My Questions in the debate on the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that operators still need to get the agreement of the landowner or someone else who is empowered to grant that right, so that there is no muddle or confusion?

Julia Lopez, Minister of State for Cabinet Office: Yes. They will be allowed to take out a new agreements, but they still have to be under the existing regime.

To be clear, this will not let an operator unilaterally change, or ask the court to impose a change to, the terms or duration of their current agreement. It allows an additional code right to be conferred on the operator via a new, separate code agreement.

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): I certainly support the Minister in the belief that the more competitive the industry, the better the results that we will get. Has she had representations from people who would like to enter the market about whether the change would make them more likely to do so?

Julia Lopez, Minister of State for Cabinet Office: Most of the people I have spoken to are already in the market and believe that the change will make a big difference to how they roll out. It is a very competitive market with many new entrants. I am not aware of anybody who is just dipping their toe in the water; because it is so competitive, people are already aggressively in the market. We think that the change will really help to accelerate the roll-out to our constituents of fantastic digital infrastructure of the kind that we all understand is fundamental to driving productivity gains, and to reducing the divide between areas that do and do not have that connectivity.

From the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West on Second Reading, I understand that his concern relates to the effect of clauses 61 and 62 on landowners who already host telecoms apparatus on their land. I recognise that, ultimately, these changes are likely to lead to reductions in the rent received by landowners with a tenancy protected by the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 or the Business Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. I appreciate that that might not have been expected by those entering into such tenancies at the time they were created, but it is also fair to say that market values change over time, and there is never any guarantee that rents received by a landlord will remain constant or increase.

We have also given careful consideration to the effect of clauses 61 and 62, and have balanced the impact that they might have on landowners with the wider, substantial public benefits that we are pursuing. It is also important to recognise that the changes will not happen until any ongoing agreement expires and comes to be renewed. Furthermore, clauses 63 and 64 introduce separate provisions allowing the landowner to recover compensation for any damage to their land, reduction in its value or reasonable expenses resulting from an operator exercising their code rights.

Clauses 61 to 64 ensure that the 2017 framework will apply to all future agreements. It must be remembered that the code has an underlying purpose, which is to support the delivery of robust digital networks. Our constituents increasingly rely on those networks for critical digital services. Only recently, the National Farmers Union’s digital technology survey found that poor mobile signal and unreliable internet access are hampering farming businesses. We know that rural connectivity is a problem for many organisations, and addressing it is one of our priorities as a Government. The Bill, including clauses 61 and 62, aims to address those issues.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend had only noble intentions when tabling his amendments, but although they may benefit some landowners, they have the potential to penalise entire communities by keeping network costs unacceptably high. Clauses 61 and 62 will help to reduce the digital divide between different parts of the country, as they will help to prevent deployment being cheaper in one area than another.

Finally, I turn to amendments 9 to 11 tabled by my right hon. Friend, which would require a party to use alternative dispute resolution processes before making certain applications to a court under the electronic communications code, including where an agreement granting rights under the code is being sought. The provisions on ADR processes in the Bill aim to create more collaborative discussions between landowners and telecoms operators to ensure that litigation is used only as a last resort. I suspect that that is what the amendments seek to ensure as well. Although I sympathise with the intention behind these amendments, the Government oppose them—first, because they are unnecessary; secondly, because ADR is not appropriate in every situation; and thirdly, because they would be counterproductive to the amendments’ overall intentions.

The Bill requires operators, when requesting rights under the code, to inform the landowners of the availability of ADR. Crucially, it also creates a requirement that if an application is made to a court, the court will be required to take into account any unreasonable refusal to engage in ADR when awarding costs. Those requirements strongly incentivise the use of ADR without the need to make it mandatory. The Government therefore believe the amendments to be unnecessary.

It is also important to note that ADR may not be suitable in certain cases, such as where a disagreement is based on differing interpretations of the law. Such points of law must be resolved in the courts, and mandatory ADR would add cost and time to that process without offering any benefit.

The Government also believe that the amendments would be counterproductive to their own goals. If ADR were compulsory, some parties would be compelled to participate in an ADR process they do not want to be involved in, and so would be less inclined to actively engage in the process. That would increase the risk that ADR would fail, which would mean that parties would have to go to court anyway. If that were the case, all that compulsory ADR would have achieved is to add an additional layer of time and costs for landowners, such as charities, sports clubs and farmers. It should also be noted that, when consulted, a clear majority of stakeholders were not in favour of compulsory ADR. I hope that I have given my right hon. Friend assurance that the provisions regarding ADR in the Bill already represent the most effective way of encouraging its use, and I hope that he will not press his amendments to a Division.

 

My Contribution in the Queen’s Speech Debate

Yesterday, I spoke in the debate on the Queen’s Speech and you can find my speech below:

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con):

I welcome much of what is in the Gracious Speech. I welcome the emphasis on growth, because we need growth to deliver on many of the other ambitions for levelling up and for better public services. I think the Government are right about the need to revisit rules and laws to promote better transport, to deal with difficulties in housing and planning, and to pursue a course of greater self-sufficiency in energy. However, I want to concentrate mainly on the economic conditions that they will need over the next two years in order to make a success of this legislative programme.

Legislation takes us only a little way. What we are trying to do through legislation is create conditions in which business can flourish, people can train and acquire better skills so they can secure better-paid jobs, and investments can be made. We will not level up all the mighty cities and towns of this country that are below average with public spending; we need to level them up with ambition and private investment. We need to see people going on their own personal journeys to develop their own businesses, to reach a point at which they can afford their own houses, and to secure enough training and qualifications to be able to obtain decent, high-quality jobs. That is how the successful parts of the country have managed to give many more people higher incomes and better living standards. Those are the parts of the country that worked to attract the people with the energy and the talent, or have given the people who are already there more support. We need to think about how we can provide such support and encouragement more widely around the country.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): My right hon. Friend is echoing the words of the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, who has said that it cannot be Governments who create wealth; we merely have to provide the opportunity for businesses and individuals to create that wealth.

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): I am glad that all three of us agree on this matter, and we can proceed on that basis.

So what do the Government need to do? My first recommendation to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is that he needs to have a new framework for the conduct of our economic policy. We are still running on Maastricht-lite. We still think that the way in which to control the economy is to control the debt and the deficit. I have news for the Chancellor: if we get growth and inflation right, the debt and the deficit will come closer to taking care of themselves. If we get the growth right, we will have much less of a problem with the debt and the deficit.

In the last year, when the United Kingdom led the growth tables for the advanced world, an unremarkable thing happened. It seemed very remarkable to the Treasury, but it seemed unremarkable to me. The deficit came tumbling down. According to one set of figures—and they still keep changing—it came in at £90 billion below the Office for Budget Responsibility and Treasury forecast, because with more growth comes more activity, more incomes and more spending, so the Treasury can collect more VAT and income tax. It was mainly extra revenues that came in, because we had that faster growth.

In my view, the debt and the deficit matter but should be subsidiary. The two main aims of economic policy should be a 2% inflation target, embedded as a Government target as well as a control mechanism on the Bank of England, and a complementary 2% growth target—not that exacting in the context of 20th-century experience in the United Kingdom, but fairly challenging in the context of the current century’s experience because of the disfiguring effect of the big banking crash and great recession in the middle of its first two decades.

Let me deal first with inflation. Once it gets out of control, it is extremely damaging to everything. It ends up causing shortages on the shelves, lack of supply, businesses crashing, and people being thrown out of jobs. We do not want to get into the accelerating double-figure inflation that some countries have suffered all too much. Anyone who wants to see what happens with the playbook should look at what is happening in Turkey at the moment, and at what has happened, on a grotesque scale, in Venezuela, where the generous state kept printing and kept borrowing and ended up destroying more than half its national income and much of the potential of the oil industry which used to pay for everything, because it was nationalised and incompetently run.

Those extreme versions need to be ruled out, and of course the amount of money created needs to be controlled; you need to keep an eye on when you can afford to borrow in the public sector and how much. However, that is a second-order issue in comparison with promoting growth and inflation targets as the main aims. The inflation target cannot simply be delivered by a central bank. Unfortunately, the Bank of England made a policy error, to which I drew attention beforehand last year. I think that it went on printing money for longer than it should have, and that its policy was too loose for too long. I was fully behind its huge injection of money and ultra-low interest rates in the previous year because of the huge shock administered to the economy, but it now looks as though it made a mistake, which it has subsequently corrected. It should not overdo it, though. It is no longer printing any money in excess, it has put up interest rates on three separate occasions, and money growth is now much more constrained in our country; but the Government must also put their shoulder to the wheel to curb various types of inflation.

At present one of the inflationary factors hitting, in particular, the budgets of those in the lower income areas is the huge price inflation in energy and food. That is caused by supply shortages. We were already pretty short of energy in western Europe because of the policies being pursued and because of the lack of natural resources on the continent, where there is not any, or much, oil and gas outside the Netherlands. We were already very short of basic energy. Then, of course, the dreadful invasion of Ukraine came along and caused so much damage—most directly to the people there who have such dreadful shocks from it, but there has been a wider economic shock for the rest of us. As a result of policy, Russian oil and gas are being gradually withdrawn from our supply systems, so we have exacerbated the shortage, for understandable and good political reasons, to try to help Ukraine in its battle against the Russian invasion.

As for food, we see a shortage arising as markets are heralding the sad likelihood that there will not be a lot of crop coming out of Ukraine this year and that a big source of edible oils and of grains will not be producing and exporting in the way that the world market needs, so we see great price pressures there.

So there is a need to engage Government, and I am pleased to see that the Government are working towards energy self-sufficiency and more food production. Those are crucial as a response to what has just happened and as security for the future. If we want to keep inflation down in the future, the one thing we can rely on is producing more of our own energy and growing more of our own food, which will give us more control over the pricing, particularly with something like gas, which of course is traded on the world market only to the extent that there is either pipeline capacity or liquefied natural gas capacity, so a lot of the gas cannot be traded internationally. American gas cannot be sent to Europe in huge quantities because there is no pipeline, and there is a limited amount of LNG capacity. America has much lower gas prices—and nothing like the cost of living problem that we have with energy—as a result of producing a lot of its own gas and therefore having a domestic market that clears at a lower price than the current very spiked world gas prices. I trust that the Government will pursue greater national self-sufficiency in key areas, including not only basic energy and food—we can grow a lot more of our temperate food—but crucial technologies, which the Government are becoming increasingly sensitive about.

I trust that when the Government turn their mind to the detail of their energy legislation, they will use it to facilitate the production of more domestic oil and gas. I think there is more general agreement today, after the debates of recent months, on the proposition that we ought to re-enter the North sea and that, instead of overseeing a pretty rapid rundown in its output, we should go through a transitional period, maybe this decade, and get more oil and gas out of the North sea. That surely makes more sense. It makes green sense because the CO2 output created by burning our own gas is considerably less than that of the elaborate process of carrying it halfway round the world and having it compressed and decompressed so that it can travel as LNG. It is about half the CO2 generated.

More importantly from the point of view of levelling up and growth in our public finances, we would be paying the tax to ourselves. All gas and oil attracts massive taxation from the countries that have the good fortune to produce it. If we buy gas from Qatar—or when we were buying oil from Russia—we pay them a huge amount of tax, which is revenue that we could pay to ourselves if we developed more of our own production. Our own Treasury could then either spend it or give it back to us in some other form, such as a rebate or grant.

There is a more sensitive issue about onshore gas, and people are often rather opposed to that idea. I suggest that no landowner or council should be made to have onshore gas production if they do not want to. That would be a democratic decision over permissions and it would be a decision of those who have the land or property nearby as a result. I think that some areas would have it—suitably protected and environmentally tailored, as it could be. We already have some onshore oil and gas. Wych Farm, for example, is in a very beautiful part of the world and it produces oil quite happily onshore. The Government need to put into law a framework where landowners and communities that agree to participate in onshore oil and gas development should receive a participation in the royalty of some sorts, or free gas to consumers, or whatever.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Independent): I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. I assume he is talking about fracking when he talks about onshore gas production, and suggesting that we leave it to individual landowners and local authorities, but the polluting effects of fracking do not stop at the borders of somebody’s land or at a local authority border. Fracking pollutes the aquifers and it can and does create earth tremors that go well beyond all that. It is surely a matter of national policy that we do not pursue this short-sighted avenue of trying to get gas, and that we look at better methods of conservation and more sustainable methods of generating our energy.

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has a gas boiler, but I expect that most people in this House have gas boilers at home, as I and most of my constituents do. That gas needs to come from somewhere. I will not go into the details of the techniques needed for reservoir management, because that obviously depends on the structure, the flow rates and the nature of the stratum in which you find the gas, but a range of techniques can be used if gas or oil is shy in coming out of a reservoir that has been developed over many years.

Of course, like the right hon. Gentleman, I want this to be regulated. There must be no pollution of watercourses. Fortunately gas strata and water are often well divided in the United Kingdom—rather more so than in the US, where there has been a gas revolution onshore without polluting the water supplies or causing great environmental health problems. Of course that needs to be properly regulated—it is strictly regulated at the moment—and we need to review those regulations to ensure that the No. 1 priority of public safety is guaranteed and that the No. 2 priority, the desired effect of getting some gas out, assuming public safety is guaranteed, is also taken care of. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would like the idea of a big new source of oil or gas tax revenue that stayed in the United Kingdom rather than being paid to Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): My right hon. Friend and I have talked a lot about community support for onshore projects. Would he agree that another such area could be deep geothermal, which the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is looking into at the moment? It could offer fantastic potential for sourcing new forms of renewable heating.

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): I would love to hear about that. Unfortunately I was in this debate so I was unable to get to that particular Committee, but I will catch up with my right hon. Friend elsewhere to discuss that because I know you wish me to move on, Madam Deputy Speaker.

One last point, if I may, is about housing and planning in my own constituency of Wokingham. We are very generous and we accept a large number of new people joining our communities, as they would like to do. We accept well over 1,000 new houses being constructed in the borough every year, but I do not think we should want to keep all of that to ourselves. The kind of housing that attracts people who can provide leadership and better jobs and who can set up businesses needs to be spread more broadly. The planning rules need to be revised so that we can use the planning system to reinforce the wish to level up, with some of the really important private sector housing investment going to the places that really need it, rather than having an awful lot in places that have done pretty well already and are finding that the pressure on public services, roads, transport, railways and so forth is just too much and that the infrastructure is not catching up.

This was a good Queen’s Speech. It needs economic success and a policy based on going for growth. It also needs a policy that deals with supply-side shortages and a policy based around lower taxes, because we need to give something back now to start to lift the cost of living crunch.

My intervention in the Building Safety Bill debate

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): Has it been possible to trace any foreign companies or foreign interests that are involved in these matters? Will they be making their contribution?

Stuart Andrew, Assistant Whip, Minister of State: My right hon. Friend raises an important point. I shall address that specific point later in my speech.

…The recent commitment from many developers to fix their own buildings will apply equally to enfranchised buildings, and the measures and powers that we have added to the Bill to pursue and compel developers and cladding manufacturers to pay will be available. I know that Members will still be concerned about how we can protect leaseholders in leaseholder-owned buildings, which is why I am announcing today that the Government will consult on how best leaseholders in collectively enfranchised and commonhold buildings and other special cases can be protected from the costs associated with historical building safety defects. The consultation will allow the Government to understand fully the position regarding leaseholder-owned buildings with historical defects and identify whether further measures are appropriate to address specific circumstances in which leaseholders may unintentionally be exposed to disproportionate costs.
Comment In other words the issue was not addressed. The government cannot ensure fairness between U.K. and foreign companies and investors.

 

My intervention in the Subsidy Control Bill

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): Would it not in future be possible for the Government, when offering a subsidy to companies, to specify that they need to meet certain labour standards so that the subsidies regime would apply?

Paul Scully, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy: Again, that is up to the public authorities. The whole point about this regime is that it is a loose, permissive framework, rather than something more onerous which adds layer upon layer to recreate the EU state aid system. None the less, I would expect that, again, because of value for money and good governance, any public authority, whether national Government, local government or another public body, would expect to have exactly that kind of criteria—

 

Comment A lack of clarity over the  terms of public procurement

 

My interventions in the Opposition Day debate on the cost of living

I read that last the U.K. government is encouraging more domestic oil and gas from the North Sea to ease the  squeeze, cut CO 2 in gas use and generate a lot more tax revenue. As the exchanges beneath reveal it is still hard work getting Opposition MPs to want us to produce our own with all the obvious benefits that brings. Why do so many MPs want to stop th3 U.K. prospering?

 

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): Most of my constituents still have gas boilers. Renewables will work one day, but the immediate crisis is that we are short of gas. Do we have our own or do we have foreign gas? If we have our own, we get tax revenue.

Stephen Flynn: Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy): It is interesting to hear that we are short of gas when I regularly hear the opposite from the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change. That is the important point: Government Members can try to disagree with their own Government on these matters, but in real terms we are self-sufficient. Scotland is self-sufficient when it comes to oil and gas, but we can and must go so much further on renewables. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to hang around, he will hear me speak about that in due course.

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): Would the spokesman and his party now agree that we need to get a lot more gas and oil out of the North sea, which would generate tax revenue that the Treasury could use to ease the squeeze, instead of paying huge sums of money to Qatar and Russia for liquefied natural gas?

Stephen Flynn: Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy):

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course, he will be cognisant of the fact that when the oil and gas comes out of the ground it goes into the hands of multinational countries. Do we want to be in a situation in which that gas benefits us here, rather than those abroad? Absolutely. Should we be importing from Russia? Absolutely not, and the Government have been right to take action on that. Nevertheless, what I want to see from his Government, which he should want too, is a turbocharging of investment in renewables. When are they going to come forward with their energy security strategy? I have heard talk about it in the paper, but there has been no clarity whatsoever. I shall come back to that later in my speech.

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): Over the last year, the economy has grown a lot faster because the Treasury did not hike tax rates but instead went for growth. That was a great policy, so why reverse it? Is there not a danger that these tax rises and massive increases in energy prices will slow the economy down too much? If that happens, the Government will have a revenue problem.

Helen Whately, the Exchequer Secretary: If my right hon. Friend will give me a little time, I will come on to the importance of growth to our economy, which is the right answer for the longer term in ensuring that we improve people’s standard of living.

Pressures on household finances are not generally the consequence of one single price rise; they are typically affected by an amalgam of different factors. Remedying the pressure on households therefore requires taking action on a range of fronts, not just on energy bills. Again and again, that is what this Government have done and are doing. We are acting in dozens of ways to support working families. For instance, over the winter, the £500 million household support fund has helped vulnerable households with the cost of essentials such as food, clothing and utilities. Local authorities in England have allocated the lion’s share of that funding to ensuring that it reached those who needed it most, with 50% ring-fenced for households with children. Additional funding was allocated to the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, in the usual way.

We have also reduced the universal credit taper rate and increased universal credit work allowances by ÂŁ500 to ensure that work pays. This is essentially a ÂŁ2 billion tax cut for the lowest paid in society. It is helping around 2 million households to keep an average of an extra ÂŁ1,000 per annum in their pocket. Next month, the national living wage is increasing by 6.6% to ÂŁ9.50 an hour, again benefiting more than 2 million workers and meaning an increase of over ÂŁ1,000 in the annual earnings of a full-time worker on the national living wage. And we are committed to going further, so the national living wage will reach two thirds of median earnings for those over 21 by 2024, provided that economic conditions allow. We have supported working families in other ways too: doubling free childcare for eligible parents, which is worth around ÂŁ5,000 per child every year, and introducing tax-free childcare, which will provide working parents with 20% support on childcare costs up to ÂŁ10,000.

My contribution in the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill debate

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): Opposition parties are struggling a bit with this idea of democracy, are they not? Taking back control was to have control by the people and for the people, and offering the people an early general election so that they could choose an effective Government when a Parliament was logjammed, hopeless and not prepared to govern with clarity and passion was the right thing to do. I just cannot understand why Labour and the SNP are still queuing up to defend the indefensible, and to say that because they may well be faced again with a situation in which they do not dare face the electors, they need some kind of legal rigmarole and manipulation of votes in a balanced or damaged Parliament to thwart the popular will yet again. “Never let the people make the decision,” they say: it must be contained within Parliament, even when a Parliament has obviously failed, as it did when it could not implement the wishes of the British people over the great Brexit referendum.

I want assurances from the Minister that this new policy will protect the Crown—the Queen—from the difficult business of politics. I think the Minister’s version of it is better than the version from the other place. Of course, it must keep the courts out. There is nothing more political than the decision about when we go to an election and when we give the people their power back and the right to make that fundamental choice. It is a choice that now can mean something, because we do not have to keep on accepting a whole load of European laws that we have no great role in making. Again, we need that absolute guarantee that we will have this freedom so that that can happen.

Those who say that they do not want the Prime Minister to have this much power have surely been in the House long enough to know that, while the Prime Minister has considerable power from his or her office, they are also buffeted and challenged every day by a whole series of pressures in this place and outside. If a leader of a party with a majority wanted an early election that their supporters did not want, I suspect that that would get sorted out without an early election. So we are only talking about what happens when a Government have lost their majority and the Prime Minister is doing his or her best to govern as a minority. We get the extraordinary position we got when the whole Opposition wanted to gang up to thwart the public making a choice, but did not want to govern. That was totally unacceptable, and the Opposition should hear the message from the doorsteps in the 2019 election. The public wanted a Parliament with a Government who could govern, so they decided to choose one. Those who sought to block it made themselves more unpopular, and they showed that they do not understand the fundamental point of democracy that, when Parliament lets the people down, the people must be able to choose a new and more effective Parliament.

My intervention to the Minister in the Lords Amendments debate for the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that, if we dismiss Lords amendment 1 today, the courts will not have a role in fixing the dates for elections, because, surely, that is matter for us, answerable to the electors?

Michael Ellis, Paymaster General, Minister of State, Cabinet Office: My right hon. Friend is quite right that it is not productive, and, in fact, it would not be in the interests of the judiciary themselves, for the courts to have such a role.

We committed to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as it had led to paralysis at a time when the country needed decisive action. In a similar vein, the Labour manifesto said that the 2011 Act

“stifled democracy and propped up weak governments.”

A vote in the Commons could create paralysis in a number of contexts, including minority Governments, coalition Governments, or where our parties, Parliament or even the nation, at some point in the future, were divided.

As a majority on the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act noted, a Commons vote would have a practical effect only where Parliament were gridlocked. The problem is that if the Government of the day had a comfortable majority, a vote would be unlikely to make any difference; it would have no meaningful effect, beyond causing unnecessary delay and expense. However, when Parliament is gridlocked, a vote could mean denying an election to a Government who were unable to function effectively. We witnessed the consequences of such a vote painfully in 2019, so let us not repeat that mistake by devising a system where those events could happen again. Lords amendment 1 is, therefore, with the greatest possible respect, without merit.

My interventions in the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): In the light of these Lords amendments for a crisis, does the hon. Gentleman not think the crisis has been brought on by the EU interfering in the internal market of GB and Northern Ireland and diverting trade, and would he urge the EU to step back so that we can get back on track?

Peter Kyle (Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland): What is holding us back is people continually re-fighting the battles of the past. We need to build a better future, and we can do that only if we are facing the future, unlike the right hon. Gentleman. Instead of a break from the past, the Government have dragged us back into the Brexit quagmire, as he and others seem hell-bent on doing, which has directly led to the Bill being needed with immediate effect.

Northern Ireland has often been a secondary issue for this Government. When the consequences of decisions taken by Ministers have played out in Northern Ireland, the Government have behaved as though they found themselves at the scene of an accident over which they had no control. This bystander effect peaked last week. The Northern Ireland Secretary and the Foreign Secretary both pretended that the Northern Ireland protocol was purely a matter for the Executive, but in reality it was part of a deal drafted, negotiated and signed by the Prime Minister, and the legal duty to uphold that deal rests with the EU and UK Governments. Ministers cannot wash their hands of it as easily as they pretend.

Now the First Minister has resigned, with the protocol and broken ministerial promises playing a central role. The manner and impact of the resignation raise serious questions that must be addressed. I have sympathy for the position in which the Democratic Unionist party has been placed. Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, in frustration, revealed that the Prime Minister told him that the current protocol negotiations have only a 30% chance of success. If that is the case, do the Government have a plan B? Have Departments worked up impact assessments and action plans for the eventuality or possibility of article 16 being triggered?

The people of Northern Ireland and the political parties have been given promise after promise by the Prime Minister and his Ministers, some of them fundamental and existential, such as the promise of no border in the Irish sea. It is no wonder that frustrations have boiled over, that trust in this Government is at rock bottom and that we find ourselves in this moment where hope seems so distant.

We have just discovered that the Northern Ireland Secretary is flying to Washington tomorrow. That is right: the Secretary of State will get in a plane and fly right over Northern Ireland on his way to Washington. That says everything we need to know. There is no one with the stature required in this Government, so he has to go to America to find a grown-up to be the honest broker they need.

While the Labour party welcomes this legislation and has supported its progress at every stage, we cannot pretend that it has an answer for how the Executive will be reformed if more progress is not made in protocol negotiations. It is hard to know whether the ongoing negotiations with the EU are a priority, because after three rounds of negotiations there have been no statements on progress made to the House. Considering the vital importance of those negotiations to the immediate circumstances in Northern Ireland, I hope the Foreign Secretary can come here and make a statement without any more delay. The political parties in Northern Ireland deserve such an update on the record—we have had enough nods, enough winks and enough back-handed promises that are never met and do nothing more than destabilise the fragile political settlement.

The Bill was supposed to deliver greater resilience in the institutions established under the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday agreement, but once again their fragility has been highlighted. Too often, Northern Ireland has been overlooked and the work to deliver on the promise of peace allowed to stall. While the Labour party supports the Bill and hopes it receives Royal Assent in time to be effective, it is worrying how much of it may already be obsolete. The provisions of the Bill alone cannot enable stability. To do that, Ministers must take responsibility for their words and actions, which have shaken faith within Northern Ireland. It is time that this Government, from the Prime Minister down, are seen to care about their words, promises and actions in a vitally important part of our United Kingdom, and to directly work on a way back for the Executive.

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): But is it not the case that the EU is breaking the protocol? The protocol clearly protects the UK internal market and says that communities’ consent is needed and that trade must not be diverted.

Jeffrey M Donaldson (DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson): Article 16 of the protocol—this is relevant to the debate this evening—makes provision for the UK Government to act unilaterally, and the Minister has said that the Government are prepared to do that. However, they said that in their Command Paper over six months ago, and in those six months the cost to Northern Ireland businesses has exceeded well over half a billion pounds. In those six months, businesses in Northern Ireland have faced costs and disruption to their trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. This is simply unacceptable.

The European Union said that the main purpose of the protocol, apart from setting out practical arrangements for the movement of goods, was to protect the political institutions in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement. Does anyone now seriously believe that the protocol has achieved that purpose? It has not. Why? Because there is no Unionist consent for the protocol. It has changed our constitutional status with the rest of the United Kingdom. It has superseded article 6 of the Act of Union itself, which makes provision for free trade within our own country.

I am therefore disappointed that, although we are debating this Bill and the issues it addresses, they are relatively minor in comparison with the key commitments made by the Government in the New Decade, New Decade agreement, which have not been honoured two years later. Why should my constituents be treated as second-class citizens in their own country? Why should my constituents be subjected to laws that are imposed by a European Union over which we have no say whatever? We have regulations that my Ministers are required to implement and over which we have no say whatever.

We have been patient. We have waited and we have waited for the Government to act or for the EU to recognise the reality that this protocol is harming political and economic stability in Northern Ireland. But I am afraid that I have to say to the Minister: enough is enough. We need action—not words, not more promises, as the hon. Member for Hove said, and not more empty commitments. We need action by the Government, because this is about the Union, about the future of the Union and about protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of our own country. Why are we leaving it to the European Union to come up with a solution? This Government are the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Their primary responsibility is the integrity of this country. It is time the integrity of this country, and Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, was properly protected in line with the promises made in this agreement.

My speech on Labour’s motion for a windfall tax on oil and gas producers

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): I welcome this opportunity for us to discuss one of the biggest issues facing the country. April could indeed be the cruellest month this year if more action is not taken to tackle the forthcoming problem, because we are likely to see an unfortunate coincidence of a big surge in electricity and gas bills as the cap is relaxed, an increase in council bills, general inflation that is a bit too high, and a national insurance increase hitting people’s work incomes. I urge the Government to think again about the possible severity of that squeeze on real incomes, as it would have a knock-on effect, reducing people’s ability to spend on other discretionary items as they struggle to pay energy bills. It would therefore slow the economy quite considerably, at the same time as creating this shock to living standards.

The Ministers sitting on the Front Bench are, I am sure, engaged in conversations more widely in Government, including with senior members of the Government who will make the ultimate decisions. Today is not really the day to debate more general taxation issues, although even at this late stage I would like the Government to cancel the national insurance increase, on the grounds that public finances generated a big surge in revenue compared with the Budget forecast last March, and our deficit is around £60 billion lower than they thought it was going to be. I say to the Government that they can accommodate the £12 billion they need to spend—rightly—on health improvements, without that money.

The proper subject of this debate is our energy markets. If we compare the two sides of the Atlantic, we see in Biden’s America, where he inherited a period of successful exploration and development of domestic gas, a market that can more than supply its own needs and has kept prices considerably lower than the damaged European market. President Biden, while clearly putting his country on the road to net zero at COP26, returned home to authorise more exploration and development of both oil and gas wells, and to license more territory in the gulf of Mexico. He took the view that we will have a transition need for gas for this decade or more, and he needs to keep the American market properly supplied.

I urge my colleagues on the Front Bench to be sympathetic, as I think they are, to the case that while we still need to burn quite a lot of gas, and while we are awaiting plentiful supplies of renewable or nuclear power that will be affordable and reliable, we must accept that we will be burning somebody’s gas, and it must make more sense to burn our own, rather than imports. Indeed, I would start that case from the green point of view. A while ago I had a useful answer to a parliamentary question, pointing out that the CO2 generated by importing liquefied natural gas and burning it in whatever we wish to burn it in is more than double the amount of CO2 generated from burning a comparable thermal equivalent of gas taken from the North sea. There is a very good green case for substituting domestic gas for imported LNG.

 

Clive Lewis (Lab): Over the past two years, the North sea oil and gas that was exported doubled. It is not our oil and gas. It belongs to the corporations that bring it out of the ground, and they sell it to the highest bidder. It does not increase our energy security. The right hon. Gentleman made a point about Biden inheriting fracked shale oil and gas in the US, but he failed to mention the ecological costs, which every year run into hundreds of millions of pounds of damage to the natural world. That is the price the United States is paying for its fracking, which I imagine the right hon. Gentleman would expect us to take up here as well.

 

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): I was not talking about onshore gas at all; I was talking about North sea gas, which comes from under the sea. A variety of reservoir easing techniques have been used for many years and never caused political controversy. I was recommending that we review again the opportunity to explore for more, to develop more and to bring into production the fields that we know are out there. That would also help the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), who would rightly like more jobs or to sustain jobs in his successful oil and gas city, which faces the problems that he described. I was interested in his warning about how a windfall tax could, like last time, collapse investment and reduce the amount of extraction and future investment that we get.

The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) said that not all the gas produced in the North sea would be sold to us. That may be right, but the European market in general is chronically short of gas and the continental market is cruelly dependent on Russian gas, which today we can see is not a good idea. A North sea supply would therefore help when we are trying to ease supply pressures and bring prices down.

The second reason why it makes much more sense to use our own gas—or to extract more of it—rather than rely on imports is that we collect much more tax on it, and we are losing all that tax revenue on imports. The hon. Gentleman should remember that we now import 53% of the gas that we need, and we do not get anything like the revenue that we could if we extracted more of our own. Preferably, we would sell it to ourselves, but even if we exported it—we may well do that—we would still collect the extra revenue. There would also be a benefit in jobs and prosperity, because the industry tends to create quite a lot of well-paid jobs, which is good for the communities that sponsor those activities.

I hope that Ministers will look favourably on the idea that, during this transition, we will burn a lot of gas—as will everyone else—so it makes a lot of sense for the UK to produce gas and offer it on long-term contracts, trying to smooth some of erratic prices that we see because of what is happening on the continent, and make our contribution to greater security of supply for ourselves and—indirectly—for Europe.

Finally—I know that time is limited—electricity is much in demand, and it will be much more in demand if the electrical revolution that the Government wish to unleash comes true. One reason why we had a big spike in gas prices was that the wind did not blow, which added to the need to burn a lot more gas in power stations. That can happen again, because the wind clearly is an unreliable friend, and it is particularly difficult if it goes down at times of peak demand or when it is very cold. We therefore need to ensure that we are putting in enough reliable electricity capacity, because that has a direct relationship with the gas supply and demand issue as well as with gas prices, and I do not think that the current plans have nearly enough new capacity in them.

My intervention during the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con) – I strongly welcome massive private-led investment in proper broadband, which is what we all need. Could the Secretary of State give guidance to the companies doing it that it is not helpful if they bury cables under main roads, requiring the roads to be dug up again every time they want to improve or mend a cable? Could we not do better, either in ducts or by the side of the road?

Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – An interesting point. I will certainly take that back to BDUK, Openreach and others. We need to ensure that the legal framework underpinning our digital infrastructure encourages and enables the deployment of the latest networks. In 2017, we made changes to that legal framework. Implementing reforms to the electronic communications code—this goes to the point made by Ben Lake—requires installation agreements between landowners and telecom operators. The aim was to make it easier for digital networks to be installed, maintained and upgraded, and now we will go even further. The Bill will update the electronic communications code to deliver on the Government’s ambitions for digital connectivity and levelling up. Specifically, it will do three things: make the most of existing infrastructure; encourage stronger and more collaborative relationships between telecom operators and site providers; and build on previous measures to tackle the issue of non-responsive landowners.