Tuesday 11 March 2008
[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Disabled People (Poverty)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]
It is a pleasure, Mr. Chope, to introduce a debate on disability poverty with you in the Chair. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who has ministerial responsibility for disabled people, will respond to the debate.
As we all know, there have been significant reductions in poverty in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. For example, there are 600,000 fewer children in poverty. Child poverty doubled during the previous two decades, when the country acquired one of the worst records of child poverty among the major European nations. I do not doubt for a moment the Government’s commitment to reducing poverty, any more than I doubt their commitment to improving the life chances of disabled people. However, much more needs to be done—very much more. That is particularly so, given the Government’s targets to reduce child poverty and fuel poverty, both of which suggest not only that much more needs to be done but that it needs to be done more quickly.
The immediate reason for seeking a debate on this issue was not another pre-emptive Budget bid—a rather late one—but the fact that in January Leonard Cheshire Disability produced a report entitled “Disability Poverty in the UK”. I strongly recommend that report to those who may not have had the chance to read it. I shall begin with three observations made in that report. First, official statistics show that three in 10 disabled people—or 3 million people—live in poverty. Secondly, disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Thirdly, official figures seriously underestimate the extent of poverty among disabled people and their families. Why is that? Most obviously, it is because the data do not take account of the additional financial costs of disability.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. It is a privilege to be in the same Chamber as him, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), and my hon. Friend the Minister. Over the past 10 years, they have been three of the best campaigners on the subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) has acknowledged, the excellent Leonard Cheshire report points out that disability poverty is not only about financial poverty but about poverty of opportunity and aspiration.
A constituent e-mailed me yesterday evening. He said that
“it can be forgotten that a person with a disability has ambitions just like everyone else”.
He was told that he was setting his sights too high at school by wanting to study at university. The e-mail continued:
“The unfortunate fact is though, that this just underlines the bigotry that is very real and very present in our society. It certainly does a great deal of damage to self-confidence.”
Such important issues are more difficult to tackle, but they are pervasive.
I agree very much with my hon. Friend. They are real and pervasive issues.
One problem arises from the fact that, in order to fulfil their aspirations, disabled people often have to do things that others do not have to do. They may have to employ personal assistants, they may have to rely on personal care and home adaptations, and they may incur costs for the additional heating necessary to keep their homes warm. That package of things, which many disabled people have to take on board in addition to their impairment, can affect their aspirations. Given that they also have to face the prejudice that is sadly still prevalent in many parts of society, their aspirations can be deeply frustrated.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the important question highlighted in the Leonard Cheshire report—the extent to which poverty is deepened by the extra costs that disabled people face—will he come on to deal with the case to be made for a more objective and empirically sourced basis for the excellent disability living allowance? Important thought it is, the DLA does not meet the costs of disability facing most disabled people.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He has made an enormous contribution in this field, and I shall come to that point later. First, however, may I make a general comment?
There are serious methodological issues in estimating the extra costs of disability. Leonard Cheshire Disability has made a good effort to come up with a modest estimate of those extra costs; it suggests something like an extra 25 per cent. above the costs of living of a non-disabled person, but I believe that that is on the conservative side. Other organisations, such the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, have over the years engaged in similar exercises and come up with higher figures. However, my right hon. Friend is right to say that the problem needs to be addressed.
If we take the modest estimate of the extra costs of disability proposed in the excellent Leonard Cheshire report, the number of disabled people living in poverty would increase from three in 10 to six. It is therefore important that we should recognise the significant extra costs of disability. We know from our constituency case work—and, no doubt, from family and friends—about the circumstances in which people on low incomes have to live, and I know of the strong feelings on the matter, both in the country and in the House. Early-day motion 637—a cross-party motion that I tabled with other Members in January—was a response to the Leonard Cheshire Disability report. It not only noted the publication of that report, but it expressed the view that the extent of disability poverty in the UK is unacceptable, and it called on the Government to give the need to tackle disability poverty a higher priority. The motion has attracted 218 signatures, and it is the seventh most heavily supported in the current Session.
I believe that those who are most deserving of praise in society are not the hugely rich, however important their contributions might be. The most deserving are those who live in poverty, who live on low incomes and who seek to do the best for their families and to make a contribution. Those whom we should praise, those whom we should support and those with whom we parliamentarians should engage most are disabled people and their families and carers, who live on incomes that Members of Parliament would find intolerable.
Although I have congratulated Leonard Cheshire Disability on its report, I wish to make a further point before moving on to other key issues. I do not seek to diminish the strength of the Leonard Cheshire report in saying that a number of the lines of argument deployed by the charity have been deployed by other organisations and individuals. Indeed, that strengthens the argument.
I have already referred to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, but many arguments made in the Leonard Cheshire report echo those made, for example, by the former Disability Rights Commission, RADAR, “Disability Now”—the monthly magazine published by Scope, which last year published a range of articles on the circumstances of disabled people living in poverty—the Disability Alliance, which is specifically concerned with the income problems of disabled people, the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, which is currently lobbying Members of Parliament, and the Prime Minister’s strategy unit.
In his introduction to the strategy unit’s report, “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”, published in January 2005, the then Prime Minister said:
“Disabled people remain more likely to live in poverty, to have fewer educational qualifications, to be out of work and experience prejudice and abuse. They still routinely find themselves experiencing poorer services.”
The hon. Gentleman mentioned work, which is one of the key routes out of poverty, towards self-esteem and a better quality of life, and towards avoiding social exclusion. Does he look back, as I do, with nostalgia at the 1980s when we had the wonderful sheltered work scheme? In Poole in Dorset, I employed a number of disabled people and people with learning difficulties, and they added an enormous amount to my company. They brought more than they took from my company, and that enabled them to build their quality of life and to escape a little bit from poverty with a wage packet. Does he think that the Government should look at that scheme as a way forward?
The issue of sheltered employment as opposed to mainstream employment, which has been the focus of the debate about the future of Remploy, is a very important one. Disabled people ought to have the opportunities that suit them best. I must say that I support Remploy’s strategy to expand the number of places that they support in mainstream employment. That is precisely the reason why disability organisations, too, support the Remploy programme. In addition, one can create more jobs in mainstream employment than one can for the same expenditure in sheltered employment. The strategy of moving in that direction, which Remploy has pursued for a number of years, is right. I believe that many of the criticisms of Remploy’s recent plans are fundamentally misdirected.
Before responding to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), I was listing relevant organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) is in the Chamber, and last week, the Work and Pensions Committee, which he chairs, published an excellent report entitled, “The best start in life? Alleviating deprivation, improving social mobility, and eradicating child poverty”. Many of the arguments that Leonard Cheshire used in its report are echoed in that Select Committee report, although no doubt my hon. Friend can speak for himself later if I have maligned him.
The problem is not that the basic facts are disputed, nor that the Government are not doing anything—they are doing a lot. The problem is that we are not doing enough. I made the point earlier that tackling disability poverty is desirable in its own right, but at the same time we need to recognise that it is absolutely necessary if other Government targets are to be met—the targets on child poverty and fuel poverty are the two obvious ones. Of the 2.8 million children living in poverty in this country, about 1 million are affected by disability. They are either disabled children, or their parents or carers are disabled. That has enormous significance for a strategy to tackle child poverty, because unless disability poverty is tackled more vigorously, we will miss our targets on child poverty.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. Does he agree that another area of higher cost is the cost of child care for disabled children? That is a serious impediment, given the supply and the cost of such care, for parents who are trying to find work.
I agree with the hon. Lady. The cost of child care for disabled children is an issue that, for example, the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, to which I have referred, stresses, among other matters. Child care is not only an additional cost; it is very often the most significant additional cost. When one contemplates such a scenario, the estimated 25 per cent. extra costs for a disabled family, as compared with those for a non-disabled family, seem, I repeat, a very modest assumption. In many circumstances, the additional costs for a disabled family are significantly higher.
The same is true when it comes to targets for reducing fuel poverty, particularly at a time when fuel prices are rising. As with child poverty, it is very difficult to believe that the Government’s fuel poverty targets can be met without specific measures to help disabled people and their families. What is to be done? We all know that, broadly speaking, the most effective measures to tackle poverty fall under two broad headings: on the one hand, labour market policies; and on the other hand, policies in relation to the tax and benefit system. I have always argued, as the Government have, that improving the opportunities to work is undeniably the best route out of poverty for those who are able to work. That is why full employment matters; that is why a national minimum wage matters; that is why the new deal for disabled people matters, and why Pathways to Work matters. All those initiatives are important. Undeniably, for those who can work, work is the best route out of poverty. Today, however, one in three of working age disabled adults and their families still live in poverty, because 50 per cent. of them are not in jobs and for those who are not in employment, the levels of social security benefits are simply too low.
There has been significant progress on the jobs front. Fifty per cent. of working-age disabled people are in work, which is 10 per cent. more disabled people in work than was the case 10 years ago. There is therefore no doubt that measures of the kind to which I have referred have helped to provide more employment opportunities for disabled people, but neither is there any no doubt that more effort in that area is absolutely necessary.
It is difficult to know exactly why 10 per cent. more disabled people are in work now than, say, 10 years ago. Clearly, there are 2.7 million more jobs in the economy; there have also been special measures to support disabled people in getting into work. Legislation has been introduced to outlaw discrimination in the labour market, and I believe that employers’ attitudes are changing. It is difficult to identify which of those factors has been the most important. My guess is that the rapid growth in the number of jobs overall and the specific labour market policies that have been introduced to enhance opportunities for disabled people have probably had the most impact. Thankfully, it is not much debated any more that more needs to be done to improve employment opportunities for disabled people.
However, there are still enormous problems. For example, the percentage of people of working age with a mental health condition who are in work is not 50 per cent. but 20 per cent. Similarly, the percentage of people with learning difficulties who are in work is not 50 per cent. but 25 per cent. Again, employment for people in these groups has increased, but not hugely, and they are still way behind most citizens in terms of their employment prospects and opportunities. So I strongly support the measures that are being taken—measures that should be taken—to provide more specialist and individual support for people in these circumstances.
We could debate some of the relevant programmes and the organisation of those programmes, but I do not want to do that. I think that we have got those programmes and their organisation about right, or we are getting them about right. In a sense, I am asking for more of the same there. However, the point that I would make about labour market policies is that we should not be stingy with the money. I realise that it is too late for a pre-Budget bid and some people have heard me say this before, so I hope that they will forgive me, but sometimes one repeats things because they are so obviously true.
For example, the access to work programme is referred to in the Leonard Cheshire Disability report and many of us have referred to it over the years. The Leonard Cheshire Disability report, like many other reports, calls for the Government to do more to increase awareness of the access to work programme and to increase its funding. I would not say that the access to work programme is one of the most closely guarded secrets in Whitehall, because I do not believe that people in Whitehall are deliberately not trying to promote it. However, it is astonishing that 75 per cent. of employers have never heard of the programme. It costs £64 million a year, which is more than four times as much as was being spent 10 years ago, for which the Government deserve credit, but that is about £8 a year for each disabled person of working age. It is not a lot of money.
More important, however, is what the Department for Work and Pensions gets back when it spends £1 million on access to work. I have it in writing that if the Department spends £1 million on enabling people to return to work or take up employment through the access to work programme, the Treasury will gain £1.7 million. Why? Because those people will no longer rely on the same benefits and will pay tax on their income. The Government therefore spend £1 million to get £1.7 million—it is investing to save, a no-brainer. If the Chancellor is short of a few bob tomorrow, I suggest that he puts a load of money into access to work.
There is, however, a more general point, because, in fairness, I have picked only a tiny part of the Government’s package. To their credit, the Government have said that they will take 1 million people off incapacity benefit and that that will save the Treasury £7 billion. That is obviously quite a good idea, given that supporting people to get into employment means that they pay more tax and receive less benefit. Can we not perhaps ensure that we have joined-up government and that the benefits to the Treasury of active employment programmes are recycled to enable more people to get into work? I am sure that that is what the Government have in mind and that they will be nothing other than generous in funding employment programmes, but it is always good to make the obvious point.
Much more attention should be devoted to those disabled people who are not expected to work. In recent years, there has been enormous activity on the jobs front, and the Government deserve credit for that. Although I can see their strategy for helping people out of poverty through work, I have more difficulty working out precisely what the strategy is for tackling poverty among disabled people who are not expected to work. The benefits system is critical to the quality of life of those disabled people who are not in work and it determines whether they languish in poverty.
Many disabled people who are out of work find themselves and their families in poverty for two reasons. First, many do not claim the benefits to which they are entitled, and that is particularly true of families with disabled children. Secondly, disability benefits are, to put it mildly, not generous or adequate. Much more needs to be done to promote the take-up of DLA among disabled adults and parents of disabled children, and I hope that the Minister will mention that.
As we all know from our experience, our casework and the statistics, the inadequacy of benefits is such that many people are forced to live in great poverty. For example, someone who loses their job as a result of an impairment will experience a dramatic, life-changing loss of income. Similarly, most people do not have a good insurance policy that says, “If you lose your job because of an impairment, do not worry—you are part of a system that will ensure that your income is maintained.” As a result, most people who lose their job because they acquire an impairment at work face a shattering loss of income. As Members of Parliament, we all know of people in such circumstances who have got into debt, lost their home and ended up in an appalling situation. I do not want to be misunderstood; we must, of course, do more to enable those who acquire an impairment at work to stay in employment—that is the first thing. However, we must also recognise that the social security system is the only thing that keeps many people out of poverty, and it is currently failing to do that.
I have another question for the Minister. We are moving into a new system, with employment support allowances and so on, and I hope that the Government will make sure that the higher rate of employment support allowance is enough to ensure that those who are not expected to work do not live in poverty. That is an important issue, which needs to be addressed, and I ask the Minister to comment on it.
Along with other right hon. and hon. Members, I have discussed the additional costs of disability. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) specifically asked whether existing benefits were adequate to take into account those additional costs, and I do not believe that they are. Perhaps more significantly, however, the recent report by the Work And Pensions Committee makes it clear that they are not adequate. In conclusion 24, for example, the Committee unanimously said:
“We are very concerned by evidence that 1 in 5 families with disabled children have had to cut back on food. In and out of work benefits must be set at a level to cover the extra costs of living with disability and ensure a decent standard of living.”
In conclusion 25, it said:
“We believe that Disability Living Allowance must be reviewed to ensure it more closely reflects the additional cost of disability.”
I very much hope that the Government will take the Committee’s comments on board, because most people would agree with them.
We are all aware of the arguments that have been used, for example, on extending the higher-rate mobility component of DLA to some blind people. There is also the issue of allowing people over 65 to claim DLA, rather than the less valuable attendance allowance. I have always found it distinctly odd that someone can claim DLA at the age of 64 and quite a few months, but that they cannot do so when they hit 65, even though they may have exactly the same mobility needs on their 65th birthday as they did the day before. There are real issues about reforming the benefits system, and DLA is one important issue that needs to be addressed. I therefore very much welcome the Committee’s report.
One of the additional costs of disability, which I have already mentioned, is heating. Many disabled people face higher-than-average fuel bills because they are likely to be at home more and their impairment may require them to maintain a consistent temperature in their home. I do not believe that the existing rates of DLA cover that, even though we are often advised that they do. I am not the only person who does not believe that claim, and nor are the disability organisations the only organisations that do not believe it. The Work and Pensions Committee does not believe it, and in conclusion 27 of its report, it says—[Laughter.] I apologise if I am stealing the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North, but repetition, as I have said before, and as I am illustrating now, is always a good way to remind people of the essential points of an argument. The Committee said:
“We also recommend that the Government considers extending winter fuel payments to families with disabled children under five in receipt of Disability Living Allowance at the middle or higher rate.”
My only criticism is that the Committee has not been ambitious enough. Over the years, many of us have argued that logic and fairness would suggest that winter fuel payments should be extended to all those under 60 who receive the middle or higher-rate care component or the higher-rate mobility component of DLA. Someone who is over 60 will obviously get their winter fuel allowance, whether they need it or not, but someone who is under 60 will not. People with high mobility or care needs demonstrably have a case for saying that their heating costs will be higher. If we are to have serious winter fuel allowances, they should seriously tackle the additional costs of disability. I hope that the Government will respond positively to the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee by saying that it has not been ambitious enough and that they would like to extend it further.
I come to my final point, Mr. Chope, because I am aware that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak. I want to make a quick comment about independent living, partly because the Government published an important report last Monday, which I welcome, and partly because the social care system is failing disabled people big time. While I welcome the Government’s report about independent living and about giving disabled people the same choice, control and freedom as any other citizen, I have a caveat, which is that we are not being promised legislation—at least not yet.
My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Ashley has introduced the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill in the other place on two occasions. It has been through the other place, but I do not anticipate its getting through our House, although I will do my best. The Bill identifies a number of areas in which legislation is needed. I hope that the Government will look at the matter again. As Members of Parliament, we all know that needs are not being met. We know countless constituents who are not getting the support that they need from the local authorities. We also know that the system is bureaucratic and wasteful. People have to fill out so many forms. They have to fill out forms for the benefit system. They face more paperwork if they need home adaptation and they have to have another assessment for personal care. If they have an assessment in one local authority area, they cannot carry that assessment to the area next door. Assessments are not portable.
The other day, I was talking to a disabled guy who lives in Lambeth, but wants to work in Southwark. I happen to live in Southwark, so I celebrate Southwark. None the less, the man wanted to move from one local authority to another. His perception was, “Goodness gracious me—he put it a bit firmer than that—if I go from Lambeth to Southwark, I will have to have my care needs reassessed. It will take time. I may not get the same package that I currently have in Lambeth. I do not know whether it will be better or worse.” It is absurd that care packages are not portable.
As a former local councillor I can see merits in localism, but there are some areas in life in which localism is a fundamental problem. Saying to disabled people that they have to have a care assessment in their own local authority can make them feel imprisoned in their own immediate area. They feel unable to seek work elsewhere for fear of getting a less advantageous assessment, and unable to go to another local authority to live nearer friends and family. I genuinely believe that the inconsistencies in local authority provision and the lack of portable packages are a severe impediment to the freedom and choice that we all say disabled people should have. That is an area in which legislation may be necessary. There is a range of possible issues here, including the balance between national support and funding and arrangements for disabled people and local support. It is a mess at the moment. The problem is not easy to disentangle, but we need to move much more towards a national system that will make independent living a reality and that will give people the choice and dignity that they deserve.
In summary, to tackle poverty among disabled people we have to continue to do substantially more to increase opportunities for education, training and employment. We have to provide more generous in-work and out-of-work benefits. We need to simplify the benefits system, promote higher take-up and make rapid progress. I readily acknowledge the Government’s significant achievements in tackling many of the unacceptable disadvantages facing disabled people. However, the strategy for tackling disability poverty, particularly in relation to the substantial number of people who are not expected to work because they cannot work, is still one that needs to be addressed properly. Only then will disabled people have the same choice, control and freedom as other citizens.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope, and also to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who introduced the debate with an excellent and well informed speech. He and I have shared many a platform, been in many a debate, and supported many a Bill. We welcome my hon. Friend the Minister and acknowledge the role that she has played in many of the achievements in this area. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, much more remains to be done. I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak so I shall try to summarise the main points that I want to make.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood dealt with the issues of poverty, which afflicts disabled people and their families. He quoted from the excellent report by Leonard Cheshire. I want to address most of my remarks to the evidence of poverty among disabled children and their families. I worry, as my hon. Friend does, about the poverty of opportunity. Although income and the right level of benefits are important factors, we must look at what is happening to public expenditure and seek to ensure that there is a desire to influence the quality of life of disabled children and their families in so far as we can do so. I welcome what he said about fuel poverty. I took part in a debate on that issue a few weeks ago and I initiated one in the Chamber last January.
In the review that I chaired last year on disabled children and their families, we made a specific recommendation that the allowance should be extended to disabled children and their families. Like my hon. Friend, I think that we would have gone further and addressed disabled adults, but that was not part of our remit.
When I was talking about poverty of aspiration in our debate in Westminster Hall on 16 January, I mentioned briefly the case study of a young lad called Stephen in my own constituency. Although he had received much assistance from North Lanarkshire council, his quality of life would have been better if the policy on short breaks, which involves resources from public expenditure, had been extended in a better way to suit him. I am very pleased that since that time, he has been given respite care in a place that suits his individual needs.
I thank North Lanarkshire council and my local newspaper, The Kirkintilloch Herald—that paper tends to give move coverage to such debates than, for example, the BBC in Scotland—for helping Stephen to ensure that he gets suitable short breaks. It is all about the quality of life. We all know the demands and would love to have more time to go into them. However, I want to move beyond that. My hon. Friend the Minister will know what is coming, as will the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett). During the all-party review of support for disabled and their families, the Government response was very welcome. They allocated an additional £340 million to England and specific amounts, based on the Barnett formula, to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—£34 million to the latter. Again, I am appalled that we simply do not know where the Scottish Executive have put that money, which was made available by the Treasury on the basis of evidence presented and following an excellent response by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills.
None of us should be taken in by the red herrings about ring-fencing and the rest. That money was expected to be spent not simply on local government services—important though they are—but on the NHS in Scotland and, specifically, on disabled children and their families. Unless we have accountability, transparency and a clear indication of where that money has gone, some of us will return to the issue again and again.
I know that others are keen to speak in this important debate, so I shall simply summarise the issues that I think remain to be addressed, important though the progress is that we have made. It is right that we consider the poverty and, in particular, the quality of life of disabled children and their families. When considering public expenditure in the health service, transport, employment opportunities, the arts and creative industries, and the rest, we should set our sights much higher and focus on the millions of disabled children in Britain, including those whose needs we have addressed. In that spirit, and with an eye on tomorrow’s Budget—I know that the hour might be late—we encourage the Chancellor to consider how, in fiscal terms, he can influence the quality of life of disabled people, including by looking at energy companies, who have not done too badly in recent years, and asking them to make a contribution.
This has been a very worthwhile debate and I look forward to hearing the comments of my colleagues and the Minister. Again, I thank very warmly my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, who has done so much in the fight for the rights of disabled people. I am sure that he will continue to do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) on securing this debate. Nobody in Parliament doubts his commitment over many years to the issues before us. I am delighted to see the Minister in the Chamber; she has often heard me say that she is the finest Minister for disabled people that we have ever had. In repeating those comments, I hope that one day she will reward my niceness to her.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has left the Chamber, not least because he is a friend of mine, partly because he is from Keighley, which makes him a pure bred Yorkshireman—that is always good in my book. He talked about the 1980s, my memory of which is of continual recession, massive de-industrialisation and people, with and without disabilities, losing jobs in their hundreds of thousands—we touched 3 million unemployed twice. We also saw the return of the spectre of the 1930s and marches for jobs, but those marches were about white, able-bodied men getting jobs, not black and minority ethnic communities, disabled people or women. Nevertheless, it was terrifying to see that spectre return, because nobody thought that we would ever see it again.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned that 50 per cent. of disabled people are in work, but that is a false figure. The more disabled a person is, the less likely they are to be in work. There are some horrific examples of blatant discrimination, particularly against people with mental illnesses, which I shall come on to later. I want to concentrate on work for those with disabilities, because I think that it is a basic, crucial civil right. Disabled people have the same civil right to work as anybody else, but there are too many barriers in the system and too much discrimination in society. In particular, there are too many barriers in the benefits system preventing people from accessing benefits. We need to do something about that. Particularly for families with disabled children, child care is crucial. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) referred to last year’s package, which was extremely welcome, but for families, particularly with the most severely disabled children, the cost of child care is astronomical.
The child care tax credit, which is 80 per cent. of £175 a week, is a very welcome initiative, although the take-up has been very poor. However, £175 goes nowhere in providing child care for a disabled child. The Work and Pensions Committee report gave the example of a 60 per cent. premium on the going child care rate, if the child is disabled. We heard evidence of some institutions charging five times as much for child care for a disabled child as for an able-bodied child. Those institutions are clearly saying, “We don’t want these children, so we will price them out.” That is wrong and those institutions need to be taken to task over it.
The Select Committee’s report on incapacity benefits a couple of years ago touched on parents of disabled children going to work, and considered Pathways to Work and various other things. We reported—and this was striking—that it is seldom the disability itself that prevents an individual from going to work, but other factors, around the home or whatever. A key factor for parents with a disabled child is that that child is more likely than other children to need regular doctors or hospital appointments, requiring the parent to take time off work. The Government have been good on family-friendly policies, but they involve the right to request leave, not automatic entitlements.
Scarier is the fact that a disabled child is 16 times more likely than an able-bodied child to be excluded from school. If a parent is at work and receives a phone call at quarter-past 10 saying, “We are going to exclude your child”, they go to the school. That does not have to happen very often before an employer, understandably or not, thinks, “Hang on a minute, what’s going on here? Something needs to be done about this.” We need to take another look at the state education system to find out why those children are 16 times more likely to be excluded.
I want to touch on two things on which I think the Government have been particularly good in assisting disabled people back into work. I am really pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) here, because I think that he changed the dynamics in that system during his time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We should pay tribute to him. The first thing was that we changed the linking rules, which meant that someone could take a job and that, within two years, they could return to the benefit that they were on before, if it did not work out. That provides security for people with disabilities so that they can see whether employment works out for them.
The second thing that the Government did was to get rid of therapeutic earnings, which were an insult to disabled people, and brought in permitted work rules, which are more flexible. However, if we are going to have permitted work, we should have one rule, not four separate regimes—a point that I have raised before. It is insulting, too, to say that, under permitted work, the maximum that can be worked is 16 hours at minimum wage, which pays about £6 an hour. If those who have been on incapacity benefit for two, five, 10 or 15 years manage to find a job, I would tell them, “You go and do that job. Come back in three or six months and tell us how it is working out. Keep your benefit and whatever wages you get. Test it out and see if it works for you.” If they manage to break that gap of many years, we must be much more flexible in how we operate the benefits system to allow such people to get back to work. There is no loss to the Treasury in doing so. There is the fantastic statistic that someone on incapacity benefit for two years is more likely to retire or die than go back to work. If people are making the effort, we should encourage them and not have artificial rules that restrict what work they can do and how much they can earn.
Returning to the issue of discrimination, we have the much improved Disability Discrimination Act 2005. We had the Disability Rights Commission and we now have the Equal Opportunities Commission. However, it is more than 30 years since we passed the Race Relations Act 1976 and, frankly, we have not abolished race discrimination. We have had the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 for about the same period and we have not abolished sex discrimination. The one advantage of disability discrimination—if I may be forgiven for putting it that way—is that sex and race discrimination are generally malicious, whereas disability discrimination is generally down to ignorance. There is therefore a better opportunity to work through that problem.
A couple of years ago, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development carried out a survey in which 70 per cent. of companies said that they would not even interview somebody who disclosed a history of mental illness. That survey was released to all media outlets, but not one of them covered it. If the survey said that 70 per cent. of companies would not interview a black person, it would have been on the front page of every newspaper; it would have been the lead story on the BBC “Nine O’clock News” and so on. If 70 per cent. of companies said that they would not interview a woman, there would have been similar press coverage. Because the survey said that companies would not interview somebody who had had a mental illness, it was buried and did not go anywhere. That is a measure of how far society still has to go on this issue.
I find it appalling that Rethink, an organisation well known to everybody in the Chamber, led a consortium that submitted to the lottery fund a bid that received £17 million to work on educating employers, as it should not have been necessary to do so. The Government should have done a lot more to educate and train employers, and to punish those who do not alter their attitudes. It is tragic that it is left to mental health charities to make a bid to the lottery fund to do what the state should be doing in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned access to work, which is a well chewed-over bone. It is the Government’s best kept secret and the way in which it operates needs to be examined. These days, given that we are increasingly engaging with the private and third sectors on the delivery of services, the access to work budget should be devolved to the providers of job placement services. A formula can easily be worked out that would not be dissimilar to how the social fund is distributed to district offices. A sum could be retained centrally to deal with crises.
If we are serious about the new approach to getting people back to work, the providers need a range of tools at their fingertips. They do not want to have to wait for three to six weeks for a response from a Department somewhere else. They would have to be put on trust because abuse must always be guarded against, but we must be much more imaginative about how we administer and use the access to work budget.
Finally, I shall make just a couple of points, because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. It is important that we set the support allowance at a level that recognises that these individuals will never work again. That would send a real signal about Government commitment. I do not want to be particularly damning about colleagues in the Treasury, but for many months, rumours have circulated that the Treasury has been saying, “Five pounds and no more.” That is an insult, and it will cause insurrection in the ranks. I do not want to issue threats, but nobody will tolerate that. I understand that the support allowances will be announced in the next few weeks. That will be seen either as a declaration of intent or as a surrender. I would much rather that the Government make it a declaration of intent.
Tomorrow, the Chancellor will make his Budget statement. We are all hopeful, and anticipate that further energies and moneys will be applied to the child poverty strategy. I hope to see particular emphasis on disabled children and poverty. The Government have a fantastic track record, but we need to keep up the momentum and take the issue forward because that community has been forgotten for far too long.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) on triggering the debate. Recently, there have been in this hall three debates on issues linked to today’s debate about disability poverty: special educational needs, disabled children and the employment of disabled adults. The good aspect about such debates is that the issue is clearly on the agenda, but the bad aspect is that so much is yet to be done.
I congratulate all previous speakers on their excellent contributions. The hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, mentioned how discrimination against the disabled is in some ways almost acceptable. For instance, it is not covered by the media with similar outrage to discrimination against black, female, gay or Muslim members of society. It is sad that while we have made progress on so many other aspects of society, so much discrimination still exists.
I will comment briefly on the Leonard Cheshire report because it includes so much good work. I do not need to go into great detail, but I recommend that anybody who has not read it from cover to cover does so because it sums up the key issues clearly and concisely.
The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) mentioned the clearly identified need for £340 million. It was identified on a UK-wide basis, and questions must be asked about where that money has been spent, or if it is going to be spent north of the border. Many Members have mentioned that the Budget statement takes place tomorrow. The Chancellor might ask why he should identify further funding if existing identified funding is not being spent. Indeed, questions must be asked in all parts of the House. I notice that no members of the Scottish National party are present to try to justify what they are doing. Once again, they are missing in action.
One of the big policy focuses in recent years has been poverty. Whether it has been the Make Poverty History campaign, or the Government’s focus on tackling child poverty, poverty has become a major focus for policy makers. However, we have yet to see sufficient focus on tackling disability poverty, which is why today’s debate is so important. With the Government having published “Independent Living Strategy” last week, now is the ideal time to re-examine disability and poverty, and whether we are doing enough to break the link between the two. In the same way that we must never accept that being born in a developing country inevitably condemns someone to a life of poverty, being born with, or developing, a disability ought not to mean that someone will live life below the poverty line. Poverty is not an inevitable consequence of disability, but looking at the statistics, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is.
Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people—about 30 per cent. compared with 16 per cent. The challenge for policy makers must be to break the link between disability and poverty. Although we have rightly adopted targeted strategies for tackling child poverty, not enough has been done to target disability poverty specifically. I hope that today’s debate represents one small step in the progress towards that goal.
Many disabled people continue to experience poverty of aspiration and opportunity due to physical barriers and numerous other barriers. However, we must be attuned to aspiration barriers in education, employment and access to services, too, because they are every bit as debilitating as any physical condition. In the debate about disability poverty, we must consider not only financial poverty but poverty of opportunity and poverty of aspiration. Disability poverty can develop as a result not only of low income but of poor-quality or inappropriate housing or lack of educational opportunities.
We are socially and morally obliged to tackle disability poverty, but there are also powerful economic imperatives for doing so. Addressing disability poverty is not only a matter of basic social justice; there is a clear economic case for it. Ending disability poverty would mean that more disabled people moved into the workplace, increasing net contributions to the Treasury through the tax system and reducing expenditure on out of work benefits. To use a broad estimate, if 1 million disabled people moved back into work, the Treasury could expect to gain up to £5 billion in income tax alone. The Chancellor would do well to listen to those figures before he addresses the House tomorrow.
As other hon. Members have mentioned, not only do disabled people tend to have smaller incomes, but many face additional costs due to their disability. The extra costs of managing an impairment vary according to circumstances, but they often include such expenses as mobility equipment, social care, treatment, child care, higher fuel bills and adaptations to the home. The Leonard Cheshire report on disability found that the average costs of those managing an impairment are about a quarter higher than the essential day-to-day costs of non-disabled people, and it is believed that that is a gross underestimate for many. Existing poverty figures and measures consistently underestimate the level of disability poverty. Researchers from the London School of Economics calculate that, if the additional costs of disability were factored in, the percentage of disabled people living below the poverty line could be as high as 61 per cent. It is essential to attempt to build some measurement of those extra costs into poverty indicators in order better to understand the true levels of disability poverty.
Disabled people are also far less likely to have significant savings and far more likely to be in debt than their non-disabled counterparts. The sheer scale of the gap between disabled and non-disabled people in terms of the likelihood of living in financial poverty means that specific action to tackle disability poverty is desperately needed. What is the Minister doing to factor the extra costs of disability into official calculations? Crucially, how will those work through to the benefit system?
Only half of disabled people are in work. I need not point out what a tragic waste of human potential that represents. Although work might not be the appropriate option for everyone, the correlation between being out of work and living in poverty is clear. Being in work can help to combat many aspects of disability poverty—not just financial poverty, but poverty of opportunity and aspiration—by providing social networks and an important boost in confidence through further training and skills, which helps individuals to play a greater part in society. It is the social as well as the more obvious economic benefits of employment that make helping disabled people find meaningful work so important.
We must banish the assumption, which has persisted for too long, that many disabled people either cannot or do not want to work. Disabled people continue to face barriers to employment, including discrimination, lack of support from employers, inaccessible public transport and inflexible social care arrangements. I am sure that the Minister will accept that, although progress has been made in those areas, it has been too slow. Even when disabled people find work, they are more likely than non-disabled people to be in low-paid, short-term jobs. We need to focus not just on employment but on suitable and sustainable employment.
For those who cannot work, we need a benefit system sufficiently sensitive to the specific barriers faced by disabled people. Too often, disabled people on benefits are the victims of the race to prove which party is toughest on so-called benefit scroungers. Those with the severest impairments face the lowest likelihood of employment, combined with the highest extra costs of disability. The welfare benefit system must support that group better. It must ensure that no one is written off and that those for whom a return to work is particularly difficult are not left to languish in poverty. No one should be abandoned to a life of poverty and benefits.
The application and appeals processes for benefit claimants can be daunting and complicated for the best of us, which leads many not to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. Those forced to leave work due to an acquired or worsening disability almost always face an accompanying drop in income. Often, partners must leave employment to become carers, leading to a further drop in income. Targeted help and assistance for that group is therefore essential. I support what has been said by previous speakers and appeal to the Chancellor to extend measures such as the winter fuel allowance in his speech tomorrow.
Transport is a significant obstacle faced by disabled people. To access services and engage fully with society, accessible transport is key. Poverty of opportunity and social exclusion are inextricably linked with inaccessible public transport. An accessible and integrated transport network is essential to tackling disability poverty, as it would facilitate improvements in the disabled people employment rate as well as their community engagement and quality of life.
The Government have acknowledged the scale of many of the challenges discussed today in their strategy document “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People” and the subsequent strategy published last week. Although I welcome much of what was included, I would be extremely interested to hear whether the Minister believes that the Government’s ambitions can be translated into practical change on the ground for those who need it. The links between disability and poverty are maintained by continuing barriers in society—both physical barriers to accessibility and the barriers formed by negative attitudes and a lack of understanding about what disabled people can achieve.
The Government should make tackling disability poverty one of their key priorities. Doing so will require first a commitment to understand and monitor disability poverty and its causes and then the strategic development of social policy initiatives to eradicate it. Ending disability poverty is not just a way to drive down poverty throughout the UK and improve the nation’s economic health. It is also an absolute necessity of social justice.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) on securing this debate. I know from our frequent meetings at the all-party group on disability and from his record over many years that he is an acknowledged expert on the matter. I listened to his words with great care and, not for the first time, found myself agreeing with much of what he said, although—I say this for the benefit of the shadow Chancellor—not with any of the proposals that would increase expenditure. I do not want to get myself into dreadful trouble, as I am sure the Minister would if she pre-empted the Chancellor’s Budget speech tomorrow.
I join the hon. Member for Kingswood in mentioning early-day motion 637. The number of Members from all parties who have signed it increases daily. As he said, it is the seventh best supported early-day motion, which shows the interest in the matter across all parties. Our friends in the media would be wise to recognise that the issue is of great interest among parliamentarians. When they report debates such as this and the proceedings of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on the subject, as well as when they write stories involving discrimination against disabled people such as those mentioned earlier, they might consider whether they cover them to the extent to that they would if they were reporting issues affecting others.
I should like to draw attention to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) about child poverty. It is perfectly true, as he says, that the Government have made some progress, although it is worth pointing out that they are likely to miss their child poverty targets for 2010. It is also worth saying that the latest figures published, those for 2005-06, showed that what progress they have made has gone into reverse and an extra 200,000 children now live in poverty. Does the Minister think that the Government will hit their 2010 child poverty targets? It would be useful to get that on the record.
As the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said, it is true that there has been some progress in getting people with disabilities into the workplace, although not as much as the Government or indeed any of us would wish. In looking at the statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics on working-age people with work-limiting disabilities, I am afraid that I could not go back to 1997. The data do not go back that far, although I know that Government Members like starting with the year zero. In 1999, 46.2 per cent. of long-term disabled people were in employment; by 2007, that percentage had increased to 50.5 per cent. That is a welcome improvement, but, as other hon. Members have said, it is not as big an improvement as one would hope.
The hon. Member for Kingswood is absolutely right that the best route out of poverty for disabled people who can work is to get into work. He made some interesting comments that flow nicely into some points that I want to make about the welfare reform proposals that my party has published, on which we are consulting. He made an important point about using the savings that are gained from not paying incapacity benefit and other out-of-work benefits to disabled people whom we get back into work. Those savings, and the tax and national insurance contributions that they pay, can be used to fund the help and support that are required to get disabled people back into work. He drew attention to the current Treasury rules, which make it difficult, if not impossible, to invest those savings in getting such people back into work.
I am pleased to put it on the record that my hon. Friends in the shadow Treasury team agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that we propose to use private and voluntary providers that will get paid only on results, when they get people into work for sustained periods. We would use those savings to fund programmes. Only in that way can we address the issue of all the people on out-of-work benefits, including those who have been on such benefits for some considerable time. If we do not make that change, we must limit our ambitions to the people who newly enter such benefit programmes. I am pleased that we have been able to do that, and I would like nothing more than if the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Budget statement tomorrow—
I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman was more assiduous. There is already an agreement between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury for just such an arrangement: a proportion of the savings made on incapacity benefit through the new Pathways To Work programmes will return to the DWP to finance further programmes. That has already been done.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I know that that is done in a limited way, but it does not enable the Government to focus their employment and support allowances on all of those who are on out-of-work benefits. I think that the hon. Gentleman gave the statistic that if one is on incapacity benefit for more than two years, one is more likely to die or retire than to come off it. A significant number of people are on incapacity benefit. More people are on incapacity benefit now and have been on it or its predecessor benefits for more than five years than in 1997. A significant number of people under 35 are on incapacity benefit. It cannot be right to allow them to spend their entire lives on out-of-work benefits without trying to extend programmes to everyone on out-of-work benefits and to get them all back into work if they are able to work. As has been said, that is the best route out of poverty.
The right hon. Member for Oxford, East made another wise point, which was followed up by other hon. Members, about the extra costs that disabled people have to bear, and whether they are properly reflected in the disability living allowance. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point. On what basis are those figures calculated? Some transparency would be helpful, because at least then we could engage in a proper debate. In its excellent report, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members, Leonard Cheshire has had a good stab at doing that work and has come up with an estimate. Other organisations have done similar work, and it would be good if the Government were to undertake an official version of such work, which could be built into the calculation of such benefits and allowances, to give those disabled people a level playing field on which to compete with everyone else in the workplace.
The hon. Member for Kingswood talked about the access to work programme. I know that the Minister agrees that it is one of the Government’s best-kept secrets, because I have heard her say so before. I know what she means, and I agree that it is an excellent programme, but I have found from both empirical and anecdotal research that a significant number of employers, particularly smaller employers, have never heard of it. In debates such as this, we should all take the opportunity to reiterate that the programme exists and how good it is. That is why I am talking about it even though other hon. Members have already done so. More employers should be aware of the programme and should take it up where necessary to enable more disabled people to get back into work. It is easier than employers might envisage.
I shall make only a few more points, because I want the Minister to have time to answer the many points that the hon. Member for Kingswood made. First, the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) again made the point about Scotland that I have heard him make several times. If he wants a UK-wide approach to disability poverty, he should remember that his party devolved such matters to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, which is controlled by the Scottish National party. The place to have these arguments is, therefore, in that Parliament and not in this place.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to my comments, because I had a feeling that he was not going to say a word on them. I think that the charming Annabel Goldie will be hanging on his every word. She and I would like to know whether he believes that, given devolution, which we accept as a reality, transparency and accountability should apply to resources that are made available specifically for disabled children and their families.
Absolutely; I am a great believer in transparency, and I have no problem with the right hon. Gentleman pressing for the SNP Government to be open about where they spend such money. Unfortunately, however, even if he disagrees with the priorities of that Administration, we in this place can no longer influence them, because those matters have been devolved. I am sure that he will continue raising this issue. His campaigning work and his arguments about disabled children are well made and are often supported by the Conservatives.
In closing, I thank the hon. Member for Kingswood again for securing this debate, which has given us an excellent opportunity to make several points on the record. Finally, as the hon. Member for Bradford, North mentioned the Minister’s fine qualities, it is worth mentioning, by way of balance, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who was an excellent Minister for disabled people. Indeed, he put the first Disability Discrimination Act on the statute book in 1995. On that note, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
Let me say at the outset that I am not going to compete with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I have congratulated him on the Floor of the House on challenging a significant majority of his own party on the Disability Discrimination Act. I pay tribute to my colleagues, including those present—my hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke)—for campaigning to encourage the then Conservative Government to put that Act on the statute book.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Chope, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood on securing the debate. He has shown significant commitment to this issue over many years. I also thank other hon. Members for their contributions. I am particularly pleased to note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, was present at the debate earlier. It is significant that, although he is no longer the Secretary of State, he continues to take a great interest in the subject and attends debates such as this one.
I shall try to answer as many of the questions that have been raised as possible, but let me get one thing out of the way and then I will be able to settle down a bit. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned this Government’s child poverty targets. I just want to say, colleagues, that I welcome his interest in child poverty, but we have a target for which we are being held to account, and we welcome the fact that we are held to account for it. His party does not have a target. It once had an ambition to eradicate child poverty, but demoted it to an aspiration, and now we are not even sure whether it has that.
No, I will not. I am not quite sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s party has even an aspiration. He said that he had heard me say certain things. I have certainly heard his colleagues challenged on that issue on the Floor of the House.[Official Report, 19 March 2008, Vol. 473, c. 8MC.]
The other issue is, of course, long-term incapacity benefit. There were fewer people on the benefit in 1997 than there are now because it was introduced in 1992, and even the most basic mathematics indicates that it would be nigh on impossible only four and a bit years after a benefit is introduced to have a significant number of people on it long term. We should start to be a little more mature when we bandy figures about.
I am delighted that this debate is being held today, because yesterday the Secretary of State and I met with John Knight, the head of policy for Leonard Cheshire Disability, to consider some of the issues in the organisation’s report. I know that my hon. Friends and, I would hope, hon. Members across the House, accept that we have made considerable progress in tackling poverty. Indeed, hon. Members alluded to that this morning.
However, we also recognise that there is difficulty in reaching a consensus on how some of the issues are assessed, and on how we calculate the level of disability poverty. We cannot reach consensus, although we continue to do work to try to get to the bottom of how we assess the real level of poverty.
Regardless of the methodology used, we accept that there is significant poverty among disabled people. According to our material deprivation measures, before housing costs, some 22 per cent. of individuals living in households affected by disability are at risk of income poverty, compared with 16 per cent. if no one in the household is disabled. We should not worry about the figures, but we should recognise that major issues must be addressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood and one or two other colleagues raised some specific issues. In the short time that is available to me, I shall try to pick up on those issues rather than give a set response to their contributions. My hon. Friend asked about disability living allowance take-up, particularly among disabled children. Again, I hope that colleagues recognise that it is difficult to assess the level of take-up, because DLA is an individually assessed benefit. Both DLA and attendance allowance are always difficult to calculate. However, we are working with the Policy Studies Institute on a feasibility study to explore the suitability of options for estimating take-up so that we can get to a position where we can understand what the take-up issues are.
Our disability and carers service is working with “Every Disabled Child Matters” to promote take-up of DLA among children and, more generally, to determine how the service can be more responsive to their needs. It is tackling some of the issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill raised in the Select Committee. We are looking at how to pick up on some of those issues.
I am not sure that I ever did say that the access to work programme was a secret. If I did say that, I would suggest that it was because I am sometimes disappointed that, as my right hon. Friend highlighted, we do not get publicity on access to work and how it promotes employment for disabled people. My right hon. Friend is dead right, as we say north of the border, on this one: the programme is successful and popular, and it generates net flow-backs to the Exchequer. There is no dispute about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North, who is the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, was right in saying that there were some issues with access to work. I hope that he agrees that there have been some significant changes in how we operate—the turnaround times are certainly better now than they have ever been. I listened to his radical approaches, not just on access to work but on other aspects of the benefit system, and I shall consider them over the next period or so.
On the extra costs of disability, again, it is difficult to get to a concept or methodology that is generally accepted. However, I put it on the record this morning that we welcome the Leonard Cheshire Disability report as a major contribution to the debate.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North highlighted the importance of child care in encouraging disabled adults and parents in a family to move into employment. He may be aware that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is seeking to improve the lives of disabled children with its “Aiming High for Disabled Children” implementation strategy. A key part of the additional investment will be improved access to child care for disabled children. His comments were spot on: we cannot tell parents of disabled children that we want them to move into work if they have major difficulties in accessing child care, and that is why we have welcomed the report.
I am not sure which hon. Member raised the matter of disabled children getting fair access to education. I believe we all agree that poverty comes in many guises. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said that there was sometimes a poverty of ambition. We all recognise that sometimes the seeds of poverty of ambition are sown when children are young, and that we need to ensure that our education system lifts their ambitions and aspirations. Indeed, since September 2002, schools and local authorities have been under a duty not to treat disabled pupils or students less favourably than those who are not disabled.
In the brief time that is left to me, I want to ensure that the message of this debate is not lost. One of the important ways out of poverty for disabled people is through work, and I welcomed the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood on ensuring that the operation of our benefit system and our support for people who want to move into employment is adjusted—as a matter of fact, one could say “revolutionised”. We now have Jobcentre Plus and Pathways To Work, and partnerships are in place that are far more sensitive to the needs of the individual and of disabled people.
I am sorry that the past eight minutes or so have involved such a quick tour of some of the things that have been raised in the debate, but I shall write to hon. Members if I have missed anything important. I want to put it on the record that, yes, we have a lot more to do, and there are all sorts of things that we could do differently and better, but this Government certainly do not suffer from a poverty of ambition to improve the lives of disabled people over the next years. That is why “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People” and the independent living strategy have been published. That is why we will, in fact, achieve what we set out to achieve. It is only by working with organisations such as Leonard Cheshire Disability and my colleagues in this Chamber that we will achieve that.
Transport Infrastructure (Yorkshire and Humberside)
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr. Chope, with you in the Chair. However, there is a common error in the title of the debate, because it should be about Yorkshire and Humber. Humberside ceased to exist some 12 years ago and it is little lamented, not least in east Yorkshire.
I am delighted to have secured this debate and to have the opportunity to speak about an issue of great importance to my constituents and to the wider community of people across the Yorkshire and Humber region. It is a pleasure to stand opposite the Minister, with whom I debated in Westminster Hall when there was a rather unpalatable situation with community hospitals. However—thanks, doubtless, to the Minister and her colleagues—there were subtle changes in the Government position. I hope that today’s debate can similarly engender subtle changes in their position to the betterment of transport in Yorkshire.
In June 2006, I introduced a debate on the A1079 corridor between Hull and York. I argued that that road is dangerous, congested and cannot support a powerful, dynamic growth area. I could have expanded my arguments to include other roads, bus routes and train journeys affecting the whole region that are no longer fit for purpose and risk holding the county of Yorkshire back from the future growth, prosperity and success.
I shall discuss first the contribution that Yorkshire and Humber have made to the country’s economic development, especially over the past 10 to 15 years, then focus on the economic and social transformation that will be at risk unless improvements are made to the region’s transport infrastructure. I will then focus on what the region’s Members of Parliament, together with groups such as Yorkshire Forward and the Yorkshire and Humber regional assembly want to see from the Government in funding and support. I will also consider two specific issues: the A1079 road and the proposed reopening of the Beverley to York railway line. I am happy to give way to hon. Members from other parts of the region.
The basic position is that Yorkshire and Humber has, over the past five years or more, been at the bottom of the table of funding on transport. The Minister will tell us about the increases in transport spending overall and I do not deny that there have been increases. However, I am here to ask the Minister what the rationale is for Yorkshire receiving less per head than any other region in the country. I shall lay out the various areas where our transport infrastructure has been found wanting. Almost every part of the community recognises that that is so, and they have data to back it up. That brings into question any argument that says that giving the least spending to Yorkshire makes any sense.
Yorkshire and Humber is performing strongly. With a population of 5 million, the county ranks alongside Ireland, Greece, Norway and Singapore in population. Some 279,000 businesses contribute to an economy worth in excess of £80 billion. Growth in Yorkshire’s gross domestic product has been above the United Kingdom average for the past six years, and above the European Union average for the past four. Manufacturing is predicted to grow by more than 12 per cent. over the next 10 years, and five of the world’s top 10 companies have a base in the region.
In the East Riding of Yorkshire, where my constituency is located, business investment has grown significantly, and more people are moving to the area than ever before. The city of Hull has a successful port that caters for more than 1 million passengers a year and can handle up to 80 million tonnes of freight annually. Some £72 million has been spent on Hull’s infrastructure since 1990, and it supports a work force of many thousands.
The region as a whole is ideally located in the centre of the country. It supports two of the country’s three busiest motorways—the M1 and the M62—and the east coast main line, now under the National Express franchise, runs up to 800 trains a day, including 200,000 tonnes of freight. Hull Trains, which runs up to seven services a day between Hull and London, is a regional success story. It was established in 2000 with just three services a day.
In Halifax we are campaigning for a direct line from Halifax to London. Perhaps in highlighting the benefits of the direct line from Hull to London, the hon. Gentleman might say how important such lines are for the social and economic benefit of towns such as Hull and Halifax.
I agree with the hon. Lady. The direct line has had a positive impact on Hull, and I am sure that similar services could do so for Halifax. The Hull Trains service has received many accolades, including the prestigious Guardian/Observer/Guardian Unlimited travel award for the best train company. I hope that one day a Halifax train company will vie with Hull Trains for that award.
Yorkshire’s strong economic performance has been achieved in spite of, rather than because of, regional transport infrastructure. Let me read the concluding remarks from a recent report by new Labour’s pet think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, which looked into the state of transport links in the north of England in general:
“The North lags behind in some key dimensions: the northern regions receive less public funding for transport per head than other regions and their roads are in worse overall condition than anywhere else in England…high levels of traffic congestion and declining bus use mean that substantial investment in transport infrastructure and reform to transport governance will be required to deliver world-class transport services in the North of the future."
I do not always agree with IPPR reports, but this time it hit the nail on the head. Hon. Members will be aware of the problems facing their local areas. Overall, road traffic usage in the region has increased by 20 per cent. in the past 10 years and, according to the regional assembly, journey times are expected to increase by 30 per cent. by 2012. According to the RAC Foundation, the A1/M1 between south Yorkshire and Leeds, and the M62 in west Yorkshire are both likely to be gridlocked by 2041.
On the railways, the region has seen a 50 per cent. increase in rail passenger numbers since 1996. Again, according to the IPPR, the main rail links in the north of England, particularly those between Manchester and Hull, and Leeds and Sheffield, are no longer “fit for purpose”. The east coast main line, although it is performing strongly, is now at capacity, and there are no specific funding commitments for that line for the period between 2009 and 2014. The situation is so bad that, when surveyed by Yorkshire and Humber chambers of commerce in November 2007, 60 per cent. of businesses said that they were losing income because of the region’s transport infrastructure—up 21 per cent. in just one year—and only 14 per cent. felt that the transport system in the region met their needs, compared with 17 per cent. nationally. The Hull and Humber chamber of commerce said in a recent briefing that
“businesses believe that poor transport infrastructure is holding the region back and making it harder for them to compete with other UK regions and internationally.”
In east Yorkshire, the cities of Hull and York—two of the big five urban areas in the region—are let down by appallingly bad transport links. There is no direct rail link for passengers, who must go instead via Brough and Selby—an absurd route, which probably adds 45 minutes to each individual journey.
The A1079 is used by an estimated 15,000 vehicles a day. However, just 4.5 km of that road is dual carriageway, with the remaining 39.5 km being single carriageway. It is one of the most congested roads in the region: the journey times even from Beverley to Hull are creeping towards 45 minutes during peak times. It is one of the most dangerous roads, not just in Yorkshire but in the country as a whole. Since 2002, 25 people have been killed in traffic accidents, and 1,037 have been injured, which averages out at more than 200 year. This problem affects the whole region. According to figures released by the Department of Transport, 21,009 road accidents were recorded in Yorkshire and Humber between March 2006 and March 2007. A vast number of people have been hurt. Overall, only the Metropolitan police recorded a higher number of road casualties during a 12-month period, at 21,781.
These grim accident statistics are hardly surprising when we consider that almost one third of Britain’s most dangerous roads are in Yorkshire and Humber. According to a recent assessment report by the European Road Assessment Programme—EuroRAP—of the 17 sections of road that present a persistent medium to high risk to users, six are situated in the Yorkshire region. The most dangerous road in Britain is the 15-mile stretch of the A682 between junction 13 of the M65 and Long Preston. Also on the list is the A62 between Diggle and Huddersfield, the A644 between Dewsbury and junction 25 of the M62, and the A1079—specifically the stretch between Hull and Market Weighton.
I hope that the Minister will not suggest that there is some special situation in Yorkshire, or that there is a benign state that means it does not need the investment required in other areas; there is no case to be made along those lines. The East Riding of Yorkshire council deserves to be congratulated on taking steps to reduce the number of accidents on the A1079. Two years ago, it installed up to half a dozen speed cameras, which appear to have had an impact. Some 154 people sustained injuries on the road in 2006, which is down from 255 in 2003, but accidents continue to happen. Earlier this month, two men were treated in hospital for serious multiple injuries following a car crash at Wilberfoss near Pocklington. The men had to be freed by firefighters using hydraulic rescue equipment before being taken by RAF helicopter to York hospital. A few weeks before, a man died following a collision with another car near the village of Shiptonthorpe.
Put simply, the A1079 is in urgent need of improvement. The East Riding of Yorkshire council has clearly stated that fact. In 2006, it claimed that the road was operating
“near to its theoretical capacity for a single carriageway of its width and characteristics.”
The main problem for the road is the number of heavy goods vehicles that use it every day—up to 10 per cent. of the total number of vehicles on the road. That is not ideal, particularly because most of the road is single carriageway.
After much local campaigning, the council agreed to undertake a feasibility study for a bid to improve the A1079, which was considered by the council at a cabinet meeting in December. However, the decision on whether to conduct a study was pushed back until the summer, because there is limited money available, and the A1079 is behind two other major development projects in priority. Such projects are worth while. For example, improvements to the A164, which runs between Beverley and the Humber bridge, will make access to that strategic hub much easier, and the Beverley and Bridlington integrated transport plans will make traffic and congestion more bearable for local residents.
If Yorkshire did not receive such a poor share of the transport budget compared with other Government regions, many more improvements could be undertaken, including to the A1079. The same could also be said for the Beverley to York rail link, which was closed in 1965 as part of the Beeching cuts and has never been reopened. Public pressure for the line to be restored led to the appointment of a consultancy group to conduct a feasibility study by the East Riding of Yorkshire council. The group concluded that up to 622,000 journeys a year could be made on the line, provided that two trains an hour were operated, with journeys extended to and from Leeds. As ever, the sticking point was the estimated cost, which was projected to be up to £239 million, with a cost-benefit ratio of between 1.26 and 2.04 over 60 years. Although there is a positive cost-benefit ratio, the chances of the line seeing the light of day in the next 10 to 15 years are slim.
As I have said, the crux of the issue and the main reason for initiating this debate, is to ask why Yorkshire receives less money than any other region. As hon. Members will know, when Department for Transport funding is distributed, our region sits at the bottom of the pile, although this year, it has crawled up slightly from the very bottom. In 2001-02, Yorkshire and Humber received just £140 per head in transport funding, which compares with £323 for London and £171 on average in England. As a percentage of the English total, our figure was 81.9 per cent. of the average. In 2006-07, funding for Yorkshire and Humber increased to £215 per head. However, in London the figure was £614, and in England overall it was £305. For some reason, over the past six or seven years, our figure has dropped to 70.5 per cent. of the English total. Again, the people of Yorkshire and Humber want to know the rationale behind that cut in relative spending.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is important to acknowledge the work that the Minister and the Department have done to reimburse local authorities for the damage caused by the flooding last summer. Sheffield has just received more than £9 million—£10 million in total—to repair the damage done to local roads by the floods. We should at least acknowledge what has been done while making the case for what has not been done.
The hon. Lady is correct; where things have been done right, that should be acknowledged. On the floods, the Audit Commission considered the financing of local government in relation to floods and emergencies, and described the situation as incoherent, overlapping and very poor—that is not an exact quote, but I think it was the conclusion that was reached. To put those figures in context, the insurance companies have spent in excess of £3 billion, on which they are forced to pay VAT. The Exchequer has therefore received hundreds of millions of pounds as a direct result of the flooding. The sums it has put back do not adequately compensate councils, such the East Riding of Yorkshire, for the damage that has been sustained, not least to the highways. The sum will emerge over the next couple of years, but we should put it in context. I completely agree with the hon. Lady; justice should be done and recognition should be given where it is deserved.
Nobody is saying that the region should have parity with London, which is a major international city and finance centre with specific needs, but what is the justification for Yorkshire doing so badly compared with other regions? A number of recent reports have set out in detail the economic rewards that the region would gain if more money were invested in transport infrastructure. A report from the think-tank Centre for Cities suggests that if the necessary investment was made in its public transport infrastructure and a park-and-ride scheme, the local economy in and around Leeds would benefit to the tune of £68 million a year. The report concluded that improvements to the trans-Pennine rail link and to the M1 and M62 would benefit the cities of Manchester and Leeds to the tune of £225 million a year. The Northern Way report, “North-South Connections”, published in August 2007, states that investment in north-south and east-west rail links would benefit the economy by up to £10 billion. The Institute for Public Policy Research states in its report that
“two of the northern regions—the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber—appear to lose out significantly from the current distribution of public investment in transport: the Department for Transport should review its future funding allocations to make sure that these regions get a fair share of funding”—
whatever that funding is. That goes to the heart of what hon. Members from all parties and I want to say to the Government today: we accept that increased investment has been made, but we would like an explanation of the rationale involved and a fair share of the investment made nationally, according to a criteria that we, as Members of Parliament, can understand.
I would also like to raise the issue of the Humber bridge and its tolls. The Minister will know that the original quote for building the Humber bridge—we all know why it was built at the time of a by-election in 1966—was £28 million. As a result of Government procurement and management—or mismanagement—that figure trebled while the bridge was being built. Over the years, in the hands of Governments of all parties, the debt has been left to sit on Government books, although I pay credit to the Government for writing down some of that debt in the Treasury’s books. The debt in public accounts is now £300 million more than the original quote of £28 million to build the bridge, as it is £333 million. It is my constituents and the constituents of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) who are paying for that, as they pay the highest toll in the country to cross the bridge. The tolls also have an economic impact on the region. I would like to inform the Minister, if she does not already know, that the local authorities will produce a report later this year that will consider the economic impact of the Humber bridge tolls. I hope that I have readied her for receipt of the report later in the year. Removing the tolls could have a positive economic impact.
I have come to the end of my remarks within the 20 minute margin. The Minister has influenced community hospital policy to the betterment of my constituents, so I hope that she can influence Government and that, particularly as the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber, she can concentrate on representing Yorkshire in government rather than the other way round. I trust that, with her talents and arts of persuasion, she will be able to do precisely that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) not only on securing this important debate, but on the excellent panoramic view that he has given of transport issues in the region. I shall try not to reiterate the bevy of statistics that we have all come to the debate suitably armed with. It is not my intention to be too parochial or to play beggar-my-neighbour in the debate, but all of us will put our constituencies forward as perfect examples of the transport challenges that the hon. Gentleman described. Key roads in my constituency are often choked with traffic. Rail is affected by overcrowding, and buses have been hit by the effects of deregulation, higher car ownership and usage, and congestion.
Normally, my eyes glaze over when I see a document that contains the word “strategy”. I like to wait for the action plan that follows it if there is one, but an exception is the 25-year Leeds city region transport vision and investment plan—that is a mouthful—because it is a cogent and coherent document. I can extrapolate from that strategy, contrary to other strategies, what the benefits advocated by it would be for my constituency and constituents, as well as for the rest of the Leeds city region. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the document, because we exchanged views on it in a fairly recent Adjournment debate that I secured on transport issues affecting my constituency. It is an excellent analysis of the needs and, I submit, a modest document in terms of the finances that would be required to realise the proposals.
Rail plays a crucial role in my constituency. We have taken some years to recover from the effects of privatisation. I am thinking of the time when the first franchisee—MTL—got rid of 80 drivers, with all the concomitant unreliability and cancellations of services. In addition, a huge proportion of the extra investment that the Government have allocated to rail has gone into maintenance and safety issues in the wake of the Hatfield disaster, which has deflected that investment away from the more visible and tangible aspects of rail provision—that is, extra rolling stock.
Northern Rail data show significant overcrowding problems affecting most services into Leeds during peak times. The main examples are the three lines that run through my constituency: the Airedale and Wharfedale line, the Harrogate line and the Caldervale line. At peak times, each of those exceeds 135 per cent. of seating capacity, which is generally regarded as the maximum practical load. That lack of capacity and the poor quality and reliability of services, particularly into Leeds, are already discouraging trips at peak times. It is no surprise that the 25-year strategy regards improvements to those lines as key measures.
I recognise that, under the present Government, there have been improvements to all three stations in my constituency: Horsforth, Guiseley and New Pudsey. We have seen new 333 class rolling stock on the Airedale and Wharfedale line. We have seen the £150 million upgrade of Leeds City station, which has increased its efficiency and reduced the waiting times that used to typify services going into the city. Last year, a partnership of Metro—the West Yorkshire passenger transport executive—Yorkshire Forward and Northern Rail increased capacity on lines such as the Caldervale line, but unfortunately unreliability has led to a continuation of major complaints from passengers about overcrowding at peak times. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) may have comments to make about the fact that, often, trains that go through Burley station in his constituency have been filled at the previous station by my constituents, if they are fortunate enough to get on the train.
The proposal in the White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, to deploy 1,300 extra carriages and the recognition that a fair proportion of those should come into the Leeds area are welcome, but we need the carriages very soon and we need as large a proportion as possible. It certainly needs to be at the higher limits of what has been envisaged by the Department for Transport. The 25-year Leeds city region plan proposes extending the electrification measures that have been so successful on the Airedale and Wharfedale line. That example demonstrates the value of extending them across the area.
Bus deregulation has been a disaster for many communities throughout the country, not least communities in my area. Since deregulation in 1986, fares in Pudsey and west Yorkshire have gone up by more than 50 per cent. in real terms. Passenger numbers have declined by almost 40 per cent., which equates to 100 million passenger journeys. As in many areas, services are chopped and changed, missing, late or unreliable, and passengers, if they have an alternative, simply vote with their feet, or rather with their cars, with all the attendant problems that that creates: congestion, pollution and rat running and speeding through residential communities.
When we appeal to First Bus when it takes a service off the timetable because it is not profitable, we get what I call the two-fingered response, if you will excuse the gesture, Mr. Chope. The first part of the response is that the service is not profitable, and the second is, “Go away to Metro and get a subsidy.” Part of the problem with that is that, although all the figures show that the Government have been making more and more finance available to PTEs to subsidise services, we have not been getting a commensurate increase in the services provided.
All hon. Members could cite a litany of service cuts down the years in their areas. I am thinking of services such as the 97, 647 and 651 in the Guiseley and Yeadon areas. We are currently having battles over services such as the 966 in Yeadon and over cuts to the 81 and 82 services serving Pudsey and Horsforth. Some communities, such as Farfield and Hough Side in my constituency, have simply been cut off; they have ceased to exist as part of a bus route. People cannot get to key facilities such as the newly rebuilt Wharfedale hospital, which, although it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West, serves a large number of my constituents, too.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments and hope that the Local Transport Bill will offer us the regulation that we need to sort out the problem. Yesterday in The Guardian, there was a report that bus operators may try to challenge the national concessionary bus pass scheme for the over-60s, because they say that they will lose out with that. Will he join me in being critical of that move, given that the bus operators have done very well out of deregulation over the past few years and that that bus scheme is one of the best things that has been done in the past few months by the Government?
I absolutely agree. It would be a shame if bus operators seek to challenge the scheme, because there is a suspicion—I put it no more strongly than that—that they have been jacking up their standard fares to maximise their income once the nationwide concessionary fares system comes into operation. It is absolutely right to say that the deregulated system has given them a licence to print money and they make profits even when they are not providing a decent service.
We know all the environmental benefits of rail and buses. The Tyndall centre for climate change research has given us many insights into that, although I will not go into the details. The plan for the city region envisages more quality and accessibility improvements, including the holy grail of integration—integrated ticketing—better passenger information, the extension of existing guided busways, which have been so successful in certain parts of Leeds, and high-frequency bus rapid transit corridors to complement rail corridors.
I welcome the Local Transport Bill and the easing of requirements on quality contracts, but as the Minister knows, I, together with others, still have reservations about the process. I do not intend to go into those in detail now; I will share them when the Bill comes before this House.
As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness rightly indicated, most of the strategic routes in Yorkshire, certainly those in the city region, are congested at peak times, including the motorways. The A65 and the ring road in my constituency is a good example of a route on which people experience increasingly lengthy peak-time delays and congestion. The worsening congestion has led to a deterioration in the reliability of journey times. As a result, peak periods are simply growing like Topsy. Some drivers re-time their journeys to avoid the worst congestion, thereby further extending the peak period.
I do not intend to reiterate the hon. Gentleman’s points. At the end of the day, the question, as always, is how we pay for the improvements that are envisaged in the plan. As my right hon. Friend the Minister will know, the estimated cost is slightly more than £4 billion in 2006 prices, although that will increase by £500 million when the so-called optimism bias is factored in—I shall not bore hon. Members with a description of that because most of us will have come across it at some point. The good news is that the sum includes funding that is already committed for transport in the city region. Around £1.75 billion, which is 40 per cent. of the necessary funding, has already been committed, and a significant part of the remainder does not require new funding sources. Unidentified funding currently totals about £1.8 billion. The plan is explicit on the wide range of possible funding sources that could be used to make up the shortfall, which includes the transport innovation fund, train operator investment, section 106 contributions from developers, additional funding from local authorities, and the Northern Way growth fund and its successor.
There has been significant real-term increases in funding for transport in the region, which was welcome—I am pleased that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness acknowledged that in his balanced contribution. However, at the end of the day, we are asking for a much fairer share of the larger cake—I can put it no more starkly than that. I was going to go through some of the statistics that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I shall not waste time doing so because other hon. Members wish to speak. I share his analysis. The case is indisputable and the cost is modest compared with the benefits and certainly the consequences of not meeting the challenge. As I said, we need not only a fair wind from the Minister, but fair funding.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this debate—there can be no better time to discuss the matter. As he made clear, and as I am sure we all agree, transport infrastructure is vital to growth and development in any area or region. It supports economic renewal, contributes to environmental sustainability, and tackles social exclusion by linking deprived areas at risk from marginalisation to key services and the new opportunities that are created by the kind of regeneration and growth that we all want. However, investment levels in Yorkshire and the Humber on transport infrastructure are a concern—I shall speak particularly about Leeds.
My Leeds colleagues will agree that the city is in many ways a huge success story, but equally that a lack of investment in transport infrastructure is, simply put, holding back further growth and, indeed, costing us further inward investment. Yet again, in 2006-07, for the third year in a row, Yorkshire and the Humber came bottom of the Government expenditure league table—a position that we are not prepared to accept, and nor should we. More worryingly, the gap is widening dramatically compared with transport spending in London and the south-east in particular. To demonstrate that, in the five years from 2000-01, our region went from receiving just less than half the per person spend in London and the south-east to less than a third in 2005-06. That could not be more starkly shown than by a graph of the increasing gap. The Minister should address that gap by increasing the per person spend in Yorkshire and the Humber in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, the pattern at the moment shows little sign of change. In 2006-07, the spend was £215 a head in Yorkshire, compared with the £614 per head enjoyed by those in London—nearly three times as much.
As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness mentioned, the chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, Howard Reed, highlighted the matter. He said:
“Major investment in the rail network, bus services and upgrades to the North’s road network are crucial … It is imperative that the resources that are available for transport investment are allocated to where they can be most effective”.
That sentiment is strongly echoed by the Leeds chamber of commerce on behalf of the Leeds area. Ian Williams, the chamber’s executive director of policy, said:
“Funding is everything and unless we increase the level of overall transport funding, we will always be on the back foot, we will always be at a disadvantage compared to other regions”.
The chamber points out that, despite the fact that Leeds is a key driver for the economy in the region, and thus supposedly a key focus of Government policy, it actually receives only 24 per cent. of the regional transport budget. It argues, quite sensibly, that transport investment is needed in the areas where it will deliver the greatest return and that, therefore, there is surely an argument that cannot be ignored to invest further in the Leeds city region.
Of course Leeds needs more investment, but it is not the only economic centre in Yorkshire—York’s science base is also extremely important. We should not get into the business of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Rather, do we not need to fight for the region as a whole?
The hon. Gentleman is right to stick up for the wonderful city of York—I spent a very happy five years there. Of course, York is a vital hub for the region, as is Leeds. I am not talking about competing for a limited pot; indeed, the hon. Member for Pudsey said that we are trying to get a bigger slice of the cake. My point, with which the hon. Member for City of York will probably agree, is that because cities such as Leeds, Hull, York and Sheffield make such a contribution to the region’s economy, it surely makes sense to invest in them rather than pouring so much money and such a proportion of the cake into the south-east, which is already over-developed. Doing so would provide a win-win solution. However, the Department for Transport is increasingly fixated with the south-east, and it continues to ignore such a solution.
We have already heard about capacity on the railways. To add to that, there was an extraordinary revelation from the body responsible for promoting public transport—Metro is the West Yorkshire passenger transport authority—a few weeks ago. It said that it was unable to promote the benefits of peak-time train travel in the region because the trains were bursting at the seams and it simply could not accept any further capacity.
We all know that the issue goes back to the short-sighted decision to award train franchises on a no-growth basis, which still detrimentally affects us. We also know about the 60 to 90 extra carriages proposed by the Department for Transport. However, that will not be enough—Metro estimates that we will need 135 extra carriages simply to meet current demand, not including the capacity necessary for park-and-ride facilities and the like, which we will need if we are to get more people out of their cars.
To echo the hon. Member for Pudsey, around 15,500 passengers arrive at Leeds on local services in the morning, about 15 per cent. of whom do not have a seat. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the figure of 135 per cent. of capacity. The Leeds-to-Harrogate line, which runs through my constituency, is one of the worst, with 133 per cent of capacity. Actually, the busiest train on that line operates at 213 per cent. of capacity, which is exceeded only by the extraordinary 274 per cent. of capacity on trains coming into Leeds from Castleford and Knottingley.
Incidentally, I should point out that the hon. Member for Pudsey and I share Horsforth station—we have a platform each—and I can only claim half of Burley park station because the other half is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), who is also behind the campaign to get a better funding deal for the region. The Harrogate-to-York line, which is linked to my area, goes through the magnificent Bramhope tunnel, which was finished in 1849, an era in which we in this country invested in public transport. Yet today, the Government do not provide enough carriages to allow people to travel in comfort through the tunnel. How far back have we gone regarding investment in public transport? Yes, there has been investment, but the Government have spent 11 years tinkering around the edges in Yorkshire and the Humber and the situation has got worse.
I turn to the subject of congestion. Several sections of the motorways around Leeds—the M1, the M62 and the M621—are operating close to capacity. Between junctions 5 and 6 on the M621, average speeds during the peak hour are as low as 20 mph. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) may smile, but I suggest that he visits us to see the reality of the situation.
We have two of the most badly congested roads in the country—the A660, which runs like a spine through my constituency; and the A65, a section of which I share with the hon. Member for Pudsey, though he has the bulk of it. The situation is not getting any better. The Government say that they cannot find £500 million for the Leeds supertram scheme, yet they can find £16 billion for the Crossrail scheme in a city that already has an integrated and extensive public transport system.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the difficulties with Government plans is their failure to honour and deliver on previous promises? Promises made in the transport 10-year plan in 2000 were not met. In the 2002 spending review, the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, promised that
“55 strategic road schemes are now being progressed through the Targeted Programme of Improvements, and around 100 more will be added as the programme of multimodal studies moves towards completion over the next two years”.
That was a tremendous soundbite, but the Department for Transport’s annual report in 2006 stated that only 36 strategic road schemes had been completed since 2001, which is a failure.
The supertram experience has left a bitter taste. The Manchester and Nottingham extensions and the Edinburgh scheme have been given the go-ahead, despite similar costs and a significantly worse cost-benefit ratio, so it is clear when it comes to decisions on transport that it is one rule for some regions and another for Yorkshire.
We are united across the political spectrum; indeed council leaders from all parties and all the city’s MPs have made the same case, but all we hear from the Minister is that small is beautiful. I am disappointed. Unlike Ministers for Health, whose job is clearly to promote health, it seems that the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber is not meant to promote Yorkshire—she represents the Government to Yorkshire, not Yorkshire to the Government. That is extremely regrettable.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, when are we going to get a fair deal on transport in Yorkshire? Secondly, when will the Government take seriously the transport issues that are hampering regional development? Thirdly, when will we stop being bottom of the league for transport spending? We are not prepared to put up with that, and we will keep saying so until we get the fair deal that the people of Yorkshire and the Humber deserve.
I challenge two myths. The first is the myth in parts of the road transport lobby that building roads is the only answer to congestion and the second is the myth from parts of the environment lobby that investment in roads is bound to be bad for the environment. I congratulate the universities of York and Loughborough, Imperial college London and a number of transport companies for winning £4 million of Government investment to research solutions to road congestion. Among other things, the research will use military situation awareness technology; QinetiQ, the defence research company, is one of the partners to the consortium. It will seek to be able to tell drivers not only where there is a traffic jam but how to avoid it; and it will tell transport managers what the causes of congestion are and what needs to be done about them.
It is important to realise that technology has as much to contribute to reducing congestion as tarmac. Reducing congestion is important, because it leads to better safety on the roads. It also leads to less pollution. Vehicles queuing up with their engines running are going nowhere, but they have a severe environmental impact. Transport is the one sector of the economy in which carbon emissions continue to rise, and we need policies to reduce those emissions.
The view that all road transport investment is bound to increase pollution is wrong. A good example of its wrongness is the investment in York park-and-ride schemes over the years, which has hugely reduced the number of car journeys in and out of the city centre. City of York council is bidding for funding for improvements to York’s northern ring road junctions, and for additional park-and-ride facilities.
Last year, we faced a large number of manufacturing job losses; Nestlé, the chocolate manufacturer, and British Sugar both announced redundancies, following the previous year’s announcement that Terry’s of York was moving out. One reason given by the companies for cutting manufacturing in York was road congestion; they blamed it for the length of time that it took to get the raw materials into the factory and the goods out. If, as a result of manufacturing closures due to road congestion, manufacturing moves abroad—perhaps to eastern Europe, as was the case with Terry’s—the road miles used in the making of the food and the chocolate bars would be enormous. A modest investment in roads in the United Kingdom could lead to huge environmental benefits.
I seek Government support for three schemes about which City of York council and I spoke to the Minister on 4 February. The first is the council’s bid for funding for three new park-and-ride sites. The first such site to be constructed was at Askham Bar, the Leeds gateway to York, just off the A64. That is now used by 600,000 passengers a year. The site has room for 550 cars; it is normally full by 10 am, and drivers are rerouted to other sites, thereby lengthening their journey. The idea is to replace that site with one nearby with space for 1,250 cars. The second change would be to construct a new park-and-ride site where the A59 crosses the northern ring road close to Poppleton, and to change the junction to improve traffic flows on the ring road. That would provide space for 750 cars. Thirdly, there would be a 750-space park-and-ride site on Wigginton road, with additional bus priority measures from there into York.
Secondly, I would like the Government to support the Highways Agency’s bid to the regional transport board to upgrade the A64 Hopgrove roundabout, where the A64 branches off the ring road towards Scarborough. Finally, I notify the Minister that, later in the year, City of York council will be making a bid to the regional transport board for additional improvements to the outer ring road, in order to improve traffic flow. There has been much debate in York about dualling the ring road, but the bid is not for dualling but to make the existing road work better. I shall leave my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) a little time to contribute to the debate.
Thank you, Mr. Chope, for calling me to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this important debate and I am glad that he put on the record that Humberside no longer exists as an administrative area.
Other hon. Members have already mentioned this, but I would also like to say that I welcomed the Minister’s announcement yesterday of money to repair roads damaged by floods. North Lincolnshire council will receive £1.5 million from the Government to assist it in road repairs, so I thank her for that.
I want to set the scene a wee bit. Everyone today has been talking about Yorkshire and we have this little bit added on to the name of the region, called the Humber, which is actually the name of a river. The area that I represent is, in fact, in Lincolnshire, so I want to set the scene about that part of the region.
The port of Immingham is the transport hub of the area. About 64 million tonnes of cargo go through Immingham every year. Twenty per cent. of the UK’s freight begins or ends its journey on the south Humber bank. The south Humber bank is also an industrial area with many major British industries involved there. It also contains most of Britain’s oil refining capacity. We also have Grimsby docks adding to the trade that is going in and out of the area, particularly with cars being imported and exported.
That description should give hon. Members a bit of an idea of the pressure on transport infrastructure in the area. The main east-west route, linking the docks to the A1 and M1, is the M180/A180. That road has a concrete surface. As the Minister will know, roads with a concrete surface are very noisy and, with the increase in volume of heavy goods traffic on that particular road, the noise is getting worse. The Government have resurfaced part of it. However, because that resurfacing has been so successful, local people are lobbying to have the rest of the road resurfaced. I recently met the Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport to discuss the issue, so I would appreciate an update on the timetable for the rest of the resurfacing.
Leading from the A180 to the port of Immingham is the A160 road, linking to all the oil refineries in the area. However, that small section of road is single carriageway and it needs to be dual carriageway. I was told by one truck driver that it is possible to drive from Sicily all the way to north Lincolnshire on motorway or dual carriageway until the point where vehicles come off the A180 on to the A160 and then it is a single carriageway road.
Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), I led a delegation from North Lincolnshire council to meet the Minister’s officials and we were told that her officials were looking favourably on getting the A160 dualled. Obviously, as the whole Humber estuary is a global gateway, particularly Immingham, I would certainly appreciate an update from her about the funding for that work.
If that work can be completed, it will have a knock-on effect on the town of Immingham itself, because heavy goods vehicles regularly go through the centre of the town at the moment. If we can sort out the transport infrastructure in the area, particularly the roads, that will take such heavy traffic out of the town and that can only be good for Immingham.
I would like to talk about the Humber bridge, a subject that was raised earlier by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness. If he cares to go to my website and read the section called “The River Humber - the curse of the crossing”, I think that he will find out some more facts about the subject. The high cost of getting across the Humber has led to complaints as far back as I could go. In 1316, people were complaining about the halfpenny charge for pedestrians and the one penny charge for equestrians on the Barton to Hull ferry. Daniel Defoe was not terribly fond of crossing the Humber either and referred to it as
“an old fashioned dangerous passage”.
He went on to describe
“a ferry over the Humber to Hull in an open boat, in which we had about fifteen horses and ten or twelve cows mingled with about seventeen or eighteen passengers, we were about four hours tossed about in the Humber before we could get into Hull.”
So there have been problems getting across the Humber for quite some time.
The story that I really like is that of a bit of a fight about the ferry between Jimmy Acland, who was from Hull, and the Hull Corporation in 1831. Again, that conflict related to the cost of crossing the Humber. The Hull Corporation kept bunging up the charges on the ferry to cross the Humber and Jimmy Acland, who was the editor of the Hull-based Portfolio newspaper, started a campaign against the high ferry charges, to such an extent that he purchased a boat. He called his boat “The Public Opinion” and it was up against the Hull Corporation’s boat, which was called “The Royal Charter”.
Both boats competed with each other. Jimmy Acland went back in time, as it were, and charged one penny, which was the 1316 charge, for anyone who wanted to cross the Humber. That led to fights between the two boats.
It certainly was a ferry war. People would try and cut the moorings of the rival boat and local thugs would try and block people from getting on to the ferries. All that, and many other wonderful tales about crossing the Humber, can be found in that section of my website.
To bring matters more up to date, to be fair to the Government they have made some progress. Going back to shortly after the 1997 election, following representations from all MPs in the area—those representing the south bank of the Humber and the north bank—the Government wrote off about £64 million of the debt that had been built up by the Humber Bridge Board. Another £16 million has been written off recently, and there have been commensurate reductions in the interest rates. I welcome those moves.
I met my right hon. Friend the Minister recently to discuss the issue of tolls, because I believe that tolls are a thorn in the side of economic development in the area. Tolls act as a barrier, rather than linking both sides of the Humber. We have these bustling, busy ports and industrial development on both sides of the river, but the high tolls to cross the river act as a barrier. Recently, North Lincolnshire council commissioned a report to examine the effect of the tolls on economic development, and that report is welcome. I hope that the Minister will look at what it says.
Continuing with the tolls issue, what really upset local people is that the reorganisation of cancer services in the area meant that some of my constituents and other people on the south bank of the Humber had to travel north for cancer treatment. If someone is having cancer treatment every day, or every other day, and they are paying the toll, the parking fees and other transport costs if they are driving, because there is only one bus linking Grimsby and Cleethorpes to Hull, it becomes very costly. Consequently, many of us in the area have been campaigning for some sort of concession.
I must say that we have found the Humber Bridge Board to be not very receptive to that idea of a concession, to such an extent that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole tried to introduce a private Member’s Bill on the subject. When he became aware that he could not follow that through, I introduced a private Member’s Bill and I know that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness was a co-sponsor. All parties backed the Bill as a way of trying to find a solution to the problem. I hope that, in her roles as a regional Minister and a transport Minister and also with her background at the Department of Health, the Minister will understand that particular problem and do all that she can to try to bring all the disparate groups together to find a solution to it.
Very quickly, I would like to talk about an issue that is related to access to hospital treatment, which is bus passes for pensioners. I raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Question Time last week, saying that I have one local authority that imposes no restrictions on travel for pensioners; pensioners would be able to use their passes all day, including before 9.30 am. The neighbouring authority is imposing restrictions and it will not allow people to travel before 9.30 am. As I have said before, there is only one direct bus link from Grimsby to Hull. So, for people going to hospital, that is a very serious issue. Pensioners from Immingham who have to get on the bus before 9.30 to access hospital treatment have to pay full fare, but pensioners who live a mile down the road, across the border between the two authorities, in villages such as Killingholme, get to travel free.
We must resolve that issue, because it is almost creating apartheid in terms of access to travel in our area. I hope that the Minister will be able to do something about that, because I have looked at the figures, and North East Lincolnshire has had sufficient funding to allow pensioners to travel free before 9.30 am. I would therefore appreciate it if she could have a word with the council.
[John Bercow in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to a debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing it.
For reasons of time, I shall restrict my remarks largely to public transport matters. Let me say at the start, however, that investment in transport infrastructure is self-evidently vital to the economic growth of any region, but particularly those regions that are some distance from the capital. The further away they are from London, the more important good transport links with the capital and the rest of the country become. We rely on good transport links not only to move goods around, but to create trade links with the rest of the UK and the wider world, allow workers to get to their jobs, bring together rural and urban areas, access shops and culture and allow children to get to school. The list is endless, but the point that I seek to make is simple: good transport links are essential to our everyday lives.
Transport is the backbone of our economy, and it is a generally accepted fact that the state of any area’s transport network relates directly to its economic and social success. Many hon. Members have referred to IPPR North’s recent paper on the subject, which argued convincingly that the lack of investment and improvement in transport—particularly public transport—in northern England is one of the biggest checks on the region’s economic growth. Like many others, including Yorkshire Forward and just about every hon. Member who has contributed to the debate, IPPR North remains concerned about the level of investment in the region’s transport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) referred to the figures supplied to us by PTEG, which show that Yorkshire and Humber received only a third of the public expenditure that London received in 2006-07. My region, the north-west, was not much better off, receiving £276 a head, which is less than the average for England, at £305 a head, and considerably less than London’s £614 a head. Of course, the difference in investment between London and the north will not come as a surprise to any of us, and we will all have argued in relation to our own constituencies that funding seems all too often to be skewed in favour of the south. Obviously, we understand that London is the capital and therefore a special case, and all that I am arguing is that the north also deserves a transport system that can support its economic growth and its citizens’ social needs. Is the Minister therefore considering reviewing the funding allocations for transport to ensure that all regions get their fair share?
The lack of investment in the region’s public transport is particularly worrying. I have listened to contributions from hon. Members both sides of the Chamber, and it seems to be universally accepted that significant investment must be made in the region’s train services. The IPPR North report stated:
“It is widely recognised that the main rail links between the North and South of England are not likely to be adequate to support sustainable growth over the coming decades”
and that rail links in the north are not “fit for purpose”. As I mentioned in questions to the Secretary of State for Transport just last week, it is a fact that, on too many train journeys, people are left without a seat, certainly in the Yorkshire and Humber region. As in the north-west, overcrowding is a significant problem on trains. According to PTEG, and as we have heard, a quarter of all local train arrivals at Leeds in the morning peak period have passenger loadings in excess of 135 per cent. of seated capacity.
If we want to encourage more people on to public transport, it is pretty obvious that we desperately need extra capacity, because no one will want to travel by train if they know in advance that the likelihood of getting a seat is remote. Therefore, there needs to be an urgent assessment of rail services in the north and of the introduction of high-speed rail services to London. That should be looked at as soon as possible, and I ask the Minister to address that question specifically in her response and to tell us if and when a proper cost-benefit analysis of such schemes will take place.
More specifically, I understand that First Group, which runs the trans-Pennine service, is in negotiations with the Government to add a fourth carriage to its trains to increase capacity by 20 per cent. and that that would be in exchange for an extension to its franchise. I also understand that it is looking to buy new rolling stock, but that it needs the go-ahead from the Government before it does so, so that the stock will continue to be used if the franchise changes hands. Will the Minister update us on what stage the negotiations with First Group have reached and give us an assurance that the Government are committed to working with First Group to ensure that capacity is increased on the trans-Pennine service?
One problem with transport is that it is nearly always more efficient in cost-benefit terms to create services in city regions than in rural ones. In particular, bus services for countryside communities often suffer first when funding is tight, because they do not make as much money as urban transport services tend to. There are not many rural areas that will say that their bus services have not been reduced in recent years. That is certainly no less true of the Yorkshire and Humber region, and we must ensure that rural bus services in the region are protected to reduce social exclusion.
One possible way of increasing bus passenger numbers—I say this in reference to the point made by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac)—would be to introduce a system that allowed passengers to travel more easily between different areas. We could have a cross-regional smartcard system similar to the Oyster card in London to encourage more people to use buses and, I hope, ensure that more of the region’s bus services remained sustainable. Perhaps the Minister could also touch on that.
Obviously, we need to keep in mind at all times the need to ensure that all forms of transport are sustainable and to help move England towards a carbon-neutral future. As we know, transport contributes highly to greenhouse gas emissions, and we must ensure that improvements and extensions are not accomplished at the expense of the environment.
The transport system in the Yorkshire and Humber region obviously needs significantly increased investment to support economic growth, reduce social exclusion and improve environmental sustainability. With a population of 5 million, the region is a vibrant, successful and hugely important part of the UK, but it deserves better. I very much hope that the Minister is listening to the concerns of the region’s residents, as they have been expressed today, and I look forward to her response.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this debate on transport spending in Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire.
I stand corrected.
The picture that my hon. Friend painted has certainly been reflected in contributions from all parts of the region. The picture of under-investment over a long period, with our region being bottom of the list, seems to have hit home. My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the A1079, which I drove down last Friday, and the road is a story of congestion and carnage.
I was very pleased when the right hon. Lady was appointed Minister for the region. I am not sure what influence she will have over other Ministers in the areas of health and education, but when it comes to transport, she will be able to lobby herself. I hope that she will quickly respond to many of the concerns that have been expressed. In particular, I hope that she responds to the “Road to Ruin” campaign run by the Yorkshire Post, which has highlighted some of the points very clearly.
The figures speak for themselves. In 2006-07, per capita spending in our region was £215. In London, the figure was £614, and for the UK as a whole, £319. As the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) said, we should have a fairer share of the cake. How can the Minister justify the continuation of this sorry state of affairs? She cannot pass the buck because she has a dual ministerial responsibility.
Mention has been made of the IPPR report. On 28 February, Howard Reed, its chief economist, wrote that such effects could be transient given the existence of large projects in the pipeline to widen the M1 and the M62. However, last week, along with the announcement that the hard-shoulder running pilot on the M42 was to be extended, came the announcement that the widening of the M6, M62 and M1 was to be scrapped, which many people did not notice. Will the Minister assure us that such schemes will still go ahead? At the Dispatch Box last week, the Secretary of State was less than clear about those other motorways.
As shadow spokesman for Leeds, I do not get such a big bit of the region to represent. I am particularly concerned about the transport problems in Leeds. Leeds is the largest city in Europe without a light rail or metro system. For example, Frankfurt has a population of 650,000, compared with 725,000 for Leeds. Yet Frankfurt has 63 km of tramway and 56 km of underground. Even without additional unplanned intervention and investment, the Leeds city region economy is forecast to create 65,300 net additional jobs, and for gross value added to increase to £53.3 billion by 2015. The promise of a super tram in Leeds was axed by this Government. Some £39 million, which had been spent planning for that scheme, has been wasted. That is money down the drain. Leeds is now considering a trolley bus scheme—a second best scheme—which will share the same infrastructure as the cars and buses.
When I was invited by the leader of my party to take responsibility for both Leeds and transport, he made it clear that he wanted to see the north get a fairer share of the cake. I suspect that the overall transport spend will depend on the mess that we are left with when we once again form a Government. No doubt we will learn more about spending during the Budget speech tomorrow. I am also concerned that many of the projects that the Government have encouraged local authorities to take up through the transport innovation fund often have strings attached. I am concerned that in order to access funding, congestion charging schemes may be forced on councils and communities against their wishes.
Last Friday, I was in the city of Hull, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). I had been invited there by businesses and local councillors to see Castle street, which is at the end of the A63. I was told that Hull had a booming economy, with its new marina development, The Deep, which is a fantastic tourist development, a new freight terminal coming on stream that will increase the capacity of the port by 1.2 million tonnes, and the Princes Quay shopping centre. We have 9,000 jobs in that area involved in making caravans and mobile homes. Some 1.2 million passengers pass through the port of Hull on to P&O ferries. I was told that if one wishes to make a journey with an HGV from Liverpool to Leningrad, there are only five roundabouts on the route, and they are all in the middle of Hull. May I invite the Minister to visit Hull—
I have been there already.
She has been already. Perhaps she can look at that particular problem because it is a regional priority. I was very impressed to see that Hull was catching up with cities such as Leeds and Newcastle. For far too long, Hull has been the poor relation. I am pleased to see that it is catching up, but it needs infrastructure investment.
I could not speak on this subject without mentioning my own constituency and the A64. A number of employers constantly lobby me about the lack of investment on that road. Recently, we had some very bad news. The printing company, Polestar Greaves, which had recently secured European funding for a new plant in Sheffield at the heart of the motorway network, closed its plants in Scarborough. One of the reasons it cited was the problem getting heavy print in and out of Scarborough.
As for rail, we have an overall problem with overcrowding. Overcrowding levels, to which the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) alluded, are worse in Yorkshire than the south-east. The rate of passengers above capacity in London and the south-east in the morning peak is 5 per cent. In West Yorkshire, it is 9 per cent. in the morning peak and 5.3 per cent. in the evening. So we need to look at our rail infrastructure. All too often, Ministers talk about investment when they mean investment and spending. It is important to make a clear distinction between subsidies paid to railway companies and investment in new infrastructure and improvements. I met the boss of Northern Rail, who told me that on her entire network, which covers much of our region, for every pound that she gets in the fare box, she gets another 80p in subsidy. It is important that we see what we are getting in addition to those subsidies that will contribute to an improvement in our rail system.
I pay tribute to Hull Trains which, as an open-access operator, is providing an excellent service from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart). Also, dare I mention Grand Central, the new open-access operator that runs from Sunderland, through York to King’s Cross, which offers a non-stop service four times a day from York. It offers passengers a 50 per cent. refund on the price of their ticket if they cannot get a seat on the train. I have been on that train a number of times; there is not much chance of not getting a seat at the moment. As word spreads on those good deals, however, that may change. It is a very good initiative and it would be interesting to see whether other rail operators follow suit.
Last April, the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), was on the record saying that there must be a shift in focus on transport spending from the south to the north and plans to extend rail. My hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) are undertaking a feasibility study with industry professionals of the possibility of building a high-speed rail network in the UK. Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds are the cities in line to be connected into that network, as well as other north-south options.
This Labour Government have seen many lost opportunities. When they came to power, they followed the spending commitment in total, but they axed the road programme for three years and diverted that money to other objectives. Wherever we are now, we are three years behind where we could have been. They squandered the economic legacy of the last Conservative Government. As we will hear tomorrow in the Budget, the party is over and the future is not so “Rosie” in regard to additional money being available. We will be seeing additional cuts all over the place. The problem with transport is that it is easy to cut because one only has to nudge that spending into the next year’s budget. Labour has dominated much of this region over the past 10 years, so why have we lost out so much? The “Road to Ruin” campaign by the Yorkshire Post has highlighted that. Could it be that the lack of regional vision and commitment will put the Government on the road to electoral ruin in 2009 or 2010?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this debate and on the way in which he conducted his opening remarks. I can assure him and other hon. Members who have contributed, especially the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), that I am aware of the level of interest in transport in Yorkshire and the Humber, not least because of my role as a regional Minister. Transport and skills are two of our highest priorities for ensuring the economic competitiveness of our region.
I want to emphasise what the Government have done to increase investment in transport in our region—a subject on which the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) asked me to touch. In fact, spending on road and rail has nearly doubled from about £330 million in 2001 to almost £600 million in 2007-08. At the end of last year, we announced £469 million-worth of funding over the next three years for local authorities across the Yorkshire and Humber region to invest in highway maintenance and small schemes, such as public transport projects and town centre improvements. That represents a total allocation for 2010-11 that is 12 per cent. higher than current levels. In July 2006, we announced plans to fund 31 major road and public transport schemes in Yorkshire and the Humber from the £927 million allocated over the next 10 years in response to regional advice about priorities in the region.
I must challenge very clearly some of the points made today about Yorkshire and the Humber being at the bottom of the list of spending priorities. Total funding per head in Yorkshire and the Humber, when we combine the local transport plans and the regional funding and road safety allocations, is the third highest of all the regions. The hon. Members for Beverley and Holderness and for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) referred to the A1079 and the Leeds supertram respectively, funding for both of which would have to come out of those allocations. Opposition Members are wrong about Yorkshire and the Humber being at the bottom of the scale for allocations for those schemes. Spending per head and the allocations in our region, from which funding for those schemes would come, are the third highest of all the regions.
It is important to remember that the region has a very clear way of deciding its priorities. We devolved to the regional assembly an allocation of £927 million of regional funding, so that it could decide its own priorities which, after much hard work, it did. However, owing to ballooning costs of the supertram, it became very difficult to sustain that project through the regional funding allocation. Funding for the A1079 also comes from that regional pot. The priorities are being looked at to ensure that they are right. Furthermore, headroom for additional spending is being considered.
It was worrying that the Leader of the Opposition went to Yorkshire and said that before the next election he would produce a list of bypasses and road schemes for Yorkshire that might well completely overturn all the decisions on priorities made through our regional assembly and transport board. Where will that leave many of the proposed schemes, on which much work has been done? Opposition Members ought to think about that. In his rather mean-minded speech, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West asked me three questions, but I ask three of him: does he say that the Leeds supertram will go ahead? What cost is he prepared to pay for it, and what other schemes would he sacrifice in the region to pay for it?
I am not quite clear, but I think that the Minister suggested that we are all mistaken in thinking that Yorkshire and the Humber has received the lowest transport spending over the past five years. Will she confirm whether cumulatively we have had less spent per head than any other region over the past five years? If that is not the case, I must have looked at the wrong tables, and the whole premise of this debate is unfounded. Given that I have taken my numbers from Department for Transport figures, I would like her to clarify the position.
I know where the hon. Gentleman got his figures from, but that expenditure includes projects such as the channel tunnel rail link, the King’s Cross refurbishment and Crossrail. If we include major national schemes, it is true that there has been greater spending in London and the south-east. However, we must consider the benefits that they bring to the national economy and the fact that our constituents will travel down to London and make use of things such as the channel tunnel rail link and refurbishments of stations such as King’s Cross and St. Pancras. That is where the distortion occurs. As I have said, all the schemes to which he has pointed, particularly for the A1079, come out of the regional funding allocations. When those are combined, Yorkshire and the Humber is third in the list, not at the bottom.
I want to address the very positive speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who encapsulated what we need to do in the region, which is to consider strategic plans and to ask what changes we need to make in the Leeds city region—for example, those changes that will make a real difference to the economy. His is absolutely the right approach. My hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) discussed concessionary fare schemes, the importance of ensuring that they work and that councils do not use them as an excuse to cut services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness talked about the Humber bridge. Both quite rightly said that we have made attempts to restructure the debt. My hon. Friend made a particular point about health, which I hope to work on with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who happens to be here, which is very handy. I hope that we can look at some of the challenges facing cancer services in the area that she mentioned. I shall come back to her on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) talked about the positive approach that he and partners in York are taking to look at the challenges facing development in the centre. It was good to see the meeting that he organised to look at that positive way forward. Again, that needs to go to the regional transport board, which will consider whether it is a priority in the area for making the economic improvements that are necessary. He referred to the changes that we discussed yesterday and the funding that we have allocated, from which I am glad that York will benefit. He was absolutely right to ask what technology could be used to enhance our transport systems.
We are all aware of the importance of assessing demand more easily, considering alternative traffic routes—that is the important point about the route in Leeds—and managing congestion more effectively. That takes me back to points made by the hon. Members for Cheadle and for Scarborough and Whitby: the important question of whether widening roads or hard shoulder running would be most effective in the region. I can assure hon. Members that I am very committed to ensuring that Yorkshire and the Humber has a good transport system. We are investing more money. We need to recognise that and take the region forward.
Nursing & Midwifery Council
Matched only by myself.
The Nursing & Midwifery Council is a public body that is also registered as a charity. It regulates almost 700,000 nurses and midwives. In line with its principle of self-regulation, it is funded by those whom it regulates. Nurses and midwives currently pay a mandatory annual fee of £76. That has increased by 77 per cent. since 2007. I will return to that point.
Members of the NMC’s council are responsible for its governance and are charity trustees. They have a general duty of care to ensure that the organisation is properly run, that what it does accords with its purpose and that action is not taken beyond its constitution. There is a particular duty to ensure that its moneys are used only for legitimate purposes. As trustees of a charity, they must ensure that there is no misuse of funds, for example, through supporting activities that are outside the body’s defined activities or by incurring excessive costs that are not commensurate with the scale and needs of the fulfilment of its objectives.
As a self-governing regulator, whose purposes are public protection and the public interest, the NMC should be run with integrity, competence and transparency. Unfortunately, that appears not to be the case. It appears to be a fundamentally dysfunctional organisation where the priority of those in control is to maintain the status quo at the expense of proper transparency and good governance. Its funds are being misspent and staff time is being misused. Poor financial management has resulted in nurses and midwives, who are already under financial pressure, being faced with nearly a doubling of their annual fees, which they must pay each year to be licensed to practise. Trustees are systematically prevented from doing what they are supposed to do. There appears to be an ingrained culture of bullying and racism as a means of preventing good governance in general, and in particular, any proper examination of what is going on. I will deal with those very serious allegations in detail.
Sadly, since this matter has come into the public domain, there has been an attempt by the NMC to portray me as a man running a personal vendetta. That is not the case. I trained as a nurse and represented nurses as a lay and full-time officer for more years than I care to remember. I believe that I can recognise a serious issue when it is brought to my attention. The lack of governance at the NMC is a very serious issue that we, as parliamentarians, cannot ignore.
I have six statements from former members of the council and its staff and one from a trade union representative who represented a staff member at the NMC. Those individuals live throughout the United Kingdom and I understand that other hon. Members have been approached by constituents with similar issues.
I, too, have been approached with very serious allegations about probity and conduct. Whistleblowers are in an awfully difficult position. The person who approached me asked who regulates the regulator, because they have nobody to complain to.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very interesting point, which I will hopefully return to at the end of my contribution.
Allow me to quote the statement from the trade union representative who represented a member of staff at the NMC:
“My enquiry suggests that the organisation is dysfunctional and out of control. It is not just the staff but council members are also being harassed and bullied, contrary to the Nolan principles.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking up this issue. Does he agree that it is completely and utterly unacceptable that any member of a regulatory council is afraid to speak out and be identified, let alone a representative who is one of the most experienced and respected members of the profession in this country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I will deal with his point at the end of my contribution.
The trade union representative went on to say:
“My member has also, as I have seen, experienced a lack of due process and investigations and equally annoying a failure of natural justice. This has been compounded by a perverse use of individuals under a grievance investigation to carry out investigations into staff who are the grievance source.”
That is absolutely unprecedented.
A former member wrote to me, saying:
“We are hoping to make a contribution to a body run with integrity and competence while we would have confidence in its leadership. Sadly this is not the case. The NMC is a fundamentally dysfunctional organisation where the priority is on maintaining the status quo at the expense of proper transparency and integrity, where funds are being misspent and where trustees are being systematically prevented from doing what they are supposed to do.”
Like other hon. Members who have contributed, I have a constituent who is a council board member, and they have expressed similar concerns about the organisation. Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that there is no agreed procedure for handling complaints at the NMC is a very serious matter that should be rectified immediately?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is an issue that I hope to touch on in my contribution.
Another council member wrote:
“I am aware that there are other past council members as well as current ones who feel as I do about the organisation. They would be prepared to share these concerns with you but the current members especially are extremely concerned that their names are not divulged to the NMC because of a fear of incrimination, bullying and harassment. It is essential therefore that you provide a guarantee of confidentiality at the outset.”
Another former member contacted me and stated:
“I also have lingering concerns from the old council about the way a particular member of staff had been eased out of the NMC. I have signed a confidentiality agreement about that matter and so am not at liberty to say any more than this. That was the context to my own resignation.”
Another former council member wrote:
“My concerns about the NMC are a culture of institutional bullying dominated by a few individuals; a failure to respect all views even if they are in the minority; over use of outside legal advice, some of it conflicting, and; inappropriate use of registration fees.”
A former staff member wrote:
“I was very happy when I joined the organisation, loved the job and the working environment. Things changed when”
the new chief executive
“arrived and I was very soon out of favour. I was very happy with the idea of change but the changes made to the culture of the organisation resulted in a very unpleasant, punitive and negative working environment lacking transparency. Sarah held what she termed ‘soft chair conversations’ with staff who were not in favour. This involved me being given at one point what she termed a bollocking.”
The national committee of the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association passed a vote of no confidence in the ability of the NMC to protect the public. All those people cannot be wrong, and hon. Members throughout the United Kingdom have expressed similar concerns from their constituents. Those individuals are strong people and leaders in their chosen career field, yet every one of them, whether a past or present member, is frightened to have their name mentioned, even in this privileged place. I can think of no better proof that a culture of bullying prevails in the NMC.
The culture at the NMC is reflected by the fact that some 20 complaints and counter-complaints have been filed in the past year against eight current and two previous members of the council, and I understand that there are more complaints in the pipeline. Given that there are only 23 council members, that is completely disproportionate. The NMC’s expenditure on outside legal advice is also excessive. Legal fees are paid not to address the organisation’s proper purposes, but to deal with, and often to create and pursue, such spurious complaints. In 2007, legal expenditure on governance issues and the costs of investigating complaints in relation to council members seeking transparency and satisfactory explanations were well over £120,000.
The expenditure continues, and it is now significantly higher. The money is nurses’ and midwives’ money, paid in the name of public protection, and its misuse raises serious issues for public protection. Costs as high as £250,000 to £300,000 equate to the annual registration fees of 3,200 to nearly 4,000 nurses. The NMC’s reaction the first time that I raised the matter in the House was to seek legal advice. It is a bizarre organisation.
The concern is not only that money is being spent on complaints, bullying and so on but that staff and council members’ time is dominated by those matters rather than by the organisation’s proper purposes. Staff whose faces do not fit are subject to disciplinary action, paid off and required to sign confidentiality agreements. I have been told of two recent such payments of £100,000. The absence of transparency, responsiveness and integrity in the organisation means that it is not possible to hold the chief executive to account and that the governing body is not given the information that it needs for effective decision making.
I understand that the NMC’s approach to governance is also very worrying. It is not unusual for the decisions of the council and its committees to be ignored or circumvented, and standing orders are routinely put to one side to suit the position of the chief executive and prevent the council’s consideration of legitimate business. In a formal note, the chair of the council’s audit committee suggested that certain council members should be barred from participating in a council debate on the basis of their past voting patterns. I find that unbelievable. When two respected lay members of the council resigned last year, the Appointments Commission was told about it and invited to intervene, but did absolutely nothing. It went ahead with replacing the two people who had resigned, despite their suggestion that it should not do so until the reasons for their resignation had been properly investigated.
We have moved on, rightly, from a situation in which professions are allowed to regulate in their own self-interest. If self-regulation is to be sustainable, it must involve accountability and the highest possible standards of ethical behaviour and competence. An important point has been made by hon. Members about the position of non-executive trustees in bodies such as the NMC. Trustees are protected against discrimination only. Because they are not employees, no other legislative protection or redress is available to them, and they can be very exposed. Unlike employees, trustees and public office holders who blow the whistle have no legal protection.
The NMC was set up to protect patients, raise standards in the profession and act in the public interest. Unfortunately, it is acting only for a small group of staff. Our first priority must be to rebuild the NMC on a sound footing, but it is equally important to look to the future. The House, the nursing and midwifery professions, other professions and the public need assurances that lessons will be learned from the NMC debacle. I say in a comradely way to the Minister that, after parliamentarians from throughout the United Kingdom have expressed concern about the workings of an organisation that regulates 700,000 nurses, it is not good enough to say that the matter has nothing to do with Parliament, and I hope that he will not go down that road.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on raising this important and worrying issue for discussion. I know that he has much personal experience in such matters from his early years as a psychiatric nurse and his later trade union career with the Confederation of Health Service Employees and then Unison. I take this opportunity to reassure him and the other hon. Members present that the Government take the matters that he has brought before us extremely seriously. The governance of the Nursing & Midwifery Council is of great importance, as is the governance of all health professional regulators.
The majority of concerns raised by my hon. Friend relate to the internal proceedings and management of the NMC, which has been charged with operating in an atmosphere of bullying, harassment and institutionalised racism. The NMC is, as he acknowledges, an independent professional regulatory body, and the Government therefore have no power to intervene directly in its internal operations. However, the situation has been causing serious concern for some time, and I know that he does not make such charges lightly. Although I am sure that he will accept that it would not be right, even if it were possible, for me to judge or pre-judge goings-on at the NMC, as well as that some would challenge the allegations that he has made today, the Government will do what we can to help the organisation to get out of the problems that it faces and rebuild its members’ confidence.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the NMC itself has instigated an inquiry into the criticisms that he outlined. As I understand it, that will include asking an independent, external party to investigate the charge of institutional racism. I understand that the NMC has invited him to meet its members, visit the organisation and discuss his concerns. However, given the seriousness of the breakdown of relationships within the NMC and the level of concern expressed by hon. Members, an internal inquiry is not likely to satisfy the NMC’s critics. That is why I will write today to the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence and the Charity Commission to encourage them to play a role in resolving the long-standing problems at the NMC.
The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence is the independent umbrella body that oversees the operation of the various health professions’ regulatory bodies. It is already undertaking its annual performance reviews of all the regulators, the results of which are due to be published in the summer, but because of the seriousness of the situation at the NMC, I will ask the CHRE if it is possible to expedite its review of that organisation, including addressing the crucial question whether the organisation is fulfilling its statutory functions. I understand that a number of people involved in the NMC’s internal rows have asked the Charity Commission to intervene. I welcome that move, and have written today to the Charity Commission to say so.
It important to me as well as to thousands of nurses and midwives that the workings of the NMC and all regulators should be open and transparent. That is crucial to maintaining patient and public confidence. If neither the NMC’s internal processes nor the measures that I have just outlined are sufficient to resolve the problems at the council, the Government would not rule out formally asking the Privy Council to investigate. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that that would be a nuclear option.
In the longer term, the Government are taking a number of other measures. My hon. Friend will be aware of the passage through Parliament of the Health and Social Care Bill; indeed, it was on Report that he raised with me his concerns about the NMC. The Bill is part of a programme of legislation on matters relating to professional regulation that the Government introduced after the publication of our White Paper “Trust, Assurance and Safety” in February last year.
The Bill introduces a number of reforms regarding the governance of regulatory bodies and the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence. As part of the new governance arrangements that we will shortly put before Parliament in a section 60 order, under the Health Act 1999, greater transparency will be introduced to the process of disciplining members. Each council will have a constitution order, made by the Privy Council, that will set out the grounds for removing council members from office. Under the proposals, which the Department of Health is in the process of sharing informally with the regulators, council members and employees will be given a statutory right to notify the Privy Council if they consider that a council member should be removed from office. Responsibility for considering the matter will then be delegated by the Privy Council to the independent Appointments Commission.
Together, the Bill and the section 60 order will meet the commitment that we made in the White Paper to reform completely the governance of regulatory bodies by introducing smaller, more board-like councils which are fully appointed by the independent appointments commissioner, and which operate in a more strategic manner. Those changes will allow councils to set the strategic direction of the regulator and to hold the executive properly to account for the day-to-day running of the organisation. That should help to avoid some of the long-standing problems on the board of the NMC.
The Bill amends the governance of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, giving it a new primary objective and enhancing its powers to look at regulators’ functions and processes. The Government are also taking new powers to direct the CHRE to investigate particular concerns or issues that arise. Those powers would have been useful in preventing the breakdown of the NMC’s functionality. The changes will ensure that the CHRE acts as a strong, independent voice for patients and the public. Its board members will no longer consist of the presidents of the regulatory bodies, but of independent people approved by the Appointments Commission.
As a result of the concerns raised today, I shall ask the CHRE to advise on what further steps could be taken, under secondary legislation relating to the regulators, to enhance confidence in this area. I thank my hon. Friend again for raising his concerns, and I hope he accepts that within the limits of our powers of intervention, the Government are doing what we can to help the NMC to address serious, long-standing problems. The changes that we are making through the Bill should help to ensure that such problems cannot arise in future.
East Midlands Trains
I am grateful to you for that, Mr. Bercow, and to the Minister for his early attendance. I shall start by giving some details about East Midlands Trains and train services in my constituency. On Saturday, I had the great privilege of attending the reopening of Idridgehay station. It has been reopened by the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway company, which plans to reopen the railway line down the Ecclesbourne valley to Duffield. The new train service will give people an important link from Wirksworth to Duffield, and will enable them to take advantage of East Midlands Trains services into Derby, from where they can connect to London.
I was pleased that the station reopened on Saturday. The opening was the culmination of a huge amount of work by a private company to restore the railway line, and was the first time that a passenger train had run on that line since 1947, although I do not blame any Governments for that. I compliment people at the company, and volunteers, for their dedication and for providing a good service. When the line is fully open in 2010, it will be very useful to the people who live in the area.
There have been some remarkable achievements with trains and train services in the midlands. Ten years ago, St. Pancras station was the worst station in London to come into. It was dark and desolate, and had few services. Today, it is without doubt the best station in London. It reopened recently and is now the hub for trains going to the continent, as it is the home base for Eurostar. That is a tremendous achievement, and anyone who has not visited it should go to see its tremendous refurbishment and the reawakening of the railway age at St. Pancras. Those are some of the positive aspects of what is happening with the rail industry.
When the Government took the franchise away from Midland Mainline and awarded it to East Midlands Trains, I was encouraged by what East Midlands Trains said it was going to do. It set out its programme and options in a booklet for passengers, which included:
“Faster journeys to Sheffield and Leicester from London as part of a new timetable being introduced in December 2008; Additional early morning train from Derby to cater for morning peak demand; A new daily direct service between London and Lincoln;”
and an hourly service between Nottingham and Matlock. I hope that the hourly service will coincide with connections, because the service from Matlock, which is a bit of distant cousin, currently arrives in Derby at times that are inconvenient for connections to London. That would make a huge difference to my constituency and to my constituents.
I want to talk specifically about an issue that I have raised in the House before: the poor deal that passengers get with Sunday services. Those services seem to have been almost forgotten, not necessarily by the train companies, but by Network Rail, which operates and makes decisions about repairs. I am concerned about its accountability, as it is not accountable to anyone but the Government, who therefore have total responsibility for its management and ownership. A few weeks ago, we had the ridiculous situation in which Network Rail was fined for over-running works around Rugby, only to find that the fine would go back to the Treasury and would then have to be lent or given back to Network Rail.
There are constantly poorer services for Sunday travellers. This morning, I asked the managing director of East Midlands Trains whether he had the occupancy rates for Sunday services. He replied that it has only been running the service for four months, so it does not have those rates; the records that Midland Mainline held were not passed on. Anyone who travels on a Sunday will see that there is huge usage by the travelling public at weekends. That is one pattern of rail travel that might be changing. Perhaps, 20 years ago, trains were not used so often on Sundays, but that has changed. I am sorry that the records on customers and predicted customer bases, which were obviously there when Midland Mainline was operating services, have not been passed on to the new operator. Will the Minister address that point?
East Midlands Trains took over services just four months ago. When it was announced as the preferred operator, I thought that some of its plans were encouraging and exciting, and I was looking forward to seeing it operate. I accept that it has to operate according to Network Rail’s decisions on track maintenance and negotiations, over a considerable period, about repairs. There is a planned investment programme, over the period of East Midlands Trains’ franchise, of £90 million, which should lead to better services. At the moment, however, for more than three months, Sunday trains are to be diverted around Manton, after they leave Leicester, which will add an hour to the journey.
On Saturdays and Sundays, trains are operated with fewer members of staff on board, so that when something goes wrong, extra pressure is put on them. As far as they are concerned, that affects their communication with the travelling public. I want to be absolutely clear that I have nothing but praise for how the members of staff behaved and responded to passengers’ concerns on the Sunday—I have to declare an interest—when I was on a train for almost six hours.
Leaflets have been published which say that I can go from Derby to Paris in six hours. Therefore, when on 2 March it took almost six hours to go from Derby to London, I was, shall we say, a little less than impressed with the service that I received. Of course, I am a Member of Parliament and can raise the matter here. I investigated the situation further and found that on that day there were 100 alterations to service, 13 train cancellations and 11 partial train cancellations. Many members of the travelling public were involved in the huge delays. It is how the problem came about that I now wish to discuss briefly.
As I said, due to essential track and ballast renewal work, there is at present a diversion between Market Harborough and Kettering. Trains are diverted around Manton. Delays were worsened because, apparently, there was a theft of some 60 m of cable on the line. I find this rather odd: this bit of line is not used very much in the week, but, on the day when all the trains were being diverted, there was a theft of cable.
Some cable was stolen, and that basically brought that part of the network to a standstill for quite some time, during which communications to the passengers as to what was happening were totally unsatisfactory. It may well have been that the people controlling were not in a position to know fully what was going on. The first time the train came to a standstill, we were told that there was a freight train in front of us. After 30 minutes, we were told that that there was a passenger train and a freight train in front of us. Then, after an hour, we were told that there were two passenger trains and a freight train in front of us. After about two hours, we started to move again after being literally completely stationary on a very crowded train on a Sunday afternoon.
There was a problem for the members of staff on that train, because they were not being informed as to what was happening. They could tell the travelling public only what they were being told. As I said earlier, I have nothing but praise for the way in which they tried to tell us what was going on, but the information was appalling.
When we finally arrived in London, I was told that the theft of the cable had occurred some time during the late morning. Surely, if that was the case, the delays were known about before people boarded the trains. I do not know whether there has been a full investigation into what exactly happened on that day, or whether a report is available about the incident, but there certainly should be.
It is in the Government’s and everybody’s interest that more use be made of trains. Passenger miles have been going up over a very long period. I could almost say that they have dramatically increased since privatisation. I see that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—I still regard the Department as Trade and Industry, but I realise that its name has changed—will be making an interesting speech today about the benefits of many more millionaires and entrepreneurs, and I welcome that sort of change, but I also say that the travelling public require a service that is satisfactory. The service that was given on that day by East Midlands Trains primarily, because it is the rail operator, but also by Network Rail, which stands back from this a little, was woefully inadequate.
I was asked by some of the passengers whether they would be entitled to a refund. The last time I was delayed on a train for more than an hour, I was able to get a refund. I was therefore surprised when I inquired whether passengers using the service would be entitled to a refund to be told that, because the delay was due to vandalism, it was outside what is laid out in the “National Rail Conditions of Carriage”. I have obtained a copy of the rules and regulations. You will not be surprised to learn, Mr. Bercow, that they run to 27 pages. There are more get-out clauses in those 27 pages than could be written by anybody I have yet to come across in the legal profession. The number of get-out clauses is quite amazing, but one of them is vandalism, along with the weather, acts of God, fire, police, terrorism—in fact, I am starting to wonder what actually does come into the area where compensation can be given.
I was therefore encouraged to receive a letter from the managing director of EMT, Tim Shoveller, in which he stated:
“Although our current Passenger’s Charter does not allow refunds for those delays which are beyond the control of the rail industry, for example trespass and vandalism, from 1 April 2009, we will be introducing a new scheme called ‘Delay Repay’. The ‘Delay Repay’ scheme, which is part of our franchised commitments, will ensure refunds for passengers who are delayed, irrespective of the cause of the delay.”
I very much welcome that, but I do not quite understand why the scheme cannot be operated until 1 April 2009. Can the Minister reassure me that it could be introduced far sooner than that? Such a scheme would have served me and some of the complainants on the day that I described. If Network Rail and EMT thought that they would actually lose money, there would be more pressure on them to get repairs done more quickly. More pressure would be put on Network Rail to respond more quickly to such cases. I accept that they are beyond their control, and I understand that the theft of cable is a growing problem as far as the rail network is concerned. It is disturbing to all of us who use the train service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) has sought the Minister’s and my permission to make a short contribution, so I shall try to sum up. Positive changes have been made to the rail network. Days such as the one that I described are rare, but they still cause huge inconvenience to the travelling public. I would like to be reassured that lessons will be learned from the incident, which I understand was quite large as far as the overall operation of the network is concerned, so that if anything like that happens again, passengers will be notified as soon as possible, perhaps before boarding.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing a debate that is important to those of us who live along the main line. In his concluding remarks, would he welcome the moves that EMT is making to bring about joint control of the track with Network Rail? Perhaps when that has been achieved, the sort of communications difficulties that obviously occurred on that particular day might be avoided.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who I know is a regular user of the service, as are many others who have constituencies along the line. I hope that that will make an improvement, but I was not encouraged by what I saw on that day and have since learned about the incident. I know that there is a move towards a joint control room. It seems odd that that has taken so long, because the diversion around Manton has been used on many occasions in the past, and, much to my horror, I hear that it may be used in future years. It makes for a difficult, time-consuming service, irrespective of the fact that on the days when trains are diverted along that route, there is no reduction whatsoever in the price—passengers pay the same price for that service as they pay for a faster one.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman said. I accept that improvements had been made: anybody who comes into St. Pancras station can only marvel at what has been achieved there. However, we still need to, and must, learn lessons from incidents such as the one I have described so that people who rely on the trains for connections—I have heard many stories about people who have missed connections once they have arrived in London—are not put at a disadvantage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough asked if he could make a contribution, so I hope that he gets the chance to do so now.
Thank you, Mr. Bercow. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing from Mr. Speaker an extraordinarily important debate for people who have to use the railway line through the east midlands. I also welcome the Minister. I always find it difficult to criticise such an excellent, competent Minister, whom the Government always seem to put up to defend the indefensible. As always, I hope that Jim will fix it. I am grateful that we have a little more time than was originally expected, which enables me to make these few comments.
Midland Mainline, the previous franchise holder, was popular in my area. It was a good train operator that often won the train operator of the year award, the staff were friendly and I had no complaints from my constituents about the service. Lo and behold, it lost the franchise and along came East Midlands Trains. The managing director of that company, Mr. Tim Shoveller, kindly met me at the House of Commons. I am pleased to report that, despite what my constituents think, he does not carry a little fork and does not have two horns sticking out of his head. However, that is the feeling in the constituency.
We have had a downgraded service since East Midlands Trains took over the train service; there is no question about that. The frequency of the trains has been reduced and seat reservations for season ticket holders—the most important customers of the railway, who pay thousands of pounds out of their income each year to travel from Wellingborough to London—have been withdrawn. People are paying thousands of pounds a year, but they cannot get a seat and they cannot be guaranteed a seat from Wellingborough to London. That has caused the most enormous uproar. Of course, the trains were already overcrowded.
So the trains are overcrowded, the number of trains has been cut and people cannot get their seat reservation. My constituents, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), are extremely annoyed about what has happened. I should like to blame East Midlands Trains and say that it had nothing to do with the Government, but unfortunately that is not so. The Government say that they will solve overcapacity and undercapacity by having lots more carriages—perhaps 1,300 or 1,500—but how many will East Midlands Trains get? It will get three more. So that will not solve the problem.
I talked to the managing director of East Midlands Trains and asked, “Why are you doing all these things? When you cut the service, why did you increase the cost of the fares by more than twice the rate of inflation? Did you do it to save money?” I then said, “What about the tea and coffee?” The nice thing about Midland Mainline was that it gave people a free cup of tea or coffee. East Midlands Trains took that away, saying, “Ah, that costs £1 million a year, Mr. Bone.” I said, “So what? You charge enough for your fares: you've just bumped them up enormously.” I was told, “It is all down to a problem that we have. It’s the Government.” I asked, “How can it be the Government? You run the service. The Government tell me that it is nothing to do with them and that you run it.” “Ah”, the managing director said, “it is because we have to pay the Government a premium for the service.”
I was told that my constituents who travel by rail are subsidising other people travelling by rail around the country. I thought that that was nonsense and could not possibly be true, so I asked the Secretary of State for Transport a parliamentary question. The reply I received says:
“Stagecoach Midland Rail Limited”—
that is, East Midlands Trains—
“will pay a premium of £133 million (net present value)”,
which will be a great deal more in actual cash terms,
“over the life of the franchise.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 2262W.]
The cuts are deliberately the Government's fault. I hope that the Minister will be able to sort that out and improve the service from Wellingborough to London.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding today, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing this debate. I am reliably informed that the Government Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), suffered a similar experience on the train journey mentioned by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire, but later on the day in question. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman therefore accepts that this is not personal and that there is no attempt by the Government to make his life more difficult than it is at the moment. There may well be occasions when we would want to do that, but this was not one of them.
The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) have raised some serious issues that I will try to address and, if I am unable to deal with all of those, I will ensure that we write to both of them.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris)—the rail Minister—apologises for not being able to respond to this debate personally, but he will be informed of the discussion. He will be pleased to hear some of the compliments made by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire at the beginning of his speech and he will be dismayed to hear the accounts of the difficulties articulated by both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wellingborough.
The unfortunate, regrettable and lengthy delay experienced on the East Midlands Trains midland main line service on Sunday 2 March 2008 had two causes. The first was scheduled major engineering works on the midland main line and the second was an incidence of cable theft on the diversionary route that had to be used as a consequence of the closure of a section of the main line.
The closure of the midland main line was due to planned Network Rail major engineering works and essential heavy maintenance on Saturday nights and Sundays between 3 February and 23 March 2008. That resulted in train services being diverted off the midland main line, south of Barrow upon Soar, to the diversionary route line via Manton and Corby—part of which, from Corby to Kettering, is currently a freight-only route—rejoining the midland main line north of Kettering. Consequently, journey times were longer than normal due to services running over a slower route than on the main line. The diversionary route south of Corby towards Kettering is also single line, which severely restricts capacity and increases journey times. The section of track that was closed is two-track and there is no possibility of carrying out the necessary works without the diversion. The cycle of engineering works means that this route will have to be closed at weekends each year at this time. I understand that this will be frustrating for weekend passengers. Disruption is an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of maintenance work that is essential for the continuing drive to deliver a safer, faster and more reliable rail network.
Increasing demand for travel has brought a growth in passenger services on the network and the introduction of newer, faster trains—Class 222s on the midland main line—has resulted in increased maintenance work across the network. Maintenance and renewal work is specifically programmed to avoid impacting on peak commuter travel periods when many more people use the trains. The alternative to major engineering work would be temporary speed restrictions, which would affect many more passengers commuting and travelling every working day. Using temporary speed restrictions would not stop, but would only serve to slow the degradation of the track and would eventually result in more extensive engineering work to provide continued use of the line.
As maintenance and renewal work is frequently carried out at weekends, leisure fares are available all day on Saturdays and Sundays and higher business fares do not apply. National Rail Enquiries has details of engineering works and extended journey times, which are published on train operating companies' websites and at stations.
The first that East Midlands Trains knew about the disruption was the failure of signals in the Corby area. The true nature of the disruption was known only later in the evening, which resulted in some confusing communication from staff to passengers, as the right hon. Gentleman explained. As he said, staff endeavour to provide as much information to customers as they possibly can—they did so at the time—but clearly they are reliant on accurate information being supplied to them.
A joint Network Rail and East Midlands Trains control centre is being created in Derby, which will enable the sharing of information and allow people to work together to manage any incidents, including providing timely and accurate communications to staff and passengers. That will be completed by May this year and therefore ought to overcome the difficulties raised by the right hon. Gentleman.
Over the past two years, a cross-industry possessions review led by the independent Office of Rail Regulation has been examining how to address best the growing mismatch between the increasing demand for travel and the service availability of the rail network. That has produced a new cross-industry consensus and a determination to develop ways to enable major reductions in the disruption that arises from engineering works. Critically, how to do so without compromising the safety of passengers and staff will also be considered. Network Rail, which is responsible for programming all engineering, renewal and maintenance work, is leading the development of a strategy to deliver on that so that, within seven years, rail users should enjoy a seven-day railway service. The strategy includes initiatives to reduce the typical duration of renewals works to track and bridges from 54 hours over a weekend to eight hours or less overnight.
The second cause of the delay was the theft of 200m of signal cable near Corby on Sunday, which I am advised happened at around 5pm—I know that the right hon. Gentleman said that he was advised that it happened earlier. That put signals out of action and delayed all consequent services. Trains could not be diverted back on to the main line because Network Rail engineers had started their activities and work was in progress. The diversionary route south of Corby is single line, and the emergency procedures in such cases entail trains being allowed through the single line section only if an authorised staff member is travelling on the train—known as a human token. That ensures total safety in the absence of signals and prevents more than one train being present on the single line section at any one time. There is an initial delay while procedures are put in place and staff located to operate them, and a further delay as the authorised person switches from one train to the next. Without signal cable, individual points have to be manually operated.
The British Transport Police are well aware of the widespread problem of cable theft and are trying to tackle it. They encourage better housekeeping and security to discourage theft in the first place and use helicopter patrols and covert and overt police action. They have also targeted scrapyards and metal dealers. Because of the risk to lives and the disruption that it can cause to train services, the BTP chief constable has described line side cable theft as
“one of the biggest challenges after terrorism”.
To assist in the fight against cable theft, Network Rail and East Midlands Trains have jointly offered a £10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of cable thieves who stole cable in January at Pye Bridge between Derby and Chesterfield. That demonstrates a serious commitment to supporting the police in efforts to fight this type of crime. On Monday 28 January 2008, the BTP conducted a day of action and undertook a number of operations to target metal thieves and clamp down on copper cable theft from the railway. Notable success was achieved and four men were convicted in Leeds in February 2007. In addition, three men were jailed for a total of 17 years in London and in Cleveland an operation involving 30 officers resulted in 10 arrests.
If passengers experience delays on top of the extended journey times set out in the national rail timetable, normal delay provisions in the operating company’s passenger’s charter prevail. There are currently two types of compensation payable to passengers of East Midlands Trains. One form of compensation is vouchers or cash given to holders of tickets for problems with one-off journeys. In practice, that is valid for all types of single, return or seven-day tickets. The second form of compensation applies to holders of season tickets valid for one month or longer. The season ticket compensation scheme is not valid on Sundays, but compensation for other tickets is available. For season tickets, a discount is given on season ticket renewal at the time of purchase. Delays and cancellations caused by incidents beyond the control of the rail industry are excluded from both compensation schemes, as the right hon. Gentleman has said. Such incidents include security alerts, vandalism and trespass.
As the right hon. Gentleman outlined, from 2009 the two sets of arrangements will become one and the new “delay repay” regime will apply to all ticket holders, which will compensate all passengers for delays regardless of cause. That is a new departure for the rail industry and has changed years of custom and practice. The scheme is being phased in to allow for systems to be altered, staff to be trained and passengers to be informed. That is one of the many tasks that the new franchise has committed to in the first years of operation and was negotiated as part of the bidding process.
Is the Minister saying that that will be available across the whole rail network or will it just be applicable to that particular franchise? I realise that he may wish to obtain further information on that point, but it would be interesting to know the answer.
As I understand it, I am advised that it is for the franchise operations. However, on that question and the questions about whether it is possible to advance the introduction of the arrangements, I will ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport who is responsible for rail, to write to the right hon. Gentleman. As I say, because it was part of the negotiations for the franchise, I suspect that that part of the contract will have to be honoured. However, I am happy to consider that matter on his behalf and respond in writing in due course.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough raised the issue of services at Wellingborough. There are currently two trains an hour to London, Leicester and further north. A new timetable will be introduced in December 2008 that will provide a service of two trains an hour from Wellingborough to London and one an hour from Wellingborough to Leicester, supplemented by extra trains at peak times. The reduction in services from Wellingborough northbound is due to the introduction of a new Corby to London service. Capacity constraints on the main line mean that the Corby service cannot be introduced without the reduction in services at Wellingborough.
The reduction of northbound services from Wellingborough reflects existing travel patterns. Industry records show that there are relatively few journeys from Wellingborough to points north. The December 2008 timetable will allow faster journey times to Sheffield and Derby because fast trains will no longer have to stop at some of the intermediate stations that will be served by the revised Wellingborough to London trains, which will start from Kettering. There is a franchise obligation in the new east midlands franchise to spend £2.6 million by 31 March 2014 on enhancements or refurbishment at 11 premier stations, one of which is Wellingborough.
The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire asked about the figures being passed from franchisee to franchisee. The matter that he raised was part of the considerations on deficiencies in the previous franchise arrangements, so it is now incumbent on new franchisees to pass on those passenger numbers and data when they pass on their franchises to subsequent operators. That will ensure that the deficiency that has been spotted is dealt with in future. Historically, that is the reason why it was not dealt with in the past.
In conclusion, since 1996, rail passenger kilometres have increased by 45 per cent. People are now travelling further by rail than in any other year.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough mentioned the small number of additional carriages that are destined for the east midlands main line. Does the Minister agree that if the service to Corby that has been mentioned is to be provided and the increased need for capacity on the main line is to be met, the Department ought to encourage the industry to revisit those projections and ensure that that main line gets the additional carriages that it needs to deal with existing capacity problems, never mind deal with predicted growth?
I am happy to ensure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport is informed of the points on capacity made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) and the hon. Member for Wellingborough, and that he is told of the request for the matter to be revisited.
In 2003-04, for the first time since 1961, more than a billion rail journeys were made and the number of rail journeys increased further in each of the next three years. We have committed £15 billion in Government support for the railway up to 2014, so that the industry can plan against a secure funding commitment. Among other things, the money will procure the 1,300 new carriages, as mentioned in previous debates.
I thank the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire for initiating this debate. I hope that I have covered at least some of the concerns that he and other hon. Members have expressed and that I have offered them the prospect that matters are in hand.
Woodhead Rail Route
I think that this is my first opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and it is not unwelcome. The debate is about the future of the very important Woodhead rail route, which crosses the Pennines from Sheffield to Manchester. The campaign to have the rail route reopened has attracted much interest. The case for reopening it, which is well encapsulated by the slogan “Crossrail for the north”, is supported not only by campaign groups such as the Campaign for Better Transport and Friends of the Peak Park but by the Northern Way group, the city councils of Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds, and IPPR North. That body said:
“The main rail links within the north—particularly on the trans-Pennine corridor and between Liverpool and Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield—are not fit for purpose. Failure to invest in these links is likely to lead to increased congestion on rail and road links…and additional domestic air travel”.
Apart from the environmental case that I have outlined, what is the case for reopening the rail route? Rail passenger numbers are growing faster in the north than in the rest of the country, and there is increasing demand for rail freight. With a population of 14.5 million, the north is equivalent to a medium-sized European country, such as Sweden. It has a large internal market and its economy is worth in excess of £200 billion. The north has undergone a revival in the past nine years—I would say, of course, that that is thanks to the Labour Government. Its economy is stronger now than at any time in the past 40 years, and employment is at a post-war high.
Research recently published by the Northern Way shows that potential demand to move containers to and from the north’s ports and across the Pennines is in excess of what the railway network can currently accommodate. In an earlier debate today, it was mentioned that Immingham alone carries 20 per cent. of the in-and-out freight traffic of the United Kingdom; 64 million tonnes of freight go through that port alone. If we add Grimsby and Hull to that, we see just how important the Humber estuary is to the north’s economy.
Based on the work that the Northern Way has carried out to date, it is likely that a new higher-speed rail route across the Pennines will need to be built in the next 15 to 20 years or so. Successful delivery of the Northern Way’s goal of closing the £30 billion productivity gap in relation to the north’s economy will result in faster rates of passenger growth than the Government assumed in the recent White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”.
The view of the groups that I named earlier, as well as of the many MPs who have signed early-day motion 459, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), is that the Woodhead rail route offers the most cost-efficient option for building trans-Pennine capacity in the long term. It also offers the most environmentally sustainable option. Indeed, the view is that only the 1953 Woodhead tunnel route offers the prospect of a broadly non-contentious means of enhancing cross-Pennine capacity sustainably. The alternative would be a brand new route, which would entail large-scale tunnelling, the cost and environmental consequences of which could militate against its adoption as the preferred policy. That is why there is such opposition to any use of the 1953 tunnel by National Grid for recabling work, unless there is a commitment from National Grid to maintain all three tunnels and to return the cabling to the Victorian tunnels as and when the rail route is required to be brought back into use.
There is an economic case and an environmental case for a Crossrail for the north. The economic case is strong. The existing Hope Valley line is exactly that—much of the time, those who use it do so more in the hope than the expectation of getting to their destination—and there never was a more inappropriately named rail service than the Manchester airport “express” from Cleethorpes to Manchester. I shall give some examples. The journey from Sheffield to Manchester airport on that line, a distance of 30 miles, takes a minimum of one hour and 20 minutes. Sheffield to Newcastle, a distance of 134 miles, takes two hours and 20 minutes—two hours minimum, actually. Doncaster to London—a route well known to my right hon. Friend the Minister—takes a minimum of one and three quarter hours; that is for a distance of 140 miles. The case is clear.
My hon. Friend represents one end of the Woodhead tunnel and I represent the other. She is absolutely right when she talks of the Hope Valley line, which is not even capable of running fast—I use the word euphemistically—and slow trains at the same time, let alone taking significant amounts of freight. Does she agree that over the years there has also been considerable support from the private sector for the Woodhead freight route, which would take pressure off Hope and the other existing trans-Pennine routes?
My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, I was contacted only yesterday by one of those companies about this issue. The Woodhead line used to take Sheffielders to Manchester and vice versa in half an hour. That is the improvement offered and that is why there is a much better option for freight on the Woodhead line. We clearly need new capacity, and the Woodhead route offers the potential to link effectively to the east coast and west coast main line networks.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. Does she agree that investment in transport needs channelling in the right direction? The fact that it takes just over two hours to go from Wakefield to London by train and that it takes 40 minutes to go from Halifax to Wakefield, which is 10 miles away, speaks volumes. Does she agree that the investment needs to be in the regional links that link to the main line stations, such as Leeds and Wakefield, to improve travelling times and connections?
My hon. Friend is right. The whole point of reopening the Woodhead line would be to enable passengers, as well as freight, to travel more quickly. In relation to travel to work, the economic benefits of easier access to workplaces are obvious. The Northern Way has demonstrated the wider economic benefits of a national high-speed rail network linking London with the north-west and with Scotland and the north-east, and of a trans-Pennine link. Crucially, that integrated network would offer a means of addressing the locational disadvantage of the north in terms of access to markets, to the world financial centre that is tantalisingly close—of course, I am speaking about London—and to the key international gateways, which are our ports and airports.
The benefits could be as much as £10 billion nationally, £3.5 billion of which would be in the north. Apparently, £3.5 billion of the benefit would also be to London itself, which does not tap into the economic potential of the north as well as it might. Inclusion of a trans-Pennine link adds a remarkable 40 per cent. to the economic benefit to the north from such an investment.
The proposal for a Crossrail for the north would not only add significant value to the north’s economy but could change the perception that investors, business and graduates have of the north’s potential as a career and investment destination.
My hon. Friend is making an unanswerable case for reserving the Woodhead tunnel for future use and, indeed, reopening it. She is also pointing out the fact that the timetables and schedules for trains in the north of England would have embarrassed Gladstone. Is it not time not simply to consider demand on the trains but to invest in new faster routes to support the economy of the north of England?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. There is a great deal of sense in establishing high-speed networks on the east and west coast main lines, but to maximise the impact of that we need to make the trans-Pennine link. That is critical to the case that I am making.
Agglomeration benefits could also accrue if we went ahead with the scheme. Agglomeration benefits arise through firms becoming more productive as a result of being closer or more accessible to other firms, workers and markets. Labour markets and business catchments overlap in the north—we have eight city regions—and offer an opportunity to create a critical mass as a counterweight to the London and south-east economy, but only if there is the reality of a coherent transport system that enables businesses to flourish beyond their city boundaries.
The environmental benefits of a Crossrail for the north are significant.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the west side of the tunnel is in my constituency. One of the groups that supports the re-opening of the route is Barnsley council, which fully supports it. Her economic argument is tremendously strong—the area between Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds requires the freight route. Does she agree that there is also potential for a grander scheme using the freight route, by which I mean linking the east and west Pennines to the Scottish economies and, through the midlands, to the channel tunnel? That would link the economic vitality of the area that she is talking about to the European market.
My hon. Friend makes the key point again that the issue is not only the trans-Pennine link but the link between the north, via an east-west link, to the east and west Scottish economies, London, and the channel tunnel and Europe. That is a critical part of the case and I am glad that it has been emphasised. Of course, Barnsley, which is part of the Sheffield city region, would benefit substantially from such a scheme. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the benefits that would accrue to Barnsley—the town’s economic potential, as well as its football team, is often underestimated.
The environmental benefits of a Crossrail for the north would be significant. Rightly, there is cross-party consensus in the House on the Climate Change Bill. We need to set targets for the medium and long term to reduce carbon emissions, but in focusing our attention on that legislation, we must not lose sight of the practical measures necessary to deliver a significant reduction in carbon emissions. Investment in high-speed rail links and rail-freight capacity is one of the key measures to success in our mission.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case, which I support. Obviously, there is an environmental benefit from laying electrical cables under ground rather than on pylons. Is the hon. Lady aware—she is more familiar with the case than me—whether National Grid has given any consideration to enlarging the tunnel, thereby taking the cable through it without closing it for future rail use? Does she agree that such a possibility is worth exploring?
National Grid’s considered view, which has been tested by a number of hon. Members, is that even if the cables go through one or two of the three tunnels, it will not be possible to run rail capacity through them. The key issue is whether National Grid is prepared to maintain the two Victorian tunnels so that we can return cabling to them in future. That is accepted as the way forward by all concerned, including the Department for Transport and National Grid. Most hon. Members recognise that the outage constraints of simply chopping off the supply to Manchester to recable the Victorian tunnels would be enormous. We have Ofgem to thank for that.
The hon. Lady is making a strong case—it would appear that there is a trans-Pennine alliance of hon. Members from all parties in support of her comments. Further to what the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said, does she agree that the key thing to establish is that we are not opposed to the principle of National Grid using the tunnel if—it is perhaps a big “if”—there were some way for it to route cables through the tunnel that allowed train services to commence at some future date? I do not know how realistic the hon. Gentleman’s proposition is, but we ought to establish firmly the principle that if there is a way around the problem so that National Grid was able to run its cables and retain the potential for future use, we are not against it in principle. We should ensure that the route remains a viable proposition for the future.
If that were a realistic option, it would be the most acceptable one for all sides. We are talking about 440,000 V cables, so it would be a major technological challenge. It would be wise for hon. Members to test the case further with National Grid. However, so far, National Grid has been absolutely firm that it cannot put the cables through the tunnel and run rail capacity through them at the same time.
On environmental benefits, our children and grandchildren will never forgive us for losing important opportunities to invest in a lower-carbon future. The Woodhead rail route is one means by which to secure such a future. Any projection of the case for a new trans-Pennine link must take into account the need for extra capacity economically and to proactively engage in the process of incentivising greater use of rail networks by passengers and freight alike. We are talking not only about the possible extra demand but about the modal shift from road to rail, which is important to that lower-carbon future. We can do it by developing the high-speed integrated network that we are discussing.
I must make a plea to the Minister to display foresight on the issue and apply the precautionary principle. National Grid’s use of the 1953 tunnel must not in any way be allowed for the economic and environmental reasons that I have outlined because it would close down the option of reopening the line in future. However, the omens are not good. Despite the Secretary of State for Transport’s intervention in the matter, a rail magazine at the weekend reported:
“Network Rail has dismissed the idea it will pay for the decaying original Woodhead tunnels to be mothballed pending their re-use as electricity cable-carriers.”
In the same article, National Grid says:
“If Network Rail or the Department for Transport wish to maintain the Victorian tunnels, we are willing to discuss this option with them”.
We cannot risk stalemate—we cannot risk losing the potential use of the Woodhead route for rail and compromising the national interest because National Grid and Network Rail cannot agree who should maintain the tunnels. Will the Minister commit the Government to sorting out the impasse for the sake of the long-term vision that I have outlined? Will she also commit to looking seriously at the case for a Crossrail for the north? A project that would draw on a wide range of support, including from all three northern regional development agencies, must be worth investigating.
The Minister is a good listener and likes to respond—I know that from the work that she has done on flooding in Sheffield. Will she today give us the hope that we can realise our ambition to compete effectively with the London and south-east economy, and that our transport infrastructure will be appropriately modernised in the medium to long term? Will she give us a Crossrail for the north?
It is nice to be back in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, after only a short interval. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on securing the debate. She has demonstrated passionately how strongly she feels about the issue. Obviously, my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Tom Levitt), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), and for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) have demonstrated that passion, as did the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). Not least because of my role as Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber, I know that maintaining adequate rail capacity on trans-Pennine routes now and in future is vital to the economy of northern England.
I should like to reassure hon. Members that National Grid’s plans will not jeopardise the possibility that the Woodhead tunnel route will reopen to rail traffic at some future date. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough outlined, National Grid owns the two Victorian tunnels and the more modern tunnel that was purchased from the British Rail Property Board in the early 1990s following the closure of the route in 1981. The company holds permitted development rights for placing cables in the newer tunnel. The cost to National Grid of replacing cables in the Victorian tunnels and of not using the more modern tunnels would be substantially higher than putting cables in the more modern tunnels and moving them back into the Victorian tunnels in future, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Replacing cables in the Victorian tunnels would require the transmission of electricity between the efficient power stations to the east of the Pennines and Manchester and the north-west to be suspended while the work was carried out. Less efficient power stations elsewhere would have to provide electricity, and that would be considerably more expensive—tens of millions of pounds according to National Grid.
Those outage charges would not be incurred if new cables were laid while the older ones were still transmitting; consequently, the charges would not be incurred if the process was reversed and new cables were put back into the Victorian tunnels while the cables in the more modern tunnels were still transmitting electricity. Reversing the process remains a possibility if growth in demand requires a fourth rail route across the Pennines.
My hon. Friend made a powerful speech, but I am sure that she realises that no Government or rail industry strategy or planning document has identified a need for additional rail capacity across the Pennines that would require the reopening of the Woodhead route. The Government’s strategy for the railways is set out in the White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, which identified the need for additional passenger capacity, and proposed that it should be met by longer trains to accompany reduced journey time on the Manchester-Leeds route via Huddersfield. On the south trans-Pennine route between Sheffield and Manchester, the East Midlands Trains franchise will deliver longer trains on the route between Liverpool and Nottingham via Sheffield.
I am coming to that point.
Neither the White Paper nor the Yorkshire and Humber regional planning assessment identified a long-term need for substantial increases in freight capacity across the Pennines. Consequently, it has not been suggested that the Woodhead route was needed for the purpose.
Network Rail published its freight route utilisation strategy in 2007. The only trans-Pennine issue that it identified was a possible need for additional capacity on the south trans-Pennine route through the Hope valley between Sheffield and Manchester. Again, that strategy did not identify a need for a new trans-Pennine route for freight. Network Rail’s Yorkshire and Humber route utilisation strategy is work in progress. Network Rail is also considering capacity needs on the three rail routes across the Pennines—the Hope valley line, the Manchester-Leeds route via Huddersfield, and the Calder valley line via Halifax.
I am aware of the Northern Way study, “The Market Demand for Gauge Enhancements”, but it does not refer specifically to the need for a new route across the Pennines or the reopening of the Woodhead route as the best way of achieving it. However, I am aware, as are other hon. Members, of previous expressions of interest from the private sector in using the Woodhead route. The Government set out their approach for developing a longer-term strategy in the document entitled “Towards a Sustainable Transport System”. At its heart is a process of engagement with stakeholders—that has already begun—on the goals and challenges for transport. Should robust evidence be produced that one of the key challenges is meeting significant growth for movements across the Pennines, the next stage will be to consider options across all transport modes that could meet the challenges identified.
As far as rail options are concerned, capacity enhancements on the three existing routes would be considered first. However, if an analysis of capacity on those routes concludes that the option of an additional route ought to be investigated, the Woodhead route for rail use can still be considered. The time to consider whether or not the Victorian tunnels need to be protected from long-term deterioration, so that they could be used again for rail or cable, is when the long-term capacity analysis has been completed but before National Grid finally seals the tunnels after the removal of the life-expired cables. That is expected to be in 2010 or 2011. At that time, a decision can be made on whether the Victorian tunnels should be sealed in a way that allows the process of inspection and maintenance to continue, should it prove necessary. Meanwhile, National Grid will continue to carry out regular inspections of the tunnels.
Following the meeting between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and many of the Members in Westminster Hall today—led by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough—and following the letter that the Secretary of State subsequently wrote to my hon. Friend, I propose to meet National Grid in the next few weeks to confirm that the Government wish to explore further the option of continuing the inspection and maintenance regime for the Victorian tunnels once National Grid has vacated them.
We will need to confirm the date by which a decision has to be made. As I said, that is expected to be in 2010 or 2011. By that point, much of the evidence gathered under the “Towards a Sustainable Transport System” process will be available, which will enable us to make the right decision. Following that meeting, I would like to meet key stakeholders. I want to discover the transport industry’s view and the northern economic perspectives on the challenges that face freight transport across the Pennines, and how that will tie in with the development of a longer-term strategy—in particular, the process of engagement with stakeholders on the goals and challenges for transport, which has already begun.
I want to build on that. I will encourage stakeholders to produce robust evidence on the expected growth in demand for passenger and freight movements across the Pennines. Should a significant challenge be identified, the next stage is to consider options for meeting those challenges through all transport modes. As far as the rail options are concerned, as I mentioned earlier, it will doubtless include capacity enhancements on the three existing routes as well as the reopening of the Woodhead route. The outcome of that work will provide us with the evidence needed to take a view on the long-term strategy for trans-Pennine transport links.
In conclusion, I reinforce the view that nothing should be done to jeopardise the economic future of the north of England, and I emphasise that National Grid’s proposals will not do so. During the period 2009-14, the Government plan to spend £15 billion on the rail network, supporting a network of services in the north of England and elsewhere, improving performance and reliability, increasing capacity by providing 1,300 new carriages, and making better use of the existing network. I hope that my response to the points raised during the debate reassures hon. Members that the steps that I propose will keep open the option of using the Woodhead route in the long term.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.