Tuesday 19 May 2009
[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]
Fire Safety (Schools)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Barbara Keeley.)
I hope that this will be a sober debate—in the best possible sense of the word. I am pleased this morning, because at 6 am I received a telephone call and heard a baby crying at the other end; my 10th grandchild had just been born—a lovely little girl. She weighs 6 lb 8 oz and is a Glaswegian, by the way. She came early, so I cannot tell hon. Members her name yet, but obviously it will not be Ian.
In the mid-1980s, I was a member of the then Greater Manchester fire and civil defence authority. As a consequence of my experiences working with courageous and dedicated firefighters, I made the rather rash promise, when I left the authority, that within two years of becoming a Member of Parliament, I would organise a campaign to get dangerous foam furniture banned outright, and last year we celebrated the ban’s 20th anniversary. The link between the ban and the introduction of smoke alarms nationwide has saved an estimated 14,000 lives and 100,000 injuries. Changes in the law on fire prevention work extremely well.
Over the past 20 years, the United Kingdom—whatever party has been in power—has been at the forefront in fighting the dangers of fire and introducing measures of prevention to minimise the risk of death and injury from fires. In my view, sprinkler systems in schools are an essential part of that armoury of fire prevention, but despite the efforts of the firefighting community, the insurance industry, teaching unions and the Government’s declared public policy of supporting sprinkler systems in schools, of the 30,000 schools in the UK, only just over 200 have sprinkler systems.
Every week in the UK, 30 schools are damaged or destroyed by arson attacks, and the number of major school fires has risen by 55 per cent., according to the National Union of Teachers. Costs relating to these fires have risen by more than 170 per cent. over the past 10 years, and teaching unions say that the cost of school fires is now equivalent to building 45 new primary schools or employing an extra 3,750 teachers. Fifty people are injured in school fires every year. Thankfully, no one has been killed, but, given the number of fires, the number of children and other people involved, and the nature of the fires—an increasing number are started during school hours—it is only a matter of time before a tragedy strikes.
School fires account for nearly 5 per cent. of all non-dwelling fires every year. In the United States, which has more than 150,000 schools, fire costs are about half those in the United Kingdom. Why? According to the Zurich Municipal insurance company, the answer is quite simple: most American schools have sprinkler systems fitted. Greater Manchester fire and rescue service published a report on arson in schools. It was the work of Terri Byrne, who is the crime and disorder development officer. The research is frightening. Sixty-one per cent. of all UK school fires are deliberate, whereas only 45 per cent.—I say “only”—of other building fires are deliberate. That means that schools are more vulnerable than other buildings.
There is a large number of non-accidental fires in schools, in particular, for reasons that we all understand. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a narrow, but important subject. One very helpful initiative was taken by the superb Essex fire service, which puts wayward kids through very intensive and demanding firefighting and fire prevention courses. The courses take a number of kids, and at the end of them the kids pass out. I have been there and presented the prizes to them. It puts these rather wayward kids back on the right road. Would he recommend that other fire services look at that and expand that excellent scheme?
The hon. Gentleman is right; indeed, Greater Manchester is a pioneering fire authority working with his authority. Most authorities in Britain have developed such models. Across the country, firefighters are giving their time, free of charge, on evenings and weekends, to establish relationships in the community—with community groups and organisations and children at risk, either from fire or of being involved in setting fires.
Increasingly, fires are being set during school hours, with 25 per cent. actually starting in classrooms. Four out of 10 school fires are started deliberately in normal school hours. In Greater Manchester, six out of 10 school fires are started deliberately. In my own borough of Wigan we have more school fire incidents than any other part of the county and almost double the number in many other boroughs. Overwhelmingly, these fires are being ignited by naked flames such as matches and lighters. The average cost of a small school fire in Greater Manchester is about £50,000. In 2005—the last year for which I can get figures—school fires in Greater Manchester cost about £5 million a year.
Quite frankly, our schools are under attack. It is no wonder that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers has been campaigning for the installation of sprinklers to be a legal requirement in all new build schools and college refurbishments. The NUT has also been campaigning for the installation of sprinklers and believes that the total cost of school fires is being seriously underestimated. It believes that the true cost is more than £100 million a year. The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association, working with British fire services, says—this is astonishing—that a school has a one in eight chance of a fire, and every week, somewhere in the UK, a school is totally lost to fire.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case on this very important issue. I congratulate him on his new grandfatherly status—I am sure that everyone is delighted for him. He is rightly focusing on the risk to life and limb and the cost of such incidents. However, does he agree that a wider problem is the huge disruption to the education of pupils in the schools themselves? Even if those pupils are nowhere near the building when the fire is lit, the consequences can last for weeks and months, if they are disrupted or their work damaged in any way. There are wider ramifications. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will come on to them in due course.
I have been practising as a grandfather for a number of years—this is my 10th grandchild. I had a misspent youth.
I hope to address the hon. Gentleman’s point in my next comments. Much work has been done by the Local Government Association on the impact—not only the economic but the social costs—on communities, pupils and staff when a fire devastates a school.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on two things: securing this debate and his 10th grandchild. The social cost, to which he referred, tends to spread into the community. Does he agree that, because schools are now used much more by communities, a fire can leave them bewildered and vulnerable? Much more can be done to support communities, and not just the schools.
My hon. Friend is right. The impact does not last only a few days, weeks or months. Sometimes, schools are closed for a year and a half or more, and I hope to give evidence that some teachers’ health is so badly affected that they end up retiring early or cannot return to the school where they worked.
The LGA and its partners produced a very well-researched document, entitled “The Impact of School Fires”, which looked at the economic and social impacts on schools and local communities. It makes it clear that
“the costs of a sprinkler system can be recovered within five years through reduced insurance premiums, which would be reduced by installing sprinklers by around 65 per cent”.
The LGA puts the economic case quite succinctly, but the social case is more devastating:
“The review found that fires have a large direct and indirect cost”
to the community. It goes on to say that
“proportionately, the highest cost of school fires occurs in the South East/London Region (representing 37 per cent of the cost of all school fires)”,
“metropolitan areas experience higher frequencies of school fires and”,
therefore, the greatest total cost and risk. The report says:
“One in eight schools suffers a serious arson attack and 75 per cent of school fires are the result of a malicious fire”,
and goes on to say that
“damage can affect exam results, mean temporary accommodation is needed and result in disruption as a result of rebuilding and insurance cannot replace lost school work and lost school days.”
It states that
“it is estimated that the education of 90,000 children is disrupted by school fires each year…17 per cent of schools who had experienced a fire said that it had led to a drop in staff morale, six per cent to a drop in morale amongst pupils and seven per cent said that their fire had led to negative publicity about their school.”
That is a devastating blow to pupil and staff morale. It also says that
“the increase in the number of extended schools (and the requirement for all schools to offer extended services by 2010) means that, increasingly, entire communities can be affected by a school fire.”
A fire undermines the capacity of community groups to continue to operate. The evidence is all in place.
Craig McCartney—no relation to me—is a teacher at Copleston high school in Suffolk. Believe it or not, pupils set fire to that school. The damage cost more than £1 million. Inevitably the delay between the fire and the rebuilding work meant that there was no staffroom or other facilities for 18 months, thereby causing major stress to both pupils and staff. Teaching unions and the fire service have literally hundreds of examples of personal hardship caused by school fires.
After a fire in Clifton primary school in Greater Manchester, the pupils had to use a church hall, but they could not be educated on Mondays because the hall was already booked. The rebuilding work was done around the children in some of the classes, and it took a year before all the work was complete. Loss adjusters ground down the head teacher and governors over some of the costs. The children’s education was severely disrupted and the impact immense: SATs results fell from 80 per cent. to around only 53 per cent. I am pleased to say that they are well over 80 per cent. again. For the affected children, the damage cannot be undone. Such was the effect of stress on the head teacher in trying to keep his school and community going, he had to retire at the age of 52 and never go back to the school again.
Before my right hon. Friend was even a Minister, let alone a Minister in this Department, he had a long record of campaigning on fire safety issues. He was a very active member of the all-party group that I helped to establish some 20 years ago. I know that in this debate I have a Minister who not only understands the issues—both intellectually and organisationally—but is a friend at court in terms of what we need to do. The debate is not about chivvying along this Minister; it is about finding a way for him to put into practice what he believes is the current policy, which is that local authorities are required to install sprinklers in new schools.
Will my right hon. Friend consider an example in Gloucestershire, in which a new school, Rednock, is being built under PFI arrangements? It is not open yet. At a late stage in the planning, Gloucestershire county council decided to make a budget cut and took the sprinkler system out of the plans. That cannot be acceptable. I raised the matter with the council and asked it not to do it, but it wilfully carried on. That is not acceptable, is it?
It is absolutely scandalous. There is no financial, safety or community rationale for doing what Gloucester did. My hon. Friend may want to go back to the council because, at the weekend, the Fire Service College, which has been in Gloucester for 30 years, was burned down. If it had installed a sprinkler system, it would have been okay.
My right hon. Friend the Minister made a very important statement on 9 November 2007 in which he said:
“There is now a presumption that new schools, built under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, will include sprinklers in the vast majority of cases. BSF is the largest school building programme in 50 years and will involve every primary and secondary school in the country being refurbished or rebuilt.”
The policy, therefore, is absolutely clear, so what we need to discuss is how to implement it on a wide scale.
Fire safety manager, Officer Mark O’Meara, carried out a survey of local authorities in Greater Manchester, and the results make sobering reading. Three boroughs have no policy of fitting sprinklers in BSF or other new schools. Six boroughs have a policy to fit sprinklers, but not all of them use the Government’s national toolkit, so they cannot guarantee the outcome. My borough of Wigan, which I will come back to in a moment, is to fit an aqua mist system. One borough indicates that the toolkit does not show a risk index requiring sprinklers, which is strange when the Minister has made it absolutely clear that it does. All 10 boroughs have no policy to fit sprinklers in refurbished schools. Instead, they go for other cost-effective provisions such as CCTV, which means that someone can stand and watch their school burning down. That does not seem sensible when the Government have given authorities millions of pounds to refurbish and rebuild schools.
All 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester—Salford, Manchester, Bolton, Trafford, Stockport, Tameside, Bury, Wigan, Oldham and Rochdale—participated in the survey about sprinklers. Manchester said that its primary schools had sprinklers but not its BSF schools. Bolton and Trafford said that they had no policy, although I understand that today they are telling the press that they do. Salford has a policy to look at the toolkits, but it is not clear whether the policy should be applied to primary or secondary schools or both. Stockport will use a toolkit for BSF schools—secondary schools—but not in any non-BSF schools, so some schools will get sprinklers and some will not. Tameside said yes, there will be sprinklers in all circumstances. Bury expects sprinklers to be installed in all BSF schools, but not in refurbished schools.
In my authority, aqua mist sprinklers will be installed in all new schools. As I understand it, the Department is not happy about aqua mist programmes because the system has not been tested for widespread use in schools. Therefore, such installation does not make sense. In my constituency, a new multi-million pound school is to be fitted with this second-class arrangement, and it is not acceptable. These systems should not be put in schools until they have been nationally tested and are seen to be effective in areas as large as a school and its associated structures.
Oldham said that sprinklers are to be fitted in all new schools, and in Rochdale, they will be fitted in BSF and all other new schools.
My right hon. Friend can see that, despite what the Government are saying, even in an area that is well respected for its educational attainment across the board, irrespective of which party is in control, and which has 10 boroughs that have all got a reasonably good—or indeed excellent—reputation in school attainment, there is still a wide diversity in what they will install in refurbished and new build schools. The building programme is massive, and I know that my right hon. Friend will tell us about it. I will not steal his thunder and give out all the figures; suffice to say it is a multi-billion pound programme. Within such a context, the cost of installing sprinklers is miniscule. It is not even 1 per cent. of the programme.
If we are not careful, we will have a situation in which 1,500 schools a year will be subject to a fire, and some of them will be completely destroyed. In just five years’ time, when the programme is in full swing, my right hon. Friend will be rebuilding new schools that have been burned down before the cycle has been completed. The NUT reckons that over the next decade, it will cost £1 billion from the new BSF programme to replace and rebuild schools that have burned down. Some of those schools will be new ones. In fact, they will practically all be new schools or refurbished schools. It is not common sense to spend £1 billion to go back and rebuild schools that have just been built.
A school in my constituency was burned down 20 years ago and has been rebuilt without a sprinkler system. As part of the new phase of BSF, it will be rebuilt again, but it will not have a sprinkler system. It has had other fires since the one that totally burned it down. I ask my right hon. Friend to meet the Local Government Association, education authorities and the rest of industry to consider this issue as a matter of urgency.
British insurance industry evidence is unchallengeable. All the myths about water damage and vandalism arising from the installation of sprinklers—I heard one recently in my borough—have been totally debunked by the figures. Sprinklers detect, extinguish and control fires, raise effective alarms and save schools 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is absolutely no reason why the current carnage should be allowed to continue.
I offer my right hon. Friend the experience of this House in 1988 and 1992. I wish to pay credit to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), formerly the Member for Bury, North, and the former Conservative Member for York, Conal Gregory. We were called the three amigos. We campaigned for the banning of dangerous foam furniture and linked it to the introduction of new building regulations to force the building industry to ensure the introduction of smoke alarms in all new build and refurbished properties.
The decision in 1988 to ban dangerous foam furniture and to amend the building regulations resulted in millions of houses in England and Wales being totally protected. I gave the dramatic figures of lives saved and injuries prevented. From that experience, we know that simply asking people to do the right thing does not work. In the BSF programme, local authorities are not only being asked to do the right thing; the Minister has virtually given an instruction. However, it is not happening. We have already built hundreds of millions of pounds’-worth of new schools in the programme, and perhaps only one or two have been fitted with a sprinkler system.
I urge my right hon. Friend to find a way to regulate so that no local authority is able to sign a contract unless it precisely and clearly includes an instruction that sprinkler systems be fitted in all refurbished and new build schools, including primary schools and colleges. Such a measure would not only save our investment for the future; it would save injuries and, although this has not yet happened, it could, I hope, save lives if there was an arson attack in school hours. People go to school expecting to come home again.
I hope that I have made a clear, precise and effective case and I thank hon. Members on all sides of the House who have come to participate and see whether we can get a policy whereby schools will from now on be built with sprinkler systems.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) on obtaining this debate. I am glad to see the Minister in his place. He was a member of the all-party fire safety group and a promoter of sprinkler systems, and he knows that sprinklers are an important aspect of the package that is needed to give protection to schools and other buildings.
There has been a marked improvement in fire safety in recent years, which is basically due to the great measures and proactive work of the fire and rescue service. This is an opportunity to tell the fire and rescue services that we are pleased with, and thank them for, their work in protecting schools and communities more generally.
It is interesting to put fires in schools in the context of the general cost of fires to society. The latest statistics from the World Fire Statistics Centre for 2008 show that the cost of fires in the UK is £7.03 billion a year, which is almost 1 per cent. of gross domestic product. Clearly, the costs are great, and some 28 per cent. of them are incurred because of domestic fires—there were 55,000 domestic fires in 2007-08. The statistics indicate that there were 1,300 fires in schools. I looked on the internet last night, but the costs are not entirely up to date. My right hon. Friend has referred to the figure of £1 billion, which is enormous, but the figure that I found is subject to a lag.
I am grateful for that correction.
The net suggested that between 2000 and 2004, the cost of fires was £58 million per year on average. Again, that is an enormous cost compared with the programme that the Government are pushing through in building new schools. In my constituency, we are building a raft of primary schools and new learning centres at secondary level. We built our first school after the Labour Government came to power in 1997—it was built at Mapplewell in that first year. As the school building progressed, someone phoned me to ask whether I realised that the new school, which was the first to be built in Barnsley for 25 years, was being built without any plan for a sprinkler system. I telephoned the chief executive and reached an understanding that we would press for sprinklers. As a result of his pressing, sprinkler systems were fitted to the school.
As my right hon. Friend has said, when a school burns down, there is a much wider effect than disruption to the school, although that is in itself substantial, because it means, for example, that some children have to travel many miles to another school to continue their studies. Because schools are used by the community much more than previously, fires in schools cause bewilderment and vulnerability in the community, which can undermine determination. It is therefore important to ensure that we use every means to protect schools and that we ensure that any fires in schools do not spread.
Of course, as the Minister is aware, one way of doing that is by using sprinklers in vulnerable points in schools. However, we cannot use sprinklers alone—they must be part of a package that includes fire doors, warning systems and so on. Within that combination, sprinkler systems can save schools, because they can prevent fire from spreading. Ensuring that fires cannot spread quickly is the main point of sprinkler systems.
I was pleased when the Minister announced—in March 2007, I think—that he expected all new schools to be fitted with sprinkler systems. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has said, there is now a necessity to firm that up and for some reinforcement, which the Minister could obtain by meeting, and getting an understanding from, the LGA. That understanding could then be fed down the line to local authorities, so that we can get the support that is required to ensure that all new schools have sprinklers. However, we would then have to deal with older and refurbished schools.
My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier intervention. Surely local authorities’ role must be preventive. As important as the exhortation from the Government is, local government has an obligation to ensure that it is putting sprinkler systems in. Rather than passing the buck and saying, “It is up to central Government to legislate or regulate,” it is surely up to local government to take responsibility.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point but, as he knows, local government will often try to reduce the cost of a building, even to the point of making it less safe. That is why the Minister needs to consider how he might firm up and reinforce the point to ensure that local authorities follow that duty, as instructed by his Department.
Since 1997, the proactive work of the fire and rescue services has driven down the likelihood of fires. That work involves reaching out through technology, education, information and publicity. The need for sprinklers is an issue on the technology level, but it is important that education and information are also passed down to communities, so that they are aware and can help to build and reinforce the underpinning for schemes, such as those referred to by several hon. Members, where young people are brought in to work with the fire service. There is a similar scheme in Penistone involving young people aged about 15. They see how the fire service works in training and applies its measures when it goes out to a fire.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has referred to smoke alarms. A surprising announcement was made not too long ago that 80 per cent. of domestic dwellings are now fitted with smoke alarms, which shows how much the fire and rescue services’ proactive work has done to protect our communities. We need a similarly robust approach to ensure that resilience is built into schools. Sprinklers build in that resilience. If there is a fire, it is quickly brought under control and the school is easily put back into service. Without that resilience, the break in the children’s education programme and the social consequences for the community can be devastating. Sprinklers are a must. I urge the Minister to add to the great work that he has done to ensure that local authorities have a duty to equip new schools with sprinklers and that, where possible, schools being refurbished are also fitted with sprinklers.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for securing this debate on the vital issue of fire safety in our schools. During the past four years, I have supported and worked with the National Fire Sprinkler Network’s campaign to make the installation of fire sprinklers standard in newly built schools. I was alerted to the problem by Bernadette Hartley, who has, sadly, died. She was a great and passionate advocate for sprinkler systems in schools. She worked tirelessly on the project with many fire chiefs throughout the country, and particularly with Peter Holland of the Lancashire fire service. In recent years, their hard work, persistence and commitment to fire safety have delivered progress, and I congratulate them and the Government on that.
Working with Bernadette was quite exciting at times. At one point, we met the TV presenter Nick Ross, who wanted to put an MP from each party—one Liberal, one Labour and one Tory—into a trial fire building by agreement, leave us in there and then rescue us, so that we would realise the impact on the lives of people who could end up in a fire with no prospect of rescue. It never happened, but it often makes me think what will happen to people if we do not do all that we can, not only in terms of buildings—the cost is huge—but in terms of the social and human impact that a fire has.
It has been a long-fought campaign for better safety on school premises, and there is clearly some way to go yet. I welcome wholeheartedly the move by the Department for Children, Schools and Families to encourage the installation of sprinkler systems in newly built schools. Including that in Department guidance will significantly reduce the costs and disruption caused by fires in schools. In our discussions with the National Fire Sprinkler Network, manufacturers and fire departments, it has been made clear that the more the guidance is adhered to and the more sprinkler systems are put in schools, public buildings, shops and areas where the public are at risk, the more innovation there will be and the more the costs will drop. It is important that we get on with it. Safety in our schools is paramount, and the sprinklers add an extra level of security.
Schools play an increasingly important role as community hubs. They are no longer open from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm; there are breakfast clubs and after-school activities. They offer a place where the local community can come together. In some places, the local school might be the only decently functioning community facility. We must protect those resources as best we can, as well as the health and safety of the people who use them.
Lancashire county council, as the local education authority, includes sprinkler systems in all new schools built under the Building Schools for the Future programme. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has said, some 2,000 schools are damaged by fire each year. The BSF programme will invest £25 billion in renewing schools. We should not do anything that might put that investment at risk. We should protect it, and sprinkler systems are a logical next step, especially as we are investing such huge sums.
Installing sprinkler systems makes a great deal of financial sense. The cost of a sprinkler system is 1 to 2 per cent. of the total project cost for a new build. If incorporated at the design stage, it can become cost-neutral, so why not just do it? There are additional benefits. For example, Zurich will reduce a school’s insurance premium by 65 per cent. and the excess, which is often about £100,000, to nil. That is an immediate benefit of putting sprinkler systems in schools. It is even more sensible to do so at the design stage.
I want to place on record my support for the work of the National Fire Sprinkler Network and everybody associated with the health and safety of all the people involved in protecting those who use public buildings. I hope that the Department for Children, Schools and Families, being committed to the installation of fire sprinklers in schools, will push on as hard and as quickly as possible.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) on the birth of his 10th grandchild, which is possibly the most important event for him today. I also congratulate him on securing this important debate and on his achievements in improving fire safety over the years, which have affected so many people.
As we are discussing schools specifically, it is useful to reflect on the scale of the problem. In a recent parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) established that more than 4,000 fires were attended by local fire and rescue services between 2004 and 2007. The House of Commons Library briefing contains some incredible statistics. For example, 90,000 children are affected by arson each year; an average of 20 schools are damaged or destroyed by arson each week; 12 is the average age of fire vandals; only 400 of 32,000 schools in the UK are fitted with sprinklers; the cost of arson to schools was £70 million in 2008 alone. As the right hon. Member for Makerfield has pointed out, the opportunity costs are considerable in terms of how many brand-new schools, extra teachers and so on we could benefit from, if we were to reduce the number of fires.
Every year, about 2,700 school fires are started deliberately. Sadly, schools are prime targets for arson attacks because the perpetrators are often past or present pupils.
The hon. Lady is making a lot of sense. Does she believe that better and well-targeted education for youngsters would help to protect not just schools, which have a major arson problem, but heathland? The hon. Lady and the Minister know all about that subject.
The hon. Gentleman has correctly surmised that I will mention heathland. He may have seen in the local papers for my constituency that there have been some major heath fires over the past couple of weeks. It would be surprising if I did not mention that.
Levels of fire protection and detection have traditionally been very low in schools. As hon. Members have said, the financial cost is not the only problem brought by a school fire. The Arson Prevention Bureau estimates that almost a third of school fires occur during the day, putting the safety of pupils and staff at risk. Furthermore, fires disrupt the learning of more than 90,000 pupils a year through damage to classrooms and school property. That can include coursework, school work and teaching notes and aids. The disruption caused by damage can range from one classroom being out of action for a few weeks to a whole school being taught in temporary accommodation for several years.
This debate could not have come at a more pertinent time for me. Tomorrow, I will attend the opening of the new buildings at Lytchett Minster upper school, an excellent comprehensive in my constituency that was devastated by an arson attack in 2000. Tomorrow it will formally open its new maths, science and humanities centre after nine years and £12.5 million of rebuilding work.
I cannot describe the disruption and stress that has been caused. I well recall attending a local carnival on the Saturday afternoon when news of the fire came. Immediately, devastation was caused for local people, the head teacher, staff and pupils. Because of the scale of the fire, about 35 portakabins were required. The country had to be scoured just to get the school up and running again. Over the eight to nine years of the rebuild, a generation of schoolchildren has gone through the system receiving maths and science education in portable classrooms. The portakabins were 400 m from the rest of the school buildings, resulting in less time being spent in lessons and problems during inclement weather.
The new build cost an incredible amount. The owners of the land on which the portakabins were housed had to be paid. The insurance money granted in 2000 was nowhere near the amount needed. A rebuild after a major fire is not planned, so it is more difficult. There were enormous delays, some of which were inexcusable. For example, an infamous tree in a place vital to the rebuild was judged to be of such great value that it could not be taken down. Ironically, the fire hazards over the eight years were incredible. Science lessons were being held in portakabins that were accessed by a narrow path.
It is generally accepted that standards will suffer when children are taught in temporary accommodation. It becomes much more difficult to engage children in education. Many items of coursework were destroyed in the fire. Such things are not quantifiable. I would like to emphasise that Lytchett Minster upper school maintained its incredibly high standards. Prior to the opening tomorrow, I would like to place on the record my congratulations to the head teacher, staff, pupils and local community. As other hon. Members have said, the impact is greater when schools have opened themselves up to the community.
When we consider safety in schools, we must look at three aspects. Many preventive measures can be taken. The design of schools, in particular of corridors and ways of escape, is incredibly important, as has been said. Smoke alarms have also been mentioned. Other basic things can be done, such as banning matches and lighters in schools. Waste should be kept in a sensible storage place. Fires, however small, should always be reported to the fire brigade. As has been said, all fire starters should be referred to fire service aversion schemes. I will come back to that in a moment. We must ensure that school perimeters and buildings are well maintained and secure. We must be aware that the broken window syndrome attracts vandalism, as the Library briefing paper states.
Education on this issue is important. The average age of school arsonists is 12 and such crimes are usually opportunistic. Dorset fire and safety runs an effective arson prevention unit, which aims to educate schoolchildren about the devastating consequences of arson. Fire and rescue services must not be forced to cut their budgets for important preventive measures. In Dorset, roadshows and the time that fire services spend in schools are under threat. As the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) reminded me, education about fire and heathland is also vital in constituencies such as mine, which have so much heathland.
There is a wonderful safety centre in Dorset called Streetwise, which has been running for more than 10 years. About 115,000 people have visited the centre since its opening. Children act out all sorts of scenarios, identify dangers such as fire risks, and say what should be done. As a charity, it is reliant on the generosity and time of local partnerships and businesses. It is essential that funding for such vital services is not cut during the economic downturn. Dorset fire and rescue service has had to cut its contribution to that important facility. Dorset also has a Firesetters programme, which seeks to educate young people who are referred to it by concerned parents and youth offending teams. It aims to teach a greater awareness of the consequences of fire. Intervention and education are important and we cannot afford for there to be cuts.
Beyond intervention and education, we should think about the design of schools and the inclusion of sprinkler systems. I agree that we must fight fire on all fronts. Sprinklers are a vital ingredient in that. I was pleased in 2007 when the Department for Education and Skills published guidance saying that all new-build schools should have sprinkler systems fitted as standard unless it could be demonstrated that a school was low risk enough and that the system would not be good enough value for money. In principle, I agree that the decision-making process should be local, but I am concerned to hear that the cost is judged to be prohibitive in many schools. Many schools affected by the funding problems of the Building Schools for the Future programme might decide to cut this expense.
The Minister will be aware that there have been some overspends on Building Schools for the Future in Dorset, which have made the cost rocket up. To one set of people in Dorset, that is the Government’s fault—this appears on much election literature at the moment—but to another set of people, it is because contracts are not being managed well enough at a local level. It is probably fairly clear which camp I am in, but the point is that if there is poor contract management at local authority level, costs escalate and there has to be scrimping and saving. That point is important.
The Minister has said that fire safety must be central to the design of new school buildings. He has also said:
“I expect new schools to be built to include sprinkler systems as a safeguard against school fires. The installation of sprinklers can extinguish fires quickly and reduce damage to buildings.”
Dorset fire and rescue service has compared the cost of providing carpets throughout a school with that of installing sprinklers; we might ask which is more important in this day and age.
I have some questions for the Minister. What does the guidance that all new schools should have sprinklers mean in practice? Dorset county council has said that it will fit sprinklers in certain new schools, but opposition councillors have not managed to get any clear answers about that. I believe that the council has ruled out fitting sprinklers to existing buildings. Is that what the Minister wants? What about part-rebuilds? Sprinklers have not been installed in the new-build part of Lytchett Minster upper school, although it cost a lot of money. It is difficult to know how many new schools are being fitted with sprinklers, and I appreciate that there will be a time lag, as the statement was only made in 2007, but does the Minister feel that any progress is being made? I am against having a centralised system, but I am worried that we do not have a grip on this issue across all local authorities—I imagine that some will be much better than others right across the board.
Cost should not be a prohibitive factor in the decision-making process regarding fire safety, but this all comes down to cost-benefit analysis. Everyone who has spoken today has mentioned costs, including monetary, social and educational costs. It is obvious that there will be huge benefits to installing sprinklers in schools, including monetary benefits. The Zurich briefing points out that reductions in insurance costs mean that there is a relatively short payback period for the cost of installing sprinklers. Can the Government look at payback periods and cost-benefit analyses, obviously without favouring any particular insurance company, in the widest possible sense? This has been an important debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), whom we have just learned was one of the “Three Amigos”, on securing both the debate and a new granddaughter, Ian.
The Department for Communities and Local Government estimates the average cost of fires in schools at £58 million a year, whereas the Arson Prevention Bureau puts the UK total higher still at about £100 million a year. If one multiplies that figure by 10, one gets the National Union of Teachers’ figure of £1 billion, which the right hon. Gentleman quoted for the decade. It is fortunate that there have not been any fatalities from school fires in the past 10 years, but there have been 290 injuries, and, as he said, it is only a matter of time before tragedy strikes.
Schools that suffer serious fire damage face other problems. Pupils and staff may need to move to neighbouring schools, and teaching may have to be in temporary accommodation for long periods. When I was a fourth-year pupil at Roundhay secondary school in Leeds, a neighbouring school had to be closed to repair concrete cancer in the ceiling, and we had to share our school with that school’s pupils, each having a morning or afternoon shift. Although I had my afternoons free as a child, that sharing arrangement was very disruptive to all involved.
On top of the practical difficulties, schools’ educational resources can suffer drastically when a school burns down, as data on pupil performance, teaching materials and lesson plans may be lost. Senior staff at St. Felix school in Newmarket told The Times Educational Supplement that they felt like newly qualified teachers again, when their school burned down, having lost all the material that they had accumulated over a lifetime in the teaching profession.
The DCLG has provided figures showing that there are consistently more than 1,000 fires a year in schools in England. The TeacherNet website says that, each year, more than 1,300 UK schools suffer fires that are serious and dangerous enough to warrant calling out the local fire brigade. The figures are made all the more alarming by the fact that a high proportion of those fires—often the majority—were started deliberately. In 2006, 589 out of 1,075 recorded fires—55 per cent.—were started on purpose. In the DCSF press notice that accompanied new safety guidance in 2007, the Minister said that
“60 per cent. of fires are started deliberately.”
A second disquieting statistic about school fires is the average age of the arsonists. In March 2009, The Times Educational Supplement pointed out that the average age of “fire vandals”, as it correctly called them, is just 12. That echoes the view of fire brigades up and down the country that run arson prevention programmes, such as those that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned. In April this year, The Birmingham Post carried an article on the fire prevention work of the west midlands arson task force, whose work, focusing on 10 and 11-year-olds, had brought about a sharp dip in the number of school fires in that area. In May, the Hull Daily Mail reported that Humberside fire and rescue service had targeted its Fire Friends programme at children aged between five and 11. I was interested in the Nick Ross idea, which the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) mentioned, of putting three MPs—one from each party—into a controlled fire. That sounds like an interesting experiment, but I am not sure how advisable it would be in today’s climate.
There is no doubt that schools can take sensible measures to protect themselves against the threat of arson. They can co-operate with fire programmes, such as those that I have mentioned, and invest in good security, such as perimeter fencing. They can also make special arrangements for the school holidays, when few staff will normally be at the school site. However, all those precautions address the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem. Given that many fires are caused by schoolchildren, this issue is, to some extent at least, about behaviour. The children who start fires are likely to be those who struggle at school, particularly with basic skills. They are likely to be disruptive in lessons and to cause other problems around the school. The Times Educational Supplement has pointed out that arsonists will invariably have a “history of troublemaking”, and that
“nine times out of 10 they will be known to the police or other related agencies.”
Deliberate school fires do not arise out of the blue. They are not random or isolated occurrences, but one more troubling consequence of the breakdown in behaviour that is all too common in too many of our schools today, even at primary school level. We have argued on many occasions that teachers do not have the powers that they need to keep order in schools and to underline their authority. They are hampered in setting detentions, in searching pupils and in permanently excluding persistently disruptive students. Often, they do not have the autonomy that they need to create the type of whole-school ethos that can shape the behaviour of pupils for the good by setting and enforcing high standards and expectations. We know that standards of pupil behaviour are an absolute priority for the public, but, as the evidence for arson in schools shows, the Government are still struggling with this issue. We recognise, however, that not all fires are started deliberately, and that this problem can only be reduced, rather than solved, by concentrating on behaviour. There are other issues to consider, such as building regulations and, in particular, sprinklers, as the right hon. Gentleman has said.
The DCSF responded to a series of parliamentary questions by explaining that it does not hold data on the number of existing schools that are fitted with sprinkler systems, and that it will be able to provide data only on fittings in newly constructed schools from the current financial year onwards. It seems likely, however, that the vast majority of existing schools do not have sprinkler systems, as our own anecdotal experience tells us. Zurich Municipal puts the proportion at just 1 per cent. of schools.
The Government sought to change the situation in 2007, and I congratulate the Minister on implementing new building bulletin 100, which was designed to deal with fire safety in schools. That document summed up the fire safety precautions that schools were required to take, and it included guidance on many issues, such as evacuation and alarm systems. The document’s key recommendation concerned sprinklers. It introduced a new expectation that all newly built schools should include sprinklers, unless they were classified as particularly low risk. When winding up the debate, it would be helpful if the Minister were to define “low risk”.
A written answer from the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), stated:
“It is our presumption that all new schools will have fire sprinklers installed but we do not intend to require this.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 1144W.]
The Minister himself said in a parliamentary answer that
“it is our expectation that all new and some refurbished schools designed after the introduction of our new policy in February 2007 will have fire sprinklers installed, although this is not a compulsory measure. There may be cases where local authorities or other promoters of schools consider that sprinklers are not needed. If so, they will need to be able to demonstrate that such schools are very low risk and that sprinklers would not represent good value for money.”—[Official Report, 31 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 700W.]
When the new guidance was introduced, the Minister said:
“I expect new schools to be built to include sprinkler systems as a safeguard against school fires. The installation of sprinklers can extinguish tires quickly and reduce damage to buildings.”
Clearly, sprinklers are important and are cheaper to install as part of a new build school than as an addition to an existing building—particularly because large water storage tanks need to be constructed as sprinklers are not just connected to the water mains.
When sprinklers are built into a newly constructed school, they typically cost between £250,000 and £300,000, which the contractor, Willmott Dixon, has said can
“cause problems in meeting client's budgets”.
Sprinklers are not a statutory requirement, so funding is not always available. Yet, the Government have set a strong expectation that almost all new schools will be fitted with sprinklers, and the risk assessment tools that the DCSF provides reflect that assumption. Very few schools that take the test will be classified as low risk and therefore, after the application of the risk assessment tools, contractors often face the problem of having to incorporate a sprinkler system.
In addition, the school or local authority face the problem of finding additional funding to install a sprinkler system. The time taken for those deliberations can be costly. According to the engineering firm Buro Happold the
“application of the tools can result in a design impasse”,
which in turn
“results in increased project costs and delays while the need for sprinklers is debated”.
Will the Minister confirm whether, in practice, it is all but compulsory to have sprinklers in new build schools and whether that cost is incorporated into the Building Schools for the Future and primary capital programme budgets?
As the hon. Member for West Lancashire has mentioned, it is important to note that insurance premiums are significantly lower for schools that have sprinklers. Zurich Municipal, for example, has suggested that sprinkler systems in schools reduce insurance premiums by around 75 per cent. According to the House of Commons Library, that could result in a payback period of between 13 and 21 years for a typical secondary school. Considering that a school is supposed to last more than 21 years under BSF, that seems like a good economy.
This has been an important debate about safety in schools. We all share the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Makerfield—this is certainly not a party political issue. We have been fortunate that no recent fatalities have resulted from fires in schools. However, 290 casualties during the past 10 years is clearly 290 too many. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Many of us come into politics hoping to impact on people’s lives in a positive way. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for his achievements in the field of fire safety. His hard work and commitment in relation to the legislation surrounding dangerous inflammable foam furniture and the installation of smoke detectors in homes have helped to save many lives. His achievements in public life are many, but I am sure that he is particularly proud of those.
I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend on becoming a grandfather for an unbelievable 10th time. It is worthy of great congratulations for someone who is clearly so youthful in demeanour to become a grandfather on the 10th occasion. I also congratulate him on his speech. I could easily have delivered such a speech myself in this Chamber in the last Parliament—but it would perhaps have been without the same passion and professionalism that he obviously applies. I congratulate him on securing what I and others consider a hugely important debate on a significant issue. The nature of the debate has shown this Parliament at its best—as being well-informed and passionate, and caring about something that really makes a difference to people. That is worthy of note, given the current climate in relation to the nature of this Parliament.
We heard not only my right hon. Friend’s passionate and strong argument, but the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who I enjoyed serving with as an officer of the all–party group on fire safety and rescue. He raises these and other health and safety issues, such as asbestos in schools, with me regularly. He pursues those matters with great passion. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) has to some extent taken over the baton that I had to abandon when I took up ministerial office: advocating in the House on behalf of the National Fire Sprinkler Network. I join her in paying tribute to Bernadette Hartley, who was instrumental in getting me interested in what some describe as the slightly weird and arcane subject of fire safety and sprinklers. When she died recently, it was a great loss.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who talked about Lytchett Minster upper school in her constituency. I have visited that school in a ministerial capacity to see what could be done to unlock the unacceptable time delay in rebuilding the school, following the devastating fire there. I am happy to hear that it is opening tomorrow and hope that the encouragement I was able to instigate through the Department was in some small way a contributory factor to getting on with things. From my visit, I well recall the huge impact that the fire had on the people in that school community—the teachers and pupils. I particularly remember what could almost be described as the shanty town of mobile classrooms that were reached by going down a long muddy path on the far side of the lawn. I look forward to visiting the school again in due course to see the impact of the new investment that has taken place there. I will try to address the hon. Lady’s questions later.
With his characteristic style, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) contributed in a well informed way. I was interested to hear about the disruption to his education during what we describe in modern parlance as year 10—the fourth form, as it probably was then. Just imagine how much better he would be—even better than he is now—if he had not had that disruption to his education.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield will know that—I have hinted at this—I am passionate about the subject. I have advanced it through my patronage of the National Fire Sprinkler Network, as treasurer of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue, as a director of the Fire Protection Association and as chair of the Fire Safety Council. I first got involved with the issue because I was persuaded that, certainly at that time, no one in this country had died in a fire in a building that had a properly maintained sprinkler system, and that fire deaths occur disproportionately among people who suffer disadvantage.
Beyond all the technicalities of passive and active measures, tanking systems and water pressure, this issue is about social justice. This is not just about people’s safety; the matter is vital to our schools. Contributions from all hon. Members, including those who have intervened—the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose)—have demonstrated the effect of the issue on the education of children and their work. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, there is also an effect on teachers’ work and careers. That was behind my motivation when I was appointed Schools Minister to do something about the situation.
The initial advice that I received was that the installation of sprinklers would add 10 per cent. to the build cost. Through dialogue and bringing in experts from outside, we managed to achieve a happy consensus that the figure could be as low as 2 per cent. or less, so there was the ability to move forward; hence the announcements that we made in 2007 around a presumption.
There has been some discussion about the statistics, with which I do not disagree. It is worth pointing out—I am pleased to report this—that in the past three or four years there has been some reduction in the number of arson cases and fires overall in schools, and, consequently, in the costs. In 2003, there were just over 1,300 fires, in 2004 there were just under 1,300 fires, and in 2005 there were just under 1,200 fires. The percentage of arson cases went down by 60, 56 and 45 per cent. respectively. In 2006, by far the largest number of fires fell into the £1 to £500 cost band—I assume that that is the property cost—but six fires resulted in more than £1 million of damage. It is clear that we must not ignore the issue, and that I and other Members of this House must continue to focus on it.
As right hon. and hon. Members have said, fires in schools inflict considerable damage both in the risk that they pose to staff and pupils and in terms of cost. In March 2007, as I said, my Department introduced a new policy on fire sprinklers in schools. We announced our expectation that almost all new schools and some refurbished schools should have sprinklers fitted. My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield was right to say that that is not a compulsory measure. The decision to install sprinklers is one for local authorities, but with the presumption that I have articulated and which is articulated in guidance.
In terms of how the decision making works, I would like to read out part of a letter that I sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who slipped me a note saying that unfortunately he had to get away to attend a meeting with another Minister about an important matter in his constituency. In that letter, I stated:
“The current version of the risk analysis tool is more heavily weighted than the original version and the vast majority of schools will now be assessed as ‘average’ or ‘high’ risk using it.”
That refers to the new tool that we introduced in 2007 to assist local authorities in measuring their requirement for sprinklers. The letter goes on:
“In the earlier version of the risk analysis tool, we asked for sprinklers in ‘average’ risk schools to be considered using the Cost Benefit Analysis Tool which accompanies the Risk Analysis Tool…whereas in the latest version of the tool we now recommend that ‘average’ risk schools are fitted with sprinklers notwithstanding the results of any cost benefit analysis.
The difference between the earlier and the current version of the DCSF risk analysis tool is largely due to the increased weight given to the loss of community facilities”—
to which many hon. Members referred—
“and pupil’s coursework which it was felt could not be adequately reflected in cost terms.”
Those are important areas of progress. I went on to state:
“The DCSF position is now that sprinklers should always be installed in all new schools except the very few schools if any that are assessed to be of ‘low’ risk and for which there is also no whole-life cost benefit.”
The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton asked how we define low risk. It is a simple question with a complicated answer. I would have to refer him to building bulletin 100, which he referred to and which I am sure he has assiduously read. On page 25, there is a formula for measuring risk assessment. Risk is the summation of hazards or scenarios multiplied by the frequency and the consequence of those scenarios. There is further explanation in appendix H, but it is all quite complicated. In essence, if there is a history of arson or fire in a building, that obviously raises the risk. I am confident that, if the tools are used, they will indicate that fire sprinklers should be installed in the vast majority of cases.
The Minister is making a characteristically thoughtful response to this debate, for which I thank him. Does the cost-benefit tool that he just described include any savings on insurance over the years if sprinklers were fitted, and has he had any input from the Association of British Insurers on what the cost saving might be?
As we put the tool together, we had contact with the ABI but principally with Zurich, which has been frequently mentioned in this debate. I understand that it is a dominant insurer in the schools insurance market—there are few, if any, other insurers in this market, which is why it is a useful source of information and advice. I do not disagree with the statistics that others have used about the kind of savings that could be made. They certainly have been included in the cost-benefit tool that is used by local authorities.
Alongside requiring the use of the tool, we have significantly tightened up requirements for the installation of sprinklers in new academies and in all new projects built under the new contractors’ framework. Sprinklers will be installed unless the local authority specifically requests that they are not. Local authorities can also use funding outside the Building Schools for the Future envelope to install fire sprinklers and other fire safety measures.
In private finance initiative projects, lower insurance premiums mean that sprinklers pay for themselves in 10 to 12 years. Most PFI providers automatically install sprinklers to get reduced insurance premiums—they are more concerned about whole-life cost—thereby providing good value whatever the risk.
We have also published on TeacherNet design guidance for the primary capital programme which sets out our expectation that primary facilities should provide a safe and healthy environment. It recommends the use of our fire safety and sprinkler guidance.
We have made good progress, but it is fair to say that because of the lead-in times around designing and building schools, and with the new guidance only being introduced in 2007, it is difficult for us yet to be able to judge what the impact has been. The early indications are that whereas previously less than 10 per cent. of new schools had sprinklers installed, as many as 75 per cent. may now have them. I would like to see the figure higher still, but it is clear that some progress is being made.
Further to the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield, I am happy to meet the Local Government Association, Partnerships for Schools and, given its understanding of the market, Zurich. I make a commitment to the House that I will do that in order to refresh my understanding of how thorough implementation of the guidance is across local authorities, and whether there is more that we can do.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that suggestion of a way forward. If he has a chance, could he respond to the allegation that I made in my speech that aquamist systems have not been properly evaluated and are not yet available for putting into schools instead of sprinkler systems? Could he give some indication about that?
I share my right hon. Friend’s frustration that we have not yet had that evaluation from the Building Research Establishment. As I understand it, such systems are used in maritime environments. The relevant authorities for the maritime environment have a good understanding of those systems, which, for those who have not familiarised themselves with the technicalities, emit a fine water mist, as the name suggests, rather than a water spray from a sprinkler head. As long as there is not a large fire draft, that water mist is attracted to the fire and dampens it down.
I understand that Wigan is attracted to the water mist system because there is a problem in terms of being able to provide the pressure needed to run a sprinkler system and because of the associated cost of a tanking system to make the sprinkler system work. I would be cautious about a water mist system, because we do not yet have the analysis from the BRE as to its effectiveness in a school environment. I hope that that analysis can be hurried along.
It is important to say that there are exceptions in respect of the use of sprinkler systems. Ultimately, it is for the local authority to decide whether it installs them, based on its presumption and on building regulations set by the Department for Communities and Local Government. We expect schools to install fire sprinklers—I remain a strong advocate of their use—but there will be exceptions when installing them is judged to be unnecessary and not cost-effective. For example, academies or other schools—I know of one academy in particular—with large, complex atrium spaces can be difficult to protect with fire sprinklers and so might require a different fire engineering solution, which would include a more in-depth risk analysis than the standard risk and cost-benefit analysis tools would produce, providing, ultimately, a solution better tailored to that particular building and balancing more passive and other active measures of fire safety.
In schools deemed to be very low risk, or in minor new build or refurbishment projects, it would not be cost-effective to install sprinklers. For instance, in projects in the late stages of design when the new policy was announced or already under construction it is difficult to have ceilings and walls redesigned to incorporate fire sprinklers. It is important that authorities have clear policy positions in favour of installing sprinklers right from the outset, so that architects and construction companies and those involved in the design understand from the start that sprinklers need to be installed. I am pleased to see that a considerable number of the authorities that we have surveyed so far, which are included in a list that I have been given, are now saying in principle that they would always want sprinklers to be installed in schools.
We must be clear that fire sprinklers are not installed in schools solely for the purpose of saving lives, but are also for saving property. A school building designed in accordance with the building regulations that prioritise life safety will be safe whether or not it includes fire sprinklers. We have heard all the arguments about why we should install them for other reasons. Having completed the test set out in building bulletin 100, my right hon. Friend’s neighbouring local authority in Manchester decided that fire sprinklers would not be the best method of fire protection in its schools.
Local fire and rescue services are actively monitoring which new and refurbished schools are fitted with sprinkler systems. Officials in my Department are in contact with them and with Zurich, which also monitors sprinkler systems and follows up cases where sprinklers are not installed to find out the reason for such a decision and to apply pressure, where necessary. I will have that meeting—I will invite my right hon. Friend to it as well—and we can explore what more we need to do.
So, in conclusion, the decision about exactly which fire safety measures are employed to protect local school buildings is for the local authority to make, based on what would most effectively protect those buildings and what represents the greatest value for money. Every child has the right to learn in safe, secure surroundings. Every local authority must ensure that school buildings—and the work, property and individuals within them—are as safe as they can possibly be.
Equitable Life Report (Government Response)
On the way over here, someone asked me whether my ministerial pension has an Equitable Life component. I do not believe that it has, but in case it does, I make a precautionary declaration now.
As well the specific issue facing us, broader and more fundamental issues are at stake. The parliamentary ombudsman concluded that there had been maladministration and injustice, yet the Government are fiercely resisting paying compensation. There is an absolutely unbreakable moral and logical chain from maladministration through consequent injustice to required compensation. That is the fundamental core of this debate.
Equitable Life is the oldest surviving mutual life assurance company in the world, and, as a mutual, its profit-sharing policyholders share in any profits or losses incurred in running the society’s business. That has some logical outcomes. The Government Actuary recommended Equitable Life for public servants, which gives it a particular interest, but below the surface the organisation made no provision for guarantees against low interest rates on policies issued before 1988, and it therefore declared bonuses out of all proportion to its profits and assets.
In 1994, Equitable Life introduced differential terminal bonus policies involving the payment of different bonuses, depending on whether policyholders exercised their right to an annuity at a fixed rate. In July 2000, the House of Lords ruled that that was unlawful. There were a number of dramatic consequences, and on 8 December 2000, the society stopped writing new business with immediate effect. Since then, it has undergone a difficult period and has implemented cuts in the value of its with- profits policies and the income derived from its with-profits annuities.
More than 1 million people lost money when Equitable Life collapsed, which means that we all have hundreds or thousands of constituents who are affected. Many hon. Members will want to intervene, and I will give way to any who wish to do so.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and allowing us to contribute to it. He is right that the issue is a moral one. Policyholders are suffering from a seeping wound, and we have put a sticking plaster on it, but we have not treated the suffering below. Does he agree that there is now an obligation to move quickly to end the suffering for the rest of the policyholders?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and the thrust of my speech will be aimed at the Government’s absolute responsibility, which they have tried to avoid for reasons that I will outline. He is absolutely right about the moral and logical aspect. The responsibility is absolute.
I welcome this debate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue touches not only on policyholders’ disgust at how they have been treated, but on saving for the country as a whole? If people lose faith in saving for the future, that will have dire consequences not only for public finances, but for millions of our citizens.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The regulatory system’s role is particularly important, and I will return to that. The Government must recognise that one purpose of the regulatory system is to encourage saving by providing a degree of guarantee that malpractice—not maladministration—or serious misjudgment should not happen. That is fundamental to the million or so policyholders, and to the future of savings.
I believe that this is the first time that I have intervened on my right hon. Friend. [Interruption.] It may not be the last. Does he agree that the ombudsman’s position is at stake? What is the point of having an independent ombudsman if the Government can so easily ignore and sweep aside her reports? Is not the ombudsman’s role to protect people, such as my constituent, Mr. Peter Ricket, whose two Equitable Life pensions lost more than half and two thirds of their value, and who at the age of 78 he still has to work?
That may be the first time that my hon. Friend has intervened on me, but it is not the first time that he has interrupted me. He makes a good point, and crystallises the impact of the losses on people who are not well off and who have no other course to take. What strikes me about all pension failures is that people at that stage of their life have no other options available.
I want to make some progress, but I will then give way to my hon. Friend. I will try to give way to all hon. Members, but I can see what is happening.
There have been a number of reports on Equitable Life, including Penrose in 2004. In 2008, the ombudsman’s comprehensive report into the regulatory failures behind its collapse was entitled, “Equitable Life: a decade of regulatory failure”. The title tells the story. The ombudsman reached 10 determinations of maladministration—one against the then Department of Trade and Industry, four against the Government Actuary’s Department, and five against the Financial Services Authority, with each representing a failure
“that fell far short of the acceptable standards of good administration”,
most notably in the way in which public bodies scrutinised the records returned by Equitable Life. She found five determinations of injustice, which is the key to the problem. There was a sequence of maladministration, injustice and the need for compensation, which my hon. Friends and the hon. Gentleman have raised.
The ombudsman made two simple recommendations. One was cheap for the Government—an apology. The other was a compensation scheme, which was implicitly expensive—between £3 billion and £5 billion. Given the length of time that the problem had dragged on, she proposed a time frame of two and a half years for that to be completed. The report was welcomed by everyone involved in the fiasco, including the groups representing those who had lost money, MPs on both sides, many of whom are in this Chamber, who campaigned on behalf of constituents, and Equitable Life’s board. The only people who remained silent were the Government.
Time is a crucial factor in the problem. Being a pension scheme, many of the potential losers are elderly and need justice sooner rather than later. More than 30,000 Equitable Life policyholders have died during the decade since it collapsed, and it is estimated that 15 more die every day. Regardless of that, the Government took six months to respond to the ombudsman’s report and recommendations, during which time more than 2,500 policyholders died. Astonishingly and despite the ombudsman’s comprehensive work over four years, which was described over 3,000 pages, the Government rejected vast swathes of the report and, even after six months, produced a flimsy, 48-page response. An apology was offered for the maladministration that the Government had to admit, but no more.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. He will know from our earlier conversation that I had a public meeting on this issue in Bexhill very recently. The point that he is making about the time that it is taking to come to a determination and pay the compensation is the key point that makes people most angry. There is bafflement at what is happening, after all these years. It is so clear, as my right hon. Friend has spelled out, that the Government are not getting on with it and paying the money to those people, who clearly deserve compensation and are extremely vulnerable.
My hon. Friend is exactly right and has perfectly illustrated my point.
The Government made three objections to the ombudsman’s report. They said first—there is an element of sense in this—that the responsibility to minimise risks and prevent problems from occurring in a particular financial institution lies first and foremost with the management of that institution. However, that misses the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made about the key aspect of regulation in guaranteeing that certain things do not happen in these institutions. As a result of what they said, the Government refused to accept that it would be appropriate to establish a compensation scheme in the way the ombudsman recommended. They did, however, believe that some Government action was justified and agreed to make some ex gratia payments. That means that the Government are willing to pay some money to those worst affected, but not to accept the responsibility for the failure.
Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the anger of many of my constituents who have lost so much with Equitable Life about the fact that the Government have gone the extra mile for those who have lost money in the Icelandic banks or the nationalised banks, but they have not given the same treatment to those who have lost often greater amounts through Equitable Life?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts a point to which I shall return, but he is absolutely right. It defies logic and any sense of equal treatment that there are massive payments to certain groups—payments that are currently embarrassing—but no proper payment to an area where we have a clear moral responsibility.
Despite the ombudsman’s recommendation to keep things quick and simple, the Government have proposed a scheme requiring the level of each person’s loss that could be attributed to the regulatory failure that they accepted to be established. That is not impossible, but it will be an incredibly slow task; the scheme guarantees that the process will be slow. The Government tasked Sir John Chadwick to establish, first, the extent of relative losses suffered by Equitable Life policyholders; secondly, what proportion of those losses can be attributed to the maladministration; and thirdly, which classes of policyholder have suffered the greatest impact—they have all suffered some impact, but for some it has been very clear. Fourthly, he was asked to consider what factors arising from that work the Government might wish to take into account—not just accept—when reaching a final view on whether disproportionate impact has been suffered. The Government will consider Sir John’s advice on the relevant factors before setting out the criteria for the payment scheme, so even when we get to the end of Sir John Chadwick’s activity, we will not yet be at the end of the road.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous about giving way. Does he share the concern of many of my constituents that there will in effect be means-testing? There will be those who have taken a loss, but who may be deemed to have been able to afford to do so. Why should they be penalised more than someone who has taken a lesser loss, but is in a much worse financial situation? There is a lack of clarity about whether people will be compensated on an equitable level.
The hon. Lady is right. When I first saw that proposal, my response was that it was just an attempt to reduce the cost of the scheme and not pay any respect either to any sense of justice or equity or to speed. I can understand the concern to which she refers. One point that the ombudsman makes in her comments is that the disgust, almost, that is felt by the policyholders is of itself an extra pain being caused by this failure, so I absolutely agree with what the hon. Lady has said.
Sir John Chadwick was not given a time scale. The Government’s only comment was that it might take significantly longer than the two and a half years laid down by the ombudsman. The universal outrage about that was predictable and right.
I would like the right hon. Gentleman to reference where that was said, because it is not my understanding of the Government’s position. We have made it clear all along that we want to proceed as swiftly as possible. We want to see John Chadwick’s report as swiftly as possible. We want to do work as a Government in parallel to that. I simply do not recognise where the right hon. Gentleman got that quotation, so I would be very interested if he could make it stand up.
I was referring to the comments of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I cannot remember the exact time when it was said, but if this Minister is saying that it is no longer true, we have achieved something in this debate today. If he is saying that it will be less than two and a half years, we will take that and I will happily retract the comment absolutely on the basis that we get that promise today. That might be a success that we can measure off the back of today’s debate.
I think that my right hon. Friend has managed to secure, through his debate, a significant change in policy from the Minister, because I distinctly recall listening to the Chief Secretary in a debate in January of this year in which she refused, first, to consider interim payments and, secondly, to give a guarantee that the payments would be made within the next two years.
The Select Committee on Public Administration, whose eminent Chairman, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), is with us today, described the Government’s stance as “morally unacceptable” in its report “Justice denied? The Government’s response to the Ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life”. It said that the excuses that the Government had come up with were introduced “late in the day” in a way that it found
“shabby, constitutionally dubious and procedurally improper.”
It says that the proposed ex gratia payment scheme looks “slow and onerous” and represents a
“basic failure on the part of the Government to understand the problem which its scheme is supposed to address.”
Furthermore, it considers the disproportionate impact test as an “unnecessary complication”.
On 5 May 2009, the ombudsman took the almost unprecedented step that has brought us here today—people have called it the nuclear option. She published a special report entitled “Injustice unremedied: the Government’s response on Equitable Life”, in which she condemned the Government’s response absolutely. She noted that she was “deeply disappointed” with the Government’s rejection of many of her findings and said that she was
“entirely unpersuaded by the basis for those rejections”.
In particular, she noted that the response
“was based on an extremely limited and unevidenced view”,
“failed to address the whole basis on which I had found maladministration to have occurred”
and that it
“contained commentary…which appeared to limit and/or re-interpret the findings I had made”—
not something that the Government should be allowed to do.
I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on obtaining this very important debate. The whole issue of implementing regulations is the crux of how a modern society develops. If the bad faith shown by the Government in relation to implementing the ombudsman’s report is not dealt with, we will find the whole of UK administration shaking on its foundations because we do not have a robust regulatory structure.
I agree. In some respects, it indicates a lack of faith by the Government in their own regulatory structure. That is one of the worst outcomes in the long term. It relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire about saving and making provision for oneself. We are now in a position in which making provision for one’s own future is almost financially irrational for certain categories of people. The issue that we are discussing today reinforces that problem.
The ombudsman raised three major concerns about the Government’s proposals. First, she said that by making ex gratia payments rather than paying compensation, they had
“broken the link between injustice resulting from maladministration and the provision of any remedy.”
Secondly, she raised the lack of clarity and a timetable in relation to Sir John Chadwick’s work. Thirdly, she referred to the misleading and disproportionate use of the Penrose report in the Government’s conclusions.
The lack of any urgency on the part of the Government to bring this saga to a conclusion was highlighted last weekend in The Mail on Sunday. It pointed out that, far from acting with all due expediency in his considerations in this matter, Sir John Chadwick has had just one single hour-long meeting with the Equitable Life board members and has spent two weeks recently in the Caribbean in his role as president of the Cayman Islands court of appeal. He has also—[Interruption.] Let me say to hon. Members that I do not intend this as a criticism of Sir John Chadwick; I just think that it indicates the effect of the lack of urgency put on him by the Government.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on a very powerful contribution. In terms of speeding things up, we will obviously have a new House of Commons within a year, and I imagine that all those considering whether to elect us will want to know where we stand, and rightly so. Can he assure us that he has received a cast-iron guarantee from the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), that in the event of a Conservative Government, the ombudsman’s recommendations will be honoured in full and unequivocally?
I have not asked for that cast-iron guarantee, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) will give us the Conservative line on the issue when he speaks later in the debate. I have to say, however, that I want that cast-iron guarantee every bit as much as the hon. Gentleman.
The Equitable Members Action Group has launched a claim for judicial review, following the Treasury’s depressingly predictable failure to take action on the ombudsman’s call for a scheme to assess all claims within two years, and we may, of course, arrive at that review in the sort of time scale that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
The Equitable board has also condemned the Government. The chairman, Vanni Treves, described the Government’s response as “scandalous”, adding—this is the point made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley)—
“why haven’t our policyholders been treated as well as Northern Rock and RBS depositors have…At any other time this would have been regarded as an absolute scandal”
Charles Thomson, the chief executive, went further. In a recent interview, he said:
“Disappointing is the easy word. Appalling is closer to the reality…I can’t think why it”—
the Government response—
“has been so stubborn and pig-headed. You just throw your hands up in horror…If you have got an ombudsman, are you prepared to let government ride roughshod?”
The Government are attempting to undermine the parliamentary ombudsman. It is shabby and inappropriate.
Policyholders have described the response as “a complete joke”.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not. I am trying to give way to as many people as possible, but once each. I am keeping a tally.
Paul Braithwaite of EMAG said:
“The proposed hardship scheme is totally inadequate, will take years to implement and looks like leaving 90 per cent. of victims out in the cold…Our members are truly outraged that this Government’s shabby response is continuing to treat us with contempt…We are bewildered at the hypocrisy of its latest £1.6 billion bailout”—
for the Dunfermline building society—
“while we have been left to twist in the wind.”
There are several precedents where the Government made payments to savers in such collapses. Since the ombudsman’s report in July 2008, the Government have acted to protect money held in Icesave and the Dunfermline building society, as well as introducing various bank bailouts. However, they still refuse to ensure that justice is done for the policyholders of Equitable Life. Why?
The Government stand alone in their position on this issue. Given the evidence, their stance is unjustifiable, and it is unsupported by anyone who has considered the issue to any great extent. It is clear that their action is driven by a concern to avoid spending money—the expectation is that the costs will be between £3 billion and £5 billion. It is understandable that the Government want to balance the extent to which the taxpayer and various agencies pick up the risk, but their action leads us back to where I started. There is an unbreakable chain between a finding of maladministration, a finding of injustice arising from that and the need for a compensation scheme that will, in practical terms, deliver justice for those people, 15 of whom are dying every day. Those people will suffer not only financial but emotional distress because their situation has not been properly recognised, which is why I introduced this debate.
Order. A considerable number of Members want to participate in the debate. I will try to call as many as I can, but Members will obviously need to keep their comments fairly brief because the winding-up speeches will start at 12 o’clock.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on securing this timely debate.
In December, on the Floor of the House, I asked the Prime Minister whether the Government would make a statement before the recess in response to the parliamentary ombudsman’s report, and he assured me that that would happen. Of course, it did not and, as my right hon. Friend said, we had to wait until the early part of this year before the Chief Secretary finally gave her derisory, short response to this mess. That brief example of the Prime Minister promising me a statement, but that promise not being fulfilled, just shows that the Government’s policy on this issue has been drawn up on the back of a fag packet. I am disappointed by the lack of seriousness with which they are treating the emotion and anger that my right hon. Friend so aptly described.
Quite extraordinarily, the parliamentary ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has issued a report under section 10(3) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, and that has happened on only four occasions previously. That shows how angry she is that her report has been so flagrantly dismissed and that the issue has not been taken care of.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. A number of constituents have corresponded with me about the failure of Equitable Life and about their troubles. However, other constituents have also corresponded with me about the Government’s failure to observe the recommendations that the ombudsman set out in the nuclear option. It is not only the poor policyholders affected by the Government’s decisions who are scandalised, but other people, who have nothing to do with Equitable Life.
Absolutely. All parliamentarians have a responsibility to protect the parliamentary ombudsman. She plays a very important role, and if we do not do everything possible to ensure that the Executive fulfil their obligation to listen to her, we are not doing our duty as Members of Parliament.
I totally concur. Although I am, of course, interested in my Shrewsbury Equitable Life policyholders, the treatment of the parliamentary ombudsman is precisely the reason why I set up the all-party group on justice for Equitable Life policy holders. I wanted not just to help policyholders, but to ensure that our parliamentary ombudsman’s findings are listened to and that her position is respected.
As of yesterday, more than 100 Members of Parliament had joined the group. If the Minister looks at the list of their names, he will be startled to see the number of Labour MPs who have joined. His Government have a relatively small majority, which has decreased recently, so he should bear in mind the extent of anger among his colleagues and how determined they are to see justice.
I pay tribute to EMAG and Mr. Paul Braithwaite, whom I have asked to be the group’s secretariat—they do an excellent job. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is a Labour MP, is my co-chairman, and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), who is a Liberal Democrat, is the group’s secretary. Would any Members who have not joined our group please see me afterwards? This issue is very important, and I have come here today to publicise the all-party group, because we must increase its membership.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on establishing the all-party group. He will agree that many of my constituents can never be compensated for the anger and suffering that they have experienced. No compensation scheme ever fully gives people redress for the years of anger and sorrow that they have experienced as they have agonised over what happened to them. The all-party group is an important part of bringing those people and Members of Parliament together.
I totally agree. The all-party group intends to use its position in the House of Commons to invite people to come to speak before us. We had a meeting yesterday with the communications director and other senior officials from Equitable Life. We will also be asking to see Sir John Chadwick and the Minister.
When the hon. Gentleman set up the all-party group, I was more than happy to say, “Yes, of course I want to be a member.” However—this has been said already, but it is worth repeating—the longer the compensation process takes, the fewer people will get the money that they deserve. Is it not time we used that old British fair play and put right the wrong?
I agree: I was telling my constituents that British people are known around the world for having a sense of fair play. That is our branding, so to speak, in the international community. It is the lack of fair play that so irks many of us, and that is why we want justice.
Lastly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden made a very important point about Sir John Chadwick. He is an eminent High Court judge but he has numerous other tasks. I have repeatedly asked the Government what resources they will give him to enable him to sift through the millions of documents that he will have to go through if a start is to be made on making payments. What resources is the Minister making available to Sir John Chadwick, and why has he engaged someone with so many other commitments when time is so pressing and every day 15 of the citizens concerned are dying? That is a scandal. We need far more attention and focus to be given to the issue. It must be resolved much more speedily.
This country may be known for fair play, but are not the Government increasingly known for rejecting ombudsman’s recommendations? They have form on that. The court said there should be cogent reasons, but those have not been presented. All that we have is the back of a fag packet, without even an assessment of the impact of the hardship test.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Time is pressing, and I want to end with a direct appeal to the Minister. This is not a party political issue. The Minister has seen how his hon. Friends feel. I will give him a list of Members of Parliament who have joined the all-party group. Many of them are Labour Members. I urge the Minister to do all he can to speed things up.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the issue is not party political. I strongly suspect that if the Conservative party were in the Government’s shoes they would take action similar to what the Government are doing. However, I particularly want to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Sir John Chadwick’s many other commitments. I have talked to Sir John; we talked about his availability before we made the appointment, and he is conducting his work as speedily as possible. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should believe everything that he reads in the Daily Mail.
It is true that Sir John visits Grand Cayman for three short sessions of the Court of Appeal each year, and is required to be in Dubai for two single weeks in the year, but those are the limits of his commitments, and none of the other appointments occupies a substantial part of his time. I am confident that Sir John is on the case and is doing his work, and I hope to give an update on that.
I thank the Minister. We shall call Sir John Chadwick to the group and ask him his views directly. Of course it is important for the group to establish whether he has the resources and time to enable him to carry out the work as speedily as possible. I do not doubt the Minister, but we want to ask him the question ourselves.
I am wrestling with the Chadwick point. Sir John must interpret the disproportionate impact test, but we do not know which policyholders are wealthy and which are poor. Sir John Chadwick has access to the records of Equitable Life but not to those of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That is a real conundrum: how to come forward with a disproportionate impact test that is equitable and just.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. I suggest that if he has an interest in the issue—and he is clearly very knowledgeable about some of the issues—he should actively participate in the group, and come along to the meeting to which we invite Sir John. I shall check that he signs up to the group before too long.
I declare a personal pecuniary interest as an Equitable Life policyholder; but it is not in that regard that I speak today, but to give the views of some of my West Lancashire constituents. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on securing the debate, in which thousands of individuals will take a keen interest.
As an Equitable Life policyholder I realise the problems that its failure has caused many families, when, after a lifetime’s work, their plans for the future have been destroyed, because the money that they were depending on is not there or has been much reduced. It is not my intention in the short time available to repeat comments that hon. Members have already made, but I have received significant correspondence from many people in my constituency who have been directly affected and who have expressed their views in no uncertain terms. One gentleman wrote:
“When I invested money in Equitable Life (over many years) I like other people had been led to believe that we were dealing with a high quality provider of great integrity.”
Another constituent told me:
“I remember very well when I made my investment that I was confident that it would be safe; with the belief that I was investing into a blue chip Mutual Society. I thought I had done my homework in selecting Equitable Life...I now feel very deceived and let down. This was a cruel deception.”
Lastly an elderly female constituent remarked:
“I’m within a few days of my 80th birthday and am feeling very vulnerable on account of the worry and concern this whole affair is giving me.”
There is no shying away from how hurt and raw those individuals feel. They desperately want action and resolution in this sorry state of affairs.
Over many years the Equitable Life story has descended into tragedy for many; but just as I understand my constituents’ fears and their serious financial problems, by the same token I understand that the Government do not have a straightforward job. However, the Government must seek to reach a fair solution that will compensate people for the failure of regulation. I am pleased that they are committed to taking such action to help those who were hardest hit financially by the failure of Equitable Life, but many believe that they must do more. They must meet their commitment to Equitable Life’s policyholders.
It is important to acknowledge that the Government have accepted that maladministration took place, in line with the parliamentary ombudsman’s report. The request for an independent review, to ensure that the process for compensating policyholders will be sufficiently robust and accurate, is welcome. There are difficulties, as we have heard, and the last thing that we need is further complication. I want to impress on the Minister the real emotions of my constituents and many others whom we have heard about today, and what they live through each day as they wait for the outcome. I therefore implore him to ensure that the Chadwick review will be implemented as soon as possible.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on bringing the subject before the House again. This is the latest in a series of debates that are always well attended. I secured one in January, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) secured one last year. The strong turnout and the large number of hon. Members of all parties who want to participate show the strength of cross-party feeling on the issue. We all say that the Government’s response has been inadequate so far. The Equitable Members Action Group, to which I also pay tribute, takes that view.
I simply want to focus on what the ombudsman has had to say about the process. When, in March, the Select Committee produced its report, “Justice denied? The Government’s response to the Ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life”, she submitted a written memorandum that bears highlighting. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has said, she is an Officer of the House and must be tactful, but some of her language is astonishingly blunt. It is not necessary to look very hard to see how angry she is at the way in which her hard work has been treated.
In all the detail, it is easy to lose sight of the simple fact that the ombudsman called for the Government to establish and fund an independent compensation scheme. Clearly, that is nothing like what we have. The ombudsman said:
“It is disappointing that the Government has decided not to accept all my findings and has rejected my central recommendation”.
She went on to use the phrase “once again”. As we have heard, the Government have form. She continued:
“Once again, the Government has thought fit to reject findings by the Ombudsman after a lengthy, detailed, complex and rigorous investigation.”
She noted that the Government acted
“as judge on its own behalf”.
What is the point of paying the ombudsman to spend years producing the most rigorous piece of work only to have it almost casually dismissed? I accept that it took six months to casually dismiss it, but that is what happened.
The Minister shakes his head, so I shall tell hon. Members why the ombudsman feels that her report has been casually dismissed. She has stated:
“First, the Government’s response provides insufficient support for the rejection of those findings.”
She has stated that the response includes only a
“brief statement setting out the Government’s view of the regulatory regime”.
That shows the casualness of the Government’s response; it is a detailed, thorough report that took years, and all we get from the Government is a brief statement. The ombudsman has stated that
“The standard applied in my report was grounded in a detailed analysis”,
but that the Government’s response seemed to be based on an “assertion”. That is the contrast—thorough, detailed, rigorous analysis was countered by assertion.
The ombudsman has stated:
“Secondly, the Government’s response also fails to address the basis on which I came to several of my findings when rejecting those findings.”
In other words, the Government did not consider the reason for the ombudsman’s findings and deal with them. The Government did not deal with what led her to make those conclusions; they simply rejected them. They did not deal with the ombudsman’s reasons for reaching those conclusions.
The ombudsman has stated:
“Thirdly, the Government’s response begs the question as to what the purpose of regulation was supposed to be.”
The Government’s position, to paraphrase, seems to be that it would not have made a blind bit of difference if we had the best regulators in the world. The ombudsman has stated:
“If it were truly the case that the relevant regulators, acting without maladministration and operating the regulator system as Parliament intended it should be operated, could have made no difference…that would be astonishing.”
What is the point of having regulators? Whether or not they do their job, it makes no difference. It seems to be the Government’s position that the conduct of the regulators would have made no difference, which is absurd.
Finally, the ombudsman has highlighted her concerns about what she calls, “The Government’s alternative approach”. She has expressed five concerns. The first is about the lack of a detailed timetable. I hope that the Minister will be precise. His intervention was interesting, but I hope that he will be clear about what Sir John Chadwick said about when the first of the money will be paid. That is the bottom line.
The ombudsman’s second concern was that Sir John is only an adviser, and that if the Government can ignore her, they can now ignore Sir John. What do we have in the way of cast iron assurances? Her third concern is that she had set out her conclusions but that Sir John has been asked to respond to the Government’s reading of them. Surely, he should be asked to respond to what the ombudsman said, not the Government’s reinterpretation of it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s criteria for the review seem to be to pay as little money as possible? Equitable Life policyholders believe that the Government are seeking the cheapest possible option. It bears little relation to justice.
I welcome this debate. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the process may involve policyholders in engaging legal representation? The ombudsman’s service is free, and the policyholders have won their case with her. The Government have now imposed another process, which may require further hearings and possibly a confrontational process. We do not yet know, but it may involve costly legal representation.
My hon. Friend is right that that should not fall on the policyholders. Many have already forked out as members of EMAG towards its legal action. We have an ombudsman in order to make such things unnecessary.
The ombudsman’s fourth concern about the Government’s approach was the lack of definition in their response and its “disproportionate impact”. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) made a good point when he said that without knowing the full circumstances of every household, one cannot know what is disproportionate, and who has been badly hit or not. That information is not available to Sir John Chadwick.
On that very point, when I pressed the ombudsman at a meeting of the Public Administration Committee, she told me that it was the first time that a remedy would be means-tested. The disproportionate impact test is means-testing, which has never happened before.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and the precedent is exceptionally worrying. Indeed, we need to ensure that it does not come about.
The final concern expressed by the ombudsman is that although Sir John has been asked to attribute a proportion of losses to the maladministration of the regulators, the losses are a complete thing—they cannot be subdivided in order to say how much of them were the company’s fault. She found maladministration by the regulators, and that cannot be subdivided. Her proposed remedy relates to the losses in full; they should not be carved up.
The ombudsman has summarised the matter by saying that the Government
“addressed findings that I did not make; sought to reinterpret and/or limit the basis on which I made certain findings; and provided a partial or incomplete response to other findings.”
It is pretty damning stuff.
I shall conclude with the words of the ombudsman—this is what is most alarming for policyholders, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has said. The ombudsman has said:
“It is clear to me that the nature of the Government’s response to my report means that the injustice I have found resulted from maladministration will not in every case be remedied—nor in any case will it be remedied fully.”
That is key. The ombudsman’s role is to seek remedy for an injustice caused by maladministration, which will not happen unless the Government think again.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on securing today’s debate. Like me, he knows that people throughout East Yorkshire have lost money with Equitable Life; and those who have not lost are offended by the way in which the Government have responded to a clear case of injustice.
As other hon. Members have said, if the ombudsman’s findings on one occasion were not sufficient, she has stated again, in an unprecedented way, that it is about justice—it is about remedy; it is about doing the right thing. The Minister has the unenviable task of bullishly trying to suggest that the Government are doing the right thing, when Members on all sides of the House can see clearly that they have not. The ombudsman has repeatedly made that finding. As others have said, what is the point of having an ombudsman if the over-powerful Executive—particularly at the fag end of their time—can simply dismiss it and wave it away? Electors up and down the country, whether or not they have lost money, will judge the moral character of the Government on matters such as this.
My hon. Friend may recall that, when intervening on my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the Minister used the words “as swiftly as possible”. Does he join me in looking forward to hearing the Minister explain exactly what that means?
My hon. Friend brings me to a key point. In general, we are talking a relatively elderly group. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said at the start, people from that group are dying daily. Surely, that should affect the Government’s judgment.
The ombudsman gave the Government a window for not taking on the full cost of compensation. She said that the Government could not be expected to do so, and that it was legitimate to consider what the public purse could afford. What the ombudsman expected—what we all expected—was that the Government would grasp that opportunity, a dirty solution, and pick a sum. That sum would doubtless have enraged many and seemed inadequate, but the Government should have ensured that it was distributed—and distributed quickly—in order to bring justice, regardless of whether it was full justice. People would doubtless go to their graves muttering that it was not enough, but they would have had some sort of justice and closure.
I say to the Minister that the Government should give people closure. They have spent a decade fighting the Government and not getting an end. Even if they do not find it adequate, the Government should give them an end. They should give them certainty and some payment.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Government’s approach undermines the attitude of my constituents to the various institutions that they believe were set up to defend them. When those institutions that move to defend them can be utterly dismissed, it makes them doubt the political process even more than perhaps they do already—particularly given recent news.
Many of my constituents have seen their retirement plans left in tatters. They were upset by the Chief Secretary’s response to the ombudsman’s report, because it lacked transparency and openness. Policyholders are now as much in the dark about the Government’s intentions as they were before. I want to focus on some of the unanswered questions, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. Given that the Government have rejected the ombudsman’s call for a Government-funded compensation scheme, will he give us a better idea of exactly who will receive the money?
As others have mentioned, the Government said that the money will go to those disproportionately affected by the collapse of Equitable Life, but none of us knows exactly what that means. [Interruption.] The Minister shrugs, but will he spell it out for us today? Will it include those who have lost the most money, or will it be done proportionately? Will, as has been suggested, there be some form of means-testing? My constituents, quite a few of whom are old, frail and highly vulnerable, did all the right things, in the confidence—they believed—that the Government were standing behind the company with which they were investing. Are they to spend their time—often at a great age—filling out complicated Government forms, and going through the humiliation of accounting for every penny and income source, simply to access justice and compensation for the money that they had saved for their retirement, but which is now lost? Will he confirm that, as has been suggested, what moneys are eventually distributed will be mean-tested?
What is the time scale? Members have made this point again and again. The Chief Secretary indicated that it could be the full two and a half years, but when the Minister intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, he suggested that it might be less than that. I hope that he will ensure that we have a very clear idea by the end of this debate, because so many constituents from across the land are waiting for some idea of when this will all come to an end.
Last year, I received a letter from my constituent, Mr. Lee, who lives in Skirlaugh. His wife’s annuity lost about a third of its value. He wrote:
“How can the electorate not be cynical about a Government who continues to use such shameless delaying tactics when dealing with the Equitable Life scandal”?
He spoke for many of my—and others’, I am sure—constituents. It is hard for members of the governing party—I know so many of them—not to feel sympathy for people such as Mr. Lee and his judgment on Government behaviour. Those people have been waiting for justice for so long and have suffered more false dawns than they should ever have had to endure. To make them wait another two and a half years, when dozens of them are dying every week, is cynical politics in the extreme.
Some hon. Members have suggested that interim payments should be made to those worst affected. What discussions has the Minister had with Sir John Chadwick about ensuring that that happens? All kinds of people are affected: from people with quite a lot of means to those with none. I was struck by a letter that I received from one lady—another constituent—who wrote:
“My husband died last year and was bitter that we had been ill-advised to ‘put all our eggs in one basket’ and then the ‘basket’ was dropped… My husband and others have died already but there are many of us (probably in your constituency of Beverley and Holderness) who have been let down”
and are waiting for justice. I hope that the words of such people will have some effect on the Minister today.
I was struck by another letter:
“My wife wishing for some financial independence in old age paid money from her wages, working as a home help, into a With Profits Fund managed by Equitable Life Assurance Company. Her annuity has lost about a third of its value.”
These are the people whom we are talking about, and we hope that the Minister will respond positively on their behalf.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on introducing this debate. He is one of several—probably many—Members who have introduced such a debate. If it is not too immodest, I would like to point out that I did so in my time—nine years ago—and the fact that we are still debating the matter, often in much the same terms, speaks volumes about how it has been dealt with. I also congratulate EMAG, whose doggedness and passion has kept this matter on the agenda. It could easily have gone away, but it has not.
It is worth placing this debate in the wider context of the dreadful mess in this House at the moment. We are in the middle of a constitutional crisis, but this debate touches on another constitutional crisis of a somewhat different kind. It centres on the respect for the office of the ombudsman and, therefore, for Parliament and parliamentary institutions. Many people outside might not be enormously concerned about what their MPs say here, but they are concerned that, when they are subject to maladministration by a Government, regulator or bureaucracy, there is somebody to whom they can turn and trust. That mechanism, and the recognition that injustices must be compensated, are at stake.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) quoted the key passage in the ombudsman’s last report, but I shall quote it again, because it is the kernel of the whole debate. She wrote:
“Whatever the outcome of the work that Sir John Chadwick will undertake, it is clear that the injustice I have found to have resulted from maladministration will not be remedied.”
We are addressing a big constitutional issue. It is also political, but not party political, and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and other colleagues are to be congratulated on trying to work in a cross-party way with those in other parties. Ultimately, that is the only way to resolve this matter. It should not be a party political issue, and many people are genuinely trying to build a consensus.
The Government are their own worst enemies in that respect. Let us consider the history of this issue. The Prime Minister built his reputation as a champion of investors. I think that his first major speech in Parliament, when he was a Treasury spokesman, was on Barlow Clowes. He doggedly defended the rights of wronged shareholders. Ever since, he has argued that the difference between Barlow Clowes and Equitable Life investors is that the former had on their side an ombudsman’s report and that once we had such a report for Equitable Life, the latter could also be compensated. We have had the report, but the consequences have not followed as promised. The logic of that process has not been followed through.
There is another irony that would be hilarious if it was not so serious. In their comments on the ombudsman’s last report, the Government could have said, “Well, we have had maladministration. It occurred under the Conservatives, and it has occurred under us, so we are all to blame.” However, they have insisted, in their last response, that all the maladministration occurred under this Government and that that which occurred under the previous Conservative Government was not maladministration at all. They said that to minimise their liabilities. However, when historians reflect, they will find a funny irony in a Government desperately trying to exempt the previous Government from blame, which is what they appear to have done in their final response.
In pursuit of this cross-party approach, I tabled an early-day motion a few weeks ago that has attracted widespread support. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon asked what would happen if there was a change of Government, and I say this partly in response to that. My motion has received encouraging support from both sides, including from some very senior people—
I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is also a signatory of my motion. The language on compensation might not be as strong as EMAG would wish, but it certainly moves us forward. The motion reads:
“That this House believes the Government should accept the recommendations of the Ombudsman on compensating policyholders who have suffered loss”.
There is no reference to means-testing or other delays, but it is an improvement.
I certainly am a signatory of the hon. Gentleman’s motion. Does he agree that the character of this constitutional issue is particularly acute because the ombudsman admitted that the Government could take account of the public expenditure consequences? The Government have refused to follow the dictates of an ombudsman, even though the latter has gone the last mile and tried to recognise that the Government are the guardians of the public purse.
[John Bercow in the Chair]
That is indeed the case. In due course, we will have to look at the exact bill. The face-value number—£4 billion—possibly frightened the Treasury at the outset, but payments would be paid over a long time and only to very restricted groups. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the ombudsman has acknowledged that there is a public expenditure constraint, and that all of us have to live within that—including Treasury spokesmen. None the less, it is a constitutional, political and moral point, as my hon. Friends have suggested.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) mentioned the Icelandic banks. The point about those banks is not just that the Government protected all the investors, but that the investors in Icelandic banks were pursuing high yields and risky investments. In the case of Equitable Life, the investors were highly prudent people who wanted safe and reliable investments.
Yes, and the language in the Government response is that only those who are dependent on Equitable Life pensions will be compensated. That penalises people who are prudent and who have diversified their investments.
I have two central criticisms and concerns. One relates to the endless foot-dragging, and the other to the compensation mechanism. Let me remind everyone of the foot-dragging and how it happened. It first came to light in a debate in 1999. There was a very long period in which hon. Members of all parties pressed for an inquiry. Lord Penrose himself said that it was “iniquitous and unfair” that no inquiry was established until 2001. Then we had the Penrose report, which took two and half years to compile. In the findings, we had a mixture of policy failure, which is not a compensation injustice issue, and administrative failure. Lord Penrose clearly and explicitly acknowledged that administrative failure had taken place.
I recall going to the ombudsman five years ago with my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). Others will have done so at about the same time. The ombudsman’s report took an awfully long time, and it eventually appeared in February 2007. It took the Government two years to respond to the ombudsman, thanks to the Maxwellisation delays and endless responses to requests for additional information. Now we have all the additional delay imposed by the compensation process. Therefore, endless foot-dragging has been the defining characteristic of every stage in this process, and it continues to this day. As hon. Members have said, time is of the essence for the pensioners. Some 30,000 have died since the collapse occurred.
As for the compensation mechanism itself, several hon. Members have reminded us about the defects of the existing system. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon aptly summarised them, and I shall make the key points. First, the ombudsman specifically recommended a tribunal system that was genuinely independent and transparent. Instead, we have had a Treasury-led process conducted by an adviser, who may be an admirable individual but simply does not have the powers to adjudicate in compensation that the ombudsman recommended.
Secondly, the mechanism will relate only to those injustices accepted as such by the Treasury, which effectively has reduced by 90 per cent. the potential claims identified by the ombudsman. Thirdly, we have the means-test concept that has been introduced. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) helpfully intervened to explain the difficulties that that would present. Fourthly, we have the problem of the apportionment of blame, which still has to occur and goes contrary to the ombudsman’s advice. We have had the rejection of interim payments, and we now have in place a slow, onerous and costly process that individual pensioners have to pursue. It is a dreadful story, yet, to this day, we have had no satisfactory resolution. I hope that the Minister will make some progress in this thoroughly reprehensible tale.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on securing this debate and setting out very clearly the failings of the Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report. As hon. Members have said throughout the debate, the ombudsman is an Officer of this House, and she is entitled to our respect. Her report and the work that she does are very important because they give justice to our constituents. The theme of the Public Administration Committee’s first and second reports on the ombudsman’s report—“Justice Delayed” and “Justice Denied”—typifies the experience that many hon. Members have had when they have spoken to their constituents about the Government’s response. There has been foot-dragging to get to this point in the first place, then, in the Government’s refutation of the ombudsman’s findings, there has been an attempt to deny justice to many people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), acting as recruiting sergeant for his all-party group, made a powerful plea for his constituents, as did other hon. Members on all sides of the House. Two themes emerge from the debate to which the Minister must respond. The first relates to the inadequacy of the Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report. That comes across very clearly in the Select Committee’s report. In the supplementary memorandum to that report, the ombudsman gives examples of where she believes the Government have sought to reinterpret her findings, and where they have not given sufficient explanation of their response to those findings. The Treasury have sought to rebut such examples. The rebuttal of her findings is an important issue. An earlier legal case established that the Government were not bound to accept her report but had to give reasons why they chose to reject it. People want to see some cogent reasons for the rejection of her findings so that they can see whether the Government’s approach was well thought through, logical and right or whether it was open to challenge.
As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) mentioned, when the ombudsman published her report in July, there had been a lengthy period of “Maxwellisation” beforehand. It is clear from reading the ombudsman’s report that there had been significant discussion between the Government and the ombudsman about her findings and her approach. It is almost as if the Government are coming back for a second bite of the cherry.
Given the number of findings of maladministration and injustice, which the Government have rejected, people expected that the Government would produce something more substantial than their command paper in January. When the Minister was quizzed on this matter by the Public Administration Committee, he said that he wanted something that was accessible and readable. The Committee rejected that approach. It wanted to see a much more substantial rebuttal of the ombudsman’s findings to demonstrate that the Government had cogent reasons.
The Minister should take the opportunity today to accept that the Government’s command paper was inadequate and to say that they will produce a much more substantial paper that sets out the real reasons for rejecting the ombudsman’s findings. The Minister would do himself and the House a great service if he made that commitment today. At the moment, the policyholders feel that the Government are searching for some weak arguments to try to deny them justice. It is incumbent on the Minister and the Government to produce a much more substantial response that explains, in a logical and clear way, why the Government sought to reject the ombudsman’s findings. That would provide the opportunity for a further debate on the Government findings. Such a debate may even prove that we are wrong and that our cynicism and scepticism about the Government’s motives are incorrect.
The second theme that runs through this debate is the process that the Government kicked off with Sir John Chadwick. By that I mean the basis on which payment should be made to policyholders. The process is not straightforward. In paragraph 5.26 of the Government’s response, the Government set out four steps that Sir John would have to take. The first, they say, is to assess
“the extent of relative losses suffered by Equitable Life policyholders”.
From looking at the PAC report, I know that there is no agreement, not even on what relative loss means and how it is calculated. Without that first step, it is very difficult to see how the second, third and fourth steps can be taken.
One hon. Member suggested that Equitable Life had spent one hour with Sir John Chadwick to explain where the situation was and for Sir John to give his view. When will Sir John and the Government reach conclusions on relative loss and whether and when it will be calculated? Only when we understand the relative loss that people have suffered will we be in a position to take the debate further. We could then move on to the question of what proportion of the losses can be attributed to the maladministration that has been accepted by the Government in the actions of Equitable Life and other parties. However, the ombudsman’s report was very clear: it set out the failings of the regulatory system and where injustice flowed from that maladministration. It is therefore hard to understand why the Government believe that there should be a sharing of responsibility between Equitable Life, the regulator and other parties.
The concept of “greatest impact” has had very little explanation by Ministers. Is it about hardship? Does it involve means-testing? Is it a question of which policyholders have lost the most or the least? There is a lack of explanation from the Government. Only when we have such explanation will Sir John be in a position to advise the Government on what factors might be borne in mind to design a payment scheme for the policyholders who have suffered losses.
My overwhelming feeling is that the Government, having delayed, hesitated and prevaricated for years in responding to the problems at Equitable Life, are again seeking to kick it into the long grass. In the same way that it took them months to respond to the ombudsman’s second report, they want to delay dealing with the problem for years and to deny policyholders justice for yet longer—for years. That is not fair to the policyholders. Hon. Members talked about the numbers who have died awaiting justice. We know that many policyholders will be suffering losses and living on reduced pensions and annuities, waiting for the day that they can receive justice from the Government. Where is the Government’s urgency in responding?
On the Chadwick process, are the Government able to give any undertaking as to the time scale? The Minister said that it was not going to take as long as two and a half years, but when will policyholders begin to receive payments? When will Sir John publish his interim report, and will it include a timeline? Will the Government publish Sir John’s interim reports in full and immediately? How many staff has Sir John recruited? I understand that he has sought some legal support from his chambers, but how many staff has he recruited? Does he have the necessary actuarial expertise on his team? How much have the Government allocated to Sir John, not only for his own fees, but for the team he will need if he is going to comprehend these complex issues? Those are important questions, and the answers will demonstrate whether the Government are taking the matter seriously, or whether they are seeking to avoid responsibility.
The Minister said in an intervention that he thought that the Opposition would do the same as the Government. Let me be clear on the difference between us and the them: we have accepted the ombudsman’s findings and recognise the claims of maladministration and injustice that she found. We also accept, as she made clear in her initial report and the section 10(3) report, that the relative loss that policyholders have suffered should be reflected. That concept has been agreed on both sides. We also accept, as she said, that the costs to the public purse need to be recognised. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Twickenham accepted that point when it was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin).
The ombudsman’s recommendations need to be accepted. I welcome the fact that the Government have apologised for regulatory failures, but it is important for us to move forward quickly to provide justice for those policyholders. They cannot wait much longer. My concern is that every sign from the Government tells me that they want to kick the problem into the long grass and avoid dealing with it, meaning that justice will be denied to people who are suffering as a consequence of the regulatory failure of Equitable Life.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) on securing this debate. As hon. Members have noted, this is the latest of several Westminster Hall debates on Equitable Life. Scrutiny of, and debate on, the Government’s position is absolutely right.
Evidently, hon. Members have deep concerns about the Government’s decision not to accept the parliamentary ombudsman’s recommendation for a compensation scheme, and I shall say more about our reasoning. Those concerns were also articulated in the parliamentary ombudsman’s “Injustice Unremedied” report.
Before saying anything else, let me be very clear that it is a matter of regret to the Government that the parliamentary ombudsman felt it necessary to lay her report. The Government have the greatest respect for the office of the ombudsman. Her important role in the maintenance of standards and public service is unquestioned. We departed from her findings in her main report only after very careful consideration, and we did not view her further report lightly. However, the Government must act in a way that we believe to be just, legal and fair, and in a way that balances the legitimate interests of the taxpayer with those of policyholders who have been affected by events at Equitable Life. That is exactly what we have done.
This is really a matter of courtesy. The Minister asked me about the quote I gave on the amount of time that it would take—I have only about 1 per cent. of my notes here and everyone involved in the case knows quite how deep the filing cabinets are. The Chief Secretary said that
“our initial assessment of the ombudsman’s approach is that it might take significantly longer than that to implement fully”—[Official Report, 15 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 379-380.]
I would be happy to hear the Minister say that the revised assessment will not take so long.
I will look at that reference, but the Government’s position is that we want to move forward as quickly as possible. The two-and-a-half-year time scale was mentioned by the ombudsman for a compensation scheme. We hope that Sir John Chadwick will be reporting to us and that we can design and implement a scheme as speedily as possible. I give my commitment to hon. Members—the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) and others mentioned this—that we will not drag our feet. While I am Economic Secretary, I will manage a process that delivers an outcome, namely an ex gratia payment scheme that provides a remedy for those who have suffered disproportionate impacts. We are all aware of the circumstances.
In our response to the ombudsman’s report, we gave detailed reasons. The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) alluded to the Bradley case. The Government have to look at reports from the ombudsman and should depart from an ombudsman’s findings only when there are strong and cogent reasons to do so. We believe that there are such reasons for departing from the report, which is why we have done so. We have accepted other of her findings.
It is not quite true, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) suggested, that we have exonerated the previous Conservative Government and sought to put all the blame on the current Labour Government. We looked at the findings on their merits—it was not a matter of timing. For instance, we accepted part of finding 4, which relates to the period 1994 to 1996, and maladministration—but not injustice—in relation to finding 2, which relates to the period 1990 to 1993.
I wish to address the concerns about remedy that the ombudsman has recorded and to take the opportunity to update the House on Sir John Chadwick’s work. If there is time, I would like to inform hon. Members about the Government’s response, which we have issued today, to the Public Administration Committee.
On the ombudsman’s report’s comments about remedy, let us be clear—this has been recognised in the debate—that one option open to the Government was to reject the recommendation for compensation on public policy grounds and to have left it at that. Indeed, the ombudsman acknowledged that in her evidence to the Public Administration Committee. However, we did not do so. We did not accept the compensation recommendation, but at the Government’s discretion, and in recognition of the impact that may have been suffered by some policyholders, we have announced a scheme that will deliver help to those affected by the events at Equitable Life who need it most.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden referred to the link between injustice and compensation. As he knows, the ombudsman, in her report, discussed breaking the link between injustice and remedy, and investigated what options for remedy had been in prospect from the start from the Government’s perspective. She was critical of what she saw as selective use of the Penrose report.
It has been suggested that the Government have relied on an absolute bar on payments of compensation for regulatory failure. That is not the case. At the outset of the ombudsman’s investigation, we could not and did not close our minds to the possibility that compensation might be appropriate. However, the Government stand by the principle that we have articulated: it is not generally appropriate for the taxpayer to fund compensation even where there is regulatory failure.
On the report by Lord Penrose, the Government have never denied that Penrose found fault with the regulatory system. Indeed, we referred to that in our response. The general principle, which I make no apology for repeating, is that the responsibility to minimise risks and prevent problems in a particular institution lies first and foremost, as the right hon. Gentleman noted, with the people who own and run that institution.
The nature of the Government scheme has also come under scrutiny. The ombudsman has referred to the clarity of the process and the timing of the work that we asked Sir John Chadwick to undertake. It would be irresponsible of the Government to design a scheme without full knowledge of the facts. It is premature to speculate or draw conclusions about, for example, who will be eligible and for how much. That will be determined during the design process in the light of the advice received from Sir John Chadwick. However, as a Government, we recognise policyholders’ legitimate interest in knowing the precise details of the scheme and when payments will be made. I assure them that we are working as quickly as we can to deliver the scheme. We have committed to giving regular updates on progress.
In that spirit, I will update hon. Members about the work of Sir John Chadwick concerning Equitable Life. Sir John has provided the Treasury with an update on his recent progress that I can now share with the House. The task to which he has been appointed requires detailed consideration of complex matters. It has always been recognised that although he will seek to provide his final advice as quickly as he can, his task cannot properly be completed within just a few months. However, I assure hon. Members that we are committed to making speedy progress. Sir John’s terms of reference require him to provide interim reports of his work on a continuing basis. I will now set out Sir John’s summary of the progress made.
First, Sir John has obtained, read and analysed the extensive material relevant to the ombudsman’s findings relating to maladministration resulting in injustice, which the Government accepted in our response to her report. Secondly, he has established an office to manage the work that will be required, appointed the key members of his team and secured accommodation for them. Thirdly, he has met and corresponded with representatives of Equitable Life and obtained documents from that source, including specimen policy documents.
Fourthly, Sir John has responded to an offer of assistance from the parliamentary ombudsman by requesting certain background material to which her report refers. Fifthly, he has replied to correspondence from numerous policyholders and former policyholders. Sixthly, he has interviewed applicants for appointment as actuarial adviser so that his office will have the expert technical support needed. The proposed appointment involves a number of commercial and technical issues that the Treasury is now addressing with its legal advisers. It is hoped that an actuarial adviser can be appointed shortly. Sir John expects to establish a website through which interested parties can keep informed of his work as it progresses and make representations to his office.
I do not have those details to hand— [Interruption.] What I want to make clear to hon. Members is that my understanding of the situation is that Sir John has the resources that he needs to conduct the work required under the terms of reference to which he is working.
I understand the Minister’s embarrassment, but the number of staff available, the amount of time that Sir John is working on the issue and the skills available are critical. Will he undertake to let the House know the answer to those questions by the end of the day?
I will undertake to find out the detailed information if it is available from officials. I will go further and undertake to contact Sir John to ask him whether he feels that he has the resources that he requires to do the job. It is my understanding that he does.
With the benefit of actuarial assistance, Sir John will be able to refine what issues he believes need to be addressed by his advice. The process is that he will then invite views from interested parties on whether, always having regard to his terms of reference, there are other issues that he needs to address. In light of the responses received, he will set out formally in a further interim report the questions that he will examine in carrying out his task, and will invite representations on those formal questions.
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister. I understand that right hon. and hon. Members’ feelings are running high on this issue, but I say gently and in all charity to Mr. Selous that we do not conduct debates in this place by chuntering from a sedentary position.
Thank you, Mr. Bercow. I frequently chunter standing up, generally during Finance Bills.
It is certainly expected that in the course of and in parallel with his work, the actuaries assisting Sir John will carry out an extensive analysis of the data obtained from Equitable Life. It is important to do so.
In the time remaining, I want to say something about the report by the Select Committee on Public Administration on the Government’s response, as the report addresses a number of points made by right hon. and hon. Members. The Select Committee has endorsed the ombudsman’s recommendations, but has also recognised that the Government’s scheme could deliver help where it is needed most. I welcome that. I will not read out the detail of the Government’s response on each conclusion and recommendation, but I intend to make it available on the Treasury website for hon. Members to read in full as soon as the Select Committee has agreed to publish it. However, I will touch on several aspects of the report, as they relate to this debate.
I want to make it clear that the Government utterly reject any assertions of shabbiness or impropriety, in either constitutional or procedural terms, in the manner of our response; the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden referred to such assertions. We are disappointed that the general headlines under which the Select Committee chose to publish its report were couched in those terms. On closer reading of the report, it seems that those words were triggered particularly by the timing of the Government’s engagement with the ombudsman on the principle of compensation for regulatory failure.
I have explained that the Government did not enter into the ombudsman’s investigation with a closed mind. To have done so would have justified the Committee’s criticisms. I add that the Government made representations during the course of the 2007 investigation that included discussion of the liabilities of regulators. Submissions on redress specifically were made when the Government were invited to do so in 2008.
The Committee also accused the Government of acting as judge and jury, another allegation repeated by the right hon. Gentleman. That is simply not borne out by the facts. In responding, the Government studied the ombudsman’s report with the greatest of care and sought to ensure that our actions were founded in full appreciation of the circumstances of the case. It is a gross characterisation to say that we did this on the back of a fag packet. Our response to the ombudsman’s report was the result of significant deliberation over a period of six months, and it includes a thorough appraisal of the findings in the ombudsman’s report.
As we have explained on several occasions, we do not depart lightly from the ombudsman’s findings. We have only done so where we believe that there is a cogent justification for doing so. The constitutional balance reached by the legislation permits the ombudsman wide powers of determination as well as the ability to make far-reaching recommendations, but on the other hand, it permits the Government to reject findings in certain circumstances—
Heart of Wales Railway Line
I am delighted to have this opportunity to celebrate the qualities of the Heart of Wales line, which is one of the most beautiful railway lines in the country. There are two views about what should be described as the Heart of Wales line. One view is that it is just the line from Llanelli in south Wales to Craven Arms in Shropshire, England. However, most people who talk of the Heart of Wales line mean the 120 miles of track between Swansea and Shrewsbury. Historically, the line was known as the Central Wales line. A route was then included that goes through Gowerton in my constituency down to Swansea bay at Blackpill in the west of the city. The line was constructed and opened by five railway companies between 1839 and 1868.
It surprised some that this rural branch line survived the Beeching axe. There are two views on why that was. Some say that it was because the line carried extensive freight traffic at the time. It served the steelworks in Bynea and industrial areas in Ammanford in east Carmarthen, and Dinefwr and Pontardulais in Gower. The line provided a link with the docks in Llanelli. The alternative view of the reason for its salvation is that the line ran through six marginal Labour constituencies at the time and that Prime Minister Harold Wilson vetoed any closure proposals. Who knows what the truth is? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever is true, the line was saved.
With your indulgence, Mr. Bercow, I would like to take hon. Members on a whistle-stop journey along the Heart of Wales line before I move on to the recent history and outline my concerns about the current service. The whole length of the line is extremely attractive and some parts are stunning. Starting in Swansea, there is soon a taste of the visual pleasures ahead. We ride alongside the Loughor estuary and look over the Gower peninsular in my constituency—the first designated area of outstanding natural beauty in the country. The first stop is Llanelli, from where the millennium coastal path, the wildfowl and wetlands centre and Pembrey country park can be accessed.
The line carries on through what was industrial south-west Wales, through Bynea, Llangennech, Pontardulais, Pantyffynnon and Ammanford, all of which are strong communities that are rich in history and which are undergoing considerable regeneration. From there, the rural landscape opens up through Llandybie, Ffairfach and Llandeilo, which is an extremely handsome old country town overlooking the Vale of Towy. From here, one can visit Dinefwr park and Newton house, where the work of the landscape artist Capability Brown can be enjoyed.
The line follows the course of the River Towy through Llangadog and Llanwrda to Llandovery, which was described by George Borrow in “Wild Wales” as
“the pleasantest little town in which I have halted”.
It is still very pleasant. It is appropriate that Borrow saluted it because it is a good place from which to explore the wild Wales that he celebrated in the 19th century.
The next stage of our journey is my favourite. We go over the Cynghordy viaduct, which spans the River Bran. There are magnificent views to the Cambrian mountains to the north and the Black mountains to the south. We go on past the Sugar Loaf and through the 1,000-yd tunnel that carries its name. We then arrive in Llanwrtyd, which is one of the spa towns that supported the development of the line. It is still famous for the quality of its eating places, one of which receives its supplies of organic food from Shropshire via the Heart of Wales train.
We go on through Llangammarch, Garth and Cilmeri to arrive in Llandrindod, which is a larger, pretty spa town with lovely ornamental parkland. With its many hotels, it has developed as a conference centre, which can at least sometimes be accessed by the Heart of Wales line. One of the most memorable journeys I spent on the line was when I attended a meeting in Llandrindod in the middle of winter. The landscape was carpeted with snow and it was beautiful. It must have been the right sort of snow because we arrived on time.
We travel on through Pen-y-bont, Dolau, Llanbister Road and Llangynllo, climbing all the way to the line’s summit, which is nearly 1,000 ft above sea level. We then go across the Knucklas viaduct, with its 13 arches, and arrive at the English border at Knighton. Knighton station is in England, whereas the town is in Wales. We move on to Offa’s dyke, the 8th-century earthwork that was built to separate Wales and England and is now a long-distance path. That is yet another wonderful attraction that can be accessed by the Heart of Wales line.
We now pass through a beautiful, lush and green part of Shropshire through Craven Arms, past the Long Mynd hill range to Church Stretton. Another of my favourite memories of the Heart of Wales line goes back nearly 20 years to when my wife and I took our daughter and a friend for a camping weekend. We alighted at Church Stretton and walked to Little Stretton where we set up camp and spent two days exploring that wonderful part of Shropshire. From Church Stretton, the line continues to Shrewsbury, another wonderful old town that is a fabulous place in which to spend time.
This is a special stretch of railway. About 40 years ago, I worked on a farm in Shropshire. I had only an old bike with no gears on which to get around. The Heart of Wales line gave me enormous freedom at that time, as it still does for many people. However, I must report that the line is not delivering anywhere near its potential. The main reasons are that there are not enough trains, capacity is too low and the timings are unsatisfactory. The Monday to Saturday service set out in the franchise agreement is for just four trains each way end to end. There are two trains each Sunday. The service is operated by Arriva Trains Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking us on a journey of outstanding beauty with his words. As he knows, Arriva Trains Wales also operates a service that goes through my constituency to Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth. What is his view of the reliability of the service? I must admit that it has improved now that the trains go through to Birmingham International. Is there any collective action he thinks we can take to ensure that the reliability of the service continues to improve?
We must certainly do everything that we can. I usually travel on First Great Western and must admit that some of the journeys I have taken on Arriva trains have been better. Much needs to be done to ensure that the service is absolutely reliable. Some of the rolling stock is not up to scratch, which causes problems.
The train times appear to be dictated by the optimal use of the rolling stock, rather than by passenger needs. There are gaps of almost four hours between trains, which are mostly just 72-seat single railcars. The capacity is so low that when a local school recently wanted to send 30 pupils up the line for a study trip, the booking was refused for fear of overcrowding. Some services are little used because of timing. For example, the first northbound train leaves Swansea at 4.36 am and is therefore hardly used for the first half of its journey. The paucity of the service means that even when passengers find that they can get to their destination on time, there is often no suitable train for their return. Sometimes that works the other way around.
The inadequacy of the service results from the inadequacy of the franchise specification. The formula required just a reproduction of the level of service immediately before privatisation. On the Heart of Wales line, the service had just been reduced from five trains to four, so that was put in the franchise.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on promoting his early-day motion on the subject. He gave us a pictorial account of the beauty of this part of Wales. The Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line is also very beautiful. Does he agree that the Heart of Wales line is particularly important to tourism? Many tourists who arrive in south Wales will attempt to make the journey that he has made on many occasions and will be bewildered at the timetabling and the problems that he has outlined. That is not the way in which Wales should be promoted in the tourism sector.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I pay tribute to the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line because, as he knows, I used to live in Aberystwyth. I thoroughly enjoyed travelling on that line, unless I was in a great hurry, of course. The potential for green tourism on those lines and on the Cambrian coastal line is tremendous, but that is not being exploited well enough. The most underused line is the Heart of Wales line.
As I was saying, the inadequacy of the franchise specification is at the heart of the problem. The service on the Heart of Wales line had just been reduced from five to four trains, so that is what we had in the franchise. In contrast, that other beautiful Welsh line, the Cambrian Coast railway, which serves similar communities, had eight trains a day before privatisation, so its franchise requires that it still has that number—and good for that railway. The four-train timetable of the Heart of Wales line, with the last train leaving each end at about 6 pm, just cannot meet the needs of that, or, indeed, any other, 120-mile route. To confirm what the hon. Gentleman has just said, the director of the mid-Wales regional tourism partnership recently said:
“The Heart of Wales line offers wonderful opportunities for rail tourism in Central Wales and the Border Counties, but we find it hard to promote because of the poor timetable—a train every 4 hours is just not enough.”
We need more services, and all the evidence demonstrates that that will require additional resources from the public purse.
Let me pay tribute to all the communities along the line that support and campaign for it, and who show real ownership of the line. I also pay tribute to the Heart of Wales Forum, an umbrella group of providers and users that has worked assiduously, imaginatively and successfully, despite the major obstacles that I have outlined, to promote use of the railway. Let me also recognise the work of the Heart of Wales Line Travellers Association, which has kindly provided me with much of the information that I have used in the debate. More importantly, it has done invaluable work to map out a way forward and campaign for its delivery.
I know that the association has raised concerns about freight, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Notwithstanding what he has said about the tourism sector, does he see potential for freight on the line? Many of my constituents in the east of Ceredigion, in Tregaron and Llanddewi Brefi, are subjected to a huge number of Forestry Commission vehicles delivering timber from the Tywi forest. Does he see potential to use the line for freight again, as it has historically been used? That would certainly alleviate many of my constituents’ concerns about the problems being experienced on the roads.
I agree completely. That would be good for the environment and for supporting the line, and there are particular products—the hon. Gentleman mentions timber—for which that would be totally appropriate. I hope that we can move in that direction.
I draw to the Minister’s attention the main objectives of the strategy that the association produced at the end of last year. The first is to secure, as soon as possible, a fifth train in both directions between Shrewsbury and Swansea from Monday to Saturday. The second is to secure additional evening trains, and the third is to have a two-hourly service running on the line seven days a week by the end of 2011. The fourth objective is to improve facilities at stations, partly through the provision of a real-time information system, improved access and interchange, and, at some stops, personal security. The fifth is to improve infrastructure to allow trains to run faster, and the sixth is to improve the quality of rolling stock for comfort, access to on-train facilities, and—I would add—better visibility, so that views can be properly enjoyed. The seventh is to improve integration with other train and bus services, and the eighth is to ensure that resources are provided so that the management, organisation and development of the route is more appropriate and locally focused. I support those ambitious but realistic objectives.
Clearly, the Welsh Assembly Government have a lead role to play in bringing the line to the standard at which it will fulfil its potential for communities, local businesses and the delivery of beneficial green tourism. However, the line also serves part of England, and its enhancement could have enormous benefits for the border area to the east of Offa’s dyke. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the problems and at the potential for this wonderful railway line, and to investigate whether the UK Government can work in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government to begin delivering the improvements that are so badly needed, which have been clearly identified.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to him for his work on promoting the Heart of Wales line and taking forward this campaign. I thank him for running through the journey that one can take on this undoubtedly beautiful railway line. I was listening very carefully to the pronunciation of some of the towns so that I could make sure that I will not completely fail in my delivery and insult our good friends in Wales. Whatever prevented the closure of the line and its stations, Harold Wilson was a fine, upstanding gentleman and, of course, a fine Prime Minister—if he prevented it, we thank him for it and put that on the record.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to highlight the attributes and potential of the line, which is undoubtedly one of Britain’s treasures. As my hon. Friend has admirably described, the line winds through the beautiful green, unspoiled landscapes of the 120-mile journey between Swansea and Shrewsbury, and one can stop and see gems such as the interesting towns and villages along the way. The opportunity to stop at wayside halts and stations is a great attraction for tourism, and I have noted the comments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) about the power and importance of tourism.
I want to ask a general question before the Minister focuses on tourism. Is it in the Government’s strategic plan to consider opening stations to benefit tourist towns such as Carno in my constituency? What is his view about increasing the frequency of services on other lines generally? Is there a strategic objective? We want an hourly service, but what do the Government think about such ideas?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the general thrust of our work on railways is to reduce congestion on our main routes. The investment that there has been in infrastructure, including work on lines and electrification, is indicative of longer-term planning, as are the investment in rolling stock that we have announced through the high-level output specification programme, which has been brought forward as part of the fiscal stimulus, and specific rail infrastructure programmes such as high-speed lines. The focus is on dealing with the phenomenal increase in the patronage of railways, in the past 10 or 11 years, of almost 50 per cent., and on managing demand by making sure, first and foremost, that the capacity is there, and then by looking at new lines.
Let me take some time to discuss the Government’s approach to rural lines. We want to get the best value from local and rural railways—that is essential—so we need enterprising thinking about these lines and services. That is why we published the “Community Rail Development Strategy”, in 2004, which set out a number of ideas, including ways of reducing costs, increasing revenues and increasing community involvement in those routes. The 2007 White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, re-emphasised and confirmed ongoing support for community rail, and stated our continued commitment to the existing network, with no closures of regional or rural routes in England during the current railway planning period, which runs from this month for the next five years. That is the control period that we are discussing.
At the core of our strategy is the bringing together of a partnership between the railway and the wider community to promote and support their lines. I put on the record our recognition of the work undertaken by the Heart of Wales Line partnership and the Heart of Wales Line Forum. They have been involved in a number of initiatives to help drive patronage of the line and have established an interactive website, produced printed publicity materials and promoted rail access to local businesses. I want to put on the record that I know that active travellers’ associations can work well in that way. Indeed, groups of station friends operate to make stations attractive, approachable and encouraging. Dolau Station Friends—if I have pronounced it correctly—is renowned for its work and has, in fact, won awards. More community involvement is part and parcel of the strategy to which I referred earlier.
Let me turn to the substance of the matter. On frequency timetables and where we are at, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower is aware, in the 1980s there were some five services a day. At that time, British Rail wanted to reduce costs and so it reduced the frequency to some four services a day, which is the current pattern. Indeed, when the franchise process went forward, the franchise agreement for Arriva Trains Wales was reached exactly on that basis. That agreement was, of course, let by the Strategic Rail Authority.
As my hon. Friend has indicated, responsibility for franchise services on the Heart of Wales line has now been devolved and is entirely a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government. In the discussions that our Department has had with the Deputy First Minister and the Minister for the Economy and Transport in the Welsh Assembly Government, I have been advised that they have included additional Heart of Wales line services in their rail forward programme and that such services have high-ranking potential for early approval, subject to feasibility and business case appraisal. That, of course, is the case across the network for any additional services, whether in Wales or England. I understand that a number of options are under discussion but, as my hon. Friend has rightly recognised, that is a devolved matter for the Assembly.
I have also been advised that the Welsh Assembly Government already fund a second winter Sunday train on the Heart of Wales line. The line has been included in the first two years of the Welsh Assembly Government’s concessionary fares rail pilot scheme, which provides free travel to certain cardholders. I recognise the commitment that has clearly been given by the Welsh Assembly Government, and my hon. Friend will recognise the need for a business case to be made for additional services.
I shall turn to the issues surrounding infrastructure. For the infrastructure to allow an increase in the number of trains operating and to ensure that the existing line is robust, we need to ensure that some of the passing loops are operational. Most of the track that we are talking about is single line and therefore passing loops are essential in ensuring that the existing line is robust for existing services and, indeed, considering whether there should be an increase in the number of services on that line.
Currently, the Heart of Wales line has five passing loops, which are fitted with self-acting hydraulic points. Network Rail has informed me that it has had to cannibalise—if I may use that terminology—three operating units in order to keep others in use. However, Network Rail intends to restore—it will do this shortly—the operability of three of the loops, and it has funded a programme to renew the hydraulic switch equipment. I am delighted to report that Network Rail has advised the Department that it has undertaken work on the loop at Llandeilo, which will be reinstated in the next few weeks for operation. Network Rail’s commitment to carry out the work to reinstate the passing loops for operational use is welcome and having all five loops ultimately back in use will certainly increase reliability and operational steadfastness. Network Rail’s requirement is to be funded to maintain the steady state of the network in terms of capability and capacity, which obviously includes the lines in Wales.
The independent Office of Rail Regulation is aware of the issues associated with the temporary reduction in the number of passing loops on the single track Heart of Wales line. Indeed, the ORR has informed the Department that it had discussions with Network Rail about its recent approach to maintenance on the line and what Network Rail intends to do differently in the future. The ORR is considering Network Rail’s approach to the Heart of Wales line in the context of a wider assessment of Network Rail’s infrastructure capability programme.
My hon. Friend might be aware that Network Rail is seeking a short-term network change at each of the loops to formalise the current reduced capacity and capability of the infrastructure. Train and freight operators have been notified of that and have the opportunity to appeal to the ORR. I put on the record that both the Department and the Welsh Assembly Government have objected in strong terms to the proposed temporary loss of capacity on the line. I wish to make it clear that we believe there would be difficulties in terms of the vulnerability that would be placed on the existing line if anything were to happen at, for example, one of the other points or if there were a need for a redirection of services because of problems elsewhere in the vicinity. As I have indicated, it would be difficult to provide additional services considering the limited capacity in terms of passing loops. Indeed, I believe that special services are, for example, put on for the Royal Welsh flower show. Again, doing so would be difficult without proper provision.
Let me deal with one or two of the other points raised. I notice that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has had to leave but, on the matter he raised, the Cambrian line service from Aberystwyth to Birmingham New Street has recently been extended to Birmingham International. Improving reliability, dealing with the problems at New Street and the opening up of new journeys through to the airport and conference centres for travellers from mid-Wales has been part and parcel of those developments. Improvements have happened in that way. My response to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention reflects my general comments and our overall thrust, which is about improving capacity within existing lines where possible and developing the amount of rolling stock, carriages and units.
On freight, the Welsh Assembly Government have recently published a freight strategy, which includes financial assistance for freight facilities in Wales. Again, that is a devolved matter, but the steps that the Welsh Assembly Government have taken are welcome.
In conclusion, as I said at the beginning, this debate has clearly put on the record the fact that treasure exists in Britain’s railway network. That treasure is, of course, of importance for people going about their business, and, indeed, some of the steps being taken by the forum to promote the use of the line for business are part and parcel of recognising that. The line is also important for the vital issue of tourism. We will continue to maintain close relationships with our counterparts in the Welsh Assembly. Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Adonis met the Deputy First Minister just last week to discuss cross-border rail services. We will continue to work together to ensure that the needs of that railway and of constituents in Wales and the borders are met by a reliable service.
Dental Services (Oxfordshire)
It is a pleasure to speak in a debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. As usual for Westminster Hall debates, I have done my best to inform the Minister of the subject matter that I shall raise. I hope that she has received the information.
I want to draw to the Minister’s attention some case studies from my constituency of people who have had difficulty accessing appropriate national health service treatment; that is, treatment that has been recommended following dental diagnosis and which should, as far as I know, be available on the NHS. Not only that, these individuals have felt under pressure to go private, which raises an ethical question about how appropriate it is to restrict access to NHS treatment and then to follow that up with a tempting offer of potentially more successful or significantly more rapid access to private sector treatment.
I recognise that there is NHS and private provision of dentistry and that, sadly, the private provision is more widespread than the NHS provision. I have never understood why one part of the body should have a health service that is more privatised than that for another part of the body. In fact, it is not just teeth; foot care is increasingly privatised, so there is a foot and mouth issue around the increasing privatisation of services, although historically there has been significant private sector involvement in dentistry.
Today is not the day to go into the detail of what I believe even the Government accept has been a failure to provide as much access to NHS dentistry as they would have liked, as citizens and patients deserve, and as successive Prime Ministers have promised. The Government will recognise that they are behind on their targets and that there are still problems.
It is also not the day to go into the detail of the problems of dentistry from the dentists’ point of view. They feel that the way in which the dental contract is organised means that they are constrained in what they can offer on the NHS if they are to make a living, run their business effectively and provide the quality of care that they want to provide. Dentists often say that it is because they cannot provide an adequate quality of care on the NHS that they leave the NHS to go private. It is not simply to increase their income but because they feel uncomfortable about the amount of care that they can give. There may be something in that; if so, it is an indictment of the contractual arrangements that the Government have set up if people get the right payment for NHS work but feel that they are not giving appropriate treatment.
I wanted to flag up those matters at the beginning but, as I said, now is not the appropriate time to go into detail about them. I also flag up the fact that there are still enormous inequalities up and down the country in dental health, particularly in respect of fluoridation policy, which is uneven. And, of course, there are other health inequalities.
I have been notified of at least three cases, and I believe that the Oxford Mail has more, of people who do not feel that they have been treated appropriately by an NHS dentist who has offered private sector alternatives. I shall give a couple of case examples of which I have given the Minister notice. The names are invented to preserve anonymity; not even the initials match.
Sally Reynolds is a constituent of mine. She had been a patient at her local dental clinic for many years, attending regularly every six months. She became disillusioned with the clinic last year over an episode involving a visit for root canal treatment. During that visit, she was told that the treatment could not be undertaken by the NHS dentist but that another NHS dentist at the same clinic would perform the treatment, but only if Ms Reynolds came as a private patient.
I do not understand that. The extent of the treatment to be given for certain conditions, even painful ones, may differ between the NHS and the private sector, but if a dentist is an NHS dentist, they cannot say that they can exercise their expertise only in the private sector. In primary care medicine, there are clear rules about that. One cannot try to switch one’s patients between the private sector and the NHS within a consultation. The clinic did not offer any help or advice as to whether or where the treatment might be available on the NHS. As Ms Reynolds was in considerable pain due to her dental condition, she had no option but to accept the offer to go private at that clinic.
There is a specific issue when people are in pain. A range of desired dental interventions are not covered by the NHS because they are deemed to be low priority and/or cosmetic, but, clearly, tooth pain is always covered by the NHS. If the pain is due to root canal problems, I would have thought that it should be capable of being definitively treated on the NHS, usually on a course of treatment that one should not have to wait too long for, even if the initial treatment is merely to deal with the pain. I would like the Minister to confirm that.
Asking someone who is in pain whether they wish to go private and have the treatment, or not be helped at all, is not acceptable, even if the patient is able to go to an emergency NHS access clinic the next day or the next week to sort out the pain in the first instance. It is not acceptable for the prospect of private treatment to be dangled before patients on the day when they are attending a practice as an NHS patient.
I serve on the British Medical Association medical ethics committee, which has given clear guidance about what consultants in an out-patient clinic, for example, should not say, even if it is true. They may say, “I cannot treat you for this because we are not funded to do so”, but they cannot then say at the same session, “But I can see you privately in my rooms next week.” They have to refer the patient back to the general practitioner or ask them to speak to someone else. They can answer only if the question is volunteered by the patient. At the very least, the same should apply in dentistry, especially if someone is particularly vulnerable because they are in pain.
To continue the case study, following the root canal operation, Ms Reynolds was left in excruciating pain once the anaesthetic wore off, and painkillers did not work. That prompted her the next morning to call the clinic, which directed her to the NHS helpline. The helpline arranged an emergency appointment and further treatment at an emergency dental service at a different clinic. She had to take two days off work, and visited the original clinic the following week to have the tooth filled.
Given the circumstances, Ms Reynolds understandably refused to pay the £300 which had been verbally quoted. She did, however, pay what the cost would have been had the treatment been carried out according to the NHS code of practice. The dentist declined her payment.
Ms Reynolds then wrote to the primary care trust to ask why the treatment was not available on the NHS. Apparently it began an investigation and visited the clinic, but could offer no explanation other than that the procedure was difficult, and few NHS dentists undertake molar endodontics. I consider that to be a poor explanation, as there apparently was an NHS dentist at the clinic who could and did undertake the procedure, but only under private terms.
I am engaged in correspondence with the PCT. I am not asking that the Government cut across it—I am capable of having that correspondence—but I would be interested to know whether they recognise this as not simply a local issue in one area. If necessary, I will publicise the case through national consumer programmes to determine whether there is a more common problem.
Clearly, there is a concern that the dentist in question said, “I can’t, but my colleague can, under private terms” to build up the clinic’s private practice at the expense of NHS patients or to boost its financial income. If root canal work is considered so difficult, why is it considered only a band 2 charge under the NHS dental charges regime? My understanding and, indeed, that of my constituent, is that to be an NHS dentist, one must have competence across a range of treatments.
This year, Ms Reynolds attended the clinic for her next six-monthly appointment and was confronted by the same dentist who undertook her root canal work. The dentist informed her that unless she paid in full for the previous treatment, the clinic would no longer treat her as an NHS patient. She left without receiving treatment, and has told me that she considers such conduct to be equivalent to blackmail.
I question whether such actions are appropriate. Cost recovery procedures may have to be undertaken, but they should not be a matter between an NHS dentist and a patient, or even a private dentist and a patient. The patient should come first. Bills can be chased through other means rather than by refusing treatment. I should like to hear the Minister’s view on whether refusing to see someone as an NHS patient because there is a dispute is acceptable. At the very least, in the instance that I am talking about, there was a dispute and a complaint.
Sally Reynolds has since been able to source another NHS dentist, but understands that others may not be so lucky. I share her concern. I wonder whether there is a trend among some dentists to try to deter people from registering as NHS patients so that they can concentrate on private patients, either for their own reasons or because the NHS dental contract does not permit them, in many cases, as I said earlier—and as many dentists and their association claim—to make a living with a high volume of under-remunerated, under-reimbursed dental work.
The second case involves someone who I am calling Anne Cowley, who was refused root canal treatment by an NHS dentist on the alleged grounds that she was a new patient, because she had registered as a new patient. When she enquired how long she would have had to be a patient before she was entitled to treatment, the reason was changed and she was then told that the tooth was too far back in her mouth. She was faced with the prospect of going private for the treatment, which she could not afford. The dentist at the clinic offered to do the treatment himself privately for nearly £500, but this did not solve her problem, because she had registered as an NHS patient to avoid having to go to a private dentist to have her painful condition dealt with.
Anne Cowley has a further complaint, which is that she was treated rudely by the dentist and the practice—I am asking the PCT to investigate this—despite having been in considerable pain due to her condition for three weeks. Apparently, the dentist first said to her when finding out that she was a new patient, “Tell me about your teeth. Please tell me there’s nothing wrong with them.” That may show that there is a general problem in dentistry, with dentists dreading new NHS patients with major problems, because they lose income owing to the remuneration available from the dental contract. That is what has been said to me, although I do not exclude the possibility of this being a local problem with a particular dentist or practice. The PCT has told me that it is looking at what action can be taken in respect of this case and I will be engaging with it.
I have set out for the Minister two examples—there are others—and mentioned the ethical concerns, aside from rudeness and putting people in a difficult position with respect to money when they are in pain, about NHS dentists seeking to advertise their private practice to a patient in the chair who has come to see them as an NHS patient. Perhaps there is a role for guidance, at the very least, to be given to dentists by the Government through PCTs, which says, “If you’re faced with this problem, you cannot have that conversation with the patient in the chair,” and, maybe, “You are constrained from recommending your own practice as the provider of that private treatment.” There has to be some constraint.
Not having heard both sides, I do not have enough information to condemn the dentists complained about in these cases. It would not be appropriate for me to identify them or the patient, even if the patient were willing, without having heard their side. There is due process to go through in respect of complaints through the PCT. But my receiving three such complaints in the short space of a few weeks suggests that there is an underlying problem here, and I would be extremely surprised if it were confined to my constituency or to Oxfordshire. I should be grateful if the Minister responded to these cases in respect of the information that we have, which I accept is only from one side, and for any general points that she can make about both the ethical position and the position relating to the contract. I look forward to her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this debate on a matter that I know is of great concern to him and his constituents. I am sure that this debate will cover the concerns of other Members of Parliament, and I appreciate his comments. I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all NHS staff in Oxfordshire for their hard work and for the dedication that they show in providing high-quality health care for local patients every day.
There has been good progress in improving access to routine NHS dental care, with NHS dentists delivering more courses of treatment in England in 2008-09—an increase of more than 400,000—compared with the same period last year. Of course, we want to go further to ensure that every person who wants access to an NHS dentist can have it. We have invested a record £2 billion in dentistry and the 10 strategic health authorities in England, with the 152 primary care trusts, have set themselves the aim of delivering access for all who seek it by March 2011.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter of dental access in Oxfordshire.
Before the Minister moves on to the general picture, I accept the figure that she has given, which indicates that the number of treatments has increased, but the British Dental Association tells me that the latest statistics from the NHS information centre on people’s access to the NHS, rather than to procedures, shows that 27 million patients—nearly 53 per cent. of the population in England—were seen by an NHS dentist in the 24 months ending 31 September 2008, which is a decrease of 1.1 million patients compared with the period ending 31 March 2006, when the new contract was introduced. So it seems that, procedures aside, individuals are finding it ever more difficult to get NHS treatment, and the number of patients—the proportion—getting access to NHS treatment has fallen over the past two years since the new contract was introduced.
I understand that the figures are given retrospectively and that they have improved in the past year. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about the figures.
In Oxfordshire, there are areas where people are unable to see an NHS dentist as quickly as they would like. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that in the Oxfordshire primary care trust area the latest figures show fewer patients were seen in the past two years than the national average—46 per cent. against 53 per cent. I have been advised by Oxfordshire PCT that that reflects recent retirements and a reduction by some practices of delivery of NHS dentistry in the transition to the new contract, which was in place in 2006. But the PCT has not been idle. It agreed a dental commissioning strategy in July 2008, which will support improvements in access to NHS dentistry in Oxfordshire and lead to improved oral health for the local population. That is backed by increased funding. The PCT has received a 13 per cent. increase in its dental allocation, which is an additional £2.6 million.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter of access to root canal treatment. I am concerned to hear that some of his constituents may have been misled about the availability of root canal treatment on the NHS. It is important that individual patients receive all the treatments that they need and that NHS dentistry can meet all clinical needs. Patients should be able to trust their dentist to provide a comprehensive, high-quality service that reflects their needs and preferences. That is reflected in the principles and values set out in the NHS constitution, which was launched in January this year.
NHS dentists have both a contractual and an ethical obligation to deliver all treatment that is clinically required, including root canal treatment. Indeed, they are paid to deliver such care. Although the vast majority of dentists provide excellent care for their patients, it is unacceptable for patients to be told that root canal treatment is not available on the NHS. Where that happens, it is important that the PCT takes decisive action.
This morning, in view of this debate, I discussed one of the cases that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned with the PCT. The PCT informed me that the case was raised last week; that a remedial notice was sent yesterday to the practice, which was given 28 days to provide reassurance that it will not happen again; and that if the concerns continue, the PCT can terminate the contract. It has said that it will keep me informed. I feel confident that the hon. Gentleman will be interested in any communication that I receive, which I am happy to share with him. As he has said, it is difficult to comment on individual examples, but Oxfordshire PCT assures me that it has investigated the complaints and taken action.
Pain is pain, wherever it happens in the body. Acute pain requiring root canal work is extremely distressing, and the ethics of how the patient is treated will always be of great concern to us all. Health professionals must, wherever they serve, behave as ethically as possible. I am disturbed to hear what the hon. Gentleman has said. If those concerns continue, the PCT will take action.
Sometimes, a dentist is unable to provide a treatment because of its complexity. In such circumstances, they should refer the patient to a suitable NHS service that can provide the treatment. Those services are available, and many clinicians are renowned for root canal work. The PCT has worked with local dentists to improve guidelines and advice when patients need to be referred for more specialist NHS dental care.
In the past year, the PCT has successfully improved access to NHS dental services in Oxfordshire by supporting practices to expand their surgery capacity, bringing in new dentists, making capital grants to support expansion and extending contracts. New providers have been established in Banbury, Wallingford and Oxford in the past 18 months, and 8,000 more people have been seen in the past year. The PCT is also targeting children in areas of deprivation with high levels of dental decay by providing topical fluoride varnishes in Sure Start centres. The hon. Gentleman referred to the inequalities in health and dental care, and it is important that the mum has good antenatal care, because teeth are formed before we are born. Fluoride is the most effective and cost-effective remedy for tooth decay, and Sure Start centres, not only in Oxford, but around the country, are starting to address the serious inequalities in health. Those projects will expand next year.
That is just the beginning. Proposals for 2009-10 include an additional £4 million to continue improving access to dentistry until 55 per cent. of the population are covered. That funding will increase by another £2 million the following year, as services become fully established, with the aim of reaching 64 per cent. of the population. New services opening this year include the Leys health centre in Oxford, which is due to open in July 2009, and will provide access for an additional 7,000 patients. That is an increase in provision for a population in an area of high deprivation, where people are currently high users of emergency dental services. There will also be new services in Bridge street, Banbury, which is another area with high oral health needs, and in Witney and Wantage.
It is expected that those measures will enable a further 20,000 patients to be seen by an NHS dentist in Oxfordshire during 2009 and 2010. It is, of course, important that patients know where the new services are, and the PCT’s dental helpline helps 40 to 50 Oxfordshire residents every week to find dentists who accept new NHS patients. The PCT is working with patient groups on ways to raise public awareness of that useful source of advice about local dental services.
Oxfordshire PCT is being helped in its work to implement its dental strategy through the expanded national dental access programme that the Government have set up. The programme is being led by Dr. Mike Warburton, an experienced clinician and manager, and supports the NHS in rapidly expanding dental services where needed. The programme will work closely with Professor Jimmy Steele’s independent review of NHS dentistry. That will also help us to understand how we can ensure that NHS dentists deliver consistently high-quality care while providing the right level of preventive work, as well as considering how we can further reduce inequalities in oral health.
The core of our dentistry reforms—the NHS holds the dental budget locally and commissions dentists directly to deliver NHS care—is here to stay. There is no shortage of dentists wanting to deliver such care. In Oxfordshire PCT, the number of dentists increased from 262 in March 2007 to 289 in March 2008. If an individual chooses to leave, the local PCT can simply commission alternative care from another practice. Our NHS is confident that it can achieve its aim of delivering access to a dentist for all who seek it by March 2011. We strongly welcome the level of commitment to tackle dental access that that time frame demonstrates.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. I have listened carefully, and I look forward to hearing from her and the PCT about the specific problem that I have raised.
The Minister has said that it is never appropriate for a dentist, even if they feel that it is not within their competence to carry out, for example, root canal treatment, to recommend private treatment to an NHS patient, but that such patients should be referred to another NHS dentist who can do the work. Will she confirm that my understanding is correct?
I have no problem in saying that if an NHS dentist believes that root canal treatment is too complex for them to undertake in their own practice, NHS consultants and clinicians are available to undertake such work. It is important that the hon. Gentleman accepts that, and that patients in his constituency understand that the NHS exists to provide that.
As a few minutes remain, does the Minister agree that it is inappropriate for any dentist, as for doctors in the health service, to discriminate because of their religious views against patients by, for example, refusing to treat a female patient unless they wear a hijab? It was recently reported in the press that that had happened, and it cannot be right for a dentist to set dress codes for patients.
The hon. Gentleman’s style is sometimes to ask unexpected questions, and as I have known him for some years in the House I was expecting the unexpected. I have no wish to comment on that, because I know not the source.
I urge the hon. Gentleman and his fellow MPs to work constructively with Oxfordshire PCT and the South Central SHA to ensure that Oxfordshire residents are provided with the very best NHS services now and in the future. I know from the commitment that I was given this morning that Oxfordshire PCT is committed to improving oral health in its population, and the development of dental services in Oxfordshire is an integral part of the PCT’s priorities for local health services. I hope that today’s debate has sent out a strong message to dentists to adapt their conversations. The overwhelming majority of dentists in the NHS do amazing and brilliant work, which is difficult, as we all recognise. Not everyone looks forward to visiting the dentist and for dentists to know that before their patients arrive must create even more anxiety for them, but they do an excellent job and I congratulate them all, particularly those in Oxford.
White Disadvantaged Pupils (Birmingham)
When people talk about Birmingham, they often refer to its diversity. Diversity means many things, but I am in no doubt that Birmingham’s ethnic, cultural and religious diversity are great strengths in so many ways. If we are to address both the opportunities and challenges that diversity brings, we must understand the diversity of diversity.
The ethnic mix of my part of Birmingham—an outer-city suburb south-west of the city—is not, in comparison with other parts of the west midlands, very multicultural. Yes, there are more people from new communities now than there were 20 years ago, but the make-up of my constituency is still more than 90 per cent. white. The dominance of white communities in Birmingham, Northfield obviously says something about the colour of people’s faces in the area, and it may even say something about the likely religious make-up of the area, but it does not say very much about the diversity of the area in terms of class, life chances, income and opportunity.
Nowhere is that more evident than in relation to education. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate, arising from a report on the underachievement of white disadvantaged pupils in Birmingham. Although the report, branded “Brighter Futures”, was commissioned in 2005 by Birmingham city council with funding from the Learning and Skills Council, it was not published until the end of last year. However, its message remains relevant today, in Birmingham and at national level, and particularly in white working-class communities such as the one that I represent, which are often at the edge of our great cities up and down the country.
White pupils are the largest underachieving group in Birmingham and across the UK. That may seem a strange thing to say when, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government report, “Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society”, published in February 2009, 49 per cent. of white British pupils who were not on free school meals achieved at least five A* to C GCSEs in 2007. That was exactly the same as the national average for all pupils, but it was the figure for those who did not receive free school meals. When we look at white British pupils on free school meals, we see that the proportion achieving five A* to C GCSEs falls to just 17 per cent. To put it another way, in 2007, 83 per cent. of white British pupils on free school meals did not achieve five A* to C GCSEs.
That is a horrifying statistic, but it is all too often masked when figures for white British pupils are presented as a whole and therefore averaged out. If we stop talking about proportions and start talking about real numbers, the picture is even more disturbing. Why? Because quite simply there are a lot of white pupils. According to Karamat Iqbal, the author of the report that I am introducing today, in Birmingham 2,496 pupils out of a total of 4,795 who did not achieve five A* to C GCSEs in 2007 were white. The numbers are even worse when English and Maths are included, and they are disproportionately bad among boys.
I say this not to deny that there are huge needs among other ethnic groups or that those groups require effectively targeted action, because they do. I say it simply to show that we must do more to address the huge impact of poverty, disadvantage and inequality within white communities or predominantly white communities. Part of that impact is obviously material. Poor housing, low incomes and family worklessness are bound to affect the practical ability of pupils to take advantage of educational opportunities to build their own futures, but it is about more than that. Disadvantage also undermines the resilience of communities and depresses aspiration in a destructive cycle.
Again, according to the report’s author, disadvantaged white pupils are the least likely to enjoy going to school, the least likely to think that it is important to get a college qualification and the least likely to think that it is important to go to university. How important is all that? In my view, it is very important. According to the report of the independent Social Mobility Commission in January 2009,
“There is good evidence that success in education leads to improved life-chances. Therefore, improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged children has to be central to any policy strategy to increase their upward social mobility.”
I know that it is hardly earth-shattering to note the impact of poverty on aspiration, educational achievement and life chances. The point is what we do about it. All too often, the sheer size of white communities and the tendency of institutions to consider proportional disadvantage between ethnic groups can end up averaging out deprivation statistics relating to white ethnicity. As a result, the scale of specific problems of deprivation in those communities is masked.
What needs to be done? The first thing is to acknowledge the work put in day in, day out, by teachers and other staff, by parents and by so many people to address those issues on the ground. Just the other week, I saw what is being done to inspire pupils’ passion for engineering and technology at the city learning centre in my constituency. It is based at Frankley high school, but it is a collaborative project involving a number of different schools, with welcome support from the Government. We should also acknowledge, in relation to both Birmingham city council and national Government, that a number of different initiatives have been and are being implemented that offer the prospect of addressing some of the problems of underachievement in deprived white areas more imaginatively than has been the case in the past.
However, more needs to be done to address the issues both nationally and locally. We have to be confident enough to debate this issue openly. A specific recommendation in Karamat Iqbal’s report is that the white ethnic category should always be subdivided according to eligibility for free school meals when statistics are compiled to inform education policy. The report makes several other recommendations, and I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister and other colleagues, both in this place and outside, to examine them. It stresses the need for a national strategy backed up by action at local authority level, including in Birmingham, with the involvement of parents and the wider local community and collaboration between schools.
Beyond the recommendations in Karamat Iqbal’s report, I emphasise the importance of addressing the realities of deprivation in white working-class communities when initiatives to tackle worklessness during the current recession are brought in, whether through the mainstream budgets of councils and Government agencies such as primary care trusts, regional development agencies, the Learning and Skills Council and Jobcentre Plus, or through the use of targeted funds such as the working neighbourhoods fund.
It is good that super output areas are increasingly being used instead of local government wards to identify pockets of deprivation, but there is still a problem. In the Birmingham city region area, as much as anywhere, super output areas—those local areas that are used to target deprivation—are all too often grouped together into priority wards when resources are allocated. In Birmingham, where we are talking about wards of between 15,000 and 20,000 people, the averaging effect of that causes massive unfairness to the deprived white communities who live near, but not in, more affluent areas.
Today is an anniversary: it is exactly 17 years since I made my maiden speech as the new MP for Birmingham, Northfield. The focus of that speech was deprivation in Britain’s outer cities. Column 185 of Hansard for 19 May 1992 records that I said the following:
“Unless and until we tackle the problem of poverty in our outer ring estates, we shall have increasing problems with racism. We must reject any attempt to stir up resentment against people who live in the outer ring or inner ring. We shall not achieve anything until we address the problem of poverty in the outer ring and empower the people who live there to contribute to their own destinies.”—[Official Report, 19 May 1992; Vol. 208, c. 185.]
Yes, the Labour Government have made many improvements since 1997, but many of the problems that I highlighted in my maiden speech sadly still exist, and the racism that those problems breed is still being peddled by groups such as the British National party, which preys on the real problems that people face at this time of recession and their real fears for themselves and their families. In this week of all weeks, and today of all days, we should remember that it also preys on people’s alienation from the political process. The truth is that the simplistic solutions laced with hate that the BNP and their friends peddle are blind alleys that offer nothing to our communities, but it is up to us to show in practice that there is a different way. Doing far more to respond to the reality of underachievement among white pupils in disadvantaged areas must be an essential part of that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on securing the debate, and I certainly agree that it is well worth having such a debate. My hon. Friend works hard to ensure that people in his constituency and around Birmingham get the opportunities that they deserve. Indeed, he has been working hard to achieve that ever since he entered the House, as evidenced by his quote from his maiden speech.
Before I move on to the specific issue of white disadvantaged pupils, which my hon. Friend raised, let me cover some more general points. Of course, no barrier should prevent a child from learning—whether that barrier is a disability, a special educational need, how much their parents earn or their occupation. There should be no barriers of gender, class or ethnicity. Black or white, boy or girl, advantaged or disadvantaged, every child should be able to make good progress at school, and that is what personalisation is about. That is an ambition that everyone can share.
We have made significant progress over the past decade. On poverty, about 15 per cent. of children come from homes that are poor enough to be eligible for free school meals. In primary schools, 20,000 more free school meal pupils now achieve level 4 in maths at the end of key stage 2 than was the case 10 years ago. In secondary schools, the chances of an FSM pupil getting a good maths GCSE have increased from 25 per cent. to 35 per cent. over the past four years.
However, there is more to do to tackle the gap between disadvantage and achievement. We know that that gap starts early—even before the age of 22 months—and it is vital that we address it as soon as a child starts their learning experience. By key stage 4, the odds of a non-FSM pupil achieving five good GCSEs are three times greater than for an FSM pupil, so we need to sustain support through primary school and on into secondary school.
I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are taking steps to tackle the problem vigorously. During the early years, we are ensuring that families get the specific support that they need from our 3,000 children’s centres. For children at school, we are modernising the curriculum by strengthening our focus on personalised learning, improving parental engagement and encouraging schools to work together to improve standards. Across our wider children’s services, we are ensuring that health, mental health and social services are even more accessible and better co-ordinated through strengthened children’s trusts.
Let me move on to my hon. Friend’s concerns about children in Birmingham from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let me first give some evidence of the progress that has been made in dealing with all children from disadvantaged backgrounds, before coming in a moment to the specific case of white children.
At key stage 2, data for 2008 showed that Birmingham’s FSM gap for English had decreased by two percentage points, from 19 to 17 per cent., from 2005, while the gap for maths had reduced by three percentage points, from 18 to 15 per cent., over the same period. At key stage 4, data for Birmingham show that the gap between non-FSM and FSM pupils who get five A* to C GCSEs has narrowed from 25.3 per cent. to 23.5 per cent., although that is still way too large.
My hon. Friend is particularly interested in the case of white children. I note his concern that we risk masking the combination effect of disadvantage and ethnicity at local level by publishing data that show only one or other of those two effects, but not both in combination. He is correct that we do not publish data on the attainment of white children who are eligible for free school meals for every local authority, but that is simply a matter of manageability. Doing that for every underperforming group and every local authority would require us to publish an additional 150,000 items of data each year. However, we can supply such data on request for a given local authority, and I would be happy to give my hon. Friend the data that he requires. We also publish national attainment data by a combination of characteristics. Specifically, we publish data by gender, ethnicity and FSM—three characteristics in combination —in table A1 of the annual statistical first release.
My hon. Friend referred to a report produced in conjunction with Birmingham city council and published last November, which dealt specifically with the underachievement of white British pupils, and I welcome the contribution that the report makes. I agree that we need to acknowledge the problem of underachievement among white children from disadvantaged backgrounds and to make the issue more visible at national and local level. That is why, from January this year, we are requiring local authorities for the first time to set targets for the progress and attainment of children who are eligible for free school meals, as well as for those from underperforming ethnic groups, so that they get the help that they need.
Where those targets are insufficiently challenging, national strategies advisers have held detailed conversations with local authorities over the past few months, examining the scale of the issue, discussing local strategies to raise attainment for disadvantaged pupils and working with authorities to set more stretching targets for those pupils’ progress and attainment.
I agree that a national strategy is needed to narrow the attainment gaps between disadvantaged young people, whatever their ethnic group, and their more advantaged peers. That is why we published “Breaking the link between disadvantage and low attainment—Everyone’s Business” this March, as well as the accompanying evidence report, “Deprivation and Education”. I commend those reports to my hon. Friend. Together, they spell out the progress that this country has made in reducing attainment gaps over the past decade. More importantly, they signalled our future policy direction.
Among the highlights of the strategy are: an extension of free early learning and child care to around 23,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds a year; tailoring learning experiences in school to children’s needs—for example, through the use of one-to-one tuition; a new school report card, which will focus schools on the progress of all pupils and on narrowing the gaps not just in academic attainment, but across all five Every Child Matters outcomes; an expansion of extended services to disadvantaged families; and a full review of the relevant school funding—the £3 billion that we allocate under the direct school grant for disadvantage—to ensure that it is properly targeted to meet the needs of disadvantaged pupils.
I agree that we need a focus on community cohesion, the importance of which is reflected in the new duty on maintained schools, which came into effect in September 2007. That duty recognises, and builds on, the good work that many schools are already doing to promote community cohesion. Since September 2008, Ofsted has inspected schools against that duty. The issue needs to be everybody’s business.
I agree that we need to know what works. Sharing examples of best practice pushes forward positive change. Our Extra Mile project, which focuses on engaging children from deprived communities in their education, is based on approaches that we have seen make a real difference for disadvantaged pupils. The project currently runs across 23 schools, but it will be rolled out to another 60 secondary and 40 primary schools later in the year. Case study material will be published at the end of the summer term and made available to all schools and local authorities.
Further examples of good practice in supporting disadvantaged communities are included in the “Breaking the link” document, in the recent Ofsted report “White boys from low-income backgrounds: good practice in schools” and in the National College for School Leadership publication “Successful leadership for promoting the achievement of white working class pupils”.
I agree that we need to engage parents and the wider community in the work of schools. Parents are the single most important influence on a child’s attainment, and we are taking forward a range of measures to strengthen parents’ engagement in their children’s learning. Our parental engagement strategy will ensure that parents get more regular information about progress and that their voices are heard; legislate to ensure that there are strong children’s trusts in every area, with schools, children’s services and the voluntary sector working closely together to improve outcomes for children and young people; intensify the focus on personalised learning and on tracking the progress of every child through one-to-one tuition and catch-up programmes such as Every Child Counts; and legislate to ensure that there is a children’s centre in every community, so that all children can get off to a good start in life.
We recognise the significant impact that the community has on a young person’s aspirations and attainment. Our Inspiring Communities programme will support people in deprived communities as we look to raise the achievement of young people, broaden their horizons and build self-esteem. The programme is designed to put local people— parents, neighbours, businesses, teachers, voluntary groups and councils—in the driving seat to harness their collective knowledge, energy, resources and enthusiasm. Expert help and funding of up to £450,000 will be made available to up to 15 neighbourhoods over the next two years for the design and delivery of projects and activities. The deadline for applications is 3 June 2009.
My hon. Friend made the point that we need to provide opportunities for disadvantaged white pupils to celebrate their culture and identity. Experience in our Extra Mile project reveals successful strategies for developing an atmosphere in which that can happen. Our Extra Mile schools go out of their way to bring in local heroes, characters and successes as role models, so that people can see that success is possible for people from their walk of life. They teach pupils what they need to know about ways of talking, writing and behaving in the wider world, so that they have the repertoire to succeed in formal and unfamiliar situations. They educate for equality. They define non-negotiable standards of behaviour and a culture of mutual respect, which plays well with local parents, who value the twin traditions of discipline and personal caring. They apply that culture to teachers as well as pupils.
Extra Mile schools provide cultural opportunities beyond the budget of local families, so that pupils get a taste of sports, arts and activities from which they would otherwise be excluded. The schools are socially attuned. New teachers tour the catchment area before they start to teach, take time to talk about local concerns with pupils each day and learn how to meet, greet and converse in ways that are not patronising. They empathise with the local community and local values. In the knowledge that poverty can induce feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, the schools work harder than others to provide rewards and incentives to pupils. Their notice boards are invariably plastered with honours, rewards, mentions, certificates and prizes. All those are successful strategies that can be used in any school serving a disadvantaged community, whether it is predominantly white or more ethnically mixed.
In Birmingham, our national challenge programme provides extra support to the schools serving its disadvantaged communities. We have agreed a plan with Birmingham city council to provide it with a significant amount of national challenge funding— £2.8 million—in the academic year 2008-09. That will help 30 Birmingham schools to meet their wide-ranging set of specific school improvement solutions, as defined by their national challenge adviser. Those include one-to-one support for disadvantaged pupils, particularly in schools that serve disadvantaged communities; a focus on the wider Every Child Matters outcomes; and support for the schools’ senior and middle leadership teams, which is intended to raise the effectiveness of the school and, crucially, its aspirations for its children.
On the point about the national challenge, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that local authorities should modify their departmental funding streams to ensure that different areas of policy merge together in the right way? The point I am getting at is that if a major regeneration scheme is going on where there is a national challenge school it should not be impossible to get the departments that deal with the regeneration to talk effectively with the departments that deal with children and families, and to get them working together to the benefit of the people in the area.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We hope that local authorities would do that anyway, but, as a way for us to help them to push that agenda forward, under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is currently going through the other place, schools become for the first time statutory partners on the children’s trust board. The board is responsible for putting together the children and young people’s plan. The guidance that we shall consult on at the end of the year will be about defining how the relevant organisations—schools, PCTs, Jobcentre Plus, the police and the local authority—work together to deliver exactly the services in question. There will not be one individual department working in isolation, but a community of those partners working for the benefit of children.
Our forthcoming 21st-century schools White Paper will deal with making sure, through our new school report cards, that all schools are measured not just on how well they support the progress of the average child, but on how well they stretch the most gifted and talented, help those who need extra support, and collaborate with other schools in their area to drive up standards. We shall want to include parents’ views on the school report card as well, so that we have the important dimension of listening to parents.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, many of which are replicated in my constituency. We are doing our utmost to ensure that everyone has the best possible chance of an excellent education. I have spoken about the challenges we face, and how we rise to the challenge. As I have said, breaking the link that my hon. Friend spoke about is everyone’s business: it is the business of all head teachers and school teachers, in all areas, and of children’s services and all sections of local government, as well as national Government. We shall all have to work together, as I have said, if we are to achieve that ambition.
Question put and agreed to.