategy a few years since the creation of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I hope it will also set out how innovation and quality will drive us forward, and how our focus—whether in space, with satellites and launching pads, or on new engines, lighter ways of manufacturing aircraft, and all the things that make up the 35% of an Airbus that is made in the UK—has the full support of Government and, I hope, of Members of Parliament across the House, so that industry will know that in the aviation and aerospace sectors, the nation’s Government and representatives are fully behind its efforts to produce a newer, greener and more sustainable form of international transport.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I thank the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for securing this debate and for setting out the case for Jet Zero so eloquently. I can reassure him from the outset that there is very much cross-party support for this endeavour. However, I intend to set out a little bit of gentle challenge as well, because we need to ensure that we do everything we can at this point to support aviation.

Aviation was one of the first industries to be hit by this pandemic and I believe that it will be one of the last industries to recover from it, especially as measures such as quarantine remain in place and countries retain restrictions on visitors from the UK. The crisis continues to affect our aviation industry, and there are repercussions for the wider economy, too: the mass redundancies in airlines such as British Airways and easyJet are devastating for the employees and their families. Colleagues may be aware of the negative attention that was generated recently by what I regard as the rather insensitive comments of the Work and Pensions Secretary, when she suggested that cabin crew and pilots who lose their jobs can retrain as carers and teachers.

The consequences of the approach to the aviation sector’s crisis will be felt right across the economy, because aviation is a linchpin. It supports sectors such as tourism, it attracts inward investment across the country and it connects us to the rest of the world. Newcastle airport, which lies within my constituency, is an international and domestic transport hub, a strategic asset for our region, and it is central to our economic growth. Our airport supports manufacturing businesses, exports and higher education, attracting people to our world-class universities. So the Government need to understand the special status of the aviation industry and show much greater understanding of and support for it in the years ahead.

Treasury Ministers have repeatedly referred to a support package for aviation that has been provided, but I would say that the specific package that is needed has not been provided yet. Air bridges need to be arranged as soon as possible. There should be 12 months of business rate relief, which has already been given to airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland. These forms of support need to be provided to create a level playing field, so that we will all be able to “build back better” after this crisis.

The Minister today will also be aware of the growing concern in the travel industry and among travellers about testing being in place to replace quarantine measures. The current system relies on deterring people from travelling, and it is not effective as a public health measure because it does not do enough to pick up those people who have no choice but to travel and who may have covid-19.

I appreciate that Members may ask, “What’s this got to do with Jet Zero?” However, what we do now, in getting the right atmosphere and support package in place for aviation, is absolutely crucial to building the Jet Zero vision that we need for the future. I have to say that there does not seem to be that appreciation in Government yet that we need to keep the foundations that we have in our aviation industry in order to be in a position to build that greener, more sustainable aviation industry of the future. We need to create an investment environment so that people will invest in the future of aviation. It will take significant investment to create that green, sustainable future, but investors will not want to put that money into a distressed sector that has not been supported through this pandemic.

As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sustainable aviation, I support the calls for investment in sustainable engines and fuel to make air travel cleaner and greener, to help the UK to meet its climate change targets, and to protect aviation jobs.

I strongly welcome the creation of the Jet Zero Council. It will be instrumental in connecting aerospace modernisation, sustainable fuels, technological developments, carbon offsetting and renewables in a coherent framework for delivery that Government and industry can support.

The Committee on Climate Change says that sustainable fuels are critical to cutting emissions from aviation, but at present the challenge seems to lie in international agreement on how to encourage their use. In a letter to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the chief technology officers of Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, General Electric, Safran, Dassault Aviation and Raytheon urged greater efforts to create,

“conditions under which sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can be widely deployed”.

They warned that without broad agreement on tools and policies to encourage the use of green fuels, energy companies will not put up the trillions of dollars of capital investment required to meet the needs of the aviation industry.

I know that different approaches are already under consideration. For example, in August, the European Commission signalled it was considering an EU-wide requirement for a minimum amount of sustainable fuel on flights. However, we need to get to a place where even if different trading blocks have their own methods, we are driven by common targets so the pace of switching to sustainable fuels can be accelerated. Will the Minister respond to the concerns of the chief technology officers and work with our international partners to ensure that we do not miss out on these opportunities?

Decarbonisation of aviation will also rely heavily on market-based mechanisms in the short to medium term, so it is vital that these transitions run smoothly. Many aircraft operators that participate in the EU emissions trading scheme will also participate in the new UK emissions trading scheme. Will the Minister update us on how we will link those two schemes, as set out in the future relationship with the EU25?

I will touch on a couple of issues that relate specifically to jobs in the aviation sector. Sustainable aviation fuel is clearly required to meet our emissions targets and it will create many jobs. We need to ensure that that investment and those jobs go where they are needed most. I would argue that that is in the north-east. An airport scrappage scheme has also been promoted as reducing emissions and creating the quieter aviation that many people want to see in the future.

In addressing one of the immediate challenges we face, I return to the comments of the Work and Pensions Secretary. If we encourage everybody currently in the aviation sector to retrain as carers or teachers, we will lose the vital skills base that we need to build sustainable aviation, fuels and aircraft of the future. The current approach in the job support scheme, which provides only 67% of wages where those jobs cannot be undertaken, does not go far enough. Greater investment in retaining those skills and supporting those jobs now, as well as the jobs we will need in the future, is vital.

My final argument is that when we get things right on a cross-party basis and a governmental and business collaboration basis, a strong workers’ voice is always in there too. If we really want to make the Jet Zero Council work, we should have workers’ representation and the voice of workers, working with business and Government to maximise its potential.

Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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I echo the sentiments of my colleagues. It is great to be here at your first debate, Mrs Miller. It is also great to be with the Minister of Aviation, newly installed in the position. I congratulate him on that and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this very important debate.

I am keen to speak because tackling and stopping environmental destruction is the defining mission of our age. We have seen so much of it over the last 100 years, and we have to bring it to an end. That is why I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment. Clearly, one of the biggest environmental challenges is tackling climate change. As a country, we have adopted the legally binding target of net zero by 2050, and I strongly welcome that. A huge body of work is needed to achieve it.

In many areas, progress is already quite advanced. Electricity is now 40% renewable, largely from wind energy, which is an enormous achievement compared with what was expected 20 years ago. Electric cars are not quite commonplace, but they are becoming commonplace. The technology is well advanced and proven; they are fantastic cars to drive and we now have a Government target of abolishing the sale of internal combustion engines by 2040 and we are consulting on 2035, which I certainly support.

Aviation, however, is a conundrum, because it is a growing source of national emissions overall—now 8%, increased from 5% five years ago—yet it is a very difficult source of emissions to tackle. We are not quite there, as we are in other areas.

There are those who would say, “Well, we should stop flying. Fly less. Make it so expensive to fly that people cannot go on holidays.” I absolutely do not support that, for the reasons echoed by colleagues. Aviation is jobs. My constituency is near Luton airport and Stansted. It is incredibly important in terms of leisure and business that people carry on flying. The challenge is to make sure that flying can be carbon neutral and that is why I welcomed so strongly the launch of the Jet Zero Council earlier this year.

Tackling aviation is difficult because electric batteries are too heavy to fly in planes. They do not have enough energy density to be able to fly a plane across the Atlantic. Low-carbon fuels are here, but they are still at a fairly early stage of development. Aeroplanes also tend to be long-lasting—fleets last for 40 or 50 years. It is not like cars, which have quite a high turnover, so it is easier to introduce new electric cars.

However, there is a lot of innovation in this area, as previous speakers have mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire spoke at length about the Whittle Laboratory, which is just on the edge of my constituency—it is just outside, so I cannot claim it is mine, but it is a fantastic laboratory. Imperial War Museum Duxford is also in South Cambridgeshire. It is known for its Battle of Britain aeroplanes and a Concorde, but it also has an AvTech—aviation technology sector—development, co-launched with Gonville and Caius College. The first company there is Faradair, an electric aviation company. It is developing a bioelectric hybrid aircraft, with the first flight aimed for 2023. It is aiming for an all-electric aircraft by 2030. It has a lot of energy and bright ideas and is definitely worth supporting.

Obviously, it is not only the UK that is doing this. Flight is of its nature international and the International Civil Aviation Organisation has been doing a lot of work trying to co-ordinate the industry. It has committed to a 2% annual increase in fuel efficiency. It has a global offsetting scheme—CORSIA—which starts in 2021. It is supporting sustainable aviation fuels and better air traffic management, which has been quite important for increasing the efficiency of aviation, as we have seen over the past five years or so.

Developments are definitely gathering pace. EasyJet is planning its first short-haul electric flights by 2030, which would be very impressive. Norway—I am half-Norwegian and am very proud of Norway—has the aim that all short-haul flights should be electric by 2040 and all electricity in Norway is renewable, so that would be completely carbon neutral, and it is investing in that.

With all these developments, there is a huge opportunity for the UK. We absolutely need to make it a national mission. If we are ahead of the curve, there are huge export opportunities as well.

On recommendations and policy, I would be interested, first, in including international aviation emissions in the 2050 target of net zero. Domestic aviation emissions are already in that target, but I understand the Government are thinking about the international emissions. That would be a good step, in order to put pressure on the sector and make it part of the national mission to become net zero.

Secondly, we should think about nature-based carbon offsets. Offsetting has a slightly bad name, because schemes are often not very robust. They can be made robust, however, and the Government should think about having a universal mandate on airlines, to give passengers an option for a robust offsetting of their flights. We could end up with lots more money for tree planting, which would be wonderful.

We need to do a lot more work to develop sustainable aviation fuels, as we have heard. There needs to be a whole regime to support the development and take-up of sustainable aviation fuels. For example, aviation duty is not taxed because it is cross-border and it has been impossible to get international agreement, so we have air passenger duty on flights taking off. We could think about moving to a system where air passenger duty reflected the efficiency of aeroplanes in the way that vehicle excise duty reflects the efficiency of cars. It may be too early to do that yet, but we could certainly move in that direction.

We will not get a UK-only solution on this. We should try to lead the world but we definitely need to work with other countries. We should absolutely work internationally and that should be a big part of what the Government are doing. This is a huge opportunity for the UK and we really must take advantage of it. We need a massive national commitment and the Jet Zero Council can lead the UK on this, and I commend the Government’s work on it.

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate and on the excellent speech he gave in opening it and the way he laid out the case so clearly.

I pay tribute to Sustainable Aviation, which is a coalition that brings together the aviation sector––airlines, manufacturers, airports––to work across the sector and move towards sustainable aviation and clean flight. It has done incredible work over a number of years to drive and focus the sector on the issue. It has been a delight to work with it in recent years in some of the roles that I have played in this place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned that the UK has led the world in innovation in aviation for over 100 years. I see another great opportunity before us as a country to once again take a lead, and lead the world in developing clean flight. I am delighted that the Prime Minister set out in his characteristic way a positive vision for the country to get behind and work towards having the first zero-emission transatlantic flight. It is a vision that I wholeheartedly get behind.

Aviation is crucial to today’s world for trade and the economy. We all know the huge challenges that the sector faces now, but we have to believe that that will be reversed and that we will once again have a growing, thriving aviation sector. We should use this moment as a great opportunity to make significant change that perhaps would have taken some time to develop but that, with some focus, could happen more quickly than it would otherwise have done. I believe that we will see that in many areas of our economy.

Moving towards clean flight can very much be part of that. As several hon. Members have highlighted, we are making progress. There are some great and exciting developments such as sustainable biofuels and electric and hydrogen-powered flight, all of which will help the sector become the clean way of getting around that we want it to be. I know that some people are sometimes cynical about this but there is no doubt of the Government’s commitment to get to net zero by 2050. We are leading the world as the only developed nation that has made that legal commitment. We should use this as an opportunity to take a lead globally and demonstrate to the world that clean flight is within the realms of possibility in the very near future.

I believe that the current attitude often shown towards flying––that it is the dirty way of getting around and we should all feel bad every time we get on a plane––can be changed. We can get to the point of zero-emission flight in the coming years. At that point, flight will become the chosen way to travel quickly and cleanly both around the UK and around the world. I genuinely believe that we can get to that point. Instead of being the dirty cousin of transport, flying will be the green choice, because we can fly cleanly and get places quickly. That is the ambitious aim that we should focus on working towards.

I know the Minister well and he will not be at all surprised that I want to raise my belief that our current challenges demand a response from the Government to ensure that we have everything in place to grasp this opportunity in the next five to 10 years. Our regional airports will be absolutely crucial, because the likelihood is that the first clean flights will be short-haul domestic flights. That is probably the first step, and if we do not have successful and operating regional airports across our country, we will not be able to make the most of the opportunity.

I am genuinely concerned that if we do not support the sector and our regional airports across the country, some of them will be lost and closed. The chances are, if they close as a result of the current crisis, there is every likelihood that they may never open again. Heathrow will be there, Gatwick will be there, Manchester and the other big airports will be there—they will get through this. It may be challenging, but they will get through this and will still be with us for many years to come, but our smaller regional airports—such as the one that I represent, Cornwall airport Newquay, and many others across the country—face a crisis now.

There is a risk that our smaller regional airports will be lost. If they are lost, the impact on the sector and on our ability to fulfil our ambitions for clean aviation will be greatly damaged. I say again to the Minister, who I know gets this, but through him we can get a message to the Treasury: we need to step up and provide more support for the sector and in particular for our regional airports, because they are struggling with the challenge of the current crisis. If we want them to be there, to survive and to thrive through this, they will need some more support. Please will the Minister take a message back to Government, in particular the Treasury, that if they are serious about fulfilling those ambitions, we need to do a bit more to help our regional airports?

To wind up, the only way that we will achieve our ambitions is by having a thriving aviation sector that has the funds to invest for the future. It will not happen if we do not have an aviation sector that is able to have confidence about the future and to invest in the future of aviation. Therefore, it is crucial at this time for the Government to stand behind the sector and to provide the support it needs, so that it can work with us to achieve our great and exciting ambitions for clean aviation.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mrs Miller, and I thank the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for his contribution and for setting the scene.

I have had so much email correspondence from different constituents about this that I took the opportunity to make a contribution which, obviously, will be on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland aspect, but very much coming from Strangford as well, because I have numerous aerospace industries in my constituency. Therefore, if the Government take forward this strategy, which I hope they will, it will benefit my constituency and, indeed, many others. This matter is essential, and I am very thankful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, and to put that on the record. I understand that this is his second debate in Westminster Hall. I missed his first one—I do not know how I did that, but there we are! I was not in the Chamber, so I was probably engaged elsewhere. As I said, however, I am pleased to see him, because we have a personal friendship and know each other. For the record, I have every confidence in him to take on the mantle for all of us here together, collectively, and ensure the delivery, so that we can all benefit across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I have been contacted by Sustainable Aviation. Members will know about that organisation and be aware of the background. They have provided a detailed briefing about the methods that Government could employ to obtain the target set by Jet Zero. They highlighted that between 2005 and 2016 Sustainable Aviation’s member airlines carried 26% more passengers and freight, but they only grew CO2 emissions by 9%. That is a clear differential that has to be addressed. They have a methodology, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, that I hope he will adopt. That would complement what was said by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, who set the scene, and the other contributions that have been made from both sides of the Chamber.

The industry must be noted and celebrated. In a world where many appear to exist only to find fault—society seems, in many cases, to be like that—I wish to congratulate the industry for doing what it can to make sustainable changes. Let us give credit where credit is due for the direct and positive attitude it has adopted to try and make sure we can move in the correct direction.

Other Members have mentioned APD. The Democratic Unionist Party is committed to that and has had many discussions with Government about it, although maybe not with this Minister. To be fair, we did have a discussion and a Zoom meeting about a fortnight ago, and APD was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson)—I just recalled that now. APD is important for us, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) talked about it as well. Many regions of the United Kingdom can gain from it.

My friend, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), is keen on the idea of using hydrogen to tackle the issue. He hopes that companies can be equipped with the skills and the interests to provide an opportunity to develop that.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned issues about electric energy. I do not know much about that, but I read the papers with some eagerness and I regularly see stories about electric planes and electric flying. Many parts of the United Kingdom have the ability and the interest to develop that.

In February 2020, Sustainable Aviation members made a public commitment to reach net zero UK aviation carbon emissions by 2050. That is a challenging target, but if they have set it, they must think it is achievable. They are the first national aviation body anywhere in the world to make such a pledge. The decarbonisation road map, published alongside the pledge, sets out a plan to achieve that by working with Ministers. It is clearly a partnership, because that it how it works and that is how they will gain their way forward.

The plan wants to do four things: commercialise sustainable aviation fuels, SAF; invest in cleaner aircraft and engine technology, although it is a challenging time to do that because many planes are not being used and the investment needed is not there, although there is a methodology to do it; develop smarter flight operations; and develop high-quality carbon offsets and removals. Under the plan, the UK will be able accommodate 70% growth in passengers through to 2050. If we follow this plan, I believe that we can deliver what the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire asked us all to endorse and support, and take net emission levels from just over 30 million tonnes of CO2 a year down to zero.

I and others speak out on behalf of the aviation sector not because of the jobs alone, but because, let us be honest, the best way for me to get to the House of Commons is to fly. I fly from Belfast City to Heathrow every Monday, or thereabouts, and go back on a Thursday. Air travel for me is a way of getting here. For some it is a necessity. It is a necessity for me and, I suspect, a number of those here in the Chamber, as well as others among the 650 Members. When it comes to business and to flying, I support it as I believe it is a way forward. As with anything in life, changes need funding. I understand that there is a request for £500 million of Government funding over the forthcoming comprehensive spending review period to support SAF commercialisation and research and development.

Figures are easy to look at, but when we think about them further then we realise how big they are. The breakdown provides further clarification, which deserves consideration. I am not disrespecting anybody, but it is not just another pledge. Some £429 million is requested in the form of Government-backed loan guarantees for first-of-a-kind SAF facilities, so they will be paid back. The loan guarantees will help establish the UK as a global leader in SAF. Kick-starting SAF production in the UK will fully support the establishment of the first flagship SAF facility in the UK to unlock the wider potential out there that we can all gain from. First-of-a-kind SAF facilities are very hard to finance. The reason why SA is looking for the loan guarantee is simple. Conventional bank debt is not available, or, if it is available, it is offered at a prohibitively high cost, so it simply does not work out. A Government loan guarantee scheme that is tailored to meet the needs of emerging SAF technologies, providing a proportion of the total capital required, would unlock private finance to fund the first commercial scale facilities. Some £50 million in grants is required to help SAF technology providers transition from lower TRLs 3-6 and to support providers at higher TRLs to move to commercial scale. The UK is presently losing out to other countries that provide greater support and grant funding. “Invest today for the return tomorrow” is what my mother would tell me. She made sure that I followed that principle from the early age of 16, as I suspect many others also did.

Fully exploiting the network of UK expertise will enable the UK to showcase cutting edge facilities, creating a network of flagship SAF production facilities and providing a clear path to commercialisation. Some £21 million is required as part of the £500 million that is talked about. It is £429 million in loan guarantees from the Government, £50 million in grants, and £21 million to establish a UK clearing house to enable SAF testing. That remains one of the major barriers to new fuel supply chains. Aviation fuels need rigorous testing to ensure that they meet the safety and quality standards for aviation, and the United Kingdom is home to some of the foremost experts in fuel testing and approval. Others have referred to the expertise that we have in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I always say, and I will say it again: we are better together. That is the way it should be. Even my colleague and friend on the front row, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), would have to endorse that to make things happen, we do that better together. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could benefit from the proposals that we have. We all need to feel the warmth of prosperity at a time when lots of the news is not good. Indeed, it is sometimes quite distressing.

I will conclude with this. It is clear that this is the time for the Government to determine how serious we are to facilitate the conversion to jet zero. I look forward very much to the Minister’s response to these and other proposals raised today by other hon. Members, by the shadow spokesperson for the Scottish National party, and by Labour Members as well. I have an industry in my constituency that I will support. I want to see it doing it well. I support Shorts/Bombardier, Magellan in Ballywalter and other companies in Crossgar and elsewhere. I support all my aero industries. I encourage the Government to put their money—if I can say this—where their mouth is and make the changes not only possible but probable for the sake of the industry and the future of our planet, because we have a duty to do that. Coming from an Orange background, I am not usually one for plying green strategies, but this is a green strategy that we can all support.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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We now move on to the Front-Bench speeches. I ask Members to take about 10 or 11 minutes. I call Mr Alan Brown.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate and leading it so admirably. I apologise in advance: I have a funny feeling I will repeat a lot of what he said, but that shows agreement. He hoped for cross-party support, and I think that will be the outcome of today’s debate.

The hon. Gentleman correctly set out how important aviation is overall to the UK in terms of the £52 billion it brings to the economy. At the same time, we have to recognise, and reconcile with that fact, the challenge of achieving net zero, despite an increase in demand going forward. Interestingly, that concurs with the findings of Climate Assembly UK, which recently reported. As citizens, they accept that there will be a continued increase in the use of aircraft, but there need to be changes, in terms of some of the solutions outlined today, in order to get the balance right and achieve net zero. I note that they do not think that there should be quite as big an increase in world aviation as is projected.

As the hon. Gentleman set out, we obviously need to find new solutions, with sustainable aviation fuels being integral to that—I will return to that issue. He also highlighted the hydrogen fuel system getting developed in his area—in Bedford. I wish that well. I also agree with his calls for additional Government investment, particularly the £25 million that he says is needed to get the Whittle laboratory under construction next year. It will be good to hear what the Minister says on that.

I also agree with the call for an airline scrappage scheme. That would obviously generate turnover of aircraft in order to get new cleaner, greener aircraft, and it could generate another spin-off—the work that would be involved in decommissioning the aircraft that were scrapped. The Prestwick aerospace cluster, which is adjacent to my constituency, is looking to move into that market, so if the Government helped to incentivise the market with an aircraft decommissioning or scrappage scheme, that would certainly be really welcome. I would also like to suggest a bit of worker rep on the council. I hope that that is something the Government could look at.

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) gave us a wee bit of a history lesson on the original jet engine and spoke about the development of the electric jet engine. Obviously, we want to see that developed. Also mentioned was the importance, when a big company such as Airbus is involved, of a UK-wide supply chain and all the spin-off jobs that come from that. That is really important, and it is crucial that we remember that.

Next up was the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). She said of her comments that hon. Members might pose the question, “How does this relate to jet zero?” And I must admit that, initially during her contribution, I did wonder. But I accept the argument: we do have to sort out the here and now because there is an aviation crisis that needs to be resolved. She correctly highlighted the injustice that has been perpetrated by BA and similar redundancies from easyJet. Unfortunately, the Government response has not been robust enough. I would remind people in the Chamber to support the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), the fire and rehire Bill, which would stop companies such as BA treating their employees like cattle, disposing of them and rehiring them on lower conditions.

I commend the hon. Lady’s work as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sustainable aviation. I agree that there needs to be international collaboration on the use of sustainable aviation fuels, and it is important that we get jobs located where they are required and where currently local economies might be struggling. The proposals for where the sustainable aviation fuels may be located back that up. It would create much-needed jobs where they are actually required.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) also does good work, as chair of the all-party parliamentary environment group. He, too, highlighted the importance of the challenge that we have going forward on climate change. It was good to hear about the work being undertaken with Faradair in terms of hybrid and electric planes. Again, we hope that that leads the way, but he correctly highlighted Norway, which, yet again—it leads the way on so many things—has a commitment for short-haul flights to be fully electric by 2040. It is worth noting that Norway leads the way in relation to electric vehicles, the use of renewable energy in terms of hydro, and its sovereign wealth fund, created from its oil funds. We really need to look at Norway for lessons and copy it instead of just always talking about the UK being world leading. It is a fact that other people do this.

I agree with the suggestion about revisiting air passenger duty and reflecting the efficiency of aircraft emissions. I think the Government need to look at that. Another elephant in the room, it seems to me, is the fact that kerosene, which is used mainly for aviation, is still zero duty rated. That is unsustainable going forward for trying to incentivise the use of sustainable aviation fuels. We need to look at the tax system in the round to incentivise use of clean green fuels and generate an income for reinvestment in that sector.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), as always, stood up for regional airports, including his own. I add my voice to the call for the support of regional airports; that is vital. The hon. Gentleman made the good point that the initial short-haul flights will be between regional airports; we need to remember that. I do not quite share his belief in the Prime Minister’s vision, but hopefully I will be proved wrong and we will see that delivered in the future.

No debate would be complete without the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) speaking at length about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and goading me about “better together”. It is great to see him back in his place, sticking up for the aerospace industry in his constituency and again highlighting the importance of sustainable aviation fuels and the ask of industry from the Government. It is good to hear how much faith the hon. Gentleman has in the Minister. Hopefully, the Minister will repay that faith in his summing up and confirm the money that the Government are going to invest.

Aviation, as we heard, is a vital sector for connectivity, outbound and inbound tourism, and even exports of goods. For those reasons, it is vital that the industry is supported. Tonight, I will be launching a petition on support for the travel industry, because the Government really need to step up to the mark there.

On a positive note, I welcome the setting up of the Jet Zero Council. We want to see the green recovery in general and the UK Government have an opportunity to lead the way in sustainable aviation. It is fine to be a world leader in terms of the legislation for 2050 net zero, but we need the corresponding action and investment to back that up. As others have said, the UK Government have missed out in the past in offshore and onshore wind, where there was not the drive or the vision in the Government investment to make the UK world leading in that. The manufacturing and other aspects went elsewhere. As such, we need to step up to the plate in terms of net zero aviation.

As for being world leading, the Scottish Government set net zero legislation before Westminster, with an earlier date of 2045 for net zero, and they are the first Government in the world to include international shipping and aviation within the net zero targets. They have also committed to decarbonising aviation by 2050. Can the Minister advise whether the UK Government will follow the SNP’s lead in Scotland and the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, which is to include international aviation emissions within their net zero targets?

The UK is hosting COP26 in Glasgow next year, which is a tremendous opportunity to lead the world in a number of initiatives and commitments. The UK Government’s “Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge” document stated:

“Internationally, we are committed to negotiating in ICAO for a long-term emissions reduction goal for international aviation that is consistent with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement, ideally by ICAO’s 41st Assembly in 2022.”

Can the Minister advise what progress has been made regarding those negotiations and whether there are any commitments that can be included within the nationally determined contributions for COP26? That certainly would set a tremendous example.

As we have heard, one of the key aims of the Jet Zero Council is the delivery of sustainable aviation fuels plans. Again, that is a chance to be world leading, but action is needed fast, especially as we have heard that Norway has mandated airlines to reduce the amount of standard aviation fuel that they use. France and Germany are driving and leading sustainable aviation fuel collaboration, so the UK needs to move fast.

Other hon. Members, particularly the hon. Members for Strangford and for South West Bedfordshire, highlighted the need for the Government to provide the £500 million asked for, which would deliver the private investment to see sustainable aviation fuel plants up and running in the UK. In terms of the Government-backed loan guarantees, I suggest that if the Government can find £20 billion for Hinkley power station, and potentially another £40 billion for two more power stations, the £500 million over a period of five years is quite a small ask. I look forward to the Minister’s confirming that in his summing up.

When we look further, we have renewable transport fuel obligations to further incentivise the use of sustain- able aviation fuel. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire also touched on airspace modernisation. That in itself will facilitate a reduction in emissions, by allowing more efficient flightpaths, but the modernisation programme is currently at risk because it is being delivered by NATS, which relies on income from airlines. Reduced numbers of flights mean reduced income for NATS, and that puts the modernisation programme at risk. Direct support from Government is something else that the Minister needs to consider.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham
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On nuclear power, does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the crucial things about the electrification of short-haul flights is that we will need more electricity? In that context it is important to replace our nuclear power stations, to generate that electricity.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
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Yes, I agree it is important. They need to be replaced because half the existing nuclear power stations will be phased out in the next four years. However, they do not need to be replaced by nuclear; they should be replaced by renewable energy, so I absolutely do not agree on that point.

We also heard about Airbus being a Jet Zero member, and how it is developing the ZEROe hydrogen aircraft. We look forward to hydrogen aircraft being up and running. I draw Members’ attention to a post-briefing note that highlights the fact that hydrogen emits twice as much water vapour as existing jet fuel. That is a potential issue, and perhaps the Jet Zero Council could look at that, in collaboration with the Government. The need for wider sector support from the Government, by doubling of Aerospace Technology Institute funding to £330 million a year, is also rightly identified. What assessments have the Government made of those asks?

There seems to be cross-party support for Jet Zero and the aim to get net zero aviation by 2050, but there are clear asks for the Government, and I look forward to hearing the Minister confirm those financial commitments that have been asked for around the tables.

3.36 pm

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Miller. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate. The fact that we had contributions from Members with constituencies as far afield as Strangford and St Austell and Newquay, taking in Gloucester, Newcastle upon Tyne North and South Cambridgeshire on the way, says an awful lot. Each Member stressed the importance of the sector to their constituency. I was on the board of London Luton airport a long time ago, when I was a councillor in Luton, and I appreciate the importance of the airport to the town and to Dunstable and the wider area. Of course, now I am a Bristol MP, and we have a vibrant aerospace sector—and we are home to Concorde, although I note that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) says that he has a Concorde as well. Technically ours is just over the border in Filton, but I think Bristol lays claim to those areas when it is in our interest to do so.

We all know how important the subject of the debate is and, particularly at such a difficult and challenging time for the sector, it is important to take a considered, nuanced approach to the issues that we are discussing. We might, if we had had the debate much earlier in the year, have been able to focus purely on decarbonisation and the need to make progress with that in the sector, but covid has, as with so many other things, turned everything in the aviation world on its head. There have, as we have heard, been unprecedented falls in demand for flights because of the pandemic. The sector has faced immense financial hardship and it is predicted that it will not fully get back to its feet until 2023 or 2024 —or, given the degree of uncertainty, who knows?

Now, therefore, the discussion of decarbonisation must also deal with how to save aviation jobs in the short term, ranging from those in manufacturing, technology and design to those in airports and airlines, and the supply chain. We should not forget the many small companies that also rely on the industry and need to be part of the shift. It is one thing to consult bigger companies as part of the Jet Zero Council, but for every big company at the forefront of innovation there will be many other small and medium-sized enterprises that rely very much on being taken along on the journey.

Labour has called for a sector-specific package for aviation, which will be conditional not just on the protection of jobs—including an end to firing and rehiring on inferior contracts—but on progress in meeting environmental targets. It is important that those two objectives should be intertwined. Some nations uncritically bailed out their aviation sectors because of the pandemic without considering the climate impacts, but other nations have been both ambitious in protecting their aviation sectors and sensitive to the need to decarbonise the sector. France, for example, provided more than €15 billion, much of it to Air France, conditional on a number of things. For example, France expects the airline to renew its fleet with more efficient aircraft; to source 2% of fuel from sustainable sources by 2025; to achieve a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide from domestic flights by the end of 2024; and to ensure that overall emissions from all flights are halved by 2030.

I welcome the Minister to his new post. I hope that we hear from him how the UK can follow France in taking such a lead, because this is too important an opportunity to miss, given that we need far more intervention and investment in the aviation sector—more of a lead from the Government—than we perhaps would in normal times. How can we maximise the opportunity to get the sector back on its feet and also accelerate the progress we all want to make towards net zero?

Intervention is desperately required, both to safeguard jobs and to allow us to become world leaders. Setting up the Jet Zero Council, bringing together all those top minds in the industry to discuss the issues, is a good start. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said, it is a notable omission that there are no workplace representatives on the council. I hope the Minister will address that in his response, because this is very much about everyone involved in the sector, not only the companies behind it.

I confess that, when I first took on the role of shadow Minister for green transport, I was quite sceptical about some of the claims about sustainable aviation fuel being the way forward. There was lots of talk about sucking carbon out of the sky, but it was not really backed up by much science in the debates or the representations that I heard. In the six months that I have been in this job, and having had so many meetings with people, I have been on a steep learning curve, and I now think there is huge potential for us to make progress in developing sustainable aviation fuels. As well as speaking to sustainable aviation figures, I have spoken to Velocys, which is pioneering production in the UK; I think it has £500,000 funding for a centre in Immingham. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire talked about it trying to create sustainable aviation fuel from waste, which is a really interesting development.

I also met the Electric Aviation Group, which has a connection with Bristol and with companies such as Airbus. Unfortunately, it has not been invited to join the Jet Zero Council—I have just had a letter back from the Minister about this—but it is working on a hybrid electric aircraft for UK skies. It was interesting to hear from the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire that easyJet is also looking to develop an electric plane soon. The Electric Aviation Group says that, eventually, easyJet could probably fly hybrid planes to most destinations that it flies to in the future. It is obviously a bit more complicated for longer-haul flights. Hydrogen was mentioned by a number of Members, and the fact that Airbus, for example, is exploring it via its ZEROe concept. We obviously want to go down the path of clean, green hydrogen if we can, rather than blue hydrogen. I hope that the Jet Zero Council helps us move on to that path.

As I said, it is quite exciting how much has been done on sustainable aviation fuels. I think that a lot of progress will be made in the next few years. As other Members said, that in itself does not address the immediate issue, which is that—putting to one side covid and the fall in aviation emissions that we have had as a result of people just not flying—the trend of the last decade is aviation emissions either stagnating or increasing, whereas other sectors have been pretty successful in cutting emissions, such as the energy sector, as the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said. We are just not seeing that for aviation.

Aviation counted for 8% of UK emissions in 2019, according to the Committee on Climate Change. I agree with the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire on the need to include international aviation emissions in the UK’s net zero emissions legislation. Domestic aviation emissions have fallen to some extent, but those international emissions are not currently included in that legislation. I do not know whether the Minister will have something to say on that, because, as I understand it, the Government have said that they want to look at how we can include international aviation and shipping emissions in that target. That would act as a real incentive; rather than just focusing on emissions from domestic flights, which are a tiny minority of journeys, we must look at the international picture.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire also talked about carbon offsetting and planting trees, and options such as those must all be included. We also need to consider the issue of aviation demand, once passenger numbers start to return to normal levels. The debates around airport expansions and attributing responsibility remain important conversations to have, particularly given the recent court ruling against Heathrow expansion.

An estimated 70% of all flights in Britain are taken by just 15% of adults, and I think the Treasury is due to consult on the potential for greening aviation taxation soon. We need to look at how aviation can achieve a sustainable level of demand and remain affordable for ordinary families. I am certainly not arguing that ordinary families should not have the right to fly, travel and go on holidays, but I would argue that we need to place more responsibility on the minority of frequent flyers. Perhaps covid has alerted people to the fact that they do not necessarily need to fly across the world for a business meeting—there are things such as Zoom now. The UK’s replacement for the EU’s emissions trading scheme may well be another opportunity to green aviation taxation appropriately, so I hope we see some ambition from the Government on that in the coming months.

To conclude, I urge the Government to balance things out: in the longer term, the Jet Zero Council is a very exciting proposition, but we know that it will not deliver the solutions that we need to deal with aviation emissions in the short term. Alternative fuels have a role to play but, given the crisis in aviation, what we need from the Government now is a coherent package that looks ahead to international leadership at COP, but also looks at how we can save jobs, reskill people who work in the aviation and aerospace sectors, and create those jobs of the future—saving the industry and saving the planet at the same time.

Robert Courts Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Robert Courts)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, particularly on your first day in Westminster Hall. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this very important debate and giving colleagues across the House, after listening to his speech—which, if I may so, had great expertise and eloquence—the opportunity to discuss the crucial subject of tackling climate change. I also thank him for providing me with an opportunity to highlight how the United Kingdom is showing, and planning to show, bold and ambitious leadership in this area, including through the new Jet Zero Council. He has—

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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Order. May I gently ask the Minister to address the Chair and not the hon. Member?

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts
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I beg your pardon, Mrs Miller. It is only my second debate, so that is a schoolboy error at the beginning. I shall ensure that I address the Chair.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire is quite right to view this matter in a positive and forward-looking way. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) made the same point, and I agree entirely with that sentiment. Last year, the UK maintained its place at the vanguard of reducing carbon emissions and became, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) is right to point out, the first major economy in the world to set a 2050 net zero target.

It is critical that aviation plays its part in delivering the UK’s net zero ambitions. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay also pointed out that there is opportunity here. We are in the vanguard of the biggest step forward in British aviation since the post-war era, a step in which this incredible industry continues its global leadership in the fight against climate change. I will dwell at the outset on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). He is quite right that succeeding in this challenge will benefit not only the planet, but the economy, because this would potentially give us a share of a market expected to be worth £4 trillion globally by 2050.

We already have a range of programmes supporting research and technology on zero-emission flight, including the Aerospace Technology Institute programme, which has £1.95 billion of public funding committed for 2013 to 2026, and the Future Flight Challenge of £125 million of public funding. These programmes have helped to deliver incredible progress in recent decades in the fuel efficiency of commercial aircraft. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made an important point about the short-term steps that can be taken to help with sustainable aviation. Fuel efficiency in the short term for commercial aircraft is an important and significant first step in reducing carbon emissions.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is quite right to point out the steps that industry has taken. It is good to see him back in his place. I thank him for his kind comments. Although he missed yesterday’s debate, he will be glad to know that his hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) mentioned him in the debate, so he was here in spirit, if not in body. The Government will continue to look at the further support that we can provide to the ATI and, in turn, places such as the Whittle laboratory, which was mentioned, to support our zero-emission flight ambitions.

Several hon. Members mentioned airspace modern- isation, which is a key part of the overall picture, as is the case with airport emissions. Our airspace modernisation programme will allow aircraft to fly more direct routes, using performance-based navigation systems, and reduce the need for holding stacks. Several hon. Members have rightly mentioned sustainable aviation fuels, SAFs, which are a major part of the picture. We can achieve substantial greenhouse gas savings compared with fossil fuels, and these will play an important role in the transition to net zero.

We are looking to build a sustainable aviation fuel industry in the UK, reducing emissions further, securing green growth and supporting the jet zero agenda for post-covid-19 economic recovery. By 2040, this sector could generate between £0.7 billion and £1.7 billion per annum for the UK economy, with potentially half of that coming from the export of intellectual property and provision of engineering services. This industry could create between 5,000 and 11,000 green jobs, disproportionately in areas of regeneration. We are already supporting this sector through recent changes to the renewable transport fuels obligation and the capital funding that is available through the future fuels for flight and freight competition.

We now have the opportunity to further capture the economic and environmental benefits of this technology. We are working across Government and with stakeholders in industry, such as Sustainable Aviation, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, to build upon the existing package of support, to effectively scale up SAF production in the UK and to drive down its costs.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
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What about the £500 million ask from the industry to get various plans up and running?

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. We will be consulting with all stakeholders across industry to see what can be done. I cannot make that commitment at this stage, but I have heard what he has said and it will be taken forward.

To return to the subject of the debate, having talked about some of the short-term and medium-term steps that we are taking, let me turn to the Jet Zero Council in the medium to longer term. The UK will continue to deliver on the measures that I have mentioned, but that is not enough. Decarbonising aviation will not be straightforward, but I want us to stop viewing this as a challenge and instead view it, as many hon. Members have said, as an opportunity. Britain has always led the way on aviation and we will continue to do so. There is a huge prize in sight: developing the sector that meets the challenges of the future. We will be front and centre, capturing the first mover advantages.

In July, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport created the Jet Zero Council, a partnership between the aviation industry and Government to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint and put the sector on a path to net zero emissions by 2050. The Jet Zero Council brings together Ministers and CEO-level stakeholders from every part of the aviation sector. It is a technical, focused body. It can only have a finite membership, but I have heard the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, and the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and for Bristol East about the importance of workers. They are crucial to the success of our net zero ambitions, and we will make sure that we fully engage with their representatives as the work of the Jet Zero Council progresses.

The council will drive the ambitious development and delivery of new technologies and innovative ways to cut aviation emissions, utilising multiple perspectives and bold new thinking. That will include developing and industrialising clean aviation and aerospace technologies, establishing UK production facilities for sustainable aviation fuels, and implementing a co-ordinated approach to the policy and regulatory framework needed to deliver net zero aviation by 2050.

The council’s focus on clean aviation technologies has been echoed by the Prime Minister, who set out the Government’s ambition for the UK to demonstrate a zero emissions transatlantic flight. In July, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced the launch of the Aerospace Technology Institute’s FlyZero project. Funded by the Government, the 12-month project brings together experts from across the aviation and aerospace sectors to establish the opportunities in designing and building a commercially successful zero emissions aircraft. Last month, I saw the fruits of that work: a trial flight of a hydrogen electric aircraft made possible by £2.7 million of Government funding through the ATI’s HyFlyer project.

Things are currently incredibly difficult for the aviation sector, as we all understand and as a number of hon. Members have referred to. The unpredictable covid-19 infection rate makes it difficult to plan ahead, but the sector will recover, and when it does, we want it to come back better than ever before—more sustainable, cleaner, greener and even more ambitious. Covid-19 has meant that people have had to profoundly change the way they live, work and travel, and it is only right that aviation changes to become greener as we build back. I encourage all hon. Members to actively support the UK’s leading role in sustainable clean aviation. Our aviation industry and our economy depend on it.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his response and I thank hon. Members, from pretty much the whole of the United Kingdom, who have contributed. Three central points stand out. First, how do we get from here to there? We have to bear in mind everyone who works in aviation today who is having a really tough time. We do not want to lose those skills and we have to look after those people. Secondly, the urgency of the climate challenge, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) talked about, is pressing. Coronavirus cannot stop us recognising that. Thirdly, we have to keep the UK in a world-leading position, so that jobs and the high skill value are here in the UK.

I am encouraged by the Minister’s response. He talked about bold and ambitious leadership, keeping the UK front and centre, and keeping our first mover advantage—

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. There is a Division in the House. I will have to suspend the sitting for 15 minutes.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have finished.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the work of the Jet Zero Council.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Capital Infrastructure Projects: Bristol

Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]
Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for capital infrastructure projects in Bristol.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ghani.

The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, is very keen to promote what he calls the “One City” approach. It is not the job of one organisation or one individual to deliver what Bristol needs; it is for the whole city to come together. In that spirit, rather than taking up my allotted 15 minutes today, I will share it with my colleagues —my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and for Bristol South (Karin Smyth). We are even being extremely generous and allowing someone from over the border in south Gloucestershire to contribute—the right hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore). My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) cannot take part in the debate, as she is a member of the shadow Cabinet, but she is with us in spirit.

Bristol is generally seen as a really buzzing, thriving city. We are always being listed as one of the top 10 places to visit or to live. We are a net contributor to UK GDP, we have the highest number of net start-ups outside London and, as of September last year, we had the highest employment rate of the UK core cities. However, as with any city, there are challenges too. There are inequalities in income and opportunities. There is poor transport infrastructure and a desperate need for new affordable housing.

It was revealed at the weekend that the biggest increase in house prices in the whole UK over the last decade was in Easton ward, which was in my constituency but is now in Bristol West. Prices there went up 120%, from £129,000 to £283,000. The neighbouring Whitehall ward was eighth in the country; prices had gone up 102%. These are fairly modest houses. We need to build far more housing, and more affordable housing. We also need to build on our economic success by regenerating neglected parts of the city. The biggest scheme is the regeneration of Temple quarter, around Brunel’s historic Temple Meads station. This would mean 22,000 new jobs, at least 10,000 new homes and an economic boost of £1.6 billion per annum. The Secretary of State wrote to the Mayor last month saying Temple quarter showed a lot of promise and had impressive private sector backing.

There are two shovel-ready elements of the scheme. The first is the regeneration of Temple quarter and St Philip’s Marsh district. A business case has already been submitted to the Department and to Homes England. Bristol is asking for funding of £100 million. Secondly, the University of Bristol’s new Temple quarter enterprise campus is an innovation hub with a focus on digital quantum technology, engineering and green growth. The university is asking for £150 million from the Government, which will leverage £650 million of investment from the university and its partners.

It is estimated that this development would bring an estimated £626 million into the regional economy over the next decade and act as a catalyst for a further £2 billion of development on adjacent sites. In the short to medium term, this obviously means jobs in construction and in the long term many more employment opportunities will arise. I know the Government are very keen to support shovel-ready projects. In this case, a contractor is on board, planning permissions have been secured and construction could start in January 2021 with the campus opening in 2023. Because of covid, without Government support the project will be delayed by at least three to five years.

The other Temple quarter projects are the upgrading and renewal of Temple Meads station to support a doubling of passenger numbers to 22 million per year, increased rail capacity and faster trains. The last major upgrade to Temple Meads station was in 1936, and I think anyone who regularly uses the station will not be surprised to hear that. It is not a station that befits a city of Bristol’s standing and size and it desperately needs work.

We also need investment in flood resilience infrastructure to help future proof our city against climate change, to protect our heritage tourism and cultural sites, and improve cycling and walking routes. It would also unlock land for up to 4,500 homes, protect 12,000 existing homes and businesses from flooding and add £6.2 billion to the local economy.

This may sound like just a long list of asks, but all we ask for today is that the Government seriously consider the case Bristol and the West of England Combined Authority have made when it comes to bids where we might compete against other cities and towns for existing pots of money or future allocations. We were disappointed to be turned down for the housing infrastructure fund for the A4-A37 Temple Meads to Keynsham strategic growth corridor, which runs through my constituency. We already have huge pressures on the A4 and surrounding roads, yet thousands more homes could be built in the vicinity in the next few years, partly in Bristol, but also over the border in the neighbouring local authority of Bath and North East Somerset. The pressure will come on the Bristol roads, however, as people travel into the city to work and for leisure and shopping. Those homes are desperately needed, but the city will grind to a halt if we do not also invest in public transport. We also need to look at the pressure on schools, GPs and other local services.

I hope that if a successor to the housing infrastructure fund is announced in the spending review, any submission from Bristol will be looked on favourably. We hope too that the Department and Homes England will consider the business case for Temple quarter. We know that as a city we can deliver, but we need help to do so.

Before I hand over to my colleagues, I have three questions for the Minister. First, how will the Government support Bristol in seeking integrated investment to unlock its strategic development sites, including the shovel-ready projects in Temple quarter? Secondly, my colleagues will talk about transport issues in more detail, some of which concern the Department for Transport, but other Government Departments are involved too. Given the different funding streams and the role of different Departments, how can the Minister ensure that the strategic value of each of Temple quarter’s interconnected projects are realised and supported? Finally, will the Minister agree to visit Bristol or attend one of our forthcoming “One City” partnership meetings to hear how we are trying to lead the city out of a potential recession and how to support these key capital projects?

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before I ask other Members to respond, I alert Members that this debate will not go beyond 4.43 pm.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing the debate. We love our city, and we are proud to represent it. As well as generating wealth and opportunity for our constituents, Bristol is the driver of the economy of the wider west of England and, indeed, that of the south-west of England. The debate has a far-reaching effect for the Government. For too long, however, parts of Bristol have been overlooked in wealth distribution and infrastructure development, meaning that the inequalities across the city continue to blight many communities, including some of mine in Bristol South. Today, I draw the Minister’s attention to some of the shovel-ready projects that will go some way towards levelling up opportunities for my constituents.

The first amongst those is Hengrove Park, Bristol’s largest housing development site set to deliver around 1,400 homes. It is a 25-hectare public park with a potential for around 6,000 new jobs. Long envisaged as a critical part of rebalancing the city’s economy, key parts of the plan are already in place: South Bristol Community Hospital, funded by the last Labour Government after 60 years of local campaigning; South Bristol Skills Academy, the only college in Bristol South; and the site of a soon-to-be-completed advanced construction centre. We will have a ready-made source of cutting-edge skills to help rebuild our economy and retrain people for the future, while offering quality apprenticeships to local people. But we need the final part of the jigsaw: the houses and supporting infrastructure to breathe new life into the project. Will the Minister support the council’s request for £35 million investment for the enabling infrastructure, and demonstrate to the people of Bristol South that they are included when the Government talk about levelling up opportunities across the country?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, transport is key to the city’s economic recovery. In a city historically hampered by poor transport links and a somewhat ageing road network, it is right that our city leaders are seeking to scope out an ambitious vision to deliver an innovative and low-carbon transport system for the city region. In the immediate term, I draw the Minister’s attention to the long-awaited and much-delayed reopening of the Portishead line, which runs through my Bristol South constituency and will massively ease congestion and support development around the Ashton Gate area. The project has been in incubation for long decades. North Somerset Council completed a submission of the development consent order that was accepted by the planning inspectorate to proceed to examination last December. At such a critical time, this is low-hanging infrastructure fruit for the Minister. It will create jobs and opportunities, and if there is a rationale to wait another year then perhaps he will write to let us know why. Otherwise, I implore him to talk to his colleagues and hurry up. We are desperate for that to happen.

I echo my hon. Friend’s comments in support of the city’s largest infrastructure project at Temple quarter. Located partly in my constituency, it is of vital importance to the city’s economic recovery and will offer significant jobs and training opportunities locally, as well as helping improve the city’s connectivity. I draw the Minister’s attention alongside that to the electrification of the railway from Bristol Temple Meads to Weston-super-Mare. It has been agreed by the Department, but has been paused. Bizarrely, any train running along that line is currently forced to switch off its electricity when it hits Bristol and to turn to diesel, because the electric line ends there. That means that my constituents in Totterdown are forced to suffer the pollution of diesel fumes as the train chugs down to Weston-super-Mare and beyond. This is another freebie for the Government wanting shovel-ready projects that will offer jobs while reducing carbon emissions. I look forward to the Minister’s thoughts and, of course, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East, to welcoming him to Bristol South so that he can see the opportunities for himself.

Chris Skidmore Portrait Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for calling this debate and for kindly allowing me to contribute today. Although I am the Member for Kingswood in south Gloucestershire, I wanted to voice my support for the capital projects she mentions. We may represent different political parties, but I believe we represent a common goal which is to enrich the Bristol region and to increase investment in it. In particular, I wanted to express my support for the Temple quarter district proposals and for the University of Bristol’s Temple quarter enterprise campus. As a former universities Minister, I have seen first-hand the layout of the proposals, and as someone who started out his career teaching at the University of Bristol, I know that it will benefit not only the city but the whole of the Bristol and south Gloucestershire region. The Temple quarter development not only can regenerate an area of Bristol, realising its full potential, but can unlock the potential for future investment in innovation for the whole region. It is an important bid, and several are being considered as part of the Government’s determination to level up the regions.

I am sure the Minister is aware of the future high street fund bid to transform Kingswood High Street. Although Kingswood is in south Gloucestershire, that project would also benefit east Bristol, as Two Mile Hill joins my constituency with that of the hon. Member for Bristol East. The point I am trying to make is that we will all benefit from major projects that can transform the region, which is why this proposal is also backed by the West of England Mayor, Tim Bowles, who has already made significant investment through the West of England Combined Authority in these projects, including £55 million for the Temple quarter enterprise zone and £16 million for the university campus. However, as other Members have already said, we need investment from central Government to realise these exciting projects.

In addition, as has been mentioned, this development will see desperately needed investment in Bristol Temple Meads station, which I believe could lead in turn to a transport revolution for the Bristol region that will benefit all surrounding regions, particularly if the MetroWest phases 1 and 2 are realised. That would allow people to travel from the Severn Beach line through to Bath via Temple Meads without changing trains. The proposed additional housing that was mentioned—I think it would be around Hengrove—would also be extremely welcome, because it would help to protect surrounding green-belt land for the region.

In conclusion, although I am a proud south Gloucestershire MP, I am also a proud Bristolian who wants a visionary future for our city and our region, and the landmark projects that have been mentioned today will go a long way to delivering that future.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who is a learned and veteran MP, for securing this important debate today. We have already heard the cross-party support for the shovel-ready projects in Bristol: the Temple quarter project, Bristol Temple Meads and the University of Bristol campus. We have also heard the rationale for that development—that it would not only contribute to the local area but to the regional and national economy.

In north Bristol in 2018, we concluded our north Bristol transport plan, when my constituents and I, and stakeholder groups, prioritised investment to deal with commuter traffic. We know that the Greater Bristol region is growing at speed. We also know from the Minister’s Department’s algorithm that the number of houses being built in the south Gloucestershire area is due to increase significantly, and with that will come more commuter traffic, on top of the problems that we already have in that regard.

That is why the mass transit system that connects with the Temple Meads development project is so important, because if we are to get the benefit of the full economic opportunities from these developments in the city and from the attractiveness of our city region to many around the country, people need to be able to move around easily to grow those economic opportunities.

The last thing that I will say to the Minister is that we know, of course, that 30% of carbon emissions in the west of England come from transport. We have been talking about these issues for a very long time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) mentioned, the Portishead line was first debated when I was in primary school. I would quite like the projects that we are discussing today to be completed more quickly than that.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response today. I hope that he will consider the Mayor of Bristol’s “One City” plan, which I think provides national leadership about the way that we can work across stakeholders, parties and our regions to get the best for our country. I also hope that the investment that we have called for today will come forward, either in the comprehensive spending review or in the later Budget.

Christopher Pincher Portrait The Minister for Housing (Christopher Pincher)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this short but important debate. It seems to me that she has set up shop in Westminster Hall this afternoon. But in all seriousness, the debate that she has led is an important one. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), and the honoured interloper, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), on their contributions.

Let me begin on a very positive note, which is that I certainly enjoyed my visit to Bristol earlier this year, just before the covid emergency caused us to have lockdown. The rain did not alter the fact that it is clearly a buzzing and thriving city, as the hon. Member for Bristol East described it, and I shall be very happy to visit it again when circumstances allow, to see the work that she, her colleagues and other leaders from the city and the combined authority are undertaking.

As we lay the foundations for our recovery from the covid emergency, the Government are determined to invest in communities such as those in Bristol and across the western gateway, so that we can get them back on their feet and fulfilling their potential. I am heartened by what I have heard about the collaborative work being done across the community and across the city, between leaders and partners, to realise their vision for sustainability, activity and inclusive growth. It is right that we look to build on that momentum together and support our regions in this levelling-up opportunity, and that will be the focus of the upcoming spending review.

I understand that city leaders and the metro Mayor are working together across sectors in response to the pandemic to support the region’s journey to recovery. The Government are also committed to playing their part in providing immediate financial stimulus and capital infrastructure investment. The getting building fund is just one recent example of that commitment to job creation and the green recovery, accelerating shovel-ready projects in local areas. It is a £900 million fund targeted at places facing the greatest economic challenges as a result of the pandemic. We announced more than 300 successful projects in August, which were agreed with mayors and local enterprise partnerships to boost economies and local growth.

The west of England received £13.7 million in funding for seven projects through the getting building fund, and the seven projects are expected to directly create 1,144 jobs. In addition, the west of England has secured £202 million from the local growth fund, which has helped to fund a number of important projects in the city of Bristol, including £6 million for the Bristol Beacon, to transform that iconic music venue; £4.7 million for the city of Bristol’s Advanced Construction Skills Centre; and more than £7 million for the MetroWest phase 1, which was referenced by several colleagues earlier—a project that will see the reopening of the Portishead line and the introduction of half-hourly services on the Severn Beach line, significantly improving rail connections to and around Bristol.

The region has seen a further investment through an £80 million transforming cities fund and £6 million of funding to create an enterprise zone in the centre of Bristol, where small, innovative businesses can prosper. I make this commitment on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor: we will look carefully and considerately at all sensible projects that are brought forward. I will not make specific commitments on his behalf, but we are keen to ensure that, through the spending review and through other avenues, buzzing and thriving cities such as Bristol are supported. I encourage colleagues across the House and in local government to submit their thoughts and ideas for the spending review.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I got the impression the Minister was concluding, but maybe I am wrong and there is a lot more to come. It is important to stress that, although Bristol is a successful, buzzing, thriving city, there are inequalities, as we saw with the recent Black Lives Matter protest, and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) has the lowest staying-on rates in education and higher education in the country. Bristol is very much a city where there are inequalities and a need to level up.

Christopher Pincher Portrait Christopher Pincher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I will say a little more about the single housing infrastructure fund in a moment. She will know, of course, that a few weeks ago we announced our next iteration of the affordable housing programme with £12.3 billion of investment in affordable homes, the majority of which will be for discounted rents.

To address a point the hon. Member for Bristol South made about the Planning Inspectorate, I cannot comment on specific matters before it, but I am always keen to talk to colleagues there to ensure that the inspectorate is working at pace to quickly yet judiciously work its way through the applications and cases before it. Of course, it has the challenge of the covid backlog to deal with, but I know that people are working very hard in that regard.

The Government’s continued commitment to levelling up also means building the homes that this country needs, and I am glad to hear that Bristol has ambitious plans for house building. We remain committed to driving up supply in areas that really need it. I have mentioned the affordable homes programme, which we believe will support 180,000 new affordable homes for ownership and rent over the next four years in the percentages that I described.

We have also supplied an additional £450 million to boost the home building fund to help small developers—small and medium-sized enterprises are crucial in our recovery—to access finance for new housing developments. As the hon. Member for Bristol East will know, we have radical plans to reform our planning system to make it more democratic, transparent and speedy.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister set out how his Department works with the Department for Transport when allocating funds for significant housebuilding to ensure that transport infrastructure is funded alongside that? I and many of my constituents welcome the investment in housing—not just in Bristol, but in south Gloucestershire—but the commuter traffic problem is of great concern. The mass transit system, for example—the development of Bristol Temple Meads and the extension of the rail network—seems like an obvious investment that should go alongside housebuilding.

Christopher Pincher Portrait Christopher Pincher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman will know that the MetroBus system is already up and running, and there are plans to extend it further. As for his specific question, we work closely with other Departments on supra-regional issues—let us call them that. We also have the single housing infrastructure fund, which is an ambitious fund to ensure that we can provide the infrastructure required to unlock the housing that is needed by his community and others—I will say a little more about that in a moment. It is essential that we have the right infrastructure—the roads, schools and GP surgeries—and it is right that that is put in place before people move in. That is one objective of our new planning proposals and of the infrastructure levy that we will put in place alongside the single housing infrastructure fund to ensure that the right infrastructure is put in place at the right time.

In the short time remaining, I will say a few words about green recovery. Tackling climate change is also a priority for the Government. Last year, the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to put into law the ambition to wipe out our contribution to climate change by 2050. I am glad to hear from colleagues —either directly or outside the Chambers—that there are projects for sustainable energy infrastructure in and around Bristol, and I will keep my eye on them.

Investment is only part of the picture, however. If we are to secure a rapid recovery from the pandemic, as well as deliver on our levelling-up agenda, we will need a comprehensive place-based strategy with central Government and local government working in lockstep with businesses to target the specific challenges and opportunities that our communities face. The devolution and local recovery White Paper will be published by the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, who represents Thornbury and Yate and who will set out plans with cities such as Bristol, and their surrounding areas, at the heart of that vision.

I also want to mention the United Kingdom shared prosperity fund. I appreciate that local leaders want to be on a secure financial footing so that they can continue to drive innovation and invest in local infrastructure, and that includes the certainty of replacement of EU structural funds. The 2019 manifesto committed to creating a shared prosperity fund, which binds the whole United Kingdom, to tackle inequality and deprivation in each of our four nations. The Government will create a fund that is easier for local areas to access and will further support places to recover from the effects of covid-19.

We recognise the key role of local partners in EU structural funds, and we will continue to work closely with interested parties across the United Kingdom on the design of the new fund, taking into consideration what has worked in the past and how we can best deliver on domestic priorities. Final decisions about the fund will take place after the spending review. I look forward to further opportunities in this Chamber, or near to it, to further update the House and colleagues.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I appreciate the opportunity of yet another fund, but I gently say to the Minister that we have been talking today about projects that are ready and have been in the pipeline for a long time. We have gone through lots and lots of processes. We are all of one mind, and we would like the Government to talk across Departments, do a bit of joined-up thinking and focus, recognising how ready and willing we are to just get on with it.

Christopher Pincher Portrait Christopher Pincher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for that prompt from the hon. Lady. I recognise the value engendered in the Temple quarter regeneration programme. All propositions that are put forward have to be considered carefully on their merits. There are some tight business case requirements to meet. If they are not met—as with the last housing infrastructure fund bid, unfortunately for the proponents—I would encourage people not to lose heart, but to redouble their efforts and submit again. Our ambitious fund is designed to help communities that need support, and we are determined to give that to them.

I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East for leading the debate, and I congratulate all Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood on his contribution in support of the Temple quarter. I look forward to looking closely at the propositions that have been made, and to debating them robustly, if necessary, across the Chamber in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for two minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Productivity: Rural Areas

Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Scott Mann Portrait Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered productivity in rural areas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I understand this is your first outing in the Chair and it feels like a lifetime ago since I led a debate in this place, so I hope this will not be our last outing together.

I begin by posing a question to the House and to the Minister. It is abundantly clear that more people are considering living and working in rural and coastal communities. Many are choosing a better life balance, weighing up where they want to raise their children and taking advantage of some improved broadband connectivity —and covid has increased that trend. As the trend accelerates, this is my question to the House: is the countryside ready for that change? I have considered the question a lot and I think it could be, but addressing the productivity gap is vital in ensuring that rural communities are safeguarded as we go about those changes.

Cornwall is recognised as having the lowest productivity rate in the UK. According to Office for National Statistics figures released in February 2019, it was 32% below the national average. I know there are colleagues here today who have similar challenges in their areas. We should be very clear that the rural productivity gap is in no way the fault of hard-working people in all our communities, but the result of a combination of geographical and historical factors. I am committed to addressing that long-standing injustice; I know my friends in the House will be as well.

First, it is worth examining some of the reasons the productivity gap exists and what we can do to address it. In terms of local government and national Government, local government officers and UK civil servants are bound to a funding formula for infrastructure projects that means they have to seek best value for money. That has led to money being funnelled into already affluent areas, and, on paper, they see a greater return on that investment. However, that compounds and further widens the productivity gap we are here to discuss today. The first step on the road to levelling up the United Kingdom would be to change that model, recognise the potential value of investment for a specific area and establish how much improved value there would be over the baseline. For example, to get a 1% improvement in London’s economy, we would have to invest tens of billions of pounds, but a 1% investment in the Cornish economy would exponentially increase productivity in the area. So, £1 million invested in Cornwall would make a greater contribution to increasing productivity across the nation than £1 million invested, for example, in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor.

On education, for far too long, young people in North Cornwall have accessed higher education outside the county. Once they have qualified, the majority never return home. Many are old school friends of mine, who sought better paid work in other places around the country. I know Tony Blair had a big push on getting 50% of young people through university. My view is that that has compounded the problem, forcing many young people on to paths that are unsuited to them or to study degrees that are often of little benefit to the economy local to where they grew up.

I am pleased the Government are offering more vocation-based skills learning and degree-level apprenticeships. I hope we can do more to improve the life chances of young people in and around the country. In North Cornwall, our offer for young people has drastically improved. Callywith College in Bodmin was recently rated outstanding in six areas by Ofsted. I look forward to working with the college and expanding its future offer.

On housing, it is a sad fact that the gap between average wages and average house prices is the highest it has ever been in England. In Cornwall, that trend is particularly acute. The problem is worsened by high levels of second-home ownership, and many homes are beyond the reach of the local population. They are generally bought by buy-to-let landlords, which drives up rents. However, we are seeing an increase and a trend in second homes being occupied for longer periods of the year. Some families are choosing to relocate already to make their second home more permanent, and I welcome those moves. However, the under-supply of housing has already damaged many lives and communities in Cornwall. An increase in the rural population will exacerbate that issue, so we cannot avoid the need to build more homes in rural communities.

On supply and construction, Cornwall is leading the way on modular housing and newer forms of building to get the speed of builds up. I hope that the changes outlined in the planning White Paper will continue that roll-out and improve innovation and the solutions that we have to find to sort out the housing crisis. The planning Bill should also support economic development, business diversification, innovation and job creation in the countryside. I firmly believe that if we do that, we can address some of those rural challenges.

Moving on to health outcomes, the physical distance that some people have to drive to visit GPs and cottage and general hospitals often means that more people live with conditions and have to undergo lengthy surgery for treatment. They often rely on family members for that travel. For example, someone living in Bude in my constituency who has an appointment in nearby Barnstaple’s hospital might have to take half a day’s holiday from work just to run their relative to an appointment. That obviously has negative impacts on workplace productivity, but also on quality of life. The covid pandemic has proved that digital appointments with GPs can work, and some consulting can work. Further digitalisation of the NHS could mean rural and coastal communities accessing some of the best medical expertise in the country over Zoom or Skype without the need to travel vast distances.

I know lots of people will talk about physical infrastructure in their own communities, and we have seen a move from the Government to improve physical infrastructure distribution around the country, but it is clear that road and rail schemes often improve connectivity, productivity, journey times and people’s life chances. I have no doubt that colleagues will cover that topic, but I have a particular scheme in North Cornwall that the Treasury has already part funded, and it exemplifies how important infrastructure can be. The Camelford bypass has been talked about for more than 100 years. At its worst, the A39 through the town is gridlocked; at its best in the winter it can be tedious and extremely polluting. Camelford has one of the highest NOx emission rates in Cornwall. A bypass will improve health outcomes and connectivity, cut journey times on routes frequented by many workmen and traders, and in many cases will also improve people’s life chances because they will be able to access good quality employment. We recently saw improvements to the A30, which have led to improved journey times and created hundreds of jobs in the county.

Many colleagues will wish to raise digital connectivity. In many rural communities, improving broadband and mobile coverage is the single biggest step needed to address rural productivity issues. In Cornwall we have seen significant investment in speed, which has increased exponentially, but we still have far to go. Cafés, farms, white-collar workers and more can have more productivity, but are limited at the moment by poor internet speeds. It is crucial for tourism in Cornwall. Visit Cornwall recently did a survey that showed that the top two searches for holiday accommodation in Cornwall were broadband and hot tubs. Although I am absolutely convinced that hot tubs are important to people, I think we can agree that broadband is a necessity. Digital infrastructure should be the most important part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

We have also seen a move to remote working. A shift to remote and flexible working was happening pre-covid, and that is growing exponentially. I suspect many colleagues in the Chamber today will be aware of that trend. Legacy broadband and mobile investment can grow value added and support new employment opportunities in rural communities. We should encourage people to take advantage of the fantastic rural digital connectivity and to set up businesses in rural areas, giving them better quality of life and creating more and new opportunities for employment.

There have been a lot of efficiency savings in agriculture and farming in recent years, including robotics in milking parlours. Tractors are bigger and more efficient than they used to be. We have only scratched the surface of what we can do in terms of agricultural tech and robotics in our communities.

I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak, but it is worth making the point that the rural productivity gap is not a north-south divide, as it is sometimes reported. In my view, there are two economies in the UK: London and the south-east and the rest of us. I believe that the Government are committed to levelling up and will not lose sight of that focus, despite the challenges that we are undergoing with the covid-19 pandemic. People who live in rural communities are up for the challenge. The Cornish are entrepreneurial, hard-working and never miss an opportunity to make a few quid, so with the right support from the Treasury, I have no doubt that they can close the productivity gap.

I ask the Minister to respond on the following points. Will she continue to invest in technical colleges and degree level apprenticeships? Will she ensure that everyone in the UK has access to good-quality broadband and mobile? Will she support planning policies that are designed to promote economic growth for our rural and coastal communities? Will she continue to push for a bigger role for digital and virtual in our health service?

Will the Minister try to ensure that R&D funding is funnelled into innovation in the farming sector? Pilot schemes are often floated around the country. Will she consider the least productive areas for some of those pilot schemes and procurement things that happen in Government? I will leave it there as several hon. Members wish to speak. I am looking forward to hearing what they have to say as well.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for securing it, because we need to treat the whole country in a similar way. Sometimes, we believe that the west country goes as far as Bristol and no further, so we have to make sure that we get things done.

For instance, the A303 has been talked about for far too long. In fact, I found a reference from Edward du Cann, who said in 1958 that we needed to do more with the A303. We can get going. We can deal with a tunnel under Stonehenge, but we can also deal with a road through Somerset to make sure it gets into Devon and then on to the A30 into Cornwall.

My hon. Friend spoke about broadband. We need to get that done, because again, it is very much about digital connectivity. In my constituency, there are further education colleges in Axminster, Cullompton, Honiton and Tiverton. There is a great drive towards improving those colleges and giving people a good education, so that we can get practical people into jobs that they enjoy, can do and can make a good living at.

In Tiverton, there is a school in a flood zone that we cannot repair because it would flood again. Therefore, as I have said many times, to actually level up the community, we need a new school for Tiverton. If the Minister happens to have £40 million with her today, that would be extremely useful.

To be serious, levelling up across the country is essential, because all hon. Members have great communities, great people and great businesses, but we also have areas that need levelling up. Sometimes, a great rural constituency with lovely farms and lovely countryside does not really show those pockets that need levelling up.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this important debate. Some 37% of the Northern Ireland population live in rural areas, so they contribute to a large section of our overall economy. Unfortunately, they are somewhat missed out when it comes to the delivery of public services and public transport, which is also a problem when people go to develop a business in a rural setting. People might need transport for it, but there is no connectivity.

One of our biggest bugbears in Northern Ireland is rural broadband and the difficulties with it for businesses going forward. We have bucked the trend to some degree with businesses such as Randox in my constituency. It is a large employer based in a rural area, but it has also come across the difficulties of planning policy and what I call zoning. Zoning problems do not allow businesses to expand. They are good and developing businesses, but because someone has a wee red box drawn around an area, nothing more can be done. That can reduce the opportunities for a business to expand.

Now a Northern Ireland Executive is in place, we hope for access to the apprenticeship fund. Businesses in Northern Ireland contribute to it, but need to be able to access it to bring forward rural apprenticeships. In my constituency, the Greenmount agricultural college is a leading college for agriculture not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the UK, and we want to support it to bring diversification for farms and those involved in our agrifood industry, which is a major player in rural productivity.

David Warburton Portrait David Warburton (Somerton and Frome) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for raising this critical issue. For me, there is an answer to the productivity gap, and it is technology and infrastructure, as we have heard. Even before lockdown, a quarter of the rural population worked from home. With small and medium-sized enterprises being the engine of the rural economy, digital connectivity is vital, but Somerset is sprinkled with areas that have unreliable and intermittent connectivity.

New investment in broadband in those dead zones is of course great news, and the shared rural network agreement is another step forward, but there is still a lingering belief that the rural economy is purely focused on agriculture. Of course, we have a thriving industry that is based on agriculture—in my constituency, the fabulous cheese makers of Wyke Farms, Montgomery Cheese, Godminster and Barber’s, and innumerable cider manufacturers—and they are all vital to the local economy, but it is equally important to stoke the fire of businesses such as the logistics and supply chain company Vallis Commodities in Frome, the operations of which depend on Somerset’s physical and digital infrastructure.

Investment in road—I dare not mention the A303 again —in rail and in digital infrastructure will pay dividends for decades to come. Just stick in the money and sit back and watch as the resourceful and dynamic people of the west country beaver away in effect to give it all back with interest. If the shared prosperity fund is to achieve its purpose of smoothing inequalities between different communities, let us do that within a framework that balances protecting the bucolic glory of our small towns and villages while equipping them with the tools that they need to flourish.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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A mouth-watering contribution.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani.

Anyone who could make a living among the lakes and dales of south Cumbria, just would—the problem, of course, is the ability to make that living. One in four of my constituents in work works for themselves, and they are entrepreneurs. We want to encourage that strongly, and the fact that we have 95% officially superfast broadband in my constituency is hugely welcome.

That 95%, however, does not ring many bells for the chief executive officer of a trading and development company in our big town of Kendal, which has a 0.05 megabits per second upload speed. The reality, and the figure that matters, is not the 95% superfast broadband, but the 9.7% of my constituents who have fibre to their home. That compares with the 27% nationally, and even that figure is a disgrace. That is what matters the most, that 90% of my constituents rely on copper wires, a 20th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.

Given the time available, I simply want to make this case to the Minister: if the Government want Britain to be levelled up with the rest of Europe and the rest of the developed world, that is where we need to start. We need to aim for 95% fibre to the home or the premises right across the country, starting in rural areas, because that is where it will do the most good.

I said that one in four of my constituents works for themselves, and that they are entrepreneurs and creative. Even more could be if they were given the ability to be better connected. I look at our community at the moment, struggling from covid and doing their best to work from home, in circumstances that were utterly unthinkable just six months ago. I am sure we will not go back to how things were before. When we go back to work more generally, post-covid, we need to be able to compete, and we will do that only if we decide that we will adopt that 21st-century solution, and build fibre to the home.

Simon Baynes Portrait Simon Baynes (Clwyd South) (Con)
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I am very proud that in Clwyd South, my constituency on the Welsh borders, we have achieved the first universal service obligation in Wales, but it has been hard work and, as other hon. Members have mentioned, there is much more to be done. There are real problems with BT Openreach. We must make sure that the £5 billion investment that has been promised by the UK Government gets into the system, and that we can untangle a lot of the problems. Yes, we have made progress, but there is more work to be done.

The second area where we can improve rural productivity is by devolving as many powers as possible locally. I was a county councillor, a town councillor and mayor of my rural town before I became an MP, so I have had practical experience of trying to improve rural areas. In Clwyd South, Wrexham County Borough Council and Denbighshire County Council made many of the key decisions affecting rural life, from roads and housing to schools and local facilities. Sometimes we forget that many of the levers to achieve what we want to achieve lie at the local level.

Finally, I emphasise that in rural areas the proportion of small and medium-sized businesses is much higher than in urban areas. Therefore, policies that bolster those businesses are extremely important, particularly the availability of office and workshop space. That is a major problem in many rural areas and we need to create the planning conditions that allow for that, combined, as other hon. Members have mentioned, with improved provision of skills, training and apprenticeships.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I congratulate you, Ms Ghani, on getting to the position that you are in. It is lovely to see you there and I wish you well. I thank the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for setting the scene. I will talk about Brexit and the opportunities, because that is where I feel that we have those chances.

The dairy industry and connected agrifood industry is a massive rural key. One dairy corporate in my constituency in Northern Ireland has 2,500 farming families depending on it. We look forward to moving forward to continue trade and to enhance that. When it comes to productivity, Brexit will give us that opportunity. Mash Direct, Rich Sauces and Lakeland Dairies in my constituency have shown that global trade is possible, exporting as far away as China. That is something that the former Minister for International Development enabled us to develop.

To move forward, we need the Government centrally and the Minister to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly. They need to work alongside each other, to negotiate the choppy tides of leaving the EU, to hit the wide-open seas of free trade and commerce, and to reach the global potential that exists. In my farming constituency, it reaches down from the big companies, which between the three of them employ some 2,500 people, plus the farmers who live off them. Glastry Farm produces excellent ice cream. I said last night that Portavogie prawns are the best prawns in the country; well, Glastry Farm ice cream is the best ice cream that there is. It is a local farm that has diversified and done what it can to increase rural productivity.

I quickly underline the importance of post offices and banks, because of the wellbeing they provide. The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) is a member of a party—the Scots Nats—whose Members have spoken out in the House about bank closures many times. I have been in every debate; I want to make sure that is on the record.

I want to ensure that we address the issue of broadband, to reach out to isolated rural areas and to help small and medium-sized businesses, because if we can do that, we can raise productivity and we can all do better across the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Robert Largan Portrait Robert Largan (High Peak) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing the debate and the excellent case he made for the importance of infrastructure in reducing the rural productivity gap.

A good example of how to do that is the Hope Valley railway line that serves New Mills, Chinley, Edale, Hope and Bamford in my constituency. It is a popular service and arguably one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world, but in the period running up to December 2019 it scored only 52% on the public performance measure for train punctuality, making it one of the worst services in the country. One does not need to be a genius to realise the negative impact that has on our economic productivity.

I am pleased that we are making progress, with the modern class 195 trains recently starting service and phasing out the ancient Pacers. I am campaigning for an upgrade to the capacity on the line so that we can get more frequent services, which would make a huge difference to a huge number of residents in my constituency.

While on the subject of transport, it would be remiss of me not to mention the communities that are cut off entirely from the railway network and have extremely limited bus services. A good example is Gamesley, which by some measures is in the top 1% of the most deprived places in the country, yet many local residents are forced to pay for a taxi to get home, because the last bus finishes at 5 pm. We need a new railway station for Gamesley. I look forward eagerly to the Government’s national bus strategy, and I welcome the new X57 bus, which will provide a new service between Manchester and Sheffield. That will be a big boost for people who, like me, live in Glossop, and for those in Ashopton and Bamford.

I want to talk about poor broadband and mobile phone coverage, which holds back lots of areas. That is why roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband is so important. It is encouraging that we are finally starting to see full-fibre getting out to some of the hardest-to-reach places in High Peak, but we have to get it to the homes, not just to the cabinet, which makes a big difference to speed. Openreach has recently announced that it will be extending full-fibre to 11 Derbyshire market towns and villages, including Buxton, Glossop and Chapel-en-le-Frith, which I wholeheartedly welcome.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that improving rural productivity is a big challenge. There is no single silver bullet or single Act of Parliament, but if we work together, we can deliver for our constituents.

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)
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I congratulate my Cornish colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), on securing the debate. I endorse everything that he said, and I will not repeat too much. However, I particularly want to endorse the Camelford bypass, which I know he has been working tirelessly on since he has been in this place.

To live in Cornwall is to have to diversify—there is no doubt about it. When someone moves to Cornwall, there is no walking into a well-paid job in a bank or anything like that. One has to think about how one will learn a living. Most people who live and work in Cornwall have one job and one or two businesses, or even more. That is how one earns a living.

Last night in the Chamber, we spoke extensively in the debate on the Fisheries Bill. One point that I wanted to make—we were cut short on time—was about how we get more fisherman into their boats. As part of a rural injection of money, I would like to see, if possible, an apprenticeship scheme for fisherman, so that young guys and girls coming out of college who are not particularly academic, but who have good watercraft and have lived by the sea all their lives, are attracted to the industry. We could help them get their own boats, so that we start to see a resurgence of the inshore fleet, rather than such young people having to leave and go elsewhere.

We have a fantastic college in Truro—the Truro and Penwith College—which is doing a fantastic job at trying to match courses to skills. It has taken on the T-levels, and I know that is the college’s move going forward. It is doing a brilliant job at it. We also have the University of Exeter and the University of Falmouth, which are doing a fantastic job on the academic side of things.

I see that Cornwall is moving towards the green recovery. We have lithium and green hydrogen. We have plans for floating offshore wind. This morning I was talking to Starbucks, which is now making its reusable cups in Cornwall. It is happening, and all it needs is just a bit of imagination and initiative from the Government to see how we can spend the shared prosperity fund and tailor it to what our areas actually need.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing the debate.

Rural productivity is an issue of great importance to my constituents in Penistone and Stocksbridge. I recently visited a dairy farm in the constituency where farmers are working hard to improve productivity by introducing new technologies that will increase milk yields. Such technologies require the collection and processing of real-time data from cattle, and this in turn requires reliable, high-speed and affordable broadband. All businesses are becoming more reliant on broadband, and there is now a direct relationship between internet speed and how much productive work can be done. In the rural broadband survey that I am currently conducting in my constituency, however, nearly 60% of respondents tell me that their broadband is slow or very slow, so it is hardly surprising that rural productivity is falling behind.

Businesses and people working from home do not require broadband just for sending emails or online shopping. The nature of work has changed, and high-tech solutions and high-quality virtual meetings require a high-quality connection. There are no easy answers to these problems, and we need community power as well as support from central Government in order to seek innovative local solutions.

Of course, broadband speeds are not the only factor limiting rural connectivity. Poor bus and train services restrict opportunities to travel to well-paid work in the local area, in stark contrast with vastly better services in urban areas. Again, I believe there is an opportunity for community power to improve transport connectivity. South Pennine Community Transport, a fantastic local community interest company near my constituency, is trialling a new regular bus service between rural villages and Stocksbridge town. The service will connect people to jobs and leisure services and could be financially self-sustaining in under two years. Many millions of people live in rural communities in this country, and it is not just for economic reasons that we need to level up. Rural life, culture, tradition and values are a valuable part of this country’s history and our future, and we need to make sure that young people are able to stay in those communities and have productive jobs.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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I thank Mr Warburton for swapping seats with Ms Jones so that she can contribute.

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
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Thank, you, Ms Ghani. It is kind of you to call me in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing it.

My constituency is heavily rural. We have seven livestock markets and only four supermarkets. We have no district general hospital, no motorway and limited train and bus services, but the digital divide, as has come up in the debate, is the most significant factor holding back the vast capacity for rural productivity that exists across the UK. Specifically, the lack of high-speed broadband that plagues a large proportion of my constituency limits businesses’ and households’ capability to get connected. In the age of e-commerce and online learning, not being able to get online can mean not being able to reach full potential either as a business or as an individual. It certainly holds back the many tourism businesses in my constituency.

In Sennybridge, in my patch, only 50% of households have superfast availability, which is well below the 95% average across the United Kingdom. Sadly, we in Wales have a Welsh Labour Administration, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, who do not value rural areas. Investment in superfast broadband has been concentrated in the urban south Wales valleys, and sadly it does not reach up into my constituency in mid-Wales. I was therefore overjoyed in March when the Chancellor reaffirmed the Government’s plan to invest £5 billion to help to build gigabit-capable networks throughout the UK by the end of 2025. I encourage the Government to ensure that that capacity is built without delay. I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) about BT and Openreach, but I urge the Government also to do what they can to support small and medium-sized enterprises in that space, so that there is real competition in the broadband roll-out sector.

Our levelling-up agenda depends on ensuring that households across the UK, even in the most rural areas, have access to superfast broadband, so that we can close the digital divide and take full advantage of rural productivity capacity.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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The issue has been looked at in considerable detail by the Council of Europe, across the wider Europe that it is responsible for. One of the things that has come out of that is that, while we may want to see rural areas as one block, they are actually quite diverse. Many rural areas are some of the most prosperous in this country. In many there is a shift to a new rural economy with reduced dependency on land-based activities and a more diversified economy. What we need to do in those areas is support entrepreneurship and innovation. In my constituency, at Culham, which is the UK’s centre for fusion activities, we are bringing in many exciting new international companies and setting up a centre for apprenticeships that can operate across the whole area and carry on quite significant scientific activities. That all depends on access to technology and connectivity. A number of hon. Members have already mentioned the issue of broadband, and I completely agree about that.

There is a demographic issue that we all, I think, are concerned with—that rural areas should be the home not just of retired people but of young people who are innovative and out there, and who are getting on with making the areas where they live prosperous and quite strong. If I had time I would quote from the OECD, which has also looked at the area in question. That would reinforce what I have said about the need to value innovation and entrepreneurship in taking forward the prosperity we want in rural areas.

Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to be called by you, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for introducing this great debate on our countryside. I have two minutes, so it has to be a list, for which I apologise to the Minister. I suspect that the Government have heard a lot of it before.

I have two seaside resorts in my constituency: Swanage and Weymouth—and the Isle of Portland; I must never forget that. We are heavily resort-based, and we need some love and investment. We have large pockets of deprivation in my seat of South Dorset. Although we are extremely grateful for the huge sums of money we have received for the Weymouth Pavilion, Swanage railway and the Tank Museum, adding up to about £1.25 million from various sources, I am afraid that we need more.

I initiated a business panel, because I think business people are better at promoting what we need than politicians, because a lot of my constituents do not agree with what I say, understandably. This panel is now looking at what we will need for the next 30 to 50 years, in which I would include—I will push the Government hard on this—a road north. We cannot get out of Dorset and Hampshire; we have to go to the A34. This is utter madness. We need a relief road in Weymouth, so that the port can expand, which it is already doing, creating huge numbers of jobs.

As colleagues have said, we need better connectivity with broadband and mobile, which is currently appalling. Weymouth College is the only place where young people in my seat can aspire to move on to better careers, university and all the things that are so important for the young. We need more money to bring this college, which is doing a fantastic job, up to the standard that is required to deliver that opportunity to the young.

Finally, a forgotten element is the outdoor education centres. I know that is not the Minister’s responsibility. Schools are not sending children there. They should be allowed to because they are safe and bubbled, and children should be able to enjoy a day out in the countryside.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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We now come to the Scottish National party spokesperson. Mr Doogan, you have a joyous five minutes. You do not have to use it all.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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I guarantee I will. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for bringing this debate.

Rural communities’ needs must have greater prominence in Government policy. We would do well to ensure that this debate provides traction for that ambition. Across the UK—especially in England and Northern Ireland, where the topography is literally more accommodating—rural populations and their needs as taxpayers and citizens, together with their economic contribution are too easily and routinely overlooked. That is an opportunity lost.

The City of London and North sea oil and gas were the powerhouses of the UK economy for nearly 30 years or so. From Caithness to Cornwall, if we removed the net economic output from rural communities across these isles, we would see one heck of a dent in the UK’s economy. Rural communities and economies need a far greater slice of the investment cake if they are to increase productivity. Resources are the end result; the means to that is a shift in perspective and central Government policy. Centralised institutions and Whitehall must react to this.

We need our great regional cities—whether Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff or Durham—to be reborn as regional hubs. This base must exploit their existing and manifest competitive advantages. These can then act as economic nodes for regional opportunity in a far more targeted way, supporting start-ups and peer support between businesses, and generating and cultivating the multiplier effect, which can spread growth, opportunity and prosperity out to landward areas.

In Scotland, great strides have been made to enable decentralised power much closer to the people, under devolution in Edinburgh. This has been replicated in Wales, Northern Ireland, London and the other mayoral assemblies in England. In an independent Scotland, it would be unforgivable to repeat the difficult-to-unwind centralisation mistakes of the UK. That sounds like a political point, but I would contend that it is a political science point. By any stretch of the imagination and by any international comparator, the UK is chronically over-centralised in London. That comes at a significant cost to the rest of these islands.

There is great concern regarding physical and digital connectivity. Both are extremely important. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall highlighted, without superfast broadband, the nicest hotel in the village would find it difficult to get custom and impossible to get repeat custom, and customer reviews would reflect that. I am afraid that superfast broadband is no longer a luxury add-on; it is absolutely essential for the hospitality industry. Without that, individual businesses are working with one hand tied behind their back, because there is nothing they can do about it. That requires significant public investment. Following that investment, there is a need to build a more sustainable model where economic activity and output creates the demand for a more market-led support for services and infrastructure.

The Scottish Government, where we have the powers, have in the “Programme for Government” put the rural economy at the heart of the agenda. We recognise the importance of diversity in the rural economy and we are committed to a range of measures to support that growth. The rural economy is a major source of growth in Scotland, with its economic contribution worth about £35 billion in gross value added. Figures from 2015 show it was 27% of Scotland’s economy. There are 67,000 jobs in Scotland in farming alone. The Scottish agriculture sector, which is no different to that in great swathes of England—not least Cornwall—is worth about £1.3 billion to our economy. Farming is at the heart of Scotland’s economy and has the potential to contribute to our national recovery from covid, as it does elsewhere.

It needs to be accepted that different challenges are faced by rural businesses. The Scottish Government are addressing those, including through a new place-based approach to integrate business support for rural micro-enterprises. As other hon. Members have said, it is really important to look at the aggregate effect. There are not massive companies in rural settings—that is not what characterises rural entrepreneurship. There are many different economic enterprises—often, as has been pointed out, in the same household—all contributing to a significant economic output.

I am grateful to have had an opportunity to contribute to the debate. I wish the hon. Member for North Cornwall every success in taking this issue forward with his colleagues in Government.

Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to be here for your debut in the Chair, Ms Ghani. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this very good debate. I also congratulate all those Members who were elected for the first time at the most recent general election—not for the election victory, I hasten to add; we would rather that had not happened—on having already learned the fine parliamentary art form of squeezing a five-minute speech into two minutes. As a result, we heard a wide range of important points.

When I read the room, I was not sure about whether I should have more trepidation about addressing this gathering as a Labour MP or as a London MP. I want to explain why both of those things are complementary to what we have just heard. First, the regional imbalance in the UK economy is not working for London and the south-east, either. This city—one where I am a suburban MP—is overheating and overcrowded. It is in the interests of London and the south-east that we are rebalancing the economy across England and the rest of the UK. The concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in London and the south-east does not work for London, for the rest of England or for the rest of the UK. I hope we can achieve genuine consensus about how we redistribute power, wealth and opportunity from London and the south-east to the rest of the UK to create a genuinely balanced economy that benefits everyone and strengthens our country as a whole.

The Opposition not only not disagree with so much of what we heard in the debate but strongly support it. We understand the diversity of the rural economy in this country. Jobs and businesses in farming, forestry and fishing are important for the people who work in them, the communities who benefit from them and, of course, the consumers who enjoy them too. However, they are not the grand total of rural businesses; in fact, 85% of rural businesses are unrelated to farming, forestry and fishing. It is really important that public policy makers, whether in Government or around the Westminster village, understand that point and think about the diversity of the rural economy and how we support those businesses to succeed.

It is also a really important point that, in the context of the productivity challenge we have in the economy as a whole, rural economies in the UK are less productive. The hon. Member for North Cornwall made the point well that that reflects not on the workforce but on the conditions in which those businesses operate. It is also true that employment is generally higher in rural areas but pay is lower. We heard some illustrations of why that was, with people holding down a number of jobs—in fact, running a number of businesses—to make ends meet. That point was made powerfully during the debate.

What are the conditions in the wider environment that are causing some of these challenges? Of course, some challenges arise out of business size and density, and there are not the same conglomeration effects as in urban areas.

We have heard contributions on the challenges of accessing finance and the closure of bank branches. We ought to think, in the context of the connectivity that we have had to create during the course of covid, about how to better connect rural businesses with each other. We need to make sure that we are investing in our people, which is about access to skills and making sure that people do not need to leave the places where they grew up in order to have a successful career or to build a successful business. It is important that we invest in infrastructure, whether that is buses, rail or other forms of public transport. There are also ongoing issues of digital connectivity—this country is a digital laggard. We only have to look at the report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to see that we are so far behind other European countries on digital connectivity.

Notwithstanding all the other challenges that our country faces at the moment, I really hope that, as we think about how to break the back of this covid crisis, we think about how we build a better, stronger, more resilient economy beyond the crisis, making sure that we invest in rural communities and their people, businesses and infrastructure. I hope we can build a cross-party consensus in this area to generate good ideas for the next Labour Government to take forward.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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If the Minister can conclude by 5.43 pm, that will give enough time for the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) to wind up the debate.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Kemi Badenoch)
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It is a delight to be with you on your debut chairing of a Westminster Hall debate, Ms Ghani. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this important debate. As the Member of Parliament for Saffron Walden, a beautiful rural constituency in north Essex, I share many of the concerns raised today. In fact, if I was not a Treasury Minister, I would no doubt be here talking about the same things. I thank hon. Members for their many insightful and constructive contributions.

As recently as last week, the Prime Minister expressed his view that the only way to ensure true resilience and long-term prosperity is to raise the overall productivity of the country. In saying that, he was not talking only about our cities, as the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) referenced. When this Government talk about boosting productivity, levelling up and building back better, we are talking about the entire country—north and south, east and west, urban and rural.

Rural areas do not just make up most of this country by land area. They are integral to the commerce and culture of every nation and region of the UK. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) noted, our rural communities are diverse. In England alone, more than 9 million people live in rural towns, villages and hamlets, each a unique settlement with its own distinctive history and identity. These communities produce much of the food we eat and preserve the green spaces that we love to visit and that our wildlife relies on.

The Government are proud of the contribution that rural businesses make to our national economy, and we are determined to help rural areas harness their full economic potential. Rural areas typically have higher rates of employment and lower rates of unemployment and economic inactivity. The historic backbone of economies in rural areas has been British farms and their world-class produce, which is why the Government are committed to protecting farm budgets for the duration of this Parliament. In the years ahead, we will take advantage of leaving the common agricultural policy to transition away from area-based direct payments, which do little for the environment or productivity, and towards a new system based on giving public money for public goods, which will help our farmers to become more productive, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable.

Fishing, too, is crucial. It is the mainstay of many UK coastal communities, providing jobs and valued produce here at home and sending lucrative exports abroad. The Government have committed to maintaining funding for fisheries across the UK nations throughout this Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) asked me about apprenticeships for fishing. I can tell her that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education is working with employers to develop a range of courses for that.

I have already made the point about rural communities generating crucial economic capital. They are also home to much of our natural capital, which has not been mentioned so much in this debate. We want more private investment in that natural capital, which will in turn create jobs and support our world-leading target of reaching net zero by 2050.

Stronger transport links were raised by many Members. They play a particularly critical role in rural economies. We are spending more than £27 billion on strategic and local roads through the road investment strategy 2 from 2020 to 2025—the largest ever investment in England’s strategic roads. That includes the £2 billion committed at Budget to building the A303 tunnel, which I know several Members are interested in. We also confirmed at Budget the development funding for the A39 Camelford bypass, as part of the major roads programme.

Transport links must be levelled up across the country. That is why, earlier this year, the Prime Minister announced a £5 billion investment to transform bus and cycle links in every region of England, supported by the ambitious cycling and walking plan that was published in July and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) mentioned, by a national bus strategy, which will be delivered in the coming months. In the Budget, the Chancellor also announced a £2.5 billion potholes fund over this Parliament, to address the local road maintenance backlog.

We heard from many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and for Angus (Dave Doogan), and my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), about further education and degree-level apprenticeships. Higher and degree-level apprenticeships form an important part of our skills and education system, providing people of all backgrounds with a choice of high-value vocational training, alongside traditional academic routes. As part of our plan for jobs, the Government have introduced new payments to employers in England from 1 August 2020 until 31 January 2021: £2,000 for each new apprentice hired who is aged under 25, and £1,500 for each new apprentice hired who is aged 25 or above. Those payments apply to newly hired apprentices, including those at degree level.

Many hon. Members mentioned digital infrastructure, including my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for Truro and Falmouth, and the hon. Member for South Antrim. It is the information superhighway that we need to support our rural economy. As my hon. Friend for Somerton and Frome said, it is not just about farming and infrastructure. We have announced landmark investments in digital connectivity, including £5 billion to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband in the hardest-to-reach areas, which I know will please my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), and £500 million to extend 4G coverage to 95% of the UK’s landmass. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) mentioned, that will keep people and businesses connected.

As we fulfil our manifesto commitment to boost productivity and level up the whole country, we will not forget that rural communities have their own needs and challenges, some the same as, and some different from, those faced by people in large towns and cities. For instance, second-home owners can leave a shortage of affordable housing, particularly for local workers. For that reason, nearly 165,000 affordable homes have been provided in rural local authorities since 2010, but the Government recognise the need for more. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, that is the only way that we will keep young people in our communities, which is why at least 10% of the new affordable homes programme will be delivered in rural locations, and why those homes will be exempt from the new right to shared ownership. Restrictions on shared-ownership homes are in place in rural protection areas to keep affordable home ownership options available.

The national planning policy framework allows entry-level exception sites in rural areas to be used in perpetuity for affordable housing where sites would not normally be used for housing. In the Government’s recent consultation on changes to the current planning system, we set out our intention to protect the important role that rural exception sites play in delivering affordable homes—I have seen for myself the difference that that is making. Local planning authorities are encouraged to support opportunities to bring forward such sites, but we recognise that that delivery mechanism is underused and we intent to update the planning guidance in due course.

Our rural economy was once dominated by the trade in natural commodities, but in 2020, it is much more than just farms, fish and fir trees. It is about the businesses and entrepreneurship that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) quite rightly mentioned in his speech. Today, our rural communities are often as vibrant and economically diverse as our cities. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall asked if the countryside was ready for a new post-covid economy. I believe so, and the Government will do all they can to support that. The Government are committed to helping those communities to thrive over the long term, as we level up every region and nation of the UK, boosting productivity and spreading opportunity.

Scott Mann Portrait Scott Mann
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It has been an absolute pleasure to lead the debate. We have had a tour de force from around the country—Scotland, Cumbria, Yorkshire, Wales, Northern Ireland, Dorset, Somerset and, of course, Cornwall—and it was a pleasure to hear from the Minister. I know that she understands the issue well, and I hope that, in the light of what she has heard today, she will consider the countryside to be a living, breathing workplace, as we all do.

I know that we all in this Chamber stand ready to support making the countryside more productive. I thank hon. Members for participating in the debate, which was a pleasure to lead, and I look forward to working with the Government to deliver on what we have discussed.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered productivity in rural areas.

Sitting adjourned.