All 34 Parliamentary debates on 20th Feb 2024

Tue 20th Feb 2024
Tue 20th Feb 2024
Tue 20th Feb 2024
Tue 20th Feb 2024

House of Commons

Tuesday 20th February 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Tuesday 20 February 2024
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Tuesday 20th February 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.

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

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Tuesday 20th February 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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1. What steps he is taking to ensure that people leaving prison are provided with support to help prevent reoffending.

Paul Howell Portrait Paul Howell (Sedgefield) (Con)
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16. What steps he is taking to help reduce reoffending.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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17. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce rates of reoffending by people released from prison.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Since 2010, crime has fallen and so has reoffending, with the overall proven rate of reoffending down from over 31% in 2011-12 to 25% in 2021-22. That means that fewer innocent members of the public are suffering from the misery of falling victim to crime. We have gone further, building up initiatives including a new prison education service, expanded access to incentivised substance-free living wings for drug recovery, and the groundbreaking guarantee of 12 weeks’ post-release accommodation to secure that essential period of stability for offenders to turn their lives around.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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With the reoffending rate at over 25%, rising to nearly 50% for burglary, reoffending is costing the country £18 billion a year and the service is failing to keep us safe. If just a small fraction of that cost were invested in probation staff to address the problems caused by 50,000 days lost through sickness and 2,000 people leaving each year, it could be transformative. Will the Justice Secretary back Operation Protect, the campaign spearheaded by the justice unions, and ensure that there is a comprehensive workforce plan to recruit, retain and return the staff needed to prevent reoffending?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Lady is right. We want to drive the offending rate down, and it is good news that it is down from about 31% in 2010 to 25% now, but we do believe in investing in probation. That is why the baseline is up by £155 million, and it is why we have added 4,000 trainees since 2020. Since the reunification of probation services, the number has risen by 17%. Probation officers keep society safe, and we will back them all the way.

Paul Howell Portrait Paul Howell
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I recently raised the issue of social media use in prison, allegedly by one of those responsible for the murder of Jack Woodley, the son of my constituent Zoey McGill. We have a local campaign against knife crime, and at the latest working group meeting we discussed deterrents. Zoey would like to understand what consequences were suffered by this individual for the posts that he sent, but also why he should be wearing a designer T-shirt and apparently leading a cushy life. Prison needs to be seen as a deterrent, but if inmates are having it easy with designer wear and no consequences, how is that a deterrent? May I ask the Secretary of State what is being done to address this, and to make prison the deterrent that it should be?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I know that the whole House will want to send its deepest sympathies to Zoey McGill following the shocking murder of her son in 2021. It was a dreadful crime, of which 10 men were convicted and for which they received life sentences. The use of social media in prisons is not acceptable, and this content was removed from the social media platform. We have been investing £100 million in prison security and new technology, including X-ray scanners to tackle the smuggling of contraband mobile phones. Those who are caught can face loss of privileges, more time in custody, and even a referral to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration of further charges.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell
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Last year I was grateful for the Government’s support for my private Member’s Bill to limit Friday releases for vulnerable prisoners. It is an important measure and is now an Act, but it is only one of the measures that we should be taking to reduce reoffending and help people get back on their feet when they leave prison. The excellent charity Switchback has suggested that, at the very minimum, people should be leaving prison with access to ID and an internet-enabled mobile phone just to get their lives in order so that they can access universal credit and other services. What consideration has my right hon. and learned Friend given to those suggestions?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his excellent work in successfully championing the limit on Friday prison releases. The changes for which he called came into force last November and are exceptionally helpful, and he deserves great credit for that. He is also right to point to the brilliant work of Switchback, which has supported our resettlement work. That work includes the roll-out of 12 weeks’ guaranteed accommodation and the introduction of resettlement passports, which contain precisely the basic information to which my hon. Friend referred, such as a prisoner’s name, date of birth, national insurance number and release date. They help prisoners to access essential services such as housing and healthcare, and contribute to the driving down of reoffending, which, as was recognised by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), is significantly lower than it was in 2010.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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The wife of a remand prisoner at Wormwood Scrubs wrote to me recently to say that the prison is so cold that prisoners are shaking, that they have to choose between work, social time and showering, and that the food is lacking in basic nutrition. I can explore these matters with the Prisons Minister in a couple of weeks’ time during our joint visit to the Scrubs, but does the Secretary of State agree that such conditions are not conducive to rehabilitation?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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This is an important point. We do deprive people of liberty and sometimes we have to do so in the case of those on remand, but the conditions must be safe, decent and humane—austere, yes, but humane as well. I commend the hon. Gentleman for going to see the Scrubs with the Prisons Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and I shall be very interested to hear his views thereafter.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call shadow Minister Ruth Cadbury.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
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We need to tackle the revolving door of reoffending in our justice system, yet the reoffending rate, as a proportion of those leaving prison, continues to rise. Whatever the Secretary of State may say, I have heard time and again that the lack of secure housing, adequate and appropriate healthcare, education, job training and job support means that prisoners are being left to fail after they are released. It is the victims of crime who suffer when ex-prisoners reoffend. Can the Secretary of State announce when the Government expect the reoffending rate to go down?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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It is important to note that reoffending is down compared with under the last Labour Government. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but one can dispute opinions in this House, but not facts. The reoffending rate in 2010 was around 31%; it is 25% now. That means fewer people falling victim to crime.

The hon. Lady refers to accommodation, and she is right to do so. What she did not advert to is this Government’s decision to provide 12 weeks’ guaranteed accommodation, which did not happen under a Labour Government. When I went to Luton and Dunstable, I spoke to a probation officer who has done the job for 30 years, and do you know what he said? It is the single most effective measure to drive down reoffending. Who did that? Not the Labour party, but us.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
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2. What steps he is taking to increase sentences for dangerous offenders.

Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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Measures in the Sentencing Bill will ensure that those who commit the worst crimes will receive the most severe punishment. The Bill creates a duty for the court to impose a whole life order for murders currently subject to a whole life order starting point and for those that involve sexual or sadistic conduct, unless there are exceptional circumstances. The Bill will also ensure that convicted rapists must serve 100% of their custodial term in prison, followed by a licence period.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills
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I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome those measures. The two worst cases I have had to deal with as an MP was where women were brutally murdered by a partner or ex-partner. What are the Government going to do in response to the Clare Wade review to increase sentences for people who commit those awful, vile offences?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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My hon. Friend is quite right to raise the issue of domestic homicide. We are determined to act to protect the victims of domestic abuse and ensure that the appropriate punishments are in place for perpetrators. That is why, following Clare Wade KC’s review, we are increasing sentences by introducing statutory aggravating factors for murders that are preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour, involve overkill, or are connected with the end of a relationship.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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Does the Minister agree that wider society’s confidence in the judicial system is often determined by how dangerous offenders are treated? Does he agree that it is vital that we get the message out there, both to wider society and to potential offenders, that there is the ultimate price to pay, which is a long sentence in prison for criminal offences such as these?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I agree with those sentiments entirely.

Richard Burgon Portrait Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab)
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3. With reference to his oral statement of 6 December 2023 on Hillsborough: Bishop James Jones Report, Official Report, column 341, if he will bring forward legislative proposals to introduce a legal duty of candour on public bodies.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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In his excellent report, “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”, Bishop James Jones called for the creation of the Hillsborough charter for bereaved families, as well as for the imposition of a duty of candour on police officers. We agree wholeheartedly, which is why the Government have signed the charter alongside the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and others, and imposed a duty of candour on the police. We are also legislating to create a strong, permanent and independent public advocate to speak up for victims and their families, and to rigorously hold signatories to the charter to account. We stand ready to discuss what further steps may be necessary.

Richard Burgon Portrait Richard Burgon
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The parents of Zane Gbangbola are in the Public Gallery today. Zane was just seven when he died, following floods 10 years ago this month. The fire brigade detected hydrogen cyanide multiple times. His parents, Kye and Nicole, have been fighting for the truth about their son’s death ever since, and a duty of candour would have helped them to get it. In lieu of that, will the Government establish an independent panel inquiry with full disclosure, so that all the evidence can be reviewed by experts, we can finally get the truth about what happened to an innocent seven-year-old boy, and justice can be done?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this deeply upsetting case, and I know the whole House will be thinking of Kye and Nicole as they continue to mourn the loss of Zane. The hon. Gentleman raises a critically important case. May I suggest that he and I discuss it and see what further steps can properly be taken in this difficult case?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call shadow Minister Kevin Brennan.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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I welcome the meeting that the Secretary of State has just offered.

The problem with the Government’s response is that it ought to be centred on the experiences of families, not on the convenience of state bureaucracy, in order to ensure that they are never repeated. There is nothing in what we have seen so far from the Government that goes as far as we and, more importantly, the families believe is necessary to require public authorities to act with candour and transparency. Why is the Secretary of State persisting with a piecemeal approach, instead of committing to a clear, compelling and comprehensive duty of candour, as proposed in the Hillsborough law?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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As I say, the recommendations of Bishop James Jones’s report, which we have considered extremely carefully, contained the charter for bereaved families, and it is worth reflecting on what paragraph 3 of the report says. It requires the public body to

“approach forms of public scrutiny—including public inquiries and inquests—with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way, making full disclosure of relevant documents, material and facts.”

Taken together with the powers that exist under the Inquiries Act 2005, there is potentially criminal culpability, misconduct in a public office and perverting the course of justice, but of course we will keep this under review. We want to make sure that public bodies do what they should—that is, act transparently—and we will always consider what further steps can be taken.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North) (Con)
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4. What steps he is taking to exonerate sub-postmasters who were prosecuted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system.

Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
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7. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to exonerate sub-postmasters who were convicted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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10. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to exonerate sub-postmasters who were convicted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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In September 2020, a public inquiry was set up into the failings associated with the Post Office Horizon IT system and it is expected to report back later this year. In addition, over £160 million has already been paid out in compensation across three schemes.

However, in its December 2023 letter, the independent Horizon compensation advisory board expressed concern that the pace of exonerations was too slow, not least because evidence had been lost and many were simply too traumatised to come forward. That is why the Prime Minister has decided to bring forward legislation to quash the relevant convictions, and the Department for Business and Trade will be announcing details shortly. These wholly exceptional circumstances have led to this wholly exceptional course.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi
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While I welcome the Government’s commitment to quash the wrongful convictions of sub-postmasters caught up in the Horizon scandal, I also recognise that this is a complex area of law that could even raise constitutional issues. Given that some sub-postmasters have been suffering for an extremely long time, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that any legislation should deal with these issues swiftly and avoid any further delays?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank my hon. Friend for the careful and thoughtful way in which he addresses this significant issue. The judiciary and courts have dealt swiftly with the cases before them, but the scale and circumstances of the prosecution failure mean that this demands an unprecedented response, and that is why the Prime Minister announced this major step forward in response to the Horizon scandal. We are keen to ensure that the legislation achieves its goal of bringing prompt justice to all those who were wrongfully convicted, followed by rapid financial redress. It is not right that wholly innocent people could potentially go to their graves with the mark and stigma of a conviction hanging over them.

Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands
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Every day we hear further revelations about the Post Office, and today’s shocking—well, it should be shocking—BBC story states that the 2016 Swift review noted that the Post Office had always known about the balancing transaction capability of Horizon and that the Government knew in 2016 that a Deloitte investigation into all Horizon transactions was under way and that this investigation was suddenly halted after sub-postmasters began legal action. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Ministry of Justice was aware of this, and does he believe that that apparent non-disclosure to the inquiry is a threat to judicial freedom and independence?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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In 2020—coming up to four years ago now—an independent inquiry was set up under Mr Justice Wyn Williams. That is expected to report later this year, and it will go into properly exhaustive details about who knew what and when. We are absolutely clear that there has been an egregious failure of prosecution conduct—frankly, one that brings shame on those involved—and it is absolutely right that that inquiry should get to the bottom of what took place and who knew what and when.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald
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The current chief executive of the Post Office said in evidence to the Business and Trade Committee last month that, despite various audits and investigations, we still do not know the full scope of the money overclaimed through Horizon, or where it went. Even the auditors are unable to give a firm figure. Postmasters such as my constituent Roger have suffered incredible stress and worry as well as significant financial loss, but the prospect of getting to the truth on these figures still seems far off.

Will the Secretary of State commit to working with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade and set out a timetable for updating the House on how much the Post Office took and what it did with the money, so that constituents like mine can start to get the answers and the justice that they deserve?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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My heart goes out to Roger and people like him. I have constituents who are affected, as I am sure everyone in this House does. We are a fair-minded nation, which is why it strikes us to the core. The hon. Lady asks me to liaise with the Department for Business and Trade. Of course the MOJ will do everything it properly can, but DBT is leading on this. It is also worth reflecting that £160 million has already been paid out across the three schemes, and there is a very important, swift and robust approach of paying £600,000 to those who have their convictions quashed. That is the right approach. It is exceptional, but these are exceptional circumstances.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Justice Committee.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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My right hon. and learned Friend will know that, only last week, the Court of Appeal criminal division, presided over by the Lady Chief Justice, quashed in bulk a number of Horizon appeals, on the basis of a half-hour hearing. When the cases get to court, the courts can deal with them swiftly.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in framing any legislation, because of the constitutional implications, it is important that we bear in mind that the failures are the failure of a prosecutor to do their duty, or perhaps the failure of the state to come to the aid of victims, but they are not the failure of the courts, which always acted entirely properly on the material put before them by the parties at the time? It was a failure of the parties, not of the courts.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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As always, my hon. Friend gets to the heart of it. This was a failure of the Post Office, which is an emanation of the state, and it is the duty of the state to put it right. The courts have approached this entirely properly. The Post Office failed to discharge the solemn obligations on any prosecutor to act fairly and to comply with their obligations under section 3 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 to disclose material that might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the case of the prosecution, or of assisting the case of the defence. When I was prosecuting, the first rule was that we did not seek a conviction at all costs, which is an important principle that the Post Office failed to appreciate.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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Whistleblowers have come forward to provide information that Fujitsu was given an additional contract by the Post Office in 2013 to re-platform transaction data that was previously held on an external storage system that was considered to be the gold standard. It was replaced by a system that made it virtually impossible to investigate financial transactions in a forensic audit. Does the Justice Secretary share our concern that this decision effectively destroyed evidence, preventing exactly the sort of audit trail that would exonerate those sub-postmasters who were convicted?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The Department for Business and Trade is better placed to answer those specific points, but I would say two things. First, as a matter of sacred principle, if material comes into a prosecutor’s possession that might be considered capable of undermining the case of the prosecution, that material should be disclosed to the defence. That is one of the things that has been considered by Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry. What did the Post Office know, when did it know it, and what did it do with the material before it? Across the House, we want to get to the bottom of those questions.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the rapid deployment community payback pilots.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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It is a pleasure to respond to my first question from the hon. Gentleman since his election.

As part of the Government’s antisocial behaviour action plan, community payback teams are working in partnership with 11 local authorities to rapidly clean up antisocial behaviour in the community. The pilots started in July 2023, and we are in the process of analysing the outcomes. Initial observations point to the pilots having been successful, with thousands of hours of reparative work being done by hundreds of people on probation within 48 hours of local authority notification, allowing the public to see justice done.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern
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These rapid-deployment community payback scheme pilots were supposed to pave the way for the accelerated roll-out of exactly the kind of swift, transparent restorative justice that victims of crime in my constituency are desperate to see. Unfortunately, I understand that, of a planned 20,000 hours of work, only 2,000 hours have been delivered by the pilots. Can the Minister reveal whether that is the case? If so, what can be learned from the clear barriers to success?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but the clue is in the word “pilot.” These pilots were carried out in 11 areas, over three months, in the run-up to Christmas, and 175 people completed around 2,000 hours of unpaid work. We are analysing the outcome of those pilots and, based on what that analysis says, I look forward to exploring how we can roll this out more widely across the country.

Marie Rimmer Portrait Ms Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)
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6. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the length of time that prisoners spend in their cells on reoffending rates.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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12. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the length of time that prisoners spend in their cells on reoffending rates.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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We know that activities such as education and training can help to give prisoners skills that they need to get a job on release, thus reducing the likelihood of reoffending. That is why we launched our new national regime model for prisoners last month. It sets out core expectations for regime delivery, so that prisons are getting the most out of the working day and aiding the rehabilitation of prisoners. Of course, we are also seeing improved staffing numbers to facilitate those regimes.

Marie Rimmer Portrait Ms Rimmer
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Reoffending costs £18 billion a year, but there is not just the financial cost but the impact on society in general, as well as on the individual. Some young prisoners are still getting only one hour out of their cells, so there is no time for rehabilitation—they can perhaps do a little exercise, but that is not the same. How confident is the Minister that all young prisoners will get the re-education that he has outlined? When does he think all young prisoners—if these people have to be in prison—will get proper rehabilitation and the support they need when they come out of prison to get a home, to have somewhere to stay and to go into further training? Will he please give me some reassurance that better times are coming, not just for young offenders but for society as a whole?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. As she knows, I have a huge amount of respect for her, and she raises a hugely important point. We have heard from the Lord Chancellor that reoffending rates have come down from 31% to 25% since 2010. So we are making progress, but we want to drive them down further. She also rightly highlights the importance of purposeful activity leading to the opportunity on release for employment, accommodation and so on. That is central to the opportunity for prisoners to rehabilitate themselves.

We have seen significant progress made in our youth estate. The hon. Lady talked about young prisoners and rightly said that we need to go further, but we believe the national regime model that we launched in January will go a long way to doing that. The additional staff we have recruited into His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service are central to doing that, as they enable that regime to be put in place. However, she is absolutely right to highlight this issue.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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I welcome the Minister’s acknow-ledgement that more education in prisons means cutting the reoffending rate and that clear link to crime. I welcome the national regime model and will be interested to see how it plays out, because I have seen chronic staff shortages and sickness absence, in particular at prisons such as HMP Wandsworth, which I have visited. Those things mean that prisoners are entirely missing out on any education, training and working opportunities. When will I be able to go back to HMP Wandsworth and see the increase in staff and retention that is needed there? When will the Government get a grip on the prison officer recruitment and retention crisis?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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Again, I have a lot of respect for the hon. Lady, but I am afraid that what she is suggesting does not entirely reflect the facts. If we compare the figures for 2023 and 2022 for band 3 to 5 prison officers, we see that there are over 1,400 more now, which is an increase of 6.7%. In HMPPS, sick rates are down in the past year, when just over 12,500 people joined and 7,500 left—again, that reflects an increase. We are investing in our prison officers and increasing their number, and that is being reflected in retention. I pay tribute to them for the work they do; we should be talking them up, not down.

Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler (Aylesbury) (Con)
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I am encouraged by my right hon. Friend’s comments about the number of additional prison officers recruited. I have seen many of them and the fantastic work they do, both at HMP Aylesbury and across the prison estate. Will he say a little more about how we can ensure that we retain them once they have been trained and they go on to the wings? This is an incredibly important career—it is key to reducing reoffending—and prison officers deserve credit and the support of everybody in this House.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right about the importance of not just recruiting new prison officers, but retaining experienced ones in our prisons. That is why the pay deal done last year with HMPPS staff was hugely important, in recognising the important work that prison officers do day in, day out. It is also reflected in the fact that the leaving rate for prison officers is down in 2023 from where it was in 2022. However, there is more to do and we will continue to do it.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Justice Secretary.

Shabana Mahmood Portrait Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab)
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Prisoners are spending up to 23 hours a day locked up in their cells as a direct result of overcrowding and the prisons capacity crisis caused by this Government. However, I hear congratulations are in order following an announcement last month, not on the Government actually delivering any of the new prisons they have promised or on even getting spades in the ground, but on their submitting yet another planning application for the Leicestershire prison that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has already ruled on once. Is not about time that the Minister renamed the new prisons programme the no prisons programme?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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For a moment I thought the shadow Justice Secretary was referring to her own party’s record when in government—7,500 prison places in three Titan prisons that failed to be built, whereas we are committed to building six new modern prisons. Two have been built, one is being built at the moment and two have planning permission.

Shabana Mahmood Portrait Shabana Mahmood
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While prisoners are serving their sentence, they are not being allowed to leave their cell, but ironically the Government are also releasing some of them early. Despite a multitude of letters, questions and even a point-blank request from the Justice Committee, the Government are refusing to tell us how many prisoners are being released early and from where. The public and Parliament have a right to know, so will the Minister finally come clean on how the early release scheme has been used so far? If not, can he tell the House what he has to hide?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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As the shadow Justice Secretary will know, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has made clear that in line with other statistics, for example death in custody statistics, we will publish those figures on an annual basis.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree with me that the rehabilitation of offenders can be greatly assisted by activity and work outdoors, in particular on farms and at horticultural establishments. Will the Minister reassure me that he is committed to increasing the quantity of work available outdoors and let me know what has happened to the prison estates in recent years?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of a range of purposeful activity for those in prison, from skilled industrial work in workshops to outside work. A good example mentioned recently on “ITV Racing”, of all things, was about getting farriers and those working in the equine world into prisons—the example was a prison in Solihull—to teach prisoners about job opportunities in the equine world. There are a range of opportunities out there, and it is important that they are available to those in our custody.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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8. What progress his Department has made on reducing the backlog of cases in the Crown court.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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We remain committed to reducing the Crown court outstanding case load and have introduced a range of measures to achieve the same. We funded over 100,000 sitting days last year and plan to deliver the same again this year. We have recruited over 1,000 judges over all jurisdictions and plan to do the same again this year. Thanks to the intervention of the Lord Chancellor, we have secured £220 million for essential modernisation repair work over the next two years. As well as retaining Nightingale courts, the investments will also see 58 new courtrooms.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith
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The fact is that the Crown courts how have a backlog of over 65,000 cases. If that is not bad enough, experts say the courts’ capacity to deal with processing cases will not keep pace with demand. Does the Minister agree that that leads to too many victims unfortunately giving up on our justice system?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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No, I do not accept that that means we are giving up on the system. The Government continue to invest in every single lever that we can pull to increase capacity in our criminal justice system. Given the additional work that the judiciary is doing, the disposal rate in our Crown courts is up and we are seeing record levels of disposals, so we will start to see the criminal justice system heal, because we are still recovering from covid and the Criminal Bar Association strike.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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Rape and serious sexual assault cases have increased to 10.3% of all Crown court cases and, with nearly 10,000 of them, they make up one in seven of the backlog. The average wait time for a trial after charge has risen to 18 months. We also know from the Criminal Bar Association that there has been a tenfold increase in adjourned cases due to the fall in the number of rape and serious sexual offence prosecution or defence barristers, with the Crown Prosecution Service now employing King’s counsel to fill the gap. Add to that the many legal aid deserts due to the shortage of solicitors and we have a major staffing crisis across the criminal justice system. How is that going to be fixed?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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First, the figure that the hon. Gentleman quoted for the average time for a RASSO case is simply not true. The Government have continued to invest in ensuring that RASSO cases are brought forward. Listing is a matter for the judiciary, and they take great care to ensure that vulnerable victims are dealt with expeditiously. In addition, we continue to invest in the legal aid system. The Lord Chancellor recently increased the fees to ensure that there are people able to perform RASSO cases and section 28 video recording. On top of that, we continue to engage with the criminal legal aid review to see how we can continue to invest in and incentivise criminal defence barristers in the right parts of the system.

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)
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9. What steps his Department is taking through the criminal justice system to support victims of crime.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Since 2010, we have ramped up support for victims in three main ways. First, we have driven down reoffending from around 31% to 25%, so that fewer people suffer the misery of becoming a victim of crime in the first place. Secondly, we have created new offences such as stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour, revenge pornography, upskirting and non-fatal strangulation, so that those who betray trust and shatter lives can be held to account. Thirdly, we have quadrupled victim funding, enabling massive investment in resources such as independent domestic violence advisers, which are up from barely existing in 2010 to more than 900 today, and we will go further with the groundbreaking Victims and Prisoners Bill as well.

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell
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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for all the sterling work that he has just outlined, which is making such a huge difference to victims everywhere. I wish to talk about a case that was raised with me at an advice surgery. After seeing an advert on the tube, my constituent—a man of very good standing—invested in what turned out to be a fraudulent company to the tune of £93,000. He was clearly a victim of crime and, mercifully, his bank reimbursed his life savings after some challenge. He did get financial restitution, but the whole experience had wider, devastating impacts. Those behind the company were registered in Serbia and, to the best of our knowledge, have never been brought to justice. As my constituent did not go through the full criminal justice system, may I ask how victims such as he can be supported in cases like this?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising her constituent’s case. Fraud is a pernicious, cruel crime and it can have an appalling impact, as I know from my own experience of prosecuting for the Serious Fraud Office. To support victims in recovering lost funds, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023 gives the Payment Systems Regulator further power to mandate reimbursement where needed, and I am glad that that took place in this case. But to bring wrongdoers to justice, prosecutors, including the CPS, the Financial Conduct Authority and the SFO, regularly co-operate with their international counterparts to make arrests and secure evidence overseas so that, in appropriate cases, defendants can be extradited to face trial in the UK. The other critical point is that the victims code has been expanded, so that people such as her constituent can get the support they need. I would invite him, perhaps through the hon. Lady’s good offices, to look at the support that is available online.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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Is the Secretary of State aware of a new crime that is spreading throughout the north of England, including in your constituency, Mr Speaker, and in mine? A group is preying on people who have cavity wall insulation. Those people get themselves into the legal process and find the expenses are so high that they have to sell their home. It is an epidemic. It is also rather like the Post Office scandal. This is an early warning of a major scandal. Will the Secretary of State agree to look into this matter as it is very important, especially in the north of England?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter on the Floor of the House. He will understand—I know that he well appreciates this—that it is not for the Secretary of State to be ordering investigations, but, plainly, the matters he raised are serious. I invite the police and prosecutors to take all appropriate steps to investigate it if that is what is required.

Kim Johnson Portrait Kim Johnson (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)
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11. If he will make an estimate of the cost to the public purse of judicial processes under joint enterprise relating to violent crimes in each year since 2014.

Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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Although the Ministry of Justice collates statistics nationally on the principal criminal offence for which a perpetrator is prosecuted, convicted or sentenced, including data on their ethnicity, it does not collate data on whether the crime that they committed was part of joint enterprise, so unfortunately I am unable to provide the information that the hon. Lady requests. However, we are considering whether such data could be collected as part of the common platform programme, which aims to provide a single case management system that would enable the sharing of such evidence and case information across the criminal justice system.

Kim Johnson Portrait Kim Johnson
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I welcome that response, but the Minister will know that Manchester Metropolitan University has recently carried out some research into the cost of prosecuting under joint enterprise. Some £250 million is spent processing joint enterprises cases, and an extra £1.2 billion is spent incarcerating the just over 1,000 people who are convicted. Those are eye-watering amounts of money, so does the Minister agree that we need to review the doctrine of joint enterprise to ensure that only those who are responsible for significant contribution to a crime are punished for it?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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There is a cost to justice. People who are found guilty of crime based on the evidence presented to a court of law have been sentenced, and there is a cost to their incarceration. Simply put, the cost of incarcerating people is not a reason to review the law.

Beth Winter Portrait Beth Winter (Cynon Valley) (Lab)
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15. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of devolving responsibility for justice to the Welsh Government.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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The Government are clear that it is in the best interests of the people of Wales for justice to remain a reserved matter. The current arrangement works well and allows Wales to benefit from being part of a larger, world-renowned justice system. Devolving justice to Wales would mean losing those benefits and would be extremely expensive and complex, requiring the duplication of functions.

Beth Winter Portrait Beth Winter
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Following the publication last month of the final report by the independent commission on the constitutional future of Wales, the First Minister of Wales confirmed unambiguously that it is the policy of the Welsh Government, and indeed of the Welsh Labour party, to support the devolution of the justice system. In pursuing the devolution of the Probation Service, he said:

“We will have to explore…governance…financial arrangements”

and the interface between Welsh and English services. When will the Minister meet the Counsel General for Wales to discuss the devolution of justice?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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If the representatives for the Welsh Government wish to meet me, I am more than happy to explain why Wales being part of the English and Welsh legal system remains the preferred option for this Government. Why would Wales want to leave the most successful legal services system in the world?

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
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18. What steps his Department is taking to protect the privacy rights of rape victims in criminal justice processes.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
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19. What steps his Department is taking to protect the privacy rights of rape victims in criminal justice processes.

Laura Farris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Laura Farris)
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It is paramount that victims come forward without fear that their privacy will be violated. That is why we are taking steps, through the Victims and Prisoners Bill, to create a statutory restriction that limits police requests to third-party material that is necessary and proportionate, and to inform victims of why such material is being requested. The Government have also asked the Law Commission to undertake a review on the use of evidence in sexual offence prosecutions, and it is due to report later this year.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
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My constituent had all her counselling records used against her in a harrowing trial that she said was worse than the crime itself. Will the Victims and Prisoners Bill be sufficiently amended so that medical and social services records are not used against victims in court, and family courts are not used to perpetuate such abuse against the victim, particularly with the use of the term “parental alienation”?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I am truly sorry to hear of what happened to the hon. Lady’s constituent. I hope that I can reassure her by saying that new regulations will be published under the Victims and Prisoners Bill to create a code of practice setting out the principles that the police should apply to all third-party requests, including for counselling, therapy and medical notes. The police will be required to complete a new request form that sets out the purpose and impact of their request. The Crown Prosecution Service also has a robust case file review process to ensure that guidance on necessary and proportionate requests is complied with. The CPS pre-trial therapy guidelines make it crystal clear that victims must not delay therapy for criminal investigation and prosecution.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
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Recently, I was able to visit the Gwent rape investigation unit and see what an excellent job the police officers there are doing. However, can the Minister explain why the Government thought it was appropriate to boast about the so-called progress on the rape review when the proportion of cases being charged has halved since 2016, and the key adviser quit because of the lack of drive to improve outcomes for victims?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I have also heard very good reports of the work that Gwent police are doing, so I am glad to hear what the hon. Lady says. I must push back very slightly on what has happened since we launched the end-to-end rape review. We are prosecuting more rape cases than we were in 2010. Conviction rates are higher, and perpetrators are going to prison for almost 50% longer than they were in 2010; the average sentence increased from six and a half years to nine and a half years. I accept that the last independent adviser to the rape review went, but last week we announced the appointment of Professor Katrin Hohl, a legal academic who pioneered Operation Soteria, which I think every Member of this House agrees has transformed the way in which police investigate and prosecute rape, and is leading to better criminal justice outcomes for victims.

Sarah Green Portrait Sarah Green (Chesham and Amersham) (LD)
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20. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the use of non-disclosure agreements in judicial processes.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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Non-disclosure agreements cannot prevent any disclosure that is required or protected by law; nor can they preclude an individual from asserting statutory rights. The courts and judiciary apply the law in relation to NDAs as appropriate in individual cases and, where necessary, determine whether or not they should be enforceable.

Sarah Green Portrait Sarah Green
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Last year, the Legal Services Board stated that incidents of misconduct by lawyers dealing with non-disclosure agreements were a “cause for concern”, and that there was a strong case for a strengthened and harmonised regulatory approach. Does the Minister agree that there is a need for stronger regulation in this area, and will he support the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), which would end the misuse of non-disclosure agreements in the workplace?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I am more than happy to have a discussion with the hon. Lady, but my understanding is that the Solicitors Regulation Authority has already published a warning notice reminding solicitors and law firms that potential professional misconduct by a person or a firm should be reported to the regulator. If she believes that there are still gaps in that warning notice, or that more needs to be done, I am more than happy to have a meeting.

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double  (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Since the last Justice questions, I have met with the families of those killed by Valdo Calocane: Barnaby Webber, Grace O’Malley-Kumar and Ian Coates. They deserve answers, and a series of reviews are taking place, including by the Attorney General, on referring the sentence in that case to the Court of Appeal.

We have announced an early legal advice pilot to help families agree child arrangements quickly. I have visited Leeds to see how £6 million is being spent to roll out state-of-the-art courtrooms as part of our £220 million investment in the court estate. I have travelled to the USA to meet my counterparts to discuss how Russia can be held financially and legally to account, and I was fitted with a GPS tag to experience for myself how effective modern technology is in holding offenders and Justice Secretaries to account—a constant physical reminder that debts to society must be repaid, court orders must be observed, and transgressors face the very real risk of the clang of a prison gate. [Hon. Members: “Do you have it on now?”] No, I do not.

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double
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As my right hon. and learned Friend just mentioned, he spent a day wearing a GPS tag, along with Jack Elsom from The Sun. Could he outline what he learned from that experience, and say whether he thinks GPS tags are a robust and effective means of monitoring and punishing low-level offenders? Will he reveal to the House who else from the Lobby is on his list to be tagged?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I remind Members that these are topical questions.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is a serious point here: our modern GPS tags act as a constant physical reminder that debts to society must be repaid and that breach of a court order will be detected, so that a person who steps over the line, literally or metaphorically, and enters an area from which he is barred knows that he is liable to be returned to court and sent to prison. We could put the entire Lobby on alcohol tags, but I think that would deal a fatal blow to the UK drinks industry.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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I recently visited Cookham Wood young offenders institution. There, officers told me about the challenges they face, including a staffing shortage and shocking recruitment issues, which have led to rising levels of violence. Can the Minister say when he last visited Cookham Wood, and why this Government continue to be unable to solve those crucial problems?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I have visited Cookham Wood. I cannot remember the precise date, but the really important statistic to note is that in the period up to the end of September last year, we recruited an additional 1,400 prison officers. The numbers are going up, and the attrition rate is going down. [Interruption.] Hold on. That is because we have introduced measures such as the new colleague mentor scheme, rolled out £100 million on security and so on. We recognise that the safety of our prisons is in large measure down to the quality and quantity of our staff, and we are improving on both counts.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
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T3. There was an interesting debate in the House of Lords last night, in which Lord Hoffmann confirmed my understanding that the European Court of Human Rights was wrong to impose a rule 39 injunction to stop flights to Rwanda, and that we could safely ignore such an injunction. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is his understanding of the law, and if we get the Bill through Parliament and have flights on the ground, will he ignore such an injunction? And would that not be a good issue on which to fight the election?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Sir Edward, you should know better. This is topicals. You are a member of the Panel of Chairs as well; you are meant to set an example, not abuse your position.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I do not have the advantage of having listened to Lord Hoffmann, but we do not think that the Strasbourg Court will need to intervene, given that our domestic courts will have carefully assessed whether anyone we intend to remove to Rwanda would suffer serious and irreversible harm.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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Unison, of which I am a proud member, has criticised Government plans to reintroduce employment tribunal fees, on the grounds that the

“only people who would benefit from their reintroduction are unscrupulous bosses”.

The Resolution Foundation has found that the lowest-paid workers were least likely to bring a claim, so how can the Justice Secretary defend plans to reintroduce employment tribunal fees, which will disproportionately affect those on low wages and present an obstacle to justice for those who need it most?

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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The £55 claim issue fee is modest, and this is completely different from the previous fee scheme, so I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation. I am quite happy to defend that small, reasonable fee as necessary to help defray the costs of our system.

Henry Smith Portrait Henry  Smith  (Crawley)  (Con)
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T6.   What percentage of the backlog in Crown court cases is due to foreign national offenders, and what has been done to reduce that?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Data on foreign national offenders is collected at the point when an individual becomes an offender—in other words, at the point of conviction—but in addition, the Ministry of Justice records the numbers in custody awaiting trial who are FNOs, and that stands at approximately 3,300. On driving the figures down, the Home Office is working to increase take-up of conditional cautions, which lead to FNOs being expelled from the UK, in place of prosecution, in appropriate cases.

Paula Barker Portrait Paula Barker (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
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T2. The Vagrancy Act 1824 is 200 years old this year. Yes, it was supposedly repealed in 2022, but it remains in force. The Criminal Justice Bill, unamended, represents a genuine danger to rough sleepers everywhere. When will Conservative Members stop this madness, and when will we see that 200-year-old piece of legislation taken off the books?

Laura Farris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Laura Farris)
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I think the hon. Lady for her question. The Criminal Justice Bill deals with repeal provisions for the Vagrancy Act, and we are bringing the Bill back on Report with more on rough sleeping.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker  (North Norfolk) (Con)
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T8. I welcome the fact that 20 Nightingale courtrooms have been set up around the country to boost capacity, but none of them appears to be in the east of England. I know we are all well behaved in the east, but have we been forgotten?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I can reassure my hon. Friend that we would not dream of forgetting about him. We have seen an increase, particularly on special educational needs and disabilities, of over 300% in receipts, and with the increased number of judges and panel members, we are seeing a 37% increase in disposals this year. We are trying to address the issue of SEND with the Department for Education, and if my hon. Friend thinks there is a problem in this area, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss it.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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T4. I have heard the Minister defend the reintroduction of employment tribunal fees, but the last time the Government brought them in, there was a 70% drop in applications. How many people will be denied access to justice this time?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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The hon. Gentleman is comparing apples with oranges. The two fees are completely different, in terms of quantum. A £55 claim issue fee is a small contribution towards the tribunals, which cost us £80 million a year to run. I do not think that that is unreasonable.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
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This week, we celebrate the fifth anniversary of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 completing its parliamentary stages, but it is also the fifth anniversary of the Government taking no action to enforce clause 4, which gives coroners the power to investigate stillbirths. There has been some progress: on 8 December, after 56 weeks, they have produced the results of that consultation, but there has been no Government response. When will we have a Government response, and what is the Government’s problem with getting on with something that is overwhelmingly supported?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I appreciate that my hon. Friend is increasingly agitated about the implementation of aspects of the Bill; however, the consultation was not conclusive, and the stillbirths landscape has changed. Those issues have to be addressed if the Bill is to be introduced correctly.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)
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T5. According to a report produced by the National Audit Office last week, housing legal aid is out of reach for many people who are struggling to keep a roof over their head. Countless people facing the threat of eviction and repossession have recently contacted me for help. With the cost of living crisis and rising interest rates, it is crucial that people can access legal help with their housing issues. What is the Minister doing to ensure that housing legal aid is available to those who cannot afford legal help?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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We are investing an initial £10 million to make sure that legal aid is available for exactly those problems.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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Under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, there is a solemn duty on prison governors to prepare ex-offenders for life outside prison. Seven years on from the introduction of that duty, they are still not doing what they are required to do. We want reoffending ended, and if people are prepared properly for when they leave prison, we increase the chances of preventing reoffending. What action is my right hon. and learned Friend taking on this?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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My hon. Friend has done spectacular work on this issue. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service published a policy framework setting out the steps prisons and probation services must take to meet their duty to refer those at risk of homelessness. I was reading it this morning, and it contains template referral forms—and many other aids—that are to be filled out at prescribed points in the prisoner journey. Governors are now held to account, as my hon. Friend rightly indicates, for their record on preparing prisoners for life post release, which is why I am able to say that in 2022-23, some 86% of prisoners were accommodated on the first night of release. That is up from 80% in 2019.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I know that question was on the Order Paper to be taken before topicals, but if the Justice Secretary could shorten his answers to make sure everyone has time in topicals, that would help me and others.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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T7. Last week, I visited IDAS—Independent Domestic Abuse Services—which is an outstanding organisation supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence. They highlighted that parents’ fear of having their children removed is preventing victims from presenting a case in full, and is preventing justice. How will the Minister ensure that power imbalances in the family courts are addressed?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. She will know how much we are doing on victim support, particularly in terms of sexual and domestic abuse. I would like to speak to her about this issue, and about parental responsibility in the family courts, so I think we should have a meeting. I ask her to write to my office after questions to arrange it.

Alberto Costa Portrait Alberto Costa (South Leicestershire) (Con)
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Last week, Colin Pitchfork, the double child rapist and murderer, successfully applied for a reconsideration of the Parole Board’s decision not to release him, on the grounds that the decision was irrational. I have issued a survey across my South Leicestershire constituency on Parole Board reform. Will the Secretary of State meet me urgently to discuss the Parole Board rules, as amended in 2019?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I certainly will meet my hon. Friend. He has been assiduous for many years in raising this matter on behalf of his constituents. The Parole Board does an exceptionally good job. There are two cases in which decisions appear to have been overturned because they were irrational, and that is why I am meeting the Parole Board tomorrow.

John Cryer Portrait John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
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The Justice Secretary mentioned the duty of candour that he imposed on the police. Has he considered legislating to introduce the same for all public bodies?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I can say that we want to extend that duty to healthcare settings, because we do not want health professionals closing ranks when something goes wrong. It is important to say that since Hillsborough there have been so many changes, including through the Inquiries Act 2005, which mean that there can be criminal liability for those who do not do what the hon. Gentleman and I must think is a matter of common sense, which is to tell the truth.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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Wedding experts at Hitched say that independent celebrants are the biggest trend for couples getting married this year, and with the Church, registrars and humanists all providing additional options, it is about time that we updated the marriage laws, which are from 1836. Will the Government publish a substantive response to the Law Commission’s 2022 report on wedding reform?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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As someone who benefited from the last wedding reform on equal marriage, I can say that this Government are entirely committed to ensuring that we report as fast as possible on the Law Commission’s review. If my hon. Friend would like to meet my noble Friend Lord Bellamy to discuss it further, we can make that happen.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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The backlog of asylum and immigration tribunal cases has soared from 35,400 to 41,500 in a month—a result, no doubt, of the Home Office pushing through decisions at the end of last year to clear its previous backlog. What is the Minister doing to tackle this new backlog that they have created?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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We are increasing fees for legal aid practitioners. We have seen a massive increase in cases going through the system, and that is why we are investing to make sure that legal representation is available.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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Given that the existing prisons in Buckinghamshire cannot recruit to fill staffing vacancies, where does the Ministry of Justice think it will magic up staff and prison officers for the mega-prison that it now has planning permission for in my constituency?

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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My hon. Friend is a champion of his constituents. While we may disagree on this issue, I know that he speaks for a lot of his constituents, and he does so vocally in this House. We have highlighted the increase of 1,400 in the number of prison officers. We are confident that we can staff all the new prisons and that they are necessary to meet our obligations.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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What can I do to change the Secretary of State’s view on joint enterprise? Has he read Lord Finkelstein’s recent and very good article in The Times? Please can the Minister have an open mind and look at it again? There are more than 1,000 young men in prison on long sentences.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Joint enterprise is there to ensure that those who act as the burglary lookout, those who provide the weapon in a murder and those who drive the getaway vehicle do not escape the consequences of their crimes, which shatter lives. It is already the case, as in the case of Jogee, that the person must have helped or encouraged the commission of the offence and intended to do so. If the Labour party’s position is that such people should escape culpability, it should say so. Our advice on this side of the House is clear: do not commit crime.

Immigration Rules and Border Security

Tuesday 20th February 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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12:30
Yvette Cooper Portrait Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on changes to UK immigration rules and the security of the UK’s borders.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border (Tom Pursglove)
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The security of the UK border is a top priority for me, the Home Secretary and the Home Office. Everything we do in this area is designed to reduce risks to this country and its citizens. Border Force performs checks on 100% of scheduled passengers arriving in the UK and risk-based intelligence-led checks on general aviation. It is deeply disturbing that information that has no basis in fact was leaked by the independent chief inspector to a national newspaper before the Home Office had the chance to respond. We are urgently investigating this breach of confidential information in full in the normal way.

Moving to yesterday’s changes to the immigration rules, since the launch of our Ukraine schemes the UK has offered or extended sanctuary to more than 280,000 Ukrainians, thanks to the immense generosity of the British public. I know that colleagues across the House are grateful for all the work that has been going on in communities to facilitate that support. Almost two years on from the start of the conflict, the UK Government’s commitment to the Ukrainian cause remains undimmed. It is right that we continue to adapt and develop our visa routes to ensure that they keep pace with the rapidly shifting situation in Ukraine. We must ensure that they remain as efficient and sustainable as possible, while providing stability for those we have welcomed to the UK and those who still need our sanctuary. Ukrainian nationals who may have previously been eligible to apply to come to the UK under the Ukraine family scheme will remain eligible to apply for the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme.

Separately, the Government remain wholeheartedly committed to reducing levels of legal migration. Measures to curb immigration abuse and further reduce net migration are being implemented, ranging from salary increases for work and family visas to reforming the shortage occupation list, removing the right for overseas care workers to bring dependants, and requiring care providers to be registered with the Care Quality Commission before hiring overseas carers. The rule changes outlined yesterday, which relate to the care sector, pave the way for those measures to take effect.

Yvette Cooper Portrait Yvette Cooper
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It has been reported today that hundreds of high-risk private flights have landed in the UK without proper border security checks having been done. If the Minister disputes the figures, will he tell us the true ones now? Were all the high-risk private flights checked or not?

Ministers have been warned repeatedly about border security risks on private flights. The Prime Minister may think it is just all his own mates, but there are risks from organised crime, money laundering, drugs and weapons smuggling, trafficking, and even terrorism. There has been a 75% drop in class A drugs border seizures. There has been a 39% drop in firearms seizures. Criminal gangs are still organising dangerous boat crossings. There have also been repeated failures in security checks at Western Jet Foil; a 30% drop in foreign national offender removals; a 50% drop in failed asylum seeker removals; and new revelations of visa failures in the Home Office, which issued 275 visas to a care home that did not even exist.

Instead of getting a grip, what is the Minister’s response? It is just to sack the border inspector and sit on his reports, as well as changing the rules to stop Ukrainian family members from coming here. What message of solidarity does that send to a country we are supposed to be supporting in the face of Russian aggression?

Will the Minister now publish all the outstanding inspector’s reports? Is it true that no inspector will be in place for the next six months? Will he tell us the key border security facts? Have all high-risk private flights been met and checked in the last year? Home Office Ministers promised me in this Chamber that that would happen 13 years ago. If not, will he tell us how many high-risk flights—maybe involving dangerous people and weapons—have been allowed into the country without proper border security checks?

The Conservatives have broken the asylum system, bust the Home Office budget, badly undermined Britain’s border security and put our country’s security at risk. Will they ever get a grip?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very disappointed with the right hon. Lady’s response on the certainty provided by yesterday’s announcement on Ukraine. Just before the February recess, we had a good debate involving colleagues from across the House where there were calls for certainty on the future of those visa schemes. The Government have come forward and provided that assurance about where we go from here.

Of course, the first of those visas does not expire until 2025. If we add on the 18-month period, that is an additional two and a half years of certainty for individuals from the here and now, which I think is very welcome. There will continue to be an in-country and out-of-country approach. We of course engage with our Ukrainian friends and allies and will support them in any way we can. We are ahead of the curve internationally in giving that assurance. The right hon. Lady should be on the front foot in welcoming that, because it is good, positive news.

We will publish the reports by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration and our responses to them. That will happen soon. On the right hon. Lady’s questions about the flights at London City airport and the information put in the public domain, the Home Office categorically rejects the claims by David Neal. Mr Neal’s report on general aviation border checks at London City airport was submitted last week and underwent fact checking, as is standard practice. Mr Neal was made aware of a specific issue with the recording of data at London City airport that meant that a large proportion of flights recorded as high risk should have been reclassified as low risk. It is disappointing that he has chosen to put misleading data into the public domain.

The Home Office’s priority is to deliver a safe and secure border, and we will never compromise on that. When notified, we cleared 100% of high-risk general aviation flights either remotely or in person, in accordance with the GA guidance, and we are committed to responding effectively, using an intelligence-led approach, as well as to working thoroughly with the wider law enforcement community.

The right hon. Lady will appreciate that there is a report on this issue. We will respond to the inspector’s report, and that response will have answers to the substantive points posed in it. We will deal with it in entirely the proper way.

It is rather ironic that the right hon. Lady talked about the Opposition’s stance on the security of our border, because she quite happily voted against the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 when we legislated to introduce electronic travel authorisations, which are critical to the future of our border security and allow greater automation for passengers. They improve the passenger experience at the border while being robust on border security. [Interruption.] She is chuntering away, but she voted against those important measures.

When it comes to dangerous foreign criminals on our streets, we hear those on the Opposition Benches opposing removal flights—the Leader of the Opposition and others have taken that stance. They would allow dangerous criminals and dangerous individuals to be on the streets of the United Kingdom.

This Government have a credible plan to stop the small boat crossings of the channel and the risk that they present to our security, as well as the wider criminality. Again, the right hon. Lady has opposed all those steps. We have a plan and we are working through it. That is the position and it is clear for all to see.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
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Either I misheard, or the suggestion by the Opposition that the measure the Minister has introduced will prevent Ukrainian family members from coming to Britain is deeply untrue and highly irresponsible, isn’t it?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My right hon. Friend summarises the situation neatly. There will continue to be an in-country opportunity for people to apply to extend their visas. Through the Homes for Ukraine scheme, Ukrainians will still be able to come to the UK to access the sanctuary that we proudly support. We have seen communities across the country doing an enormous amount of positive, welcome work to support that national effort. Any suggestion that that will not be the case moving forward is wrong—it is deliberate scaremongering and people should stop it.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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There is a bitter irony in the UK Government making changes to health and social care visas—a sector that is crying out for people—that will make it more difficult for people to come and look after our loved ones. They say, “Come and look after our loved ones, but you can’t bring your own.” How utterly heartless. The sector is dominated by women, who are more likely to have children with them. What equality impact assessment has the Minister carried out on these very poor plans? What advice is he taking from the Migration Advisory Committee? This is a crisis of the Government’s making. The committee encouraged the Government to pay people in the health and social care sector more and commended Scotland, which has less reliance on people coming in because we have a workforce strategy and we pay care workers the real living wage. Will he do the same?

Saturday 24 February marks two years since the escalation of Russian aggression in Ukraine—two years longer than any of us would have wanted. We are appalled that this week the UK Government have made it more difficult for Ukrainians to seek sanctuary here by closing the Ukraine family scheme with immediate effect at 3 pm yesterday, with absolutely no notice. The Minister talked of an 18-month extension, but for new applications that has been reduced from years. Those who hold visas now cannot sponsor, so the wives who want to bring injured husbands to live here presumably can no longer do so. How can he say that is fair? How can this Government say “Slava Ukraini” while closing the door to those in need?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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To deal with the latter points first, that is not the case. There continues to be a route for Ukrainians to come to the United Kingdom. It is arguably a more effective route to facilitate sanctuary for people, with all the enhanced checks and support that come with the Homes for Ukraine route. There is the ability for people who are here in the UK to sustain and extend their sanctuary. The hon. Lady should welcome that; she was involved in the Westminster Hall debate before the recess, as was I. I am proud of the Government’s work to support communities to facilitate that sanctuary. We will continue to be front footed and forward leaning when it comes to doing so, because it is morally critical that we are at the forefront and are giving people that certainty, way ahead of our international allies. Again, she should welcome that.

When it comes to care workers, as I have said on many occasions, the current situation for dependants is disproportionate. We saw 120,000 dependants come with 100,000 care workers. That is not sustainable in the longer term. That is why we are taking forward these measures. The hon. Lady mentioned specifically the Migration Advisory Committee, which has consistently said that migration is not the answer to workforce shortages in the social care sector. That is why the Government have invested £7.5 billion to support the strategy for social care workforce development and to boost capacity in social care, including through retention of the dedicated workforce already undertaking these vital roles.

As a former Minister for Disabled People at the Department for Work and Pensions, I can also say that I firmly back the work the Government are doing to support more people domestically into work through the comprehensive back to work plan. The hon. Lady should support those efforts. We are putting real resourcing behind that—that should be our first port of call.

Lee Anderson Portrait Lee Anderson (Ashfield) (Con)
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I welcome the news that the Ukrainian visa scheme has been extended by 18 months; that is very generous. Could the Minister confirm that while there is a war in Ukraine and while it is unsafe for these families to return, they will have a home in this country?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about providing that sanctuary for our Ukrainian friends, as do I, colleagues across Government and, I would argue, Members across this House. We are all incredibly moved by what we have seen in our communities, with people rallying behind those Ukrainians to support them and to provide that warm welcome. We will continue to sustain that effort, which we do in partnership with the Ukrainian Government; we regularly discuss these matters with them. Of course, we will continue to sustain that sanctuary for the duration of this invasion. We are firmly on the side of the Ukrainians in winning this war.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
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Accountability and oversight are critical to the effective management of UK border security. The Home Affairs Committee has repeatedly questioned the Government about the delay in the Home Office publishing the chief inspector’s reports—I understand there are now 15 reports outstanding. We are also concerned as the chief inspector is the statutory body, and there is no deputy or provision for the institution to exist without the chief inspector in post. With David Neal leaving at the end of March, will the Minister update the House on what has happened to the recruitment process that ended in December? When will the Home Affairs Committee get the pre-appointment hearing that we are entitled to have for the new chief inspector?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I think the Chairman of the Committee will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on appointment-related matters, but we will follow the proper process in appointing a chief inspector of borders and immigration. The shadow Home Secretary also asked about the laying before Parliament of the Government’s responses to the reports; as I said in response to that question, it will happen soon.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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People who want to work in our care sector from other countries are welcome to do so where it is appropriate. However, under the current model, many people are paying thousands of pounds to agents to contact care home owners in this country who, even if there are no vacancies, will allow people to come here and send them off to work in supermarkets or other areas. The pay then goes back to the agent—the individuals do not even get the pay. Will the Minister take measures to combat what is clearly a criminal conspiracy and prevent it from happening? People who want to come and work here are being exploited ruthlessly.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Where we see abuse of our migration routes, we will root that out and deal with it robustly. That is one of the reasons the Care Quality Commission accreditation angle has been such an important part of the package of measures we are taking forward, ensuring that the roles people come here to fulfil are credible, real jobs in these workplaces. We think it is right that there is a better audit trail for those appointments, not least for the very reason my hon. Friend highlights—to minimise the risks of people being exploited, cheated and sold a fake prospectus for what they are signing up to. That cannot be right. It is right that we as a Government take a robust posture over it.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (Ind)
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Tapadh leibh, Mr Speaker, and thank you for taking this urgent question. As you know, I tabled something similar after the BBC and The Guardian reported that the family unification route for Ukrainian families had been unexpectedly closed. I warned the Government against such mean-mindedness. The UK Government were the meanest-minded in Europe at the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, which caused a lot of work for civil servants, for the Government themselves, and for MPs—all unnecessarily. Most importantly, it caused angst for families in Na h-Eileanan an Iar and elsewhere, and concern and worry for those who want to come to the islands and elsewhere. Why? I would ask them to think again. Can the Minister confirm exactly what he has done? I have a feeling he is being economical with clarity here. Are the BBC and The Guardian wrong in what they have reported?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The position, very clearly, is that we have arguably been the most generous with the approach we have adopted to provide sanctuary to our Ukrainian friends. There will continue to be an out-of-country route through the Homes for Ukraine scheme to enable people to come here, as well as the visa extension. As I said, we are getting on the front foot earlier than others in providing certainty and in terms of the length of those visas. Those are measures to be welcomed, not traduced.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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There is a certain irony about Opposition Members going on about border security, when a lot of them tried to prevent a load of convicted criminals from being deported. I welcome the income thresholds going up for getting visas and the changes for social care workers, too. I have been very concerned that other countries have produced evidence about how that route was abused and it is right that we clamp down on dependants coming here. On the welcome changes to net legal migration, will the Minister provide the evidence and data soon to show the public that it is finally heading in the right direction and that they are being heard? I am incredibly concerned that if mainstream parties, such as ourselves, do not get it and show the public that we get it on migration, it will fuel the extremes.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My hon. Friend speaks with real passion and I know that people in Ipswich feel very strongly about this issue. That is why, as a Government, we have a credible plan to bring the numbers down. We believe the inflows will be reduced by 300,000, taking into account the changes we are delivering, relative to the year prior. On his request on what we can do to report around that and provide information about the progress we are making, that is something I am considering.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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So, when does the Minister expect the next independent chief inspector of borders and immigration to take up the post?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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We will follow the proper process to make an appointment.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
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It is obviously right that we helped those in Ukraine who urgently needed our help, but most people in Stoke-on-Trent and wider north Staffordshire think that the net migration figures have been unacceptably high, and that that has put significant pressure on our local services. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with me that it is right that those who come here and use services but have not contributed to their cost should face higher visa and nationality fees?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My hon. Friend is right to touch on the general feeling in Stoke-on-Trent about the net migration situation. That is why we are taking action. The Government feel that the borders and migration system costs we charge people to access those services should reflect the costs we incur. It should not fall to the UK taxpayer to pick up those costs; it should be the individuals who avail themselves of those services who cover their costs. We continue to work towards that in greater detail.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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Aviation has been consistently flagged as a danger to national security. Does the Minister agree that the failure to check those arriving in the UK that way is putting the United Kingdom at risk?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I refer the hon. Lady to what I said in relation to the shadow Home Secretary’s earlier contribution and the questions she asked on that issue. We treat that subject with utmost seriousness. We will, of course, respond to the ICIBI report in a proper and thorough way, having considered the points it raises and ensuring that proper fact-checking is carried out for the reasons I have touched on.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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If the purpose of yesterday’s announcement was to provide some reassurance to Ukrainian citizens who have sought refuge in the UK, why are the Government forcing them to go through yet another application? Every Member of this House will have experienced the problems supporting the initial applications: there will be delays; different family members will get confirmation at different times; and children will be dropped off by mistake, causing great distress. My question to the Minister is this. Should UKVI not be focusing on its existing backlog, rather than adding unnecessary processes to its workload and distressing Ukrainian families who are now our constituents and living in the United Kingdom?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I disagree with the hon. and learned Lady. We think this is an appropriate approach to extending the visas. It is right and proper that there is a proper process around that, and there are obviously reasons why visas are handled in this particular way. Safeguarding concerns come into all these matters, including extensions, and that is why we will take the approach we take. I want it to be as light-touch as possible. I want it to be as easy as possible. All parliamentarians in this House should be providing reassurance today that the Ukrainian people in our country accessing sanctuary will continue to be able to do so. I would argue that that is the responsibility of all of us as leaders in our country.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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A lot of people in this country, including my constituents, will be amazed that in the week of Navalny’s murder by Putin and the tough times that the Ukrainians are facing against Russian reinforcements, the Government have announced restrictions on Ukrainian families coming here. I have campaigned for a long time, because so many wealthy Russian plutocrats have been flying into this country on small private aircraft and helicopters for a long time. I have asked questions about that. Perhaps we should ask Boris Johnson’s friend in the other place, Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia, what he knows about it.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The fact is that we are providing the certainty that Members across the House have been seeking for the future of the Ukraine scheme. I do not think the hon. Gentleman was in the debate we had prior to the February recess. I would argue that the House spoke with one voice, saying that we need to afford sanctuary for longer, recognising that the war remains ongoing but that the Ukrainian people continue to have our firm backing in their fight against Russian aggression. That is precisely what we have done through this announcement. I reject his characterisation of the situation. The message needs to go out that Ukrainians who are here will continue to be able to have that sanctuary in the years ahead.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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Families in all our constituencies, including East Renfrewshire, rely on the skills and compassion of those who work in the care sector. The chief executive of Scottish Care, Donald Macaskill, yesterday described the Government’s plan to ban overseas care workers from bringing dependants as “shameful and damaging”, saying:

“Treating international colleagues in this manner is contemptible.”

He is right, isn’t he?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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There will continue to be an opportunity for international recruitment for care purposes, but we cannot have a situation where 120,000 dependants come with 100,000 visa holders. That is not justifiable. That is not acceptable. That is why we are taking the approach we are taking. There will in future need to be a blend of approach to recruitment. I also happen to think it is right that we should strain every sinew to support people in this country to take on these roles with the proper skills, and that is precisely what the back to work plan does.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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Closing the Ukrainian families scheme almost two years to the day since Putin’s illegal war began is particularly cruel. The Government speak of a rationalisation of the schemes, but what we really need are further measures to support family reunification. Given the changes, what reassurance can the Government give to those on these schemes that they will be able to bring family members to the UK?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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We always keep under review the offer we have as part of the Ukraine scheme and that will continue to be the case, but I reiterate the point that what we have done through this package of changes in its entirety is to sustain an out-of-country route to enable Ukrainians to come to the UK to seek sanctuary, while giving certainty ahead of many other countries, including European Union countries with which the hon. Lady has an affinity. We have got ahead of the curve and provided certainty around sanctuary in a way that I think people in this country want to see.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The changes the Government keep making to the Ukrainian scheme have unfortunately resulted in far too many Ukrainians becoming homeless. When will the Minister finally, as pledged by his predecessor, meet Glasgow Members of Parliament to discuss how Home Office policies are making refugees homeless in the city of Glasgow?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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In fact, the announcement has provided real certainty about the future of the Ukraine schemes at an early stage, and we are ahead of the curve internationally. The hon. Gentleman knows me well, and we have always had a constructive working relationship. I am very willing to meet him to discuss the issue of asylum accommodation and support for refugees in Glasgow, and I know that my colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities who lead on the accommodation side of the Ukraine scheme would also be happy to engage with him.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for all his helpful answers. In the context of the open border, may I ask what steps have been taken to ensure that Northern Ireland does not become the back door to the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. As he has recognised, we must ensure that our approach to border security is adopted properly throughout the United Kingdom. I was pleased to be able to have a constructive meeting about the future of the Ukraine schemes with the new Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland last week, as part of the conversations that are taking place with the devolved Governments. I told her that I would be very willing to meet her again, and I was delighted to see her in her place and taking on those responsibilities. I am sure that these are matters that she will want to discuss.

Points of Order

Tuesday 20th February 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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13:01
Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that the Northern Ireland Assembly was restored two weeks ago. During the period when it was not sitting, Members of the Legislative Assembly were not fulfilling the full range of their functions, and the Secretary of State reduced their salaries.

I wrote to the Leader of the House last week about a matter of which you may well also be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker: the matter of the abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs who have not fulfilled the full range of their own functions, but have received millions of pounds in representative moneys over not two but 22 years. While they receive no salary from the House, the money that they do receive is allocated on the same basis as Short money, namely to assist Opposition parties with such processes as scrutiny and preparation for debates, in none of which Sinn Féin participates. I just wish to ascertain, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether the Leader of the House, having received my letter, has as yet indicated her intention of tabling a motion allowing us to discuss this matter.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving me notice of it. I have had no indication that the Government intend to table a motion on this matter, and I believe that Mr Speaker has had no such indication either. However, the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to ask the Leader of the House a question on Thursday when she has announced the forthcoming business. I hope that that is helpful; I think that that is the direction in which he should go.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is not something that has happened in the last while; as we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), it has been going on for a number of years. Representations have been made to the Government and to the Minister responsible on numerous occasions, so it is disappointing that my hon. Friend has had to bring the matter up yet again today. Is it not time for the Minister to come to the House, make a statement and get this matter sorted out?

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I do not think there is much that I can add to what I said earlier, but I am confident that those on the Treasury Bench and the Whips have heard what both hon. Gentlemen had to say, and I am sure that they will be reporting back. I urge the hon. Gentlemen to take the matter up on Thursday, when the Leader of the House will be here.

Broadcasting (Listed Sporting Events) (Scotland)

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)
13:03
Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian) (Alba)
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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to expand the list of sporting events that must be made available for broadcast by free-to-air television channels to include all qualifying matches played by the Scotland men’s and women’s national football teams in the World Cup and the UEFA European Football Championship; and for connected purposes.

Like many people throughout the United Kingdom, I look forward to watching the European football finals in June. Not just Scotland but England, and hopefully Wales too, will be there if they win their qualifier. I was fortunate enough to attend the Scotland games when the competition was held in England in 1996, as well as going to France for the World Cup in 1998. Scotland are my team. They represent our nation, and Steve Clarke and his lads have done us proud. We can dream of winning the competition, but in reality I shall be happy with our qualifying from the group. We have faltered and failed to do that before—sometimes through bad luck, although at other times it has been self-inflicted—but in Andy Robertson, John McGinn, Scott McTominay and others we have a squad who are skilled and determined as well as a canny manager.

The Tartan Army who are going to Germany will enjoy the spectacle, while others, including me, will simply watch the games on television. That, after all, is how most people watch their national team. Going to the game is either too difficult or too expensive, or else there is simply insufficient capacity for all to attend, so it is at home, on their TV screens, that most people follow their team. For quite some time, however, that has not been the case for Scotland fans in the qualifying matches for this tournament or the qualifying matches for international competitions, which is why this Bill is necessary. Like the World cup finals, the Euro finals are available on free-to-view channels—that is specified by law—but Scotland qualifying matches are not protected. They have been available only through Viaplay, a Swedish media company, and at a cost of £180 per annum. In these tough financial times, that is a cost that many cannot afford, no matter how much they would like to watch the games. It is a poll tax on Scots watching their national team.

The qualifying games—a number of which were enthralling, with wins at home against Spain and away against Norway, were not available to view for many people other than those fortunate enough to be able to go to the match itself or able to pay for Viaplay. That is as unfair and unjust as a refereeing error or VAR review which punishes your team. It has meant that Scots fans have missed out on the well-earned success of their team. Even worse, when these Euro finals are past and the qualifiers for the World cup in north America begin, Scots will again be deprived of the opportunity to watch their team on free-to-air TV. The games go on as another competition beckons, but many Scots are excluded from watching their team’s journey, and that is neither right nor fair. It is not the norm in Europe, where only seven countries including Scotland and Northern Ireland are in this situation; nor is it the case in England, where qualifying games have been free to air on ITV or Channel 4 since 2018. Even in Wales, where rights to the national team’s qualifying fixtures were also sold to Viaplay in 2022, access was available free to air on S4C.

The charging for viewing extends from the major competitions even to friendly fixtures. While they may lack the same bite as the competitive games, many wish to see their heroes perform or new stars be given an opportunity, but the four friendly fixtures arranged for Scotland’s warm-up for Germany are all to be behind a pay wall on Viaplay, so even these non-competitive fixtures will be denied to many Scottish fans. Meanwhile, England’s warm-up will be broadcast free to view on Channel 4.

The anomaly between Scotland and England international matches extends beyond the men’s international team. For the women’s game, ITV has the rights to the English national team, having recently taken over from the BBC. Scotland games are shown on BBC Alba, a channel I know and enjoy but which, although free to view, has neither the reach nor the resource of the bigger channels. Indeed, I have seen Scottish and English fixtures going head to head on the BBC and BBC Alba. Why is there pan-UK coverage of the England game, but restricted access to the Scottish one? Similarly, the BBC holds the rights to England under-21 internationals while Scotland’s are left to the Scottish Football Association website, which shows that it is not just in respect of the men’s team but across genders and ages that Scots are being deprived of the right to watch their national team. Those fixtures also matter to fans.

The Scottish football press were once described as fans with typewriters; now it seems to be the UK broadcasters who are fans with TV stations, but while the Scottish press supported the Scottish team, the UK broadcasters only seem to support England. UK broadcasters are revealing themselves not as UK television outlets, but as Team England only. That is happening whether we are talking about the state-funded BBC, publicly owned Channel 4, or the commercial ITV or STV channels that have broadcasting obligations beyond the border.

Some may blame the Scottish Football Association, which sold the rights to Viaplay. Let me say at the outset that I do not hold the SFA responsible; culpability rests with broadcasters, who have not just rights but duties, and who are failing Scotland. The SFA has a duty to the game in Scotland. That responsibility runs from the grassroots and football simply being a game to be enjoyed by youngsters, through developing pathways for people to continue playing at whatever age or standard, and on to those entering into the professional ranks and, ultimately, the pinnacle of the national team. The SFA is also required to nurture and develop not just the men’s game, but the growing women’s game and football among people of different ages and capacities. The men’s and women’s international teams are the pinnacle, but the SFA’s remit covers all.

All that comes at a cost, however, and the SFA is required to fund it. Money is tight for associations, as it is for individuals. Broadcasting money that applies in nations such as Ireland when Premier League games south of the border are shown is denied to Scotland. The reason is that the UK is classed as one broadcasting entity and international football divergence is of no relevance. Hence a cash-strapped SFA needs to maximise income, and the rights to show the national teams’ fixtures are its major asset. Viaplay offers more. It is something the SFA is required to do to promote the game from grassroots to international teams.

What about broadcasters? Why can the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV all have budgets to pay for England games, but not for Scottish ones? It is not that the SFA is seeking more than the FA—quite the opposite. The viewing rights fee for Scotland matches is significantly lower than for England matches, just as transfer fees in the Scottish Premier Leagues are lower than those in the English Premier League. But while UK broadcasters are prepared to pay top dollar to show England games, they are not prepared to fund a bawbee for a Scotland game. Indeed, that was stated by Simon Pitts of STV when he gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee. He said that there was

“very little prospect of a larger commercial return UK-wide, which in turn determines the level of bid.”

Scots TV licence fees do not, therefore, matter, and obligations to Scots viewers count for little. The licence fee paid by Scots and the rights given in Scotland to UK broadcasters are not being matched by coverage.

That is why this Bill is necessary. It must be mandatory that Scotland’s games should be available, and broadcasters must live up to their obligations. Scots fans have a right to see their team and to expect no less from their broadcasters.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Kenny MacAskill, Neale Hanvey, Angus Brendan MacNeil, Douglas Chapman, Martyn Day, Carol Monaghan and Jamie Stone present the Bill.

Kenny MacAskill accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June, and to be printed (Bill 166).

Considered in Committee
Clause 1
Duty to invite applications for offshore licences
13:14
Alok Sharma Portrait Sir Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con)
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I beg to move amendment 12, page 1, line 3, at end insert—

“(1ZA) The OGA must not invite any new seaward area production application licences until the Secretary of State has by regulations brought into effect a ban on flaring and venting relating to new offshore installations other than that required in an emergency.

(1ZB) The Secretary of State must by regulation make such provision so that the OGA is only permitted to invite seaward area production application licences after 2030 once a prohibition is in place on routine flaring and venting for all offshore installations operating in UK waters.

(1ZC) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsections (1ZA) and (1ZB) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

(1ZD) In subsection (1ZA) and (1ZB)—

‘flaring’ means the burning of hydrocarbons produced during oil and gas extraction;

‘venting’ means the release of un-combusted hydrocarbons directly into the atmosphere.”

This amendment prevents the invitation of new seaward area production application licences until the Secretary of State has introduced a ban on flaring and venting by new offshore installations. It also requires the Secretary of State to prevent licensing rounds from 2030 if a wider ban is not in place.

Rosie Winterton Portrait The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 15, page 1, line 3, at end insert—

“(1ZA) The OGA must not invite any new seaward area production application licences until the Secretary of State has by regulations brought into effect a requirement that—

(a) all new seaward area production application licences require a specific field commitment of a net zero carbon footprint reached through developing the Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage network or such other means as deemed appropriate; and

(b) a percentage, to be specified in regulations but not less than 30 per cent, of all new seaward area production application licences specifically align petroleum extraction with the refining of petroleum at the Grangemouth oil refinery.

(1ZB) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsections (1ZA) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”

Amendment 7, page 1, line 4, leave out “in each relevant year” and insert “on a case-by-case basis”.

Amendment 2, page 1, line 6, at end insert—

“(aa) the climate test (see section 4ZD)”

This paving amendment, together with amendment 3, sets out the climate test to be applied by the Oil and Gas Authority before inviting applications for seaward new production licences.

Amendment 8, page 1, line 6, at end insert—

“(aa) the energy and job security test (see section 4ZD)”

This paving amendment, together with Amendment 9, introduces a new test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward new production licences.

Amendment 10, page 1, line 6, at end insert—

“(aa) the just transition test (see section 4ZD)”

This paving amendment, together with Amendment 11, introduces a new test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward new production licences.

Amendment 13, page 1, line 6, at end insert—

“(aa) the just transition plans test (see section 4ZD)”

This paving amendment, together with Amendment 14, introduces a new test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward new production licences.

Amendment 17, page 1, line 6, at end insert—

“(aa) the climate change test (see section 4ZD)”

This paving amendment, together with Amendment 18, sets out the climate change test to be applied by the Oil and Gas Authority before inviting applications for seaward new production licences.

Amendment 22, page 1, line 6, at end insert —

“(aa) the home energy efficiency test (see section 4ZD).”

This paving amendment, together with Amendment 24, introduces a home energy efficiency test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward area production licences.

Amendment 23, page 1, line 6, at end insert—

“(aa) the Energy Charter test (see section 4ZD).”

This paving amendment, together with Amendment 25, introduces an Energy Charter test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward area production licences.

Amendment 19, page 2, line 1, after “of” leave out “liquefied”.

This amendment, together with Amendment 20, would require the carbon intensity of domestic natural gas to be assessed against the carbon intensity of all natural gas imported into the UK.

Amendment 20, page 2, line 7, leave out “liquefied”.

This amendment, together with Amendment 19, would require the carbon intensity of domestic natural gas to be assessed against the carbon intensity of all natural gas imported into the UK.

Amendment 21, page 2, line 24, at end insert—

“(4A) Within six months of the commencement of this Act, the Secretary of State must produce and lay before Parliament a report on the effect of amending the definition of “carbon intensity” as set out in subsection (4) according to section 93 of the Climate Change Act 2008.”

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to report how the carbon intensity test is affected if the definition of carbon intensity were amended to include emissions of gases other than carbon dioxide in line with the carbon dioxide equivalent measure in section 93 of the 2008 Climate Change Act.

Amendment 3, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“4ZD The climate test mentioned in s 4ZA

The climate test is met in relation to a relevant year if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that current global fossil infrastructure will not emit more greenhouse gases than is compatible with limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Amendment 9, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“4ZD The energy and job security test mentioned in s 4ZA

The energy and job security test is met in relation to a relevant year if the OGA assesses that new licences will—

(a) lower energy bills for households;

(b) deliver energy security and reduce reliance on imported fuel sources for domestic consumption;

(c) enhance sustained job security for the oil and gas workforce in areas of the UK economically reliant on the oil and gas sector;

(d) guarantee funding for domestic refineries to increase capacity to process sustainable fuel sources; and

(e) help the oil and gas sector meet commitments set out in the North Sea Transition Deal.”

This amendment sets out a new test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward new production licences.

Amendment 11, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“4ZD The just transition test mentioned in s 4ZA

The just transition test is met in relation to a relevant year if the OGA assesses that—

(a) new licences will support the delivery of the North Sea Transition Deal’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets of 10% by 2025, 25% by 2027 and 50% by 2030 against a 2018 baseline, to meet the sector’s aim of a net zero basin by 2050; and

(b) the Secretary of State has provided funding to support the development of the renewable energy sector, in areas of the UK economically dependent on the oil and gas sector, equivalent to tax revenues collected from UK oil and gas production.”

This amendment sets out a new test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward new production licences.

Amendment 14, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“4ZD The just transition plans test mentioned in s 4ZA

(1) The just transition plans test is met in relation to a relevant year if the OGA assesses that all existing seaward area production licence holders have published just transition plans for their workforce that are compatible with limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

(2) For the purposes of this section—

“just transition plans” refer to plans agreed through formalised collective agreements with unions in the workplace for consultation on policy;

“workforce” includes workers, directly and indirectly (sub-contracted or agency) employed, or engaged through day-rate or self-employed contract models.”

Amendment 18, page 3, line 23, insert—

“4ZD The climate change test mentioned in 4ZA

The climate change test is met in relation to a relevant year if the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the mitigation of climate change find that the granting of additional seaward area production licences is consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”

This amendment sets out a new test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward new production licences.

Amendment 24, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“4ZD The home energy efficiency test mentioned in s 4ZA

The home energy efficiency test is met if the median rating in current Energy Performance Certificates in the United Kingdom falls within or above Band B.”

This amendment sets out the home energy efficiency test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward area production licences.

Amendment 25, page 3, line 23, at end insert—

“4ZD The Energy Charter test mentioned in s 4ZA

The Energy Charter Treaty test is met if the United Kingdom has made arrangements to withdraw from the Energy Charter Treaty.”

This amendment sets out the Energy Charter test to be applied by the OGA before inviting applications for seaward area production licences.

Clause stand part.

Clause 2 stand part.

New clause 2—Duty to introduce spatial prioritisation policy

“After section 4 of the Petroleum Act 1998 insert—

4ZAA Duty to introduce spatial prioritisation policy

(1) Before the OGA invites applications for seaward area production licences under this Act the Secretary of State must publish a marine spatial prioritisation policy.

(2) The marine spatial prioritisation policy must establish a process for prioritising offshore renewables, marine protection, fishing activities, oil and gas licensing, and the achievement of relevant targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Environment Act 2021 in any relevant decisions relating to the marine environment made by a body undertaking public functions.

(3) The OGA must comply with the marine spatial prioritisation policy set out in subsection (1) when deciding applications relating to new seaward area production licences.’”

This new clause requires the Secretary of State to publish a marine spatial prioritisation policy, taking into account relevant targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Environment Act 2021.

Alok Sharma Portrait Sir Alok Sharma
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I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

On Second Reading, I said that this Bill was something of a distraction and not necessary on the basis that the North Sea Transition Authority can already grant licences annually or, indeed, whenever it considers it necessary. That will not change with the Bill. I also noted at the time that the two statutory tests in the Bill have been designed in such a way that the computer always says yes to new oil and gas licences, but I also said that I would work with other like-minded colleagues to improve the Bill and bring in further tests that need to be met before any new oil and gas production licences are granted. That is what I and other Members have sought to do.

Amendment 12 seeks to do two things. First, it would stop the invitation of new production application licences until the Secretary of State has introduced a ban on the flaring and venting of methane by new offshore installations. Secondly, it would require the Secretary of State to prevent licensing rounds from 2030 if a wider ban on flaring and venting is not in place. Along with other Members who have signed up to the amendment, I argue that this is an entirely reasonable ask that the Government and all Members should be able to get behind, given that all it modestly seeks to do is put into statute existing guidance on flaring and venting that was issued by the North Sea Transition Authority.

Let me set out the precise wording of the principles that the NSTA expects industry to follow in relation to flaring and venting across all UK continental shelf areas. First,

“flaring and venting and associated emissions should be at the lowest possible levels in the circumstances”.

Secondly, there should be

“zero routine flaring and venting for all by 2030”.

Thirdly,

“all new developments should be planned and developed on the basis of zero routine flaring and venting.”

That is a set of NSTA principles with which amendment 12 in entirely consistent.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Can my right hon. Friend explain why it would be better to import liquefied natural gas, with four times the amount of CO2 produced, rather than have our own gas? His regulations would not apply to the foreign-produced gas we import.

Alok Sharma Portrait Sir Alok Sharma
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My right hon. Friend makes an important point: LNG has a higher carbon-intensity footprint. But the majority of the gas that we import comes by pipeline from Norway, and the production intensity of Norwegian gas is around half that of the UK’s.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Alok Sharma Portrait Sir Alok Sharma
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If I may, I will continue. In their response last year to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on accelerating the transition from fossil fuels and securing energy supplies, the Government doubled down on the NSTA position. Responding to the EAC recommendation, which called for the banning of flaring from UK installations, the Government noted that they had already signed up to

“make every effort to ensure that routine flaring from existing oil fields ends as soon as possible, and no later than 2030.”

The Government response went on to highlight the NSTA guidance that new developments are approved on the basis of zero routine flaring and venting.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) raised the issue of imported gas. I will just point out to him that, unfortunately, flaring is still a common practice in the UK. By contrast, Norway banned routine flaring in 1971, and the carbon intensity of Norwegian gas production is around half that of UK domestic production.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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The marginal gas we would import would come from Qatar or the United States of America. There is not an infinite supply of Norwegian gas, so my right hon. Friend is missing the main point.

Alok Sharma Portrait Sir Alok Sharma
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With respect, I do not think I am missing the main point. The point that the Government are pursuing is to ensure that we have less use of fossil fuels overall and that we expand our renewable capacity, including nuclear, which I know my right hon. Friend supports. That is where we should be going with this strategy. The ban on flaring in Norway is one of the key reasons that Norway has become a leader in the cleaner production of oil and gas, which this Government have clearly indicated that they also want for UK production.

I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s response to amendment 12. I hope he will say that, given that it is consistent with Government policy and guidance, the Government will introduce a similar amendment in the other place. If they choose not to do that, I am pretty sure that a similar amendment will be tabled in the other place anyway, and that it is likely to be supported. I would just humbly observe that if the Government whip against this or any similar amendment, either in this House or in the other place, they will put colleagues in the absurd position of effectively having to vote against existing Government policy. I am really looking forward to listening to what the Minister has to say.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Rosie Winterton Portrait The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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Order. We are in Committee, so I remind Members that the Chair should be addressed by name or as “Chair” or “Madam Chair”, as Sir Alok Sharma did, and not as “Mr Deputy Speaker” or “Madam Deputy Speaker”.

Before I call the shadow Minister, I want to make it clear that I will be calling those who have amendments down first and I will then move on to others, going from side to side.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
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I would like to speak to our amendments 17, 18, 19 and 20, to comment on other amendments before us today and then to place all this into the context of the Bill as a whole by way of what will effectively be a stand-part contribution. This Bill remains an ill-advised, pointless piece of political posturing—

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)
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Don’t pull any punches!

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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That was the mild version.

As the right hon. Member for Reading West (Sir Alok Sharma) has informed us, the Bill legislates for something that happens anyway. It will make no difference to bills, according to the Secretary of State. It will make no difference to our energy security, according to the former chair of BP. It will undermine the independence of the North Sea Transition Authority, according to the NSTA’s own board, and it and will reinforce the perception around the world that the UK is rowing back from climate action, according to the former COP President, the right hon. Member for Reading West. We regret that this insubstantial and damaging Bill has proceeded this far, and we will vote against it on Third Reading.

We do not need this one-clause Bill. We need instead a strategy for managing the North sea that supports our energy security, meets our climate commitments and secures the economic and jobs benefits of the transition to a low-carbon economy. We would have liked to debate a new clause setting out a new principal objective for the North Sea Transition Authority that would have put such a strategy into effect. However, because the Bill is so short and tightly drawn around the narrow issue of mandatory licensing rounds, amendments to put a more sensible strategy into place are regrettably not in order. We must therefore take the Bill on its own terms, even if that means treating it with significantly more respect than the drafters have treated this House with in presenting such a trivial and nakedly political proposal.

We have in the Bill at present two tests that should be passed if the Oil and Gas Authority is to proceed with mandatory licence issuance, and we know that the two tests cannot be failed. It is a fact that if properly drafted—we might come to that in a moment—liquefied natural gas will always be more greenhouse gas-intensive in production than UK natural gas and we will always be in a position where gas and oil produced in the UK and in a declining North sea field will not meet our total demand for gas and oil.

I learned in my first year at university—as I think the Minister did, because he did a similar degree to me—that a proposition that cannot be falsified cannot stand as a valid proposition. Here we have two completely non-valid propositions in the Bill. They are bogus and cynically contrived to give the appearance that something has to be achieved before mandatory licencing takes place. At the very least we need a test or tests that can be failed and that produce a proper level of judgment into the advisability of proceeding with such mandatory licences. The best test surely has to be whether such action is compatible with our climate change goals. The Government had previously introduced climate change compatibility tests into production generally. It is strange that these appear nowhere in the Bill.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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The shadow Minister has said that getting more of our own gas out of the North sea would help our security of supply and reduce CO2 because it would displace imported LNG, so why does he not support that proposition?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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The proposition before us today is for mandatory licence rounds in a declining North sea field, which would make no difference in the long term to the total amount of gas that we get out of the North sea, as everybody knows. It would instead put us firmly on the back foot as far as international climate change discussions are concerned. That is the key issue that we need to address this afternoon.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Following on from the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), is it therefore Labour’s position not to allow any new oil and gas licences in the future, if Labour were to come into power?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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It is Labour’s position that we do not wish to see new energy exploration licences issued for the future, but that does not mean that the North sea will not continue in production over a long period of time and provide a substantial amount of oil and gas for our domestic market.

Our first amendments, 17 and 18, would introduce a new test that would safeguard the legally binding commitments that the UK and all other nations made in the Paris agreement and have reaffirmed ever since. Every credible independent analysis—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, the Climate Change Committee—shows that new exploration licences are not compatible with limiting warming and avoiding the worst of the devastating impact that climate change will have, and is having, around the world and here in the UK.

The test that we have put in amendments 17 and 18 is possible if we have achieved or are achieving our climate change goals internationally. Amendment 18 states:

“The climate change test is met in relation to a relevant year if the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the mitigation of climate change find that the granting of additional seaward area production licences is consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”

No one who is serious about this can take that to mean that existing fields will not continue to produce for years to come—of course they will—but anyone who argues that business as usual and a few new licenses are the route to good, long-term jobs and energy security is frankly peddling a myth.

We must accelerate the transition to new opportunities for North sea workers in the low-carbon economy, including through carbon capture, usage and storage, through hydrogen and through floating offshore wind. We do not believe that tests are the best route to achieving that goal. We need a holistic strategy, but within the framework set out in this Bill, the climate change test we propose is the only way to achieve a policy that is consistent with being a responsible and leading actor on the world stage in the fight against climate change, with managing our existing North sea assets carefully and for the long-term, and with maximising the low-carbon economic potential of the North sea.

The other two amendments I will speak to highlight the extent to which the Bill fails even on the narrow terms it has set out. Amendments 19 and 20 would address the glaring deficiencies in the bogus carbon intensity test set out by the Government. Currently, the test compares UK gas production carbon emissions only against an aggregate of liquefied natural gas production emissions, ignoring pipeline-delivered gas, which makes up most of our imports, as the right hon. Member for Reading West reminded us. This amendment would correct that. As it stands, the test is designed to be impossible to fail, so it is barely worthy of the name. Including only LNG is a serious logical flaw. Before the Minister jumps to his feet, it is not true to say that every marginal unit of imported gas must be LNG. Indeed, we support substantial amounts of natural gas coming into the UK via the pipeline from Norway. The production of that gas is substantially cleaner than that of UK natural gas.

Apart from anything else, the Bill takes no account of the UK’s likely future gas demand profile. Demand for gas will decline as we rapidly decarbonise our power sector and electrify more and more of our economy. Indeed, this decline in demand, not just supply, is at the heart of a successful net zero transition.

Approving new exploration licences for fields that will take years to come online, on the assumption that the alternative must otherwise be LNG, without taking any account of future demand, is absurd. A fairer test would consider gas imports in the round.

13:30
David Duguid Portrait David Duguid
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I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comment that, overall, 30% of our gas comes from Norway. Yes, that is the majority of our imports, but it is still 30% overall. Nobody in this House has authority over Norway’s future oil and gas prospects, but would he be in favour of the Norwegian Government exploring for new oil and gas to supply to us?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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No, in line with the IEA and the IPCC, I am not in favour of new exploration licences. The point is that, in a declining market, Norwegian supply will continue to be very substantial, even if no new exploration licences are granted in Norway.

The figure cited by the hon. Gentleman is almost right —the actual figure is 34%. The United Kingdom supplies 38% of its own gas, with the United States supplying 14%, Qatar supplying 9% and other countries supplying smaller amounts. Norway already occupies a very substantial position in our present gas supplies, and I am sure it will continue to do so.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it might be useful to remind Conservative Members that, according to the UN production gap report, Governments are already planning for their existing developments to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than is consistent with keeping global heating to 1.5°C or below? The idea that anyone can have vast new developments is not compatible with keeping below our climate target.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. New licences are an international issue. If we had new exploration licences around the world, we would simply produce far more oil and gas than is compatible with the 1.5° climate target. We should just keep it in the ground.

Finally, amendment 21 would go some way towards correcting another element of the carbon intensity test. As currently drafted—the Minister will want to listen to this bit—the test will not take account of methane emissions, which is a serious flaw. The whole case for comparing UK-based natural gas with LNG is based only on production emissions. The emission of methane at various stages of the production and transportation of LNG is, in aggregate, worse than the emissions of UK-produced and piped natural gas, but they are not carbon dioxide emissions, which is what the Bill says should be measured.

LNG’s potential carbon dioxide emissions upon burning are roughly the same as, or perhaps slightly greater than, the carbon dioxide emissions from UK natural gas. As the right hon. Member for Reading West said, that is elevated by the current UK practice of flaring surplus gas, which can be measured in carbon dioxide emissions.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over 20-year and 100-year timeframes. Its lifetime in the atmosphere is shorter than the lifetime of CO2, but its impact is far more significant. The Climate Change Act 2008 is quite specific on how this should be measured. Section 93, which the Bill mentions but does not act on, states that

“greenhouse gas emissions…and removals of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere shall be measured or calculated in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.”

Proposed new section 4ZB(1) of the Petroleum Act 1998 mentions the carbon intensity of natural gas, but proposed new subsection (3) defines “carbon intensity” as

“the carbon dioxide emissions attributable to its production”.

But carbon dioxide emissions in production are not the principal concern here, as the gas has not been burned at that point. Indeed, I can conceive of smart climate lawyers challenging the test’s validity on precisely that point. The Minister might therefore see amendment 21 as providing a vital lifeline to the integrity of his Bill. To that extent, the amendment might be seen as helpful, but I somehow doubt that he will take it up. To coin a phrase, “It’s the methane, stupid.” The Bill should say so.

Proposed new section 4ZB(4) already gives the Secretary of State the power to amend the carbon intensity test to include emissions other than carbon dioxide. Perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister will shortly take that up to save the test. We can anticipate a fairly amusing statutory instrument debate when he tries to do that.

Amendment 21 would simply require the Government to produce a report analysing what the impact of that change will be. In the spirit of trying to improve a Bill that, by design, is fairly resistant to improvement, we welcome the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Reading West and the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby).

The Climate Change Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee have called for a ban on routine flaring and venting, and such a ban is long overdue. A marine spatial prioritisation policy would help to organise and plan an optimal long-term, low-carbon economic strategy for the North sea.

There is clearly significant strength of feeling across the Committee that this is an inadequate Bill, and some of the proposed tests could undoubtedly make a bad Bill a little better, although some of those tests have internal problems. We would not want to vote against those tests, but the only comprehensive climate change and net zero compatible test is the one that we and, in principle, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) have set out. It is the best available route, within a severely constrained process, to align this deeply flawed Bill with our essential energy security and climate change priorities.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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I rise to speak to new clause 2 on spatial prioritisation. The competing pressures on sea space mean there is essentially a spatial squeeze. I fully understand the Bill’s importance, as we all know that the oil and gas industry will have a key role as the UK transitions towards cleaner energy. The Bill will provide reassurance to the industry.

I am grateful that the Government have stated that each annual licensing round will take place only if key emissions tests are met, to support the transition to net zero. I thank the Minister and his team for their ongoing engagement on this issue but, as we seek to turn to renewables and clean energy, we need to ensure that we have the space and infrastructure to carry this forward, otherwise the energy transition will never come to fruition.

I brought up this issue directly with the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, as my concerns extend beyond just oil and gas. I am also concerned about how floating offshore wind and fishing can cohabit the same ocean space, and I am also concerned about marine protected areas. There is clearly a balance to strike.

It was good to hear the Fisheries Minister’s response about cross-departmental work to ensure that our fishermen have a future in the light of our need to expand our renewable energy sources, but there is an opportunity in this Bill to ensure that we do not repeat these conversations as other energy sources compete for space in the precious waters around our coast. This will help not only the UK’s energy security but our push towards renewable energy, which will support our fishing fleets and retain a simultaneous focus on biodiversity and improving the condition of marine protected areas.

As a coastal MP, all these points are especially important to me. Being an eternal optimist, I think we can do all these things simultaneously if we can plan strategically where we have the opportunity.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid
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My hon. Friend is making some very good points, particularly on the spatial squeeze. She says that this is not a choice between one thing and another. Opposition Members tend to see this debate as black and white, and that we have to go in either one direction or the other. Does she agree that, whether from the perspective of fishing, offshore wind or offshore oil and gas, it is very important that we come together so that everyone has a say?

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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As always, I agree with the points my hon. Friend makes. Prioritising space is critical, as the Government have committed to delivering 50GW of offshore wind, which this represents approximately £93.3 billion-worth of investment and requires nearly 8,500 sq km of new marine space. I need to declare an interest, as the chair of the all-party group on the Celtic sea. As such, my particular concern is about the deployment of floating offshore wind, as it will open up areas such as the Celtic sea so that we can generate energy no matter which way the wind blows. As it can be deployed in waters deeper than 60 metres, that technology opens up 80% of our offshore wind resources.

The Celtic sea is an environment where strategic planning at this early point in the development of FLOW—not just for spatial prioritisation on the seabed but for clear planning of cable routes to optimise how power transitions to the grid—minimises blue carbon disruption from our ocean floors and onshore environmental damage from multiple plug-in points. Indeed, given the long-term commitment to energy generation in the Celtic sea, as well as the North sea, the chance to plan strategically and include all future leases within a national framework comes now. More renewable energy and greater energy efficiency contribute more to energy security than new oil and gas. This integrated spatial planning will require new licences to ensure that enough sea space is allocated for nature recovery and climate change mitigation. Otherwise, there is a risk that industrial activities could crowd out those important environmental purposes, which, with the right strategic planning early enough in the evolution of these vital new technologies, can coexist alongside those that are now waning.

Currently, the Bill has no provisions to require spatial prioritisation testing of the geographical blocks that become available for oil and gas search and production. That means that the North Sea Transition Authority will be able to grant new licences in areas of the sea where the cumulative impact of activities is incompatible with the achievement of Government targets in the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Environment Act 2021.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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Does my hon. Friend accept that in several cases potentially useful oil and gas deposits in the North sea are adjacent to existing pipes and existing development production platforms, so one great advantage would be that the infrastructure is already in place and it has spare capacity because of the decline of traditional fields? That would be far less intrusive, would it not?

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. However, for me, this is about opening up that conversation and making sure that these things are considered in the round. If we are going to put an extra pipe in, we should consider what we are offsetting somewhere else.

Polling found that 80% of the UK public believe our ocean protection laws must be strengthened, and I know how important our waters are to the residents of North Devon and the wider UK. We must ensure that we do all we can on this, while understanding the vital role that oil and gas plays and will play in our energy security. Spatial prioritisation is important to ensure that continuing to drive forward our new green energies is not done at the expense of our traditional industries, such as fishing, and gives due consideration to the marine environment, which we on land owe so much to and are still finding out more about. Balance and optimisation are the objective of this amendment, and I hope the Minister will consider this opportunity, so that we really can have it all and decarbonise our energy, improve our biodiversity, support our fishermen and improve our energy security.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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I rise to speak to amendments 7, 8 and 10, which have been tabled by the SNP. I note that no substantive changes have been made to the Bill’s provisions since we discussed it some weeks ago in this place; it is no more responsive to the needs of the climate, the energy sector in Scotland or bill payers who are haemorrhaging money on their energy bills. We know, from the appropriation of Scotland’s energy wealth by Thatcher in the 1980s, Cameron’s “Cut the green crap” at the beginning of this Conservative regime, and the weak-minded and politically naive rolling back of the green transition measures by the current Prime Minister, that time and time again, the Tories will never look after ordinary workers, Scotland or the environment.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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My hon. Friend is making an excellent start to his speech. Does he agree that it is outrageous that the Prime Minister has masqueraded this legislation as a way of reducing energy bills for consumers, given that even the Secretary of State could not defend those claims? Does he also agree that this Government’s only intention is to unlock as much tax revenue from the North sea oil and gas sector as possible and that no consideration has been given to reducing domestic energy bills, to energy security or to reaching our climate commitments?

13:44
Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. She touches on some of the key elements that I will address in this speech.

In order to salvage some semblance of responsibility and/or equity from this Bill, I urge Members to support the SNP’s amendments. They seek to amend the provisions to facilitate licence issuance on a case-by-case basis, rather than it being done annually and by prescription. That is a reasonable improvement to the Bill by any measure. We would also like to incorporate a real test for new issuance that would require the North Sea Transition Authority to assess whether new licences will: lower energy bills for bill payers; deliver energy security and reduce reliance on imported fuel sources for domestic consumption; enhance sustained job security for the oil and gas workforce in areas of the UK that are economically reliant on the oil and gas sector; guarantee funding for domestic refineries to increase capacity to process sustainable fuel sources; and stimulate the North sea oil and gas sector to meet commitments set out in the North sea transition deal.

The SNP also wishes to ensure that, henceforth, 100% of tax revenues from oil and gas are invested in the just transition. A “just transition” test would have to be met for any given relevant year, under which the NSTA would issue new licences only if it assesses that: they will support the delivery of the North sea transition deal’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets of 10% by 2025, 25% by 2027 and 50% by 2030 against a 2018 baseline, in order to meet the sector’s aim of a net zero basin by 2050; and the Secretary of State has provided funding to support the development of the renewable energy sector in areas of the UK that are economically dependent on the oil and gas sector, equivalent to tax revenues collected from UK oil and gas production. That amendment means that new licences cannot be issued unless it can be shown that the licence will meet the North sea transition deal’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, and unless the UK Government are funding the renewables sector in oil and gas dependent areas to at least the value of oil and gas revenues.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con)
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The hon. Gentleman is speaking about conditions for granting new licences, but the SNP’s draft energy strategy includes a presumption against any new licences—is that his position? Is the SNP’s position that there should be no new licences for oil and gas exploration?

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. It is lovely to see him in his place; we know that he is a busy man with his other two jobs. I am sure that Hansard will correct me if my memory does not serve me correctly, but I believe that we rehearsed this issue on Second Reading. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman, who I am certain is an ardent Unionist, that the position of the devolved Government, and whoever they are, is irrelevant in debating what we do with oil and gas licences in the UK because, sadly, Scotland’s oil and gas endowment, as he well knows—he makes excuses for this regularly—is controlled remotely by a dysfunctional UK Government, whoever they are. So the point is moot.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross
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Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene, just to provide clarity?

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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No, I will not.

The last SNP amendment will prevent this Government and the soon-to-be-installed Labour Government from simply using Scotland’s North sea oil and gas revenues to fund tax cuts in the UK, a state that is demonstrably not paying its way in the world. Both Labour and Tory —two cheeks of the same face, where Scotland is concerned —will sacrifice Scotland’s economic, industrial and material welfare, and those working in the energy sector, if it will win them a few more seats in this place. They have done it before and they will do it again while we remain in this broken and discredited Union. The prosperity that comes from oil and gas in Scotland is finite.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid
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I was not sure if the hon. Gentleman had moved on from his glowing appraisal of the North sea transition deal, but can I take it from his reference to that deal that the SNP’s position is to support and welcome it in its entirety?

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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I am not going to meet the hon. Gentleman’s ambition to nail those colours to the mast, but I will tell him that through the Bill, the UK Government are turning a blind eye to the implications of a free-for-all when it comes to emissions and who benefits from revenue receipts. I am sorry if he finds that difficult, but he will to have to deal with it.

The prosperity that comes from oil and gas in Scotland is finite, as we know all too well. We have seen what deindustrialisation with no transition plan looks like—we witnessed it at first hand in the 1980s, when coal, steel and heavy industries were all torn asunder on the altar of monetarism and share prices in the City of London. That is set to happen again for oil and gas, under Thatcher’s willing disciples, the Leader of the Labour party and the Prime Minister. We cannot allow that to happen again. It is therefore essential that north-east Scotland and other areas reliant on oil and gas are afforded the investment required. That is what our amendment speaks to; it is about creating new jobs and transitioning in a managed, strategic fashion to accelerate our post-carbon future.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross
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On that point, will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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No.

That is a just ambition for a just transition. The billions of pounds still to be yielded from oil and gas revenue must not be wasted on doomed capital infrastructure projects, such as HS2, or used to fund exorbitant false economies, such as nuclear power stations in England. It is a moral and economic imperative that revenue be used to accelerate a genuine just transition, to protect jobs.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross
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In response to my previous intervention, the hon. Gentleman said that the Scottish National party position on this issue was “irrelevant”, but of course it is not; it is vitally important. The SNP’s draft energy strategy says there is a presumption against new exploration for oil and gas. Does he support that?

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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That question speaks to a mis-representation. There is no point in giving way to the hon. Gentleman if he is going to misrepresent me in that way. What I actually said was that it does not matter who is in government in a devolved Assembly where energy policy is decided by remote control from a dysfunctional Westminster Government. That is the beginning and the end of it. If the hon. Gentleman does not like it, then he is welcome to join the SNP—well, perhaps not.

We know the facts on the ground: the oil and gas sector is in decline because of finite reserves, and because it is to be considered an industry with a limited future, whereas the green transition has an unlimited future. Jobs have already decreased in the sector. Government Members are giving the impression that with unlimited licensing there will be unlimited jobs, but that is not the case. Jobs have decreased by 228,000 since 2013, despite 400 new drilling licences in five separate auction rounds. Production of gas in the North sea has already fallen by two thirds since 2000 and will fall a further 95% with new licences, as opposed to 97% without.

The issuance of new licences in and of itself will not shift the dial, especially if the revenues from Scottish oil and gas continue to disappear into the black hole that is the Treasury. What is needed is a wholesale redistribution of fiscal receipts from Scottish oil and gas to the renewable transition, ringfenced and guaranteed by statute. In Scotland, we are apt to wonder what we got for the £300 billion in tax receipts from Scotland’s oil—a question now being mirrored for our renewable endowment.

I note that Members on the Government Benches have desisted from repeating the nonsense that energy bills will be lowered if we grant unlimited licences—and not before time. What will lower bills is ensuring that the renewable energy we generate can find its way to consumers without needing to be turned off because the grid cannot cope after 14 years of non-investment by the Tories. New grid infrastructure will lower bills by dialling gas out of the system. Government Members talk about the relentless need for more and more gas, as if that does not speak to a flaky ambition on a just transition; it exposes it and lays it bare. We will dial gas out of the system by having a network that can connect Scotland’s renewable energy to the market where that is required, and we will do so with proper investment in sub-sea lines, rather than by scarring Scotland with 80-metre pylons. It is a pity that the UK Government would not invest the billions that they are ploughing into nuclear into environmentally optimal grid improvements, instead of defaulting to pylons and overhead lines.

The Bill is part of an ill-fated Tory miscalculation on making a just transition a wedge issue. We know that, because the Bill is a non-existent solution to a non-existent problem. Some 27 new licences were granted in 2023, and a licensing round has been held by the North Sea Transition Authority every year and a half since 2016. If the Bill is the answer, then I am not certain what the question is. It undermines the independence of the NSTA by forcing it to hold new oil licensing rounds every year, whereas currently the NSTA undertakes licensing rounds when it deems that they are required. It is a challenge so unwelcome that the NSTA board unanimously agreed that this legislation and the annual licensing rounds were unnecessary. This is what happens when the energy sector, so vital to a broad-based, developed economy like Scotland’s, is subject to remote control.

Renewables already account for the equivalent of 113% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption, yet we still pay sky-high energy bills because of the amount of gas required for generation in England, due in no small part to the Tories small-minded hysteria surrounding onshore wind, and their 10-year-old ban on development of onshore. Investing further in the green hydrogen sector in Scotland could support up to 300,000 jobs—it is a pity that Members on the Government Benches will not focus on that opportunity—and it would add up to £25 billion to Scotland’s gross value added by 2045. Further development of our renewable sector represents an extraordinary export opportunity for Scotland—one that we must grab much more, instead of looking back; we should look to the enterprises of the future.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (Ind)
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The hon. Gentleman rightly mentions the sky-high energy prices that people in Scotland face, even though Scotland generates so much energy. What role does he think zonal and modal energy market modelling, rather than a one-size-fits-all, UK-wide approach, would play in substantially reducing energy costs in the likes of Sutherland in Scotland, and also in England, in places like Surrey? Everybody would be a winner if we moved away from the UK-wide model and towards the zonal and modal method.