Wednesday 19 July 2006
[Derek Conway in the Chair]
Buncefield Oil Depot Fire
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I thank colleagues for getting up so early to come to our first debate on the Buncefield incident, and the Minister for taking the time and having the consideration to meet me yesterday to discuss the Buncefield inquiry.
At 1 minute past 6 on 11 December, an explosion registering 2.7 on the Richter scale rocked my constituency and neighbouring constituencies across Hertfordshire and the other home counties and parts of London. Tank 12 had been letting a rather large amount—200 tonnes—of unleaded fuel escape for a considerable time, and the vapour exploded in the car park areas of the Northgate and Fuji buildings on Mayland industrial estate. It was the largest explosion on mainland Europe since the second world war. Everybody accepts that the subsequent explosion and fire tested our emergency services to the extreme. We are all very proud of the absolutely fantastic job that they did.
I fully accept that the incident could not have been predicted. There had been similar, although not identical, incidents around the world, but as a former fireman, I am all too aware that no one had trained or prepared for an explosion of that magnitude or for a subsequent fire and explosions. I reiterate my admiration for the firefighters who came from all over the country to help my constituents in that national disaster.
My hon. Friend has served his constituents with great assiduity. I am sure that this will not be the last time that he brings this matter before the House.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge the great efforts and skill of the Essex fire service, which featured in the incident? Is he aware that its firemen got their skills because of the Canvey Island calor gas importation site, the first such site for liquefied natural gas in the world? It now takes liquefied petroleum gas from ships in the Thames and there is a proposal to change it so that it can take a full 5 per cent. of the nation’s total energy need in LNG across Canvey Island. As everyone here will understand, that is raising local fears.
We must learn any possible lessons from the Buncefield fire. Will my hon. Friend explain later why the early detection systems at Buncefield failed to warn of the developing clouds of vapour that had been rolling around for 20 or 30 minutes prior to the explosion? That is a key point.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I should declare an interest as a former fireman, and not only in Essex. I trained on the foam monitor that protects the installation to which he refers. It was a pleasure to do a lot of training at Canvey Island and the neighbouring Coryton refineries. Some would say that I had an inside knowledge of the explosion and depot fire long before I came to this House.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that without the expertise of the Essex brigade and others—particularly the Essex brigade, because Essex has so many refinery installations and LPG facilities—we would really have struggled. I pay tribute to the Essex fire service.
On my hon. Friend’s second point, I will elaborate on the value of the safety devices at the depot, which has a knock-on effect for all depots and installations around the country. I have had the pleasure of taking some hon. Members around Buncefield to show them what happened. If any other hon. Member would like to visit, that could be arranged.
I was massively impressed with the national disaster plan that the Government have brought into force since they came into power. We could not even have tackled the Buncefield fire had not high-velocity pumps been purchased and training been done with them. Although we had major problems with water supply, the one thing that we did not have a problem with, once the high-velocity and high-powered pumps arrived, was capacity. However, we did not have the knowledge of what would happen once the firefighters started to fight the fire.
The Buncefield site is a national facility, part of almost a national grid of fuel for this nation. It was built in 1968. At the time, it was a stand-alone installation: there were very few buildings around it, although a couple of residential properties in my and neighbouring constituencies were quite close. In 1968, the decision was naturally made that the risk to properties around the site was minimal as there were so few of them. However, that is a long time ago now, and over the years there has been a substantial encroachment of building around the depot.
Some blame has been attributed to the local authority. People have asked why it gave permission for building around the Buncefield site. However, the legislation is clear: any local authority has to look at a planning application put to it. The authority had to ask permission or request information from the Health and Safety Executive to find out whether the development around the Buncefield depot was suitable and safe, and I understand from my local authority that on every occasion that it was asked, the Health and Safety Executive said that it could not see any problems. I have looked at the paperwork and understand that that is correct. I am afraid that it will probably fall to the inquiry to decide who was responsible and when mistakes were made, but on the planning side, I wish to emphasise that Dacorum borough council was exemplary in its role of making sure that no planning went ahead if any risk had been indicated by the HSE.
Some buildings were still being constructed literally days before the explosion took place. Some had been handed over to new owners by the developers the day before the explosion. I am particularly proud recently to have chaired a project called 20/20 Vision for the regeneration of my constituency, particularly the town and shopping centre, and the industrial area. Long before the Buncefield incident, we recognised that there was a major need to regenerate the area because in the 1950s the requirements of an industrial park were completely different from those of the 21st century. That project was well on its way before the Buncefield explosion.
I shall talk about the fire, but the explosion was the devastating thing. Yesterday morning, I had the honour of taking the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government around the Buncefield site. I also had the pleasure of taking the Deputy Prime Minister, in his previous capacity, around the site. Everybody who goes is simply shocked at the sheer devastation created by the explosion and subsequent fire. The Northgate organisation is wonderful—one of the things it does is operate the pay roll for the NHS. The Northgate building was absolutely devastated by the explosion: inside it, an eight-pump fire ensued, which alone would constitute a major incident.
What has to be addressed is what happened in the build-up to the explosion. I am conscious that I and colleagues must be careful in this debate not to jeopardise any possible prosecutions. If I move too far that way, perhaps the Minister would gag me immediately. I have no doubt that his officials will help him.
I desperately want to find out what has happened since the fire was put out by our brilliant fire service. The Deputy Prime Minister made a statement to the House the following day, which I praised. When asked specifically who was in charge of the Buncefield incident, he stated categorically that he was in charge. I discussed with him on several occasions what would happen after the fire was put out and how matters would progress, especially in respect of the environment, planning and the obvious need for an inquiry. As a new MP, I sometimes got a little lost in those negotiations, in which the civil servants told us one thing but probably did another. However, we achieved a broad remit for the inquiry through the negotiations.
The Deputy Prime Minister and I discussed whether we should have an open and public inquiry similar to the Marchioness inquiry. I pushed for that simply for the sake of natural justice, not only for my constituents but for the country as a whole. If we can have an open dialogue about what happened at Buncefield, there will be more confidence throughout the country not only that such an incident will not occur again but that nothing has been brushed under the carpet or in any way left out because it may cause embarrassment. I am not saying that that is the case, but it is a natural assumption about anything that is done behind closed doors.
After a couple of days of negotiations with the Deputy Prime Minister, I was informed that he was not in charge but that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was responsible for the inquiry. I gather that that is why a Minister from that Department is with us this morning.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important in such circumstances to differentiate the immediate crisis response, which may be properly delegated to any senior Minister, from the follow-up action after the immediate crisis is past? Is it not the most important thing that Ministers can do to make it clear and announce publicly when responsibility transfers, if that is necessary, rather than having it wrung out of them in discussions?
I could not agree more. That is exactly why I asked Mr. Speaker for this Adjournment debate. Sadly, seven months after the Deputy Prime Minister’s initial statement, many Ministers have come and gone. Many Secretaries of State have come to the constituency to have their photos taken and to say nice things about how well we are doing—I will come to the needs and aspirations of my community in a moment—but no one knew then or knows now who is in charge of the Buncefield incident.
It is clear that the inquiry falls under the remit of the Department for Work and Pensions. However, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has become the Department for Communities and Local Government. No one has come to the House and said to the country that a certain Minister is in charge, that he has a budget and that he will ensure that, whatever happens, all aspects of the Buncefield disaster will be addressed. That worries me. Further to what my hon. Friend said, I am being bounced from Minister to Minister as I try to find out who is in charge of which bit on which day. There was some surprise that this debate comes within the remit of the DWP. Many people expected a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government, but because the inquiry is continuing, immediately one talks about Buncefield, the matter comes under the umbrella of the DWP.
I wish to discuss the health and safety inquiry. I have nothing but admiration for the expertise and the hard work of the inquiry board headed by Lord Newton. Its job is difficult and technical. It has been good at providing briefings that are as simple as possible—without too much jargon—so that I can understand what is happening and what the inquiry has covered. It has had real difficulty in getting historical data, but it has done an absolutely wonderful job.
However, I have said since day one—I said this earlier in my comments—that the public sense of natural justice requires that whatever happens in the inquiry must be fair and seen to be fair. There is great concern that it continues behind closed doors. I regularly meet with representatives of my local business community, which has been and continues to be massively affected by the Buncefield incident. Some 4,000 jobs are still at risk. I still have regular meetings with companies in which I say, “Give us time, stay with us while the inquiry is taking place,” and their reply is, “What is happening with the inquiry?” My residents still come to me several months on. Only this past weekend, I met with residents of the Leatherstock green area of my constituency who are about to have the roof of their home removed. They had remedial repairs done but have suddenly discovered that there are structural problems and that the whole roof will have to be removed. They thought that they were over all such problems.
I went around my constituency this past weekend to discuss my constituents’ concerns with them before this debate so that I could highlight them as accurately as possible. People are still talking about their fears about the future of the depot—sadly, people are still experiencing nightmares and flashbacks—and why the inquiry is being held behind closed doors. I have reiterated from day one that the inquiry should be open and public, along the lines of the Marchioness inquiry, and not long drawn out. My great fear is that the process will take years and years.
What really tips me over the edge is not only that the HSE should not be conducting the inquiry behind closed doors but that it must address the safety failures to which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred. They were mentioned in the fourth interim report, which was released last Thursday. The report is open in saying that there were catastrophic failures involving safety and back-up mechanisms, but for many years HSE was responsible for inspecting and approving the site and changes to it, and the safety devices. If the HSE inspects something, we expect that it has done so rigorously and that everything is perfectly safe.
As I said, there is an LNG site in my constituency. I have met with all the emergency services and the HSE to go through all the safety systems and devices on that site to ensure that the testing procedures for them have been checked and double-checked, and that new procedures that more accurately reflect the reality of the situation that occurred at Buncefield are developed in order to test the devices. The public need to know that the safety procedures will work.
My hon. Friend raises exactly the issue that I was coming to. The public must have confidence in the Government agency that is inspecting the depots and saying that they are safe. There are many such depots around the country, some of them much larger than Buncefield. It does not matter whether the inspection and approval of a facility occurred a week, a year or 10 years before, the public will always wonder why the HSE inspects itself. The public will see that a major part of the inquiry’s remit is to find out what went wrong, but that the HSE was part and parcel of the organisation that said that the depot was safe. They will ask themselves how the HSE can inspect the site and carry out an inquiry—possibly into its own actions—behind closed doors.
The situation is extraordinary. We were very lucky that no one died, so the police involvement has essentially been zero, and the HSE has gone ahead with the inquiry. That will take a considerable time, and we are lucky to have an independent chairman, Lord Newton, who has been absolutely brilliant at informing me about what is going on. None the less, like every other member of the public, I have no idea what evidence has been submitted to the inquiry or what is going on. If there were to be a criminal prosecution, however, the organisation that was responsible for the safety of the depot and its workers, as well as that of the residents around it, surely could not be judge, jury and defendant.
That is the most difficult thing to grasp, and I do not understand how we can have a situation in the 21st century in which the HSE—a Government agency—investigates the explosion and the subsequent fire when it was so integral to the depot’s safety before the fire. I shall continue to call for a full public inquiry by an independent board to be started as soon as possible. I am not saying that the HSE should not make its expertise available to the board, and perhaps even be part of it, but it is imperative that justice is seen to be done when so many of my constituents and others around the country are so worried about the effects of the fire.
Let us dwell for a second on how lucky we were. The vapour initially exploded in the car park. A breeze—it was a real act of God—had moved the vapour from beside the tanks, which were in the depot, into the car park, which was just outside it. If the explosion had taken place in the depot, no one there would have survived, and the fire and the explosions that subsequently affected the area would have been even more severe. I think that the inquiry would probably agree with that view; I know that the chief fire officer does
Some 31,000 people worked in the industrial area, and the explosion damaged their buildings. Some 2,500 people were evacuated from homes that had been damaged or were in what the fire brigade decided should be an exclusion zone, because there was a risk of further explosions. Just to show how fantastic my community is, I should say that of the 2,500 people who were taken out of their homes, just over 200 were put up by the local authority; the rest were looked after by loved ones and friends in the community of Hemel Hempstead. That clearly shows how well members of the community pulled together.
The council did a fantastic job. Many of its staff were way out of their remit and had little experience of such incidents. Let me publicly express my admiration for all the council’s workers, and particularly its senior management, who were absolutely brilliant and whose control room was up and operating very quickly. Organisations such as the women’s institute and the Red Cross were simply fantastic—we could probably have put the fire out with the amount of tea that they supplied. Typically, when this country comes under attack, we pull together, and this was an attack on our community.
I want to give colleagues time to speak, so I come now to my last point, which relates to my great concern about the environment in and around my constituency. I am concerned not only about the Buncefield explosion, but about the chemicals that have been found in the environment, which the report clearly indicates have nothing to do with Buncefield. I refer, in particular, to perfluorooctane sulphonate. PFOS is a particularly nasty carcinogen used in firefighting foams whose dangers have been known for many years. Before Buncefield, the Government were in what I might best describe as deep negotiations with the European Union about banning PFOS. They had drafted a statutory instrument to do so, which provided for a two-year sentence for those who brought PFOS into the country.
Two sorts of foams were used at Buncefield: synthetic foams and protein foams. I shall talk only briefly about synthetic PFOS foams, because my colleagues want to talk about them. However, I continually go on about protein foams, although nobody seems to be listening. Protein foams are often blood based and they have been used for many years. Indeed, I trained with them extensively when I was in the fire service. Protein foam is smelly, horrible stuff because it is based on blood. Blood tends to bubble up rather well, so people who are trying to smother a fire use blood. That might sound silly, but it was the traditional way of doing things. Protein foams were developed extensively during the war because petrochemical ingredients were in short supply.
I have deep concerns about protein foams. I know that they were used at the incident, because I saw them there in bulk supply, but it looked as if they had been in storage for a considerable time. As I have said before, I am concerned that some of that foam, which firefighters would never dream of using on anything else and which might have come out of storage, was disposed of at the incident. I have therefore asked the Minister to address a particular issue, although I fully appreciate that the environment is not in his brief and that he might have to write to me. I have asked for undertakings that none of the protein foams that were used were based on full-blood products and that where blood products have leaked into the environment—we already knew of the dangers of blood products in the 20th century—none of the firemen, or anybody else locally, had their life endangered.
I turn now to the issue of synthetic foams, of which PFOS is a major ingredient. Before the Buncefield incident, the Government were trying to ban PFOS, and no level was acceptable in drinking water. Recently, however, the drinking water inspectorate has said that it would be happy to have three parts per million in drinking water. Will the Minister explain the logic of saying that we should have no PFOS one minute, but then suddenly saying that we should have three parts per million? I emphasise that there is no PFOS in the drinking water in Hertfordshire, that the bore holes close to the incident have been closed and that extensive monitoring has taken place.
However, that monitoring has shown up another anomaly, which my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) will describe. The water table in areas with no link at all to the Buncefield incident has been showing extensive signs of PFOS. Where does the Minister think that those contaminants have come from? Will he make sure that testing takes place well away from areas where there is a natural assumption that any contaminants will have come only from firefighting foam? PFOS has been used in pesticides and insecticides in the past, and it might still be used in them. That is a major issue in the rural community outside my new town.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Hertfordshire has a very delicate environment because our water comes from chalk aquifers? When a motorway service station or something like that is built, a lot of work goes into ensuring that the run-off is secured. Does he feel that a Minister who deals with environmental matters should make a clear statement about safety, pollutants and so on in the light of the Buncefield incident? That would allow us at least to know what the damage was and what the risks and worries are.
I could not agree more. People are concerned not only about Buncefield and the explosion, but, quite naturally, about the fact that if PFOS and other contaminants—not least the oil-based products—were getting into the aquifers, that needs to be addressed long before Buncefield is given permission to reopen, although I reiterate that I hope it never does. During the incident I was told that the nation could not live without Buncefield, which is a major part of our fuel infrastructure, but I understand now that capacity is up to 95 per cent. without Buncefield. Is that correct? If so, does the Minister agree with my logic, which is that if we reconnect the feeder lines there is no national strategic need for Buncefield and that it should not reopen? That would alleviate the next problem that I want the Minister to deal with, which is about planning.
Naturally, the community wants to get on with its life. The business community wants to get businesses back on to a level playing field. It wants to find out whether properties can be rebuilt or whether they will be too close to a new exclusion zone, if Buncefield is rebuilt; it wants to know whether, if Buncefield is not rebuilt, the contamination of the land will put employees at risk. There are so many questions that I should have hoped that seven months after the incident my constituents and the country would have received the answers.
It is deeply damaging to the Government and to public confidence that the inquiry continues to be operated in secrecy, behind closed doors, and that the evidence to the inquiry is not fully known by the public. I accept that some evidence may need to be held back because of the possibility of prosecutions. However, on behalf of my constituents I cannot understand the Government’s reluctance to come clean, open up and let the public see natural justice take place, especially in the light of the obvious involvement—interference, if you want to put it that way—of the HSE in the safety of the depot before the incident, and in the catastrophic failures that occurred. My final plea to the Minister is that he go to his bosses and persuade them to give us the public inquiry that we deserve, so that we can get on with our lives in Hertfordshire.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): On that Sunday morning at 6 o’clock, I, too, was woken in my home a few miles from Buncefield. It is certainly an experience that I shall not forget. Nor will I forget the experience of driving past Buncefield on the A41 and seeing the plumes of smoke, or visiting the site with my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning). He mentioned the subject on which I should like to focus—perfluorooctane sulphonate, or PFOS, traces of which have been found around Buncefield, raising several concerns.
It may be useful briefly to consider the issue and give the history of PFOS. The chemical was widely used, mainly as a fabric protector—most famously as Scotchgard. However, it had several other uses, such as in pesticides, insecticides and, of course, firefighting foam. In May 2000, 3M, the manufacturer of Scotchgard, announced that it was phasing out the use of PFOS from 2001. Following that, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produced a hazard assessment in which the US and the UK took the lead. Several conclusions about health were reached. One was that PFOS was persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic in mammals. It was detected in blood serum of occupational and general populations. There was a statistically significant association between exposure to PFOS and bladder cancer, and an increased risk of tumours of the male reproductive system, the overall category of cancers and benign growths, and tumours of the gastro-intestinal tract. There is quite extensive evidence suggesting that PFOS is persistent, with a human half-life of four to eight years. As for toxicity, tests on monkeys and rats—but not, you will be pleased to know, Mr. Conway, on cats—show that it can kill at 4.5 micrograms per litre on a repeat dosage over a 90-day period. The OECD hazard assessment further concluded, with respect to the environment, that PFOS is persistent and bioaccumulative, that it is highly toxic in honey bees and that it bioconcentrates in fish. It has been detected in the tissues of wild birds and fish, in surface water and in sediment, in waste water treatment plant effluent, in sewage sludge and in landfill.
After that assessment, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a review of environmental risk. Despite the fact that that use of PFOS has, overall, been substantially reduced since 2001, certain concerns remain. The environmental risk reduction strategy concluded that marketing and use restrictions on PFOS-related substances
“will provide the only effective level of control”.
In October 2004 the Government proposed an immediate prohibition on the storage or use of PFOS and PFOS-related substances at or above 0.1 per cent. of mass. It is important to recognise, however, that within the consultation document produced by DEFRA a five-year derogation was proposed for the development of acceptable substitutes and alternate technologies for firefighting foams. However, implementation of the proposals for that quite extensive ban on PFOS usage was prevented. In an answer to my hon. Friends the Members for Hemel Hempstead and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), said that
“before consultations had been completed, the European Commission suspended our unilateral action and subsequently issued its own draft Directive to restrict the marketing and use of PFOS. In this draft, all current PFOS uses, including firefighting foam, would be allowed to continue. This would not therefore allow the UK to set regulations to ban its use.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1238W.]
On first reading, that rather rankled with me, given my Eurosceptic instincts. I do not see why that is a matter for the European Commission and why the UK should not be in a position to make a judgment on the dangers of PFOS and to legislate accordingly.
I have several questions for the Minister. To be fair to him, I acknowledge that I did not have an opportunity to tell him my questions in advance, and I am conscious that PFOS is a subject not necessarily closely related either to work or to pensions. Any answers that the Minister can give now would be gratefully received, but perhaps he can write to me later.
I should be grateful to know the Government’s attitude and what steps they are taking to lobby the European Commission and the EU. Do they fully accept that the matter is something for EU jurisdiction? Having made that point I want to qualify it in two ways. First, on first reading the parliamentary answer that I quoted, one could get the impression that but for the European Union we would have banned PFOS and it would no longer be relevant. However, the two questions that I referred to related to the fire service, and, to be strictly accurate, even if the UK had proceeded down the route that it wanted, it would still have been possible to use PFOS for firefighting foam, because of the five-year derogation. The derogation does not relate to the EU position, under which use will continue. Secondly, there appears to be no reason why a voluntary plan could not be adopted here; indeed, the answer mentioned that. Given that we are talking about public authorities, I cannot imagine that there is anything within the EU draft directive that would stop the UK Government issuing guidance on that point. Reference is made to a voluntary phasing-out and I should be grateful to know where we are in that respect.
PFOS has been detected in the rivers near Buncefield and ongoing testing shows sporadic detection of PFOS. The levels are higher than 3 micrograms per litre, the advisory level set by the drinking water inspectorate in environmental monitoring samples, although it has not been detected in drinking water, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said. However, the samples show quite high levels: 4.8 and 5.9 micrograms of PFOS per litre have been reported, which is higher than the concentration that killed the monkeys and rats.
The initial report on Buncefield makes the point that there is apparently a widespread occurrence of trace quantities of PFOS in the Hemel Hempstead area, some apparently unconnected with Buncefield, which raises the question why PFOS was not routinely monitored prior to Buncefield. It clearly is a concern, for the reasons I have outlined. The Environment Agency has been taking samples at 150 sites in the area in the period April to July. We have not yet reached the end of July, but the view is that if PFOS is found to be widespread it is intended to expand the sampling. I should be grateful to know if there is any information on whether sampling has found PFOS to be widespread so that we know where we are.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that we look not only around Hemel Hempstead and in Hertfordshire, but across the country? Clearly, if the chemical is in the environment in areas that have nothing to do with oil depots and fire stations, we need to know so that we can address the problem immediately.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Rather by accident, we have discovered that PFOS seems to be widespread. The early indications suggest that its presence is not just related to Buncefield; it could be anywhere. I hope that the sampling process will be thorough and widespread and that we do not assume that the presence of PFOS is related only to firefighting. There is a concern about how widespread it may be and I shall be grateful for an update on any progress in that respect.
Anxieties about PFOS have been heightened by the fact that 800,000 litres of stored firewater from Blackbird Lees sewage treatment Plant near Radlett was accidentally released into the water supply. I understand that it was treated and there has been no evidence of PFOS as a consequence, but it is a major concern.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern felt in Radlett, whose residents will wish to hear from the Minister on that point. My hon. Friend may also wish to join me in paying tribute to the work of the Radlett fire crew who attended the Hemel Hempstead fire.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for two reasons: first, for further highlighting the concern about the leakage and, secondly, in paying tribute to Radlett fire station, which I am certainly keen to do. I also pay tribute to the fire station of Bovingdon in my constituency. My hon. Friend and I are both worried about the fact that Bovingdon and Radlett are set to close, or, indeed, have closed, but I will not go into that now.
I am especially concerned about the water sewerage because the fire water is stored in my constituency at Maple Lodge sewage treatment works. I wrote to Thames Water expressing my anxieties about the leakage and received a reply dated 12 July. It is reassuring; it says:
“Following detailed analysis, we are satisfied that the release of the treated water poses no risk to public health, drinking water, or the local environment.”
On the Maple Lodge site, it says:
“The water used to extinguish the fire itself continues to be stored safely at Maple Lodge sewage treatment works. The design of the tanks here is such that an incident similar to that at Blackbird Lees sewage treatment works could not occur.”
I am reassured by that to some extent, but I am also rather concerned that, seven months on, the water continues to be held within Hertfordshire. It is a responsibility of the oil companies to dispose of it and they have been somewhat tardy in doing so. If the Minister can shed any light on progress and tell me when we can get the contaminated water out of my constituency I shall be very grateful.
In conclusion, there are concerns about PFOS levels, which seem to be widespread and are not narrowly connected with Buncefield. I hope that the Government recognise the seriousness of the matter and will address it as quickly as possible.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) remarked, the incident at Buncefield is not only a Hemel Hempstead problem. From St. Albans we watched the pall on the horizon; we were lucky that the wind was favourable and it did not come over to us, but it could so nearly have done. Since then, residents have had major concerns about the environmental impact, because we are downstream from Hemel Hempstead. We have two major rivers, the River Ver and the River Colne, which help to define a beautiful part of my constituency, but which also makes us very vulnerable to pollution incidents.
As late as July 6, my local newspaper was still running stories about confusion about water pollution. I am glad that we are using the term PFOS, because the long name—perfluorooctane sulphonate—does not trip nicely off the tongue. It is a diary of disaster to local residents. I shall not repeat the details of the toxicity concerns about PFOS, except to say that my constituents have little faith in the system that seems to be throwing up such completely differing views on the safety of PFOS in the water supply, how long it will be there, who is responsible for eradicating it and how the effect on the health of the local environment is to be monitored.
On December 11 at 6 am, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, 30 million gallons of fuel went up in flames. On December 20 the Health and Safety Commission and the Environment Agency started an investigation into the events. In January, a large pool of liquid measuring 200 m by 10 m by 20 m was allowed to run off the site; it was standing in Cherry Tree lane for the first week of January.
In January, Lord Newton was appointed as the independent chairman of the investigation. Since then, there have been various progress reports. In April, a progress report was published which mentioned PFOS and zinc for the first time. The chemicals have seeped into the ground and are now detected in the water. On April 18, the Environment Agency revealed that diesel oil had been found in ground water. The water is taken from bore holes which goes into the water-holding layer of chalk, some 40 metres below ground level. Three Valleys Water said that it will continue to monitor the situation and the Environment Agency said that it could take years to assess the full impact.
On May 9, the third progress report was published, stating that PFOS had now been detected in local rivers—the River Ver, the River Colne and the River Red. Fuel and fire water had soaked into the water table and been detected in bore holes. The Environment Agency said that the chemical was at a very low level and generally below what the drinking water inspectorate considers acceptable.
I emphasise, because it is very important, that before Buncefield there was no tolerance for PFOS in drinking water, but suddenly 3 parts per million is acceptable. Our constituents are very concerned about that. Can hon. Friend see any logic or link in that?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I shall give a little history lesson. We are all old enough to remember the Camelford incident in 1988. That was a different environmental disaster affecting water sources. Acidic aluminium sulphate got into the water sources and caused a level of toxicity that worried local residents. However, according to the newspapers of the day, South West Water Authority blithely assured people that it was safe to drink. It took weeks and 400 people complaining of ill-health effects such as mouth ulcers and so on before the problem started to be taken seriously. The view of the water industry and, to some extent, the medical establishment, remained that aluminium in drinking water was not toxic, and the 1991 Clayton Committee report failed to alter their views, yet, even now, people complain about long-term health problems such as dementia that might have arisen out of that unfortunate incident at Camelford. One can therefore forgive my constituents for not feeling terribly reassured that there is suddenly a new, safe level for PFOS.
I do not think that we will see the effects of the Buncefield incident for a long time. We cannot be sure what levels are acceptable for pregnant women, for example. I have here Dr. Brooke’s February 2004 report, which is hundreds of pages long, on the environmental risk evaluation of PFOS in the environment. The report points out some worrying issues. For example, the half-life of PFOS is estimated by some to be four to eight years, but the report estimates it to be 30 years. It says that concentrations in fruit and vegetables are hard to measure, but contribute to the toxicity build-up. PFOS has even been found in cows’ milk. We have to measure the levels not only in drinking water, but in all the animals—prey birds, for example—that inhabit our sensitive environment. People in St. Albans and the surrounding areas take their environment extremely carefully. We are blessed with the Ver Valley Watercress Society, which prides itself on having brought back that ecological miracle by really clearing up the environment. It is an indicator, or barometer, of how clean the environment is.
We must be careful about the creeping, accumulative toxicity which may cause dangerous levels further down the line. My constituents have had no reassurances: the drinking water sources might be safe, but all the other environmental sources of PFOS may not be safe and are not really being examined in the depth that they would like. We cannot blithely assume that everybody’s water comes from a tap. Mr. Hall of Hanrox Turkeys, whom I went to see the day after the disaster, is particularly concerned because all his water comes from a bore hole. He has been assured that it is all fine, but is it? Is it okay for him to feed the animals on his farm—he has other animals as well as turkeys—from that water source?
The impact on the environment, which will have a huge cost implication, has not been considered. Who is to pick up the bill? My local council seems to think that the problems will have implications for councils for years to come. I would like some answers from the Minister. What support will we receive, transparently, to ensure that the source of the harm is acknowledged and that people are aware of it, and who is responsible for monitoring the damage and clearing it up?
I would also like some assurances from the Minister about how the long-term adverse effects on the aquatic environment are to be cleared up in our sensitive area. We are in a fog of confusion. A report on June 16 said that no traces of PFOS had been found in drinking or ground water, and that consumers can therefore be reassured that
“there is no evidence that their tap water has been contaminated.”
But that is only half the story, and I would like the other half to be brought out fully. The Environment Agency says that hundreds of thousands of litres of firewater escaped from where it was stored at Radlett—we have heard about that—into the River Colne. I, too, praise the Radlett firefighters, but add my concerns to those of others that if there is another Buncefield fire disaster, the Radlett fire service might not be there, because it is under threat. I hope that that the service remains.
We have contradictory statements from the drinking water inspectorate and the EA. The EA recently said:
“Notwithstanding the recent press release…we continue to detect…PFOS”.
One press release says that nothing is there, and another says that there is PFOS. We do not know where we are. I ask the Minister for clarity and honesty. I do not want another Camelford incident. I do not want somebody to say, 20 years down the line, “This was a problem.” I want the problem to be looked at now, and I do not want the bill to be picked up either by Hertfordshire as a whole or my constituents, particularly not the environmental or health bill.
I shall shorten my speech to allow the Minister the maximum time to respond to the extremely important questions and issues brought up by hon. Members.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing this important debate. I visited the Buncefield site with him earlier this year and was shocked by the scale of the incident, the severity of the impact on surrounding properties and buildings, and the sheer size of the footprint of the damage created by the blast. Clearly the explosion at Buncefield, which exceeded any previous worst-case scenarios for emergency planning purposes, has heightened concern among Members such as myself who have major fuel storage and processing facilities in their constituencies.
I echo my hon. Friend’s call for an open and independent inquiry into the Buncefield incident. The results of the inquiry cannot be that we should carry on business as usual. It must lead to some real improvements in the way in which risks are assessed and managed at fuel storage sites.
In my constituency, we have the UK’s largest fuel storage terminal facility. It is three or four times the size of Buncefield and has capacity for more than 9 million barrels of product. It has more than 80 tanks storing a range of products including gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and crude oil. In close proximity to that storage facility, we have two of the UK’s nine major oil refineries, which are also located on the Milford Haven waterway, and two of the world’s largest liquefied natural gas import and storage facilities are being built alongside them.
The major concentration of hydrocarbon storage and processing facilities in my constituency is heightening concern in my community about the risks that the local population is living alongside, particularly in the village of Waterston, where the storage facility is located. To say that the facility is close to the village is inaccurate: it is right in the middle of the village. Indeed, many villagers live just a few feet from the main entrance to the SemLogistics site. In the past year or two, they have lived with the disruption caused by the construction activities around the liquefied natural gas plant. They also live with the eyesore of the stacks and buildings from the old oil refinery, but their biggest concern at the moment centres on understanding the risks. They seek reassurance about the risks that they live alongside.
At the start of this year, the fuel storage facility was sold by Petroplus to SemGroup, a US company which trades in the UK under the name SemLogistics. I have been extremely encouraged by the several meetings that I have had with the US and the UK components of the management team, who seem to be taking seriously their responsibilities to ensure that an incident such as that at Buncefield never happens in Pembrokeshire. At our first meeting, we agreed that the site needs more than a lick of paint and a change of badge. Serious investment is needed to upgrade the facility and provide reassurance for the community nearby.
Two weeks ago, I visited the site and saw the new secondary containment features being installed in the tanks, and a new Bentomat geosynthetic clay liner being put in to prevent the leakage of product into the ground water. I looked at some of the high-level safety systems, which actually exceed current UK statutory requirements, that are being installed on the tanks. The company takes its responsibilities seriously.
I was encouraged by the initial findings of the Health and Safety Executive’s safety alert review last month, which did not identify the Waterston site as one of the five in which there are problems and issues with bunding, risk assessment or the maintenance of firefighting systems on site.
Those are reasons to be encouraged, but there are other reasons for dismay and huge concerns in my community. Our local fire brigade has a proud history, having tackled some major incidents at the oil refineries in Pembrokeshire in the past 40 years, but we are set to lose our only remaining 24-hour fire station, which will be downgraded to a day crew only. That is causing huge concern in my community. I repeat the calls that I have made many times for the Mid and West Wales fire authority to hold back from implementing that decision, at least until the full findings of the Buncefield inquiry are made public, so that we can better understand risks and how we respond to major incidents. As I said earlier, what has happened at Buncefield has reset the gauge for emergency responses to major incidents.
We need facilities such as the ones in my constituency. I do not know enough about the matter to say whether Buncefield will ever reopen, but we need storage facilities in the UK for strategic reasons. At a time of energy price volatility, it makes good commercial sense for some of the downstream companies to have such storage facilities, but the risks need to be managed properly and understood. I hope that the Buncefield inquiry will result in some clear, concrete recommendations for improving the safety of these facilities and will provide reassurance for the communities that live immediately next to them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on raising this issue. It is clearly of enormous importance to his constituency and has great significance for other parts of the United Kingdom that have similar oil and fuel storage facilities. I hope that we will be able to return to the subject in other debates. I add the congratulations and thanks of my party to those given by his party to the members of the emergency services who dealt with what was clearly a major and serious incident.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to leave as much time as possible for the Minister to respond to the debate, so I shall keep my comments as brief as possible. Conservative Members have commented on a number of the environmental concerns that remain in the area around Buncefield. Those points have been made clearly, and therefore I do not need to add to them.
I hope that the Minister will be able to address three particular issues. The first is a point that has, understandably, not been made so far: when the fire and explosion initially occurred, there were fears, given the general background, that the incident might have been caused by a terrorist attack of some kind. As I am sure that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead is aware, there is a danger of fighting the previous fire and learning the lessons of an incident that may not be the one that we face in the future. As the investigation proceeds, will the Minister ensure that any lessons arising from Buncefield about the safety of these types of facility will be taken on board in relation to the security aspects of such sites? The sites are key in national security terms, and we want to ensure that their vulnerability is closely examined in respect not only of this type of incident, which fortunately was not a terrorist one, but of any terrorist incidents that might occur.
Secondly, we know that, in this set of circumstances, the key issues were why the fuel was allowed to run into and over the top of the tank, why the safety checks failed and why the safety equipment appeared not to be working. We know that the Health and Safety Executive issued a safety alert in early July to operators of fuel storage facilities. That related specifically to one of the safety devices that are supposed to be attached to all of the tanks to prevent such incidents from occurring. We know, because it is set out in paragraph 23 of the report, that there was further investigation into the design and operation of this particular high-level switch, and the way in which the switches are put back in a position that ensures that they are operating after testing.
Paragraph 23 states:
“While the relevance of this feature to the Buncefield incident has still to be determined, one of the issues that has arisen from these enquiries relates to the reliance on this type of switch”.
I would be grateful if the Minister said a little about why the issue has arisen in relation to Buncefield. Is there any evidence that the switches of this type at Buncefield were not operating? Are these particular switches tested regularly by the HSE as part of its regular inspections of these sites? Will that be done in future? It would also be useful if he would say whether the testing of these devices has taken place at other facilities throughout the United Kingdom.
My third and final point is that it is clear from the ministerial statement that was made the other day and from other things that the size of both the fire and the incident was not expected. We still do not know why the explosion was as large as it was. It is also clear from paragraph 83 of the report that the HSE’s advice about the type of incident that could occur in a worse-case scenario turned out not to be accurate. It states:
“A vapour cloud explosion was initially considered, but arising from tanker loading operations and not tank storage. A pool fire was assessed as presenting the greater off-site hazard. The Buncefield incident brings into question the assessment policy for many oil/fuel depot sites, and the zone setting method which it informs.”
That is clearly an extremely important point for other sites in the country.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Other such incidents have taken place in parts of the world, so it is important to find out why the HSE did not use the experience of the incidents that took place in New Jersey and Florida, where similar, but not identical, situations involving a vapour cloud caused by petroleum occurred. Perhaps that experience could have been used to prevent the Buncefield incident from ever occurring.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point very effectively. I do not claim to have expertise in those other incidents, but this is clearly a serious matter. The recommendations in paragraph 71 represent some of the major issues that we will need to examine if we conclude that there are risks of further explosions on this scale. I again congratulate him. The issues are clearly important for his constituency and county, but there are also important issues for all of these facilities in the UK.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on bringing a unique blend of professional expertise and determination to represent his constituents on this serious matter. I also congratulate all others who have made a contribution and, in hopeful anticipation, I congratulate the Minister on his response.
To this particular situation, I bring an interest that goes all the way back to my school days and my time in the combined cadet force, when I was involved in civil defence matters. Since that time, I have gained a limited amount of experience in fire training and in resilience issues. In conducting my own farm business, I acquired quite a knowledge of pesticides and diffuse pollution. Incidentally, I also held a petroleum storage licence for a number of years. My final point on credentials is that my daughter used to conduct prosecutions on behalf of the Drinking Water Inspectorate.
I shall begin with the positive side of this matter so far. I am happy to endorse the praise that has been properly lavished on the emergency services for the tremendous job that they did on the occasion. Secondly, I extend my thanks to Lord Newton, who, as it happens, became my first boss 40 years ago this week.
On my hon. Friend’s first point, the fire services of this country do a fantastic job, but sadly firemen get injured and some die. Two brave firefighters recently died in incidents in Hertfordshire. The fire brigade’s benevolent fund raises a lot of money for former colleagues. I hope that you, Mr. Conway, do not mind my highlighting the fact that the booklet, “The Buncefield Explosion”, which will raise money for the firefighters’ benevolent fund in Hertfordshire, is probably the best visual guide to any incident that this country has ever seen. Will my hon. Friend praise the work of the fire brigade benevolent fund as well?
I have no hesitation in doing so. We are grateful and lucky in respect of the dedication of our emergency services.
I mentioned Lord Newton and the expert work that his committee has conducted. I should also like to touch on aspects of the expertise of the Health and Safety Executive, in particular the Health and Safety Laboratory, which I visited recently. I am happy to say that in terms of the knowledge of its people, even if it is not always translated into the results we would want, it is a world leader in forensic accident investigation.
So much for the positive. It is important that the Minister should respond and that we should put our remarks in a reasonable context. I should like to highlight three points of query or criticism before I sit down. The first is that, on the facts as set out in the interim report, it seems that somehow a long period—nearly 40 years—of the successful operation of this depot and of similar depots, be they in Milford Haven or elsewhere, has lulled local residents and the operators into a false sense of security. The series of explosions and the fire came as a serious shock. I mention that not simply to show the importance of regular and professional inspection by the HSE and so forth, but to allow us to consider the possibility of challenge inspections by outside bodies, which could look into an incident and ask the awkward questions that are occasionally overlooked.
I hope that the Minister will say a little about the Government response, which has already been explored in exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, and about ministerial responsibility. Ministers need to show who is responsible at any one time; I bear in mind that different Departments have interlocking responsibilities, but who is in charge—and at ministerial, not simply agency, level? Ministers owe us the assurance that they are satisfied that action is being taken at all similar oil storage facilities, and at establishments that face similar risks, in the United Kingdom.
I should like to emphasise the issue of progressive development around the site and the planning issues, which have already been touched on. They need looking into, particularly as there is evidence that the HSE entered no objection to the development adjacent to the site. The Minister might usefully say something about the interlocking interests of the HSE and another Government agency, the Environment Agency, which is responsible to another Minister. He might want to say something about monitoring such development and preparing the safety plan, and about that plan as a whole.
Finally, I re-emphasise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead made so passionately about the inquiry process. There is an inherent difficulty in government that goes back to the days of the Roman Tacitus—the problem of who will supervise the guardians. Who is to be responsible for ensuring that the professional activities of Government regulators are carried out to the highest possible standards? We should remember that in some cases, including that of Buncefield, the HSE is the competent prosecuting authority. If a criminal prosecution is brought—and I do not wish to prejudice that process—there is a real risk that the HSE will be not merely judge and jury, but prosecutor. That is a difficult moral hazard, and it is not confined to HSE matters; exactly the same could apply to the Food Standards Agency and its subsidiary, the Meat Hygiene Service. The Minister owes us a response on that point, and an explanation of why the process cannot be an entirely independent process.
In dealing with such serious incidents, it is important that the Minister accepts that there must be a readiness to be open, and he must not in any way regard a judicial process or an inquiry as an embarrassment; they are necessary reassurances to constituents and the nation that such incidents will be tackled for the future. We need to know that lessons have been learned, that the Government structure is being adjusted to deal with the situation, and that there will be continuing effective enforcement. The miracle of Buncefield is that no one was killed, so only if lessons have been learned can we feel that there has been benefit from that serious near miss.
This has been a thorough and wide-ranging debate—rightly so, in view of the seriousness of the incident. In the time left to me, I am afraid that it will not be possible to touch on all the points raised, so I offer my apologies in advance for that.
As I said to the Minister in a private meeting yesterday, I think that all of us would fully understand if all the points raised could not be dealt with today, but does he undertake—on his own behalf and on behalf of his Department and the other Departments involved—to write to the hon. Members who raised the points as a matter of urgency, so that we can clarify matters with our constituents?
As is normal procedure when key points have been raised and it has not been possible for me to cover them, I will ensure that hon. Members get responses from the relevant Ministers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing this debate on a subject that is important not just to the people of Hemel Hempstead, who are understandably closely concerned in the matter, but to all communities containing fuel storage depots of the kind found at Buncefield; that point has been made by other hon. Members. The explosions and fires that occurred at Buncefield have raised wide concerns about the safety of such sites, and all those concerns must, of course, be addressed.
The debate is timely, as it comes soon after the publication of the initial report of the investigation into the Buncefield incident, and after yesterday’s visit to the site by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who met local residents and businesses.
Yes, and the local Member of Parliament.
First, I should like to say a few words about the incident and its impact. The explosions and fires that burned for more than three days were massive and devastating, and caused major damage to residential and commercial properties near the depot. Fortunately, there were no fatalities or really serious injuries, but that was largely down to a good dose of luck in the timing of the incident, as the hon. Gentleman said. There was also contamination of groundwater and surface water from escaped fuel and firefighting water. That was sufficient for the incident to be reported to the European Commission as a major accident to the environment. I am aware of local concerns that the contamination may have affected drinking water supplies, particularly because of the presence of perfluorooctane sulfonate, which I shall refer to as PFOS, in the firefighting foam. That has been, and will continue to be, closely monitored. Let me reassure the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), who raised the issue, that to date no evidence has been found of contamination of drinking water.
The emergency services’ response to the incident—and particularly the response of the fire and police services—was on a massive scale. I pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of all those who responded in such difficult circumstances. The incident was a major test of the new national resilience arrangements introduced under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, and the test was, I think, passed.
I pay tribute, too, to the resilience of those directly affected by the Buncefield incident. Homes and businesses were damaged, trade was disrupted and jobs were lost. There is continuing uncertainty about the future of the site, as the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said. It is not surprising that many people, both locally and elsewhere, are keenly awaiting answers about the root causes of the incident and about whether such an event could happen again. The process of finding those answers began the moment that it was safe to begin. Buncefield and other sites that present major accident hazards are regulated by a joint competent authority, formed by the HSE and the Environment Agency in England and Wales, and by the HSE and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in Scotland. I shall generally refer to this joint competent authority, except when speaking of one of its parts.
The competent authority assumed formal control of the investigation from the police on 14 December, even before the fires were all finally extinguished. Investigators were able to move on to the site on 16 December. Even so, parts of the site remained so dangerous that they could not be accessed for weeks or even months afterwards. It is a normal statutory function of the competent authority to carry out investigations of major accidents. Those investigations are often highly complex and technical, requiring a wide range of specialist skills and expertise. It was quickly recognised, however, that Buncefield was an exceptional event requiring an exceptional response.
That is why the independent Health and Safety Commission, which advises the Government on health and safety policies, decided to direct a formal investigation on 20 December. The commission made that direction using its legal powers under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It set out detailed terms of reference, including reports to be made and published, but that did not amount to a public inquiry. The commission could have directed a public inquiry with the Secretary of State’s consent, but decided that a formal investigation would better advance the interests of safety. The commission was mindful of the pressing need for answers felt by the local community—a point reiterated by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead—and other communities with fuel storage depots. Public inquiries generally take years to reach any substantial conclusions, and only when their processes have ended can a report be published. That would have seriously delayed sharing the important lessons of Buncefield.
By contrast, the current investigation, which the hon. Gentleman welcomed on 13 January, has already produced four reports in quick succession. They have been well received by local communities and local authorities, and they have led directly to work to improve safety. For example, Dacorum borough council has welcomed the good progress described in the initial report while recognising the need to get the investigation right.
I shall say more about the activities to improve safety in a moment. First, I stress that the investigation is certainly not being conducted in secrecy or behind closed doors. When the commission announced the investigation, it recognised the need for openness as well as speed to ensure public confidence. It adopted a number of unprecedented measures. For the first time, it appointed an independent investigation board, chaired by Lord Newton of Braintree, to supervise the investigation. The board has scrutinised the progress of the investigation to ensure that it is thorough and that it rigorously pursues all appropriate lines of inquiry.
The board’s terms of reference also require it to work closely with all relevant stakeholders and to keep them fully informed. That is why it appointed a community liaison officer to co-ordinate such work. Again, it is the first time that such an appointment has been made in such an investigation. The board has engaged openly and transparently in meetings with local residents and businesses, and it has received representations from interested parties. It is the first time that an investigation board has had such close contact with local interests.
More important, the board has ensured that the investigation’s findings have been put into the public domain as soon as they emerge, subject only to the necessary legal considerations. As the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) knows, it has published three progress reports as well as last week’s initial report. It is always challenging to strike the right balance between being open, thorough and sharing safety lessons without delay, and avoiding prejudice to potential legal proceedings. I am satisfied that the commission’s arrangements meet that challenge.
Last week, the investigation board published its initial report. It was announced through a written statement to the House by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). I shall not repeat everything in that statement, but it noted that the investigation has made good progress in identifying the root causes of the incident in spite of the widespread damage that the fire and the force of the explosion caused to the forensic evidence. I shall add to my earlier tributes to the investigation teams. They have worked hard and professionally in difficult and sometimes hazardous conditions to enable such progress to be made.
The board considers that enough is known to set out with reasonable confidence the sequence of events leading to the incident, although uncertainty remains about why the explosion was so violent. Work continues on that. The initial report does not make detailed recommendations, but it identifies several areas of concern arising from the investigation. They relate to the design and operation of storage sites, the emergency response to incidents and the advice given to planning authorities about risks to proposed developments around major hazard sites. Action is under way on all those matters. If I may tell the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, we expect an interim position on land use planning to be made available before the end of the year. It will then be subject to local consultation.
As early as February, the competent authority issued a safety alert to 108 storage site operators to review the safety of their operations in light of information emerging from the investigation. That was followed up by inspections of all 108 sites, and the preliminary findings were published on 13 June. Overall, they showed no areas of serious concern, but 50 per cent. of sites have been asked to make improvements. The competent authority took some enforcement action, and we expect more details about that to be made available in the autumn.
The Environment Agency initiated a further programme on 11 April to consider the effectiveness of environmental protection at fuel depots. The results of that initiative will be published later this year. In parallel, the industry is working with the competent authority in a task group to improve risk control. The work includes reviewing and revising guidance on handling flammable liquids at storage sites, and an interim report from that task force is expected by the end of September.
A second safety alert was issued on 4 July about the working of certain high-level safety systems. Again, it came as a direct result of new information emerging from the Buncefield investigation. All information on actions under way in response to the Buncefield investigation is publicly available on the websites of the Health and Safety Executive or the Environment Agency, as appropriate.
I have already referred to the massive scale of the emergency response. Inevitably, there are important lessons to be learned from the event, and several reviews of the emergency response to Buncefield are under way. The advice that the Health and Safety Executive provides to planning authorities about developments around fuel storage sites is also under review. Preliminary conclusions are expected later this year, and relevant to that will be the work of the cross-government group, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced in a statement to the House on 15 May.
Other work under way includes the extensive programme of environmental monitoring described in the initial report and carried out by the Environment Agency and other bodies to assess the full impact of the incident on the environment. As part of the investigation’s terms of reference, reviews are being carried out of the competent authority’s prior involvement in regulating activities at the Buncefield site. To ensure impartiality, the reviews are being carried out by people with no previous involvement in regulating Buncefield, and they will report to the Buncefield board. Finally, the competent authority is pursuing a criminal investigation and it will in due course make a recommendation on legal proceedings.
Let me assure the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead that all Departments are working closely together in their response to Buncefield. The key co-ordination role is carried out by the Government office for the east of England, which covers the Buncefield site.
Finally, there is another initiative by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to learn the lessons of the Buncefield incident and its aftermath. She has asked the Government office for the east of England to convene a task force to investigate options for Government support to businesses and local economies in the period following an exceptional disaster such as the one under discussion. Our paramount concern is that all lessons of Buncefield are learned to prevent such an incident from recurring. However, if an incident occurs, we must ensure that the emergency response arrangements are fully effective. Good progress has been made in a relatively short space of time, but there is still much work to do. That work involves not only the Buncefield investigation board and the competent authority, but a range of agencies throughout central Government. The Government are committed to that effort and to ensuring that the widespread concerns created by the Buncefield incident are fully met.
It is vital to take the time to ensure that the investigation is thorough and gets its work right. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead agrees that it would be wrong to rush to hasty conclusions, as Dacorum borough council has itself recognised. The investigation must ensure that all the right lessons are learned, and it must provide robust evidence in the event of any subsequent criminal proceedings. Meanwhile, the Government are doing everything they can to work with other bodies to help the recovery effort in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
I welcome the opportunity to introduce this debate. I am pleased to see the Minister for the Middle East in his place; I was expecting the Minister for Europe to answer the debate. The Minister for the Middle East is respected throughout the House.
I am glad that we have our security services MI5 and MI6 in place. It is difficult to imagine what sort of society we would have if such organisations were not doing that important work for us. However, I hope that the Minister will agree that it wrong to give any organ of the state, no matter what it does, a blank cheque. Hon. Members have a proper role in holding them to account—commensurate, of course, with national security.
We need a professional, properly funded and rational organisation in MI6. In my view, we want one that is free from inappropriate political interference and—a linked matter—one that acts in the British national interest. I want to explore today whether those two criteria were being met by MI6 in its present and immediately past activities. It seems to me—the Minister will doubtless respond to this point—that MI6 follows broad political objectives such as safeguarding national security and protecting our economic interests, and that it does so by providing the best, secure intelligence to further those aims.
In hindsight, it is clear that in the run-up to the Iraq war we were sold a distortion of intelligence to help a narrow political objective—to shape public opinion towards supporting a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The Minister will doubtless be familiar with the responses in the Butler report, a useful document. It gives an interesting description at paragraph 32:
“The Government wanted an unclassified document on which it could draw in its advocacy of its policy. The JIC sought to offer a dispassionate assessment of intelligence”.
At paragraph 34, the report states:
“We conclude that it was a serious weakness that the JIC’s warnings on the limitations of the intelligence underlying its judgements were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier.”
At paragraph 33, it states that
“judgements in the dossier went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available.”
At paragraph 35, the report says that
“more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear.”
Clearly, there are lessons to be learned. I do not want to revisit the entire history of the Hutton inquiry or of matters leading to the Iraq war, but that is an important perception. It would be useful to see whether the problem is being corrected.
I want to pursue two issues. The first is the role of John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, in the dodgy dossier and subsequently. The second is the use of information. It is clear that language was changed in order to turn neutral intelligence—the best available analysis, with all the caveats built into it—into something much more certain. In other words—I dare say that it was like a red rag to a bull—what Andrew Gilligan said was by and large right.
It is clear that words such as “might” and “possibly” were removed, and more certain words such as “can” and “will” put in their place. We also know from extensive evidence in the Hutton inquiry that many of those changes were proposed by Alastair Campbell and No. 10. I do not blame Mr. Campbell; he was doing his job. However, I do blame John Scarlett, head of JIC, for succumbing to that pressure and allowing what was supposed to be a neutral intelligence document to be manipulated for political purposes. We now know that no weapons of mass destruction were to be found. There is a serious question over why John Scarlett should have allowed his intelligence to be changed in that way. Indeed, that episode did the intelligence services, which we want to hold in the highest regard, a considerable disservice.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the 45-minute claim, and also to a prominent article in The Observer of 15 May 2005 by the respected journalist Anthony Barnett. In it, he alleged that John Scarlett had asked another weapons inspector, the Australian Dr. Rod Barton, to sex up another dossier by inserting nine “nuggets”. The article stated:
“Barton had been hand-picked by the CIA to be the special adviser to the Iraq Survey Group”.
In that capacity, Barton was preparing a document, but the group was preparing to reach quite different and damning conclusions. The article reported that
“Saddam did not have any WMDs at the time of the US-led invasion”,
and it alleged—I have no knowledge of whether it is true—that Saddam
“had not had any programmes to manufacture such weapons after 1991.”
In response to that, The Observer quotes Dr. Barton as saying that
“senior figures in British intelligence tired to stop the ISG publishing its interim report when they realised what it would say. He”—
that is Dr. Barton—
“also reveals how when this failed, John Scarlett…tried to strengthen the ISG report by inserting nine ‘nuggets’ of information to imply Saddam’s WMD programmes were active”.
Included in that article were suggestions that
“Saddam was working on a smallpox weapon, did have mobile biological laboratories and was developing research equipment for use in nuclear weapons.”
The report continues:
“I couldn’t believe it…He”—
that is John Scarlett—
“was suggesting dragging things from a previous report [that the ISG had found to be false] to use them to, well, ‘sex it up’. It was an attempt to make our report appear to imply that maybe there were still WMD out there. I knew he had been responsible for your [government’s] dossier and then I realised he was trying to do the same thing.”
Anthony Barnett of The Observer makes a serious allegation. I am not aware whether it has been properly investigated or a proper rebuttal given—if, indeed, a rebuttal is appropriate. I ask the Minister to comment on that report. I ask specifically whether it is true, and if so where it leaves John Scarlett, who appears to be continuing the mistakes—I put it neutrally—involved in drawing up the dossier before the invasion of Iraq. It would be helpful if the Minister were to publish the e-mail correspondence between John Scarlett and the ISG in that regard. It seems not to be a security matter, but a matter of public interest with no security implications.
I turn to another MI6 strand, which is the activities carried out by the information operations unit. The interests of the Government of the day are not necessarily those of the nation as a whole. That message is well understood by civil servants—it is established in the civil service code of practice—and it also applies to intelligence officers. Yet Nick Rufford, a journalist with The Sunday Times, produced a story on 28 December 2003 in which he alleged that attempts were made by MI6 through something called “operation mass appeal” to plant stories in the media about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector, was reported as saying
“The aim was to convince the public that Iraq was a far greater threat than it actually was”.
If that is so, it suggests that MI6 was being used to further a narrow political objective rather than anything in the national interest. If I worked for MI6, I would be rather concerned that my activities were being manipulated in that way. Nick Rufford’s story was backed up by a report by the respected journalist Seymour Hersh, on the other side of the pond, in which he reported a former American intelligence officer as saying,
“It was intelligence that was crap, and that we couldn’t move on, but the Brits wanted to plant stories in England and around the world”.
We need to know what MI6’s role in this country is. Many of have naturally assumed that its activities have taken place abroad, but there are clear suggestions that it has been involved in disinformation campaigns on the UK mainland. Other newspaper reports, which I do not have time to refer to, suggest that the information operations unit has been planting favourable stories with friendly journalists and stories in other papers that are damaging to those who are critical of MI6’s activities—or perhaps I should say of the Government’s activities.
The other strand that I want to touch on in my last five minutes is the closeness of this country to the United States Administration. That has of course been a great strength to us over many years—indeed, since the second world war. The difference now is that the present US Administration are operating on a different basis of morality from that on which previous Administrations operated, up to and including the Clinton era. We have seen an abandonment of some of the norms of behaviour that the US introduced after the second world war with support from other western countries.
That is a matter for the US, except that too often it appears that UK foreign policy is merely a subset of US foreign policy. Nothing that has been overheard in conversations on microphones in recent days has done much to dispel that. For example, US foreign policy now appears to accept the principle of pre-emptive military action. Al Gore, the former vice-president, said that the doctrine would replace
“a world in which states consider themselves subject to law”
“the notion that there is no law but the discretion of the President of the United States.”
That is his take, and he ought to know.
Again, in a sense that is a matter for the US, except if we follow that policy. As we indeed appear to follow US foreign policy quite slavishly, it is legitimate to ask the Minister whether other aspects of US foreign policy have been followed by the UK, through MI6. Can he tell me, for example, what the MI6’s involvement in Guantanamo Bay has been? It is well documented that MI6 officials have been over there. What have they been doing? Have they made it plain to the US that Guantanamo Bay should be closed down or have they been following a different policy of accepting that it is there—whether or not we would have started it—and trying to deal with it as it is?
The US has also been involved in the horrors of Abu Ghraib. I hope very much that we would never endorse that sort of thing in any shape or form. We have heard allegations of extraordinary rendition, which the Intelligence and Security Committee is now looking into. I would be grateful if the Minister said something about that and whether we have had any involvement at all in extraordinary rendition, either directly or through connivance.
The US has offered support for regimes across the world that are questionable in morality terms—let me put it as neutrally as I can. The Minister will be aware of the publication about Uzbekistan by Craig Murray, the former ambassador, which suggests that there was torture, imprisonment and all sorts of human rights abuses that we did nothing about, mainly because we thought that we had a geopolitical interest in having the President there on board.
There is also the issue of legitimised assassinations. I refer the Minister to a report in The Guardian on 29 October 2001 that said:
“Bush gives green light to CIA for assassination of named terrorists”,
overturning a 25-year ban on assassinations. That was referred to in a further report in The Guardian on 13 August 2002 that said:
“The US government is considering plans to send elite military units on missions to assassinate”
“in countries around the world, without necessarily informing the governments involved, it was reported yesterday.
The Pentagon is discussing proposals which could see special operations units dispatched to capture or kill terrorists wherever they are believed to be hiding.”
What is the Government’s policy on that? Do we accept the truth of that report in The Guardian? If the Minister thinks that it is untrue, he can say so; if he thinks that it is true, what policy have we adopted on it? Are we informed by the Americans of what they are doing? Given the close relationship between the CIA and MI6, are we—horrible as it is to ask—in any way involved in such a policy?
I need to ask the Minister a number of questions. Will he publish the e-mails and other correspondence relating to John Scarlett’s dealings with the ISG and the influencing of the report? Will the Minister set out the boundaries of action for MI6 in operating within this country, as opposed to operating abroad? Will he clarify the role of the information operations unit and whether it has been involved in briefing journalists and putting out information or disinformation to the British press in order to influence public opinion in this country? Will he confirm whether MI6 was in any way involved in extraordinary renditions? Does he have any knowledge at all of whether MI6 is involved in the apparent US policy of targeted assassinations in this country or elsewhere?
It is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Conway—I do not think that we have had the pleasure before. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position to the House and to reassure him of the integrity and professionalism of the United Kingdom intelligence services.
I am certainly to glad to hear the hon. Gentleman welcome the existence of MI6 or, as it normally called, the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS—I say that so that I can reply more quickly. As someone helping to co-ordinate the evacuation of thousands of very frightened people from Lebanon, I find it difficult to imagine how a safe evacuation could be carried out without high-quality intelligence from our intelligence services. That is literally a matter of life or death.
I have heard lots of names of journalists and newspapers from the hon. Gentleman. We all have our favourite journalists and favourite newspapers, but I would not expect some of them to write a good story about the Government this side of the next millennium.
The hon. Gentleman is right to note that the United Kingdom is close to the United States of America and that the UK intelligence services are close to their US opposite numbers. I am sure that the House expects nothing less. International co-operation is critical, especially in these times, when it comes to countering international terrorism. Our relationship with the United States is a mutually beneficial one that enables us to co-operate closely where our interests coincide and to discuss, debate and disagree privately where they differ.
However, any suggestion that the SIS is unquestioning in its relationship with the Americans—whether with the CIA or with anyone else—is to mistake the nature of that relationship. For obvious reasons, it is impossible to discuss the operations of the SIS or its co-operation with the CIA in detail, but I should like to set out its legally defined functions, since they are at the heart of what the hon. Gentleman asked me. I should also like to discuss the oversight mechanism, which I hope will offer him the reassurance that he seeks.
The SIS was placed on a statutory basis by the House in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which was modified by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The functions of the SIS as Britain’s foreign intelligence service were set out in that legislation as follows:
“to obtain and provide information relating to the actions or intentions of persons outside the British Islands; and…to perform other tasks relating to the actions or intentions of such persons.”
The Acts also stipulated that those functions should only be carried out by the SIS if they are
“in the interests of national security, with particular reference to the defence and foreign policies of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom; or…in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom; or…in support of the prevention or detection of serious crime.”
In order to ensure that the SIS carried out those functions and those functions only—it is important to remember this, as the hon. Gentleman has raised some interesting questions—the two Acts set up the following oversight mechanisms.
First, if the SIS wished to carry out an action that would be otherwise unlawful, it could apply for an authorisation to be issued by the Foreign Secretary. The authorisation may only be issued if the Foreign Secretary thinks it necessary for the discharge of the SIS’s functions that a particular action is taken and is satisfied that the proposed action is proportionate and reasonable.
Secondly, the decisions of the Secretary of State to give authorisations are subject to the review of the Intelligence Services Commissioner who reports at least once a year to the Prime Minister, who in turn lays the commissioner’s report before Parliament. The commissioner must be a person who holds, or has held, high judicial office and every member of the SIS is under a statutory duty to provide him with all the documents and information he needs to carry out his functions.
Thirdly, there is a tribunal of judges and senior lawyers with the power to investigate individuals' complaints against the SIS, make awards of compensation or, for example, quash or cancel any warrant or authorisation. If a complainant is dissatisfied with a decision of the tribunal, they may decide to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The operations of the SIS are therefore carried out within a strict statutory framework, overseen by the Foreign Secretary and scrutinised by members of the senior judiciary.
The hon. Gentleman has questioned the use of intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and the degree to which the agencies were happy with that use of intelligence. He has also raised concerns over the behaviour and the subsequent appointment of John Scarlett as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service.
I do not propose to revisit the exhaustive work carried out by Lord Butler of Brockwell, or the conclusions and recommendations of his report—no doubt that will be debated and discussed as long as the assassination of Kennedy—but I will highlight that, as noted by the Intelligence and Security Committee in its annual report, which was debated in the House as recently as 11 July, the Government have adopted Lord Butler's recommendations to improve both the validation of intelligence and the ability of dissenting voices to challenge conclusions based on that intelligence.
The SIS has also reorganised and strengthened staff responsible for the overall quality of intelligence and the process by which it is produced, and that is very important. Mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that senior officers in the Defence Intelligence Staff see all relevant information. A confidential guide on the nature, collection and use of intelligence has been produced for those who read and use it. Assessment boxes are included on the Joint Intelligence Committee's assessments papers to explain the limitations of the intelligence on which the assessment has reached its conclusions. I am appreciative of that, as it helps a great deal if we have an explanation of where intelligence has come from, how reliable it is likely to be and whether it can be corroborated from elsewhere. I think that is an important step forward.
A professional head of intelligence analysis has been appointed and is leading work on the training of analysts, and the JIC assessments staff have been expanded. Written dissent from JIC assessments can be included in the paper to which they refer, the JIC assessments staff have access to the Agencies' Staff Counsellor, and the DIS has a mechanism for expressing dissent within the Ministry of Defence.
The Intelligence and Security Committee welcomed these changes, and has said that it hopes that they
“will have a positive impact on decision-making at the highest level of the intelligence community.”
I will now try to answer at least some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. I noted around 15 questions, but I will try to answer the most important.
First, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues about John Scarlett, or C as he is officially known. The former Foreign Secretary—now Leader of the House—appointed John Scarlett on the basis of recommendations he had received from a totally independent selection panel following standard Civil Service Commission practice. The process followed precisely the same pattern used to select similarly graded permanent secretaries. The key consideration was to appoint the best person for the job and on the advice of the selection board, the former Foreign Secretary concluded that John Scarlett was indeed the best candidate. The Prime Minister did not intervene in the selection process, but was consulted as it came to an end, when he gave his approval.
The SIS has made considerable progress since John Scarlett’s appointment and steps that can be described publicly include the implementation of the recommendations of the Butler review—welcomed by the Intelligence and Security Committee—and the unprecedented move to open recruitment to enable the expansion necessary to counter terrorism, which was also welcomed by the ISC. The SIS has set up a new website and I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows the address, but I will tell him anyway: www.mi6.gov.uk.
On the SIS carrying out illegal operations, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the SIS is drawn from the ranks of the UK population. The staff therefore share the legal and human rights priorities of the UK as a whole and are trained to operate within the Acts that define the service’s role. The SIS’s compliance with legislation is clear from the reports of the commissioner that have been made over many years. In the extremely unlikely event that officers of the SIS attempted to carry out an operation that required the Secretary of State’s authorisation without obtaining approval, they would be subject to the same liability in law as any other UK citizen. I welcome that and hope that the hon. Gentleman does too.
There are both internal and external systems in place to prevent unauthorised action. Internally, the SIS is structured in such a way as to prevent any person or group carrying out an illegal operation without it coming to the attention of officers who report directly to SIS’s senior management. The SIS reports any errors in its oversight process to the Intelligence Services Commissioner, who includes them in his report to the Prime Minister. The right of access to SIS’s records by the commissioner and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal means that any attempt to act independently of ministerial authorisation could be detected either as a result of a direct complaint or in the course of the commissioner’s routine and regular scrutiny.
Infuriatingly, we are running out of time, but I want the hon. Gentleman to know that the Government are not involved in any form of torture in any way, nor do we condone torture, or tactics that undoubtedly were used at some stage in the past by people with whom we ally ourselves. I have made many visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, and I believe that nations are judged to be civilised and modern on the basis of how they treat not only their own citizens but the citizens of other countries. That means, at its most acute moment, how they treat those they have in custody, where they may be able to do things to people that they would not normally be able to. I want to make it clear that the Government are not involved in any of those activities whatever and that we would not for one moment allow such behaviour.
We have tried very hard to convince people, including the hon. Gentleman—who among others has quite properly tabled a number of questions on the subject—that we have never played a part in extraordinary rendition other than the examples that my right hon. Friend the former Foreign Secretary readily and openly gave to the House. The Government will continue to be open about extraordinary rendition and try to answer all questions properly.
I will certainly try to answer some of them, but I am aware that there are questions that could involve security issues, and I will need to check this. They also may involve an awful lot of work by our Department, and I am loth to say yes, I can answer all the questions. Perhaps, if the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to drop me a line, I will consider the answers I can give.
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.
London Orbital Rail Network
Thank you, Mr. Conway, for that dispensation, which I am sure will be appreciated by both sides.
I asked to have this debate because I am aware that transport debates are often dominated by people from other parts of the country who have longer to travel and rely more on the railways. In fact, travelling by rail is more of a London habit, and half the people who travel by train are Londoners. It is important that, from time to time, we have an opportunity to put to Ministers the particular concerns of London Members, especially when faced with the enormous levels of growth both in the capital and in the use of railways.
I am sorry to disturb the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech, but perhaps a point we should also make as London Members is that London railways are used by hundreds of thousands of constituents from outside the capital—for example, as far away as east Kent. Therefore, the state of London railways is an issue of great concern well beyond the 74 constituencies in the capital.
It is absolutely true that the railways in London perform vital functions for three groups: first, the people who live in London; secondly, those who work in London and travel in daily; and thirdly, those from all over the country who travel to London. Those points should not be overlooked, especially by Members who represent a constituency that is a long way from London and see the issue as involving competition between their transport needs and ours.
I am not sure whether hon. Members have seen it, but there is an early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) that notes the achievements of the Government in the last comprehensive spending review when they agreed to a five-year investment programme with the Mayor, and calls for the Government to use the next comprehensive spending review in 2007 to raise the level of transport spending in the UK’s other metropolitan areas and to address the gap in spending per head. The motion does not call on the Department to stop funding Transport for London’s investment programme, just to match it elsewhere, which suggests that London has had its turn and it should be the turn of other areas now.
That approach suggests that rail transport should be seen as an on-cost. I suggest that it is far better to regard it as an investment that contributes between £9 billion and £15 billion to central Government: much more than it receives. Investment in the London transport system benefits not only Londoners but the entire country. It is often suggested by people outside London that the capital is overheated and overcrowded, and that the pressure needs to be relieved by having more investment outside London. In fact, London has substantial under-used resources: there is high unemployment in many parts and low employment rates, as well as many bottlenecks that prevent the effective use of resources.
In addition, the population of London is due to grow by between 900,000 and 1 million in the next few years, and those additional million residents will be living all around London, but working mainly in the centre. In order to accommodate this huge pressure on the capital, TFL has introduced proposals for London’s transport investment needs in “Transport 2025”, and more specifically in “Rail 2025”. The centrepiece of that is the East London line and the North London railway, both of which provide mainly orbital routes that will join up in about six years to form a London orbital rail network. It is worth while spending some time understanding the implications of that.
The 2001 census showed that, although 38 per cent. of Londoners live and work in the same borough—a figure that has been falling rapidly; it used to be much more than that—25 per cent. travel into central London along radial routes, like the spokes coming into a hub, and 19 per cent. take orbital journeys to work. That was defined in the survey as someone who lives in one borough, but works in another that is not in central London, so the journey to work is not radial but orbital. That means that for every four commuters travelling into the centre, there are three travelling across London to get to work. Inevitably, a far higher proportion of orbital commuters travel by car, partly because they often have to because there is no public transport, and partly because they can.
It is not only Londoners who make orbital journeys, as commuters and travellers going through London do not particularly want to go through the centre. One of the key points about the London orbital is that it will provide interchanges where commuters coming into London can switch to the orbital route to avoid travelling through the centre. That will be at places such as Clapham Junction, Willesden Junction, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), West Hampstead, Stratford, and in east and south London at points that are not yet exactly clear. There will be places where all the trains stop and people can get off and, instead of going to a London terminus, they will be able to travel more directly to where they want to go. Indeed, I welcome the fact that the Mayor of London has recently discussed powers to enable him to insist on the train-operating companies stopping at these orbital interchanges.
There has already been a 30 per cent. rise in rail journeys and there is another big increase to come that can never be met by the traditional model of everybody coming into the centre and then travelling to their required destination. Victoria station is already so overcrowded that it often has to be closed during rush hour because there are too many people on the platforms. The irony is that many of the people who travel into the centre do not actually want to be there.
A further reason why we need an orbital rail network is to serve the communities that were forgotten or overlooked by the tube network when it was created. South London springs to mind in that context as, certainly in my part of south London, it was believed at the time that clay could not be tunnelled through. Although it is now considered to be the best material for tunnelling through, large parts of south London where left without the tube for that reason. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) is another example of an area of London that has never had a tube. It is only now with the arrival of the East London line that it will have a tube system. That means that communities that have so far been deprived of the advantages of having a tube will now have it. People hardly know that Haggerston and Hoxton exist because they are not on the tube, but they will now have new stations.
Of course, everyone knows about Haggerston, and I live a few steps away from the new station there. Does my hon. Friend agree that the advantage to the people of Hackney of the new orbital route and the East London line is not just the convenience of being able to access the tube, but that it will play an important role in regeneration in an area which has long had some of the highest unemployment rates in the country?
My hon. Friend makes the point for me that these are real places with real transport needs, but because they have not appeared on the tube map until now, they have been relatively less well known. It is a huge problem in south London, particularly for the entertainment industry and tourist attractions, that tourists always navigate entirely using the tube map—indeed, this is also the case for some north Londoners—and do not recognise the existence of anywhere served only by the rail network. I very much hope that the new East London line, whether it is run as a tube or metro service, will be on the tube map. The biggest single benefit will come from people seeing that we are on that map and being able to find the service.
I mentioned Haggerston and Hoxton, but Dalston Junction is also involved. There is a new station at Surrey Canal road and another at Sands End—although I believe that it will be called Imperial Wharf—in Hammersmith and Fulham. Furthermore, Shepherd’s Bush will soon be linked to the West London line and, at last, 163 years after it was built, Clapham Junction will be on the tube. That is of enormous interest to my constituents.
Orbital routes are important. In so far as the great expansion in demand for transport in London relates to radial routes, it can already be accommodated simply by building longer trains, longer platforms and better signalling. That is what the rail industry will do. I do not underestimate the cost; the project will use a lot of Department for Transport and Transport for London resources, but it is a relatively simple and straightforward solution.
London’s great fortune is that we also have orbital routes: the South London, East London, West London and North London lines, which have been underused over the years. They are full of freight paths and run very few passenger trains, which in some sections come only once every 30 minutes. The project will cost a lot of money, but all we have to do is join up those four routes to have a ready-made orbital network.
Ironically, the first phase of the East London line extension is not so much an orbital route as a radial route in from Croydon and Crystal Palace. However, it paves the way for an orbital route, and the second phase of the East London line extension—the one of main concern to me and some of my hon. Friends—will be an orbital route. Not only that, but, as it provides the missing link, it will allow all four East, North, West and South London lines to be joined up in a network that will enable a full orbital route to exist. Work is already well under way; the enabling works contract for the first phase, involving work on viaduct bridges, was in June last year. The rolling stock contract is already advanced and the main works contract, worth £500 million, is expected to be awarded next month. The bidding process for an operator for the East London and North London lines is already at an advanced stage. The appointment should be made next year and the completion date is June 2010.
Phase 2 is vital because it will link up the orbital route. It is crucial that it follows on directly from phase 1. That, of course, depends entirely on the Treasury and the Department for Transport providing sufficient capital or prudential borrowing to TFL to continue the programme on which it has embarked. The Mayor of London has told me that he regards the East London line as a single project. Provided that he can get the prudential borrowing or capital that he needs in the comprehensive spending review, he intends that phase 2 should follow on from phase 1 and he thinks that things could be ready within three years.
That, ironically, would take us to June 2013, just 10 months after the Olympics. It would be good to know that there was a way of ensuring that the work was completed before the games. Although there is a promise to build the East London line in my party’s manifesto, there has been no promise that it will be ready on any particular date.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in saying that we need the link. I am concerned that there is a phase 1 and phase 2 when it would be much better if it were all done in one phase. My suspicion—and, I suspect, that of my hon. Friends—is that phase 2 might get delayed for funding reasons. We need a clear commitment that phase 2, which includes a planned extension to Highbury and Islington in my constituency, will be followed and that we will retain the option of a link to Finsbury Park, which would become a sub-orbital network in the same way as my hon. Friend has outlined in other cases. Does he support that position?
As the Government were committed to building the East London line in their manifesto and as it follows the logic of all their transport policies, I remain completely confident that they will enable phase 2 to go ahead so that trains eventually run from Clapham Junction to Highbury. I accept that, to create an orbital interchange in that part of London, it would make huge railway sense for Finsbury Park to be added to the system. It is a natural hub, whereas other stations in the area are not.
The cost is great; greater than anticipated. Phase 1 of the East London line will cost close on £1 billion. Originally it was a national scheme, but it is now a London scheme; London is borrowing the money to carry it out. The Treasury, through the Department for Transport, funds the Mayor of London to enable the money to be paid back.
By comparison, phase 2 is costed at only about £250 million to £275 million. I regret to inform my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch that, of that £275 million, £200 million is the cost of extending the line by just two stations, up to Highbury and Islington. For technical reasons that I do not fully understand, that is the expensive part of the project. None the less, it is very important that it should go ahead. It might be worth pursuing why that cost is so disproportionate.
The southern extension to Clapham Junction, my main concern, is a relatively cheap £75 million, most of which is to build the new station at Surrey Canal road in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). Once that has been built, we shall campaign for a station at Brixton. The idea of having a line in south London that goes through but does not stop at Brixton seems extraordinary. The Mayor has commissioned a business case for a station at Brixton, although that would involve huge technical difficulties. I shall pursue the same strategy and get a business case for a station in north Battersea.
I agree that it would be great if the trains stopped at Brixton. That would enable people to visit Hoxton and Haggerston, which many people have heard of and do visit, but with greater difficulty than if they were a station in Brixton.
My hon. Friend will know the difficulties of travelling from one part of London to another when it involves going through the centre. That problem will become very apparent during the Olympic games. People living outside London think that London has the Olympics, but east London has them. The difficulties that people living in south-west London will have in reaching the Olympics would be very great at the moment but would be considerably helped by the new line. Similarly, if a person wants to travel from Brixton to Hoxton, their journey, which would now take 50 or 55 minutes, would be reduced to about 15 or 20 minutes.
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend and with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who said that we should consider doing all the work under phase 1, especially given that the Olympics are so near. Given the Olympics, Wembley and even the line from Queen’s Park to Stratford, does my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) agree that the extension of the London orbital network, by joining east, south, north and west London, is paramount to having a successful Olympics?
I agree absolutely. We must remember that the Olympics are just six years and two weeks from now. We are talking about a transport system that will last 100 years, but if the Olympics helped to concentrate minds and demonstrate the advantages to people, that would serve a purpose. If we had an orbital route functioning for the Olympics, so that people from all over London found it easy to get to them, that would be of great benefit to them.
I come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington: the most important reason for having an orbital route in London is regeneration. When the East London and the North London lines are joined together under a single operator, they will bring into the London rail and tube system nearly 100 new stations—about 30 on the East London line and about 60 on the North London line. Those lines go through 80 per cent. of the wards in the top 20 per cent. of deprivation in London. Four out of five deprived areas will be served by them.
Some people say that it is old fashioned to see the structure of London as a well-to-do centre, a deprived inner ring and a wealthier ring of suburbs. There are many exceptions to that pattern, and one could point to parts of outer London that are becoming more deprived. Nevertheless, a central pattern exists, and an orbital route would be good for regeneration because it would link all those places. The south London spur, which will cost £75 million, would enable people in north Battersea, Clapham, Brixton, Camberwell, Peckham and Deptford to get to jobs in docklands in 15 or 20 minutes. At present, those journeys might take well over an hour. An orbital route would bring employment opportunities to many deprived areas, and I am sure that one can make a similar calculation for the Gospel Oak to Barking line and the North London line, which will end at Stratford.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Barking to Gospel Oak part of the North London line was saved from closure some years ago when a previous Government tried to get rid of it altogether. However, in advance of the construction of the necessary links that he outlined, it is possible already to improve the service by running trains beyond Gospel Oak through to Willesden Junction and Ealing Broadway. As wonderful as Gospel Oak is, it is not a natural suburban interchange. Trains from Barking could easily run to many more destinations all around London. I hope that if TFL is listening to or hearing about this debate, it will recognise that that can be included in the service requirement document now, even before the new lines have been constructed.
Indeed, I believe that Network Rail is already waking up to those possibilities. It conducted a worthwhile, although very overdue, exercise to produce the cross-London rail utilisation strategy, which considers the use that is being made—or not being made—of those lines. For instance, Network Rail has started running trains straight through from Clapham Junction to Gospel Oak through Willesden Junction, but they are infrequent and under-publicised. The trains are choc-a-bloc with people who know about the route, but the marketing of railways within London has been poor, and there are many examples of stations that are full of regular commuters but little passing trade.
One of the problems with the railways in London as opposed to the tube is, strange as it sounds, a marketing problem. Everybody knows about the tube. They understand the tube map. People who arrive in London instantly grasp how the tube system works and where they can get to, but people who have been living next to a rail station, perhaps for nine months, still have not discovered that they can get regular trains from it.
The train-operating companies need to understand that their mission in life is not simply to take people in and out of London but to take them around London—in other words, to have a tube mindset rather than an inter-city mindset—and they must market the stations and the services that they provide to the population in a way that can be understood. The companies must operate a turn-up-and-go system. It is no good expecting Londoners who are used to the tube to memorise the times of trains at all their local stations. Unless they are regular commuters, they will not do that.
I pay tribute to the good work that my hon. Friend has done on the safer stations scheme in respect of stations in her constituency and elsewhere. I had a long campaign to get one of my local stations, Queenstown Road, staffed. It was completely unstaffed for 11 years, but now there is one member of staff. That helps the situation enormously, and regular users of the station are much happier about it. One of the reasons that people are put off using the railways as opposed to the tube system is the fear of crime and unlit stations. They are afraid of walking into a station and suddenly realising that they are the only person there, and that there are no staff to protect them in the event of an emergency. I very much welcome safer stations.
London has a huge advantage because of the railways. My constituency is practically made of them. Hundreds of lines criss-cross it in every possible direction, but the local residents get little use out of them. Bizarrely, many stations in inner London were closed in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, partly because of the Beeching inquiry but even before it. For example, Battersea High Street station on the West London line was closed during the war. Stations in Camberwell and Walworth were closed at about the same time, and there are now long lines of railway track with passing trains that do not stop, even though they pass through some of the most densely populated areas of the entire country.
The existing mainly cross-London railway routes are a huge asset. They could be used if they were added to the tube system, invested in, joined up, marketed and run by a single company under the auspices of TFL, which has played a key role in focusing our energies on this issue. London transport could be a real success story in years to come.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good case for a an orbital railway around north and south London, but may I bring him back to the Barking to Gospel Oak line, which is very important in my constituency? Is not there a powerful case for approving electrification of that line? First, it would mean that diesel trains would no longer be used and, secondly, it would increase the capacity for freight on the line.
I have to confess that as a south Londoner I only recently heard of Gospel Oak. I had to look it up on a map. I am glad that it has been included in the North London railway concession and that we have trains from Clapham Junction along the Gospel Oak line, but the fact that that line, which runs from Barking through my hon. Friend’s constituency, through Tottenham, Leytonstone, the whole of Haringey and Islington and ends up in Camden, has been so little used is a poor reflection on the use of London railways. Indeed, I did not realise that it is not an electrified line.
I have, however, a slight concern about freight. I believe, as I am sure we all do, in as much freight running on the railways as possible, but a huge amount of the freight running through London does not actually have anything to do with London. It is going through London from Felixstowe to Liverpool, or it crosses the Battersea railway bridge in the journey from Dover to Newcastle. That railway bridge takes all the freight coming from the channel ports and going north of London. Yes, we believe in freight, but we do not want it to clog up London lines so much that Londoners themselves do not get adequate use of them.
The hon. Gentleman speaks knowledgeably about the need to increase the use of trains and to raise their profile in London. Would he agree that one of the most effective ways to do that would be to move as quickly as possible to allowing the Oyster card to be used on both trains and tubes? Not being able to use it on trains must be one of the most restrictive things in terms of encouraging train use.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I believe that the plans are well advanced. The Mayor has made the campaign his own and he has had considerable success in achieving that goal. Many of the Londoners who want to use trains will want to use their Oyster card on them.
I have rather liberally interpreted my prerogative as the person who was lucky enough to secure the debate, and I have stayed on my feet for half an hour. I know that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members want to join in, and I have perhaps taken up too much time already. However, I should emphasise that we in London have a huge opportunity because we are on the way to completing the East London line, which is one of the major transport infrastructure projects in the country. It is essential to my constituency and, indeed, to my future in it that phase 2 follows on from phase 1, although I am arguing for the project not in personal terms, but in simple, common-sense transport terms. This is an excellent project from the point of view of transport, regeneration and, indeed, social equity, and I very much look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say in reply to the debate. I also look forward to hearing the contributions of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members.
I thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) for his speech. Thank goodness it was a 90-minute debate, not a 30-minute debate, otherwise no one else would have had a chance to contribute.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s insatiable desire to know more about Gospel Oak, I should perhaps tell him—my friends in the London borough of Camden would be keen to point this out—that Gospel Oak was one of the wards that went to the Conservatives in the recent local elections. Indeed, I believe that our majority there is rather bigger than the hon. Gentleman’s majority in his parliamentary seat in Battersea, but that is another matter.
This is a useful debate. The failure to invest in London’s infrastructure, especially its transport infrastructure, is regarded as the single biggest issue facing London-based businesses. The debate is also timely, given the Conservative party’s transport initiatives, particularly its rail transport initiatives, which have been announced in the past 48 hours. Our concern is that the railway transport system is too disjointed and broken up—a complaint that goes back to the privatisation that took place under the Conservative Government. However, it could also be said that transport policy making in London as a whole is too disjointed.
One reason why we, as London MPs, perhaps have a somewhat limited voice on the matter is that much of the policy making and day-to-day decision making on transport is in the hands of the Mayor, Transport for London and the Greater London authority. That makes it difficult for us, as London MPs, to have our voice heard. As I said in my brief intervention, one of the biggest issues is that London transport affects not only the 74 London constituencies, but many constituencies and constituents far beyond the capital. It is all the more important, therefore, that debates such as today’s take place.
I worry particularly about financial services and the creative industries, because we need to promote those important areas of growth in our economy. For historical and other obvious reasons, those industries are based in London, and we need to do our bit to ensure that the infrastructure, and the transport infrastructure in particular, is promoted.
I appreciate that other hon. Members have quite a lot to say, so I shall not say too much, not least because none of the orbital railway directly affects my constituency. It just outside my constituency, although it might assist parents in Hackney who happen to send their children to schools in my constituency, as well as people making other journeys. However, the City of London corporation is keen to ensure that there is proper investment in the east London link line, and it welcomes the progress that has been made so far on phase 1. I have walked through the constituency of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and seen the disruption in Hoxton and Haggerston. An enormous amount of building work is going on, but it will all be to good effect in the longer term. I hope that phase 2 will ensure that there is an interchange with the Victoria line, which is crucial, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Battersea.
I do not want to speak only from a north London perspective, so let me also say something from a south London perspective. Thankfully, I have heard of Battersea and Clapham Junction, and it is important that they are linked in to the system so that we have a proper orbital railway. That will ensure that the City is well catered for and that people will be able to use the orbital railway, at least until the last available point, when they will have to take another form of transport, which might be a bus, rather than the tube or the train. That will also ensure that we take the earliest opportunity to avoid a lot of the wasted journeys that result, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, when people go into central London, only to come straight out again.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is right to suggest that the London orbital railway may prove to be a most effective means of improving London’s train transport. I have 34 tube stations in my constituency, but, as I said, none of them is directly affected by the orbital link. However, if we can ensure that there is proper investment, we might well alleviate some of the problems that people experience when the tube is very busy, particularly on days such as this.
Let me say a quick word about Crossrail, which is a central issue for most London Members. I am pretty realistic about its prospects: notwithstanding the enormous time and effort being expended in this place on the hybrid Bill, it is highly unlikely that Crossrail, at least under the current plans, will ever be built. I do not think that the finances will be there, given that the cost is projected to be £13 billion, £14 billion or £15 billion and is rising fast. However, I hope that serious thought will be given, whatever the colour of the Government, to ensuring that at least part of the projected Crossrail infrastructure is built. In particular, I hope that we shall have a line that links the City of London with Canary Wharf and perhaps the Thames Gateway, which will be necessary if that redevelopment area is to be viable in any meaningful way.
All of us as London MPs irrespective of our party have an important message that we would like to get across to the Minister. Our voice is inevitably somewhat silenced by the fact that we have a Mayor and Transport for London, but that arrangement should enhance London’s transport, not diminish it. It is greatly to be regretted that the Department for Transport has taken its eye off the ball in respect of London’s great needs, although, to be brutally honest, the same would be true if we had a Conservative Government. How we deal with London’s substantial needs will affect its standing as a financial and tourist centre and whether we have a viable and thriving economy in the years ahead, all of which will have an enormous impact on the 560-odd MPs who do not represent London seats. I hope that the Minister will take due note of what has been said and of what other hon. Members will say, because we need to invest. In so far as the enormous sums required for Crossrail cannot be promised, please can the Government ensure that they put money towards getting the orbital railway up and running?
It was only at the end of 2003 that I was talking with a Hackney resident who summed up the frustrations about the east London line that people have felt for years by sighing and saying, “You know, ever since I’ve lived in Hackney, the east London line’s been about seven years away.” Now, only a few years later, we know that phase 1 of the east London line will be delivered by 2010. It is long overdue, but very welcome in Hackney.
We now have the building blocks in place for the London orbital railway, on which many of us have campaigned for many years, but we need the final links. I differ slightly from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) in saying this, but it is worth acknowledging that having a London Mayor and a transport body for London has transformed the prospects for an orbital railway. I should underline for the Minister that Transport for London has a track record on delivery, and London’s civic and political leadership is also keen to champion the interests of Londoners. In addition, the Government have trusted Transport for London and the Mayor to deliver on several such projects, and Ministers should continue to support the long-fought campaign for London’s outer circle line.
As well as regenerating the area concerned, as my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Martin Linton) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, the orbital railway will relieve congestion on the most central London routes. We have a crazy system now, with many people having to travel into London to get anywhere quickly. Those who use the north London line, for example, find it an invaluable link, but it is also frustrating.
Hackney is an anomaly in London transport terms: it is an inner-London borough with no tube. That is reportedly because a large Victorian landowner refused to have tunnelling under his land, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea suggested, it might have been linked to the geology and the clay that is prevalent in Hackney. However, we have suffered long as a result of that accident of history. Hackney can, arguably, claim one staircase of Old Street station and perhaps one staircase of Manor House station, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington,. We like to claim the little that we can for each of our constituencies, but it is a poor show for a constituency that reaches as far as Broadgate and Liverpool street in the heart of London to have nothing on the tube map. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea and I therefore form an alliance, with my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, in our unfortunate distinction as MPs for central London boroughs with no tube.
In Hackney we have long campaigned for better transport links. As the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, it is great to see the bridge-strengthening works under way down the route in Hackney, where the track bed has been sitting there for years, frustratingly under-used. Those works may cause some local temporary inconvenience, but people are not sad to see it. Although there may be local day-to-day problems, we are delighted to see the work on the East London line.
From November 2007, Transport for London will take control of the North London line in my constituency. That will be another crucial link on London’s outer circle line. When Transport for London takes over and lets the franchise, the service will increase to eight trains an hour.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the people of Hackney, who look forward to the completion of the East London line and the orbital line, still look forward with optimism to proper funding for both Crossrail 1 and Crossrail 2, so that the residents of Chelsea can come to Hackney and explore all our cultural and gastronomic delights?
How can I fail to agree completely with my hon. Friend? Hackney will be on the map in so many ways—as it is already for those of us who know and love it. We are prepared to share that secret, or the best bits of it, with the many visitors we expect to receive.
When Transport for London takes over the North London line, there will be real-time information and better facilities. Staffing has been promised for stations, as well as longer and better trains, which are on the way to being ordered. That will transform a line that is very well used, but which, as the Transport Committee of the London assembly recently acknowledged, lets down many residents. Despite increases in the number of rush-hour trains, the crush at rush hour is worse even than on parts of the tube system. It is, however, a vital link to central London, so we look forward to its getting better, and to the arrival of the East London line in 2010.
All that is welcome, but we benefit from every extension that creates the full Orbirail—the full outer circle line. People in Hackney want to go places, and, as has already been touched on, we want to welcome people to Hackney, including Haggerston and Hoxton. I look forward to entertaining my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea in some of the restaurants there. Although I do not want to suggest that they are better than those in Battersea, I think that we can equal if not improve on his gastronomic and cultural experiences in our exciting and historic area of London.
Transport is important for Hackney, but it should be considered in the London context as well. The population of London is set to grow by 1 million by 2025—a number greater than the populations of many cities in this country—and we must manage that in a sustainable way. We need to transport Londoners around London in a way that is sustainable and continue to get Londoners out of cars. There has been a drop in car use as well as an increase in bus use, but we need to improve the links that we have. The improvements we are discussing will contribute to that process.
London also contributes £9 billion to £15 billion to central Government. I point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that that is significantly more than it receives in spending. It is high time that London residents got their due. Of course, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out, not only London residents will benefit, but the many people from around the country who travel on London’s train system.
The capital also has the highest poverty rate in England and some of the worst housing, public health and homelessness in the UK. I have highlighted those issues as they affect Hackney on other occasions, so I shall not repeat them in this short debate, but I want to point out one issue. The number of incapacity benefit claimants in my constituency is the second highest in London: there are 7,400 people claiming, 63 per cent. of whom are under 50. Yet the constituency goes right down to Broadgate in the City. Unemployment in the area is still too high—higher than the national average. The transport links will do a great deal to get people more easily into different types of work in different parts of London.
I conclude with some key points for my hon. Friend the Minister to take up. First, I hope that the Government can work with Transport for London to produce a funding package to reinstate the western curve at Dalston. That is critical to the linking of the North London and East London lines at that very important junction for all of us in Hackney, which will become even more important as it is improved for Londoners in general. It is not yet clear whether that can be done in time for the Olympics, but Transport for London is working on it in detail at the moment. I fully support its aim to get the link built and opened in time for the 2012 Olympics. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can comment on what the Government are doing to support Transport for London, which, I repeat, has a track record of delivering projects on time and to budget. It is, in financial terms, one of the best managed public authorities in the country.
Secondly, I hope that we can secure a better station than is currently planned at the Geffrye museum, the Haggerston station. I am taking up that matter with Transport for London. Thirdly, we want all the routes to be well marked on all maps. Often, people who do not know our area of Hackney and parts of London that the outer circle line will benefit get confused about where they are. We have had big improvements in signage since we have had a transport body for London and I hope that that will continue, particularly for the outer circle line.
Finally, to reiterate points that other hon. Members have made, funding for phase 2 of the East London line needs to be forthcoming. It is great to have it for Hackney, but we want to go places and have people come to us, as well has having our own little bit of railway line on the East London line, and we would like a commitment from the Minister—today, if possible—about phase 2.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this important debate. Whenever people talk about investing in London’s infrastructure, MPs who do not represent constituencies inside the M25 are often a little sceptical. It is important to use this debate to state that investment in London infrastructure is not just for the benefit of Londoners; it benefits the entire national economy and should be seen in that light. I also congratulate my friend and comrade the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, for the leadership that he has shown throughout. People in Hackney are very relieved that he has now taken over the North London line and that the improvements in frequency and in investment that he has planned will happen.
It has already been said that the importance of an orbital route in London, going through Hackney and all the way to south London, cannot be overstated. It is beneficial in terms of regeneration and employment—we have serious unemployment and underemployment problems in east London—and it is beneficial for London as a city. I was amazed to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea had never heard of Haggerston. I live in Haggerston, which should be reason enough for it to be imprinted on his memory. I look forward to having a new East London line station a few steps from where I live. Although all the stations will be in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) the East London line is vital to my constituency for travel into central London.
I congratulate Transport for London on the work on the East London line that it has quietly gone ahead with. I hope that the funding for the next stage will be made available. I stress to the Minister that this is not just a London issue, but a national one. Investing in the London infrastructure benefits the national economy. I remind the Minister of something that people may forget: we have in London some of the most severe poverty in the country. Politicians from outside London can often be heard to say, “London is so wealthy, and has so many jobs,” but we have pockets of tremendous poverty and deprivation. Infrastructure investment is key to tackling those problems. I urge the Minister, in spite of the tiny bit of scepticism that one hears from MPs outside the M25, to bear in mind the importance of the progress of the infrastructure investment, not just for Londoners but for the country as a whole.
I congratulate the Mayor and Transport for London, who, in a difficult climate, have established themselves as people who deliver. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch has said, they should get the funding for the other spur. If the Government are serious about dealing with social exclusion and child poverty, and if they are serious about engaging with all of our diverse communities, they should be serious about investing in London’s infrastructure.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this debate and on putting forward, in a sensible, calm and collected manner, the advantages of the Orbirail scheme. I hope that the Minister of State will respond in a similarly positive vein.
The hon. Member for Battersea was worried that his lack of awareness of Haggerston and Hoxton would be echoed by other hon. Members. There are hon. Members present who represent Hackney; indeed, I served as a councillor on Hackney borough council, representing De Beauvoir ward, so Haggerston, Hoxton and Dalston are areas that are very familiar to me. Back then, in 1988, we were talking about the need to bring the tube to Dalston and I am pleased that, a number of years later, it finally looks as if it will arrive.
To avoid a joke turning into an historical fact, what I actually said was that few people have heard of Hoxton and Haggerston because they are not on the tube map and that is one reason why I think it is important that the East London line should appear on that map. Although I am not as familiar with Hoxton or Haggerston as my hon. Friends who represent that area, I have heard of those areas and, along with the people of Battersea, I look forward to their taking their place on the map of the London tube.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I am sure that the residents of Haggerston and Hoxton will be pleased to hear that he is familiar with those quarters of London.
I think it is true to say that transport in London has improved; whether it is the lengthening of the Jubilee line trains or the new rolling stock on suburban railway lines, there is some good news. Some local authorities, including my own, are beginning to consider the serious issues of congestion, traffic and so on. My local authority was successful in securing funding for turning Sutton into a sustainable town centre and I look forward to seeing how it will tackle issues relating to car use.
However, progress is a bit patchy, and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) referred to Crossrail. Although I support that project, like him, I have serious doubts about whether the project will eventually emerge. The link that was made with the Lyons report was very unfortunate, especially as Sir Michael Lyons was not specifically asked to look at Crossrail as part of his inquiry. It seems to have been kicked into the long grass to delay a decision on the subject until a future date when perhaps in a quiet media time there might be an opportunity to make a not terribly positive announcement on Crossrail. I hope that that is not the case, but we will see.
This debate rightly focuses on another missing piece of the transport jigsaw: orbital rail, or Orbirail. As any commuter, traveller or tourist in London knows, it is very easy to make journeys into London and back out again, but it is much harder to make an orbital journey around London by rail. There are a limited number of valued bus services that provide orbital transport links such as the X26 bus route that goes from south-east London through a number of constituencies and on to Heathrow. When such services are threatened there is, rightly, a vigorous reaction and response.
There is, however, very limited rail provision, which is why my colleague on the Greater London assembly, Geoff Pope, has been vocal in campaigning on the issue of orbital rail, a view endorsed in March by the London assembly transport committee report on the North London railway. It called for three things relating to funding, to which the hon. Member for Battersea and other hon. Members have referred: funding for the upgrading of the North London line; funding for phase 2; and funding for the electricification of the Gospel Oak to Barking line.
We already know what is in the pipeline on the North London line upgrades. A view from the boroughs and transportation officers is that when the North London line is opened up and publicised—the hon. Gentleman touched briefly on that point—one of the key issues that must be addressed is the travelling public’s awareness of the existence of some of the less high-profile lines. When there is such awareness, there will be a sudden growth in the number of passengers who want to travel on the North London line. The Government need to consider the issue of funding to enable the line to operate as a six-car train service to create the additional capacity that will be needed when people start to use it.
I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster who asked if the Government have taken their eye off the ball in respect of transport in London. I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will be able to say whether he has had discussions with Transport for London about the North London line upgrades and, if so, whether he supports them.
I hope the Minister will say, too, what time scale will be involved, what costings are associated with the project and whether there is the risk of an impact on 2012. We need to know that a dialogue is going on; I hope the Minister will comment on that and on the line’s regeneration potential, which the hon. Member for Battersea mentioned in his opening speech. It is not only about cutting congestion, but about opening up new areas to regeneration which, in the case of the North London railway, could include a huge redevelopment area near the King’s Cross railway land.
Developers are looking at rebuilding the stations at West Hampstead and there is potential to reduce the pressure on the main termini, which we must all seek to achieve. Although it is not one of the stations that will be affected, anyone travelling through Victoria knows that anything that can be done to reduce pressure on people coming in to the main termini and swapping to other modes of transport would be welcome.
I do not need to refer to phase 2 of the East London line extension, as other hon. Members have done so, other than to say that I support what they are calling for. However, I shall underline one factor: the range of organisations and groups that are supporting the phase 2 extension, including eight or nine boroughs, the Corporation of London and a large number of businesses. They are very keen for funding for phase 2 to be approved. Will the Minister say what discussions he has had with Transport for London on the subject and the likelihood of the project proceeding? Does he, like the Mayor, believe that a £10 billion regeneration programme will be a spin-off of the proposal? Do the Government recognise that and will they therefore be able to factor it in when they are considering whether to allocate funds to the proposal?
The final piece of the Orbirail jigsaw is the electrification of the Gospel Oak to Barking line, which other hon. Members have mentioned. Has the Minister been informed of the likely cost? Does he have a view about whether the Government would be willing to underwrite that cost in one form or another?
On the totality of the proposals, if the three different funding proposals were approved, or if one, two or three of those proposals were approved individually, what plans do the Minister and Transport for London have to publicise the availability of the lines within London and beyond to ensure that commuters coming in to London from much further afield are aware of the alternative transport services and can therefore reduce the pressure on main stations?
London is the UK’s major wealth generator. The nation’s prosperity and the success of events such as the Olympics depend on a transport network that is comprehensive and flexible and that reduces congestion and pollution. The creation of an Orbirail system based on the three transport enhancements that I and other Members have mentioned fits the bill and will complete London’s transport network. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be positive and optimistic in his reply.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Conway.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on his speech. He talked authoritatively about the transport issues that face both the area that he represents and other parts of London. He rightly talked about the falling numbers of people who live and work in the same borough and highlighted the fact that more and more people are travelling across London. He is right to say that if the right services are not in place, there is a risk that those people will seek to drive rather than use public transport, in so far as it is possible to drive given the levels of congestion in and around London. Clearly, it is in all our interests that people should use public transport wherever that is possible and practical.
It is our duty to do our best to ensure that our public transport system is capable of offering people as wide a range of options as possible given the limitations of our transport corridors. It is striking how much we depend on our heritage from Victorian times. Most of the corridors that we seek to reopen, redevelop and use to expand services date from that period, so we should be mighty glad to have that inheritance.
The orbital route is already coming about. Phase 1 of the East London line is going ahead—construction will begin shortly—and we have seen a change to service patterns on the other side of London. One can now take a train from Clapham Junction through to Stratford, as the hon. Member for Battersea will know, and the new stations at West Brompton and others on the way in west London are beginning to create an alternative service pattern that was not there 10 or 15 years ago. So, we have already started down the road that the hon. Member for Battersea rightly identified: providing people with different transport options around London.
It is clearly desirable that we should improve service patterns in London. Evidently, if we hope, as we should, to continue to revive and regenerate our cities and encourage people to live in them—we are a small island, and cannot continue to build in green, open spaces—we need better public transport provision. People simply cannot drive everywhere in our cities that they might want to. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman about the desirability of enhanced services and of an Orbirail-type system in so far as it can make a difference in London. I say that with a few caveats, to which I shall return.
Some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman highlights could and should have been dealt with by some of the other projects that were supposed to happen this decade but have not. I listened carefully to Labour Members’ comments about the different station options that would be available around an Orbirail network, and about how a number of communities who are not served by railway stations could be so served on such a route. That is all well and good and absolutely desirable; there is genuinely a market for radial journeys in London. However, I am less convinced that there is a market for people to come from the south coast, get off at Clapham Junction, go round an Orbirail network to Finsbury Park, for example, and get on a train to the north. I suspect that the real benefits will come for people in places such as Hackney by opening up links to other parts of London, such as south-east London, and by creating easier links to docklands and parts of north London. The network would open up places that are currently difficult to reach by public transport.
Of course, some of the pressures that the hon. Member for Battersea rightly highlighted in his speech could and should have been dealt with through projects such as the rather inaptly named Thameslink 2000, which was, according to the Government’s 10-year plan, due to be open and functioning by 2000. Indeed, it is slightly bizarre that even as we speak, there are two empty tunnels beneath St. Pancras station. They were built to create an additional dimension to cross-London transport, but will remain unopened because the Government have not, as yet, gone ahead with the commitment that they made in their 10-year plan to open up, develop and make a reality of the Thameslink 2000 service.
I am glad that phase 1 of the East London line is going ahead, but hon. Members should remember that it is one small part of a much broader range of projects to ease the congestion, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that have not come to fruition despite having been clearly set out as commitments for 2010 in the Government’s 10-year plan.
Hon. Members rightly mentioned the significant costs of some of the proposed schemes. I suspect that that is one reason why, with the East London line, there has been a commitment only to phase 1, although the whole line was originally due to be completed within a few years. I can clearly see the potential benefits of the East London line coming to Clapham Junction; a link to Finsbury Park, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field); and various other suggested enhancements to the route. However, there are, of course, huge costs.
It should be of significant concern to us all that the costs of such rail projects have risen so much in the past few years, and it should be a challenge for Governments and would-be Governments to address why they have risen so much. We have to bring those costs down so that we can spend the savings on projects such as phase 2 of the East London line and Thameslink 2000. We must get to grips with this issue: our railways are far too expensive, especially in recent times—much more so than they appear to be in other countries. We have not yet got to grips with that challenge, but we must do so.
There has been a lot of discussion about the work done by Transport for London and the Mayor of London, and comments were made about the professionalism of Transport for London. I think that TFL does some good work. The Mayor clearly has an absolute commitment to enhancing London’s transport infrastructure, and he is not wrong to identify transport in London as a key issue for its future economic success.
A variety of transport challenges are building up: it is becoming increasingly difficult to get an easy and comfortable journey into central London, and there is a significant under-provision of transport to parts of central London such as Hackney. The Thames Gateway also causes me great concern. We cannot build a city of a million people on the Thames without proper infrastructure provision. Those issues will have to be addressed.
I have a few concerns regarding some Labour Members’ remarks about the Orbirail project, and about some of the consequences of its creation. The first such issue that I shall address is that of cost and prudential borrowing. It is becoming commonplace for people, when they talk about transport in London—people in TFL, and Labour Members—to regard prudential borrowing as something easy that can just happen. The bottom line is that the Mayor intends to spend £10 billion, raised by prudential borrowing, on transport projects over the coming years. After that money has been spent, the debt has to be paid. It is not like a zero-percentage-rate credit card on which one can go out and spend up to the credit limit and it is all fine thank you very much. We have to pay the debt off in the end. The cost of servicing that £10 billion of prudential borrowing will be about £800 million a year; TFL’s budget is about £4 billion a year, so the equivalent of £1 in every £5 will be spent on servicing the debt. We cannot simply look at the Mayor’s prudential borrowing for transport infrastructure as being some great nirvana, because ultimately it has to be paid for, and I am not convinced that he has the money to pay the bills.
At the start of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out that many people who come into London, and many people upon whom its economic prosperity depends, do not come from within the London geographic area. My constituency is inside the M25, but I am not a London MP. My constituents cannot vote for the Mayor of London and do not have a say in what Transport for London does.
I do not have profound concerns about the desirability of sensible stops being made by trains coming in from outside London to link in with an Orbirail-type development. I think that is sensible and would happen anyway. If a metro-type service is using an orbital route around central London, for someone who is running a suburban train in it will become natural and logical to stop at the stations where an interchange on to that service is possible. I do not think that that in its own right would be a problem. I think it would simply happen as a matter of course.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) would understand that precisely that sort of mentality existed with the tramlink between Croydon, Wimbledon and Beckenham. Precisely that linking up of a range of different residential areas was involved. It predated Transport for London, so, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, it is not just the existence of TFL that has allowed some joined-up thinking in transport matters in the capital.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point and gives a further good example of where such thinking has worked well in the past without politicians seeking to direct it.
As somebody who represents people who travel into London from outside the Mayor’s catchment area, I do not wish to see the Mayor taking direct responsibility for changing the service patterns on trains that come from areas outside his control. It is simply not right to have the Mayor taking decisions about service patterns to fit a particular need in central London when those decisions materially affect commuters who live 30, 40 or 50 miles away. The Minister must be extremely careful before he hands over too many powers to the Mayor over the timetabling of the suburban rail network. Doing so may allow the Mayor to achieve his transport aspirations within London, but it will work to the detriment of those who come from outside London and will ultimately impact on the competitiveness of London and the south-east.
I have two other brief points to make. First, for all the Mayor’s aspirations for the north London line, and for improving and continuing those services around an Orbirail route, we must be careful about the impact on freight. Labour Members are right to say that some of the freight coming through north London should be going elsewhere—another of the commitments in the Government’s 10-year plan for transport that has not so far been kept. Of course it is crazy that goods coming in to Felixstowe and going to the midlands have to come through central London; that should not be happening. However, some freight comes into London in its own right, and if we fill the north London line with passenger services to the extent that those freight trains can no longer come into London, the consequence will be additional lorries on the roads. Ministers, TFL and Labour Members must be mindful of that when talking about the growth of services on the north London line.
The last point I want to make relates to a comment made by the hon. Member for Battersea, and is about the specification of services. He offered some hopes about the kind of service provision that the train companies would come up with. My message to him is that they have no freedom to do that now. The rail service in this country is specified in fine detail by the Minister and his colleagues. They have a team of civil servants who write train timetables and set out in minute detail which services can and cannot run. If the hon. Member for Battersea is looking for a specific level of service on the Orbirail route or in other areas that he represents, it is the Minister he needs to go to see, rather than the train companies.
We all agree that London’s transport infrastructure is essential not only to the future economy of the city, but to that of the country. We should all work to enhance it in the right way for the future. I commend the hon. Member for Battersea on highlighting the issue of Orbirail, which is often a forgotten project, but potentially a very valuable one. I hope that the jigsaw puzzle pieces that the Government put together in their 10-year plan for transport, which would all come together to form an Orbirail route, will come to fruition by 2010, as promised by this Government.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this debate and on the passionate case he puts for an orbital rail route to serve his constituents.
One of the nice things that I have discovered about being a transport Minister is the opportunities it gives me to bring people together; I think of the good folk of Clapham junction being able to enjoy cultural interchange with the good folk of Dalston junction, and of bringing Haggerston and Hoxton on to the map. Another thing I have discovered is that when somebody comes up to me and mentions a small place, whether it be a small village far away from London or one of the villages of London, or when they ask me about the B205 or some small station that I have never heard of, the one thing I should never do is admit to never having heard of the place, because everybody thinks that transport Ministers keep an encyclopaedic knowledge of such places. I am not going to boast about whether I know of Haggerston and Hoxton or not; all I shall boast is that we will want them to be provided with a comprehensive rail and public transport service. The steps that the Government are taking, hand in hand with Transport for London, will deliver that.
I want to take issue with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who seemed to imply that we take our eye of the ball and leave London’s transport to TFL. TFL, like local authorities outside London, passenger transport executives around the country and other bodies are the delivery mechanisms by which the Government deliver most of their transport schemes. TFL is just one such body. Most transport in this country is local. The Government must have some direct input into the Highways Agency trunk road network and the main rail services, but the vast majority of goods and people are moved on local roads and through local transport. We have a very close relationship with all those local authorities.
In London, we have the close relationship with TFL and the Mayor in order to deliver London’s transport. We are certainly not taking our eye off the ball by relying on the local expertise of the Mayor and his team at TFL. The hon. Gentleman might feel that the voice of Members of Parliament is not heard because they are somehow divorced from TFL, but I would argue that it is the job of MPs to get engaged with their local transport delivery mechanism. Just as I try to engage with Kent county council on behalf of my constituents, he should be engaging with TFL.
Does the Minister not accept that for strategic funding purposes, one of the difficulties that we have in London is that the Mayor has a precept? He is able to charge tax, part of which goes to transport, although other bits go to policing and are spent in other high-profile ways. That breaks that nexus and makes it more difficult for all of us; it is the devolution debate writ large. I speak for Conservatives, although perhaps not for Labour Members of Parliament with London constituencies, when I say that there has been a sense in which the Department for Transport has taken its eye off the ball as far as London transport is concerned.
I do not accept that at all. Every local authority has the power to raise funds through its council tax to supplement the money that the Government give it for its transport systems. I was listening to the comments made by my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who talked about the views of Members of Parliament who represent constituencies outside the M25. She believes that they have a negative view of the amount of money that is spent on London. It is true that many Members who represent constituencies outside the M25 think that all the money is spent on London and that more of it should be spent on their areas.
The Government clearly take the view that spending on London transport is a necessary part of our national transport infrastructure, and that we have a largely radial transport network in this country and it comes in through London. We think that there are benefits to spending on transport in London. If there is a tension between Members who represent constituencies outside London and those who represent London constituencies, I would like to encourage London Members to start engaging with Members who represent constituencies outside London and explaining to them the importance of travel investment in London. That would also give them the opportunity to explain the difficulties that they feel. The fact that both Members who represent London constituencies and Members who represent constituencies outside London think we are spending too much on the other area probably indicates that the Government are getting the balance about right.
I return to the matter of the London orbital railway. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea and other hon. Friends made powerful cases about the levels of deprivation and unemployment in London, which many people do not realise. The Government certainly do, and we see benefit in providing a transport infrastructure in places for which regeneration is a huge opportunity. We see the benefit of the orbital network relieving congestion, and alongside orbital services we must recognise the need to maintain journeys on the radial routes into London as journeys on those services are also vital to the economic well-being of London.
We must also recognise the importance of allowing freight traffic to serve London and pass through its rail network from, among other places, the channel ports. My hon. Friend made a powerful case but nearly lost me when he appeared to suggest that freight from the channel ports should not come through London. Perhaps he momentarily forgot that I represent a constituency that is a channel port and that many of my constituents are employed in putting freight on a line that comes through London.
I am suggesting not that freight should not pass through London to reach its destination but that it might benefit the channel ports and London if there were a simpler route. There was at one time talk of a tunnel under the Thames at Shell Haven to allow freight from the channel to reach the rest of the country without having to use the congested and clogged railway lines of London.
My hon. Friend is right that freight currently has to pass through London. Maybe in the future we can find simpler and more straightforward ways to move freight around. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) pointed out that dilemma, but the difference between him and the Government is that we are making investments that will allow us one day to deal with that problem, whereas I suspect he has no intention of even thinking about such investment.
On 14 February this year we announced the transfer of responsibility for the management of the rail services collectively known as the North London railway to Transport for London. That transfer will become effective from November 2007, from when TFL will be responsible for the franchising of passenger services that are currently operated by Silverlink. It will be responsible for the management of the franchise—or as I understand it intends to call it, the concession—and the financing of future enhancements. Those matters will need to be judged alongside other TFL priorities. It is important to pause and reflect on what that means: that a London organisation, answerable to London politicians and therefore to the people of London, will be deciding the priorities for London, rather than national politicians such as myself trying to second-guess them. That is an important step forward.
Of course Network Rail will remain the owner and operator of the track infrastructure, and the agreement that we have struck with Transport for London does not change the status of that ownership. As part of the handover process, TFL has named the four bidders that pre-qualify to tender for services and it will soon issue invitations to tender. Services under its control will include Gospel Oak to Barking, Stratford to Richmond and Euston to Watford Junction. TFL’s aspiration is four trains an hour on each of the core routes and significantly greater frequencies on some sections, especially at peak times.
Although the scheme has not yet been committed to and is subject to agreement with Network Rail on the availability of paths on the route, TFL also plans significant station upgrades and a fleet of new trains. Two new stations on the West London line—Shepherd’s Bush and Imperial Wharf—are planned to open in 2007, with four new stations being added as part of the northern East London line extension.
I say as an aside that my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), who is here with me today, has reminded me how useful it would be if there were an additional station on the West London line in his constituency, linked to Crossrail. I must tell him that we cannot always get what we want, but I know that he intends to campaign hard on his idea.
The 60 existing stations, including those south of New Cross Gate, will be cleaned, renovated and upgraded. All the changes are being made possible by the record level of investment in London’s transport infrastructure facilitated by TFL’s five-year investment programme and the funding settlement reached with the Government for the period 2004-05 to 2009-10. The first phase of the North London railway infrastructure enhancement is expected to be completed by early 2011, and it will be in good time for the Olympics. Used properly, the North London line has the potential to be a vital radial route around a wide arc of north London, shortening journey times for those travelling across London and relieving congestion at the central London terminus stations.
However, when considering such services we must also be aware of the important role that the North London line has for freight and the contractual rights that freight operators have on it and on other routes. The North London line is part of the main route between the major east coast ports, Felixstowe and Harwich, and the west midlands and north-west. The route has been cleared to allow larger containers to operate along it, with the aim of maintaining rail’s modal share as the container market changes. Any changes to passenger services must be considered alongside freight requirements, and we know through work with TFL and Network Rail that the requirements of freight operators have been a major issue in identifying the infrastructure requirements to deliver enhanced services on the North London line. That probably answers the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea about why the extension of the line around Highbury and Islington and Canonbury, although it is only a short stretch of line, is so much more expensive than the other parts of the enhancement. It is because of the need to provide extensive signalling and other work to meet the needs of freight traffic and those using the interchange between the two lines.
We have not ruled out the further devolution of franchising powers, and we will need to consider it on a case-by-case basis. We need to be mindful of the synergy between London’s services and those further afield in any decisions that we make, and understand the impact on issues such as performance that may be the result of such decisions. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell pointed out the problems that would be caused if the Mayor were to make decisions on commuter trains stopping frequently in London and the impact that that would have on the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine. We would clearly need to engage with the Mayor on that matter, but it is sensible that he is allowed to make suggestions about the need for trains to stop at particular interchanges so that people can take an orbital route around London rather than having always to come right into the centre and travel out again. It is a matter of getting the balance right and listening to the Mayor’s ideas rather than allowing him to dominate the decision-making process.
TFL has not taken over the franchising role for the north London railway, so we shall have to assess how that project develops in the coming years. Orbital services will be significantly enhanced in 2010 when the East London line extension phase 1 opens. That project will link the rail network north and south of the river to the east of the city and provide, for the first time in a number of years, regular and fast journeys between north, east and south London, with services between Dalston in the north and west Croydon and Crystal Palace in the south. Journey opportunities will be significantly enhanced by opportunities for connections with existing services. Preparatory infrastructure works to facilitate the extension have commenced and as part of them Shoreditch station recently closed.
The planned and committed investment in enhancing London’s orbital rail network up to 2012 is in excess of £1 billion. The Department is aware of further aspirations for enhanced orbital services: the East London line extension phase 2, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, would provide further orbital journey opportunities, but it is not funded within TFL’s current business plan and I am afraid that it is not expected to take place until after 2012. I am of course aware of the representations that my hon. Friend has made to my ministerial colleagues on that project and the importance that he places on it, and the Government will consider the funding of such enhancements as part of the next spending review, and in TFL’s submission to the Department if it TFL proposes it.
I am delighted to have secured this debate, in which I, and many of my colleagues, can put my concerns directly to the Minister. My worry is that the current review of Remploy could take the shine off many of the good things that this Labour Government have done for the disabled, including the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. I am pleased that complete shutdown has been ruled out, at least for now, but any new five-year plan for the business must have the needs of employees at its centre. Work must be done with the trade unions that are close to the organisation and that can offer help and support.
There are many misconceptions about disabled people, among them the notions that, because their bodies do not work as normal people’s do, they cannot cut it in the world of work, and that their work is unimportant. I am concerned that nearly 40 disabled people employed at the Lightowler road factory in my constituency, and many other disabled Remploy employees across the country, may lose their jobs as a result of the Government review of Remploy. Many of the workers are suffering from great stress because of the uncertainty about the future of their workplace, and there has been insufficient dialogue between management, workers and the unions. Remploy’s management needs to consider how best to become more efficient. I am sure that it knows that its relationship with its employees and local communities is very special.
I am sure that my hon. Friend has had a chance to read at least part of the report, “Remploy—Review of Future Business Options”, which was published only a couple of hours ago, and I am sure that she will be aware that the trade unions are calling for the management structure to be reorganised; they regard it as top-heavy. Page 39 of the report says that substantial savings could be made through a restructuring of the management. Does she agree that that would be a good place to start, in re-evaluating Remploy?
Yes, certainly I do. I have had meetings with the relevant trade unions this week, and I have managed to read much of the document published today.
We must do all that we can to protect and develop the relationship between Remploy and the communities. In a letter written to me in April, the chief executive of Remploy, Mr. Bob Warner, welcomed the review, because he believes that it is time for strategic change at Remploy, but many, including me, believe that major changes have been taking place. They include the introduction of the Interwork scheme.
My hon. Friend mentioned that the trade unions are quoted extensively in the report. Has she had an opportunity to look in detail at Remploy’s scenario 3, which is its alternative business plan? I believe that a CD has been sent to all MPs, and it makes a powerful case for an alternative way ahead for Remploy that does not involve factory closures on the scale originally envisaged. Not least, that could involve developments in the service sector similar to the arrangements used by Tesco in some of its midlands Express stores, where as many as 40 per cent. of staff are contracted through the Remploy service arm. Is not that a possibility?
That is a very realistic possibility, but it is early days for those schemes, although we must keep them under consideration. However, we must retain the sheltered work schemes, too.
It is the senior management’s role to review and increase productivity wherever possible, but not to the extent that it undermines the whole ethos of Remploy, a business built on a history of caring and supporting its most valuable resources—its employees.
The hon. Lady will certainly have my support and that of all Remploy employees in the Portsmouth factory. The Minister has said that she would give adequate time and funding to allow the changes to be considered properly, but does the hon. Lady agree that in some instances that could be a fairly lengthy period? I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that we must avoid a concertina time frame that would destroy any real sense of consultation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I shall cover that point later. Any changes must be made in consultation with the employees and trade unions.
I will list the reasons that Mr. Warner gives for his welcome of the review. First, he rightly points out that Remploy has proven that Interwork, a specialist recruitment agency, can deliver jobs in ever greater numbers, and at a cost that provides excellent value for money for the taxpayer. However, money should not be the only issue. A recent survey carried out by my local paper revealed that an overwhelming majority supported retaining Remploy at the taxpayers’ expense.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason why there is a great deal of public support for initiatives such as those introduced by Remploy is that there is recognition among ordinary people of how difficult it is for people with disabilities to gain employment in other workplaces? All of us would like a wide range of employment options to be available to people with disabilities, but unfortunately that is not the case at the moment. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is why schemes such as those run by Remploy must be supported, and must continue for as long as they are necessary?
That is the ideal, and we will strive to achieve it, but it is a long-term plan, so we must retain sheltered work places.
Secondly, Mr. Warner argues that unemployed disabled people have said that they prefer to work in mainstream employment, rather than in a sheltered factory. Although that is true in many cases, and although that is an ideal that we must always strive for—the Interwork scheme is successful in that regard—it is not always possible for a disabled person to be employed in anything other than a sheltered environment, or indeed to find employers who will take them on. Not all factories and workplaces are disabled-accessible.
Mr. Warner goes on to say that many of Remploy’s businesses are in declining sectors, where the loss per person is high and the work experience of the individual is unsatisfactory, either because of idle time or lack of opportunity to develop marketable skills. I understand that statement, and I understand the dilemma, but new factories and businesses can and should be started in partnership with Government at local, regional and national level. I would go as far as to say that the board of Remploy should agree on an expansion plan in areas that show development potential.
However, the management of Remploy could do even more. It is clear to many, especially those closest to the organisation, that there are management issues that need to be addressed. It would be possible to reorganise the 10 Remploy organisations into three, making them more efficient and streamlined. Further changes could be made; for example, why does Remploy sell wheelchairs to another organisation, but not sell direct? Remploy produces excellent quality products in its 83 factories, and it should do much more to promote its products, instead of aiming to change its core business. The products need to be better marketed and sold directly, if appropriate. Every effort should be made to work with the workers’ trade unions and with management to develop the business, in order to avoid cuts and reductions that make the business less productive overall. Interwork has benefits, but many of its jobs are short term and in non-unionised work environments; that is not what I would expect for vulnerable staff who need as much protection as possible.
Mr. Warner argues that 80 per cent. of the grant that Remploy receives from the Government supports jobs in Remploy’s own businesses, although more than 80 per cent. of the jobs that it creates are in mainstream employment, through Interwork. Some £90 million of the grant that it gets from the Department for Work and Pensions is used to support factories. That means that about one quarter of the DWP budget for the employment of disabled people is spent on just 5,000 people. That cannot be the right use of resources, Mr. Warner says.
Although that may be the case—I and others dispute the figures—the basic point is that not all employees are able to work in the mainstream, and they should not be thrown on to the scrapheap because of employment challenges. There must be a place for the sheltered environment, and taking that option away from communities throughout the country is not the way forward.
Unfortunately, all of Mr. Warner’s arguments and statistics are better used as illumination rather than support. Many calculations and figures are supplied by the failing Audit Commission, and the fall within the “How long is a piece of string?” category. It is possible to alter the cost per head for Remploy from under £10,000 to more than £20,000 depending on what is included in or excluded from the per head calculation, such as sites, costs from third parties and income from other enterprises. Some people have even suggested a figure of more than £40,000. Surely, no one can take that seriously. I certainly do not. Workers should not suffer because of management’s inability to run a business. The simple message that I want the debate to convey is that Remploy is a major company, producing real goods and services and providing real jobs. “Real jobs for real people”, as the company likes to say.
The company was started in 1945 to provide work for war-disabled ex-servicemen and servicewomen. It is now the biggest employer of disabled people in the country, with 5,700 people in 83 factories at locations including just about every decent-sized town and city in Yorkshire. Remploy is in textiles, furniture, health care, electronics, mechanical assembly and other manufacturing sectors. It is run like any other business, on a commercial basis, competing for contracts on the open market. In Halifax, 30 people work in a purpose-built factory in Lightowler Road, where there is a long and proud tradition of bookbinding for universities, hospitals and libraries, including the British Library. Until recently, Hansard was bound in a Remploy factory. It is a tradition that I would like re-established.
Remploy in Halifax is due to celebrate 60 successful years next year. I hope that those celebrations go ahead and do not simply represent a further decline in Remploy’s employment in Halifax. There is a difference between Remploy and other companies, which Remploy calls “the paradox”. The firm exists to employ severely disabled people so that they can live independent, worthwhile and self-supporting lives. At the same time, Remploy has to operate efficiently and compete in the commercial world. It is a tall order.
Does my hon. Friend accept the proviso that although Remploy requires Government support, there is also a role for local companies in buying Remploy products, such as textiles? In my constituency, companies such as Rolls Royce and Glasgow airport purchase uniforms for their employees, and I should like those companies, as well as the Government, to support Remploy.
I agree. The problem is marketing, and it is not done efficiently.
Many people employed in Remploy’s purpose-built factories might not be able to find work anywhere else. What Remploy offers is critically important to them. It is perhaps the difference between a life of tedious struggle and a life worth living. For many working in the factories, the alternative is a life on benefits, which costs national and local taxpayers more than it does to keep them at work. I have seen no mention of that in the report published today.
I agree. As I said, it is the difference between a life of tedious struggle and a life worth living.
In the commerce-dominated world in which we live, those merely human considerations may end up taking second place. Until then, everything humanly possible should be done to keep Remploy alive and working.
I am delighted to respond to the debate and to agree with the final comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan). Today’s report and my statement are exactly about keeping Remploy alive and working. However, what sort of Remploy do we want to deliver for the significant funding that we put in?
I do not want to focus too much on funding, because we can get tied up with figures, but I shall return to it. We must consider serious issues of comparison. I want to draw my colleagues’ attention to the comparison between Remploy’s funding and the number of disabled people it supports. The issue is not about the funding that we put in. If substantial numbers of disabled people went through Remploy, I would be more than comfortable with any figures presented to me; but in reality, although tens of thousands of disabled people work throughout Britain in sheltered factories run by Remploy and local authority factory networks such as those in which my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) organised when he was a GMB officer, tens of thousands of disabled people also work in mainstream or supported employment.
One third of our total support for disabled employment programmes goes into Remploy to support 9,000 people. Colleagues should consider the report in-depth, and I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that the figure of more than £48,000 has been authenticated: some jobs in Remploy’s toiletries division are subsidised to the tune of £48,000 a year.
No; I want to make progress, because we will have an opportunity outside this forum tomorrow to discuss the figures in detail. If I have the chance, I shall return to my hon. Friend.
In a wider context, the debate offers us a valuable opportunity to consider the background to the Remploy review. It is important to state early on that no decisions have been made about Remploy’s development. We have a consultant’s report, commissioned by the Secretary of State and me, to provide us with independent advice. It is the advice neither of management nor trade unions; it is independent advice. Of course, the authors consulted management, the Remploy board and extensively with the trade unions, because that was part of their remit.
PricewaterhouseCoopers presented us with the figure of £49,000, and it extracts some central management costs. It is at the top end of a range between £7,000 and £48,000. The majority of jobs in Remploy are supported to the tune of £23,000. May I deal with the policy, however? It is important and it may address some of my hon. Friend’s concerns.
My intervention is about the policy implications of the report and today’s announcement. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that about 3,000 people in the north-east of England signed a petition opposing any factory closures, so they will welcome today’s announcement. Will she confirm that additional funding is being made available this year to ensure no factory closures? Will she further confirm that we have five years to discuss the modernisation process, that there will be full consultation with the trade unions, and that Members will be fully informed, and that this period of change can be used to ensure that Remploy is fit for the 21st century and is able to deliver for those who need support, ensuring that they can compete in a different world?
I am delighted to agree with my right hon. Friend. To highlight the consultation process, I and my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, both official and political, have tried to keep Members advised of the process.
Let me be frank: it is not easy for any of us. I am delighted to confirm that we are to fund a significant deficit, over and above the current grant of £111 million, to ensure that we can go to the end of the year and allow space for the trade unions, management and the board to consider how to develop Remploy so that it can support more disabled people. I emphasise again that it is not about cutting back on Remploy’s budget; it is about increasing its budget this year and unlocking a modernisation fund for the next five years. It is certainly not about undermining the aspirations and ambitions of disabled people—either those currently employed by Remploy or those that I want Remploy to help over the next 60 years.
We must consider the matter in context. I shall reflect for a couple of minutes on what has been said of people’s misconceptions about disabled people. I could not agree more. People have far too many misconceptions. We often look at disabled people for what they cannot do rather than what they can do.
One of the underpinning principles of our disability discrimination legislation is that it effectively forces society to consider what disabled people can do. Employers have to make reasonable adjustments if a disabled person can do the job in a mainstream situation. That is an enormous advance over 1945, and I am sure that it is welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax. The disabled people that I meet applaud the Government for funding the move into employment through the supported network system, and the reasonable adjustments make mainstream employment a far easier option than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She knows that I have a special in the subject, in that one of my predecessors, George Tomlinson, launched Remploy in 1943 as a result of the Tomlinson report. Does my hon. Friend recognise disabled people’s fear of unemployment, despite the fact that it is not as difficult to get jobs today as it was when 3 million people were unemployed?
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to George Tomlinson. Indeed, he has just written an erudite essay on him. One of the founding principles of Remploy was to establish a rehabilitation vehicle—a factory system—for disabled ex-servicemen coming back from the second world war. It was intended as a short-term move for rehabilitation and it was almost entirely ex-servicemen who used it at first; it allowed them to build up the skills and capacity necessary to move back into employment. I fully appreciate what my hon. Friend says about the distress and anguish that can be caused. That is why I hope that we can have a serious consideration of the report.
The report gave a set of scenarios. At one end they were unacceptable about the sustainability of Remploy Ltd, and at the other end they were unacceptable because of the closure of factory network.
I have read the report, and it seems that scenario 4 suggests the removal of Remploy factories except for the textile side of the business. On page 59, it states that
“All business units except for Textiles are disbanded within this scenario”.
At the risk of sounding parochial, would my hon. Friend agree that that must mean that the long-term future of the Dundee factory should be maintained?
Does the Minister agree that it does not help to keep mentioning things such as “£48,000 for one employee” as if the mess was the responsibility of the disabled person who was working there? It was the inadequate senior management structures at Remploy that caused the problems, and we should avoid that sort of statement.
I said that I did not want to focus on the figures, but I would have been abrogating my responsibility as a Minister if I had not told Members the range of subsidies for some the jobs. However, that is not the essential criterion.
I assure the House that what I have presented to the House is a five-year opportunity to modernise Remploy. I see among my hon. Friends, particular colleagues who have negotiated their way through various situations in the industrial world, in the private and the public sectors. We are giving a £500 million financial envelope, plus an additional amount to meet the shortfall on this year’s grant—as we have done in previous years. There is also a modernisation fund. The trade unions, management, local communities and disabled people will be able to say what they want. Hon. Members must accept that there is a debate out there. Many disabled people want to work in the mainstream. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, and as we say in the statement, some disabled people want to work in a more supported or sheltered way.
I am the chair of the Friends of Remploy. I welcome the meeting that the Minister has called tomorrow morning, when we can explore such matters further. Could I press her about having an early meeting with the trade unions, as I know that they want to meet her?
I have had constant discussions with trade union representatives throughout the process. As late as last night, I had further discussions with them so that they were fully aware of the sort of direction that is being taken.
A statement was made earlier today, and an extensive independent report informed that statement. We have not taken any decisions. We are offering Remploy the opportunity to get more disabled people into work, because for many it is the best way out of poverty. I want to see that third of my disabled employment budget helping more disabled people.
I hope that we can engage positively on the modernisation of Remploy. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, I want to ensure not only that she will be able to attend Remploy in all its manifestations—Interwork, managed services and factories—on its 60th birthday, but that her successor a few years down the line will be invited to attend its 100th birthday.
I know that it is not technically correct to do so, but I commend my statement to the House and I thank hon. Members for the opportunity to discuss the matter today. I hope that we can continue our discussion.
I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting permission for this debate. I welcome the Minister and look forward to his response. I also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), and for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). I look forward to helpful interventions.
The A14 is the major road in my constituency. It runs east to west—or west to east, depending on one’s direction of travel—and bisects Kettering. It runs from the junction of the M1 and the M6, through to the east coast. The bit of the A14 that goes rounds Kettering is known to local people as the A1-M1 link because that was its main purpose for the town when it was built. The A14 is of European significance and has both local and national importance.
Of particular concern to residents in Kettering is the fact that 70,000 vehicles a day go past Kettering between junctions 7 and 10. The road is now straining at the limit of its capacity. Something needs to be done urgently; otherwise the A14 and Kettering will grind to a halt. If any of my colleagues want, to make a helpful intervention at this point, it will be most welcome.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, my constituency abuts his. The A14 is the main emergency route for vehicles from Wellingborough to the hospital in Kettering, which is my local hospital. When the A14 gets congested, loss of life can occur, because ambulances cannot get through. I hope that he is aware of that.
Between Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire, in my constituency, there is already intense congestion. As it happens, this debate comes almost on the ninth anniversary of the first time that I, like my hon. Friend, called for the rebuilding of the A14 in my constituency. In theory, we are three years away from the start of works. I hope that the Minister will be able further to reiterate that that work, which is vital to my constituents, will start not more than three years hence. However, from my hon. Friend’s points of view, rebuilding the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire will further add to the attractiveness of the A14 corridor as a trans-European route, including through his constituency.
I am most grateful for that helpful intervention. Congestion has to occur on only one part of a major road for the problem to become a real nuisance for anyone who is driving along it. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) also wants to add to this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on introducing it in his usual eloquent style. Does he agree that the key issue for the A14 is that it links significant growth areas, including not only south Cambridgeshire and Stansted, but greater Peterborough and the south midlands growth corridor? As such, it is vital that the Government should consider the A14’s improvement as part of the growth and infrastructure of those key areas.
My hon. Friend is spot on, and that is the main focus of the debate. We were promised joined-up government in 1997, but I am afraid that the Department for Transport needs to have a closer dialogue—and fairly soon—with both the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Highways Agency if its growth agenda in the part of the world that my hon. Friend and I represent is not to stall.
Another problem is that when the A14 is congested and does not work properly, the traffic spills over into Kettering, adding to the already gridlocked situation in the town and affecting other villages in my constituency, such as Welford, which becomes clogged up with lorry traffic.
The problem with the A14 is bad enough, but it will be added to by the huge number of houses that the Government are imposing on Kettering and the surrounding area. The figures are staggering: in the next 15 years the Government want 52,100 new houses to be built in north Northamptonshire. I asked a parliamentary question the other day about the Department for Transport’s working assumption of the number of car journeys a year generated by each new house built. The answer comes to 1.29 car journeys a day. My maths is not great, but 52,100 new houses in north Northamptonshire will mean 468,900 extra car journeys a week—almost half a million more. Because the A14 is used as a bypass round Kettering, it simply will not be able to cope. That is why the Department for Transport, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Highways Agency need to come up with a proposal for an eastern bypass for Kettering, to relieve the town not only of the traffic that it already experiences, but of the huge growth in traffic that it will experience in the next 15 years.
The problem in Kettering is compounded by the old road network. My local newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, recently ran a series of stories about the traffic situation in the town, including the junction under the railway bridge, which is described as
“the worst in the…county for…congestion”.
That junction is usually bad, but when the A14 is clogged up, it is an absolute nightmare. I say in all frankness to the Government, as I have done on many occasions before, that their growth area agenda for Kettering will not work unless they come up with some sensible road infrastructure proposals for Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough.
I am not the only one to say that, because the Highways Agency says the same itself. It has already imposed a series of article 14 directions preventing development in Corby, not unrelated to the A14. I also have documentary evidence that says that the Highways Agency cannot approve planning applications for developments in and around Kettering unless a solution to the problem of the A14 is found. On the one hand, the Department for Communities and Local Government has imposed a statutory obligation on the local authorities to deliver more houses; and on the other hand, an executive agency, the Highways Agency, says that those houses will not be able to proceed unless the road network is sorted out.
The statutory duty is for 52,100 houses in the next 15 years. There are no improvements in line for the A14 round Kettering in the Government’s transport plan until 2017 at the earliest. The situation is the same for other roads that feed into the A14 round Kettering, such as the A43, for which there are no improvements until 2021. Alarm bells are ringing in Kettering, because local people rightly fear that we are going to have the new houses first and that the road infrastructure—if it comes at all—will only follow them. That is completely unacceptable to my constituents.
One does not have to take my word for it. I have here documentation from the Milton Keynes and South Midlands Inter-Regional Board, chaired by Baroness Andrews, and its meeting on 22 June this year. Highlighted in red, as a top priority, is the lack of capacity on the A14. The document states that the Highways Agency is concerned
“that there is insufficient A14 capacity to deliver more than 3,000 additional houses in the Corby/Kettering area without provision of restrictive junction access control measures in the short term.”
So local residents in Kettering are not only worried about the provision of improvements to the A14 in the long term; we now face the threat of junction access control measures on to the A14. If they are introduced, I can tell the Minister that the traffic will back up along the A43, back up into Kettering and back up into Wellingborough and the area will simply grind to a halt. Worryingly, the document goes on to state that there is
“No guarantee that value for money A14 capacity improvements can be identified, or that they can be afforded or delivered before 2016”.
I am using this debate to draw the Government’s attention to this very serious problem. The Minister and his colleagues need to get to grips with it, and fast.
Will the Minister confirm that the Highways Agency, North Northants Development Company and Northamptonshire county council are looking at a study into improving the A14, but that the conclusions of that study have been delayed? When is the report likely to be published? When is the Government’s response to that report likely to appear?
I have also highlighted the fact that the problems with the A14 are not only of local but national concern because of the strategic importance of the route. I have been supported in that argument by my hon. Friends. Will the Minister confirm that the Department for Transport, together with the Highways Agency, will be providing appropriate funding for improvements to the A14 before 2017? Will he give specific advice on the nature of the various DFT funding schemes that would be available to provide those improvements? Also, will he be doing something to improve the north-south highway network through north Northamptonshire, including giving approval to the southern section of the Isham bypass in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough? Will he confirm that he will encourage the county council to bring forward plans for the dualling of the A43 Kettering to Northampton road?
Will the Minister consider extending the funding of the sustainable towns initiative to Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough to assist in the implementation of the Government’s sustainable transport agenda as, under that scheme, the Department has already given £10 million to Worcester, Darlington and Peterborough to encourage people to use sustainable modes of transport?
In the short time available for this debate, I hope that I have stressed that this is an issue of great importance to local residents in Kettering and north Northamptonshire and, as my hon. Friends have highlighted, further afield. I would not want the Minister to leave Westminster Hall without being aware that the local residents in all the constituencies represented here today expect the Government to get to grips with the issue and sort out the A14 before the whole area becomes gridlocked.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this debate and making his case. I wish I had his knack and could insist on my hon. Friends making only helpful interventions. Unfortunately, that is not allowed.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues make an important case, but I take issue on the implication that somehow the extra housing growth in Northamptonshire is something being done to Northamptonshire by a Machiavellian Government. It is not the Government who are going to buy these houses; it is the people who do so. They decide where they want to live. The businesses of this country decide where they wish to invest and where they feel it is necessary to create jobs. It is necessary for the Government to respond to those forces. That is why it is necessary, as the hon. Gentleman says, to provide about another 50,000 houses in Northamptonshire. I understand that that creates problems and that he and some of his constituents may not like it, but it is the reality we have to deal with, and whoever is in government will have to deal with that reality.
The hon. Gentleman is, however, correct when he says that, having recognised that we will have to provide that housing growth, we have to ensure that it is sustainable and that appropriate infrastructure goes with it. It is not necessary to provide that infrastructure in advance of the growth; it is necessary to ensure that the infrastructure goes with the growth. That is what the Government are attempting to do.
The importance of transport in accommodating growth is beyond doubt. I certainly do not dispute that. Over the past five years, about £70 million has been invested in Northamptonshire through the local transport plan. We need to ensure that that money is effectively invested in things that have appropriate priority to local people. That is why the east midlands, along with regional bodies, local authorities and other key stakeholders, were brought together and asked to provide us with advice on how they wanted to see the local funding allocation spent in the area.
We received that advice at the end of January. On 6 July, we announced that, broadly, we want to stick to the advice that we have been given by local people. These were local people and local organisations deciding the local priorities for spending local transport funding. I shall deal with the A14. It is a matter for the Highways Agency and is part of the national trunk road network—I can confirm that the Highways Agency would fund the development of the A14—but now I am talking about local schemes that are now in the indicative programme. In Northamptonshire, they include the Isham bypass, the Corby link road and the Isham-to-Wellingborough improvement scheme. The first two are already included in our approved programme of major schemes, while the Isham-to-Wellingborough improvement scheme is being considered by the Department for programme entry.
In addition, since April this year, we have approved schemes worth more than £27 million under the community infrastructure fund—they include the Corby northern orbital road and the Wilby Way roundabout improvement. We are also considering a bid for funding the Kettering and Wellingborough intelligent transport system, which would provide advanced and responsive traffic management facilities within and around those towns.
That is what we are doing with local transport schemes, but the A14 is a core national road which, as the hon. Member for Kettering says, links the midlands with the east coast ports. It is also part of the trans-European network, and those functions must not be compromised by developments that generate local traffic. We are very much aware of his concerns and those of others about capacity on the A14, especially in the Kettering area where there is clearly conflict between local and through traffic, which often causes considerable congestion. As he says, that is seen as a major constraint on the potential for growth. As the hon. Gentleman has also said, the Milton Keynes sub-regional strategy proposes 52,100 new homes in north Northamptonshire, with the county overall set to grow by 99,500 in the 20 years up to 2021. The sub-regional strategy also indicates that the number of new jobs should grow in north Northamptonshire by 42,800, which is a significant level of growth.
With all this in mind, this Government have placed a high priority on investigating potential improvements to the section of the A14 that the hon. Gentleman referred to. In July 2003, the Secretary of State responded to the recommendations of the “London to South Midlands Multi Modal Study” to widen the A14 by tasking the Highways Agency to undertake further work on the A14 Kettering bypass section of the route, with the eventual aim of completing the improvement by 2017.
In response, the Highways Agency commissioned an options study on the Kettering bypass section of the A14 and various improvement alternatives are being assessed. The agency will present its findings to the Department when the study is complete and that will have to take into account the housing and employment growth outlined in the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the delay to that report and certain alternative proposals have been put to the Highways Agency, who would not be doing its job if it did not take account of them. The proposals have been put to the Highways Agency by the local authority and local developers who see a way of providing a solution to the problems identified, perhaps on a shorter timescale than we can deliver the widened A14. At the very least, if we did not consider those options carefully now, it would cause a delay to the public inquiry process because people would immediately ask why we had not considered them. It is important we take a bit more time properly to study the options and we may want to introduce those that provide a more cost-effective solution.
I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and to local developers that it is in their interest that we do this study properly and take account of the other proposals that have been put to us. Following that, if we have alternatives that can be pursued or we need to go ahead with the widening of the A14, we can do so.
No final decisions have been taken on the timing of any improvements, but the statutory process and study work will have to be factored into the delivery timescale. Any major improvement works that might be introduced have to be the right ones and have the support of local stakeholders.
The management of the A14 is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. The Agency's general approach to development and the possible impact on trunk roads is set out in circular 4/2001, which I can provide or the hon. Gentleman can obtain from the Highways Agency website. I have met with agency colleagues and I know that they are endeavouring to be as helpful as possible in the consideration of development proposals. Article 14s are used occasionally when the Highways Agency does not have sufficient information available in order to determine a planning application within the given statutory period. The agency can use an Article 14 to put a hold on the application so more information can be provided and a decision can then be made. That is why article 14s are used, but I am loth to see them used more often than is necessary.
Given that I share the objectives of Government colleagues to see growth in this area facilitated, I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to see it done in such a way that infrastructure is provided hand in hand with the development of that growth. I will be insisting that the Highways Agency work with local stakeholders as expeditiously as possible to move this forward.
I am grateful for the explanation given by the Minister. Would it not be a good idea to move thousands and thousands of cars each year away from the A14 by building a hospital in Wellingborough so that people do not have to travel to Kettering? There are hospitals in Northampton, Kettering and Corby, but not in Wellingborough. Joined-up government thinking would surely conclude that a hospital in Wellingborough was a good idea.
The primary objective of the hospital building programme has to be to make people feel better and to ensure health specialisms are concentrated in the right way, at the right level and in the right areas. Sometimes objectives to provide hospitals of a particular size that are able to deliver the best possible health outcomes to a local population do not entirely align with our wishes in the Department for Transport for a road network. We have to accommodate that tension.
I do not know what the health concerns of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are—although 12 months ago when I was Health Minister I probably would have—so I cannot comment on that. But I can tell him that these are difficult and complex judgements that have to be made. I can understand why he might be campaigning for a new hospital by arguing that that would take some cars off the road, but I suspect that health professionals are probably campaigning for a particular configuration of hospitals that they think will deliver the best health outcomes. That is probably where the priority has to end up. I do not want to get into a debate about hospital services in Wellingborough this afternoon.
I am conscious that the Minister does not see the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth corridor in isolation given that adjacent to it is the Greater Peterborough growth corridor where we will have 21,000 new houses. That will be almost 80,000 new houses over the next 10 years so it is not simply about Northamptonshire.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I want quickly to clear up a couple of points. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) asked about the scheme in the Ellington to Fen Ditton area, further along the A14. Our plans for that road have not changed. However, there are outstanding legal matters and an appeal to be considered. The appeal will be heard in October; obviously, we shall have to take due account of whatever comes from it. When I know more, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and confirm.
The hon. Member for Kettering asked about other issues. On alternative sources of funding, the A14 is part of the core national trunk road network, so funding for any improvement to it would come from the Highways Agency budget. Potential sources of funding for other schemes in the area are growth area funding, the local transport plan that I have talked about and the transport innovation fund.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about whether the sustainable towns initiative could be extended to Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough. We do not intend to extend the initiative beyond the three towns on which it is currently focused. These days, we expect all local authorities to take account of sustainable development, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is likely to be able to exploit that opportunity.
In conclusion, I emphasise again that I entirely understand the need to ensure that infrastructural development and congestion issues are dealt with hand in hand with congestion growth. I am talking to those colleagues, from across the Government, who are responsible for the growth of housing and other developments in the area. We take account of all such issues and are considering alternative solutions. That said, we are well aware of the congestion on the A14 and we intend to tackle it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is suitably reassured, although I suspect that we shall return to this debate at some time in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Five o’clock.