Tuesday 12 June 2007
[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]
Packaging Manufacturing Industry
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]
It is a pleasure to introduce this debate. First, I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party packaging manufacturing industry group, and express my thanks to the industry for some of the information that it has provided for this debate, not least the document, “Packaging’s place in society”. I have a number of copies, and if any hon. Member would like one, I would be only too happy to provide it, hopefully before the end of the debate.
I and several of my colleagues applied for this debate because of the bad press that packaging has received during the past year or so. In November 2006, The Guardian had an article on excess packaging, and in January this year, The Independent ran a series of front-page articles for a week condemning the mountain of waste, and also referred to excess packaging. As recently as yesterday, The Guardian ran an article headed “What a load of rubbish”. I want to bring some balance into the debate and to counter the allegation of excess packaging.
The hon. Gentleman is gracious, as always, to give way so early in his speech. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. The subject concerns all our constituents, and we receive many letters about it.
Does the hon. Gentleman marvel that the newspapers that criticise others for packaging inundate us day after day, particularly at weekends, with masses of bulk material, most of which we do not need and do not want, and they often package it themselves in inappropriate polythene wrappers?
I was going to make that point a little later. I agree that it seems a little hypocritical when newspapers, especially at weekends, are packaged in polythene bags. That hypocrisy is one reason for this debate, because I want to introduce some balance into our view of packaging, to examine what is excessive packaging, and to see how it can be reduced.
For some people, packaging is excessive and unnecessary—that is often said of food packaging—and I shall give some examples later; but for other people, who want to shop conveniently at supermarkets and who want produce that will remain fresh for longer, packaging is essential. The question is where the balance lies between excessive and essential packaging.
There is too much ignorance about packaging. The hon. Gentleman said that a newspaper criticised the packaging industry, retailers and supermarkets for a week when it was using polythene bag packaging for its own product. The purpose of this debate is to reduce that ignorance, and I hope that it will be one of several as the Government develop their waste strategy, as we talk about more and more recycling, and as we tackle climate change.
The packaging industry responds to consumer demand and customers’ requirements. It is not in companies’ interests to produce excessive packaging. There is no benefit for manufacturers of glass, tin, paper, board and so on in wasting energy and resources on excessive and unwanted packaging. They provide the materials for retailers to package their products, and they respond to retailers’ orders.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that although it might not be in the interests of packaging manufacturers to produce excess packaging, it is sometimes in the interest of company marketing departments to have excessive packaging so that products take up more shelf space and are more likely to catch a consumer’s eye? That is what we must tackle, perhaps via standards throughout the industry so that no one brand is at a disadvantage. We must reduce the overall amount of packaging.
Exactly—no one would disagree with that. Examples of such packaging include giftware. The example that is quoted ad nauseam is Easter eggs, where the intention is to attract young children’s attention. Manufacturers want to attract people’s attention to their products to sell them, and advertising plays a role. The packaging on some products—for example, cosmetics—is worth more than what is in the bottle. I could quote several examples from the drinks industry in which the cost of making the bottle is around 30p, which is expensive, and the bottle is worth more than what is inside it; but if a drink is trendy, people want to drink it. We must address that problem and work towards minimising it.
The hon. Lady hit on an important point: branding. There has been an increase in branded products that can be sold only with further advertising and packaging to differentiate brands. It is difficult to address that. Do we tell consumers that when they go into a supermarket, instead of having 15 toothpastes to choose from, they will have only one? It is not clear whether consumers would accept that.
I shall give a few facts about the packaging manufacturing industry. It has sales of more than £10 billion and 85,000 employees. The primary role of packaging is to contain, protect and preserve products.
I would struggle to give precise figures, but the number has fallen over the years. Even my constituency has lost some 600 jobs in the glass industry in the past 12 months as packaging has been reduced, with lighter products. The industry is not expanding; it is contracting.
The amount of food in the UK supply chain that is lost between it growing in a field and appearing in a supermarket is less than 3 per cent., mainly because it is packaged and looked after from when it is grown or created to when it is sold. A problem in India is that 40 per cent. of the food produced there is lost as it goes from the fields of the agricultural sector to shops and markets. If India could solve that problem, some of its problems with food and poverty could be alleviated.
Just 3 per cent. of landfill is packaging waste, whereas 18 per cent. is household waste. The environmental impact of avoidable food waste in household waste is at least eight times greater than the impact of total packaging waste going to landfill. In other words, the food that we throw away and waste has a greater impact on landfill and our waste strategy than the packaging that it was in. The energy content of one day’s packaging throughout the country is equivalent to 1 mile driven in everyone’s car. Those are the comparisons. The industry has tried, and has largely succeeded, in minimising packaging waste’s impact on society.
A major reason for the development of packaging during the past few years is the change in our lifestyles. It is obvious that we shop differently from how we shopped in the 1950s and 1960s. We have more shops and more choice, and we want convenience shopping, and so on. There has been growth in supermarkets, which exist because people want convenience shopping. If we did not have convenience shopping, we would not have supermarkets and everyone would go to the corner shop daily, as we did in the 1950s, to buy fresh produce and cook it that day, and return to the shop the following day. We have more disposable income, we demand more convenience and we have more leisure time in which we can pursue leisure activities rather than do the shopping.
In the very late ’50s—if I can use that example without giving my age away—we did not have cars to make trips to supermarkets in order to fill them up with a bulk-buying shop to bring back home. We did not have telephones to ring up our orders to Pizza Hut to bring the pizza round on a Saturday night while watching the TV. We did not have central heating or as many TVs. We did not have washing machines, funnily enough, and if we consider the history of the way in which detergent has developed over the past 40 years and the amount that is now used in washing compared with 40 years ago, we see a dramatic difference—something like a 40 per cent. drop. We did not have fridges to such an extent, so we could not preserve food in a fridge, and we did not have freezers, so we could not freeze food. We could not buy frozen food; it was a thing of the future. We did not have computers or the internet, so we could not do our shopping online for Tesco to deliver it the following day.
Those are some of the things that we did not have, but which we now have, and they have led to our different lifestyles. The other big wonder that we did not have until fairly recently is the microwave oven. We wait for the two-minute ping and our meals are cooked and ready. If other hon. Members’ kids are anything like mine, they will know that they do not have to wait for the shout of, “Dinner’s ready!” My children just listen for the ping and that is it; it is the only way they know how to cook.
Other aspects of our lives have changed. In the old days, there were mainly two-parent households, divorce was rare, there were fewer working mothers, the pace of life was slower and people ate meals together around a table at a particular meal time. These days, however, we are all in front of the TV, eating at different times of day, and the household probably has one or two meals a week when its members are all together. All our habits have changed.
What about shopping habits? In the ’50s, shopping was a daily exercise, we had corner shops—there were no supermarkets—and articles were sold loose in brown paper bags. We also had home deliveries. Milk deliveries first thing in the morning are becoming a thing of the past; we buy at the supermarket two-litre containers that will last us several days. The range of food was limited in the ’50s, and we had far less choice in the food that we bought and ate. It is obvious that our lifestyles have changed dramatically.
There are other reasons for the way in which packaging operates these days. My first example is labelling. Sometimes, products that otherwise would not need to be packaged are required to carry nutritional information or warnings—the fact that a certain food might be dangerous if not cooked in a certain way. How do we put that information on a product if there is no label, box or packaging? Sometimes, a label is required simply to impart information to a customer.
Another reason is hygiene. We all demand hygienic food, we all want our food properly packaged, and we all want to ensure that by the time it arrives in our homes, it is not contaminated with something rather nasty. The worst source of food poisoning that the world knows is, I believe, E. coli 152—
My hon. Friend corrects me. The worst place in the world for E. coli 0157 is Scotland, which is surprising. Why should an area such as Scotland be the worst place in the world for E. coli 0157? We cannot be too careful about such matters, and packaging is required to maintain our levels of hygiene.
Another reason is preservation. Again, we come back to convenience: we want food to last longer. A few weeks ago in Parliament, there was a speech by a gentleman from Marks and Spencer, who brought a very good visual aid with him: two turnips, both bought on the same day in supermarkets. One had a coating of polythene cling film to protect it, the other did not. They were bought at the same time, and by the time he got them to Parliament, the first, uncovered turnip was going soft and pulpy, while the other had remained fresh and firm. It goes to show that within a few days, food can go off or deteriorate, and that something like a piece of cling film can preserve food dramatically.
A further reason to have packaging is security. Sometimes we need our food and products to be secure, so that we can prevent people from tampering with them, trying to poison us or committing crimes related to products, particularly food products. There have been cases over the years of companies being blackmailed with the threat to inject liquids and stuff into our food products. Another reason for packaging products is freshness, which we take for granted. Again, the example of the turnips is relevant.
We need to transport liquids, which need to have packaging and containers, so we need to design packaging to accommodate liquid products. Sometimes it is difficult to transport a product without having a package for it. A classic example of excess packaging is the toothpaste tube. Why does it come in a cardboard box? Because it is easier to stack and transport around the country. However, we can design newer, pump-action toothpaste tubes. Society moves on.
The hon. Gentleman mentions cardboard boxes. Perhaps I could mention Rigid Containers, a firm in Desborough in my constituency, which is 100 years old this year. It is a leading maker of boxes made of corrugated cardboard, which is one of the greenest materials around. Typically, a corrugated cardboard box comprises 76 per cent. to 100 per cent. recycled cardboard, and something like 84 per cent. of all corrugated boxes in this country are recycled. Packaging can be a green item—a subject that is often overlooked.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. I shall refer to another example of a recyclable material when I conclude my remarks, as I shall in a couple of minutes because I want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to speak. Many packaging materials are green, and there are misconceptions among the public about what can and cannot be recycled. We must tackle those misconceptions.
Packaging is sometimes necessary for compliance with certain rules and regulations about the transport of certain goods. Another reason why packing may be necessary is cross-contamination. If one had an allergy to a certain food, one would not want that food, unprotected, on the same counter or shelf as another food that one might want to purchase; one would want the food to which one is allergic to be protected and packaged.
Some products are excessively packaged. I have quoted the example of Easter eggs, and another classic example often cited is cling film wrapped around a coconut. However, it is used to stop fibres dropping off the coconut into other foods, getting into baby food, choking babies and so on. That is why we wrap up a coconut. There will always be a reason why products are packaged, but I admit that we can reduce packaging in some areas.
I shall turn to recycling. Last Wednesday was the 30th anniversary of the bottle bank. The first was situated in Barnsley, and later the same day, another was situated in Oxford. I pay tribute to my friends Stanley Race and Ron England, who were the two guys behind the initiative from Europe to increase recycling. Despite the presence of bottle banks, we still have contaminated glass collected for recycling. The problem with many recyclable materials is that the targets placed on local authorities relate simply to weight. They are simply required to collect a certain material by weight. It does not matter in what condition it arrives at the recycling facility. Provided the local authority meets its target for weight, its responsibility ends, but sadly, some materials are so contaminated and cross-contaminated, they simply cannot be used.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned paper and board. I shall use the example of glass, which is 100 per cent. recyclable. Glass can be melted time after time, and it constitutes back to the same product, yet if we mix clear or amber glass with green glass, we get green glass. In order to produce clear or amber glass, the reusable glass must be separated into its constituent colours. It cannot simply be mixed because once mixed, it turns into green glass. Given that in this country we import most of our wine, we are not short of green glass. The other thing that contaminates bottles going into bottle banks is the metal tops, which melt in the furnace and destroy the bottom, causing all manner of problems.
We need some joined-up thinking to ensure that local authorities have meaningful targets that allow them to collect and separate products for recycling, so that by the time they get to the recycler, he can reuse and recycle them. If we do not do that, people will complain bitterly—we have seen this in the Daily Mail—about having to have fortnightly bin collections, because they are required to separate for recycling. They are going through the exercise, albeit complainingly, yet when that stuff is collected it is unusable because it has been badly contaminated. We need to address that within the waste strategy and within our recycling targets.
I firmly believe that if we as a nation are given the appropriate receptacles for recycling, we will recycle much more. Although I understand that there has been great concern about fortnightly collections of household waste, such a system has existed in Northern Ireland for many years without any real problem. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it is the change to how we conduct our daily household business that makes it difficult for people to adjust.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a substantial point.
I am coming to end of my remarks, so to sum up I shall talk about what the packaging industry has done. It has developed new products and tried to limit the amount of packaging that we use. It has reduced food waste within the supply chain to 3 per cent., introduced lightweight packaging and decoupled growth in gross domestic product from the increase in packaging used. The industry has also given consumers product protection.
I will not bore hon. Members by reading out everything in the list of packaging types that I have—mainly because there are one or two things in it that I do not even understand—but it includes ovenable packaging, modified atmosphere packaging, frozen food packaging, microwaveable packaging, chilled food packaging, multiple packaging, shelf-ready packaging and something called aseptic packaging, although I am not entirely sure what that is. To answer the question asked earlier by my hon. Friend in 1990 there were 120,000 employees in the industry, whereas today there are 85,000.
In conclusion, the packaging manufacturing industry, as a service industry to supply chains, will respond to customers’ requirements. It will produce the packaging that they request with the maximum efficiency of resource, which it has done for decades. By protecting and preserving products and minimising waste, packaging continues to make a massive net contribution to resource efficiency and the minimisation of collateral environmental damage. The overall environmental impact of packaging is minuscule by comparison with the impacts of car use, home heating and even avoidable food waste. The industry would like proportionate attention to be paid to those much larger consumer-driven issues, instead of misdirected and sometimes ill-informed attacks on itself and its products through the constant reference to excess packaging.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on starting this important debate.
I declare a kind of interest, in that my father recently retired at the age of 80 from the packaging industry after a distinguished and representative career in the business. From adolescence onwards, I was given a barrage of talks on the virtues of packaging. However, despite that—or possibly because of it—I share most people’s annoyance at the amount of litter and waste that the packaging industry produces and their frustration at the occasional struggle in opening certain packages. I have found no way of getting at small electrical goods, packaged as they are, other than by attacking them vigorously with a pair of scissors, which is clearly not how they are intended to be opened. I have also shared from childhood the disappointment that all people have about the deceit of packaging, particularly at Easter time, when I unpack my egg and find that there is far less chocolate than I thought. I subscribe to the conventional wisdom that there is probably too much packaging, that much is unnecessary and that it ought to be recycled, if not made of recyclable materials.
I recognise much of what the hon. Gentleman said, too. I realise that we cannot return to the old days, when eggs came in a brown paper bag and frequently got broken, when milk was collected in jugs and when potatoes were tipped into shopping bags. Some of us can remember those days, which, to be frank, were not ideal. We also recognise that current packaging performs key tasks. It keeps food fresh and carries lots of information, such as bar codes and the traffic light information that is to come to tell us whether food will make us fat, thin or whatever. Packaging is also necessary to attract clients and identify products. We would be completely lost in a supermarket if there was not a variegated packaging environment—we simply would not know where to find the products that we sought. Packaging also prevents breakage in transit, which is another good thing.
I also accept, as the hon. Gentleman said, that there is not an automatic drive to over-package. There cannot be one, because every additional bit of packaging obviously costs somebody something. The public prefer to buy things that are produced in attractive packages and they want things from far afield, which requires an element of packaging so that they can be delivered safely and securely.
I suppose that I am symptomatic of the general dilemma in which most of the public find themselves with regard to packaging. We all agree forcefully with the general claim that there should be less packaging, but we are less clear about which items—Easter eggs and perfume aside—should be unpackaged. Chris Davies, a north-west MEP and political acquaintance of mine, has an obsession with cucumbers and whether they should have cling film around them. I do not know the case for or against, but I have an inkling of what it might be, judging from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. We are confronted with a clear conceptual distinction between necessary and unnecessary packaging, but, in practice, not everyone clarifies it in the same way.
One can therefore understand some of the packaging industry’s grievances. It will claim quite legitimately that it is a major manufacturer—indeed it is—because it contributes to the economy. It will claim quite accurately that it is not responsible for the antisocial disposal of packaging because that is what people do, not what packaging does. The industry also has perfectly valid gripes about how the press treats it.
That said, we should all recognise that disposal is an issue for the industry as well as the community. Disposal contributes to landfill and litter and represents a relatively wasteful use of resources. The solution is to make products’ packaging more reusable and recyclable, and smaller in terms of bulk and volume. Various bits of quite laudable legislation have that as an objective, although it is not necessarily their effect. There is a debate about the plastic bag tax, which would have beneficial effects, such as reducing the demand for plastic bags, but might increase the demand for paper packaging. Paper packaging is heavier, and as it is made from a biodegradable product, it can produce greenhouse gases when in landfill, unlike plastic, which is chemically inert.
I have a figure somewhere showing that given the amount of moisture in cucumbers, they can in fact benefit from being packaged. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about plastic bags, which I know a little bit about, when the tax on plastic carrier bags was imposed in Ireland, the demand for other types of plastic bag increased. The plastic manufacturers therefore produced more product, but not in the form of carrier bags. Instead, they produced black bin liners, which people used as a way of circumventing the loss of carrier bags
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the initiative of the British Retail Consortium to cut the environmental impact of plastic bags by 25 per cent. by the end of 2008, which is only 18 months away? We have a long way to go on the issue, but that is a jolly good start on which we can build. The industry is addressing the situation. Our constituents choose to use plastic bags. That is a lifestyle choice now, so let us make sure that plastic bags are used and disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.
The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the gripes about plastic bags is precisely that they are chemically inert and therefore remain around for a very long time. I remember going to a presentation by the packaging industry a few weeks after I had been on holiday in Anglesey, when I had seen various plastic products in some remote and beautiful parts of the island. I assumed that a refuse collector would not come by soon and that those products might well be there for decades. While there can be certain advantages and pluses, that example shows that environmental objectives can at times be confused and that there can be conflicts among them.
The question is about whether we want less biodegradable packaging, less packaging that contributes to the waste stream—plastic contributes very little to that—or less packaging that contributes to the production of CO2 and greenhouse gases. One could argue that the whole contribution of packaging to global warming is relatively small. Packaging, particularly paper packaging, requires forests to be maintained, and presumably they are beneficial. I suppose that one could argue that plastic reduces biodegradable waste, although of course all packaging lengthens food miles because it enables products that otherwise would not get to us at all to reach us in a stable condition.
Arguably, the contribution of packaging to the waste stream has to be evaluated objectively. I do not know the figures—someone might enlighten me—but that contribution might stand comparison, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central suggested, with the amount of waste generated by people throwing out newspapers, brochures and advertising materials. This week, hon. Members could reflect on how much of what they bin would be called packaging and how much would be called newsprint, brochures or whatever.
However, there are genuinely desirable environmental objectives to be achieved, and that will not happen through a free market and expecting things simply to sort themselves out. The industry will have no particular motive to use recyclable materials unless that is provided externally and retailers will have no motive to avoid over-packaging if it pays. Although from time to time consumers will revolt and try to hand their packaging back to Sainsbury’s, Tesco or wherever, the vast bulk of us simply put up with the packaging and throw it out.
I do not think that environmental objectives will be secured by bouts of environmental virtue, either from us as individuals, or from various corporate enterprises. At the moment, retailers have a number of desirable initiatives on the go, but I wonder whether they will be sustained if certain environmental objectives become less fashionable. I favour—like most in the Chamber, I think—the model of a European directive coupled with a bit of national tuning and implementation. That model is not too bad, given the lack of availability of others. The presence of a stick being brandished prompts a plethora of voluntary agreements in the retail and producer sectors. However, I am sure that the Minister will agree that to be really successful, we require a mature dialogue with the industry and a recognition that the growth in packaging is locked into other sorts of social changes about which we are more comfortable, such as diversity of supply, prevention of theft and improved food hygiene. We will not row back from such things. Given such mature dialogue, there is no reason to believe that regulation cannot lead to environmentally sustainable packaging, just as it has led to safer packaging. I hope that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central has succeeded in making a substantial contribution to that mature dialogue.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who spoke wisely—I agreed with much of what he said—and it is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley). He has championed the packaging industry extremely well in the House for a number of years. He made several excellent points, but we need a little more focus on, and understanding of, one issue: the contribution that packaging makes to climate change, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Southport.
Does packaging accelerate climate change, or can intelligent packaging make a contribution towards reducing the carbon footprint and helping to control climate change? I believe that it can; intelligent packaging design keeps food and other products in good condition and delivers them in a safe condition, thus reducing the wastage of food and the need to produce it, fertilise it when it is growing, transport it to the user and dispose of what the user wastes.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but if the figure were minus 0.2 per cent.—if good packaging actually reduced the carbon footprint—that would be excellent. I think that it can achieve that, as the industry grows more mature and design gets more intelligent. The hon. Gentleman told us that about 40 per cent. of food in India is wasted, yet in this country, only a few per cent. is.
According to the figures that I have read, we throw away 30 per cent. of the food that we buy. Does that not make the hon. Gentleman wonder about the effect of packaging? If we did not package food, would we have a more immediate sense of which food was about to go off and thus perhaps not need as much food as we buy at the moment?
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, and clearly we need a lot more research on, and understanding of, the issue. However, she is going further down the supply chain than the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central and I. In some countries, up to half the food is wasted between production and the point of sale; in this country the percentage is very small because we have sensible packaging practices that get better by the day. Good packaging can also promote and enable good recycling practices, which are essential. All that can help to reduce the carbon footprint and the energy required to deliver food through the supply chain to our houses.
I want to make one further point, which has not been raised—perhaps it is slightly out of order, but I hope not. In a marketing sense, suppliers promote their goods phenomenally well in this country. However, they forget the customer after they have sold them—they leave us high and dry. Partially sighted or elderly people, such as me and the hon. Gentleman, who remember the late 50s, cannot read instructions on what to do with the products when we get them home. That is absolutely atrocious for someone who is living alone and cooking for himself. The problem is serious, so we need to ensure that instructions on packaging are delivered in a way that is friendly to elderly people and the partially sighted. The hon. Gentleman made all the points that I would have liked to make and put forward his case extremely well, so I shall sit down and let others speak.
I welcome the debate and hope that it will be one of a series of many on the issue. We need to have such debates. I appreciate the desire of the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) to introduce balance, and I hope that I will be able to do that.
The packaging manufacturing industry is an important part of the UK manufacturing industry. In my constituency, SCA Packaging provides 150 jobs and clearly makes a big contribution to the local economy. I accept that many parts of the industry are making great progress towards reducing packaging. As has been mentioned, it is in no manufacturer’s economic interest to make packaging with more materials than they need.
I caution against the view that the issue is not important because packaging makes up only 3 per cent. of landfill, which might be less than the food waste that we throw away. It is still an important problem, and I draw hon. Members’ attention to early-day motion 814, which is tabled in my name and has now been signed by 168 Members. There is clearly a feeling that the problem needs to be addressed.
Consumers at least have some choice about whether to waste food and throw it in the bin, and about whether to buy enough food or whether it will go to waste. The problem with some of the packaging that our products come in today is that consumers are frustrated that they do not necessarily have a choice. They end up with packaging that they do not need, and in many cases they cannot even recycle it.
That has been a particular issue in areas that have moved to fortnightly collections of landfill waste, which has happened up and down the country and in my area. At that point, consumers started to worry about what was going into their bins. That was when people started to complain to me. They could see what they could put in their recycling bins and they were frustrated that a lot of the things that they bought in the supermarket were bulking up the things that they could put in their landfill bin, which had to last for two weeks rather than one. That was one factor that heightened the salience of the issue in the minds of our constituents, who had to deal with that impact.
Of course, it makes good economic sense to minimise packaging. A huge amount of progress has been made by manufacturers, particularly on making products more lightweight. Part of the problem lies not necessarily with the manufacturers of the packaging, but with the brands and the producers of the products, who let the marketing men and women and advertisers into the decisions about how things are packaged. I speak as a former marketing manager, although as I marketed a radio station there thankfully was not such an issue about packaging. That is one of the major problems.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned toothpaste; we would not want just to have one brand of toothpaste, and packaging is obviously one way in which brands can differentiate themselves on the supermarket shelves. That is true, but as someone who used to work in marketing I might suggest that the way in which brands might want to differentiate themselves would be through the strength and quality of the product, rather than what it came in. We have had the examples of perfume bottles and so on, which add a huge amount of apparent value to a product. However, I would have thought that the consumer would be interested in whether the product works.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not argue for a second that we should have no packaging and should go back to taking products in one big bag without any protective coatings or boxes. However, I recall the days when one could take back to the Body Shop the bottle that formerly held a favourite body lotion or shampoo and get it refilled. It is a shame that that seems to have gone by the bye, because although we try to recycle, we need to remember the waste hierarchy—reusing is the best thing that we can do with packaging.
Work still has to be done on marketing. I suggest that the Government play some role, because if products benefit by being in bigger and apparently better packages than those around them there will be an economic incentive to have more packaging. If a level playing field is created through Government regulation—optimal packaging requirements are being considered as part of the waste strategy—companies can act in an environmentally responsible way and will not be penalised by the fact that their competitors would be less likely to do so.
Consumers want minimal and green packaging. A recent survey by the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment—INCPEN—said that 66 per cent. of people thought that, overall, products are overpackaged, with too many layers of packaging, or packaging that is too large for the goods inside. In April, the Institute of Grocery Distribution found that 19 per cent. of shoppers said that they specifically purchased products with recyclable packaging. That is starting to be a driver through the marketplace, and it will obviously grow.
Let me pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). The packaging industry should see this as an opportunity, and if the Government can provide support through research and development to enable companies to innovate, there is no reason why it should not be seen as good for the industry to become a market leader for the rest of the world in new, innovative ideas for environmentally friendly, minimal packaging, which will obviously provide economic opportunities. The packaging industry should embrace that idea, and parts of it are doing so, but we need to ensure that the Government support is there. Although it might always be economically sensible to produce minimal packaging, the risk involved in innovating new, environmentally friendly packaging means that there might not be an economic case up front. Something might need to be developed and researched first, so that support would be needed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) made a point about waste and shrink-wrapped cucumbers and turnips—my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) raised it as well—and whether that is better. I am unsure whether I am agnostic on the issue, and I have no definitive answer. However, although packaging such goods can prolong their shelf life, pre-packaged goods can mean that we buy more of something than we need, which is why 30 per cent. of the food that we buy is thrown away. It is hard to justify such a huge waste of resources. There are two sides to the argument, and I shall leave hon. Members to their thoughts on that matter.
I mentioned SCA Packaging, which employs 150 people in my constituency. It manufactures corrugated cardboard packaging, primarily for the whisky industry—whisky is obviously one of Scotland’s great exports. That company is a good example of how companies can work in an environmentally friendly way, as 75 per cent. of its cardboard is made from recycled material, and 100 per cent. of its internal card waste is recycled, as it has an onsite paper mill to recycle it.
The cardboard industry is starting to get things right, as 84 per cent. of the corrugated board used was recycled in 2005. In order to raise that figure, we need consumers to recycle cardboard more. Although the industry can be good at recycling the packaging that is used in transit, which is the majority of packaging—the stuff that the consumers see is a small amount—it is harder to get consumer recycling done, because we are talking about smaller quantities in individual homes. It is obviously important for consumers and for us that we get the rates even higher.
It is slightly depressing that in England and Wales only a third of local authorities, or 125 out of 374, collect cardboard on the doorstep, while in Scotland things are a little better, because 37 per cent. of councils, or 12 out of 32, do so. That means that there are huge parts of the country where consumers are not easily able to recycle cardboard, which, given its bulk, is not handy to take down to recycling banks, even if they are provided. I can say from personal experience that cardboard recycling on the doorsteps of East Dunbartonshire, which was introduced more than a year ago, made a huge difference to what ended up going in the black landfill bin. Cardboard was taken out of the waste stream. We really ought to put pressure on local authorities and make it easier for them to recycle more cardboard.
The Government have brought forward some interesting developments in the waste strategy published recently and in trying to enforce properly the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003. I am intrigued that they are talking about having more effective enforcement action, but there is not yet a lot of detail about what that will actually mean. One problem is that it is up to trading standards officers to prosecute and enforce the regulations, and they are over-stretched. As we all know, there have been very few prosecutions. It might be time to consider having a national body, such as used to exist, to consider the issue of packaging and make prosecutions when companies flout the regulations.
The debate has been welcome and I hope that it is the first of many. Many parts of the industry are making great progress towards reducing packaging, but there is much more to do and the Government must take a lead in further reducing packaging waste, with tough targets and effective enforcement. Green, minimal packaging makes good economic sense, and it makes sense for manufacturers, consumers and the environment.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate and leading it off so ably. It provides a welcome opportunity to rebalance the national debate about packaging, and I congratulate all those who have contributed on their wise words.
I wish to follow the comments of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on my favourite subject this morning, corrugated cardboard. There are a number of packaging firms in my constituency, and I am delighted to be a member of the all-party group on the packaging manufacturing industry, so ably led by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central. Those firms include Rigid Containers and DS Smith, which has a company called Abbey Board based in Burton Latimer. There are others as well.
The figures given by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire on the proportion of corrugated cardboard that is recycled were absolutely spot-on. An interesting statistic is that as a result of that recycling rate, an area of corrugated cardboard the size of Greater London avoids going to landfill every four months. That is the scale of the recycling contribution made by this wonderful product. If we stop and think about corrugated cardboard for a while, we find that it is wonderful. From cardboard can be made rigid containers that protect their contents, and when the box is no longer required it can be recycled. There cannot really be a greener and more environmentally friendly product than corrugated cardboard.
DS Smith, which has a firm called Abbey Board in Burton Latimer, specialises in clay-coated, pre-print, barrier and performance liners on both single and double-faced corrugated materials. I looked up its environmental statement this morning, and it is extremely impressive on its corporate social responsibility. As a firm it uses waste or recycled material in any given process whenever it can, and it makes environmental performance an integral part of its business. It also seeks to minimise the use of energy and natural resources in its manufacturing process and always tries to ensure that packaging products are designed to minimise total waste and the use of energy throughout the supply chain.
Rigid Containers, which is based in Desborough, is 100 years old this year. It was founded by a war hero, Colonel Howard Burditt, in 1907, and stems from Northamptonshire’s history as a shoe manufacturing location, because shoes go into boxes. Colonel Burditt developed the process of corrugated cardboard, and 100 years later, I am pleased to report, unlike some other parts of the packaging industry, Rigid Containers is doing extremely well. In 2005 the third phase of its recent investment programme was completed with the opening of a warehouse and logistics facility at Desborough, which added storage capacity of 8,000 pallets to its existing 6,000-pallet capacity.
It is easy to bash the packaging industry, but in corrugated cardboard there is an extremely green product that does what it says on the tin, if you like. It is a rigid container that protects the contents of a box, and hundreds of people are employed in my constituency in making that environmentally friendly packaging. I welcome the opportunity presented by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, to highlight the good that the packaging industry does.
I wish to echo the words of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire about the recycling of cardboard by local residents. In Kettering borough, which has one of the best household recycling rates in the whole country—it has increased from 4 per cent. in 2003 to 46 per cent. and climbing today—cardboard goes in the green bin and is therefore sent off for composting. A point that the packaging industry would like to make is that it would be far better if the Government, through their guidance and funding mechanisms, could encourage local authorities to collect cardboard separately rather than include it in composting. Recycling cardboard to make new cardboard is the most environmentally friendly thing to do. If cardboard is added to general green waste and composted, fibres are lost to the cardboard industry. It would be worth the Minister’s addressing that point in her conversations with her colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members to the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), on highlighting this important subject and trying to redress the balance. Some of the press that we see, as he said, almost implies that members of the packaging industry act against the interests of people in our society.
The manufacturing industry is an industry just like any other, and should not be demonised. Its job, like that of any other industry, is to respond to market demands. The job of manufacturers and food producers is to sell their products and maximise profit, and packaging is an important aspect in making a product attractive to the consumer, but it does need effective regulation. Will the Minister address some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003? Loopholes in the regulations allow excess waste if there is, as the guidance notes state, “consumer acceptance”, or if it is needed to provide identification or stimulate purchase. I am struggling to think of any other reason why companies would want to produce packaging, except to hold the contents being sold.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, talked about the reduction in packaging. The natural concomitant of that is that jobs are reduced—it is a simple equation. On the other hand, we as consumers each spend £470 a year on packaging, and Britain has been described as the “dustbin of Europe”. There is a trading scheme called the landfill allowance trading scheme, and I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on some of the loopholes in it. Under the scheme, private sector trade waste can be separately collected by private subcontractors and therefore go off the books. In many areas, the Government have a responsibility to ensure that there is proper regulation and proper measurement of exactly how much waste is going to landfill.
We want packaging to be recycled, and we have a target of 40 per cent. by 2010 and 50 per cent. by 2020. Compared with some of our European neighbours, that is pathetic. Germany already achieves 58 per cent., and the Netherlands already achieves 65 per cent. We must raise our sights considerably to ensure that the packaging that we produce has a recyclable element to it.
Recycling could be regarded as an admission of failure, in that we have acquired more material than we actually need. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred to the halcyon days of the Body Shop, when one could get the little pots refilled. The optimum strategy for dealing with packaging must be refilling and reusing whenever possible.
Consumer demand drives the industry, and it is encouraging just how much of a move there has been recently in consumer attitudes towards packaging. In my constituency, three little recycling bins to which people could bring their plastic for recycling were introduced for the whole borough. By the end of the first weekend, those little plastic recycling bins were completely covered in plastic materials—people were so keen to do plastic recycling. To its credit, the Conservative-run council has responded by ensuring that we now have sufficient capacity in the three areas, but the provision is a far cry from the sort of recycling service that is offered by more progressive councils.
Supermarket bags have been mentioned. I was interested and amused to read recently about Sainsbury’s Anya Hindmarch bags, which were made of cotton. People were queuing from 2 am to acquire those hugely desirable objects. That just shows that public perceptions and attitudes can shape the manufacturing and packaging industries’ response to demand.
The British Retail Consortium has agreed to a target of up to 25 per cent. for reducing the use of plastic bags, but this country really should be working towards the end of single-use bags. That is contrary to what several hon. Members said this morning, but I see no reason why re-education could not end the need to produce a one-use piece of plastic for taking consumables home.
I am listening to what the hon. Lady is saying, but there is an argument that plastic carrier bags are used several times. People will use them when they go to the supermarket; then they may use them again to go to the supermarket; they may use them for taking gym kit to the gym; and then the bags end up as makeshift bin liners in pedal bins. There is an argument that plastic bags are reused.
I am grateful for the intervention and I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the vast majority of people will reuse only a small proportion of the bags. If people take home brand-new bags every time they go to the supermarket, the vast majority of the bags will not be reused. Several supermarket initiatives involve charging a small amount for good-quality plastic bags that can be exchanged once their useful life is over. That has proved extremely popular with consumers, and with a little more education we could move in that direction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) made an interesting contribution to the debate on the disposal of packaging. His ten-minute Bill was about supermarkets taking back packaging from consumers. He said that responsibility for receiving the packaging should rest with the supermarket. That would certainly direct minds down the supply chain to think about the type and amount of packaging that would be used by the supermarkets.
I should be fair to the supermarkets. They are responding to the challenge of consumer demands to reduce packaging, although one could certainly argue that they could go a great deal further.
Finally, I would like to discuss opportunities for the packaging industry. Every change in consumer demand presents an opportunity to the industry. I would like to mention Re:tie fasteners, the eco-clips that are an award-winning British invention. They could replace conventional closures on many plastic bottles and jars, and they are a fantastic example of British ingenuity in responding to a problem or demand.
Then there is the concept of de-manufacturing, which is breaking down a piece of plastic, or whatever, into its component parts. Esterform Packaging Ltd is a successful, growing company that produces environment-friendly packaging. The hon. Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke about the environmental friendliness of simple packaging products such as corrugated cardboard. Many of the solutions that we need are on our doorsteps, literally. If we were able effectively to recycle and reuse them, that clearly would make a big contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire spoke about Government sponsorship for research. When drawing up our science budget, we must consider carefully how we can respond to ecological and customer demands, and how we can maximise our ability to design innovative responses to the requirements. This country is good at innovation. The packaging industry has many challenges, but I am sure that it is up to it.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on bringing this major issue to our attention, and on securing an opportunity for us to debate it. He spoke with great passion and, indeed, expertise on the subject. We have yet to hear from the Minister, but I hope that he will agree that there is a good deal of cross-party consensus on the way forward.
The hon. Gentleman takes a measured view. He said that we must have a balanced approach. The world, Britain, our communities and individuals are becoming ever more conscious of environment, climate change and recycling issues, so it is only appropriate that we focus on what packaging can achieve in meeting our objectives. The hon. Gentleman placed in perspective what is, perhaps, the lowest common denominator that we should bear in mind. Packaging is of paramount importance in dealing with problems such as the E. coli scare in Scotland and other places in the world. That must be the benchmark from which we move forward. We need a safe and secure means of transporting our products, and at the same time, we need to be able to market them.
The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) talked about excessive packaging and I agree with the points he made. I recently purchased a spirit level from B&Q and it took some time to get into the packaging. I eventually tore it apart with such vigour that I ended up breaking the spirit level because there was something at the back that I was unaware of.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned intelligent packaging and I endorse his sentiments. There are clever ways in which we can reduce the amount of bulky packaging that we see now, and I hope that the industry will listen to ideas about how goods can be better packaged not only for transport to the market, but for display.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) spoke about landfill. It was interesting to hear that the carbon footprint from packaging is declining, which places the issue in perspective. However, we must be conscious of what we are doing to our environment. Last year, the National Audit Office concluded that the
“Reductions in the proportion of biodegradable waste sent to the landfill have, however, been offset by growth in the amount of waste produced.”
We, as households, are producing more waste and packaging is part of that.
Packaging is an essential part of modern life and I do not wish to demonise the industry in any way. It plays a valuable part in the economy, employing 850,000 people. Clearly, packaging not only protects goods, but maintains the condition of foodstuffs for much longer. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said in his opening remarks, as consumers, our demands have changed during the past 50 years and we now ask for more convenience. However, examples of excessive packaging have been mentioned today, including oranges in plastic boxes, courgettes in plastic trays, and shrink-wrapped coconuts. The hon. Gentleman referred to abuses where financial gain is made through packaging—for example, six pieces of fruit in a polystyrene tray being sold for more than if someone plucked the individual pieces off the shelf. That should not be happening and it is appropriate that we highlight our concerns about that.
Some stores are heading in the right direction and we support the use of recycled bags, bag-for-life schemes, packaging take-back initiatives and biodegradable packaging. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) is clearly an expert on corrugated boxes and I was pleased that he added his thoughts to the debate; we can learn an awful lot from him. By using more corrugated boxes that can be recycled we can link the emphasis on recycling with the issue of packaging.
However, we need to go further. Concerns were raised about using the bag-for-life for bottles and other items that need to be packaged. We should change the bag-for-life so that it is compartmentalised and has different places to put different products. In that way it would itself become a package to protect goods. Those are the types of initiatives that we need to encourage as we move the debate forward. Education, not regulation, is important. I would hate to see the industry forced to go down a particular road. I would prefer it to engage in the issue and consider where the market wants to go. Consumers are certainly becoming more aware of the matter and are demanding less and better packaging.
To place the issue in context, we create about 4.6 million tonnes of packaging waste every year, which equates to 6,000 London buses. I am not sure if that figure relates to the old Routemaster or to the bendy bus, but either way that is a significant amount and a significant hole in the ground is required to accommodate it. The hon. Gentleman said that the carbon footprint of packaging may be small, but the hole in the ground needed to dispose of packaging is large, which must be of concern to all of us. To put the issue in perspective, for every £50 spent on food, an additional £8 is spent on packaging, so the average family is spending about £470 a year purely on packaging. It does not end there because people must then get rid of packaging and pay the council to come and take their waste away. That means that people are paying a second time for disposal of the packaging once it has been used.
In conclusion, the public are becoming attuned to the impact that we all have on the environment. The packaging industry must be challenged to play its role and introduce less bulky, more biodegradable, more recyclable and more reusable types of packaging. I hope that the industry will heed those views to avoid the necessity for any new regulation.
I am delighted, Mrs. Humble, to speak in a debate that you are chairing. I welcome the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and congratulate him on his speech—it is the first time that I have sat opposite him when he has spoken from the Front Bench.
Most importantly, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate. I have worked with him before on the issue of packaging and I know that he puts a lot of effort into supporting the packaging industry by raising issues of concern in the House. I am delighted that he has had the opportunity to put on the record a properly balanced debate. Given the image of the industry, as demonstrated by the latest campaign by The Independent, I would be interested to know whether those who have tabled the early-day motion supported the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend. In initiating the debate, he has succeeded in getting the balance right between promoting an important industry, which has a crucial role to play in our economy, and ensuring that the industry moves with the times and deals with questions such as whether packaging is excessive and what is essential packaging.
A number of hon. Members made good points about how packaging can help sustainability. For example, food loss is minimised, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). We know that the industry is attempting to minimise the impact of packaging on the environment, and I will come back to that point. Much very good innovative work has been done throughout the industry and in collaboration with higher education institutions. The industry has also taken advantage of resources that the Government have set aside for innovation and research. As a number of hon. Members have said, we need to do more of that.
I listened with interest to the comments on packaging and marketing. At best it is a bit naïve to assume that, in our consumerist society, we can reduce the importance of packaging as a marketing tool, whether for Easter eggs or any other product. As we become increasingly wealthier, we become what some people describe as apex consumers and we seek to discriminate between products that are the same. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that packaging is a key part of marketing.
Does the Minister not think that the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 were an attempt to do exactly that: reduce the excessive packaging that might be introduced through branding and the use of packaging in extreme ways as a marketing tool? The regulations mean that packaging has to be reduced to the essentials of protecting products and ensuring that they reach their destination in a safe and hygienic condition.
It depends on how one defines those terms. No doubt if the hon. Lady has examples of what she believes is excessive packaging, she will refer those to trading standards officers. However, one can take a whole range of examples. In my early life, I worked for Unilever. All washing powders are basically the same and the only way to differentiate them is through the packaging and marketing.
It is dependent on the competition and, of course, neither Unilever nor P&G would say that. However, it is naïve to speak in a debate in the House and pretend that packaging does not have a key role to play in the marketing of products—particularly because we, as consumers, want that choice. If the hon. Lady thinks that she can influence consumers into not wanting a selection on their shelves or in their shops, I wish her luck, but I do not think that she will get very far.
Packaging materials can be green, however, as a number of hon. Members have said. I think that recycling is very important, and I take the point made by my hon. Friend about the need for green bottles to be separated from clear bottles so that they can be recycled. I shall take that point away and discuss it further with my colleagues in DEFRA and the Corporate Responsibility Group. I shall take away also the point about cardboard and discuss it with colleagues in other Departments to see if we can be more sophisticated in the way in which we discriminate between objects that we recycle in order to support re-use, rather than simply recycling materials.
The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) raised a number of issues and talked about mature dialogue, as well as regulation, to ensure environmental sustainability. I think that he admitted that it is difficult to decide what should be packaged. I expect that we all have personal experience of poor and excessive packaging. The hon. Member for Castle Point made a very good point about packaging reflecting the needs of disadvantaged groups in society—for example, those with disabilities or the elderly. We all have endless examples of appalling packaging that, for example, someone with arthritic hands could not open, or where the typeface of the written directions or information on the contents is so small that even a younger person could not decipher it—but perhaps that is part of the reason why it is so small.
The hon. Lady took a very different approach to the debate. Her main emphasis was on the need to reduce packaging as much as possible. I agree with her about green packaging and the need to minimise packaging. Innovation is vital, and the Government have a role in setting targets for reducing waste, which I believe that we are doing effectively. We have made good progress. However, we need partnerships between all, rather than regulation. The industry needs to work with consumers and other stakeholders to make the changes that we want.
In the last few minutes left to us, I shall make some general points. Packaging is part of everyday life, as my hon. Friend demonstrated well, and it feeds into a massive range of supply chains. I have responsibilities for the whole of the manufacturing industry and a range of other sectors. Packaging probably impacts on most of the sectors that are part of our everyday life. The packaging industry is a sophisticated and highly competitive sector and is adapting effectively to changing consumer demands and fashions, and now to the challenges that we face to sustain our environment.
The packaging industry also has to ensure that it can survive in the increasingly globalised market in which we now operate. I often use three statistics on China in this context. China now produces nearly 70 per cent.—two thirds—of all mobile telephones; it produces half of all our televisions; and last Christmas it produced three out of every four toys bought for children. Our packaging industry must ensure its future in that context. The industry employs 85,000 people and accounts for 1 per cent. of GDP, I believe—my hon. Friend will know.
The industry therefore makes an important contribution.
Given the statistics, globalisation could be seen as a threat, but it is an opportunity as well, providing new markets in which we can compete. The real challenge for us, which is reflected in our manufacturing strategy, is to provide the conditions in which the packaging industry can modernise, be appropriate in the modern context, continue to grow, and provide added value to the economy and jobs for British people. The packaging industry has faced other challenges owing to the high energy costs of the last few years and of raw materials—those two factors have not been brought up in the debate today—but despite that there has been growth, which is to be welcomed.
Why has that happened? One of the strengths of the packaging industry in the UK is design, which has been talked about by a lot of people. It is crucial that we keep innovating in order to reduce quantities of packaging and to maintain the industry and ensure that its products become more sustainable and re-usable. The incentives that the Government have put in place to support the industry deal largely with innovation. They include tax credits, which are, I hope, increasingly supporting the packaging industry; the science and research budget, which has almost trebled; and the technology programme, under which we have invested £370 million over the last four years to enable manufacturers to capitalise on emerging technologies and to turn ideas into products. For example, in the £40 million spring competition, which we are in the middle of, £15 million was allocated specifically to the development of lightweight materials and structures. We hope that some of those resources will go into packaging to enable further innovation.
We work also through the manufacturing advisory service to ensure that the packaging industry remains competitive. MAS has worked with and helped more than 30 packaging companies such as Amcor, Chevler and Rosewood to increase turnover by £300 million. In 1997, we set up the Faraday packaging partnership, which has now been subsumed into the materials knowledge transfer network launched by Lord Sainsbury in 2006. That partnership provides an interface between packaging producers, users and academic research. Again, about 35 successful, relevant products have come out of that.
I shall say a little bit about what we are doing through the waste and resources action programme, which is important in funding good new products to ensure the long-term sustainability and liability of the packaging industry. There have been trials of lightweight glass bottles and jars and lightweight easy-open steel food cans, which Heinz and Impress Group BV have used. It has developed a packaging minimisation standard for organic products, which has included partners such as Green and Black’s and Duchy Originals, as well as a new benchmark for lightweight PET drinks bottles. We have also held trials of re-usable packaging systems for companies such as Argos. Good things are going on within the packaging industry that we can help to ensure continued sustainability.
Finally, we value the contribution that the packaging industry makes to the UK economy and to reducing packaging waste, and the importance that it attaches to research into development and innovation, which is the means by which we can turn global change from a threat into an opportunity. The packaging industry has always embraced innovation and has long been aware that sustainable success comes through innovation, added value and being close to the supply chain.
I am delighted to have secured the debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss the report “Recognising the Opportunity”, which was recently published by the new all-party group on reserve forces. I should start by passing on the apologies of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who has had to pull out of the debate at the last moment because of another defence engagement of which the Minister will be well aware.
In the course of putting the report together, we took testimony from sources ranging from the commander of regional forces, Lieutenant General John McColl, to some Toms in 4 Para. I thank the Ministry of Defence and most particularly the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), for all the help and support that we received from the MOD and, indeed, individual units. We were delighted to have the Minister of State address the group and that we had such a frank discussion with him.
We also took evidence from Richard Holmes, the first reservist to be director of reserves and cadets, from the chairman and chief executive of the reserve forces and cadets associations, and from Lord Glenarthur, the chairman of SaBRE—Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers. Our visits to 4 Para and 256 field hospital, both of which are excellent units, provided valuable insights. Members of the group keep in touch with many units up and down the country on an individual basis.
Much has changed in the 10 years since the Government came to office and carried out the strategic defence review. On the downside, there has been a huge cut in establishment numbers—proportionately it is much larger than that for the Regular Army. On the positive side, the group welcomes the way in which reserve forces have been used on active duty. Starting with the Kosovo war, substantial numbers of troops from the Territorial Army and its sister bodies have been deployed to war zones, and they have performed admirably. In Kosovo, almost 10 per cent. of those deployed were from the reserve forces, and reservists made up one fifth of the Army in Iraq and one eighth in Afghanistan at the peak in 2004. Lieutenant General McColl told us that the situation has now stabilised with about 1,200 being called up each year for duties in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a very large continuing commitment for a very small force—barely 30,000 troops are deployable—with full-time civilian jobs.
Praise has come from all quarters. One REME—Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers—commanding officer from the Kosovo campaign commented:
“Thank goodness for the Territorial Army!”
The CO went on to say that TA personnel
“have been quite excellent. To a man, they are enthusiastic, cheerful and willing…the additional skills some of them have brought from their civilian occupations have already been an extra bonus.”
That ability to provide value added has been seen in our more recent conflicts. We report on the experiences in relation to Iraq of Major Andrew Alderson, a former director of the merchant bank Lazard and a long-serving TA officer. He was appointed at very short notice to take charge for a year of the entire economic planning and development brief for all four provinces of the British sector. I have been encouraged by reports that I have received from units that have sent soldiers—including, in April, from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment in Canterbury—about how quickly reservists were able to reach Regular standards. The reservist mobilisation centre at Chilwell played a pivotal role in that.
4 Para, which the group visited, has had two highly successful deployments. One involved sending a formed company to Iraq and the other, more recently, involved sending a large group of individual reinforcements to Afghanistan. Next year, despite the fact that almost all its trained soldiers have been on one deployment or more, it will once again manage to send a formed company to Helmand province, where I am sure that 4 Para will distinguish itself again. We were told on our visit to 256 field hospital that from next year TA medical reserves will be running our medical effort in Afghanistan, sending out two TA field hospitals at a time on three-month rotations for the whole year—a remarkable challenge.
However, that success story hides a deeply worrying fact: the TA is becoming smaller. In all but one of the past six years, recruitment numbers have fallen below those for resignation and retirement. The reserves are considerably below their official establishment; the TA is almost a quarter down on what it should be. The problem is even more acute in respect of junior officers, although the figures for them are masked by a tendency to promote much older people to fill the gaps. Without good officers and non-commissioned officers, the whole operation is in danger. They are needed to provide leadership for the men and women under their command.
The problem can be tackled, but to do so the TA needs to focus on a way of doing things that takes account of its inherent strengths and recognises the inherent difficulties in volunteer service. Throughout the report, we stress the advantage—the key factor—of the TA being local. That is its greatest strength. Indeed, at a time when fewer and fewer people have any uniformed experience, the TA and the cadet forces with which it works so closely are now the only active link to the Army in many parts of the country.
The advantages of the TA’s diffused structure and links into the community are many. The reserve forces and cadets associations know best where to advertise and which employers are positive, which can make a huge difference to recruiting. That is why the group was concerned to hear that Regular brigade headquarters has just taken charge of recruiting. Such a move took place in Australia 10 years ago, when regular and reserve recruiting were regionalised and integrated. The recruitment rate of reservists halved almost overnight, and a Senate inquiry was set up, but the numbers have never recovered there.
The new system can be made to work, but only if brigade HQs work closely with the RFCAs and, crucially, with the units themselves. The signs so far are not encouraging. Let me take Kent as an example. The Kent county committee of the RFCAs meets in Maidstone in an office very close to the offices of the Kent Messenger Group—one of its longest-serving reporters, who still works with the group, was also a long-serving TA officer—and the studios of Meridian Television, with which it has links. Its membership has good links with local employers, but its recruiting task and budget have been moved to 2 Brigade headquarters and to 145 Brigade, which is on the other side. However, let us focus on the eastern side.
2 Brigade is based in Dover, and there is already a feeling in TA circles that the recruiting effort has gone off the boil and is now focused almost entirely on the Regular Army. Who can blame Regular recruiting teams, given the problems in the Regular Army, for focusing on the Regular Army? However, even if that were not the case, it is very difficult to see how a group of people who change posts every couple of years and are based in Dover, which is far away from all the media and centres of power, can possibly do as good a job as the local team.
I am very interested in my hon. Friend’s comparison between the Regular Army and the Territorial Army and the treatment that they receive. Does he share my concern about the way in which the joint personnel administration scheme has been rolled out to the Territorial Army? That appears to be somewhat to its disadvantage; it has disadvantaged a number of Territorial soldiers, which, of course, is likely to annoy and upset them and cause them to leave. If we want a professional Territorial service, inevitably people will start relying on some of that income. In contradistinction to the weekend warrior, part-timer ethos that used to apply, the service is now very much professional. In turn, it requires professional services from the Regular Army, including the JPA, but that does not appear to be happening.
Yes, I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend, who, of course, has been a distinguished serving reservist in the past two years in Iraq with the Royal Naval Reserve, which the group hopes to consider in its next report. It is interesting that the measures that have been most successful in preparing reservists for operational service are those whereby they are handled separately. I am thinking particularly of the situation at Chilwell. The scheme to which my hon. Friend refers appears to be throwing up various problems because there is an attempt to consider reservists simply as part-time regulars.
That brings me neatly to the nature of a volunteer reservist. Unlike a Regular soldier, who has, of course, also volunteered, a member of the TA will have volunteered on top of his full-time civilian career. Like those who work in charities, youth groups, sports clubs and even, dare I say it, political parties, TA volunteers have full-time jobs and, in most cases, families, which take priority in their lives, except when they are mobilised. Given their outside interests and experiences, TA volunteers bring a huge amount to the services at a very low cost, but they are also prone to leave the TA if the service ceases to be challenging and fun. That is why some things work best for the TA when they are designed with the citizen soldier in mind—I have just mentioned Chilwell.
The challenge of TA officer recruitment can be addressed, although it is not so much of a local issue in an era when such a high proportion of potential officers go to university outside their own area. Many serve in university officer training corps, which train personnel to a high standard, and setting up a central system to contact those people a year or so after they have left university and settled into their civilian jobs would make an enormous difference and would cost almost nothing. Similarly, like the Americans and Australians, we should co-ordinate officer development courses and university vocations so that students who are short of money but keen on officer training can accelerate their training programmes and do their special-to-arms training during their time at university. That would enable them to become first-class troop and platoon leaders when they leave.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and leading it so ably. I served in the Oxford university officer training corps and joined a unit near my place of work when I left university. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Ministry of Defence should also look at encouraging students to join a TA unit on a dedicated scheme during their gap year before going to university, perhaps in return for an enhanced student loan while they are studying?
Yes. My hon. Friend points to one of the—dare I say it—rather imaginative proposals that the all-party group included in its list of recommendations. Of course, his suggestion would have a small cost attached to it, whereas the two things that I mentioned earlier would be virtually free—they are just a question of getting organised. None the less, such a proposal would provide an excellent return, as well as providing officers for the Regular Army, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising it.
The TA must be treated as an army that supports the Regular Army as a junior partner. It must always be more than an army reserve that is just there to fill the gaps when the regulars are short of numbers. It is interesting that the United States has two volunteer reserve armies—the national guard and the US army reserve. Their structure, in terms of units, and their pay and conditions are identical, but their philosophies are totally different. The reserve is used mainly as a pool for individuals to backfill the active army, while the guard has a distinct, local identity and is usually deployed as formed units. The difference in recruitment and wastage is startling. The wastage rate in the national guard is well below two thirds of that in the army reserve, and despite the fact that the guard has suffered heavy losses in Iraq—16 people from the Louisiana brigade, which I know well, were killed during its deployment there, which, coincidentally, happened at the same time as hurricane Katrina—its website proudly proclaimed last month that it had recruited fully up to strength. The active army and the army reserve are some way from that.
As with the national guard, TA soldiers should, as far as possible, be deployed together and, usually, as a formed sub-unit, thus giving their commanders the crucial opportunity to lead their men. However, as Regular commanders press for soldiers to fill their ranks and the operational work load makes it harder to get substantial groups of territorials to leave their civilian jobs again, there is a tendency towards deployment by individual reinforcement or so-called cohort. That often provides individuals in junior ranks, such as corporals and privates, with an excellent experience, but the danger is that such an approach will predominate, with officers having no opportunity to command in the field. It is no wonder that it is becoming so hard to recruit and retain junior officers as the demands of civilian life continue to grow.
One positive step, on which I congratulate the Government, was the introduction of a two-star, part-time general in the MOD in 2004. The general has access to Ministers and the Chiefs of Staff to ensure that the volunteer reservist voice is heard in the corridors of power, and the all-party group applauds the Government on that.
Nevertheless, there is considerable concern that last year’s reorganisation of the TA, which was based on the future army strategy, threw up some serious problems. There are two dimensions to the strategy. The first related to the macro aspects, such as deciding the locations at which individual units would be based and the cap badges that they would wear. I have no problem with that, and things are, indeed, starting to settle down nicely. The big problem was with the other dimension, which related to the decision to design the TA structure on the basis of very occasional, large-scale, deliberate interventions—large-scale wars in which most of the TA would be called out, happening perhaps once in a generation—rather than of supporting enduring operations, which is what the TA actually does.
The problem was most acute in two areas: the infantry and yeomanry. The substructure of each company and yeomanry squadron, which determines what happens at each individual location, was rewritten in an unfortunate way, and that has seriously diminished TA infantry and yeomanry regiments’ ability to train and develop officers and fulfil the operational requirements on them. To focus on the infantry, there is now only one rifle platoon in each company, plus an enormous support weapons set-up, which means that companies do not have the critical mass to provide interesting training. Providing an interesting exercise requires several sub-units, usually from many miles apart, to be consolidated through a mix-and-match approach, but that is no way to develop team spirit. Therefore, the most rewarding part of being a TA officer or NCO in peace time—taking one’s troops through their paces—is, in effect, being denied to company and platoon commanders in the infantry and yeomanry. If the young professionals and managers who regularly give of their precious free time at the end of a hard working week are denied the most rewarding aspect of their job, they will soon vote with their feet, as will the men and women under them.
The macro side of the future army strategy must be allowed to settle in. I am not suggesting that a single location is reorganised, but the crucial substructure of the individual infantry company and yeomanry squadron must be rebalanced. In the case of the infantry, that means that there must be a big cut in the number of support weapons to provide enough rifle platoons, given that riflemen are the overwhelming requirement for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The all-party group’s report ends with 18 recommendations, most of which are based on the factors that I have set out. Just as we went to print, the Department for Transport announced an initiative on one of them—the problem of drivers’ hours, which affects a small yet significant number of territorials. I hope that the MOD will look hard at the other 17 recommendations.
In summary, if bright young men and women are to be attracted to the TA, it must never become a mere adjunct to the regular Army. It should integrate with the Regular Army only in so far as that is compatible with the grain of civilian life. The TA is a precious, priceless asset to this country, but it will be so only as long as it attracts good-quality men and women into its ranks. To do that, each TA unit must remain part of its local community—that is, it must remain territorial.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on the quality of the report that he and his group have produced and on securing this Adjournment debate.
Birmingham, Yardley has a Territorial Army base in Sheldon, but Birmingham has others, and it is important, in such a diverse city, that we understand what is necessary for the citizen soldier.
I do not want to reiterate everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but I think that it is crucial that if someone is balancing their family and work life—which is challenging enough at times—as well as the TA, it is no good running things for the convenience of the Ministry of Defence. It is necessary to take into account the needs of the individual citizen soldiers—officers and NCOs, as well as those in the ranks—as otherwise they will vote with their feet.
There has been much discussion about encouraging members of the ethnic minority communities to join the armed forces. The Territorial Army, being territorial, obviously recruits from the local area. It was perhaps a mistake, therefore, to aim to close down inner-city branches of the TA. Although there may be concerns affecting recruitment because of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, inner-city areas are the places from which ethnic minority members could be recruited, because there are often more ethnic minority people living in them. It is crucial that the MOD does not just treat the TA as something to fill in the gaps—a convenience. It must be treated as a territorial Army in itself.
It is also necessary to be aware of employers. There are employers who are sympathetic to the idea of staff being reservists, but some certainty is needed. Again, what is done should take into account the needs of the citizen soldier and the employer; it should not be a question of saying, “Let’s move all these people where we need them, now, because it is a bit of a hassle for us to do things another way.” If their needs are taken into account, and if respect is given to the citizen soldier, recruitment will grow.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. The TA is a crucial part of British cohesion and the British armed forces. If the attitude of the Ministry of Defence improves, recruitment to the TA should grow.
It had not been my intention to contribute substantively to the debate, but as the opportunity has opened out I should like to take advantage of the Minister’s presence by raising a specific point about what happens to members of the Territorial Army when they come back from their tours of duty.
The theme that we can expect to hear a great deal of in speeches on this subject is that, although the people who are volunteer reservists may be part-time in terms of their commitment of time, the dangers that they face and the standards that they reach make them entirely comparable with the most battle-hardened, seasoned, long-time Regular. However, there is one grave difference and great disadvantage that they face at the end of their tour of duty. Having experienced all the pressures and indeed horrors of conflict, when they come back to this country they do not have the support and infrastructure of their units permanently around them, to help them to adjust to the aftermath of their experience.
We all know from history the trauma that the civilians who became warriors in world war two went through when they had to readjust to ordinary life, particularly when they were moving back into communities that had little idea of the reality of what they had experienced. In a couple of atrocious cases recently, to which I hope the Minister will refer, although they did not necessarily involve reservists, people who were wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan were abused while recovering in hospital on civilian wards. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to send out a message that, however strongly people may disagree with a particular campaign, they should realise that abuse of our servicemen and women—particularly those who are wounded, and recovering in hospital—will not be tolerated.
A serious comparison can be made between the difficulties of servicemen and women who are recovering from physical wounds in hospital and those faced by people who must recover from the emotional trauma of seeing their comrades maimed or even killed in battle alongside them, and who are returning to civil society among people with little idea of what they went through. We owe a special duty to those people who volunteer, as reservists, to put themselves in harm’s way; we have a duty to ensure that they have maximum support when they come back from ever-lengthening tours of duty and have to come to terms with their experience without the support of a regular unit of professional comrades around them.
I hope that the Minister—to whom I apologise, because I shall not be able to be present for his concluding remarks—will deal with that issue and say what extra support the Government are giving specifically to reservists, to help them to cope with something that is a greater task and heavier burden for them than for their regular comrades in the Army, and indeed all three services.
I, too, had not intended to take part in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing it and on the excellent work that the all-party group on reserve forces has done in preparing its report. I am motivated to speak partly by the remarks of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis): I entirely agree with his point that many people who have served in our reserve forces come out and feel that they have been abandoned, with no one around them to give help, support and encouragement.
My second motivation for speaking is my horrendous rail journey from Wales yesterday with the railway company known as First Great Western, although I call it Late Western, because that is what it is, most of the time; it took me more than four hours to get to London. In the train I got into conversation with a young man who had served for six years in the Regular Army. He was very bright and felt that he owed everything to the armed forces, which had given him great opportunities. However, he had been injured, and I am sorry to relate that the story he told me of the lack of support available to him when he left the services was pretty horrendous. The hon. Gentleman alluded to one or two recent stories, and it seems to me that such cases are becoming more the norm than they should be. Those who have served in the reserve forces, in particular, need extra help.
I welcome the announcement that my hon. Friend the Minister made in November last year, offering continued support for people who have served in the reserve forces, who might now have psychological problems and so on. I welcome his announcement at St. Thomas’ hospital yesterday, which I am sure he will mention, about extending our support and care to those who served in the forces, going back to 1982. However, it seems to me that some basic things could be done to support people who have left the reserve forces.
I spent a day as a fly on the wall with a volunteer from Combat Stress, meeting people whose lives are ruined, and who have huge difficulty in coming to terms with life since leaving the forces, perhaps having had some awful experience in combat. I was hugely impressed by Combat Stress and its work. In particular, when I sat in with a case worker and a couple of the guys I met that day, I was impressed by how subtly they introduced the ways in which Combat Stress could help, conversationally drawing out the client. The organisation does a fantastic job, but too many people do not know that it exists. The young man I talked to yesterday had not heard of Combat Stress.
All too often what we might call the obvious does not happen. For instance, let us consider what happens when someone goes to see a general practitioner. Yesterday’s press statement by the Department referred to the fact that people suffering from a prolonged medical condition could go initially to their GP and then be directed to the appropriate MOD medical assessment process to get help, a diagnosis and so on. However, all too often, the GP does not understand or respond.
As an aside, I should mention a good group in my constituency called Shades, which comprises a group of ladies who suffer from depression. They have got together in a self-help group. One of them told me that when she was first ill, her doctor said, “There’s nothing wrong with you, love. Go home and get your husband to buy you a new dress.” The problems experienced by people, particularly those who have served in the forces, are too often not understood.
I cannot understand why GPs do not act as signposts. When someone has a problem, why do GPs not simply ask whether they have ever served in the armed forces, because if the answer is yes, they should be told that Combat Stress and the Veterans Agency provide support? So many people just do not know where to turn. When I was doing the job that the Minister is doing, it was my ambition—I am sure that he carries this on—to promote the work of the Veterans Agency as a first point of contact.
As the hon. Gentleman said, so many people are simply at a loss when they leave the services, and the reserve forces in particular. When there are difficulties, they do not know where to turn. The young man I met yesterday shared an idea with me. He asked why there is no system to ensure that, when somebody leaves the forces, a skills audit is done to help to place them in work. Many people find it difficult losing the family feel that they get from serving in the forces, and adjusting to civilian life. We need to think outside the box in terms of how we demonstrate how much we value the people who have served in our armed forces.
I spent 27 years in newspapers and publishing before becoming an MP. Although salaries are important to people, my experience as a manager showed me that people valued more the fact that they were valued: that management looked after them and did things to support them. We could do much more for those who have served in the reserve forces.
I pay tribute to the large and small companies across the country that give every help and encouragement to people who serve in the reserve forces. Such companies ensure that people get the time off, that their jobs are secure, that everything is right when they return, and so on. Many of the guys bring new value to their jobs when they come back, because of their experiences in the forces. Without the encouragement of employers, it would be difficult to sustain the Territorial Army in its current form.
As the hon. Member for Canterbury highlighted, we have to meet a huge challenge to increase recruitment, involvement and so on. We must be careful to ensure that the structures we create do not work against that and against making things as effective as they should be. A debate such as this gives us a chance to air some of our concerns and to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope that the all-party group on reserve forces will continue to produce work such as this report. The report is as valuable as any produced by a Select Committee, because it shows that we still need to address certain issues. The fact that that has been done in this cross-party way shows the House at its best, because all of us, regardless of our political differences, have seen that an issue needs to be addressed, and we have addressed it collectively for the benefit of those who serve in the reserve forces and of our country.
I, too, did not necessarily intend to take part in this debate, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so and to follow the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who did such an outstanding job as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence for a long time. I served opposite him at one stage as a shadow Minister. If I were to say that the Ministry of Defence was a poorer place as a result of his retirement, it would be a discourtesy to his successors, so I would not go that far, but he graced his office for a long time, and we are grateful for his doing so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on having the initiative to call for this debate. It comes as not the conclusion—that will be in many years’ time—but the climax of 20 or 30 years of his speaking up for the Territorial Army and the reserve forces in Parliament. He does an outstanding job of that, and if there were a debate on the armed services in which he did not participate, we would be very surprised.
I should declare a minor, non-pecuniary interest: I have the honour to wear the tie of the Honourable Artillery Company, which is the oldest regiment in the British Army. That makes it the oldest regiment in the world, with the possible exception of the Swiss Guard in Rome. However, a strange quirk of history makes it the second most senior regiment in the Territorial Army, because the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers registered first when the TA was set up in 1906. Incidentally, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers is interesting for another reason: it is the only regiment in the British Army whose name includes the word “Royal” twice. I challenge anyone to come up with an alternative to that.
We in the Honourable Artillery Company are proud of our record in serving the nation for about 400 to 500 years—from the time that King Henry VIII set us up. We served with huge distinction in the London contingent in the Boer war and suffered among the heaviest casualties of any regiment in the first world war, in which we served as a regiment. As a result, we were deployed in the second world war as an officer-producing unit. We produced tens of thousands of officers, many of whom were casualties. I am glad to say that we have served as a formed unit—I believe this was as a result of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, which was one of the last Acts of the previous Conservative Government—on two separate occasions in Iraq. We currently have soldiers deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere, carrying out a variety of highly specialist and dangerous tasks. We are proud of our regiment’s service to the nation and believe that our regiment has an enormous amount to offer.
I do not just raise the matter of the Honourable Artillery Company because I am a sensibly proud member of it. I should mention that my service—seven years of serving the Queen—was probably the least distinguished military career in the history of the British Army: I was seven years a private soldier. I claim no greater military distinction than that I was particularly good news in the bar. None the less, my regimental colleagues have done fantastic work.
I am proud of the HAC not simply because of regimental pride. Should there be the triple postings that were described earlier, we would risk losing the regimental pride that the HAC and so many other TA regiments have. If the boys are deployed as a regiment, or at least as a formed unit from the regiment, they serve with their mates and as a regiment, they have that 500 years of history behind them, they are proud to wear the cap badge of the HAC and they serve better than they would as an individual soldier posted elsewhere.
I raised the issue of my pride in the HAC not only because of understandable personal pride in my own regiment, but because even in debates such as this, and in other discussions that we have had in recent months and years about the deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, we give occasional compliments to the Territorial Army but do not pay sufficient respect to the real contribution that it makes to our overall war effort. I do not have the figures to hand, but my memory of them is that about 25 per cent. of all soldiers deployed in Iraq came from either the TA or the reserve forces—those two are different, but similar in some respects. I stand to be corrected on that figure, but the number is of that order.
Significant numbers of the TA and reservists have been deployed in Iraq and, more recently, in Afghanistan. In other words, it would not have been possible to have done what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan—I leave aside the question of whether one believes the former action to be a good or bad thing—without the support of the TA. That stands in sharp distinction to what happened in the Falklands, where I believe that few TA soldiers were deployed. In the Falklands, the Regular Army did it, whereas in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the TA did it. That is fantastic.
I congratulate the TA on the outstanding commitment and the contribution that it has made to British successes across the world. I know that it will continue to make such a contribution. I have set out the background, but we face a particularly worrying future. I recall that the strategic defence review cut the number of TA soldiers to 44,000. Recently, the number was as high as 100,000, and I would not be in the least bit surprised to discover that the TA numbered 200,000 to 300,000 in the 1950s and 1960s, so the current number is very small. The strategic defence review concluded that the right thing to do was to cut it to 44,000. Discoveries about the way in which the TA has been deployed since the SDR have confirmed my opinion, in retrospect, that that was a mistake. However, I shall leave that to one side; I am not certain that even my own party was that forward in pointing it out then—we rather welcomed the SDR and its change of emphasis.
Nevertheless, there are big problems with regard to numbers, some of which we have already touched on. First, we know about the problems with recruitment, and particularly the problem of officer recruitment that was mentioned by my hon. Friend. That is a real difficulty, and if some of the situations that he described continue, there is a strong likelihood that officer recruitment will fall further, which would be a real worry.
There is also some hidden loss in the Territorial Army, for one very good reason, which is that TA members are paid their tax-free bounty at a certain stage in the year. On the spur of the moment I have forgotten the amount of the bounty, although one of my hon. Friends might enlighten me. It is several thousand pounds that is paid, tax free, if one completes a year in the Territorial Army and carries out one’s basic weapons test, fitness test and a couple of other tests, such as a first aid test. That means that there is a very good reason for not leaving; if one is ready to leave one might as well stay on for six months or even a year in order to collect the bounty.
I hesitate to say so, but it might even be that one or two people carry on and do the minimum necessary to obtain the bounty. I do not remember the exact figures, but there are minimum requirements for days served per year and for the tests, and if those are fulfilled one collects one’s bounty relatively easily without being fully committed to life with the regiment, and certainly without being ready for deployment. I suspect that the Territorial Army numbers are therefore significantly misleading, because in any TA regiment there are a number of such people—slackers would be too strong a word to describe them, but they are definitely not as committed to the nation as perhaps they ought to be. The true figures are therefore lower than they appear.
Let me explain why there are worries also with regard to whether the numbers will fall further. Had I been called up when I joined the Territorial Army, I would have served. It would have been difficult, because at the time I had a job in the City of London running a shipping company. Most of the people in my own regiment are also employed in the City of London, and most TA soldiers elsewhere have good jobs in civilian life.
Under some conditions one might give up six months to serve the Crown, in which case most employers, leaving aside a few, would be happy to give their support. However, when one is asked to go back and serve a second six months, things become significantly more difficult—both for oneself and for one’s employers, and also for one’s wife and family. They ask why it is that one is going off to spend a second six months in Iraq as a private soldier or as someone’s driver, or doing something else of the kind in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it becomes much harder to explain.
It is particularly difficult for people who are self-employed and who work on their own, for whom giving up their jobs for six months is a real problem. People might do it, but giving up a job for two periods of six months is almost impossible, and nine months or a year are virtually out of the question. There are certain regiments—one thinks of the Port and Maritime Regiment, which has one TA and one Regular unit—that are on virtually full-time deployment. Some of its soldiers are having great difficulties in maintaining their civilian jobs under those circumstances.
Until recently, there was a further difficulty with regard to pay and conditions, whereby one’s pay on deployment as a Territorial Army soldier might have been significantly lower than one’s pay in civilian life. That applied particularly in the case of medics. Some of the very specialist surgeons who were paid enormously high salaries in civilian life were often paid rather less as a major in, say, the Royal Army Medical Corps.
I believe that I am right in saying that that has now been corrected, and that there is now a system in which one’s civilian pay is reflected in one’s TA pay when under compulsory mobilisation. That is fine, but it means that there might then be two people of identical rank doing identical jobs but being paid very different sums. I shall not boast, but I was paid a reasonable salary in the City. Had I been deployed as a private soldier in the TA, which was perfectly possible, I would probably have been the highest-paid such soldier in the British Army, which might have caused some difficulties.
There are problems with pay and conditions, therefore. Some of them have been addressed in recent years, but others might need further attention in years to come. If we are to be able to deploy people in the way that we have asked them, and if we are to rely so heavily on the TA—as we have for the past four or five years—it is vital to find a way to ensure that their pay and conditions and their terms of employment are as good during deployment as when they are at home.
There are other aspects of the Territorial Army’s life that might need consideration. One matter that faces us currently is the huge problem of homeland defence. The very name “Territorial Army” exists because the TA was originally set up to defend the homeland; that was its purpose. That original purpose is entirely outdated and I certainly would not advance the argument that we should return to it; if we said to today’s TA members that their job was to defend the UK in the event of an invasion, I fear that people would leave. They do not want to do that job; they want to be involved in war fighting or at least to be ready for such fighting. They want to be deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and they are proud when that happens.
There is none the less a significant need for some form of force to look after the homeland, to deal with all sorts of homeland defence issues, and to be ready for deployment to pick up the aftermath of any significant incidents on the mainland—let us hope that none happen. Some time ago, the Government set up a group of 500 TA people per region who, it was said, would be deployed in the event of some national onshore emergency. A significant number of those people have been deployed overseas, however, so that they are not available for deployment in the UK. In any event, the patchwork for deployment around the UK is unequal; some parts of the country do not have anyone available, and the likelihood of deployment at short notice in the event of a major national catastrophe—again, let us hope that that does not happen—is frankly small.
It seems to me that the Government should therefore reconsider whether something could be done by way of some form of adjunct to the TA, such as existed until recently in the form of the Home Service Force, whose job it was to look after the homeland rather than to be deployed overseas. The Government should look at some way of reorganising some parts of the TA so that there is a body that is ready both to defend the nation against the unlikely event of overseas aggression and, more particularly, to be deployed to help the civilian powers in the event of a national catastrophe.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The problem, of course, is that the regional civil contingency reaction forces, as I believe they are called, are based around the local TA infantry battalion headquarters, which are far too small and which have none of the right structures. There have been some exercises, but only very few.
That is in huge contrast with the national guard, which played a major role on 9/11 and was able to do so because it had the right structures and had undertaken a big exercise a few months previously. The crisis management headquarters on 9/11 was in one of the twin towers and was destroyed, so the national guard was needed even more than would otherwise have been the case. The TA could perform that role, but not, as my hon. Friend says, with its current structure and resources.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. At one stage, we were talking about the footprint of the TA in Britain today, but I think that “toehold” might be the right expression. The TA simply does not have a footprint across the nation, and were there to be, for example, three of four separate incidents at the same time in London, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, which is one of the big worries that face us, we would not have TA soldiers ready to take up the slack. The nation would face a significant problem were that to happen, so in considering the future of the Territorial Army the Government should consider whether some form of organisation could be re-established to deal specifically with homeland defence and with the aftermath of any such catastrophe.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Government on one or two things that they have done with regard to the TA. I was glad when, for the first time, they appointed a two-star general to run it: Major-General the Duke of Westminster. My old friend Major-General Simon Lalor, who I am glad to say is a member of the Honourable Artillery Company, is doing a first-class job more recently. The job is not a part-time one, although I have to say that I think that in theory it is. The experience of Simon Lalor and indeed of the Duke of Westminster, however, is that it is pretty much a full-time job, and I thank them for their commitment to it and welcome the efforts that they made. That appointment was a useful step in the right direction, but the Government could and ought to do more.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent report produced by the all-party group. It is the first time that there has been such a statement of what the Territorial Army does and what we should look for from Government so as to improve what it does. The report is first-class, and I know that the Government will have read it carefully. I hope that they will be ready to act on some of its recommendations, of which I believe there are 16—and I hope that in answering the debate the Minister might be ready to address himself to at least some of them.
I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for introducing this debate and leading us off so ably.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on his speech. He may not be aware that he and I have at least three things in common. First, our birthdays are on 7 November. Secondly, we have both been members of the Honourable Artillery Company. Thirdly, in a later part of my brief Territorial Army career, I spent a lot of time jumping out of planes that took off from RAF Lyneham, which is in his constituency.
I served for eight and a half years in the Territorial Army. I started in an officer training corps for three years, and joined the Honourable Artillery Company when I started work. Thereafter, I served with the Artists Rifles based at the Duke of York’s barracks where, among other things, I had the opportunity to earn my wings, of which I am extremely proud. The Territorial Army is a terrific organisation, and in recent years Governments of both colours have not paid it the attention that it deserves.
I believe unashamedly in national service, but not as it used to be. I believe that our young people should be encouraged to be involved in some sort of community activity—preferably military, but giving some sort of service to the local community. I would like that to be a requirement for young people today. The Territorial Army and other reserve forces would have an important role in that, and I believe that there would be far less trouble on our country’s streets if we instilled in our young people the idea that they are required to serve their country in some way in their early years. I joined the Territorial Army as a believer in national service. Originally I hoped to serve for three years, but I ended up staying for the best part of nine years. It was one of my best experiences.
Professor Richard Holmes provided a foreword to the excellent report produced by the all-party reserve forces group in which he said:
“The TA is more than simply an army reserve. It is a vital link connecting the army to society, a superb leveller and mixer and a way of making men and women—so often left directionless by social pressures—both feel valued and become valuable.”
I agree with every word, particularly that the TA is a great leveller. In the units in which I had the privilege to serve, background did not matter. People might be highly paid executives, postmen and so on, but work background did not matter and it was up to each and every person to get over the assault course and to jump out of an aircraft with a parachute. Whatever people’s background, they were all brought to the same level, but unfortunately in society today there are too few organisations where that spirit exists.
It is important to use the opportunity of this debate to pay tribute to all the cadet forces around the country, which provide a huge amount of training for our young people, many of whom go on to serve in the Territorial Army. For example, in Kettering the army and naval cadet forces and the local air squadrons have an important role in providing uniform training for local young people. However, the Territorial Army presence in Northamptonshire is way below what it should be. There should be many more TA units around the country, and if I had the opportunity I would hugely expand the Territorial Army. It is extremely cost effective, provides excellent training, and, as we have heard throughout this debate, it is now a vital part of our armed forces in projecting our power overseas. As a country, we are far too unambitious in setting objectives for the Territorial Army.
I want to highlight just six of the recommendations that have perhaps not received enough attention in this debate so far. It would be wrong if the Government pursued their objective of changing the name of the Territorial Army to the army reserve. Everyone understands what the Territorial Army is about and now is not the time to engage in some sort of rebranding exercise.
We should establish a central system for those who leave their university officer training corps to put them in touch with local TA units when they enter the world of work. I did that off my own back, but I was not aware of any system to encourage me to do so.
The scheduling of officer training courses should be arranged to encourage students to carry out all the extended courses for that training, including special-to-arm courses, during their university vacations without compromising the opportunity for others to apply. There should also be a more radical approach to attract students to take part in the TA during their gap year, giving them full TA training and perhaps an enhanced student loan in return for four years’ service with the TA after graduating.
The absurd ban that prevents medical students who enjoy cadetships from the Regular medical services from serving in the volunteer reserves should be lifted immediately. We have heard about the TA’s vital role in providing medical services to our front-line troops, and that absurd red tape should be got rid of immediately.
It has been wonderful to praise all those who put so much effort into the Territorial Army at a time when, after 100 years’ service to this country, it has its lowest ever number of personnel, and our armed forces are increasingly overstretched. I hope that the Minister will rise to the challenge of the 18 recommendations in this superb report. He has a real opportunity to enhance the Territorial Army’s role, which it thoroughly deserves.
Thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, Miss Begg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this debate and leading it so ably. I pay tribute to the all-party reserve forces group under whose auspices this excellent report was published.
I thank all those who serve in the Territorial Army and the other reserve organisations that ably serve our country. It is worth reminding the Chamber that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has served in the Territorial Army, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) served in the Royal Naval Reserve, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who saw action in Operation Telic 2 in Iraq. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) was a distinguished holder of the office currently held by the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). I also thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) for his remarks. Having contributions from all parties is in keeping with the all-party nature of the report.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering alluded to the fact that 1 April next year will be the 100th anniversary of the formation of the territorial force. I know that the Ministry of Defence will make a written statement on that very subject today.
Many hon. Members have said that the Territorial Army plays two vital roles in the armed forces. The first is in operations, providing extra support to our Regular forces. We all know that TA personnel have played a key part in operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly in the past few years. The best information that we have is that more than 13,000 Territorial Army personnel have served in Iraq. I do not think the Ministry of Defence keeps all that data centrally, so it is difficult to dig it out, but those personnel have made a huge contribution. Several hon. Members have made the point that if we had not had the reserve service, we would have been in great difficulty in carrying out those operations.
My hon. Friend drew attention to the quotation from Professor Richard Holmes in the foreword to the all-party group report. Professor Homes makes a point that I wish to echo about the important role that the Territorial Army has in maintaining the link between the armed forces and wider society. As time goes on, increasingly fewer people have a direct link either themselves or through their family members or friends with the armed forces, and it is imperative that we retain that link as widely as we can in society.
If we continue to deploy our armed forces at the current tempo, it is important in part that the public understand what our service personnel do, the pressures that they are under and the challenges that they face when they finish their service. They must be properly supported. The Territorial Army plays a key role in that respect.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the important role that the services’ cadet forces play. I have had the opportunity to visit some of them in my constituency, and I know what a valuable role they play. Notwithstanding the all-party nature of the report, it is worth pointing out that the Territorial Army is well below the strength that the Ministry of Defence would like. The TA is about 10,000 people below strength. I should be interested in the Minister’s response to that point. It would be helpful if he outlined the Ministry’s and the Government’s view of their ability to increase the size of the Territorial Army to the desired level.
The Territorial Army’s use as a key part of operations also has an impact when we operate above our defence planning assumptions, as we have done for the past few years. If it continues, the Territorial Army will continue to play a key role in operations.
Several Members mentioned the level of deployment and the impact on our serving personnel when they return from operations. The right hon. Member for Islwyn and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East both referred to the medical care of reservists, whose challenges are greater than they are for our Regular forces, because the reservists return to their civilian life. They are neither with their unit nor with their military colleagues. The right hon. Member for Islwyn described in detail the mental health factor, and the Conservatives welcome the introduction of the reservist mental health programme, which the Minister outlined some time ago. However, more must be done, particularly for reservists.
We must consider whether there can be more proactive and sensitive work to ensure that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, personnel do not feel abandoned when they return to society. We must ensure that they are aware of the services that are available, including those provided directly by the MOD, and indirectly by organisations such as Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion and its caseworkers, and SSAFA—Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—Forces Help. A range of organisations take the lead on that issue.
We have seen in the past week that many people who served in the Falklands campaign 25 years ago still have mental health issues arising from that service. We do not just need to think about the issue today. We need to think about all those people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly given the new challenges that they have faced, such as the threat from suicide bombers, and the way in which that will impact on their mental health not just this year and next, but for decades to come. We must think about how to ensure that those services are properly resourced and accessible to them.
Talking about the health care of regular and reservist service personnel, I was fortunate last week to visit Selly Oak hospital and the regular and reservist personnel there who have been wounded on operations. I was very impressed by the medical care that they receive. We had an open visit, we were able to talk to everybody there and the medical care was of high quality.
As the Department is involved in the private finance initiative-rebuild of the new hospital, I urge on the Minister a point that I brought back from that visit. I know that some moves have been made in the redesign of the current ward, with its new nurses’ station, but the point was reinforced to us that a dedicated unit would be an absolutely key area. It would be valued not only by those who work at Selly Oak hospital, but by our regular and reservist armed forces. I know that negotiations are ongoing, but I shall reinforce the message. The medical care that they receive is very good, but a dedicated facility would improve it and reduce the problems that have been experienced.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to yesterday’s announcement about the expansion of the medical assessment programme. It would have been nice if the parliamentary written statement had been issued on the same day as the announcement was made to the press, but at least there is to be an announcement to the House today. We welcome that move, but I am not sure that it addresses the scale of the problem to which several hon. Members referred in the House.
One of the report’s specific recommendations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned, was about drivers’ hours and the way in which other European Union regulations impact on our reservists. The Department for Transport made a statement about it yesterday, and the MOD is dealing with it, but it highlights a lesson: throughout Government, regulations may be introduced that impact on reservists and people serving in the Territorial Army in particular, because of the dual nature of their work. They are civilian employees who serve in the armed forces. It is a lesson for the MOD. Rather than having to apply for a derogation after the event—after the problems have been raised—the MOD must ensure that its monitoring organisation, which considers legislation from throughout the Government for its impact on the armed forces, works more proactively. I know that the organisation exists. Instead of having to fix problems in retrospect, it would be better to catch them before they occur. The Government are dealing with the issue, but I ask them to do so as urgently as possible, because there have been practical problems.
Several Members mentioned the thanks that we owe not only to people who serve in our reserve forces and the Territorial Army, but to the employers large and small who support them. Employers are very impressed by the skills that those who serve in the Territorial Army gain while deployed and in training. The MOD should also ensure that the skills that they gain in civilian employment are properly recognised when they undertake their military service. Having spoken to a number of people who have served on operations, I discovered that some of the skills that they used in operations and in theatre were gained in civilian employment.
The strain on small companies in particular caused by the way in which we are actively deploying the Territorial Army and other reservists has been mentioned. We must recognise that however much companies want to support their employees who serve, it becomes difficult if they are deployed frequently. We must think about our support not only for the employer, but for the employee, and the way in which they are encouraged to manage their careers around their military service. Given the number of people employed in smaller companies, which is growing as a percentage of the work force, we must ensure that they can join the Territorial Army and our other territorial organisations, otherwise we will find it difficult to recruit them in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire made a point about the civil contingencies operation. When we had a similar debate last year, I asked the Government about the TA’s civil contingencies role in “The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter”, which said:
“A reaction force of, on average, some 500 volunteer reserves would be established in each region…giving a total of some 6,000…nation-wide.”
My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that, with a significant number of our Territorial Army personnel deployed, it is not clear that they will be available in the event of a civil contingency. We have seen some illustrations of that, such as when a strike was threatened by the fire service. On that occasion, the Ministry of Defence made it clear that it would not be able to provide cover, as it simply did not have the resources, whether from the regulars or the reserves, because of our operational tempo. That issue needs to be thought about. If, God forbid, there was an event of such a scale, I am sure that members of the reserve forces would be prepared to serve regardless of their legal status. However, if they were needed in an event of lesser severity, we might have a significant problem in using the right number of personnel.
Another issue that I want to raise with the Minister—I know he will be aware of it, since his office is copied in on such correspondence—concerns a copy of a memo from the office of the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), who is Minister for the armed forces, that refers to some savings that the Government made during the defence programme 2007 by reducing Territorial Army funding by £2.5 million in 2007-08 and 2008-09. I note from the memo that the Minister for the armed forces has received a minute from the Land Forces Secretariat advising him of the significant impact of the cuts, particularly on officer recruitment and Operation Executive Stretch. That operation has offered companies and business people a valuable insight into all the volunteer reserve forces and given them a good example of the transferable skills that their employees would get out of serving in the armed forces. The Minister for the armed forces has noted the significance of that impact and instructed people in the Department to come back to Ministers with potential alternatives by 22 May. I therefore hope that the Minister can update the Chamber on the progress on those cuts and on what has been done to reverse them.
The debate has highlighted many positive aspects of the Territorial Army and our reserve forces, and the key role that they play on our operational deployments. However, we can also see that they are under strength and that they face a number of challenges. The all-party group’s report contains 18 recommendations and I hope that the Minister will say a little about how the Government propose to respond to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering referred to the recommendation on gap year commissions and the role of the officer training corps. I understand that gap year commissions are being done away with, which is a retrograde step, so perhaps the Minister can comment on that in light of the all-party group’s report.
In conclusion, it is clear from the Territorial Army’s contribution to the Army that it is a key part of our armed forces. The all-party group’s report makes us all grateful for the work that everyone serving in the Territorial Army does for our country. We owe it to them to ensure that we look after the Territorial Army in a way that is in keeping with the service that they give to our Queen and country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this important debate and on his speech. I accept, of course, that a number of issues worry him, but I thank him for his kind words about the MOD and about what we have been doing to support the TA and improve the situation. I pay tribute to his long service in the TA and to other Opposition Members who have served in the reserves and the TA, too. I am aware of the support that he has given over some considerable time to reserve forces issues. I also pay tribute, of course, to all those who serve in the TA and the reserve forces, for the tremendous work that they do, not least on operations, but also back here in the UK and elsewhere.
The Duke of Westminster did a tremendous job, through his enthusiasm, his dedication and his real love of the TA. He did a fantastic job and is sadly missed. I worked with him for only a short time, but I know that his successor will do an equally good job, and I am looking forward to working with him. Although the main subject of this debate is the Territorial Army, I am conscious in my job of how important it is to stress the work that the other three reserve forces do individually, too.
Throughout the Territorial Army’s existence, its volunteers have proved their ability and worth time and again, from the battlefields of the first and second world wars to the modern conflict zones of Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, in the past few decades the British Army has operated in very few places without the support of its Territorial Army colleagues. Let us not forget that, as hon. Members have said, TA personnel are volunteers—men and women who give up their time, and in some cases life and limb, for small reward to serve their country. Although they are called upon to serve less often than their regular counterparts, in some ways their job is more demanding. When TA volunteers are deployed, they are required to face the same dangers as their Regular Army colleagues and are expected to be as well disciplined, professional and effective.
The Territorial Army has undergone considerable changes in the past decade, as have all our reserve forces. Those changes have been essential to maintain the Territorial Army’s relevance in a changing world and ensure that it has a robust and healthy future. The greatest challenge to the Territorial Army in recent years has been the move away from its cold war role towards a culture of mobilisation for operations that suits today’s operational demands. Members of the Territorial Army now expect to be mobilised and deployed on a range of operations in support of our defence policy overseas. The role against which the majority of the TA is structured is to support a large-scale deliberate intervention of divisional level size, but it is adapted to support the Regular Army on enduring operations, too.
During Telic 1, a total of 3,787 TA personnel were deployed. Since then, a significant number of personnel continue to provide vital support. Over the past year, approximately 1,000 personnel have been mobilised at any one time, either on operations, preparing for operations or returning from operations. Overall, we have mobilised around 13,000 volunteers on overseas operations since January 2003, which is the equivalent of about 20 battalions-worth of soldiers or more than 100 sub-units.
The Territorial Army has truly earned its spurs in Iraq, and continues to do so there, as well as in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Those conflicts have shown that the threats that we now face are more complex than ever before. Today’s TA must be a force that is capable, adaptable and responsive to those threats—a professional military force for the 21st century. Conflicts are no longer fought on front lines. The end of the cold war changed all that. Today, warfare is by and large asymmetric. An asymmetric threat calls for a different Army, different skills, different training, different tactics, different procedures and different organisation.
The Government have responded to the changing world. In December 2004, the then Secretary of State for Defence announced the new future Army structures, which are changes that mean a more deployable, agile and flexible Army. The Territorial Army is an integral part of that force. Our policies reflect the need to strengthen the role of the Territorial Army, not diminish it. The Territorial Army is no longer purely for home defence or a national emergency. For almost a decade, it has been an integral support arm of the Regular Army—a deployable force in keeping with the changing nature of our military engagement across the world.
Recent operational experience gained from extensive use of the Territorial Army has allowed us to apply the lessons learned to maximise its effectiveness. On 23 March 2006, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the armed forces announced a series of measures aimed at rebalancing the Territorial Army in the light of those experiences and the wider changes taking place within the Army under the FAS. For example, the regimental headquarters for the new TA intelligence battalion has been established in Colby Newham, with the establishment of the battalion itself scheduled for the beginning of the next financial year. The introduction of a new TA intelligence capability will offer new opportunities for TA soldiers and provide significant support to the Regular Army.
Crucially, we are also strengthening the affiliation of Territorial Army units to the Regular Army units with which they will operate, thus improving their mutual understanding and operating capability. Territorial Army units are now paired with one or more Regular Army units, with which they will train and often be deployed alongside. Closer affiliation for training purposes will increase joint territorial and regular training, and thereby deliver more enjoyable, relevant and challenging training to territorial volunteers, while also building up a good relationship between regulars and members of the TA.
That is already happening. For example, members of the 3rd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment—a TA unit—have mobilised and deployed to Afghanistan alongside their regular counterpart, the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment. Some members of the 3rd battalion were also able to participate in the collective training undertaken by the 1st battalion before deployment. That is most effective in cementing ties and mutual understanding between the regular and TA soldiers, and greatly increases the operational effectiveness and preparation of the TA.
We are confident that the changes to which I have referred mean that the Territorial Army is becoming even better placed to fulfil its primary roles: to augment our regular forces and provide additional capability for large-scale operations and specialist skills and capabilities.
The Government also recognise the exemplary service of such individuals to our country. We are not just rebalancing the Territorial Army so that it serves our country well; we are also maintaining and improving the support to, and conditions for, Territorial Army soldiers.
I should like to make a point before the Minister moves on from discussing the future Army structure. The macro-reorganisation that he described—the new intelligence battalion and the pairing with regular units—is fine. However, he has not addressed the problem at the level of the individual company and yeomanry squadron. We can call a structure that consists of a single rifle platoon and a huge support weapons set-up at each TA centre a company, but it will not have a critical mass for the worthwhile training of officers.
If a group goes off with its regular-service counterparts to Afghanistan or Iraq—there will not be another deployment of that sort to Iraq—but never as a formed company, no TA officer will get an opportunity to command in the field. If TA officers are stripped of opportunities to train properly at home and command abroad, it is difficult to see how the desperate shortages of such officers will not worsen.
The hon. Gentleman’s important point pre-empts my speech; I shall come to it a little later.
I turn to the care and medical support for our reservists. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and the hon. Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned Selly Oak and the issue of care for our service personnel. I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean about Selly Oak; anyone reading the press during the past six to eight months must wonder what has been going on there. As the hon. Gentleman has confirmed, what has been going on is top-quality treatment for our wounded armed forces personnel. That has been brought about only because of excellent support and partnership working with our NHS colleagues at Selly Oak. Working with our military medical personnel, they have provided outstanding surgery and nursing. That has come in addition to the care provided by welfare support, liaison officers and now psychiatric support on the wards as well. I welcome the hon. Gentlemen’s comments about Selly Oak.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East said that patients had been abused at Selly Oak. I can say only that I have asked for such allegations to be investigated, but no one has been able to come up with any evidence that that took place. The fact remains that people get top-quality care at Selly Oak. We have also improved security there. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean mentioned, we intend to make further improvements. We will also consider how to take forward the new ward at the new hospital; clearly, the view of the chiefs of staff will be important in that. Like regulars, reservists are treated in Selly Oak, and they get world-class treatment from both armed forces and NHS personnel.
Having said that, it is important to get a few things about what is happening for reservists on the record. As has been mentioned, a number of measures have recently been taken, and I particularly make the point that our Territorial Army soldiers are entitled to exactly the same medical treatment and care as regular soldiers. I am particularly proud of our provision of fast-track diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for those who have suffered physical injuries, and of our improved mental health support for all reservists returning from deployment. Those are among the recent measures that the Government have introduced.
I want to give a bit more detail about the improved mental health support. Last year a King’s college study into the health of service personnel on operations in Iraq, funded by the MOD, noted a slightly increased effect on the mental health of the reserve forces compared with that of the regulars. We responded. As has been mentioned in this debate, last year I announced the highly comprehensive reservists’ mental health programme, which is an excellent package. Under the programme, we liaise with the reservists’ GPs and offer a mental health assessment at the reserves training and mobilisation centre in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire.
If someone is diagnosed with a mental health condition related to service on recent operations, we offer out-patient treatment at one of the MOD’s 15 departments of community health. In more acute cases, the defence medical service will assist access to NHS in-patient treatment. We work closely with Combat Stress, which we fund to the tune of £2.9 million. As I said, we are in negotiations with the organisation and will significantly increase its resources once those negotiations are complete. We shall make an announcement on that in the near future.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about what more we can do. In the coming weeks and months, we will make announcements on the pilot schemes on setting up a system in which we work with the NHS and Combat Stress to develop advice and support for the NHS, so that those who suffer mental health problems as a result of their time in the armed forces can be better treated and understood. Yesterday, I announced that the new assessment programme will be extended back to include those who served from 1982. A significant amount of work is taking place that also deals with how we ensure support for reservists, who often go back to a community as individuals—not among mates, as regulars would. We continue to seek to improve that. A few weeks ago, we had a welfare conference to consider how better to support the more vulnerable members of our armed forces—particularly those who are injured or ill as a result of their service. We shall make further progress on that in the coming months.
I want to refer to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury that come from the report of the all-party group on reserve forces. The report says that, whenever possible, members of the TA should deploy as formed sub-units, rather than individual augmentees. It expresses a wish for TA officers to have greater opportunities for command on operational deployments.
The benefits of deploying formed cohorts, and sub-units when that is practical, are acknowledged. Indeed, the latest operational commitments plot reflects that, with TA units being tasked to deliver cohorts or sub-units to specific operations. Longer warnings to units about providing that requirement, together with the benefits that the cohorts will bring to unit camaraderie and cohesion, will provide significant benefits. However, given the individual circumstances of many TA members, many will still volunteer to deploy as individuals, and be happy to do so. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and hope that I have given him some reassurance.
Similarly, opportunities for TA officers to command do exist, at platoon and group level as well as at sub-unit or company squadron level, and in our in-theatre headquarters as staff officers. Of course, we must not forget that command is often about more than operations—TA officers remain critical to ensuring that their men and women are well trained and administered when not deployed.
We assess that the TA can sustain its support to operations at current levels for the foreseeable future, but we will continue to keep that under review. We have recognised that we have used some groups on enduring operations more than others. We carefully monitor their use to ensure that that is sustainable in the long term.
We have planned our TA requirement on operations to involve approximately 1,200 TA members each year—on occasions, more than that. We use intelligent selection to ensure that we choose the most appropriate individuals. That takes account of factors such as previous service already undertaken and family and employment circumstances.
The concern highlighted by the all-party group about the practical maximum for call-out is encapsulated in the “Defence Intent for Reserves”, which acknowledges the one-year-in-five maximum for practical deployment. However, individuals can volunteer for operational service within that period too.
TA post-operational reports do not reflect a problem among those who have been deployed; most find the experience positive. I found that when I talked to many reservists and TA members in Afghanistan and Iraq; that was often why they had volunteered to join in the first place. It is important to make that point. The experience is often positive; such reservists welcome having a clear operational role and want the opportunity to exercise it. That has also been confirmed by the National Audit Office in its report on the reserve forces, published in March 2006.
Post-operational reports also indicate that members of the TA are happy to operate either as formed units or as individual augmentees. We have been working to ensure that the roles that they undertake on operations are both worth while and suited to their personal experience and skill sets, an issue that has been mentioned.
Concerns were raised about the suggestion that we revisit the restructuring of the TA infantry companies and yeomanry squadrons, primarily because of the current demands on the TA as it supports enduring operations and the need to provide a critical mass for training that is challenging at all levels. If the hon. Gentleman gives examples of where in particular he feels the structure needs revisiting, we can investigate his concerns.
As I said earlier, we remain confident about the rationale behind the restructuring of the Territorial Army. The changes that we introduced under the future Army structure have released more regular infantry troops for deployment, who will in due course reduce the requirement for the TA infantry to deploy in support of current operations.
Crown and Post Office Closures
I thank the Speaker for granting us this short debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) will speak, too, and he will pick up any points that I do not cover because, as I have said, it is a short debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) cannot be here, and as a member of the Government he would not be able to speak in the debate, but nevertheless he supports our endeavours to try to sort out the post office situation in Coventry.
There are two issues as far as we are concerned. The first is the relocation of the sorting office—on that point, I note that the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) is in the Chamber. The second is the relocation, as it were, of the Hertford Street Crown post office. I cannot understand how the Post Office will squeeze the staff from that building into the WH Smith building, which is not far. The Post Office’s justification was that it was not far away and they could move at their will. That has job implications.
Let me jump now to the relocation of the sorting office. There are 500 jobs at stake, and as someone put it to me a few days ago, that is the equivalent of losing some £10 million a year to Coventry’s economy. To a lot of people, that might not seem a lot of money, but to a lot of people it is, particularly when we talk about jobs. When the Post Office talks about consultation, it means, “We have already taken the decision and we are going to tell you about it.” My understanding of consultation was always that people made a proposal, listened to the counter-proposals and then made their minds up. It seems that the Post Office went into the consultation with its mind made up.
One could argue that the change could lead to a further deterioration of the service in Coventry against a background of continual change in the Post Office over the years. The staff have offered a lot of co-operation. We know that from time to time in negotiations we get entrenched situations, but it is incumbent on everyone to try to resolve them. The only way in which that can be done is if the company listens to its employees and the public, rather than saying, “This is what we are going to do; the matter is ended.”
There is another factor. We were told some weeks ago that Coventry city council had about six sites that it could propose for the relocated sorting office. However, no one has told us yet where the sites are, so we do not know what is happening. I have always believed that if a site can be identified, the situation would be part of the way towards being resolved. When the proposals came about, the Post Office had no idea where it would relocate if it went to Northampton. Subsequently, we have heard stories that a site might have been identified in Northampton, but the Post Office has certainly not told us where that site might be. Coventry city council could be helpful if it could identify a site. That has been going on for many months.
The public in Coventry are concerned by the level of service, and different groups are getting up a series of petitions. I do not know the exact figures, but I am told that they run into the thousands. That campaign will continue. Although various structural changes have been made to the Post Office through legislation made in Parliament that was initiated in Europe, and although we accept that the Post Office is up against stiff competition—no one is trying to deny that—how it makes the changes is what matters. It has been suggested that when the legislation was debated, Members of Parliament were voting for closures. The legislation said nothing about closures. Royal Mail Group has decided to take them on and to go ahead with them.
Other rumours are flying around that there will be further closures in Coventry, and so far we have not been able to substantiate them. No one is coming clean. We hear such stories, but we are not able to bottom out, as it were. There are some major issues not only for Coventry but for Royal Mail up and down the country. Rather than carrying out a so-called consultation, there should have been a bit of negotiation to try to sort the problems out.
It has been suggested for a long time that the Royal Mail wants to get out of Bishop street. We know that the Bishop street site is a prime site in Coventry and there have been all sorts of suggestions about its use. Nevertheless, Coventry has gone through a large number of changes over the past 20 years—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West can elaborate further on that—and the service has deteriorated over the years. All sorts of changes have happened, and we do not know what the outcome will be even if people go along with the relocation to WH Smith. As I understand it, the lease will last for possibly seven years, but what will happen at the end of those seven years?
The company might well say that there will be no redundancies, but if it starts to relocate people again that will prompt the question whether they will want to travel. If Royal Mail wants to be efficient, everyone knows that transport is one of the biggest costs. I noticed that Royal Mail backed away from the two small sub-sorting offices that it had initially suggested, but we have heard no more about that. The situation is muddied. My hon. Friends and I are concerned about redundancy, and whether it will be compulsory or voluntary; the deteriorating level of service; and the lack of suggestions for a site from Coventry city council—if a site was suggested, that would give us something on which to work. We are also concerned about the fact that Royal Mail has not come clean about the Northampton situation, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Northampton, South is as concerned as we are.
In conclusion, Royal Mail has to come clean and to have meaningful negotiations about the future. It must be prepared to consider alternatives. We have met the trade unions on a number of occasions, and the first time I met them was before last Christmas—it might well have been around November. They know that changes have to be made, and want to be able to propose their alternatives. They were prepared to have serious discussions. After we met the unions, we eventually met Royal Mail and it became apparent that it would not listen to any alternatives. It is understandable why, from time to time, Royal Mail has problems with industrial relations. When I was involved in the trade union movement and with negotiations, if a manager sat round a table and told me, “This is what you are going to have,” he would have a problem, and he could well understand the men’s attitudes.
The men and women are concerned about the future, as are their families. I hope that the Minister will try to answer our questions, but more importantly, my hon. Friends and I would like to take a small delegation to meet him and to have a proper discussion about some of the issues that concern the people of Coventry and the employees of Royal Mail.
I thank the Speaker for granting us the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on securing it. It is timely and important, and from the point of view of MPs in the area, we are pleased to see the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) here. I gather that he would like to say a few words, too, so I shall make space for that. It is important that we hear all the arguments in the round.
The situation with the post office and the unions is not the happiest. Sadly perhaps—rightly or wrongly, I do not know—the unions have strong views. The idea of shares and involvement in the ownership of the business by the work force did not come through, which the management saw as a setback. The Post Office does not seem to be able to get into a good consultative position with the unions, and there are difficulties and a general feeling of impending problems with the whole business at a national, background level. At a more immediate level in Coventry, there are the two points that my hon. Friend raised—the Bishop street closure and the move to Northampton, about which we have grave reservations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I really am most appreciative, and I thank you, too, Miss Begg. I wish to add to the hon. Gentleman’s point about uncertainty, because there is concern about the matter in Northampton. We do not know what is happening, and there has been uncertainty about post offices in Northampton for some considerable time, since the burning down of our major post office and sorting office. I ask the Minister, and the hon. Gentleman, whether they believe that jobs will be coming to Northampton and whether they believe that any assessment has been done of the labour market in Northampton. I know as an employer that finding labour is very difficult there and in surrounding areas.
I am grateful for that intervention, and the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The labour market might be very tight in Northampton, but in Coventry we are losing 500 more jobs. I mentioned our doubts about Bishop street and the Northampton move, but in the light of what he said about the labour market I add that we view with dismay the possibility of the loss of 500 jobs and further closures. Jaguar jobs have gone, and we now have more uncertainty about Jaguar after the announcement put out in rushed circumstances last night by Ford. We had the Massey’s problem a couple of years ago, which is still working its way through, and there was the complete closure of Peugeot.
Coventry has done brilliantly, with the work force, management and the council working together, to overcome those difficulties, but we cannot keep on being hit. We are saying, “Give us a break.” I hope that the Royal Mail management will consider the matter in the round and take a balanced, calm look at it rather than try to rush through too much too quickly. That would make it come unstuck both in its relationship with the unions and the conduct of negotiations or consultations—whichever they are—and in its figures and the savings that it hopes to make.
We are specifically considering Post Office Ltd’s announcement of the franchising of 70 branch offices to WH Smith, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows. I am pleased to see him here today. As my hon. Friend said, he might not be able to give us answers today, but it would be good if we could bring a small group to him to follow up with a meeting on the points made and those that we cannot make in a short Adjournment debate.
Consultation was planned for August 2007, with a view to the whole operation being carried out by 1 May next year. It has been said, as I understand it, that the number of counter desks will be reduced from 13 to six—roughly halved—but that there will be no reduction in the quality and speed of the service. That just does not stack up. All of us who have followed the slimming down of the banks know that people cannot get served at the counters in banks any more. It will be the same at the post offices—successful post offices already have such difficulties. So how will it happen? The numbers that we are seeing for the move to Northampton and the franchising to WH Smith do not have the ring of conviction about them.
A couple of other things need to be highlighted. I gather—I am looking for advice and possibly reassurance—that the Post Office will not offer its professionally trained staff the opportunity to transfer to the franchised offices under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, with their current terms and conditions. If that is the case, I think it is a backward step. One thing that was successful in some of the privatisation that we managed to do was the fact that people could hold on to that right under TUPE in pretty much acceptable conditions. It did not always happen, but sometimes people managed to have that right. I would certainly have thought that they could in this case.
The other related point is that there is talk about the remuneration being £4 an hour less than is currently paid by the Post Office. If that is seriously proposed, I think we have a very rough road ahead of us. We must all sit down; there is particularly a role for MPs to play, as we must always use our good offices, and Ministers, unions, the Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd are all aware of the need to sit down together. We would certainly do that.
We are looking for reassurance about how these matters are being handled. We want a better feel for the numbers, and we want a better impression to be communicated that the normal procedures of negotiation and consultation with the trade unions are being followed. We get the impression that they are not, and that there is a tendency for those procedures to be ridden roughshod over. That is bound to stack up problems as we go down the road. The industry is a labour-intensive service industry and we are moving away from the manufacturing base that has been so eroded in Coventry. We have overcome the problems that that has created and are embarking on a whole new area that needs the most thoughtful and careful management approach possible.
I wish to know to what extent we can be reassured on those points and the other points raised, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, if he cannot answer our questions, will at the very least see us about them.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Miss Begg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on securing the debate and on securing the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who cannot be with us.
I shall try to respond to the points that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South, spelled out clearly the importance of postal services to his constituents and emphasised his concern about the future of the post office network. He also stressed the role of Crown post offices, particularly the Hertford street branch, which Post Office Ltd has announced will be transferred to the management of WH Smith. He mentioned plans announced by Royal Mail to review its operations across the Coventry and Northampton postcode areas, including the intended relocation of the Coventry mail centre. As I have said, I shall do what I can to respond to the points raised, but as requested I am happy to meet hon. Members outside the debate to discuss issues further.
The future of the post office network and Royal Mail is a subject of great relevance to all Members of the House, as has again been reflected by the issues raised today. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced last month the Government’s decision, having considered the views put to us during the 12-week national consultation on the post office network. The Government have an unprecedented record of investment in the Post Office. We have provided some £2 billion since 1999 and will now be making a further investment of up to £1.7 billion, subject to European Community state aid clearance, to support the national post office network.
The Government are also backing Royal Mail with the funds that it needs to invest and modernise. We have made £3.5 billion available to it since 2001 to back strategic plans aimed at modernising the company and putting it on a sound financial footing. The Government’s strategy clearly demonstrates a continuing commitment to the Post Office and Royal Mail Group. We recognise the important social and economic role that post offices play, particularly in deprived urban neighbourhoods and in rural areas, and the need for continuing public funding to support them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South raised particular concerns about the plans for Crown post offices, and specifically the Hertford street branch. I understand that Post Office Ltd has announced that that branch is one of 70 around the country that will be transferred to the management of the retailer WH Smith. I further understand that the company is not yet in a position to announce further details of the move. Inevitably, therefore, there has been some uncertainty for customers and staff. I hope that further information will be available by the time of our meeting.
Post Office Ltd is working hard to create greater certainty about the future of the Crown office network. The fact that the company has already set out a clear position for the majority of the Crown post office network is to be welcomed as a significant step forward.
I understand that Post Office Ltd has written to my hon. Friend to explain the intention to transfer the office to WH Smith, and that my hon. Friend has met representatives of the company. Clearly, it will need to ensure that it provides him with confirmation of plans as soon as they become available.
The current uncertainty has arisen because the network of 450 Crown post offices is making heavy losses. Overall, it lost some £70 million last year alone. Clearly, that is not a sustainable position, and the Government fully support Post Office Ltd’s policy for reducing the losses, which includes maintaining a core network of Crown post offices while continuing to drive efficiencies and franchising branches if suitable opportunities arise.
We welcome the commercial deal between Post Office Ltd and WH Smith, which was announced on 19 April. That deal will secure the retention of a main post office service in each of the areas. Post Office Ltd has also stated that it will continue to run 373 Crown offices. We must make it clear that decisions on the location of individual post offices and whether they are managed by Post Office Ltd or a franchise partner is an operational decision for the company in which it is not appropriate for Ministers to interfere.
It is plainly wrong to say to customers that franchising a post office is a closure, or that it will lead to a reduction in the quality of service. Only 3 per cent. of post offices are Crown offices directly managed and staffed by Post Office Ltd employees. It is totally unreasonable to suggest that the equally hard-working sub-postmasters, sub-postmistresses and staff who work in 97 per cent. of the branches are providing an inferior service.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will be happy to give way at the end, but first I must respond to the points that have been made so far.
Staff at franchised post offices are trained by Post Office Ltd in exactly the same way as directly managed staff. Franchisees are bound by stringent contractual requirements to ensure that service standards remain at the same high level after a transfer from the direct management of Post Office Ltd. As I said, franchising is not closure. Franchises and conversions do not reduce the number of post offices. Almost 14,000 post offices are already run by private businesses, whether individuals or franchise chains, including some 900 or so of the 1,400 large town-centre main post offices. The network has always relied on private business for the majority of its outlets. The offices set to be franchised represent a tiny fraction of the network as a whole.
I do not know whether I misled my hon. Friend, but it will take him only a moment to correct any misunderstanding. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West or I were suggesting in any way that employees and postmasters were delivering an inferior service. We were discussing the frequency of deliveries and so on.
I accept fully my hon. Friend’s wish to ensure that I am absolutely clear about what he said, but I was not referring to him in my comments.
My hon. Friend also asked about the Coventry mail centre. I fully appreciate the concerns about the proposed changes to Royal Mail’s operations across Coventry and Northampton, but they are an operational matter for which the company has direct responsibility. I believe that Royal Mail has set out its position in a letter sent to all local MPs and in meetings with them.
It is, of course, for Royal Mail to ensure that its network operations are as efficient as possible to enable it to compete in a liberalised postal services market. I understand that the proposed development will enable Royal Mail to make a £70 million investment in new buildings and technology, and in its employees. That will improve efficiency, give customers better value and provide employees with a more modern working environment. The investment involves the relocation of existing Coventry and Northampton mail centres to a new single site in Northamptonshire. I understand that sites are still under consideration and will be subject to feasibility studies. The investment also features the development of two new delivery offices to serve Coventry. If the plans proceed in their current format, it is expected that the new delivery offices will be ready for service in 2008 and that the mail centre will be operational in 2009.
The reality is that Royal Mail needs to modernise its operations in order to improve its efficiency. The company believes that the mail centre facilities in Coventry and Northampton are no longer appropriate for a modern postal administration. Furthermore, the buildings offer no potential for redevelopment and severely limit the scope for introducing vital new automation.
Of course, the company is carefully examining the effects of the changes on its wider operations. Quality of service is the company’s top priority, and this project is all about gaining efficiencies. The company is insistent that the quality of local service will be maintained and enhanced.
As part of its planning process, the company has placed an emphasis on reducing the environmental impacts of moving its operations and people to a new site. It proposes to devise travel plans for the new developments that will include initiatives to reduce the impact of people travelling to and from work; for example, the company is considering the scope for car-sharing and coach travel.
The company also points out that the existing Coventry mail centre, because of the era in which it was built, could never be as energy-efficient as a new one. The decommissioning of that building alone will reduce the environmental impact of the company’s operations, and the company has pointed out that experience elsewhere suggests that relocation to another site could actually reduce fleet activity in Coventry city—there would be fewer vehicle movements to and from the mail centre location. However, those details are still subject to analysis and development as part of the ongoing planning process.
I appreciate the concerns of the work force about change and the management of change. Royal Mail is also very conscious of their concerns. I understand that the company is keeping postal workers informed of progress. There will be changes for the employees, but the company is fully committed to supporting them as the plans progress. I understand that Royal Mail envisages that any required reduction in jobs as a result of the changes will be achieved mostly through natural turnover. There will be an opportunity for staff to transfer to other local units, and I understand that Royal Mail has told its employees that, with some flexibility, everyone who wants a role in the new structure will have one. Of course, until the final detailed plans are known, Royal Mail will not know how many people will be required at the new mail centre location. I believe that it anticipates a net reduction of approximately 200 jobs if the Northampton and Coventry operations are consolidated on one site as proposed.
I understand that Royal Mail recently advertised its preferred Northamptonshire location for the proposed new mail centre in the Official Journal of the European Union. All major public projects are required by law to be advertised in the journal to ensure that companies have equal opportunity to express an interest in the contracts.
Although we and many of our constituents say that we like our post office and that we value it highly, the reality is that, collectively, we just do not use it as we once did. It is an undeniable fact that many people now prefer to pay their bills by direct debit or to use one of the Post Office’s competitors, to do their banking via the internet or a cash-point machine, to renew their motor vehicle licences online, and to keep in touch using e-mails or text messages. The result is that in some places too many branches compete for the same customers. Some 4 million fewer people use post offices each week, compared with just two years ago. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that the restructuring and closure programme is the result of European Union legislation. It is the straightforward result of the £2 million a week losses that were being incurred on the Post Office Ltd side of the network—the losses were estimated to be some £4 million a week last year—as well as the £70 million that Royal Mail loses from its main offices.
In the financial year 2005-06, the post office network lost £2 million a week. For too long, it was deprived of much-needed investment. This Government have reversed that approach and have invested substantial sums in supporting the network—some £2 billion since 1999. We have supported Post Office Ltd in its efforts to develop its range of financial service products. For example, Government investment included £500 million for the Horizon project to bring computer systems into every post office throughout the UK.
I thank the Minister for making time for my intervention. I would like to bring him back to the point about franchising Crown offices. When a Crown office was franchised in my constituency, we were promised that services would not be affected. Recently, refurbishment of the building led to a temporary one-week closure of the post office that then turned out to be a much longer closure. The post office is still closed today. I do not believe that refurbishment would have led to a discontinued service had the office still been a Crown office. Crown offices are being franchised with the promise that there will be no effect on service, but the reality is that that does not happen.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The experience for the vast majority of customers across the country who used the franchise operations that were piloted has been positive, notwithstanding the fact that, clearly, there has been a hiccup in his post office, which—
It is a pleasure to talk about an issue that is of great concern to my constituents and all those who are concerned about a fair and decent society: the impact of legal aid reform. I am not a lawyer and, unlike the Minister, I do not claim to be an expert on the intricacies of legal aid. However, I plan to use the debate to discuss the impact of the Government’s reform of the legal aid system on Beverley and Holderness, which is a rural area with an older than average population and several pockets of severe social and economic deprivation.
Everyone agrees that in a free and democratic society, people should be entitled to legal representation. In January, the Lord Chancellor used a speech to the Law Society to say:
“free access to justice for those who need legal aid is as integral to the welfare state as the NHS or state education.”
The Minister has herself said:
“The hallmark of a decent society is good legal advice and representation for the community.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1379.]
Since 1997, the cost of legal aid has increased from £1.5 billion to £2.1 billion. That sounds like a large increase, but when the figure is adjusted to reflect today’s prices, it is in fact a small one. On today’s prices, the 1997 budget was just over £2 billion compared with £2.1 billion today. England and Wales spend more on legal aid per capita than anywhere else in the world, and the cost to each taxpayer is nearly £100 a year. We, as a country, should be proud of that and of our determination that people should have access to legal support regardless of their income.
More than 3,000 additional criminal offences have been created since 1997. In a previous Adjournment debate, the Minister—before she was in her current position—highlighted the impact of the Government’s policy on the need for legal aid and support. Population increases, unprecedented large-scale immigration and increased levels of family breakdown have all placed pressure on the system but, as I have said, the amount spent on legal aid has not really increased by much above the rate of inflation.
Let me turn to the history of legal aid budgets. Twenty years ago, in 1987-88, the expenditure on legal aid at 2005-06 prices was £836 million. Ten years ago, the expenditure was £2.016 billion and, as I have said, in 2005-06 it was £2.1 billion. However, since 1997, the NHS has had a 100 per cent. increase in expenditure, funding for education and training has increased by 80 per cent. and total Government expenditure on public services has increased by nearly 60 per cent. Access to legal aid, which is a fundamental pillar of a civilised society, has not increased comparatively.
It is important to recognise that there has not been an increase in expenditure on all aspects of criminal legal aid. The LECG study of Lord Carter’s proposals, which was commissioned by the Law Society, states:
“in the past three years, 2002-2006, costs in most areas of criminal and civil work have increased only slowly if at all, and, on a per case basis have often decreased. During 2002-2006 total legal aid cash payments have risen at a rate of 2.1 per cent. per year. Within the CLS (Community Legal Service) payments have risen at 0.7 per cent. per year and lower CDS (Community Defence Service) payments (excluding crown court) have fallen at -1.6 per cent. Within lower CDS, police station attendance costs have risen at an average 4.4 per cent. per year, but adjusted for higher case loads risen only at 0.4 per cent. per year. Magistrates’ court costs have fallen by 0.1 per cent. per year and per case by 0.5 per cent.”
I have cited a number of percentages to show that criminal legal aid, especially in the lower courts, has not experienced an explosion in costs. In those terms, we have no problem for which we need to find a solution.
A recent report from the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs concluded:
“it is clear that the Government has been unwise in attempting to reform the entire system rather than in concentrating on those areas which cause the problem: Crown Court and public children cases.”
That is important in the context of my local area. In Kingston upon Hull there are eight firms that undertake publicly-funded criminal defence work, but there are none in Beverley. Although based in the centre of Kingston upon Hull, firms have historically covered magistrates courts and police stations in several towns across the East Riding of Yorkshire, including Beverley, Bridlington, Goole, Driffield, Hornsea, Withernsea and further afield. Last year, more than 8,000 people in Hull and the East Riding received help through legal aid.
Firms in Hull have fiercely opposed the Government’s proposals to introduce fixed fees and to abolish travel and waiting time payments. People in those firms are committed to providing legally-aided support to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. As colleagues mentioned in a debate in January, such people pursue their work out of conviction, rather than in pursuit of profit. They began striking in December last year and staged the third in a series of two-day strikes in February. They did so because Hull has been declared an urban area by the Government. The Government have designated 16 urban areas in which solicitors can no longer charge for travel and waiting time. That has had an impact on out-of-town courts such as those at Beverley, Goole and Bridlington. To put it simply, why would a firm pay to travel to a small provincial town to represent a defendant when it could earn exactly the same money by attending a local court?
Was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as me to see that Kingston upon Hull was classified as an urban area when other parts of the country, such as Norwich, Middlesbrough and Doncaster, were not? That worries me slightly.
The hon. Lady is right to be worried about that unfairness, which is the main focus of my remarks and something to which I hope that the Minister will respond. Solicitors from Hull who come out to service the magistrates court at Beverley and look after people from throughout my constituency are not paid to wait, even though a case programmed for an 11 o’clock start at Beverley magistrates court will often not actually start until 2 pm. They are not paid for travelling, and if they arrive at 11 am and the case does not start until 2 pm, it is not worth returning to Hull to go back to the office. Those people thus sit around and are not paid for waiting or travelling.
The Minister shakes her head, yet because Hull lawyers have withdrawn their services from Beverley, two firms from Scarborough and one from Bridlington are travelling down at public cost—I think that they are paid £26 an hour. On Friday night, it took me one hour and 45 minutes to make a return journey to Scarborough. Those solicitors are being paid to travel and, in the circumstances that I mentioned, are sitting around from 11 am to 2 pm before the case is heard. They are being paid to wait, yet solicitors from Hull are not. I put it to the Minister that that is unfair.
The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong; solicitors are paid for their travel and for waiting. One third of that element has been removed, but, none the less, they have achieved a 2 per cent. pay rise on the assumption that they go to Beverley. Actually, solicitors are not going to Beverley; they are grasping a much bigger pay rise by avoiding that obligation.
Despite her commitment on the issue, the Minister displays a characteristic harshness towards those firms. Of course, she has practised at the Bar and is used to greater remuneration than that received by criminal defence solicitors based in Hull. Those people are, as I have said, committed to the service of those in the community who need legal defence. However, as a result of the changes, they have lost 20 per cent. of their business, so when we consider the effect of fixed fees, the idea that an increase of 2 per cent. in the average that they are paid represents a big rise is entirely false. I hope that the Minister will take that comment back and apologise to the people in those firms in Hull.
This year, by the Legal Services Commission’s own figures, Hull solicitors were expected to take on the same work load as last year, but for £30,000 less. I ask the Minister whether anyone trying to run a commercial practice would do that.
I have no intention of apologising for giving people a pay rise. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand—I am not sure that he does—that two thirds of the travel and waiting payments have been rolled into the fixed fee on the assumption that those solicitors would do Hull and Beverley, as they always have. If they do not go to Beverley, they will get a far bigger increase than 2 per cent. because the fees include travel to Beverley. Instead of taking any travel time to go there, they will walk from their city centre offices to Hull court and pocket the money for travel to Beverley without ever going there. I think that that results in an increase that is far more than 2 per cent.
Obviously the Minister is infinitely more familiar with the detail of this landscape than I am, but it seems to me that when people do not go to Beverley and thus do not pick up a fee—I believe that such fees represent about 20 per cent. of their income—they can hardly be considered to be pocketing a pay rise. Those changes have caused Hull-based firms financial and professional difficulties. As one firm put it:
“Solicitors do not jettison clients that have sometimes been represented by their firm over many years without trepidation and crisis of conscience.”
It is beneath the Minister to suggest that they are fat-cat lawyers who are going for a money grab. That is not the right approach to the issue, which is why the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) and many other Labour Members questioned the Government’s approach during January’s debate. The Minister’s harshness of tone when dealing with those who are trying to provide services of great importance is inappropriate.
The eight firms to which I referred have fiercely opposed the locality being declared an urban area. They concluded that it no longer made economic sense to represent publicly-funded clients in Beverley, Goole and Bridlington and thus gave notice to Her Majesty’s Courts Service that they would no longer provide duty solicitor services for courts based outside Hull or take on new cases. That came into effect on 16 April 2007.
The situation has created a dilemma for the Legal Services Commission, which has a statutory duty to ensure the availability of legal advice. It wrote to firms in Scarborough, York, Doncaster, Scunthorpe and Grimsby to ask for their help. When that provided limited assistance only at Beverley, it had to arrange for the public defender service at Darlington to attend, although Darlington is more than 90 miles away. When pressed, the regional director of the LSC would not reveal how much the service had been paid.
A rota for the whole of June has been put in place. Three firms—one from Bridlington and two from Scarborough—are being used and the LSC is in the process of drafting a similar rota for the next three months using the same firms, plus any others that are interested. On the rota for Beverley, solicitors from Scarborough are providing Saturday cover, which is operated through a call-in scheme—the duty solicitor is required only if there is a need. After that, the situation is unclear. The eight Hull-based firms are now bringing judicial review proceedings against the LSC on the basis that the other three firms are receiving additional pay for their services.
The Minister suggested that that payment has already been included in the fees. I gave an example of solicitors having to travel to court and wait perhaps three hours for a case to be heard. Is she suggesting that the Hull solicitors would receive the same amount of money as the solicitors from Scarborough? It appears that she is now less keen to intervene.
I look forward to that and hope that the Minister will answer that straightforward question. If lawyers from Bridlington and Scarborough are being paid more than those from Hull, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North and I will want to know why and how the Minister can justify that.
The answer is very straightforward: eight firms of solicitors have tried to boycott the work that they are being paid to do, so other resources have had to be brought in. Happily, the court is being served properly and no one’s access to justice has been damaged as a result of the action.
But as a result of the policy of the Government and the Minister, the costs are higher because lawyers have to be brought in from far afield—Darlington, Scarborough or wherever. The Minister’s policy has caused that. Those lawyers have to travel a long way and are being paid to do so. Far from saving money, that is costing the public purse more money. People in Hull who are committed to serving the local community are being affected by reforms that were supposed to increase the local work and focus of lawyers, but are having the opposite effect. Her truculence in dealing with the issue throws light on nothing, except perhaps her attitude. If the Minister will not take that point from me, perhaps she will accept it from the area director of Her Majesty’s Courts Service, who said to me:
“the situation is unsatisfactory and there is a need to ensure that a long term solution is found”—
how different from her view as she sits in her ivory tower.
No, I shall press on to the end of my speech. The area director continued:
“We have stressed to the Legal Services Commission that it is very important to put in place a viable solution which will provide regular solicitor coverage at Beverley.”
As I said, what makes the current situation so inadequate is the fact that it is costing substantially more money to bring in those people than it would to use the Hull-based solicitors. Those firms will be charging for travel to Hull prison and the nearest Crown court, which, funnily enough, is also based in Hull.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful case. Does he agree that such people are not likely to cause trouble or to be obstructive in normal circumstances? They are also being hit hard by the introduction of means-testing in magistrates courts because there will be many more litigants in person, which will clog up the courts and, probably, take work away from many local solicitors.
I agree entirely and, of course, these reforms compound the problem caused by the over-bureaucratic and complicated means-testing system brought in by the Government. They will obstruct access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. No one doubts the Minister’s commitment to access to justice, but Labour Members increasingly doubt the efficacy of the reforms that she thinks will bring that about.
Briefly—because we are running out of time—what will be the impact of those reforms on the local supplier base? Nationally, the number of firms holding a criminal legal aid contract has reduced from 2,925 in 2000-01 to just 2,608 in 2006, which represents a decline of 10 per cent. On 17 October last year, in a written answer to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), the Minister admitted that two thirds of legal aid practices had disappeared since 1997—under the Government’s watch.
All the available evidence suggests that that trend is likely to continue. Moreover, as a result of the reforms, smaller firms will be forced to close or amalgamate. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said in January, many firms
“are not in criminal legal aid to make money; they are doing it through conviction, as a service, because they believe in the ethos of trying to protect those in society who have real problems and crises.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 11 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 169WH.]
The fragility of the supplier base is also a major issue on which I hope that the Minister will reflect.
In summary, it is extraordinary to see a left-wing firebrand becoming a marketisation freak who is committed to forcing a market-based ideology on to a system when there is no problem. Costs are under control and services are good. This is a solution trying to find a problem and the supplier base is being put at threat. Large firms are likely to result from the tendering process, rather than small responsive firms with specialisations. All that will have come about under the Minister’s watch. I and other Members on both sides of the House hope that she will think again, listen to the warnings from experts and this House and recognise that her reforms, far from leading to quality, will lead purely to cost constraints, although there was not a problem in the existing system.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing the debate. I am sure that his constituents are assured that he did so solely out of concern for their interests. I acknowledge and thank Members who have found the time to attend. The hon. Gentleman is right that we have the best legal aid system in the world, by many strides, but he is wrong to suggest that criminal legal aid has not increased. It has done so by 39 per cent. since 1997. That has consequently produced a 37 per cent. decrease in civil legal aid. I will come on to the impact of that on the poorest in society.
It is not correct to suggest that the Hull firms will receive less than before and the figure of £30,000 is not correct. They have achieved a clear 2 per cent. pay rise, assuming that they do the work that they are contracted to do, which they are now not choosing to do in Beverley.
I am afraid that I do not have time to give way because the hon. Gentleman ran over his allocation of time and I must respond to the points that he chose to raise, many of which were incorrect.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) intervened intending, I think, to help his colleague. He suggested that the people involved would not usually cause any difficulty. However, he missed the fact that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said that this group of people had been fiercely opposed to the introduction of the changes. They have been on strike already and it is clear that they are acting collectively now.
Before dealing with the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I shall reiterate the principles behind the Government’s programme of legal aid reforms, the thrust of which is supported by his party. On 15 March, in the Public Bill Committee that considered the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, who is in the Chamber now, said:
“We realise that there are pressures on the legal aid budget, which has increased from £1.5 billion 10 years ago to more than £2 billion, and we understand why the Government are now bringing in means-testing in magistrates courts and the fixed-fee system for many…cases. Although we have…legitimate discussions…with the Government about how that is being implemented, we accept the thrust of what they are doing.”––[Official Report, Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Public Bill Committee, 15 March 2007; c. 46.]
I mention that because the correspondence from a solicitor local to the constituency of the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, which his office has kindly shown me and which essentially gave rise to this debate, is a diatribe against the totality of the reforms that both his party and mine accept are vital if we are to serve the poorest in society.
Our reforms will serve the people who rely on legal aid. I recently opened the community legal advice centre in Gateshead in the north-east. Historically, people needing advice have got only what the legal profession has delivered. People, often with multiple problems involving such matters as welfare benefits, debt, housing and family, have had to work out exactly what type of advice they need and then go to the right supplier, who might be able to give them help with one problem, but not all of them. The more people are referred on to supplier after supplier, the less likely they are to go—they get referral fatigue. Anyway, research makes it clear that specialists do not refer people on for the right advice if they do not have the necessary expertise in their firm, even if they see a person’s need.
Community legal advice centres such as that in Gateshead will be well publicised. They will invite people with problems to come through the door and ensure that they are connected to all the advice that they need. People will need simply to come through the door and ask. Such investment, which can make a huge contribution to preventing chaotic lives from declining into the social exclusion that untackled problems can cause, will follow from getting a grip on spiralling criminal legal aid expenditure. We will also ensure that the structure of criminal legal aid supports improvements to our criminal justice system by using it to drive efficiencies, such as controlling the money spent on paying for lawyers’ travel and waiting time.
I come now to the concerns that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness raised about the introduction this April of the new standard fee system for magistrates courts. Magistrates courts have worked on the basis of standard fees for years. The change is to average out the payment for lawyers’ time spent on local travel and waiting, to put it into the standard fee and to remove merely one third of it—not all of it, as the hon. Gentleman suggested—so that people are encouraged to operate more efficiently. Criminal defence practitioners who have business premises in Hull and have historically carried out work in Goole, Beverley and the other places to which the hon. Gentleman referred have received a 2 per cent. pay increase under the new fee system. The letter of diatribe to the hon. Gentleman did not mention the pay increase.
All eight solicitors’ firms in Hull have decided not to go to work in Beverley any more and have resigned from the duty rota there. That is their privilege. The 2 per cent. increase applies if the solicitors travel to do work in those outlying areas, as they have done in the past. If they do not travel there, they will be working in Hull. Their offices are in the city centre, within easy walking distance of the magistrates court, and they will thus get a far bigger increase in fees by profiting from being paid for the time spent travelling—that payment is rolled up in the fixed fee—although they are not travelling. That means that they are getting two thirds of the pay for travelling to and waiting at both Hull and Beverley, but they are not going to Beverley—they are walking only to the Hull court.
A 2 per cent. increase in what the solicitors were earning for covering all the courts seems a very strange reason for deciding to withdraw from Beverley. I find it very surprising that all eight of the Hull suppliers have simultaneously found it commercially attractive to withdraw from Beverley. I am told, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness reiterated, that that represents 20 per cent. of their business, so they must have sound commercial principles in mind. They have said that if we pay them again—on top of the travel element of the fixed fee—to go to Beverley, they will be prepared to do so. By the way, they get their mileage costs in addition.
I find it even more surprising that the letter from a solicitor local to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency asserts that the decision taken by the solicitors had something to do with access to justice. I wonder how many people at the court centres no longer served by the lawyers would like to be helped by a representative whom they know, but will now have to be represented by a new firm, although no doubt that new firm will give them good service. I am very pleased that local suppliers outside Hull have taken a different approach: they are prepared to help people in trouble at those courts. I am also pleased that the courts continue to operate effectively with proper representation from solicitors who are local to the area.
The hon. Gentleman cited the HMCS director in an out-of-date memo. The director e-mailed the hon. Gentleman’s parliamentary assistant yesterday to indicate that he was satisfied that the system was now working well and that e-mail was copied to me.
No, the hon. Gentleman overran his time. I will answer his point.
It is right that the public defender service had to be deployed for a while to ensure that no disruption to access to justice was caused by what was frankly a boycott. However, although its personnel remain available and we are immensely grateful to the dedicated team of public servants, they are not needed at present in Beverley, which is served by good-quality local solicitors’ firms.
It is pretty obviously not a point of order. Mr. Bradley, the gentleman who was referred to, e-mailed the hon. Gentleman’s assistant, Tim, yesterday and pronounced himself satisfied with the system that we have managed to put in place. That e-mail was copied to me. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not making a very good point.
Over the past two years, there has been a fundamental examination of the way in which the Legal Services Commission delivers legal aid. We have carefully considered the full range of independent research that has been published—not only the publications that the Government and the LSC commissioned—and that research has informed and launched our programme of reforms and will continue to shape it.
I do not seek to hide from the fact that the extension of fixed and graduated fee systems will require legal aid practitioners to change how they work. Many legal aid practitioners, largely in bigger cities, are already successfully moving from remuneration based on time spent to remuneration based on effective services delivered to clients. That will allow the Government to have greater control over spending and will encourage suppliers to improve their efficiency ahead of best value tendering. Such tendering, which will be introduced from October 2008, will enable the LSC to purchase legal aid services on the basis of quality and price.
The key to the new procurement system is balancing quality and access for clients, value for money for the taxpayer, and fair remuneration for providers. I strongly believe that efficient, flexible and innovative suppliers will benefit from, and flourish under, the reforms. It is part and parcel of the acceptance by the hon. Gentleman’s party of the thrust of the reforms that it thinks that as well.
Our proposals for legal aid are part of a wider reform agenda across the entire justice system. The coming months and years will see the implementation of the reforms that we have set out to the immense benefit of the public. The reforms will bring improvements to the justice system for not only the people it serves, but the professionals working in it who are willing and able to cope sensibly with change.
Deafened Service Veterans
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of war veterans who suffer from noise-induced hearing loss as a direct result of their service. I say that not least as someone who has lifelong experience of hearing impairment among close friends and family members and who has some hearing impairment himself, although I was lucky enough to get a pension before the cut-off, which I shall talk about.
It is more than eight years since the situation was last discussed in Parliament, but it has continued, with many thousands of veterans feeling that their sacrifice has gone unrecognised. Members of the House have consistently expressed concern about the way in which many ex-servicemen and women who have suffered substantial hearing loss as a result of their service are being denied recognition. In the 2005-06 parliamentary Session, 123 Members signed early-day motion 306, adding to the call for changes to the way in which the Government treat veterans with noise-induced hearing loss.
Veterans with noise-induced sensorineural hearing loss have several grievances in respect of the war pensions scheme. There are concerns about the scale used, which links 20 per cent. disablement to a 50 dB hearing loss, which many consider too high. There are also concerns about the requirement that veterans have reached that level of loss when they leave service, which means that the possible long-term effects of exposure to noise are not taken into account.
In the time that we have, however, I want us to focus not on those two issues, but on the fact that veterans with noise-induced hearing loss are unique in being ineligible for a lump-sum gratuity. Before 1993, veterans with more than 20 per cent. disablement received a pension, while those with less than 20 per cent. disablement received a lump-sum gratuity. A veteran with 50 per cent. noise-induced hearing loss would get a pension, while one with, say, 40 to 50 per cent. hearing loss would get a gratuity. After 1993, veterans continued to receive a lump-sum gratuity for every condition except noise-induced sensorineural hearing loss. That is because, in 1992, the then Government decided to introduce a 20 per cent. cut-off, below which an award would not be made for noise-induced sensorineural hearing loss.
In the last debate on this issue, in 1999, the then Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), said that the 20 per cent. cut-off was introduced as
“part of a package that included extra cash for war pensioners.”—[Official Report, 3 March 1999; Vol. 326, c. 1044.]
That is fine, but while some war pensioners benefited, the introduction of the cut-off meant that many thousands of veterans with noise-induced sensorineural hearing loss as a result of service were, uniquely, excluded from any compensation or recognition.
The basis of the decision to introduce a 20 per cent. cut-off was revealed in an answer to the Select Committee on Social Security in 1999. There was a peak of claims in the early 1990s, when ex-service organisations were quite properly alerting people to the war pensions scheme, and research conducted by officials at the war pensions directorate revealed that claims
“were in the main coming from the geographical areas of the country which were sites of heavy industry at the time. They seemed particularly to be involving people at or about retirement age who, in a large part but not, of course, exclusively, had done two years’ National Service and then spent quite a long time in industry.”
One of the main reasons for the cut-off, therefore, was a deliberate attempt to ensure that what has been described as a low degree of hearing loss fell below the compensation threshold—that is, to exclude those who were judged to be less deserving of a lump-sum gratuity.
Let us look at the effect of the 20 per cent. cut-off on deafened veterans by taking a typical example. In 1999, Mr. Roper received a letter from the War Pensions Agency informing him that he had 6 to 14 per cent. noise-induced hearing loss attributable to service, but that he could not be paid for it because the assessment was less than 20 per cent. Thousands of veterans have received such letters since 1993. However, had Mr. Roper instead suffered damage to his sight, for example, he would have received a lump-sum gratuity in recognition of his condition. Currently, the compensation for 6 to 14 per cent. sight loss is slightly more than £4,750.
In other words, veterans are told first that they have a hearing loss attributable to service, but then that it is not significant enough to merit compensation. That is incredibly insulting to those who struggle daily with the effects of hearing loss. It is not surprising that Royal National Institute for Deaf People, along with the British Legion and other veterans organisations, has received many letters from veterans complaining about the unfair cut-off.
Unfortunately, there is still a pronounced tendency in our society to underestimate the effects of hearing loss. Compared with other disabilities, an inability to hear is commonly regarded by others as a minor complaint. It can be a source of humour and teasing. There may be an insinuation that the person is stupid or incapable, or perhaps difficult or grumpy. As a result, the barriers that people who are deaf or hard of hearing face are frequently dismissed as insignificant. However, as anyone with a hearing impairment knows, loss of hearing can be incredibly frustrating.
That misunderstanding of hearing loss continues to inform Government policy, and deaf and hard of hearing people continue to have the effects of their disability underestimated. In the last debate about veterans with noise-induced hearing loss, the then Under-Secretary of State for Social Security described 50 dB hearing loss as
“the point at which a person starts to have trouble following conversation in a noisy environment.”—[Official Report, 3 March 1999; Vol. 326, c. 1044.]
As the vast majority of audiologists know, that is not so. A person with 50 dB hearing loss is likely to have considerable difficulty following a conversation in ideal listening conditions, let alone in noise. Although the Under-Secretary’s comments might have been made in error, they are nevertheless typical of the way in which hearing loss is misunderstood and dismissed as insignificant. The treatment of deafened veterans by the War Pensions Scheme seems to be based on such a flawed understanding.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The handling of this issue is an insult to people who have served in the armed forces, and that includes not only those who served their country under national service, as the hon. Gentleman did, but regulars. I came through the Army in the ’70s and ’80s, and no ear defenders were available to us. Indeed, when we went on active service or on live-firing ranges, they were the last thing in the world that we would have been given, because those in charge were worried about command and control. The insult to veterans will get worse and worse. If the Minister does not listen today, how will we take the issue forward?
Indeed, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. He shares my experience entirely and I hope that I will continue to have his support.
The RNID has conducted research showing the effects of noise-induced hearing loss on veterans’ lives. Such people have great difficulty following conversation in normal social settings. Many have been involved in local community work for many years, but they have had to give it up because of their hearing loss. Some also speak of the effects of their hearing loss on their relationship with their partner, while others say that they have difficulty hearing their grandchildren, which is a source of great distress. That is what hearing loss means in practice: the local community, the family and the veteran’s mental well-being are at stake.
Of course, people acquire hearing loss as a result of the ageing process, and it is not unfair to ask whether they would have become deaf or hard of hearing anyway. We cannot compensate people for hearing loss that is not attributable to their service, but a 50 dB hearing loss is a greater level of deafness than most people ever experience through ageing alone. Given that the majority of deafened veterans who are being turned down are told that their hearing loss is attributable to service, the 20 per cent. cut-off is unjustifiable and totally unfair.
We have an obligation to all those who suffer from a condition that is attributable to service and a moral duty to give them the best possible aftercare. Servicemen and women put themselves at the service of the state daily, and they deserve to know that the sacrifices that they make for their country will not be forgotten. No veteran should be sidelined, and it is not acceptable for us to ignore veterans with noise-induced hearing loss attributable to service. A petition of 18,000 signatures circulated by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People suggests that the public strongly agree.
In comparison, other countries treat veterans with noise-induced hearing loss more sympathetically. In the Republic of Ireland the cut-off is not 50 dB but 20 dB. In the United States, Canada and South Africa it is 25 dB. Certainly we cannot feel proud of the way in which we treat veterans with noise-induced hearing loss in this country.
I know that the RNID has been in discussion with officials at the Ministry of Defence about the feasibility of making sure that the sacrifices made by deafened veterans are recognised. I am sure that there will be a number of difficulties. It could, for example, prove to be very complicated to make retrospective payments, however desirable that might be, to say nothing of the expense. But whatever the difficulties, they should not be a cause of inaction. There are a number of possibilities that could be considered, such as the lowering of the cut-off point to a more acceptable level.
An alternative response would be to look at the priority treatment that veterans receive. There appears to be a degree of uncertainty as to how that works in practice. Recent written answers and past guidance suggest that priority treatment relates to examination or treatment relating to pensioned disablement. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many, if not most, health service clinicians believe that veterans must have a pension to get access to priority treatment. However, it appears that priority treatment should in fact be much more widely available.
I have seen recent correspondence from the Minister giving a definition of priority treatment quite different from the current guidance. In fact, in a letter to Mark Morris of the RNID the Minister stated:
“Priority treatment applies to all disablements that have been found to be due to Service, so all war veterans who suffered noise-induced hearing loss as a result of service, irrespective of being in receipt of a war pension, are able to access priority treatment from the NHS.”
That is most welcome clarification. However, that is not how priority treatment is implemented on the ground. The confusion on the issue needs to come to an end. It is vital to issue clear guidance across the NHS as a matter of priority. It is especially important that every audiology department should fully understand and implement the correct policy on priority treatment. No one should have to wait months, let alone years, for a digital hearing aid, but if there is one group of people who, as a matter of urgency, should be fast-tracked, it is surely those who have suffered damage to their hearing because of military service.
The need for clarification about priority treatment is especially important because, as many hon. Members will know, there are pressing problems with the delivery of digital hearing aids, with average waiting lists of more than two years in parts of the country. Yet digital hearing aids, which are now available on the NHS, are a significant technological improvement, and the vast majority of older people with a hearing loss find them of great benefit. I can vouch for that myself. A suitable course of action might therefore be to inject a sum of money into the NHS from the war pensions scheme to ensure high-quality treatment for veterans with a hearing loss attributable to service. That would clearly be a token payment, but it would go some way towards recognising the situation faced by the veterans.
At present we accept that we exclude from any compensation a person who, solely as a result of their military service, no longer has the ability to enjoy a conversation in a typically noisy pub or a restaurant; or the chance to go to the cinema or theatre and actually enjoy or appreciate the performance; or even the ability to go to church and fully understand the service. All those opportunities have been taken away from thousands of men and women, solely because of their military service for this country. In compensation for such a serious reduction in the quality of life caused by their service to the country, they have received absolutely nothing. Can anyone seriously justify that and say that it is right?
In conclusion, I urge the Government to find a way to address the harsh consequences of the 20 per cent. cut-off as soon as possible and to ensure that the sacrifices made by veterans with noise-induced hearing loss attributable to service are recognised. Singling out that group of veterans in a way that deprives them of compensation is illogical, arbitrary and unfair, and has led to thousands of veterans feeling that their daily struggles are considered insignificant. Our veterans and the veterans of the future deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Miss Begg. I thank my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O’Hara), for raising this topic, and congratulate him on having, as usual, set out the issues clearly and concisely. I know that he is a solid campaigner on such issues and takes great interest in health matters generally. I congratulate him on securing the debate and appreciate the opportunity to respond to his points and to speak about the outstanding contribution of those who have served and continue to serve in the armed forces.
The Government recognise the special commitment that service personnel make and the scale of their contribution. Our veterans have played a vital role in our defence effort across the decades, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them for everything that they have done in the service of their country. As I speak, our servicemen and women are doing a fantastic job, sometimes in dangerous and difficult environments. I have met them on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their professionalism and selflessness never fail to impress. We ask a lot of our service personnel, and that is why their welfare is a priority and why we are committed to ensuring that they get the best possible support. We are determined to ensure that their commitment and the unique nature of the role of our armed forces are properly reflected in the payments that we make in compensation for injury caused by service.
It may help if I start by setting the context. We are debating sensorineural hearing loss resulting from chronic exposure to noise. For clarity, I must stress that the 50 dB compensation threshold applies only to noise-induced sensorineural hearing loss. It does not apply to other forms of hearing loss or injury, such as that caused by blast; different provision is made for compensating such injury. Under the war pensions scheme, injury due to blast is compensated down to 30 decibels hearing loss and in the armed forces compensation scheme a separate tariff item is included for blast injury. The civilian equivalent of noise-induced hearing loss is industrial deafness, traditionally associated with employment in noisy working environments such as shipyards and mines. The risks of prolonged exposure to noise have long been recognised and guarded against.
The Ministry of Defence takes very seriously its responsibilities in ensuring the health and safety of our service personnel. Hearing loss caused by chronic exposure to noise in service is increasingly an historical phenomenon; since the mid-1960s, precautions and equipment have been used to protect the hearing of service personnel from noise relating to service, including that arising in combat. I can confirm that the Noise at Work Regulations 1989 apply throughout all parts of the MOD as far as is reasonably practical. That is subject to the general agreement between the MOD and the Health and Safety Executive on observance and audit of health and safety legislation in the MOD. Hearing protection is always provided—indeed, it is made very clear to all personnel that it is an essential part of their equipment, which must be used at all times when noise exposure reaches the level at which protection may be needed. I must stress, however, that we are not complacent about that very important issue. Our policy is kept under review at all times.
The present approach to compensating noise-induced sensorineural hearing loss under the war pensions scheme was introduced in January 1993, as my hon. Friend said. Following the change, compensation was awarded for such hearing loss only if it was 50 dB or more in both ears, averaged over the frequencies of 1, 2 and 3 kHz. In most cases that meant that a lump sum gratuity was no longer paid. That brought the approach in war pensions into line with that in the civilian industrial injuries scheme, in which occupational deafness had never been recognised where hearing loss was below that threshold.
The introduction of the compensation threshold for noise-induced hearing loss was not an isolated change, but part of a package of amendments that focused benefits on the more severely disabled. In particular, rank differentials were removed for the scale of war disablement pensions and rates were increased. As a result, pensions were increased by up to £5 a week above inflation. Increases were focused on the more severely disabled, with the most severely disabled other ranks gaining most. The increase benefited all those receiving a pension at the time and, indeed, all those who have claimed since.
The threshold has been confirmed in recent years by several reviews carried out by independent audiological experts, and it is common to the war pensions scheme, the armed forces compensation scheme and the equivalent civilian industrial injuries disablement scheme. A 2002 report on occupational deafness by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council confirmed that the compensation threshold of a 50 dB average over 1, 2 and 3 kHz remained appropriate. The IIAC is a non-governmental body that advises the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the industrial injuries scheme.
Our medical policy advisers keep the scientific and medical literature about noise-induced sensorineural hearing loss under regular scrutiny and correspond with experts around the world who are working on the topic of noise-induced deafness. To date, we are not aware of any new scientific evidence that would require a change in our approach to assessment, but we are always open to new evidence of an appropriate standard on any aspect of pensions and compensation.
The threshold has been carried forward into the new armed forces compensation scheme, which applies to injuries and illnesses caused by service on or after 6 April 2005. It, too, focuses awards on the more severely disabled, and bilateral hearing loss of less than 50 dB is not compensated. Compensation for hearing loss due to service is based on the degree of loss at service termination, because it is accepted scientifically that any hearing loss arising after that date will not be caused by exposure to noise in service. The reason for that approach is that a war disablement pension may be paid only for disablement that is due to service; it cannot be paid for hearing loss that is due to other causes—for example, ageing. It is only the causal link with service that justifies the generous provisions of the scheme, so to remove it to make compensation available for disablement that is due not to service but to other factors such as age would undermine that basic principle.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the different approach in other countries to the level of the threshold for compensation, and I should like to make two points about that. First, there is wide variation in the hearing ability of normal people. Secondly, there is no consensus among schemes on the appropriate compensation threshold. Most schemes have a low threshold offset for other causes of hearing loss, including age—in other words, they make a deduction from the overall level of hearing loss present at point of measurement to take account of loss caused by other factors.
The war pensions scheme does not offset, because of the difficulty of accurately making such adjustments in any particular case. Instead, we accept and assess all hearing loss present at the point at which the individual is removed from any possible service noise injury—that is, at service termination. Our assessments may therefore contain a significant proportion of loss due to other causes, including ageing up to the point of discharge.
My hon. Friend clearly recognised that there would be an issue of cost were we to make any sort of change to the threshold and, in effect, restore the payment of gratuities for noise-induced hearing loss of less than 50 dB. The reintroduction of the payment of gratuities for hearing loss of less than 50 dB would come at high cost. The cost would require us to consider making balancing changes, for example, by reviewing the 1993 package.
My hon. Friend points to an alternative route: ensuring that ex-servicepeople who have hearing loss caused by service receive priority access to up-to-date hearing aids. Hon. Members may know that priority treatment refers to the long-standing arrangement whereby war pensioners are entitled to priority from the health services for treatment of injury or illness caused by service, subject only to overriding clinical priority, as decided by the clinician in charge.
I am happy to confirm that priority treatment applies to all disablements that have been found to be due to service, irrespective of whether they result in a pension. For clarity, three groups are eligible for priority treatment from the health services for a service-related condition: those who receive a continuing war pension; those who receive a one-off gratuity; and those whose condition has been found to be caused by service, but has not attracted an award
My hon. Friend raised the issue of funding such arrangements, so it may help if I were to explain that payments were once made under the war pension scheme for privately supplied hearing aids for people with hearing loss due to service. Following changes to health service policy and practice in the 1990s, payment from war pensions was no longer appropriate and such payments ceased. At the same time, funds relating to hearing aids were transferred from war pensions to the health service.
I reassure my hon. Friend that officials are in continuing discussions with the UK health departments regarding the awareness of priority treatment among health professionals. I have also met the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), to discuss priority treatment. A lot of work is clearly being done on this issue. Later this year, the health departments will distribute reminders to the chief executives of trusts requiring them to ensure that general practitioners and hospital clinicians are aware of all those veterans who are eligible for priority treatment, including the group that we have been discussing.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I hope that I have been able to provide answers to some of the points that he made.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Two o’clock.