Debates between George Freeman and Kevin Hollinrake during the 2019 Parliament

Large Solar Farms

Debate between George Freeman and Kevin Hollinrake
Wednesday 9th March 2022

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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George Freeman Portrait George Freeman
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I will happily pick that point up. My right hon. Friend invites me—wisely, perhaps, given the time—to clarify that at the end of this debate, I will raise all the points that have been made today with the relevant Ministers, including, perhaps, the Minister for fire safety. When such a number of colleagues meet in the Chamber, their points deserve to be heard and passed through.

I want to pick up on the planning point. Colleagues will be aware, but those listening may not be, that planning applications for projects below 50 MW are determined by the local planning system. Many hundreds of them around the country have been approved satisfactorily. Projects up to 350 MW in Wales are devolved, with decisions made either by local authorities or the Welsh Government. Planning in Scotland and Northern Ireland is fully devolved. For projects over 50 MW in England and over 350 MW in Wales, planning decisions are made by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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Local authorities’ declaration of a climate emergency seems to be overriding the requirement to avoid developments on best and most versatile land. Should there not be an absolute prohibition of solar farm developments on BMVL?

George Freeman Portrait George Freeman
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My hon. Friend makes his point well. Let me come to the point I was going to make about planning, which tries to deal with that.

In 2021, the Government set up a national infrastructure planning reform programme, bringing several Government Departments together with the aim of refreshing how the nationally significant infrastructure project regime works to make it faster, better and greener. The Government will shortly consult on reform proposals—we will do so later this year. As a part of that, the Government are reviewing the national policy statements for energy. It seems to me that quite a lot of what has been said today is a call for a clearer national policy statement, and colleagues might want to raise that with the Minister for Energy and the Planning Minister. The draft revised national policy statement for renewables includes a new section on solar projects, providing clear and specific guidance to decision makers on the impact on, for example, local amenities, biodiversity, landscape, wildlife and land use, which must be considered when assessing planning applications. The Government plan to publish a response to the consultation on the revised national policy statement shortly.

Under both local and NSIP planning systems, developers must complete proper community engagement as part of the application process. Communities should and must be able to participate in the formal examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate. All large solar developers under the NSIP must complete an environmental statement for any application, to consider all potential impacts. Planning guidance is also clear that the effective use of land should be prioritised by focusing large-scale solar farms on previously developed and non-greenfield land. It seeks to minimise the impact on the best and most versatile agricultural land. It requires developers to justify using any such land and to design their projects to avoid, mitigate and, where necessary, compensate for impacts.

I am conscious of the time—I think I have one minute left—but I want to highlight that in relation to the planning process colleagues will understand that I cannot comment on the specifics of this individual case, because I do not want to prejudice it in any way. However, we anticipate that once an application is submitted to the planning inspector, it will be 15 to 18 months before it comes back to the Secretary of State after all the various consultations. Interestingly, in terms of precedent —all-important in planning—only one large-scale solar application has been approved, in Kent. One in Wales, Strawberry Hill—devolved, of course—was turned down on the agricultural land use point. I understand that one in Scunthorpe is imminent, and that Sunnica and one or two others are in the pipeline. The point about precedent is important: we all know that when a big decision is made it can trigger a wave of subsequent applications.

Let me close by congratulating and thanking colleagues for coming today. They have raised important points that I will undertake to pass on to Ministers who have responsibility for energy, planning, farming, tourism and fire safety. Colleagues have made a very important case for a stronger and clearer national policy statement, reflecting the situation in Ukraine and the Prime Minister’s emphasis on food and energy security. I will undertake to make sure that the points raised today are picked up by all the relevant Ministers.

Post Office Historical Shortfall Scheme

Debate between George Freeman and Kevin Hollinrake
Tuesday 14th December 2021

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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George Freeman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (George Freeman)
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I am grateful, Dame Angela, for the chance to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate hon. Members for their contributions today and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for raising the matter. I am here with apologies from the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who has been called into the House on primary legislation elsewhere. However, I relish the chance to respond on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, having experienced in my constituency the appalling injustice that the sub-postmasters suffered.

In one village in my constituency, Gressenhall, I saw the misery, the family disruption and the hell, as referred to by hon. Members, that the sub-postmasters were put through in a frankly disgraceful episode of institutional contempt for the little guy—if I can put it like that—at the bottom of the system. I am pleased today that, as hon. Members have remarked, we are announcing through a written ministerial statement—there will be an oral statement, subject to the Speaker’s permission, tomorrow—the Government’s commitment to fully fund the historical shortfall scheme and the losses for those who have not yet been compensated.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The Minister makes a fair point, but so does the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). The scheme excludes those who took part in the group litigation. That is entirely unfair and unjust. Lee Castleton, who is not one of my constituents but somebody I have tried to help through a third party, got £28,000 in compensation but he lost more than £400,000. That is simply unfair and that route for compensation cannot persist.

George Freeman Portrait George Freeman
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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam is the lead Minister on this matter and I will raise that with him. For the record, I want to make clear what has happened. Those who settled have a settlement. Today, we are tackling the issue of those who were not subject to a settlement. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend makes an important point. This must be fair and it must be seen to be fair.

I want to begin by echoing the Government’s support for the point about culture. It is vital that the painful and difficult lessons from this disgraceful saga are properly learned. Let the message go forth from this Dispatch Box that we expect the Post Office to tackle that culture change properly. I am delighted that there is a culture change programme and two new non-executive directors. However, this is not a tick-box exercise; it is a serious commitment that an organisation wholly owned by the taxpayer delivers properly and learns the lessons from this disgraceful saga. I dealt with the issue when I was a Minister in the Department in the coalition Government in 2015. I saw what seemed to me to be institutional obfuscation and institutional defence of injustice. All those who conspired in that should hang their heads in shame.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentions a law firm. I signal that some lawyers have stepped up to the mark on this and in particular Patrick Green QC at Henderson Chambers, who worked pro bono to help many of the sub-postmasters; Neil Hudgell at Hudgell Solicitors; and Freeths, who did tremendous work speaking up for those who did not have a voice. It is only because of the bravery of those sub-postmasters and their lawyers that we are where we are today.

It is good news that we have announced that funding, but I do not want to focus on that today. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, has campaigned hard on it and he will speak to the House tomorrow. However, I want to set the record straight on where we are today for those watching or reading this debate. As everyone in the Chamber will be aware, the Post Office introduced the Horizon scheme in early 2000 and subsequently recorded shortfalls in cash at post office branches, which the Post Office then blamed on sub-postmasters—completely unfairly, it subsequently turned out. That resulted in horrific suffering, not just in losses for the small businesses being run by the sub-postmasters, but family losses, divorces, depression, mental health problems and anxiety, not to mention the loss of a facility in many rural areas that is crucial to the community. Many people were sent to prison. That is an absolute disgrace. It is important that the lessons are learned properly and that the culture that conspired to allow that to happen is seriously changed.

In 2017, a group litigation order was brought against the Post Office by the 555 postmasters. The postmasters won two landmark trials in 2019 and reached a settlement with the Post Office for £57.75 million. Those court cases and subsequent cases in the Court of Appeal have demonstrated just how wrong the Post Office was to behave in the way it did. It has apologised, and is now working to overhaul its culture to address the findings of Mr Justice Fraser.

--- Later in debate ---
George Freeman Portrait George Freeman
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I understand the point that the right hon. Member is making. Let me include, for the record, the history of how we got to this situation. As part of the 2019 settlement, the Post Office committed to putting in place a scheme for those postmasters who were not part of that settlement and did not have criminal convictions related to the Horizon scheme. The historical shortfall scheme was set up to meet that commitment, and it is an important step. It opened in May 2020 and closed to applications later that year.

To be fair, the Post Office made significant efforts—quite rightly—to reach out to all postmasters, sending 7,000 individual letters to current postmasters and a further 20,000 to former postmasters. It is fair to say that the Post Office was quite surprised—I do not think that any of us in this room will have been—by the response. The scheme received over 2,300 eligible applications. I hear the points that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made about the nature of that form. Because I am not the lead Minister on this, I have not looked at it, but he makes an important point, which I will raise with the Minister. The form needs to make clear to people what they are entitled to and needs not to discourage them from understanding their rights, the enforcement of which is long overdue.

The response to the HSS meant that the cost of the scheme went beyond what the Post Office could afford, and it turned to the Government as its 100% shareholder. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, has set out that the Government will provide sufficient financial support to the Post Office to ensure that the historical shortfall scheme can proceed properly and that those people are fully compensated. I understand that that raises a question about the fairness for those who settled out of court, which is a point that the Minister will no doubt want to address. The Post Office is contributing from its own funds.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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If the estimate is £300 million and there are 2,300 applications, that is £130,000 each. Lee Castleton got £28,000. The constituent of the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) got £20,000. That just cannot be right.

George Freeman Portrait George Freeman
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My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which I am sure that the Minister will want to address. I want to mention the question of speed. When the Government step up and say, “We will fully fund this,” it is incumbent on the Post Office to pull its finger out and get on with processing claims more quickly. I understand that the intention is that the vast majority of applications will be claimed within months, by the spring, and all of them will be claimed within the year —and that is long overdue.

I will close by picking up on a couple of the points that hon. Members have made. I will ask the Minister to write to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the board. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made the same points about his constituents. With the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), I share the Government’s apologies to Tom Brown and others in his constituency, and I take the point about lessons for Ministers and for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) made a very good point; we cannot have unaccountable quangos marking their own homework, and there are really important lessons about accountability.

It is good news that the Government are making a commitment to fully fund the HSS, but there are other issues that still need to be sorted so that this never happens again and that the injustices are properly resolved.

Question put and agreed to.

Finance (No. 2) Bill

Debate between George Freeman and Kevin Hollinrake
George Freeman Portrait George Freeman
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I thank the Financial Secretary for pointing that out. I am tempted to remind everyone that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister sold the gold at a record low and various other things, but I shall not be distracted—I simply record that—and focus on this Budget. I will not list all the measures in it, but I want to highlight one or two that the people of Mid Norfolk and I particularly welcome and then highlight three points that we need to think about as we seek to drive a powerful recovery.

I particularly welcome the measures in the Budget for the self-employed, who, in the first part of covid last year, were hit hard. Many of them were living at risk, hand to mouth and on each month’s proceeds, without the stability of a company behind them.

There is also the support for apprenticeships and traineeships. In Norfolk, when the furlough ends, we are expecting to see between 30,000 and 50,000 unemployed. The Government have rightly moved quickly to make sure that a very powerful skills and training pathway package is in place, so that people who have left old jobs that have not survived this accelerated crisis—it has accelerated much of the challenge on the high street—can quickly find jobs in the new economy that we are creating.

I want to highlight the £700 million package for the arts, culture and sport. In particular, we need to support the artists and creative people at the heart of those industries, not just the buildings. It is that genius—that creativity—which is so key to the British instinctive creative spirit, that we need to support. Rather too many of our great artists are working in all sorts of jobs and seeing their artistic careers disappear. We need to make sure that we keep them busy and get them back to work.

On levelling up, I highlight the Government’s phenomenal package of support, rightly making the crisis not just a moment to prop up the pre-covid economy but to drive growth out. The 45 town deals and the eight freeports are genuinely transformational for places such as Teesside that have been left behind by successive Labour Governments, who ought to have been representing them better. There is the move of the UK infrastructure bank to Leeds, the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund, the Help to Grow for SMEs, the future fund and the substantial commitment to net zero and the green infrastructure that we need for a proper recovery. This was a Budget not just to repair the damage of covid, but to lay the foundations for a more sustainable and sustained economic recovery, creating jobs and opportunities for generations to come. I welcome it particularly for that reason.

That financial package is allied with the extraordinary success of the UK life sciences community, and perhaps at this point I could, as a former life sciences Minister, pay tribute to its extraordinary work. In particular, there are the scientists at Oxford and AstraZeneca, to whom we owe so much, and in Norfolk, there is the work of the Norwich Research Park and the Quadram Institute, which has done pioneering work in some of the genetic sequencing. At the same time, I welcome the work of the vaccine taskforce, led by the redoubtable Kate Bingham, with whom I know the Financial Secretary has a strong working relationship. I am tempted to channel my inner William Hague and remember the time when he commended Yorkshire for having more gold medals in the 2012 Olympics than France. In fact, he went further, saying that Mrs Brownlee had won more gold medals than France in those Olympics, and I do not think any couple has done more for the UK health economy than the Financial Secretary and the head of the vaccine taskforce.

I genuinely believe that this package is responsible, responsive and lays the foundations for a resilient set of public finances. The challenge now is to get the growth that we need from the private sector to build a really sustainable recovery, and I want to turn to that and make three key points. First, if we are really to escape debt—the debt legacy from the crash in 2007-08 and the debt legacy from covid—and to build a clean, green, smart economy, we need not just to get back to ticking over with 2% to 3% growth; to get to 4%, 5% or 6% growth, we will have to be able to host, or incubate, economies growing at 100% a year. That is the key to growth in this economy. We cannot escape debt by building over the whole of the south of England or building over any last rural area around Cambridge. To support growth, we have to make sure that we grow the economies that will grow our economy, building back better one local economy at a time and one sectoral economy at a time. To avoid the boom and bust of the City, housing and retail cycles that have left us in this state, the Treasury is absolutely right to commit to the deep infrastructure investment for tomorrow’s growth sectors. I am delighted that after my short period in the wilderness, the Prime Minister has asked me back to lead his taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform to look at where, as we come out of covid and seek to lay the foundations for this recovery, free from the European Union’s regulatory frameworks but still able to trade with its market, we may be able to strike a blow for bold innovation and regulation for innovation.

I want to highlight some sectors that are growing spectacularly and that, if we were to invest strategically, would help to grow our national economy in the same way. The broader bioscience sector includes not just pharmaceuticals but the bioeconomy sector of food, medicine and energy, and, in particular, areas where those three support each other. In Norfolk I recently sat in a Lotus built at Hethel Engineering Centre that was powered by a Formula 1 low-carbon biofuel made by genetically modified bugs breaking down agricultural waste. That is what I mean by bioscience and the bioeconomy. In this century, it is biology and bioscience that will drive growth globally, just as physics did in the last century and chemistry in the one before. We are a phenomenal powerhouse in the biosciences, and if we invest in that, support it and commercialise it better, we will grow the industries of tomorrow.

Similarly, in nutraceuticals, where pharmaceuticals meet food and nutrition, there is a whole range of new crops that support growth and crops that are drought resistant and disease resistant, such as crops we export to Africa to help drive sustainable development. In biosecurity, and plant, animal and human health, we share much of the genomic sequence with most of the animals that we rely on in our agricultural system. There are huge opportunities for us to breed out susceptibility to disease and traits that will lead to huge suffering. There is a huge opportunity to harness genomics for the benefit of animal welfare, as well as progressive agriculture, in artificial intelligence, in immunotherapy, in space, in biofuels, in carbon capture and storage, and in biodiversity investment. These are huge sectors that this country is poised to grow into substantial industries, creating jobs and opportunities for tomorrow. If we get the regulatory regime for this right, which Brexit gives us an opportunity to do, and, as the Treasury is doing, we invest in the deep infrastructure and create the right commercial environment, I genuinely think that this is a moment when we could unleash a new cycle of growth, so that we look back at this, yes, as a crisis, but also as an opportunity, such that future generations will thank us for getting us off the boom and bust cycle of over-reliance on short-termism, the City, housing and retail booms, and laying the foundations for serious global growth based on technology transfer.

Secondly, from the perspective of rural Mid Norfolk—not 40 miles from Cambridge but at times feeling like 100 miles, or 100 years, from it—the small towns are fundamental. That is why I welcome so much the 45 town deals in the Budget. I hugely welcome all of them and the work that is being done. However, it is vital that as the Treasury launches these funds, we also think about how we can make it easier for the places and communities that have often been left behind because they do not have the resources of a metro Mayor or the big capacity to access multiple Government funds. Somewhere in the mix is a role for what I might call local regeneration corporations—small, fleet of foot, locally place-based public-private partnerships with powers to access money for multiple funds and deploy them over a five or 10-year plan to drive transformational local change and to pull in private finance alongside public. They would have the powers to do some compulsory purchase, to move in quickly and regenerate land left fallow after covid, to embrace some of the opportunities of land value capture and tax increment financing, and to raise infrastructure bonds and finance. Many investors around the world would love to contribute to and have a stake in this British recovery. Many places around our country will not be able to access on their own sufficient finance from the Treasury. We need to make it easy for them to drive local engines of growth that will go on in decades to come, in a similar way to the successes of the London Docklands Development Corporation, the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation and the County Durham development corporation in the ’80s and ’90s, which were so transformational.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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My hon. Friend makes a very good point about regional economies. On engines for growth, does he think that regional mutual banks might be part of the solution? They are very effective in places such as Germany and the US, focusing on regions, making sure that SMEs get lending into the productive parts of our economy. Would he look at that as part of his remit on regulatory reform?

George Freeman Portrait George Freeman
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With pleasure, and I can go further. My hon. Friend is typically astute and on the money—absolutely. It is true that in the pension funds of this country, we invest remarkably little in equities, remarkably little in small company finance and remarkably little in our own infrastructure. I am not for a minute suggesting that Norfolk County Council should put all of its money into the Cambridge to Norwich railway, although I think it would be quite a good investment, but it would be an awful lot better than finding it had quite a lot in the Iceland bank during the crash, where we lost a lot of money. There needs to be a reasonable balance. I think a lot of people in this country would quite enjoy having a stake in their own infrastructure.

People have season tickets. What about also having a share in the mutual railway company and a share in infrastructure that they are helping to fund and that they rely on? That is part of the revolution of place-based capitalism—one might even call it stakeholder capitalism, if one were on the Opposition Benches. We can call it what we want, but it is about giving people a stake in their own economic destiny.

The third area that I wanted to highlight is the importance of global markets. If we are really going to become an innovation nation, home to these incredibly exciting technologies that will drive tomorrow’s growth, we need to make sure we are better connected to those emerging markets around the world, which are growing at 10% or 20%. As the Foresight report highlighted, global population growth means that by 2050, we are going to have to double food production globally on the same land area, with half as much water and energy. That is a phenomenal global grand challenge, but it is one that this country is well positioned to respond to, with our historic strengths in agricultural science and technology and the biosciences I have talked about.

The real trick is how to link our leadership and innovation and commercialisation in the City to global markets. I suggest that our liberation through Brexit from the European trading structure, challenging though it is in many ways, does create an opportunity for us to embrace variable tariffs. Imagine if you will for a moment saying to countries in Africa, “Look, we are not going to charge you 40% on food tariffs, like the European Union—that is immoral. We will reduce it to 5% or 10%, but 0% is only for those who are growing and producing at the most responsible and progressive standards—the very highest standards of animal welfare and food quality. We will help you to do that by exporting the technologies that we have developed here using our aid budget.”

With those commitments to growth and local places, and to globalisation, this is an opportunity, given what the Treasury has done, to make this crisis a genuine moment to unlock a new cycle of growth for the benefit of this country and generations to come.