Wednesday 12 March 2008
[John Bercow in the Chair]
HMRC (Northern Ireland)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
It is a privilege, Mr. Bercow, to serve again under your chairmanship.
The House and the wider public will know that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is undertaking a regional review, and we know the results of the initial stages of that programme. The next stage is the core of the matter that I wish to debate today. It is aimed at rationalising offices in smaller towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, that could affect locations such as Coleraine in my constituency, Ballymena, Enniskillen and Londonderry, with almost 500 jobs being put at risk.
Coleraine is the only town with two tax offices, both of which could be closed. Those two offices have 80 employees in post. Most people appreciate that HMRC staff throughout the UK engage in a task that is not only worth while but vital. They try to ensure that the appropriate revenue accrues to the Treasury, particularly in Northern Ireland where, in some sections of the community, evasion is more rife than in other parts of the UK.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has for several years supported the principle of decentralising public sector jobs, but it seems that the regional review is contemplating moving in the opposite direction. On the face of it, it would appear that most jobs will be centralised in the Belfast area. If they do move along that route, it will have significant adverse financial and social consequences.
Virtually all those employed in the Coleraine offices will be offered posts in the Belfast area, which is between 90 minutes and two hours travelling time away during peak hours. That will necessitate an assisted travel allowance being paid for three years. That will amount to about £1.5 million. I do not include the redundancy payments, but if that were to be contemplated, it would cost more than three times that amount.
In addition, there is the thorny question at the core of my contention, which is about the requirements of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. At the moment, they do not apply to the rest of the UK, but we in Northern Ireland are only too well aware of them. Under section 75, HMRC has to establish whether specific sections of the community would suffer as a result of the rationalisation programme. I shall give a few examples.
Approximately 58 per cent. of HMRC staff in the UK are female. The female complement in my constituency is 64 per cent. I suspect that the other offices at risk have a similar proportion. The point is that females will be specifically disadvantaged by relocation, as many of them are carers and some are mothers with young children. The prospect of an additional three and a half to four hours travelling time a day on top of their normal work load would undoubtedly cause hardship and create unnecessary family stress, which is completely at odds with the requirements of section 75.
I turn to the age structure of HMRC’s staff. The proportion of staff in my constituency over the age of 35 is 81 per cent. The national average is 74 per cent. Again, the additional travelling time caused by rationalisation would make the elderly staff complement more prone to illness and stress. Again, that is in contravention of section 75.
Over the past five years, HMRC’s staffing in Northern Ireland has been shown to be under-representative of the Protestant community. Indeed, that is the case in much of the public sector in Northern Ireland. According to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the staff is 55 per cent. Roman Catholic and 45 per cent. Protestant. The closure of offices in a town such as Coleraine that has a predominantly Protestant population would make the task of trying to create a more balanced work force even more difficult. Again, section 75 requirements would not be met.
Much of Northern Ireland outside the Belfast travel-to-work area is rural. It has a higher than average ratio of people registered as disabled, in both rural and urban areas. Fern house in Coleraine is fully compliant under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995; that would be a prerequisite for the disabled population of Coleraine. However, for disabled people as consumers to have to travel the journey that I have outlined would be completely unacceptable.
I understand that the two buildings currently occupied by staff in Coleraine are leased. I hope that the Minister will address directly the question that I am about to put, as well as dealing with the general concept. I understand that several freedom of information requests have been made to the Department, seeking to establish the terms of the leases of those two buildings. To date, that information has not been released.
It is a simple question. What is the current rent? Once that has been established, we will be in a position to say whether it will take 15 years or even 20 years in savings of the rental merely to cancel out the assisted travel allowance, let alone the other factors that I have mentioned. Amalgamating those two offices would be a better option—or a least worst option—than closing both.
The north coast and the north-west of Northern Ireland have been particularly hard hit with redundancies over the past two years, in both the public and the private sectors. We need stability, as the Northern Ireland Assembly seeks to generate inward investment.
I note the approval, from a sedentary position, of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I accept that in the spirit in which it was given.
During the past year, decisions have been taken about Northern Ireland’s Driver and Vehicle Agency; much of its work is being transferred to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, south Wales. That is resulting in job losses in Northern Ireland. Even then, some job saving was managed by non-location-specific work being transferred from Swansea to Coleraine. I ask the Minister to say whether it will be possible to do likewise in respect of HMRC.
Finally, I understand that a recent Treasury Select Committee report expressed concern that the current tax gap, with underpayments of VAT, direct tax and national insurance contributions and a deterioration in the performance of self-assessment, may be linked to the overall reduction in the head count that has already taken place under the HMRC review. For those reasons, I hope that the Government, even at this stage in considering the progress of the review, will be able to come to a more satisfactory conclusion. The problem is affecting hard-hit communities in a way that could make unemployment much more likely and re-employment even more difficult in an area that is already experiencing hardship.
It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Bercow.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), or East Derry—he can take his choice—on securing this debate. Like him, I recognise the potential impact of the pending changes to the Revenue and Customs estate in Northern Ireland. For many of us, part of the issue is: are those changes effectively estate-driven, and blind to the performance issues facing Revenue and Customs, almost blind to the job implications for people currently working for Revenue and Customs and indeed blind to the implications for the areas in which the affected offices are located?
It has already been said that there are standing commitments in Northern Ireland to decentralisation. If I am honest, I would have to say that everyone seems to be for decentralisation but few are for doing anything about it. It is the usual story: everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. When I was Minister of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland, I sent missives around, commissioned a review on office accommodation strategy and asked all my fellow Ministers to offer up candidates for decentralisation. I received three indications of possible candidates for decentralisation, which were effectively non-starters in terms of their impact.
Therefore, I am not trying to be dishonest, saying to the Minister, “We have a perfectly wonderful active policy of decentralisation and we want you to do the same”. That is not the fact, and the Minister has her own experience of being in office in Northern Ireland, so she knows the resistance and talented inertia that can exist within the civil service system regarding such matters.
However, a number of localities, not least in my constituency, have seen job losses, some in the private sector and some in the public sector. Those jobs were previously decentralised back in the 1990s, and they have been lost in the past few years. They were decentralised within the Northern Ireland civil service—under direct rule, I hasten to add, before the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), who is the current Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, thinks that I am being pointed in my presentation.
Some of the remaining civil service jobs in my constituency, namely in Foyle house in Revenue and Customs, are now under threat because of this so-called rationalisation. That rationalisation seems to have the effect of sucking jobs in Revenue and Customs away from the west of Northern Ireland and on to the eastern sea board. That is a pattern that we need to avoid. People see that as centralisation in a particular direction, and as geographic concentration. That affects not just the reasonably equal job opportunities that people throughout Northern Ireland have every right to expect, but, materially, the performance and effectiveness of Revenue and Customs.
When we lose the existing network of local offices, Revenue and Customs will lose the effective rate of contact and access that it has with local taxpayers, local businesses, local tax advisers and local accountants. That will make a real difference to the performance and effectiveness of Revenue and Customs. It is a good thing when some people appreciate being able to access and contact a tax office—[Interruption.] I notice that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) dissociates himself from those remarks; perhaps he is in a constituency position that gives him some comfort to do so. I certainly know, however, that it is not just people working in Foyle house in Derry who are concerned about the changes, but people whose work leads them to rely on the contact with, availability of and access that they have to Foyle house and some other tax offices in the region. That level of availability is not something that should simply be tossed aside. It seems that this process is effectively driven by estate policies and estate agendas, rather than by service effectiveness and performance.
The changes in relation to Revenue and Customs, and the impact on the capacity of Revenue and Customs in Northern Ireland, are not just happening in isolation; I refer to the wider issues of public sector job distribution in Northern Ireland. In that context, we should not ignore the changes in relation to, say, the Assets Recovery Agency. That agency was particularly successful in its work in Northern Ireland. It has been able to address the local Mr. Bigs and the ostentatious affluence from questionable sources that people have been able to demonstrate in Northern Ireland, in ways that would not interest the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Many public representatives in Northern Ireland are concerned that the impact that we have seen on illicit moneys and on money laundering—some pretty mature money laundering fronts have developed in Northern Ireland—will not continue. The ARA was having an effect on that, and was able to draw on the expertise, assistance and intelligence of other agencies, including Revenue and Customs. Given that we will potentially lose out in the shake-up of ARA, I would have thought that a case could be made that the experience in Northern Ireland and the insights in Revenue and Customs in Northern Ireland could be used to good effect to continue the pursuit of those moneys and potential revenues through Revenue and Customs and other means.
Under the new regime in SOCA and in policing, in terms of how the models work, police will essentially deal with level 1 crime, SOCA will be interested in level 3 crime, and nobody will really pursue the illicit means and moneys involved in level 2 crime. It is almost as if a tax band system has been created for the criminals in Northern Ireland, many of whom are essentially just the privatised paramilitaries. They will know that if they effectively stick within band 2, they will get away with things because nobody in particular will pursue them. That would be a dreadful signal for us to send at a time when we are trying to ensure that everything about Northern Ireland is more legitimate and more stable.
We have capacity, intelligence, means and hard-working personnel available. If we are simply going to toss those resources aside, that would be wrong. Will the Minister therefore ensure that whatever other adjustments are made to the Revenue and Customs estate strategy across the UK more widely, particular attention is paid to the specific circumstances and issues in Northern Ireland, to determine how best those are to be tackled across the range of Government interests? It cannot be in the interests of Revenue and Customs to do otherwise.
In Northern Ireland, Revenue and Customs has been part of the Organised Crime Task Force, which has had road shows. A direct rule Minister and people from Revenue and Customs have been going round telling businesses what they have to do and what they can do in relation to money laundering and other aspects of organised crime. In the aftermath of all that publicity, all those road shows and all the motivating effort to help business, the signal coming from the Government is essentially that they will do less about such activity, and the means and the tools that they have will be left, or made, redundant in some of the reforms.
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I agree with him entirely in what he says about the ARA, the work that it has done and the problems and concerns that have now arisen, given SOCA’s new role and so on, and the gap in chasing organised crime that he refers to? Does he not agree that that pursuit of organised crime is even more important in the context of the great outcry and the spotlight on the enormous amounts of money lost through fuel laundering, smuggling and all the rest of it? Also, does he not agree that there is great concern within Northern Ireland about this transfer from the ARA to SOCA along the lines that he has mentioned?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. He raises another dimension: revenue issues in Northern Ireland in respect of fuel smuggling and other criminal activities. Of course, there is the issue of Northern Ireland having a land border, with legitimate businesses conducting their affairs on a cross-border basis, as well as some illegitimate businesses conducting their affairs on that basis too. Again, that points to the need to ensure that Revenue and Customs has services and offices in Northern Ireland that are attuned to all the factors and circumstances in play so that they can understand what is going on.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned the Treasury Committee report, which cannot be ignored. We all know that questions have been raised about self-assessment and the terrible problems with tax credits. Indeed, Northern Ireland no longer has its own tax credit office, and we all have to ring Frank in Preston if we want anything done; if we do not get Frank in Preston, it is hard lines, and the problems remain. We have to wonder why the answer to all these problems is supposedly to rationalise the estate in ways that will only strain the performance capacity and the flexible intelligence of the Revenue and Customs system.
I have mentioned issues particular to the Northern Ireland economy and revenue base, but the skills, experience and insights offered by the work force in the existing offices in Northern Ireland can also serve Revenue and Customs more widely. Just as many of us in Northern Ireland have our tax affairs dealt with by an office in Wales, offices in Northern Ireland can serve other regions in the UK. That is true not least in respect of money laundering, and I return to the implications of the concentration on SOCA. Under the proposals, level 2 crime and illicit financial activity will essentially be given a bye ball. The issue of Revenue and Customs needs to be addressed if the Government are serious about levying legitimate tax and pursing illegitimate activity where they can.
I hope that the Minister and her colleagues will reflect more widely on the implications of the proposals. We are not simply making an appeal for jobs in our constituencies, although it would not be honest to deny that that is a dimension of what is happening here, because it is a real and legitimate concern. We are talking about people who have given good service in difficult circumstances and sometimes not in the best premises. If the estate in Northern Ireland is to be rationalised, that must be based on safeguarding performance and effectiveness at Revenue and Customs more generally and ensuring that there are proper working conditions.
When the hon. Gentleman refers to jobs, does he agree that the loss of jobs flies in the face of Government policy? The Government encouraged females to return to part-time work, but the current proposals fly in the face of that. We are talking about the economically inactive taking up different jobs in the Province, but the Government are kicking the feet from under these ladies, who have made the effort to return to part-time work, but who will lose their jobs.
I fully take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The workers we are talking about have been told that there might be retraining opportunities for them, but when they have asked questions about those, they have been given bizarre, evasive and confusing answers. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann said, these people have made their way back into the work force, taking advantage of retraining opportunities that were previously available and fitting their jobs in with their other responsibilities. We cannot turn around and tell them that they will be released altogether, albeit with limited opportunities for retraining, or that they can travel two or more hours each way every day to and from their job. Essentially, that is a let-them-eat-cake response.
The workers on whose behalf we are speaking face various challenges and difficulties and they have been told that offers of retraining are available to them, but those offers cannot be available to all of them. It is great to offer people retraining, but there is a reduced number of jobs, so the idea that everybody is being offered relocation is somewhat dishonest. That is not a satisfactory answer, and these employees and their families deserve more than a let-them-eat-cake response from their employers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on introducing this timely debate and enlightening us about the special problems of Northern Ireland. We all know and accept that tax offices across the land are affected in similar ways to those in Northern Ireland, and that includes those in my constituency. I should add that it is difficult for Members of Parliament to take up the cudgels on behalf of tax officers, as opposed to groups such as nurses, because they are not always the most popular people in the land.
Tax offices are currently the object of the Gershon savings, which were announced without a clear plan in 2003. At the time, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)—a man gifted, as we all know, with exceptional foresight—said that it was all very well announcing big global savings, but that it was not so easy to know how they would be implemented in practice, particularly when they affected individuals’ jobs and individual communities.
The general assumption behind the Gershon savings is that they are about efficiency and having cashable, bankable savings, not about cuts and reductions. With that in mind, we must ask the Minister certain key questions, and one pivotal question obviously relates to redundancies. I am still not clear about the nature of the allegedly benign agreement between the unions and the Government, and I have spoken to the Minister about it at the Dispatch Box. I get different stories from the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Government, and I should like a clear answer on whether we anticipate any compulsory redundancies and whether the Government are budgeting for them. Are the offers to staff so impractical as to amount almost to constructive dismissal, as has been suggested? Do the savings that the Government anticipate include an allowed attrition rate that will arise as a result of people simply throwing in the towel, because they cannot move to the jobs that they are offered?
There are also questions about savings. Obviously, big savings are possible, particularly in relation to the buildings. Given the number of buildings that are going, the savings could be considerable. In my constituency, it is said that savings of £230,000 will follow from the change in use of the building and the emptying out of most of it, although we are told—there is a certain vagueness about this—that more detailed information on savings will be available only when the closure timetable is announced.
That leads me to speculate, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry did, that there is a certain amount of uncertainty about the savings on property. What will be the capital dividend from the release of the property? Will the revenue savings that are engineered depend on the sale of the asset or on finding a new tenant? Some buildings in town centres are obviously highly valued, but not all are. There are also the costs of removal and de-installation.
Furthermore, a lot of the property that we are talking about is not freehold and is covered by the private finance initiative, on which there is an annual charge. Do we need to keep paying that charge or to find someone to take it over? How does that charge affect the disposal value? In other words, we need a clear account of the Government’s intention towards the estate and of how much everything will cost.
Another issue is the reduction in service. The Government claim that there will be no reduction; but unquestionably, the service will be less local, with fewer inquiry points, and there will be incalculable damage to public confidence in the tax service, because it will not be as accessible. That is especially true in Northern Ireland and in a town such as mine, which has lots of small businesses, as well as elderly people and migrant labourers who have complex tax affairs. All their cases need resolution. There seems to be no overwhelming case for centralisation, particularly in an age of IT, when networks between different buildings can often be very sophisticated.
That brings me to my final point, which other hon. Members have touched on: what about the localism agenda and the work-life balance that is so desired, for female employees in particular? What about helping disabled people back into work? Is there any upside to the centralised processing that is being suggested, such as the lean system, from which the Government hope to get most of their savings? That has not been properly assessed. A passage from the National Audit Office report on accuracy in the processing of income tax, which was produced in July 2007, comments on the centralised system:
“The Department’s initial experience of Lean working suggests that significant improvements in the accuracy and efficiency of processing Income Tax are possible. Early results suggest some improvement in the quality and productivity of work, but lead times in completing work have increased. No firm conclusions could be drawn on how Lean working had affected accuracy rates at this stage. Close scrutiny of emerging trends will be important in identifying any unforeseen effects and in assessing action needed to sustain improvements”.
That is not exactly a clean bill of health for the centralisation system.
We are talking about improvements to the service, but how can we have an improved service if employees, including those who are disabled, travel for two hours before arriving at work, stressed out? I see the Minister shaking her head, but she knows that people travelling from certain parts of the Province will travel for that long. If they must sit for an hour, as the rest of us must, trying to get into the city of Belfast, that will add to their stress. How will that assist the progress of the centralisation?
I was coming to precisely that point. Clearly, how staff are treated affects the way that the workplace functions, including its efficiency. Deskilling, which is what we are really talking about in this case, will not necessarily lead to a gain in efficiency; it can mean that problems that do not involve standard tax cases take longer to sort out. Plenty of documentary evidence suggests that HMRC does not have brilliant success with its current forms and procedures. There are anecdotal stories to the effect that such an approach can lead to the stockpiling of post, when post is simply left in cupboards and treated as not having been received, which significantly reduces processing times. It can lead to the “computer says no” syndrome, with which I am familiar: when someone asks why their letter about tax credits was not received, they are told, “It wasn’t received on our computer.” Unquestionably—this is the point that the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) just touched on—staff will become demoralised. All research tends to show that, in such highly centralised institutions, absence rates are higher and there are recruitment problems. That is perfectly well documented.
In the office that is being closed in Southport, the office staff, as in Northern Ireland, are mostly female and many have caring responsibilities, but most of them have good knowledge of the area. When the office was previously scheduled for closure, they all won their appeals. I question what will happen to those people with caring responsibilities and to those who are disabled when they have to move. I fear what will happen; I assume that many of those people will simply throw in the towel and look for work elsewhere. That will be a loss not only to them but to the Revenue. Those employees make the point that their local knowledge helps to clear up problems that would be difficult to solve otherwise. It makes it easier for them to track down evasion in the area.
I suppose that a cynic might not be surprised to see the Government abandon some of their own agenda of localism, work-life balance and keeping disabled people in employment. It is more of a surprise to see them spurn efficiency. My conclusion, about which I am quite sincere, is that HMRC is acting in somewhat of a panic, to a higher, unreasoned political imperative. It simply must do something to get the savings that Gershon has said can be made. I used the word “political” in connection with the imperative, and it has been noted with some bitterness in my area that certain constituencies, notably Blackburn, are unaffected by closures of tax offices. If we act in such a rush, we end up with ersatz savings, pseudo-efficiency and, in consequence, a lot of unnecessary human anxiety.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Bercow, and to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on securing it. It might not attract the greatest attention among all the Treasury events that are occurring today, but it is nevertheless important to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others. He set out his case with great skill on behalf of those of his constituents who are employed in Coleraine and other offices in his part of the world.
The hon. Gentleman raised several important questions about the practicality of the Government’s proposals for the reorganisation of HMRC offices in Northern Ireland. He also raised some of the specific issues that relate to Northern Ireland, such as section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on raising issues that relate to organised crime in Northern Ireland and the impact that some of the proposals might have in that respect.
The Minister has great knowledge of and, it would be fair to say, fondness for Northern Ireland from her time as a Minister there. We all look forward to her response to points specific to Northern Ireland, as well as to her comments on the other issues that have been raised. She has debated them before; she and I took part in a debate on reforms of HMRC offices in the midlands on 18 July last year. Indeed, many of the points that have been raised today were raised in that debate.
In preparation for today’s debate, I looked back at what I said on that occasion, and I want to reiterate a couple of those points. First, I do not think that anyone will disagree that efficiency is no bad thing. It is right for the Government to seek to make efficiencies and to deal with inefficiency. On occasion, that will require a reduction in the head count, and I do not want to shy away from that aspect. However, several hon. Members have today raised an important concern about supposed efficiencies that result in a reduction in the quality of the service being provided.
We should examine whether the changes that the Government propose will cause a decline in customer service. To repeat a point that I made in the previous debate, I feel that the word “customer” is not always the appropriate term for taxpayers. In last year’s debate, I drew attention to the concern raised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and the Chartered Institute of Taxation that some head count reductions and supposed efficiency savings were causing a decline in customer services.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the reduction in the quality of service is an important matter, but is not the reduction in the quality of life of staff in HMRC offices equally important? If the proposals go ahead, staff in my constituency who work at Moira house in Lisburn will have to travel on the M1—a very congested motorway—into Belfast and find parking. Some of those people are young mothers with children. Should not we take into account the impact on the quality of life of staff in places such as Moira house before we take such decisions?
The right hon. Gentleman sets out his case very well, and I do not want to dispute what he says. Indeed, I shall return specifically to the point about the impact on staff and morale. He other hon. Members have made that point very well.
A number of targets are set out in the HMRC’s 2004 public service agreement. Some relate to customer service and experience, which were assessed as suffering slippage in the 2007 departmental annual report and the 2007 autumn performance report. In particular, the departmental report highlighted the indicator of an 80 per cent. response rate of businesses and individuals who said that they achieved success at the first point of contact but that that was not sustained. That will be of concern to customers within Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK. Furthermore, last month’s Treasury Committee report, referred to by the hon. Members for East Londonderry and for Foyle, stated:
“We remain concerned that HMRC’s headcount reductions, office closures and consequent move towards contact centres have proved a source of frustration to customers.”
I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that.
Staff morale is, of course, relevant to this debate, given the difficulties that the efficiency reforms will create for them, which feeds into customer service, because staff with low morale are unlikely to provide as good a service as those with high morale. There is concern about morale in Northern Ireland and generally. I suspect that proposals, such as those being discussed today, play a part in that. We have heard about issues with missing data discs and performance on VAT registrations. However, the combination of a variety of Government initiatives, such as the Lyons and Gershon reviews, and tight budgets appears to have an impact on morale. The Financial Times reported, a few days ago, on a staff survey that referred to very low morale in HMRC and, in particular, highlighted a lack of confidence in the leadership of HMRC. Certainly, the HMRC capability review identified leadership as a weakness. What is the Minister’s assessment of morale in HMRC, in Northern Ireland and more generally?
Evidence for strains within HMRC emerged in a report in The Mail on Sunday on 24 February that claimed that HMRC was not pursuing debts of up to £20,000. I do not know whether that report is correct, but it went on to argue that tax collectors were being drafted from Belfast and elsewhere to London to address that backlog. Is that the case?
Another issue directly related to Northern Ireland concerns the status of HMRC’s VAT registration centre in Newry. Some months ago, it was intended that various registration offices, including Newry, would close and that there would be one centre in Wolverhampton. Owing to difficulties in the area, the Newry office was not closed and was maintained to address a backlog of VAT registrations. What is the up-to-date position on the future of the Newry office? Is the intention that it will remain open for much longer? The VAT registration backlog has been addressed to a large extent and HMRC is meeting its target of dealing with 70 per cent. of VAT registration applications within 14 days. In the light of that, is the Newry office safe, or is it more likely to close? There are further concerns about VAT registrations; it still takes about 75 days to deal with high-risk applications. Will the Minister comment on that?
Furthermore, about 23 per cent. of VAT registration applications are judged to be incomplete, which suggests a problem with the process. The Treasury Committee addressed that matter in its recent report:
“We have repeatedly been assured that the headcount reductions and efficiency programme as a whole would not cause a decline in the quality of HMRC’s services. We ask the Government to explain why there has been a deterioration of service in relation to VAT registrations and what measures it will take to bring HMRC back on course.”
That issue applies as much to Northern Ireland as to the rest of the United Kingdom.
In closing, once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry on initiating this debate and setting out his case very well on behalf of his constituents, staff and the wider community using HMRC offices. In July last year, I made the point that we increasingly want some personal contact and that distant contact centres do not always provide the type of service that we want. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I have enjoyed your chairmanship. In all honesty, in preparing for this debate, my opening phrase was to be, “I am pleased to have an opportunity to respond to the concerns expressed by hon. Members.” I was thinking about that in the context of what is happening elsewhere today and wondered whether I could say it with sincerity. However, just a few moments into the debate, listening to Members whom I regard in very friendly terms—many of them are friends whom I have got to know over some very difficult years—I can honestly say that it has been a pleasure to listen to this debate and to have the opportunity to respond. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on arranging the debate.
Members’ interest in the reorganisation of HMRC in Northern Ireland has already been brought to my attention through questions to the House and the consultation process that HMRC has developed, for which I am grateful. As others have said, the taxman has never been a popular figure, particularly in Northern Ireland. On many occasions, he has led a dangerous life. However, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry is aware, HMRC has designed a systematic review process—not a panic response. In some sense, it was a response to pressures brought to bear on it by Ministers to ensure that its processes and procedures are as efficient as possible. As a result of those pressures and the Gershon and other reforms, HMRC has developed a very good and thorough process for dealing with the matter, which involves review, consultation and announcements on decisions that are then very carefully taken forward. That process is being implemented across the UK.
The review process for the Belfast urban centre is virtually complete and I expect an announcement to be made to staff and trade unions in the next couple of months. Hon. Members with a constituency interest in the area will be notified at the same time. To meet its requirements under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the importance of which the hon. Member for East Londonderry rightly emphasised, HMRC has undertaken a full equality impact assessment of its proposals for the Belfast urban centre taking into account the particular issues affecting the region. It has worked with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to ensure that it does not unlawfully discriminate against particular groups.
I shall come to that in a moment, if my hon. Friend will give me time. I anticipate that the review of clusters, which will include Coleraine and individual offices in Northern Ireland will begin within the next couple of months, supported by a full equality impact assessment for those locations. The issue will not be decided quickly; it will be a process in which the staff, service users, Members of this House and—I am sure the Chamber will want to be reassured—Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly will be involved.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry made a couple of points to which I shall respond. He asked about the rental of HMRC offices in Coleraine and the freedom of information request. HMRC cannot release information about the accommodation costs that it pays to Mapeley, the third-party landlord for much of HMRC’s estate. The information is protected as commercially in confidence. However, HMRC is able to release figures for financial savings on buildings having been vacated once decisions have been made. Those figures are germane to the process, but it is a process that I, as a Minister, require HMRC to carry forward professionally. It is HMRC’s responsibility to negotiate the best savings out of all the changes that it proposes.
The Minister will understand the incredulity that many people will express, because we will be able to establish the cost-effectiveness of any decision only after it has taken place and people either have been made redundant or have to undertake the huge journey that many hon. Members have outlined today.
For people outside the process, there is some truth in that point. However, learning from the way in which the process has been carried forward in other regions, I am confident that HMRC operates the process absolutely properly. In fact, it is gaining savings—I shall turn to them in a minute—by changing the way in which staff work, and they are all important modernisations that HMRC is required to take forward. As the process goes forward, I think that the House will be satisfied that the right decisions are being made.
Hon. Members should visit those offices where changes have been implemented and the process has been completed—in the south-east of England, for example, where similar representations were made at the beginning of that process. Having gone through it all, none the less, staff have been able to move and be accommodated within reasonable travelling times. I shall come on to that issue, which several Members have raised. I know Northern Ireland well, and I am very conscious of the pressures that people are under when they travel there. I therefore encourage hon. Members to have confidence, because HMRC has a real and proper agreement with the trade unions about the way in which it carries the process forward, and it works. I have seen it work and I have confidence in it.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made a number of points, and I was very interested to hear his concerns about the impact of changes on the way in which the law enforcement agencies might work. He said that he feared that the review was in danger of sucking jobs to the eastern seaboard, and I can see that that concern is very real for him and for his constituents. However, all I can say to him, as I said earlier about the second review of the smaller offices, which will begin shortly, is that everybody will have an opportunity to contribute to the process and everybody’s views will be listened to before decisions are made. It is not a process whereby decisions have been made in advance, and then we will have a review in which people cannot have confidence. There have been many occasions when proposals have been met with counter-proposals and they have been taken on board.
Frankly, I am not reassured by what the Minister has said, because in effect, the Belfast review will be presented as having resulted in certain givens that will affect, inform and influence the review of offices outside Belfast. She has told us that, in effect, there are two separate equality impact assessments: one for Belfast, which will reach a conclusion, and a separate one for the other offices. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has clearly said that the right thing to do is to have one overall equality impact assessment of the current regional review. Why is that not happening?
The Equality Commission said that it would prefer all areas of Northern Ireland to be reviewed together, but it was mindful of the model that HMRC has used to review urban centres in the rest of the United Kingdom, and the earlier timetabling commitments that HMRC had given to staff. The commission had no objection to HMRC continuing with the model involving two processes, examining first, the urban centres, and secondly, the smaller offices, when taking forward the Belfast urban centre review.
I shall turn to the changes that HMRC is making to the way in which it carries out its business, so that it can respond to customer demands and the requirement—
I shall come to several points that the hon. Gentleman made, if he will allow me, and then I shall be happy to give way.
For some years, there has taken place in HMRC buildings very little work that is directly connected to the local community; some contributions have alluded to that this morning. Further, many customers now choose to telephone HMRC offices or to use the internet to file returns or make claims. Throughout the UK, HMRC estimates that it has up to 40 per cent. too much accommodation, but it is right for HMRC to keep its network of inquiry centres, as is happening. I hope that hon. Members accept that we value the face-to-face contact that we know the public appreciate, and HMRC is maintaining it. However, it is also right for HMRC senior management to examine their back-office operations to ensure that they are run as efficiently and effectively as possible. In some work areas, that is best done by concentrating work in large units, but in others, a more mobile work force is seen as the best solution to customer needs.
There must be an emphasis on improving compliance by focusing resources on the risks that HMRC deals with regarding different taxes and customer groups.
The Minister knows from her previous role, in Northern Ireland, that for members of the security forces we have very special arrangements to protect their identity. She knows that those special arrangements for HMRC are located at one of its facilities in Northern Ireland. I do not expect her to expand in detail on the way in which she intends to handle that very special part of HMRC’s work in Northern Ireland in the context of the review. However, can she assure me that those special arrangements for police officers, soldiers, prison staff and others whose security must be protected will continue, that the arrangements will be dealt with not in the context of the wider review and then reconfigured, but in a ring-fenced way, and that they will be properly protected and, I hope, maintained?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that I shall personally look into as a result of his drawing it to my attention today. If he will allow me, having looked into it, I shall write to him to give him the reassurance that he seeks.
I am happy to confirm that, whatever the outcome of the review for the offices in Northern Ireland, the proposals for the remainder of Northern Ireland, including Newry, which was mentioned earlier, will be subject to a full—that is to say, a public—equality impact assessment. Inquiry centre services will be maintained in their current locations or nearby, and staff will not be required to commute to an office beyond reasonable daily travel. There is an established process for managers and staff to discuss options for their future employment dependent on the outcome of the review. The process is open, transparent and accessible to the trade unions.
I appreciate that. Thank you for pointing it out, Mr. Bercow. I apologise.
The whole moving of jobs issue that the Government are trying to force on Northern Ireland surely flies in the face of Government policy. I raised it earlier with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) in relation to trying to encourage people back to work. Surely it flies in the face of what the Government have been trying to do for a number of months.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is making a serious point, but I do not believe that that is the case. Having been an employment Minister in Northern Ireland, I am familiar with the issues, and I do not believe that the changes proposed for the Belfast urban centre and the review respecting the other HMRC offices will have an impact on employment, although I am aware of his genuine concerns for work in Northern Ireland, as well as those mentioned by other hon. Members.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) asked about the processing of VAT registration. I have responded several times to written questions and other questions on that issue, and he will know that the process has improved, so I shall not take up time discussing it now. This debate is not strictly about that subject, although we are talking about HMRC performance in a broader sense.
Several hon. Members are interested in the matter of pressures on individual staff members. Proposals to rationalise work and office space across Belfast, Antrim and Lisburn were put forward for consultation in September last year. Staff, trade unions, Members of Parliament and local authorities have contributed to that consultation, providing information on travel routes, economic interests in the locations, the position of other employers and Departments and individual circumstances that should be taken into account. A report summarising those responses was published in January this year and is available. HMRC is considering all the information provided during the consultation in arriving at its recommendations.
Order. Before the Minister replies, and so that I am not open to the charge of discrimination between one Member and another, I must say to the hon. Gentleman that he too should not use the word “you”. I hope that both hon. Members will take my rebuke in the constructive spirit in which it was intended. I call the Minister.
I say to the House in all sincerity that the changes being made and the improvements that will follow to HMRC’s processes for responding to customers will help in dealing with poverty, particularly now that HMRC plays such an important role in the administration of tax credits. The administration of tax credits has been much criticised in recent years, and the work being done to improve it will bring dividends. If there are concerns about how the plans will sit with the Northern Ireland Assembly, I am happy to visit to see what can be done to ensure that the administration in Northern Ireland follows as closely as possible Government policy elsewhere in Britain. I am happy to take that discussion there to consider what impact the changes might have on Northern Ireland.
I shall briefly outline some of the facts being considered for the Belfast centre. HMRC has nine offices in the Belfast urban centre: seven in the city, one in Antrim and one in Lisburn, accommodating some 1,700 staff in total. HMRC expects to need roughly the same number of staff across the entire urban centre, including those offices, in 2011. Analysis of staff travel times suggests that our Belfast city centre offices are all within walking distance of each other. Any rationalisation of buildings therefore should not pose serious problems in terms of commuting times. In moving to an efficient structure, HMRC is confident that the majority of staff can be relocated nearby with their own or similar work.
Before the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) jumps to his feet—I am immediately conscious of his comments—I say to him that I recall the M1 well, having travelled it many times. Even in a police car, with all the advantages that that brings, it can take inordinately long. I understand the concerns of people working outside the city centre about any extra travel time they may face, particularly those who depend on public transport. Even though the analysis undertaken by HMRC to support its recommendations will be extensive, individual staff members will have the opportunity to discuss their circumstances with managers before any decision is taken on their suitability to relocate. Throughout the programme, senior management in HMRC are committed to being open with staff.
The Minister has mentioned the test of reasonableness several times in relation to staff relocations. Does she think that it is reasonable for female staff living on the north coast, many of whom have caring responsibilities, to have to leave home before 7 am and arrive back after 7 pm in order to work at HMRC offices in Belfast?
Travelling from Londonderry to Belfast is a long journey, but there are many people in south-east England who commute. [Interruption.] The comparison is germane. I am reluctant to say that such a commute is unreasonable, full stop. Some may make that choice for career purposes, and I would not want to suggest that they are making an unreasonable decision. All the issues will be considered, and individual staff members’ personal circumstances will be taken into account by their managers as the review proceeds, but we are in the earliest stages. We have not even begun the review of the offices about which the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned, but I know that he will continue to make such representations.
Managers are being open with staff, explaining the options available to individuals and exploring how their expectations can be matched with the need to make the operations more efficient and effective. The decisions are not easy, and they can be made only after all the specific facts are known. Once decisions have been announced in the Belfast urban centre, as elsewhere, HMRC will begin relocating staff and releasing surplus accommodation. As I said, I expect the review of clusters and individual locations—the remainder of HMRC locations in Northern Ireland—to begin within the next couple of months. The hon. Gentleman has expressed concerns about the review of individual locations, several of which have been mentioned. I reassure him and other Members that the full equality impact assessment of all the proposals will be undertaken to identify—I have always found this a comprehensive list—any impacts on people’s racial group, age, marital status, number of dependants, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or, in Northern Ireland, political opinion. It is always worth reminding the House of that.
The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) raised a couple of points to which I should like to respond, because I do not often get the opportunity and I have a minute or two now. He criticised the lean process. I assure him that I am confident that in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, the lean process will bring benefits. It works. I have met staff who have gone through the process, and I can see the benefits to management in terms of the ability to bring about improved customer experience by speeding up how HMRC responds to its work load. I am confident that the process will bring new opportunities for staff.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire was right to draw attention to the assessment of morale in HMRC. It is a cause of concern to me. I suggest that sometimes delay in such processes undermines morale even further. It is important to staff to have some certainty about where they will be and what they will be doing, and that is what I hope HMRC’s review will bring.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry asked about redundancies. HMRC cannot guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies or compulsory moves of home, but its intention is to avoid both if reasonably possible. HMRC is working with staff and unions to minimise the risk of compulsory redundancy, but it cannot guarantee that that will not happen, nor do I think the House would wish to impose such a limitation on it.
The Minister was speaking about the morale implications of delay, and I accept her point. Does she accept that in the context of what she is now billing as two reviews in Northern Ireland, there is a morale hit and frustration about what people see as cynical staging? Doing the Belfast urban review first and guaranteeing that the aggregate number of jobs in the Belfast area will remain roughly the same means that the entire efficiency hit on job numbers—about 500—will affect the rest of Northern Ireland. That sort of delay, or pretend delay, which is effectively cynical staging, hits morale big time.
The hon. Gentleman has his point of view. He may call it cynical staging, but HMRC has taken a pragmatic approach that has worked and has paid dividends elsewhere in the UK as it has carried this programme forward. If hon. Members are concerned about the impact, I encourage them to visit regions that have gone through the process.
There is one point that the Minister has not picked up. I recognise that the exercise should be transparent, as she said, and thorough. The document that I received about my tax office shows how thorough it has been on the personnel side, but it is slightly light on the financial side. When making counter-proposals, one needs to know the financial cost of any moves that are being made. One therefore needs to know the accommodation costs that might be imposed not only for the offices that are being closed, or are scheduled for closure, but for those that are being kept open to draw comparisons. If the unions are to make counter-proposals, they need that sort of data—otherwise, the exercise is not open and transparent.
The hon. Gentleman will know that when decisions are announced, financial assessments are also released. It is worth the House remembering that HMRC has saved the not inconsiderable sum of £27 million as a result of the process. It should be congratulated on that and encouraged to make further progress. This long-term programme will deliver a more responsive and efficient service for taxpayers and HMRC customers. I hope that hon. Members will look back on it and say, “Yes, we can see the benefits of what has happened.”
Dry Macular Degeneration
It is delightful to serve under your careful stewardship this morning, Mr. Bercow.
This debate is about dry macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 65 in the UK. Research published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology in 2002 suggested that more than 200,000 people had a condition severe enough to be registered but many more had a less severe form of the disease. In an article in The Times in 2007, Dr. Thomas Stuttaford, an industry expert, said that macular degeneration affected more than 500,000 people in the UK. That is a significant number, and, with an ageing population, it is probably increasing.
Tom Bembridge, the chief executive of the Macular Disease Society, said during a discussion that I had with him recently that one of the most pressing issues is the referral time for those diagnosed with low-vision problems. When someone leaves a clinic, it takes some time for the services that they need to kick in, and there is a particular lack of a joined-up approach between social services and the national health service in respect of this disease. I shall expand on that later.
Tom Bembridge queries what the Government are doing to ensure that there is no postcode lottery for provisional support following a low-vision assessment. There are flagship projects in Camden and Islington, and there has been a project pilot in Gateshead to attempt a joined-up approach by the NHS and social services. The Macular Disease Society would like them to be replicated throughout the country. Part of the problem with equipment is that its supply is down to social services. It has been identified that this major problem falls into the gap between health and social provision, and there is a great belief that there should be a more joined-up approach by the NHS and the Department of Health.
Dry macular degeneration is the most common form of the disease. It occurs when a build-up of waste material and a lack of proper nutrition cause a gradual deterioration of the macula, usually over many years. Dry macular degeneration accounts for 80 per cent. of cases. Wet macular degeneration is less common and occurs when tiny new abnormal blood vessels begin to grow behind the retina towards the macula. They usually leak blood and fluid, damaging the macula and causing a more rapid loss of central vision. That form of the disease has received much high-profile coverage in the national and local press because sufferers face a postcode lottery for funding for the latest drug treatments to ease their symptoms.
I do not wish to dwell on that form of the condition because many people have championed the cause, although I would like to relate that my surgery—I am sure that it is not the only one—has several sad cases of people with wet macular degeneration in one eye and dry macular degeneration in the other eye who have been told that they need to go blind before they can access treatment for the wet condition. Of course, there is the awful time bomb of the wet eye going first and those people being left with only the untreatable dry eye. It is unacceptable to withhold treatment for this preventable form of blindness.
However, I want to focus on those with dry macular degeneration. They form the majority of sufferers but do not seem to be able to grab headlines in the way that wet macular suffers have recently. They face a world of increasing sightlessness. They form the majority of victims but get the least help.
Yesterday, I addressed the annual general meeting of the Macular Disease Society club in St. Albans. It is a very active group. It produces its own leaflets and literature and meets regularly. This large and active club was formed out of desperation; it was not a mutual coming together of like-minded souls. Ken Nutty MBE, the founder of the group, was himself diagnosed with dry macular degeneration, and his woeful experience was a common one: he received little advice on what to expect, doctors were not particularly well informed about his disease, and, after a considerable wait, social services gave him a few basic aids. He graphically describes to the group—he shares his experience with many other people—his depression and frustration at his situation. Unlike many people, he decided to put his anger into action and form a mutual support group.
The St. Albans macular degeneration group was formed in 2002 out of frustration at the lack of information and support. It is a catalyst to try to change the priorities for the treatment of MD sufferers. The group receives inquiries from fellow sufferers across the UK who are anxious to get information and advice. I brought letters with me from people in Andover and other areas of the country who do not have a support society such as the one that Ken has managed to offer in St. Albans. Those sufferers are anxious to get information but do not know where to turn.
In 2004, Mr. Nutty, the leader of the group, started lobbying the Government for a reduction in the cost of closed circuit television readers, and improved accessibility to them. They are not considered a luxury by the many people who suffer from dry macular degeneration. They are considered an aid that makes their life bearable and, indeed, enjoyable and pleasurable again. The rationale is that the readers restore the quality of life for macular degeneration patients, but they cost the individual more than £2,000 if they have to buy them.
Mr. Nutty is a delightful, feisty, articulate 90-year-old. I am sorry to say that yesterday was his last meeting. His sight has become so poor and his health so frail that he is now emigrating to Canada to live with his son for support. His legacy is the fact that he has galvanised many people into taking action to lobby on behalf of fellow sufferers. He is annoyed at what he believes is the complacency of this Government over their plight, and I agree with him.
I made notes of a conversation that I had with Mr. Nutty. His biggest gripe is that macular degeneration sufferers are provided with only a piece of hand-held magnifying glass-style equipment. I urge Ministers, if they have not used one, to try doing so. The device gives a very small field of vision that makes reading less of a pleasure, if not an impossibility, for many people. Ken feels that if sufferers were treated in the same way as those who have hearing problems or who need hip replacements, they would have better access to the best services.
Wet and dry sufferers receive little assistance until they are almost blind. They are then provided with simple hand-held magnifiers, and sometimes a piece of equipment akin to a pair of field glasses. Those things often break and are often useless. Ken and other sufferers think that CCTV-style cameras are needed. They help them to live more independent lives. Indeed, if Ken lived in France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Canada or one of many other countries, two thirds of the cost of such a unit—a black-and-white unit—would be paid for by the Government.
Ken has managed to campaign successfully for CCTV units to be put into libraries in Hertfordshire. Thanks to him, there are now 24 units across the constituencies of Hertfordshire MPs, including mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has attended this debate. Ken believes that he and other sufferers require such units. He feels that macular degeneration sufferers are being discriminated against, because some of the units are no more expensive than some digital hearing aids. In fact, if there were a bulk purchase or commitment to the devices, the cost would drop.
Ken’s other campaign has been to lobby the Government on the waiting times between being diagnosed and receiving assessment and support from social services. The situation was confirmed by the Macular Disease Society. In fact, a worrying case was outlined to me in the meeting yesterday. A chap who was diagnosed with macular degeneration received very little advice but was savvy enough to look up his condition on the internet. He realised that he had a brief opportunity to get laser treatment. Unfortunately, he had to sell his car to access the treatment, only to be offered a treatment slot some several months later, by which time the golden window of opportunity for treatment for wet would be missed.
The lag between diagnosis and assessment for both sorts of macular degeneration is woeful. A few years ago, some patients were waiting up to nine months to be seen by social services. Some of the waiting times have decreased, but outcomes are still patchy.
Macular degeneration should concern all of us. Hon. Members may note that I am wearing glasses today—age-related sight problems. Many of us will be grabbing them on and off as we grow older. None of us seem to think about the fact that we will be stuck with ineffective readers. As the population ages, there will be even more people suffering from macular degeneration. Ken started his club in 2002 with just 17 local members. There are now 97 on his books, and he regularly has 60-plus at his meetings, as he did yesterday.
Macular degeneration is not only a personal tragedy, but has cost implications for the health service if it is not properly managed. The Audit Commission noted that 190,000 blind and partially sighted people were admitted to hospital in 1999 as a result of falls. The cost to the NHS was estimated at £270 million. Given that huge cost, one would think that it would be vital to ensure that as much as possible is done to assist with sight, but an investigation into equipment for disabled people in England and Wales carried out by the Audit Commission in 2000 found a huge variety in provision.
The Audit Commission ordered a full review and reorganisation of community equipment services, but despite that and other calls for improvements from, among others, the Association of Directors of Social Services, evidence shows that there are still major problems with the current system. Those with sight loss face increasing difficulties gaining access to essential items of equipment, including unavailability of items due to funding restrictions, long waiting periods before items are even delivered and a lack of information and training about how to make the best use of equipment when it is eventually provided.
To establish the progress made by implementing the Audit Commission’s recommendations, the Royal National Institute of Blind People carried out research in 2005 into the experiences of 500 blind and partially sighted people. The evidence from the RNIB’s research shows that blind and partially sighted people are being failed by local authorities at every stage of the process, from the initial referral for assessment to the delivery of essential equipment. The research also shows that access to even the most basic items is often denied and items such as CCTV monitors or scanners, which are vital for communication, are rarely provided by local authorities. I urge the Minister to dwell on that failure and specifically to address in his reply the fact that delivering such services through social services, which are given the job of providing such equipment, may not be the best approach.
I should like the Minister to consider a working partnership with social services, as has been demonstrated in other areas, to ensure proper delivery of such services to sufferers of dry macular degeneration, rather than just hoping that local areas are doing their best. As has patently been shown, they are not doing their best. Quite often, local authorities are doing what is cheapest.
I remind the Minister of the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney in 2004. David Cameron asked the Secretary of State for Health:
“what representations he has received on making magnifying equipment more easily available”—[Official Report, 14 September 2004; Vol. 424, c. 1495W.]
I take your guidance; I am sorry, Mr. Bercow.
The brief answer to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney stated that there had been several representations from hon. Members and the RNIB about
“the provision of closed circuit television (CCTV) readers to help visually impaired people with certain tasks”,
“The provision of CCTVs and other non-optical aids is a decision that lies with social services departments as they are considered to be aids to daily living. Being registered as visually impaired is not a pre-requisite to receiving services. Social services departments are responsible for assessing an individual's needs and for arranging services to meet those needs; this could include the provision of CCTV. However, hand-held, stand and spectacle-mounted magnifiers are easier to use, more widely available, more accessible and more cost effective.”
I assert, and Mr. Nutty and his group assert, that what is really driving the lack of adequate provision of CCTV monitors, which make life so much easier for people, is the cost element, which is leading to patchy provision. The then Minister of State, Department of Health, on behalf of the Secretary of State, went on to say:
“Encouragement is being given to hospital and social service departments to work more closely together, and perhaps operate a joint budget to allow more flexibility in funding equipment, and provide a wider range of services and equipment than has hitherto been available. The overall level of funding for aids to vision will, however, rest with primary care trusts and local councils.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2004; Vol. 424, c. 1495W-1496W.]
I should like the Minister to examine that statement, to see whether any encouragement was given and, perhaps, to give us an update on the impact of that encouragement, because I believe, as do macular degeneration sufferers, that little has changed since that answer was given.
In 2006, NHS South West managers spent nearly £400,000 on sculpture for mental health units and a further £100,000 on research into whether anybody liked it. That is an interesting use of public money. Mr. Nutty would say that better services could be provided for those who are struggling to see. Similarly, in 2003, NHS trusts all over the country introduced schemes to teach senior citizens the right way to wear slippers and now Hull is offering replacement of worn-out slippers with new, professionally fitted slippers. Hon. Members might ask how that is relevant to macular degeneration. As I said earlier, loss of sight means that many people fall and end up in hospital. Surely, giving people vision aids would be more useful than slippers. Of course, some would beg to differ. However, there is money in the system for some rather more dubious schemes that, perhaps, affect fewer people than are affected by going blind. In one of the more controversial examples, those who are troubled about losing their virginity can access a hymen-replacement repair: more than 24 of those were done in 2005-06. Those whose sex life is flagging due to age can access vacuum pump devices for erectile dysfunction—again, on the NHS.
I mentioned some of those schemes to Mr. Nutty and his group yesterday and they found them quite amusing, but they might say that although those things are not essential, they improve the quality of life. Mr. Nutty would argue that CCTV readers would improve the quality of the lives of dry macular degeneration sufferers, yet they are being denied them. Why can certain parts of the NHS give away funding to services that do not necessarily treat symptoms, although they aid or help people in their lives and relationships, while those with dry macular degeneration are given the cheapest and most accessible option?
I remind the Minister that, in 2006, the then Health Minister promised free trampolining and tango lessons for the unfit as part of the Government’s attempt to tackle obesity, which costs the NHS £7 billion a year. Perhaps the Minister will say today that a small amount of that money could go to the 500,000 sufferers of dry macular degeneration. If all the other causes that I have mentioned can attract funding and high-profile support, why are my constituents and those of other hon. Members left scrabbling around with equipment that is undoubtedly inferior?
The RNIB says that blind and partially sighted people are being poorly served by the community equipment system. There are pockets of good practice—only pockets but in most areas people are being given a very limited range of items that are almost always low cost. The need for essential equipment supporting independent living, communication and mobility is not being met. The RNIB believes, as I do, that that should be addressed as a matter of urgency. The provision of the right equipment at the right time, with the right training, would contribute towards the independence and quality of life of blind and partially sighted people. Surely, that is what the other examples that I have mentioned do.
The RNIB also believes that better provision would help prevent accidents and early entry into residential care, providing cost savings. It estimates that only 8 per cent. of visually impaired people have access to a CCTV unit—it is no wonder that such units do not come down significantly in price—and a quarter of those have had to pay for the item themselves.
In his response to Mr. Nutty’s campaign, the then Health Minister said:
“I have recently received many representations from people with macular degeneration…at present there is no allowance specifically for non-optical low vision aids within the money granted to NHS hospital trusts”.
Yet as I said earlier, there are supposed to be talks about having some sort of joint budgeting service. Again, I press the Minister to tell me what has happened to that aim. Mr. Nutty, accompanied by the Bishop of St. Albans, met the then Health Minister in 2005 and felt that, at that meeting, they had both received assurances that things would improve. However, things have not improved.
A survey by the RNIB in 2004-05 showed that of the 2 million people with sight loss, approximately 380,000 are registered blind or partially sighted. Many of those people are living in poverty. Some 73 per cent. of older people with sight loss surveyed by the RNIB lived in poverty—in line with the Government's definition of poverty—compared with 27 per cent. of all pensioners. Sight loss has many implications.
Economic deprivation is, equally, a major factor for those of employment age due to the high levels of unemployment among people with sight loss. Three out of four blind and partially sighted people of working age are not in paid employment. Isolation and lack of mobility is a major problem, with 76 per cent. of people with sight loss saying that they get out of the house never, rarely or less than before they lost their sight. If people do not visit those people and they cannot get out, then how much more miserable is it for them to try to occupy their time by reading a novel or a newspaper through a 3 in by 2 in spyglass?
Hospitals and social services struggle most. Twenty per cent. of hospitals and social services reported that patients waited between two and six months to be assessed for optical devices. Those results show that one person in 10 waits between two and six months before being assessed, and the picture is similar for assessments regarding home adaptations and daily living aids. We are failing people with dry macular degeneration.
Ken said yesterday, as he has said on many occasions, that his main passion is that
people who could be us—
“should not be left on their own to cope with just this hand-held magnifier.”
He said that some of those people are ladies aged 80-plus who lost their loved ones in the war. Many of them have paid into the system and feel that they get very little back. He wants to know,
“who is caring about them?”,
and wants me to convey the anger and frustration felt by his group. He wants me to ask the Minister today to say whether there will be improvements in future.
It is always a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I will not make the mistake of naming the leader of any political party—if the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) had simply said “the great leader”, she would have avoided the need for Mr. Bercow to intervene.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I am sure that there is tremendous consensus from all parties on the points that she has made about the impact of dry macular degeneration on the quality of people’s lives. There is no doubt that we owe those who suffer from macular degeneration the best and that, too often, the system in some parts of the country does not respond to the challenges faced.
I will try to address the issues raised by the hon. Lady. My only gentle disagreement with her is that, although the Conservative party consistently talks about the importance of decentralisation and the local devolution of accountability and responsibility—both in terms of the management of public services and clinicians on the front line—Conservative Members come to the House and demand ministerial intervention from offices in Westminster and Whitehall. I gently say to her that to have that vision and view of how public services should operate nationally and then to give a slightly different impression to constituents is perhaps usual during parliamentary and constituency duties, but it is not entirely acceptable.
I accept that people such as Mr. Nutty deserve better and that they do a tremendous job in bringing together people who have similar difficulties. As well as medical intervention and the health service fulfilling its responsibilities, I believe in people who have similar challenges and conditions coming together to support one another and press public services. That is a very powerful way to achieve improvements and changes to public services. For example, you, Mr. Bercow, have been heavily involved in raising in the House the profile of the needs of disabled children and their families. As a consequence of the pressure from parents and families who are supported by parliamentarians, we have a much more progressive and advanced approach to meeting the needs of those families. The concept of mutual support and of people who use public services applying pressure to improve standards and quality is incredibly important.
The hon. Lady asked about community equipment services. Last year, we recognised that community equipment services in most parts of the country are not working well—they are not efficient and they do not give people speedy access to the equipment that they need. We believe that, if the systems that underpin the provision of community equipment are reorganised, available resources will be used more effectively and people will have speedier access to equipment. That is why we have started reforming the provision of community equipment and, in certain areas, have trialled a new model, called the retail model, which essentially attempts to simplify the whole process—from assessment to receiving community equipment. In the next few months, we hope to roll out that model throughout the country. The difficulty is that to impose a one-size-fits-all system on every local authority is simply not within our gift, so we have trialled best practice in simplifying the process—from assessment to delivering the equipment that people need. We believe that we have identified a model that does that. I would have hoped that the hon. Lady had asked the local authority—the local NHS—in her locality whether it intends to apply the principles of the retail community equipment model, so that people such as Mr. Nutty and those in a similar position with dry macular degeneration have access to the equipment that they need.
There is also a resource issue, and the hon. Lady asked all sorts of questions about the way in which NHS resources are deployed. The vast bulk of NHS resources have been deployed to create a situation in which waiting times and lists are at a record low. Some 90 per cent. of people who actually use the NHS, rather than simply reading about it, say that they have a high level of satisfaction with the service that they have received. There are more doctors and nurses than ever before. Advances have been made in the NHS, and the hon. Lady should therefore have been a little more balanced in her presentation. On her point about the use of resources, it is important to reform and reorganise the system to deal with the issue of community equipment and to make the best use of resources.
We cannot have the following approach to the NHS: make the money available, allow local primary care trusts to make the right commissioning decisions based on their population needs and on non-negotiable national priorities, as well as allowing them to make the decisions about the needs of their local populations, and then stand up in the House and issue diktats on certain types of equipment. Having studied the new approach to community equipment, I really believe that, if local authorities and primary care trusts in every part of the country adopted the new model, it would free up considerable resources. I assume that those resources could then be used to purchase the equipment that people require for their individual needs. I am not a clinician, and although it would make me incredibly popular to make sweeping statements that every individual should have access to a particular type of equipment, I am not sure that it is appropriate for a Minister to make those kind of commitments.
If the quality of life of someone with dry macular degeneration would be clearly and considerably enhanced and improved as a consequence of having access to a certain piece of equipment, the local NHS should do everything possible to make that equipment available. However, I do not run every local primary care trust or local authority. We have to accept that we ask people in those organisations—leaders, managers and commissioners—to make difficult decisions.
The issue is about assessing each individual’s needs and considering what would make the most difference to enhancing that person’s quality of life—in this case, a person’s ability to live independently and have as full a life as possible. Obviously, if the determination is that a particular piece of equipment is required, the people making the decision have to consider the available resources and make the right decision.
Part of getting the best use of resources is having a far more joined-up approach between the local NHS and the local authority. I urge the hon. Lady to ask the local authority and the primary care trusts in her local community some hard questions not only about their processes, practices and policies as independent organisations, but about how they propose to have an integrated approach to meeting the needs of a whole range of groups—in this context, people with dry macular degeneration. She should challenge local commissioners in the local authority and primary care trust. Instead of asking Ministers in Westminster and Whitehall to issue central diktats, she should use her influence and her passion on this issue to ask fundamental questions of her local authority and primary care trust.
The hon. Lady obviously genuinely cares about the matter and has spent a lot of time with people who have articulated the difference that could be made to their quality of life. To support that, the Government have instituted a radical reform of the way in which community equipment is provided, and I hope that that will lead to change not just in a few local authorities and primary care trusts, but throughout the country. I believe that people with dry macular degeneration deserve the best possible support and the best quality of life. It is clear what we expect of local PCTs and authorities in the commissioning and provision of equipment.
Sitting suspended until Four o’clock.
It is good to have you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. To save your blushes, I shall not go to the lengths that two of my colleagues went to yesterday in welcoming you to the Chair.
Today there has been an important piece of business in the House. This debate might lack the grandeur of the Budget, but in some people’s eyes it is much more important. Budgets are important, but they are not a matter of life and death. This issue is a matter of life and death to some people following the debate, although others might think it trivial and see looped blind cords as just another household object that they might not even notice.
It is commonly accepted that the household is one of the most dangerous places, and is where the vast majority of accidents occur. When one thinks of household accidents, one thinks of people falling down stairs, being scalded with water or slipping in the bath, but looped blind cords are also a danger. For those who do not know what they are, and perhaps imagine them to be more grandiose than the words suggest, let me explain. They are the cords used to raise, lower or tilt window blinds, and they are usually looped. Some blinds have separate cord designs, but many people are reluctant to use them as they can lead to confusion when operating blinds. Also, separate cords can be tied into a loop, thereby causing the same danger as looped blind cords.
The real issue is not ease of use, but the threat that looped blind cords can pose to young and vulnerable people. A chilling statistic is the estimate that 20 children in the United Kingdom have lost their lives in the past 10 years because of looped blind cords. I confess that I had never considered the dangers of looped blind cords before, and I am sure that that is true of many. When I discussed the issue with my wife, she told me that when my children, who are now adults, were tiny, she tied up the blind cords because she was aware of the inherent danger that they posed. Perhaps that shows how strong a mother’s instincts can be.
The issue has been forcefully highlighted in my constituency by the tragic death of two-year-old toddler Muireann McLaughlin, who died on 5 February this year when she became tangled in a window blind cord in her bedroom. The statistics show that that incident was by no means isolated. In 2004, another toddler lost his life when he became tangled in a window blind cord in Dalgety bay, in Fife, which is only 25 miles from where Muireann lost her life. Last year, a 10-year-old from Uddingston, Lanarkshire, died in the same manner. Families and communities have been rocked by those tragedies.
I pay tribute to the Alloa Advertiser newspaper, in my constituency, which is running a local campaign and has launched a petition to ban looped blind cords. The petition has more than 2,000 signatures and is growing by the hour. The other day, I read some of the comments on this issue, and saw that there is support in all parts of the UK for a ban, and even international support in the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Norway and New Zealand. Scottish councils are also signing up and supporting the campaign.
Many of us will be able to cast our minds back to when our children were young and we looked around our homes for dangers. The stairs, cooker, kettle and cleaning materials are obvious dangers to keep away from young children, but it can be only luck that incidents have been avoided by millions of families. Tragically, families such as those in my constituency have had their children taken from them far too soon. I have spoken to Muireann’s grandfather, and I do not imagine that anyone can understand the hurt and devastation that the family is feeling. It must be difficult for them to come forward at this time, but they have issued a call to the industry and the Government to tackle this issue. It is sad that tragedies such as Muireann’s case in Menstrie have to occur before we take up such issues and call for a ban. I hope that the Minister and the Government will listen to those calls and will give a commitment here, today, that they will begin the process of banning looped blind cords.
I am not an MP who likes to ban things just for the sake and the fun of it, and I have heard from some quarters that such a ban would be another example of the nanny state, but I cannot accept that argument, as it is surely the first duty of a Government to protect their citizens. Are we living up to that responsibility if, on average, two children a year in the UK lose their lives because of a design factor? That is an unacceptable figure, and we must do more—or, more accurately, we must do something.
We in the UK have fallen behind: both the US and Australia have banned looped blind cords, the former more than 10 years ago. A ban in this country is long overdue, and I have been pursuing Baroness Morgan, who has responsibility for the British Standards Institution, for a meeting. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive a reply from her, but I am glad that my colleague the Minister is here to respond to the debate. I firmly believe that the best way to address the issue is to create a new British standard for the blind industry that removes looped cords. However, I will stand corrected if my hon. Friend feels that there is a better way of effecting change.
I have mentioned the US, and it might be useful to give some background to what happened there in the hope that it will be replicated here. A study by the USA’s Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that the total number of window cord strangulations in the US between 1981 and 1995 was 359—nearly one child a fortnight. In 2002, the campaign group, Parents for Window Blind Safety, was set up, and it still monitors the blind market for possible dangers. It aims to educate the public, support affected families and assist in correcting manufacturing defects. A ban on looped blind cords would not be a silver bullet that would solve all the problems: we need regular monitoring of the industry to ensure that it is as safe as it can be.
No one can eliminate accidents, but we can limit the chance of them occurring. We need to remain vigilant and to strive always for safer products in all walks of life. I looked at the Parents for Window Blind Safety web page when I was writing my speech, and I was very moved by the pictures of the young children, mostly toddlers, who have lost their lives. I thought to myself, “What an absolute waste of life. What might those children have grown into if they had been given the opportunity?” Each child had their own unique story and background, but, sadly, the outcome was the same for all of them. If a ban can prevent just one such tragic incident from occurring, it will be worth while.
It is disappointing that the industry has not moved to solve the issue voluntarily, as I have no doubt that it will be aware of what its counterparts are doing in America and Australia. I hope that public awareness of the campaign will encourage the industry to consider the issue, but there will always be manufacturers who try to increase their turnover by using cheaper designs. That is why I believe that a universal UK standard is necessary for the safety of toddlers and to ensure a level playing field in the industry. Surely, there must be a safer way of raising a blind than using a looped cord, and it cannot be beyond the wit of UK design to invent a safer, but effective, method. I hope that we can demonstrate some leadership here today. Families are looking to the Minister to show the will and desire to tackle the issue. I know that Muireann’s family are watching the debate right now, and I hope that what they hear meets their expectations.
On Monday morning, I met the manufacturer of the blinds that were fitted in the McLaughlins’ home. I met a man who was distraught and who blamed himself in the days after the tragedy. He had questions running through his mind for weeks about whether he could have done anything to avoid the tragedy. He did not come up with any answers. This was a man who was following the acceptable standards in the UK. He cannot and should not be blamed. It is the industry as a whole and the British Standards Institution that need to address the issue. When a tragedy occurs, such as the one in Menstrie, there are always people left behind who are gripped by worry and angst. We should spare a thought for them, too.
Change would be a minimal imposition on the industry. Removing looped blind cords will make no difference to the function of the blind. The industry could easily make the transition to protect the young and vulnerable in our society. The solution must be a UK-wide ban on such cords at the point of manufacture and import into the United Kingdom. However, that will still leave millions of such cords in our homes. In a sense, they are a ticking time bomb, and, sadly, there is every chance that they could cause another death, even if we banished them here today. We need to ensure that the dangers are communicated to all corners of the UK in the hope that parents, and those caring for vulnerable people, will at least cut the blind cords now, or replace them with tension snap mechanisms. What guarantee do we have that they will do that? There is none. That is why action is required at a national level to ensure that blind manufacturers are forced to change the design.
Blind manufacturers and installers provide some guidance to point out the risks to new buyers, but is that always the case? Who can answer that question? Do parents always take notice of such guidance? Who can answer that question? Do parents always have the time or the inclination to attach hooks to keep the cords out of reach of tiny hands? We cannot rely on such flimsy guidance and hope that it will be adhered to. We need to act from the top. I have heard some people say that banning these cords will mean little as there are so many other dangers in the household. Although I agree that there are many such dangers, we need to do all that we can to limit them. Looped blind cords serve no specific purpose that cannot be designed out and changed easily into another type of mechanism, most importantly into one that is less dangerous. We need to eliminate needless dangers and to remain vigilant.
I said previously that the best way to address the issue is to create a new British standard. The BSI is renowned worldwide, and its kitemark symbol is one that carries a great deal of trust, integrity and respect in society. Its information supply and training is second to none. I have experience of working to British standards in my previous business life before I came to the House. I have no doubt that if the BSI were requested to look into blind cords, it would be thorough and professional in implementing those instructions. The BSI has thousands of certification marks that have saved lives throughout the UK. It is my hope that it will make the blind industry, which seems to have been overlooked in some instances, much safer in future.
The BSI’s motto is, “Raising standards worldwide.” It appears to me that standards worldwide have been raised, but that we need to match them in the UK for all our sakes and to protect families from tragedies, such as the one that occurred in Menstrie in February. I am eager to hear what the Minister has to say on the issue. I want him to be aware that there is an air of expectancy in the country about the words that he will deliver. I hope that we will not be left disappointed. I trust that he will be happy to meet me to discuss the issue at some point in the not-too-distant future.
I also want to thank Muireann’s parents for their actions following their daughter’s tragic death. They donated two of their daughter’s heart valves for transplant, thereby ensuring that other lives will be spared even if their daughter’s could not be. I am heavily involved in a campaign to increase the number of organ donors and to move towards an opt-out system. However, the McLaughlins’ courage should be recognised here today.
Before I sit down, may I urge my colleagues to show their support for this cause by adding their names to my early-day motion 1115, which calls for the designing-out of looped blind cords? It currently has the support of 25 colleagues. It will be a lot easier to sign the early-day motion and support the campaign than to stand here at some point in the future, arguing for further change after yet more tragic deaths. I thank you for your patience, Mr. Bercow, and await, with anticipation, the Minister’s remarks.
The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this Adjournment debate on looped blind cords and on the fair and reasonable way in which he introduced his remarks. I am, of course, aware of the recent tragedy in his constituency that prompted this debate, and I am sure that all hon. Members join me in extending their deepest sympathies to the McLaughlin family, who face such a tragic loss as a result of looped blind cords. The safety of any product is paramount, especially when the consequences of inadequate safety requirements could be tragic.
My hon. Friend suggested that, in the past 10 years, up to 20 children are reported to have lost their lives in the UK as a result of incidents involving looped blind cords. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills does not keep records of child deaths attributable to blind cords, so I cannot confirm whether his figure is correct. However, even one death arising from such an incident must be a cause for considerable public concern.
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I am relatively new to this subject, but before I address the regulatory position in the UK, I shall say a few words about international comparisons. He talked a great deal about the situation in the United States and Australia. As I understand it, despite heavy campaigning in the US and Australia for the banning of such products, a complete ban did not result in either country. Instead, other means of addressing the problems were found. In the US, a meeting on the subject was held between the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to which he referred, which conducted a study on window cord strangulations, and the Window Covering Safety Council, the membership of which is made up of major US manufacturers, importers and retailers of window coverings.
Following that meeting, the WCSC agreed to eliminate loops from the production of all window cords. As I understand it, the industry reacted to the campaign and moved away from using the looped cord mechanism. The US Government did not need to place a legal prohibition on such products; the CPSC has worked with US businesses to develop a voluntary standard that sets out performance requirements and includes alternative devices and test methods to address strangulation hazards associated with all types of cords on window coverings.
In Australia, the Government issued a product safety order banning the sale of hazardous looped cords to manufacturers, installers, suppliers and retailers in Western Australia and New South Wales. However, as I understand it, looped cords continue to be allowed provided that they are 1.6 m above the base of the blind when lowered or that an alternative safety mechanism is used, such as a tension device. The order also encourages suppliers and manufacturers to provide alternatives to systems that require looped cords. In that case, a hazardous cord appears to be defined as being longer than 1.6 m, and therefore potentially within the reach of children, or without a safety mechanism, if required, such as a tension device.
Both the US and Australian policies have focused on alternative mechanisms that can be used on blinds, rather than on the imposition of a complete ban on looped cord products. They have succeeded in eliminating hazardous looped blind cords using the legal structures in those countries and by working with industry.
My hon. Friend wants to know how that compares with the UK’s position. The UK has responded to safety concerns associated with blind cords. As soon as it came to light, in 2004, that the safety and performance requirements of blind cords could be improved, the UK standards committee initiated work to improve them. Through the committee, we have led Europe by putting forward amendments to European standard EN 13120 that are equivalent to the safety requirements in the US standard and in the Australian product safety order. The UK has led the way on this in Europe, and other EU member states have accepted our proposed amendments to the current standard. It is expected that the revised standard will be ratified in July.
I should like to provide some details about the process, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and officials to discuss the matter further. In the UK, looped blind cords are covered under the general product safety regulation, which sets out general safety principles. European standard EN 13120 is the standard that sets out the detailed safety requirements to support the GPSR. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for the GPSR and has been heavily involved in the development of the standard. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is responsible for sponsorship of the British Standards Institution and for standardisation policy. BSI, as the UK’s national standards body, represents the UK’s views in Europe.
The CEN, which is the relevant European standards organisation of which BSI is a member, developed the standard that currently sets out the performance and safety requirements for internal window blinds. The performance and safety requirements will have been set by representatives from industry, consumer groups and others with an interest at the European level. In the UK, BSI set up a committee of technical experts, industry and consumer groups and Government officials to provide the UK’s input. BSI’s role is to facilitate the process and feed the UK position into the European forum. BERR and its officials have been heavily involved in the process and have steered its content.
As I indicated, in 2004, as soon as it was apparent to the Government that the safety requirements of the standard could be improved, the UK committee recommended a revision to EN 13120, and the subsequent amendments to the standard have introduced stronger warning requirements concerning the risk of strangulation to children. They also set requirements for design features or accessories that allow cords to be kept out of reach of children.
I fully understand that there are facilities and mechanisms in use today that will keep cords out of the way of tiny hands, but the difficulty is that they are in some way temporary. They are not integral to the blind but fixed to a wall. Something that is screwed to the wall might be taken off when someone is decorating but not put back on when they have finished decorating, therefore raising the possibility of a looped blind cord hanging down. That would result in the blind not being installed correctly to the standard. There are inherent problems with the safety mechanisms that we have today.
I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend is making. When the UK’s proposed amendments were considered in Europe, they were compared with the US standard and the Australian product safety order to ensure that the European standard was as comprehensive as possible. I invite him to look at the proposed standard. It is being consulted on at present, and perhaps we can meet to discuss whether it is appropriate and proportionate.
My hon. Friend should note that the amendments to the European standard focus on the design of the product and on improving labelling on products. His contribution to the debate is important, because communicating the potential hazards of looped blind cords that are already in people’s homes is important, and we have various organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents that do just that.
We need to ensure that manufacturers are developing and introducing features that will improve the safety of the product. Additionally, amendments to the standard ensure that manufacturers label their products so that installers are aware of risks and how they may be managed. For example, as my hon. Friend said, blinds that have loop cords should not be near beds, cots or furniture, from where children may easily reach them. To the best of my understanding, the amendments are equivalent to the safety requirements in the US standard and the Australian product safety order.
As I indicated, the amended standard is expected to be ratified in July and will then be adopted in the UK towards the end of the year. The key feature of the process is that it is driven by consensus, which is important, in that it takes account of the views of all the relevant groups, including consumer safety groups.
The then Department of Trade and Industry, now BERR, as the guardian of the GPSR, considered the option of making regulations under section 11 of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 in order to improve the safety of blinds. The aim of the Act is to help to safeguard the consumer from products that do not reach a reasonable level of safety. The Act is important to all those with an interest in the safety of products that are put on to the market. It provides any Secretary of State with the power to introduce safety regulations if that is deemed necessary to protect the health and safety of consumers.
As BERR is the guardian of the GPSR and the policy on product safety, this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. BERR would need to consider the full impact of any proposal to put in place a national regulation, but the normal way in which such things are done is through the GPSR.
Additionally, any proposal to introduce new regulation would be subject to the provisions in directive 98/34/EC, which has put in place a process that European member states must follow so that national technical regulations do not create a barrier to trade. I am sorry to go into so much detail, but it may help to give sufficient information to those who are passionately interested in the issue, as I know people are.
Any proposed new regulation would also need to be considered in the context of whether there is a need to go further than what is provided for in the amended standard. The updated European standard is imminent, and it will support enforcement action taken under the GPSR, so there is no immediately obvious case for introducing specific regulation.
Let me reiterate that the proposed amended standard not only tightens the warning requirements but sets out requirements for safety accessories or design features so that the cords are kept out of reach of children. Therefore, if the design of the blind requires a looped operating mechanism, the revised standard requires manufacturers to introduce means of limiting risks by incorporating them into the design of the product.
Improved public information is, of course, extremely important. The British Blind and Shutter Association, whose members have been part of the process to revise the standard, have been actively promoting the safety of blinds within the UK and will continue to do so. Information has been featured in direct communications to members and in articles in trade journals and general journals such as Household, Home Parent and Parent and Child, but I am sure that there is more that we can do by working with the industry.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. It is right that we communicate the potential dangers of looped blind cord mechanisms. I am happy to meet him in conjunction with officials. I hope that he is reassured that the regulations that will be introduced imminently will be a significant improvement, but of course he and I will want to review them to be absolutely satisfied of that fact.
Trunk Roads (Norfolk)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.
The county of Norfolk has seen substantial economic success over the past decade or so. It has also seen significant population growth and growth in the amount of vehicles driving on its roads. I will return to that in a moment, because it is particularly relevant in respect of the A47, which is Norfolk’s key east-west trunk road.
Only 25 per cent. of the A47 is dualled and much of its dualling dates back to the 1970s. For example, the King’s Lynn southern bypass, the Swaffham bypass and the Dereham bypass were all built in the 1970s. We are talking about roads that were built nearly 30 years ago. Since then, we have seen the opening of the Norwich ring road, which links with an important part of the A47. Under the last Conservative Administration, the important Tilney-Wisbech stretch of the A47, which is dual carriageway, was opened. More recently, the Thorney bypass was opened. However, roughly 75 per cent. of the A47 is still single carriageway.
I should like to mention the sheer folly of building new bypasses of single carriageway standard, as happened at Narborough and Wisbech. More recently, under this Administration, we saw the absurdity of building the new Hardwick flyover to single carriageway standard.
The impact of busy single carriageway traffic rumbling through villages is significant. Let us consider some of the villages in my constituency on the route of the A47. For example, the communities of Middleton, East Winch and West Bilney are totally cut in half. Children going to school have to cross that road every day, and people going to shops and pubs face exactly the same challenge.
There is no question but that single carriageway roads are substantially more dangerous than dual carriageway roads. On Monday, a lorry turned over on the Acle straight. On Friday last week, there was a fatality on the A47 at Narborough, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) and that road was closed for a substantial period. Of course, when busy single carriageway roads are closed, there have to be diversions. Such diversions are time-consuming and put a huge amount of strain and pressure on local villages. Often, the diversion routes are totally unsuitable. We are talking about some 23,000 vehicles a day being pushed off a busy trunk road on to minor roads.
The accident in my constituency, which my hon. Friend described, illustrated a wider point that we need to deal with in Norfolk. Our trunk roads are unfit and unsafe for the traffic that they carry in the 21st century. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time that the Government woke up to the fact that, if Norfolk is going to realise its true economic potential, they must recognise that those roads are of national, not just regional, importance and that proper upgrading and proper funding for them should come from central Government?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will deal with that point in a moment. The Government are forcing ever-larger growth figures for housing on Norfolk, yet they are not supplying the infrastructure that is vital for those growth figures.
I should like to quote Adrian Gunson, the Norfolk county council cabinet member for planning and transportation, who commented last week on the problems and challenges arising due to single carriageway stretches of the A47 carrying large amounts of traffic, and on the cost to the local economy of accidents that happen on those stretches of road:
“Quite apart from the loss of life and limb in accidents, any sort of incident in these single carriageway stretches of the A47 has a serious effect on travellers, businesses and surrounding communities. This is happening month after month, year after year. The cost is probably incalculable, yet many of these accidents would not have happened if the road had been dualled.”
That sums it up.
I should like to deal with the growth figures for Norfolk, in respect of which one should not miss out Cambridgeshire, because the A47 goes through a substantial part of Cambridgeshire as well. Looking at the greater Norwich area, which includes Norwich city council, Broadland district council and South Norfolk district council, the figure for housing increases between 2006 and 2026 is 40,000 dwellings, and some 35,000 more jobs are anticipated. That is a huge number of extra people along an important part of a vital trunk road.
Recently, the go-ahead was given for the construction of Yarmouth’s east port and outer harbour. That will lead to a substantial amount of extra freight traffic coming on to the A47. In fact, there will be a significant number of extra lorry movements, as freight traffic is concentrated on the new east port at Yarmouth, away from some of the other east coast ports in East Anglia.
The housing requirement for Fenland district council in Cambridgeshire between 2001 and 2024 is another 12,250 homes, with the market town of Wisbech expanding by more than 4,000. In Breckland, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), although a lot of the growth will be concentrated along the A11 corridor, there will be substantial growth in Dereham, Swaffham and Narborough. Again, a lot of extra pressure will be put on the A47.
In my constituency, the housing requirement increase for the borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk between 2001 and 2021 is 12,000 new homes, increasing to 14,400 by 2026. King’s Lynn will be named as a regional transport node. King’s Lynn is, as the Minister will know, a key centre for development and change. Furthermore, the council has submitted a bid for King’s Lynn to become a new growth point. As the Minister will also be aware, we have a major brownfield site scheme, encompassing quite a lot of the old industrial area of South Lynn, which is known as the Nar Ouse millennium community housing project. The Minister will know that a development cap of 450 units has been imposed on that project by the Highways Agency, even though its total potential is 874 housing units. The agency needs to be satisfied that there will be traffic improvements before lifting the cap. Of course, the A47 is vital to that project, because the community is just on the edge of the A47 South Lynn bypass.
We are seeing already a huge amount of overload on single carriageway stretches of the A47. I have done some research into figures on vehicle movements on some of those stretches. Along the Guyhirn to Wisbech B198 stretch of the A47 in Cambridgeshire, there are more than 24,000 daily vehicle movements. I understand that the normal threshold figure for the Government to decide that a dual carriageway should be built is 11,000 vehicles, although I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. More than 20,000 vehicles a day travel along many stretches of the A47. We need serious action on that stretch of road, the whole way from the A1, west of Peterborough, to Great Yarmouth.
I want to touch on the discussion, which has been somewhat vexed of late, about the trans-European network. The A47 from Yarmouth through to the A1 at Peterborough is part of a strategic trans-European network—the TEN—that links various European cities. However, within the TEN designation, there are also priorities axes that are more likely to receive European TEN-T funding. The A47 is not currently regarded as a priority axis.
I wrote to the Minister a while back to ask why the A47 was not a priority axis and, in particular, why it had not been made a priority axis in the light of the go-ahead for the Yarmouth outer harbour and the figures for extra housing and development that the Government have imposed on Norfolk. The Minister wrote back on 7 February, saying:
“I can confirm that the A47 between Great Yarmouth and the A1 near Peterborough remains part of the Trans-European Network (TEN-T) and this status has not been amended”.
However, he did not explain why it is not a priority axis. Unless it is a priority axis, it will not attract extra funding from Europe or, possibly, even from the Government. Will he therefore answer that question today? All MPs with Norfolk constituencies regard it as an incredibly important matter.
We need from the Minister and the Government a firm commitment to dual the entire length of the road. We already have some good bypasses that are dual carriageways. If anyone goes along those stretches of dual carriageway, they will see for themselves how much safer they are, but then they will hit a bottleneck of single carriageway. We therefore need a firm commitment from the Minister.
Without making a key list of priorities, I shall note the really bad parts of the road. The Acle straight is very bad. The Blofield to North Burlingham stretch is very bad. The Middleton, East Winch and West Bilney stretch in my constituency is very bad. The North Tuddenham and eastern stretch to the west of Norwich is particularly bad. The Narborough bypass, where the accident that I mentioned took place last Friday, was absurdly and foolishly built as a single carriageway. It is a fast, new and wide stretch of road, but it is a single carriageway, so given the volume of traffic, it is a very dangerous stretch of road. The Great Yarmouth third river crossing was a priority for improvement to dual carriageway standard, as was the A47 going west of Peterborough through to the A1. The A47 is Norfolk’s key east-west axis, and we really want action on it—not promises or fine words, but a commitment to action.
I shall very briefly touch on the other roads that concern my constituents. Although they are perhaps not as important, they are nevertheless vital to the economic well-being of west Norfolk and Norfolk as a whole. First, the A11 is the key link from the south and from the motorway network to Norwich. Over the years, all Members with Norfolk constituencies have campaigned hard to secure improvements to the A11, and we have, I am pleased to say, more or less succeeded. However, one stretch remains a problem—from Barton Mills to Thetford. Will the Minister tell us today when that stretch of that vital trunk road will be dualled?
Secondly, the A10 is the important link from King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, going south to Cambridge and the M11. The road was de-trunked about five or six years ago and there are no dual carriageway sections on it whatsoever. Again, we have seen the folly of various bypasses being built on the A10—for example, around Downham Market and around Ely—as single carriageway roads. Goodness, how much easier and more economic it would have been to put in another carriageway at the time, rather than later.
The A10, because it is de-trunked, is the county council’s responsibility, and on a part of the road in my constituency, going through West Winch and Setchey, two villages have been completely cut in half. It is now a priority for the county council’s road building programme, but because the road does not have regional priority, there is little chance of it being built in the near future. Will the Minister tell us today why that regional priority has a low designation? Can he do anything about it? Can he speak to the relevant people in those regional bodies to ensure that the A10—in particular, that bypass—is given more priority?
Thirdly, the A17, which is the vital link road from King’s Lynn and West Norfolk going north, was similarly de-trunked about five or six years ago.
Order. I counsel the hon. Gentleman not to refer to, still less to dilate upon, roads that have been de-trunked, for which the Government do not have any responsibility. I also very gently point out to him that I feel sure that he is nearing the conclusion of his speech, because he awaits with eager anticipation that of his hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson).
Thank you, Mr. Bercow, for that gentle reminder. I am bringing my remarks to a conclusion.
It is important to mention that we are trying to get the de-trunked roads re-trunked, and I should like the Minister to tell us the chances of him using his good offices to ensure that we have extra dual carriageways on the two roads that are so important to my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Norfolk and for South-West Norfolk.
In conclusion, Norfolk is a county with a very important future. It has a great economic future, but it needs the infrastructure to service that extra growth and to guarantee and secure those jobs. On the one hand, a Minister says that Norfolk must grow and meet those housing targets, but on the other, other Departments say, “All your pleas for better infrastructure will not actually be met or fulfilled.” I therefore look to the Minister this afternoon to give us some guarantees and to confirm that there really will be progress.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) on obtaining the debate. I thank him for allowing me a brief opportunity to speak, and the Minister, too, for his generosity.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, a sizeable part of the A47 runs through my constituency, and only part of it is dualled. I have been campaigning on the issue since 1997, I am a member of the A47 alliance, which brings together many interested groups, and I help to represent all the MPs on it. The A47 is a crucial link road between the east midlands and Great Yarmouth, but there are frequent serious accidents, and when they occur, they not only completely block the A47, but there are diversions around the whole of Norfolk. It is almost like going back to mediaeval times.
The Government were mistaken when they decided to downgrade the status of the A47, alongside that of many other roads, from a strategic route of national importance. It was done several years ago, and the French, the Germans and the Dutch would never have made such a mistake on such an important road. As a consequence of that decision, as my hon. Friend touched upon, effectively, the European Union also downgraded the road’s status as a trans-European network. Our friend, Mr. Robert Sturdy, an MEP for the eastern region, obtained that information from the EU.
The Government say that it is no good lobbying Ministers about the future of the A47, because decisions and priorities are at a regional transport board level. However, the conclusion of everybody belonging to the A47 alliance is that, sadly, at that regional level, every area is set against another area, and they all compete for a limited amount of money. That is not satisfactory.
The A47 alliance recently commissioned studies from three district councils—Broadland, Fenland and Breckland district councils—and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk borough council, in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The study was entitled, “The Potential Implications of Proposed Growth on the A47”. Based on the Government’s figures, the report shows that the Government’s and the eastern region’s housing targets for those councils and Norwich will make the present problems on the A47 much worse,
“and indeed in some instances the housing targets will not be achieved unless the A47 is improved.”
When the outer harbour at Great Yarmouth is completed, as my hon. Friend said, there will be even more traffic congestion.
Finally, the responsibility rests at ministerial level. That is not just my view, but the view of local businesses and local authorities. I urge the Minister to consider reinstating the A47 as a strategic route of national importance, because without that measure, we will continue to have a rather poor debate.
Thank you, Mr. Bercow, I shall make one very quick point.
The Minister is fully aware that Norfolk is the only county in England that does not have a dual carriageway network linking it to the national trunk road network. As such, its road networkis not fit for purpose or for the current traffic on it. I hope that the Minister will address my earlier point about Norfolk’s potential economic growth being stifled by the fact that it does not have the roads infrastructure that it should. Previous Ministers doing his job have considered the issue and come out with platitudes but not a great deal of action, so I hope that he will not use his response to suggest that the issue is of regional importance. As my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, the roads infrastructure in Norfolk is clearly of national importance and needs national Government support, rather than—dare I say it to the Minister, who is a decent man?—fobbing off to some regional prioritisation for which nobody will take responsibility.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) on securing the debate and commend the comments made by his colleagues. I understand the importance of the subject, as it is a common concern among Members on both sides of the House when the pot for carrying out works to strategic roads in an area is necessarily limited and tensions obviously emerge between the various stakeholders in each region. I want to say a little more on that later.
I will address some of the specific comments made by the hon. Gentleman. He asked when the last part of the A11 was due to be dualled. It has been scheduled for dualling in the period between 2009-10 and 2015-16, which is a long period and I understand his impatience in that regard. He also raised a point that has been raised with me before by Robert Sturdy MEP on why the A47 is part of the trans-European network but not designated as a road of national importance. Four criteria must be met before a road can be designated as a national route, one of which is that it must be part of the trans-European network. The three additional criteria are that flows should be greater than 60,000 vehicles a day, that heavy goods vehicles should comprise more than 15 per cent. of the total and that any such routes should link two of 20 major cities in England. The A47 does not meet those four criteria.
I understand the argument that the hon. Gentleman made. He will not be surprised to note that, from a number of discussions with colleagues on both sides of the House, the obvious solution seems to be to change the designation of a particular route from a road of regional importance to one of national importance, thereby, it is assumed, generating an unspecified and presumably limitless amount of cash from a source that has previously been unidentified. Were that course to be pursued, the money that would have to be used for any changes to those roads would not simply be additional to what has already been given in the regional funding allocation, but would have to be top-sliced from the regional funding allocation, so we would be back to exactly where we began. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred to the regional transport boards as comprising stakeholders who basically fight for funds for their own areas. We would end up in exactly the same situation, but with a smaller pot of money to argue over. The solution in this case is not as simple and straightforward as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk suggests.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about vehicle flows on the A47 with regard to the criteria for dualling. He suggested that a single carriageway carrying 11,000 vehicles would automatically qualify to be upgraded to a dual carriageway. My understanding is that 11,000 is the figure at which the Highways Agency will begin to look at a road to see whether dualling would represent value for money, rather than a definite criterion. He raised a number of issues, so if I cannot answer them all in the short time left, I will of course write to him to clarify those matters.
The economic performance of the east of England depends, as has been said, on good connections at national and international levels. We work closely with regional partners to deliver the transport infrastructure that the region deserves and requires. Norfolk, by virtue of its location, is sometimes perceived as on the sidelines, especially by those living there. However, in recent years there have been some additions to the strategic transport infrastructure, which have improved accessibility to the rest of the country.
Norfolk is served by six major roads from the west and south—the A47, A11 and A12, and the A10, A17 and A140, which are the responsibility of Norfolk county council. In recent years, there have been several improvements to those roads, such as the dualling of the Attleborough bypass, which removed a major congestion point on the A11 and significantly reduced delays along the route, and the Hardwick flyover on the A47 in the hon Gentleman’s constituency.
A number of local transport schemes in Norfolk have also contributed to improved access to the wider strategic network and, therefore, to connections with the rest of the country. However, it is not only within Norfolk that we need to look for improvements. Improvements outside the county can benefit accessibility to it. We have completed the Thorney bypass in Peterborough on the A47, which had been promised by successive Governments for more than 60 years.
Future provision of additional transport infrastructure will be met through our goals of delivering sustainable growth and economic prosperity throughout the country. The agenda for that growth in the east of England is being set by the emerging regional spatial strategy, or east of England plan. Underpinning that is the regional transport strategy, which has an overall vision to deliver the spatial strategy. That provides a regional framework for delivery of transport investment and policy priorities focused on two levels: first, encouraging sustainable transport solutions for the key growth centres of the region; and secondly, emphasising the need to improve the strategic and regional road networks by providing journey reliability through tackling congestion and improving safety and efficiency.
In the east of England plan, the Norwich area has been identified as a transport investment priority. As it is a key centre for development and change, I welcome the approach by the three local planning authorities in joining forces to form the Greater Norwich development partnership, with the aim of delivering a joint core strategy for their local development framework. From a transport perspective, that will help to provide an integrated approach to identifying transport solutions to the delivery of that growth.
I will move on as quickly as I can to the infrastructure that links the urban areas. The regional transport strategy has identified key elements of infrastructure requirement, and I am pleased that the region has prioritised the funding of those schemes through the regional funding allocations. I am talking, of course, about the dualling of the A47 between Blofield and North Burlingham and of the A11 between Mildenhall and Thetford. Both are subject to statutory procedures but could be delivered between 2009-10 and 2015-16. I am delighted that after many years of Government investment, the longer-term strategy of completing the dualling of the A11, linking the north of the region with the motorway system and the midlands via the A14, is finally in sight.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have campaigned long and hard for further dualling of the A47, and I pay tribute to the efforts that they have made on behalf of their constituents. Although that is commendable, I hope that they will consider their aspiration in the context of the related housing and economic development programmes identified in the east of England plan. Transport should be seen not in isolation, but as part of the regional strategic decision-making process. That is why there is a regional transport strategy and why, apart from the A47 Blofield to North Burlingham scheme, the strategy has not identified the A47 outside the Norwich area as a priority for further study. That position is in line with the recommendations made through the Norwich to Peterborough multi-modal study a few years ago.
The regional funding allocations provide the means for delivering the transport priorities of the east of England plan, and there will be an opportunity to reconsider regional priorities again this summer as part of a review of the regional funding allocations that the Department for Transport will be conducting. I welcome the recent announcement by the East of England Development Agency to commission a study to consider how transport can unlock the economic growth potential of the region.
As I am running out of time, I suggest that the refreshing of the regional funding allocation might be the opportunity for hon. Members to lobby the regional transport board in their area to try to persuade their colleagues there that priorities should be re-ordered to give the A47 the attention that it has not had hitherto.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.