Wednesday 17 June 2009
[Mr. Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Regional Aviation Policy
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts.)
I thank the Speaker for selecting this important subject for debate and it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Streeter. I also welcome the Minister to his new post.
I shall be discussing the importance of regional aviation policy in the context of its impact on regional economic development. No one can deny that we live in a world where economic relationships between countries and continents are more globalised than ever before. In such a world, connectivity is paramount. Communications are now instant; we think nothing of turning on the news to watch a live TV interview with somebody on the other side of the planet. Likewise, reaching the other side of the world in person is much easier than it has ever been thanks to air travel. It is estimated that more than half the UK’s population fly at least once a year, whether on holiday, to visit family and friends or on business.
Business-to-business connectivity is part of what makes the globalised economy go round. It is important to the UK as a major trading nation and equally important to our regional economies. Aviation is a crucial part of the UK’s goods distribution network, playing a particularly strong role, for example, in the movement of high-value freight. Some 30 per cent. of UK exports by value are transported by air. Heathrow is the world’s second biggest cargo handling airport. More than half the UK’s total air freight passes through it, which means that the remaining 50 per cent. leaves through other regional airports.
Aviation plays a vital role in connecting the UK’s regions to London and, through direct international links, to the global markets. The Airport Operators Association estimates that the airports that it represents handle more than 228 million passengers. According to a CBI submission to the Select Committee on Transport inquiry into the future of aviation, CBI members, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, regard air links with London as very important for their businesses. In fact, 73 per cent. of respondents to a survey of City of London businesses said that air services were either critical or very important in providing direct contact with clients and service providers, and 64 per cent. said that they were either critical or very important to internal company business.
The aviation industry makes a major contribution to the UK economy. Oxford Economic Forecasting demonstrated in 2006 that the industry contributed £11.4 billion to UK gross domestic product in 2004. In addition, the aviation industry directly and indirectly supports 700,000 jobs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. To give a consumer perspective from the north, Glasgow airport is targeting people living in the north of England who tend to travel to Manchester to catch a flight. Glasgow is closer for some, as well as cheaper, given that Scotland and England have different school holidays. I welcome the initiative of targeting those people to get them to travel from Glasgow, rather than from Manchester, London or anywhere else.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What is absolutely apparent from my research—I have an airport in my constituency as well—is the importance of regional connectivity not just to Heathrow, but to other airports in the country and globally.
Assuming that aviation continues to grow in line with Government forecasts and historical trends of the past decade, aviation’s contribution to GDP will rise to some £19.7 billion by 2010. It is the backdrop to a vibrant industry, but it is also an industry that is itself facing challenges in the UK regions, and those challenges are having an impact on the UK’s regional economies.
There are 22 regional airports outside the south-east, and they carry more than 500,000 passengers a year. The main aviation challenge facing the regions is the lack of connectivity between their airports and Heathrow. In 1995, Heathrow served 21 domestic destinations. Today, it serves only six: Belfast, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Leeds Bradford in Yorkshire and Durham Tees Valley airport in my constituency ran flights to Heathrow until this February, when BMI withdrew those services. Today, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and Paris Charles de Gaulle serve more regional airports in the UK than does Heathrow—Schiphol serves 19 UK destinations and Paris CDG 14.
I find it bizarre that UK regional airports must rely on international hubs outside the UK to gain access to the wider world. A briefing from BAA bills Heathrow as the UK’s global gateway. I cannot see how that is true when fewer UK regional airports have access to Heathrow than to Holland and France.
On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an environmental irony at play? The environmental movement says that we should not provide access to internal aviation within the UK, but that simply forces people to fly east before going west, which is obviously worse for their carbon footprint than if they made direct journeys from here.
What the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) says is undeniable, but what underpins planning for aviation is the aviation White Paper launched in December 2003 by the now Chancellor of the Exchequer, which discussed stringent environmental controls on regional airports, as the London airports, by and large, are designated, so the Secretary of State for Transport can do something about unacceptable environmental downsides such as night noise. Is that not the problem?
East Midlands airport is one such regional airport. We welcome its jobs, low-cost flights and other benefits, but we do not welcome the freight noise that affects communities around the periphery of the airport and under its flight path. However, there is no respite and no control from an effective local master plan.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s optimism about what the industry might do, but the proposals and suggestions for improvements are still on the drawing board and the practical consequences are very much of the type suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). I suggest that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) take more account of those concerns in relation to the policies that he is advocating.
I will take account of them, but the main point that I want to convey concerns the future growth of regional economies and the importance of regional airports to that. Because of the lack of capacity at Heathrow, aeroplanes are now stacking above London, which has an impact on the environment as well. There are a lot of issues that we need to take into consideration.
Moving on to the reasons for the anomaly, many UK airports are operating at the limit of their capacity. Heathrow is full up, operating at 99 per cent. of capacity, compared to other European hubs, which operate at about 70 per cent. Heathrow has only two runways, while Frankfurt and Paris CDG have four and Schiphol five. That has implications for Heathrow’s ability to continue functioning effectively as an international hub. Operating so close to the limits of capacity means that the airport’s resilience—for example, the ability to cope with unforeseen circumstances such as adverse weather conditions or significant flight delays—is limited.
Air traffic is predicted to continue growing, so it is essential that action is taken to ensure that the UK’s competitiveness is not undermined. The macro-economic benefits of capacity expansion at Heathrow were quantified by Oxford Economic Forecasting in its October 2006 report, which found that a third runway at Heathrow would generate wider economic benefits estimated at £7 billion in additional GDP per year. More recently, the Government’s consultation document estimated net benefit of about £5 billion a year. That is why the third runway at Heathrow is, in my view, essential. However, construction of the runway will take until 2018 or thereabouts to complete, so what do we do between now and then to help UK regional connectivity with Heathrow?
The economic factors must be balanced with the societal and environmental considerations. We must always listen carefully to local communities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as a measure to tackle the shortage of capacity, an estuary airport would be a disaster on virtually every level? Despite that, it is being promoted heavily by many Conservative MPs from Essex and the Conservative Mayor of London?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should consider existing flexibility in airport infrastructure, so that we can make what we have work.
I will use Durham Tees Valley airport in my constituency as an example. There are important links between the Tees valley and Heathrow. The economy of the Tees valley is based on the largest integrated process industrial complex in the UK. It contains industries specialising in petrochemicals, energy, renewable energy, biofuel and steel-making. It has the third largest port in the UK. There is also a world-class advanced engineering industry, which is based on the design, construction and maintenance of petrochemical plants, steel works, power stations and major infrastructure such as bridges. In addition, the region has the Wilton centre, which is Europe’s largest non-military private sector research centre. The petrochemical industry alone contributes £3.5 billion to the UK economy and 70,000 UK jobs depend on it.
In Sedgefield, NETPark boasts cutting-edge technology in high-value goods production that is showing the way in new industries such as printable electronics and nanotechnologies. The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation—SABIC—is constructing the world’s largest low-density polyethylene plant at Wilton, with an investment of £200 million. The Biofuels Corporation operates the world’s largest biodiesel plant at Seal Sands and Ensus is constructing the world’s largest bioethanol plant there. A pipeline is expected, which will deliver £4 billion through renewable energy plants, biofuel plants and advanced engineering. The integrated chemical complex, which was formerly owned by ICI, is now owned by 26 multinational companies such as SABIC, Dow, Huntsman, Avecia, Johnson Matthey and GrowHow.
We must consider the jobs provided and exports produced by world-class multinational companies such as AMEC, Whessoe, Aker Kvaerner, Cleveland Bridge and K Home Engineering. The north-east is the only English region that exports more than it imports, yet the local airport does not have access to Heathrow—the UK’s global gateway.
Does the hon. Gentleman intend to speak about aviation in the context of other modes of transport? Lord Adonis is a great advocate of high-speed rail. The region that the hon. Gentleman represents is exceptionally well placed to benefit from the development of high-speed rail within a short time scale.
I welcome any ideas on high-speed rail, but the current proposals will not be connected to the north-east. I think I am right that if all the trains we have were filled with passengers who would otherwise have taken flights, Heathrow would still run at 90 per cent. capacity. High-speed rail might be part of the solution, but it is not the whole solution.
Yesterday, we had a debate on Heathrow and we are covering much of the same ground. Intermodal links are crucial. It is no accident that Flybe, one of the most successful and profitable airlines in the current difficult market, has an absolute rule that it will not fly to airports where the rail links take more than three hours. I urge the hon. Gentleman to read the report of yesterday’s debate. We must stay on the regional factors today and look at the problems with the Oxford case.
The hon. Gentleman should ask himself why the number of flights to Heathrow has increased while the number of destinations has dropped. The airlines are maximising the use of a handful of extremely profitable routes.
I will come to that last point and consider the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.
Critics will say that Durham Tees Valley airport has access to Schiphol airport in Holland. That is true and welcome, but the problem with Schiphol is that it does not connect with Australia, and its connectivity has reduced by 45 per cent. to the middle east, 27 per cent. to Asia and 31 per cent. to north America. It is not a Heathrow substitute, but complements it. I understand that there is pressure on Schiphol to limit its capacity in the long term, which could reduce connectivity to the region even more.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that any attempt to limit air travel by making it less convenient to make intercontinental journeys from the UK is utterly naive? Price is a consideration, but the desire to make the journey is much more significant. People will find ways to make journeys by making changes outside the UK, even if it is less environmentally friendly and more time-consuming.
The hon. Gentleman is right.
Paragraph 4.47 of the consultation document, “Reforming the framework for the economic regulation of UK airports” states:
“The crowding out of regional services from capacity constrained Heathrow is unlikely to have an adverse impact on regions providing regional connectivity is maintained via alternative airports.”
If the experience of Schiphol is anything to go by, I do not believe that that statement is accurate. It is not in the interests of this country to encourage our nationals to use another country’s airport as a hub. What does that say about our faith in Heathrow and our commitment to the regions?
I believe that there is a way through the problem. The Government are listening. The draft regulatory framework has been put out to consultation. On 24 March, I had a meeting with the Minister’s predecessor, along with the Minister for the North East and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong). We were told that the Department has deemed it necessary to look at the wider economic impact on the regions, rather than focus narrowly on the regional airports. I look forward to hearing from the Minister when we will hear the results of the consultation.
Unlike the Opposition, the Government have not written off Durham Tees Valley airport, and thereby the Tees valley. One Opposition spokesman said that the north-east could not sustain two airports. We know that their commitment to the regions is minimal because they oppose the development of the third runway at Heathrow.
One of the key factors in BMI’s decision to terminate its flights to Heathrow from Durham Tees Valley was the charging policy at Heathrow. At most hub airports around the world, domestic and short-haul services co-exist with long-haul networks, and landing charges are based on the take-off weight of the plane, with smaller aircraft having lower landing charges than larger ones. At Heathrow, landing charges are the same, regardless of the size of the aircraft. I have christened that policy “the poll tax with wings”. Heathrow airport is operating at capacity. Airlines make more money from long-haul than short-haul flights and are therefore keen to use scarce slots for long-haul flights. The market strength of Heathrow therefore works against regional connectivity.
Central to BAA’s financial performance is its ability to maximise ancillary revenues from areas such as retailing and catering. That involves maximising passenger throughput at the airport. It is therefore in the interests of BAA to encourage larger aircraft to operate from the airport at the expense of smaller ones, because there are limited opportunities to grow the number of aircraft movements.
The charging structure at Heathrow before the recent increase reflected those incentives. For example, a 49-seater Embraer RJ145 from Durham Tees Valley cost each passenger £12.76 in landing charges, compared with £8.68 for an Airbus A330. The recent changes have made the differential much worse. The increase in charges has a substantially greater impact on operating margins for short-haul services. Combined with the substantial incentives for airlines at Heathrow to switch slots to long-haul services, that has resulted in the loss of flights between Heathrow and Durham Tees Valley. As a consequence, BMI made a commercial decision to withdraw its flights from Durham Tees Valley and is using those slots to fly larger planes from Kiev, Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
In response to these pressures, BMI puts pressure on regional airports to reduce their landing charges, and because those flights are important, the landing charges are reduced. There is no longer any scope for further reductions, and consequently, increases in landing charges at Heathrow make regional airports less profitable. The Department seems to be arguing against regulation in this area, which we should consider, because Heathrow’s capacity is constrained and because the prime concern is to ensure as many connections as possible between Heathrow and the rest of the world.
That brings me back to my earlier point. How can Heathrow be the UK’s global gateway if the vast majority of our regional airports do not have access to it? Lack of regulation, and people’s inability to think outside the box, have put us in a perverse situation in which British regional airports are forced to link up with international hubs in Holland and France, while Heathrow, the UK’s global gateway, is used to maximise profits for its Spanish owners. Meanwhile, multinational companies on Teesside and elsewhere try to reach out to global markets. There may have been some thinking up to where we are now, but I am afraid it has not been joined-up.
If there were a third runway at Heathrow, which my colleagues do not support—[Interruption.] It would, for the reasons the hon. Gentleman has given, be used for further intercontinental flights with maximum profit for the owners of the airport—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) continually talks from a sedentary position. If she wants to make a speech, she should do so. Would not the third runway simply be used to carry on existing practices, rather than to provide the regional slots the hon. Gentleman wants?
Let me continue with my speech and I shall propose how we could prevent that from happening.
Heathrow is a major national economic asset, but it is not available to half the country. The Government’s objectives include improving the economic performance of all English regions and reducing the gap in economic growth rates between regions. How can those aims be achieved if we disadvantage peripheral regions that have world-class industrial sectors, and if we fail to regulate airports to safeguard links to regional airports?
Whole areas of the UK, including Teesside, Yorkshire, the south-west and Wales, cannot access Heathrow and are directly disadvantaged as a result of their inability to gain access to world markets through that major national asset. The draft regulatory framework, which has just been out to consultation, suggests that the answer is a public service obligation, or PSO, but goes on to say, at paragraph 4.48, that
“no applications to impose PSOs on London routes have since been received indicating that regional connectivity is perhaps not such a significant issue, although concerns about regional connectivity are raised with DfT from time to time”.
I suppose that means that debates such as this will be forgotten after they finish, but I want the Minister to know that I will not forget this issue after this debate ends at 11 o’clock.
The same paragraph states that
“we do not believe additional policy interventions, either through the regulatory framework or otherwise, are necessary.”
How many more regional airports must lose their access to the UK’s global gateway before we realise that additional policy intervention is required? The document then discusses
“comments received from the CAA who expressed the view that the maintenance of routes between regional airports and any particular airport should not be an obligation of the regulator. The CAA further noted the Government’s capacity to impose PSOs on specific routes where necessary.”
There should be an obligation on the CAA to regulate to save regional access to Heathrow.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I seek to elicit further views from him on PSOs. Does he agree that the problem, or the reason why there are not applications for PSOs, is to do with the Government’s attitude to granting them? They say that a PSO will be granted only if there is a risk to the commercial use of a slot, and that as long as a service is operating in a slot, they will not see a commercial risk. So, they will grant a PSO only after the operator has withdrawn, by which time nobody is seeking a PSO.
There is a lot of truth in what the hon. Gentleman says, but I shall come to the faults of the PSO system and how they can be remedied.
PSOs are part of the answer, but not the complete answer. I understand that Durham Tees Valley airport is looking at the economics of having a PSO, but there are three parts to the equation. First, the PSO process is bureaucratic; secondly, if successful, it secures only the slots; thirdly, the landing charge system at Heathrow discriminates against regional flights. Those three issues militate strongly against PSOs. If a subsidy is needed to pay for the landing charges, the cost is borne not by the Department for Transport, but by local authorities or regional agencies such as regional development agencies, whose primary purpose is not to subsidise landing charges at Heathrow. That is why no region has successfully pursued a PSO at Heathrow.
There are one or two PSOs in the highlands and islands of Scotland, and in Wales, I think, but there are more than 250 in Europe. To ensure access to Heathrow from peripheral regions and to help their economic development, the Government should regulate to retain regional flights to Heathrow. In addition to the six airports, a minimum of three return flights a day should be allowed from Durham Tees Valley, Leeds Bradford, Plymouth, Newquay, Cardiff and Exeter. That would require 15 slots a day, and would retain regional connectivity to the peripheral regions. That is less than 1 per cent. of Heathrow’s capacity, which has about 480,000 slots.
The Government also need to discuss with BAA and the airlines a commercial tariff that will enable those flights to take place based on the take-off weight of the aircraft. They should also amend the regulatory framework in the interests of the whole UK to improve regional accessibility into Heathrow. The regions expect the Government to ensure that Heathrow can be used by the whole of the UK.
I shall put to the Minister four other recommendations, which are also supported by the Northern Way and the Tees Valley joint strategy unit. First, the regulator’s duties should be expanded to give the Civil Aviation Authority a general duty to promote access to air services throughout the UK from London Heathrow in support of the Government’s commitment to regional growth.
Secondly, using the duty, and recognising that the economic benefits of domestic services contribute to meeting the Government’s wider policy agenda, which is not currently reflected in the airline’s financial benefits at price-regulated airports, regulation should be used to promote a differential in airport charges for domestic services, compared with international services, under overall average yield per cap.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State should use his ability to give direction to the regulator. That is an important tool for shaping the regulatory regime to support, as far as possible, the Government’s wider policy goals, including those related to regional economic development. To avoid the risk of excessive interference from the Government, I suggest that any draft directions should be published and should be subject to consultation through open process.
Fourthly, I encourage the Government to consider the case for PSO air services on the same basis as other EU member states, taking into account both the social and financial benefits of air services. The potential for air services from Heathrow to regional airports should be further investigated for slot protection through being designated as public service operations. Will the Minister get his civil servants to look again at the draft regulatory framework, and ask them, under his political guidance, to encourage some thinking outside the box? This issue is about more than aviation, airports and airlines; it is about the future economic growth of our regions, selling our goods worldwide and remaining a global player.
It will be the best part of nine or 10 years before the first aeroplane taxis down the third runway. That is a long time, but the issue of providing a decent service from Heathrow to the regions needs to be sorted out now; UK plc deserves that. All I ask for is some joined-up thinking.
Order. Front-Bench speeches will start at 10.30 am. Five colleagues seek to catch my eye, and we have only half an hour left, so if they keep their speeches brief, that will be appreciated. Four people have given notification that they wish to speak, so they will have priority.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Streeter. I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his new post.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate on an issue of broad interest. As he made clear in his opening remarks, the issue has influence locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. The South West Regional Committee, of which I am Chairman, will carry out an inquiry into transport across the region, which will undoubtedly encompass the role of regional airports.
I have a regional airport in my constituency, and I am therefore aware of the concerns expressed by local residents about the use of the airport and the environmental consequences of air travel. I am also aware of the wide support that the airport received, both from constituents and local businesses. I shall endeavour to express a wide range of views from Plymouth without in any way pre-empting the future investigation of the regional Select Committee, which will hopefully happen in about a month’s time.
I shall begin by talking about the issues that directly affect Plymouth before looking at the wider south-west. From Plymouth’s perspective, air services are generally viewed as fundamentally important to the social and economic strength of our city. That view was clearly expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield in relation to his area. The airport is a key element of the city’s growth agenda, and its continued existence and future growth has been factored into assumptions made about our local economy. It provides—as do all regional airports—vital connections into London.
Air Southwest is the sole airline operating from Plymouth, and it has slots at Gatwick and, most recently, at London City airport, as well as a range of connections to other major cities. However, it no longer has access to Heathrow. There are concerns across the sector that the trend of regional operators losing access to Heathrow could have a detrimental impact on regional economies, some of which are very fragile at the moment. Such concerns are not new. Indeed, as long ago as 1998, the then Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee concluded that because runway capacity in the south-east was in short supply, pressure would be put on regional airports.
I do not want to revisit the arguments for and against the third runway at Heathrow, but the evidence suggests that, without additional capacity in London, economic growth in the regions could be damaged. Offering Amsterdam Schiphol or Charles de Gaulle as an alternative does not work, because of the enhanced range of destinations offered by Heathrow and across London. Serious consideration needs to be given—again, my hon. Friend made this point—to the need to protect regional links into Heathrow as part of any future plans for a third runway and in relation to general capacity issues. As suggested, there could also be a role for the regulator.
To preclude—indeed, to discourage—regional airlines from having access to Heathrow by making the slots extortionately expensive will not help the UK economy, and it certainly will not help the south-west. Despite the environmental concerns, air travel in the south-west is predicted to continue to grow. In a region where the strategic road and rail networks have historically been underfunded and have inadequacies, air travel, whether it involves Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth or Newquay, is essential.
Is it not the case that, economically and environmentally, a far better alternative to having more slots at Heathrow for regional airports is high-speed, affordable and convenient trains, particularly for cities and regions that are within, for example, 500 km of Heathrow? That would encompass the vast bulk of the population of England. Is that not the way forward, rather than having more slots at Heathrow?
I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but he clearly does not know the south-west very well. Frankly, the idea of our getting a high-speed rail link all the way down to Cornwall is simply not a runner in the medium term. We may get it as far as Exeter or Bristol, but that does not work for Plymouth or Cornwall. We desperately need those regional air links. Cornwall is, of course, an objective 1 area and is one of the poorest regions in the country. Without regional air links, I am afraid that businesses will not come to the far south-west. I understand the environmental arguments, but this is a very difficult issue for our region.
As I have said, road and rail are alternatives, but those in the business community who want to conduct business in London do not have five hours to spare to travel there either by car or train. It takes me five hours door-to-door to get to London. A high-speed rail link would be fabulous, but in the short and medium term that is not going to happen. I want businesses to feel that they can commute to Plymouth or London for business in a day, without having to rush or be utterly exhausted.
Proposals for a runway extension at Plymouth would allow slightly larger planes to use the airport. That has some very strong support across the city and already much of the land required has been safeguarded. However, I suspect that that proposal is, again, unlikely to go ahead, because the costs run into tens of millions and the pressure on the major funders is likely to make it impossible. Genuine concerns would be raised both by organisations representing residents who live close to the airport—such as the Derriford and Birdcage residents association—and, of course, environmental groups. However, for the reasons that we have heard, regional flying could be less harmful to the environment than mainstream aviation. I am advised that the Dash 8 aircraft currently flying in and out of Plymouth has fuel consumption equivalent to 70 miles per gallon per passenger. Many of those who use that aircraft would otherwise use a car.
Why do we need a vibrant regional airport? Plymouth is one of the drivers of the sub-regional economy and, as I have said, it borders on an objective 1 area. We have unemployment well above the regional level—the most recent figures put it at 5.8 per cent. That is set against the city’s growth agenda, which still has a target of increasing our population by 30,000 in the next 10 to 20 years, as well as increasing employment. To support that growth, there is a determination to encourage inward investment. We have established a city development company which is supported by the regional development agency, and the city council has good links to other local business organisations.
The regional development agency’s strategy in the area is for there to be a developing role for most of the region’s airports, namely Newquay, Plymouth, Bournemouth, Exeter, Staverton airport in Gloucestershire —a much smaller airport—and Bristol. The priority is to address the issue of peripherality, which is why regional airports are so important. The regional development agency also understands the importance of protecting routes into Heathrow and Gatwick by the use of public service orders. Plymouth city council has actively been pursuing the option of trying to get a public service order for Plymouth linking into Heathrow, but, so far, it has failed. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and I have written to Ministers, and I know that the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), who is in the Chair today, has also tried to raise the issue through parliamentary questions and other means. We would very much like to have our route protected in that way.
The hon. Gentleman should do his homework. Mr. Jamieson was my predecessor, so it would have been a bit difficult for me to write to him.
I know that a number of hon. Members want to speak, so I shall conclude. If the Government are serious about supporting regional economies, they have to support the infrastructure and links into our regional airports and the regional airports themselves. I look forward to hearing wider evidence on the role of our region’s airports during the Select Committee inquiry and I, obviously, also look forward to hearing the Minister’s response today.
May I start by declaring an interest? I have been involved on a financial basis with air taxi work. I also declare a deeper interest in relation to the need to have a realistic attitude towards aviation as a whole. There are powerful economic, cultural and political reasons for connecting the world with itself. The most sensible way of doing that is through aviation. Last week, Oxford Economics launched a report called “Aviation: the Real World Wide Web”, which contains some powerful arguments that are often ignored in debates about aviation. Those arguments show that aviation has reduced many problems that we would face if we thought of ourselves in terms of being an individual country, rather than a global village. However, perhaps that is a debate for another time.
We must be realistic about aviation. There is no question—in fact, it is obvious—but that we cannot control demand for aviation simply by limiting the opportunity to fly internationally from the UK. All the evidence shows that flying is aspirational and motivating for almost the entire British population. Fifty years ago, only a small proportion of the population could afford to fly, and that privilege has been opened up to a much wider proportion of people. Indeed, as an island country, if we want to travel, we have to cross water. The Eurostar obviously connects us to France and further afield, but it is not practical to make every journey by train—even if we had high-speed links, which I very much support. Unless we adopt some sort of Talibanesque limitation on people’s right to travel, we have to accept the fundamental reality that aviation will continue to expand.
On high-speed links, if Heathrow were connected directly to the channel tunnel, through which Air France will be running trains from 2012, does that not offer the opportunity to shift many of those using short-haul flights from Heathrow on to the high-speed link?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and, hopefully, with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who will summarise the official Liberal Democrat position on these matters. Only a fool would pretend that high-speed rail links are inferior to aviation in terms of economic and practical benefits. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In an ideal world—when the Liberal Democrats take power in 2010—we will support the creation of a high-speed rail link which will, in large part, obviate the need for regional aviation in the UK. It is not a sensible way to transport people on what is a relatively small island.
I made one of the earliest predictions that the likely outcome of the 2010 election would be a hung Parliament, possibly with the hon. Gentleman as a compromise leader of the Administration. However, in a serious vein, I have heard him speak movingly and effectively about the polluter paying and level runways for aviation. Is not taxation needed to ensure that aviation compensates wider society for the environmental downsides that it causes? No one is talking about banning people from flying, but the actual costs should be reflected in the ticket price.
I agree. People who have looked at websites when booking flights know the relatively small additional cost of paying for the environmental damage of flying. The environmental offset for a flight is not very expensive. Of course, there are issues with offset, but, once again, that is for another time. Let me adamantly confirm that when I appoint the hon. Gentleman Minister for Transport—
Paragliding, actually. I will expect the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the damage caused by every passenger air mile is paid for.
Let me move to regional airport policy. The A380 and the Boeing 747 have been superbly successful aircraft. Indeed, the A380 is the 21st-century jumbo jet for hub-to-hub operations. I recently had the privilege of flying on the A380 with Singapore Airlines, which has an unsurpassed quality of service in economy class and, I imagine, in business class and what it calls suite class on long-haul flights.
However, the real opportunity for regional airport policy is point to point. Aircraft in the design phase at present—the A350 and the Boeing Dreamliner—will provide an opportunity for regions to be connected to other regions around the world. There are obvious economic benefits to that, but there are also environmental benefits. If a journey does not involve a change—in other words, if it can be made in one flight instead of two, especially on efficient aircraft such as the A350 or the Dreamliner—it will have a smaller environmental footprint.
It seems clear that if we are to have a serious regional policy and relieve the congestion around London, point-to-point flights are the natural way to go. Once again, let me emphasise the importance of environmental considerations. I am not suggesting point to point between destinations that can be connected by high-speed rail, but it is the obvious answer for intercontinental journeys. As the Oxford Economics report implies, we can get economic, cultural and political benefits without having to make short flights but by ensuring that point to point on an international basis is possible.
I steer clear of the third runway debate, because there is only so much wrath I want to incur for my party’s Front-Bench spokesmen, but I observe that there are three certainties when it comes to British aviation policy: first, the demand for aviation will continue to rise; secondly, we should commit ourselves to high-speed rail links to obviate the need for short regional flights; and, thirdly, point to point offers an enormous opportunity to connect regions and gain economic benefits. No Government should take away people’s right to fly, but every Government should commit themselves to the right to save the environment at the same time.
It is not realistic for us to control demand for aviation—that is beyond the political capacity of any party—but we must be realistic about reasonable flight distances, and we should also be realistic about speaking with one voice in the collective interests of Britain. Within that, there is an interest in having a proper and positive strategy on international aviation.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter, for the first time in 26 years. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on two counts: first, securing the debate, and, secondly, the magnificent way he presented a well-researched demonstration of folly on the part of the Government.
I have no airport in my patch. In 1983, my hon. Friend’s predecessor, Tony Blair, said to me, “Will you take care of my airport? I know nothing about them.” So, from then until 5 May 2005, I looked after that airport. After that, of course, my hon. Friend took over the responsibility, and I am pleased to say that he has done an excellent job.
Teesside airport—or Durham Tees Valley, as it is now called—is the airport in which I have taken a particular interest. It was the airport where I did my flying lessons, and I have nursed it like a baby for 20-odd years. It is particularly with regard to Teesside that I want to speak, but the statements that I shall make are relevant to every regional airport in the country.
Rather than regurgitating stuff that has already been discussed, I want to talk about increased charges for air passenger duty. The irony is that Holland has disregarded it—it has done a U-turn—and Greece has done away with it altogether. That has created a climate in which economy airlines such as Ryanair are basing their aircraft elsewhere in Europe. In fact, Ryanair has moved to Italy; we do not have it in this country any more. That is a common move.
Europe is taking over our markets, and the Government have to realise that. It is as plain as the nose on your face that we will pay heavily for their deafness. The issue was first raised with them in the middle of last year, but no action was taken. The first realistic meeting that we managed to secure, in March this year, was as a result of the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield. Several of us were there, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and those my hon. Friend identified earlier. We were promised that we might have some better news this month, so, like him, I anxiously await word from the Minister about what he is doing.
For those who are interested in the third runway, I voted for the damned thing. I would be happy to see it built and am sure that it would be of benefit, but can we wait that long? When we consider what we welcomed as the northern gateway—it was supposed to help to bridge the gap between north and south—we must ask whether we can wait a further 10 years. The third runway is planned for 2019—that is, if it is built by 2019. I used to train planning engineers, and I know how they can get it wrong.
Some say no taxation without representation, and it is clearly far less exciting to say no taxation without regional airport connectivity, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is entirely unfair for his constituents and mine, and those of everyone else in this room, to pay for the third runway at Heathrow without being able to fly to it from their own regional airport?
Hear, hear. So be it. It is self-evident, is it not? I do not need to comment on that, because it is sound logic.
The suggestion being put about in some quarters—certainly from interests such as BAA and even by the former Transport Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon)—that the cure to all our ills is the third runway at Heathrow is fanciful.
The reality is that the death of regional services to Heathrow—only a handful are left, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said—is a here-and-now issue. If we are to improve the economic welfare of the north of England and the other regions in the country, we cannot wait. The fundamental reason why regional services have vanished from Heathrow is that the cost structure operated by BAA, which is endorsed by the Civil Aviation Authority and the Competition Commission, means that they are uneconomic.
The Government have indicated that they might be persuaded to consider ring-fencing slots for some regional services through the public service obligations orders, but which airline will be prepared to use those as long as the unfair and punitive charging system remains in place? We have to change the charging system.
The real solution is for the Government to say to the CAA, the Competition Commission, and even BAA, that a key element in deciding the costing structure at Heathrow has to be securing the viability of regional services, given their critical importance to the nation’s economy, and especially given the ambitions to bridge the north-south economic divide. Ministers have claimed that they have no powers to intervene over the Heathrow charging regime, but I do not accept that. I have been in the House for 26 years and I know what Governments can and cannot do. There is not a lot that they cannot do—I have seen it and been part of it—so it is nonsense to say that they cannot intervene.
It is no use waiting until some new golden age in which the third runway will solve our ills, because it will not happen. Unless the Government act now, by the time a third runway does happen—if it happens—Schiphol airport in Amsterdam will be even more firmly entrenched as a gateway to the world for much of the UK public. Incidentally, Schiphol is not the only threat. In Germany, Frankfurt airport has planning approval to begin building a fourth runway, and a third passenger terminal, along with accompanying infrastructure, will open in 2011. The longer we sit here doing nothing, the more we endanger our future.
I have nursed Durham Tees Valley airport for well over 20 years—for 25 years, anyway—and I could go on talking for the rest of the day, but I understand that at least another two hon. Members want to get into the debate. I hope that they can manage it in the eight minutes remaining.
I will try to keep my remarks as brief as possible, Mr. Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate. He concentrated on the economic development benefits, as he sees them, of regional airport development. That is important, but I want to bring into the debate some other, wider dimensions and, of course, as right hon. and hon. Members will have gathered from my earlier comments, I want to say something about the environmental dimension, which is also important when considering policy on regional airports and airports more generally.
The fact is—we all know this—that the growth of air travel is a potential major contribution to the growth of UK greenhouse gas emissions. We have stop that growth, or reduce it, if we are to meet the UK’s wider climate change objectives. That does not mean that we will stop people flying or that we should seek to do so. All of us, including me, fly from time to time. The question is, what is the right balance between environmental considerations and the other economic and societal considerations that have been mentioned today? On regional airport policy and airport policy generally, it is about getting the balance right when we take forward the policies for the future.
Some points have to be made and fed into the debate on regional airport policy. Where possible, domestic journeys in particular should be taken by less environmentally damaging forms of travel. Policy should be designed to encourage that, which means high-speed rail. I hear the comments made by my hon. Friend, who represents the north-east, about high-speed rail. I would like high-speed rail to happen much more quickly in many other parts of the UK than is envisaged in the Government plans. However, I welcome—
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is little prospect of high-speed rail in areas such as the north-east, or even Scotland, in the medium term?
Does my hon. Friend also accept that one of the main economic factors, which links to the environment, is the fact that we are a global nation and we need to develop relationships with companies from the other side of the world? We in the north-east have good relationships with such companies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) said. However, without regional links those companies will say, “We can’t make that link. There’s no point in our going to the north-east, because we can’t get there easily enough.”
The environmental arguments in respect of Schiphol are worse, because the Dutch are not being as strong on the environment with airlines as our Government are.
I would like high-speed rail to happen much more quickly than some people envisage, but I also take the point about the need to improve connectivity now. A factor in respect of high-speed rail is creating links to major airports and other airports in the UK, including Heathrow and Manchester. But things could be done to improve connectivity through the existing rail network. I make some of my journeys to Edinburgh by air because the last train from London to Edinburgh is at 6 pm, which is not convenient for many business passengers, let alone leisure passengers. Things could be done in that regard, too.
Three airlines fly from Edinburgh to Manchester—there are 10 flights a day. One reason for that is that that route is about half the distance of Edinburgh to London. The train can sometimes take about four hours to get there. Things could be done to improve existing regional connectivity, including to airports, which might meet some of the concerns mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield.
I accept some of the points made about connectivity, but my point is that we need to get away from journeys within the UK that could be made by other forms of transport, thereby freeing up space for that type of air travel, perhaps leading to connectivity for the north-east, which is not provided for at present. I have some reservations about the arguments advanced on reserving slots in the way my hon. Friend suggested, but I am happy to consider that. However, we cannot lose sight of the wider environmental considerations.
With regard to economic trends, and some of the trends in air travel, there is a case for reviewing airport policy and taking on board the points on connectivity made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), but the case for reviewing the decision on a third runway is stronger than ever. I hope that the Government, in considering how airport policy is advanced, take account of the wider environmental considerations, along with the important economic considerations raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield.
I thank Catherine Coulthard for the support that she has given me in preparing for the debate.
It has been well stated that the north of England needs some strategic intervention in respect of its airports for it to be able to be competitive not just within the UK, but internationally. There are two principal reasons for that. First, strategic Government interventions now in northern airports will reduce the need for other, probably more difficult and expensive, state interventions in other parts of the northern economy in future. To reduce and ultimately stop the dependency of parts of the north of England on long-term Government intervention and support, it is imperative that the Government invest wisely to ensure that the north can compete in its own right, regionally within the UK and internationally. There is real intrinsic value in spending now; it means spending much less later.
Secondly, the south-east cannot keep growing indefinitely in population, the impact of its growth on the environment and much else. This is not good for the country or for our economy, and not good for the people of the south-east. It is, ultimately, bad news for our democracy as well. This Government have a proud record of redistributing wealth on a social and individual basis. That redistribution must accelerate regionally. The economy of the north of England does not require a long-term hand-out; it requires a short, sharp hand-up.
At a time when we are witnessing the end of unregulated energy markets and we can see for ourselves the effect of light regulation on the banking system, it is clear that the policy conclusions in both those sectors need to be taken over into the aviation sector. We need strategic interventions in the regional airports in this country, right now.
I would like to meet the Minister with a delegation to discuss the importance of Carlisle airport to the Cumbrian economy, and I hope that can happen very soon. I support those who are calling for ring-fenced landing slots at Heathrow.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate. I do not agree with everything he said, as I will explain, but I listened to him with more sympathy that I would have done to his predecessor—[Interruption.] I wish that the former Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), would stand up and make a speech instead of continually intervening from a sedentary position. She does that all the time, and she is still doing it.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield set out two objectives. First, he recognises the need to secure help for regional economies, and I support that objective. Secondly, he expressed sympathy for direct flights, or point-to-point flights, as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) described them. I also support that objective. Clearly, if one must travel from A to B and can do so without changing flights on the way, carbon emissions are reduced.
I support those two objectives, but I do not agree with the prescription set out by the hon. Member for Sedgefield. I have listened to hon. Members here and on the Floor of the House who seem to live in a parallel world where climate change does not exist. It does exist—
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is prepared to give way to me. I certainly do not want to do anything other than improve climate change, carbon footprinting and so on in this country and worldwide. Does he accept that BMI’s policy, for example, of cancelling flights from Teesside means that the environmental damage is greater because people use other airports? What faith does he have in manufacturing potential? Despite what has been said, a firm in my constituency is close to an American company that is delivering significant changes to aeroplanes that will reduce their effect on the environment. We should support and invest in such companies to produce better environmental opportunities for air travel.
I agree that we should support such companies, but I have talked to the aviation industry and others in the transport sector, and my assessment is that we are some way from dealing with carbon emissions from aviation, although solutions for road transport are rather nearer. We are probably 30, 40 or 50 years away from a sensible solution that will make a real difference to alternative fuel technology for aviation.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield has a correct beef to pursue in BAA’s and British Airways’ attitude. Perhaps BA should be called “London Airways” because of its policy of marginalising regional airports. I know that colleagues in Manchester feel strongly about the reduction in the number of direct flights from Manchester to New York because they must now go via Heathrow with consequent extra carbon emissions. We can agree on such points.
I am conscious that there has been a big drop in the number of people using Durham Tees Valley airport. CAA figures show that 19,601 passengers used it in February 2009, which is a 52 per cent. fall from the previous year, and such falls must be examined. There is no indication that a third runway at Heathrow would solve the problem. The approach of the hon. Member for Sedgefield should be regulatory, because with a third runway BAA and BA will simply provide more flights to New York, Bangalore and Singapore.
I understand that.
I want to return to the problem of carbon emissions and the point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made. If projected carbon emissions from aviation, even according to Government figures, stabilised where they are now and remained the same in 2050, a cut not of 80 per cent. but of 89 per cent. would be required from this country to compensate for what would effectively be a free ride for aviation. The current projection is that aviation emissions will increase by 38 per cent. by 2040.
The problem is largely out of control, so it is reasonable to consider the alternatives, including high-speed rail. I do not agree with the reference made by the hon. Member for Sedgefield to the north-east being peripheral, nor do I believe that Exeter is peripheral.
I will not, because I have done so twice.
For me, Scottish islands such as Shetland are peripheral. Exeter is not. I challenge the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) to travel door to door from this place to the middle of Exeter by rail or air—
I will not, because I have only four minutes left.
It takes two hours 40 minutes to travel to Darlington—even now, with an unimproved rail line from King’s Cross. That compares favourably with the overall journey time by air, taking account of delays at the airport.
In response to the point about high-speed rail, I understand that, thanks to Lord Adonis and the Government, High Speed 2 is being considered not only for London to the west midlands, but for scoping corridors way beyond that, including to the north-east. I look forward to the report on High Speed 2. My vision for high-speed rail is that it should benefit the north-east, Scotland and Wales. It should not be one line. That is achievable and has been done elsewhere in Europe, so there is no reason why it should not be done in this country.
It is worth making the point that regional airports have sought to expand in recent years, and many of the connections have been for holiday purposes. There is nothing wrong with that, but we must not assume that extra slots will necessarily be taken up by journeys to London for business purposes. They will also be taken up for holiday purposes to holiday destinations.
On the alternatives to short-haul flights to Heathrow and comparing them with the alternative of high-speed rail, when businesses were polled in 2008, almost 10 times as many UK businesses supported the suggestion of a high-speed rail link from London to the north as supported the expansion of Heathrow with extra slots to the north-east.
The Airport Operators Association has said:
“Using CAA statistics, even if all of Heathrow’s domestic passengers switched to rail, Heathrow would operate at around 90 per cent. of capacity and still be full before 2020 when a third runway could be operational. Rail is not an alternative to airport expansion, but it is part of a coherent intermodal transport policy.”
I do not accept that. There is an alternative to a large range of domestic destinations and new European destinations. There should be direct train journeys to Amsterdam and Berlin, for example. There is no reason why we should not be able to make such journeys by rail. Yesterday, I met Deutsche Bahn to talk about that. Plans are progressing well, and when EU open access occurs in 2010, we will see more of those journeys.
Twenty-four hours ago, Mr. Streeter, I sat in your Chair and heard a fine speech by the hon. Member have for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in which he comprehensively demolished the research underpinning what Oxford Economic Forecasting has said, which shaped the predicted usage of aviation, both freight and passenger. Is it not about time that we had a thoroughly independent and effective analysis that is more balanced than the Oxford document, which is substantially discredited?
Yes, it is. The aviation industry has made a practice in the past 10 years of skewing figures to try to influence Government policy in an improper direction. We need an independent look at the issue, and I hope that with a new Minister in charge and Lord Adonis as Secretary of State, we will get it.
I have not been able to make all the points that I wanted to—I have been keen to give way to hon. Members—but let me say to the hon. Member for Sedgefield that I very much sympathise with his wish to support his regional economy. That is right. I also sympathise over the lack of direct flights, the pulling of flights and the loss of slots to London. However, the prescription that he produced for more flying, while dismissing the environmental case and ignoring high-speed rail, is not the right solution.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this debate on regional aviation policy. He is a strong supporter of his local airport, Durham Tees Valley, which is also my sister’s local airport; she lives near it. Like many regional airports, Durham Tees is struggling in the current economic conditions. Figures obtained by the Airport Operators Association suggest that airport employment will fall by one quarter this year and the average profits at UK airports by one fifth. My party profoundly believes in the importance of our regional airports and the contribution that they make to regional economies.
I have not seen the detail of that statement, but the position at the moment is that we have a number of busy airports in northern England. Having used Newcastle and Leeds myself and my sister being a regular user of Durham Tees Valley, I am conscious of the role that they all play.
Regional airports have grown in popularity in the past few years. The hon. Member for Sedgefield cited various figures. The most striking one is that the percentage of passenger traffic going to regional airports grew from 39 to 48 per cent. between 2001 and just before the recession. We support the expansion of regional airports where community support exists. We can see a case for proportionate and sensible expansion of regional airports, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis, taking account of local and national environmental factors as usual. Regional airports have the potential to reduce transit flights by increasing point-to-point movements—as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) pointed out—as well as reducing road congestion in the south-east, where there is still an unhealthy concentration of flying.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield stressed the importance of links to Heathrow and I will return to that point, but I think that he was wrong to underplay the importance of direct flights as more and more regional airports get longer runways. My party believes that regional airport policy should allow maximum utilisation of existing infrastructure and thus take some of the pressure off the south-east. Some spare capacity already exists, but in other areas, including the south-east, there are problems. A number of airports are stuck in very long planning processes and there may be good reasons why some of those projects should not go ahead.
Turning to specific issues, I would be interested if the Minister commented on the need for temporary surge capacity in the south-east to deal with the Olympic games. Over a couple of weeks, there will be 900 extra movements. Clearly, smaller airports should pick that up. What thought has he given to that?
My local regional airport, of which I am extremely proud, is Kent International at Manston. Its current infrastructure includes one of the longest runways in the country. It is suitable for code E aircraft such as Boeing 747-400s and is also capable of hosting code F aircraft such as the A380. Sadly, it is massively underused. However, the forthcoming enhancement of the rail service between London and Ramsgate means that travel times will drop from two hours to barely 80 minutes, with the trains passing the bottom of the runway. The medium-term aim is to cater for 500,000 tonnes of freight and 6 million passengers a year, which will potentially provide 7,500 jobs. Even partial success would make the airport a substantial driver of economic growth in east Kent, which is one of the poorer areas of the country.
Southend is another example of a regional airport that can expand. Its runway is operating at a tiny percentage of capacity, but the planned extension and new railway line will take pressure off other south-eastern airports.
I listened with interest to the comments by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) on Plymouth. My parents live in the west country, so I am rather sensitive to those points, but I put it to her that the Conservative plans for a rail hub at Heathrow that links Heathrow directly into the rail system would transform the ability of constituents such as hers to travel.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making and it is an interesting proposal. None the less, the time taken on the rail link to go all the way down to Plymouth and Cornwall is still much longer than if we had the air link into Heathrow. Tourism is important. It is important that we get Americans coming to Heathrow who then come to Plymouth to visit it and the far south-west. Playing down tourism is a mistake.
The point is that people would be able to get off an aeroplane and go directly to a rail terminal, which would avoid the huge transfer times.
Today, regional airports are struggling, as a number of hon. Members have said. Air passenger duty is growing substantially, and regional airports have been hit by the economic downturn. A point that the hon. Member for Sedgefield made strongly is that a serious distortion in APD is hitting our regional airports. It is hitting the viability of their routes to Heathrow, which is a key reason why we have lost some of those routes, and it bears down particularly heavily on point-to-point flights, as opposed to people getting a short connection to a continental airport and then doing an APD-free flight from there. There are other anomalies, but one is that charges are based on the distance from London to the capital city of the destination country, not the destination itself. Therefore, frequent flyers to the western United States or eastern Russia pay much less; they get a relatively free ride compared with other people flying comparable distances.
The structure for APD is in a mess. We propose moving to a flights tax to end the absurdity whereby full carbon-efficient aircraft subsidise empty carbon-inefficient aircraft. I do not have time to go into more detail, but my shadow Treasury colleagues are examining the issue closely.
The administered incentive pricing proposal is causing regional airports huge worry. Ofcom proposes to introduce such pricing for the use of aeronautical spectrum, which is a good idea, in principle as it would encourage people to use less. The problem, as the Cave review pointed out, is that some people, including airports, have no choice. The Government themselves have said:
“In many cases, international agreements limit the scope to improve spectrum efficiency”.
Ofcom is ignoring the Cave review. Will the Minister give guidance to Ofcom and tell it to look at what the Cave review and the Government said about the issue? Ofcom’s original consultation document was only placed on its website, not sent to stakeholders. Will the Minister tell us who responded and who provided evidence to Helios and Plum in their work on the impact assessment for Ofcom’s AIP proposals? He may need to write to me on that. Ofcom proposes a two-stage approach to spectrum pricing. When is the second consultation, on pricing of radar and aeronautical radio navigation aids, expected? Have the Government done any detailed research on the cost implications for regional airports? To give one example, the losses at Inverness would be increased by one sixth—that would be picked up directly by the Scottish taxpayer.
Can the hon. Gentleman guarantee, given the indication from the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), that there will be a 10 per cent. cut in funding for public sector projects after the next election, that the Conservative proposals for high-speed rail will go ahead?
The Conservative proposals for high-speed rail have been personally endorsed by the leader. They are a long-term project, although the first stage, which connects into the link to the channel tunnel, is the one that will deliver most of the alternatives to flying by bringing journeys by rail to Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam and many other destinations within three hours. The Conservative party is closely committed to that project. The hon. Gentleman and I have the same view on Heathrow and similar views on high-speed rail, but I do not share his downbeat view of the savings that can be generated by some of the exciting developments in aeronautical technology or the carbon savings that will come from biofuels.
To conclude, the Conservative party believes that regional airports are a huge asset. We must find ways to make life easier for them.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Streeter. I know that you have a genuine interest in this area of policy.
One’s nervousness is compounded by the fact that the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary has walked into the Chamber. I hope that she is here for the next debate, rather than to take notes on this one.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on his excellent and thought-provoking speech. He is a champion of the north-east, not just because he led a delegation with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) and others to meet the previous Aviation Minister, or because of the issues he has raised at Prime Minister’s questions, but because of the way he has challenged and cajoled previous and current Ministers and officials regarding some of the challenges that his region faces. That will benefit not just his region and his constituents, but the wider community.
We have had interventions and speeches from across the UK. We have heard from North-West Durham; Montgomeryshire; Paisley and Renfrewshire, North; Edinburgh, North and Leith; North-West Leicestershire; Castle Point—I always enjoy it when the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has a dig at the Mayor of London—Orkney and Shetland; Lewes; Canterbury; Copeland; and Stockton, North. I will try to deal with the points that have been raised, but if I do not, I will, of course, write to my right hon. and hon. Friends, as well as to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who speaks for Her Majesty’s official Opposition.
The hon. Gentleman was understandably nervous when asked to confirm his leader’s view that there should be only one airport in north-east England, and he was nervous when asked another important question. I know that this is a hard assumption for my hon. Friends to make, but let us assume for a second that the Leader of the Opposition is being truthful when he says that, should the Conservative party form a Government—God forbid—the only ring-fenced areas of expenditure would be the NHS, development and schools. That raises the question of where the cuts will be made, so when I am being sanctimoniously lectured about high-speed rail, I know that the words I am hearing are not worth the breath taken to say them.
My hon. Friend made an interesting speech. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), but I do not envy my hon. Friend her five-hour journey with him to Plymouth. However, she raises a serious point, because this is not an either/or. We need to recognise that only one party—well, there is probably another one—is committed to investment in infrastructure, which is what we are talking about.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made an important speech. I enjoyed his comments about the Talibanesque ban on people’s right to travel—even more than I enjoyed his comments about the Liberal Democrats taking power in 2010. However, he made important points about the different options that exist, about the fact that we live in a global village and about the many challenges that we face.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield also raised important points, and I will come to them. First, however, let me say that the Government fully recognise the importance of the UK’s regional airports as contributors to the UK aviation sector and in creating greater choice for passengers.
My hon. Friend referred to the White Paper and he is familiar with it. For other colleagues, it is worth pointing out that we accept that the failure to allow for increased airport capacity could have serious economic consequences at regional and national level. Airports, including those in the regions and the devolved Administrations, are an important focus for the development of local and regional economies. We accept that they attract businesses, generate employment, open up markets and provide important impetus to regeneration.
Let me give some examples of the growth in regional airports. Manchester international airport has increased the handling capacity of its transport interchange with the opening of a new £15 million rail platform in December 2008. Last October, Glasgow international airport’s Skyhub terminal extension opened, greatly improving facilities for passengers. Earlier this year, Birmingham international airport gained planning approval to extend its runway. Improvements have been under way at other regional airports, including Glasgow Prestwick, Aberdeen and Bournemouth.
However, we cannot escape the fact that private sector airlines and airports are seeking to stay profitable in the downturn, which is having a major effect on their business. UK airlines operate in a competitive international market, as several colleagues have said. We cannot escape the fact that some UK airlines have announced plans for job losses. They want to fly more profitable routes.
We also have to state the obvious. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) thinks that the Government have huge power, but we simply do not have the power to tell airlines what routes to fly. Although we can and do try to influence their decisions, airlines and airports will make commercial judgments.
We are clear that the fall in passenger numbers in 2008, which several hon. Members have mentioned, reflects the current cyclical economic position, not a change in the fundamental drivers behind the longer-term growth in UK air passenger demand, which we continue to expect to remain strong as economic growth recovers.
Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield, have approached the Government about opportunities for state assistance to maintain air services between regional and hub airports. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) referred to her council approaching the Department. In our guidance, we have set out how we assess such applications, and we will look at any submissions.
We will carefully consider any application from regional bodies for a public service obligation to support a regional air service, although, as I said, it is not possible to guarantee in advance that one will be approved. Any proposal would have to meet EU eligibility criteria and be subject to a full economic assessment. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has called for a review of that policy. I cannot give him a commitment on that today, but I can confirm that we will explore what assistance can be given to regional airports.
In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend referred to the economic regulation of airports. As one of the regional stakeholders who expressed concerns in response to the Government’s recent consultation on proposals to reform the economic regulation of airports, he will be pleased to know that we will publish our response later this year. We will look at all the options and respond to his points, as well as to those of his region, which has also responded and has been quite vociferous in its views.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North raised the important issue of air passenger duty, and he is not the first to do so. Other colleagues have cited the changes to APD that the Chancellor announced in November 2008 as a possible reason for withdrawing services at regional airports. From this November, APD will expand from two to four bands to send a stronger environmental signal that passengers flying further will pay higher rates to reflect the greater levels of emissions from their flights. I know that the hon. Member for Lewes has a keen interest in the issue. We estimate that that reform will save 0.6 million tonnes of CO2 by 2011-12, compared with now.
Several colleagues have spoken, and I want to deal briefly with some of their points. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield will continue to lobby, harangue, harass and cajole me and my colleagues in the politest and most courteous of ways.
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) to discuss his concerns about Carlisle airport. In his two minutes, he managed to make some important points. As I said, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made a very thoughtful speech. I have huge respect for the hon. Member for Lewes, but I am not sure that I agree with his analysis of road versus air, because both are an option. However, he is right about High Speed 2, because our vision is not simply of a route from London to the west midlands. The hon. Gentleman has read what my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Transport has said, and he will know that we want the whole country to be served by high-speed rail. He was, however, a bit unfair when he suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield, or anybody else, had said that climate change did not exist.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made an important speech about the balance that needs to be struck. He will be aware of the summit taking place in Copenhagen later this year. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that we have the toughest environmental conditions anywhere in the world in place for runway 3.
In the nine minutes that I have had, I have tried to deal with most of the points that have been made. I will write to those colleagues whose points I have not been able to deal with. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield on his excellent Adjournment debate. He has raised several serious issues, which the Department and the country need to take on board.
Pemberton Homicide Review
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise again the lessons that arise from the terrible murders of Julia and William Pemberton. The deaths followed a history of domestic violence to which the police were alerted 15 months before the tragedy. I am proud to follow the lead of my predecessor, Julia Drown, by working with Frank Mullane, the brother of Julia Pemberton, and my constituent, to keep the House’s attention on the matter.
Since the murders, Frank has joined the Government’s victims advisory panel and has created a registered charity called Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, of which I am a patron, partly to help families to interact with criminal justice agencies and other bodies when they are trying to establish what happened, and to ensure that learning is identified and applied. The Pemberton homicide review reported in November 2008, five years after the tragedy. The report identified significant recommendations for many agencies, including the police, the local authority, schools, the primary care trust, general practitioners and central Government. The family, some of whom are my constituents, asked for the debate because they do not want us to forget the review, its recommendations or its findings. The family campaign on behalf of the hundreds of domestic violence victims who have urged them to make sure that the PHR is learned from.
It is important that we should congratulate the relevant agencies and individuals who have taken forward recommendations and that we should give encouragement where findings and recommendations need more attention. We need to ensure that the learning points from the PHR have been identified. I use the word “learning” to avoid any accusation that we want to blame agencies. Blame will not get us anywhere. We are all here to make sure that lessons are learned by all. We need to ensure that everything is done to get the outcomes applied both locally and nationally. There is also the general question of who ensures that the recommendations and learning from voluntary homicide reviews are taken forward. Who brings the wide-angle perspective? The debate is important because no one wants there to be another serious injury or murder after which issues from the Pemberton review are found not to have been dealt with.
First, to give credit where it is due, I, like the Mullane family, want to commend all the agencies for their work following the review, where they have taken forward the recommendations. However, much of the substance of the Pemberton review is in the body of the report and is not reflected in those recommendations. The family want to ask the agencies to go back to the review, and not just to look at the recommendations but to take a holistic view of the substance. It would be useful for those agencies to bring together evidence of where recommendations have been followed and develop plans to apply all the lessons. Victims and their families deserve a thorough response.
I shall set out some examples of the responses of the police, West Berkshire council and the primary care trust and give the family’s view of how those responses could be improved. Thames Valley police initially responded just to the recommendations in the review, but following a request from the family they developed and shared with them a further action plan in response to the PHR, on which I congratulate them. However, it is the view of the family that that plan should be looked at again. Julia Pemberton’s nephew, Desmond Khan, did a great deal of work to identify where the police action plan could be improved. Thames Valley police were then invited to respond. I understand that they are looking at the suggestions, and I ask that they give them due weight.
One suggestion concerns supervision. The PHR found that Thames Valley police officers were “poorly supervised or supported”, and that the situation regarding Julia’s reporting of threats to kill was
“compounded by a lack of policy or supervision to direct and ensure minimum standards.”
The report raised another point:
“Chief Officers must evidence their knowledge of key policies and critical incident management relevant to Domestic Violence.”
That is particularly significant as the report criticised leadership in the force, and the family believe that it demands a full response. They have met academics, police officers and domestic violence workers and strategists, and I am told that they all agree that a lack of intrusive supervision is a major issue when it comes to the effective policing of domestic violence. There are thus issues for Thames Valley police to reflect on and act on. Dr. Carolyn Hoyle, who is reader in criminology at Oxford university, commented that Thames Valley police
“must ensure that the tragic deaths of Julia and William are embedded into its institutional memory in order that the current commitment to helping victims of domestic violence does not wane.”
The family also invite West Berkshire council and primary care trust to take a more holistic view of the review. They have given the two agencies a list of learning points and offered some comments on the council’s actions so far. They tell me that the council took on board some of their comments and said that others will be built into “individual agency action plans”. Will the Minister clarify today what that will mean in practice, and assure the family that it will mean that the agencies give due weight to the list of learning points that they submitted?
The family drew my attention to the part of the review that says that primary care trusts have the opportunity, through their contractual arrangements with general practitioners, to include requirements with regard to domestic violence. In their view, the local authority response does not appear to be robust enough. A recommendation of the review is that GPs should be better trained, including, significantly, being told of the risk indicators associated with perpetrator behaviour in domestic abuse. The family highlight one of the council’s actions in response to the recommendation:
“Review training provided to GPs and others on Domestic Homicide as part of the safeguarding framework”.
The family would like clarification on whether all GPs in the authority have been made aware of indicators associated with perpetrator behaviour, because until that happens they feel that to report that action as “complete”—as it has been reported—is incorrect. I am sure we would acknowledge that action plans should be unambiguous and that there should be expressed outcomes, so that we can easily link the recommendation or learning point to an action and then to an outcome. That is what the family suggest.
The review found that
“the weaknesses and gaps in the council’s overall policies and procedures in relation to Domestic Violence did not impact on the outcome”.
However, one expert consulted by the family disputed that that could be concluded from the review. Similarly, the review found:
“The Primary Care Trust had no direct involvement with Julia Pemberton that could have influenced the course of events”.
However, another expert remarked that, had the primary care trust developed services such as a staff domestic violence policy, those might have helped to influence events. The family feel that bringing those views to light may encourage the local authority and primary care trust to develop more services. There are learning points within the report that should be of interest to the Government as well. One of those is:
“Domestic violence training should be made available for Coroners”.
That seems to me a practical suggestion, and I raised it with the Minister during the passage of the Coroners and Justice Bill.
I now want to consider the question of who ensures that the recommendations and findings in voluntary homicide reviews are taken forward and that individual agency plans are adequate and implemented effectively. Neil Websdale, who is a professor of criminology and the principal project adviser to the national domestic violence fatality review initiative, said:
“The Pemberton Homicide Review constitutes a landmark achievement in the field of domestic violence fatality or homicide review. It is meticulous in its approach, honest in its conclusions and forward thinking in its recommendations. As such, the review sets a gold standard in terms of its detailed appreciation of the complex issues in domestic violence cases and its pressing calls for agency accountability and interagency liaison.”
It is important, when there are lessons to learn, that we encourage all those agencies to ensure that they are learned.
It is equally important to ensure accountability in the process. If the tragic murder of 17-year-old William had been followed up by a serious case review, I believe that it might have attracted the attention of Ofsted. As for the Pemberton review, the family, with the help of a substantial network, have brought a great deal of accountability to the process. I pay tribute to them for that; they have worked tirelessly and did not give up when many others would have.
I ask the Minister to assure the family that, in such homicide reviews, the Government will ensure robust accountability. One system that he might want to consider is that used by Ontario. The family have asked me to cite the work of Professor Peter Jaffe, who said that death reviewers there require agencies to come back after one year to explain what progress has been made since their review was published. The family believe that something similar applied in the UK could help agencies to identify and apply all learning points. As I said earlier, the family’s purpose is not to apportion blame but to ensure that similar circumstances do not arise again.
The family was disappointed by the behaviour of some individuals in the agencies during the review period. Julia’s brother-in-law, Mike Mason, has written a concise protocol, including on behaviours, saying how agencies should treat families in this position, and I am pleased that the Home Office’s violent crime unit has asked to see it. I was extremely shocked at much of the family’s evidence on that matter.
The review found that the response of Thames Valley police and the council to inquiries by the family after the murders caused the family difficulty—and that is an understatement. Thames Valley police has apologised for that, as well as for its response prior to the murders; and the council, too, has agreed to apologise. That apology is welcome, but the family should not have needed to seek an apology more than six months after the report.
The Pemberton homicide review came into being partly because of the persistence and determination of the family and friends of Julia and William Pemberton, some of whom are here today. The family also had, and continue to have, the assistance of a wonderful friend and empathetic solicitor, John Latham, and a significant network of academics, strategists, media contacts and Members of Parliament from across the House, including my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General. Indeed, she has been giving advice and help to the family for many years, including before she became a Minister. I note the presence today of the hon. Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who represent family members.
The resourcefulness and capacity of the network that the family have at their disposal is not available to all families, so we need to assure the public that when things go wrong our public services are able and willing to correct problems, to identify opportunities and to help victims. The family are aware of the Government’s significant efforts to provide services for victims of domestic violence—for example, specialist domestic violence courts, multi-agency risk assessment conferences and independent domestic violence advocates. The Government are developing a homicide review model, and the family welcome the invitation from the Home Office to be a part of that review. The family and I also look forward to the implementation of the strategy on violence against women.
I ask the Minister to assure me that each agency will do more to ensure that all the learning points in the Pemberton homicide review are identified and that each agency will show, with evidence, that all learning points from the Pemberton review have been applied—or that they will provide clear actions, with owners, dates and outcomes, to demonstrate that outstanding learning will be applied. Will he assure me that accountability structures will be put in place to identify and apply all learning points from the review?
Finally, will the Minister assure me that everything that we can learn from the review is being applied and that its effectiveness is being shared nationally, so that fewer families will go through what this family went through?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) on securing this debate, which is on a most important topic. I know that she has raised the case of Julia and William Pemberton in the House before and that she has worked closely with Julia’s brother, Frank Mullane, on the question of domestic homicide. I know that tackling domestic abuse in all its forms is one of her priorities. I also acknowledge and welcome the interest shown by the hon. Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke).
I assure hon. Members that the Government regard tackling domestic abuse as a priority. Certainly, we will not forget the review. I give my hon. Friend a commitment that we will consider the specific points that she has raised today, even if I cannot address each and every one of them now. The debate is timely—if such a debate can ever be timely—coming, as it does, shortly after the closure of the consultation on violence against women and girls. That consultation will help to inform policy and strategy on tackling domestic violence not only at the Home Office but across Government.
I shall speak generally about reviews before turning to the specific points of the present case. In 2005, the Government published the first national domestic violence delivery plan, setting out our commitment to address domestic violence. The plan identified the key outcomes that the Government and stakeholders should be working towards—from prevention through to victim care, and the response of the criminal justice system.
Reducing the number of domestic violence-related homicides is a key national objective. According to the British crime survey, 106 people were killed by their partners or ex-partners in 2007-08. Like Julia and William, many of those victims will have had contact with the police or other agencies. By reviewing the stages that lead to such tragedies, agencies can learn how to react better to situations and to make judgments that can avoid deaths and save lives. It was with that in mind that domestic homicide reviews were legislated for under section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. As my hon. Friend knows, the 2004 Act has not yet been implemented. I shall explain why that it so, and say how the points that she has raised can still inform the process as we move towards implementation.
Domestic homicide reviews are not meant to be inquiries into how a victim died or into who was to blame. Those are and should remain matters to be determined by the criminal justice system. However, reviews should seek to establish whether any or all of the agencies involved responded correctly and in accordance with their own procedures and guidelines. If it was found that agencies could have responded more effectively, it would be for the review body to determine whether an alternative course of action could have prevented the victim’s death. The result of the review should be to ensure that agencies can respond appropriately to victims of domestic violence by putting in place the appropriate support mechanisms to help avoid future tragedies.
A consultation on draft guidelines for homicide reviews was published in June 2006. Proposals from that consultation suggested that the review process could be based on the serious case review model. In 2006, a domestic homicide steering group was established to assist with the development of the review process. That group meets regularly, and its input has proved vital in clarifying the detail of the process that a review would take, as well as addressing risks and concerns that have arisen throughout the consultation and development process.
The report, “Learning Lessons, Taking Action”, which was Ofsted’s evaluation of serious case reviews in 2008, raised serious concerns about this process, not least about the lack of engagement with the victims’ family during the conduct of the review. That was a feature of the legal proceedings prior to West Berkshire safer communities partnership starting the review into the deaths of Julia and William.
Concern was also expressed about the financial burden that domestic homicide reviews would place on local areas, and as a result discussions have taken place between the Home Office, the Local Government Association and the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that local authorities can meet their responsibilities. Proceeding with a new process, based on a system that is clearly not right, would be counter-productive. Any system has to command the confidence of all involved, especially victims’ representatives.
My hon. Friend might be interested to know that my officials are in regular contact with Mr. Mullane on this matter. Although we are still at the beginning of the process, this is an opportunity to develop a system that is meaningful and accountable—a word to which she kept returning in her speech—and that makes a real difference to how local areas respond to contact with future victims of domestic violence. We very much welcome, and place great value on, Mr. Mullane’s comments and contributions, and I assure her that we will take those points very seriously and, as far as possible, allow them to influence the process. The delay in implementation of the 2004 Act is regrettable, but the Government remain committed to implementation. However, it is crucial that we take the time to ensure that the process that we introduce is the right one.
I shall now turn to the tragic events in 2003. Following the intervention of my hon. Friend’s predecessor, Julia Drown, on behalf of the family of Mrs. Pemberton, West Berkshire safer communities partnership undertook a stand-alone review into the circumstances surrounding the murders of Julia and William. The Home Office shadowed the review in the hope that it would provide an insight into how a review might run. Despite the original intention for it to end in March 2006, the review did not conclude until November 2008, and although it made a number of recommendations that could be applied to homicide reviews in general, it concluded:
“The Pemberton case is complex both in terms of the individual circumstances of the incidents and in the context of the development of national policy on homicide reviews. We consider that this review should be viewed as an exception to the model set out in the Draft Guidance rather than a template for future Domestic Homicide Reviews.”
Since November 2003, Thames Valley police have made progress in how they deal with domestic abuse. The leadership for tackling domestic abuse in the force now sits with an assistant chief constable, who chairs a protecting vulnerable people steering group. To support the steering group, the force established a dedicated PVP strategy unit, whose domestic abuse and honour-based violence policies are regularly reviewed.
Each of Thames Valley’s basic command units has embedded domestic abuse units whose trained staff are on call to deal with victims in a sensitive and prompt manner. Each BCU has an established risk assessment process that will be superseded by the new DASH risk assessment by the end of 2009. Thames Valley police have been working with multi-agency risk assessment conferences in all BCUs and specialist domestic violence courts in four out of five police areas, with the fifth due to be operational shortly.
Thames Valley police accepted the findings of the Pemberton review and conducted a detailed study of the report that drew out not only the specific recommendations, but—crucially—the observations and comments of the review panel. They will have heard, as I have done, the points made quite rightly by my hon. Friend about the need to take a holistic approach not only to address specific recommendations, but to view these matters as a whole. Individual agencies need to be held accountable to ensure that they deliver tangible outcomes from the review into these tragic events.
The study noted improvements in service delivery since 2003, which it applied to recommendations in the Pemberton review. That formed the basis for an action plan approved by the chief constable and presented to the police authority and the relatives of Julia and William. The Government believe that a successful, coherent system of review can lead to the goal that we all share of saving people’s lives. Like the case of Julia and William Pemberton, many local areas currently undertake ad hoc homicide reviews, which can help local forces and authorities to improve their responses and the support that they offer to chronic victims of domestic abuse.
We remain committed to putting in place a system and guidance that will make a real difference. I wish to make an offer to my hon. Friend and to others who have shown an interest, including family members: I am always willing to meet and discuss the specific points raised, so that, as well as having discussions with my officials in moving this forward, I can, wherever possible, help in that process. It is crucial that we learn lessons and get this right. People who have experienced such tragic events should not find themselves further frustrated, angered and upset by reviews that fail to address all the issues or—crucially—by the failure to learn lessons. We are all committed to tackling domestic violence as a whole. In the future, I hope that a Minister can stand here and say not only that we have made the necessary progress, but that we will not need future domestic homicide reviews.
It is a great pleasure to have secured this debate on the future of St. Helena. I have been trying to do so since the beginning of the year and had almost given up hope, when out it popped from the bag, so I am absolutely delighted. I must declare at the outset that my interest in St. Helena was first stimulated by my constituency. Colonel Sir Thomas Reade was a native of Congleton and served as Deputy Adjutant General of the troops in St. Helena during the captivity of Napoleon Bonaparte. That is an important part of the history of the island and, in the future, would be a great added tourist attraction.
When I was first elected in 1983, someone who was to marry one of my very best friends, Philip Dale, served as secretary to the Government of St. Helena, and both Philip and Sue have always been very interested in the welfare of the island. I know that they and other people in Congleton will be delighted that we are having this debate. Moreover, I think that it must be more than a happy coincidence that we have a St. Helenian as the Badge Messenger on the door this afternoon. That is very welcome, and we are all delighted by it.
St. Helena has changed significantly for the worse in recent years. The close family unit on which the island prided itself is fast breaking down and the population now increasingly comprises the elderly and children. As a direct result, revenue and resources continue to decline and the inhabitants, who are loyal British citizens, are becoming increasingly distressed and disillusioned.
The average salary for local people is a mere £4,500 a year, but goods and food are more expensive than in the UK because of freight charges. For that reason and the fact that there are only limited opportunities in St. Helena for skilled workers and young people, many Saints are being forced to leave their families to seek work abroad. More than 150 children and young adults are now in informal foster care as a consequence, which cannot be right by anyone’s reckoning.
The Health Department has the painful and sensitive job of selecting which seriously ill patients qualify for further care and treatment in Cape Town or in the United Kingdom. With an ageing population, there is greater need for elderly care, but there is less of it with resources increasingly stretched. Education, too, is becoming more problematic as classes shrink but demands for a broad curriculum continue.
Finding teachers and nurses is increasingly difficult, as more Saints leave the island to find better paid positions elsewhere. The same problem exists with other jobs. Many people are initially interested in positions but are then put off by the difficulty of getting to and from the island. As a result, St. Helena has had to increase the number of expatriate staff to fill key posts in recent years, which is extremely expensive. Externally recruited staff are paid commercial rates, which are vastly more than the local norm. That leads to an ever-increasing disparity of wages on the island between expatriates and the indigenous population.
There is also the considerable burden on the United Kingdom taxpayer, which will only increase as more expatriates are needed. Many Saints in the UK have developed skills that St. Helena badly needs and are keen to return home to work and set up businesses on the island, but, again, the issue is access and we cannot get away from that.
The potential for stimulating St. Helena’s economy to enable Saints overseas to find jobs on the island is currently extremely limited. Apart from a modest agricultural potential and fluctuating availability of fish in its coastal waters, the island has no known natural resources. The existing arrangements for access by sea effectively prevent the development of any method by which the island’s economy can grow. The modest passenger-carrying capacity of RMS St. Helena and any of its replacements limits the number of tourists that can visit the island. The cost of shipping goods to and from Africa and the United Kingdom, together with the time scales involved, make the development of any industry involving the physical movement of goods uncompetitive.
High communication costs do the same for possible activities such as call centres. The development of financial services has been ruled out by the British Government on policy grounds. The only possible method of economic development is tourism. It was as a result of that consideration that an airport was first suggested as the only practicable means of getting tourists to and from the island in sufficient numbers.
In January 2002, 71 per cent. of islanders, both at home and abroad, voted in favour of an airport being built. In April 2005, following the overwhelming vote of support, the British Government announced plans to construct an airport on St. Helena to bolster the island’s economy and reduce its isolation. Impregilo S.p.A. of Milan was selected as the preferred tender to design, build and operate the airport.
With the British Government’s promise to build the airport, the island’s population ceased to decline, and there has been substantial investment in developing the island’s tourism industry. In addition to the recent acquisition of the Consulate hotel by an overseas investor, the St. Helena Leisure Corporation is planning a sustainable development to include a six-star hotel, spa and leisure resort to be created in partnership with Oberoi Hotels. Such a development would form a key part of the Government’s tourism policies by providing the quality of accommodation required, and it would serve as a significant point of attraction to the island. Shelco also proposes to invest in a whole range of local businesses to provide visitors with restaurants, horse riding facilities, deep sea fishing and fresh food as part of a holistic solution to regenerate the whole of the island’s economy.
St. Helena has some stunning scenery, but I am ashamed to say that I have never seen it. I have been selected twice for a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. The first time, I was on the reserve list, and the second time, I was unable to go because RMS St. Helena broke down and the timing was changed. However, I have seen the most fantastic photographs of the scenery. The coastline of the island comprises high vertical cliffs cut by steep-sided v-shaped valleys, and a good network of roads makes much of the island accessible. However, the best of St. Helena is seen on foot, and there are some magnificent walks and hikes to be had on the island. St. Helena has other famous attractions such as Jacob’s Ladder, Plantation house, High Knoll fort and Diana’s Peak national park. The island also has a large and rare seabird population and is a centre for yachting and fishing.
A sustainable high-value, low-volume tourism industry would inject cash into the community, while minimising negative impacts. St. Helena needs that to survive. On 13 May, Lord Davies of Oldham accurately stated that
“the airport is about the development of that society, and the only prospect of development is tourism. The airport is therefore about how you get tourists in sufficient numbers to make an impact on the economy.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 1094.]
St. Helena currently receives around £18 million a year in subsidies from the UK taxpayer. That figure is already predicted to rise to £25 million for the next fiscal year. Without an airport, such support will have to increase yet further. Continued reliance on access by sea means continued reliance on subsidies to maintain essential services at acceptable standards. It also means the continued stagnation of the economy and, in all likelihood, a resumption of the emigration of economically active residents. The result of that will be an increase in subsidies from the British taxpayer and the deterioration and ultimate destruction of St. Helena and its unique and irreplaceable culture.
Without an airport, we are simply talking about managing decline, and without an airport, St. Helena has no future. The Atkins feasibility study, commissioned by the UK Government in 2005, estimated annual revenues of between £1 million and £33 million from tourism up to a period of 20 years after the opening of an airport. That was confirmed by the Minister in the House on 9 March. The figure is almost twice the value of the current subsidy by the UK taxpayer.
A new consultation on access to the island was published on 9 April this year, the Thursday before Easter. As with the announcement of a pause in the airport project in the run-up to Christmas last, the timing seems to have been designed to attract as little interest and attention as possible. The document lists three options: option A is to build the airport now; option B is to decide now not to build the airport and commission a new ship to replace RMS St. Helena; and option C is to defer a decision on the airport for another five years and either extend the life of the ship or charter a replacement vessel in future.
Why are other practical aspects of the Department for International Development’s support to St. Helena on pause or being held back pending the outcome of the consultation? At a time when St. Helena most needs assistance in planning and coping with the uncertainty of the future, there appears to be a ban on DFID representatives visiting the island. It would be helpful if the Minister answered that question.
The consultation is unnecessary, and it is an expensive diversion. It will cost upwards of £40,000, for which UK taxpayers will foot the bill. Saints have already voted overwhelmingly in favour of building an airport, and the Government promised in 2005 that an airport would be built by 2011-12. The 2002 referendum produced a vote in favour of an airport, and a decision to proceed was announced by DFID in March 2005.
In any case, the consultation process is not intended to be used so late in the decision-making sequence. As the DFID code of practice for consultation clearly states:
“The consultation exercise should be scheduled as early as possible in the project plan”.
The 2002 referendum took place exactly in keeping with that advice, and the result should be heeded and acted upon now by the Government. Protracted delays since the decision to go ahead was made in 2005 have led many Saints in the UK and elsewhere to lose faith in the sincerity of the promise given by Her Majesty’s Government.
Saints see the consultation as a poorly disguised way of killing the airport project, without using so many words, particularly given that it ends before the Reading sports day on August 30, which is the largest annual gathering of Saints in the UK—some 2,000 or 3,000 Saints could have been asked for their views at the event. I hope that the St. Helena Government informally gauge the level of support for the airport project at the sports day, so that we can report back to the House. Most, if not all, will be in support. The Reading sports day was known about and ignored by DFID. Consequently, Saints feel embittered and badly let down, and I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that aspect of the timing of the consultation.
The consultation document provides inadequate information on a number of areas: the impact assessment mandated by criterion 3.5 of the code of practice is sparse, to say the least; information on the influence of the recession, which is apparently a key consideration, is sketchy to say the least; and there is a total absence of any meaningful assessment of the impact on St. Helena of the preferred option of a five-year delay in making a decision. That is unacceptable.
Furthermore, the funding argument for a delay or cheaper alternative is based on the assertion that DFID has to decide between the competing claims of overseas territories, such as St. Helena, and aid projects that are needed in other countries. However, there is an obvious contradiction, because page 2 of the executive summary states:
“The UK has special obligations towards our Overseas Territories. The people of the Overseas Territories are British citizens. The UK remains committed to meeting their reasonable assistance needs and to helping them move towards economic self-sufficiency”.
Moreover, article 73 of the UN Charter states:
“Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories”.
It is clear that the needs of the third world, however worthy, should be secondary to the obligation to our own citizens.
Deciding not to build the airport and commissioning another ship—option B in the consultation—would represent an enormous waste of taxpayers’ money on the access project, which has amounted to some £8 million to date. During the past 20 years, the UK taxpayer has spent more than £330 million at today’s prices in subsidies to St. Helena. That is more than the cost of building the airport. The Minister stated on 27 March, as I am sure he remembers, that it will cost up to £75 million to build a replacement for RMS St. Helena. That is almost a third of the cost of the airport and would be in addition to the continued and increasing annual subsidy to the island, which would still be required.
Building a new ship will not provide sufficient capacity for St. Helena to develop a tourism industry, nor will it arrest the continued, irreversible decline, and it makes no financial sense for the British taxpayer. Building a new ship also makes no logistical sense. RMS St. Helena currently travels to the island only 33 times a year, and only twice a year from the UK. When the ship is dry-docked, there is no access to the island. That can be a matter of life and death for inhabitants who require urgent medical treatment. There is also considerable anxiety on the island that should the ship be disabled for any reason, the island would be cut off for an indefinite period. The option of continuing sea-only access and the risks that that brings will prolong indefinitely reliance on such a tenuous lifeline.
Deferring a decision on the airport for another five years—option C in the consultation document—is without question the worst option of all. Financially, a five-year delay will benefit nobody, least of all the British taxpayer. The additional cost of the delay could be as much as £100 million. The consultation document concedes on page 17 that the cost of building the airport and its essential support facilities, including roads, a new bulk fuel farm and water supplies, a wharf at Rupert’s bay and inshore sea rescue services, will increase in the event of such a delay.
The consultation document also accepts that a delay would mean a loss of confidence in the bid process, which was at an advanced stage. Potential investors would understandably lose interest and the prospect for economic sustainability would be further set back as skilled workers continued to leave the island. Postponing a decision for five years would leave St. Helena in limbo, with no direction for the future, and condemn the island to depending on more and more subsidies just to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, as the cost of building the airport increased, investors would lose interest and the British Government would be tempted to abandon the scheme.
If option C were taken, the need for an airport would increase, but the prospect of building it would recede, thus condemning the island and its population to terminal decline. St. Helena simply cannot afford to wait five more years with no guarantee that an airport will be built. With prolonged uncertainty over access and disillusion over economic prospects at home, outward migration is liable to resume, with serious adverse consequences for maintaining a viable society and economy.
The Government argue for delay on the grounds of the global recession and the resulting state of public finances in the UK, but that is a short-sighted approach. Building an airport now is the best solution for everyone. For the United Kingdom taxpayer, it would provide a tangible return on investment and reduce, if not end, the need for subsidies. Saints do not want to live on handouts from the British people. They do not want charity. They want desperately to stand on their own two feet, and it is up to this country to help them do so. Building an airport now is the only option that would give them the chance to manage their own affairs. Surely, that is a “reasonable assistance need”, as stated in page 2 of the consultation document.
All parties including the Government agree that building an airport is the only answer to the problem of long-term financial dependency. Even the certainty of building it will stimulate the economy and encourage significant investment. The Minister said on 13 March that
“without an airport, St. Helena will remain dependent on UK budgetary aid indefinitely…with the introduction of air access and development of the island’s tourism industry, the need for financial support would reduce progressively with the increasing potential for St. Helena to become self sufficient in the long term.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2009; Vol. 492, c. 856W.]
I could not have put it better myself.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing this important and timely debate. She is right to say that the House and the Government must listen to the views of, and address the needs of the people of, St. Helena. The arguments are simple, and she ably set out the relevant points.
Like the hon. Lady, I was stimulated to take an interest in St. Helena by my constituents. I am fortunate to have in my constituency a community of Saints and many families with origins and connections in St. Helena. When we had a Labour club in Headington, it was the base for the St. Helena community and their social activity, and I got to know many of the families, building ties of friendship that have spanned more than 30 years. They are hard-working and loyal British citizens who understandably want to be able more easily to visit their island of origin and to see its economy—and thus its cultural and community viability—secured for the future. Although, against the backdrop of all that we need to do to combat change, it is right that any development of airports be closely scrutinised, the location of St. Helena, 1,200 miles from south-west Africa, surely makes a strong case. Indeed, that case has been considered, thoroughly evaluated and approved, and a promise has been made.
As my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks of Rose Hill, wrote to me earlier this year:
“The airport is vital to reduce the isolation of over 4,000 inhabitants who are loyal British citizens and give them and thousands of other ‘Saints’ who have been forced to seek work abroad hope for a better future. In December the Government announced a ‘pause’ in its negotiations over the contract. The announcement effectively brings the project to a halt. It appears that the Treasury refused to grant the money. The decision came as a huge shock to islanders, who had voted in support of the scheme. Many ‘Saints’ had plans to return to the island and find employment during the construction of the airport and develop business opportunities as a result of it. It would also enable many of us to return home to visit our family within a reasonable period of time, since we currently have to be away from the UK for three weeks to spend one week on the island.”
In response to the representations that I made on behalf of our St. Helena community, and after I received a petition, my hon. Friend the Minister told me in a letter of 11 April what had already been announced:
“Negotiations for a contract to build an airport in St. Helena were paused in December 2008 in the light of the changed economic climate.”
We should reflect on the phrase “the changed economic climate”. It puzzled me and seemed to contradict the Government’s sensible policy of tackling the recession by accelerating, not deferring, infrastructural investment. As we have heard, the consultation has now been published. It covers the same ground as previous consultations and the 2002 referendum. Incidentally, I hope that this debate will be accepted and considered as part of the response to the consultation.
What we need from the Minister is a Government commitment to get on and resolve the situation. If there are alternatives to the airport that offer St. Helena a future—as we have heard, nobody who has considered the issue has come up with one so far—we would need to know what they are, how they would work and, especially, how they would address the point explored so effectively by the hon. Lady: the island’s continued acute dependency and the decline of its social fabric due to an ageing population. Otherwise, that dependency will stretch on, at a cost of £25 million and rising. What is more, hope will be drained from the islanders.
As the hon. Lady said, the people of St. Helena want to stand on their own two feet. It must be right to help them do so. I hope that in replying, my hon. Friend the Minister will give us firm assurances that the acid test for the Government’s decision and future policy will be the economic, cultural and social viability of St. Helena and the welfare of its citizens. They are loyal to us, and we must be loyal to them and their future.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing this debate and demonstrating again that, despite St. Helena’s distance and its relatively small number of inhabitants, as well as those Saints living in the UK, many parliamentarians take seriously the responsibilities that this country owes to our overseas territories. I will not make a long speech, as I had my own Westminster Hall debate on this subject a few months ago, but some of the issues bear repeating and considering in greater depth.
Overseas territories that receive budgetary aid from the UK Government do so through the Department for International Development. That creates a number of problems. In our previous debate, the Minister compared the support given to the people of St. Helena to support given to people in developing countries. I hope sincerely that he will not do so today. Although we have a moral responsibility to help people in developing countries—a responsibility that this Government have taken more seriously than any previous Government—we have legal responsibilities to the people who live in our overseas territories. To counterpose the two is most unhelpful and does not take us further forward. Development aid to people in developing countries is given for all sorts of good reasons, but just as we have had to consider how to develop the regions of our country—our policies to close the gap between the poorer regions of the UK and the south-east have been important to economic policy here in Britain—we must take seriously closing the enormous gap between the situation of British citizens in our overseas territories and British citizens who live here.
I will concentrate briefly on the social issues. The hon. Lady covered the wide range of issues important to the debate, but I want to focus a bit more on the social fabric. Successful societies have a diverse range of people of all ages. One issue facing western Europe generally is an ageing population, so we must consider how to get more people in to support the economy and so forth.
Like a number of our overseas territories, St. Helena has a small society. It needs people of all ages if it is to be successful, not just economically, but socially. If the economy does not enable people of working age to stay on St. Helena, the social side will suffer. These are not short-term problems. If children are not brought up by their parents because one or both of them have to work away from the island, that will impact on their long-term emotional well-being. If children have to stay with other people, all sorts of issues can arise.
I do not want to suggest that the people of St. Helena are different from any other society. However, we know that when children grow up with other families, whether through fostering or informal care, problems arise. My background is in social work, which I did for many years. I have seen the kinds of problems that children face in such situations. We know that those can be exacerbated in smaller societies because there are fewer people with the resources to provide support. If, in addition, the time that it takes for people to return to their families is exacerbated by poor transport links, that will affect children who, for example, become ill and need to see their parents. Those things can be damaging and we must take them seriously.
Elderly people do not face only the issue of whether they can get the right medical care and support. People thrive more if they have regular contact with their families. We often worry in the UK that people move away from where they grew up—for all sorts of reasons, such as jobs—and do not support their elderly parents. How much more difficult must that be for people who live thousands of miles away from their elderly parents, and for whom it would take several days to return?
I believe that if we invest in the island by creating an airport and opening up access, this society has real potential. That is not just a wish that comes out of the air. It is based on the experience of another of our overseas territories. The Falkland Islands had a population that was in decline and had relatively few elderly people because the resources for them were so poor that many had left. As a result of an event that none of us would have wished on the Falkland Islanders—the war of the early ’80s—the UK Government invested hugely in that territory.
The Government built roads. When I had the privilege to visit the Falklands, I was surprised to learn that there were few roads there before the conflict. The Government gave hospital support. A whole range of support is now available. The Falklands can sell fishing licences, and the economy is doing well. It has fewer residents than St. Helena. Elderly people who grew up on the Falkland Islands and then left because of the lack of support have returned. The hospital can undertake a wide range of medical procedures because of its links to other hospitals through technology and advice. Surgeons from the UK can also fly out there to undertake operations in a relatively short time.
The future for the people of St. Helena could be so much brighter. I will not go into the economic case because it is blindingly obvious. To delay at a time when we have the support of the private sector, which has invested hugely, is sheer madness. We should move ahead with the airport and give a real future to the people of St. Helena. Without doing so, can this Government say in all conscience that they are meeting their responsibilities to this overseas territory?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing the debate and the measured way she put her compelling case for the airport, which is necessary for the economic future of the island. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on her contribution, which follows on from the debate that she secured earlier this year. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on his contribution.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), although he has not spoken yet. As a member of Her Majesty’s Opposition, he has done something that no Minister has ever done: visited the island of St. Helena to see it first hand. What a pity that no Minister has ever bothered to do so. Royalty have managed to visit more than once and it is a shame that Her Majesty’s Government have never sent a Minister there. The Government have come up with schemes and then dashed hopes. It was a shameful act that, having taken the island so near to the commencement of work, the Government pulled the plug.
I must declare an interest as chairman of the all-party island of St. Helena group. The patron saint of Colchester is St. Helena, although it is pronounced differently. My wife, our three children and I were all taught at St. Helena school, although that is not why I ended up as chairman of the all-party group. It is because, like other hon. Members, a constituent contacted me. In 1996, one of the first letters I received explained that a previous Government had withdrawn British citizenship. It is to the credit of this Government that they restored full British citizenship to the overseas territories.
St. Helena’s pedigree predates the Union of England and Scotland. It was under the Crown of England before Great Britain existed. That is how strong its pedigree is. The islanders feel British; they are British. Why can they not be treated like British subjects, rather than as if they live in a country that has no connection with Britain and that we have no responsibility for? Quite rightly, the Department for International Development provides funds. That is to the credit of successive Governments and all political parties agree that it should happen, but the people who live on St. Helena should not be in receipt of international development aid. They are British citizens and should be treated as such.
It is worth pointing out the fact that residents of St. Helena serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces. I do not know what the statistics are now, but a few years ago I came up with a great pub question: which country has the most people per head of population serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces? Of course, the answer was St. Helena. More than 50 were serving then, which is a high percentage of a population of little more than 4,000.
As hon. Members have said, there is now just an ageing population at one end and a young population at the other because the economic generators have had to leave the island in large numbers to secure economic benefits for themselves and their families. Interestingly, some of those people find work on the Falkland Islands. I have said in jocular fashion in the past what a pity it is that the Argentineans did not invade St. Helena as well, because invasion was the saving grace for the Falkland Islanders.
I accuse the Government of economic apartheid. The vast majority of people, if not the entire population, on the Falklands are white. Overwhelmingly, the population of St. Helena is not white. The Government are treating two island communities in the south Atlantic totally differently. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been pumped into the Falkland Islands while the Government treat the people of St. Helena as second-class citizens. That extends even to the people from St. Helena who helped to liberate the Falkland Islands on the RMS St. Helena, all of whom have been denied the South Atlantic medal.
It is not the fault of those people that they were not in the exclusion zone long enough. They went down there, but were kept out until they were required to go in. It is appalling that successive Governments have not even recognised the bravery of people from the island of St. Helena, who gave up their only means of communication—the RMS—only for Governments to tell them, “You can’t have a medal.” That is shameful.
As another aside, I should say that five girl guides and two guide leaders from the island will come to the UK next year as part of the centenary of girl guiding. Funds are being raised. Would it not be nice if the Government chipped in? Two years ago, the island just managed to raise sufficient money for one scout to come here for the centenary of scouting in Hylands park, Essex. That young man was away from the island for about a month because of the problems with the connection provided by the RMS and the TriStar from Ascension. Little wonder people from the island feel betrayed.
There is not a single MP here today to support the Minister, which is not surprising because he does not believe half the things he will be saying in a few minutes. He does not believe, although he may want to contradict me, that the cancellation, postponement, deferment or delay of the airport is the right thing to do—of course it is not.
Let us look just at the economics and the finance, because the Government are clearly not listening to the people of the island of St. Helena or to the arguments about their needs and welfare. Whether the issue is families, human rights, employment or tourism, the Government have not listened to any of the arguments in favour of the airport. They say, “It’s the economics. It’s the downturn in the economy. We can’t afford it.” However, the simple maths shows that providing an airport would take the island from being a net recipient of aid to self-sufficiency and surplus within 10 years.
We have heard the figures. The annual subsidy will be £25 million and rising. The simple maths—the Minister can do it on the back of a fag packet—is that we have the subsidy and the cost of the airport minus the cost of the RMS St. Helena, including the cost of repairing or replacing it. We also have the certain knowledge that the capital costs will go up every year that the project is delayed. The simple maths is that an airport will make the island of St. Helena self-sufficient at the end of 10 years. That has to be a bargain. It makes economic sense.
I recognise that it is not easy to get the Government to accept economic sense, but the sums are quite simple—the Minister and his officials can do them. That is the economic case, but there are people living on the island and they deserve an airport, although I do not see that happening.
I cannot commit my party, but I shall work as hard as I can on this issue because I have spent my entire political life arguing that we should invest to save and to provide services, facilities and amenities to improve people’s quality of life. That is what the airport would do.
Obviously, the Minister cannot do it today, but I urge him to work behind the scenes to convince the bean counters in the Government that this is a clear case of the capital cost paying for itself at the end of 10 years. Thereafter, there will be no need for the British taxpayer to make any revenue contributions to the people and the island of St. Helena. The island will be self-sufficient, the population will grow, the children will be able to grow up with a full family network and everybody will be a winner.
I urge the Government to go with the option of building the airport now because the do-nothing option is far more expensive.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this timely debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing it. Having listened to what she had to say, I am amazed that she has not been to the island, such was the informed level of her comments. She gave us a passionate speech, which outlined very well many of the concerns that I heard about when I was on the island. I would also like to take this opportunity—I am sure that I speak on behalf of all hon. Members here today—to thank Calvin Thomas, who is a St. Helenian, for his many years of service to Parliament.
The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) also gave us an informed and passionate contribution on behalf of his constituents. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who is a former Minister, made a powerful argument as to why we should make a decision. Likewise, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who has put in many hours as the chairman of the all-party group on the island of St. Helena, made an equally powerful contribution. There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the House, and I hope that the Minister is listening to what is being said.
I want to take this opportunity to reaffirm the Conservative party’s commitment to our overseas territories. There is a feeling that they have been neglected to a degree over previous years, although, that said, I pay tribute once again to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley for her previous work. That neglect is precisely why my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) was absolutely determined that I should go to St. Helena—as we have heard, that is very difficult given the access issues, and it is particularly difficult when Parliament is sitting—to experience at first hand the concerns of islanders and to listen to their comments.
I was absolutely delighted to go the island last month. I want to put on record my thanks to the governor—Andrew Gurr—the executive council and all the islanders for their hospitality during my three days there. I had an incredibly busy programme. I spoke to nearly all the key stakeholders and had a series of public meetings, including formal ones and less formal ones in the pub, which was fun, if I am honest. The pub is a good place to meet St. Helenians, who are wonderful people. St. Helena is a wonderful island with a unique character, and I think that we all agree that whatever happens in the future, we have an obligation to ensure that that character is maintained. That must be at the forefront of our minds.
Although the debate is about the future of the island, it is worth talking about the situation today. Of the current £20 million-plus given by DFID each year, approximately £12 million is required to balance the island’s budget. In the past 10 years, the population has declined from just over 5,000 to 4,000, and UK aid to the island has risen from £10 million a year to more than £20 million.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before we were interrupted, I was about to move on to the current access arrangements for the island—the Government-subsidised RMS St. Helena. Simply maintaining the current arrangements will limit the prospects for economic growth on the island. After my visit there, it is hard for me to disagree with the common view on the island that DFID is simply managing the island’s decline. I am sure that the Minister agrees that we cannot allow that view to continue. St. Helenians are fiercely proud of their British citizenship and have a long history of service to the Crown, as the hon. Member for Colchester has said. It is important to remember that the island has no indigenous population and was created entirely by the British, but I am afraid that islanders feel incredibly let down by the current Government in particular.
The access problem has been recognised for some time. Civil Aviation Authority studies carried out in 1973 and 1984 led to the initial air access feasibility study in 1999. A referendum of islanders in 2002 showed that 71.6 per cent. of voters favoured air access over a replacement ship. A further, detailed feasibility study carried out in early 2005 led to expressions of interest in a contract for the design, building and operation of the airport being issued in December 2005. In 2006, all four bidders pulled out because of concerns about risk allocation, and new expressions of interest were issued in September 2006; I shall return to that point in a moment. Following St. Helenian Government approval, Impregilo was selected as the preferred airport tender in October 2008. A few weeks later, in December 2008, the Secretary of State announced the pause.
Let me be clear: the islanders are utterly exhausted by the 26-year process and feel that any further studies will add little value because just about every piece of information that can be has been gleaned from them and the island. Let me also be clear that if the Government get their way and impose a five-year pause, and if the air access route is subsequently followed, it will be at least another nine years before an airport is delivered, given the four-year construction period. The current consultation, which was announced in March 2009, is viewed as a sham by many islanders, most of whom are deeply disillusioned, and, unfortunately, many of them will not participate. After years of engagement with DFID consultants, they feel that they have made their views plain.
During my time on the island, I was constantly referred to a brief section on overseas territories in the 1997 DFID White Paper, which states at paragraph 2.28:
“The Government reaffirms its responsibilities for Britain’s 13 remaining Dependent Territories...The reasonable assistance needs of the Dependent Territories are a first call on the development program.”
There was real anger that NGOs that have no involvement with the island have been invited to comment on the consultation. As fiercely loyal British citizens, and in light of the White Paper commitment, islanders do not understand why, to quote an islander, they should be
“lumped together and wait in line with non-British third-world countries”.
The islanders hate being dependent on aid, and they desperately want to be self-sufficient. They feel that the status quo of managed decline is unacceptable and will simply lead to further decline. Although the relationship has improved in recent years, thanks mainly to the sterling efforts of the DFID’s island representative, Mr. Eddie Palmer, DFID is, unfortunately, still widely viewed with suspicion on the island. DFID is seen as a micro-managing organisation that has sent a stream of consultants to write reports that recommend actions that are never implemented due to lack of funding. I cannot emphasise enough how badly let down the islanders feel by the Government’s dithering and indecision over the airport, especially given that the project was signed off by the Secretary of State, only to be reversed, out of the blue, eight weeks later.
What does my hon. Friend think happened between 16 October 2008, when the Secretary of State entered final negotiations, and the pause that was imposed seven or eight weeks later on 8 December? I might ask the Minister the same question in due course. What does my hon. Friend think happened in that period to change the Government’s view?
If only I knew. That is a key question, which I, too, was going to ask the Minister. All I can say to my hon. Friend is that the excuse about the economic downturn has been dismissed by islanders, because the looming recession was already anticipated when the document was signed in October. It is an incredibly hollow argument that within that eight-week period, given that the agreement was first signed in October, the economic recession suddenly loomed out of nowhere.
Let me say a few words on private sector involvement. The consortium Shelco has been involved in the process since May 2002, with a view to providing a private finance initiative and operating a high-end tourist resort on the island. It has secured an option on a 400-acre site on the island from Solomons—the 60 per cent. majority, St. Helenian Government-owned land owner—but that option runs out at the end of 2009, so timing is important.
Some islanders are concerned about the price that will be paid, both financially and in relation to the island way of life, for Shelco’s involvement. There are also concerns that a monopoly situation would emerge, with flights being unaffordable for islanders and with insufficient financial benefit being retained by the island to ensure economic growth. The private sector route remains an attractive option, but there are concerns that there is insufficient private sector expertise in either DFID or the St. Helena Government to negotiate with any potential operator to ensure that the best value deal for both the UK taxpayer and islanders is negotiated.
The previous invitation-for-proposal route failed when all the contractors pulled out, because there was too great a gulf between the private sector and the Government. Insufficient communication and round-table negotiation led to it being impossible for a satisfactory outcome to be achieved. If that route were pursued, a more sequenced, negotiated approach would be required, and if the Department lacks the skill to do that, outside support would have to be sought.
In summary, I must tell the Minister that my impression from my visit was that DFID is effectively managing the decline of the island through aid but very little development.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has estimated what that period of decline might be. He may be aware that another overseas territory, the Pitcairn Islands, has, of Pitcairners, only about 47 people living there, and that the end of the period when that community can remain viable is not clear. Given that there are 4,000 people on St. Helena, does he have any idea how long that management of decline might go on, and therefore how long UK taxpayers’ money will be needed to support those people?
The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. We seem to be doing nothing more than administering life support at the moment, which is why we have to do something, rather than kick this issue into the long grass. It is a key concern that infrastructure projects have been identified by a whole sequence of DFID representatives, but are rarely funded.
Worse still, the pause that was introduced following the change of heart over the airport has been very damaging to the island economically. That view has been emphasised to me during meetings with the chamber of commerce, the St. Helenian development agency and the building union, and the issue has caused enormous resentment among the islanders and the 10,000 Saints who live in the UK who feel utterly let down by the Government. During a dinner with representatives of the private sector, I was told that, as a direct result of the confirmation in October 2008 that the airport project would go ahead, approximately £57 million of pledged private sector investment was made, of which £18 million of actual investment has taken place. The anger among the private sector was palpable and there was a complete lack of trust in Her Majesty’s Government as a result, which is something it will take a long time to repair.
It is also important to remember that the airport formed the heart of a wider programme of infrastructure improvement on the island. The island needs new diesel storage tanks—it recently came within 72 hours of running out of diesel—a new road infrastructure, new port facilities and a new electricity generating plant. I experienced two power cuts while I was on the island, and I was assured that they were not arranged especially for me. All that has now been put on hold as a result of the pause. The entire economic development plan of the island has been based on the provision of an airport.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, in addition to the economic benefits that he has just described, the construction of the airport would require a new dock area and a new haul road to be built? That would also benefit sea transportation to the island and provide a further boost to the island’s economy.
That is exactly the point that I am trying to make when I say that investment in the airport is so much more than a matter of the airport itself. The airport is now on pause and, frankly, islanders simply do not know what to do because of the uncertainty and indecision. It has been repeated to me again and again that no decision is the worst decision, because of the inability to plan
Before I conclude, I want to look briefly at the recommendations in the consultation paper. Option A is to build an airport, which is undoubtedly the preferred option of the islanders. Although they would prefer an entirely publicly funded airport, that is clearly unlikely in the current economic climate. However, as the Minister admitted in May, it is clear that eventually an airport will have to be built, if the island is going to develop economically. It is also clear that doing so will not get any cheaper as time passes. Private sector partners—Shelco and Impregilo—remain interested and business models exist that show there would be a positive internal rate of return after 15 years or so with only modest visitor numbers. I understand that Impregilo wrote to the Minister on 30 April and offered to extend its arrangement until 30 June. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that and say whether he has replied to the letter and answered some of its many questions.
The Government’s commitment to maintaining current access levels equates to investing at least £70 million in a new ship. There is a mood on the island that that money could be used to prime the private sector development, while maintaining a degree of St. Helenian Government control over the project, which is crucial. Ironically, that was the original model proposed after the 2004 feasibility study. Why is that no longer an option, and why was it not included in the consultation document?
Option B is to replace RMS St. Helena, which is the preferred option of a minority on the island, in order to maintain the character of the island. Effectively, that would maintain the status quo of managed decline on the island. However, limited improvements could be made to access by having a faster ship and changing the schedule, so that the ship simply serves the Cape Town- St. Helena-Ascension triangle by removing the twice annual trips to the UK and relying on trans-shipping cargo in Cape Town instead. Interestingly, when I met the ship’s crew, they confirmed—perhaps surprisingly given their self-interest—that they had an overwhelming desire for an airport.
Option C is to defer the decision for five years, which is the UK Government’s preferred view and is, ironically, a do-nothing for five years option. If taken today, a decision would delay the building of an airport for at least nine years. Having visited the island, that is clearly the worst possible option, and it has been overwhelmingly rejected by islanders, because it would cause considerable damage to the island for reasons already stated. The early signs of the hastened economic decline as a result of the Government’s change of heart are already evident on the island. Interestingly, there was resentment on the island in some quarters that no opportunity was given to islanders to suggest other options, such as a flying boat service, a smaller runway or a faster boat service. After investigation, it appears that those options were looked at by the 2004 Atkins report and rejected. Having discussed them with the island’s Executive Council, it is clear that the extra time required to explore those options again would simply add to the pause and be unacceptable to an island that desperately needs a decision.
In conclusion, I say to the Minister that having been there, it is absolutely clear what the islanders’ view is— in fact, I sense that he already knows what their view is. He is a Minister who stands tall among his colleagues and I only hope that, in the final days of this Government, he will take the opportunity to do one thing as a Minister that he knows he can achieve. I ask him to be bold, be strong, be tall and make a decision, because I assure him that if this Government are not prepared to take a decision on the island for the future benefit of St. Helena, the next Government will.
It is always a pleasure to see you chairing such debates, Mrs. Dean. I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing the debate after, it seems, much trying and echo the comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) about her contribution. I know that she is retiring from the House at the next general election, but given what she said about St. Helena and its attractions, I am sure that there will always be a career for her in the tourism industry.
Given the frequency with which we seem to debate the issue of St. Helena, it is good to be among what some people would call the usual suspects—I like to call them my friends. I value their contributions and I will address the points that they have made. We have plenty of time to do so and there is no rush.
We are at an important point in the process in that, this week, the facilitated consultation referred to in the debate gets under way on the island. We shall await the outcome of the consultation process before reaching a decision, and with that in mind I suspect that hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I can add little to what I said in this Chamber during a similar debate about St. Helena on 17 March. However, I reinforce the point that no decision has yet been taken and that we will take it only after the consultation has been completed.
All options are listed in the consultation paper. The Government have indicated what they consider the preferred position, but if option A was not going to be considered, we would not have put it in the consultation document. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that.
Let me begin by reassuring hon. Members that the pause in the process in no way represents a dilution of the Government’s commitment to meet the reasonable needs of St. Helena. Let me make two things clear. First, the Government are not proposing to reduce their financial assistance to the island, which stands at approximately £20 million a year—in other words, around £5,000 for every man, woman and child resident on the island. Secondly, the Government are not proposing to reduce access to the island from the level that it has enjoyed over the past 20 years.
The question is therefore not whether we are discharging our responsibilities towards the people of St. Helena; it is, in fact, whether—in addition to our ongoing assistance to the island—the Government are in a position to finance the construction of an airport, which would require some £230 million to £260 million extra in aid over the next five years. In other words, it would involve an extra £57,000 to £65,000 for every man, woman and child resident on the island, on top of the £5,000 a year that I have already mentioned.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s comments and answer the questions he and others asked at the same time, because this issue affects hon. Members from all parties.
I shall put the choice in context. We have paused the project not only because the costs I have highlighted are three times higher than the estimates we had at the time, which we committed to the project in 2005, but because the world has taken on a very different complexion from that of the economic environment in which our previous planning took place.
Does the Minister anticipate that capital building costs will fall during a five-year pause? Assuming that that is not the case, does he agree that 10 years of subsidy at £25 million a year roughly equates to the capital cost of building the airport? Thus, in year 11, the island of St. Helena would move from being dependent on the British taxpayer to self-sufficiency and then surplus.
I have two brief points to make. First, will the Minister answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster)? He asked what caused the pause between October and December when the Government decided that they would not go ahead with the airport and that there would be a further consultation.
The second and important point is that we all live in the real world. We know what the economic difficulties are in this country and elsewhere and that a new airport would cost a great deal of money. If by any chance further private capital—further investment—could be acquired elsewhere, would the British Government still contribute significantly to the project? If so, will the Minister speculate on how great their support might be?
I have said that I intend to reply to the question about what happened between autumn and Christmas, but I shall answer it now for the hon. Lady. The worsening of economic conditions intensified in the autumn, which brought to the attention of the Government and my Department the need to look again at what would be, in anyone’s language, a serious investment—a serious chunk of cash—that would have to be paid out in the next five years.
On the second question, my Department is perfectly happy and willing to look at any proposals that are made as a result of the consultation exercise. If the hon. Lady knows of private sector investors who are willing to make a contribution, I ask her to encourage them to present their ideas to the Department. I can assure her that they would not be ignored.
May I make more progress?
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) and the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for North-East Milton Keynes asked in different ways why overseas territories are part of DFID’s responsibility. I have to be perfectly honest and admit that that is an interesting question.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley will know from her time as a Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for overseas territories that there are differing views in Whitehall about exactly how overseas territories should be treated and who is responsible for their management and the funding that goes with it. The debate has gone on for some time. I have looked at the issue across the 12 years of this Government and before that. There has been a debate about who has responsibility because of the perceived conflict that can exist between meeting the first-call, reasonable needs of the overseas territories and, to use the more colourful language of the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes, who quoted a resident of St. Helena, dumping St. Helena with the third world. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was quoting.
There is an issue that needs to be looked at. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, in government, he would look at it and rejig the structure of Whitehall, I would be happy to hear his views.
I apologise for missing the first part of the debate, but it is timely to come in on this point. Surely, the Minister understands that we are talking about not just finance and economics, but loyal British subjects and an overseas territory that is not foreign or international, but British. We have a duty and a responsibility to the people of that island, which we now appear to be neglecting by introducing a shameful pause in delivering the promise that the Government made to them.
Without the airport, there will be economic decline, which none of us wants. A British territory deserves to be treated as British, not as foreign or international. When will the Government make true the promise that they made to the islanders of St. Helena?
The obligation that the UK Government have towards the overseas territories is being met. They have first call for reasonable assistance needs. Perhaps some difference of opinion about the definition of “reasonable assistance needs” will show up as a result of the consultation document. I suspect that that is the bone of contention.
In DFID’s current position, with the overseas territories as part of its responsibilities, we have a duty to consider what else is going on in the world. At this time, our best estimate of the impact of the global economic downturn, which is acknowledged as one of the most serious downturns of recent generations, is that 90 million more people are living on less than $1.25 a day, there has been an 80 per cent. reduction in capital flows to emerging economies and developing countries, there have been reductions in remittances to developing-country households and an estimated 1.4 million more infant deaths are likely to occur up to 2015.
I said in my speech that I hoped the Minister would not repeat those facts, as he did last time. That was not because some of us do not believe that the Government should respond to problems in the developing world, but because the reality is that if the situation on St. Helena deteriorates, or if, as I suggested, some problematic social situation arises, the British Government will have to deal with the results.
We have a legal responsibility that goes beyond the moral responsibility that we all feel for international development. It is that legal responsibility, which was set out by the United Nations, that hon. Members are asking the Government to fulfil. The overseas territories are different, which is why we do not think it appropriate for the Minister to counter-pose real and important development issues.
I know that my hon. Friend asked me not to put this debate into the context of developing countries and other needs, but, unfortunately for her, that is the situation that the Government find themselves in. I would be genuinely interested in—and may look back, if I can—the record of her time as Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for overseas territories. Did she make such recommendations and is this something she advocated? This important issue should be debated.
The loss in the value of sterling against the United States dollar over the past year means that in many countries of the world our aid is not going as far as it did. It has reduced the value of our multilateral payments and has also had an impact on many of the larger international non-governmental organisations to which we provide funding. DFID’s budget has come under pressure from new calls for aid to protect low-income countries that are most vulnerable to the global downturn. For example, we recently agreed to provide £200 million in response to a request from the World Bank for $5 billion to $6 billion for its vulnerability financing facility, and at the beginning of the year we approved £100 million of contingency funding for Africa.
There are also growing financial pressures in other overseas territories, which the Government must take into account. The value of our aid to Montserrat, for example, whose local currency is pegged to the dollar, has fallen by 30 per cent. due to exchange rate decline.
Important though those points are, does the Minister accept—I do not know how many times I have asked him this question, but he has not answered it—that 10 years of subsidy to the island of St. Helena roughly equates to the cost of building the airport? At the point the airport is built, the island will move from being dependent on the taxpayer to being self-sufficient and creating a surplus. Investment will save the British taxpayer money—and then there will be more money to give to Montserrat and the other countries.
I intend to reply in detail to the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the problem is that Montserrat is facing its difficulties now and cannot wait 15 years before money becomes available to deal with them. If he does not appreciate the difficulties faced by overseas territories such as Montserrat, let me tell him that last night its Government fell and there has to be a general election. It is facing serious difficulties.
Other Caribbean territories have seen tourism fall markedly, which is seriously affecting the viability of their economies. As I told the House in March, these impacts of the global crisis seriously affect the Government’s ability to achieve all their international development objectives. An airport for St. Helena represents significant outlay, which is why we have to revisit the choices before us. That is not to say that we are ignoring the special place that the overseas territories have in the aid programme, but as I said earlier reasonable need cannot amount to an unqualified commitment, irrespective of circumstances.
There is near-universal agreement that the current circumstances are exceptional. The Government cannot evade their responsibility to re-examine the case for the airport at this time, given current circumstances and the scale of the expenditure involved.
I want to say a word or two about the consultation, which was mentioned by hon. Members. The consultation is an indication that we are not taking this decision lightly. We are well aware of the importance of the airport to the Saints who voted for it in the 2002 referendum. We are well aware of the social problems, which have been outlined in the debate, relating to the lack of easy access and a weak economy in St. Helena. We launched the consultation to ensure that the Government can hear from all those who will be affected when we come to our eventual decision.
We have made every effort to ensure that the Saints will be heard. As I speak, our consultation facilitator is on the island, listening to the Saints first hand. This evening, she is holding a public meeting at the Kingshurst community centre, which is one of a series of events organised for her around the island during her eight-day stay. She has already spoken to Saints in London and Swindon, and she will make further visits to the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island before the consultation deadline.
If the hon. Gentleman shows a little more patience, he will see that I will deal with that. He is right to mention that the consultation ends on 31 July, after which there is, under the Government code of conduct, a formal period within which the Government are expected to produce a report based on that consultation. I will outline the details for him in due course.
I apologise for missing part of the debate. So far, the Minister has not provided the cost of managing the decline in St. Helena. It seems that that has been ignored, although it will cost the United Kingdom Government additional sums to manage the decline of that country because of the island’s failure, which will result from the failure to proceed with the airport.
Many of the calculations that the hon. Gentleman seeks were in the report that has been presented and is publicly available now. Those numbers are already available to give people an indication of why, when that report was produced, the outcome favoured an airport.
When all the responses to the consultation are collated, together with all written submissions received, we will summarise them in a consultation report that will be published in October. I assure the hon. Member for Congleton that, when we come to make a decision, which we will do by the end of this year, we will take those responses into consideration and weigh them up alongside the shorter-term financial considerations that we are contending with.
I acknowledge the interest expressed in the debate and outside by hon. Members who are exploring other ways to improve physical access to the island, because that is the nub of the issue and of people’s concerns.
Before the Minister moves on, I understood him to say that the Government would come to a decision by the end of the year. Will he give an undertaking this afternoon that, if that decision is deferred, there will still be a timetable in place so that uncertainty about the future of the airport on St. Helena can be removed, because as many hon. Members have said this afternoon, uncertainty is a killer? People on the island and those outside it—those investing—need to know what the future holds if this matter is to be progressed.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The delay is important and was mentioned when I spoke to the governor and representatives from St. Helena when they visited me at DFID. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes also made a good point in that regard. As the hon. Lady says, delay is the killer.
We do not want the debate to be any more protracted than it needs to be. Because of the issue of access to St. Helena, we have extended what under Government guidelines would normally be a 12-week consultation to a 16-week consultation, just to enable due consideration to be given to people in St. Helena and to allow them to meet the facilitator and genuinely to engage in the debate.
The hon. Lady mentioned the event in Reading at the end of August, at which a number of Saints will be present. However, if we waited formally until the end of August before concluding the consultation, that would just extend the period by a month. With all due respect, I—and I think she—would rather we made a quick decision in the hope that the Saints had already taken an interest in the debate and not waited until the bank holiday event in Reading.
On improving physical access to the island, there has been discussion about whether a shorter runway or increased use of the Wideawake airstrip on Ascension would be appropriate. Some have asked for more imaginative means, such as flying boats, to be considered. Those options have all been examined and deemed unsuitable, either for reasons of technical feasibility or for their limited potential to enable economic growth. For example, it is believed that the option of a shorter runway would not deliver the benefits that connection to a recognised international hub would bring. That lack of connection reduces the attraction to the tourism market.
Additional factors are associated with restrictions on the use of the military airfield on Ascension Island. For example, it does not meet Civil Aviation Authority standards and is operated by the United States military. There are restrictions on the number of civilian flights that can go via Ascension. The cost of a short runway is not significantly lower than that of a longer one, for technical reasons that were all explored in the previous consultations.
Let me deal with some of the issues that have cropped up in the debate. The hon. Member for Congleton asked whether St. Helena lacks the practical aspects of support while the delay is going on and suggested that there is a ban on DFID representatives visiting the island. I can say categorically that there is no such ban. The three-year assistance package that was negotiated with the Government of St. Helena and started in 2007 remains unchanged in respect of its commitment. To provide examples of how we are still investing in infrastructure, last year DFID provided £5 million of infrastructure investment, including £2.25 million for rock-fall protection works in Jamestown. This year, the Department is making available up to £4.5 million for infrastructure investment.
To ensure that St. Helena can benefit from the higher funding that has been agreed, DFID is supporting the recruitment of experienced engineering managers to improve capacity in the public works and services department on the island.
I mentioned the Reading event, and I hope that the hon. Lady is satisfied on that point.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) proved to be a powerful advocate for his constituents and asked whether we would give a commitment to get on with the matter. The answer is yes; that is essential for us and for the Saints. He also asked whether we would take account of the long-term challenges facing the Saints on the island when we make our decision. The answer is yes, of course we will.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley asked about the overseas territories. She proved to be a powerful advocate on behalf of St. Helena and served its residents well.
The hon. Member for Colchester—my friend from Colchester—asked why we cannot treat Saints as British subjects, and I addressed that in terms of the position of overseas territories. I regret his use of language in referring to the Government’s decision being economic apartheid on the basis that Falkland islanders are white and Saints are not, and that that is why the Falklands received investment when St. Helena did not.
I think the hon. Gentleman used such language to reinforce his argument and that he does not believe it. But if he does, that is a mistake that many politicians make. The two facts may be correct, but that does not mean that they are causally related. There is a big difference between how the Government are dealing with the matter and how the South African regime operated apartheid.
Ambulance Services (Crewe and Nantwich)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean, and to be able to stand here today to demand a better ambulance service for my constituents. I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate. I welcome the Minister to his new position, and I wish him well in what I hope will be a fruitful debate and the conclusion to the problems that ambulance services in Crewe, Nantwich, Cheshire and the north-west have experienced.
In the past 15 months, I have been engaged in a battle with North West Ambulance Service about volunteer ambulance services in Nantwich. The town had two highly visible and respected volunteer community first responders who provided a quick response to emergency health care incidents using a blue light emergency vehicle and a range of capabilities when they arrived on scene. Given that no paramedics were based in the area, local residents and the local council thought that that was an excellent service, which is exactly what it was. The dismay of all those concerned can be imagined when early last year the service was downgraded by North West Ambulance Service and continues to be so.
That downgrading has resulted in fewer calls—the number has fallen from 120 in December 2007 to just over 20 in February 2009. There have been fewer services, and according to the NWAS medical director, even aspirin is now a dangerous drug in the hands of community first responders, who should not have access to it as part of their medical kit. They are no longer allowed to use blue flashing lights, which is perhaps the most bizarre decision, given the findings of the Healthcare Commission’s report into the neighbouring Staffordshire Ambulance Service in 2008, which stated clearly that the first responders need sirens and blue flashing lights to operate safely and effectively. Does the Minister agree that as a matter of principle and common sense, when a community first responder has the necessary training to drive with a blue light—we cannot ignore the fact that its purpose is to ensure a speedy response to a life-saving situation to enhance the prospect of patient survival—it would be perverse not to allow them to do so? Sadly, however, that is what has happened in Nantwich in the past year.
The downgrading of community first responders resulted in what can only be described as local outrage. It led to my leading more than 1,000 residents on a protest march through a normally peaceful Cheshire market town. I understand that it was the first march in that town since the English civil war, which speaks volumes for the feeling among local residents. I also presented a 10,000-signature petition from local councillors, residents, first responders and so on to Downing street, and had the opportunity to raise the matter in a debate on the Floor of the House in January.
Fifteen months after the matter arose, we now have on offer a slightly downgraded service with a different mechanism that will, unfortunately, cost more. The current proposal is that retained firefighters will provide the service, but they are the same people who were providing the community first responder service as volunteers and unpaid members of the public. The blue lights will be back for properly trained drivers, but we had blue lights before and the drivers were properly trained. The range of services that those retained firefighters will be able to provide will be more limited than when the community first responder scheme operated before NWAS became involved.
I am sure that the Minister will do his bit and tell us what the North West Ambulance Service is doing and what it is providing, and he will no doubt back that up with marvellous statistics about its work. Although I have not yet seen written confirmation, which is unusual for such a bureaucratic organisation, a retained service has been promised, which will claw back most if not all the skills of our local community first responders. Such a guarantee would be welcome in writing—we have not received that—and I received a copy of a letter today from Nantwich town council to the area manager of NWAS making that point and seeking clarification of what is on the table as part of the retained co-responder firefighter/ambulance service.
According to 2006-07 figures, the service used to cost North West Ambulance Service £12 per call-out for volunteer first responders. The firefighters will be paid for the service that they provide, so where have we ended up after 15 months? It seems that we have less service, a year’s disruption, more cost to taxpayers, and disregard for hard-working volunteers. The problem is that NWAS seems to have no idea of how to handle community issues. The burden of bureaucratic meddling among its senior management has sometimes been astounding, and to the detriment of its concern for my real, living, breathing constituents whom they are there to serve.
To put that into context, in 2008-09 NWAS spent more than £620,000 on communications. It even spent just under £400 on an equality and diversity calendar this year. I am sure that that is a noble cause, but that money is equivalent to the cost of at least 20 first responder call-outs for the people of Crewe and Nantwich. How that image-conscious spending has helped response times in the north-west is beyond me, but it seems to have produced the poorest results in communication.
It is not just me saying this. The Cheshire county council scrutiny committee report on NWAS’s review of community first responders noted that
“there appears to have been no core principles underpinning the review”.
It was “surprised” that
“the review of CFRs was not the subject of a written report to NWAS’s Board.”
It also noted:
“NWAS may wish to review its approach to communications and consultations not only in the context of its statutory obligations on patient and public involvement, but also more generally.”
I suspect that the scrutiny committee was being polite in the terms that it used.
Where does that leave us? Nantwich, the surrounding area and, to an extent, Crewe now have in sight once again their own retained ambulance service. If that is the outcome, it will be welcome. We have been through some long and arduous meetings over many months. It should be seen not just as a single entity, but as a model for similar schemes across Cheshire and the north-west, including the village of Audlem, which is on the edge of my constituency, Sandbach, Congleton, Chester and Knutsford. It has, however, taken 15 months of effort from me, Nantwich town council, local first responders and members of the public to keep the issue on the boil and bring about a remotely acceptable outcome.
In the process, the Crewe and Nantwich public have marched against the ambulance service and voiced their concerns, staged other demonstrations and suffered a massive loss of confidence in that service’s ability properly to demonstrate a will to improve and provide for residents in our area. All that is combined with the ongoing problem of poor response times in our rural areas, with not one category A call being responded to within the target time for Audlem, near Nantwich, in a recent reporting period. That would be unacceptable to any area of the country, let alone Audlem.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O’Brien), who shares a surname with the new Minister, has rightly pointed out to the House,
“community first responders are effectively filling a major gap that has arisen due to the inadequacy of the North West Ambulance Service”.—[Official Report, 21 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 797.]
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and he makes his case very well, but I am not entirely clear on what he is asking me as a Minister to do. He is saying that he has concerns about the North West Ambulance Trust. He is well aware that the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O’Brien) is very clear that Ministers should not interfere with local trusts—that there should be no political involvement at all and trusts should be allowed to get on with the business of making decisions. What we are talking about here is a local trust that has made some decisions. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) obviously disagrees with the hon. Member for Eddisbury, but what I am interested in is this: what is he suggesting that Ministers ought to do—intervene in this case?
I am not sure that my hon. Friend said exactly what the Minister has just said about what involvement the Department should have with the trust. He may be referring to some other occasion. I simply said that my hon. Friend had pointed out that community first responders were filling the gap that had arisen due to the inadequacy of the North West Ambulance Service. I did not mention what his view might be on the involvement of Government in the work done by the trust on the ground.
I was coming on to some of the things taking place in the trust that I think the Minister needs to be aware of. As part of the Department of Health’s response and guidance, clear boundaries need to be set as to exactly what is expected, to ensure that response times are being met not only regionally, but locally. That deficiency cannot just be left at the door of the trust; it has to involve the primary care trust and the Department of Health. We need to ensure that there is a joined-up response so that where there are failings in the service provided by our ambulance service, that is brought to the attention of the Department and it is not left believing that everything in the garden is rosy, because it clearly is not and has not been for some time in my constituency.
Let me raise one of the issues that I am pressing. The Minister can respond by saying what involvement he could have in trying to press this issue. If he does not feel that it is within his remit as a Minister to do so, I would like to know why. I am referring to the fact that until we move to the mandatory publication of local rather than regional response times, areas such as Nantwich will still face the dilemma of not knowing what the response times are in their local area and therefore whether the strict targets—they rightly are strict—are being met by the trust. I have already given the example of the failure in the Audlem area by the North West Ambulance Service to meet any of the eight-minute targets for category A calls.
I ask the Minister at least to respond to that point in his reply and to acknowledge that it is an issue that needs to be addressed, whether by him or by the trust, because it is clearly an unacceptable state of affairs. The North West Ambulance Service has let itself down badly, and the people of Nantwich should be congratulated on the strength and determination they have shown over many months in trying to deal with the issue. On many occasions, the wall that we have faced has been very high, and one that has not been willing to move. One of the reasons for being here today and bringing the Minister to the debate is to widen the issue out and bring it to the attention not only of the Department but of the public, so that they are aware of some of the issues being faced in the provision of ambulance services not only in Nantwich but throughout the north-west.
I hope that the Minister will strongly encourage the ambulance service to review how it engages with communities and encourage it to take this opportunity to bring a fresh pair of eyes from outside the organisation into the chief executive’s office, in order that all areas in the north-west may maintain a healthy confidence in their ambulance service’s ability to save lives and answer individual communities’ needs.
I started the debate by welcoming the Minister to his new post and by describing the last 15 months of dealings with the North West Ambulance Service over local ambulance service provision as an ongoing battle. I hope that with his fresh eyes on the issue and his intuition and incisiveness, we may be able to put that battle to rest. I am not asking for a miracle; I am not asking for a silver bullet. I am asking for recognition from the Department represented by the Minister that there is an issue that the trust needs to deal with to ensure that the public’s confidence in the service is back where it should be.
These people who serve our community do it out of the goodness of their heart. They have not been paid for it. The proposed new system will mean that they are paid, but I suspect that that is not their motivation. We need a service that ensures that lives are saved wherever possible, and the first responders are there to do that. I hope that the Minister will support that principle and advocate support for the first responders.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) on securing the debate. I also thank him for welcoming me to my new role. Before addressing in detail some of the concerns that he has raised, I want to recognise the excellent work that our ambulance staff do, so I shall make some general points before coming to the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.
Day in, day out, ambulance workers save lives and care for patients, benefiting the people of Crewe and Nantwich and others throughout the country. It is thanks to their dedication and hard work that ambulance service performance has improved. At the end of 2007-08, the NHS ambulance service recorded its highest ever emergency response rate, with 77.1 per cent. of category A—life-threatening—calls receiving a response at the scene of the incident within eight minutes.
That best-ever category A performance was achieved despite increases in demand, with more than 7 million 999 calls being dealt with in that year—almost 1 million more than the year before. That success came despite significant challenges, including the new “call connect” clock start measurement, which affects the amount of time available to respond. The time that an ambulance takes to reach a patient is now measured from when the 999 call connects, which saves an average hidden wait of about 90 seconds, rather than being measured from the point at which the person who received the call passes it on to the ambulance service. That is a good record.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned about community first responders in Cheshire. It is obviously a matter that is raising serious unease among his constituents in Nantwich. CFRs were developed in response to the Government’s national framework for coronary heart disease. CFRs are trained in the use of automatic external defibrillators, which are used to treat patients in cardiac arrest. In the north-west, they operate a voluntary rota in groups of eight to 15 and respond to emergency calls in addition to the ambulance service, administering life support to patients while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
CFRs play an important role in supporting ambulance services and in improving our response to 999 calls in many parts of the country. They are not, however, a substitute for an emergency ambulance response. The North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust is committed to its CFR schemes. Indeed, in April it established three new CFR schemes in Northwich, Winsford and Crewe. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a pilot co-responders scheme is to be set up in Nantwich in his constituency.
It is obvious that the Minister has been given detailed information about NWAS and its policy on CFRs. He has mentioned co-responders. Will he provide more detail about what skills and training the CFRs will have? Will they be able to use those skills, for instance, to drive on a blue light?
Co-responder schemes are agreements made between the ambulance service and, in this case, Cheshire fire and rescue service. Firefighters will be trained to use lifesaving skills and will thus be able to respond to patients in the same way as CFRs. However, they will also be trained in other areas, such as casualty management, scene management, risk assessment and advanced driving under blue lights.
I note the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about CFRs being the same as firefighters. I have been told by officials that one CFR was a retained firefighter, not a full-time firefighter, and that he provided a CFR blue light service until 2008. In line with the review undertaken by the trust, that was revoked for reasons of staff, patient and public safety. I am informed that that is how that situation was dealt with.
The Minister has hit on the question at the heart of many discussions over the last 15 months. Will he confirm that the retained firefighter who was a CFR before the blue light was taken away was driving on a blue light under insurance provided through NWAS? Will insurance for the co-respondent scheme be met by the fire and rescue service or the ambulance service?
I am sorry to say that my valuable briefing does not extend to insurance cover, but I shall ask the trust and let the hon. Gentleman know. That is probably the best way to deal with that question.
It is likely that co-responders will be able to respond to a far wider range of incidents than CFRs. The trust feels that it is a good scheme and that it will give local people a good service. Although the scheme will take some time to be fully implemented, I understand that the pilot scheme in Nantwich is due to start at some point this year, hopefully as soon as August.
NWAS is considering a number of ways to improve its performance across the region, especially in rural areas. One such scheme will provide further training to CFRs, enabling them to be deployed to an increased number of incidents. The volunteers will also be paid for their time. Details of training and the scope of the exercise are being discussed, with a view to a pilot scheme being trialled in Knutsford.
I listened with care to the hon. Gentleman; he made an eloquent case on behalf of his constituents. However, the organisation of services, including CFRs, is not decided by Ministers or civil servants in the Department of Health but by local health care professionals. Organisational changes must be based on medical grounds and what is best for patient care.
To ensure the most effective and appropriate use of CFRs across the north-west, NWAS undertook a review of its services. It is a local health care organisation that consults and engages with local people, considers the arguments, talks to staff and others who are involved and reaches local decisions. It wanted to ensure that CFRs were used in the most appropriate and efficient way to ensure the safety of patients, the public and staff.
The review proposed the standardisation of services across the former ambulance trust areas of Greater Manchester, Cumbria, Mersey and Lancashire. It included the removal of the blue light facility and a review of the level of care that CFRs could and should provide. The proposals were referred to democratically elected councillors on Cheshire’s overview and scrutiny committee. That committee set up a task and finish panel to review all issues in detail. The panel reported back to the full committee in October 2008.
The overview and scrutiny committee made a number of recommendations, and NWAS has produced an action plan to address those recommendations. The action plan was shared with the OSC and other stakeholders in January 2008. As a result, a local Cheshire steering group is reviewing the existing Cheshire CFR schemes, and it will explore other opportunities to strengthen ambulance services in the region.
Local ambulance trusts, in consultation with other local emergency services, must decide whether they are happy for CFRs to operate under blue lights. That decision must comply with the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 1989, which state that blue lights can be used only by emergency vehicles used for
“fire brigade, ambulance or police purposes”.
In Nantwich, one CFR was using blue lights until 2008. That was one of only a small number of instances across the country of a CFR using blue lights. It was relatively rare, and I gather it was stopped because of the way in which that CFR was trained.
A demand for the wider use of blue lights must be treated with a great deal of caution. It is not only a matter of training, because although people can be trained, they also need to use blue lights regularly. They need their skills to be honed; they cannot be trained once and then use the skills intermittently. Ambulance and fire service crew and police officers use blue lights regularly. However, they do so with some risk; as we know from a number of incidents, using blue lights has risks for the public, so blue lights should be used with caution. People who use blue lights must not only be trained; they must be in a position to hone those skills through regular use.
I am grateful to the Minister for being generous in giving way. He has clearly read his brief and has tried to get to grips with as much of the detail as possible.
I do not want to stray into the minutiae, but the matter is extremely important. A CFR may not only have had the training to use a blue light but, as the Minister suggested, he may have honed those skills regularly over many years. Removing that blue light could reduce the number of call-outs to which the CFR responds—I gave the figures from my constituency of 120 in 2007 to 20 in 2009. That will not only reduce the possibility of saving lives, but result in exactly what the Minister does not want: it will prevent that skill from being used when appropriate and make it more difficult to reintroduce it later.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very sensible point, but misses the key one: it is not a matter of whether Ministers agree, but of whether the local ambulance trust, which has the delegated authority to make these decisions, agrees. I intervened on him earlier to get an idea of what he is looking for from me, as a Minister. I indicated that his party’s policy is to make the NHS much more independent of Ministers—to set up an NHS board and to keep it at arm’s length from ministerial intervention—and to ensure that Ministers have nothing to do with decisions made by ambulance trusts. We do not share that view on the extent of delegation.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), to whom the hon. Gentleman has referred, is an advocate of Conservative Front-Bench policy—after all, he is himself a Conservative party Front-Bench spokesman. However, any of his constituents who intend to support him at the next election, which is a matter for them, must not assume that, if the Conservatives win, there will be a Minister who wants to do something about this situation. Indeed, the opposite will be case: the Conservative party will choose not get involved in any of these matters. We have said that ambulance trusts have to decide whether to allow CFRs to use blue lights—
Grimsby and Cleethorpes Rail Services
I am sure that it will be a great pleasure to speak in a debate chaired by you, Mrs. Dean. I welcome my hon. Friend to his new job as a Transport Minister—he now has a speaking role, after some time as a silent participant in the House as a member of the Whips Office. As a Member of Parliament representing an east-coast constituency, I hope he will appreciate the challenges that that geography presents. I realise that his constituency is far closer to the capital than Cleethorpes, but still, anyone on the coast experiences greater transport difficulties.
The issues that I wish to raise relate to passenger rail services. I shall cover short and long-term problems and concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) had hoped to take part in this debate, but he is in the Chamber debating another issue of concern to our constituents—the levying of business rates in ports.
The rail line between Doncaster, and Grimsby and Cleethorpes is due to close on 22 June and will not reopen until 7 September, which means that the First TransPennine Express service between Manchester airport, Sheffield, Doncaster and Cleethorpes will start and terminate at Doncaster and will not serve any stations east of Doncaster, which obviously includes Grimsby and Cleethorpes. That will cut off huge swathes of northern Lincolnshire, including its two main urban areas—Scunthorpe, and, on the coast, Grimsby and Cleethorpes. I am told that the closure is necessary to carry out engineering work at Medge Hall in Thorne Moor near Doncaster. I appreciate that the line is built on peat and that speed restrictions have been in place for some time on that section of the line. I appreciate, therefore, that some remedial work is required.
Why close, however, one of our most popular lines to the coast throughout the school summer holidays? Cleethorpes is by far the easiest coastal resort to reach from places such as Sheffield and Doncaster. In fact, Cleethorpes has been the traditional seaside playground for south Yorkshire for many generations—ever since the railway reached it in 1863. In preparing for this debate, I went back over some of the newspaper records, which made for interesting reading. On 3 August 1863, 10,000 people arrived in the resort by train. One year later, the number had risen to 79,000 ordinary passengers and 72,000 excursion passengers. The number continued to grow in subsequent years, and to this day Cleethorpes remains very much part of summer day trips and holidays for many people in Yorkshire.
In the current recession, it is important that we do not create extra barriers to people trying to reach the resort. The small businesses that typify the tourism industry are dependent on a good summer season and August bank holiday to remain viable. In Cleethorpes, we have fish and chip shops, amusement arcades, donkey rides, candy floss and so on—it is very much a traditional seaside resort. Network Rail hopes that people will accept this “short-term inconvenience”. I, and resort businesses, do not think that 11 to 12 weeks is a short-term inconvenience. They feel that this could be “make or break” for their businesses this year.
I simply cannot understand why the work is being carried out at the height of the tourist season, rather that at some other time of the year. Also, I have had no explanation of why there will be no train service between Scunthorpe, and Grimsby and Cleethorpes. These are the two biggest urban areas in northern Lincolnshire. I understand that no repair work is going on along that part of the line, so why can some sort of service not continue to link those two areas? Even at this late stage, I hope that that can be considered.
It is not just the tourism industry that will be affected. People also need to get to work, and moreover, the line will be closed at the start of the football season. Given our geography, many away supporters tend to get the train to Cleethorpes—they alight by the beach, have their fish and chips and then walk along Grimsby road to Blundell Park to watch Grimsby Town. Last season, the club performed an act worthy of Lazarus to remain in the football league, but it seems to add insult to injury that, when the new season starts, away supporters will be unable to get to Cleethorpes by train.
The usual rail replacement bus service will run between Doncaster and Cleethorpes. Mention rail replacement bus services to anybody living in northern Lincolnshire and their reaction will probably be one of hysterical laughter. They are not regarded as particularly reliable, and it takes an age to get to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. People say that they simply will not use it, but will use other modes of transport instead.
I had hoped that it would be possible to retain a link with the east coast main line, perhaps using the Brigg and Gainsborough line, on to which all the freight traffic is being routed. Freight is vital in my area. We have one of the biggest rail freight depots in Britain. All the coal and other heavy goods that are coming into the docks at Immingham tend to go out by rail, as do some of the products from the refineries. I appreciate that it is vital to keep that freight going, but originally I was told that some sort of passenger service may be retained on the line so that people could link in to the east coast main line if they have to go to London. However, I have now been told that there will not be any replacement passenger service on that line.
What is irksome about this long withdrawal of train services is that, just weeks after the line is back in action in September, it will be closed down again in November in order to carry out repair works on the Doughty road railway bridge in Grimsby. When we have such a long shutdown, it makes no sense to leave the repair work on that particular section of the line. Network Rail said that it is because the design and the materials are not yet ready. I am sorry, but this closure has been known about for some time. It is very poor planning not to get all the work done at once. Moreover, the new trains that have been in use on the trans-Pennine route are about to be withdrawn and replaced with 10-year-old rolling stock, which does not bode well for the future.
My hon. Friend the Minister has the luxury of a direct train service to London. In Grimsby and Cleethorpes, we have not had that luxury for some 20 years. Last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, I told the House that Able UK had announced a £100 million investment in my constituency, thus creating 5,000 jobs, which is welcome news in the current economic climate. The development site is the largest in northern England, alongside a deep-water port. I hope that the Prime Minister will meet me and other MPs from the area to discuss how we can remove some of the remaining barriers to realising the full potential of our constituencies. One of the remaining barriers is this lack of a direct train service to London. I have been due to meet Ministers to discuss this issue for some months but, like the train services, those meetings keep getting cancelled.
As for the direct line, National Express has come on board after intense lobbying by businesses, MPs and others. It hopes that, by September, it will have the provisional timings for one early morning train to the capital and one evening peak return. Given that the Humber ports are already Britain’s most profitable port complex, given that this new development on the South Humber Bank will make the region even more strategically important and given that the area is the base for a lot of the country’s leading manufacturing industries, it hardly seems sufficient to provide one return service a day to the capital.
Turning now to the frequency of the service, the nearest station to the port of Immingham is Habrough, yet that station has a very poor service, with few stopping trains. If we are to develop the port area, it makes more sense to increase the frequency of the trains serving the port of Immingham by having more stopping at Habrough station. I am always told that people should use Barnetby station. However, it is not the most successful station because it involves using bridges; Habrough does not. Therefore, we must consider having more trains stopping at Habrough if we are to serve the port.
The other service that we must consider is the one to Humberside airport. At the moment, the line goes just past the airport—there is no station at the actual airport. If we are to have an integrated transport network serving this growing industrial area, we need to consider having a rail service into the airport. At the moment, people can get a train to Manchester airport but not Humberside airport.
I hope that my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] I have just promoted the Minister; I am obviously delighted that he has been promoted out of the Whips Office and I am promoting him even further. If he cannot address fully this afternoon all the issues, I hope that he will meet me and my colleagues at a later date to discuss them in more detail. I do not know whether such a meeting is in his remit, but there are other issues relating to the road network in the area. The A180 needs resurfacing. We need to sort out the dualling of the A160 and to address the issue of Humber bridge tolls. The tolls must be substantially reduced, as has been demonstrated by an in-depth study. That would lead to further economic growth in not just our area but the whole country.
Once again, Mrs. Dean, I appreciate having had the chance to raise these very important issues for my constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean, on my first outing as a Minister in an Adjournment debate. It is also a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). In the past, she has told me that her auntie and my mother-in-law used to sit together in deepest Kirkcaldy watching the Parliament channel to see whether they could spot us. Were they both with us now, they would, no doubt, feel that they had had a double hit today.
Indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on what is clearly an important issue for her constituents and their local economy. The Government recognise that seaside towns have a distinctive role to play in regional economies. For its part, the Department for Transport is investing £10 billion in the railways over the next five years to increase capacity and provide better train services. Such improvements are being delivered through new and amended franchise agreements and by infrastructure upgrades being carried out by Network Rail.
Some of the planned improvements will benefit rail travellers to and from Grimsby and Cleethorpes because they will see improved reliability and some new services. Passengers are already benefiting from the major refurbishment of Cleethorpes station undertaken last year, which I understand was unveiled by my hon. Friend last year. Such an improvement is a good example of partners working together to shape the future of this seaside town.
Rail users and businesses are understandably frustrated by line closures, particularly over weekends and at holiday periods, but there is no easy time to carry out major engineering works. Disruption is an unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable consequence of maintenance work, which is essential for the continuing drive to deliver a safer, faster and more reliable rail network. Following decades of under-investment and to cope with increasing passenger and freight traffic growth, the Government are currently taking steps to increase the capacity and reliability of our railway.
In the longer term, passenger and freight operators, business and the tourist industry will feel the benefit. However, we cannot get improvements without occasional blockades of some of the lines. The timing of engineering works is an operational matter for Network Rail within a regime that is overseen by the independent Office of Rail Regulation. Under that regime, the majority of engineering possessions are specifically planned—often up to 18 months in advance.
Over the past two years, a cross-industry review, led by the Office of Rail Regulation, has been examining how best to address the growing mismatch between the increasing demand for travel and the service availability of the rail network. That has produced a new cross-industry consensus and a determination to reduce major disruption arising from engineering works, and, critically, to do so without compromising the safety of passengers and staff. Network Rail is leading the development of a strategy to deliver that, so that within five years, rail users should enjoy a truly seven-day railway service.
My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has already made it clear to Network Rail’s chief executive that the current system for planning engineering works does not adequately represent the needs of passengers. It is also vital that passengers are properly informed of service changes well in advance, so that they can adjust their travel plans.
We recognise that the ORR has set Network Rail a target of reducing the disruption that it causes to passengers through its engineering work by 37 per cent. over the next five years. That is a good start, but we would like to see more done in the short term.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was talking about the Department’s efforts to ensure that engineering works reflect passenger needs. My noble Friend the Secretary of State recently convened a meeting of senior figures from across the rail industry, including Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation, train operators and Passenger Focus, to discuss possible ways to improve the situation. In particular, we encouraged the industry to give Passenger Focus, the independent national passenger watchdog, a greater role in the process of planning engineering works. We were broadly encouraged by the response that we received from the industry at the meeting. Our priority now is to ensure that all parties in the industry maintain their focus on improving network availability for passengers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this opportunity to explain the engineering works on the Cleethorpes line and what the train operators will be doing to look after passengers and business. Network Rail is to carry out a multi-million pound project this summer to improve the condition of the line between Doncaster and Scunthorpe and, most importantly, to reinstate the 55 mph line speed. The line requires major engineering works to address ground settlement in the Medge Hall area in particular, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, where the track and its substructure are poorly supported by the peat and soft clay beneath. Speed restrictions are as low as 10 mph in some places.
The line will be closed between Doncaster and Scunthorpe for 11 weeks to allow works worth more than £16 million to be completed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that in order to minimise disruption, Network Rail will complete several other jobs at the same time, making its total investment in the line about £20 million. I understand entirely why my hon. Friend asked about Doughty road bridge. It would be ideal if the Doughty road works were done at the same time as the blockade, and if that is not possible I will write to her to clarify why.
First TransPennine Express train services will be replaced by direct road services between Cleethorpes, Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Doncaster from Monday 22 June until Sunday 6 September. TransPennine trains will continue to run between Doncaster, Sheffield and Manchester airport.
As I will mention later, there are some parallels with an experience that I had as a constituency MP when the Ipswich tunnel closed for several months a couple of years ago. I encourage my hon. Friend to visit the works while they are going on, as that might provide an incentive for Network Rail to ensure that they are completed in a timely manner.
My hon. Friend has stated that the works are taking place between Doncaster and Scunthorpe. Most of the works are near Thorne, which is closer to Doncaster. He has not mentioned the remaining section of line from Scunthorpe to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. I understand that no works are happening on that section of line, so why can a service not run on that part of the line, so people can at least get from Grimsby to Scunthorpe?
I was coming to that point, but I will deal with it now. TransPennine Express considered a shuttle service, but unfortunately it is not practical, as the rolling stock would be trapped and unable to return to its Manchester depot for the necessary regular central servicing and safety checks.
On the timing of the blockade, the work has to be done at this time of year, because aside from being an important passenger route to and from Cleethorpes and Grimsby, the line between Immingham and Doncaster via Scunthorpe is a vital—to use my hon. Friend’s word—freight traffic artery, particularly for coal, iron ore and steel. Network Rail’s decision to select the period between late June and early September for the closure of the line was dictated primarily by the lack of capacity on alternative routes for the freight traffic.
During autumn, winter and spring, there are high levels of coal traffic to power stations. For that reason, it was necessary to select a period during the summer, when loadings to power stations were less and reduced traffic levels could be accommodated on the alternative route. The summer also offers advantages for construction works and replacement passenger road services because of longer daylight hours and generally better weather conditions. Although leisure travel to Cleethorpes over the summer months increases, demand from schools and colleges and for work purposes decreases.
In timing the closure, Network Rail has had to balance the requirement to transport passengers against the requirement to maintain sufficient deliveries of coal to power stations and support the workings of Immingham, which I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise is vital to the local economy. The engineering work will solve a long-standing problem and allow trains to run more quickly, improving long-term punctuality, reliability and the overall attractiveness of the service. TransPennine plans to work alongside local businesses and organisations to encourage more passengers to use the trains after the line is restored. In the meantime, promotional rail tickets, including discounted entry to Pleasure Island at Cleethorpes, will still be available during the works.
On the question of alternative routes, there is little opportunity to accommodate additional passenger trains on the alternative route via Brigg, as most of the spare capacity on that route will be taken by freight trains. That option was explored fully by TransPennine, but it was not possible to hire additional drivers from freight operating companies who had knowledge of the alternative route. Also, running via Brigg would take the trains to Sheffield but omit a call at Doncaster, which would affect passengers making journeys on that busy section of the network.
I will have to make further inquiries and come back to my hon. Friend on that point in writing.
On replacement coach services and how customers will be handled, the detailed timings and calling points for the alternative coach services and connection times at Doncaster are available at stations, via online journey planners and from National Rail Enquiries. Informative posters looking something like this one are also being displayed at stations, and opportunities have been taken to circulate information to passengers in advance of the start of the work. That has included working with North East Lincolnshire council and providing information through tourist offices. Staff will be on hand at stations to assist passengers using the road service, and signage will be placed at stations to indicate pick-up points. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that all coaches will have toilets on board. From my own experience a couple of years ago, I know that the information process is critical. If everyone is aware of what is happening, it helps the alternative arrangements operate much more smoothly and perhaps without some of the anticipated concerns.
My hon. Friend asked about the new trains that her constituency currently enjoys. The TransPennine franchise serving Cleethorpes has one of the newest fleets in the country, consisting of 51 brand-new units and seven five-year-old refurbished trains. That modern rolling stock is committed until the end of the franchise in 2012.
My hon. Friend discussed through-route services to London. The east coast main line passenger timetable will be improved in December 2010, with more trains and reduced journey times, delivering on a commitment made by National Express East Coast as part of its franchise agreement with the Department for Transport. The new timetable will include one direct service every two hours between King’s Cross and Lincoln, giving Lincoln direct services to London for the first time in many years. National Express East Coast and Network Rail are examining the case for extending some services to provide a direct link between Cleethorpes, Grimsby and London via Lincoln. That would be a commercial initiative by National Express.
The provisional timetable, which is not yet finalised, will contain a morning service to London and an evening service returning from London. The timing of those services will be particularly attractive to business travellers. The December 2010 east coast main line timetable will deliver other benefits for rail travellers from Grimsby and Cleethorpes. A standard repeating pattern of services will be adopted with trains running at the same times in each hour throughout the day. That will introduce a regular hourly connection at Doncaster for Grimsby and Cleethorpes with a standard connection time of 15 minutes. Present journey times will be maintained and passengers will be able to plan their journeys more easily in the knowledge that regular connections are available.
My hon. Friend raised a few issues about the road network at the end of her speech. If she was referring to trunk roads, they fall within my responsibilities, and I would be delighted to hear from her about those issues in due course.
In conclusion, I look forward to the completion of the engineering work that will allow trains to run more quickly and improve the long-term punctuality, reliability and overall attractiveness of the service to Cleethorpes. I commend my hon. Friend’s work in promoting the prosperity and future of Cleethorpes and the surrounding area.
Question put and agreed to.