Tuesday 2 June 2009
[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)
It is a great pleasure to be here, and to be able to bring to the attention of the House the urgent need for reform of light dues—a tax on merchant vessels calling at British and Irish ports. Light dues are intended to cover the cost of providing lighthouses and navigational warnings around the coasts of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, one or two minor territories in the Red sea and, of course, Gibraltar.
The maintenance, upkeep and modernisation of navigational aids around our coastline falls to one of three bodies—Trinity House for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, the Northern Lighthouse Board for Scotland and the Isle of Man, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights for Northern Ireland and the Republic. Light dues are paid into the general lighthouse fund, and money is drawn from the fund to pay for the running costs of the general lighthouse authorities. The GLAs provide working capital and pay annual unfunded pensions for retired staff. Shipowners feel particularly aggrieved that they have for so long continued to bear the burden of such costs.
What hon. Members may not know is how long the controversy over the tax has been raging. At least three Select Committee hearings recommended the abandonment of lighthouse dues tax in the 1850s without success. The Official Report enabled me to do a little more research. I came across the Second Reading debate of the Merchant Shipping (Mercantile Marine Fund) Bill, which took place in 1898. As the title suggests, the legislation set up the mercantile marine fund, which was the forerunner of the general lighthouse fund.
The mercantile marine fund was often exhausted of funds and had to borrow to overcome a downturn in trade and industry—a condition that may have some resonance with today’s economic situation. Some of the comments made 111 years ago by our predecessors in this place are worth an airing. One argument for the retention of light dues has always been, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” On 17 March 1898, Mr. T. Gibson Bowles, who represented Lynn Regis, said, in response to such a sentiment, that it was
“about as true as saying that because it is usual to skin eels they have been reconciled to the practice.”
He also said that he hoped the Bill would be
“an earnest attempt to deal with a matter which has been a scandal for the last 70 years.”
That takes the controversy back to the 1820s. He went on:
“I have looked into this Bill, and a more jejune, undigested, unsatisfactory, and unpromising attempt to deal with this matter I have never seen.”—[Official Report, 17 March 1898; Vol. 55, c. 137.]
Many of the comments made during that debate 111 years ago could quite easily have been made yesterday. I suggest that for 111 years, successive Governments have failed to reform the system. They are secure in the knowledge that the commercial maritime industry is simply worn down by so many unsuccessful years of calling for change.
To return to the present day and the real purpose of my debate this morning, I should like the Minister to respond on two main issues. First, the current system is inequitable. The charges paid by ships calling at British ports subsidise the costs of those in Ireland, which is quite bizarre. Secondly, another bugbear of the current system is the failure of successive Governments to tackle structural imbalances in the administration of the general lighthouse authorities. In simple terms, we have reached an identical situation to that of 1800. Then the general lighthouse fund borrowed £200,000. A figure in excess of the alleged £21 million deficit is now claimed by the Government to restore the general lighthouse fund to health.
My hon. Friend has gone back in history and made an interesting analysis of the issue. There are a lot of old-fashioned taxes that may cause concern to many of us. Will he shed some light on what element light dues are of overall port costs? He has given the impression that it is a huge element, but my understanding is that it is a relatively small, albeit historically irritating, element of the overall port costs.
Although it may be a small element for merchant vessels, which deal in very big commercial transactions, it is a significant element for the fishing fleet. Why should vessels of the UK-registered fishing fleet that are just over 10 metres pay when they make no use of the GLA navigation aids and when other EU-registered vessels do not have to pay? It puts our fleet at yet more commercial disadvantage against the European fishers.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the UK fishing fleet has to pay those dues. I should like to draw the matter to the attention of the Department for Transport because it is dealing with it. It has allowed panic to set in. The investments held by the general lighthouse fund, which is still in a substantial surplus, fell by some £18 million. That was due to the parlous state of the economy. Meanwhile, the burden of the subsidy accrued to the Irish Government for maintenance of lights around the Irish coastline increased. The cause was the appreciation of the euro against the pound sterling, and it placed a further burden on the fund, currently totalling a staggering £16 million.
Astonishingly, the Department for Transport also accepted in its forecast a 4 per cent. annual compound increase in the costs of the general lighthouse authorities over the next five years. Things got even worse. On 23 February, the Government began a consultation exercise on changes to light dues. Among the proposals were a hike of 6 per cent. net registered tonnes on light dues rates for merchant vessels calling at UK ports from 1 July, a rise in the tonnage cap from 35,000 to 50,000 tonnes and an increased cap on taxable voyages from seven to nine a year. As a result, the maximum charge per call became £20,500.
On the face of it, such adjustments do not seem dramatic. But the impact of the changes will increase the burden of charges on some sectors of the shipping industry by a whopping 115 per cent. Something close to my heart is the impact that such proposals could have on, say, the port of Southampton. I use ports such as Southampton and Cowes each week to get to and from my constituency. The Government assume that deep-sea vessels will continue to call at UK ports, including the busy port of Southampton, regardless of cost. I suggest that that is risky. Shipping companies have already said that they are examining how to reduce their direct calls, and some are considering adjustments in their sailing schedules, so we cannot and must not assume that shipping companies will carry on as usual.
My hon. Friend is making some valuable points, some of which the Department for Transport could make to the Irish Government. On that last point, there is a general economic pressure, of which dues are not a part, to reduce direct calls. However, just in case he is thinking of linking the question of direct calls to the cost of light dues, does he have an economic analysis of how much calls increased as light dues, in effect, halved in real terms over the past two years?
I do not have those figures, but we are always as a consequence pressing for dues to decrease rather than increase.
No one will be surprised to learn that the situation has caused unparalleled outrage among the international and UK shipping communities. News of the additional burden has reached Bombay, Tokyo, Shanghai, New York and all world cities that control major shipping lines. What incalculable damage to our reputation as a leading maritime nation has been inflicted by the proposed tax increase?
Will the hon. Gentleman concede that the damage to our international reputation would be incalculably worse were there to be a disaster as a result of not observing the maintenance that is required to ensure that the lighthouse services are maintained at the highest possible level?
As the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) indicated, the costs of lighthouse services have gone down by some 40 per cent. in the past 10 years and have been cut four times. The service is not increasing its costs irresponsibly; rather, it has been acting with the best possible managerial efficiency. Notwithstanding that, there is a 5.6 per cent. cut this year.
The statistics mentioned are of course true, but we must remember that other transport bodies have been expected to reduce their costs. The lights business has been transformed over a generation. Only 10 years ago, substantial numbers of lighthouse keepers were employed, so one would expect there to have been a very large cut in the cost base since that time—[Interruption.]
I am very grateful to you, Mr. Olner.
This is the point: the shipping industry put its faith in the Government to honour the commitments that were made in 2004. They promised to abolish the Irish lights subsidy and to take steps to eliminate the duplication of services provided by the three lighthouse authorities, but they have blatantly failed to honour those commitments. Eliminating the Irish subsidy alone would virtually solve the anticipated deficit in the general lighthouse fund, and requiring the general lighthouse authorities to implement a 5 per cent. cut in operating costs would eliminate the deficit altogether.
I fully support the efforts of the noble Lord Berkeley, who has introduced a Bill in the other place that would require the Government to remove the Irish subsidy and rationalise the three general lighthouse authorities.
That could be a consequence. Whether the authorities are rationalised, improved or abolished, the point is getting the costs down. I hope the Government will take the proposal seriously and that they will support such a measure. It could be introduced early in the next Session. The Minister will tell us that he is in negotiations with his counterpart in the Irish Republic, but before any such proposal can be made, will he make the notes of the meetings and frequent updates on the situation available in the Library?
The hon. Gentleman has been negative rather than positive in that he has not given his views on how the problem ought to be fixed. Does he agree that Britain and the Irish Republic are transparent about our port costs? Has he compared our light dues with those of other continental ports or ports around the world?
I approve of what is happening on transparency—we are at least doing things openly—but I do not answer for what is happening in continental countries, whether or not it should be happening.
Will the Minister set out a firm timetable for eliminating the Irish subsidy? He should suspend the proposed increases that are due to come into effect on 1 July pending the preparation of a new budget to reduce the administrative costs of the three general lighthouse authorities. The Independent Light Dues Forum, which represents major international shipping lines, other trade association bodies and individual shipping companies of all sizes have all urged such action. It is imperative that the Government act to remove the burden of this proposed tax increase on ships calling at British ports.
In 1898, Sir Thomas Sutherland, the then Member for Greenock, said:
“I am quite certain it passes the wit of man to devise any scheme for imposing those lighthouse dues which shall be absolutely equitable. It has never been done, and it never will be done.”—[Official Report, 17 March 1898; Vol. 55, c. 170.]
I am more of an optimist—I do not believe that that is the case. Let this be the Minister’s legacy: he could be the Minister who, after nearly two centuries of controversy, finally did right by the shipping companies and introduced a reform of light dues that is fair and equitable to our maritime industry.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has done well to secure this debate and to highlight the problem of maintaining marine and navigation safety equitably. Before anybody jumps to any conclusions about how this matter might be resolved, it is extremely important first to point out the great success of the general lighthouse authorities in creating very high standards of marine and navigation safety, and in looking after 20,000 miles of coastline. They have done so using regional knowledge, and it is vital for hon. Members who are considering changes in the arrangements to recognise the importance of organisations that have such local knowledge on which they can act.
As was correctly pointed out, there has been no increase in light dues since around 1993. However, I also recognise that we are in unprecedented global economic difficulties, which is affecting shipping as much as other industries, including in the UK. Therefore, any imposition of significant increases may well impose difficulties on the shipping sector, which is already under pressure. We are particularly concerned about maintaining shipping in the UK and the viability of our ports. No hon. Member would want to do anything to jeopardise that given the economic difficulties that we face.
That is the situation. The system of GLAs works effectively and the dues have not been increased for a significant time. Nevertheless, we are in a position of great economic difficulty in which we do not want to jeopardise shipping in the UK by encouraging shipping companies to invest elsewhere, leading to reduced investment here.
I am glad that neither the hon. Lady nor my hon. Friend suggested that yachtsmen should have to start contributing to light dues. One of the great things about this country is that they can use the facilities without paying. I declare that I am a member of the Royal Yachting Association.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s important points.
Last year, the Select Committee on Transport considered the draft Marine Navigation Bill as part of its pre-legislative scrutiny. It contained a provision that might provide part of the solution to the problem by permitting GLAs to engage in more commercial activities and to use their expertise to raise more income. The provision contained the necessary safeguards and the Committee supported the proposal. It is a matter of regret that the Bill has not passed into legislation and that that and other important clauses have not been enacted. I hope that the Minister will say what progress is to be made on that. Enabling GLAs to produce additional income by using their expertise is one way in which the issue could be addressed.
It is important that GLAs continue to take cost-saving measures. They have made great progress on that over recent years. The Department must continue to fund projects that look at more efficient ways of conducting such activities and lowering the costs. For example, the eLoran project is developing a land-based, high-powered, precise terrestrial radio navigation system. It is important that that project and others are pursued because they can reduce costs without jeopardising safety.
I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight on the subsidies given to the Irish Republic. I note that discussions on resolving that matter are ongoing, but more urgency is required.
In conclusion, I support the excellent work of the existing GLAs in maintaining safety. I recognise the major problems faced by shipping at the moment and do not think that we should do anything that would jeopardise the viability and success of that important sector. The funding of marine and navigational safety is a critical and ongoing issue. I urge the Government to consider other ways of enabling more income to be produced so that increased costs do not fall on users of the service in a way that could jeopardise the sector.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for securing the debate and congratulate him on it. Not since I secured a debate some years ago on the future of the Stromness lighthouse depot in my constituency has the oxygen of public scrutiny come to fall on the work of the general lighthouse authorities. Such scrutiny is necessary. I will not stand here and argue against reform because, as he said, it is long overdue.
I do not suggest that our system is perfect. It has clearly agitated people in the industry for well over a century, as my hon. Friend said. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that some clear institutional and operational efficiencies are part and parcel of the system? Almost any reform is likely to be costly and there will be losers as well as gainers. Those who represent constituencies such as his will appreciate more than I do that we have a highly complex coastline and crowded shipping lanes, which require specific regional experience. The system we have allows for that. A new system could put it in jeopardy.
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated a great deal of what I will say. I am minded to sound a note of caution in the clarion call for reform. My concern is that we could end up with a system that does not have at its heart the safety of seafarers and shipping, and the environmental integrity of the seas around this country. That is what the issue comes down to.
The Northern Lighthouse Board, the GLA with which I am most intimately acquainted, is a curious creature. It comprises a sprinkling of people with an interest in and experience of the shipping industry, topped up, or adorned, by the Lord Advocate, the Solicitor-General for Scotland and the six sheriffs principal. I will pick my words with care because with the current febrile political atmosphere, the day might come when I appear again before some of those sheriffs principal. That risk stands for us all. I bow to none in my admiration for those people. I have known the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General for a number of years. They trained me in my early days as a trainee solicitor. They have many fine qualities and are admirable lawyers. I do not recall from my days as a trainee solicitor in the Crown Office any great discussion of matters maritime.
Although I do not doubt that the current office holders take their duties seriously and contribute vigorously to the work of the Northern Lighthouse Board, there is no guarantee that that will necessarily be the case. There is an argument that the structure of the GLAs—the Northern Lighthouse Board in particular—requires a careful look. My guess is that historically, people became part of GLAs because of the geographically diverse nature of the work. The current vast range of public service and bureaucracy did not exist. Therefore, there was a range of people with standing and ability in different geographical areas who could contribute something. However, let us not kid ourselves that this is any longer an appropriate structure for a lighthouse authority.
We must also look at the powers that are given to GLAs. I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) that it would be eminently sensible to consider the opportunities for them to engage in more commercial activities. That is long overdue.
To those who call for an amalgamation of the three bodies into one, I sound a note of caution. That proposal is superficially attractive, but I need to be persuaded that there are significant cost savings to be made. I have seen few occasions on which the solution to a problem has been greater centralisation. Before we move from a structure that can accommodate the different needs of navigational aids and lights in the north and west of Scotland, while allowing different approaches in the busier shipping lanes of the south-east, I want to be persuaded that it would bring a significant benefit. Again, this exercise must be driven not entirely by cost, but by the maintenance and continuation of good practice in navigational aids and by the safety of seafarers.
Hon. Members have spoken about the need to deal with the so-called Irish question. That much is genuinely, even in Government terms, long overdue, but we should not forget that although Ireland is one island, it has two states. Whatever solution we come to, the Irish Government must be brought to the table to pay proper dues, but we must not ignore the fact that we have a significant interest in Northern Ireland, from which there can be no walking away.
At the root of this issue are the finances of the GLF, which was recently described to me as being a pension fund with lighthouses. Given the dramatic way in which the service has changed in the past 20 years, that is undeniably the case. There have been significant cost reductions as a consequence of automation, and that is entirely sensible. I remember from my youth people who were employed as lighthouse keepers even in a small community such as Islay off the west coast. If one replicates that for the rest of the coastline, one realises there is a substantial legacy. The pension fund concerns the commissioners greatly, and it is no secret, either in the industry or in politics, that it was only the granting of a letter of comfort by one of the Minister’s predecessors, David Jamieson, that has allowed the current situation to continue without major crises and drama. If we are not to see the increases in light dues and the caps that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has talked about, there is a danger that we could precipitate a crisis, but the people who would suffer most as a consequence would be current and future holders of lighthouse fund pensions, and I would need to be persuaded that that crisis is worth precipitating.
One Voice, the Chamber of Shipping and others who have given briefings on this issue are right to make their concerns known, but we should not rush to assist them and put the interests of shipowners and the shipping industry above other competing interests. Lights and navigational aids have to be paid for somehow, and if it is not going to be from the current system, it will have to be from general taxation. That has been suggested by the shipping industry over the years, but has never found favour with the Government, for obvious reasons. The danger of taking the money from general taxation is that, as a global industry, the ability of the shipping industry to avoid paying tax is fairly well documented. I would want to see something pretty bomb-proof before we moved from our current system to something that relied on general taxation, even if any Government were ever to be persuaded to pick up the tab, although I think that rather unlikely in the current economic climate.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate. He presented his case in a balanced and eloquent way, but he is a very assiduous Member, so that does not surprise me. He has brought before the House a matter that is important, even if rather narrow.
We are proud to be a maritime nation, and I hope that we can keep the navigation of our waters safe. The Minister has rightly pointed out that that is the primary objective, and he will no doubt point it out again. The aims of ensuring the safety of our waters and navigation, and of modernising and making more efficient the general lighthouse authorities, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The GLA structure is old, and I do not see why we should not carefully consider amalgamating the three lighthouse boards. That seems a sensible way forward, not just to save costs, although that is important, but to spread best practice and have economies of scale. We should consider that suggestion, and should also resolve the problem of our subsidy of the Irish. Any programme should grasp that matter and deliver that change.
I want to make a brief contribution on behalf of fishermen who have to pay light dues if they have a boat of more than 10 metres. UK-registered fishing vessels pay those dues, but I think we all understand that fishermen are having a particularly tough time at the moment with fuel costs and quotas, which are killing them—especially the small inshore fleets, which are not only boats of under 10 metres; many boats of just over 10 metres never go near the GLA-provided navigation aids, but must still pay a contribution towards them, even though they do not use them. They are at a great competitive disadvantage against vessels that are registered in other EU countries, which do not pay the dues, and there is a perception that those vessels do not adhere to many of the rules or regulations. Our fishermen feel particularly aggrieved about that problem.
I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that fishing vessels do not use the services provided by the GLAs. It is clear from my information that they do. Notwithstanding that, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that it will reimburse lighthouse dues to fishermen in England and Wales this year. Is he aware of that?
No, I was not aware of that. I am grateful to the Minister for that briefing, and to the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who probably made that announcement.
There are many larger fishing vessels that go out to sea and use the navigation aids, but I am talking about the sort of small inshore fleets that operate from Leigh-on-Sea and Canvey Island in Essex, and from the small Kent ports. They tell me that they have to pay light dues on boats of over 10 metres, and they are aggrieved because they do not make use of the systems provided by the GLA, so they are at a competitive disadvantage. I would like the Minister to pass a message to his colleague in DEFRA, who has set up the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project under the chairmanship of Alan Riddell. Will he ask him to take account of light dues when he considers matters of economic viability, sustainability, the environment and societal consequences in relation to the small inshore industry and the SAIF project? Will he ask him to extend further an exemption from light dues for all small inshore fishing boats, including those just over 10 metres? I am grateful to have had the opportunity to make those points.
I came to listen, Mr. Olner, but I have to indulge, I am afraid. I have had a great interest in marine safety ever since I was a young boy, when I wrote an essay on a sea rescue and won a prize from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Some hon. Members might remember that I put through the Marine Safety Act 2003, which plugged two loopholes in previous legislation that was attributable to the late Lord Donaldson.
We must remember that there have been at least three major shipping disasters—the Torrey Canyon and the Sea Empress, to name just two—and that Lord Donaldson wrote two magnificent reports which resulted, first, in four emergency towing vehicles being put around the British coast to rescue ships in trouble, and, later, more legislation. Today, Britain has some of the best legislation in the world on marine safety.
Having said that, the main problem that we face is wider than just light dues; it is about competition in the shipping industry, which, obviously, is an international industry. Responsible shipowners, who are probably the ones who are making the most noise about light dues, are in competition with shipping firms at the other end of the spectrum that invest very little in the training of their crews, including the senior officers, from the captain downwards, who are in control of their ships. They spend very little on maintenance of what are well nigh rust buckets sailing the seven seas, and the salaries and wages of the crews do not bear thinking about. That is the problem in the shipping industry.
When we talk about investing £90 million in maintaining buoys, lighthouses and the rest of the marine safety features that dot our coastline—20,000 miles of it—we are talking about a small percentage of total shipping costs. I believe that it is international competition that is making our shipowners shout about the light dues. Piracy must also be increasing shipping costs for some of our main shipowners who travel down the east coast of Africa.
We must praise Trinity House. Very little has been said about it, but it collects 87 per cent. of the revenue. It was mentioned that it has reduced its costs by 50 per cent. in the past 10 years alone, yet there has been no increase in light dues since 1993. Let us give credit where it is due. How has Trinity House managed that? As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, lighthouses have been automated, but they still have to be regularly serviced by helicopters to ensure that the lights are always working, particularly in the most dangerous outlying situations.
We are talking about the British isles plus the coastline of the Irish Republic—20,000 miles of some of the most dangerous coastline in the world. Shipping coming into Liverpool has to negotiate Ireland. Surely that is part of the reason why we subsidise the Commissioners of Irish Lights. When we talk about the CIL, we are talking about the whole of Ireland. Obviously, we have to subsidise the part of Ireland that the British Government are responsible for, but shipping coming into Liverpool, Cardiff and other ports, including some of the smaller ports, has to negotiate Ireland. If Ireland were not properly lit and buoys were not properly placed in the sea around the Irish coast, it would be far more dangerous for shipping to come into ports such as Liverpool. Therefore, I cannot get as anxious as some hon. Members are about subsidising the CIL.
How have Trinity House and the other general lighthouse authorities managed to achieve such a massive reduction in their expenditure? Apart from automation, which includes solarisation—I am always amazed by the many solar panels that are on top of buoys and attached to other marine safety features—they have made many redundancies, not just of lighthouse keepers but across the estate. They have massively rationalised their operations during the past 10 years, and they have sold land and property in their ownership and are still doing so, one of the most recent sales being at Great Yarmouth.
However, there is a warning for all three of the GLAs in this country. One shipping company made the point that it now relies more on global positioning systems. It said that it can almost bring a ship into a British port or any port in the world relying entirely on the one satellite that provides GPS. The ship almost drives itself if it is attached to GPS. Those are very expensive navigation instruments, of course, and they have to be paid for, but what would happen if that one satellite were to go down? We would again be reliant on traditional and well-tried methods of lighting our coastline.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Will he accept the counterpoint, which is that in an era of roll-on/roll-off and the channel tunnel, there is in fact no requirement for most ships to come into British ports at all? The real danger is that they will simply go to continental ports and shift their containers and other things straight on to the backs of lorries.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. There has to be a balance, and we must weigh all the factors. My warning to the GLAs is that Galileo is to provide an alternative to GPS and the Chinese are planning to put up a satellite which will provide yet another alternative for automatic navigation. Satellites measure wave heights and record the weather. The whole business of international shipping is being transformed by great advances in technology, and I can certainly see that, within the next 20 or 30 years, the captains of ships that ply between international ports will rely more and more on satellite navigation systems.
This argument will not go away. Trinity House and the other GLAs should bear in mind—we could dream and imagine for a moment—that international shipping could, be navigated almost totally in the absence of captains by satellites in the sky. Governments and light authorities around the British isles and in Ireland must take advancing technology into account. To be fair to Trinity House, to date it has taken advances in technology into account. It has welcomed and adapted them, and that is why there has been such a tremendous reduction—I repeat, 50 per cent. in 10 years—in its costs.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Olner.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this important debate. As a history and politics graduate, I appreciated the history lesson that he gave us. It was a first for me to attend a debate in which an hon. Member has blamed successive Governments, including a Liberal Government. There is a first every day.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) made a valid point about the impact that increased costs may have on the fishing industry, especially at a time of economic recession, and the Minister made a valid point about safety being of paramount importance. However, this debate is not about whether we are going to scrimp on safety but about how we will pay for it.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who is the Chairman of the Transport Committee, referred to the report in which the Select Committee dealt with the possibility of general lighthouse authorities being able to diversify the work that they carry out to bring in extra income. The Minister should bear that in mind when considering how the system is funded in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who probably knows more about maritime issues than any other hon. Member, made a valid point about the need for structural reform but also the need to ensure that the safety of our seamen, our ships and the shipping industry in general is of paramount importance.
The Minister, who is also the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town until the next election, announced in a written statement on 23 February that the Government were consulting on proposed amendments to the Merchant Shipping (Light Dues) Regulations 1997 to deal with the estimated funding shortfall of £21 million for 2009-10. The proposals are for an increase in the rate of light dues from 35p to 41p per net registered tonne, an increase of 17 per cent., together with increases in the tonnage cap and the number of chargeable voyages per year. For the largest vessels, the charge per call would rise by nearly two thirds to £20,000 and the overall annual cost would be even more if they were frequent callers at UK ports. The maximum payable for a single ship in a year would more than double from £85,750 to £184,500. For smaller regular traders, the increase would be about 45 per cent.
One Voice, the organisation created by the shipping, ports and maritime business services sector, whose member organisations include the Baltic Exchange, the British Ports Association, the Chamber of Shipping, the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, Maritime London and the UK Major Ports Group, points out that increases of this magnitude are almost unprecedented and certainly have not been seen in the past 20 years, and argues that there is a significant risk that some ships will divert to ports on the continent, where lighthouse costs are financed through public expenditure.
In a recent letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Michael Drayton, the chairman of One Voice, said:
“It is clear to all of us from reading the proposals that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the economics of shipping: the assumption that deep-sea vessels will continue to call at UK ports regardless of cost is wrong. Several operators have stated that they will reduce their direct calls at UK ports by 60 per cent., and others are considering similar adjustments to their sailing schedules. Nor is it safe to assume that a reduction in calls by deep-sea vessels inbound from the Far East would be offset by a rise in calls by feeder ships. Container operators could readily reorganise their services so that UK cargo is trans-shipped at Rotterdam or another European hub and then fed to/from the UK on other available deep-sea services. Once direct calls by inbound deep sea vessels have been stopped, they are very unlikely to be reinstated.”
I would be grateful if the Minister told hon. Members what assessment has been made of the likelihood that the increased charges will result in reduced direct calls at UK ports and what financial impact there would be if operators did reduce their direct calls by up to 60 per cent.
My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government must make an early and hard-headed assessment of the likely impact, but does he agree that light dues are just one of the costs of bringing ships into harbour and that, given the increasing scale of shipping, the increases that we are talking about must be set in that wider context?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that the issue needs to be considered in the context of the overall costs for the shipping industry. The shipping industry will obviously try to fight its corner as much as is humanly possible. That is reflected in the letter sent by One Voice to the Secretary of State.
Will the Minister accept that there is a danger that the increased charges could be more than offset by a reduction in ships if the doomsday scenario set out by the shipping industry came to fruition? If that were the case, would the Government intend simply to increase light dues again to offset the losses made as a result of ships not going to and from British ports?
Are these hikes in charges really acceptable during a recession? The loss of direct calls by deep-sea vessels would make UK trade more expensive, with cargoes attracting additional terminal handling charges at the transhipment ports. There would be a serious risk of economic activity and jobs transferring to continental ports if that happened. At a time when hundreds of thousands of British workers are losing their jobs, the industry is understandably concerned about the impact that the proposals will have on jobs in the ports and shipping industry.
The Minister was able to announce a freeze in light dues last year, before the recession took a grip, and that was on the back of a reduction the previous year. Does he really believe that the industry can sustain these big increases now, at a time when the economy is on its knees? I am thinking back to the comments by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside about the unprecedented economic difficulties that we face. Has the Minister considered postponing the charges, at least for this year, to give the economy time to recover, or perhaps phasing in the increases over a longer period? How does he react to the accusation by Martyn Pellew, group development director of Teesport operator PD Ports, who has accused the Government of trying to kill off the ports industry?
One Voice has also claimed that increasing the number of chargeable voyages will reduce the competitiveness of short-sea and coastal shipping, thereby increasing the risk of modal shift and more lorries on the road. What assessment has the Department for Transport made of the likely increase in lorry movements and the resultant impact on carbon emissions if that happened? Should we not be encouraging the use of short-sea and coastal shipping as a way of tackling climate change and cutting congestion on our roads?
The Minister is likely to argue that the increased charges, while unwanted, are necessary to bridge the projected £21 million gap between the income and spending of the three lighthouse authorities. Nobody can dispute that the money needs to come from somewhere, through either efficiency savings or increased charges. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is likely to call for the merger of the three lighthouse bodies. The Liberal Democrats would not currently support such a merger, and there is probably little to be gained in the way of savings by doing so, given that significant cost-cutting measures have been taken already in the past few years—a point made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon).
However, it is clear that a large proportion of the shortfall could be found if the Government delivered on their commitment in 2004 to end the annual subsidy of Ireland. One Voice calculates that it amounts to up to 75 per cent. of the projected deficit, and even the Government, in a parliamentary answer on 27 January, estimated more than £8 million being lost in potential savings in this financial year and about £30 million in the period since the then Secretary of State committed to ending the subsidy back in 2004. Will the Minister therefore give hon. Members a firm commitment on when the subsidy will end and offer some crumbs of comfort to an industry that will face real hardship if the charges are introduced now, during the recession? Will he also examine the viability of delaying increases in light dues, at the very least until the economy shows signs of recovery?
This has been a very interesting and thorough debate, with good points made in all parts of the Chamber. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on obtaining the debate and on taking a very long view indeed on the issue. As the son of a distinguished international yachtsman, I was very taken with the quote from Sir Thomas Sutherland with which he ended his speech. It reminded me of the time when the Kaiser caused an incident by turning up in London at very short notice off the boat train at Victoria. The embarrassed officials from Buckingham palace who met him told him that King Edward VII was on the Isle of Wight—my hon. Friend’s constituency—and he said:
“I suppose the man is boating with his grocer again.”
When businesses face severe difficulties, there is a particularly strong onus on Government to minimise potential additional costs. As a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, have remarked, the shipping industry has been particularly hard hit by the current economic turmoil. In January, Lloyd’s List reported that freight rates for containers shipped from Asia to Europe had hit zero, with customers paying just bunker rates and terminal charges. The Baltic dry index, which measures freight rates for bulk commodities, had fallen by 96 per cent. Those were desperate times, and things have picked up a little since then, but in mid-April Lloyd’s List was still reporting that 10 per cent. of global container ships were idle.
Shipping companies everywhere are busy analysing all aspects of their operations to reduce costs. Measures include service suspensions, slow steaming, service deviations, off-hiring chartered tonnage and lay-ups. Worst of all, many jobs are disappearing onshore and offshore. Last week, figures from Lloyd’s Maritime Intelligence Unit showed that 26 ships with capacity of at least 6,000 20-ft equivalent units had not moved in the past 19 days. Sadly, Coastal Bulk Shipping Ltd, which is based in Kent, has gone to the wall. The company operated a fleet of 13 vessels and was engaged in the extremely ecologically sound process of coastal shipping. It employed 90 people, but they have lost their jobs.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned the fishing industry, and I know from constituents in Whitstable that it is struggling. Although DEFRA’s measures are welcome, they are only for the current year.
I have had discussions with several members of the independent light dues forum, the Chamber of Shipping and One Voice. I have also met managers at Trinity House and I am looking forward to visiting their depot in Harwich next week. None of us should doubt the difficulty or the magnitude of the task facing Trinity House and its two sister authorities. Britain is an island nation, and our sea lanes are our arteries. One of those arteries—the English channel—is the busiest shipping lane in the world. The Minister kindly arranged for me to visit the Maritime and Coastguard Agency headquarters near Dover, and I saw the printout of the shipping movements that took place at just one moment in time. It was impossible not to be impressed.
I must make it absolutely clear that Trinity House, the Northern Lighthouse Board and the Irish organisations do a first-class job. The Minister, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and other hon. Members are quite right when they say that nothing that we say or do should compromise the quality of the work that those organisations do. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight made clear, ships docking in the UK and the Republic of Ireland are paying light dues that apply in few other countries, including most other EU member states.
That brings me to the proposed increase in light dues. Trinity House informs me that light dues are now typically between 1 and 11 per cent. of total port charges and that they will go up to between 1 and 15 per cent. after the proposed increase. The planned rise ramps up fees from 35p to 41p per net registered tonne. For the largest vessels, the charge per call would rise by nearly two thirds to £20,000, and the overall annual cost would be even more if those vessels were frequent callers at UK ports. For smaller regular traders, the increase would be about 45 per cent.
In the current climate, the UK ship industry—shipping lines and ports alike—sees light dues as an albatross around its neck. I meant what I said when I stated that we must not compromise the quality of the work done by Trinity House, and there is no question of a future Conservative Administration expecting the taxpayer to pick up the bill for its work. However, we need to understand what the proposals mean for the shipping industry. To take one example, Maersk has told me that it will face an additional bill of £3 million per annum.
Light dues act as a cost multiplier. When shipping lines and ports are stripping out inefficiencies and costs, such a tax undermines UK competitiveness and retards the development of the UK’s short sea shipping market, as evidenced by the collapse of Coastal Bulk Shipping. Indeed, we risk losing stops at UK ports altogether. In the era of the ro-ro and the channel tunnel, containers can simply be unloaded at Rotterdam or other major continental ports and put straight on to the back of a lorry. That is bad for British jobs in ports, it is bad for the regions of our country and it is very bad for the environment in terms of not only CO2 emissions, but congestion pressures on the M25 and some of the most crowded parts of our road system. There is also a longer term threat to the City of London, as the world’s centre of excellence on maritime issues, if large amounts of trade shift from British ports.
I will not repeat the eloquent quote that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) read out from One Voice, which echoes concerns expressed by the Chamber of Shipping and many individual lines. Instead, I want to look at some of the effects on the industry. COSCO is pulling one of its big container ships out and moving its route to Rotterdam. Maersk is considering pulling five of its six container ships out of their bases in Britain, and Grimaldi and APL are considering similar action.
Light dues are one part of an accumulation of measures that the Government have recently introduced.
If, when the hon. Gentleman concludes, the Minister stands up and says, “Okay, these increases won’t happen. The pension fund costs and the operating costs can all be met from my Department’s budget,” does the hon. Gentleman really think that these shipping companies will not make the changes that he expects? Are they not perhaps operating in a wider economic context?
The hon. Gentleman puts a perfectly reasonable question, but I tried to make it clear in the early part of my speech that the proposed increase is one of a number of factors. I will list some more of them, which have nothing do with light dues, but which have worked in conjunction with them to drive COSCO’s decision to base one of its container ships at Rotterdam rather than here.
We have had the debacle over seafarers earnings deductions for those employed in part of the maritime sector. We have had the Government’s plans for administered incentive pricing for spectrum frequencies, which vessels are obliged by international agreement to use for communication and navigational aids. Worst of all has been the destruction of businesses in many British ports because of the muddle over port rating. That is why I firmly believe that the Government must prevent light dues from becoming yet another nail in the coffin of British ports. We must look at a more imaginative way forward.
It is to the credit of Trinity House and its sister organisations that they have achieved a nearly 50 per cent. reduction in costs over the past decade. Now, however, they propose an 18 per cent. increase in costs over the next four years. Despite the fact that the general lighthouse fund was tasked by the Department for Transport with finding efficiencies, it forecast a 17 per cent. increase, and it has now come up with a slightly higher figure.
Much of the debate has focused on the Irish position, and I have exchanged a series of letters with the Minister on the issue over the past 18 months. As far back as 2004, the Government pledged to end this absolute nonsense, which has seen us pay roughly two thirds of Irish costs, but get roughly 15 per cent. of the value. As has been said, most of the deficit is accounted for by that single factor. How can that be right?
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to pensions, and the position is actually worse. I stand to be corrected, but I think that the last lighthouse keepers to retire were all in Ireland, so a disproportionate amount of the longest end of the pension fund will apply to the Irish side. The 2007-08 GLF accounts recorded the pensions liability as follows: Trinity House, £136 million; the Northern Lighthouse Board, £72 million; and the Commissioners of Irish Lights, £130 million. That is a total of £337 million, of which more than a third goes to Ireland.
The general lighthouse authority pension schemes are operated by analogy with the principal civil service pension scheme. That is a career-average, or final salary-based, non-funded, pay-as-you-go arrangement, although the GLF does of course have assets, which cover a portion of the liabilities. The GLA’s net pension expenditure in 2007-08 was around £14 million. I hope that the Minister, who has recently been to Ireland, will tell us today what steps he is taking, or, better still, give us a firm date for the stopping of the subsidy. In particular, what will the small print say about Irish pension liabilities?
Several hon. Members have referred to the fact that there are three lighthouse authorities, and have considered whether there would be benefits from amalgamating them. Considerable savings have been achieved by working together in several areas. However, how can there still be six lighthouse authority employees who earn more than the Minister? He is good value—a good man in a bad Government. Interestingly, five of the six are employed on the Irish side.
The chairman of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), made an interesting point about more opportunities for commercial operations by the lighthouse authorities. Trinity House generated more than £2 million last year, I believe, from other commercial sources. That income, of course, goes into the GLF, and already helps, in a small way, to reduce light dues. The hon. Lady discussed the possible scope for expanding that approach, and I hope that the Minister will say something about it.
As to the issue of capital expenditure, virtually every private sector organisation in the country, and certainly every one with an involvement in the maritime area, is looking at ways of pushing capital spending to the right. An independent review by C-MAR commissioned by the Government and the three lighthouse authorities concluded that the GLAs could manage with the residual fleet once Patricia is retired in 2012 but that, in order to provide operational flexibility and “surge capacity” for emergency response, another tender, similar to Pole Star, should be acquired to replace Patricia. Has the Minister considered the proposal? I am told that Patricia is not especially old. Is a replacement really necessary in the next three or four years? Is the decision driven by safety, or is it just following former practice?
No one should doubt the need for navigational aids, or the difficulty of the task and the professional requirements of those who manage our sea lanes so well, but at a time of desperate economic difficulty for shipping and our ports we have a strong duty to reduce cost pressures wherever that can be done safely. Ways should be found of curbing light dues without compromising safety, starting with Irish costs.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding this morning, Mr. Olner, as other hon. Members have mentioned. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this important debate. It has been a useful discussion.
As well as the many aids to navigation that are maintained by the various harbour authorities, Trinity House has no fewer than three important historic lighthouses on or close to the Isle of Wight, at Nab tower, St. Catherine’s and the Needles, with another on the opposite side of the water at Hurst point. The general lighthouse authorities may be among our oldest institutions that have an unbroken history. Trinity House dates from 1514, but, as many hon. Members have mentioned, the authorities are not old-fashioned. The 11 staff in their joint research and radio-navigation department have a worldwide reputation. In the new headquarters of the Commissioners of Irish Lights I recently saw their high standard of work and the control room where one operator monitors and controls the lighthouses around the coast of Ireland. Their performance regularly exceeds the highest international standards for all types of aids to navigation.
Paying for the GLAs is a contentious matter, and I fully understand the points that have been made by many hon. Members. The general lighthouse fund was created in 1898 to replace a complex system whereby lights were provided by a mixture of the GLAs and private operators. It pays for the GLAs in the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. The fund’s income is mainly from light dues paid by ships using ports in the UK and Ireland and from investment income. It contains £44 million of pension contributions from GLA employees, which is sacrosanct. We can use the investment income to fund pensions and other liabilities, but we cannot use it for capital funding or operating costs. We must also maintain a sensible reserve for operational expenditure or unforeseen and uninsured costs. There may be an argument for reviewing the present system of light dues and the general lighthouse fund because it has now operated largely unchanged for more than 100 years. I am wary, however, of arguments that aids to navigation and the GLAs are unnecessary for large modern ships, because it is precisely for their benefit that the deep water channels have to be surveyed and marked, and obstructions monitored and dealt with.
In February we published our light dues consultation. As many hon. Members have mentioned, for more than 16 years light dues have not been increased. They have been reduced on four separate occasions during that period. That has meant a decrease of over 40 per cent. in real terms—an enviable achievement by the GLAs. Few public or private bodies could claim to have equalled that. In April 2006 the light dues rate was cut by more than 10 per cent. in the knowledge that the new rate was unsustainable in the long term but that it was possible because of the relatively high level of the general lighthouse fund, good investment returns and significant windfall gains from asset sales. The reduction was made after consulting the Lights Advisory Committee, representing light dues payers, who said at the time that they would support a necessary future rise in light dues rates.
As foreseen, an increase in light dues is now essential. What we did not foresee was that it would happen in a global recession, when investment income has virtually ceased and trade has reduced so that shipping companies are laying up vessels, rationalising routes and concentrating on larger ships. Fund income is falling and we must act to ensure that the GLAs can maintain their safety functions. I understand that the shipping industry has been hit hard; it has reacted quickly by making significant cuts. We have asked the GLAs to make cuts, to defer non-essential expenditure and to look at further efficiencies. They have made cuts of 5.6 per cent this year, but there is not such a close correlation between trade and spending, in their case. Lighthouses must be lit, radio-navigation signals broadcast, channels surveyed and buoys moved. We cannot avoid taking steps to maintain those safety-critical functions, and all the hon. Members who have spoken accepted that. Expenditure deferred now may well result in greater costs in a year or two. We therefore have a difficult balancing act to perform. We have received 47 responses to the consultation, and I have held four meetings with the representatives of those most affected. I am now looking very carefully at all the comments before announcing any decision. I hope to do that within a few days.
With three GLAs, and their integrated funding, we have a co-ordinated lighthouse service for the whole of the British Isles which is efficient and second to none in the world. We are nevertheless in a difficult position because since 1922 the fund has had to meet costs in two sovereign states where income does not necessarily equate to expenditure in each country. Light dues collected in the United Kingdom are being used, in part, to pay for lights in the Irish Republic. A 1985 agreement recognised that, so the Irish Government make an additional contribution towards the costs. Both Governments accept that the 1985 agreement should be changed. We have done more work and, as has been mentioned, I recently met the Irish Minster of Transport in Dublin to discuss the matter. I am pleased to say that we agreed a better formula for apportioning Irish costs on a north-south basis.
We also agreed on the need for an overall assessment of the provision of the integrated aids-to-navigation service to all regions of the UK and Ireland. An evaluation is to be undertaken to consider all aspects of delivery, including continuing increases in efficiency, potential structural improvements and the overall financing arrangements. We now have the basis for making real progress. We will make every effort to reach an agreement that is more soundly based than the old one and one that ensures a fair apportionment of funding. The Irish negotiations also raised the question of whether the present GLA structure was the best.
I am grateful to the Minister for characteristically giving way. I wish to make two quick points. First, will he tell us whether the subjects under discussion included the pension arrangements, which form a large part of the picture? Secondly, he referred to the 1985 agreement. That was set against the background of the appalling difficulties in Northern Ireland. We were desperately dependent upon southern Ireland at the time, so we had very little leverage. In the present situation, however, we should be in a position to tell another sovereign state that it should pay its way.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. I have asked the simplistic question: can we turn off the lights? The answer is clearly no, as it would affect shipping going to the rest of the British isles, and not only that going to Ireland. We have an agreement with the Irish Government, and we need to negotiate a way forward from that. We cannot simply say to the Irish that we no longer accept the arrangements. The discussions in Dublin nearly two weeks ago resulted in a commitment to a ratio of 85:15 in payments for this year; and we have a commitment to consider the 50:50 payments in the longer term.
As I said, the Irish negotiations also raised the question of whether the present GLA structure is the best solution. There are good historical reasons for the position that we now find ourselves in, and we must protect the undoubted advantages that stem from the expertise and geographical knowledge to be found in each of the GLAs, a point made by a number of colleagues. However, I believe that we need to take a fundamental look at how the lighthouse service is provided, and that view is shared by the Irish Minister. Without Irish co-operation, implementing change will be more difficult. I do not intend to destroy the good service that we have, but we need to consider, in the 21st century, how it can be improved in order to achieve efficiencies that will deliver a better service.
We are already working on some matters; for instance, there will be a full review of the combined GLA fleet of ships and their management. We will be taking forward its recommendations with the GLAs. I will also be making an announcement once we have finished our analysis of the current need for funding the GLAs. That will have implications for their work programme for the coming year. Inevitably, they will have to bear some pain, but that cannot be at the expense of safety. That, in turn, will lead to the annual planning process for the three GLAs. I expect that their corporate plans will be given particularly thorough scrutiny in the autumn by the Government and the Lights Advisory Committee.
I turn to points raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke of fishing vessels. Although smaller vessels tend to use port-provided navigations aids, they certainly rely upon GLA-provided aids outside the port and harbour limits. I heard what he had to say about DEFRA; it has given a commitment this year, but it is very much a matter for the Department in future. However, I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), will read the report of this debate, because it impacts on his area of responsibility.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). I am glad that he was provoked into making a contribution. He is highly regarded for his scientific and engineering expertise. We now know that he is also an award-winning writer. He made some telling points, and I am grateful to him for that.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) risked provoking the legal authorities in Scotland. He obviously recognises that some of us have escaped their jurisdiction, so we would not be that worried about upsetting anyone if it led to an improved service. However, the matter will certainly be considered.
I was asked whether we will be placing the outcome of the Dublin talks in the Library. The answer is no: it is not general practice to put notes on ministerial meetings in the Library. However, I have covered some of the points made there in my speech, and more will become clear in due course.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) spoke of the threat by shipping companies to decrease calls to UK ports by 60 per cent., going instead to Europe. The Department has commissioned a report from Raven Trading to review the impact of increases in light dues, and in due course the report will be placed on the Department’s website and in the Library. Indications are that the argument that ships will switch to continental ports because of the cost is not supported.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about support for short sea shipping. We have discussed the matter before, and I know that he realises that the Department offers freight facility grants to equalise the cost of coastal and short sea shipping to encourage a modal shift from road to water-borne transport. We are doing what we can to support short sea shipping, both in the UK and Europe.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I understand that there are three reasons for that. The first is the complicated nature of the application procedure, and we are simplifying that. The second is people’s lack of familiarity with the grant, and we are trying to promote its availability. The third is European rules in respect of state aid. We have made strong representations in Europe, and have made some progress, to ensure that short sea shipping receives more aid from national and sovereign Governments, as we are not alone in being frustrated in our attempts to promote and support it. I accept entirely the criticism and concern that not enough is being paid out, and we are doing what we can to promote the grant and change the position.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said that we need more urgency in respect of the Irish question. I hope that she accepts that my personal visit to Dublin indicates that we are taking the matter seriously, and that we have made some progress. My hon. Friend said that the regional and local knowledge of GLAs is important, and that we must recognise the economic difficulties of shipping. We appreciate the local knowledge of the GLAs; it is important, and we will take account of the many representations that we have received on that point before making our announcement. My hon. Friend also mentioned the Marine Navigation Bill. We, too, are disappointed that parliamentary time could not be found for the Bill, but we intend to bring it forward as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) makes the point that few other countries have light dues. Of the 54 major shipping nations, two thirds impose light dues of some description. He asked about the Patricia, the Trinity House flagship. It is also used for cadet training, as well as in maintaining buoys and lights. All those matters will be considered at the appropriate time. The hon. Gentleman also said that light dues must be seen in the context of other pressures on the shipping industry. That point is entirely valid and fair, and we will take account of representations from the industry in reaching a decision on light dues. We have spent much time talking to the industry over the past few months to ensure that it realises that we want to hear what it has to say. The Patricia dates from 1986, and a smaller, modern, cheaper and more flexible ship is recommended. We will be considering the implications in due course, with the review of the GLAs.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for securing this debate. It is good to see him back in his place and at full strength, having had to battle with serious illness. I know that many of us were concerned about him, but the fact that he is here this morning and leading this debate demonstrates that he is on good form again. I welcome that, as I am sure do other Members.
I hope that I have done justice to the work of the GLAs. I trust, too, that I have given assurances that the Government are not complacent in managing the general lighthouse fund and overseeing the lighthouse service. We will be announcing the outcome of our considerations following the submissions to our consultation within a few days. I hope that the results will demonstrate that we have taken account of representations from all sides.
Public Analysts Service
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Olner, and I hope that you enjoy this debate too. There is certainly plenty of food in your constituency!
Food security is high on the political agenda at the moment. Population increases, and the consequent increases in prosperity and demand for food and energy, pose a huge problem in a world faced with climate change and global warming. However, we must not take our eye off the safety of our increasingly global food supplies. A succession of food scares before this Government came to power in 1997 led to the establishment, in 2000, of the Food Standards Agency, which is now the competent authority for the implementation and monitoring of food and feed law in this country. In practice, the FSA delegates many of its responsibilities. European regulation 882/2004 on food and feed controls requires adequate laboratory provision for the testing of food and animal feedstuffs throughout its member states.
In this debate, however, I want to examine the role of public analysts, who play a vital role in maintaining the safety of our food, and their relationship with the newly created FSA. Although food law is enforced by local authority trading standards and environmental health officers, the FSA monitors the performance of so-called food authorities across the UK under the Food Safety Act 1990, which draws a distinction between “analysis”, which means chemical analysis, and “examination”, which means microbiological examination. The latter is carried out, in England and Wales, by the Public Health Laboratory Service, which is funded by the Department of Health, and by public analysts in the case of food safety. In England and Wales, 460 food authorities, including 50 port authorities, also have responsibilities under the Food Safety Act.
Formal samples are divided into three parts: one for the sampling officer, one for the food owner and another for the food authority. The third part may be sent to the laboratory of the Government chemist, which acts as a referee in cases of dispute. Furthermore, the Agriculture Act 1970 requires local authorities to appoint an agricultural analyst to control the composition, labelling, sampling and analysis of fertilisers and animal feedstuffs, including pet foods. In England and Wales, the food authorities that carry out food standards enforcement are generally the same as those that carry out those fertiliser and animal feed duties. Public analysts are suitably qualified to carry out duties under the Agriculture Act.
Food, of course, is big business. It is estimated to be worth £150 billion annually, but only £8 million is spent on ensuring food safety through routine sampling and food analysis. The average amount spent in England and Wales, excluding London, on food analysis by public analysts is 10p per person per year, but the figure is as little as 2p per person in some areas and compares very unfavourably with the rest of Europe. For example, the Republic of Ireland spends 46p per person per annum. On average, one in five food samples tested attracts an adverse report owing to labelling or compositional faults. However, there is no centrally co-ordinated, strategic direction or funding of the UK’s official food control laboratories, and there are no nationally agreed guideline budgets for sampling and analysis or targets for risk-based sampling levels to support essential food control work.
In the 19th century, there was a major problem with food adulteration, which often led to death or ill health. From 1860 onwards, there were several Acts of Parliament aimed at reducing or eliminating the problems and at improving nutrition. The first public analysts, originally employed by private organisations, were appointed in 1860. Previously, they had been deploying a range of analytical skills to the products of the chemical industry, and they extended their skills, which were limited to examination by microscope and simple chemical tests, to measuring and identifying the various contaminants of food samples.
Large-scale food adulteration, whether deliberate or accidental, remains with us today. The presence of dioxin in pork and lamb of Irish origin is a recent example. In 2008, Chinese milk distributors discovered that they could water down their milk without altering the protein content analysed by a nitrogen assay by adding a chemical called melamine, of which there had been a glut on the Chinese market. Consequently, its price had dropped significantly. According to the World Health Organisation, six children died and 50,000 people became ill as a result of that adulteration. The factory manager in China was, of course, sentenced to death. Scientists have now devised new tests for the presence of melamine in milk and foods containing milk, such as chocolate. However, at the end of 2008, one large UK port authority had to contact laboratories throughout the UK in order to find just one that could carry out, in a timely manner, analysis for melamine in foodstuffs imported from China.
The cost to UK industry, in 2003, of recalling the 600 different products containing Worcester sauce—not to be confused with Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce—contaminated with the Sudan 1 red food dye in imported chilli powder was between £100 million and £200 million. Noteworthy is the fact that the contamination was actually discovered in Italy, not Rochdale, where the sauce is manufactured.
When food science became big business, public analysts began aiding, as expert witnesses, the prosecution of offenders in court. In 1898, a new qualification was introduced by the Royal Institute of Chemistry to examine the competence of our public analysts. The mastership in chemical analysis—the MChemA—which has existed in its present form since 2000, is today a professional qualification of the Royal Society of Chemistry. I must declare an interest: I am a fellow of the RSC, a chartered chemist and one of the RSC’s parliamentary advisers—unpaid, I hasten to add. The Institute of Food Science and Technology regards the MChemA as the essential and mandatory qualification for public analysts, as does the Food Safety (Sampling and Qualifications) Regulations 1990. However, the FSA believes that this postgraduate qualification, and the difficulty of acquiring it, is causing difficulties in the recruitment of public analysts, and the Government believe that the requirement for a food analyst is too restrictive under present EU legislation.
On 11 February, in a letter to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), my right hon. Friend the Minister, who I am very pleased to see in the ministerial chair this morning, wrote:
“The proposed changes to The Food Safety (Sampling and Qualifications) Regulations 1990 will enable suitably qualified people to become official food analysts. This will help address the decline in the current number of existing analysts and ensure that the capacity and skills for analysis of food is maintained and enhanced. This will widen the market for analytical services, increasing capacity and providing improved access to a broader base of analytical services to ensure sufficient levels of control and consumer protection”.
That is a worrying statement and suggests an end to the highly professional and highly trained public analysts as we have known them since 1860. It also indicates the possibility of more privatisation of the food analysis service. Will the Minister say whence these proposals have come, how much consultation there has been, how highly trained she expects analysts to be in the future and whether they will be adequately trained to represent themselves in the courts of law?
By contrast, the Association of Public Analysts believes that the MChemA and its holders demonstrate unique competencies in the application of analytical chemistry in the ever-changing context of food law and, more importantly, that they are able to present their findings in criminal courts. Furthermore, removing the need for this qualification and allowing official samples to be sent to other types of laboratory will not prevent the continued decline in food sampling and analysis.
Sadly, over the past 50 years, financial constraints imposed on local authorities, which hold responsibility for the majority of services, including maintenance of the ever more costly laboratory services, have led to such a decline in services that only 38 officially appointed public analysts are employed across the United Kingdom. In the past 15 years alone, the number of public analysts has been reduced by almost 50 per cent. Another problem is that 27 of the remaining public analysts are over the age of 50, and the omens are not good for recruitment. The lack of a career pathway in the public analysts service may lead to the loss of the MChemA, the professional qualification organised by the RSC.
In 1959, 150 public analysts worked out of 45 laboratories. In 1997, there were 32 laboratories. Today, only 21 laboratories remain and five of those form part of one private sector organisation. The remaining laboratories suffer from a lack of investment, and it is inevitable that more will close in the near future. Some of the instruments that have to be provided for the public analysts service today are extremely expensive indeed.
The most recent closure was a private sector facility in Birkenhead, with the redundancy of two public analysts. Also, recently, Aberdeen city council has agonised over the potential closure of its laboratory, but has decided, at least for the time being, to keep it open.
The public analysts service has reached a point of crisis. Of concern is the fact that between 2003-04 and 2006-07, local authorities’ sampling activity fell by 16 per cent. across the UK as a whole. Some local authorities carried out no sampling in some of the years. The laboratories are headed by professional chemists, who deal inter alia with not only food but issues relating to fraud, industrial safety, water sampling, contamination of public water supplies following flash flooding and the testing of consumer products referred to them by trading standards officers. They test garden chemicals, poisons under the Poisons Act 1972, cosmetics, samples of contaminated land, dust samples, samples that might contain asbestos and so on. Their list of duties is endless.
The Hampton report on the regulation of businesses published in 2005 did not help. It said that because the standard of food was then very high, inspection and sampling of food premises should be reduced and resources more focused. Such recommendations were welcomed by the FSA and incorporated in the national control plan. That was despite the fact that the majority of criminal breaches of food law are detectable only by analysis.
In the past 10 years, local authorities’ expenditure on their public analysts services has decreased from £12 million to £8 million. Ironically, we are spending progressively less on checking the safety of foods at the very time when national health service costs are rising as a result of food-induced disease, caused, for example, by energy-dense foods that lead to gross obesity.
In the 2007-08 annual report, the chief scientist at the FSA flagged up the fact that the incidence of certain types of food-borne illness appears to be rising at the moment. It is clear to me that there is a tension between the newly created FSA, which has a responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient scientific resources to provide public analytical laboratory services in the UK but with limited funds, and the local authorities, which have a statutory duty to appoint public analysts, but which do not have a duty to provide those expensive laboratory facilities.
Only two years ago, the Association of Public Analysts raised concerns with the FSA about the sustainability of its services. As a result, a review group was set up. As of today, we have heard no outcome from that review. I ask my right hon. Friend when the review group might report. Stakeholders from enforcement and consumer groups are concerned that while this delay goes on, the service is disintegrating almost to a point of no return. The RSC has also been concerned about regional variations in food sampling and analysis. It has written without success to the FSA to suggest that minimum standards should be set for local authorities for carrying out their food sampling duties.
The amount spent by the food and drink industry on advertising and promoting its products rose by 19 per cent. between 2003 and 2007, from £704 million to £838 million. A 1 per cent. tax on the 2007 figure would raise £8.38 million, which could be used to support the cost of running public analysts laboratories. There is central funding for regional laboratory networks for the Health Protection Agency, which is the arm of the Department of Health that carries out microbiological testing, for the Environment Agency, which carries out environmental protection work, and for the Forensic Science Service. Why is there not also central funding for the important area of food sampling and analysis?
I conclude my contribution with the following joint remarks of the councils of the RSC and the then Society of Public Analysts and Other Analytical Chemists:
“The duties of the Public Analyst are daily increasing in complexity and difficulty. Higher qualifications than formerly are required of him, owing not only to the general advance in science as applied to the analysis of food, but also the exacting character of the numerous regulations of government departments concerned”.
Those remarks, which are true today, were made in 1923. I look forward to hearing what other right hon. and hon. Members have to say, and in particular to my right hon. Friend the Minister’s reply.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this important debate and on his dedication to the public analysts service and all issues relating to chemistry and science? He is a great champion for those issues.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend said and I should like to echo and concur with much of the information that he has provided—I do not intend my contribution to be too long. I thank Duncan Campbell of the West Yorkshire Joint Services, which has a public health laboratory in Morley, and Alan Richards, president of the Association Of Public Analysts, for the information that they provided to assist me with my contribution to the debate.
I mention Duncan Campbell because I was lucky enough to visit the WYJS public health laboratory, which is just outside Leeds, a few months ago. I visited because it is the public health laboratory for my local authority. It is approximately 20 miles away, which is an example of the disconnect between local authorities and the laboratories that are available for them to use that my hon. Friend touched on. Local authorities are obliged simply to appoint a public health analyst or public health laboratory; they are not required to maintain or keep one, or to have one within their area.
My hon. Friend has already pointed out that the FSA has responsibilities for food analysis in this country, yet much of the responsibility is delegated to the local authorities. It is clear that the role of the public analyst and the public health laboratory is falling between the two. Taken to a logical conclusion, if we allow the closures to continue at their present rate, we could have a situation in which the 400 or so local authorities in this country are looking around for public health laboratories to appoint but find that there are none left, because nobody has a requirement to maintain them.
My hon. Friend made the argument very well for central funding for food testing, in line with other areas. As he pointed out, in this day and age there is an increasing requirement for chemical analysis of foodstuffs. He mentioned the Sudan 1 contamination of Worcester sauce, which led to a cost of £200 million to industry in recalling foodstuffs contaminated with that colouring. Such was the concern that, as a safety measure, supermarkets took from their shelves practically everything that contained any form of red colouring. Products are adulterated. We have all heard about the trick—one from days gone by—of injecting water into certain products to increase their weight. There is the example of melamine in Chinese milk.
A few years ago, I was concerned to hear about the amount of contaminated meat that was condemned and then recycled into our system—often into our schools—by the criminal fraternity making money from selling cheap meat. My hon. Friend mentioned that. As I recall, some meat that had been condemned was found in supermarkets. If that is not a good enough reason to have a public analysts service, I do not know what is. We must protect our food supplies, particularly for our children.
Although it relates to microbiological analysis, another example is E. coli 0157 food poisoning. I remember the outbreak of E. coli 0157 in Scotland over 10 years ago and the report of Professor Pennington. I was lucky enough to chair a meeting in this very room which he addressed with his findings about E. coli 0157. People think that it causes food poisoning or an upset tummy, but many people were killed in that outbreak, including several children, and many individuals became severely ill. E. coli 0157 attacks and disables the kidneys. Many people required kidney transplants as a result of that outbreak, such is the seriousness of that strain of E. coli.
My hon. Friend mentioned that Aberdeen is agonising over whether to maintain its laboratory. Aberdeen Royal infirmary probably had the longest list for kidney transplants in the UK because Scotland was the major country in the world for outbreaks of E. coli 0157. This is such a serious issue and it was on our doorstep. I well recall that presentation by Professor Pennington, so my message to Aberdeen is to retain as many laboratories as it can.
My hon. Friend mentioned the funding issue and the price per head paid by local authorities on sampling and testing for public analysis. I will not continue down that route, but say simply that laboratories are having to increase their incomes by diversifying into other areas. The laboratories that carry out public analysis on behalf of local authorities and Government rely on the commercial funding from analysis for private sector organisations, and there is an argument that they should be completely publicly funded.
My hon. Friend is right that there could be a clash of interests with the food industry. I was going to come to that. The food industry in this country is worth £150 billion a year. It is a major industry in our society. My hon. Friend said that 38 analysts are currently employed. The figure I had was 41, but we will not argue about that. In 1994, there were about 70, and in 1955—some 50-odd years ago—there were 150. New technology and methods of chemical analysis have improved, but in the 1950s, there were no freezers, and we were not aware of any E numbers, additives or colourings, so all our food was provided fresh. In this day and age, there is a whole range of foodstuffs that simply were not about in the 1950s. We had more analysts then, but we need more now because of the plethora of different foodstuffs that we argue about day in, day out. The commercial clout of the food industry has to be borne in mind, and there has to be an independent analytical service that does not depend on commercial interests simply to stay in being. The service not only should, but must, be publicly funded; we have to have it.
Even now, this country and the European Union cannot agree on labelling for foodstuffs. We talk about the traffic light system and whether we should have labels showing the salt and fat content. The consumer is usually pretty baffled by all this, simply because the industry will not agree on some of these issues. There is a need for proper analysis of our foodstuffs so that consumers can know exactly what they are eating, and especially so that we can know what we are giving to our children. Obesity is an issue, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, as is the fact that we are eating different foods, which contain more sugar and fat, from those that we were eating in the 1950s and 1960s.
I echo what my hon. Friend said about the FSA wanting to reduce the qualification required for public analysts from a mastership in chemical analysis to a lesser qualification. Why is it that when we are faced with a situation like this, we think that instead of training more people, we will dumb down the qualification a little? If we are short of teachers, should we reduce the teaching qualification and bring in untrained teaching assistants? We probably do that to some extent, but we should not. We should train more people and keep the qualification, especially given what the analysts are dealing with day in and day out—with Sudan 1 and melamine. My hon. Friend is a trained chemist and I am not. I have no idea what melamine would look or taste like, and neither would the average guy in the street. Highly trained individuals are required for that work, and I urge the Government not to allow the FSA to start dumbing down the profession.
As I have mentioned, the funding from the FSA is delegated to local authorities. My hon. Friend has mentioned a 1 per cent. levy on the food industry for food advertising, and I agree fully with that proposal, because it is a huge industry that makes a lot of money. When there is a mistake or problem, as with Sudan 1, it costs the industry a lot of money with recalls and the drop in sales when products are found to be contaminated, so it would be worth the industry’s while to be secure in the knowledge that we had a public analysts system that was funded by that levy. I understand that the levy would raise only £8.5 million, but that would be all the money needed to provide a good, independent public analysts service, so I echo my hon. Friend’s call for that. We must ensure that we have the laboratories when we need them, such as when an outbreak occurs, because we will continue to have outbreaks and scandals such as that with Chinese melamine.
I shall conclude now, but I repeat that I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I sincerely hope that the Government will consider altering the structure of our public analysts service and will ensure that we still have one in another 20 years’ time.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this debate. Broadly, I would also like to congratulate him on all the work that he does in this place in advocating on behalf of scientists and scientific services in this country. Over many years, he has fought for their cause and pointed out how valuable they are to our society. He has played a part in trying to recruit more of our youngsters to a career in science and has highlighted the importance and value to our society of scientific services. Here he is again today, reminding us of the importance of a scientific service—the public analysts service, on this occasion—and rightly drawing it to our attention because it is in serious danger of being overlooked to death. He is right to draw attention to its parlous state and to ask us to take action to try to prevent disaster in the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned Duncan Campbell of the West Yorkshire analytical services. In preparing for this debate, I came across an article that he wrote for the New Scientist on 15 November 2008 called “Fears for food” in which he states:
“The few of us that remain are very busy, but I'm not sure for how much longer. Every year the local authorities that take samples for enforcement purposes spend less on having food analysed.”
That is a description of a worrying situation from an individual analyst, but I have read a briefing provided for us by the Association of Public Analysts which states that that is the situation across what remains of the service. It is a very worrying briefing.
I was not prepared to speak on the basis of just one briefing and so did further research. One of the surviving analysts laboratories is in Stafford, in my constituency. I visited it and met the staff and senior management there. Again, from my own investigations and discussions, I can confirm that there is a worrying situation that needs to be addressed.
The briefing from the APA states:
“The uncontrolled and potentially terminal decline in the Public Analyst Service is not being addressed adequately.”
What we need to do today is to insist that it is addressed adequately, and that steps are taken to reverse the decline.
Basically, we need this vital public service now more than ever, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central made clear earlier. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said, services are not organised in a strategic way. The Food Standards Agency is the competent authority for implementing food safety laws, but local authorities have responsibility for appointing public analysts. Beyond that, apparently no one has the legal duty actually to provide a service. That is a worrying situation. The upshot is that there are now just 41 qualified practising public analysts employed in 21 laboratories throughout the entire United Kingdom.
Let us take the example of the danger from food poisoning, which is one of the serious public health problems that we face and which the service works to protect us from. Food poisoning is believed to be widely under-reported to general practitioners in this country. It is estimated that in 2007 there were 850,000 UK cases of food poisoning, resulting in more than 19,500 hospitalisations and more than 500 deaths. This is a matter of major public concern.
The main hazards in food processes come from contamination; for example, bacteria that cause disease. The vulnerable groups who are most at risk from food poisoning are the elderly, the sick, babies, young children and pregnant women. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned that the UK’s largest outbreak of E. coli 0157, in Scotland in 1996, resulted in the deaths of 17 elderly people. Another major outbreak of the same pathogen in Wales in 2005 led to the death of a school child.
The FSA is the Government agency set up to protect public health and consumer interests in respect of food, but although policy responsibility for food hygiene rests with the Government and the FSA as its agency, enforcement is primarily at local level by local authorities. In 2007, the Rogers review set national enforcement priorities for local authority regulatory services. It identified hygiene of businesses as one of the top five enforcement priorities for local authorities and gave two reasons for that: the high impact on public health and the potential losses to the economy if things go wrong.
However, because of the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, we see inconsistencies in levels of enforcement by local authorities. For example, in 2006-07, fewer than half of all local authorities—about 46 per cent.—achieved all their high-risk planned inspections. When we consider how much they spend on their inspections and sampling, we find that the average spend per local authority is about 10p per head of population in a year, but some are as low as 2p, which demonstrates how poor it can be. As my hon. Friend said, some local authorities carry out no samplings in an entire year. In 2007-08, for example, eight English local authorities did not carry out a single test.
I have mentioned food poisoning, but challenges are also presented by food fraud and misleading labels. According to the consumer group Which?, food fraud in the UK is estimated to be about 10 per cent. of the total sale of food product—or £7 billion-worth of food products a year.
When Channel 4’s “Dispatches” investigated food labelling, it found that misleading claims over salt and fat content were widespread. One test of six chocolate puddings—I will not embarrass the supermarket that sold them—showed that they contained, on average, 45 per cent. more fat than was stated on the label. One sample exceeded the amount quoted on the label by 64 per cent. From another supermarket, six samples of a chicken curry ready meal were found to be much fattier than the shoppers were led to believe. One had a third more fat, another had 91 per cent. more fat than the label stipulated.
Therefore, whether it is food safety, healthy eating and tackling obesity or protecting lawful businesses from unfair competition, the public analysts service is vital to UK national interests. Yet the sampling activity by local authorities across the UK has fallen sharply and continues to do so. Those involved in the service can only see the decline continuing. In recent times, the service has responded positively, which has been a crucial element in our defence against recent food scares, such as the melamine in milk products of Chinese origin and the dioxin in pork and beef from Ireland. The association’s briefing warns us—the parliamentarians here—that the service at its current levels of staffing and equipment would struggle to react appropriately to any major new food scare in the future. That is a very sobering warning for us to take notice of in this debate today.
In Staffordshire, we have seen this pressure coming for years. The response has been proactively to get away from the terminal decline. We have formed a formal partnership with a service in Leicestershire, which has enabled us to stabilise, cut overheads and costs, take additional work and attract new contract work to maintain a sufficient critical mass of work to keep the laboratories in Leicestershire and Staffordshire going. Such a strategy has been successful so far.
For the purpose of this debate, I spoke again to the leaders of the service in Staffordshire, and they told me that they remain of the view—despite all that they have done—that without the FSA taking a strategic position to drive up the future level of food sampling and examination across the country, the service will continue to decline, leading to a complete breakdown of the service in the foreseeable future. That is a very serious warning from my own local authority about the catastrophe that will take place if we do not act. I say to the Minister that we need a better, stronger national strategy that provides firm links between the policy, its implementation and its enforcement. Perhaps we could have a regional structure for properly resourced, independent laboratory services and a realistic amount of inspection and sampling at the local level.
Finally, I say to the Minister, do not allow the service to decline any further. Do not run the risk of it becoming the Achilles heel of the UK’s very valuable food sector and our vital national interests of food security and safety.
I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this debate. The great value of such a debate is that it sheds light on an area of policy and practice that all too often gets ignored at a national level. It forces all of us to focus for a while on something that is clearly not in a fit condition and that needs a thorough reassessment by Government. It is important that the hon. Gentleman secured this debate and I congratulate him on it. I also join in the thanks to Duncan Campbell, who has clearly been very busy briefing hon. Members for this debate. He is the vice-president of the Association of Public Analysts and his passion for, and the central importance of, his work is clear.
As the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) pointed out, we are talking about threats to life as a result of a range of constantly present food scares. The main purpose of my contribution is to call for the Government to undertake a thorough reassessment of the current statutory framework and of the way in which the service is provided across the country, so that we ensure that it is fit for purpose and that it meets the risks and threats on which other hon. Members have commented. As part of that reassessment, it would be worth while for the Minister to agree to meet representatives of the APA, perhaps with an all-party delegation, to continue the discussion that has been initiated in this valuable debate. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister responded to that request.
I should like briefly to touch on the existing legal framework. The FSA, which was established under the Food Standards Act 1999, has a legal responsibility to carry out its functions
“to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food (including risks caused by the way in which it is produced or supplied) and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food”.
That is the FSA’s legal function and duty. However, as other hon. Members have said, the responsibility for carrying out those functions is delegated to local authorities. The FSA therefore has the legal duty and responsibility, but not the means by which to ensure that it meets it.
Responsibility is delegated to local authorities in two ways. When there is a two-tier structure, district councils are responsible through their environmental health departments for food safety. I am familiar with that policy because in a former life, I was a solicitor for a local authority and I prosecuted food hygiene cases—there were some wonderful cases—including one in which an Indian restaurant was charged with using a cricket bat to stir the curry. Anyone involved in the service will know of horrific examples of breaches of the most basic food hygiene standards, and I pay tribute to the work of those professionals. From my experience—I worked for Norwich city council—I can say that they are a highly dedicated group who provided an independent service for the safety of the public in the city. As I understand it from Duncan Campbell, samples that are acquired through district councils’ work are sent to the Health Protection Agency laboratories at no cost to the district council, so there is no constraint on ensuring that sufficient sampling is undertaken to protect the public.
Separate from the work of environmental health departments is the work undertaken by county councils in two-tier structures or by unitary authorities, which involves food standards, labelling, contamination and so forth. Where such bodies require sampling to be done, they have to pay the public analysts to do it, and therein lies the problem. With local authorities under increasing financial constraints, the temptation is to reduce the amount of sampling, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East graphically demonstrated. The horror is that many local authorities undertake literally no sampling, with public safety and valuable sampling work subject to a postcode lottery and dependent on whether local authorities have the necessary financial capacity or political interest.
Superficially, this is an easy area in which to make cuts if a local authority is under pressure. The crisis comes when there is a massive challenge to food hygiene and food safety, but then it is too late. The headlines in the national press will ask “Where are the analysts?”, and the answer will be that they have all gone because of financial cutbacks. This debate is therefore important because it gives us the chance to highlight a decline that has been under way for a considerable time and which must surely now be addressed.
Public analysts undertake vital work, and we have heard about the scare about melamine in milk from China, but when we talk to someone such as Duncan Campbell, we hear about the other, more proactive work that analysts undertake. Diet is a big issue, and the FSA is doing important work on reducing the salt content of food. It is also looking at other ingredients in food to ensure that our diet improves, particularly to address the growing crisis of obesity that exists in the whole of the western world.
Duncan Campbell talked to me about the work that he and his colleagues were doing with bakers in their area—in Barnsley, I think—to reduce the salt content of bread. That is good, proactive, local work, which is making a real difference to the diets of people who are often in quite impoverished communities. However, if the analysts are not there, the work is not done, and the effects will be seen in public health.
Duncan Campbell also talked about looking at food colourings in Indian takeaways. He said that the colouring added to chicken tikka takeaways can have a massive effect on hyperactivity in children. Again, that is an important public health issue, and he and his colleagues are working on it.
As other contributors to the debate have said, the decline in the service has been under way for a considerable time. There have been problems with recruitment, and there was the threat to the laboratory in Aberdeen. The number of public analysts is down to 38 across the country, and their age profile is also an issue. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East talked about a point of crisis, with sampling activity down by 16 per cent. across the country and several local authorities undertaking no sampling work at all.
What do we do about this? I have no ready prescriptions to offer. Like other speakers, I am conscious of the fact that the food industry’s value in the UK is enormous— £150 billion—and that a remarkably small amount is spent on food safety and independent analysis. One option that has been suggested is a 1 per cent. levy on food advertising. Another is to ensure that public funds are made available from taxation for this vital work. Whatever conclusion is reached, we can all agree that this work must be protected.
I conclude, therefore, by repeating my plea for a thorough audit of what is happening around the country, where, as we have discovered today, enormous and unjustified variations in practice exist. Once that audit has been completed, we need a thorough reassessment of the statutory framework, and of this arbitrary divide between district and county councils and between the work done by public laboratories at no cost to local authorities and that which incurs a charge and therefore places a constraint on financially hard-pressed local authorities. That arbitrary divide is open to question and must form part of a thorough reassessment to protect both the food analysts service and the public with regard to the food that they eat.
It is a pleasure to respond to this very important debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing it. Clearly he is an expert in this field. I also congratulate the Association of Public Analysts on briefing nearly everyone in the Chamber—apart from me! I shall not take it personally, however; it made me do a little more homework last night.
I did not have to dig too far into my memory bank to remember working with public analysts, not least around December 2005, following the Buncefield explosions—there were three of them—in my constituency, which severely contaminated my constituency, especially the public drinking water. Furthermore, as a former firefighter—back in very different times—I remember how, when damping down and finishing off, very often guys in different sorts of hard hats would come in and take samples, especially if there were problems related to asbestos or lead poisoning.
I pay tribute to the work done by the analysts. When I started looking into the reasons for this debate, I was surprised by the decline or crisis, referred to earlier, in the skills that these scientists bring to the public sector. I had to delve quite deeply into the reasons for this current situation. We heard from other hon. Members about the work that analysts do, but we must indicate that this is not just about food, although clearly, as others have said, their work with food is vital, given that food is becoming ever more complicated and prepared food ever more common—people seem to have a taste for it, which is why the supermarkets and producers are selling and making more of it.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) referred to two supermarkets whose products were tested; it was frightening to discover how much what was in them differed from what the packaging said. Well, I am not frightened to name them: the pies were from Waitrose and the second supermarket was Sainsbury’s. I do not want anyone thinking that these were tiny companies or small back-shop organisations; these are major companies that produce and retail their own products. It is important, not to name and shame them, but that the public do not think that only small companies are likely to do these sorts of things.
Analysts have other duties, however. I alluded to their work in testing public water supplies and testing for asbestos, but they also test other things that we use on a day-to-day basis, such as local swimming pools, lead fumes, industrial insolvents, children’s toys for lead content, household and industrial cleaning materials and—believe it or not—even pet food. They regularly test not just food, but many different things in our environment—or at least I thought that they were being tested regularly, until this debate, but it is now clear that there is a postcode lottery with regard to the availability of analysts in specific areas, and clearly in some areas they are not available at all. How does that fall within the legislation? If some areas are not testing at all, how are they fulfilling their requirements under the legislation, or are we turning a blind eye?
In addition, why has the decision been made to downgrade the qualification required for those scientists? The service was set up so that they would be highly qualified scientists, with a master’s degree. I am not a scientist, but I understand that that is where we are. They are scientists who wanted to specialise in this field. I wonder whether the decision has to do with the shortage of scientists not just in this area, but across the board. I declare an interest. My daughter is doing a science degree, and I cannot believe the interest that she has had from different organisations around the country and abroad simply because she is doing a science degree. She is very flattered, but I have to ask why we are so desperate for scientists in a country that has a history of producing some of the greatest scientists in the world. Perhaps the Minister will address the issue of why we have such a problem with regard to scientists.
The decline in the number of analysts is happening today. When I put my speech together earlier on, I understood that we had 41; by the time I had walked into the room and sat down, we had 38. I am not nit-picking about the numbers, but we obviously have a crisis, which the Minister needs to address.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said that we should have an immediate review. I tend to agree until I consider the fact that Alan Turner, OBE, conducted a review of the service 10 years ago. Mr. Turner made a series of recommendations to the Government, none of which has been implemented. Two years ago, the Food Standards Agency started a review at the request, I think, of the Association of Public Analysts. Where is it? Can the Minister tell us when it is likely to be published? It is very important that it is published as soon as possible, before we get into a situation of terminal decline and we do not physically have anything to review. I am thinking of what will happen if the decline carries on at its present speed and there is more delay in publishing the review. Whether or not the Government accept the review when it is published—it is being done at arm’s length, by the Food Standards Agency—it is important that the country knows, and the scientists know, exactly what the Government’s position is with regard to how we are moving forward.
[David Taylor in the Chair]
It is also very important that the public have confidence that the Government understand what is occurring, and have confidence in their services locally. The most disturbing thing that I have heard this morning is the extent of the postcode lottery. People in one part of the country could be relatively safe with regard to what they are eating, consuming, breathing or drinking, but in other parts of the country people may not be. I do not want to scare anyone—I do not want to scaremonger at all—but it is crucial that in the 21st century the public have full confidence that the Government of the day are protecting them. That is the duty; it is what the legislation was put in place for, and it is imperative that it is being done.
I am not being critical of the Food Standards Agency behind its back—the agency knows that I have spoken to it before—in saying that I think it needs to concentrate on its core activities. It has only a limited capacity and a limited number of things that it can physically do. Therefore, the message that I have given the agency privately and which I am giving it publicly today is this: please concentrate on your core activity, which is the public safety of food, so that the public can have confidence in that. I know that the agency would love to do many other things; it would love to tinker with other things and put its fingers in lots of different pies. However, I ask it to come back to its core activity. Its job is to protect the public. That is the job of the Government as well. I would be very interested to know how we got into the current position, when the review will be published and whether the Government are likely to implement in the near future the recommendations that were made to them 10 years ago.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate. He is very knowledgeable about the subject. He appreciates the complexity and range of the issues involved in protecting the public. He understands which issues fall into the remit of the Health Protection Agency, environmental health, local authorities or food protection. I agree with him about the importance of the work of public analysts in protecting consumers and preserving public health. The FSA is addressing that with the future career structures and qualifications for the service. I will come back to that because he raised a number of questions on that, as did my other hon. Friends.
I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance on that. If he will allow me, I will deliver my speech in two parts. I will first discuss the importance of public analysis and the work that is going on, look forward to what else the service could do and consider the types of qualifications we would need. The second half will deal specifically with the role of the pre-eminent qualification, which will remain pre-eminent, and the consultation that needs to take place. I will also pick up on comments made by other hon. Members.
As has been mentioned, there are currently about 900,000 cases a year of food-borne disease in the UK. Every year, about 500 people die because of what they have eaten. As my hon. Friend said, new challenges over food safety have developed over the past few decades. As production methods, supply chains and food technologies have evolved, the response required has become much more complex. The approaches needed to reduce health risks from contamination or adulteration and to protect consumers are becoming increasingly specialised. We must ensure that the claims made by food producers are subject to robust scientific scrutiny. The contributions of all hon. Members have focused on how we can take that forward and ensure that it continues.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, European law states that the FSA must designate official control laboratories to carry out analysis of official control samples. It is true that we have seen a significant reduction in laboratory numbers since the mid-1950s. It is also true that the volume of work commissioned by local authorities has fallen considerably. The FSA has investigated and continues to investigate those matters. It advises me that the current level of laboratory provision is adequate. I think my hon. Friend will agree with the caveat that comparing the services of the 1950s and today is not comparing like with like. There are several reasons for that because the service has evolved in recent years.
First and foremost, the UK has moved from a scatter-gun approach to sampling to a more targeted and risk-based approach. As my hon. Friend is aware, in the past local authorities traditionally operated independently of each other. They selected a shopping basket of products for sampling based on local concerns. That meant that authorities in adjoining areas could have run tests on products from exactly the same source. As a crude example, several local authorities could conceivably have sampled food coming from the same warehouse at the same time and using the same manufacturing process. What happens now is that local authorities co-ordinate their efforts through the food liaison group run by the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, which established a national sampling programme and shares evidence. That reduces duplication between councils. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) described with reference to his constituency, that has led in some areas to an amalgamation of laboratories to give critical mass and make it possible to take the work forward.
I am saying that with the mechanism for areas to share information—my hon. Friend gave examples about the combination of authorities—information can be shared for the purpose of prevention. I do not underestimate the importance of sampling, but I am trying to describe a system of information-sharing and an approach that ensures information is shared.
May I just finish my point, as I want to make sure that I answer the important points that were raised about how to take things forward? There are still misunderstandings about what is intended, and I want to put those to rest so that we can proceed with exactly the type of agenda that my hon. Friend set out.
My right hon. Friend referred to a national sampling programme, and what she said is an argument for a national system, in which the work is taken away from the local authorities and given to a national body, which would co-ordinate sampling throughout the country.
That may be so, but under the current law local authorities have dealt with the matter, and they want to keep the power. The analysts are not public sector analysts—I believe there are four or five and the rest are in the private sector. They are independent of those requesting the sample and those for whom the sampling is done. There are important reasons for that independence, and we need to think carefully about how it works. As to their future role, I want to give examples in a moment of additional qualifications that might be suitable; that may offer a way forward. As well as boosting efficiency, the organisation, through the co-ordination of local authorities, can reduce work load.
The Minister is being generous in giving way.
I accept that we do not want duplication, and that, if a manufacturer is producing something that will go to different areas, co-ordination is perfectly right for that. However, that does not address the role of local authorities in relation to small restaurants in their jurisdiction. It is not applicable. In areas where there are no inspections at all, it is not a question of doing things in a co-ordinated way; it is a question of nothing at all happening in relation to smaller cases. As the hon. Member for Stafford asked, how can places be safe, if they are not being tested?
The hon. Gentleman raises a separate question about the food protection role across all local authority and central Government functions. I am trying to give an answer about something that I think is very important—I want to answer the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East asked, specifically about the role and qualifications of analysts and how the Government see those developing.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Much of what she says about co-ordination between local authorities, the sharing of resources and so forth makes sense. However, the Association of Public Analysts believes that judgments about sampling are not always based on an assessment of risk but based on financial constraints. Given that those concerns are being raised by the professional body, is she prepared to consider further its fear that judgments are not based on risk alone but that financial issues are involved, and would she pick up on my suggestion of a meeting?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that many people seek to advise Ministers. They do so from their particular perspective, and the Minister has to put all those views on the table. I rely on the advice of the Food Standards Agency. Hon. Members are asking whether there is a risk to public health and whether we have the facilities necessary to ensure that all arrangements are discharged. On that point, the FSA is in regular contact. I shall deal later with the consultation and the future, as many other important points have been made in that connection, but it seems to me that that is the proper place for such discussions to take place and for proposals to be made to me as Minister. That is my clear steer to the FSA, and I shall say what it is and how I see it going forward in answer to the points raised by hon. Members.
Another thing has changed dramatically: developments have put the onus on food business operators to ensure that they discharge their obligations. Inevitably, that will result in other requirements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East knows, manufacturers are required by law to identify situations where food safety issues may arise and to establish measures to address them. They must keep records to confirm that suitable monitoring has taken place, and they have a legal responsibility to notify the FSA about actual or suspected threats to the safety or quality of food.
My hon. Friend said that dioxin had recently been found in pork. He will know that the food producers and the retail system enabled us, in partnership with the FSA, to identify immediately where their products come from, whether or not there was a problem, and take them off the shelf. That happened very speedily. At the heart of it was the protection of the consumer. As a result, local authorities have a far more exacting way in which to target sampling. They need the flexibility to decide for themselves how to invest, but we must ensure that everything fits together to give an enforcement service that delivers exactly what we need, regardless of whether we have national sampling or protection laws.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) spoke of testing, but I want to give an example when national testing would completely take over. He mentioned the E. coli bug. All the necessary work was done by public health bodies, not public analysts, and the microbiology was funded by the Department of Health. As I said, calling them public analysts is a bit of a red herring; it does not necessarily mean that they are public. Four or five of them are from local authorities, and the rest are commercial private sector bodies.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the bottom line is that local authorities are responsible in law for ensuring that all food for sale in their area is fit for consumption, and the FSA audits local authorities to assess their implementation and enforcement of food law. The agency advises me that it has found no evidence of local authorities failing in their statutory duty. Obviously, if it found a failing, it would take action against the local authorities. If my hon. Friends fear that there are, or if they know of, examples in their area, I invite them to make representations to me so that I can double-check that they have been investigated fully.
I should like to reassure my hon. Friends that the FSA is monitoring the decline in the number of laboratories, and there is an open door to take action if it finds evidence that standards are slipping and that food safety is compromised. However, the agency advises me that all the evidence suggests that a local market-based approach is working.
I shall now turn to the important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East made on recruitment and standards in the service, as I said I would. I think he agrees that we face a considerable recruitment challenge and, as he pointed out, two thirds of practising analysts are over the age of 50. It is therefore extremely important that we encourage more people to go into the service, particularly gifted young scientists and graduates. The FSA is working to try to have a clear career path in place for prospective and new entrants. That is why it is working with the APA to improve, for example, the information that is available on its website on the types of jobs available. The agency is also making a funding contribution to the APA’s training programme. However, as I think we all agree, we need more radical solutions. We need to get fresh blood into the profession, but we also need to look at the challenges that we expect the service to face, which have been mentioned.
As my hon. Friend stated, the European regulation states that food analysis must be carried out by a suitably qualified and experienced member of staff, which is far less prescriptive than the Food Safety Act 1990. That led the FSA to think about whether it needed to change the law in the UK to bring it in line with Europe.
I want to explain how that might be taken forward, but at the outset I wish to make absolutely crystal clear the immense respect for the masters of chemical analysis qualification. It is not my place to comment on whether the degree should be upgraded to a doctorate—as my hon. Friend said, that is for the RSC to advise on—but I am happy to put it on the record that I believe that the MChemA should remain the pre-eminent qualification. At the moment, the FSA is exploring whether it should be the only viable qualification. It is not about downgrading a qualification. We need not only to respond to the decline in numbers and to attract fresh blood, but to consider other comparable qualifications that could be appropriate, and whether we need to develop a tiered approach, by which the MChemA remains the top-ranking qualification but other qualifications would allow a person to take a significantly different role in the service. Let me give an example. The university of Stirling is the world leader on irradiated food, which people are concerned about, but it does not offer the MChemA qualification, so it cannot be within the service.
In the consultation with the Royal Society and others, we need to consider the type of analytical outcomes and sampling programmes that we want, and whether it might be possible to appoint others for testing to specific standards. We must also consider what type of proposals would help laboratories to develop expertise in set areas and would open up the potential for guaranteed work in specific areas of food testing, possibly encouraging others to come into that area. That is what we are concentrating on, and that is what I expect the FSA to concentrate on.
We are considering options and putting them on the table, and the FSA is looking into them. I agree with my hon. Friend that consultation is crucial, and not just with the APA, but with the Royal Society as well. I am more than happy to set up for him, and other hon. Members who are interested, a direct meeting with those in the FSA leading the review. That would be as well as, not instead of, the consultation with other organisations that will go ahead as is right and proper. The next step needs to be to look closely at that, and at the proposals, and to ensure that we have a clear way forward. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that following a recent food law enforcement practitioners meeting, it was agreed that these matters would be considered and taken forward. Again, I am more than happy to ensure that he has the details on that in order to engage in that discussion.
I want to make it clear to every hon. Member present that we feel it is absolutely imperative to maintain the highest standard of food control, but there are challenges ahead. Of course, we should not downgrade the pre-eminent qualification in this science, but we need to consider whether others could bring skills into the service. We also need to consider how the service will be co-ordinated, going forward, for all the reasons that my hon. Friends have identified. At the same time, we must make sure, as I will be doing after the debate, that the FSA keeps a very close eye on the work that is going on in local authorities and nationally to give the assurance that all hon. Members have sought that food safety is of the highest priority, and that legal obligations to protect the consumer and ensure that food is fit for human consumption will continue to be enforced with great rigour. In that way, we can take the service forward. I do not accept that it is in a state of crisis, but I do accept that we need to act quickly to secure its continued work and commitment in this area. I hope that, with those assurances, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East will take some comfort from today’s debate. The matter is not closed, and it certainly is not about doing down a qualification.
The reporting by the review group will be brought together with the current consultations about the service. I accept the point that my hon. Friend and others have made. It would certainly help those in the field if there were a clearer statement of intent from the Food Standards Agency and Ministers. I accept that many of the questions that have been asked, and fears that have been raised, are because of a lack of information and a clear road map going forward. I will certainly take the matter away and ensure that it is dealt with. That could be part of the discussion that my hon. Friend has with his colleagues when I facilitate the meeting that I promised.
Will the Minister explain why none of the recommendations of the review, which took place 10 years ago, has been implemented? Not a single one! How can we have any confidence going forward if the Government have not implemented the recommendations from the last review?
As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the last review was conducted 10 years ago, before the formation of the Food Standards Agency. When the FSA was formed, it was recognised as an enormous step forward in the protection of the consumer and in ensuring food safety. Many of those issues would have been to do with that process. Although this is a matter that I was not familiar with at the time—I was in another Department—I speculate that in setting up the FSA itself, the focus on the review and some of the issues that were around before the FSA’s existence were ones that were not actively taken forward at that time. The crucial issue is that the FSA continually discharges its duties with regard to the protection of the consumer.
I am more than happy to do that. I was trying to avoid the catch-all phrase, “I will write to the hon. Gentleman.” I think that I am not too far wide of the mark in my suggestion to him, but I am happy to write to him.
In conclusion, this has been a very helpful debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and all the hon. Members who have spoken. It is crucial that our constituents have confidence in food safety and the food that they purchase as citizens. As science and skills develop and as the production of food evolves, we need to ensure that we have the very best structures and qualified service to continue to protect our citizens. That is certainly the brief that I have given to the FSA.
Small Businesses (HBOS)
Order. Unusually, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the Minister have agreed that a number of other speakers can participate. The hon. Members whose names I have and whom I will allow to speak are the hon. Members for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). Any other hon. Members who want to speak will have to do so in an intervention because we really must leave the Minister time to respond to the comments that are made. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that any individuals about whom they make comments will not have any redress, because of the absolute privilege that exists in this Chamber.
Thank you very much, Mr. Taylor. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I am also grateful to my many right hon. and hon. Friends who have joined me. As you rightly said, it will be a challenge to get everyone in in a 30-minute debate, so I will move swiftly on to the meat of the issue.
The debate revolves around a number of businesses whose affairs were handled by the Reading office of HBOS, under the management of a Mr. Lynden Scourfield, until early 2007. The issue was the subject of a BBC investigation for “File on 4”, which was broadcast on Tuesday 26 May.
Let me say that this is not about Government policy, and I have had a brief conversation with the Minister. There is evidence not only that the bank’s own regulatory controls failed, but that the Financial Services Authority should have been informed. In at least some cases, there is evidence to justify criminal investigations. The objective of the debate is to persuade the Minister to undertake to present the issue to the regulatory authorities for a full and exhaustive examination.
The issue was first raised with me by my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Turner, but it soon became obvious that theirs was just one of many businesses in the same position, and some of those other businesses are represented by colleagues here today. My remarks will deal partially with the Turners, but I have further evidence to present to impress the seriousness of the issue on hon. Members.
Before I do, however, I want to make two preliminary points. The first is the point that you have just made, Mr. Taylor. This is the first time in my 22 years as a Member of the House that I have intentionally used parliamentary privilege to raise an issue, and I certainly do not intend to abuse that right. Secondly, I do not pretend to know the financial details of my constituents’ business or any other business, or the business competence of any of those involved, but the issues that I want to raise go beyond that. As I shall show, Lynden Scourfield was responsible for making what may or may not have been poor financial positions into impossible ones, and in doing so probably enriched himself and others.
In July 2003, the Turners’ business, which was called Zenith, had a £50,000 overdraft. The Turners submitted a business plan to HBOS in Cambridge requesting funding of £450,000, of which £160,000 would be under the small firms loan guarantee scheme. In August, the scheme aspect was approved, but HBOS Cambridge referred the overall request to its credit department, which, it transpired, meant moving the request to Reading.
In April 2004, the Turners met Lynden Scourfield, who agreed funding on the condition that Zenith engaged and paid Quayside Corporate Services. As a result, new business plans were submitted requiring more borrowing. By January 2006, the Turners had had enough and asked the bank to stop imposing Quayside on them.
By August 2006, the bank had started proceedings to evict the Turners from their home, which had earlier been provided as security. However, only one month later, in September, Lynden Scourfield agreed to increase their borrowing facility to £856,000. By November 2006, Scourfield told the Turners to fund the business by using corporate credit cards at £12,000 a month, which he would authorise.
On 21 March 2007, the Turners were due to meet Mr. Scourfield in Reading. The meeting was cancelled, and his office told them that he was on indefinite leave but that they would be seen by a new man, who was cutting off all lines of credit to more than 200 of Lynden Scourfield’s customers.
I will not go through all the subsequent events, other than to make two points. First, the eviction proceedings continued, including two court hearings. District Judge Pelly said,
“having heard what I have heard, on any basis it would be grossly inequitable for the warrant to proceed. There must be time for this to be resolved, and on the balance of probability I think once it has been resolved, the Turners will almost certainly have sufficient wherewithal to pay off all these arrears in a reasonable time.”
Secondly, the Turner family were concerned that HBOS had broken the rules of the small firms loan guarantee scheme by using it to pay off existing overdrafts, which is strictly forbidden. That has been referred to the financial ombudsman, who is yet to make a final decision. Since then, other examples of the apparent abuse of the scheme by HBOS have emerged from other businesses, all of which have expressed no confidence in the independence of the financial ombudsman service.
I think that there is a common cause. A constituent of mine was involved with a business called Chauffair. In 2002, a rescue package with business men to make the company work was stopped by HBOS and Mr. Scourfield. Quayside was brought in. Two companies and five years later, the original debt of about £14 million that was covered by assets has risen to £113 million and the money has disappeared.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is quoting just one of a number of similar examples.
In March 2008, the Turners approached me and I started to correspond with HBOS. By then, it was apparent that all these other businesses were involved. By December 2008, five colleagues and I wrote to Lord Stevenson, who was then the chairman of HBOS. The key part of our letter stated:
“All of our constituents were granted increased loans by Mr Lynden Scourfield whilst he was an employee of HBOS; an employment which was apparently terminated abruptly.
All loans were granted on the basis that the businesses employed Quayside Corporate Services as advisers for substantial fees which clearly could be ill afforded.
In most if not all cases borrowing was increased considerably as a result of Quayside’s recommendation and approved by Mr. Scourfield.
We take the view that there is more than coincidence involved here and that our constituents have been ill-served by your bank.”
We sought a meeting with Lord Stevenson.
After the changes in HBOS at the end of last year, we met Mr. Philip Grant, the chief operating officer of Bank of Scotland Corporate. In a letter to me and my colleagues dated 18 February this year, he stated that the bank
“does not agree with the implications drawn in the specific points that you and your colleagues have raised.”
Pertinently, he stated:
“In certain instances, Mr Scourfield was instrumental in the appointment of Quayside Corporate Services…as consultants to the entities in which the constituents were involved. So far as I am aware, there is no evidence that anybody at the bank knew, at that time,”—
I stress those words—
“that the reputation of Quayside (or of individuals within Quayside) was, in any way, questionable.
In early 2007, the bank identified issues concerning Mr Scourfield’s approach to lending. As pointed out above, the Bank was more supportive than it should have been in responding to requests for increased facilities from some of the customers in question. After Mr Scourfield had been suspended from duty on account of these matters, he resigned in April 2007.
Following communication between the Bank and the FSA, improved procedures were implemented to ensure that there was no recurrence of those practices. To be clear, these procedures were designed to ensure that, in future, the Bank did not lend more than it should to its customers.
Following Mr Scourfield’s departure, the Bank carried out an extensive internal review and concluded that there was a lack of evidence of direct personal benefit on the part of Mr Scourfield from his relationship with Quayside.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the tremendous lead he has given to colleagues in this matter. Does he agree that in the last point, the gradual sweeping of dirt under the carpet can be heard? The relationship between Mr. Scourfield and Quayside was not healthy. This man was an employee of HBOS. Remnant Media Ltd in my constituency has suffered from the bad decisions and I expect the bank to stand up to the problem.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with his conclusion. I, and my colleagues, have stressed to HBOS and Mr. Grant that whether or not Mr. Scourfield was acting properly, he was acting in the name of the bank, and the fact is, therefore, that the bank must accept responsibility for those actions. In the letter to which I referred, Mr. Grant went on to make specific comments and, in some cases, some “without prejudice” offers on the five cases that we had represented. In the case of my constituents—the Turners—the offer was, at that stage, very small. My colleagues and I rejected those offers and returned to the main issues. On 18 March, Mr. Grant substantially increased the offer to the Turners, dismissed one of the other cases and made a small offer for one more. However, there was a complete refusal to accept any criticism of the bank. Subsequently, a number of the businesses met and agreed to reject all the offers by HBOS, because they wanted acceptance by the bank of the apparent malpractice and the full investigation that we seek.
That brings me to the present situation, excluding last week’s radio programme. Since then, of course, more cases have come to light. Mr Karl Capp of Orchard Networks raised the same issues as the Turners about the small firms loan guarantee. As it happens, another of my constituents, called Mark Turner—no relation, as I understand it—has told me of a similar story: he was required by HBOS to engage Quayside Leisure at £6,000 a month. The business still went into administration and—unbelievably—the bank then told the administrators to employ Quayside to run the business. I have also received correspondence from a solicitor representing a Mr. Clive Collins. This is very important because it comes from a solicitor. He wrote:
“I am presently acting for an individual, Clive Collins, whose business was taken away from him by HBOS and placed in the hands of Quayside. Quayside invoiced vast sums for doing very little work. They effectively asset-stripped the company until it could no longer trade. The business's main asset, a subsidiary company, was then sold to a different company owned by the directors of Quayside for £100,000, despite much higher offers made by independent third parties.”
And he continues in a similar vain.
Finally, I want to refer to a company called Seoul Nassau, which, I am told, went down for £34 million owed to HBOS. It is alleged by someone who worked for the company’s owner, in a letter that we received, that the owner’s personal assistant would
“deliver a briefcase full of cash to Mr. Scourfield to assist the loan”.
This allegation follows other stories that Mr. Scourfield was benefiting from being, as the bank said, “overly supportive”, including, I am afraid, lurid stories of prostitutes being paid for from the funds of Quayside clients. I am well aware that a number of these allegations cannot be substantiated to any great degree, but to be clear I have not repeated many further allegations for which I could find no evidence at all, but which might still have some substance.
I have received personal assurances from somebody whom I know very well and trust about the integrity of Mr. David Mills, who is the owner of Quayside, and who, in some cases, was the nominee director of HBOS. I have also seen the correspondence between Mr. Mills and the BBC regarding these various allegations. I shall not go through all the points that he made, but I fear that his record of the situation does not tally with the information that the BBC has obtained and which refutes some of his suggestions. In particular, I want to quote from Mr. Mills’ e-mail to the BBC:
“Lynden Scourfield fell ill at the outset of 2006 and resigned from the bank some months afterwards—he was not fired as the Turners have repeatedly alleged”.
As I have said, that does not conform with the bank’s own statement that Mr. Scourfield
“had been suspended from duty on account of these matters”,
and that he resigned while he was suspended.
My basic contention is that Lynden Scourfield lent considerable sums to more than 200 businesses and that in many, if not most, cases he required the businesses to engage Quayside as advisers or turnaround specialists. In many cases, he also required that a Quayside appointee be placed on the board. Then Quayside would advise significant increases in borrowing, which Scourfield authorised and in which the business owners acquiesced, as, after all, that was the advice of the bank’s appointees. Subsequently, many of those businesses went down for far more than if Quayside had not been involved, and the assets of the businesses were acquired in one way or another by others involved with Quayside.
Certain important questions arise from all those points. First, will the Government investigate the operation of the small firms loan guarantee scheme to ensure that banks are not abusing it? Why was Lynden Scourfield allowed to keep lending money to businesses that were already overborrowed, especially if, as we believe, he was lending sums considerably in excess of his authorised limit? What happened to the bank’s internal procedures?
Given the allegations about Mr. Scourfield and the charges that he was bribed, why were the police not informed, especially in the light of the bank comment that refers only to a lack of evidence? Why were the regulatory authorities not brought into the investigation by HBOS, as I believe they were required to be? Why was HBOS the only bank not to work with Institute for Turnaround specialists, given that Quayside, almost unbelievably, was not a member of the institute? If everything was satisfactory, why did HBOS stop using Quayside?
Finally, should there not be clear rules that if a consultancy is involved with a business that goes down, no company or individual involved with the consultancy should then benefit by purchasing the company or its assets, which clearly appears to have happened?
I hope that this debate demonstrates to the Minister that he should invite the regulatory authorities to investigate the whole matter thoroughly. The public now own most of HBOS, and, although there were many reasons for its decline, it seems clear to me that some of its losses, probably hundreds of millions, stemmed from malpractice at the Reading office. All of us are taxpayers, and we are justified in demanding to know how that happened, why it was allowed to happen and whether any criminality was involved. If we have a full inquiry that proves all my statements, allegations and concerns groundless, I will, of course, accept the finding and withdraw them. However, on the evidence that I have seen, I believe that an inquiry would find otherwise.
Thank you, Mr. Taylor.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on the leadership that he has shown in this matter. My interest derives from my constituent Mr. Andrew Reade who has been discommoded in connection with his business Keenets by the gross failure in governance at HBOS and by its associate Quayside in the manner that has already been so well described.
It is simply not credible to characterise Reading-based official Lynden Scourfield as some autonomous rogue banker and leave the matter at that. Loans of that order must have been sanctioned and remitted at a much higher level—in this case, at HBOS headquarters in Edinburgh by Mr. Scourfield’s immediate superior at least.
Lloyds Banking Group has pretty well dismissed all criticism and played lip service to cleaning up the act of its acquisition HBOS. That simply will not do. It is unedifying in the current climate of distrust in greedy, cynical bankers for Lloyds Banking Group to behave in that way.
It is evident that Mr. Lynden Scourfield had a close relationship with Quayside’s Mr. Bancroft and Mr. Mills. One wonders at that and also at the tales of the high life apparently lived by key players in the tragedy that were revealed in last week’s “File on 4” documentary. There can be little doubt that, at the behest of Quayside and its expensively imposed but seemingly unsuccessful turnaround directors, many struggling companies were obliged to extend their loans, ultimately causing ruinous losses not just for them but for a bank that is now in receipt of a large sum of public money.
What remains opaque is the extent to which those now liquidated companies were acquired by undertakings associated with Quayside. From his Keenets experience, my constituent suggests that the Quayside-associated companies Seoul Nassau and Speyside should be explored by the Financial Services Authority in that regard. Given the apparent murkiness of the situation, there is every reason for the FSA to undertake a comprehensive investigation, and I urge the Minister to use his good offices to ensure that that happens.
I am here because of my concern about the actions of HBOS and the company that it engaged. I am here because of my constituent Joanne Freer. Her company, Cotton Bottoms, was affected when it sought a loan from HBOS of £400,000 in 2003. The money came with strings: the company had to engage Quayside Corporate Services and it had to make Michael Bancroft a non-executive director and a member of the board.
A series of events then occurred. Mr. Bancroft charged exorbitant fees, which were paid in preference to supplier payments; that damaged the company’s relationship with those suppliers. He also enforced redundancies against the wishes of my constituent. Finally, in a fait accompli, he pushed my constituent into selling the business through his bullying behaviour. In the end, she had to agree not to take legal action against HBOS or Michael Bancroft, or else she would have lost everything.
The bank has not explained satisfactorily why Lynden Scourfield, who authorised the loans and enforced the appointment, has left the bank. It should do so. The bank itself has clearly suffered serious losses, but so have individual businesses. Serious allegations, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), need to be investigated. Those allegations concern the agreement that appears to have been made between Quayside Corporate Services and Lynden Scourfield at HBOS, which allowed them to take control of highly geared vulnerable businesses in order to divide the board and seize control, then submitting false business plans to facilitate further borrowing, channelled through Quayside Corporate Services with fees, only to collapse the business months or years later to the detriment of the owners, shareholders and creditors—and of HBOS itself.
I urge the Minister to do all that he can to ensure that the authorities properly investigate what I regard as a most serious matter.
I speak on behalf of my constituent, Mr. Justin Riggs, a poultry farmer. He has travelled here from Stanford in the Vale today to hear our debate in person.
Mr. Riggs—with hindsight, most unfortunately—took out a £375,000 loan with HBOS in 2004. He was another of those business men who ended up dealing with Lynden Scourfield and the Reading office. The bank called in the loan in August 2007. By then, the loan had grown to £382,000, despite the fact that Mr. Riggs had paid the bank a total of £231,000 in interest, charges and other fees.
Mr. Scourfield behaved in a similar fashion: he forced Mr. Riggs to engage a business adviser—in this case, a Mr. Crawshaw—who advised him to sell not only some of his land, from which he gained income, but some of his chicken houses. As a result of that advice, which Mr. Riggs felt inclined to follow, he saw a 25 per cent. drop in income. To add insult to injury, when the bank came to foreclose on Mr. Riggs, it levied charges of £40,000.
The bank has conceded, if not in principle at least morally, that it should not have levied those charges, and has agreed to waive them. However, it is astonishing, not least to my colleagues, that it should have taken a legalistic view of its proceedings, not recognising that there is a pattern in the way that Mr. Scourfield engaged with numerous people—including Mr. Karl Capp, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and is another of my constituents, and who had trouble with the small firms loan guarantee scheme.
Mr. Scourfield has taken businesses and loaded them with loans, charges and consultancy fees. It is now up to HBOS to come to the table, following a moral course rather than a legalistic one, and put those people back in the position that they would have been in before dealing with HBOS.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on securing today’s debate, and I thank him for his contribution. He raised particular concerns about the practices of Halifax Bank of Scotland at its Reading office, and particularly about one individual and a company that provide advisory support.
It is not appropriate for me to intervene directly in individual cases or disputes, not least once legal proceedings have been started. Legal disputes are for the courts to determine. That said, I am of course deeply concerned to hear the allegations that have been made.
In the difficult times that we are experiencing, it is vital that banks do all they reasonably can to support corporate customers who are in financial difficulty and to work with them to manage and resolve their financial difficulties. Evidently, however, there are other issues at stake. It is clear that a number of firms that were handled by the Reading office failed, and that the situation was made worse by a breach of approved lending limits. I shall return to the general issue of inappropriate risk-taking by banks in a moment, if I have time.
I have been advised that the FSA has investigated the Reading office case and the internal breach of controls that occurred at HBOS. The control systems have been changed and strengthened, and HBOS has written off a considerable amount, although one or two cases remain in dispute. I have also been advised that the FSA continues to monitor HBOS, that it considers carefully any allegations of fraud by an authorised firm, and that it works closely with other law enforcement agencies to protect consumers from financial crime. I add, however, that it is important that any victim of an alleged fraud should report the matter to his or her local police force.
Following the hon. Gentleman’s representations, I shall write to the FSA, enclosing a transcript of this debate, to seek assurance that all appropriate consideration is given to these matters. I shall also ask it to write to me and the hon. Gentleman to outline the FSA’s role in dealing with this affair and the approach that it takes when there may have been financial crime. I also undertake to write to other hon. Members who have attended the debate.
Is the Minister prepared to add the documentation in which many people have set out quite clearly what has happened, particularly as some of them have been severely hurt? The lady whom I have mentioned is not homeless, but is living on benefits, has lost her home and is now a single parent.
I am happy to pass on any documentation to the FSA that will help it fully to assess and examine this matter.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire spoke about the use of public funds in the Government’s loan guarantee scheme. I understand that HBOS has not made a claim to the Government under the terms of the scheme, so no Government funds are involved. The scheme, which is being replaced by the enterprise finance guarantee, is delivered by a range of approved lenders who are responsible for all decisions on individual loans. Any allegations of misuse by lenders are obviously of concern to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Its partner, Capital for Enterprise Ltd, manages the scheme. CfEL examines allegations as part of a programme of oversight, and it may require the lender to modify its procedures for the scheme if anything inappropriate is found. I am assured that relevant procedures are in place.
The debate has raised issues and allegations that require full examination of the evidence, and I am happy to pass on any evidence that is not already available to the FSA. If appropriate, I am also happy for the FSA to refer matters to the police. The debate has also touched on wider issues of corporate governance and regulation in banks, particularly in relation to risk-taking. The boards of banks must ensure that they maintain systems and controls that are appropriate to their businesses and in line with relevant regulations. Their nature depends on the scale and complexity of the business, on its structure and the physical location of its operations, and on the degree of risk associated with them. The rules require firms to carry out regular reviews of their control systems, and to have clear reporting lines and management responsibilities. In particular, the duties of individuals and departments should be segregated to reduce the opportunity for financial crime or rule breaches.
Clearly, lessons have been learned from this case, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire for raising these issues. We must all work together on the wider issues to ensure that we learn lessons. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Turner review and its report and recommendations. The Government are committed to taking forward the issues that Turner identified. We must also consider where improvements can be made more generally to banks’ corporate business, but in a way that supports the flow of credit to consumers and businesses. I shall ensure that the FSA writes to the hon. Gentleman, and we will write to other hon. Members when we have some responses.
I am delighted to be able to raise this subject today, and I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister is here to reply.
I became interested in this subject, and sought to introduce the debate, because it probably has not had as much discussion in this place as it should have had. In fact, it is a condition of success—many more people are surviving cancer treatment and live beyond the time that we would have expected them to survive only 10 years ago. It is almost a good problem to have, but it needs addressing.
I first became aware of the problem not only in my career as a nurse, but when the excellent Macmillan Cancer Support reception was held in the Palace. The first person that I walked into was Dr. Andreyev. He was very enthusiastic about ensuring that this problem was brought to the fore, and that cancer survivors who suffer problems after treatment are dealt with properly. I pay tribute to him, because he ensured that I am introducing this debate today.
I suppose that the worst news is when we are told of a diagnosis of cancer. That can only be overcome when someone is told by a consultant that their cancer is clear, that the treatment has worked, and that they can go out and enjoy their life. However, for 50 per cent. of people who are treated, particularly for those who are treated abdominally for a cancer, that is not possible. For them, conditions will be in place that will change their life for ever. Many of their symptoms can be severe.
I am told that there are 2 million cancer survivors and that every year an extra 3.2 per cent. live following a diagnosis of and treatment for cancer. They will have done extremely well to overcome the psychological, emotional and physical problems of the cancer but, as I said, for some that is not the end of the story.
By its nature, treatment for cancer is tough. It is tough to endure and drastic. It can involve surgery or radiotherapy, and incredibly invasive drugs are used in chemotherapy. As fantastic as those drugs are, it is difficult for the body to absorb them. The problem with radiotherapy is that the treatments are concentrated on the organ that is affected. I have two of the companies that produce linear accelerators, Elekta and Varian, in Crawley. They produce the most amazing machines, which are accurate beyond our wildest dreams of even five years ago, but no matter how good they are, other organs can be affected, including the bowel and the bladder, which can lead to problems later in life. Lifelong treatment is necessary for many people.
The big problem is that people who have survived cancer feel reluctant to complain because it may seem to them that they are being ungrateful. Although they have been treated and are free from their cancer, they might have symptoms such as urinary or faecal incontinence, yet they think, “I can’t complain about this. I’m so grateful to the NHS for treating me and making me well that I would feel bad about complaining.” Nevertheless, we need to come clean on this matter and ensure that we allow people the right to come to the NHS with their post-treatment concerns and get the treatment that they need.
Some 80 per cent. of people experience changes, and 50 per cent. of those will experience significant changes, such as urinary or faecal incontinence and painful and disabling oedema. As hon. Members will be aware, women who are treated for breast cancer often suffer from lymph oedema in their arms, which is incredibly difficult to deal with. It may be a schoolboyish thing to laugh about, but people can also suffer from extreme flatulence. We can only imagine how disastrous it is for someone who has been treated for cancer—say cervical cancer—with radiotherapy and then finds that they suffer from such a distressing condition. Their whole life may be altered because they are worried about going outside and having a social life.
Disfigurement from surgery is also a problem. Surgery is often extreme, and after it a person may feel that they are not good to look at, which means that their personal and sexual relationships are affected. I could mention many other things, but I am sure that hon. Members are aware of the conditions that I am talking about.
What can we do about such conditions? We are extremely grateful that people are surviving, and yet we have not paid enough attention to the fact that treatment and care are also needed to help with the after-effects. That is why I was so glad to meet gastroenterologist Dr. Andreyev. He is the only specialist working in the UK who deals with the post-radiation effects on people after they have been treated. He is unique, and is in a position to undertake research. He is gathering around him a team of professionals comprising dieticians, medical students and nurses to do the research into such conditions. How can those conditions be alleviated when the treatments are undertaken? Is it possible that diet may help? If diet is changed during radiotherapy, will it help to ensure that the bowel is not so adversely affected? Moreover, the team is doing lots of other research to try to reduce the thickening of the wall of the bowel during treatment, to prevent problems later. Unquestionably, all such projects cost money. However, today’s debate is not just about calling for money—it would be easy to hold such a debate and do so—but about ensuring that everyone is aware of the problems. Cancer networks around the country should consider having a specialist working alongside them when they plan individual patients’ cancer treatment. I believe that that would make an enormous difference to many people.
The second thing that I want is for people to have the space and time to declare their conditions and be honest and open about them. They should not feel that because they have had treatment, they do not deserve to be treated for the after-effects of cancer treatment.
This is a debate to raise the awareness of such issues and to talk about the work of both the Royal Marsden hospital and Dr. Andreyev. Dr. Andreyev has produced an excellent booklet that is written in plain English, which is a great relief to many people, that details just what is required to reduce the symptoms of cancer treatment. It is always important to be able to share those experiences. I am aware of organisations and self-help groups around the country that enable people to come together to share their experiences. It must feel to sufferers that such a subject is difficult to speak out loud about. It is always good to talk to others who have suffered from the same conditions. I am aware of those groups around the country and I know what comfort, help and advice they give to people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. A group called Fighting Against Cancer Together—FACT—has been set up in my constituency. It consists of three women who have all survived cancer—Leslie Shaw, Judith Williamson and Joanne Smith—and who felt exactly how my hon. Friend described. They felt isolated, and they did not know what to do or understand the language being used. However, together they have set up this group to encourage other people and say, “Look, we are here to help.” Next week, as part of their work, they will visit a school to teach young kids about cancer and the dangers of sunburn. Such grass-roots work is really important.
I am delighted to have taken that intervention, because I know of such groups around the country. When I first raised this debate, I was inundated with e-mails from many different organisations, and I am so pleased to hear about FACT. I want to convey what such organisations have been doing. It is the same for survivors of children’s cancer, too. Some amazing work is being done to help children to get over that process. However, in the short time available to me, it is important to concentrate on some of the physical and emotional problems that come from particular treatments of cancers in the abdominal area.
Organisations have been set up to assist sufferers. There is nothing better than people being able to share their experiences. A shining example is provided by the work of Dr. Andreyev and the Royal Marsden hospital. He is embedded at the heart of the team treating people with cancer, giving advice and helping to direct the treatment in the right way. Obviously, I want that replicated. I am not even sure that that would take a huge amount of money, although it would take a lot of thought by cancer networks to incorporate specialists, such as Dr. Andreyev, in their planning for people’s treatment and care. Organisation can make this possible. The cancer network system has been one of the best things to happen to cancer treatment in the United Kingdom. It has organised, directed and improved cancer care in a way that we did not feel was even possible. Colleagues in the medical profession can now support each other in the planning of people’s care and treatment to ensure the very best outcomes.
We need to do more, however, to tackle what I think is one of the most difficult matters: talking about what can be embarrassing bodily functions. Before getting cancer, people might have been completely unaffected by such problems, but afterwards might suffer from them for the rest of their life. It should not be necessary for people to emphasise how grateful they are to have been treated and to beg for somebody to help them with their problems. We must be up front in saying that it is wonderful that people have survived cancer, but that if symptoms reappear, they must be treated in an honest, open and up-front way. This House must support those cancer networks in responding properly to those who return to GP’s surgeries or consulting rooms to say that they are developing or redeveloping symptoms of cancer. They must not be dismissed. I hope, therefore, that the Minister can give me a positive sign about how we can move this matter forward to reduce the effect that treatment has had on those who have done the most amazing thing—survived cancer and gone back out into the world.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on securing this debate. Before addressing in detail the issues that she raised, I want to take the opportunity to recognise and praise the good work going on in the NHS in Crawley and throughout the country. NHS staff are delivering a better-quality health service than ever before, benefiting not only my hon. Friend’s constituency but those of all hon. Members.
The significant investment and improvements that we have made in the past 10 years have meant that cancer services have improved significantly and cancer mortality has fallen. Those significant achievements include extending breast screening to women aged up to 70; the roll-out of the bowel cancer screening programme—the first programme to target both men and women; and the introduction of smoke-free legislation. During 2007-08, the NHS breast screening programme screened more women than ever before. More than 1.7 million women were screened and 14,110 cancers were detected.
There are now more cancer specialists, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley acknowledged. Since 1997, there are 1,879 extra cancer consultants and 3,716 extra consultants in other specialties who spend a significant amount of their time caring for cancer patients. For example, the number of consultant gastroenterologists increased from 322 in 1997 to 612 in 2008—an increase of more than 90 per cent. In 2006-07, £4.35 billion was spent on cancer services, compared with £3.4 billon in 2003-04.
As my hon. Friend also acknowledged, patients have experienced real improvements in their care. That is shown by major patient surveys in both 2000 and 2004. The National Audit Office report of March 2005 acknowledged the significant improvement in the management and provision of cancer services since the publication of the NHS cancer plan and the good progress made against all major targets. Waiting times for patients urgently referred have fallen dramatically since the two-week wait was introduced. The reductions in waiting times for patients with suspected cancer have reduced anxiety and delay. The latest figures, for January to March 2009, show that 94.5 per cent. of patients with suspected cancer were seen by a specialist within two weeks of being urgently referred by their GP.
Cancer mortality in people under 75 fell by more than 18 per cent. between 1996 and 2007, saving almost 9,000 lives. We are on course to meet our target of at least a 20 per cent. reduction in cancer deaths in people under 75 by 2010.
The “Cancer Reform Strategy”, published in December 2007, builds on the progress that I have described. It sets out a clear direction for cancer services in the next five years and shows how we intend to deliver cancer outcomes that are among the best in the world. In the strategy, we also announced that, through the national cancer survivorship initiative, we would improve the ongoing support for people living with and beyond cancer.
My hon. Friend graphically and sensitively described some of the challenges faced by cancer survivors. About one quarter of people treated for cancer will experience long-term adverse effects on their quality of life as they live on past their initial cancer scares. The national cancer survivorship initiative was formally launched in September last year. It is co-chaired by the chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, Mr. Ciarán Devane, to whom my hon. Friend referred, and by the national clinical director for cancer, Professor Mike Richards. We have announced that the Government will provide £1.6 million to Macmillan Cancer Support in the current financial year to support that vital work. That funding will make a real difference to people living with and beyond cancer by helping them to receive the expert care and support that they need.
Seven national cancer survivorship initiative work streams have been created to develop new models of care and support that meet survivors’ needs. The work streams include a range of cancer charities, health and care staff, academics, cancer survivors and carers for survivors. Each work stream focuses on either a stage in the survivorship pathway or a cross-cutting theme. The work streams are supported by 27 pilot sites across the country, which are testing new models of survivorship care and support.
Through the national cancer survivorship initiative, we are working to reduce the impact of unavoidable late effects of cancer and its treatment and to improve the health and well-being of cancer survivors. The work stream dealing with the late effects of cancer will improve our understanding of the risks and prevalence of longer-term consequences of cancer and its treatment. It aims to raise awareness among patients and professionals of the late effects of cancer and its treatment; to promote the early detection of late effects; and to ensure that appropriate information and services are available to those suffering late effects or undergoing treatment.
The work stream is looking at what data are available on the prevalence of late effects, so that we can better understand people’s needs and target information, services and support. It is also developing national clinical leadership roles—that includes a gastroenterologist—to raise awareness of late effects and to champion the implementation of the new models of care that will emerge from the national cancer survivorship initiative.
I am informed that the late effects national survivorship administrative work stream is learning from the work being done at the Royal Marsden hospital by Dr. Andreyev, to which my hon. Friend referred. The hospital is not only performing excellently, but is the best-performing hospital of any type in the UK, so one would expect there to be much to learn from the excellent work that my hon. Friend mentioned.
In addition, the work stream is developing an e-learning package for general practitioners and other professionals on the late effects of cancer and its treatment, including the late effects of pelvic radiotherapy.
Other national cancer survivorship initiative work streams and test sites are looking at how personalised care planning can improve follow-up care for cancer patients; how cancer survivors can be empowered to live independently through support for self-management; how we can support those with active and advanced disease; how we can help people to stay in work, get back to work or access financial assistance; what more we can do for children and young people who are cancer survivors; and how we can pull together evidence about the current picture of care and support for cancer survivors. Those work streams are developing new approaches to care and support for people after cancer treatment. We will publish a national cancer survivorship initiative vision and implementation plan at the end of this year.
The cancer reform strategy sets out a clear direction for cancer services over the next five years and shows how we will deliver cancer outcomes that are among the best in the world. I have referred to the fact that Dr. Andreyev’s work at the Royal Marsden, which my hon. Friend highlighted, is part of our work on helping survivors. As she rightly said, the impact of cancer does not end after treatment. It is vital that we do all we can to support those who have been through cancer, so that they can live as full and active a life as possible. The national cancer survivorship initiative will make a real difference to those living with and beyond cancer, as well as to their families and their carers.
Public Transport Accessibility
It is a great privilege, Mr. Taylor, for me to speak in this debate under your chairmanship. I start with an apology. I apologise to the groups that have written to me about whether I would raise individual issues for them: I am thinking particularly of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and Mencap. I asked for the debate specifically in relation to work that I have done with muscular dystrophy groups. For the past four years I have had the privilege of being the chairman of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy. It is a disease that has hit my family hard, so I was asked whether I would pick up that job quite soon after entering the House, and I was pleased to do so.
We have been conducting an inquiry in the group, in effect like a Select Committee inquiry, with witnesses, on a variety of issues relevant to muscular dystrophy, and in particular the fact that services around the country are very sporadic and differ a lot. As part of it, we had some discussion with young people who have come together, supported by the voluntary group V; that has provided them with a platform to put forward their views about life at the hard end, as young sufferers of muscular dystrophy.
On 5 May we had a lunch to mark a report entitled “End of the Line” by a group called Trailblazers. I am glad to see that the Minister has his copy. At the meeting there was cross-party support from Members of both Houses of Parliament. A notable person present was the director of the Association of Train Operating Companies. He was very supportive and was clear about the problems. The group asked him, “Why don’t you ask all your chief executives to spend a day in a wheelchair?” That would be a positive-negative experience, so that people could see the real-life experience for some people in today’s world. The people involved with the report are supportive of the changes that have been made by the Government since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, but they are aware that things need to get better.
Since it was set up, working with V, Trailblazers has set its own goals to produce a variety of work about social inclusion under the title, “Inclusion Now”. The report it has delivered in the last few weeks is based specifically on the experiences of its members. They went undercover on buses, taxis and trains to see what life was really like. The report feeds back to people like me, the Minister and the wider public what the reality is. Four years after we passed the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, young people continue to be unable to use the services that should be available to them all by law. That is despite the real progress that has been made.
The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s network of 16 to 30-year-olds who are fighting for the rights of these people came forward with five key findings from the report, which I will list. Wheelchair users have less choice when using public transport. As a result, they are forced to pay more than their non-disabled peers. Young disabled passengers often feel like second-class citizens on public transport because of a combination of unreliable technology, poor disability awareness among staff and inaccessible stations. Young disabled passengers cannot always access the first bus, train or taxi that arrives at a station or stop. The assisted passenger registration service that insists on 24-hour advance booking for trains restricts the spontaneity and independence of disabled passengers. Even when it is accessed, it fails to provide a reliable service that passengers can have confidence in.
Non-wheelchair users with mobility difficulties also face serious problems when attempting to use buses and trains. Bus drivers often fail to park next to the kerb, meaning that there is a greater distance to cover to climb on to the bus. Drivers tend to pull away from stops too quickly before a passenger is seated and safe.
I will outline the action that Trailblazers is calling for. It wants the Government, local authorities and transport providers to ensure that accessibility on all modes of public transport, including air travel, is at the heart of all public transport planning, not merely a concept to which they pay lip service. Until all trains can be boarded and disembarked from independently, it wants the assisted passenger reservation service to be improved to guarantee that all disabled passengers receive a universally high level of service. It wants a major review into the accessibility of buses and coaches across the UK. It wants taxi subsidy cards for disabled passengers with a discount that reflects the dependence that many disabled people have on taxis.
I will now quote from the report. These are the words of people who have to live with these issues day in, day out. Judith Merry from Buckinghamshire stated:
“So many times I’ve been denied access on public transport because of my condition. Most people find it is easy to get around and be independent but when you have a disability simple tasks like this can be extremely difficult. Whether it’s buses, trains or tubes, there’s always some kind of problem. I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this.”
Jennifer Gallacher from Middlesbrough stated:
“Wheelchair accessible buses do not run on every route everyday making the idea of hopping on a bus as a quick way of going on a journey unrealistic for a wheelchair user.”
Colin Rabbich from Morecambe said:
“It’s all well and good to hunt down the man with the ramp while on the platform, but once you’re on the train what goes on at the arriving end platform side is completely out of your hands—bad communication or forgetful staff result in you not getting off the train! I feel that these experiences make you feel a huge lack in confidence with this service.”
Jagdeep Kaur Sehmbi from Birmingham stated:
“A couple of times there has been no one with the ramp to help me off the train at my destination platform, even though I had informed them at the other station and been assured that someone would have the ramps ready.”
Stephen Liney from Aylesbury said:
“Why should any disabled person have to wait around for assistance or have to ring 24 hours in advance to use a station? If money is being spent on new stations let’s make sure people abide by the law and spend some money on making old stations accessible too.”
Jessica Berry from Macclesfield stated:
“Some stations are great, particularly the smaller ones, but some never hurry themselves to come and get you off the train despite having booked the travel assistance at least 24 hours before. It’s so scary being left on a train with no way of getting off.”
Finally, Sulaiman Khan from London said:
“Taxis are prohibitively expensive, even with a Taxi discount card. I once had to pay £65 to go into central London, because I can’t use the tube or trust the buses, which made even the driver cringe. The average person pays about £5 to go into central London from where I live.”
The statistics in the report are damning. For buses, it found that on more than half of all journeys there was some problem with the accessible facilities at the station, the bus stop, or on the bus, or there was a poor service from members of staff. In a third of the Trailblazers journeys, the survey respondent was unable to board the first relevant bus to arrive at their stop because the access ramp or accessible space was unavailable or because the driver failed to stop at a location that was accessible to them. Was that the result of a lack of awareness or a lack of customer care? In one third of the journeys undertaken by Trailblazers the respondent said that the driver was not helpful.
For trains, the survey showed that in 50 per cent. of journeys the surveyor reported some form of disappointment with the disabled facilities at the station or on the train, or reported a poor service from staff. The survey found that, because few long-distance coach or bus companies provide wheelchair access, young disabled people who want to travel around the UK feel that they have no alternative to using train services, despite those problems. The survey also showed that in 25 per cent. of journeys, the passenger was unable to board the first train that they wanted to. The reasons given for that included: having to wait for staff availability; that the staff could not be contacted at the destination station; that there was only one member of staff and they were too busy to help; and that there was no disabled seating or space available.
For taxis, the survey found that two thirds of respondents were disappointed by a journey in some way, such as with the service provided or the cost incurred. Two out of five respondents felt that they paid more to use a wheelchair-accessible taxi than a non-wheelchair user would have paid.
The findings on the assisted passenger reservation service were that staff at stations were prepared for disabled travellers on only one in three journeys made using the service as it should be used. Of the passengers given an appointed meeting place, only 58 per cent. were met by staff. In 15 per cent. of all cases, no assistance whatever was provided to get passengers off the train.
Let me ask the Minister some questions, so that we can try to take this matter forward. I repeat the caveat in the report that people are very appreciative of the progress that has been made in recent years by our Government, but as my comments of the past 10 minutes show, there are ongoing issues. Will the Minister meet me and representatives from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign network to discuss the evidence that the report has uncovered? Will he ensure that public transport contractors and local authorities place accessibility for disabled passengers at the heart of their development policies, and ensure that accessible facilities are as inclusive as possible? Will he ensure that the woefully unreliable and ineffectual assisted passenger reservation service that is employed by rail companies will be reviewed and invested in, so that all stations and trains are fully accessible?
In conclusion, I reflect on the fact that today is the 56th anniversary of the conquest of Everest. At the launch on 15 May, a young lad called Dave Gale, from Carlisle—a place I know quite well—spoke to us. He was not in a wheelchair, and he looked like a fit young guy, but he told us about his problems with walking over a railway bridge. He said, “By the time I get to the top of the railway bridge, I’m gasping for breath.” That is totally unacceptable; that is his Everest every day of the week.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on securing the debate, and all the young people involved in the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign on their work. I am very aware that this issue affects disabled people right across the spectrum. For example, my mum became deaf when she was four, but my father was born deaf. I have seen up close the difficulties that they face in their daily lives just trying to get around using public transport. In fact, my dad was abandoned for hours because the track that a train was to pull in on was changed. We were all very worried about him.
In making this brief intervention, I would like to alert the Minister to a situation in my constituency. Victoria Young, an 18-year-old wheelchair user from Skelmersdale, has met serious problems because of the inaccessibility of local transport. Arriva upgraded its West Lancashire fleet by bringing in 14-year-old double-decker buses cast off from the Wirral area. None of the buses has low-floor access. In a recent newspaper article, Victoria’s father told how she was stranded in Wigan for three hours simply because there were no low-floor buses to bring her home. That cost her and her family £17 in taxi fares.
It does not take a genius to realise that Victoria and other people in West Lancashire with similar problems will be dramatically affected. The situation will affect their life, their social mobility and their interaction with friends who can go off to Southport or to Wigan while they cannot. That is not acceptable.
The Government’s free concessionary travel pass shows commitment to enabling disabled people access to public transport, but it is rendered useless if private bus companies neglect their duty to provide accessible transport. I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to agree that, in the 21st century, with our technological ability and the political will that has been demonstrated and included in the disability discrimination legislation, no disabled person the length and breadth of this country should have to accept not being able to use public transport.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on securing this debate on what undoubtedly is an important matter for all concerned. I recognise and thank him for his comments about what we have achieved to date and the fact that there is still substantial work to be done. They were echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper).
Let me put on the record the Government’s thanks for the work undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon on several disability areas, particularly his work as chairman for the past four years of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy. Equally, I want to put on the record thanks to the young people who undertook the work to compile information for an important report by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign called “End of the Line”. It helps all of us to understand some of the issues better.
The matter is important to young disabled people, but it should be important to all of us who have a commitment to ensuring that there are opportunities for all to be able to get to work, to leisure facilities, to Southport. Everyone should have equal opportunities.
I thank Trailblazers for its report and for the hard work that has been undertaken by the young people. The report affirms the important role that transport has to play in all our lives, but particularly the lives of young people, in enabling independence. It also highlights the importance of ensuring that young disabled people are involved in the decision-making process about travel provision in this country.
Unfortunately, the comments that my hon. Friend highlighted—from Jennifer, Colin, Jessica, Stephen and many others—show that the hurdles that people face when using public transport are still too much of a reality. Let me reassure hon. Members, however, that the Department for Transport remains committed to ensuring that we increase the accessibility of the transport system for all people in our society.
Let me confirm that point by saying that one of the Department’s key strategic objectives is to ensure that we have greater equality of opportunity for all citizens, including those who are disabled and in wheelchairs, those who have sight or hearing difficulties and many others. Those people should be able to utilise the public transport system so that we have a fairer society.
We have made substantial progress in meeting some requirements, but there is still a substantial way to go to ensure that vehicles and infrastructure across the board are more accessible. All rail vehicles must meet our accessibility standards by 1 January 2020, and all buses on local scheduled services will have to do so by 1 January 2017.
I noted the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire, who talked about Victoria Young being stranded for three hours in Wigan. Of course that it is totally unacceptable. We need to ensure that we have a proper regime that recognises people’s needs, their life scale and the equipment involved, and that we make steady progress towards achieving accessibility. Indeed, more than one third of all rail vehicles and more than half the buses in the current fleet are now accessible.
I recognise, however, that there will be substantial difficulties where a bus fleet is not accessible. A concessionary bus pass or a disabled person’s bus pass will not help if there is no access to the facility in the first place. That is why the work that we have been doing with critical operators, including the railway companies and the Association of Train Operating Companies, is intended to move us sensibly towards making accessibility a reality. Of course, we all want that to happen sooner, but the time scale is sensible in terms of meeting requirements and phasing in new vehicles.
In that respect, the rail vehicle accessibility regulations also apply to London Underground. One of the first lines to have totally step-free accessibility will be the Victoria line, with the exception of Pimlico station, purely because there is no physical way of achieving step-free access down to it.
It is little help having accessible vehicles when there is no accessibility from platform to platform in stations and people cannot get from one platform to another to catch a train or to get out of the station. The Access for All programme is providing £370 million, which is ring-fenced over the next 10 years, to transform 140-odd stations that have already been identified. The aim is to ensure that there is proper access and accessibility to and between platforms.
Some £6 million is also being used for small schemes to find locally focused solutions and to make improvements for customers and passengers, including to information systems, which can benefit all, but which are particularly relevant to many of those who took part in the survey.
I noted the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon made about asking the chief executives of the railway companies to spend a day in wheelchairs, for example. We are working with ATOC to put online a new journey planning website that will list very clearly the accessibility criteria of all stations within the network, which, again, will help with planning. I will come back to the assisted passenger reservation scheme in a moment, because I recognise some of the points that were made in the report and by my hon. Friend.
Equally, taxis can often be one of the only ways for people to have mobility, particularly in areas that do not necessarily have commercially supported bus services and which may not have a railway station within the community. I recognise some of the comments that were made on costs but, equally, there are accessibility problems with some of the vehicles that are used in the taxi industry, which is exactly why, earlier this year, I launched a consultation document on the principles that might underline accessibility to taxis. The consultation has just closed and we are currently assessing the responses, but the Government are well aware of the issue.
We are also involved in negotiations on the European Commission proposals that were published at the tail end of last year, in December, on regulations that include rights for disabled passengers and passengers with reduced mobility on maritime transport and international bus and coach services. We continue to monitor compliance with the European regulation that came into force in July 2008 on the rights of disabled people and those with reduced mobility who are travelling by air.
While there are issues about the physical appropriateness of our transport systems, including access to stations, getting on to buses using low floor levels, and the ability and capability to get on to those buses in the right places and without additional hassle, staff support and assistance is also an issue, as is clearly outlined in the Trailblazers report. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members would agree that excellent examples of that abound, but we need to do more. The attitude towards people with disabilities does not meet the criteria and levels that we would want.
Although the Public Service Vehicles (Conduct of Drivers, Inspectors, Conductors and Passengers) (Amendment) Regulations 2002, which make it unlawful for transport operator staff to disregard the needs of disabled people, including those with wheelchairs, play an important and helpful role, equally disability awareness training is an integral part of the GoSkills national vocational qualification for drivers.
However, further work needs to be done. My hon. Friend talked about getting the directors of train operating companies in wheelchairs, but we urge transport operators to involve people with disabilities in training programmes so that they get first-hand knowledge. That would bring the report to life for those who are operating the systems and provisions that are required day in, day out by individuals.
We are also developing training travel skills so that people who have disabilities know what to expect and where to access information and so on. That is also something that can be done by working with organisations that represent groups such as people with muscular dystrophy. The Department for Transport has sponsored the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee to develop its Door to Door website, which brings together as a portal a range of information about access to the transport system and provision for disabled people.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire referred to the concessionary travel scheme that we have introduced. The headlines seem always to be about people aged 60 and over, but of course the scheme is also for many categories of people with disabilities. That is another way of ensuring that there is better inclusion for all concerned, and better access. However, I take on board what was said about the limitations created by not having the right bus.
I want to draw attention to what is being done in local authorities throughout the country as part of work on transport accessibility planning. It is particularly a question of seeing that joined-up provisions exist for people in vulnerable groups, so that they can get access to jobs and key services. Those considerations are now treated far more as mainstream parts of local transport planning. Not long ago I visited Worksop to see the Nottinghamshire scheme and find out what had been done there as part of the accessibility planning programme. I also saw the work that had been done in Liverpool and Merseyside.
The Local Transport Act 2008 was another opportunity to reinforce and improve transport provision for all concerned, by improving the facilities of the community transport sector. For example, drivers covered by section 22 permits are now allowed to be paid, so that where it is not possible for schemes to run commercially through companies such as Arriva or Stagecoach, or where there is not a demand for a big, heavily subsidised scheme, the community transport sector can help and can provide a facility, making inclusion possible for many people, including disabled people.
We are well on the road to meeting the goals that we set out for 2025 in “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”. We have gone a long way towards improving those life chances and the facilities to allow people to lead more independent lives. However, we have further to go. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon, together with representatives from Trailblazers, to listen first-hand and to consider the information that has been presented.
I said that I would return to the assisted passenger reservation scheme. I recognise some of the comments that have been made in the report, and by my hon. Friend. The scheme is owned by the train operating companies and the Association of Train Operating Companies, but the Department is working with them to see that there is better and more joined-up provision for delivering that service. Perhaps part of the discussion that we have should be to enable us to learn from some of the users of the services about where the weaknesses are in the scheme.
It has been useful to debate a piece of work that is clearly very important. It took commitment from the many young people and others involved to produce something that can be useful to our work in the Department for Transport, and is also important as a guide for transport operators in the further work that is needed.
Question put and agreed to.