All 33 Parliamentary debates on 13th Mar 2024

Wed 13th Mar 2024
Wed 13th Mar 2024

House of Commons

Wednesday 13th March 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wednesday 13 March 2024
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Wednesday 13th March 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

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[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wednesday 13th March 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the cost of living in Wales.

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake (Ceredigion) (PC)
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4. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on supporting rural areas in Wales with the cost of living.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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5. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of increases in the cost of living on people in Wales.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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The UK Government fully recognise the challenges posed by cost of living pressures as a result of the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which is why we have provided £96 billion since 2022 to support households and individuals across the United Kingdom —an average of about £3,400 per household.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi).

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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Diolch, Mr Speaker. Just as the cost of living crisis here demands urgent action for my constituents in Slough, the cost of living crisis in Wales demands it for the good people of Wales, especially as households face being £870 worse off under this Government’s tax plan. Shockingly, a Which? survey has found that one in five working-age parents in Wales is skipping meals owing to high food prices. What recent conversations has the Secretary of State had with supermarkets about keeping the cost of food down?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise and welcome the fact that, as a result of the policies being pursued by this Government, inflation has fallen from more than 11% to about 4%. I hope he will also agree that workers throughout Wales will be very pleased with the cut in national insurance contributions, which means that on average they will be £642 better off. If he is really concerned about the plight of working parents in Wales, I hope he will ask his colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government to roll out the childcare initiatives that are being rolled out in England, but not by them in Wales.

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake
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A number of my constituents have been adversely affected by their transfer from working tax credit to universal credit, because they work in sectors such as agriculture and tourism and their incomes are therefore seasonal. The switch from an annual to a monthly assessment of their entitlement means that many are losing out, but the Government have said that there will be no impact assessment to determine the financial effect of the move. Will the Secretary of State intervene in support of such an assessment, so that workers with seasonal incomes can be treated fairly?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The hon. Gentleman is a champion of constituents in rural areas such as his, and I am happy to look at any information that he wants to give, but I hope that he will recognise that the increase in the living wage will have helped his constituents, even those who work seasonally. That is alongside the extra payments that the Government have made to households in which people are living on benefits or have disabilities.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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Is the Secretary of State aware of a report published this morning by the Trussell Trust? It states that 55% of the people receiving universal credit in Wales ran out of food last month and could not afford more, nearly 40,000 have needed to use a food bank in the last month, and four in 10 have fallen into debt because they could not keep up with their bills. Whatever the UK Government are doing about this, it is clearly nowhere near enough. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The focus of this UK Government is on ensuring that people can work and do not have to live on benefits, but we recognise that there are those in need. That is why pensions, benefits and the living wage have all risen in line with inflation, and why we have ensured that additional payments are made to pensioners, those living on benefits and households where there has been disability. The fact is that people on low wages will not be helped by the plans of the hon. Gentleman’s Government in Scotland—and, indeed, the Labour Opposition—to shut down the oil and gas industry, which would throw 100,000 people out of work.

David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government’s sustainable farming scheme, if implemented, would have the most serious possible impact not only on Welsh farming businesses, but on the cost of living in the rural areas that depend on them? Does he further agree that for those communities, the scheme is the very opposite of sustainable?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. The Welsh Labour Government’s sustainable farming scheme involves taking 20% of prime Welsh agricultural land out of commission in order to pursue a whole load of nebulous schemes. It will increase food miles, and will reduce our ability to feed ourselves.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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One of the best ways we can support people with the cost of living across Wales is by supporting businesses. Does the Minister agree that the Welsh Labour Government, propped up by Plaid Cymru, should do more to support hard-working farmers on Anglesey, such as Richard Jones and his family dairy, Maelog Jerseys, in Llanfaelog?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Welsh Government should abandon their so-called sustainable farming scheme, which will remove 20% of prime Welsh agricultural land and prevent farmers from growing food or grazing crops on it. They need to do something about tuberculosis, which is running rampant in Wales, unlike in England, and they need to look at the nitrate vulnerable zones across the whole of Wales, which will also impact farmers, such as her constituents.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Jo Stevens Portrait Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab)
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The impact of the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis on people in north Wales has been exacerbated by their dither and delay on new nuclear at Wylfa. The previous project, which Ministers abandoned in 2019, could have been 50% completed by now, and would have created up to 8,500 jobs. Some 900 permanent jobs would also be well on the way, adding a total of almost £400 million a year to the local economy in wages. What does the Secretary of State say to people across north Wales who are still looking for good jobs because of his Government’s failures?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The last Labour Government certainly did not build any nuclear power stations. The UK Conservative Government are getting on with Hinkley, and we are sorting out small modular reactors. There is a process going on, in which six companies with an SMR model will be reduced to two, and one will be selected by the end of the year. We have provided £160 million to buy the Wylfa site. That will ensure that there is a nuclear industry in Wales—a result of the policies of this Conservative Government.

Jo Stevens Portrait Jo Stevens
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It is a stark admission of the Government’s failure that the Secretary of State boasts, after 14 years in government and doing absolutely nothing for five years, of acquiring a site at Wylfa. His Government’s inaction has cost people money, and still does. In nine years, all but one of our current reactors will be offline, which will weaken our energy mix, risk higher prices, and again leave us vulnerable to energy tyrants such as Putin. Will the Secretary of State make an explicit commitment today to backing new nuclear in places such as Wylfa, as Labour has done, in order to unlock jobs, investment and cheaper bills—issues that his party has ignored for so long? Or is this another never-ending Tory fiasco, like High Speed 2?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The last Labour Government were not in the least bit supportive of nuclear. What this Conservative Government have done for energy is increase to 50% the amount of electricity that comes from renewables. We are the first advanced economy to halve our carbon dioxide emissions, and we are pushing forward with floating offshore wind and SMRs. All we get for business from the Welsh Labour Government is a block on new roads being built, 20 mph speed limits, and legislation to charge people for driving to work.

Stephen Crabb Portrait Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
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2. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the spring Budget 2024 on businesses in Wales.

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The UK Government are backing our small businesses by raising the VAT threshold, delivering tax reliefs for the creative industries and investing in high-growth industries, such as advanced manufacturing. That is in stark contrast to the Welsh Labour Government’s anti-business agenda; Wales has some of the highest business rates in the whole United Kingdom. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) thinks that having the highest business rates in the United Kingdom is funny.

Stephen Crabb Portrait Stephen Crabb
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Sadly, pubs and restaurants are closing at a faster rate in Wales than in any other part of the UK. The measures in the Budget that the Secretary of State mentioned will bring some relief, but does he agree that what is pushing many of these businesses to the wall right now is Welsh Labour’s slashing of business rates support?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The UK Government have made sure that pubs and other small hospitality businesses receive a 75% discount on their business rates. In Wales, that policy has been absolutely slashed, meaning that pubs and small businesses pay thousands of pounds more under the Welsh Labour Government. That is an absolute disgrace.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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May I return the Secretary of State to the issue of the Rhondda tunnel? The Chancellor of the Exchequer doled out bits and pieces of money to the constituencies of various Members of Parliament on the Tory at-risk register, but he did not allocate any money to the Rhondda tunnel, despite the Secretary of State having told me personally in the Chamber that we should apply for money from the levelling-up fund. That is all gone, hasn’t it? So where should we now apply for money for the Rhondda tunnel?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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There have been three rounds of levelling-up funding. The hon. Gentleman should know that there are growth deals across the length and breadth of Wales, covering every single constituency; that there are special projects being backed in areas such as Newport; and that there is an investment zone and a freeport in Port Talbot. Constituencies the length and breadth of Wales have benefited from the many projects that this Government have put forward. I appreciate his concern for that project in his constituency, and I suggest that he might look at shared prosperity fund money in future.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend is well aware that the Chancellor has extended business rate relief at the rate of 75% here in England, but of course the Welsh Government are refusing to pass that money on to small businesses in Barry and Cowbridge in my constituency. Does he not think it completely unfair that a business in Bristol or Cornwall will pay a lot less in business rates than a business in Barry or Cowbridge?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is extraordinary that the Welsh Labour Government, who are receiving this funding in order to support small businesses in Wales, are failing to pass it on. As a result, the average pub in Wales will pay more than £2,000 more in business rates than a pub in England. The Welsh Labour Government must do more to support small businesses in Wales.

Chris Evans Portrait Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Secretary of State will know that much of our monetary policy, which has an effect on interest rates for Welsh businesses and Welsh households, is decided in Threadneedle Street. Has he met the Governor of the Bank of England recently? If not, will he invite him to Wales to see the impact of his policies on the Welsh economy? Will he hold a meeting with other Welsh MPs, and may I humbly suggest that it be in Blackwood, Newbridge or Risca in my constituency?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The hon. Gentleman will surely be aware that the Bank of England sets interest rates independently, as a result of a policy brought in by the former Labour Government. It has been widely accepted that it is right that the Bank should set interest rates with a view to not what politicians ask it to do, but what the economy demands. As a result of the policies being pursued by this UK Government in conjunction with the Bank of England, inflation has dropped drastically from over 11% to 4%, and I would like to think that interest rates will soon follow.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call shadow Minister.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. This

“Budget will do nothing to deliver a better future for retailers and their customers.”

Those are the words of the British Retail Consortium, whose members face 45,000 incidents of theft and 1,300 incidents of violence and abuse every day. To help keep our Welsh high streets safe, we Labour Members want to fund an extra 13,000 police officers and police community support officers, and extra measures to deal with offenders. Why are the Government failing to tackle the epidemic of shoplifting and its victims, and to take it seriously?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue for retailers, but I remind her that the UK Government have provided for an extra 20,000 police officers across the whole United Kingdom. We have repeatedly brought forward legislation to increase prison sentences and punishments for offenders, but that legislation has often been voted against by members of her political party.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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This Government pledged £1 billion to electrify the north Wales main line. We all know that that £1 billion is an uncosted number pulled out of the air. We also now know that phase 1 goes no further than Llandudno. How can the Secretary of State explain that to the people living in Ynys Môn and Gwynedd? Talk of rail electrification just means more of the same for us: slow trains, cancelled services and empty election promises.

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The UK Government have already shown a commitment to transport in Wales, spending £390 million on improved rail infrastructure over the last control period. In addition to that, there has been the south Wales metro, which is part of a UK Government-Welsh Government joint-funded growth deal. The Prime Minister was very clear about our commitment to the electrification of the north Wales rail line, and that commitment stands.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts
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The Tory leader in the Senedd opposes moves to tackle the effects of excessive numbers of holiday homes in our communities. He goes on about

“anti-tourism, and anti-English policies being imposed on the Welsh tourism industry”.

Now that the Tory Westminster Government are abolishing tax breaks for holiday lets, would the Secretary of State claim that his Chancellor is anti-tourism?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I would not. My friend in the Senedd has spoken out repeatedly about the Welsh Labour Government’s plans for an overnight tourism tax, which will have a detrimental impact on tourism businesses across Wales. The hon. Lady’s party is in partnership with the Welsh Labour Government, and if she really wants to support the Welsh tourism industry, I suggest she tells it that her Members will vote against Welsh Labour’s Budget, to prevent that tax from coming in.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero and the Welsh Government on electricity transmission and distribution policy.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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The Government are committed to transforming our electricity network to reach our energy security and net zero ambitions. We recently announced an ambitious electricity network package that will reduce consumer bills, bring forward £90 billion of investment over the next 10 years and allow us to harness Wales’s renewable resources, such as floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards
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Pylon developments for electricity transmission and distribution purposes are very controversial in the communities that are expected to host them. I have four such potential developments in my constituency, and the whole of Carmarthenshire is in uproar. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero to commission a study on technologies such as cable ploughing, which allow undergrounding and have a comparable cost to pylons?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I understand the concerns that have been raised in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He has discussed this with me previously, and is championing his constituents’ concerns. The information that I have been given is that laying cables underground would cost five to seven times more, but I hear what he is saying. If he has a presentation or something that he can forward to me, I would be delighted to make sure that officials in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero see it.

Michael Fabricant Portrait Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
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On the subject of transmission and distribution policy, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Senedd has decided to ban GB News? What is his policy on that?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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There may be a small electricity saving, but it is very disappointing that the Welsh Labour Government are preventing a perfectly legitimate viewpoint from being heard by Members of the Senedd, who would do well to listen to people who do not always agree with everything they say.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
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6. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the adequacy of healthcare services in Wales.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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As my hon. Friend knows, healthcare is devolved to the Welsh Government, who have received record funding to deliver on their devolved responsibilities. They receive 20% more funding per person than is received for comparable services in England. Despite that extra money, more than 24,000 patients in Wales have been waiting more than two years for treatment. The number of people waiting more than two years for treatment in England, which has roughly 20 times the population, is around 200.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew
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Last month, fewer than half of red calls were answered by the ambulance service in Labour’s Wales within the necessary eight minutes. That is the Leader of the Opposition’s blueprint for government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, instead of campaigning for more politicians in Wales, Labour should focus on delivering the health services that the people of Wales thoroughly deserve?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I had to make a 999 call for an ambulance for my father-in-law at 11 o’clock one morning, and it arrived at 4 o’clock the following morning. My father-in-law then had to wait for another six hours in the back of an ambulance outside an accident and emergency unit. The Welsh Labour Government had built industrial fans in the ambulance bays to waft away the diesel fumes. That is totally unacceptable. They are cutting the NHS budget in Wales by around £65 million, yet they can find £120 million extra for more politicians in Cardiff Bay.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC)
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The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), has announced an extra £200 million of spending for dentistry. I have repeatedly asked her whether that is in the English budget or additional, in which case it would produce a Barnett consequential, but all she could say, repeatedly, is that it was additional. Can the Secretary of State for Wales tell me whether the extra £200 million for dentistry in England will produce about £10 million extra for Wales, or will it produce nothing at all? Perhaps he does not know, either.

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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As a result of the Budget, around £170 million extra will go to Wales. The hon. Gentleman knows that Wales receives around 20% extra to deliver healthcare, and it is therefore absolutely appalling that the Welsh Labour Government are unable to deliver the same services that are supplied in England. It is interesting; Labour claims to be the party of the national health service, but where are Labour Members? They are not standing to ask a supplementary to this question, because they are ashamed of the healthcare that they have delivered in Wales. Let this not become a blueprint for the rest of the United Kingdom.

Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton (Wrexham) (Con)
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A 90-year-old constituent of mine spent 31 hours in the back of an ambulance outside the Wrexham Maelor Hospital waiting to be seen. Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, which serves north Wales, is responsible for 80% of the preventable deaths in Wales. Does the Minister agree that the Welsh Labour Government, who run the NHS there, are putting lives at risk?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise concerns about the level of healthcare being provided to her constituents. Shockingly, when the independent commissioners at the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board raised serious concerns about more than £100 million being misspent, the Welsh Labour Health Minister called them in and sacked them. No wonder we are not getting the right level of healthcare in Wales.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (Ind)
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The Secretary of State and other Tory MPs bring up a litany of health issues in Wales, but Barnett consequentials are a result of health spending and need in England. Have the UK Government ever made any spending decisions on need in Wales, such as in health, and then funded England, Scotland and Northern Ireland as a consequence of Welsh need? He might find that a strange question, because UK decisions are always made on the basis of England’s need and other people get money as a consequence, which is why Wales is never going to catch Ireland for as long as Wales is in the UK and not independent. Is that not so?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The Holtham review looked at what Welsh needs were and calculated that Wales needed an extra 15%. The UK Conservative Government then provided Wales with an extra 20%. The question still stands: why have thousands of people in Wales been waiting for more than two years for treatment, given that the Welsh Labour Government have been given more money than they need to properly fund the health service in Wales?

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North) (Con)
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7. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the Independent Commission’s final report on the constitutional future of Wales.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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The not very independent commission was set up by Welsh Labour Ministers and reports to them, but it was paid for by Welsh taxpayers. Its report was entirely in line with all the predictions I made: it contained more constitutional navel gazing and more calls for more powers, and nothing at all to address the problems that have been inflicted on Wales by the Welsh Labour Government.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi
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It is deeply concerning that a so-called “independent” commission described Welsh independence as “viable”, despite the fact that the vast majority of people in Wales support remaining part of the Union. Of course, there is a difference between something that might be viable and something that is best. Does my right hon. Friend agree that independence for Wales would be hugely damaging to the Welsh economy and public services, and that any further exploration of this idea must be immediately ruled out by the Labour Welsh Government?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I completely agree with my hon. Friend; it is hugely concerning that the Welsh Labour Government were even willing to consider independence for Wales with this commission. They should be sorting out the longest NHS waiting lists in the UK and doing something about the fact that we have the lowest educational standards and some of the highest business rates in the UK. As a result of the last bit of legislation, we also have some of the slowest speed limits in the UK. It is time the Welsh Labour Government addressed the real priorities of the people in Wales with the powers they already have.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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Is the reality not that the Conservative party never wanted devolution in Wales or Scotland in the first place, which is why it does not want to see powers extended to either the Senedd or the Scottish Parliament?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I campaigned against the Senedd in the first place, but I was perfectly happy to accept the results of the referendum. I suggest that Scottish National party Members ought similarly to respect the results of independence referendums, be they about independence from the UK or independence from the European Union.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con)
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8. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on support for farmers in Wales.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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The recent protests by farmers across the whole of Wales, including outside the Senedd, show the huge anger there is about the proposals for the Welsh Labour Government’s so-called “sustainable farming scheme”.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Evans
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One of the best ways we can support Welsh farmers is by choosing to buy British products. That is good for the environment, as it reduces food miles, and for our food security, as we support our farmers. Will the Secretary of State congratulate Morrisons, Aldi, Sainsbury’s and now Ocado, which have all signed up to my campaign to have a “buy British” button online so that consumers can easily find British produce?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I completely agree with my hon. Friend about buying British, although I might go one step further and suggest we buy Welsh food, wherever possible. That will be a lot more difficult if Labour implement its plans to bury 10% of Welsh agricultural land under trees and to bury another 10% under ponds. That will increase food miles, decrease food security and destroy prime agricultural land in Wales. The Welsh Labour Government need to think again.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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The best way to support farmers in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England is to buy British. Does the Minister agree that we should all work together, across all this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to promote farming everywhere?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Let us encourage everyone to buy British and ensure we use as much of our land as possible for growing food, not covering it in trees. It is particularly hypocritical for the Welsh Government to tell farmers they have to plant trees on their land when the Welsh Labour Government are responsible for thousands of acres of forest. They are chopping down 850,000 tonnes of trees every year and even putting some of them into the boiler that heats up the Senedd—not that many trees are probably required to add to the hot air in there.

The Prime Minister was asked—
Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 March.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister (Rishi Sunak)
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The Post Office IT scandal is one of the greatest miscarriages in our nation’s history. I am determined that the victims get the justice and redress they deserve. Today, we are introducing legislation to quash convictions resulting from this scandal. The Department for Business and Trade will be responsible for the new redress scheme, and we are widening access to the optional £75,000 payment. Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters have fought long and hard for justice. With this Bill, we will deliver it.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan
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Despite serious opposition from the Archbishop of Canterbury, three former Home Secretaries and three Government advisers on antisemitism, social cohesion and political violence, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is due to widen the definition of extremism tomorrow. While Members on the Government Benches peddle far-right conspiracy theories about Islamists and Muslims taking over Britain, should the Prime Minister’s priority not be to get his own house in order and to stamp out extremism, racism and Islamophobia in the Conservative party? Will the Prime Minister finally take Islamophobia seriously and agree to the definition?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Discrimination has no place in our society. It is important to distinguish between strongly felt political debate on one hand and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation and violence on the other. I urge the hon. Gentleman to wait for the details of the strategy. It is a sensitive matter, but it is one we must tackle because there has been rise in extremists who are trying to hijack our democracy. That must be confronted. He talks about peddling conspiracy theories; I would just point him in the direction of the previous Labour candidate in Rochdale.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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Q4. Armed forces personnel who serve their country for 15 years are eligible for the medal for long service and good conduct. Similar medals are in place for those who make a career serving in the police, the fire service, the ambulance service and the coastguard. As I learned on a recent visit to Royal Bournemouth Hospital, where I met the dedicated staff, no such accolade is in place for the NHS. Will the Prime Minister support my campaign to see whether that anomaly can be corrected, so the nation can formally recognise those who devote much of their working lives in the NHS to helping others?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My right hon. Friend is right that our incredible NHS staff deserve our utmost thanks for their service. I am pleased that many NHS organisations, as he knows, have their own schemes in place to do that. We also recognise outstanding NHS staff through our honours system, and MPs are able to acknowledge their work through the NHS parliamentary awards. Nominations remain open and I encourage colleagues to avail themselves of that scheme. I will make sure that my right hon. Friend gets to meet the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, to discuss his specific proposals further.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Leader of the Opposition.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
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May I welcome the legislation on the Post Office scandal?

Mr Speaker, this week we lost the formidable Tommy McAvoy, who served his hometown of Rutherglen and the Labour Government with loyalty and good humour. We send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Eleanor, and their family.

We also learnt that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) will be taking her well-deserved retirement. She has served this House and her constituents with a real sense of duty, and her unwavering commitment to ending modern slavery is commended by all of us. We thank her for her service.

Is the Prime Minister proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynous language when he said that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)

“makes you want to hate all black women”?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The alleged comments were wrong, they were racist, and he has now—[Interruption.] As I said, the comments were wrong and they were racist. He has rightly apologised for them and that remorse should be accepted. There is no place for racism in Britain, and the Government that I lead is living proof of that.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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Mr Speaker, the man bankrolling the Prime Minister also said that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington should be shot. How low would he have to sink, what racist, woman-hating threat of violence would he have to make, before the Prime Minister plucked up the courage to hand back the £10 million that he has taken from him?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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As I said, the gentleman apologised genuinely for his comments, and that remorse should be accepted. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about language. He might want to reflect on the double standards of his deputy Leader calling her opponent “scum”, the shadow Foreign Secretary comparing Conservatives to Nazis, and the man whom he wanted to make Chancellor talking about “lynching” a female Minister. His silence on that speaks volumes.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The difference is that the Prime Minister is scared of his party; I have changed my party—[Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I want to hear both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister invited himself into everyone’s living room at 6 o’clock on a Friday evening. No one asked him to give that speech; he chose to do it. He chose to anoint himself as the great healer and pose as some kind of unifier, but when the man bankrolling his election says that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington should be shot, he suddenly finds himself tongue-tied, shrinking in sophistry, hoping he can deflect for long enough that we will all go away. What does the Prime Minister think it was about the hundreds of millions of pounds of NHS contracts given to Frank Hester by his Government that first attracted him to giving £10 million to the Tory party in the first place?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Mr Speaker, I am absolutely not going to take any lectures from somebody who chose to represent the antisemitic terrorist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, who chose to serve a Leader of the Opposition who let antisemitism run rife in this Labour party. Those are his actions, those are his values, and that is how he should be judged.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The problem is that the Prime Minister is describing a Labour party that no longer exists; I am describing a man who is bankrolling the Conservatives’ upcoming general election. [Interruption.] They can shout all they like. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister marched them out like fools to defend Islamophobia, and now the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) is warming up the Opposition Benches for them. Yesterday, the Prime Minister sent them out to play down racism and misogyny until he was forced to change course. He will not hand the money back. He will not comment on how convenient it is that a man handed huge NHS contracts by his Government is now his party’s biggest donor. You have to wonder what the point is of a Prime Minister who cannot lead and a party that cannot govern.

Mr Speaker, national insurance contributions fund state pensions and the NHS, so is the Prime Minister’s latest unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance going to be paid for by cuts to state pensions or cuts to the NHS?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has brought up the Budget; it is about time that he spoke about his plans, because what have we heard from the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury—[Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I call the Prime Minister.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury has confirmed that the Labour party will not be sticking to the Conservative Government’s spending plans, so we now have a litany of unfunded promises on the NHS, mental health, dentistry and breakfast clubs. That does not even include the £28 billion 2030 eco-pledge that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is still committed to. We all know that while we are cutting taxes, Labour’s unfunded promises mean higher taxes for working Britons.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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No, the Labour party will not be sticking to the Prime Minister’s completely unfunded £46 billion promise. He thinks that he can trick people into believing that simply shaking the Tory magic money tree will bring it into existence. Let us be clear: 80% of national insurance is spent on social security and pensions; 20% is spent on the NHS. He is either cutting pensions or the NHS, or he will have to raise other taxes or borrowing. Which is it, Prime Minister?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I know that it is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s strong point, but if he actually listened to the Chancellor last week, he would have heard that NHS spending is going up. It is a plan that is backed by the NHS chief executive officer, who says that we are giving her what she needs. At the same time, we are responsibly cutting taxes for millions of people in work, with the average worker benefiting from a £900 tax cut. What I am hearing from the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that he is against our plans to cut national insurance.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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We have the highest tax burden since the second world war. I did listen to the Chancellor: £46 billion of unfunded commitments. The Conservatives tried that under the last Administration, and everybody else is paying the price.

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister promised to crack down on those spreading hate. Today, he has shrunk at the first challenge. Last week, he promised fantasy tax cuts. Now he is pretending that it can all be paid for with no impact on pensions or the NHS. All we need now is an especially hardy lettuce and it could be 2022 all over again. Is it any wonder that he is too scared to call an election, when the public can see that the only way to protect their country, their pension and their NHS from the madness of this Tory party is by voting Labour?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about pensions. Pensions are going up by around £900 this year. It is this Government who have protected the triple lock for the last 10 years. He talks about supporting working people. It is this Government who are cutting taxes for every single person in work. It is this Government who are investing in the NHS. All we have from him is a £28 billion unfunded promise. I had a look at “Make Britain a Clean Energy Superpower”. It is all there. He is still stuck to it, Mr Speaker, and if you look through it carefully, there is billions in spending that he has already committed to for Scotland, and billions for Wales. There is actually money for north London too, I notice. The problem is that none of it is funded, so why does he not come clean and tell us that under his plans the British people’s taxes are going up?

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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Q6. Millions of people around the UK and Europe have been inspired by the brilliance of Six Nations rugby. Premier league clubs like Gloucester Rugby, which were funded during the pandemic through loans authorised by the Prime Minister, the then Chancellor, have always been grateful for being kept solvent, but he will know that some clubs’ finances are fragile, and that the current loan repayment schemes could be crippling. Will he ask the Sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), and the Treasury to try to find a solution, so that taxpayers’ interests are protected, and all of us can go on being inspired by top-class rugby for years to come?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we stepped in with a £150 million financial lifeline to ensure the survival of premiership rugby league clubs during the pandemic. I am told that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is working with Sport England, as the agent, to talk to borrowers with concerns about their loan agreements—any that have concerns should contact Sport England in the normal way. I can also proudly tell him that we are talking to the Rugby Football Union and the premiership league to secure the future not just of rugby union, but of his local Gloucester rugby.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the leader of the SNP.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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I begin by wishing Ramadan Mubarak to Muslims across these isles.

The Conservative party has accepted a £10 million donation from an individual who has said that one of our parliamentary colleagues in this Chamber “should be shot.” Why is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom putting money before morals?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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As I have said, the comments were wrong, the gentleman in question has apologised for them and that remorse should be accepted.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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This is complete rubbish. The gentleman in question apologised for “being rude”. He was not rude; he was racist, odious and downright bloody dangerous. On Monday, No. 10 said that we have

“seen an unacceptable rise in extremist activity, which is seeking to divide our society and hijack our democratic institutions.”

Is not the extremism that we should all be worried about the views of those Tory donors we have read about this week?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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No, there has actually been a rise in extremist activity that is seeking to hijack our democratic institutions. It is important that we have the tools to tackle this threat. That is what the extremism strategy will do. I urge the hon. Gentleman to wait for the Communities Secretary to release the details.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince (Colchester) (Con)
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Q7. Sub-post-masters across the country will welcome the Government’s announcement today on the introduction of legislation to overturn wrongful convictions. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the legislation will be passed as quickly as possible and that we will support all sub- postmasters right across our United Kingdom?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I pay tribute to all postmasters who have campaigned tirelessly for justice, including those who tragically will not see the justice that they deserve. Today’s legislation marks an important step in finally clearing their names. Across the House, we owe it to them to progress the legislation as soon as possible, before the summer recess, so that we can deliver the justice that they have fought for. We continue to work with our counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland as they develop their plans, but regardless of where and how convictions are quashed, redress will be paid to the victims across the whole of our United Kingdom on exactly the same basis.

Ed Davey Portrait Ed Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
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The future of children’s cancer services in my constituency, and across south-west London, Surrey, Sussex and beyond, will be decided by NHS England tomorrow. The existing service is world leading and has saved the lives of countless children. Many of us who have engaged with the consultation process feel that the wrong decision is about to be made, ignoring risks to children’s cancer care by moving them to the Evelina London Children’s Hospital. If the Evelina is chosen tomorrow, will the Prime Minister intervene personally to delay any final decision until he has met me and concerned MPs from across the House so that he can prevent the risks to our children’s cancer services?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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As the right hon. Gentleman knows, decisions about clinical provision are rightly made by clinicians in local areas across the country. More generally, we are investing in more oncologists, radiologists and community diagnostic centres, which is contributing to cancer treatment being at record levels, but I will of course ensure that he and colleagues get a meeting with the Secretary of State.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
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Q8. Radical Islamists pose a serious threat to our nation’s security. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that we must urgently address that, but reports that the Government wish to broaden the definition of extremism are concerning, because in separating the definition of extremism from actual violence and harm, we may criminalise people with a wide range of legitimate views and have a chilling effect on free speech. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that, instead of trying to police people’s thoughts and speech—as Opposition Members clearly wish to do—the Government will target specific groups that foster terrorism and those who fund them?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is why the strategy, which I urge her to wait for, will be one that she can support. It is our duty to ensure that the Government have the tools to tackle the threat that she rightly identifies and highlights. This is absolutely not about silencing those with private and peaceful beliefs, and nor will it impact free speech, which we on this side of the House will always strive to protect.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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Q2. Children deserve the right to breathe clean air, but many schools are in areas with high levels of air pollution. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has announced a pilot for 200 of London’s most impacted schools to access air quality filters so that children can breathe clean air in their classrooms. Does the Prime Minister support that pilot, and will he implement similar measures across our country?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am pleased that the latest published figures show that air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010, partly due to our legally binding targets to reduce concentrations. They will continue to reduce over the following years. On top of that, we have also provided almost £1 billion to help local authorities across the country to implement local plans to reduce nitrogen dioxide and to ensure that we can help those impacted by those plans.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con)
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I understand that the latest scheme being considered is to pay migrants thousands of pounds to leave Britain. Let us just leave the European convention on human rights and deport them for free. So far, more than 40,000 Brits have signed my petition with the Conservative Post calling for us to leave the ECHR. Will the Prime Minister commit to leaving the ECHR or, at the very least, have it in our manifesto to have a referendum and let Britain decide?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must do everything we can to secure our borders and ensure that those who come here illegally do not have the ability to stay. That is why our Rwanda scheme and legislation are so important. As I have said repeatedly and will happily say to her again, I will not let a foreign court block our ability to send people to Rwanda when the time comes.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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Q3. The National Theatre’s production “Nye”, which stars Michael Sheen, celebrates at its end the transformational increase in life expectancy since the founding of the NHS. However, University College London findings indicate that austerity policies between 2010 and 2019 are responsible for a three-year setback in life expectancy progress. Does the Prime Minister, or the Leader of the Opposition for that matter, think that public services can withstand an extra £20 billion of cuts?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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First, I am pleased that the National Theatre received significant funding from the Chancellor in the recent Budget to support its fantastic work across the UK. However, I am surprised to hear the right hon. Lady raise the NHS, when her party is propping up the Welsh Labour Government, who have absolutely the worst NHS performance of any part of the United Kingdom.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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May I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for meeting me six weeks ago to discuss the plight of victims of covid-19 vaccine damage? Following that discussion, and his very sympathetic response during the GB News “People’s Forum” to Mr John Watt, who is himself a victim of covid-19 vaccine damage, will the Government be supporting my Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Payments Bill this Friday?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue and for the conversation I had with him. I extend my sympathies to all those who have been affected. I will of course ensure that he can meet the Secretary of State to discuss his Bill. We are, as I committed to him, looking at the issue in some detail to ensure that our policies are providing the support that is needed.

Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova (Battersea) (Lab)
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Q5. The Prime Minister stood outside Downing Street and said that he wanted to root out hate and extremism, yet shamefully it took him more than 24 hours to finally say that the remarks by the Tories’ biggest donor that looking at the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) makes you“want to hate all black women”were indeed racist. In November, the Prime Minister accepted a non-cash donation to the tune of £15,000 from Frank Hester for the use of his helicopter, so will he reimburse him—yes or no?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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No, Mr Speaker. I am pleased that the gentleman is supporting a party that represents one of the most diverse Governments in this country’s history, led by this country’s first British Asian Prime Minister.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)
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I look forward to voting later today for a tax cut for thousands of my constituents; a national insurance tax cut that will mean £900 off the tax bill of thousands of my constituents. After listening to the rhetoric from the Leader of the Opposition today, does the Prime Minister expect that the main Opposition party will vote against this afternoon’s tax cuts?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend raises an excellent question, because while Conservative Members believe in a country where hard work is rewarded and people can keep more of their hard-earned money—which is why we are cutting their taxes by an average of £900 each—we hear consistently from Labour Members that they not only disagree with that approach, but continue to cling to unfunded spending promises that would put taxes up. Also, just yesterday the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), described our plan to end the double taxation on work as “morally abhorrent”. That is the contrast between us and them: Labour will put your taxes up, and the Conservatives will keep cutting them.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North)  (SNP)
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Q9. Many of his Back Benchers—and now, it seems, the Prime Minister himself—have taken to referring to the European Court of Human Rights as a foreign court, as if there is something inherently wrong with things being foreign, or people being foreign. In what way can a court that the UK has belonged to since 1953, and which has an Irish president and a UK justice with an LLB from the University of Dundee, be considered foreign? The House needs to hear the Prime Minister commit today to the UK’s continued membership of a court and convention that have protected our rights and freedoms for over 70 years.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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When it comes to the issue of tackling illegal migration, when Parliament expresses a clear view on what it believes should happen and supports that with legislation, and when we believe that we are acting in accordance with all our international obligations, I have been very clear that I will not let a foreign court stop us from sending illegal migrants to Rwanda. That is the right policy and, in fact, the only way to ensure the security of our borders and end the unfairness of illegal migration.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
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As a general election is not merely an expression of opinion but a serious choice, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is only one potential party of government that has the will, the inclination and the determination to stop mass illegal and legal migration, and that is the Conservative party? Let us unite our movement and do that.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I agree with my right hon. Friend entirely. We know this because not only has the Leader of the Opposition opposed the scheme, but he has been clear that even when the scheme is implemented and working, he would still scrap it. That tells us everything we need to know: on this issue, Labour’s values are simply not those of the British people. There is only one party that is going to stop the boats: the Conservative party.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
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Q10. On this Conservative Government’s watch, Thames Water has dumped over 72 billion litres of sewage into London’s rivers, all while racking up multi-billion-pound debts, and it is now reported that Thames Water could go bust any day. Despite this, the Government are still refusing to publish their contingency plans for the collapse of our country’s biggest water firm. Does the Prime Minister believe that Thames Water will still exist by the end of the year—yes or no?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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It would not be right for me to comment on individual companies, but what I can say is that our ambitious storm overflow reduction plan is backed by £60 billion of capital investment. We now monitor every single storm overflow across England, and we have legislated to introduce unlimited penalties on water companies that breach their obligations. The independent regulator and the Environment Agency have the powers they need to hold water companies, wherever they are, to account.

Natalie Elphicke Portrait Mrs Natalie Elphicke (Dover) (Con)
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Later this year, a new digital EU border system will come in, yet key changes that are required and key details have still not been decided by the EU. Urgent decisions are needed on additional funding and preparation to keep Dover clear and traffic moving through Kent. Can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assure me that this issue is being taken seriously at the highest levels of Government, and that funding and support will be made available to keep Dover clear, support the residents of Dover and Deal—and Kent—and secure our vital cross-channel trade and tourism?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and I assure her that it is being discussed at the highest levels of Government between UK Ministers and our EU and French counterparts to make sure that we have practical and constructive solutions that will ease the flow of traffic in the way that she describes and benefit her local community.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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Q11. One hundred and fifty eight days, and there is no peace and no justice. There is no food, no clean water, no sanitation and no medical aid. There are just no words left, as disease is spreading and the death toll is rising, not least among children—the victims of these atrocities. It is evident that the Prime Minister’s plan is not working, so will he change track for the sake of these children and so many more, and work to secure a bilateral, immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I have said repeatedly that we are incredibly concerned about the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Too many civilians have lost their lives, and nowhere near enough aid is getting through. In contrast to what the hon. Lady said, actually the UK is playing a leading role in alleviating that suffering. Just recently, we increased the amount of aid this year to £100 million. Just today, 150 tonnes of UK aid is due to arrive in Gaza, and a full field hospital, flown from Manchester to the middle east last week, will arrive in Gaza in the coming days, staffed by UK and local medics to provide lifesaving care. We are doing absolutely everything we can, working with our allies, to bring much-needed aid to the people of Gaza.

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)
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Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the maternity team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital at Treliske in my Truro and Falmouth constituency for all the outstanding work they have done to improve maternity services over the last few years? Their sheer hard work, along with the coming new women and children’s hospital, means that there are no midwifery vacancies in Cornwall, which I think he will agree is a fantastic achievement.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the improvement in maternity services at the Royal Cornwall. She is a tireless campaigner on reducing baby loss, and I commend her for her recent work on the introduction of baby loss certificates. As she knows, we are committed to a new women and children’s hospital for her local trust in 2030, as part of the new hospital programme.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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Q12. My constituents in Somerton and Frome, working together with the Langport Transport Group, submitted a robust strategic business case to the Government in July 2022 for the reopening of a train station in the Somerton and Langport area. Such a train station would connect over 50,000 people to the rail network, boost the local economy and support local people to reduce their reliance on cars. Almost two years on, they are still waiting for a response. Does the Prime Minister support this project, and can he provide confidence to my constituents that their hard work to drive this vital project forward has not been futile?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Conservatives in the south-west are rightly championing the reopening of local stations. Cullompton and Wellington will be among the places that receive funding as a result of our decision on HS2. It is because of that decision that we have now freed up billions of pounds of funding to invest in local transport across the country, and local leaders will be put in charge of that money to prioritise their local needs.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Final question—Mark Francois.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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Prime Minister, in the 1930s, one of your less illustrious predecessors, Neville Chamberlain, so denuded the British armed forces of funding, until it was too late, that we failed to deter Adolf Hitler, and 50 million people tragically died in the second world war. Russia has invaded Ukraine, China is threatening Taiwan, and British shipping is being attacked by Houthis in the Red sea. Could you please assure me, as the son of a D-day veteran, and the House of Commons that we are not going to forget the lessons of history and make the same mistake again?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning for our armed forces. He is right to champion them and the role they play. I agree with him wholeheartedly that sadly the world we are living in is becoming both more challenging strategically and more dangerous, and in response to those challenges we must invest more in our armed forces. That is exactly what we are doing, with the largest uplift since the cold war recently topped up with billions of pounds to strengthen our nuclear enterprise and rebuild stockpiles.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the threats posed by the Houthis and by Russia in Ukraine. I know that he will be proud of the role that the United Kingdom is playing in both those situations. We are respected and valued by our allies. Most importantly, we on the Government side of the House will do whatever it takes to keep our country safe.

Gas-fired Power Stations

Wednesday 13th March 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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12:36
Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero to make a statement on the Government’s plan to build new gas-fired power stations.

Graham Stuart Portrait The Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero (Graham Stuart)
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The second consultation of the review of electricity market arrangements was launched yesterday. It sets out the choices that we need to make to deliver a fully decarbonised electricity system by 2035. Since 2010, the Government have reduced emissions from power by 65% and thus made the UK the first major economy in the world to halve emissions overall. We have built record volumes of renewables, from less than 7% of electricity supply in 2010 to nearly 50% today, allowing us to remove coal altogether by October this year.

Our success in growing renewables is the reason we need flexible back-up for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. Our main source of flexible power today is unabated gas. More than half of our 15 GW of combined-cycle gas turbines could be retired by 2035. Meanwhile, electricity demand is set to increase as heat, transport and industry are electrified. We must ensure that we have sufficient sources of flexibility in place to guarantee security of supply. We need up to 55 GW of short-duration flexibility and between 30 and 50 GW of long-duration flexibility. Our aim is for as much of that capacity as possible to be low carbon.

While low-carbon technologies scale up, we will extend the life of our existing gas assets, but a limited amount of new build gas capacity will also be required in the short term to replace expiring plants as it is the only mature technology capable of providing sustained flexible capacity. We remain committed to delivering a fully decarbonised electricity supply by 2035, subject to security of supply, and we expect most new gas capacity to be built net zero-ready. The Government have committed £20 billion to carbon capture, usage and storage, and are developing comprehensive support for hydrogen. In the future, unabated gas plants will run for only a limited number of hours a year, so emissions will be entirely in line with our legally binding carbon budgets.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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I am a bit tired of this Government shunning any scrutiny of their climate record and instead relying on a past record, because while the UK may indeed be the first major economy to cut its territorial emissions by half since 1990, we are not on track to achieve our 2030 targets, and if we factor in consumption emissions, the UK has cut emissions by only 23%. So let’s have a little less complacency from the Minister. He will know that the Government’s announcement on new gas-fired power stations does in fact, contrary to what he claimed, risk undermining our climate targets and leaving the country reliant on imports of expensive gas. Members should have been given the opportunity to question the Minister on its implications for the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy system by 2035, with 95% of UK electricity being low carbon by 2030.

First, why was the statement not made in Parliament? Why was it made instead at Chatham House, where Members were not able to question the Minister on the impact of this decision? Secondly, will the Minister explain how this proposal differs from the functioning of the existing capacity market, or will he admit that it is just the Government’s latest attempt to stoke a culture war on climate? Thirdly, the Climate Change Committee is clear that no new unabated gas plants should be built after 2030, so what is the Government’s timeline for developing these new gas-fired power stations?

I asked the Minister about this yesterday in the Environmental Audit Committee; I did not get a response. I also asked him what is being done to ensure that these gas plants are zero carbon by 2035; that was not set out either in the Secretary of State’s speech yesterday or by the Minister today. The Minister did tell the Environmental Audit Committee that the plants would be required to be both carbon capture and storage-ready and hydrogen-ready. That does not amount to a meaningful plan, so will he please give us more than his thus far unevidenced words of assurance, and will he explain what the Government’s plan is to support the development of batteries and long-term storage technologies and to drive innovation so that we can get off volatile gas for good?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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It is rather odd to be asked about the ability to scrutinise this, when yesterday was the launch of a consultation that will go on for some time and, as the hon. Lady knows, I was in front of the Select Committee yesterday. It is rather strange that she should highlight that point.

The hon. Lady is confused, as she often is, because she is so political. She would appear to set politics always ahead of climate. She struggles to recognise that that United Nations framework convention on climate change rules are about territorial emissions—countries own the emissions in the territory where they take place. Her numbers on embedded emissions are wrong, but she does not care about that; she just carries on with a political diatribe against the Government, who have done more than any other in any major economy on this Earth to decarbonise their economy. And we have done it not as the hon. Lady would have us do it—by being reduced to living in yurts—but while growing the economy by 82%. It is people like the hon. Lady who make people on my side of the Chamber at times think that we are perhaps engaged in some form of madness; we are not, but she doesn’t half make it sound like we are.

Can these new gas plants be consistent with the Government’s commitment to decarbonise the power sector by 2035? Our published net zero scenarios for the power sector—I invite the hon. Lady to read them—show that building new gas capacity is consistent with decarbonising electricity by 2035. From those scenarios we expect that, even with new gas capacity, rather than the 38% of electricity generation which in 2022 came from gas, that figure will be down to 1% by 2035—or, if we follow the scenario set out by the Climate Change Committee, perhaps 2%. We are going to have that as a back-up. It is sensible insurance; it is about keeping the lights on while we carry on the remarkable transformation this Government have achieved in moving from the appalling legacy of the Labour party of less than 7% of electricity coming from renewables to nearly 50% today.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con)
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The announcement on gas-fired power stations is extremely welcome, but at the moment a kilowatt-hour of electricity in the UK costs 44 cents, against 17 cents in the US and 8 cents in both China and India. We have become fundamentally uncompetitive because of this green obsession. We want cheap electricity and we should have gas and we should have coal, and we should postpone net zero indefinitely because we are only 1% of global emissions. We are making no difference, and the US economy is growing consistently faster than ours because of cheap energy. This is a good first step against the net zero obsession. We need to go further.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I would chide my right hon. Friend with the science and evidence that are emerging all the time. There is a climate challenge and emergency, which is why we are looking to reduce our emissions. He is quite right to challenge that by saying, “We are less than 1% of global emissions, so how does this make sense?” That is why we hosted COP26 and got the rest of the world to commit to following us. We are bringing in the carbon border adjustment mechanism from 2027 precisely to ensure that we create an economically rational system that supports jobs in this country, while meeting the climate challenge that needs to be met.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
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I am little puzzled about what all this is about. The Committee on Climate Change and all credible energy experts have said that we will need a small residual of unabated gas in the system for the medium term, and that is consistent with a fully decarbonised power system. No one disputes that, and it is barely worth an announcement. We should extend the lives of existing plants to meet that need. If new-build plants are needed in the short term to replace some of those retiring gas-fired power stations, there is no disagreement, provided they are capable of converting to hydrogen or carbon capture, as the Government say they must be.

However, that is not what the Secretary of State said yesterday at the Chatham House meeting. The Government’s own analysis published yesterday shows that 24 GW of existing gas capacity could be maintained via life extension and refurbishment, and 9 GW of new capacity is already in the baseline under existing capacity market arrangements. That is an uncontroversial position and analysis, and hardly something worth making a huge fuss about. But again, that was not what the Secretary of State talked about at yesterday’s Chatham House conference.

Given that analysis, could the Minister enlighten us with the number of new gas plants that the Government are hoping to build, given there is no mention of that in the 1,500 pages of documents that were published yesterday? That is an important point, because it appears to show the Government’s intention to go beyond what is already in the analysis and build a large number of new gas-fired power stations for the future.

There is a great deal in the review of electricity market arrangements published yesterday that is worth discussing, not least the Government’s glaring failure to bring forward low-carbon flexible technologies such as long-duration storage, which everyone knows we will need. It is a shame that the Minister has not properly addressed that. Will he give us clarity on whether this is a meaningless announcement within existing policy arrangements? Or, as has been said, is it an attempt to conjure a culture war out of climate and energy policy, with announcements with no substance or value that show that the Government have no serious plan for energy in our country?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The hon. Gentleman asked whether new power plants will be hydrogen or carbon capture, utilisation and storage ready; we will legislate to make that a requirement. He asked how much there will be; around 5 GW, but that is dependent on so many interrelated things, such as the growth of low-carbon and flexible storage, which, as he referred to we are a world leader in developing and supporting both in innovation and through the capacity market. He suggested that none of that was clear yesterday, but it was made crystal clear.

We are a world leader, having announced £20 billion for CCUS. The hon. Gentleman will remember, because he has been around a long time, that in 2003 the then Labour Government said that carbon capture, utilisation and storage was urgent and that there was no route to 2050 without it, but then they proceeded to do nothing about it. This Government are getting on with it. We are putting our money where our mouth is and developing technologies such as carbon capture and hydrogen, in a way that the Labour Government failed to do—as they did with renewables, to boot. All they do is talk about climate, but the truth is that the greatest climate risk to this country is if the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) destroys the market and starts some state-run quango, which will wreck the renewables growth that we have seen.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
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I welcome the announcement. The independent Committee On Climate Change recognises that we will need unabated gas in the electricity market right up until 2035 and beyond, and more widely that even in 2050, 25% of our energy needs will come from hydrocarbons. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is exactly the right way to maintain lower energy production costs, while still meeting our net zero targets?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I do agree with my hon. Friend. The point is to have a wide range of back-up capacity, but not to use it very much with fossil fuels, and, as I think has long been the case, to ensure that any new gas generation should be carbon capture-ready. We look forward to it being hydrogen-ready, too. We are in a very similar position to Germany and other countries that are looking at exactly that. For instance, I think both Germany and Ireland, as part of their growth in renewables, recognise the need for gas, albeit used less and less, to ensure that the lights stay on and there is appropriate insurance in place.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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What a cluster—it is unbelievable that we are in this situation. In the Secretary of State’s letter to Members today, she said that the Government are taking steps to make sure the lights stay on. That is the legacy of 14 years of the Conservatives in charge of energy. Uncomfortably, I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg). This is a significant departure, and one we should be alarmed about. Where is the Government’s precious nuclear baseload now? Where is the exemplar of CCUS working at the necessary scale, from which the Government are taking inspiration? Would it not have been an elegant solution to have unabated gas winding down at the same time as battery storage and long-duration pump storage was winding up? We cannot have that, because the Government have dragged their feet on both things. What does the Minister say to people who are having infrastructure for transmission put throughout their communities and are being told to suck it up because that is what we need to get gas out the system, when the same Government are now building gas-fired power stations?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The hon. Gentleman, who is supposed to lead on this subject for his party, should have listened to what I said earlier. In 2022, 38% of generation came from gas. By the mid-2030s, it will be 1% or 2%. Why are we having it? To balance the renewables we are growing, particularly in Scotland, and support Scottish jobs. Of course if we put generation in Scotland when the demand is in the south, we have to provide connecting infrastructure. Previous generations had to wire up the UK to become the rich and prosperous country we are today. We need to do it again now. We are working with local communities, listening to their voices and making sure they are not misled by people who come up with such nonsense as the hon. Gentleman just did.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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I commend my right hon. Friend for his refreshingly clear articulation of our strong record in this area, both in the House today and in the media yesterday. Obviously, security of supply must come first. How will the plans incentivise investment in back-up gas-fired power stations, while minimising costs to consumers, which is also very important?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank my hon. Friend. He and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) are absolutely right to focus on the economics. We have to get the economics right. We have used an auction-type mechanism in the capacity market to ensure flexible capacity. We are incentivising more and more of that to be low carbon, with batteries coming in at scale, as well as pumps and potentially hydrostorage. We also need hydrogen and carbon capture. We are ensuring a balanced system with discipline built into it to drive costs down. When CBAMs and so on come on stream, I firmly expect that in the 2030s we will have lower-cost energy than our neighbours and we will, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset referred to, be more economically competitive.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (Ind)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker—tapadh leibh.

It is concerning that this was announced in Chatham House and not here in the House, and that the Secretary of State is not here today. Off-piste speeches have cost in the past. My Committee heard this morning that an Energy Minister made a speech a decade ago that, with the effect it had on investment, cost 1,000 jobs. The Minister says that this is a consultation, but have the Government picked a winner? What room have they given for storage to be in the mix? Are they confusing energy security—we have learned from the Ukraine war important how that is—with continual electricity supply? Given what the Minister says about the percentage of gas used by 2030 and after, what percentage of capacity will this provide, and what percentage does he envisage will be used day to day? What thought has been given to consideration of other technologies in his gigawatt demand?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I suggested, on different scenarios, about 1% or 2% of total generation coming from gas in future, compared with 38% in 2022, on an annualised basis. Clearly, as the hon. Gentleman should know better than anybody here with his deep knowledge of the subject, it is based on intermittency. It depends on how much the sun shines and how much the wind blows, but we will ensure we have a robust system. That is exactly what we are doing. I would love it if people could celebrate this country’s global leadership and the fact that we are driving this forward, especially those such as members of the Green party, who are supposed to care about climate change. We are doing this in a way that maintains security of supply and, by bringing in more and more renewables, with the lowest-cost and most flexible system to back it up, doing so in a more and more economical fashion.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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I welcome the announcement today. It is pure common sense. When the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, we need security of supply. Although we need to deal with climate change in the medium to long term, we must also deal with security of supply in the short term, so I welcome the announcement. Does the Minister agree that for medium and longer-term security of supply, we must upscale what we are doing in the hydrogen sector, with more hydrogen production and usage, and be a world leader in hydrogen? For the moment, we are slipping behind a bit.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of hydrogen. Where I disagree with him is that, having seen the projects in hydrogen allocation round 1—eight projects, I think—I do not think there is any indication that we are slipping behind. The truth is that the whole world needs to do this, because everyone’s analysis, from the International Energy Agency to the Climate Change Committee to my own Department, suggests that hydrogen and carbon capture are necessary to bring about the decarbonised system we seek. He is absolutely right on the importance of hydrogen. He can expect more developments, because this country is leading on that, as it is on CCUS.

Mark Hendrick Portrait Sir Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)
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I have a great deal of respect for the Minister and his knowledge of the subject, and the fact that he, like most of us in this Chamber, recognises the need to cut carbon. I am sure he is not one of those who, like the right hon. Member for North East Somerset, would follow the flat earthers. But clearly, a great deal of trust and reliance is being put on carbon capture and storage, and on hydrogen. Both are still quite new technologies. We have talked about this stuff for 25 years. The Minister seemingly forgets that this Government have been in power for the past 14 years and we are still not off the blocks on hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. Is it not the case that the Government are taking this position because it is a nod and a wink to the gas and oil industries whose support they will probably need before the election this year, and that this is part of the whole agenda of placating the right wing of his own party?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I was with the hon. Gentleman nearly all the way. He is right: the whole world is looking at carbon capture and hydrogen, because that is what the science says. Everybody who analyses it says that we need it bur that it is not yet at a great level of maturity. Just as in so many other areas, this country is leading the way. We have cut emissions more than anyone else. He knows the dire legacy left by his party in 2010, with less than 7% of electricity from renewables, which was just appalling, and the real danger if we go back to that. That is why we have gas power as a back-up, so that we have a completely sound system. We will seek to deliver a decarbonised system by 2035. The biggest risk to that would be if the right hon. Member for Doncaster North were to come in and start to mess with a system that has lifted us from the back to the front of climate leadership. That is the real danger, and that is what we need to avoid.

Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con)
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Will my right hon. Friend stop by South Derbyshire, specifically the Willington site, which already has planning permission for a new gas power station, and cut the ribbon when it opens? We want spades in the ground, so I welcome the announcement. I invite him to come and have a look at that site, which is ready to go.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I agree with my hon. Friend and I applaud those who are investing in our system. We have made ourselves one of the most investable countries in the world for clean energy. Gas has an important part to play in that balance, and with the development of carbon capture and hydrogen there is every opportunity for such assets to have an even longer life in a green fashion. I would love to come and see my hon. Friend.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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Oil and gas are the energy sources of the past, and we need an intermittent energy source. Gas power plants are not intermittent. They sit there, and then because there is too much renewable energy it is shut off, and gas—the carbon energy—continues to flow. That is the reality of today: we are wasting renewable energy. The Government do not recognise that reality, and do not respond to it.

My question is this, however. How many times have Ministers met representatives of the oil and gas industry, and how does that compare with the number of meetings with representatives of the renewables industry?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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As so often—the hon. Lady does it spectacularly well—she is completely and utterly wrong. Renewables are turned off, as she would say, because of constraints within the system, and gas is turned on because the system could not cope otherwise. That is why we have the transmission acceleration action plan and the connections action plan. [Interruption.] Every time we try to build out the infrastructure, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) opposes it. He says that he and the Scottish National party want to be a friend of the renewables industry and Scottish jobs, but then he opposes the infrastructure that is required for it.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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What about my question?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I meet representatives of the oil and gas industry a lot, because the truth is that even given our world leadership—and we have cut emissions by more than any other major economy on the planet—75% of our primary energy today is still from oil and gas. We will still be dependent on oil and gas in 2050, when we are at net zero. That is why it is so crazy that the Opposition parties, including that of the hon. Lady, believe in opposing licences when we are actually dependent on the product. All that ending licences would do is lead to the loss of British jobs and the import of higher-emission products from abroad. I really do hope that Opposition Members will think a bit more deeply and we can hear some common sense. I hear it in the Corridors from Back Benchers, but from the Front Benchers and the hon. Lady I hear nothing but nonsense.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)
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I welcome this policy decision, which is a recognition of reality. Can the Minister confirm that the new plants will be able to convert to low-carbon alternatives in the future?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank my hon. Friend. We will be legislating precisely to create exactly that obligation for carbon capture and/or hydrogen readiness.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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I hope that this decision is indicative of a realisation that seems to be slowly dawning on the Government about the impact of the madness of their net zero policy, which has damaged the UK economy. We have higher electricity prices than most of the other G7 countries, we have lost vast numbers of jobs in energy-intensive industries, and now it has been recognised that because of the intermittency of wind and solar there is a risk of blackouts.

I welcome this common-sense decision, but given that we are going to use gas to power these stations, why does the Minister not take the next logical step and legislate to allow us to tap into our vast UK gas resources? As the United States has shown, that would bring down prices, give us energy security, and make our economy more competitive.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The right hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong: we have record levels of employment, and we overtook France recently to become the eighth largest manufacturer in the world. I would not expect him to join the dismal party opposite in talking this country down. In truth, we are leading the world in tackling climate change, and we have created more jobs than at any time in British history. Going forward into the 2030s, by harnessing more and more British low-carbon, renewable energy we will lower bills for families and increase our competitiveness. As I have said, in a world that is increasingly recognising the need for action and seeking to introduce measures such as the carbon border adjustment mechanism—effectively, carbon taxes at the border—the UK is in pole position to grow from its already strong economic position into an even stronger one as a result of the net zero policies of this Government.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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Across London and the south-east, many much-needed developments that are required for the increasing population have literally been frozen because of a lack of supply from the grid. Nuclear power can provide the baseload; renewables are unreliable, and obviously gas is required at peak times in particular. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is all about topping up the grid at peak times, when people want to use electricity, because gas is the fastest way to bring a power station on to the grid and is also the fastest to shut down?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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My hon. Friend will be aware of all the work we are doing to speed up transmission. We are halving the timeline from 12 to 14 years to seven, and the connections action plan has already moved forward connection dates for projects amounting to 40 GW. We are putting in a lot of work across the piece. This gas capability is there as a back-up, but the usage and the emissions resulting from it will fall precipitately over the next 10 years, and we can all celebrate that.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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After their years of delaying meaningful investment in clean, cheaper, reliable renewable energy technologies such as tidal and long-duration pumped hydro storage, it is no surprise that the Government are now having to scramble to create new dirty gas-powered plants. How much does the Department estimate the new plants will cost, where is it suggesting they should be built, and what does the Minister mean by carbon-capture-ready? Does he mean carbon-capture-operational?

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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Hear, hear. Do tell!

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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As I have said, further legislation will come forward in the not-too-distant future, and the hon. Lady will be able to scrutinise it—but it is extraordinary that she should say of a country whose renewable energy generation has risen from less than 7% to approaching 50% that we have gone slow on renewables. We have decarbonised our power system faster than any other major economy on the planet.

The reality denial that we hear from the Scottish National party is quite extraordinary. The hon. Lady highlighted tidal energy. Well, guess which country in the world uses the most tidal energy. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who is one of the greatest champions of tidal, could tell the hon. Lady, if she is really so ignorant. He is a fellow Scottish MP, and he could tell her that the UK has more tidal deployment than any other nation. We are proud of that, we are proud of the transformation, and it is about time the SNP and the Labour party stopped misleading the people and the House.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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The Minister said earlier that we faced a climate challenge, after struggling for words to describe what we are facing. Why can the Government not join the global consensus and admit that what we are facing is a climate emergency? As the Secretary-General of the United Nations has said, the year of climate warming is over and we are in an era of climate burning.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not primarily concerned with words—I am primarily concerned with action—but in fact I did use the “emergency” word. I do not know whether I broke some golden rule which says that Ministers should not use it, but I do treat this as an emergency. I see the world warming up, I see the negative impacts of climate change, and that is why I spend every single day feeling proud to be part of the Department that is decarbonising its country faster than any other in the world. The hon. Gentleman should get away from rhetoric and start to focus on action.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for all his answers. While there is certainly an urge to prioritise our net zero promises, I am grateful to the Government for taking back-up precautions into consideration. As the Minister has often recognised in responding to questions from me, Northern Ireland plays an important role in our contribution to meeting the net zero targets. Will he therefore ensure that Northern Ireland is prioritised as a leading location for any new gas-powered stations that are to be built?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The hon. Gentleman sometimes gives the impression that he would like me to be running the energy system in Northern Ireland, but it is devolved—and we have Ministers there again, which is a cause for celebration. I will work closely with Ministers in Northern Ireland, as I do with Ministers in other devolved Administrations, because if we are to meet our net zero targets, Northern Ireland must deliver its own targets. Scotland has to deliver its targets, as does Wales.

We must work together, in a spirit of collaboration. We can do that, and if the hon. Gentleman can persuade his right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is sitting beside him, that it can be done in a way that strengthens our economy as well, we really will have something to celebrate.

Post Office Legislation

Wednesday 13th March 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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13:09
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake)
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With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about Post Office legislation and the Horizon redress schemes.

I am very pleased to be able to announce that today we are introducing a new Bill that will quash the convictions of postmasters in England and Wales affected by the Horizon scandal. As set out in my written statement last month, this legislation will quash all convictions that meet a clear set of conditions. Those in scope will have their convictions quashed on the day that the new legislation is brought into force. Subject to parliamentary passage, our aim is for Royal Assent to be received as soon as possible before the summer recess.

We accept, and have always been clear, that the legislation may overturn the convictions of some people who are guilty of genuine wrongdoing, but we believe this is a price worth paying to ensure that many innocent people are exonerated. However, the Government will seek to mitigate the risk of people receiving financial redress when they have not been wronged.

The Government also accept that this legislation is unprecedented. It is an exceptional response to a factually exceptional situation. I want to be clear that this does not set a precedent, and neither is it a criticism of the judiciary or the courts, which have dealt swiftly with matters brought before them. The fact remains, however, that three years after the first convictions were overturned, only around 100 have been quashed. Without Government intervention, many of these convictions could not be overturned, either because all the evidence has long been lost or because, quite simply, postmasters have lost faith in the state and the criminal justice system, and will not come forward to seek justice.

The legislation will apply to England and Wales only. However, we are fully committed to working with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive through regular, weekly official-level engagement to progress their own approaches. I have met my counterparts in the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to offer support and address their concerns, and I will have further meetings. The financial redress scheme will be open to applicants throughout the UK, once convictions have been overturned.

I thank the Business and Trade Committee, which recently published a report that includes some recommendations for the Government regarding Horizon redress. We will respond to them in the usual way, but today I would like to address two of the Committee’s recommendations. The first is that responsibility for redress should not lie with the Post Office, as it should be subject to independent oversight—something that has also been recommended to us by the Horizon compensation advisory board. I can announce today that the Department for Business and Trade, rather than the Post Office, will be responsible for the delivery of redress for overturned convictions. Final decisions on redress will be made by independent panels or independent individuals.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall return to the House at a later date to provide details on how we intend to deliver redress for those who have their convictions overturned by the Bill or via subsequent measures taken in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We are discussing the details with the advisory board. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), will introduce legislation to make any payments made via the new scheme exempt from tax.

Secondly, the Select Committee recommended that the Government introduce legally binding timeframes to deliver redress for sub-postmasters, with financial penalties for non-compliance. I strongly support the Committee’s desire to speed up redress, but we feel that its proposed regime would have the opposite impact. It would potentially mean imposing penalties on forensic accountants or others who are helping postmasters to prepare their claims. Doing that would probably cause some of them to withdraw from this work, which would slow down the delivery of redress. Furthermore, we do not want to be in the position of rushing postmasters into major decisions about their claims and the offers they receive, which would possibly mean that some are timed out of redress altogether. The advisory board has said that its “strong view” is that

“this would be a backward step”,

which is why we passed legislation less than two months ago to remove the arbitrary deadline from the group litigation order scheme. We do not want to reverse that change.

However, the Government are acting to ensure that redress is delivered as quickly as possible. First, we are working with claimants’ lawyers to reduce the number of cases that require expert evidence—for example, from forensic accountants—or medical evidence, which delays claims. We will pilot that approach and, assuming that the pilot succeeds, we hope to expand it rapidly.

Secondly, the advisory board and I have asked for monthly reports on each scheme. They will come from schemes’ independent case managers, where such managers are in place. We will publish the reports, which will give us the best basis on which to assess measures for speeding up redress.

Finally, we are introducing optional fixed-sum awards. In January, the Government announced that they would offer an optional fixed-sum award of £75,000 to those in the group litigation order scheme. As of 5 March, 110 offers have been accepted, and over 100 people have taken the £75,000 fixed payment. Of those who have accepted the fixed payment, three quarters are new claimants, so the fixed offer has already meant that over 100 claims have been resolved promptly. In some cases, those people will have got more than they would have asked for. The fixed offer has also had a helpful effect on other claims, because it substantially reduces work on small claims by claimants’ lawyers, making more resource available to progress larger claims more quickly.

I am pleased to announce today that the £75,000 fixed-sum award offer will now be extended to the Horizon shortfall scheme, to ensure that everyone is treated fairly across all the schemes. Those who have already settled their claim below £75,000 will be offered a top-up to bring their total redress to that amount; over 2,000 postmasters will benefit quickly from this announcement.

We are mindful that claims are not being submitted to the GLO scheme as swiftly as we would like. We have already announced the optional fixed-sum award of £75,000, but to ensure that we get help to claimants more quickly, I can announce today that anyone who chooses not to take that offer, and instead submits a full claim for individual assessment, will have their interim payment topped up to £50,000 straight away.

Many postmasters’ lives have been ruined by the Horizon scandal, and we are working hard to deliver redress. We have set up the Williams inquiry, which will discover the truth. We will provide fair financial redress as promptly as we can, and we will exonerate those who were so unjustly convicted of crimes that they did not commit. I commend this statement to the House.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

13:17
Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. Before I respond to it, I would like to put on the record my deep disappointment at the Minister’s comments this morning on “BBC Breakfast”. He failed to categorically condemn the Tory party donor Frank Hester’s horrific and racist remarks about the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Despite No. 10 finally, after much delay, describing the remarks as “racist and wrong”, the Minister appeared to contradict that position this morning.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a statement on Post Office legislation. May I respectfully say that what the hon. Lady is saying is irrelevant to this statement?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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The shadow Minister will be moving on.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali
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I will move on. I simply hope that the Minister will reflect on the reversal of the statement he gave this morning, in which he took the position that he would take a donation from that donor. I hope he reflects on the impact that the issue is having on many of us.

I turn to today’s crucial statement. The Horizon scandal is truly shocking, and is one of the most devastating miscarriages of justice in British history. The scandal has brought devastation to the lives of hundreds of falsely convicted sub-postmasters. Over 20 years on, they and their families still suffer from the consequences and the trauma of all that they have been put through. I pay tribute to them for their determination in pursuing justice, and to Alan Bates and the sub-postmasters who pioneered the campaign and worked tirelessly to seek justice. Without their bravery and perseverance, the campaign would not be where it is today. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for all his work, to Lord Arbuthnot for his campaigning on this issue for many years, to others in this House and the other House, and to members of the Business and Trade Committee and its Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne).

We of course welcome the legislation that is being laid before Parliament today, but before giving a full verdict on it, we will need to properly scrutinise the details and analyse its potential impacts. In the first instance, the legislation leaves a series of outstanding issues, and the question of when justice and compensation will be delivered, and to whom. First, I will address the territorial scope of the legislation, which currently applies only to England and Wales, even though the Post Office is not devolved, and the Horizon system and the impacts of the scandal are UK-wide.

Approximately 30 cases need overturning in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but a series of outstanding questions remain as to when sub-postmasters in Scotland and particularly Northern Ireland will receive justice and compensation. I welcome the Minister’s assurance that there will be regular dialogue with the devolved Administrations, but I would be grateful if he provided more detail on how that will work in practice, given the different legal processes.

As we know, 80% of the redress budget is yet to be paid out. There remains considerable uncertainty about when sub-postmasters will receive their compensation. I am sure that we can all agree that they have waited long enough, and the delays are causing further financial distress and suffering. We note the Business and Trade Committee’s recommendation that there be a legally binding timeframe for the period between an offer being first tabled and a settlement being reached. If those legally binding targets are not adopted, what assurances can the Minister give that he will meet his target of ensuring that all compensation is out of the door by the end of the year? What mechanisms will he put in place to ensure that there are no further delays? I know that he is committed to ensuring that there are no further delays, but sub-postmasters will want to know that this will actually happen.

Given the recent chaos in the Post Office’s leadership, we welcome the decision to take the Post Office out of the redress process. As the Minister said, redress must have independent oversight. The Post Office is in disarray, and we need focus and efficiency in ensuring that compensation is paid to the sub-postmasters as soon as possible.

Financial redress alone cannot come close to repaying sub-postmasters for their suffering, though it is so important that we get it right. The very least the Government can do is ensure that sub-postmasters receive fair compensation and exoneration as soon as possible. There are those impacted by the scandal who have sadly passed away, and did not live to see their innocence proven or to receive the compensation that they deserved. It is vital that the Government act with the urgency and speed that is needed to correct this terrible injustice.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The shadow Minister’s comments are on the record, so I shall deal with them briefly. I think this is the second time she has made comments at the Dispatch Box that have been unfair or factually incorrect, and I hope that she will correct the record. If she had actually watched the interview I gave, she would know that I absolutely did condemn the words of Mr Hester. I said they were wrong. I said they were racist, and I think it is absolutely right that he has apologised. She should watch the full broadcast, and I hope that she will apologise to the House and correct the record.

The points that the hon. Lady raised pertain largely to the Scottish and Northern Ireland devolved Administrations. I quite understand the concern around those issues, and I am very keen to ensure that we get this right across the United Kingdom. As she acknowledges, there are different legal processes in those areas, and we think it would be inappropriate for us to legislate for parts of the United Kingdom that have different legal processes and different prosecutors. Justice is devolved, although the Post Office is a UK-wide organisation, as she rightly says. That is why we think the legislation should allow devolved Administrations to legislate for themselves, if they choose to. We will work closely with them. Officials meet them weekly to assist wherever we can, so that compensation can be delivered UK-wide; that is how the scheme operates.

I think the hon. Lady said that 80% of compensation was yet to be delivered. I may be wrong there, so I will check the record. Across all the schemes, in around two thirds of cases, full and final compensation has already been received. That being the case, about 2,000 people will be topped up to £75,000, as I announced earlier, but it is not right to say, as I think she did, that the majority of people are waiting for compensation.

The hon. Lady asked whether we wanted to deliver the compensation by the end of the year. Absolutely we do, but as I said, not everything is in our gift. We cannot compel a claimant to submit a claim, or know when that will happen. If somebody puts in a claim right towards the end of the year, for example, it may not be possible to deal with it before the end of the year. Not everything is in our gift, but we are keen to expedite anything that is.

It is absolutely critical that we have independent oversight; all schemes have it. In the overturned conviction scheme, we have retired High Court judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom, and the £600,000 fixed-sum award; but on Mr Hickinbottom’s advice, we have also introduced the £450,000 payment as soon as a full claim has been submitted. We are doing everything we can to make sure that people are compensated as quickly as possible.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)
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I welcome the Minister’s statement, and the pragmatic way that he has looked to speed up claims, and to take this in-house as best he can. I also welcome the proposed legislation, and the extension of the £75,000 to those in the historical shortfall scheme. I point the Minister to an article in The Times this morning about people who may reportedly be excluded from the legislation. Can he give any assurances that people who have gone through this process and whose original conviction was based substantially on the Horizon problems will indeed be exonerated and therefore able to get compensation?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question, for his tireless campaigning in this area, and for his tireless work as my predecessor in this role. He did some great work to help us get where we are today. He is right to say there are some people who are not exonerated through this process—for example, people who have been before the Court of Appeal—but they will be able to appeal again in the light of our legislation. Of course, they had the right to do that anyway, but we will support them where we can in bringing forward their case to the Court of Appeal, and we very much hope that innocent people who follow that process will be exonerated.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We come to Scottish National party spokesperson.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker, and apologies for being slightly late. I thank the Minister for giving me prior sight of his statement. I welcome the announcement of the legislation. It will hopefully go a long way to speeding up full and fair financial redress for a large number of Horizon victims, and will bring them closer to justice. Furthermore, I welcome the enhanced financial redress for those who experienced Horizon-related shortfalls, and the fact that those who have already settled for less than £75,000 will have their redress topped up.

I pay tribute to the Minister for his hard work on this, to the Horizon compensation advisory board for its sterling work, and to Sir Wyn Williams and his inquiry for their ongoing work. Most of all, I pay tribute to the victims, following the unimaginable pain that they have been forced to endure at the hands of Post Office Ltd and successive UK Governments. I hope that today’s announcement can give them some hope, and that there is an end in sight to this sorry chapter.

I welcome the administration of financial redress schemes being taken out of the hands of Post Office Ltd —not before time. Post Office Ltd has demonstrated obfuscation and incompetence at every stage. From a Scottish perspective—I am sure my Northern Irish colleagues will agree with me—I am deeply disappointed that the legislation is confined to England and Wales only. That needs to be addressed. We should include Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure parity. The Westminster Parliament is sovereign, but the Scottish Parliament can be challenged on its legislation, and this needs to be looked at.

The devolution process also risks slowing things down. Will the Minister guarantee today that any relevant orders under section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998 will be processed quickly by his Government? Scotland has no direct equivalent Minister for postal affairs, as only Westminster and his Department have a remit for the Post Office. Will he ensure that the Bill contains provisions requiring Post Office Ltd to fully co-operate with the Scottish Government and to supply all needed materials? It is vital that victims in Scotland and Northern Ireland do not have to wait any longer for justice than their English and Welsh counterparts. Victims across these isles suffered enormously at the hands of a wholly reserved institution, so complete parity is essential.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank the hon. Lady again for all her work in this area. She has been a tireless campaigner. We would all like to be further along, but she has made an important contribution to our work.

The hon. Lady is right to say that victims should be front and centre when it comes to compensation, which must be delivered fairly and as quickly as possible. Some of the changes I have announced today, including in my statement, have been brought forward on the basis of feedback from victims and their legal representatives. We are listening to them, and we will make sure that we deliver any changes where we can.

I fully understand the hon. Lady’s point about Scotland and Northern Ireland, and she will understand the constitutional sensitivity of this area. These are tough decisions, and I understand that Scottish Ministers will have to make similar decisions. They can decide to do what we are doing and, if they do, we will support them in how they legislate. Given the sensitivities, we thought that, where justice is devolved, the devolved Administrations should make the decision. I again commit to making sure that we work across the piece, wherever we can, to deliver the consistent compensation that she requires, without forgetting that the redress schemes are UK-wide. As soon as people’s convictions are overturned, they will be able to access compensation, just as they can in England and Wales.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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Everyone wants to see the sub-postmasters’ suffering brought to an end as swiftly as possible, and I welcome what the Minister has said about simplifying and speeding up the compensation scheme. He will know that claimant lawyers such as Neil Hudgell, who gave evidence to the Business and Trade Committee, have real expertise in this field, and I hope he will work very closely with the sector to maximise that expertise in designing the scheme.

I sound one note of caution. The Minister says this is exceptional, and it is constitutionally unprecedented to overturn, through legislation, convictions imposed by our courts in good faith, based on the evidence before them at the time. Frankly, it is most undesirable that we should ever go down that route.

Some of us will need to see the detail of the legislation and what evidence the Government have that it will be quicker and more comprehensive to quash convictions via this constitutionally unprecedented route, rather than leaving the courts to deal with it, with assistance. As the Minister knows, this could have been dealt with via a presumption in favour of sentences being quashed where they depended on Horizon evidence, rather than this wholesale measure. In particular, will he look at what impact it will have on rehabilitation of offenders legislation, and at whether convictions quashed by this Bill will be removed effectively so that people can, for example, travel to the United States or other foreign jurisdictions where they may need a visa, for which they need to show that they do not have an outstanding conviction?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and all his work on this subject. Our engagement with him throughout the process has been very important. He has much expertise in this area.

We agree that this is unprecedented and undesirable, but we believe it is the least worst option. We want to see this delivered more quickly as, of the 790 or so sub-postmasters whom we believe this legislation will affect, only around 100 convictions have so far been overturned. We think that situation is untenable, which is why we decided to take this route. Of course, I will continue to work with him and listen to his wise advice.

I think I am right in saying that, for convictions overturned by the Court of Appeal, the record is marked “Overturned by the Court of Appeal”. We foresee these records being marked in a similar way—“Quashed by Parliament” or something along those lines. Again, I am happy to engage with my hon. Friend to make sure we get it right.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)
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I welcome the Minister’s statement and thank him for the collegiate way in which he is working across the House to try to secure justice for those who have suffered.

This is a welcome step forward. I am glad to see the Minister taking on board some of the recommendations made in the Business and Trade Committee’s report last week, setting out how we can deliver fair, fast and independent redress. The Government have today proposed how they will overturn convictions. They have taken the Post Office out of some, but not all, claim processing and, crucially, they have increased the number of people who can apply for fixed-term remuneration. However, the Post Office is still handling the claims of at least 100 people with overturned convictions when it is patently not fit for purpose.

For those who seek to contest their claim, the Minister says there will be no legally binding timeframe between the submission of a claim and an initial offer being made by his Department, which is a problem. There is no standard tariff proposed for compensation under key heads of terms, such as loss of reputation. That, too, is a problem. The Bill is far more than a half measure, that is true, but it is not yet a full solution.

I leave the Minister with the words of Jo Hamilton, who messaged me last night to highlight the plight of the GLO litigants, in particular, and the way in which they

“have to justify every last penny even if some of their claim is for actual monies stolen from them by the Post Office… Why can’t the Government do the right thing before even more victims die?”

Those words need to ring in our ears as we seek to perfect this Bill.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and collaboration. It is important that we listen to his Committee’s recommendations and its very informative evidence sessions—I sat through all five hours.

At this point, we believe the Post Office should continue its work on the 100 or so cases before it. We currently have no capacity in the Department to handle those claims, although we clearly will by the time the Bill comes into effect. We do not want to pause between the Bill coming into effect in July and compensation payments being made. We think we can get those payments to people in August using that route.

There may be some people left in the first tranche of overturned convictions, for people who have been through the Court of Appeal. We will certainly look at the Committee’s recommendations on whether we should bring those cases back in-house or leave them with the Post Office. We will keep an open mind on that.

We already have fixed timescales to respond to offers or service level agreements in the GLO scheme. We commit to responding to 90% of full claims within 40 days of submission. I am happy to look at how we might put some benchmarks in place to make sure the new scheme has a similar speed of response. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman heard what I said about our new pilots under which lawyers can submit claims without forensic accountants and medical reports. That may do something along the line he says, and I will happily have an ongoing conversation with him.

Thus far, 128 of the 490 claims have been submitted to the GLO scheme, and 110 of them have been settled. To my knowledge, only one claim has gone to independent dispute resolution before going to the independent panel, which hopefully indicates that, generally, the offers are fair and have been accepted almost straightaway.

I understand what Jo Hamilton says, and I met her to discuss some of the processes she had to go through to prove her claim. We are determined to reduce those frictions and evidence requirements, certainly for things that are not essentially material. There are three things that we have to get right in delivering compensation: we have to be fair to the individuals and families affected; we have to be fair to all the other sub-postmasters to make sure there is consistency across the scheme; and, of course, we have to be fair to the taxpayer. There is no cap on what we will pay people, as long as it is fair.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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I thank the Minister for bringing this statement to the House, as it clearly moves things in the right direction for closure. I have talked many times in this House about similar issues. The Government have put £1 billion aside to deal with all this, despite the fact that the Post Office has taken millions upon millions off postmasters—innocent people. We have never had the figure of what was taken, although I have asked for it before. I want a second figure, because Fujitsu has said on the record that it would help to compensate victims as well, by adding to the remuneration pot. What progress have we made on making Fujitsu pay also for being culpable in this fiasco?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank my hon. Friend for his regular contributions in this area, as it is always good to have the views of the only former serving postmaster in this House. We are looking to try to identify the figure he refers to and we hope to come back to him at some point; it is complicated, as a lot of these records go back a long way. However, that is a body of work we are undertaking with the Post Office. The Secretary of State had a conversation yesterday with the global chief executive of Fujitsu; we are keen to make sure that Fujitsu contributes and it has already said that it will—it said it has a moral responsibility to contribute. My hon. Friend mentions a figure of £1 billion, but we do not know the final figure for compensation. However, we would expect a significant element of it to come from Fujitsu.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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Like others, I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement but, novelly, I also thank him for advance sight of the Government “top lines to take”. That latter document includes this passage:

“So far we have identified up to around 800 cases that are potentially in scope [Note: if we use this number in public we are going to get held to it. There is a risk that we may deliver fewer overturns or award redress”—

to—

“fewer individuals, we will then have to explain that]”.

If it is the view of officials in the Minister’s Department that accountability and transparency are some sort of problem, does he really think that they are best placed to exercise oversight of the compensation scheme? Should that not be put now in the hands of someone who is independent of both Government and the Post Office?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The figure the right hon. Gentleman uses and the document he references, which I was unaware he had, are interesting. Me being me, I had not read that line, although my previous comments might indicate that I had because I mentioned that exact figure. I am not afraid to be transparent or accountable for any of the delivery of these compensation schemes.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on all that he is doing, working night and day to bring this painful issue to a conclusion for the many postmasters and their families who have suffered so much over so many years. Where people do not accept the fixed offer but wish to pursue an individual claim, may I seek his assurance that such claims will be treated expeditiously, and that resources will be made available to deal with those claims quickly and efficiently? Will he also give an assurance that claimants will have a named individual responsible for their file, rather than whoever happens to pick up the file on a specific day?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and can absolutely give him the assurance he seeks. A fixed-sum award is only one route; it is not right for everybody. Some people have higher levels of claims, and we will support them where we can. In my remarks, I announced new measures we are using to do that, including a pilot scheme where expert reports are not required. That should significantly abbreviate the timescale between being able to submit a claim and getting a response. As for expediting in this area, in the GLO scheme we set a target that in 90% of cases we would respond to a final claim within 40 days. Currently, we are on 87% against that measure, so we are delivering this more quickly. He makes an interesting point about a named claim manager or something along those lines, and, if I may, I will take that away with me.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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I welcome the statement, the legislation and the removal of the Post Office from the process to the extent that we have seen so far. However, I do not think the Post Office is able to deal with any claims credibly. I wrote to the Minister on 12 February about my constituent who came forward after the TV programme. She had had problems with Horizon, had agreed compensation with the Post Office, which was way below what her losses were, and had signed a non-disclosure agreement. At the time she had been dealing with a terminally ill partner, who has since passed away, and so was in no fit state to take on the Post Office. She is seriously out of pocket, so I would expect her to be able to fall under the Horizon shortfall scheme. I hope that the Minister will confirm that in the letter he will doubtless send me.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I have not seen the letter the hon. Gentleman mentions yet, but I look forward to it and I understand his points about the Post Office handling claims. I am responding personally to every letter I get on this matter from colleagues; we always do that, but I am doing so even more on this occasion. I am sorry to hear about his constituent and the situation she is in. If she has accepted less than £75,000, she will get an automatic uplift to £75,000. We are determined to ensure that, across every scheme, people are treated fairly and feel that they are being treated fairly, and I am keen to look at the hon. Gentleman’s letter and make sure that is the case for his constituent.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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I welcome this important new Bill. I know that the Minister and his team have worked exceptionally hard to make it happen. Will he join me in thanking Mr James Evans from Llanfair P.G., who worked as a sub-postmaster in Llanfairpwll for 47 years, with a post office service record of 60 years, for bringing together sub-postmasters and those on Ynys Môn affected by this gross miscarriage of justice to ensure that they receive the correct support, compensation and, importantly, exoneration?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Again, I thank my hon. Friend for her work on this, and I absolutely thank Mr Evans. We are here now because the victims of this scandal are supporting each other, led of course by Alan Bates. So I welcome Mr Evans’s work, and if I can assist him or his group at all to make sure that they get compensated fairly, whatever their circumstance within these schemes, I am happy to do that.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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My constituent Mr Ennion ran the post office in Llandovery in Carmarthenshire between 2000 and 2018. In a recent BBC interview he estimated that he had lost about £75,000, and said that, in addition, his health has deteriorated severely. He said he had no faith in the Horizon shortfall scheme and making an application to it, because he has not kept any records and because he just does not think he is well enough to take on the Post Office for a second time. I know that the Minister is working extremely hard, and I pay tribute to him for the work he has done, but what more can he do to encourage people such as Mr Ennion to make an application through the scheme?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and for representing his constituent so effectively. I hope that what we have announced today will be absolutely the right route for his constituent, as it means he would not have to go through what can be a complex process of submitting a detailed claim; he can simply opt for the £75,000 fixed-sum award and walk away. There is no claim form to be filled in—a simple letter needs to be signed and that is it. If he feels he should be compensated for more than that, he can go through the Horizon shortfall scheme. That takes a little longer, but he will still end up with compensation both for the financial impact and the impact on his health. I am happy to help, wherever I can, with his case.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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I welcome the Minister’s statement. He promised the House that he would bring forward legislation quickly, and he has done so. However, I must express the disappointment of all Northern Ireland representatives that Northern Ireland is not included in the Bill, and the reasons that the Minister has given for that do not stand up.

The Minister has argued that this is a sensitive constitutional issue—it is not. The First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Justice Minister have all made it clear that they would be quite happy for Northern Ireland to be included in the legislation. He has argued that the systems are different. There have been many occasions when Northern Ireland has been included in legislation here even though the judicial system is different. This Bill is about exonerating people, not about interfering with how the system works. The last thing he said was that including Northern Ireland might slow down the legislation. Since the legislation is going to go through the House following the normal process, there is absolutely no reason why, as has happened on previous occasions, he could not include a Northern Ireland clause at a later stage in our consideration of the Bill.

I ask the Minister to look again at the arguments he has made, because I do not think they stand up. There is a way forward to ensure that those affected in Northern Ireland are treated in the same way, and at the same time, as those in England and Wales.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for all his contributions, and for representing his constituents, and others in Northern Ireland, who have been affected by the scandal. I understand his point and am very sympathetic to it. We took a very difficult decision. Clearly, we are happy to work with the authorities in Northern Ireland. As I said in the statement, I have spoken to my counterpart in Northern Ireland. We are today introducing a 10-clause, 10-page Bill, and we hope we have put together a relatively straightforward piece of legislation. We are happy to lend our support so that Northern Ireland is able to do the same as we are doing, if that is the choice that is made. As he has outlined, that is the political consensus in Northern Ireland, which I welcome.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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This is a national scandal that requires a national solution. As has just been stated, the political leaders in Northern Ireland are unanimous that they want Westminster to act in this sphere. The Minister will not be stepping on anyone’s toes constitutionally if he proceeds on that basis. The Justice Minister advises me that what is required to include Northern Ireland is relatively straightforward. It is not complicated in any shape or form. The stark reality is that the newly restored Executive does not have the capacity to pass such legislation at the same time as Westminster, so there will be an iniquity across the UK on this reserved matter. Can I ask the Minister one more time to listen to the voices from Northern Ireland? I understand that he says he will work with the Executive, but will he take on board what the Executive are saying and include Northern Ireland in the Bill?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his points. To reiterate what I said in response to earlier questions, we are very sympathetic. We are keen to lend support, and not just moral support but help in drafting the Bill. Of course I will continue to listen to him and others with similar views about the involvement of the devolved Administrations. We are keen to make this work UK-wide. The redress schemes will be available UK-wide, if we can get those prosecutions quashed on a UK-wide basis.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister and pay tribute to his perseverance in bringing about a legislative change. It is fantastic to hear that the legislation will quash convictions relating to the Horizon scandal. This has been a long time coming and those affected must be praised for their long journey to justice. However, unfortunately there are many who have not lived to see this. What steps will he take to ensure the legacy of those who were affected but have passed away will live on, and that their families are supported through the redress payment scheme, to lessen the years of pain that they have endured?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on the issue, and for his regular contributions on this and many other matters. The legislation has taken too long, as he rightly says, and sadly some people have passed away, which is terrible for the families. Those people will never live to see their convictions quashed and names exonerated. The redress schemes work for the estate, so if somebody has passed away, the family can come forward and submit a claim, or they can choose a fixed-sum award and pursue their claim in that way, which is a quicker process. That happens for families in the sad situation the hon. Gentleman outlines. I am happy to work with him to ensure that we deliver for his constituents.

Point of Order

Wednesday 13th March 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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13:54
Paula Barker Portrait Paula Barker (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you give me some advice on how I can pursue an urgent response from the Secretary of State for Education? I wrote to her on 28 February, outlining urgent concerns about King’s Leadership Academy, a secondary school, being unable to open in my constituency despite the Department for Education providing a DfE unique reference number and DfE number, both of which are required for the local authority to offer in the admissions brochure.

The Department recently went on to instruct the local authority to remove King’s Leadership Academy from the admissions process. Parents have now been informed that the academy will not open in September and their children have been allocated secondary schools that were not one of their preferred choices, causing distress and logistical nightmares. It is completely unacceptable not to have received a response on a matter of such urgency, and unacceptable for the Department not to have raised any potential issues earlier. I seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. As Mr Speaker has said many times, the Chair is not responsible for the content of Ministers’ answers. However, Mr Speaker has also said many times that he expects, and that Parliament expects, Ministers to provide timely answers to questions from Members. It sounds as though the hon. Lady has had difficulty in that regard. Although I cannot answer her questions, I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what she has said and that the matter will be passed on to the relevant Minister. I can advise her that the Table Office will be able to offer guidance on how she might pursue the matter further, if she wishes so to do.

Bill Presented

Post Office (Horizon System) Offences

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Kemi Badenoch, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary James Cleverly, Secretary Grant Shapps, Secretary Michelle Donelan, Secretary Claire Coutinho, Secretary Lucy Frazer and Laura Trott, presented a Bill to provide for the quashing of convictions in England and Wales for certain offences alleged to have been committed while the Horizon system was in use by the Post Office; to make provision about the deletion of cautions given in England and Wales for such offences; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 181) with explanatory notes (Bill 181-EN).

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (Designation)

A Ten Minute Rule Bill is a First Reading of a Private Members Bill, but with the sponsor permitted to make a ten minute speech outlining the reasons for the proposed legislation.

There is little chance of the Bill proceeding further unless there is unanimous consent for the Bill or the Government elects to support the Bill directly.

For more information see: Ten Minute Bills

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

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
13:57
Derek Thomas Portrait Derek Thomas (St Ives) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to transfer the power to designate sites of special scientific interest from Natural England to the Secretary of State; to make provision about the exercise of that power by the Secretary of State; and for connected purposes.

I am conscious that I stand in the way of legislation that will provide a tax cut for 29 million people, so I will not detain the House for long.

Sites of special scientific interest are the most precious natural landscapes in this country, and they are vital to our biodiversity. Their importance has long been recognised—long before the word “biodiversity” was coined. For 75 years, additional protection has been given to areas that are of special interest by reason of their flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features.

The current system of notification was put in place by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. That law, as amended, gave the decision to designate an area as an SSSI to Natural England, and Natural England exists

“to ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced, and managed for the benefit of present and future generations”.

That important aim is now at the heart of Government decision making. In fact, the Environment Act 2021 goes further and says that the Government as a whole must have regard to environmental principles; not just conserving or even just enhancing the natural environment, but actually restoring nature. That being so, there is no longer any reason for decisions about the notification of SSSIs to be outsourced. No protections would be lost if this power were transferred to the Secretary of State, which is why I am bringing in this Bill.

I hope that Ministers will note that the Bill is supported by a former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, two former DEFRA Ministers, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and several other MPs who have demonstrated their support for and understanding of our natural environment, and how that can be enhanced in harmony with producing the food the nation needs.

Should the Government adopt the Bill—and I hope they do—there will still be a place for Natural England in identifying sites for designation and collating the data and scientific evidence, but it would be for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to interrogate this evidence and decide whether Natural England is correct in its assessment.

At the moment, Natural England is marking its own homework, and the experience of farmers in my constituency is that it could do better. Last year, 3,044 hectares of West Penwith were confirmed as a site of special scientific interest. It was no surprise that Penwith moors and downs were identified as a candidate for notification. It is the most beautiful part of the world—I happen to live right on the edge—with unique heathland that provides a habitat for many rare species, including birds such as the Dartford warbler, which has a breeding population; invertebrates such as the rare Perkin’s mining bee and the tormentil nomad bee; and vascular plants such as the coral necklace.

It is also a man-made landscape, with a long history of agriculture and livestock grazing, with many of the 4,000-year-old field systems still being used for their original purpose. The farmers on the land know that the richness of Penwith moors is the result of their careful management of the land for many years, over multiple generations, and so they were shocked by the high-handed way in which Natural England approached the designation.

In October 2022, SSSI notification packs landed on the doormats of landowners and farmers, and, contrary to our expectation, close to 1,000 acres of clean land—pastures, paddocks and land on which crops or even animal feed could be grown—were included. The notification documents did not include clear evidence or reasons why their clean land had been included. It became very clear that Natural England’s case relied on scientific evidence that was not much more than desktop studies and old survey data.

To take an example, after Natural England’s hearing last year, which I attended, its experts admitted that they did not have evidence to include the 700-plus acres of good pasture farmland—by this time, more than 200 acres had been successfully challenged by landowners and removed from the SSSI—and that the only reason for including clean land was “the potential for pollution”. Probably even less clean land would have been included had all landowners had the funds to mount a legal challenge.

The theory was that excess nitrate in surface water would reach the valley mires to the detriment of the special flora and fauna. This was highlighted by Farmscoper, a free desktop tool that offers generic assessment, but with the disclaimer that its results should be checked by on-site testing. That testing was not carried out prior to notification and, as far as I am aware, the checks are yet to be carried out. Likewise, bird surveys were undertaken for a year, not the three to five years specified by Natural England’s own guidance, and invertebrate surveys relied on a single year, rather than the three years that it should have been.

Natural England could have easily engaged constructively with farmers and landowners to establish a more robust scientific case for designating accurately any area that justifies such a significant level of protection—it did not. Even at the public hearing in June last year, the chair of Natural England, its legal team and senior officials refused to accept responsibility or ownership of these failures, and pressed ahead with notification. It is not accountable to the farmers, to members of the Government or to Members of this House.

Why does this matter? Because now, following confirmation of the SSSI, farmers are subject to the same Natural England staff dictating how they operate their farms. That includes their demanding that farmers apply for consent to milk cows or keep livestock. There is the risk that farming businesses will become unsustainable, which will impact on the rural economy and food security, while no meaningful benefit to the environment is delivered. Farmers are already selling their businesses.

I will give just one example of a farm in my constituency. This farm has two fields with a mixture of acid pasture, ferns and heather, and grassland, which Natural England included in the SSSI with the rest of the farmland and which is already in Natural England’s higher level stewardship scheme. The farmers objected to the inclusion of the two fields, which were used for winter feeding of yearling Red Ruby Devon heifers. As far as Natural England was concerned, there was no boundary between the rough land and the main grass pasture, and so all of it was in the SSSI and hence under restriction.

The farm naturally decided not to squander money on a fence, but to reduce stocking levels. What is shocking is not just that the farm is losing out from unjustifiable restrictions—I shall talk about the economic benefits later—but that these restrictions will do the reverse of what is intended. Reduced grazing on the moorland will make way for invasive species such as brambles and rhododendrons to take over, and this will actually reduce biodiversity, unless the state is prepared to spend large sums of money on eradication.

My Bill would allow the Environment Secretary to interrogate the science and scrutinise Natural England’s decisions. My experience from engaging with the Department is that it fully understands the concerns that I have raised, including on the viability of farms if good farming land is included without assessing its risk to the rough land. It is Natural England that seems to have ridden roughshod over farmers’ countryside management and their understanding of how to care for their natural environment. This is not the only part of England where serious tensions exist between Natural England and organisations and individuals who have devoted their lives to the careful stewardship of the countryside.

My Bill would also give the Secretary of State the power to consider other factors in designation—factors that Natural England cannot consider. Last year, I spoke in an Adjournment debate about the way in which Natural England did not consider—and could not consider—the social, cultural and economic implications of notification. As I have stated, Natural England was not concerned with the viability of the farms, and it was not concerned with the rural properties off the grid for which boreholes are the only source of water. Boreholes in SSSIs can only be used with Natural England’s consent.

The Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), agreed with me, saying:

“It is high time that we looked at how those protections impact the economy and the social and cultural side of farming, and we will be doing just that. If we are to truly halt the decline of nature, we need our farmers to do all they can for environmental stewardship.”—[Official Report, 18 September 2023; Vol. 737, c. 1211.]

It is indeed high time, and my Bill would give the Environment Secretary the power to do so. If our farmers are to do all they can for environmental stewardship, they need a Department that will support them. They need a Department that is responsible for SSSIs and the funding to support landscape recovery, and a Department that can strike harmony between the public goods of conservation and food production, and the need to ensure that farms are viable and that the rural economy thrives. The notification of a SSSI impacts on the environment, food and rural affairs; it should therefore be the responsibility of DEFRA to make that decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Derek Thomas, Dr Thérèse Coffey, Trudy Harrison, Philip Dunne, Sir Robert Goodwill, Steve Double, Selaine Saxby, Sir Bill Wiggin, Greg Smith, Simon Jupp, Maggie Throup and Mark Menzies present the Bill.

Derek Thomas accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 180).

National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) (No. 2) Bill (Allocation of Time)

Ordered,

That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) (No. 2) Bill:

Timetable

(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.

(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:

(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;

(b) proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed while the Question is put, in accordance with Standing Order No. 52(1) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills), on any financial resolution relating to the Bill;

(c) on the conclusion of proceedings on any financial resolution relating to the Bill, proceedings on the Bill shall be resumed and the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

(3) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chair shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.

(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chair or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply:

(a) any Question already proposed from the chair;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;

(c) the Question on any amendment, new Clause or new Schedule selected by the Chair or Speaker for separate decision;

(d) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;

(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded;

and shall not put any other questions, other than the question on any motion described in paragraph (15)(a) of this Order.

(5) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chair or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

(6) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(d) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chair or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.

(7) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(e) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chair shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(8) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(9) Paragraphs (2) to (7) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (8) of this Order.

Subsequent stages

(10) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(11) Paragraphs (2) to (5) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.

Reasons Committee

(12) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.

Miscellaneous

(13) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on the Bill.

(14) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

(15) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.

(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.

(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.

(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.

(16) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.

(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

(17) (a) The start of any debate under Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) to be held on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall be postponed until the conclusion of any proceedings on that day to which this Order applies.

(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply in respect of any such debate.

(18) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

(19) (a) Any private business which has been set down for consideration at a time falling after the commencement of proceedings on this Order or on the Bill on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall, instead of being considered as provided by Standing Orders or by any Order of the House, be considered at the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill on that day.

(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to the private business so far as necessary for the purpose of securing that the business may be considered for a period of three hours.—(Joy Morrissey.)

Second Reading
Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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The reasoned amendment in the name of the Scottish National party leader has been selected.

14:08
Gareth Davies Portrait The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Gareth Davies)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

For the second time this year, we are cutting taxes for 29 million working people across the country—something that is particularly remarkable in the aftermath of the worst pandemic in 100 years, the worst war in mainland Europe since 1945, and the highest energy spike since the 1970s. The Government have had to take difficult decisions to restore the public finances, and those decisions are starting to pay off. Our economy is growing, and debt is forecast to reduce. Inflation is down significantly, unemployment is at near-record lows, and wages are rising. As the outlook improves, our priority is to return money to working taxpayers while keeping the public finances on track.

We believe that the tax system should be fair and simple, and should reward hard work, yet the way we tax people’s income is particularly unfair. People who get their income from having a job pay two types of tax: national insurance contributions and income tax. People who get it from other sources pay only one. The result is a complicated system that does not support work as best it could. For that reason, the Bill will build on the changes to national insurance contributions in the autumn statement.

The Bill contains two measures: a reduction in the NICs employee class 1 main rate, and a reduction in the NICs class 4 main rate. Both measures are important. Allowing working families to keep as much of their hard-earned money as possible is a priority for the Government. The Chancellor has always been clear that when we can cut taxes, we will.

Louie French Portrait Mr Louie French (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making a great speech, and I fully support the Government’s efforts to reduce the taxes of working people, alongside the pledge to increase the money going to pensioners through the triple lock. Does he agree that it is disgraceful that, while the Conservatives are working hard to cut taxes and help working people, Labour is increasing the share of council tax for all Londoners, and hitting drivers with charges of up to £12.50 per day thanks to the ultra low emission zone?

Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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My hon. Friend is consistent in holding the administration in London to account. He is right: as we are still not out of the woods when it comes to the cost of living crisis, the Conservative party has made it clear that we disagree with the Mayor of London’s approach of making motorists poorer.

As I said, building on the changes in the autumn statement, we will once again be supporting working families by reducing the main rate of employee class 1 NICs by two percentage points to 8% on earnings between £12,570 and £50,270 from 6 April 2024. That will cut taxes for over 27 million employees. The average worker on £35,400 a year will save £450 a year, and the majority will see the benefit in their payslips at the start of the new tax year. Taken together with the cuts to NICs in the autumn statement, this tax cut is worth some £900 a year to the average worker.

In addition, we are implementing a further reduction in the main rate of class 4 NICs for the self-employed. The Chancellor announced in the autumn statement that the main rate of class 4 will be reduced from 9% to 8% from 6 April. Today, we are cutting the rate by an additional two percentage points from 8% to 6% from April 2024. That is a total cut of three percentage points in just six months. Combined with the abolition of the requirement to pay class 2, which was announced in the autumn statement, that will save an average self-employed person £650 a year, and benefit over 2 million people across the country.

Together with the autumn statement cuts, this is an overall tax cut worth some £20 billion per year—the largest-ever cut to employee and self-employed national insurance. Because of the action that we have taken, the average earner in the UK now has the lowest effective personal tax rate since 1975. The Government are committed to tax cuts that reward and incentivise work and that grow our economy sustainably and boost productivity. The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that the national insurance cuts announced in the spring Budget will increase the total hours worked by the equivalent of almost 100,000 full-time workers by 2028-29. Because of the cuts, just over 30,000 people will move into work. These reductions in tax will drive more people to seek employment. This is our plan for a simpler, fairer tax system that makes work pay.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making a powerful Conservative speech about the importance of not just cutting tax but getting more people into work. Has the Department estimated how much more tax revenue will come in as a result of more people working because of these changes, so that we can show that lower taxes actually increase tax revenues for the Exchequer?

Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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My hon. Friend is right to point that out. A fundamental benefit of reducing tax is that it improves growth in our economy, because more people will be in work and working longer hours. That obviously generates more productivity for our economy, and ultimately more tax revenues for the Exchequer. It is a fundamental Conservative principle that we want lower taxes, and we are delivering that today because it is fiscally responsible to do so, and we are able to do so.

Anna Firth Portrait Anna Firth (Southend West) (Con)
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making such a powerful case for cutting taxes, a fundamental Conservative principle. The Bill will put £960 back into the pocket of the average worker in Southend, who earns £36,400, and will put £1,920 back into the pockets of a family in Southend with two people on the average wage. Does he agree that that is a considerable and welcome tax cut for hard-working people in Southend?

Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies
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My hon. Friend is right to point that out. I would add to those figures: since 2010, we have lifted millions of people across the country, including in Southend West, out of paying any tax at all by doubling the point at which people start paying tax in our country. People can now earn £1,000 a month without paying any tax, and that is a great achievement of a Conservative Government.

Although I welcome the fact that Labour Members will apparently vote for our tax cuts today, I hope that they will forgive me for sounding slightly sceptical about their sudden conversion to the cause of lower taxes for working people. While they do not oppose the measures, they also did not propose them. In fact, Labour has consistently voted against successive Conservative-led tax cuts between 2010 and 2021, which delivered a doubling of the personal allowance, as I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth). On the one hand, they bemoan the level of taxation, but cannot tell us a single tax that they propose to cut, or what the level of taxation would be under Labour. On the other hand, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), described our ambitions to remove unfairness in the tax system as “morally abhorrent”. Labour Members still cannot tell us how they will pay for their many spending commitments. They are completely all over the place. It is only the Conservatives who truly believe in reducing taxes on working people.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
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The Minister is giving a clear explanation of why the Conservatives want to cut tax, and the economic benefits of cutting taxes for working people. He will know that the origins of national insurance were basically a form of social insurance: having paid national insurance, it would look after us later in life. The Labour party took the insurance out and put the socialism in, which is why we have ended up with a system that is essentially the same as income tax. As we think beyond today’s welcome cuts to what is in the Opposition new clause, has the Minister thought about using any further cuts to go into the compulsory savings of individuals introduced under the coalition Government after 2010—essentially building, in place of a dependency state, a savings state built on Conservative principles?