Wednesday 14 June 2006
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
Jewish Communities (350th Anniversary)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]
This is the first opportunity in Parliament to discuss the 350th anniversary of the readmission of Jews to Britain. Next week there will be an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall, which I am sponsoring. I am privileged to represent the constituency with the second largest Jewish community—the largest for any Labour MP. As I have come to know the Jewish community better, I have become aware of its close cohesion and diversity—the Sephardi and Ashkenazi; the Federation, United, Liberal, Reform and Masorti synagogues, and many strands within those. The advantage that I have in not being Jewish is that there are no synagogues that I cannot go to. It is difficult to do justice in a debate such as this to the long history of the Jewish contribution to our country. I am sure that I shall not satisfy everyone. There is an old saying that, when two Jews are together, there are three opinions.
Jews were first recorded in England in Norman times. William invited Jewish financiers from Rouen in the 1070s, but they were subjected to prejudice and worse from the start. What happened at Clifford’s tower, in 1190, was a good example. The Jewish residents of York were attacked by the mob. They took refuge in Clifford’s tower, which was surrounded and besieged. On 16 March 1190, the tower was set on fire, and the Jews took their own lives rather than be murdered by the mob. Those who did surrender were killed, and about 150 Jews died.
In 1255, 91 Jews, of whom 18 were executed, were imprisoned in the Tower after an infamous ritual murder libel in Lincoln. It is an interesting footnote to history that both cities are now represented by Jewish MPs. In 1290, in return for a grant of taxation, Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots”, hammered the Jews too and ordered their expulsion from England. Estimates vary, but between 4,000 and 6,000 Jews were expelled.
However, the expulsion was not entirely successful and small communities of Jews lived secretly in Elizabethan London. One of the leading Jews was court physician to Elizabeth I. They were refugees from the Spanish inquisition, expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. Known as the Marranos, they pretended to be Catholics but secretly practised their faith. For more than 350 years, Jews were unable to play any visible part in the life of the country. In the 17th century, however, Sephardi Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal sought refuge, particularly in London. Fearful of persecution, those exiles lived covertly as Spanish merchants.
In the intellectual climate of early 17th century England, the coalescence of a variety of different strands of thinking about the Jews led to increased interest in the question of readmission. Hebrew was revered by scholars, who came to believe that it was the language spoken by Adam and Eve before the fall. Most significantly, the first half of the 17th century was a period of profound millenarian expectation. Many believed that Jesus Christ’s second coming was near, and that those living at the time could work to usher it in. The Jews had a central role in that theological drama. The conversion of the Jews was seen by many as a necessary precondition of Christ’s return. Some claimed that England, which they saw as specially favoured by God, was the obvious location for that event—which brings me to God’s Englishman, Oliver Cromwell.
The English revolution changed the landscape for the Jews in England. The readmission has fuelled a lively debate among historians, and the events of 1656 have been the subject of varying interpretations. It is, however, clear that in September 1655 the Portuguese scholar and rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, petitioned Oliver Cromwell to grant Jews the right to resettle in England. Traditionally, Cromwell’s sympathetic response was primarily interpreted as evidence of his toleration and compassion. Historians today ascribe to him other motives, including his desire for access to finance and his belief that establishing the link would constitute a potential intelligence network, which was particularly important at the time in the context of the war with Spain.
Whatever the motivation, it was Cromwell who achieved the Jews’ return. He established a conference at Whitehall to enable England’s commercial, political and legal leaders to debate the issue. This old equivalent of a focus group, inflamed as it was by conservative opponents of readmission, failed to produce a favourable outcome, although it received a legal opinion that Edward I’s edict applied only to Jews who were in England in 1290, and had no continuing legal validity in statute or common law.
A small group of Marrano families, who were ostensibly Catholics, were now living in the city. One of their number was arrested as a Spanish enemy alien and his property was seized. He declared he was a
“portugee of the Hebrew nation”.
He was released and his property restored. It has been said that as a Spanish Catholic his position was open to question, but that as a refugee Jew he was safe. That provoked a crisis among the families. They answered by throwing off their disguise and declaring themselves to be Jewish. Together with Menasseh ben Israel, they submitted a second petition to Cromwell, asking for permission to meet for private devotions according to Jewish rites, and to have a Jewish burial ground. That petition succeeded and was approved on 25 June 1656.
Cromwell told the Jewish community that it had the legal right to live openly in England and that he would protect its members from persecution for failing to attend church services. The year 1656 therefore marked a real revolution for the Jews in England. I doubt that Cromwell could have foreseen that, one day, his Commons seat of Huntingdon would be held by a Jew, as it is today. In a sense, there was no formal act of readmission—simply a limited, practical acceptance that Jews living in England could reside and worship in their own manner, Thus, resettlement was effected in an unobtrusive and informal manner. More Sephardi Jews soon arrived, shortly to be followed by Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe.
There was from the outset a strong connection between the Jewish community and the City of London. The first Sephardi synagogue was established in 1656. The oldest surviving British synagogue is the beautiful Bevis Marks, where last evening’s celebration service, attended by the Prime Minister, was held. It was consecrated in 1701. During the Jacobite uprising of 1745 the Jews showed particular loyalty to the Government. Their chief financier, Samson Gideon, strengthened the stock market, and several of the younger members of the community volunteered in the corps raised to defend London. Possibly as a reward, Prime Minister Pelham in 1753 brought in the Jew Bill, which allowed Jews to become naturalised by application to Parliament. It passed the Lords without much opposition, but on being brought before the Commons, the Tory party made a great outcry against what it called an “abandonment of Christianity”. On the other hand, it was contended that the Jews performed a very valuable function in the commercial economy of the nation, providing one twelfth of the nation’s profits and one twentieth of its foreign trade.
The Whigs persisted in carrying out at least one part of their policy of religious toleration and the Bill was passed and received Royal Assent. Nevertheless, a great clamour was raised against the Act, and the lord mayor and the Corporation of London petitioned Parliament for its repeal. Effigies of Jews were carried about in derision. In 1754 the Jew Act was repealed. During the 18th century, the Jewish presence in England continued to grow and a joint committee of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities, which developed into the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was founded in 1760. By the end of that century, before the more numerous immigrations of the 19th century, London Jewry was one of the largest urban Jewish communities in Europe.
From the 1880s to the early part of the 20th century, massive pogroms and the anti-Semitic May laws in Russia caused many Jews to flee the pale of settlement from Russia and Poland. By 1919, the Jewish population had increased from 60,000 in 1880 to about 250,000 Jews, who lived primarily in the large cities, especially London. Originally, the Jews lived primarily in the Spitalfields and Whitechapel areas, which made the east end a Jewish neighbourhood. Manchester and neighbouring Salford were also areas of heavy Jewish settlement. It is interesting to note that the Huguenot church that was on the corner of Brick lane was first converted into a Methodist church, then in the late 19th century to a synagogue, and finally into the mosque it is now, reflecting the changing population of the east end and, of course, migration within London. Many of the Jews who found homes in the east end would now find their families living in my constituency and the neighbouring ones of Finchley and Golders Green and Hertsmere, or in other parts of north London.
Many tales are told of those times, which are within the living memory of the community, whose parents and grandparents were those very migrants. My constituent, Sidney Wagner, told me that his father came from Poland in the late 1920s. He was a trained forester, who, when he got off at Tilbury, thought he had managed to reach Canada. He spoke no English, and Sidney says that apart from Epping forest there was not much call for forestry, so his father went into the garment trade, as did so many Jewish migrants.
Before world war two, Britain was not particularly receptive to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Approximately 40,000 Jews from Austria and Germany were eventually allowed to settle in Britain before the war, in addition to 50,000 Jews from Italy, Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Despite the increasingly dire warnings from Germany, Britain refused to allow further Jewish refugees into the country at the Evian conference of 1938.
The notable exception allowed by Parliament was the Kindertransport, an effort on the eve of war to transport Jewish children from Germany to Britain. However, their parents were not given visas, which led to heartbreak for families, as parents waved off their children, never to see them again. About 10,000 children were saved by the Kindertransport, although the plan had been to rescue five times that number. One notable Kindertransport survivor was Lord Dubs, who was a refugee from Czechoslovakia. There is a commemorative plaque at the entrance to the Strangers Gallery, for those who would like to see it. Despite the official position, however, there were notable heroes, such as Sir Nicholas Winton, who was recently knighted. Working at our Prague embassy, he saved nearly 700 Czech Jewish children.
After the second world war, there was further migration of displaced persons and of British citizens from around the empire and especially from the far east, where many of them were interned by the Japanese. My constituent Isaac Abraham was born in Shanghai in October 1934. His parents were British citizens from Iraq. As a young boy, he was interned from April 1943 by the Japanese. He came to the United Kingdom in 1949 and spent most of his working life as a teacher.
In 1950, the Jewish community’s population was estimated at 450,000. Now probably just below 300,000, it is about half of 1 per cent. of the population, which is still a pretty large number compared with the original 35 families in the 17th century.
I have been describing what I hope is a very positive picture, but it would be wrong not to refer to the anti-Semitism that has been endemic throughout the life of the Jewish community in Britain. Historically overt, that racism was tolerated and even encouraged. It was exemplified by popular stereotypes from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Shylock through to Dickens’s Fagin in Oliver Twist, all of which were profoundly anti-Semitic. It was also exemplified by the growth of the British Union of Fascists under Mosley and by the attitude of much of the British establishment towards the pre-war Jews in the UK and Germany. Rightly, the Jewish community resisted that attitude, and that was perhaps best exemplified by the battle of Cable street.
In late September 1936, the BUF announced its intention to mount a show of strength to intimidate the organised working class and particularly the local Jewish community in east London. The Jewish People’s Council responded to that provocation by organising a petition calling for the march to be banned. It received 100,000 signatures and was presented to the Home Office, but the Home Secretary refused to ban the march, despite a large east end Jewish population and the anti-Semitic nature of the BUF.
The battle of Cable street took place on 4 October 1936. It was a clash between the police, overseeing the BUF march, on the one side, and anti-fascists, including local Jewish groups, on the other. Up to 300,000 anti-fascists assembled. According to the estimate in the Daily Herald, up to 10,000 police were brought in from all over London and deployed to protect the march. The anti-fascist group erected barricades to prevent the march from taking place, and after a series of running battles between the police and anti-fascist demonstrators, the march failed. The BUF was dispersed towards Hyde park, and as the fascists skulked off towards the west end, it was reported that
“everyone of Jewish appearance was insulted and in some cases they were spat upon”.
When the fascists reached Trafalgar square, they tried to hold a meeting, but they were prevented from doing so by the police and were forcefully dispersed, having been comprehensively humiliated.
I regret to say, however, that anti-Semitism remains alive today. Only a few years ago, property developer Eliot Bernard’s staff inquired about membership at a golf club in Surrey. The club secretary said, “We’ve got a few Jews, but we try not to encourage them.” The reply was, “Well, you’ve got one more now—we’ve just bought your club.”
My constituent Malvyn Benjamin told me that he was once looking to be a Liberal MP. In 1961, he was interviewed as a possible candidate by the Liberal party in Darlington. The meeting’s chairman said, “I see you’re of the Jewish persuasion.” Malvyn replied, “Nobody persuaded me—I’m Jewish by birth.” The chairman then said, “Well, that’s a problem. We had a Jewish MP before, in 1910. It was Trebitsch Lincoln. He was a bit of a rogue and lost his seat in 1912. If we have another Jewish candidate, people might remember him.” Of course, that interview happened more than 50 years later.
However, anecdotes such those mask a serious problem. In 2005, the Community Security Trust recorded 455 anti-Semitic incidents—the second highest total for any year. That included 82 violent assaults, 152 random attacks on individuals, including children, and four cemetery desecrations. Seventy of those incidents showed a far-right motivation, 39 included the expression of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist views and 52 involved a direct reference to Israel and the middle east. Such extreme views are not only found on the far right but, regrettably, expressed by extremists who purport to be of the Muslim faith. It is vital that the Government are seen to be doing all they can to tackle the cancer of anti-Semitism in our society.
Now, however, I should like to turn to some examples of how Jews have contributed to our national life, and it would be appropriate to start with service in the armed forces. The first documented contribution was in 1757, when Captain Alexander Schonfield of the Royal Navy commanded HMS Diana in support of Wolfe’s attack on the Heights of Abraham to take Quebec. No fewer than nine Jewish seamen served with Nelson on HMS Victory at Trafalgar, and Wellington reported to Parliament that 15 Jewish officers were with him at Waterloo.
Jews served in the forces throughout the Victorian era, including in the Crimean war and the Boer war, where 3,000 Jewish servicemen were present, of whom 180 were killed. In the first world war, about 55,000 Jews enlisted, of whom 2,200 died. Some 1,100 decorations for bravery were won, including five Victoria crosses for gallantry. The first Jewish VC was awarded to Lieutenant Frederick de Pas in 1914. Of course, we should not forget the first world war poets, and Isaac Rosenberg, who was killed in action, was one of the great first world war poets.
In world war two, about 65,000 Jews served, out of a community of 400,000, which is a very high proportion. That included 4,000 refugees from the Nazis. Some 3,000 of those servicemen died. Jews were awarded 1,500 decorations, including three VCs and three George crosses.
The Jewish contribution to political life is enormous. David Salomons, one of the founders of the London and Westminster bank, was elected sheriff of the City of London in 1835. Twenty years later, in 1855-56, he became the first Jewish lord mayor of London, following in the footsteps of Jewish mayors in towns and cities across Britain.
In 1847, Lionel de Rothschild was elected MP for the City of London, but was unable to take his seat, as he would not make his statutory declaration
“on the true faith of a Christian”,
as required. In 1858, after he had won four successive election victories, the oath was finally amended, allowing him to become the first practising Jew to serve as a Member of Parliament. At the time, that was only a personal privilege. The Act that allowed all non-Christians to take their seats—the Parliamentary Oaths Act—was not passed until 1866. After finally winning the right to sit in Parliament, Lionel de Rothschild said these moving words:
“Would that this elevation not mean the diminution of our faith”.
Of course, we should not forget Disraeli, the son of Isaac, a Jewish-Italian writer. Benjamin Disraeli had an Anglican upbringing after the age of 12. He referred to himself as the blank page between the Old and New Testament. With Jews excluded from Parliament until 1858, Disraeli was able to follow a career that would otherwise have been denied him. Elected as an MP in 1837, and twice Prime Minister between 1868 and 1874, he was Britain’s first, and so far only, Jewish-born Prime Minister.
The first Jew to hold ministerial office was George Jessel, who was made Solicitor-General in 1871 and who later became Master of the Rolls. In 1908, Herbert Samuel joined the Cabinet. In 1913, Rufus Isaacs was appointed Lord Chief Justice, and he later became Viceroy of India. Since then, Jews have been continuously involved in Parliament and Government. According to the current “Jewish Year Book”, there are presently 25 Jewish Privy Councillors, eight hereditary and 43 life peers and 22 Members of Parliament.
The Jewish community has made a great contribution to business, and many household names, such as Marks and Spencer, Tesco, ICI, Dixons and, of course, the Rothschild banks, were founded by Jews. Jews have also made a great contribution to science and medicine. Lord Winston, the world-famous pioneer of infertility treatment and TV personality, is in the other House. The Jewish community has made great contributions to the world of entertainment, too. Lord Bernstein founded the Granada TV company and brought “Coronation Street” to the nation’s televisions. There is Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Peter Shaffer—all great playwrights. There is Maureen Lipman—I think it would be fair to call her one of our great national treasures—Sir Anthony Sher, the great Shakespearean actor, and of course comedians such as Sid James, Warren Mitchell and, for the older generation, Frankie Vaughan, the great entertainer. For younger people, there is Rachel Stevens of the former group S Club 7, and Craig David.
Some of the great artists of the 20th century were Jewish, including Lucian Freud, Jacob Epstein and Frank Auerbach. Jews have made a great contribution to our sporting heritage, particularly in the field of boxing. The pugilist Daniel Mendoza, who lived from 1764 to 1836, was heavyweight champion between 1792 and 1795, even though he was only 5 ft 7 in and 11½ stone. He was only an inch or two taller than me, and was about the same weight as me, and I certainly do not feel like a heavyweight boxer. The reason why he was so good was that he saw boxing as a battle of wits. He became known as the father of scientific boxing, inventing defensive boxing techniques such as the guard, side-stepping and the straight left. His patron was the Prince of Wales and he was the first Jew to speak to King George III. He became a popular figure in songs and featured in plays. His contests were illustrated by artists of the time, including James Gillray.
We all remember the film “Chariots of Fire”, which was about the 1924 Paris Olympics, and in particular the portrayal of Harold Abrahams, who won gold in the 100 m and silver in the four by 100 m relay. I suspect that very few people will remember Edgar Seligman, who won silver for fencing in three successive Olympics in the last century.
The Jewish charitable tradition is also extremely important. In the 19th century, Jews entered wider fields and worked for both Jewish and wider communities. The best example is Sir Moses Montefiore, a successful Sephardi businessman and a friend of Queen Victoria when she was a child. He retired at the age of 40 and devoted himself to charitable and diplomatic work on behalf of Jewish people in Britain and across the world. His 100th birthday was the cause of much national rejoicing.
Many Jewish leaders are involved in important interfaith activities. Good examples are Sir Sigmund Sternberg, who devoted his life to interfaith activities, and my good friend Dr. Richard Stone, who has worked hard on the Three Faiths Forum. Perhaps the best example of all is the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks. He makes great play of the importance of religious education; he attended a religious school, Christ’s college, Finchley. That is probably what gives him his wider perspective. We all very much appreciate his thoughtful comments on the “Today” programme, including those that he made this morning. He emphasised the importance of tolerance across the minority communities and across different faiths.
This Government have done much to support the Jewish community. For example, there is holocaust memorial day. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002—my private Member’s Bill—was carried by the House with cross-party support. The Government have done wonders on holocaust restitution issues. In particular, they set up the spoliation advisory panel to deal with the return of looted works of art. However, there is a number of outstanding issues. There is the question of compensation for the civilian detainees of the Japanese, such as my constituent, Isaac Abraham, whom I mentioned earlier. It now looks as though, at long last, justice will be done for Isaac, although perhaps not for the rest of his family. In respect of the Kindertransport, there is a long-standing grievance that our Government ought to be taking up with the German Government over pension rights. We have yet to get the Jewish community radio station, Shalom FM, established; it has had great difficulty obtaining a licence from the Radio Authority.
There is unfinished business in terms of tracking down the war criminals of the second world war. I am pleased that the Home Office and police seem to be paying more attention to that, but there is a great deal of urgency in, for example, trying to trace the evil perpetrators of genocide, particularly those involved in the worst activities of the SS Galicia division. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, there is the need to be much firmer and tougher in tackling the problem of anti-Semitism.
On a more positive note, ever since its return—and even during the expulsion—the Jewish community has played a full part in our country’s success in every field, including the arts, sport, business, politics and the professions. The community has always contributed beyond its size in activities that are of benefit to the whole of society, putting in far more than it ever received. Jewish community values are British values. Since June 1656, the Jews have become a settled presence in all walks of life. Despite incidents of anti-Semitism, the process of Jewish resettlement has been peaceful. There was no grand gesture or pronouncement, but a pragmatic and practical process of emancipation and integration of the oldest minority in our country, proving that diversity does not mean division.
In commemorating 350 years of the Jewish community’s presence in our country, the modern Jewish community remembers the beginning, with Menasseh ben Israel and Oliver Cromwell, and looks forward to many more centuries of contributing to British life. Ultimately, the anniversary commemorates the greatest benefit, which is not to Britain’s Jews but to Britain itself, as a uniquely tolerant nation. We wish the Jewish community mazel tov for its 350th anniversary.
I start by slightly correcting the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). He said that it is difficult for someone who is Jewish to go to all synagogues. I am Jewish and have been welcomed in all synagogues. Indeed, I am a member of an orthodox synagogue and the chairman of governors of a pluralistic school that serves the whole community. Perhaps the reason for that is that I have lived in the area my whole life.
I pay tribute to one of my Jewish predecessors as Member of Parliament for Ilford, North, Millie Miller, who was a Labour MP until her untimely death in 1977. My constituency, when taken together with those of my neighbours, is the largest Jewish area, with the largest number of Jewish electors, in Europe, and I am proud of that. We have five synagogues in my constituency, with nine neighbouring it. There are three schools—Ilford Jewish primary school, King Solomon high school, and the school of which I am chairman of governors, Clore Tikva. There is Sinclair house, serving the community’s needs, from the youth to the elderly, and that is excellently run by Jewish Care, which should be commended for that.
I move on to the compliment paid to sportsmen by the hon. Gentleman. He left two out, and I was shocked, because they are players for the best football team in this country, which everyone knows is Leyton Orient. Those two players are Barry Silkman and Mark Lazarus, who contributed excellently to Leyton Orient’s promotion in 1969-70. I shall not trouble hon. Members by naming the rest of the team, but I could if pushed.
We should commend everything that my community has done in its 350 years here, and look at some of the reasons for that. I should like to talk briefly about my family. One of the greatest honours that I have had was when I swore my Oath of Allegiance in this House, wearing my skull cap, on the Old Testament. I was touched, and I know that my family were touched. We felt that that was possibly one of the most special things likely to happen to me, aside from the birth of my children and my marriage. That is a privilege for which I am grateful, and I will continue to be grateful to the electors of Ilford, North, for many years to come, I trust.
How did I become Lee Scott? It is quite a funny story. My father went into the armed forces. Our name at that time was Schuldberg, which would have been quite long for posters. The story goes that my father was standing next to a Scotsman, and we became Scott. I am only grateful that he was not standing next to a Gurkha.
I want to talk about a particular organisation in my constituency. There are many that I could single out, but there is one that is doing unbelievable work, an organisation called Drugsline Chabad. It is run by part of the Jewish religion called the Lubavitch, and it serves the community’s needs. It works with a project for the Muslim, Sikh and Christian communities, and with any other religion that wishes to plug into it, to try to stop the vile trade in drugs and youngsters’ use of drugs. It also helps to rehabilitate those who, unfortunately, have gone down that route. Its work across the community reflects the work done by many other organisations and interfaith groups working in my constituency to benefit our entire community. That is what it is all about.
Most Jewish Members of Parliament here today, and those in this House in the past, have come here to serve the whole community of their constituency. That is vital. I am Jewish and I am British. I am proud of that, and that is vital, too. We heard earlier from the hon. Gentleman about anti-Semitism in the past, and what is still happening today. Before entering the House I worked in the charitable world for a number of years. It was my privilege to visit Theresienstadt with people who had been at that camp. When you see what man has done to man—to women and children—you ask yourself whether we have learned anything from history. When we see some of the atrocities being carried out against all religions in the world today, we have to say that perhaps we have not.
I pray for all religions that there should be no prejudice against them. We all worship one God. We all have the same needs. Therefore, I hope that anti-Semitism—the hon. Gentleman was perfectly correct to say that it is still happening today—is eradicated. It is vile and cannot be permitted. Some far-right fascist parties—I shall not even give them credit by naming them—had minor successes at the recent local elections. We must learn from history, and I would tell anyone, however they vote, not to vote for far-right fascist parties.
To finish my few remarks, I would like to say not only to the people of Ilford, North but to the entire Jewish community that we can be proud of what we have achieved and there is so much more we can continue to achieve. We must work together with all other communities to make a difference for our country. As long as that continues to happen, we will be able to continue to celebrate our 350 years, and the many hundreds of years to come in which we can serve the people of Britain.
I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this important debate. The only reason this debate is taking place is that he sought it and put forward the subject for discussion. He serves all his constituents extremely well. I know that he displays commendable knowledge and dedication towards his Jewish constituents and carries out his duties with absolute sincerity and success. I congratulate him on all the work he does, inside the House and out, for his Jewish constituents and for all those he represents.
The debate is an interesting one. In the contributions so far, we have heard a detailed history of the Jews in this country and heard a lot about the contribution of the Jewish community to British society as a whole. In my brief remarks, I would like to focus on the nature of the Jewish contribution to British society, and specifically consider the basis on which that contribution takes place, the lessons that can be learned with regard to other communities in Britain today and the contribution that can be made to the ongoing debate about the nature of British society, multiculturalism and citizenship.
The Jewish community is, and always has been, diverse. The origins of Jewish people in this country are diverse and there are social and economic differences between them, but there is a Jewish experience. That experience comes from the common bond most Jewish people have through a background of coming to this country as asylum seekers or, in some cases, what we now term economic migrants. Despite those differences—the individual differences and the differences of social and economic background—there is a strong sense of community, which is extremely important in understanding the notion of a Jewish contribution.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) both mentioned examples of individual Jewish successes in contributing to our society. These are just a few of the names that show the nature of individual contributions from Jews to British society: Professor Chain, the discoverer of penicillin; the late Judge Rose Heilbron, who was the first woman judge; Lord Winston and Jacob Epstein, who have both already been mentioned; and John Cohen, the founder of Tesco.
However, the contribution has a wider significance. An examination of the Jewish contribution to British society over the centuries shows that there is no incompatibility between being a proud Jew and a proud citizen. The lesson of the Jewish contribution is that integration, not assimilation, is the model. When we are discussing models of citizenship now and in the future in our multiracial, diverse society, that is an important model to which we should put our attention.
Reference has already been made to the experience of the first Jewish MP, Lionel de Rothschild, who was prevented from taking his Oath for 11 years after he was first elected. It was only after 11 years that he was able to take an Oath where he did not have to state the words
“on the true faith of a Christian”.
In my area of Liverpool, the earliest records of the Jewish community go back to 1722. One of its proudest forebears was Herbert Samuel, Viscount Samuel of Toxteth and Mount Carmel, who was British Home Secretary twice, in 1916 and 1931, and was also the first British high commissioner in Palestine and Transjordan—a vital post, in which he served between 1920 and 1925.
We rightly concentrate today on the positive contribution of Jewish people to our society. We cannot ignore the great hostility that Jews faced in this society as immigrants and, indeed, as Jews. We should not forget that the Aliens Act 1905—the first immigration Act in this country—was enacted to stem the flow of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from eastern Europe. After coming to this country, Jews often faced discrimination. That discrimination could relate to employment, and many Jews became active alongside non-Jewish people in the growing Labour and trade union movement. Discrimination could relate to housing. I remember being very shocked when my parents told me that when they tried to buy a house in Manchester in the mid-1940s, they gave a name that did not sound Jewish because they had been told that Jewish people were not allowed to buy houses in that area.
That discrimination spread to universities, where, until relatively recently, there was a quota of Jewish students allowed to join medical schools. Discrimination took many forms, and we are all aware of it in the social sector as well. The advent of Jewish golf clubs came about because Jews were deemed not fit to be members of other golf clubs and it was feared that they would take them over.
Discrimination has taken place against Jewish people on the basis that they are immigrants, and on the basis that they are Jews. The battle of Cable street was mentioned by my hon. Friend—an occasion that has an important place in the history books. However, there have been many other incidents, perhaps of a less grand nature, where fights took place in the school playground between children as Jewish children were told that they had killed Jesus. I would like to think that that is something of the past, but anti-Semitism has not really gone away.
What has the response to all that been? When anyone faces discrimination and prejudice, the response has to be to fight against it and hope that other people will join the battle, which might be individual or with others, and might be political. Jewish people recognise the need to be positive and show initiative, and to fight by showing what they can achieve. Education has always been seen as important because of the Jewish value of learning, and family and community support have always been an essential part of Jewish individual achievement. In short, Jewish people have been able to combine religious practice in great variety—there is no one mode of Jewish practice—with Jewish cultural identity and being British. None of those three things is static, and the Jewish experience shows that they can be combined.
I hope that my experience as a Jewish person and of the Jewish community has already assisted other minorities in our society. In the 1980s and 1990s, I was the leader of Lancashire county council. One of the first issues that I encountered when I became leader in 1981 was what I saw as the total neglect of and ignorance about the needs of Muslim communities in areas such as Blackburn, Burnley and Hyndburn. I found that there was little understanding of their needs. Their correct wish to maintain their identity and to have their religious and cultural needs met was fully understandable and acceptable, yet the authorities found it difficult to understand. Seeing things differently was considered to be hostile.
Because of my Judaism and my position as leader of the council, I was able to use my knowledge to assist the Muslim communities, and at the beginning of the 1980s we changed Lancashire county council policy. Dietary policy was changed to introduce halal meat to school meals, and we argued with the burial authorities so that, in accordance with Islamic law, Muslim burials could take place on the same day. I brushed aside statements and reports telling me that that was not possible. I knew that not so many miles down the road, in the Jewish communities of Manchester, burial on the same day was a given, and was accepted as a right of that community. I could not understand or accept that if it was a right for the Jewish community in Manchester, it should not be a right for the Muslim communities of Lancashire. That change was made, as were changes in policy on school uniforms.
I also worked with Adam Patel, who is now a peer, to found the Lancashire Council of Mosques to help Muslim communities in Lancashire to develop their identities and to extend their knowledge on the basis of maintaining their identities as members of a wider community and contributing to that community. The Jewish experience provides a model for how people can maintain their sense of identity, how it can change over time, and how maintaining identity can make people better and stronger citizens.
The Government’s efforts to give support in matters of particular concern to Jewish people have been mentioned. I thank also the Speaker for his efforts in recognising the Jewish community, and for holding the special celebration to mark the 350th anniversary of the return to the UK of Jews. The Chief Rabbi spoke to the nation on the BBC this morning, and talked about this debate. He quoted Jeremiah urging Jews to contribute to the society of which they had become a part, and he drew attention to the origin of many Jews in this country as the asylum seekers of the past.
I hope that the Jewish contribution has shown the way forward for people to maintain their identities in a way that contributes to society as a whole. I hope also that that is a cause for celebration, as we discuss the future of citizenship and the direction in which our society should go.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on their speeches in this enjoyable debate. I do not expect that my humble contribution will add much.
I am not a Jewish person, but I want to place on record my appreciation for what Jewish people have brought to Britain in the past 350 years. In many respects, the number 350 resonates throughout the debate, because after Cromwell changed the law, there were only about 350 Jewish people in London. It is now 350 years since that important decision, and there are about 350,000 Jewish people in Britain today. That is the second largest Jewish population in western Europe, I believe.
As the hon. Member for Hendon described, Jewish people have not always had a happy time in this country. For many centuries, it was considered that Christian people should not be involved in moneylending, which is why the first Jewish people who came here engaged in that profession, from which they clearly prospered, which led to resentment. It is shocking, and strongly reminiscent of the second world war, that in 1217 in this country, Jewish people were required to wear yellow badges to indicate that they were Jewish.
Cromwell’s decision, made in this place in 1655, was momentous. It followed several weeks of debate, including opposition from the clergy, but with strong consideration given to the Messianic prophecies. It was a strong view at that time that if Jewish people were not allowed back into this country there would not be a second coming, because Jewish people would have to be on all the lands of the earth for the second coming to happen. As well as those religious implications, Cromwell clearly had strong feelings on the matter and rightly recognised that Jewish people would help trade inside England and with other countries in Europe.
The relationship between this country and Jewish people has not always been straightforward. We rightly recognise that this country has a long and proud tradition of democracy and trade in all sorts of different spheres, but Israel was a kingdom long before London or England were ever thought of, and when where we are now was just swampy riverside. For the people alive at that time, there was no concept of our nation, yet many years on, this country played a crucial role in establishing the modern state of Israel. That was never a straightforward process, but I like to think that if Britain had not had the mandate in Palestine and it had been given to another power, the state of Israel might not have been born in the way that it was.
My uncle served in the British Army in Palestine just before 1948. He very much appreciated all that Israel had to offer, and our country had a difficult role to play between the Israeli and Arab communities. The path was never straightforward. Had there been a more brutal colonial power than Britain in Palestine, the Israel that we know today might not have come about after the second world war. This country stood alone in 1940 against the rise of Nazism in Germany when no other country in the world was prepared to stand up to Hitler.
I am sure that Jewish people and non-Jewish people alike will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue today. An important part of Britain’s cultural life is the hymn “Jerusalem”. Many of us know its words off by heart, and it is rather appropriate that that hymn links the Jewish community with those of us who are not Jewish but who recognise the Jewish tradition.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this debate, which has ranged widely around the contributions that the Jewish community has made to British life and indeed the connections between the life of this country and Jewish communities overseas.
I noted in the Library pack for this debate an article written by a scholar claiming that this date was not necessarily the most significant in the history of the Jewish community in this country. I was therefore interested to hear the hon. Gentleman speak about the case that made it acceptable again at that time for members of what was a small Jewish community to practise their faith openly. It reassured me that this date is significant. Whether the anniversary is for 350, 400 or 300 years, the important thing is that we are having a debate today and that there is a celebration this year of the immense contribution that the Jewish community has made to British life and to global Jewish culture. A prominent example of the latter is the political influence that the Jewish community exercised to ensure that the British Government supported the establishment of the state of Israel.
I was interested to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who is no longer present, as my father’s family is from the east end of London, and they grew up as part of a diverse community. My father’s first teaching job was in Ilford, and he trained as a teacher in Golders Green, so there is also a connection with an area not too far from Hendon. We heard particularly moving words from the hon. Member for Hendon about his discussions with those people who experienced the most appalling persecution in Europe during the second world war. As an A-level history student, and a fairly difficult person to affect emotionally at the age of 16, I remember visiting the Imperial War museum and seeing some of the footage of the British Army arriving at and liberating the camps, and the effect that that had on me. It is impossible to imagine the suffering that the Jewish community throughout Europe experienced during that period, and it was moving to hear the hon. Gentleman’s experiences of and discussions about that.
Like every European community, we have had our own periods of persecution in which episodes of anti-Semitism were overt, although they took place further back in our history. We heard from the hon. Gentleman about the terrible persecution in York.
In the contribution from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), we heard how low-level discrimination in our society is equally damning of us as a community. Although it may be less obvious, we must never forget that it devalues us all.
The Jewish community’s resilience and determination to practise its faith reminds me of the Catholic tradition in which I grew up, although the two faiths may have slightly different views on the role of Oliver Cromwell in certain stories. As the hon. Lady said, the Jewish community as a minority paved the way for others in integrating or maintaining the role of its unique tradition. The Jewish community has contributed famously to the worlds of business, science and the arts, and, as we have heard, to sport and to the military.
All parties have had prominent Jewish politicians. As we heard, the first Jewish MP, Lionel de Rothschild, was elected four times before he was allowed to take his seat in 1858. He was from the Liberal tradition. The first non-baptised, Jewish Cabinet Minister, Herbert Samuel, joined the Cabinet in 1909, as I had understood; the hon. Member for Hendon said 1908, and I bow to his research. Samuel went on to lead the Liberal party and, I am told, to appear in the first televised party political broadcast. I shall leave it up to other hon. Members to decide whether that was an achievement.
There are debates within the Jewish community about its degree of assimilation. It is clear that living among and interacting with other cultures brings challenges, but it also provides the opportunity to celebrate uniqueness in Britain’s diverse culture. The celebration taking place this year marks the re-emergence of the British Jewish community 350 years ago, and more than that, it provides the entire British community with the opportunity to show its appreciation of the contribution made by the Jewish community and individual Jewish citizens.
The community has not often sought the limelight, and I hope that schools, councils, villages, towns and cities will take the opportunity to thank the Jewish community. I hope also that the community itself will proudly acknowledge its achievements in Britain, and look positively to the future.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this debate and on introducing it in a generous and illuminating fashion. We had a wonderfully expansive trot through the history of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom, and we thank him for that. I welcome my friend, the Minister, who will make the Government’s winding-up speech—so we have little doubt that the high quality of this debate will be maintained right to the very end.
I have had the good fortune to be long acquainted with just what the Jewish community means to this country. I was born and brought up in Bury when, as is well known, the Jewish community was already a fixed part of north Manchester life. When driving into Manchester through Whitefield and Prestwich, the synagogues, the visible symbols of the Jewish community, were obvious and proud. My school, Bury grammar, had long benefited from a distinctive Jewish community. Over the decades, countless boys have emerged to contribute to all sections of British society through their skills and application. From within my generation, there have been such literary notables as Colin Shindler, author of the wicked and, in my view, deeply unfair book “Manchester United Ruined My Life”; and Simon Kelner, possibly the finest and most innovative newspaper editor of the modern day, and whose form prefect I once was.
There is one man in particular, however, who bridges my childhood and adult life as the epitome of dedication to public life. His life and career was a wonderful example to me and many others. He is Michael Fidler JP, and woe betide anyone who forgot the JP. Michael was born in Salford, the fourth child of two Lithuanian Jewish émigrés who ran a hardware shop. They subsequently established their own waterproof garment factory, and Michael became its managing director. He was chairman of the National Joint Clothing Council of Great Britain between 1953 and 1957. While serving his trade and profession he served his faith. He was a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1942, and its president between 1967 and 1973. He also had a distinguished masonic career.
As an independent councillor, he became the first Jewish mayor of Prestwich in 1957, but he joined the Conservative party and was the MP for Bury and Radcliffe between 1970 and 1974. I shall remember for ever my excitement and elation, as chairman of Michael’s young Conservatives, when he held his seat in February 1974 by just 300 votes after three recounts, little realising that barely nine years later I would be his Conservative successor. He distinguished himself in Parliament by fighting hard for his constituency, perhaps making his greatest contribution by ensuring that Bury and Rochdale retained their historic individual identities. In the midst of all that, he still had time to be the founder of the Conservative Friends of Israel, of which he was the director until his death in 1988, and which is now so ably run by Stuart Polak. Michael was just one man, but the life of that one man—and he was so rightly proud of every part of it—and of Maidie and the family epitomise the contribution made by Jews throughout this country to business life, community life, politics and international relations, particularly in ensuring vital support for the existence and independence of the state of Israel.
I have been lucky to experience at first hand the contribution of the Jewish community. As the Member of Parliament for Bury, North until 1997, I was able to see still more of that contribution in education, welfare, family life, community life, business and politics. Perhaps nothing during that time was more poignant to a child born after the heartbreak of world war and holocaust, but whose soul had been touched by visits to Yad Vashem and by the writings of Elie Wiesel, than attending the annual remembrance service of Jewish ex-servicemen in Prestwich with my good friend and colleague David Sumberg, who was the MP for Bury, South. I still cherish those memories.
I hope that you will forgive these personal reflections, Mr. Williams. Perhaps they help to explain why I am so proud on behalf of the Opposition to respond to the debate and to discuss the contribution of the community on a wider scale. We have heard several excellent contributions this morning. They highlighted particular themes that run through the community’s contribution to Britain during the past three centuries. There were personal reflections from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who both drew on personal experiences to illuminate their remarks. My hon. Friend spoke with humour, emotion and not a little passion about the family experiences that had brought him to this place, and the hon. Lady used her considerable local government experience to draw some valuable and too often unheard parallels between the experience of the Jewish community and that of other minorities in Britain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) reminded us of the United Kingdom’s role in establishing the state of Israel, and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) rightly took this opportunity to remind all communities to celebrate the contribution of the Jewish community to life in this country.
Perhaps I might emphasise three trends throughout the centuries to make a point about the Jewish contribution to community life. Speaking just a few days ago at the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the leader of my party stated:
“To me the greatest strength of the Jewish faith—and the Jewish community—is the primacy of your values and how you live by them. Treasuring the close bonds of family life, truly understanding that they are the cornerstone of a healthy and vibrant community. That community also recognises the central importance of education and a good schooling. The greatest gift you can give someone is the means to help them look after him or herself and a good education provides the tools for independence.”
That closeness of community and that shared culture, which is so generously made available to anyone who inquires after it and is taken into the home of Jewish friends, is a fundamental characteristic well known to our society.
If culture has been important, so too has been the remarkable character of significant individuals who have made a contribution. Many of them have already been mentioned this morning. A visit to a cheerful Jewish website, of which there are many, produced an entertaining list of the top 10 UK Jews. The list comes from TotallyJewish.com’s top 10 list of Jews who have influenced Britain. It is not a bad list: it includes Peter Sellers, Brian Epstein, Benjamin Disraeli, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Marks, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Winston—contributions that have been mentioned by many others this morning. I was particularly delighted by the recognition of Rosalind Franklin, a representative of Jewish women of achievement. Too often forgotten, she was the woman at the heart of the discovery of DNA.
If character and culture have been of significance, so too has been the wisdom of those whose thoughts and words stop us in our tracks and make us look at the world differently. I have had the good fortune to meet and listen to both of the last two Chief Rabbis. They have made a huge impression on us all with their depth of understanding of the importance of fixed and firm values in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Such wisdom is drawn from a perspective influenced by the tragedies of the Jewish people’s experience of the 20th century and the later struggles for the existence and very life of the state of Israel. Their words, directed often with gentle humour but deep insight, have illuminated contemporary discussion of the place of faith in modern life and communities. They represent many other writers, artists and philosophers, too numerous to mention, who have helped shape the modern world and culture that we now take for granted.
Arthur Hertzberg stated:
“Community cannot survive on what it remembers; it will persist only because of what it affirms and believes.”
Those of the Jewish faith in Britain have something special to contribute. What they affirm and believe encompasses a sense of purpose born from the pain of their existence, which is perhaps why so many of them have tended to raise their voices on behalf of others. Wiesel stated:
“No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”
An article published on the website of the Board of Deputies of British Jews about the Jewish community in the United Kingdom concludes:
“The Jews have never just been a people like other peoples. Jewish survival is a miracle. It defies the trends and logic of history. Logically the Jews should have been no more than a footnote of history disappearing centuries, even millennia ago. With our endless problems, crises and catastrophes which have perennially cascaded through Jewish history, we are indeed (in Simon Rawidowicz’s famous phase) ‘the ever dying people’.”
We are all the richer in this country because that Jewish community survived. We recognise that it survives not on its past or on its history, but on its relevance and engagement with contemporary life. Nor do we forget that the embers of anti-Semitism, which may have been dampened much lower than in medieval times, are still capable of being inflamed. With the recent votes for fascist parties such as the British National party, we know that they need vigorous and effective combating.
The key to the relationship of the Jewish community with the rest of society is the relationship of that community with God and its creator. That relationship gives us in the book of Micah a phrase which, when applied to individuals, communities and nations, and when remembered, is a universal code by which we can all live:
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
We wish Godspeed to the Jewish community in this country for many years to come.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this important debate and on his representation of his Jewish community and constituents and, generally, the way in which he represents all his constituents. It is no exaggeration to say that he is indeed legendary in this place.
All hon. Members who contributed to the debate have added to its richness. They shared their experiences and knowledge, and I have certainly learned a great deal. It is always a pleasure to take part in a debate in which there is cross-party support—in which parties come together to speak loudly from this House about an important issue. I commend the speeches of the Front-Bench representatives, and I thank the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his generous comments and his moving contribution.
This debate takes place at an appropriate and opportune time. It is appropriate, as it provides an opportunity for the House to recognise the contribution that Jewish communities have made to our culture, society and economic success, and it is opportune, as the Government have recently consolidated their work with faith communities under the auspices of the new Department for Communities and Local Government. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has lead responsibility for race, faith and cohesion following the reshuffle, and I am supporting him in that work, as part of my cross-cutting equality brief.
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the resettlement of Jews in England, following their expulsion by Edward I in 1290. It is an important anniversary in our country’s history, a time to remember and celebrate. Jewish communities are part of the fabric of British life and have been for more than three centuries, and they have made a huge positive contribution to our society. During that time, they have been part of an extremely vibrant political culture, with people such as Benjamin Disraeli and Karl Marx, and political events, such as the 1936 battle of Cable street, which stopped Oswald Mosley’s fascists marching in the east end of London, and to which my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) referred. Mainstream political parties have all had distinguished members from the Jewish community in this place contributing to the nation’s governance.
Jewish contributions to British society have enriched it in many fields, including business and finance, arts and sciences, industry and technology, medicine and law, academia and the media, politics and public services, the armed forces and charitable endeavours. Indeed, it would be hard to find an area of British life that has not benefited from Jewish input, and hon. Members have given us other interesting and detailed examples.
As a community, the Jews have been able to integrate into the life of the country without losing their distinctive identity as Jews. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside described that well. The Jewish community is an example of how members of an immigrant community can succeed as individuals and as a community, and make a huge positive contribution to the country at large.
The Government value the Jewish community in this country. Over the past year, ministerial colleagues have attended the League of Jewish Women’s human rights day, the Rabbi-Imam conference, the 350 years of British Jewry event, the Holocaust Educational Trust dinner, and holocaust memorial day. As has been said, yesterday evening the Prime Minister attended an event at the Bevis Marks synagogue commemorating 350 years of British Jews in the UK.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon spoke of the experiences of Jews before and after the second world war. Holocaust memorial day is about commemorating all the communities that have suffered as a result of the holocaust and Nazi persecution. It is about demonstrating that the holocaust is relevant, by having the day as a focus. National and local events help people to think about the ongoing repercussions on our society of that tragic time.
The UK holocaust memorial day was first held in January 2001, and has been held on 27 January every year since. A different part of the UK hosts the national event each year, and it has been held successively in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast and London again. Holocaust memorial day this year was held in Cardiff, showing that the issue is important to all parts of our country. The success of holocaust memorial day has enabled it to go from strength to strength and to play a major role in commemorating all the communities that suffered as a result of the holocaust and Nazi persecution.
Hon. Members have rightly reminded us that anti-Semitism still exists and continues to arise in different forms and in different shapes throughout the country. The Government deplore all forms of racism and are committed to tackling anti-Semitism. We welcome the Community Security Trust report for 2005, which highlighted a decrease in the number of ant-Semitic incidents, but we cannot become complacent. Violent attacks on Jewish people have outnumbered incidents of damage to Jewish property for the second year in a row.
Government and the police work closely with the Jewish community. The police and officials from my Department work closely with the Community Security Trust. Attacks on individuals, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are completely unacceptable. British Jews, like all people in this country, must be able to live their lives free from verbal or physical attack. The Government have a shared responsibility to tackle anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism and prejudice against lawful religious traditions.
In recent years we have strengthened both the legal framework against race discrimination and the criminal penalties for offences such as incitement to racial hatred, and racially or religiously aggravated assault or criminal damage. Additionally, in a July 2003 policy statement, the Crown Prosecution Service gave a commitment to prosecute racist and religious crime fairly, firmly and robustly. That sends a clear message to perpetrators that they will not get away with threatening, violent or abusive behaviour towards members of racial or religious groups.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of war crimes. The Government are clear that the crimes committed during the second world war by the Nazis are among the most serious. We remain determined that the UK will not provide a safe haven for anyone guilty of such atrocities. The Metropolitan police continue to investigate all allegations, and immigration powers are in place to revoke leave for suspected war criminals to enter or remain in the UK.
It is important not to forget that Britain is a multi-faith society, quite as much as it is a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and others form sizeable minorities alongside the majority Christian faith. The Government are committed to engaging with all faith communities. We are working towards ensuring that members of all faiths and none enjoy the same opportunities in life. We work with people of different beliefs but shared values toward common goals. Faith communities contribute to social and community cohesion through those of their values that help to underpin good citizenship, such as altruism, respect for others, ethical behaviour and community solidarity.
We recognise that in the past some well-meaning initiatives might have inadvertently contributed to a sense of division within communities. Although concerns that a section of a community is receiving a preferential level of investment or treatment over, or at the expense of, another section are often unfounded, the Government are determined that the important work that we have embarked on will be undertaken in a manner that promotes community cohesion. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside has demonstrated how she was able to use her experience and background to assist people of another faith who were experiencing discrimination. We should all learn from such examples.
We have established the Faith Communities Consultative Council, as a way of engaging with faith communities. The new body supersedes the Inner Cities Religious Council and the “Working Together” steering group, and covers nine faiths: Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. The council will be administered by and linked with the Department for Communities and Local Government. In addition, many Members of this House and the other House, such as Lord Janner, are doing considerable work on improving inter-faith co-operation.
I should also mention the creation of the new commission for equality and human rights, which we aim to have in place by October 2007. For the first time, there will be institutional support for people experiencing discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. As hon. Members will be aware, the Government have introduced a range of laws on discrimination, outlawing it in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation, and religion and belief. Later this year, we will introduce regulations to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the grounds of religion and belief, and sexual orientation. We shall continue to look at how to respond to a changing inter-faith integration and cohesion agenda, and to focus on all faiths.
Interfaith engagement and dialogue are part of the glue that binds society together. The Government are deeply committed to dialogue and have brokered Jewish-Muslim dialogue through meetings with imams and rabbis and through engagement with the Three Faiths Forum, which focuses on Muslim, Christian and Jewish dialogue and understanding.
There are nearly 185 interfaith and multifaith and local bodies throughout the country. Those bodies play a key role in bringing together people of different faiths to increase trust, mutual understanding and respect, to help to defuse intercommunity tensions, to build community cohesion, to provide advice and information on religious issues, to foster co-operation on local issues and to work jointly on social and educational projects.
The Government have consolidated their work with faith communities under the auspices of the new Department for Communities and Local Government. The new arrangements put us in a strong position to make a difference. Our focus is on helping communities to prosper through good governance, tackling deprivation, housing, regeneration, empowering communities and improving the local environment. Those are some of the fundamentals of building communities and of building cohesion at their heart. Race and faith issues are seen as an important element of the different strands that need to be knitted together.
I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have found useful my explanation of how we intend to move forward in the area of faith. Britain has for the most part a positive tradition of accepting people of different faiths, races and cultures. I hope that, through the Government working positively with all who are willing, we can ensure that the children of today grow up feeling accepted by society at large.
Last night, the Prime Minister said:
“Throughout these years, the community”—
the Jewish community—
“has shown how it is possible to retain a clear faith and a clear identity and, at the same time, be thoroughly British…As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.”
The Jewish community in England and in the UK as a whole has made a significant contribution to our society. It has contributed enormously to our diversity and helped to make us a vibrant and successful society. This debate has shown that we ignore at our peril the talents and abilities of any section of our society and of any individual. There are many important challenges ahead of us. We want to build diverse cultures within a framework of integration. I am sure that the Jewish community will continue to be at the forefront of helping us to build a more inclusive and cohesive society.
Digital Switchover (North-East Wales)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Williams. I hope that the conversation over the next half hour will be of interest to you; I suspect that it will.
Television broadcasting provision in north-east Wales in general and Wrexham in particular is complex. In my living room in central Wrexham, it is possible to receive analogue TV signals from three separate regional broadcasting areas: Wales, north-west England and the ITV Central English region. At present, it is difficult to obtain information about which channels individual viewers watch and, in particular, how many viewers in north-east Wales watch out-of-area services from England. In 1999, at the birth of the National Assembly for Wales, the Welsh Affairs Committee suggested in its inquiry at Westminster that that figure might be as high as 10 per cent. across Wales. I suspect that in north-east Wales the figure might be higher.
My first request of the Minister is to ask him to commission research, perhaps through Ofcom in Wales, on viewing patterns in north-east Wales. That is not merely a subject of academic interest. At present, only Welsh TV channels engage with the development of civic society in Wales—a development that is now rapid. If viewers in north-east Wales do not watch channels from Wales because the services do not interest them, their disconnection from the rest of Wales will grow, which could have profound implications for devolution in Wales.
Local TV signals in north-east Wales are broadcast from three transmitters: the Wrexham-Rhos transmitter, Winter Hill in north-west England and Wrekin in the ITV Central region. In my living room, the signals vary in quality; Winter Hill is best, Wrexham-Rhos is next and Wrekin is worst. Poorer quality signals blur in analogue but they are still perfectly visible.
I raise the issue now to explore the effect that digital switchover will have on TV reception and whether it will limit my constituents’ choice of the number of channels that they can watch. With digital signals, poorer quality transmission leads to intermittent signals rather than blurring. When transmission is interrupted viewers are much less likely to stick with a channel. After switchover, I want to see maximum choice for my constituents. Those who wish to must be able to receive transmission from Wales and those who wish to must be able to receive transmission from England. If digital switchover means that the habits of a viewer are disregarded overnight, there will be considerable outcry.
I am certain that the possible impact of switchover has not yet registered in the minds of the vast majority of my constituents. The current position is simply unacceptable. Viewers in Wrexham cannot receive digital services from Wales through freeview. Signals come from Winter Hill in north-west England and thus there is no BBC Wales, HTV Wales or S4C on freeview channels. That has the considerable impact on coverage of Welsh affairs that I mentioned earlier. Can the Minister assure me that following switchover, viewers in Wrexham, which is the largest town in north Wales, who want to receive freeview digital TV services from Wales will be able to do so?
As I said, I want my constituents to have maximum choice and I believe that those who want to watch English television too should have the right so to do. Will it be possible for individual viewers to choose which digital signal they receive? At present, different regions can be viewed on the same television set. Given the break-up effect of poor digital signals, is it possible that choice could be reduced by switchover because channels such as ITV Central might no longer be available to viewers? What steps can a viewer take to ensure that the number of regional channels that are available through analogue signals can be viewed on digital in the future?
I would also be grateful if the Minister clarified what steps will be taken to ensure that the cost of maintaining viewers’ level of choice will be met. I anticipate that the costs will include those of not only a digital box, the idea of which is beginning to enter the public consciousness, but additional aerials. If one might require an additional aerial to preserve a signal from north-west England and the ITV Central region, for example, the cost of securing it will be considerable.
Given that the changes are driven by Government policy and that individuals on poorer incomes might not be in a position to fund such extension of reception, will the Government take any steps to support the provision of additional aerials and boxes? In short, what help will there be for consumers who are prejudiced by digital switchover?
As the Minister knows, the changes in Wales will happen in 2009-10. I have been fortunate to receive helpful briefings from Ofcom and Digital UK, and to have had a number of discussions with broadcasters from Wales in particular but also with some from outside Wales. I want to thank them for their help. There is a common interest in ensuring that the digital switchover happens and is successful. I have grappled for some while with the complexities of switchover in order to get my head around them, and it is clear that Digital UK has a big job on its hands in explaining the implications of switchover not only to the general public but to the media and politicians, who at this stage have not appreciated the scale of what is to occur. I have found that one of the most helpful phrases is “analogue switch-off”, rather than “switchover”. The phrase “switch-off” makes it clear that what is there at the moment will disappear. That has not yet entered the public consciousness as something that will have a profound impact.
It is clear that, for the reasons that I have set out, switchover will have a localised impact. It is vital that the information from Digital UK should be localised. What plans are in place to focus on localised information from Digital UK? Like many others, I recently saw the beginnings of the national advertising campaign, and I have benefited from a briefing meeting with Digital UK, for which I am grateful. We need more localised information.
Some of the issues that face my hon. Friend’s constituency are differently cast in mine. It seems that there is an enormous inequity as freeview is not available to many households in Wales, which is worse off than other parts of the country in that respect. When freeview becomes available to everybody because of analogue switch-off, as my hon. Friend calls it, it will be only a poorer version of the freeview that is available in many rural and semi-rural areas of the UK. Will that not make a lot of people feel that they are not getting the same deal from the BBC as the people of Chelsea and Westminster?
Absolutely; I echo my hon. Friend’s concern. My other concern, based on my dislike of monopolies, is the suggestion that satellite television rather than freeview can be used to allow access to television services. That is unfair in the extreme. Those of us who hold strong views about Sky and who do not want to use satellite services do not wish to be forced to obtain a satellite aerial from a particular broadcaster because it is the only way to obtain a secure television signal. It is important that we work to improve freeview reception. I welcome freeview—it is a tremendous innovation—but the service needs to be broadened and spread to as many households as possible.
I do not want to be negative about the digital switchover. Digital television has tremendous potential, and I know that the local media community in Wrexham has a great appetite for services to be broadcast that represent what is happening there. We in north-east Wales feel that we do not receive a satisfactory level of coverage from existing services; the BBC within Wales focuses on other areas of Wales to the exclusion of our culture, and services from the north-west of England do not generally cover our area.
There is a great appetite and capacity among those in the media community in north-east Wales, especially at Yale college and the North East Wales institute at Wrexham, to explore digital television and especially local digital television. About two years ago, the BBC in Wales held a laboratory broadcasting experiment in Wrexham for a week, which led to the successful, high-quality production of local television; it was viewed within a room and not broadcast, but it showed the capacity to make programmes and the appetite for viewing local news in a more localised manner.
One of my major concerns about freeview is the development of gaming shows and channels that seem to appear from nowhere, and without discussion or consultation about their content. I hope that the strength of appetite for local digital television will in due course be registered by the Government, and that it will be taken forward in order to benefit areas such as north-east Wales, and particularly Wrexham.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put my concerns on to the radar. It is important that Members of Parliament engage with the issue, because we are leaders in our communities and can put such matters before our constituents. I am pleased to have seen some local recognition of the debate, and pleased that the issue has now been discussed. Of course, that discussion is coupled with the launch of Digital UK.
The Government are making good progress with the roll-out of digital television, and I commend them for that, but I hope that the local issues that I have raised—I make no apology for them—are addressed as early as possible, because the earlier they are dealt with, the better the resolution will be and the more positive the outcome will be for digital television.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on initiating this debate on digital television and the digital switchover as it affects his constituency. He is right to want to put his concerns on the radar. Indeed, he should make no apology for raising local issues. Everyone in the country has a huge opportunity. It is right that Members of Parliament should take a strong and extensive interest in the subject because of the changes and the opportunities that their constituents will undoubtedly have once we complete the analogue switch-off in 2012. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about what the switchover and the switch-off of the analogue signal will mean generally in the United Kingdom and specifically for people in north-east Wales and in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
My hon. Friend raised a number of important questions that I hope to answer, and those that I cannot answer I shall refer to Ofcom. He spoke about a number of specific issues, some of which will need to be explored further. I will be happy to write to him and to meet him in order to explore the reality of the matter during the next few years before the change comes into effect in his constituency.
As my hon. Friend said, it is important to recognise the enormous opportunity that the switch-off and the digital revolution will bring to the UK and to his constituents. However, we may not yet have taken on board quite what that revolution will bring. Indeed, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said in its recent report on the digital switchover that we might almost be hitting the “lowest common denominator” in our vision of what it could bring about.
Yes, it will mean that people will have access to many more channels—channels that are currently enjoyed by most people in the UK, but not all. When the full programme of switch-off is complete, and the signal is boosted once everyone has access to digital, people will have a great deal more than the 33 channels, which is sometimes all we speak of. If we get it right, if we manage to get the synthesis between ourselves and the software and hardware manufacturers—those that make the televisions and those who provide the services, through whichever platform—we will truly have revolutionised the way in which people can enjoy all kinds of services, of which the television channels are only a part. Indeed, companies such as Microsoft Entertainment are beginning to explore the full potential of digital television.
I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and others, will be able to enjoy all the benefits. We are already beginning to see a glimmer of that, with people being able to enjoy things such as the World cup and using the red button to gain access to all kinds of other dimensions of the game.
By the end of March this year, almost three-quarters of UK households had converted at least one television set. It is worth pausing on that point, because in some ways the debate has been characterised as if the Government were forcing people to make the conversion. That is not the case. We will have switched off everything by 2012, but three-quarters of households have already embarked on this great venture. They are not being pushed into doing it. They want to do it—and for a very good reason.
People realise the opportunities. Consumers in Britain and in my hon. Friend’s constituency are demonstrating that they want to be part of the change. None the less, we must recognise that some out there have not yet taken on board the advantages that digital television can bring. On the evidence that we have seen, some may feel that, because of their age—the most likely reason—or because of disability and not because of income, it is too great a challenge at the moment.
Part of our policy is to ensure that the digital revolution and the change to digital television is available for everybody, and that we provide help or know-how to those for whom age or disability are barriers to taking it up. In trials that we have conducted—for example, we held one in Bolton—we have found that, if we offer help to people, regardless of age or disability, not only do they want to do it, not only can they do it, but if we ask them afterwards how they feel about it, 98 per cent. of them say that it has made their lives better.
Yes, everybody wants to go digital in Rhondda because they want to watch Channel 4 instead of—or at least as well as—S4C, and they want to watch some decent rugby. The way in which the Government have structured broadcasting in the UK and broadcasters have managed to attract rights is deliberately geared towards making people go in that direction. However, the difficulty is that the only way to go digital in Rhondda is by paying money to Sky. I can count the dishes outside the houses in Rhondda to find out how many have gone digital. The problem is that people have been waiting for some time for a freesat service from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. I hope that the Minister will bash some of those broadcasters’ heads together to provide a non-Sky freesat option as soon as possible, so that people in Rhondda have some choice.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There is a need for a little head bashing, although not necessarily only inside the BBC and one or two of the other channels—it should take place across the whole industry.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about his constituents. I am sure he is out there every night, assiduously counting the number of satellite dishes going up. There are short-term issues that have to be addressed, but those must not mask our opportunity. He mentioned why people in his constituency and elsewhere may have gone digital—to access particular television stations. However, by the time digital switchover is completed in 2012, there will be literally scores of channels and opportunities of different kinds, not least through the potential of high-speed broadband.
As I mentioned, Microsoft Entertainment is exploring with British Telecom and others the kind of services that it might be able to bring into people’s homes. That will make traditional terrestrial channels look like something from the ark. There is real excitement ahead.
My hon. Friends are right to point out the short-term problems, which are not inconsiderable. However, the potential is such that, by 2012, the argument will not be, “Why did the Government make us all do this?” People will look back and say that this Government were right to have had the foresight to get this done and that the opportunity they created was enormous.
To use my hon. Friend’s term, we have to head bash among ourselves to make sure that the technology that we are encouraging people to have in their homes will match the kind of services in which they will be able to take part. If we have one particular problem, it is this. We begin the process in 2008 and end it in 2012, but the technology going into people’s homes in 2008 will be different by 2012. That is not the Government’s fault. None the less, it would be foolish for them not to recognise the changes and the speed with which the technology is changing.
I say to both my hon. Friends that it is significant that, in Wales, take-up has been high. I recognise what part of the reason for that is. None the less, 80 per cent. of Wales has already made the switch. It is worth recognising that that is probably to do with more than the problem of access to some television stations.
The high take-up in Wales is very good news, but it leaves us with the important issue of the 20 per cent. who will need to convert before Wales switches over in 2009. Although many people are now converting their second and third sets too, many have yet to convert at all. We the Government, the broadcasters, Digital UK, Ofcom—all the organisations involved in providing help—have a great deal to do between now and 2009, and I do not underestimate that. We must encourage people to take up digital TV and understand the barriers to which I have alluded.
As a Government, we remain platform-neutral. How people make the switch is up to them, although I recognise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda: for some people, satellite may be the only option because of where they live.
It is vital that we put out as much information as we can to try to help people. I welcome the national information campaign that Digital UK, the broadcasters’ organisation for switchover, has launched. Between now and switchover, Digital UK will be communicating with every single TV viewing household in the country to help them to prepare for that change.
We must also ensure that nobody is left behind. That is why we are putting together a special assistance scheme, from all the work that we have done, specifically focused on those for whom conversion may be a problem. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham that we do not for one second underestimate issues around low-income households in the UK. However, from the evidence that we have seen, being in that bracket tends not to be the barrier to conversion. Age and disability tend to be—not exclusively, but by and large. For that reason, to make sure that the assistance scheme is appropriately targeted, we have decided to aim it at those groups.
I turn to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. Extending digital terrestrial television in Wales is particularly challenging. The hills and valleys in much of Wales make that difficult to achieve with ground-based transmitters. There are more than 200 transmitters in Wales—a far greater concentration than anywhere else in the UK. At present, only nine carry digital signals, covering about 57 per cent. of the population.
That will all change at switchover, and I should like to make some specific points that I hope will reassure my hon. Friend. First, after switchover, the coverage of freeview services across the UK will greatly increase, reaching the same proportion of the population as analogue signals do today. In Wales, we expect digital terrestrial coverage to go from its present level of about 57 per cent. to about 96.7 per cent. of Welsh homes, a larger percentage increase than in any other part of the UK. Coverage will increase substantially in Wrexham because the Wrexham-Rhos transmitter, to which my hon. Friend alluded and which is currently analogue-only, will be converted to digital. Secondly, people who receive their signals from one of the Welsh transmitters will be able to receive all the public service broadcasting channels in their Welsh versions. Those include S4C, the relevant BBC channels, ITV Wales, Channel 4 and Five.
Thirdly, people who currently have a choice of English or Welsh transmitter should continue to have that choice after switchover, although the Wrekin transmitter, in the ITV Central region, will not convert until 2011. I should make clear that there is no plan to change the boundaries of ITV regions. I recognise that that means that some of my hon. Friend’s constituents, who currently do not have a choice of region even with adjustments to their aerial, will not have it after switchover either. However, all the regional services are available on satellite.
All our experience shows that even viewers who were sceptical about digital TV liked it when they got it. This month marks the fifth anniversary of the BBC’s first interactive TV service, which covered the 2001 Wimbledon championships. Last Saturday, digital viewers of England’s match against Paraguay had a variety of interactive options as they watched the game. That is the point about digital TV—it is about creating choice and ensuring that consumers across the UK are able to enjoy the services that broadcasting companies, and many others now entering the ambit of television, will provide them. Analogue television is about viewers being given what they are served by the broadcasters. With digital, the viewer is in control. For example, HomeChoice video on demand, which gives access to vast libraries of material, is already with us. It will grow with initiatives such as Sky’s link-up with Easynet and the BT-freeview hybrid.
Whatever platform we are talking about—digital terrestrial television, cable or satellite—digital will offer a greater choice of channels and services for people at home. FilmFour will soon come to the freeview platform, and will be joined by two new channels from Five. That choice makes freeview by far the strongest digital terrestrial platform in the world, joining Sky, which is already one of the strongest satellite services in the world.
Cable will also make changes. Sky and Telewest currently lead the way with high-definition television, presenting the viewer with another opportunity to enrich their experience. All in all, digital is an exciting venture and a great opportunity for consumers. The Government’s job is to ensure that no one is left behind, that there is no digital divide, that the elderly and disabled are not alienated from the technology and that everyone in the United Kingdom is able to enjoy the digital revolution.
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.
Rural Post Offices
I want to use the debate to focus our attention on the change that will be coming to the post office network, particularly in rural areas. It is clear to anyone who has a pair of eyes in their head that change will come. When one hears the likes of Adam Crozier and Allan Leighton talk about substantial branch closures possibly being on the cards, it is clear that there will be some sort of change. My concern is that if that change is to come, the process of change should be shaped principally by the people who know best: the people who live in the communities and are most directly affected, and the postmasters and postmistresses who make their living from the provision of post office services in rural areas.
Between March 2000 and March 2006, the number of rural post offices in Scotland fell from 1,285 to 1,128, which represents a decrease of more than 12 per cent. According to a parliamentary answer that I received today, the total number of post offices in Scotland has fallen by 368 in the past eight years, to 1,688 in 2006. Almost one in five of Scotland’s post offices have shut since Labour came to power, and that is in the context of the Government, in recent years, giving substantial sums in direct assistance to the rural post office network. I acknowledge that, and like many rural MPs, I am grateful for that investment.
I am also sure that I am not the only one in the House who has seen the process of attrition at work. In the first instance, there is a cut in hours, which then affects the overall financial viability of the business. Another business opportunity then comes along for the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress, or they reach retirement. They then move on and nobody can be found to take their place. Thereafter, there is a temporary notice of closure, which is temporary in name only because we know that it means that another post office has been shut and will never open again. Many of us fear that that process will speed up in the months and years ahead. It will do so not only because the Government have failed to provide a coherent long-term policy for the rural post office network, but because so many of their policies are undermining its viability.
It is currently estimated that only one in 10 rural post offices make a profit. In that context, it is astonishing that Ministers have failed to accept the huge damage that removing Post Office card accounts will do. In my constituency alone, 1,700 people choose to collect their benefits in that way. In Scotland, the figure is almost 200,000, and in the UK the corresponding figure is 4.5 million. According to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, the accounts bring in, on average, 10 per cent. of the sub-postmaster’s income. The card account contract for post offices from 2003 to 2010 is worth an estimated £1 billion to the network.
The loss of, first, pension books and now Post Office card accounts is not the only way in which Departments have removed business from post offices. Baroness Prosser told the other place that the Government’s plans to set up specialist high-street offices to vet passport applications will “dig into” the £12 million that the Post Office makes from processing passports. We are also seeing a concerted attempt to persuade people to pay their vehicle excise duty online.
Most recently, the Post Office has lost the BBC TV licence contract to PayPoint. Once again, that will mean that rural post offices will lose business. It also demonstrates a failure by the Government to think in a joined-up way. The situation in the Northern Isles particularly concerns me, because they have few PayPoint outlets. The outlets are all in Stromness, Kirkwall and Lerwick—the main towns. There are no outlets in the rural parishes or in the outlying islands. I realise that that is not directly the Minister’s responsibility, but it is germane to the debate.
I have been in correspondence with the BBC and was recently told by Pipa Doubtfire, a head of revenue management, which is a glorious title, that customers who currently save stamps but are unable to visit a PayPoint outlet will still be able to use their savings card—that is good news—although they will need to telephone TV Licensing and make payments by debit card.
It is clear that my constituents in the outer isles and the rural parishes will no longer have any means of paying over the counter in a savings scheme such as the one they have had with TV Licensing stamps. We were told that TV Licensing would be writing to those who have paid in that way. The letters were worth waiting for. Two of my constituents in Shetland received letters telling them that their nearest PayPoint outlets were in Tidworth in Wiltshire and in Whitchurch near Winchester. I have no doubt that they are admirable communities, but they lack the important quality of proximity to Shetland. In the interests of helpfulness, I shall send a map or an atlas to TV Licensing to show it exactly where Shetland is.
My point is in a similar vein. Letters have recently been sent to people both in my constituency and across the south-west by South West Water encouraging people not to pay their bills at the post office, but to find other easier, more efficient and more convenient ways to pay, such as through PayPoint. That again undermines the services that the Post Office provides, and although it is not the direct responsibility of the Minister, I hope that he will examine that problem.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We must also be clear that part of the responsibility for the loss of the TV licensing contract was because of the Post Office itself and the manner in which it failed to compete properly for it.
The Government are always telling us that choice is a great driver and that competition is a great virtue. Why is it that we have simply replaced one monopoly provision with another? If the market and choice are as good as people say, why are not both PayPoint and the Post Office still available? It is clear that PayPoint is not able to cover the full range of services that are necessary.
I must declare an interest. I am from the fourth generation of a family that ran a post office in my village for most of the past century, but it has not done so in recent years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the following in respect of the problems in rural areas? At least urban areas had the urban reinvention programme and people knew where they stood. There was an opportunity to make submissions, although a third of the network was lost. If we are not careful, the benign neglect and under-the-counter approach, if I may pun in that way, will lose us a third of rural post offices and more. That will happen merely because of benign neglect and not standing up to the utility companies and others to ensure that there is adequate business for the post offices on which they can build a continued presence in the rural communities that they have served for a century and more.
Yes, we are talking about the loss of over-the-counter services, and under-the-counter neglect. That is a good metaphor, but we have probably taken it as far as possible. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and it is why I am hoping that the debate will be part of a process whereby we can talk about the issues and see the opportunities that exist. Despite all the gainsayers, I still think that there are tremendous opportunities for business in rural post offices. In many instances, a wee bit more flexibility and imagination is required.
It is necessary to have a bit more short to medium-term certainty in respect of the Post Office. Part of the long-term solution will have to be to establish what, if any, Government assistance will be given to the rural post office network. We know that the current annual £150 million for rural post offices will finish in 2008. My concern is that, not for the first time, the Government are refusing to let post offices know how much longer the vital funding will last. When will the announcement be made? What will the scale and duration of funding be beyond 2008? Will the Minister give us an indication of when we can expect an answer to that?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Given the threat of the Post Office card accounts going in 2010, is it not the case that until the Government make an announcement on funding for rural post offices, every rural post office in the country will face the threat of closure within the next five years? The situation is as bad as that.
That is certainly the case and it was ever thus. These businesses have always operated on very tight margins in communities where there is often an expectation that businesses operate on low margins and that the people who operate them have made a lifestyle choice as much as an economic business choice. I agree that there is a need for clarity and strategic thinking in the Department of Trade and Industry about what has been missing and what I hope we will see from here on in.
I am aware of the number of hon. Members present and do not want to take up too much time, but I want to consider a few of the opportunities for changing, improving and expanding post office services. One of the greatest opportunities is in the financial services sector. Currently, only 4 per cent. of villages in the United Kingdom have a bank whereas 60 per cent. have a post office, but only 40 per cent. of current accounts can be accessed over post office counters. That is a particular problem in Scotland because neither HBOS—we still fondly call it the Bank of Scotland—nor the Royal Bank of Scotland offer access to their current accounts at post offices. What steps is the Minister taking on that? Is there still an ongoing dialogue between the Department of Trade and Industry and the clearing banks concerned?
The Minister will be aware of research published by Citizens Advice in January this year which shows that many people find it difficult to open the basic bank accounts that are offered at post offices. Has the Minister seen that report and, if so, what action will be taken to help to increase the uptake of those accounts? Citizens Advice recommends that people should be able to open basic bank accounts at post office branches and that all current account holders should be able to withdraw cash over the counter at post offices. Until now, the sticking point has always been the unwillingness of clearing banks to co-operate. Does the Minister agree that if banks are unwilling to reach agreement with Post Office Ltd to allow their customers to withdraw cash from the post office network, Post Office Ltd should consider becoming a member of the Link network, which would allow that to happen? The income generated from that venture could make a significant contribution to sustaining the network of rural post offices, which are a valuable community resource.
Branches could also generate business by acting as mini-depots for parcels that recipients are unable to take delivery of from couriers and delivery companies, of which there is a substantial number outwith the Royal Mail. We all thought that the internet and e-mail would be the death of post offices, but in fact they have had unforeseen and beneficial consequences with the growth of phenomena such as eBay, Amazon and other internet-based companies. In my constituency, a number of mail order companies are operating out of Orkney and Shetland.
The volume of goods bought over the internet is increasing exponentially. It currently accounts for £18 billion of spending in the United Kingdom, or 2.5 per cent. of all household spending. That offers great potential both for Royal Mail in terms of increased deliveries and for post offices if they could act as collection points, interacting with private companies as they have always done hitherto with Royal Mail.
I presume that the hon. Gentleman is coming to the Liberal Democrats’ key policy to part-privatise Royal Mail. Given the success of such privatisations of public services in Scotland, what is the prospect of success with Royal Mail?
Part-privatisation is an exciting and innovative scheme. It would involve a substantial element of employee share ownership, which is something that the hon. Gentleman has supported. I am surprised if he thinks that Royal Mail should be treated differently. It is a policy that I would not have countenanced a few years ago, but with the opening up the letter post market to liberalisation—that was done without proper consideration for the protection of the universal service obligation—it is essential and the only way in which we can ensure that the Royal Mail maintains its market position as things stand.
The Government must be prepared to bring the experts into the process. I do not mean the clever people in suits at the Department of Trade and Industry; I mean the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. At the moment, it strikes me that the Government are willing to listen to Postcomm, but the people in the front line and at the sharp end of the process are often not heard or, if they are heard, they are ignored. Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses know better than anyone the challenges facing the rural network today. They have many interesting and exciting examples of things they have done in their own businesses to try to arrest the decline. That should be looked at, and where there is good practice it should be worked into the remainder of the network.
Tomorrow I host a seminar in Orkney, which I hope will be attended by local sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, as well as representatives from Postwatch and local people. I shall host a similar event in Shetland the next day. I am sorry that the Department of Trade and Industry was unable to send anyone. It said that we were not part of a process and that it would let us know when it decided what it was going to do. I think that my approach has something to commend it and I will ensure that the Minister is well informed of the outcome of the seminars. I particularly regret that Postcomm declined to send anyone to the seminars. As I told the Minister last week in the Chamber, its attitude is that it finds out all it needs to know about Orkney and Shetland by sending someone to Edinburgh, Dundee and Perth. That frankly demonstrates a particular lack of understanding. If TV Licensing finishes with the map and feels that it does not need it any more, it could pass it on to the chief executive of Postcomm.
How will the Government ensure that the voices of local sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are heard? They will be crucial in shaping the future of the Post Office. Can the Minister tell me that he has some thoughts about how to ensure that their voices and ideas become part of the future shape of the post office network?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. He may be wondering why on earth the hon. Member for Rhondda is speaking in a debate on the rural post office network—[Interruption.] That has not occurred to him, so the first part of my speech was unnecessary.
An interesting issue that is rarely commented on is that we tend to divide the rural post office network from the urban network, when many of us live in areas that are semi-rural or semi-urban. My constituency is not geographically large. Many people live in small villages where the only public service may be a pub or a post office, yet because the population density is relatively high in the area, it counts as an urban area, although communications may be difficult. The truth is that nearly everyone in the Rhondda lives within 150 m of a farm and we still occasionally have sheep coming down the street, so I think I am qualified to speak in the debate.
The significance of post offices in any community is dramatic. The hon. Gentleman referred to tax discs. Historically, people got their new tax disc from a post office but had to find the right sort of post office because not every post office in urban areas provided that service. People had to drive around trying to find the right one. It is difficult to find out online which post office to go to. However, it is much easier to buy a tax disc online. Thanks to a great recent innovation from the Department for Transport, we can do that now because the problem of checking whether a car is insured has been overcome—it can now be done electronically. It is a fine system and that is how I bought my tax disc earlier this year.
Many people use post offices to obtain or renew their passport—to get the forms and so on. In Britain, 86 per cent. of people have passports. I understand that that figure is the highest of any country in the world. Again, therefore, the passport plays an important role—but not as significant as it once did. Many people now get in touch directly by telephone or get the forms online, and the Post Office has thus lost an element of its business.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the BBC licence fee. Many people now pay that, and have for many years, either online or through direct debit. They never go through the process of buying a licence. However, many of my constituents do buy it. They save up stamps or money and when they know that the licence fee is due they have enough money to pay it. I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s worries—the BBC needs to attend to the issue—about what happens in areas where there is still a large cash economy, where many people do not have the ability to write a cheque for £130 or whatever it is now, and where those people still expect to pay by cash but will not be able to, because there is no PayPoint outlet available locally. I do not see why, in those areas, the Post Office cannot find a means to fill in the gaps. The areas must be readily identifiable, and the contract must already have specified them, so I do not see why we cannot move forward in that way.
The main reason, however, why my constituents use the post office is to collect their pension and other benefits. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency of Orkney and Shetland, 3,000 people use Post Office card accounts for the collection of their benefits or state pension. In all four of the constituencies of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), 6,700 people do so, but in my constituency 16,300 do so. Nearly a quarter of my electorate use the Post Office card account system to collect their benefits. The Minister may think that the issue is one that Opposition parties talk about a lot. Actually, in the main, it is one that dramatically affects Labour constituencies. In former mining constituencies and places where there used to be large shipbuilding industry, where many people are on incapacity and other benefits, the issue is of dramatic significance.
Another small but significant matter affects my constituency. The traditional postal service of sending a letter or parcel is particularly significant in areas where many people are in the armed forces. The people running most of the post offices in my constituency say that every week they send fairly large numbers of parcels to troops in Afghanistan, Iraq or other places. In most former mining constituencies, joining the armed forces is still the preferred career choice for a 15-year-old or 16-year-old. I am aware that for those families their post office is thus a particularly important resource.
New services have of course been introduced and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to some of them. One is withdrawing cash. I tried to withdraw cash the other day from a post office but I was unable to do so; I bank with the Royal Bank of Scotland, despite the fact that it lent money for many years to the Conservative party.
Many of my constituents also choose to organise their travel money through the local post office, although that service is poorly advertised. Many people think that if they live in Blaencwm they must go all the way to a bank in Treorchy or Tonypandy to organise money. Actually they can do it perfectly easily from one of the post offices that are much closer to them.
My hon. Friend makes his points powerfully. Is he not illustrating the fact that the problem in the sub-post office network in Wales, England and elsewhere is not necessarily lack of initiative on the part of individual sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, but the fact that there has been poor leadership in the top management of the Post Office? That was evident from the framework for a pilot computer system in Leicestershire to see how well it would operate nationwide. The framework was very weak indeed; this was perhaps before my hon. Friend came to the House. Is not the top management in the Post Office the problem?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about leadership, which I think extends much further than the example he gave. How are ordinary postmasters or sub-postmasters served by the leadership generally? They need some confidence about the direction in which their business might go in the next three, five or 10 years, but they also need confidence that the services that they can offer will be well advertised not just for their own little business but for the whole network in the region and the country. From my experience, I do not think that the services are well advertised.
One further area that is relevant to potential new business is financial services. In communities such as mine, financial services from an honest broker such as the Post Office could be particularly valuable, especially in areas with high debt and with many people, including loan sharks, trying to force people into debts that they cannot afford. Of course, state aid is a difficulty. The Post Office receives direct financial support from the Government, which puts it in a difficult position in relation to other financial institutions, which would say, “You can’t steal our business on the back of a subsidy from the Government.” However, I think that we could be cleverer about it. There are communities in which we should be able to extend the relevant financial services much more significantly, perhaps in co-operation with credit unions and similar organisations. I wonder whether the leadership, both in Government and in the Post Office, could look at such matters more intelligently and acutely.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue of state aid would be better illuminated were the aid to be more transparent? At the moment, state aid for the rural post office network goes into the Post Office at the top level, filters down who knows where and ends up who knows where, benefiting who knows whom. If the aid were to purchase a particular service in an area of need, it would be easier to defend, and the rest of the network would clearly be free of that state aid.
The hon. Gentleman makes a pretty good point. I think that the hinge to the matter is proving the market failure. The market clearly fails in certain parts of the country, so it should not be difficult to advance a decent argument in favour of subsidy to enable the Post Office to interact in the market more effectively than it has so far. Therefore, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I am conscious of the time, and many other hon. Members want to speak. I want to finish by talking about the Post Office card account. I have already mentioned that 16,300 of my constituents use it weekly, fortnightly or monthly as their means of access to their benefits—their income. Those people feel deeply troubled by the current state of play. They worry that the Government are reneging on a commitment to them. They are worried that they will not be able to withdraw cash locally. That is the issue for them—whether they can do it locally. They do not particularly mind whether it is at a post office or somewhere else. They just want access to the money that they are entitled to.
That is why I hope that the Minister will be able to push us a little further forward in the debate by explaining what guarantee the Government will make that people will be able to access their benefits locally. One of the many petitions that my constituents have put together is from Tonpentre post office. I should happily welcome the Minister if he wanted to visit Tonpentre some time. Since the Rhondda is the area with the highest use of the Post Office card account in Wales, and the fourth highest in the country, he might consider that a valuable exercise.
Has the hon. Gentleman any examples from his constituency of the Post Office card account being undermined in a rather underhand way? A constituent who made a pension credit claim wrote to me recently. He was informed as he was sorting out his claim on the telephone that only his first payments of the pension credit could be paid into his Post Office account and that all subsequent payments would have to be paid into a bank account. When he queried that and said that he understood that that was not Government policy, the person at the other end of the telephone told him that they were just a messenger. If that is indeed a message coming from the Minister, does the hon. Gentleman agree that at least the commitment to sustain the arrangement until 2010 should be continued, and not undermined in such a way?
I have come across a similar incident, but I was a bit more aggressive in pursuing it, and my constituent’s problem was sorted out by the following week. Clearly, some officials need better training on precisely what the rules and regulations are, and perhaps the Minister will have an opportunity to say something about that later.
The important issue for my constituents is that they should be able to transact their pensions and other benefits in a way that is as efficient as possible for them, rather than for the Post Office and the Government. This is about their rights, as much as it is about the Government’s drive for efficiency.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on raising this important issue for public debate. Although we disagree on some areas of public policy, I think that we are as one on this important issue.
I have a rural constituency—I shall try not to repeat too many of the comments that I have made on numerous occasions on this issue—and on a hot August day two years ago, I drove around it and visited 28 of my 32 rural post offices, and I have been on the case pretty well ever since. On that day, I established just how important benefit payments are—they are the core function of those post offices, some of whose turnovers include as much as 40, 50, 60 or 70 per cent. from pensions and benefit payments. That leads to a whole series of other activities. There is the sale of Post Office products, such as stamps, and of things related to postal activities, such as stationery, glue and pens. The vast majority of my post offices sell dried and frozen food, and there are also off-licences. The key element is that, in most cases, the post office is the information centre. The village notice board is usually located in the post office, and that is the place to advertise jobs. The post office is the centre of activity.
I took one of my most active postmasters to see the then Minister with responsibility for post offices, who is now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and I want to give hon. Members this memorable quote from my constituent:
“If the post office goes, the shop goes; if the shop goes, the village goes.”
The post office has a serious social function, because those who visit it often live alone and may be elderly. If they do not turn up for their payment or their pint of milk, that will be brought to people’s attention. That has an incalculable social benefit that none of us can put a finger on, but which is very tangible. That is the first message: post offices have a function way beyond the mechanics of delivering benefits and other Government products efficiently.
I am afraid that the Government have massively mishandled the issue, because it touches a whole number of Departments, but there is absolutely no coherent view of it. We saw that in how benefits cards were brought in. The previous Government were going to introduce swipe cards, which would have cut out fraud, been efficient and kept benefits and payments going through the post offices, at an income of roughly £400 million. This Government came to power, swept aside that approach and introduced the card account without telling anyone that it would be a temporary measure.
It was only in a debate such as this that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), announced that the card was always intended to be temporary. He read partially from a Government document, and I am grateful to the Speaker, because I put a point of order to him, and he insisted that that document was placed in the Library. To the astonishment of everyone involved—no one in the Post Office knew anything about this—it was revealed that the contract between the Government and post offices had made this statement all along:
“The POCA is intended to be an interim step for Account Holders”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 15 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 495WH.]
None of us knew that—an enormous deception and fraud was perpetrated on millions of benefit recipients.
Several trials have now been imposed at very short notice, and some 40,000 card holders have been forced into taking direct payments from February to March. There has not been much debate about that. I have had correspondence showing that people received letters in February that bluntly told them:
“I am writing to advise you that I am arranging to pay your Pension Credit into the same account as your Carer’s Allowance. This means that your Pension Credit will no longer be paid in to your Post Office card account…You do not have to do anything at the moment as we will make the changes for you…Once we start to pay your Pension Credit into your bank account, you will need to close your Post Office card account. You will need to get an account closure form from any Post Office”.
That is not exactly consultation; it is a central Government diktat, with no right of appeal. The issue was not properly debated on the Floor of the House, although Back Benchers have brought it up in this Chamber. In one fell swoop, however, we shall absolutely hammer the groundwork that forms the basis of the post office network.
I have the great honour to be the secretary of the all-party group on sub-post offices, on which I serve under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who sadly cannot be here today. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), wearing his semi-rural hat, ably deputises for her. Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Post Office, came to one of the group’s meetings at the end of February or perhaps in March. He revealed that his task—he is under the cosh and under great public scrutiny—is to make the Post Office efficient. He currently has 14,400 branches, but he said that he needed only 4,000 to deliver an efficient physical post service. He has had some unjustified flak for asking, quite publicly, what he is supposed to do with the balance of post offices above the 4,000 that he needs to run the Post Office efficiently if the rug is pulled out from under them and there is no Government justification for them and no Government view on them.
This is where I would be very critical of the Government, because there is absolutely no clear overview and no co-ordination. We saw a classic example recently when the BBC decided to switch its TV licences from the Post Office to PayPoint. I wrote to Michael Grade, the chairman of the BBC, who wrote me a sensible letter dated 5 June. He explained that there were serious commercial gains to the BBC from switching from the Post Office, that the arrangement accounted for only 2.11 per cent. of the turnover of Post Office Ltd and that, as far as the BBC was concerned, it was a straight commercial decision. That is fair enough for the BBC, given that it spends very large sums of public money, and that some of us can be critical of how it does so. In this case, I would not criticise what it is doing, because it is being careful and going for a sensible business decision, but I would criticise the Government for not co-ordinating things. I specifically asked what discussions the BBC had had with Ministers, and its chairman said:
“Regarding your query about what discussions have been held with Government Ministers in relation to the contract with the Post Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was kept informed by BBC management of the decision to put the contract out to tender and, once a decision had been made by the Board, about the announcement and timing. There were no discussions about the decision itself, as this was a matter for the BBC.”
What is happening is that each Department that uses, or did use, the services of the Post Office branches is allowed to go off on its own, and there is absolutely none of the joined-up government that we were all told about back in 1997; there is no co-ordination at the centre. I should like the Minister to tell us clearly who actually makes the decisions. Is it the Department of Trade and Industry or the Department for Work and Pensions? Why was the issue not discussed beyond the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? For the BBC, it was a sensible commercial decision, but for a large number of post offices, it is yet another slice of income and another step nearer the grave.
At some stage, someone will have to make a grown-up decision, because no decision is being made at the moment. We have not yet had a debate on the Floor of the House. We have debates only in Westminster Hall, thanks to energetic Back Benchers who bring the issue up at fairly regular intervals.
I agree with the case that the hon. Gentleman is making. Does he agree that the BBC should have a duty to make available to people in rural areas and on islands points where they can renew their licence? There are several islands in my constituency, just as there are in Orkney and Shetland, and there is no pay point on them. The BBC should not have awarded the contract to PayPoint, whose computer tells people where the nearest pay point is as the crow flies. In my constituency, that means that people would often have to swim across two or three miles of water.
That is a valid point. It is not relevant to landlocked North Shropshire, although we have a few meres, but it is a good point, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman should take it up with the chairman of the BBC. It is a clear example of how an agent of Government activity such as the BBC, which takes large amounts of taxpayers’ money, makes a decision on its own because it makes sense from its point of view in terms of spending its pot of public money.
The point that I am trying to make is that there is absolutely no co-ordination. Someone will have to make a grown-up decision on how that Government money is spent—and to keep the network going, Government money will have to be spent. Instead, the Department for Work and Pensions goes off on its own, without any consultation, imposing trials in a brutal manner. I would like confirmation that the result of the trials will be revealed to Parliament, that we will have a chance to debate them before the matter is taken further and that we will not get any more dictatorial letters basically bludgeoning vulnerable, nervous pensioners into taking their payments direct when they do not want to do so. That is one thing on which we really need a promise—a promise that there will be a proper statement to Parliament on the results of the trials, and that we will afterwards debate the subject properly on the Floor of the House.
I also want a complete guarantee that someone in Government will then stand up and say, “Yes, I am the Minister in charge of these various activities. I will co-ordinate things, and here is our strategic view for the future,” because, bluntly, we just do not have one. The subject affects too many people. I shall quickly give the figures to remind the Minister just how big the issue is. According to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, there are 7,854 rural post offices and 12 million customers a week. Some 84 per cent. of the rural population live within 1 mile of the post office, 75 per cent. of rural post offices have a shop attached and 58 per cent. of rural residents use the attached shop once a week or more. Frequently, the post office is the only place where one can withdraw cash, because only 4 per cent. of villages have a bank, but 60 per cent. have a post office.
I shall end on the universal bank. I went to see the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and was told, “Don’t worry, there will be changes; we will bring the Post Office into the commercial world, but you will pick up new business. You will get the universal bank.” However, from parliamentary questions that I have asked, we now know that some substantial banks are still not part of the scheme, including HSBC, Halifax, Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Abbey.
My final question is: what steps are the Government taking to bring in banks that are not part of the scheme? It is no good closing down some of the Government areas of activity and promising that the private sector will pick them up if that is not being done. However, the question to which I really want to know the answer—this is probably the third time I have asked it—is who will get a grip on the problem, and who will come up with a coherent, clear strategy for the 14,400 post offices? At the moment, we do not have such a strategy, and post offices are suffering death by 1,000 cuts. Very large numbers of post offices will go unless the Government wake up.
It is a real pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on raising this important issue.
All of us who represent rural constituencies understand the value of the post office to our constituents. We also understand the adverse impact on communities when post offices are lost. When I travel around my constituency, I observe that there is almost a constant assault on the infrastructure of our small villages and towns. If it is not the post office, it is the local bank; if it is not the bank, it is other community facilities in the constituency. When I look round my small villages and towns, I observe that there are three things that define a community. One, obviously, is a post office; the second is a local school; and the third is a local pub. It is those things that give a set of houses a character that defines them as a community, and it is these things that we really need to fight to maintain in order to ensure that our villages and small towns continue to be viable.
The term “post office” is a complete misnomer; it gives no suggestion of the full range of activities that they undertake, or of the myriad functions that they provide. As well as selling stamps and all the rest of it, they are now probably the only part of the retail sector in some small towns and villages. There are a couple of post offices in my constituency where people can buy their petrol, for example. There is also a place where local arts and crafts can be bought and are used as a means to entice tourists, show them what is available in the locality, and encourage them to spend some time in these wonderful rural areas.
The point has also been made that post offices serve a key local function, providing local information to people. It is, on occasion, where people meet to go to other community events, and they provide a great social hub. Some of these places are more like community centres than just post offices, and on that basis are worth maintaining. We call the people who look after such places sub-postmasters, but they are much more than that. They are almost part social workers, part care attendants, and on some occasions provide an almost pastoral role; they might say, “Wee Jeanie is far too late; she’s not turned up at her usual time this week.” They can sound a gentle alarm bell, asking, “Is she okay? Is everything all right?” They provide that sort of role. Some are almost like lifestyle gurus and personal advisers, and we can see their impact on their community.
That is why I believe that the threat to our rural post office network has disastrous consequences for our villages and small towns. When a post office closes, it means that people have to travel much further to access some services. That affects even the more active members of the community. Around half the people who use post offices walk to them. If that post office is closed, it means that a car journey is involved, and then the health benefits are lost and the environmental impact of that is brought into play.
For some more elderly, frail members of our community, and groups such as disabled people, the post office is a lifeline; they require post offices in order to access all the critical services that they need daily. Postwatch showed us that when post offices close, the business does not automatically transfer to the post office in the next town, because as a car journey is involved, going there is more of a hassle, and probably people will go to a larger town in order to access those services, so there is a net loss in business for such post offices. We can see that there is an impact, in terms of those businesses continuing to be sustainable.
It has been recognised by everyone who has spoken that a subsidy is required if post offices are to continue to operate. They are loss-makers. Someone mentioned that 90 per cent. of all post offices are unprofitable and require some sort of support. In order even to start to be self-financing, or even approach profitability, they need a unique selling point, and traditionally, they have had that; it was the range of products that they could sell. So it is almost perverse that post offices are losing business, but are, at the same time, being deprived of essential services by Government. The Post Office card account has been mentioned several times already today; it is of crucial importance to the post offices being able to process benefits, including child benefit and unemployment benefit. All those things are essential as part of their core business, but they are being deprived of that. They are asked to be sustainable, while they are being deprived of those essential services.
Perhaps we could go to the post office in future to get our ID cards; perhaps that could be a means to try to resurrect some sort of business for local post offices. It is unfortunate and unfair that we have identified that post offices have a profitability issue, but we are not giving them support; in fact, we have taken away from them the very things that could make them profitable and self-sustaining.
My gut suspicion is that the Government want out of the whole business of post offices; that is what I really believe. I read with great alarm the remarks by Adam Crozier, who spoke of an “imperative” need for a “radical transformation” of the networks as a result of the collapse of Government work, such as benefits and pensions payments. He reckoned that such payments have fallen from 60 per cent. of the work that post offices do to 10 per cent. He said that it is simply not sustainable to have 1,000 offices with fewer than six customers each. When I read such remarks, it gives me the clear impression that the Government do not want anything to do with the businesses, which they view as more of a millstone than a real service.
I look around the Chamber and recognise the people here; I observe that there are lots of Scottish Members here, and I think that we are all in the 10 largest rural constituencies in the whole United Kingdom.
That is the point; it is unfortunate that there is only one Labour Back Bencher here. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for contributing, but where are the others? We really need to engage in this debate. We need to tell others what it is like in rural communities, and how important post offices are.
For the reasons that I gave, I believe that the Post Office should remain in the public sector; a public sector ethos is required for the Post Office to survive. It is imperative that it be given a subsidy, given the centrality of its functions in rural communities. I have to say that I look with alarm at some of the proposals brought forward by the Liberal Democrats, including part-privatisation. I have observed part-privatisation in other public sectors in Scotland, and the disastrous consequences.
It is estimated that the Post Office network—never mind the Royal Mail—requires something in the region of £2 billion of extra investment over and above that already put in. If that is not to come from our proposals, where does the hon. Gentleman suggest it should come from?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. It is obviously a UK figure and, with great respect, it is the Scottish element that concerns me. The Liberal Democrats boast about their partnership arrangements in the Executive in Scotland and money was found for what they call the abolition of tuition fees, and for free personal care. This issue is so important to the centrality of communities that the money has to be found. Clearly, money was found for those pet projects of the Liberal Democrats, which we supported, so we should be able to find the money in the public sector to do that. I have real concerns that if we go down the part-privatisation route, the situation could be made worse. I caution communities and sub-postmasters to look carefully at the Liberal Democrat proposals and see the dangers inherent within them.
I will conclude because I have taken eight minutes. Rural post offices have to be maintained. A public sector ethos must be attached to them and a subsidy must be maintained in order to do this. They are central to our communities, they are worth fighting for and I hope that the Minister listens to us very carefully—and I hope that the next time we have one of these debates, he brings some Labour Back Benchers with him.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I shall be as quick as I possibly can in the hope that someone will be able to follow me.
I represent the district of Torridge and the borough of West Devon, which together form my large constituency. I can tell the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) that it is the second largest in England. It is a remote and sparsely populated constituency that shares many of the problems that rural constituencies experience. I imagine they are very familiar to those around the Chamber. I am delighted to be one of two representing the south-west of England—the other is the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy).
Our communities share the following characteristics: we have a fragile rural economy; a dearth of affordable housing; an ageing population; social and health services in deficit struggling to reach isolated communities; and a lack of investment and employment opportunities. Those are exacerbated by the threadbare public transport network, and there is a sense that our communities are under strain.
This week’s report from the Commission for Rural Communities surprised no one—except perhaps the Government—in its portrayal of the reality of rural disadvantage and poverty. At the same time, the countryside—certainly the south-west of England—is undergoing a major, painful change. The state of livestock agriculture is a subject on which many hon. Members have spoken many times. I do not wish to paint an exclusively pessimistic and gloomy picture, but there is no doubt that the blow after blow sustained by the industry has driven it nearly to the edge of extinction.
When we see countryside communities in the midst of such turmoil and change, familiar institutions provide the confidence that small communities need that there will be continuity and that there will be a future for them. Par excellence, the institution that most gives comfort to rural communities, which sends the message that their definable identity and character will survive the changes through which they are going, is the rural post office.
Familiar institutions assume great importance in the circumstances of rural communities at the moment, and the post office is an outstanding example. As other hon. Members said, it is at the very heart of the identity and character of a village. It is a centre of social life, which reassures people that the community to which they belong is remembered and recognised by the outside world.
A sub-postmaster in a small village in the countryside does not enter his occupation seeking monetary reward. Many of them have spoken to me of the gratification it gives them to feel that they are central to the community in which they live. They can engage in friendly conversation with an elderly resident who lives alone, for whom that visit is the one recreation of the day, and they miss them and ask after them if they do not come, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said. That is a vital social function.
I recently completed a survey of every post office in my constituency. Benefits and pensions are collected through the Post Office card account by 9,000 people. There are about 60 post offices in my constituency and well over 90 per cent. replied to my request for information, for which I am grateful to the postmasters and postmistresses. Of those 60 post offices, 79 per cent. are more than 2 miles from another post office and 46 per cent. are more than 5 miles. The Post Office card account is relied on by 58 per cent. of them for more than half their income and by a further 23 per cent. for over a quarter of their income. How do the Government believe that they can survive if the card account is withdrawn?
Of those post offices, 77 per cent. said that their business would be in jeopardy if the card was not continued or replaced by something similar, and 66 per cent. would have to lay off part-time or full-time staff. Other services are provided by 90 per cent. of them, such as the village shop or newsagent. Where will people go, how will the services be delivered and where will the residents, many of them elderly and without transport, go to conduct the business they need?
It is vital that the Government plainly and unequivocally commit themselves to the future of rural post offices. They must confirm that they will develop a replacement for the Post Office card account and that they will continue to recognise the important social function fulfilled by post offices. They should, without delay, announce that they will work with Post Office Counters Ltd to develop new services and that they will not divert card account holders to bank accounts in the meantime.
Steadily and relentlessly, the foundation of the rural post office network is being eroded. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne mentioned South West Water’s disgraceful letter, in which it encourages people to use PayPoint, which does not exist in half the villages in my constituency, to pay for water. One might mention SWEB Energy key recharging—another function that has gone.
When the Government offered the lifeline of the card account, sub-postmasters embraced it and made it a success. Despite the discouragement of six or seven different forms and the cold welcome given by Department for Work and Pensions officials to prospective card holders, 4.5 million signed up, many just to support their local office. Despite the subsidy and the as yet unrenewed commitment to preventing avoidable closures, it is no wonder that so many who spend their lives in small rural post offices distrust the Government’s word.
They will be looking with anxious expectancy upon today’s proceedings and listening intently to what the Minister has to say. It is essential that the Government do not let them down. They should provide a raft and lifebelt to this vital social function, which these people, who are so important to the lives of rural communities, genuinely deserve.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this excellent debate, and I agree with many of the points made. I want to make three quick points, but before I do so, I want to say that I regret that the Government report from the DWP, which they told the Select Committee on Monday would be available the night before this debate, will not be available until next week. We have not had the benefit of seeing that report before this important debate. That is a good reason to endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) that we must have a proper debate with full information.
On the threat to our post offices, I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox). I, too, have undertaken a survey and visited virtually all the post offices in my constituency. Of those, 86 per cent. said that the withdrawal of the Post Office card account would jeopardise their business, and 14 per cent. said that it might jeopardise the future viability of their business. That is the response from all the post offices in my constituency. It is the eighth largest in England and shares a lot of features with those constituencies represented by other hon. Members in the Chamber.
The DWP undertook three pilot studies of alternatives to the POCA. It transpires—not transparently, but as a result of problems raised by my constituents—that one of the pilot areas for the second scheme happens to be in Shropshire. I give the Minister the example of Mrs. Janet Price, who received a number of letters requesting her to cancel her account. She ignored the letters because she did not want to cancel it, and she eventually received a threatening telephone call on a Saturday afternoon from a member of the agency’s staff. When I first heard about that, I found it hard to believe, but it clearly was the case. I have had a letter of apology from the chief executive of the Pension Service, and a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt).
I raise this issue because I have been accused, as have other hon. Members, of employing scare tactics to claim that post offices are under threat when they are not. That is absolutely not the case. In the letter, which I received last month, the Under-Secretary said:
“Undue pessimism and scare stories, suggesting that thousands of post offices will close and that customers will no longer be able to collect their benefit or pension at the post office, are not totally misleading, but, by spreading unfounded fears, are not in Post Office Ltd’s interests.”
We have just heard that 2,630 post offices closed in the two years to March 2005. Where is the evidence-base for claims like that? These are not scare stories. The Minister has heard evidence from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, and I hope that he will take cognisance of those genuine concerns in his response. I hope also that we will be allowed to have a proper debate on the Floor of the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. He rightly made it clear that the future of the rural post office network is vital to communities across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, not least those in the highlands and islands of Scotland, which he and I both represent.
I welcome the Minister to his place. I secured a debate on the future of the rural post office network in this Chamber on 11 January, in which his predecessor described the rural post office network as an “inefficient physical structure”. He showed a lack of commitment to the post office network and a pretty crude financial approach. I very much hope that the Minister will do somewhat better in his response.
Rural post offices are at the heart of our rural communities. As we heard, there were 7,854 of them at the end of March. More than two thirds of villages with a population of 500 to 1,000 people have a post office, and those communities have enormously strong support for their post offices. In the village of Drumnadrochit in my constituency, which has a population of about 1,000, more than 500 people signed a petition to support their local post office. That is half the population of the village.
My hon. Friend set out some constructive ideas for the Post Office, to which I hope the Minister will respond in similarly positive terms. His ideas shed light on two key questions that the Government must answer: what is their vision for the Post Office, and how will government be joined up to achieve that vision?
Does my hon. Friend appreciate—I am sure that he does—that there are great concerns about funding the rural network post-2008, not least in Wales, where the National Assembly Government are waiting to hear what the Minister has to say? His reluctance to give a statement on future funding is jeopardising the position of many post offices in Wales, not least in my constituency, where we have lost three in the past six months.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, because I want to discuss that. Ministers have been reluctant to set out their visions for the future. Last week, in response to my question in Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister talked about hundreds of millions of pounds of subsidy and the need to
“make ends meet within the public finances while providing rational and logical support to post offices.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 250.]
Yet again he failed to take the opportunity to express his support for post offices and the vital social and economic role that they play. It is that kind of talk that sends a shiver down the spine of rural communities. There are real fears that the Government's vision of rural post offices is of closures, not big improvements. Indeed, the record of recent years is not inspiring. We have heard that the social network payment runs out in 2008. Will the Minister give us a clear indication of when an announcement will be made about that? Post Office Ltd is currently required to prevent unavoidable closures, but that commitment runs out this autumn? What will happen after that?
As we heard, Ministers did not lift a finger to prevent the BBC from taking TV licences away from post offices; likewise, the contract for the new passport offices. A number of hon. Members talked about the Post Office card account being removed in 2010 and gave worrying reports that new customers are already being denied access to them. So the Post Office is not even waiting until 2010 to implement what is a disastrous policy. Will the Minister give us an assurance that guidance will be issued within the DWP to ensure that there are no more incidents such as those quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? Will he tell us what progress has been made through work with the Post Office to develop what might be called a post office card account-plus for 2010 onwards? I hope that all POCA customers can be migrated to such an account automatically, without the hassle of changing accounts and the pressure that the Government have previously applied to people to opt out of post office-based systems.
The DVLA and the supply of vehicle licences in post offices have been mentioned. I understand that the contract for that service is up for renegotiation next year. Will the Minister ensure that the interests of rural communities in having such services delivered by post offices are taken into account when that is considered, as they were not taken into account when decisions were made on the TV licence and the POCA? In such cases, each Department behaves as if the involvement of the Post Office is some sort of problem. The case for the use of the post office network to deliver public services should be decided on a cross-Government basis, not piecemeal by Department.
Perhaps the Minister could reflect on the wider social and economic benefits that post offices offer to rural communities. He might be aware of research that shows that for every £1 that the Government spend on rural post offices, £4-worth of benefit is delivered to the rural economy. Supporting rural post offices should be seen as an investment in our rural communities, not derisively referred to as a subsidy, as the Prime Minister did. What estimates has the Minister made about the overall social and economic value of the rural post office network?
To pick up on a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland, what discussions is the Minister having with the banks to ensure that more bank accounts can be accessed in post offices? Will he press for the Post Office to be allowed to join the Link network, thereby enabling it to offer cash withdrawal services to the entire community? I know that there have been negotiations on this subject for some time, and that there is some resistance within the Link network to allowing the Post Office to join. It is important that the weight of the Government’s efforts are put behind the Post Office in ensuring access to the Link network. That would ensure that when the hon. Member for Rhondda visits the post office and uses his Royal Bank of Scotland card, as I would do myself—I am perhaps ashamed to say that that is my bank, in the context of this debate—we can access cash at the post office rather than being turned away, thereby opening them up to a much wider range of business.
Will the Minister also look imaginatively for new Government services that can be delivered by the post office network? In Fife, documents can be checked for the police in post offices—that has been piloted very successfully—and the idea of post offices providing transport services and selling tickets has been suggested. The Minister will also be aware—indeed, it has been mentioned today—that a number of private companies are following the Government’s lead and taking services away from post offices. South West Water has been mentioned in that respect. I can also report that First Group has decided to withdraw the facility to purchase season tickets for its rail services from post offices as of May this year.
If the Government behave as though they have no responsibility to support the community network that the post office network serves, how can we be surprised if vastly profitable private companies follow their example? A Government vision for the Post Office is vital if it is to deliver services effectively in the future, but it is also vital that the public, particularly people living in rural areas, are directly involved in the debate. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will engage in a full public consultation so that they have to listen to the views of the communities affected? He could learn a lesson from the direct public consultation that my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland is undertaking tomorrow and the next day.
The vision can only be achieved if Ministers demonstrate considerably more joined-up Government than they have shown so far. I note that a new Cabinet Committee on Post Offices has been established, under the chairmanship of the Deputy Prime Minister. So, after a torrid few weeks, the Deputy Prime Minister has a chance to redeem himself. On the other hand, he could end up being known as “Two Jags; no post offices.” How often has the Committee met and what progress has it made in persuading individual Departments to recognise and support the wider role played by the rural post office network?
It has been reported that without the business from the POCA and support from the Government, 10,000 post office branches will have to close, most of which will be in rural areas. The Minister has an opportunity to show that the Government have a vision and an approach that can enhance and support this invaluable network for many years to come. I hope that he will do that, because the alternative for our rural communities is too awful to contemplate.
We have had an excellent debate. The passion of Government and Opposition Members and the clarity with which they have spoken have come across clearly, but, above that, there has been the sense of cross-party purpose. The issue affects rural areas in every part of the country, from the north of England to semi-rural Wales, south-west England and the south-east. I hope that the Minister will take that clear message away. I hope that he will talk to the business managers of the House and explain that there should be a debate on the issue in the Chamber, in Government time, so that many more Members have the chance to air their concerns.
Over a number of years, we have witnessed a worrying decline in the size of the post office network. In 1999, there were 18,374 post offices, and as we have heard, today there are 14,400. That is a loss of 20 per cent. of the post office network in just five years. Most of us think in terms of constituencies rather than nationally. In my constituency, we have gone from 43 post offices in 1999 to 28 today. That is a one-third reduction in the level of service. For each and every one of those closures, there is a story of human beings who have lost their businesses, and people who have lost a service and a lifeline in their local community.
However, we have not seen the end of the crisis. It is getting worse. The 7,800 rural post offices account for half the branches in the network, but only 10 per cent. of the business. From a parliamentary question earlier this year, we understand that, on average, each post office in the rural network is visited by 355 customers a week. However, we must recognise that 1,000 of those branches have fewer than 50 customers a week. Those branches are at or beyond the margin of survival, and the pressure on them is growing all the time, rather than easing.
This year, the post office network will lose £2 million, and that will double next year. The pressure is getting greater because of the policy changes that are coming through. We have heard from Government and Opposition Members about how those changes have been working out, but, with the difference in budget, post office income from Government contracts this year will be £168 million less than last year.
That will get worse with the withdrawal of the Post Office card account. I hope that the Minister agrees that the Department for Work and Pensions must clearly state that it will not, under any circumstances, put improper pressure on people to move from Post Office card accounts to bank accounts. We have heard too many examples for it to be something that is happening by accident. Ministers must confirm that they will send a message to every single agency stating that they should put no pressure on people to move away from the account if they do not wish to do so.
The problems will get worse again through the moves to put the DVLA online, set up a regional network of passport offices and administer the BBC licence fee online or through PayPoint. They are statements of fact, not blame, because as responsible people we all recognise that those organisations have a public duty to reduce the costs of delivering their benefits and services, and to do so as efficiently as possible. However, the Government’s lifeline of £150 million ends in March 2008, so the Minister will understand the huge air of uncertainty surrounding the issue.
The consequences of closure are so great, because as we have heard, in particular from my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), too often the post office is not just a stand-alone post office business, but the last shop in the village and the chemist. It provides a range of other services and many important facilities, and once they go, they are lost for ever.
We must recognise that the decisions that affect the closure of rural post offices are taken not necessarily by the Post Office centrally, but by individual sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. They find that they are subsidising a loss-making business, and they decide that they cannot go on doing so. When they consider the value of their property in the centre of a community, they recognise that they can get much more by selling it off as housing rather than by keeping it going as a business. They are human decisions, but they have a huge impact on the community.
A great deal has understandably been made of the comments by Adam Crozier, Post Office chief executive, that he needs only 4,000 post offices to meet his legal service obligations. We must accept that he is not saying what he wants or intends to do; he wants that network size in order to meet a legal obligation passed in an Act of Parliament. We should pay great tribute to the work that he, and Allan Leighton as chairman, have done in turning the Post Office around, but they need to know that, in making the decisions that are right for them as a business, they have the Government’s clear thinking behind them, too.
What has been lacking in this debate is a sense of the Government’s vision, and the Department of Trade and Industry is at the heart of that lack of vision. We are prepared to give the Minister a small exemption, because he is new to his post, but he must come up with some answers soon. We are watching the whole network crumble while Ministers simply wash their hands of responsibility for what is going on. We must know what size of post office network the Minister envisages as right for this country in the years to come, and what level of Government subsidy he proposes in order to deliver that network. Many of those businesses will continue to be marginal unless there is Government support.
As the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), said, one of our key considerations must be how we can bring new business into the post office network, enabling it to expand its range of services, rather than watch them constantly shrink. Can post offices become the hub for the first-mile postal delivery services, whereby local businesses would bring their post for onward transmission, not necessarily through Royal Mail, but through other suppliers?
Can post offices become a place of storage for undelivered items? A majority of parcels cannot be delivered because the occupants are not at home at the time of delivery. Rather than returning parcels to a sorting office that is sometimes a long way from the communities to which they are delivered, why could not they go back to the post office? It could then be remunerated for providing that service.
The Government must also provide us with a vision for shops, not just post offices, because they go hand-in-hand. What more can be done to encourage the greater provision of more financial services through post offices? The Government must provide us with some wider thinking and some new ideas that explain how we can create greater opportunities, rather than letting the network slip away. If post offices are going to close, the Minister must also explain how the Government will encourage replacement services such as mobile post offices in our most rural communities.
Above all, what are Ministers doing to replace the Post Office card account? The Minister must communicate to his fellow Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions that their saying that it is an issue for the Post Office alone is not good enough. Some 1 million of the 4.5 million people who hold the accounts have no other system of banking. They depend on the account, and the Government have an obligation to ensure that, rather than being driven to the banks, which for many is not an option, people who choose to bank in that way can continue to do so.
The Government must set out their vision. The Post Office is under better management than it has been for many years, but it needs to know where it is heading. We cannot wait until 2008 or even shortly before that to hear from Ministers how they intend to secure the network; we must know this year. Until that happens, more and more of our citizens will have to watch as a much-loved and vital community institution withers away.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. We have had some excellent contributions, and it should be nothing other than clear that the Government have heard the message. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman spell out his views and to other colleagues spell out their concerns, I shall make some brief introductory comments and then try to respond to their points. If I do not get through them all, I shall write to hon. Members.
The future of the post office network is an issue of relevance to every Member, whether we represent rural or urban constituencies, or mixed constituencies of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned. We all share concerns about the future provision of post office services in our constituencies. Most of us also recognise, even if we are not always willing publicly to acknowledge it, that there had been underinvestment in the business for decades until this Government reversed the decline with a sustained programme of investment since 1999. Some £500 million was injected to help fund the Horizon IT infrastructure, and in 2003 the Government committed £150 million a year up to 2008 to support the rural network. That was mentioned by many colleagues. On top of that, the Government put £210 million into the urban reinvention programme, including some £30 million of investment grants to improve and modernise the remaining branches. That represents an investment of some £1.4 billion of taxpayers’ money by this Government.
Nevertheless, advances in technology, greater mobility and changes in shopping and financial habits have resulted in a growing proportion of people simply not using post offices as they did in the past. Custom across the network has sharply reduced, creating the spectre of a spiral of decline. If the post office network is to survive and to have a sustainable future, it must adapt to the changing circumstances and environment in which it operates. The Government want a post office network that can prosper on the basis of current and future needs, not on those of 20 or 30 years ago. The way in which customers want services delivered is changing, and the huge increase in internet sales has hit many traditional sectors, including the post office.
We must face up to present reality. Major sectors of the network are losing substantial amounts. The rural network is making losses in the region of £150 million a year, and the directly managed Crown offices have been losing about £70 million annually. It is clear that the status quo is not sustainable. Several important steps to restructure and revitalise the Post Office have already been taken, but the future of the network rightly remains an issue of national debate. It is clear that there are still considerable challenges ahead. I shall try to address some of the points that hon. Members have made.
In response to the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), let me say that there is clearly strength of feeling on the matter. It is a huge national issue. I am sure that there will be debates in due course when the Government arrive at conclusions. In the meantime, there are the usual channels for securing debates. There are also Opposition days and these opportunities in Westminster Hall.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about commending Allan Leighton, Adam Crozier and the staff for the turnaround in Royal Mail’s fortunes, which has been quite spectacular in the past few years. Clearly, we want exactly the same for Post Office Ltd. I am grateful for the generosity of his remarks and for his giving me time, given my newness in the job. However, I do not believe that I will have very much time—this is far too important an issue.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland opened the debate with comments about listening to sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. We have a good relationship with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, and I expect to meet Colin Baker, the general secretary, very soon. Indeed, officials of the Department of Trade and Industry and other ministries are directly in contact with that organisation.
On the BBC decision in favour of using PayPoint rather than the Post Office, I obviously regret that the Post Office was unsuccessful in re-tendering for the contract for over-the-counter TV licence sales, but I point out that the contract decision was a commercial matter for the BBC, which has a duty to licence holders to achieve value for money with its licence fee income, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. To use both Post Office and PayPoint outlets would have been even more costly.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of why Post Office Ltd did not win the UK Passport Service authentication by interview tender. The decision was a commercial matter for the UK Passport Service, which set its tender specifications on bases that were considered necessary to provide the required levels of network coverage, security and physical suitability. Having reviewed what it could offer, Post Office Ltd made the commercial decision to withdraw from the tender process. However, the planned interview offices will not take any existing business away from post offices or offer any alternatives to the passport check-and-send service available from selected post offices.
The hon. Gentleman and several other hon. Members asked when the Government would make announcements about a subsidy beyond 2008. The Government are carefully considering options for the network beyond 2008. I am sorry, but at this point we are not working to a fixed timetable. There has already been extensive informal consultation with key stakeholders, and we expect to consult more widely in due course.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked why all banks do not have accounts available at post offices. He was correct in saying that there were some difficulties with some banks. However, all the banks have at least a basic bank account that can be accessed at a post office and many allow their customers to access their current accounts at a post office, but extension of those arrangements is a commercial matter for the Post Office and the banks. The Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Halifax do not allow access to their current accounts. We are asking them to reconsider that, but clearly such a service is very much in their gift.
Discussions have taken place on the Post Office joining the Link network. It was not possible at a particular time, but discussions are ongoing. It is on my agenda to have meetings with Ministers in other Departments, including the Treasury, to consider what we can do to try to facilitate the process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda asked about state aid. As I said, we have been committing £150 million per annum since 2003. That support is provided directly to Post Office Ltd to maintain non-commercial branches that otherwise would close. The funding is used to meet the fixed element of sub-postmasters’ pay and the huge infrastructure costs incurred in running such a large network, including, for example, IT and cash distribution.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and several other hon. Members asked about the Post Office card account. She referred to a letter received by a constituent. If she wishes to write to me or preferably to my colleague with responsibility at the Department for Work and Pensions, I am sure that the matter will be considered. I believe that it was also raised by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne).
My hon. Friend went on to ask about other services that the Post Office might exploit. It is now the UK’s No. 1 provider of foreign exchange, with 12 million transactions last year. It continues to broaden its range of financial services with its instant saver account, which was launched in March, and it is the largest independent provider of travel insurance, with 1 million policies sold annually. I am sure he knows that the Government are a big supporter of credit unions.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made a point, but as he is not in his place, I shall move on to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). I understand that the DWP has committed itself to placing the trials documentation in the Library, but I am sorry that I do not know the date. As the hon. Member for Ludlow said, we expected that information earlier but it has not been provided yet.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire also asked about the BBC over-the-counter licence service. I have already mentioned the commercial decision. The Prime Minister made this a cross-cutting issue with the announcement that MISC33 has been set up under the stewardship of the Deputy Prime Minister. I know that that was not welcomed by some colleagues, but the fact that a formal Cabinet Sub-Committee will review the issue demonstrates that it has moved up among the Government’s priorities. The first meeting will be held shortly.
On the migration of services, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive my making a small partisan point, I may say that it was the Conservatives who introduced payment into a bank or building society as an option in the 1980s. Even before the migration from order books started in April 2003, customers were already choosing to adopt alternative methods of payment. Forty-three per cent. of DWP customers had already opted to receive all their benefits by direct payment.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asked about sub-postmasters. We have discussed the statistics on the few people who use the smaller number of sub-post offices. I had planned to quote, if I had time to do so, from The SubPostmaster, the magazine of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, a letter that was published last August. It demonstrates just how quiet some sub-post offices are, although I decided that I might be regarded by colleagues as flippant, which was not what I intended. I wanted to try to introduce balance and to say that some smaller branches simply are not viable in any way, shape or form. If they are kept open, they will require subsidy, and the Government are about balancing public accounts and achieving the best value for the taxpayer.
The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) asked about financial sustainability. I have made points about some of the technical changes in society. The hon. Member for Ludlow mentioned that there were 2,600 closures in the past three years, but the vast majority—more than 2,000—were related to the managed urban reinvention programme, to which we committed £210 million. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—
I start by expressing my gratitude for this opportunity to raise such an important subject, which affects the lives of millions of people in this country daily.
Chronic pain affects one in seven people in every parliamentary constituency throughout the United Kingdom. Inadequately managed, conditions associated with pain can have a devastating impact on the quality of life of individuals and their families. In terms of repeated appointments, chronic pain costs the NHS the time equivalent of 800 full-time general practitioners, and it generates an incapacity benefit bill that is estimated by the Department for Work and Pensions to exceed £3.8 billion a year. The biggest cost of chronic pain is borne by employers and the wider UK economy. More than £18 billion a year is wasted in lost working days and reduced productivity.
The commonest causes of chronic pain are back pain and arthritis. Other causes include headache, injury, nerve pain, vascular pain, pelvic pain, cancer and rarer forms of pain, such as complex regional pain syndrome, or reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, as it is sometimes called.
I applied for a debate on this subject because of a courageous constituent of mine, Trudy Lapinskis of Whittlesey, who suffers from an advanced form of RSD. She has borne and continues to bear her condition with great stoicism, but not fatalism, and has shown great determination to publicise RSD to as wide an audience as possible, in order to help other sufferers, particularly those in the early stages, when diagnosis and treatment could be so effective in improving quality of life. In Trudy’s case, early diagnosis would have avoided the severe disability that she has to live with today. This debate is by way of a tribute to her and her unstinting work on behalf of other RSD sufferers.
RSD is a chronic pain disorder. Common symptoms include intense burning pain, extreme sensitivity to touch, swelling, sweating, and changes in the colour and temperature of the skin over the affected limb or body part. RSD affects the nervous system, bones, muscles, skin and circulatory system. The aetiology, or cause, of RSD is most commonly a trauma or injury to an extremity, although it can affect any part of the body. The trauma does not have to be severe. Unfortunately, something as common as a sprained ankle, a knock or even a splinter in a finger can lead to RSD, which can then become a potentially disabling and lifelong problem.
In some patients, an exact cause cannot be identified. The first symptom associated with RSD is a pain that is usually described as a constant burning or deep aching pain. It progresses into severe chronic pain and swelling usually occurs in the injured extremity. At that point, the oedema is localised and the skin is very sensitive to touch, with even a slight breeze being capable of causing pain. Diminished motor function and a decrease in muscle strength are associated with the joint in the extremity. Tremors and muscle spasms can also be present.
Most patients experience a significant difference in the temperature of one limb as compared with the other. Osteoporosis might be noted on bone scans and, as swelling in the injured area becomes pitted, the risk of skin infections increases. In some cases, those symptoms spread to other extremities, where no injuries have occurred, and the disorder becomes much more difficult to manage. Out of all chronic pain conditions, RSD is the most severe. According to the McGill pain index, arthritis has a pain rating of 18, a fracture rating of 19, cancer 26 and chronic back pain 27, while incredibly, RSD has a rating of 42.
RSD can affect anyone—male or female, adult or child—and at any age, but studies show that it is more common in people between the ages of 25 and 55 and is seen more frequently in women than in men. It is not more prevalent in a particular race. RSD used to be considered rare in children, but there has been a recent increase in the number of cases reported among children and teenagers. In view of all that, it is imperative that awareness should be raised among GPs and consultants, with early diagnosis and treatment encouraged, to minimise the terrible suffering brought on by the disorder.
I turn to a more general analysis of the problem of pain. Back pain affects most of us. Four out of five people will experience back pain lasting for more than a day at some time in their lives. It is the nation’s leading cause of disability, with 1.1 million people disabled by it. At any one time, 430,000 people in the UK receive social security payments primarily for back pain.
A recent national opinion poll showed that pain is experienced every day or on most days by one in five of the 975 people surveyed, which equates to almost 10 million people throughout Great Britain, while a further one in four people said that they had pain some days. The proportion of people with pain taking time off work has increased from 35 per cent. in a group surveyed in 2002, to 49 per cent. in 2005. Half of those questioned were depressed because of their pain and 72 per cent. were less active because of their pain, with work, household activities, family life, sex, social and leisure activities, and the enjoyment of life being affected.
Pain in the elderly is common. There is much evidence that it is treated badly because the elderly are often uncomplaining, because pain is not recognised, and because doctors are frightened of using strong painkillers, especially after the Shipman inquiry. Children also suffer from chronic pain, which is under-recognised and under-treated. Unrelieved pain in childhood can lead to long-lasting effects on social and physical development, and increases the chances of lifelong pain in adulthood.
Pain is the commonest presenting symptom at the first consultation with a doctor and is second in the top 10 most important symptoms listed by patients, but all too often it is ignored and thought to be unimportant. Why is that? Pain is generally regarded as a warning signal, and it is thought by doctors and lay people alike that, when the cause of the pain is discovered and treated, the pain will go away.
There are acute pains that indeed behave in that way, such as appendicitis, toothache, bone fractures and infections, but chronic pain—that is, pain lasting for longer than three months—serves no useful purpose. It is usually caused by a defect in the signalling mechanisms for pain within the nervous system and is poorly understood. The patient with chronic pain is often subjected to investigation after investigation and multiple consultations, only to be told that a cause for the pain cannot be found, or that it is “only arthritis” and that no treatment is available. How demoralising is that?
Rarer types of pain, such as complex regional pain syndrome or RSD, might not be diagnosed at all, leading to long-term disability from pain, and an implication that it is all in the head. Cancer pain is dreaded by all. The cause might be known, but for about 8 per cent. of sufferers the pain is so severe that it cannot be relieved, even by large doses of morphine.
What can and should be done to manage chronic pain? Sadly, chronic pain cannot be cured, but in 95 per cent. of people it can be partially relieved and managed, such that the sufferer regains control over his or her life. Health professionals in this field want pain to be designated as the fifth vital sign after pulse, blood pressure, temperature and respiratory rate, so that pain is measured whenever a patient consults a doctor or nurse and so that the level is recorded consistently when a patient is in hospital.
The important first step is for the health professional to believe that the pain is real, to decide where the pain is coming from and to treat the pain, not necessarily the disease. That can be done by alternative medicine practitioners, nurses, physiotherapists and doctors. It may not be easy and may require a high level of skill and training to get it right. However, treatments will not be effective if the patient does not understand his or her pain and continues to seek a reason.
Treatment includes the judicious use of drugs—not just painkillers but drugs that modify the pain signals, such as anti-epileptic drugs and antidepressants. Physical methods are also used, such as TENS—transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation—acupuncture, injections, nerve blocks, sophisticated spinal stimulators and spinal drug therapy. An effective way of helping with control over pain is a specialised pain management programme. I am talking about a multidisciplinary approach to pain management whereby a doctor, nurse, psychologist and physiotherapist, working together over a period, help the patient to gain control over the pain.
However, all that takes time, and pain management does not fit easily into the target-driven, rapid-treatment ethos of the modern NHS. The recent NOP survey shows that now 14 per cent. of patients with pain have seen a pain specialist compared with only 7 per cent. in 2002, but what of the other 86 per cent? Facilities for pain management are much more developed in the USA and parts of Europe. There is a desperate need for education of general practitioners: as undergraduates, medical students receive, on average, about four hours’ training on pain and they spend even less time on the prescribing of drugs for pain.
Specialist services exist in most hospitals in the United Kingdom, but their services are stretched, and some hospital services, such as at Oxford, have been withdrawn. In Southampton, the service closed and has been relocated in primary care, and at other hospitals—for example, East Sussex—there are threats of closure. Relocating a pain service in primary care should be achieved with adequate funding and planning, not by a sudden decision to close existing services or to dispense with the appropriately trained personnel. Primary care has many priorities, and pain services are unlikely to be near the top of the list. Pain management is generally known as a Cinderella service.
There have been schemes to link pain management with rehabilitation and back-to-work programmes, crossing the boundaries between the NHS, social services and the Department for Work and Pensions, but those have been sporadic, although the results have been encouraging. One scheme whereby patients with back pain were allowed to return to work part-time but retained benefits for a period proved very successful. Why are such schemes not more readily available? An individual approach is necessary; one size does not fit all.
It has been estimated that 10 specialist sessions in pain management are needed for every 100,000 of population, but nowhere in the United Kingdom achieves that, and services are scarcer in the midlands and Wales. Education is needed at all levels of the health service, and many more specialist nurses, doctors, psychologists and physiotherapists are required to support properly sufferers of the most severe pain. Proper pain management is not easy and presumably does not come cheaply.
Inadequate assessment and treatment of pain should be replaced by early recognition of the problem; listening to the real needs of the patient; education and more education at all levels of the health service; funding for high-quality clinical and scientific research; and adequate provision of specialist services in both primary and secondary care.
This was not a specialist area of mine, although I did spend two and a half magical years as the Minister for Health in Northern Ireland. The issue crossed my desk, but I have to admit that, given all the other priorities, I never spent the time on it that I should have. Perhaps it requires a constituent with this particular problem to bring the issue to the attention of an MP before these things are brought into the wider domain.
I welcome the opportunity to have the debate and to put these ideas on the table for debate. I hope that the Minister will presently answer the points that I have made. I end by paying tribute to a constituent of mine who suffers immense pain with stoicism and great bravery. She is planning a huge conference at the Methodist Central Hall in London in December and has attracted prominent speakers in this field from all parts of the world. I hope that her courage will begin to open the doors to knowledge about this condition for other pain sufferers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) on securing this debate on what is, as he says, an extremely important topic. I listened carefully to him. He spoke with clarity and commitment not only about the position that his constituent finds herself in, but more generally about the issues faced by those suffering from pain, and particularly chronic pain. I take on board the issues that he raised about the treatment and management of pain in the NHS. In particular, I listened carefully to his comments about the treatment of complex regional pain syndrome, or reflex sympathetic dystrophy. He is right to say that pain can have a devastating effect on the quality of an individual’s life. It can take different forms and have different effects, depending on the individual. It is both a sensory and an emotional experience and is generally associated with tissue damage or inflammation.
I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, Miss Lapinskis. I will look out for the proceedings and the conclusions of the conference that she is organising. I hope that he will pass on to her my best wishes for a successful conference. We will certainly want to see what progress the conference can make.
We are not starting from scratch when it comes to managing pain. In recent years, a number of initiatives have focused on pain and its management. In 1999, the clinical standards advisory group issued a report on pain services—“Services for Patients with Pain”—which the Government welcomed. The researchers undertook in-depth interviews in 12 NHS trusts with pain service staff, ward staff, post-operative surgical patients, pain clinic patients and carers. They undertook site visits to interview hospital managers, health authority officials and others, and undertook a range of survey work with organisations and individuals with a relevant interest.
The report concluded that pain services are highly cost-effective, producing savings for the national health service, but there is a “but”, and perhaps here I will agree with the hon. Gentleman. The group found that there are variations in the commissioning arrangements for pain services and the resources dedicated to them. The group recommended that commissioners review local provision of pain services, looking particularly at the provision of more specialised treatments on a networked basis.
The Royal College of Anaesthetists believes that the relief of pain should be a fundamental objective of any health service. Good practice should ensure provision of an evidence-based, high-quality, adequately resourced service dedicated to the care of patients and to the continuing education and development of staff. The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to that point, and in particular to the training component of courses for junior doctors. I am sure that his comments will have been heard by officials in my Department.
Having considered what has gone before, I want to consider what is happening now and the plan for the future for the services that are available to deal with pain. As I said, pain can affect different people in different ways, so a range of different services and interventions will be needed to ensure that patients receive the care that is right for them. We are committed to ensuring that patients and their needs lie at the heart of all health and social services. As far as pain management is concerned, we need to ensure that patients receive help that is tailored specifically to their personal needs. That is why we have never centralised the management of pain services and why we believe that local flexibility is crucial to ensure that the NHS can and does respond effectively.
Services are generally provided across a range of providers, such as community services, teaching hospitals, specialist units and so on, to ensure that patients get the care that they need. Treatments range from education to spinal cord stimulation and complex psychological treatments. One-to-one physiotherapy is often delivered to individuals in a pain management service oriented to rehabilitation rather than pain relief. Sometimes other health professionals, such as occupational therapists, offer one-to-one treatments, too. More than one treatment is often necessary, particularly in the treatment of complex pain.
The treatment of long-term chronic pain is different from that of acute pain. We are talking about the ability not just to handle pain but to live with it in the long term. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is a different thing. Of course, it has an effect on a person’s quality of life, their sense of well-being and their mental health, and all those factors are relevant considerations.
The hon. Gentleman might know that the Department has driven forward the expert patient programme, driven by the NHS, which provides opportunities for people who live with long-term chronic conditions to understand their condition in depth and to develop new skills to manage it better day to day. The number of course places on the expert patient programme will increase from 12,000 to 100,000 by 2012. The programme’s success and the response of individuals who have taken part have been such that the Government are committed to trebling investment in it. In 2006-07 its budget will be £13.4 million.
We realise that commissioners may need additional support to set up specialist pain services, particularly in areas of the country where more provision is required, so we have issued guidelines to help. Those specialist national service definitions look specifically at specialised pain management services, which are for patients with chronic pain who require local specialist clinical expertise.
In North-East Cambridgeshire, to use the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as an example, services are commissioned from a number of acute providers, including Peterborough, Addenbrookes, Hinchingbrooke, King’s Lynn and West Suffolk. More distant providers include the input centre at St. Thomas’ in London, the other major tertiary hospitals in London and the Queen’s medical centre in Nottingham. Those pain management services all treat patients with a wide range of conditions.
Other local services include pain clinics. People with persistent pain may be able to attend a specialist pain clinic for assessment and possible pain management, together with advice on living a fuller life in spite of pain. Pain clinics vary in the treatments offered and not all hospitals have a specific pain clinic. Sometimes a consultant with an interest in pain will prescribe drugs or give injections to try to control it. Other clinics have teams of doctors, psychologists, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and others. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents can take advantage of other sources of pain management. For example, most physio services will offer treatment for RSD and multiple sclerosis, including pain relieving treatment techniques.
This year, the primary care trust’s local delivery plan has identified the need for more general physio and musculoskeletal specialist posts—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that—which will in turn provide faster access to such treatment. I understand that funding has been allocated to support that development.
I shall turn now from provision in the hon. Gentleman’s area to that offered nationally. The Department is developing a musculoskeletal services framework to sit alongside the expert patient programme and specialist services work. It is designed as a good practice guide to help NHS patients with musculoskeletal problems, and is a core pathway-based approach for all stages of musculoskeletal problems. The system relies heavily on referral to hospital for most conditions, but many patients with musculoskeletal problems do not need to be treated in hospital and could receive faster and more appropriate care in a community setting. People in such a position need and want treatment closer to home and I think that there will be no difference of opinion about it being right to move in that direction.
The most common presenting symptom in people with musculoskeletal problems is pain. Qualitative studies have shown that what the group involved most wants from the NHS is pain control and help with improving functions. Providing services for prompt symptoms control through education, non-pharmacological and pharmacological treatment is pivotal to enabling an individual to maintain normal activities of daily living. Pain management is addressed throughout the framework. A patient booklet, co-sponsored by Arthritis Care and the Department of Health, has been developed alongside the framework.
A number of other initiatives are in train, too, which I shall mention briefly. End-of-life pain needs specific handling, so in March 2004 the then National Institute for Clinical Excellence published guidance on supportive and palliative care services. That important document sets out services that help patients and carers cope with cancer and its treatment throughout the cancer journey, including through the management of pain. Although it is orientated towards cancer, many of the principles and recommendations in the guidance apply equally to other conditions.
The NHS has been required to set out action plans to achieve compliance with the recommendations, and their implementation is being monitored by strategic health authorities. The implementation of the guidance will be incremental and will be supported through the increased funding provided to the NHS.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for better training for health professionals. As he will know, the Department of Health is not responsible for settling curricular matters for health professional training. However, we share a commitment with statutory and professional bodies that all health professionals are trained so that they have the skills and knowledge to deliver a high-quality health service to all groups of the population with which they deal, whatever their condition. We take on board his points and I am sure that they will be borne in mind.
I want to say a brief word about the Government’s manifesto commitment on palliative care. We made this pledge:
“In order to increase choices for patients with cancer we will double the investment going into palliative care services, giving more people the choice to be treated at home”.
That is why we set out a programme of action on end-of-life care in the White Paper, “Our health, our care, our say”. As it is developed and implemented, it will provide the necessary support so that all people, regardless of age or condition, can, where appropriate, choose where they die.
We have committed an additional £50 million a year to improve the provision of and access to specialist palliative care. Our latest information is that the allocation has funded a range of activity nationally, including the provision of an extra 44 palliative medicine consultants, 172 clinical nurse specialists and 46 specialist palliative care beds.
In conclusion, we recognise the need to broaden the access that patients with a variety of conditions have to high-quality care and pain management services. We recognise that there is still some way to go to ensure that all people who need it have access to such care, but we have started to implement a number of initiatives to stress the importance of pain management.
This has been a good debate. I am grateful and pleased that the hon. Gentleman has managed to secure it. He is right; it is the core business of the national health service to get the treatment and relief of pain right, and it is right that we consider it in the broad sense in which he has brought it to us. I wish his constituent well with her conference later this year and also congratulate her on the work that she is doing to draw attention to a condition that needs help and specialist support.
I am sure that you, Mr. Williams, are well aware of the fact that this is Wales biodiversity week. Interest in and support for biodiversity is manifest in the increasing number of people who are becoming members of wildlife organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Butterfly Conservation, local wildlife trusts, recording groups for bats, badgers, fungi, insects, plants, invertebrates and arachnids, and the National Trust.
People want to get involved and do what they can to help biodiversity. They join wildlife groups, watch wildlife programmes on television, read the myriad press articles, and attend events in large numbers, even in the inner cities, including events like the excellent sustainability week in London. Why? They do it because biodiversity impacts on our whole life. It provides the support systems that sustain human existence, from our health to the fertility of our crops. The many species of plants, insects and animals that live in a diverse range of habitats gives us that sense of the place where we live, and can act as an incentive to visit other places.
The world is losing biodiversity at an ever-increasing rate as the result of human activity. In the United Kingdom, 71 moths are recognised to be endangered or vulnerable, mirroring parallel declines in common bird species such as the ptarmigan, the skylark, the grey partridge and, in some areas, even the common sparrow. Summers are not the same without our butterflies; the high brown and marsh fritillaries and the wood white and white-letter butterflies are all in decline. When farmers need to import bees to pollinate their crops, we know that we have a serious problem. Sadly, the list of decreasing species in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee barometer is at about 45 per cent., with insufficient data on a further 15 or 20 per cent. of species.
In preparing for the debate, I communicated with a number of organisations and they raised the same concerns. There is tremendous recognition of the Government’s commitment to biodiversity, through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, the Commons Bill and the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. However, it was felt that we urgently need statutory reporting responsibilities to be built into legislation to take forward the Government’s commitment and to record progress.
There is a need for increased species and habitat prioritisation, data collection and research, so that policy making can be evidence-based. Finally, dare I say it, we need increased financial resources for UK BAP—biodiversity action planning. Clear commitments have already been given, and I stress that biodiversity and wildlife groups recognise how much the Government have done.
The Government, with European Environment Ministers, set a target in a Commission communication entitled “Halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010—and beyond”, yet in Wales, where the natural environment runs deep within the soul, the Welsh environment strategy has a different target. By 2015, 95 per cent. of Welsh sites of special scientific interest are to be in a favourable condition, and by 2026 all sites of international, Welsh and local importance are to be in a favourable condition.
Although I recognise that setting such targets is a devolved matter, wildlife groups are concerned that the disparate nature of those lower targets will have a major impact on the UK’s ability to meet its target. The environment does not recognise man-made borders, and Offa’s dyke will not hold back the tide of biodiversity loss.
RSPB members have called for increased funding for management agreements and the species monitoring of agri-environment schemes in Wales. However, with the Countryside Council for Wales losing more than 30 staff in the past year, meeting common targets has become almost impossible. If we in Wales are to play our part in meeting the UK target, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must help by ensuring that additional funding and support is available.
Section 40 of the 2006 Act replaces section 74 of the 2000 Act, so that from October 2006 Departments must allocate a Minister with a duty to conserve biological diversity and to monitor how public bodies working with the Department are conserving biodiversity. To see how this was working, I asked questions of all Departments on the allocation of ministerial responsibility, which revealed that although most Departments had assigned Ministers, they were awaiting guidance from DEFRA—guidance that will also be followed by local authorities—on how they should undertake their monitoring role. I give credit to the Department for International Development. It sent the most comprehensive reply and demonstrated a clear commitment to the task, which stood out against the replies of other Departments
The need for a statutory responsibility to report progress in meeting biodiversity duties was raised by all the wildlife organisations to which I spoke. I am aware that DEFRA commissioned Entec to look at the subject some time ago, and there is universal hope that that will lead to targets being set as part of the comprehensive performance assessment and to best value performance indicators, with biodiversity integrated into performance assessment systems, especially in local government. Yet again, it will fall to DEFRA to urge the Audit Commission and the Department for Communities and Local Government to take that forward.
Indeed, local, regional and national Government could follow the excellent example of Hampshire county council, which has a corporate biodiversity management plan in place for all its directorates—they must all demonstrate how they will meet biodiversity targets. It would be good, would it not, if Departments, and local and regional government, had such plans in place by the 2010 deadline?
Targets need to be integrated for the purposes of recording, monitoring, mapping and tracking habitat, species loss and the growth of invasive species at local, regional and national levels. I urge that butterflies are recognised as indicators of both a healthy environment and the effectiveness of the Government’s land use policies.
I am glad to see that the Minister agrees.
Funds must be available to continue with moth recording and monitoring. I have arranged a moth recording night in the Palace, with moth recording equipment being installed on the roof of the House, and I hope to integrate that with a bat recording evening, so that we can show that there is wildlife even in this most sterile of places.
The statistic that 50 billion moths are required to feed the blue tit population of the UK is staggering, but it is frightening to know how many birds are estimated to have died this spring because their food supply was not available. We need Natural England to commit to species-based project work at its launch in October, so that recovery work on species such as stone-curlew, bittern and black grouse can continue.
How are we to do that? The UK BAP is key to the way in which the Government work in England and Wales, through its agencies and non-governmental organisations and the voluntary sector. I am aware that the 2005 UK biodiversity action plan reporting round will be announced on 20 June by DEFRA. It is hoped that the new Natural England body will place greater emphasis on the UK BAP in its strategic direction document, following the DEFRA announcement. Strategic partnerships to implement the BAP targets with NGOs have proved critical in the past, but it is unclear if that will continue with Natural England, and I would welcome clarification. There is concern that the UK BAP has lost its momentum and that commitment has dwindled. I received an e-mail from a biodiversity co-ordinator who described the situation in her region thus:
“We have a lack of knowledge of BAP habitat and species distribution. Our Phase 1 habitat data is now 10 years old and was not completed in the first place. There is no finance available for commissioning up to date survey work. This makes it difficult to set local targets and to evaluate the importance of sites and parcels of land in the local and national context. Our SING site network falls into this same category. I think it would be fair to say that the only ones that have been thoroughly surveyed are the ones that are about to be developed.”
She ended with the words:
“God, I feel quite miserable now!”
We need to acknowledge that securing the capacity to move towards the 2010 halting of biodiversity loss is becoming harder. Setting up local nature reserves is becoming a problem for NGOs and local authorities, and no finance is available for their management. Short-term, project-style funding prevents the setting of local priorities and reduces the capacity for long-term planning, and voluntary organisations are unsure about whether they can continue to research, keep staff and match fund grant aid for projects. The RSPB tells me that it estimates that the additional extra expenditure required to meet the UK BAP targets is £338 million a year. Where is that money to come from?
I am sure that the Minister will be pleased that there is positive news amid the gloom. The Government have recognised the critical role played by volunteers in the life of the UK. The role of NGOs and their volunteers in promoting Government policy and halting biodiversity loss must also be recognised. Butterfly Conservation, wildlife trusts, the RSPB and local wildlife groups rely heavily on volunteers for their monitoring work. Butterfly Conservation’s volunteer audit showed that their volunteers alone contributed 77,000 person days a year, equivalent to more than £5 million, even at a basic rate of £60 a day. Add to that the huge army of volunteers working with the wildlife groups, and volunteers’ value to biodiversity becomes incalculable.
EU structural funds could be set up to fund the creation of jobs to promote and enhance biodiversity, and funding for any development likely significantly to damage biodiversity could be refused. Planning application forms could include a requirement to report on the impact on biodiversity of a proposed development, and a percentage of the planning delivery grant in England could be specifically targeted for biodiversity. I recognise that some of the issues are outside the Minister’s responsibility and that of his Department, but I am sure that it will be for DEFRA to promote such things in other Departments.
We must harness the new interest shown by industry in environmental matters. This week I was especially pleased to receive an invitation from the CBI to a meeting that aims to bring together business people and parliamentarians with an interest in the opportunities and challenges posed to businesses by action to protect and improve the environment. The Government placed the environment high on their agenda back in the mists of 1997, when some other political parties could not even spell “biodiversity”. They introduced significant legislation to increase environmental protection and biodiversity. To keep up that momentum, we need statutory duties to report on progress. We need a renewed commitment to the UK BAP agenda from all agencies, including Natural England. We need funds to ensure that policy decisions are based on empirical evidence gleaned from monitoring and research, and, of course, the finances to do it all. The legacy of the Government should not be the national threat of the spread of Japanese knotweed or the 21,000 per cent. increase of the Blair’s shoulder-knot moth as a result of the growth of suburban cypress trees. In the words of the RSPB,
“We must stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest.”
Minister, I am afraid that responsibility lies heavily on your shoulders.
This is the first time I have responded to a debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams, and I am very pleased to be doing so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) on securing this debate on biodiversity issues. Her timing is impeccable; as she mentioned, this is Wales biodiversity week, and many events are taking place to raise awareness of biodiversity. They will get people out there to experience the huge variety of life. I took the precaution of looking some of them up on the website; one of the events is a bats and moths barbecue, which takes place in Bridgend on Sunday. That is not, I am relieved to hear, a chance to try out unorthodox recipe suggestions, but a project involving the use of ultrasound to pick up bat activity in a local park. That is great—the event is being promoted in a humorous and interesting way and getting people engaged. That is the point.
Such awareness raising is becoming more and more essential. As my hon. Friend said, across the world, changes in biodiversity due to human activity have happened more rapidly in the past 50 years than at any time in human history. The issues highlighted, particularly by the latest scientific evidence, show that an unprecedented effort is needed at all levels in all countries to achieve significant reductions in the rate of biodiversity loss.
My hon. Friend mentioned various levels of possible action, and I absolutely agree that the commitment to biodiversity knows no boundaries, whether within or without the United Kingdom. It is not simply a matter of Offa’s dyke, but a global issue that we have to tackle at international, national and local government level and within local communities. That is how we must address the issue.
Progress is crucial. Biodiversity is a vital component of the planet’s life support systems. It helps regulate our climate and benefits people directly through its contributions to health and well-being. It provides food, fuel, water, air and natural medicines—all the ecosystem services that we have taken for granted and assumed were free goods for far too long. We are beginning to discover that in the whole battle against climate change. We know that the pressures on global biodiversity continue to increase, particularly as a result of global warming, the degradation of habitats and continuing infrastructure development.
The Government remain absolutely committed to meeting our targets and improving biodiversity conservation in this country and abroad. Our key commitment is to meet the 2010 target of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss. All our domestic targets in England, Wales and other UK countries are consistent with and represent important milestones along the way towards that aim. Considerable work is being done to meet those targets and much has been achieved already.
Indeed, I would like to congratulate the Welsh Assembly on the publication of their Wales environment strategy, a document that reaffirms the commitment to halting biodiversity loss and working towards a definite recovery from the losses that have occurred to date. The document clearly identifies actions to help achieve further progress and underpins Wales’s contribution to our UK and international commitments, directly supporting the challenging targets for 2010.
Our overall goals, as stated in the UK’s biodiversity action plan, are to conserve and enhance biological diversity in the UK and contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of global biodiversity. The biodiversity action plan sets out the Government’s commitments through a series of individual habitat action plans and species action plans, which specify clear targets and the actions designed to meet them.
The UK BAP is of great importance in co-ordinating and driving conservation work at national and local levels, identifying priorities for action and setting biological targets for the recovery of species and habitats. It provides the framework for costed and targeted national action to address 436 of our most threatened habitats and species in the UK. Across the UK, further support comes from approximately 150 local biodiversity action plans developed by local partnerships to engage local communities and help deliver conservation action. In many cases, those plans are really making a difference.
The 24 local biodiversity partnerships in Wales have done an enormous amount of work to prepare and implement local plans that support the UK biodiversity action plan. Local biodiversity action plans in Wales comprise a range of successful projects that are inspiring and enthusing new partners and sectors, including tourism and business, to get involved and contribute to further progress. The plans are also helping to demonstrate the wider social and economic benefits from conserving and enhancing our natural environment. In particular, recent activities have led to the completion of an intertidal survey for the entire Welsh coastline, the rediscovery of a rare lichen, Cladonia peziziformis, at two separate sites in Wales and the establishment of a valleys bat group.
I am aware that the biodiversity action plan for Bridgend has immense value as a means of harnessing the enthusiasm and commitment of local people to help the Government towards meeting their targets for biodiversity. The plan, which also focuses
on local conservation priorities and targets, continues to operate alongside the Bridgend unitary development plan and helps to inform it.
At the national level, effective co-ordination of a considerable range of activity is driven by the UK biodiversity partnership. That forum brings together all the partners involved with the BAP, including funders, experts, business, Governments and non-governmental organisations. A standing committee guides and supports the partnership in implementing the BAP, helping to facilitate the exchange of information and overseeing progress reporting.
The biodiversity partnership is currently taking forward a series of review processes, including action to examine the targets set for UK priority species and habitats. New revised targets will be published this year. In addition, a national reporting round will provide the latest measure of progress under the UK BAP. It will be published next week, and the results are likely to show that while some priority species and habitats are still declining, the past three years have seen some notable successes. Some 22 per cent. of habitats and 11 per cent. of priority species are increasing. Overall, more priority species are showing improved trends in 2005 compared with 1999 and 2002.
It is particularly encouraging that we are starting to see improvements in a range of important species—in parts of our long-cherished national biodiversity. The population of the lesser horseshoe bat has increased by 42 per cent. in Wales and by 39 per cent in south-west England since 1999, and the population of the Deptford pink has increased substantially at a number of sites in England and Wales. The status of those species as BAP priorities has been a major factor in the success.
A number of species of moths have been designated as top priority under the UK BAP because of their widespread decline. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we know that moths are vital to the countryside; they both pollinate plants and provide food for other species. It is therefore significant and worrying that more than 50 species of larger moths are highly threatened, and others are also at risk. Sadly, more than 25 species of moths have become extinct in Britain during the past century, ranging from the gypsy moth, last seen as native in around 1907, to the Essex Emerald, which disappeared just 15 years ago, in 1991.
Those data highlight our concerns about the pressure faced by native species and emphasise the need to create better opportunities to conserve our wildlife. However, there is some good news in that the discovery of new colonies, ecological research and habitat management have helped the situation of 27 priority moths since the UK BAP was published a decade ago. Research also shows that the greatest proportion of species with relatively stable populations lies in the south-west, including Wales. The current review of national priority species under the BAP will examine those issues, and may increase the number of priority moths that benefit from increased awareness and additional resources for survey, monitoring, research and conservation, although there is a range of important species to consider.
Clearly, there are considerable challenges that we must address. Overall, however, I am pleased that the latest BAP reporting round shows many individual successes. Many more populations and habitats are remaining stable or their rate of loss is at least now beginning to slow. Much hard work has led to those improvements, and the progress is significant and pleasing, given that it can take time to reverse the serious decline of previous decades, however successful our policies and actions might be over a limited period.
Further important progress has also been made in protecting our nationally important wildlife sites across the UK. More than 72 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest are now in favourable condition, which represents a tremendous improvement in the past few years. It means that we are on track to meet our 95 per cent. target by 2010.
Significant work is taking place at all levels and across all sectors to deliver the additional progress that we need. Environmental stewardship has already made an important contribution by supporting farmers in adopting new approaches that can conserve our biodiversity. A real, positive difference has been seen in wildlife and in the countryside since environmental stewardship was introduced. In particular, we are seeing more farmland birds, and a greater variety of bird life. More than 1 million hectares of land are now covered by environmental stewardship agreements. That means that more and more farmers are being rewarded for farm management that conserves and enhances wildlife and landscapes rather than simply existing as farming for the subsidy, as under the old common agricultural policy principle.
We also need to build on the progress that we are making in urban areas. The consideration of the impacts on local biodiversity of new house building is a matter that should be addressed by regional planning bodies and local planning authorities when preparing regional spatial strategies and local development documents. In preparing those plans, they must have regard to national planning policies. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that relevant policies are set out in planning policy statement 9 on biodiversity and geological conservation, which was published in August 2005. At local authority level, as well as at national, regional, Government and Whitehall level, this issue, specifically the point that she made about incorporating biodiversity into the thinking of local planners—that is essential—is being addressed. The Government took the step last August.
PPS9 makes it clear that planning policies should aim to maintain and enhance, restore or add to biodiversity interests, and recognises that it is possible to build in beneficial biodiversity features as part of the design of new developments. PPS9 is also supported by a recently published good practice guide, which includes practical examples of how authorities can plan positively for biodiversity.
In addition, under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which comes into force on 1 October 2006, we have created a formal duty for all public authorities in England and Wales to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity in the exercise of their functions. Furthermore, the launch in June 2005 of the Government’s new policy for ancient and native woodland, backed by numerous practical initiatives and projects, represents another important step forward in promoting enhanced biodiversity in our woodlands and forests.
Last month, I also launched a consultation on the review of the England forestry strategy. The consultation identifies national priorities and policies over the next five to 10 years, to which our trees, woods and forests can make a particularly significant contribution. The aims include the safeguarding of our national resource of trees, woods and forests for future generations to support the protection and enhancement of our environmental resources, biodiversity and landscapes.
Climate change is having a major impact on biodiversity in the UK, just as it is around the world, and we can only expect much bigger challenges to come. In the past year, we have seen some very sobering trends, particularly on migratory species at home and abroad. It is imperative to act now to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and to combat the effects of climate change on our natural habitats and the plants and animals that rely on them.
We need to base our policies and actions on the best possible scientific advice. Our priorities in moving forward include the development of a more robust evidence base to support our scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. We must use the evidence to raise awareness, to aid decision making at all levels and to shape our policies and adaptation strategies for the future. Already, important work has been carried out on compiling a framework of biodiversity valuation methodologies and on providing information on economic values of biodiversity that are currently available.
The Government are also aiming for a wiser and more sustainable use of water and wetlands. I am pleased, for example, that more than 170 water and wetland sites of special scientific interest will benefit from £500 million of investment as a result of the fourth periodic review of water prices. In the past 12 months, substantial progress has also been made on action to include wider biodiversity requirements in river basin planning and management.
Sound progress has also been made in developing proposals—
It being Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.