Tuesday 30 June 2009
[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]
Repossession and Mortgage Arrears
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Blizzard.)
I am glad to have an opportunity to return to a subject on which I have introduced several debates in the last few years, including one six months ago and an Opposition day debate a year ago. The subject is immensely important because, of all the victims of recession and economic crisis, the people who have the greatest difficulty are those who lose not only their job, but their home, with all the consequences that has for family distress, local homelessness and the availability of emergency and social housing.
Two things have happened in the last six months that merit a return to the subject. First, the Government have introduced a wide range of measures, many of which we on these Benches, and indeed other hon. Members, called for. Citizens Advice, Shelter and other organisations acknowledged that such measures have had a positive impact. A lot has been done in the form of the pre-action protocol, the income support for mortgage interest scheme, the mortgage protection scheme and the home owners mortgage support scheme. I propose to review the progress of those schemes.
From the outset, I acknowledge that many initiatives have been introduced. However, some have been more successful that others. The mortgage protection scheme has not been particularly successful. I understand that the latest monthly figures on that so far rather embarrassing scheme were due to appear this morning; in fact, I think they were to be published at midnight. If I were a conspiracy theorist, which I am not, I would wonder why they did not appear before this debate. We shall no doubt hear how that scheme is progressing. There is a lot to report, and I hope that the Minister will be able to update us.
The other reason for reviewing the matter after a period of months is to take a rain check on what is happening with underlying trends as the schemes affect repossession and its consequences. In the short run, there is some good news in that the Council of Mortgage Lenders has revised downwards its estimate of the number of people whose homes are likely to be repossessed this year from, I think, 75,000 to 65,000. It acknowledges that that is at least partly because of the intervention of Government schemes. There is also a worry that although such schemes are stabilising the position in the very short term, we are storing up even bigger problems for next year and the year after.
In periods of recession, many things happen on a time lag; for example, unemployment lags behind the economy in general. Unemployment continues to rise, and the problems of repossession and arrears lag behind unemployment, so we are dealing with something that has a very long fuse. Many people who deal with housing needs are worried that the problem will worsen badly next year and the year after. There are several reasons for believing that, one of which is that, even if the economy were to recover in a conventional sense, we would expect interest rates to rise. The fact that we have historically low interest rates—at least at base rate level—is one of things that is alleviating the problem at the moment. That is not something on which we can continue to count.
In addition, what seems to be happening through the pre-action protocol and other interventions is that many of the problems are being dammed up. Good practice and forbearance by the courts and mortgage lenders are rightly keeping some of the problems at bay, but eventually they will have to be dealt with. There will be a flood of repossessions when the delays are worked through. The Government’s schemes are temporary, and there is a concern about what will happen when that period ends.
Some interesting and slightly worrying analysis has been conducted by a Mr. Shepherdson, who is the former chief economist at HSBC. He believes that, taking all those factors into account, repossessions may well be running at more than 100,000 a year by 2011. There is a worrying level of delayed reaction. It is useful to have this debate at this stage because we can flag up that problem in advance and be clear about whether the Government have thought through their emergency actions and what has to happen next.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a crucial matter and he is absolutely right: it is timely that we consider it now because of the importance of a stitch in time. It is right to try to prevent avoidable repossessions—in the interest not just of individuals and their families, but of society as a whole. The Government have introduced some schemes, but pre-repossession protocol is only a discretionary requirement on judges. Does he agree with me and the content of early-day motion 34 in saying that we should encourage the Government to put that protocol on a statutory footing, so that we know it exists and judges will have to obey it? That will mean that we can avoid repossessions where possible.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that I have signed his early-day motion. If I have not, I will do so. He makes a good point, to which I will come shortly. It is true that the majority of judges seem to be taking the matter seriously, but not all are. There are many gaps in the protocol, and I will elaborate on that in a few moments.
The other trend to which it is worth referring is the growth in negative equity. In a perverse way, that is helping to alleviate the problem of repossessions because, as long as banks and other lenders can see that there is negative equity, they are less likely to repossess property on which they will make a loss. In the short term at least, market forces alleviate the problem, but negative equity is a major issue that is growing.
Some interesting figures produced at the beginning of last week by the credit agency Fitch estimate that currently about 10 per cent. of home buyers are in negative equity, and in some parts of the country—the midlands and city centres such as Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere—the figure is probably up to 30 per cent. That is according to a narrow measure, which does not take any account of sub-prime lending. A wider measure that takes account of negative equity in relation to actual loans suggests that 15 per cent. of loans are in negative equity. That is at a time when the housing market has not yet adjusted to the level that many analysts and, I think, the Government themselves consider likely: a 30 per cent. fall from the peak. On average, we are currently talking only about a 20 per cent. fall. The market suggests that it is likely that negative equity could well increase in severity. When that happens, further problems will build up.
The figures that I have mentioned exclude the extreme problems of the sub-prime mortgage market, which we have in this country as well as in the United States. Analysis by organisations such as Shelter and Citizens Advice suggests that there are probably about 750,000 sub-prime mortgages out there. Some 20 per cent. of the borrowers of those mortgages are seriously struggling. I was horrified to see that 40 per cent. of all sub-prime borrowers resort to other forms of borrowing, such as credit cards, to maintain their mortgage payments. A big, subterranean arrears problem is building up which is not captured in the figures of the more reputable mainstream lenders.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Sub-prime lenders have been particularly active in recent years in encouraging people to exercise their right to buy in relation to local authority or housing association property. Many hundreds of people face repossession, and the irony, or even tragedy, is that the local authority whose house they once rented has no statutory obligation to rehouse them when they are repossessed because they are considered to be intentionally homeless, not having exercised due caution in applying for loans that they could not afford.
I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman has said so far. Does he believe that the Government or local authorities could do more in such cases, which could add up to a couple of thousand of the 100,000 cases of people losing their home that he predicts in the next year or so?
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I will go on to deal with that a little more when I speak about the mortgage rescue scheme. The way in which the schemes are currently defined suggests that local authorities are required under the Government rules to house only those people who are homeless in a narrow sense. As he implies, and he is absolutely right, many councils apply homelessness rules in a restrictive way because of their desperate shortage of housing stock. Indeed, many people who bought their home from the council will now find themselves homeless, unable to live in the home that they once rented. That is a double tragedy that we have all seen in our constituencies.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his wonderful speech, which I am following closely. I am particularly grateful to him for mentioning the curse of negative equity. I want to highlight the fact that there are regional variations in the figures. There are real problems in areas such as the east midlands, where my constituency is located. The Fitch numbers that he mentioned show that 15 per cent. of home owners in the east midlands, and as many as 24 per cent. in the town of Northampton, are suffering negative equity. In many such constituencies, unemployment is now 80 or 100 per cent. higher than it was 12 years ago, so there is real pain and hardship in blackspots across the country.
That is certainly true, and many of us are aware that unemployment levels have doubled or more in our constituencies—albeit from a low level, but the increase has been alarming. The hon. Gentleman is also right that towns and cities in the east midlands are often the most affected. He mentioned his constituency but I believe that Northampton, Peterborough, Derby, Nottingham and Lincoln, for reasons that are not totally clear, appear to be affected worse than other parts of the country. I would guess that there was a temporary over-supply, and that private developers were too aggressive and underestimated the potential extent of a downturn in the market. He is right to draw attention to local variations.
Perhaps I could proceed from that point to review each of the elements in the Government’s intervention one by one. As I acknowledged at the outset, they have cumulatively had an impact and have generally been welcomed by people who deal with homelessness and the consequences of repossession.
The pre-action protocol was something that my colleagues and I specifically called for more than a year ago. I recall asking the Prime Minister about it in the Chamber. The Government have delivered a programme that gives the courts guidance to ensure that mortgage lenders take proper account of the circumstances of the borrower. It requires lenders to look at other options, involves financial advice and treats repossession as a last resort.
So far, there are some positive indications about the operation of the programme. The majority of judges appear to be taking it into account. There is feedback from a survey done by Shelter and Citizens Advice that more than half the mainstream lenders have adjusted their lending behaviour to take account of the improved court procedure, although, regrettably, only 20 per cent. of sub-prime loans invoke such a response. Having said those positive things about what has happened so far, it is fair to acknowledge that there are serious limitations on the scheme. Many of us hope that the Government will build on what they have already done.
First, lenders do not respond at all in a significant number of cases. That is particularly true in the sub-prime area, but not exclusively so. There appears to be no provision to deal with lenders who are wilfully non-compliant. Some lenders take no notice whatever of guidance from judges. They press for repossession and make no effort to help their struggling borrowers. What is probably required is a fresh round of guidance from the Government on how to deal with non-compliant behaviour by lenders. Perhaps the Minister in his reply could give us some indication of whether there will be any follow-up action.
Under that general heading, there is an acknowledgment that the pre-action protocol has exposed serious weakness in mortgage law in some key areas. Colleagues and others may wish to develop that point. There are two problems in particular. One is the extent to which a large number of borrowers are now exposed to repossession as a result of second charges, many of them for fairly trivial amounts of consumer borrowing, yet they face the loss of their home. The lack of protection in that area is palpable.
Then there is the kind of case that many of us are encountering in our constituencies in which there is default on a buy-to-let mortgage not by the resident but by the property owner. Large-scale default is taking place in the case of buy-to-let mortgages, and many tenants are being thrown out of their property at short notice. The Government have given some indication that they are preparing to legislate to provide more protection. It would be useful if the Minister were to give some indication about how and when that is due to happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) suggested in the context of the Banking Bill a particular formulation for a new legislative framework to help buy-to-let tenants. Have the Government had an opportunity to review it, and how do they react to it as a legislative proposition?
To summarise, the initiative has been welcome, but there are severe limitations, and, of course, it has built up a pipeline of arrears cases without necessarily solving them.
Secondly, we move on to the mess of the mortgage rescue scheme, which is probably the least successful of the Government initiatives. The concept is an attractive one: enabling people to stay in their home as tenants or in a shared ownership arrangement. That is much preferable to existing rent-back arrangements in which some private landlords behave in a somewhat disreputable way towards people who have entered informal rent-back arrangements that are not properly regulated.
In theory, the Government’s scheme is attractive and we should welcome it. When it was introduced, we were told that it had the potential to help some 6,000 people. At the end of April, only two applications had been approved, which I know is a source of some embarrassment. Is the Minister in a position to tell us what the number is as of this morning? Numbers were supposed to have appeared today.
There are two big problems with the scheme as the Government are currently administering it. One is extreme complexity. All the financial advisers who have guided people with arrears problems into it have reported that whereas a private rent-back arrangement probably takes about a week to set up, which may be because some operators cut corners, the Government’s scheme appears to involve a five-month process, which is extraordinary. It is excessively legalistic, and I wonder what the Government are doing to streamline the exercise.
The other problem area is the one that we have already heard about from the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), which is that many families are excluded by a tight definition of homelessness. I have written to the Minister for Housing about a particularly bad case in my constituency of a father who has predominant responsibility for a daughter, but in the messy, complex arrangements that now exist for families that are breaking up, not full responsibility. He is not protected under the council’s—ultimately, the Government’s —definition of homelessness. What are the Government doing to make their definition of accessibility to the scheme more flexible? Clearly, there have to be some limits, but can they be applied more sensitively to make people in real need eligible for the scheme?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that to gauge the effectiveness of initiatives such as the mortgage rescue scheme, we need to ensure that the Government hold accurate records? The Minister for Housing assured me, in a written answer on 17 June, that only one household in Greater Manchester had been ineligible for the mortgage-to-rent and shared equity option, yet when I spoke to a person in Greater Manchester who is dealing with inquiries, I was assured that the vast majority of people who have inquired about eligibility have been told that they are not eligible for the scheme.
I understand that in April and May there were discussions around the country involving about 800 families. Such discussions are useful because they provide a way of delaying and possibly heading off repossessions. None the less, of those 800, only a tiny fraction are considered eligible, such is the tight definition of the rules. My hon. Friend’s experience in Greater Manchester is similar to that of other hon. Members around the country. That is why I am pressing the Minister to indicate that the Government are a little bit more open to flexibility in that area.
Thirdly, the mortgage support scheme, under which various lenders help in rolling up interest—in effect, to defer arrears problems—gives families facing short-term unemployment an opportunity to ride out the recession. The problem, which is reported to us by the voluntary organisations dealing with it, is that nobody is quite sure which lenders are operating the scheme and which are not. There is a strange kind of secrecy hanging over the scheme. There are no published data on which mortgage lenders are co-operating and which are not. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the Government’s position and tell us why there is no published list.
I gather that GE, which is one of the more controversial lenders and which has not been part of the scheme, is now saying that it will be part of it, but there is nothing in writing and no indication about when that involvement is to start. In addition, some of the small building societies are not parties to the scheme. Why is the list not published? Can there not be some indication about which lenders are involved in the scheme, simply to help the various advisers in citizens advice bureaux and other places, so that they know who is co-operating and who is not? That would make their lives and those of people in arrears easier, because at the moment there is something of a lottery and a great deal of uncertainty.
Fourthly, and finally, I should like to mention the ISMI scheme—income support for mortgage interest—which everybody concerned with this business accepts has been the most successful of the Government’s initiatives. The origins of that scheme lie in the fact that despite the urgings over the last two decades, few people have been able or willing to obtain mortgage protection insurance policies. Only 17 per cent. of all borrowers are covered by insurance, which is why, in a period of downturn such as the one we are in, large numbers of people are exposed. Bringing mortgage payments within the social security system provides a necessary fall-back for people in difficulty. There is some uncertainty about that. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the Government’s thinking. I understand that a two-year maximum is applied to the scheme. We are not yet two years into the crisis, but an awful lot of people in long-term unemployment will find themselves in severe difficulties once the scheme terminates. Do the Government have any flexibility in terms of the periods of time involved?
Is not the prime reason why 83 per cent. of people—to use the hon. Gentleman’s figure—do not take out mortgage protection insurance is that they read about the widely reported cases of the difficulty experienced among the 17 per cent. of people who do take out such insurance, when trying to claim on the insurance that they think they have, because of the hard-line and narrow interpretation that insurance companies sometimes place as barriers to legitimate claims made when people have problems with their mortgages?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. An Office of Fair Trading review of payment protection insurance established that there was substantial overcharging in many cases, and poor consumer protection arrangements. The fact that people did not take out such policies is understandable.
If we in this country continue our preoccupation of ensuring that as many people as possible are owner-occupiers, perhaps we should try to ensure that in future mortgage borrowers are insured through a market mechanism of some kind. I was going to mention that later, but perhaps this is a suitable point at which to do so. Some interesting proposals are flying around. One is based on the Canadian model of pooled insurance—pooled guarantees—and another, called the home sale guarantee scheme, is being seriously considered. I hope that the Government are taking that matter seriously. The underlying philosophy of all those proposals is that an element of guarantee and insurance has to be involved in mortgages. The existing payment protection insurance schemes are not working, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire rightly says.
In conclusion, I shall move on from the four schemes that the Government have introduced and look a little bit further forward and discuss how the underlying problems will be addressed. Repossession is only really a problem because of the underlying lack of available housing, particularly social housing. If social housing was freely available, repossession would not be the tragedy and disaster it currently is. Are the Government, working with the charitable bodies, doing any research at the moment on what happens to people whose homes are repossessed? I do not think that any of us know where those people actually go, although anecdotal evidence suggests that most of them go into the private rented sector, which of course presents problems of its own. Many people go into the private rented sector because they can then get housing benefit, which they found more difficult to get as owner-occupiers, but many of them are still in considerable difficulty.
There is still an issue about how to ensure greater availability of affordable housing in the long term. Yesterday, the Prime Minister, in his statement, gave an indication that more money will be brought forward, stitched together from various other departmental budgets, to increase the availability of social housing. That is welcome, as far as it goes. I understand that the Housing Minister is due to make a statement this week indicating that councils will have greater flexibility in their housing revenue accounts, to enable them to build more council houses of a traditional kind. Will the Minister confirm that that is correct? Will we have a statement about it and will the Government move on the issue?
Another development is taking place on which it would be useful to hear the Minister’s thoughts. I understand that the biggest leap forward in the housing supply is now likely to happen in the form of institutional private investors—pension funds and insurance funds—putting their money into private rented accommodation, some of which could then be managed by local authorities or other registered social landlords, with a share of property being available for social renting, much as we have had through owner-occupier developments in the past. Do the Government welcome that trend? Are they looking at the role that social landlords can play in collaborative arrangements with private developers producing private rented property? Have they thought through some of the legal implications? Is it part of Government long-term planning?
My concluding thought is that the Government have introduced some useful initiatives. They have undoubtedly alleviated the threat of repossession for probably thousands of people, but in many cases the problems are being postponed. We are building up a crisis that will probably reach maturity in a year or two. I want to use this debate primarily to persuade the Government to think ahead rather than looking back, and to consider how to deal with the problem when the crisis builds up in magnitude, as it surely will.
I presume that hon. Members will stay and intervene, or the relatively new Minister will have to make an extremely long speech.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on a thoughtful and helpful contribution. He has been at the forefront of raising the issue over a number of years, and I am sure that the Minister’s predecessor recognises that that has been extremely helpful in pressing the Government to make it an important priority. My hon. Friend said that his purpose was to review progress and to encourage the Government to think long term, which is important. I acknowledge that some of their actions have been helpful, but it is vital to look ahead and not merely to think about how to get through the next nine months before the general election. Whatever policies are put in place must help people in 2011 or 2012 when some of the problems will, unfortunately, still be working their way through the system.
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has downgraded its prediction of the number of repossessions, largely because of low interest rates, but some of the Government’s interventions have helped. However, we are storing up difficulties, particularly because, as he said, we have the long fuse of unemployment. I am certainly seeing that in my constituency where we were not particularly affected by the first round of redundancies in the City, but later redundancies in the retail sector have had an effect. During the next 12 or 18 months, that will work through into other sectors, such as architecture and building. The problems are working their way through the system.
There has been an impact in areas with high migrant populations. Many Polish workers have gone home, and that has had an impact on the rental market, which has then had an impact on those with buy-to-let mortgages. Some of those problems are also working their way through, and it could be another 12 months before we see the full extent of them.
The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) spoke about his constituency and negative equity. Although many families are in negative equity, it affects certain areas in particular. For many people, it will have no impact because property prices may rise again and they may have no intention of moving, but if they come off a fixed-rate mortgage and interest rates rise, people who have been accustomed to switching their mortgage to get the best deal may not be able to do so. If they are still in negative equity and interest rates continue to rise, a further wave of people may get into arrears and difficulties leading to repossession.
My hon. Friend spoke about other aspects of borrowing, particularly on credit cards. Many people who face difficulties with arrears are juggling their finances by borrowing on credit cards. Credit card companies often shout loudest, and those who get into difficulties with their credit cards often face repossession sooner because they prioritise paying off their credit card instead of dealing with their mortgage, which is more important to their security because it affects their home.
The Government have introduced a plethora of schemes, many of which are welcome, but many are small and target particular groups. Even with the CML’s downgrading in the number of repossessions, we are still likely to see 65,000 repossessions this year, and if my hon. Friend’s more gloomy predictions are correct, in a year or so that number may rise again to 100,000. An enormous number of people will fall through the net of the Government’s different schemes. The mortgage rescue scheme, which I will return to, was intended to help only 6,000 people, which is a drop in the ocean of the number of people who face repossession. It has failed to help almost everyone to whom help was promised.
I agree with my hon. Friend that ISMI has been the most successful scheme and certainly the most welcome, and its extension to an earlier stage is important for many people who face difficulties, but it does not help those with savings of £16,000 or those who have a partner who is working. If two people are paying the mortgage and one is made redundant, they are not eligible for ISMI. The Minister may say that other schemes can help, but the patchwork of schemes helps small groups of people and there are enormous holes in the net through which people are falling. Many banks—perhaps 50 per cent. of lenders—are not signed up to the mortgage support scheme.
The fact that the mortgage rescue scheme has helped only two families so far is laughable, and I hope that the Minister agrees that it is ridiculous to have a scheme that is so tightly drawn that we ration through bureaucracy rather than the amount of money that is available to help people. We must make the scheme considerably more flexible. Because of the cap on the overall level of borrowing, councils such as Islington have made use of the Government’s scheme, but have supplemented it with their own finance to ensure that people in areas with high property prices are eligible. I hope that the Minister will say more about that, because in the long term it may not be sustainable, particularly for councils in London.
My hon. Friend spoke about the tight definition of homelessness, which the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) also mentioned. The scheme is targeted at those who would meet the council criteria of homelessness, which all MPs know leaves an enormous number of people in difficulties. A lone man, for example, would be outside the category, and most people would be classed as being intentionally homeless. The Government must try to make the scheme more flexible so that people do not have their hopes raised only to find, three or four months into the application process, that they are not eligible. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) told me that a constituent had spent months on the application process, having been told at the beginning that she would be eligible, and stored up arrears during the process, only to find at the last minute that she was not eligible for the scheme. The problem was worse than it would have been had she not applied in the first place.
The pre-action protocol contains most of the interventions and criteria for which we have been arguing, but it lacks teeth. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham and the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) said that although it is welcome and helpful, the courts do not have the legal power to intervene and to enforce the protocol. If a lender defaults on anything in the protocol, the courts can do nothing. I have been pressing the Government for some time to accept that mortgage law reform would be more sensible, and much of the detail could be put into guidance. Shelter has been arguing that we should also reform mortgage law to deal with tenants in buy-to-let properties. If we merely gave courts the power to intervene, many of the other issues could be put into guidance; it is not necessary to put everything into primary legislation.
Mortgage law is incredibly outdated—it is mired in its 18th and 19th-century common law origins—and the Financial Services Authority is not doing enough to regulate poor practice. As my hon. Friend mentioned, many mortgages are not covered by the FSA. Second charge mortgages and any mortgage entered into before October 2004 are not regulated through the FSA. That applies to buy-to-let mortgages as well.
We also still have foreclosure on the books. That remedy has no place in modern mortgage law and I hope that the Minister agrees. It may be little used, but the mere fact that it is still available, especially at a time when we face many more repossessions, is a reason in itself for the Government to amend mortgage law. By dealing with that issue, they could do a great deal to help the people who will fall through the net in the next 12 months.
I mentioned that changes in employment practice, particularly in areas with many rented properties, affect people who have bought to let. As I said, I have seen that in my constituency. Many Polish workers have gone home in the past two or three months, so many rented properties have been left empty for months at a time and many landlords are getting into arrears. Many of those people have bought the property on a buy-to-let basis. They are not necessarily big developers; they may have bought only one property, perhaps as an investment for their pension fund. They are most likely to have done so through a sub-prime mortgage. It is one thing if the property is empty, but if the property is then let and the landlord is still in difficulty, the first that the tenant knows about that, unfortunately, may be when they come home to find the locks changed.
The Minister’s predecessor said that he was keen to act on that issue, but the Government have not acted on it yet. Many tenants are finding themselves in that difficulty and it is an urgent problem. I hope that the Government will not delay further in acting for tenants of buy-to-let properties. As I said, the most sensible way to deal with the problem would be to give the courts the power to intervene. They could then enforce a notice period at the point of repossession so that families had an opportunity to look for other property. It is also important that we ensure that lenders send unaddressed notices to the property as many times as possible to raise awareness of the situation among tenants. Of course, many lenders may not be aware that the property is being let. Unfortunately, people often let a property without the lender’s permission and then they get into difficulty later, so what I have described has to be done at the stage of repossession. I hope that the Government will consider reforming mortgage law so that that happens.
The hon. Lady makes a lot of sense and I congratulate her, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and the Liberal Democrat party on introducing the idea of the pre-repossession protocol and pushing it heavily until the Government took it on. Does she think that the Government could do more to issue guidance to ensure that council housing departments treat people who face repossession, or who know that they will face repossession, with more dignity and more humanity, because often they are put through the mill by council housing departments that do not allow them to have that dignity?
Unfortunately, an enormous number of people who face homelessness, regardless of the cause, are put through the mill by council housing departments. I do not think that that is unique to people facing repossession. I am not sure that they are treated any worse than someone facing eviction by their landlord. I see many cases in which people are basically expected to turn up at the council’s doors with their children in one arm and their suitcases in the other, and that is the first time that they will get any help from the council. They may be working to try to prevent homelessness during that period, but they have no assurance that they will be rehoused until they turn up at the housing department’s door with all their belongings in tow.
Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend said, that has as much to do with housing supply, and particularly the supply of affordable housing to rent, as it does councils supposedly being heartless. If, as in my constituency, 20,000 families are on the housing waiting list and there is only the possibility of 1,000 families a year moving, the rationing criteria will inevitably seem extremely heartless to the other 19,000 families who face the misery of not being able to get the home that they need.
With regard to what happens after properties are repossessed, we need to increase the supply of affordable housing to rent. We were expecting an announcement from the Minister for Housing today—I presume that it will be made at the Local Government Association conference, unfortunately, rather than in the House—and we hope to hear about the review of the housing revenue account. However, I was disappointed that in the list of Bills that the Government said that they might introduce in the Queen’s Speech later this year, no housing Bill was mentioned. The much-lauded reform of the HRA, whereby councils would be able to keep their rental and sales receipts, clearly means sweet Fanny Adams when we look at what the Government are actually going to do.
I read the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday and saw that the word “consult” appeared before “reform”, which filled my heart with lead, as the Government have been consulting on the HRA for a very long time. Surely now is the time to implement the changes that everyone has been calling on them to implement. I do not think that they can do that without putting it in primary legislation. Perhaps the Minister will challenge my belief and tell me that they can, and that they will do it before the end of the summer, or at least introduce that policy in the autumn, but I fear that I and all my constituents and everyone else on the waiting list—the 1.8 million families—will be sorely disappointed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this debate on an incredibly important topic. As I am sure he is aware, the Opposition have recently held two debates on housing to raise similar issues on the Floor of the House, because we too feel that we need to put a stake in the ground to ensure that the Ministers who are taking decisions think about the problems that constituents up and down the country face daily.
Whenever the country is in a recession, people have two fundamental worries. They are worried about losing their job and they are worried about losing their home. That is ultimately what things boil down to. I will talk about some of the underlying issues relating to how we can support the economy and support housing, but the main subject of the debate is the Government schemes that have been introduced and whether they are working effectively.
Clearly, there is a massive problem of repossessions. Although, as we have heard, the Council of Mortgage Lenders has just revised its forecast for the number of homes that it expects to be repossessed in 2009 from 75,000 to 65,000, that is still 65,000 families throughout the country whom the CML feels will lose their homes by the end of the year. It is still a massive number.
In addition, Shelter has said that it is seeing a huge rise in the number of families and people coming to talk to Shelter about mortgage arrears. There has been a 250 per cent. increase in the number of queries to its free helpline in the past year and an 85 per cent. rise in the number of calls it receives about repossession specifically. When I met representatives of Shelter last week, they raised concerns, much as the hon. Member for Twickenham did, about the fact that we should be very careful not to regard announcements such as the one by the Council of Mortgage Lenders projecting a lower level of repossessions than previously forecast as a kind of respite or message that the storm is passing.
One has only to read today’s papers to see that many commentators are raising the prospect of a “W recession”, which makes sense in terms of repossessions in many respects. Many of the repossessions that we have seen do not involve people who have lost their jobs and fallen behind on their payments—we may not have reached that stage yet. The repossessions that we have seen often involve people who have taken out highly geared mortgages—perhaps more than 100 per cent.—as part of fixed-rate, short-term deals. When the credit crunch happened, those deals came to an end, and people were unable to find similarly good deals to keep their mortgage payments at the same level. They saw massive rises in their mortgage payments at a time when they could least afford it.
Indeed, the retail prices index of inflation was also high last year, and a lot of our debates in this place were about the rapidly rising cost of living. On top of that, the subsection of people I am talking about saw their mortgage payments rise and they struggled, but ultimately failed, to find deals that were as good as those that they had found a few years earlier, when lenders were still happy to build their mortgage books through aggressive lending. As we have seen, such business models led many lenders into huge trouble and ultimately to come to the British taxpayer to be bailed out.
We should be careful to see the problems of those different groups of people as having fundamentally separate causes. One group got good, highly geared mortgage deals, but could not find the same deal a couple of years later when their short-term rate came to an end. More worryingly perhaps, the other cohort—many commentators, including Shelter, have flagged this up—involves the more traditional repossessions that we see in a recession.
As we have heard, repossessions are often a lag indicator, alongside unemployment. Unemployment has risen dramatically, and all sorts of forecasters, including the OECD, expect it to continue to rise dramatically. We have only to walk down our local high streets and parades of shops to see that small businesses are increasingly under pressure. We hear an awful lot on the news about big companies shutting down with large job losses, but, underneath all that, a plethora of other jobs are being lost every day of the week because small firms are going out of business.
There is a worrying rise in repossessions, and we should be cautious not to assume that the recent downgrading of the forecast for this year will be the end of the story. If interest rates rise again, a range of fresh pressures—not least job losses and interest rate rises—may, unfortunately, put more pressures on families who are finding it hard to keep up their mortgage repayments.
Of course, my party welcomes any measures that can be introduced to help families navigate their way through what is the most stressful experience for any family—the prospect of losing their home. We have already heard comments about the schemes that the Government have introduced, but it is only right that I should add my comments as the Opposition spokesman.
Obviously, the mortgage rescue scheme has been disappointing. It was announced with much fanfare in September 2008. It is a substantial £285 million scheme, which aims to help 6,000 families. As the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) said, help for 6,000 families is obviously welcome, but we are talking about a comparatively small proportion of those affected—probably less than 10 per cent. of even the reduced figure for repossessions that the CML is forecasting for this year. Furthermore, 6,000 is the number who are to be helped over two years, although the latest figures that we have—I hope the Minister can update us—show that just two families have been helped after four months, which is disappointing.
It is clear from the debate that if we are serious about introducing schemes to help people stay in their homes, we have to understand how those schemes work and whether they work effectively. The mortgage rescue scheme seems to involve a huge amount of bureaucracy, which is the message that comes through whether one talks to local authorities or, as I have, to constituents who are looking at whether they are eligible. The message is that the process is lengthy and complicated.
When we raised these issues in a debate a couple of weeks ago, it was surprising to hear that the Government do not seem to keep that many statistics. Who will be able to take advantage of the mortgage rescue scheme? Who is in the pipeline? Where in the country are they? How many people are close to being able to access the scheme? Unless we are willing to track its performance more meaningfully, it is difficult to find out whether it is working effectively, and we end up finding out that it is not working only four months down the track, when we see that just two families have been helped. We all want these schemes to work, so I hope that the Minister can talk a little more about how the Government will monitor the mortgage rescue scheme’s effectiveness and whether they plan to review it. That would be very much appreciated.
The mortgage support scheme was announced in December 2008, but it was not launched until April 2009—four or five months later. We have flagged up our concerns about whether lenders that should have signed up to the scheme have actually done so. We need more transparency on that from Ministers. As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, key lenders, including some building societies, are not signed up. That is deeply worrying. We would like to hear from the Minister which lenders are still not signed up and what efforts the Government are making to encourage them to do so.
Hon. Members have commented on the pre-action protocol, but I want to make some slightly different observations about how it is working. The protocol could help, but the way in which different lenders deal with their customers is hugely variable. This has not been discussed today, but I would like to hear from the Minister about the extent to which the Government are looking at the role of the FSA and the “treating customers fairly” regime, which, as he will be aware, has just been subsumed into the FSA’s general ARROW—advanced, risk-responsive operating framework—assessment of lenders. I would also like to know whether arrears are being effectively dealt with.
I have asked parliamentary questions to find out whether the “treating customers fairly” regime was up and running and to find out about the ARROW assessments, which that regime is now part of. Is it the FSA’s judgment that banks are behaving fairly? The picture is very opaque. Does the Minister feel that there should be more transparency about what the FSA is looking at and about its views? I understand that two lenders are on the ARROW watch list following assessments by the FSA, but it is impossible to find out which two. The more data there are in the public domain, the better able customers will be to decide whether they want to transact with certain companies in the future. Most people who get a mortgage will want to know that the lender will be there for them not just in the good times, when they want a good deal, but in the bad times, when they need help.
We have also talked about the ISMI scheme. Again, the fact that it is now available earlier is welcome, but there are concerns about eligibility and accessibility.
To conclude, the real solution to the problem of repossessions is to get the economy back up and running. In particular, I urge Ministers to support small businesses around Britain, because they are most vulnerable to the recession we find ourselves in. We have been urging the Government to consider the steps they can take to help small businesses, such as reducing national insurance for the smallest businesses, enabling them to defer paying VAT, and simplifying their capital allowances structure so that we can reduce the small companies rate of corporation tax.
Will the Minister take a careful look at how business rate rises affect small companies? If we can keep them going, or help them to keep themselves going, that is the best way to stop repossessions, because it will keep people in jobs. It is when people lose their jobs that they become most susceptible to losing their homes.
Given the debate that is taking place in the House today, I urge the Minister to tell us more about the housing announcements that we have been hearing about. As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, affordability underpins the entire issue. The reason why many people have had such huge and highly geared mortgages that now, in an economic recession, they find it hard to continue paying is the fact that lack of housing stock pushed up prices. There are fewer housing starts in Britain now than at any time since the 1920s.
Every year since this Government have been in office less social housing has been built than in the preceding 18 years. That is disappointing. A range of Government measures is needed, and the Opposition have made proposals to ensure that starting rates of social housing will go back up. That will make sure that there is more affordable housing. Supporting housing and jobs is the best way, in the longer term, to minimise the underlying risk of repossessions, whatever the economic weather.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this important debate and thank all the hon. Members who have taken part; I shall try to respond to the points that they made. It was a pleasure to listen to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and it is a privilege to be replying to someone who has won the respect of Members in all parts of the House and, much more importantly, of members of the public. In this debate he has displayed the sure-footedness and nimble feet that we would expect from Westminster’s best known ballroom dancer, and the depth of knowledge and thoughtfulness of someone who has been contributing to the economic debate in this country for probably more than 30 years, as a special adviser to previous Governments, in local government, as a senior economist in the private sector and now, of course, as one of the leading figures on his party’s Front Bench.
As you can imagine, Mr. Amess, in preparing for the debate, I wanted to see whether among the dozens of publications in the hon. Gentleman’s name there was anything written by him on housing. I can report that he has gone from contributing to the “Red Paper on Scotland” in the 1970s to the Green Book more recently, and seems to have covered every other subject on earth in between, from “Regulating Modern Capitalism” to “Globalization: Rules and Standards for the World Economy”. He wrote “The Role of Handicrafts Exports: Problems and Prospects Based on Indian Experience” and even “Evaluation of the Multifibre Arrangement and negotiating options”, which sounds like a riveting read, and which I look forward to reading if he will lend me a copy. Unfortunately, I have to report that I could not find anything on housing, but I think that we would all agree that he has more than made up for that this morning in the second debate on the issue that he has secured this year. I am grateful to him for that because it gives me the chance to report on the progress that has been made.
In these difficult times, as Members of all parties have pointed out, families need extra support and help. They need a Government who are on their side, providing help for them to stay in their homes and to avoid repossession at every stage, from free debt advice at the moment when problems start, to free legal advice at courts throughout England on the day of the repossession hearing. The Government have an excellent track record on preventing homelessness and have acted decisively to help households struggling with their mortgages to ensure that, wherever possible, they are able to remain in their homes. We can all imagine the horror of losing one’s home and the devastating impact that that must have, so I reassure the House, and families throughout the country, that we are determined to help as much as possible. I promise that we will do everything in our power to ensure that no household demonstrating to the bank a willingness to pay must face the fear of repossession of the family home.
Households must clearly talk to their lenders as soon as possible if they are facing financial difficulties. Since the autumn, we have put in place a framework of protections and universal help, as well as targeted schemes for households in different circumstances. We have enhanced help through the benefit system, and we have put in place the mortgage rescue scheme, which hon. Members have discussed, and the innovative homeowners mortgage support guarantee scheme. The legal protections for home owners have been strengthened so that lenders can repossess their home only as a last resort, and options to help them stay in their home must be explored first. Lenders are required to treat borrowers fairly, so people should not be afraid to talk to them as soon as they think they are going to have difficulties making payments. There is free, independent advice on the help available to keep them in their home. That is markedly different from the delayed reaction in the 1990s, when lenders were relied on to respond, without financial support and leadership from Government.
I want to emphasise the importance of looking at the package of help that we are providing as a whole, to appreciate the positive impact that it is already having. Every repossession is a tragedy for the family, and all the figures and statistics will be no consolation to those who are affected, but it is still worth pointing out that the current figures provided by the Council of Mortgage Lenders show that the number of repossessions in 2008 represents about 0.34 per cent. of all loans. That means that, despite the fact that more than 1 million more households now own their own home, the numbers affected are proportionately smaller than in the 1990s. The CML has already said that its forecast of 75,000 repossessions this year looks pessimistic in light of Government intervention.
In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Twickenham, the Government are working with Shelter, the National Debtline and the CML to research what happens to households post-repossession. That is part of a package of work agreed through the Home Finance Forum. The CML has also reduced its figure for repossessions, and that revision is a direct result of the action we have taken, in combination with low interest rates and other actions to support the economy.
I want to talk a little more about the universal and targeted help that we are providing, and the impact that that is having in helping people to keep their homes. The first step to avoiding repossession will be forbearance by the lender and the opportunity for a household struggling with a mortgage to agree more manageable monthly payments. Most people who are facing difficulties will be able to agree a solution with their lender. We have put in place Financial Services Authority regulation of lenders, which, since 2004, requires lenders to treat customers fairly, and to treat repossession as a last resort.
FSA regulation is supported by the new mortgage pre-action protocol, introduced in November 2008. That sets out clear guidance to the judiciary on what steps the courts expect lenders to take before bringing a claim in the courts. That ensures that lenders have discussed other alternatives with the borrower. There are early signs that the protocol is having a positive impact. More borrowers are approaching lenders earlier to discuss options, and Ministry of Justice figures show a 42 per cent. drop in mortgage repossession claims issued in the first quarter of 2009, compared with the first quarter of 2008. We have also provided extra funding for debt advice, including a £6 million additional investment in National Debtline telephone advice, to March 2011, which will help up to 70,000 people per year who are suffering from debt problems, and £10 million to Citizens Advice, to March 2010, to expand face-to-face debt advice capacity and so help an additional 500,000 people.
Even at the latest stage, when a possession case has reached court, repossession is not inevitable, and getting advice and support can help households to remain in their home. We now have universal access to advice desks in courts in England, providing free, on-the-day legal advice and representation to people facing repossession or eviction hearings.
May I take the Minister back to his earlier comments? He will be aware that the “treating customers fairly” initiative, which was supposed to become mandatory in December, has been embedded in the ARROW core supervisory assessment. That is all well and good, but the by-product is that we did not discover in December whether lenders had complied with the initiative. Will he give us an update? Did lenders comply with that regime before it was subsumed into the core supervisory work?
I shall provide more details later in my speech.
People now have universal access to advice desks in courts throughout England, which provide free legal advice and representation to those facing repossession. Last year, more than 34,000 households accessed that free advice.
Depending on their circumstances, households may benefit from a range of schemes to reduce their monthly mortgage payments to a level that they can afford. We have put support in place through the benefits system that includes support for mortgage interest, or SMI, payments being made to customers’ mortgage interest payments.
In January, we extended the scheme to provide even greater support for home owners. We doubled the capital limit for loans to £200,000; we reduced the waiting period so that households now receive help 13 weeks after claiming benefits; and we froze the standard interest rate used to calculate the amount of SMI awardable to customers at 6.08 per cent until December 2009. Some 220,000 households benefited from SMI last year, and we expect up to 10,000 extra households to benefit from further changes over the next two years.
We have put in place a mortgage rescue scheme, under which the local authority can step in, over two years, to support some of the most vulnerable households facing repossession, allowing them to remain in their homes. A housing association will buy an equity stake in the property to reduce mortgage repayments to a manageable level, or buy the property in full and rent it back to the household at a lower than market rent. The scheme has been available from all participating local authorities since 1 January 2009, following the successful fast-tracked delivery of the scheme in nearly 80 authorities last year.
I reassure the hon. Member for Twickenham that he can do away with his conspiracy theories. However, he might want a quicker researcher. The figures were published at 9.30 am today. They show that more than 5,000 households struggling with their mortgage received free advice from their local authority in the five months from January. By the end of May, more than 200 households had benefited under the mortgage rescue scheme, which stops the immediate threat of repossession and freezes charges, and a further 295 households are at the assessment stage.
We are now focusing intensively on ramping up take-up and accelerating processing times. We are determined to ensure that help through the mortgage rescue scheme is available to all who need it. We are listening closely to feedback from our delivery partners, money advice agencies, local authorities and registered social landlords, and we are responding flexibly. We have already amended the scheme to include second charge loans and households in negative equity. We will continue to keep the scheme under review.
The Minister said a few moments ago that 200 families are now being helped under the mortgage rescue scheme. Does that mean that we have gone from two to 200 in a month—that 200 have been rescued—or that 200 are under discussion, which is very different? How many families have completed agreements under which they are being rehoused?
The important thing about the scheme is to recognise that families receive help at various stages, and are prevented from ending up at the final point. To judge the scheme only on the numbers that come out at the other end is to undersell its importance. As I said, 200 households have benefited from action under the mortgage rescue scheme, which stops the immediate threat of repossession and freezes charges. A further 295 households are at the assessment stage.
I understand what the Minister says, but I hope that he remembers the example that I gave of a colleague’s constituent. The family had been all the way through the system, during which time it had built up further arrears, but only then was told that it was not eligible. The process of applying, which took two or three months, had made things worse, yet at the end of it the family was told that it was not eligible.
As I said earlier, we are talking to all the participants in the scheme to see whether we can accelerate it.
I can now respond to the hon. Member for Twickenham. The number of families that have received help at the final stage has increased from two to six. There were four completions in May, which shows that the impact of the scheme is accelerating.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving us those figures at long last. Does he have a figure to show the split for local authorities? I presume that the data are being collated by local authorities. I know that many Members would be interested to know how many of their constituents were at the various stages of the process. Would the Minister place that information in the Library?
I do not have those details with me, but I shall check. If we can make them available, we will do so.
Financial help is available from local authorities, with the £20 million for the preventing repossession fund that was announced at the last Budget. It will enable local authorities to offer households small loans to prevent repossession or eviction. The fund is available to anyone threatened with homelessness through repossession or eviction. For example, it could be used to clear mortgage or second charge arrears in appropriate cases if it prevented repossession. Financial assistance through small loans will allow money to be recycled, which can help other households in the local authority area.
Homelessness prevention funds have played an integral part since 2003 in the fall of over 60 per cent. in the number of households being accepted as homeless. We also launched the homeowners mortgage support in April, to help homeowners remain in their homes if they fall on difficult times. The scheme enables eligible borrowers to reduce their monthly interest payments to affordable levels for up to two years to help them get back on track with their finances if they suffer a temporary income shock. All lenders offering HMS will have the financial backing of a Government-backed guarantee that will protect the lender if the customer ultimately defaults on the mortgage.
The hon. Member for Twickenham asked for details of the lenders involved in that scheme. Lenders covering about 80 per cent. of the mortgage market are now providing enhanced support for those of their customers who may be facing difficulties. Lenders offering HMS from 21 April include the major high-street lenders Lloyds banking group, which includes HBOS and Northern Rock; the Royal Bank of Scotland, which includes NatWest, the Ulster bank and Bradford and Bingley; Cumberland building society; and the National Australia bank group, which includes Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks and Standard Life.
A number of other major banks, building societies and specialist lenders have confirmed that they will offer their customers HMS as soon as possible. They include the Bank of Ireland, which includes Bristol and West and the Post Office; GMAC Financial Services; GE Money, which was referred to by the hon. Gentleman; and Kensington Mortgage company. All lenders offering HMS will have the backing of a Government guarantee to protect the lender if the customer ultimately defaults. Four other high-street lenders—Barclays, HSBC, Nationwide and Santander—are now offering comparable arrangements to their customers. I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question.
The scheme is still in its early days, but more that 17,000 households have accessed information on HMS since its launch. We want to see lenders offering the scheme to help as many households as possible, in order to avoid repossession, and we are working with lenders to ensure that all households for whom HMS is the most appropriate option are able to gain access to it.
These difficult times are affecting not only home owners but tenants, as was pointed out by the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Brent, East. The present difficulties also affect tenants renting from borrowers who default on the mortgage. That affects only a small number of households, but that does not make it any less just. We have therefore taken measures to address the problem. Civil procedure rules were changed so that, from April, buy-to-let tenants get up to seven weeks’ notice, which is up from the present two weeks, if their landlord’s mortgage defaults.
We need to do more, however, to ensure that all tenants are better protected, regardless of whether their tenancy has been authorised by the landlord’s lender, as is usually the case in a buy-to-let mortgage agreement. Last May, we announced our intention to legislate at the earliest opportunity to fill a gap in legal protection for private tenants whose landlords suffer repossession by ensuring that they receive adequate notice to vacate the property, regardless of whether their tenancy has been authorised by the landlord’s lender. We shall consult on our proposals over the summer with a view to legislating at the next opportunity. In the meantime, we are working closely with lenders to improve their current practices when they find an unauthorised tenant in a property of which they are seeking possession. Any tenant who is concerned, or who has received notification of a court possession hearing, should seek advice immediately. They should contact the mortgage lender taking repossession action and attend the hearing so that the judge is aware that there is a tenant in the property.
The hon. Member for Brent, East asked about HRA reform. Later today, when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing announces the outcome of the review of council housing finance, he will also outline proposals to allow councils to keep all the proceeds from their own council house sales, as well as their rent.
As I said, my right hon. Friend will provide further details later.
The hon. Lady also asked about mortgage law. The Ministry of Justice has been reviewing it in response to concerns raised in connection with the Horsham case, which received some media attention last year, as she will recall. It will announce its conclusions shortly. Both she and the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) asked about FSA regulation. I can assure them that the Treasury continues to keep regulation under review.
I am trying to help the Minister, because he has had to make a very long speech. The Government promised some time ago to regulate private buy-back and rent schemes and to bring them under the auspices of the FSA, but they still have not done that. Does he have any news on when that will happen?
In a rare moment of candour, I can tell the hon. Lady that, despite the fantastic induction into the Department given to me over the past few weeks, I do not have that information, but I shall find out and come back to her.
In conclusion, the Government are working day and night to do what is required to help households through these difficult times. We need to ensure that, wherever possible, families do not have to suffer the trauma and upheaval of repossession. People need to be reassured that we shall do everything possible to help all households at risk, so that they can benefit from the package of help that we have provided. We shall continue to put pressure on lenders to ensure that they support their customers, to strengthen and accelerate the delivery of the schemes that we have put in place, and to ensure that households know where to get help if they are struggling. At every stage, we shall show that their Government are on their side.
Forensic Science Service
Unlike the last debate, when we did not have enough colleagues to fill the time, it appears that we now have a number of colleagues who wish to participate in this debate. I should like everyone to have a chance to speak, but it is up to hon. Members to determine how many I can call.
It is a pleasure to see you, Mr. Amess, in the Chair for this very important debate. I am pleased to see that we have before us the same Minister who announced the reorganisation of the Forensic Science Service. His announcement came the day that we had a change of Home Secretary—a good day, it seems, to get bad news out. Members of Parliament were not given any prior warning of the news. In fact, we had the media on the phone telling us what was happening. That is not a good way for the Government to do business; in fact, it is a very poor way.
Let us set the background of where we are at and from where we go. Of course the announcement was bad news. We are talking about a review of seven sites. I hope that the Minister will stand up and apologise to hon. Members. The Home Secretary has taken the trouble to say sorry for not giving advance warning, but why should he apologise? He knew nothing about it. The decision was made while one Home Secretary was going and another was arriving. I hope that the Minister stands up now and apologises so that we can see what a decent chap he is. Does he wish to stand up? No. I think that that sums it up. That tells us everything about how this matter has been handled. It has been pretty appalling, has it not?
On 8 June, the Forensic Science Service launched a collective consultation in readiness for reorganisation of the business. As I have said, the timing of the announcement was particularly good—as one Home Secretary departed and another took office. It was a good day to bury bad news. In light of the Minister’s timing, I hope that he will be able to provide very comprehensive answers to all our questions, and that he will not simply hide behind the argument, “Nothing to do with me, guv. This is an operational matter for the FSS.” We do not want to hear that. This is about ensuring that crimes are solved in the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I raised this issue in the House on 11 June, just days after the announcement. To be fair to the Minister, who is a decent man of integrity, he wrote to me a day or two later, giving me the statement for which I asked. However, I was alarmed by what the letter said. Will the Minister agree, when he winds up, that the decision has been inevitable for a long time? His predecessors have undermined the ability of the FSS to perform to its full potential by actively encouraging profiteers in a service that should be about public interest and not commercial gain. That is the concern of Labour Members, who have been raising the matter for months and months. Now we see that up to 800 jobs may be going, which is appalling.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, but this has been going on not for months but for years. This Minister has not approached me or other MPs. We were in regular contact with the Minister who used to have responsibilities for the FSS, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), and we discussed all the issues with her. There were discussions from start to finish. What has changed? We now have a Minister who does not believe in Back Benchers. What we have is a technocrat. We have stopped doing politics because good politics is about talking to Back Benchers and to the representatives of the sites that are down for potential closure. That is what politicians should do, but technocrats do not do that; they just accept decisions. I hope that the Minister will prove me wrong and show that he is not a technocrat and that he is going to do politics, because it is about time that he did. I am disappointed in him because all the other Ministers took the time and the trouble to speak to us and explain what was going on and the rationale behind the decisions. Unfortunately, we have not seen that from this one. If the Minister wishes to intervene, I will give way at any point so that he can clarify his position and why he has taken a different role to others.
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only did the previous Minister meet us to talk courteously about the matter, to try to get us to understand where the Government were coming from, but she also offered to go with us to visit some of the facilities, particularly the one in my constituency in Vauxhall?
I would welcome this Minister to Chorley. I hope that he does not pass judgment and allow things to happen without visiting sites and understanding the quality of the work that takes place, and the importance of that work. This decision is about privatisation. I have now found out that the chief executive is leaving and a new one is about to come in. He is Mr. Simon Bennett from QuinetiQ—[Hon. Members: “Oh no!”] We all know about QuinetiQ and how to become a billionaire: run a business, privatise it, fill up the bank account and off we go. Is that what is really behind the decision? It seems very strange that the chief executive who announced the closure programme and set out the rationale for it should be replaced. Surely the new chief executive should be the person who reviews the situation of all the sites—unless there is a hidden agenda, and I think that we should tease out that hidden agenda. The Minister must be up front and honest with us.
The Forensic Science Service states that as a consequence of the reorganisation, there is likely to be a headcount reduction of some 30 to 40 per cent. of the total work force. That change will take place over the next 18 months. It is against that backdrop that I applied for the debate, and I want to highlight my concerns about the Chorley site and the impact on the whole of the Forensic Science Service.
The Forensic Science Service is a leading provider of analysis and interpretation of evidence from crime scenes. It provides a comprehensive service from crime scene to courtroom and analyses more than 120,000 cases each year. It is the market leader in the supply of forensic science to the police and coroners in England and Wales. It is also a supplier to places such as the Isle of Man, the overseas territories and other Commonwealth countries. It has a global reputation for excellence in the development and deployment of new and advanced techniques. Its heritage and expertise also provide the basis for world-class training services.
As someone who supports the free market, may I say that I share the hon. Gentleman’s grave concerns about the limits of such a decision and about allowing private companies to provide evidence that could be used in murder trials? He has been critical of some Ministers, but will he pay tribute to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who has said that we will have an emergency investigation of this matter in the next two weeks, before the recess? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage anyone with relevant evidence to come before that Committee to make a strong case for keeping the FSS open.
I welcome that very important news. It sends a simple message to the Minister: stop anything going ahead and stop the plans now to allow that Committee to do its vital work. We welcome that news and I hope that the Government take heed of what has been said. It is on the Minister’s shoulders. It is no use him saying, “It’s not me, guv.” We do not want bully boys in suits. We want to ensure that honesty comes across in this Chamber, and for him to take on board what we have to say. We want him to listen, and to learn from previous mistakes. QinetiQ is a big mistake.
The Minister’s letter of 17 June has been mentioned. I genuinely believe him to be honest and open. In it, he said:
“We are committed to FSS’ survival as a core player in the forensics market and a vital part of the Criminal Justice System, and are investing considerably in the transformation programme.”
It is true that there is considerable investment, but I was disappointed with the words “a core player”; it should say “the core player”. The FSS ought to be the dominant player—it sets standards of professionalism and it is a beacon. It is a great pity that forensic science has been fragmented in a way that will allow the FSS to be sold off in three years’ time, which is the plan.
I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend. In fact, the problem is that the small players in the market are cherry-picking the work. That is what it is about. We know that the FSS is second to none in the world. Cases that would not otherwise have been solved have been solved by the FSS. Do we really believe that private companies will go back to cases from 30 or 40 years ago to solve murders, rapes and other serious crimes? The answer is no. It is because of the professionalism within the FSS that that can be done.
The FSS has held the evidence and is ready for the day when it can solve those cases. The private sector will not do that. We know what the private sector is about: it is about making money and answering to shareholders, not answering to victims of crime. The danger is that the move is a charter for criminals, and the Minister needs to be aware of it.
The hon. Gentleman makes his points extremely effectively, but I hope he will not lose sight of the fact that many small practitioners, some of whom are based in my constituency—I hope to talk about them later—have been affected by many of the Government’s changes to the FSS. They make an incredibly valuable contribution to forensic science.
Of course there are private companies that can do a job and pick up some of the work. There is lots of work out there. The one thing we know is that criminals will continue to come up with new ways to commit crime, which therefore have to be fought. Some work can be put out to private companies, but we are talking about the core of the business.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case and I am following his argument closely. He is absolutely right about the importance of forensic science. In Northamptonshire, 47 per cent. of all theft and motor vehicle crime detections, 30 per cent. of theft from motor vehicle detections and 48 per cent. of detections of burglaries from dwellings are a direct result of fingerprint and DNA analysis.
My hon. Friend is rightly proud of the forensic science work that is done in Euxton in his constituency, but does he agree that there is a partnership between the work at Euxton and the excellent work that is done at the university of Central Lancashire? It has one of the best forensic science courses in the country and was recently featured in a television series. Does he also agree that the proximity of those facilities is key to ensuring that we maintain that centre of excellence?
I cannot disagree—my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is about bringing together the know-how of the FSS based in Chorley and the university of Central Lancashire, which specialises in forensic science degrees, and about building up the expertise. The joke is that the FSS has just built those links with the university, only for them to be thrown out. That is ridiculous. There is a centre of excellence at the university and an FSS centre of excellence only 10 miles away. Why would anyone consider closing the latter? It is common sense not to, but obviously the lack of common sense is coming through, and it is a charter for criminals. That is what the Government are proposing. That is why they have got to think long and hard and withdraw from their decisions, which will have a serious impact for all of us. My hon. Friend is spot on.
The FSS also pioneered the development and implementation of DNA technology, and it paved the way for establishing the world’s first DNA database, which was launched in April 1995. It has also led the way in helping to solve cold cases. As I said, that service is not to be underestimated, given the advance of technology.
The FSS has seven primary sites around the country. It is important to ensure that there is a geographical spread. As we know, the service has to be close to the scenes of crimes, because evidence does not last for ever. In fact, in a recent case, the scientists had to leave Chorley and get to the scene of a crime because it was pouring down, and the blood was disappearing and the evidence was being washed away. If forensic scientists are two hours away from such a crime scene, how is the crime going to be solved? The answer is that it is not. Do we know what we are doing? Have we really thought this through? Are we assisting criminals to get away with murders, rapes and assaults? That is what we will be doing if we continue down this road. I hope the Minister reconsiders the matter very quickly and abandons the plan now.
I visited the Chorley site recently and once again saw evidence of the success of the FSS. There is a young, vibrant work force who work with older scientists, who pass on their knowledge. There are hundreds of years of expertise. Just because someone opens a shop, it does not give them the expertise. Expertise is about passing on knowledge and the best working practices historically. All that will be lost.
Of course, Chorley’s services range from drugs to the coding and detection of footwear, which is very important in solving a lot of crimes. Mobile phone expertise and electronic forensics are the latest things. They can detect whether someone who is in a serious car crash was using their phone. It can detect people who are dealing on the telephone or people who hold paedophilic images. A mobile phone can convict people. Which site deals with such things? Chorley. Which site do the Government want to close? Chorley. I presume that the Minister has considered the matter. Again, we do not want to hear, “It’s not me, guv. It’s them down the road. I’m only the Minister.” We want to hear what the Minister is going to do to ensure that we continue to put paedophiles behind bars where they belong. That is what we are talking about and why the matter is so serious.
On hearing the news of the job cuts, I was very concerned about the effect on the Chorley work force. Does the Minister want to intervene?
The news is sad. I was also horrified by the news, which was announced through Prospect, that three sites—Chorley, Chepstow and Priory House—were proposed for closure. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that that was a damaging blow to staff morale at Chorley and the other sites. The employees at Chorley have expressed how devastated they are, because they are dedicated to preventing crime and bringing criminals to court. They are not interested in shareholders’ profits; they are interested in ethics and putting criminals behind bars.
I was amazed by the subtle shift from the FSS. We started with a consultation about a headcount—that is what we were told—which then became a consultation about the proposed closure of three sites. Why those three sites? Why does the consultation not cover the seven sites? Why should we shut any site when we need a geographical spread? We need to return to that issue. I certainly do not want people to lose their jobs. We cannot put a price on stopping and solving crime, but the message seems to be that we will save money at the cost of allowing criminals to get away.
We have gone from a consultation on a headcount reduction to a consultation on a reduction by three sites. In a letter to me dated 8 June, Bill Griffiths, the FSS chief executive, referred to a headcount reduction, but he made no specific reference to the closure of Chorley or any other site. Chorley was not up for closure at that time, and I do not know whether Bill Griffiths knew that he was going to be replaced at that point, but it all seems very strange. Dates and people are moving all the time.
I met Mr. Griffiths on Monday 22 June. Once again, no mention was made of the closure at Chorley as part of the consultation that would start the process, yet two days later, on Wednesday 24 June, the proposed closure was announced via Prospect. We have still not heard any confirmation. Did the Minister phone up any Member here? Did anyone have a letter off the Minister to tell them what is going on? No. Yet previously, we were informed. What is the difference between Ministers such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch and this Minister? Is it arrogance? Is it that he does not want to talk to Back Benchers? Are we not worthy of being spoken to?
It seems strange that different Ministers have played such different roles: from full contact, full conversation and engagement to zero. That is what we have had: zero contact and zero engagement. That is not good enough, is it? I hope the Minister will explain why he does not think that it is worth speaking to Back Benchers, when previous Ministers did.
How can an organisation operate in such a manner? How can that be right? I believe that the FSS’s proposals are misguided and will severely limit the organisation’s ability to support the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the coroners in solving crimes and investigating deaths. The Chorley site acts as a central hub for the police forces of Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria, Cheshire, North Wales and North Staffordshire, and sometimes for parts of Derbyshire. Those areas have the highest crime rates outside London, and Chorley enjoys an excellent working relationship with their police authorities. Chorley also works with the Isle of Man, which I do not believe has been consulted. Neither have the coroners. A population of about 8 million will end up with no forensic science site, yet we know that Manchester and Liverpool are a major crime hub.
The geographical location of the Chorley site plays an important role, as the police can bring vital evidence there to be examined, which helps solve serious crime cases where early detection is required. For example, in drugs cases, the forensic science team at Chorley, which specialises in such cases, is asked to respond within hours of receiving a sample. The police wait for it to be analysed in order to get criminals into court. If they have to travel two hours to the west or three hours to the south, how will they achieve that? It cannot be done. That is why I say the proposal is a criminals’ charter. We will not be able to get evidence to court on time. That is why it is so serious. I am not just using rhetoric—these are the facts.
The Chorley team’s ability to respond quickly plays a major part in bringing serious offenders to justice. The police will be unable to operate in their usual fashion if Chorley is closed down. Members will remember the tragic death of Garry Newlove, who was beaten to death outside his home. We know that not getting evidence is a danger. It was the Chorley Forensic Science Service that detected the evidence, ensuring that the thugs who did it ended up in jail. The team were up against the clock. The judge was almost willing to give way and allow the case to be dismissed because evidence had not been produced. That is the importance of the Forensic Science Service, and that is why we must ensure that evidence is kept close to where the cases are. Can we really allow a decision to be taken that could restrict the police’s ability to bring vicious killers to jail? What alternative arrangements are the police expected to make when urgent examinations must be undertaken?
The FSS in Chorley also played a crucial role after the 7/7 London bombings. Do we really believe that the FSS in London alone could deal with major bombings? The work was distributed among the centres in England and Wales. Unfortunately, the UK is likely to suffer major bombings again, or to help other countries where they have taken place. We need a plethora of Forensic Science Service sites to fight terrorism. Capacity within the system is essential. If sites are closed, the service will not be able to deal with incidents like the 7/7 bombings. I am pleased that notes keep coming from the henchmen behind the Minister.
It is a sad situation. Forensic scientists at Chorley worked on the case of Rhys Jones—a young boy who happened to be walking back from football at the wrong time and was tragically shot. Chorley played a role in the forensic science of that murder as well.
Who played a part in the case of the gangsters in Manchester who have just gone to court? The Forensic Science Service at Chorley. We cannot underestimate that work. We must get on with what we do best. The FSS also deals with drugs and delivers lectures to the police. It works so well, yet we are willing to throw that out.
FSS staff inform me that they are very busy. They are full up with work. It is not a question of spare capacity; the FSS does not have any. It is a busy organisation. The effects will be serious, if we are not careful. The police place great demand on the drugs team at Chorley in solving crimes and putting a value on drugs. It is not just about analysing whether something is cannabis. How strong is it? What is its street value? Is it for a deal or for home use? That information does not come easily; it takes true analysis. Forensic material must be investigated at an early stage.
The FSS does fire scene examinations. In a recent attack in Bolton in which, tragically, someone died and a fireman was seriously injured, the FSS came down from Chorley. Where is the nearest site? There are only two centres: Wetherby and Chorley. Fire scenes must be dealt with quickly. We cannot say, “Oh well, we’ll do the analysis tomorrow or the day after”; it must be done immediately. We are risking that.
I mentioned the benefits of having an FSS site near the university of Central Lancashire so that the two can work together. Students can come to the Forensic Science Service at Chorley to build skills for the future. The private sector will not do that for us. Links will be torn apart if the Chorley site closes. We must ensure that that severe blow to the north-west is not allowed to fall. It also threatens the future viability of the national Forensic Science Service team as a whole. An organisation cannot compete successfully with private operators by simply withdrawing from a region the size of the north-west and allowing the private sector to cherry-pick the work. Then people will wonder why the necessary results are not being delivered. We must ensure that we are in the best position for the future.
The closure flies directly in the face of the foundations of the criminal justice system. Evidence should be gathered to prove conclusively an individual’s innocence or guilt of a crime. That is what comes from the Forensic Science Service, because that is what it specialises in. Having spoken to staff, I am told that they find increasingly that cases are being dropped not because of lack of evidence but purely because of the cost of analysing it. That is a problem. It is not just small cases; it can involve more serious ones. That will happen even more if the Forensic Science Service is not there. At what point does it become acceptable to say to a person seriously traumatised physically and mentally that it is not worth the cost to bring their attacker to justice? We cannot put a price on that. Although I acknowledge the need to achieve value for money and reduce costs if possible, forensic science should never be about making money. It should be about investigation, discovery and confirmation of facts with a view to bringing those who commit crimes to justice.
Turning to the process leading to the decision to close three sites, I would like to ask the Minister what consultation he has had with the police, the coroner’s office and the Isle of Man, and what has come back. Will he share that information with us? Let us not hear, “Not me, guv; it’s somebody else.” Have the police been alerted to the original proposal for a headcount reduction or the new proposal for the closure of three sites? He might be able to help us with that. What have the police been consulted on—reduction in head count or closure of sites? I have mentioned the importance of the coroner’s office and its work.
I made a point earlier about drugs work and the need for a speedy response. It is crucial. Have the police been told about the closure and what effect it will have on the need to turn around forensic science information quickly? It is imperative that there is a detailed impact study that involves the police and all other partners before this decision is taken forward. If not, we will be simply signing a criminals’ charter that will reduce the effectiveness of the FSS in responding to the needs of the police when solving crimes.
I turn to the implications for the staff if the restructuring takes place. Staff have been told that career development opportunities will be available as a consequence of reorganisation. I am confused by that statement because they are facing a severe reduction in numbers. Staff will be invited to reapply for their jobs if they wish to remain in the service. That leads to growing uncertainty and will mean that even if their applications are successful, their terms and conditions will change—the decision really is about money. What guarantee can the Minister give that staff will not have to move from one part of the country to another to maintain their jobs? Why would someone based in the north-west move to London to carry out their work? Is there room for them on other sites? The answer is no. Chorley is one of the few sites where the Government owns the land around the facility and could expand it. That should be considered seriously.
This is no way to treat the highly skilled people who have so much to offer and who provide a first-class service in the field of forensic science. The Chorley laboratory has consistently met and exceeded its targets. The management have been informed that staff loyalty will be rewarded. How will it be rewarded? There is no more loyal and dedicated professional work force than those at the Chorley site. Despite that, they are faced with the awful prospect of redundancy.
The Forensic Science Service provides a mission statement on its website:
“To retain and reinforce our leading position as the principal provider of forensic science to the UK criminal justice system, and use this platform to become the leading provider worldwide, thereby enhancing long term shareholder value.”
I am sure that we all share that vision, but the closure of three sites, including at Chorley, is not the way to go about things. I therefore urge the Minister to look carefully at the forensic science proposals and to realise the damage that will be done to the service and to the north-west if the Chorley site closes. I urge him to instruct the FSS to assess its future plans and to abandon its current proposals. As I said, this decision is a charter for criminals. It is about providing work for the private sector.
I hope that the Minister will be honest, answer the points and not hide behind other people. The Government have only one shareholder—we are the shareholder. If they are serious about putting criminals behind bars, they should not proceed with this decision, and they should answer the questions. Thank you, Mr. Amess, for your patience.
I am grateful for your chairmanship and guidance, Mr. Amess. I will be as brief as possible. I certainly do not intend to speak for more than five minutes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing this debate. If I were a Minister, I would think that with friends like that, who needs enemies? Luckily, I am not. After today’s outing, I intend to attend any debate that the hon. Gentleman opens or plans to contribute to.
On the Forensic Science Service, there are a number of independent practitioners in my constituency: Dr. John and Kathy Manlove run Manlove Forensics in Grove technology park; Mr. Tiernan Coyle, who lives in my constituency, is the managing director of Contact Traces; and Mr. Roger Robson is the managing director of Forensic Access in Wantage. Those three companies met on Monday to discuss the ongoing saga of the difficulties created by the Government’s reorganisation of forensic sciences. I have corresponded with the Minister and asked parliamentary questions on this issue.
To add to the woes of the hon. Member for Chorley, he should be aware that the Government have also got rid of the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners. It was closed even before the consultation on the matter was concluded. It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman that when the Minister stands up to make his concluding remarks he will say, “Not me, guv,” about that, too. He will claim that the police refused to continue to fund the organisation. However, the registration of forensic practitioners is as important to forensic science as the continued success of the FSS.
In effect, there is now no registration system for individual practitioners of forensic science, including those who work at the FSS. The National Police Improvement Agency is in charge of registration and is using the United Kingdom Accreditation Service to accredit forensic science. However, UKAS will accredit only companies, not individuals. Individuals who work in the FSS cannot get individual accreditation.
The impact of that on small companies, including the three companies that I mentioned, has been massive. Mr. Roger Robson, who runs Forensic Access, says that overall it will have cost him about £35,000 to achieve UKAS accreditation. It cost £1,200 just for his company to apply and £24,000 to get the qualification. UKAS charged £900 a day for consultation work. Such an accreditation service will put many small practitioners out of business.
Another problem is that the National Police Improvement Agency will allow outsourced forensic work to be applied for only in bundles. Therefore, only companies that cover a range of forensic services will be able to tender for such work. To pick up on the remarks of the hon. Member for Chorley, that is a charter for big business. I suspect that his sympathies lie more with small, individual expert practitioners, rather than with huge, multinational private companies that are owned by shareholders. That change is a huge problem for companies such as Contact Traces, which specialises in fibres, and Manlove Forensics, which specialises in entomology.
Those companies have been in contact with Andrew Rennison at the Home Office, and I must put on the record their gratitude to him. The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the lack of response from the Minister, but my constituents have said that they have had good access and constructive discussions. However, I do not wish to create a divide between the Minister and his official. My constituents were told that a “procurement lite” framework was forthcoming on 4 June. Has it come forward? Such a framework is incredibly important as it would allow small, independent practitioners to continue to tender for forensic science work.
Thank you for allowing me to make that short contribution, Mr. Amess. I want simply to get one message across to the Minister: the changes in the FSS have turned what was a world-class service on its head. The hon. Member for Chorley talked about the catastrophic effect they have had on the FSS. I want to emphasise the effect on the hundreds of small practitioners, many of which are based in my constituency, who provide a valuable service, important competition and the narrow expertise that is vital to the ecology of forensic science. I ask the Minister to please not lose sight of those practitioners in carrying out the reforms.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), I declare a constituency interest. There is a Forensic Science Service laboratory in Wetherby in my constituency. My hon. Friend has covered the ground well. He is right to say that MPs have been treated shabbily. However, the work force has been treated in an even more shabby manner. The trade unions have been frozen out of many of the discussions as this shambolic process has proceeded. I pay homage to the work force in Wetherby. As he said, they are a loyal and dedicated bunch.
This debate points to the absolute failure of the new Labour political ideology. There is a wonderful symmetry between that market ideology and that of the Conservative party. I argue that the introduction of the market has destroyed the FSS. The starting point of that was the McFarland review of 2002-03, which stated that the FSS being the national supplier of forensic science services created a fundamental market distortion. It recommended that competition be stimulated to increase investment. It stated that, in effect, the police form a monopoly customer, which also distorts the market. New Labour’s love affair with the market allowed it to go along with such distorted thinking. I am not a believer in the market. I believe that there are areas of our public life, such as education, health and the criminal justice system, that have no place in the market.
Obviously, I have had contact with my constituents in Wetherby, and they want me to flag up some particular concerns. They are concerned that redundancies will result in the loss of many experienced staff from forensic science and that those staff will leave the industry altogether, leaving a skills gap in the future. Will the Minister address that? The staff who will be made redundant are mostly career specialists who have committed many years to forensic science and are going to find it very hard to find comparable employment. What I am really arguing is that all this is bound up with our idea of the public and the private, and about consumers and citizens. I am willing to argue that staff in the existing FSS go the extra mile and spend the extra hour because they feel committed to that public service. That will not be replicated with the great desire to introduce the market into forensic science.
There is a tradition that Ministers run Departments, but I fear that it is the other way around in the Home Office. I have experienced Ministers coming along with crackpot ideas about building a super-prison in my constituency. There were no rational arguments behind those ideas, and it seemed as though there was a force, somewhere behind them, driving that process. I can only presume that the unelected civil service, which we are never supposed to criticise, actually determines the agenda on such matters, so we have got to ask whether Departments are running Ministers. [Interruption.] That may be open to debate.
I am aware that several people want to take part in the debate, so I shall end with a few questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley has mentioned that we seem to have a new chief executive, Mr. Bennett, and that there is a connection or relationship with QinetiQ. We have to be careful about this—and let us have some honesty, because, since 2003, when we first met the then Home Secretary, there has been a bad smell about this whole process. If we are absolutely honest, this process has, from day one, been about fattening up the FSS to sell it off eventually as a privatised business. Let us be honest about it. No matter how polite Ministers have been in telling us about things and updating us, that was behind the process.
If we got a bit of honesty, perhaps the Minister would be able to explain a few things. I am looking at something that I got from the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group, which contains some of the information that went to the interview panel for the chief executive position—this is from our Government. It says:
“In order to respond more quickly to the changes in the forensic science market, increase customer focus and improve its commercial competitiveness, the FSS was in 2005 transformed into a Government-owned company. This is intended as a precursor to evolution into a private sector entity, the timing of which depends on FSS’ ability to transform itself into a viable, commercial entity.”
That is what was laid down before the chief executive, so let us have some honesty. Without honesty, we are going to finish up with the service being sold off to the private sector. It is another QinetiQ waiting to happen.
Let me remind hon. Members that on the day of the QinetiQ company’s flotation in 2006, the top 10 managers held shares worth £107 million—
They received £107 million for an investment of just £540,000. They made £200 for every £1 invested. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was mentioned earlier. He has said that
“senior public servants managing QinetiQ behaved dishonourably. They sold the idea to the MOD of privatising the business without explaining they stood to benefit.”
I think there is a horrible smell about this whole process. There is subterfuge and dishonesty, and I think we should stop the whole process and reconfirm our commitment to the FSS staying firmly in the public sector, and to creating a protected market within that sphere.
It is delightful to follow the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon). I was a director of QinetiQ before coming to this House. I am not a millionaire and I was not part of the seniority to whom money was doshed out, but it is important to bring that experience to bear in this debate because I have seen it before.
The previous speakers are absolutely right—in all my days, including the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s when people talked about Tory privatisation, I have never seen a worse privatisation than that of QinetiQ. I can tell you how it starts, Mr. Amess—it starts off with the Treasury, which wants the money. Its fingerprints are all over this, just the same as with QinetiQ. Then a bit of part-private assistance is brought in; that is what they call it. There is a bit of public-private partnership, or the status of the body is changed. Once those people have been brought in, the first thing they do is take the axe to the real asset of the organisation. The only real asset of such organisations are the scientists, whether they are in the defence research laboratories, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency or the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.
But how do people get those departments to become private? They do not incentivise the scientists. They go along to the civil servants, some of whom in QinetiQ had absolutely no qualifications to develop radar or invent some of the amazing things that have kept our country safe, and they give them huge amounts of money. I remember that the marketing director walked away from QinetiQ with more than £1 million, and I think that all she had ever been was a basic civil servant who had never been in the world of advertising or marketing or anything else. They said, “Have a bit of cash and off you go.” That was appalling.
It is the Ministry of Defence’s fault—there was no conspiracy here; it was the Government’s fault—that Ministers allowed the chief executive of QinetiQ not only to negotiate the terms of his and his colleagues’ pay package on the winning bid, but to do the negotiations. In the private sector, the shareholders do the negotiations and when they have decided on a preferred bidder, they hand over to senior management to negotiate. With QinetiQ, we had the chief executive recommending to the MOD, “My preferred bidder is the Carlyle Group, and by the way, I have just negotiated a wonderful package that made it important that I choose Carlyle.” Those civil servants got 19,000 per cent. in exchange, and who were the casualties at QinetiQ? The same casualties as there are about to be at FSS—the scientists. The casualties were the boffins and brain boxes who had invented so many important things that keep our soldiers safe, that keep our criminals off the street and that our police now use.
These matters cannot be rushed. I know that the Government have been criticised for the way they have handled things, and I am not ideologically opposed to the concept of privatisation per se, but I am a Conservative who believes in pragmatism. That is one of the greatest strengths of conservatism in the world in which I live. Whatever we say, the FSS is not ready to be privatised now or even in the next five or 10 years, and I can tell the House why. The Government have failed to make it a more efficient and better organisation before they have come to privatise it. They have done this the QinetiQ way, thinking, “Let’s get somebody in.” That person is Dr. Simon Bennett. I am not aware that he, as an individual, was among the equity snouts in the trough. He is a renowned scientist, unlike some of the people who were previously brought in, and I hope that will go some way towards giving comfort to the employees of the FSS. He understands science, and he is internationally renowned, so I hesitate to criticise him.
However, there are ways in which the FSS could be made better. We could encourage the better funding of our police so that they can use its service. We talk about serious crimes, such as rape and paedophilia, but it upsets my constituents that there is no longer any forensic investigation of boring and mundane crimes. If someone’s house gets broken into, or their car is vandalised, the response is either, “Do it yourself,” or, “Have a crime number for your insurance.” That is because the police do not get sufficient funding to allow them to engage in that forensic debate unless it is a murder or a terrorist event. That would help to make the FSS better value for money, and would mean that more of its facilities were used so that it would not be so much under threat.
Police procurement is another issue. We are looking in the wrong part of the Home Office. The way in which the police procure technologies is completely Victorian. Each police force buy their own batons and bullet-proof vests. That is a total waste of money and I do not know why we carry on doing that. It would not be done in any other police forces and it certainly would not be done in the armed forces. We should look at saving money in that area. That would help the FSS to use all its skills, which I know that it does, and would give it a sound base on which to do business.
The reality is that the service is not ready to be privatised and it will not be ready for a long time. I have a number of constituents in Lancaster and Wyre who work in the lab in Chorley. In terms of the awful phrase, “Well, they’ll be offered a job in the new location, but if they can’t, they’ll be made redundant,” the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and I both know that relocating from Lancaster or Chorley is not an option—it is not like there will be a job down the road. Let us compare this situation with that of those who work for the BBC. When they were offered the option to relocate to the north—to Manchester—a large amount of public money was thrown at them. It is sad that, when it comes to the Forensic Science Service, we will leave these people out to dry.
I say to the Government that the service is not ready for privatisation and that the mistakes of QinetiQ are being repeated. In the end, the loser will be our scientific skill base, which cannot be reinvented or imported over night. If we lose that skill base, the winners will be the criminals.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate. The matter is extremely important to my constituents who work at the site at Chepstow, which is actually in the constituency of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). He has kindly allowed me to make a few remarks on behalf of my constituents.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the future of the site at Chepstow, which has been earmarked for closure along with two other sites in the west of the country. If Chepstow were to be affected, it could result in the loss of the only public sector forensic laboratory in Wales, which houses 170 skilled scientific jobs. The site in Chepstow provides a first-class service and serves the west of the country. Frankly, south-east Wales can ill afford to lose such high-quality skilled jobs in science. It would be a huge shame if Wales were left as the only part of the UK without a base for the Forensic Science Service. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Assembly Government on the issue?
Staff in Chepstow tell me that the office has always performed extremely well within the service. That is demonstrated by the fact that they currently deal with overflow cases—in effect, lab work—from other offices, including from 10 boroughs in the Met, because London labs are often overstretched and cannot meet the turnaround time. That comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley about there not being much spare capacity in the system. That certainly seems to be the case from the discussions I have had with constituents who work at the site in Chepstow.
I know that Welsh police forces like the local knowledge that results from the site being based in Chepstow and that they appreciate the ability of staff to be on site quickly when urgent work is needed at sensitive crime scenes because time is of the essence when collecting evidence. For example, it is crucial that there are services on hand to deal with items that need to go back to the lab within a day. Such services would be affected if the changes went ahead in Chepstow. If the changes proposed in the consultation were to go ahead, presumably forensic scientists from London would be asked to travel to crime scenes in the west of the country—not just Wales—and attend court cases and case meetings with the police in the west of the country. That would add considerably to their travel times, costs and so on—not to mention the already explained difficulties with evidence.
In its presentation to staff, I believe that the FSS said it wished to see a good geographical spread of services, but if the proposals go ahead, that will clearly not be the case for wide sections of the west of the country. My constituents feel that the office in Chepstow has been singled out because it does not have DNA analysis facilities—even though they have explained to me that they could easily house those on site. As my hon. Friend said, there is plenty of room there and they already have the key factor: staff who are highly skilled in DNA analysis on site.
Finally, the constituents to whom I have spoken talk continually about the heavy work load that they have in Chepstow, which is demonstrated by the fact that, as I said, the lab takes on work from other parts of the country. They are also continually offered overtime. Given the excellent service that staff at the FSS provide, they fear that the consultation casts doubt on the ability of remaining staff to maintain the high standard of work because they would be so thinly stretched. Will the changes not simply result in the criminal justice system getting a worse service and more eventually being paid for the service, whatever happens to it in the future? That will be a huge loss, because at the moment we have a world-class operation with a reputation for excellence. I genuinely feel committed to my constituents who work in the service. They are not interested in profits, but are committed to public service and putting criminals behind bars, as my hon. Friend said.
[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]
I shall make only a couple of comments because my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) has made a good case for the preservation of the forensic science laboratory in Euxton in his constituency.
The point I want to make is that we have a skills cluster in central Lancashire formed by the university forensic science courses, a forensic team of 30 at Lancashire police headquarters in Hutton, and Euxton forensic science labs, which are a few miles away. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) made a key comment: we cannot simply close down the labs and assume people will move elsewhere. Forensic science is a specialist area and there are not many areas in the country where people live and do such a job. They cannot move elsewhere. Where there is a cluster of skills, as in Lancashire, it is completely nonsensical to throw that away as if it is meaningless and people can simply get other jobs.
The comment was made that the service is not ready for privatisation. The problem is that if it were privatised, in five or 10 years’ time, some accountant would look at it and would not care about the skill base anyway. They would simply say, “Well, eventually we’ll move everyone to one, two or three offices and they’ll do it all.” To them, it would not matter that people who have done 20 years service and who live in Lancaster, Leyland or different parts of Lancashire are not prepared to move several hundred miles away with their families. People do matter, and we must recognise that people who have dedicated many years of their lives to developing particular skills and using those skills to the service of the public have lives, families and partners. We cannot simply snap our fingers and expect such people to disappear from one end of the country because their place of work has been closed down and there are no alternative jobs in that area.
I cannot see any point at all in the closure of any of these sites. I am sticking up for my constituents who work at Euxton, and I will be doing all I can to stick up for the skills cluster that exists in central Lancashire.
I co-ordinate the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary groups. For the past six or seven years, I have been involved in some of the earliest meetings with Ministers to discuss the future of the Forensic Science Service, as have other hon. Members in the Chamber. The issue goes back to when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was Home Secretary, and we have gone through a number of Home Secretaries since then.
The original problem occurred because of lack of investment in the Forensic Science Service. That was a long-term issue during successive Governments. A further problem was that deep in the heart of the Home Office there was an ideologically driven desire to privatise.
The Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers lobbied to replicate the Forensic Science Service within police authorities themselves, partly for budgetary reasons and partly because of issues relating to practice. Our concerns then were to secure long-term investment and stability for the service. At the same time, we opposed the relocation of the Forensic Science Service within police authorities because of the potential conflict of interest and the professional issues that would occur.
We had successive meetings with Ministers and gained what we thought was a commitment to the investment and the development of GovCo, which would enable the Forensic Science Service to stand on its feet and demonstrate its value. Unfortunately, there were delays even in setting out the processes by which GovCo would be assessed. There have been subsequent delays in delivering the investment and ensuring that GovCo can operate effectively. It is really disappointing that we have yet another threat and another programme: the transformation programme. There will be large job losses and key strategic sites will be lost. I echo all that has been said about the potential loss of an important collective build-up of expertise in the area.
I urge the Minister to recognise the disappointment felt by members of staff—as well as by individual MPs who have been involved in the matter. I am grateful that the Minister gave the PCS a half-hour meeting yesterday, and for his commitment to meet the PCS parliamentary group in July. However, I am worried about the attitude of management.
As has been set out, the management were appointed with the specific purpose of following a privatisation agenda. A human resources director—Nick Jones—has been appointed from Cable and Wireless, and I believe that the Burke Group has been appointed as a consultant on human relations matters. However, it has been exposed as a union-busting company. The TUC undertook a report on union-busting companies and included the Burke Group. The report claimed that
“the tactics used by union-busters are designed to frighten and intimidate workers away from any union attempt to recruit them at work.”
Such tactics were also used at Cable and Wireless to try to isolate the Communication Workers Union and to undermine trade union representation in that company. I am hoping that the appointment of the Burke Group is a rumour and not a fact, and I would welcome the Minister’s investigating the matter.
I am grateful for the meeting that the Minister had with the PCS yesterday, and for the commitment to meet us in July. I hope that we can establish a working relationship with him that maintains a commitment to investment in and organisation of the FSS in the public sector, and that we can now put aside the threat of privatisation that is undermining staff morale and the viability of the service itself.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on his coruscating condemnation of the Minister for the lack of consultation and for the way in which the recent announcement was made on a good day for burying bad news. We heard a tour de force exposition of the tremendous track record of the Forensic Science Service in general and of the Chorley laboratory in particular. We heard examples of the damage to crime detection that will result from closing three of seven centres around the country—Chorley, Chepstow and Birmingham—and from the loss of scientific expertise and the institutional memory of the organisation, as well as the individual job losses, the loss of geographical coverage and the effect of losing, in total, 40 per cent. of the FSS staff, or up to 800 posts.
How have the Government arrived at their position? As we heard, in 2003 they decided to take the competitive route. We heard comments about the ideological drive for privatisation, regardless of the merits in individual cases of going down that road. In 2005, the FSS was turned into a Government company—a GovCo—and, in 2009, a new chief executive was appointed.
The information provided to people applying for the job, part of which was quoted earlier, was not published, but it was acquired by the Public and Commercial Services Union. We have already heard an interesting quote from the notes for candidates, which stated that
“the FSS was in 2005 transformed into a Government-owned company. This is intended as a precursor to evolution into a private sector entity, the timing of which depends on FSS’ ability to transform itself into a viable, commercial entity.”
The document went on to say that among the key responsibilities of the new chief executive was a requirement to prepare the FSS
“for its successful transition to the introduction of private capital at the appropriate point if agreed by Ministers”.
Clearly, in 2003, 2005 and again in 2009, when the new chief executive was being appointed, Ministers saw privatisation as the end goal. There can be no question about that. The result, as we have already heard, was that in 2009 we got Dr. Simon Bennett of QinetiQ, and, as we heard in great detail from both the official Opposition and from Government Back Benchers, the track record of that privatisation is not one that we should be proud of or seek to emulate. QinetiQ is an example of a taxpayer-funded organisation that was already very successful—as the FSS is—being privatised at huge personal financial gain to the managers involved while the taxpayer simply lost out in every direction. Taxpayers lost out financially and they lost out on the quality of the service that the organisation had previously provided as a public sector body.
In the short term, the taxpayer loses. The Government would argue that in the long term, the public will benefit from the effect of the market and the privatisation of the FSS, which is why they set out on that road back in 2003. We have already had some debate about that. Clearly, the market is best at providing all kinds of goods and services. It is best at providing widgets, fashion clothing, designer jeans and mobile phones. I believe that no one would seriously argue that the telecommunications services we enjoy in this country today are worse than they would have been if we had left British Telecom as a monopoly, as it was more than 25 years ago. I do not believe that anyone would disagree that telecommunications services are better now than they were then.
Clearly, however, there are areas where the market has no place. There are areas where arguments about social equity, the social good and the public good are far more important than the profit-driven motive of the market. We have already heard examples, with which I concur, from health and education—as a former teacher, I have long made that case during the eight years that I have been in Parliament. The FSS is another obvious example where the argument that the market knows best, that it will produce the best results, is clearly a fallacy. It will be interesting to hear the Minister clarify exactly why the Government are so clear in their own mind that bringing market forces into the FSS will be of benefit to the public.
The driving motive of the market is profit. The driving motive of the FSS and the justice system should be catching criminals, as we heard eloquently expounded in examples in the opening speech by the hon. Member for Chorley. I have an example from The Times, a newspaper that is not exactly noted for its defence of the public interest and the public good, or of delivery by public services. As a champion of the free market, it would like to see the market operate in most areas of life. However, on 21 July, The Times gave an interesting example in an article about some of the market-oriented moves that the FSS is taking to try to keep business that it is losing to other areas. The article stated that it is now offering the police a service with variable fees so that, for example, if a test on a piece of forensic evidence leads to conviction, there would be a higher charge than if the test were negative. The Times stated:
“If a positive DNA or blood or fibre match is found, the agency says, then the fee would be higher than for negative results. For example, if dozens of cigarette-ends were found at a crime scene, the police may not think it worthwhile to test them all”,
because of the cost of testing every one of, say, three dozen cigarette ends. But if the police were told that they would have a small fee to pay for a negative result but a larger fee to pay if one or two of the cigarette ends led to the conviction of the criminal involved, the services of the FSS would be more attractive.
Surely we should not be looking at a system whereby when the police and the justice system are investigating a case, they are driven to decide not whether they can catch a criminal by testing the evidence, but whether it is cheaper not to test the evidence or whether the FSS or private competitors would offer cheap rates for doing it this way or that way. The driving force should be catching criminals, not the accountant’s bottom line in a profit-and-loss ledger. It would be interesting to hear the Minister explain exactly why the Government appear so confident that taking the accountant’s cost or profit-motive approach is better for criminal justice than the current or the previous workings of the police and the FSS.
I have three explicit questions for the Minister. Can he explain why the Government are sure that just four geographical centres, after three of the seven have been closed, can cope without affecting response time, which is crucial when dealing with a crime scene? We have heard many detailed examples of that. What detailed assessment has been undertaken to justify the clear assessment that four geographical centres can cope, when previously there were six or seven?
Secondly, how will the 40 per cent. job losses—800 people—be decided? Will the jobs be those of staff who are involved in marketing, business development, account management, logistics, quality and policy, or will they be those of precisely the expert scientific staff who do what the FSS is supposed to be all about—catching criminals? Thirdly, has any evaluation been carried out of the deterrent effect on crime investigation of applying cost factors to what should be a decision to investigate based purely on evidence and the chance of catching criminals, rather than on cost?
The FSS has played an essential role in our criminal justice system. It should be above making profit and outside commercial interference. The job losses will have a large impact on the FSS’s ability to do its job. Large swathes of the country will be left without public sector service provision. The FSS has rightly played a valuable role in our criminal justice system. Any attempt to move it from the public to the private domain is likely to have a drastic impact on our criminal justice system and on public confidence in it as a whole.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) not just on securing the debate, but on the passionate, powerful way in which he highlighted the concerns of the 200 members of staff at the Forensic Science Service base at Washington Hall in his constituency, and the concerns about the wider issues arising from the changes to the service and the proposed cuts that will, potentially, lead to the loss of 800 jobs over the next two years.
The debate is important, not only in terms of the jobs at risk, and not only because of the future of the FSS, but because of the questions that it raises about the forensic science capabilities for law enforcement to solve increasingly complex crimes, where the use of forensic data is becoming ever more essential in bringing serious crimes to justice.
As we have heard, the FSS has a proud history, tracing its roots back to the 1930s, when the use of forensics in dealing with certain types of material was in its infancy. I pay tribute to the FSS for its work in bringing crimes to justice and ensuring that serious crimes are solved. However, its position in recent years has become increasingly challenged and challenging, with its turnover slumping by £70 million, based on its last audited accounts.
The catalyst for the debate was the Minister’s written ministerial statement on 8 June 2009, and the proposed changes that underlay it, which raised more questions than it answered. Given the scale and seriousness of the proposed changes, it is incumbent on the Minister to answer the questions raised by hon. Members, including my questions about the strategic approach that is being taken. In his statement, the Minister confirmed that the FSS is embarking on a Government-backed transformation programme after six months of wranglings between the Home Office and the Treasury, which he elegantly described as “rigorous consultation”. The upshot is a reduction of 40 per cent. of the skilled work force, the closure of a number of facilities and the adoption of what is described as a new business model. As we have heard, there has been a lack of discussion and certainty surrounding the announcement.
Will the Minister provide further details of the new business model, because it is at the heart of finding out about the intentions? How will that business model deliver the same integrated service more quickly and efficiently, as was claimed in the announcement? The key issue is to find out how the ability to provide the same services will be advanced by the proposed changes. Will he confirm that there will be no diminution in the speed, quality and capabilities of forensics facilities available to police and other law enforcement agencies?
In its 2007-08 financial statement, published in January, the FSS executive chairman, Bill Griffiths, described the uncertainties faced by FSS employees, saying that
“we have maintained that we must motivate and nurture our staff, since they are in effect ‘our business.’”
The financial statements also highlight one of the key challenges in the company’s successful transformation, which is
“retaining key skills and maintaining staff morale”.
Will the Minister explain how the reorganisation proposals that he has announced help to deliver those goals and how those key skills will be maintained as a consequence of the changes that are envisaged?
In a statement to the Press Association on 8 June 2009, an unnamed Home Office official was quoted as saying:
“The forensics market is changing with increased competition, reduced business volumes and a higher cost base.”
The key is in the words “reduced business volumes”. Does the Minister agree with that analysis and, if so, is he therefore expecting cuts or other reductions in police budgets on forensics, giving rise to the expected reduced volumes? We need to understand how the market and the demand may change in the years ahead and from where the reduced business volumes will come.
The Minister’s statement on 8 June had a number of other important points wrapped up in it. He confirmed that the FSS would remain as a Government-owned company “for the foreseeable future”, but added:
“GovCo status has provided a suitable platform on which the FSS can transition to a commercially effective and robustly competitive organisation.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 22WS.]
We need to understand the Minister’s intentions. Will he confirm that it remains the Government’s intention that the FSS should eventually transfer to become a private-public partnership or some other more arm’s length vehicle, as was previously suggested?
The Minister reaffirmed his commitment to the criteria established by then Under-Secretary of State, now the Secretary of State for Health, in December 2005 on the potential for transition to a public-private partnership. It should be noted that the needs of the Home Office as shareholder were to be considered as part of that requirement. In his written ministerial statement of 29 March 2006, the right hon. Gentleman clarified the matter further stating:
“As a Government-owned business, the FSS has to compete with other calls on public funds and consequently the Home Office's investment in it needs to demonstrate an appropriate risk/return profile.
In coming to the relative merits of GovCo vs PPP, the Home Office will need to consider: (i) assessment of the financial value of the FSS; (ii) the financial risks to the Home Office associated with ownership of FSS; and (iii) Home Office’s funding priorities.”
What assessment has the Minister made against those tests and what agreement has he reached with the Treasury about financial value, financial risk and Home Office funding priorities? Again, the key to all that is where the policy priorities lie and the direction of travel.
The right hon. Gentleman argued that delivery of the vision for the FSS’s business would require
“substantial investment, both in physical and human capital, development of new and existing capabilities and exercising strong implementation skills.”—[Official Report, 29 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 69-70WS.]
Will the Minister confirm how his proposals for the FSS will advance the vision outlined, which underpins the approach to the future of the FSS, and from where he expects this investment to come?
The future of the Forensic Science Service is also closely linked to the regulatory environment in which it sits. A new forensic science regulator has been appointed in the last year and a Forensic Science Advisory Council has been established. Will the Minister provide an update on the work of the regulator and the council and say how he sees those roles developing? The FSS, in its report and financial statements in January, described the developing role of the Forensic Science Regulator as a contributory factor in providing continued uncertainties surrounding the development of the competitive forensics marketplace in the UK. Will the Minister explain why those uncertainties persist and what urgent steps he is taking to provide the necessary clarification? Will he confirm that we will not end up in some parallel situation, where in-house capabilities are built up within police services at the cost of the FSS, because we would not be creating the market that the Minister appears to want to create, which obviously underpins the direction of travel?
One of the uncertainties in the market relates to the future regulation of forensic practitioners. The regulator is currently considering proposals for a new regulatory scheme. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said, it is ironic that the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners, which the Government established as the regulatory body for those giving forensic evidence in court, was allowed to collapse nine days before the end of the consultation period. Why was support withdrawn from the CRFP at such a critical time? Will the Minister confirm reports that the regulator may take up to four years to implement the new regulatory scheme? Will he confirm that the regulation of the conduct of forensic science evidence will include the independent regulation of individuals involved in the provision of such services?
For the sake of the future of the FSS and the livelihoods of the constituents of many hon. Members who have spoken, I trust that the Minister will be able to provide answers to the real questions that linger about the Home Office’s commitment to, and vision for, the future of forensic sciences in this country now and in the years to come. It is important that those issues are put on the record today, so that all of us involved in the debate can understand better where we are going, because it is clear from the comments made that people simply do not know.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing this debate. Let me say briefly what I will not do. First, I do not intend to say, “Not me, guv.” Secondly, I do not intend to be anything other than honest in my comments, and you would expect nothing else, Mr. Jones. Thirdly, I stand by what the Home Secretary said—that my hon. Friend and others could have expected better service when the announcement was made, but I will give the context of how it happened.
The announcement on 8 June was an attempt by the Forensic Science Service to bring Members of Parliament and others into the loop of consultation and to seek their views on management’s proposed model for the future of the FSS which has been discussed with Ministers. It was not about informing Members of Parliament or anyone else about decisions that have been made, because no decisions have been made. That is the point of the consultation exercise.
I am trying to explain that the FSS tried to involve Members of Parliament in the consultation, and I hope not only that the comments that have been made today will inform that debate, but that every hon. Member, whether or not they have a laboratory in their area, will take part in the consultation.
Will my hon. Friend allow me to continue for a moment?
The matter has continued not for months, but for years. It would be wrong to give the impression—I am sure that my hon. Friend was not trying to do so—that the FSS’s transformation is a surprise. People might have been critical if there had been no consultation and we had moved to a decision, whether by the FSS or the Government. Phrases such as “bully boys in suits” are not only depressing, but misplaced. I want to put on the record the fact that the Government’s record in tackling crime and dealing with paedophiles, murderers and so on is second to none. The suggestion that that would be put at risk in any way, shape or form by not addressing the FSS’s needs is ludicrous. This is not about saving money. The FSS’s losses must be addressed, because they involve taxpayers’ money, but I assure my hon. Friend and others that that is far outweighed by the Government’s investment in the FSS.
In a telling and measured speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said that investment has been delayed for a long time. We are trying to bring that investment forward, and the consultation is about management proposing the model that it believes is the way forward, and testing that.
I was coming to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, because he made it as if the decision on privatisation were a fait accompli. His questions might be relevant in that context, but that is not what we are talking about. I shall explain where we are in the debate about the FSS’s future if he will allow me to do so.
The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and others referred to the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners. I hope that the hon. Gentleman asks for and secures a debate on that, because I would be happy to respond to it. He referred to a scheme that was entirely voluntary, that never reached the targets that were set for it, and from which, in its latter days, the police pulled their funding. When members of the CRFP came to my office to talk about its future and asked for a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money, I turned them down, because that would not have been the best use of taxpayers’ money. We should be investing in, for example, the Forensic Science Service. The hon. Gentleman may ask about the regulator’s role, but he praised Andrew Rennison, the regulator, who is charged with putting a better scheme in place.
I suggested that the hon. Gentleman apply for an Adjournment debate so that we would have more time. That matter is not central to the issue that we are debating today.
I want to set out the background to the many issues that have been raised and to where we are today. The FSS has for many years provided a first-class service to the police and the wider criminal justice system. It is our ambition that that continues. Until 2005, it was an Executive agency of the Home Office, and had been largely the monopoly supplier of forensic services, but the reality was that other suppliers were offering competition and it became clear that that trend would continue. An independent review in 2003 warned of the consequences of that process.
A commercial market dominated by a Home Office agency was not right for the FSS in the long term, nor was it right for competitors and the police. It was not right for customers, predominantly the police service, which is responsible for obtaining best value for money from the grants provided from public funds. We took the first step towards the creation of a market by changing the FSS’s status to a Government-owned limited company or GovCo. That change affects the dynamics of the relationship between the company, whose board now has statutory and fiduciary Companies Act responsibilities, and the Home Office shareholder.
I am looking into that, because it has already been raised with me. I am told that it was made absolutely clear to the chief executive when he was appointed that there is no presumption that the FSS will move to privatisation, that that policy has not altered, and that that was the basis on which he would take the job. Time has moved on since my hon. Friend’s quotation.
The company has lost 20 per cent. of its market share and, frankly, it must change. It must address its cost structure to reflect the changed market. Its current business model of linked laboratories that are distributed largely geographically is not efficient. Nor, as several hon. Members said, is the link between some laboratories and local forces always the best way forward, because the reality is that some forces do not use their local laboratory, but put their contract elsewhere. In some areas that works well, but in others it does not.
One purpose of the consultation is to suggest a new business model, and to brigade its various forensic disciplines by crime type so that resources for each discipline are clustered in particular laboratories. That raises the issue that some jobs and sites will be lost. When the consultation started, the FSS had to inform the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that it envisaged a maximum of 800 redundancies. But let me make it absolutely clear that that is the maximum number, not a foregone conclusion. The first steps in implementing the plan began with the announcement on 8 June. Let me also make it clear, as the company’s chairman and I have been with each other, that we are in consultation and no decisions have been made. That includes decisions on the future of each and every site.
An issue that is of wider importance to many of my hon. Friends is the future direction of the FSS. I do not believe that efficient and effective companies are a monopoly of the private sector. I want public services to be delivered to the highest possible standard.
Strategic Development Area (Eastleigh)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this matter for debate. It is of intense importance to my constituents in Boorley Green and Botley, whose homes will be blighted if their pleasant rural setting is developed as a new town. The planning process has let them down badly.
There are two groups of issues. The first relates to the substantive issue of whether it is right to build 6,000 new homes in a new town in the strategic development area north and north-east of Botley and Hedge End. The second group of issues concerns the way in which the decision, now incorporated in the south-east plan, was taken. It is my contention that the consultation process was so fundamentally flawed that Ministers must start again.
Let me deal with the substance first. Neither I nor my constituents are nimbys, motivated by the feeling that new homes should be “not in my back yard”. In Eastleigh we have had intensive debates over the years about where new housing should go, based on an acceptance that later marriage, earlier divorce and longer lives add up to more local housing need. The borough adamantly opposed a previous plan proposed by Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council for a new town on Allington lane, which would have destroyed the distinctiveness of the surrounding communities in West End, Hedge End, Fair Oak, Horton Heath, Bishopstoke and Eastleigh.
Even though that new town was never built, Eastleigh has met high targets for housing on brownfield land such as the Pirelli and Causton sites. We have a local track record of taking tough decisions to ensure that we have the housing that local people need, but not by destroying the communities that we love. We have maintained the strategic gaps between our settlements and prevented a sprawling Solent city from merging the villages into one long urban area from Totton in the west to Waterlooville in the east. Ministers should give us credit for meeting targets and therefore give us the benefit of the doubt when we oppose this similar new town.
In particular, local residents are greatly concerned about the impact on their area and its environment, including an increased likelihood of flooding, loss of countryside and prime agricultural land, traffic, road infrastructure, sewerage infrastructure, water supply, school and health provision, jobs and emergency service provision. I should mention at this point the opposition of the local parish and town council and Eastleigh borough council. They objected in 2005 when the draft plan came forward and have kept on objecting. I have written to object on numerous occasions. Local residents signed a petition, which I handed in to the House last autumn, and the Botley parish action group has been set up to oppose the plans.
Just as importantly, my constituents feel aggrieved because they have not been properly consulted about a plan that will have enormous and far-reaching effects on their lives. If a neighbour wanted to add a house extension, they would have to apply to Eastleigh borough council for planning permission. Each neighbour would receive individually addressed letters alerting them to the plan and asking for comments. However, it seems that in England’s green and pleasant land, people can build an entire new town without telling the villagers most affected.
When I wrote with my objections, I received from the Ministers merely an indirect reply that consultation had taken place. That is not the point; the point is whether the consultation was good and thorough enough. Was it good enough? I believe the consultation to be at variance with the legal requirements and as such to be an obstacle to the adoption of the south-east plan. I believe that if there were a judicial review of the decision-making process, a judge would rule that the process was so flawed that it should begin again. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will consider that option now and I would like his response to that proposal. Will he reconsider the south-east plan at least as far as it affects the proposal for an SDA north and north-east of Botley and Hedge End?
In many cases, constituents received no notice whatever, as even a general outline of the proposals was not delivered to them. That is in stark contrast to the legal requirements set out for adoption of the plan. Let me start with the requirements, which are stated in planning policy statement 11 on regional spatial strategies, published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004. Paragraph 2.17 states:
“It is essential that the public is able to be involved throughout the RSS revision process and this should include broad public consultation rather than relying on targeted consultation with particular groups.”
Paragraph 2.18 makes it clear that the “pre-submission consultation statement” required under regulation 13 must “not restrict itself” to how consultation has been carried out but must go further and summarise how the regional planning body
“has engaged stakeholders and the wider public in the preparation of the revision on a basis of active participation. It is essential that this pre-submission participation is not viewed as a one-off and fixed period of consultation on an early draft of the revision. Rather, it is a more continuous process of proactive involvement as explained above.”
The RPB is required under section 4 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to seek the advice of bodies with strategic planning expertise when preparing, keeping under review and monitoring the implementation of a revision of the RSS. Those bodies are defined in section 4(4) of the Act as a county council, metropolitan district council, national park authority or a district council for an area for which there is no county council.
I assume that the RPB sought the advice of the relevant authority in the case of Botley and Boorley Green—Hampshire county council—and that is why HCC appears to have been charged with overseeing what consultation there was. Was there any formal arrangement between the RPB and HCC to handle the consultation, and which body bears the responsibility for what failed to happen?
I now turn to the facts of the inadequate consultation. The “South Hampshire Sub-regional Strategy, Background Document 3, Statement of Consultation”, published in December 2005 by the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire—PUSH—of which HCC is the only relevant section 4(4) member, gives both the procedure followed and the results of the consultation on the SDA. Paragraph 2.2 states:
“The Options for the three sub-areas of Hampshire—North Hampshire, South Hampshire, and Central Hampshire & New Forest—were set in a single document called ‘Where Shall We Live?’…This was targeted at stakeholders. In addition a special edition of the County Council’s residents magazine ‘Hampshire Now’…exclusively dealing with this topic, was distributed to homes across the County Council’s area.”
That edition of Hampshire Now was partly distributed with free newspapers and failed to reach the homes of many residents, including those living in the area most affected by the proposal, namely Boorley Green and Botley. Should the Minister require this, I can arrange to deposit with him affidavits from residents in the most affected area, who will be surrounded by new estates if the proposal goes ahead. They are prepared to testify that they never received that document. Indeed, the minutes of Eastleigh borough council—a participant in PUSH but not a section 4(4) council under the Act—state for the full council meeting of 2 October 2008:
“There is significant evidence that many residents in the rural part of the borough”—
the part most affected—
“failed to receive regional assembly and county council consultation material”
during the formative stages of the South East plan
“ahead of the Examination in Public”.
It is also important to note that, even if a local resident received the edition of Hampshire Now, they would have had a very general reference, so that a specific response about the siting of the SDA would have been impossible. That was admitted in a letter dated 25 November 2008 from Hampshire county council—the relevant section 4(4) council—to a member of the local action group, which states:
“The county council would agree that sufficient detail and information should be provided in any consultation, but this has to be subject to information availability. At the time of the 2005 consultation, the SDA proposal had not been developed by PUSH”—
which includes Portsmouth, Southampton and Hampshire, the three section 4(4) councils in the area—
“in any greater detail than being ‘to the north/north east of Hedge End’ so it was not possible to be more specific than this in the consultation documents”.
The reason why I am pressing the Minister so hard to review those plans is precisely that I fear that the Conservatives, despite what they say locally, are not to be trusted on this matter. After all, Hampshire county council is Conservative controlled, but it also owns much of the land on which the SDA would be built. The Conservative county group has merely said that it has “no plans” to sell the land for the SDA, not that it will not sell the land. It could stop the plan in its tracks, but it has not.
Moreover, it is a matter of public record that the Conservative party has received substantial political contributions from house-building companies that have been active in Hampshire, as well as from their owners. For example, Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council now proposes to build a gravel pit on Hamble airfield, near the SDA. It has the support of the owners, Persimmon Homes, presumably because Persimmon knows that that will make it far easier eventually to get permission for new houses on the site. Duncan H. Davidson of Persimmon has given £32,000 to the Conservative party, and the company has given a further £10,000, according to public information on the Electoral Commission website. There is a similar pattern with Barratts—Lawrence A. Barratt has donated to the Conservative party—and with Berkeley Homes, whose founder, Mr. Tony Pidgley, is a substantial Conservative party donor.
I am not saying that there is anything so simple or corrupt as a deal—cash for planning permissions—in any of these cases. I am merely stating that it is hardly likely that the leading movers and shakers in Britain’s greenfield housing industry would all donate to the Conservative party if they thought that it would block their proposals. As Mr. Davidson of Persimmon has been quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph, the Conservative party represents
“the best prospect for our industry and our company”.
My constituents in Botley and Boorley Green had better be warned, and that gives added urgency to the need to review the plan now.
In sum, the consultation on the south-east plan was clearly not—at least in so far as it affected my constituents—issued under the relevant Act, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, as required under planning policy statement 11. The flawed consultation process, which involved a failure to contact those with a legitimate interest in the decisions and a failure to set out the proposals in enough detail for people to be able to make meaningful comment, must lead us to scrap the conclusions and start again. Will the Minister give my constituents that commitment today?
As ever, Mr. Jones, it is an absolute pleasure to serve under you. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) on securing the debate on an issue that is important to him and to a number of his constituents and others living in the area. Having listened to his remarks at the end of his speech, I would be extremely concerned if conflicts of interest over political donations had not been managed appropriately. I know that he is not suggesting that that is the case, but that he does not know.
Let me start by providing some background to the proposals for a strategic development area centred around the north and north-east of Hedge End. The Hedge End SDA is a long-standing commitment, which was born out of workshops hosted by PUSH, of which Eastleigh borough council is a member, to discuss the sub-regional aspects of the draft south-east plan. Those discussions led to proposals for the SDAs at Hedge End and Fareham, and the proposals were provided to the South East England regional assembly, under the banner of PUSH, for inclusion in the draft regional spatial strategy.
Let me take this opportunity to address the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the process that was followed to finalise the south-east plan and, in particular, about how the views of local representatives and local residents were sought and considered. The original draft was prepared by the South East England regional assembly. It was then submitted to the Government office for testing and final approval. From the outset, the draft plan included proposals for an SDA at Hedge End.
When work began on the plan in 2003, it was subject to extensive consultation. Between April and May 2004, more than 1,000 stakeholders took part in workshops, which helped to shape the consultation draft of the plan. Following the launch of the public consultation in January 2005, more than 6,000 print and electronic copies of the plan were distributed. More than 14,000 copies of the plan executive summary were requested, and further workshops were held to encourage responses from hard-to-reach groups. Assembly members attended almost 100 public and stakeholder meetings on the plan. In addition, a number of public opinion surveys were carried out on behalf of the assembly, gathering views on key plan policies from a representative sample of the region’s population.
By the time the consultation closed in April 2005, more than 2,500 written responses had been received from stakeholders and the public. A questionnaire on key plan policies was distributed to 3.2 million households and organisations, including local authorities and town and parish councils. The questionnaire attracted a further 61,746 responses.
All that consultation predated the examination in public. The proposals for an SDA at Hedge End were discussed at that examination, and PUSH submitted a statement for the examination panel to consider, setting out the justification for the SDA. The examination panel supported the principle of the SDA at Hedge End, noting that its selection had been challenged by a number of participants, but concluding that it was, on balance, a sound choice.
Following the examination, the Secretary of State published her proposed changes to the draft plan in July 2008. At the time, everyone who responded to earlier rounds of consultation was sent notification that the documents were available and was given details on how copies could be obtained.
I am grateful to the Minister for that. Nobody contests the fact that there was substantial consultation throughout the south-east on the south-east plan. The real issue is whether there was consultation with those in the area— particularly in Boorley Green and Botley—who would be most affected. I have given the Minister very clear evidence that the consultation did not reach those people. On that basis, does he agree that the process should start again?
I can certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that there were distribution difficulties. He talked about Hampshire Now and said that many of those on whose behalf he has articulated the arguments complained that they had not received a copy of the paper. I accept that there were distribution difficulties with it, but it was made available in public libraries, citizens advice bureaux, museums, GPs’ surgeries, petrol stations and local shops. One would have hoped that that would mitigate some of the difficulties with the distribution.
Surely the key point is that if someone proposed an extension to their house, individual addressed letters from the planning authority would, under existing planning law, alert those affected by what was going on. Here, we have an example of a far more significant potential development, which would completely surround a peaceful rural haven, but there was no consultation. As the Minister has admitted, there were major problems. It is simply not good enough to say that paperwork was available in a local public library, because we know that that is not good enough when it comes, for example, to individual planning applications. We do not just put them in the public library. We go out of our way to alert the individuals who will be affected.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, but the way in which individual planning applications are dealt with is a separate issue from the way in which we dealt with the case in question. Despite the distribution difficulties that I have outlined, the handling of the matter is viewed as, on balance, adequate. However, for a number of people it will not have been adequate, and that is why we are having this debate.
I want to say a few words about the hard work, of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, that has been done in south Hampshire to set up the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire and, in particular, to publish the south Hampshire agreement, which is a multi-area agreement on behalf of, and with input from, the 11 local authorities that make up PUSH. In addition to the agreement of those authorities, the MAA has the agreement of Transport for South Hampshire, which is the delivery agent for sub-regional transport plans, policies and programmes, along with other regional partners including Jobcentre Plus, the learning and skills council, Business Link and the development agency.
Multi-area agreements are a mechanism that makes possible a new way of working at national and local levels, with the fundamental aim of driving economic development. The south Hampshire agreement will support the delivery of the partnership’s ambitious programme by strengthening partnership working between local partners, departments and agencies. With such agreements, PUSH and its key partners will achieve more rapid and certain progress in delivery on the ground, particularly in relation to skills, employment, housing supply and regional economic performance.
The Homes and Communities Agency has recently announced an investment commitment of more than £75 million in the south Hampshire sub-region. By working with the partnership, the HCA has been able to ensure that the funding will bring the greatest benefits to the area. That level of investment will act as a driver for the local economy and will provide the opportunity for hundreds of jobs in the construction industry. The Government have also committed to spending in the region of £300 million of investment for housing in the PUSH area to 2011, of which £169 million has been allocated specifically for affordable housing. The need for affordable housing has been established by studies throughout the past 12 years, most recently by the strategic housing market assessment carried out on behalf of all the districts in the PUSH sub-region, which noted that 4,520 households were accepted as being in housing need in Eastleigh in 2005. The figure had risen to 5,604 by December 2008, representing 11 per cent. of all households in the borough.
I entirely accept what the Minister says about the need for extra housing. Of course he knows, because I cited the evidence, that the borough has a good track record. The problem at the moment is that much of the private sector housing that would unlock that social housing is not being completed, because of the housing recession. That has nothing to do with the planning process. Therefore it is not relevant to the key issue of whether the consultation process was in line with the legal requirements. Does the Minister accept that the consultation process was, as I have outlined, not in line with the legal requirements?
The simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that on balance we do not accept that the consultation was illegitimate. I have said that there were difficulties in distribution but that, because of other measures that were taken, it was deemed adequate. He will be well aware that the cost of entry-level homes in his constituency is nine and half times the district’s lower quartile earnings figure. I know that he wants to focus on the consultation, but it is critical that I should focus on housing needs. It is difficult to disaggregate one little part from the larger plan, as he would like me to. It may help if I tell him that the consultation on the south-east plan was undertaken in accordance with the advice in planning policy statement 11.
The SDA is a long-established element in the sub-regional approach of the PUSH authorities to delivering their agreed target of 80,000 homes by 2026, and 6,000 of those are proposed at the Hedge End SDA. The core authorities’ own reporting shows more than 30,000 households currently in housing need. The hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about aspects of the proposed SDA, and particularly the pressure that such development might put on local infrastructure. I am sure that he would agree that the funding already committed to transport schemes in the PUSH area will help to alleviate some of the pressures on the road network. There have been capacity improvements to the M27 between junctions 3 to 4 and 11 to 12 within the last year, and since the Solent travelcard scheme was introduced in 2004, there has been an increase of 250,000 journeys undertaken by public transport. Those are just two examples of the work being undertaken.
The pressures on infrastructure are not limited to transport, and in publishing the south-east plan the Government have set the strategic planning context for decision makers in the south-east of England for the period to 2026. Perhaps I should also point out that there might be opportunities in the development of the local development framework to raise some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised and to shape development in the areas about which he is concerned. The plan also contains policies that focus on sustainable growth to provide the development that is needed, while ensuring the protection of the environment, such as the requirement for local authorities to carry out strategic flood risk assessments and to avoid a net loss of, or actively to seek a gain in, biodiversity. I know that he is concerned about those issues. The Planning Act 2008 introduced a community infrastructure levy which will allow local authorities to raise considerable funds for infrastructure in their areas. The Government consider that to be critical for the future delivery of infrastructure projects.
The proposed SDA at Hedge End represents a targeted approach to development that is a good thing for the economic development and sustainability of the south Hampshire sub-region and south-east England as a whole. I know that the hon. Gentleman may not be fully content with my response, but I am sure that his constituents can be fully content that they have a powerful advocate in their Member of Parliament.
Charges for Oxygen (Airlines)
It is a pleasure, Mr. Jones, to serve under your chairmanship. I wish to declare an interest; I am a trustee of the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, as listed in the Register of Members’ Interests.
I wish to bring to the attention of the House the fact that some airlines charge large fees to those who need to use supplementary oxygen when flying. I am grateful to the 218 right hon. and hon. Members who signed early-day motion 1,444, in which I called on airlines to scrap those charges. I am also grateful to the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, the British Lung Foundation and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign for their detailed advice and information.
Pulmonary arterial hypertension—PAH—causes high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries, which carry blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs. The condition causes those arteries to thicken and narrow, which restricts blood flow in the lungs. The resulting symptoms are breathlessness, chest pains, angina, fatigue and fainting spells. PAH is relatively rare, but sufferers from other breathing conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and muscular dystrophy can experience similar symptoms, and require supplementary oxygen to help get sufficient oxygen into their blood. Along with medication, those symptoms can be managed with extra oxygen, which can be obtained from a cylinder or an electronic concentrator. Oxygen from either source eases breathing difficulties, allowing patients who otherwise could not undertake even gentle activity to regain mobility.
Oxygen is as indispensable to sufferers as the wheelchair is to those with walking difficulties. Unfortunately, that fact is not recognised by many airlines. It is hard to imagine a company refusing to allow people the right to bring a wheelchair into a building and then charging them to use a centrally provided one. However, that is what is happening to many oxygen users who want to fly. Many airlines refuse to allow patients to keep their oxygen with them on flights. Instead, they insist that affected passengers should buy oxygen directly from the airlines, sometimes at huge cost.
The Pulmonary Hypertension Association conducted a secret shopper exercise. It found that of the 22 airlines surveyed, only five allowed people to bring their own oxygen cylinders on board, and only nine allowed the use of oxygen concentrators. Some notable exceptions aside, almost every airline that refused permission told the secret shopper that she could be supplied with oxygen by the airline throughout the flight—for a fee. The charges mostly range from £55 to £250, but in some cases are much higher.
The British Lung Foundation became involved in the case of Mr. Palmer, who suffers from PAH. He was told by the Emirates airline that he would have to pay an extra £1,972 to be supplied with oxygen on his flight to Australia. In another case, the same airline told a sufferer from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis that he would be charged £2,800 to use oxygen on a flight from Manchester to Dubai. In both cases, the airline backed down when the passengers called in the British Lung Foundation. However, not all airlines back down, and many people are told to pay up or lose out.
One PAH sufferer said:
“I have just had to cancel my holiday to Singapore and Australia. I have been on the phone to Singapore Airlines for an entire week. I have my own travelling concentrator, and this one is pictured on the airline’s website to be OK to use on board, but only if you pay 1st class! I think I have been discriminated against.”
That was not justified on the grounds of either security or safety; the airline was prepared to allow the device on to the plane, but only if the passenger could come up with a huge premium.
Another lady described the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to access oxygen on Ryanair. She said:
“When I was due to fly to Spain I faxed off my fit to fly letter and then phoned to pay my £100. They said I was not now allowed to fly with them as I need 2 litres per minute flow, but they only provide 4 litres per minute. Their safety officer said that 2 litres per minute was for children only, even though my doctor had said that was all I require. Also they can only provide oxygen for 2 hours. I flew BA in the end, but the whole thing was so stressful.”
The Guardian quoted one passenger as saying:
“With many of the airlines it’s a catch-22 situation. You can’t take your own oxygen on board but they charge you a fortune for the privilege of using theirs…Disabled people have to fight constantly for things I feel should be made available to us when we need it. Oxygen is a necessity that is keeping me alive and healthy.”
Although some financial help is available from charities for those who need help in paying the charges, it can be an unnecessary drain on the charities’ resources. The Pulmonary Hypertension Association has told me that in the past seven years the charity has paid about £50,000 in grants to cover the cost of airline charges for its members. The association said:
“This is money that could be spent on something beneficial, such as respite weekends for children, or a specialist nurse, not subsidising airlines.”
Ultimately, the high charges mean that airlines are at risk of pricing oxygen users out of the air travel market.
Emirates has announced that it will scrap the charge altogether in response to “feedback from customers”, but not many airlines have followed suit. The fees that they continue to charge amount to a tax on the disabled. That practice needs to end. I shall read on to the record the names of airlines that charge and those that do not. I list first those of the 22 airlines surveyed that no longer charge. British Airways, easyJet, Flybe and Virgin Atlantic do not charge; and after the campaign by the three organisations that I mentioned earlier, Cathay Pacific and Emirates no longer charge.
I now list the airlines that charge. Air Canada charges 150 Canadian dollars. Air France charges €182. Alitalia charges the cost of a second seat. BMI charges £100. El Al charges £75. First Choice charges £150 for short-haul flights and £250 for long-haul flights. Iberia charges £124. KLM charges €100. Lufthansa charges €150 for short haul and €300 for long haul. Ryanair charges €148. South African Airways charges £150. TAP charges €150. It is pretty much a lottery, particularly for those travelling on longer-haul flights, who seem to be charged most.
All airlines should allow people who are dependent on supplementary oxygen to travel at no additional charge, if they have medical clearance to do so. There seems to be no reason why that cannot be achieved. Legislation establishing the principle that disabled people should not be discriminated against when travelling is already in place. European Union regulation 1107/2006 obliges airlines to carry passengers’ medical equipment free of charge. Airlines that charge interpret oxygen cylinders as not coming under that category, but stronger guidelines could oblige them to change their view.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission told me that it
“questions whether airline companies’ refusal to carry passengers’ oxygen cylinders and concentrators without charge—or at all—is within the law.”
It says that it is
“seeking to clarify the regulations so that airlines do not inappropriately charge people who require oxygen”.
The Department for Transport’s code of practice “Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility” advises that air carriers may approve the carriage of small gaseous oxygen or air cylinders for medical use, and recommends that portable oxygen concentrator devices should normally be allowed if they are battery operated. The Department clarified that guidance in response to inquiries from the British Lung Foundation, stating:
“The Code of Practice makes clear that airlines should consider portable oxygen cylinders as medical equipment which passengers should have a right to take on board free of charge in addition to standard baggage allowance.”
That is quite clear. The code of practice states that air carriers can make a charge to provide passengers with oxygen. However, the Department has also told the British Lung Foundation:
“We do not believe that the EC Regulation requires airlines to provide oxygen free of charge, but we would encourage airlines to offer this service at their discretion”.
Airlines can thus be in no doubt that the charges that they are currently levying run contrary to the spirit of the rules. It is clear that stronger guidance—or legislation, if necessary—is needed if the practice is to be stamped out permanently. In the USA, the Air Carrier Access Act came into effect on 13 May 2009 and requires all airlines on flights that depart from, or arrive in, the US, and US airlines wherever they are in the world, to allow passengers to use their own portable oxygen concentrators free of charge, as long as they have been tested and labelled as meeting federal airline administration requirements. The United States believes that there should be no charge.
Airlines will, of course, need to follow security procedures, but if some airlines currently allow passengers to take their cylinders or concentrators on board, and if airlines are obliged to carry concentrators in the USA, the necessary security procedures clearly exist already and could be made compulsory in the UK and throughout Europe. To refuse patients the right to carry medical equipment that has been certified as safe, and then to charge large sums for alternative provision, is outrageous. Some airlines have responded to the campaign and changed their charging policy, but it is still a lottery. I trust that the Department will work with its European partners to produce crystal-clear guidance to airlines stating that they should not be charging for the service. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to end this blatant discrimination by some airlines against disabled passengers.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) on securing this debate. I also congratulate the British Lung Foundation, the Pulmonary Hypertension Association UK and the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign on their work to raise the profile of this issue in many ways and with many parliamentarians, including those who have signed early-day motion 1444.
This debate gives me the opportunity to respond to some of the points raised and to set out the current position. After that I shall turn to the position of airlines, in particular, UK airlines—the point of immediate concern—and then expand on how we might proceed. By definition, aviation is an international business. Many of the airlines to which my hon. Friend referred are international companies based in other parts of the world—not just in Europe, but beyond—and the issues that arise are common across the world. Furthermore, a substantial body of international law governs the operation of airlines. That legislation, whether created by the International Civil Aviation Organisation or, for European states, the EU is designed to support and help aviation consumers, whoever they might be.
Rights of disabled people and those with reduced mobility, from whatever cause, are established under European regulation 1107, to which my hon. Friend referred. The regulation is fully supported by the UK Government and enforced through statutory instrument 2007/1895. However, as he will know, the regulation does not impose specific obligations on airlines to carry or provide oxygen in the cabin. However, to help the UK air transport industry to comply with its obligations under the regulation, the Department published a revised code of practice entitled, “Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility”. Section 7 of the latest edition of the code, published in July 2008, includes a section on oxygen advising that air carriers may approve the carriage of small gaseous oxygen or air cylinders—not exceeding 5 kg gross mass—required for medical use, but notes that carriers will wish to ensure that these do not pose a risk to security.
I quoted the charges, but I also have a list of the airlines that do not allow patients to take on board their own oxygen cylinders. That list consists of the majority of airlines that I quoted as charging for alternative provision. It is clear that the majority of airlines in this survey are not abiding by those guidelines.
I think that my hon. Friend is talking about the list that he read into the record earlier. However, many of those airlines fall outside the jurisdiction of the EU, let alone the UK. He is right about the range of options. Some carriers might charge for supplying their own oxygen or allow passengers to bring on their own oxygen cylinder. He is also right that a number of those 22 airlines do not permit the latter, but do allow—I was just coming to this point—portable oxygen concentrator devices to be brought on board. But some airlines do not allow those either.
The code of practice issued by the UK Government notes that as an alternative to oxygen cylinders, passengers could use their own portable oxygen concentrator devices. It recommends that airlines should normally allow such devices to be carried, if they are battery powered and not dependent on the aircraft’s power supplies. Although air carriers are not required to do so under EC regulation, some might decide to supply medical oxygen to passengers on request. The code acknowledges that it would be possible to charge for that service to cover the provision of oxygen. It will be apparent, therefore, that European law, which cannot legislate for airlines such as Emirates or Singapore Airlines, aims to strike a balance between the needs of particular groups and airlines’ commercial requirements. However, there are further considerations, including those raised by the campaign to which my hon. Friend referred, which has raised awareness of this issue.
The Department wants to encourage airlines to make clear their conditions of carriage, so that passengers considering travelling on a particular airline are aware of its policy and can make an informed choice when they purchase their tickets. Indeed, I took on board my hon. Friend’s comments about the stress through which people can be put to try to find out that information. That is why I went online to check out a number of airlines. I typed in “medical oxygen” and “oxygen supplies” to see what would come up. Although some websites were better than others, all of them carried the necessary information. We must continue to work with the transport industry—not just the airline industry—to ensure that it provides accessible information and meets people’s requirements.
My wife uses oxygen, so I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend the Minister. Earlier, he talked about stress. I have found that stress is not restricted to the airlines. We took cylinders with us when we travelled on Eurostar. I was kept behind in Paris for an hour because the officials thought that I was going to blow up the bloody plane. People feel stressed with hotels and trains. My wife has a card, which should enable her to get some assistance. However, we have found that company officials do not know anything about how to obtain oxygen. As has been wonderfully demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), it is an issue that is not sufficiently well known.
As I was saying, there is still a long, long way to go. My hon. Friend recognises that a person has to reassure themselves with regard to both safety and security, and that the right processes are in place. That may even include taking a short blast from the gas that is in the cylinder. Unfortunately, we live in a climate in which we must check everything. My hon. Friend raised a very important point about awareness training for staff who are operating both public and private transport systems.
Earlier this year, I considered accessibility planning and awareness training for people who plan transport systems within our towns and cities, which is a very important role. Let me draw the attention of my hon. Friends to the code of practice concerning aviation to which I referred. The first item in section 7 says:
“All cabin crew, including the flight crew, must receive disability awareness training. For cabin crew, this should be refreshed in line with training in safety procedures.”
Although the guide refers specifically to cabin crew, it equally applies to others operating in the field. So, the ability to understand all the issues must apply across the board. Individual companies probably need to undertake further work in that regard. My understanding is that that is what UK airlines have tried to do on their sites.
Earlier, the Minister mentioned that he had visited a number of airline websites to establish what information was being made available to patients to enable them to make a choice. In certain circumstances, however, patients cannot exercise a choice because they are considering a specific route. They may be looking at a budget airline route to a relatively small airport. BMI and Ryanair are both guilty in my book. Moreover, charter flight airlines, such as First Choice and Monarch, also make charges. When a person books their holiday, they have no alternative but to fly with that particular airline. Therefore, they cannot exercise a choice in such matters.
I recognise that there are some limitations, but the picture is pretty good for UK airlines. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, easyJet and Flybe allow passengers to use free of charge their own oxygen and their own portable oxygen concentrators. However, I accept that other UK carriers make certain charges. My hon. Friend mentioned that Monarch charged £80 and that First Choice differentiated between short and long-haul operations. [Interruption.] Someone from a sedentary position has mentioned Ryanair, but that is an Irish carrier.
Yes, BMI is another carrier that charges. My hon. Friend raised questions over a number of airlines. He was right to say that Emirates was charging £1,100 and has now dropped its charges. He also referred to Singapore Airlines. Mention was made of £2,800 being charged from Manchester to Dubai, but I did not catch the airline. Emirates and Singapore are not UK airlines and they are not governed by the EU regulation 1107. It is up to the individual companies to justify their charges.
Let me turn to the American situation. My understanding is that it is a little more complex than it appears on first glance. American Airlines will not accept oxygen cylinders on planes. It will accept the portable oxygen concentrators to which we have referred, but they have to come from the seven companies approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is part of the US Government. The kit is expensive and comes from American companies, so there are limitations. I did another quick check this morning and I noticed that one company and a number of the other sites had the FAA approved logo. The regime, therefore, is tight, which may limit some opportunities.
In conclusion, I am aware that the British Lung Foundation is jointly campaigning with the Pulmonary Hypertension Association UK and Muscular Dystrophy campaign to end additional charges for people travelling with oxygen and to ensure that all airlines offer the same level of service. I suggest that that can be best achieved through an international forum to ensure that we get standard provision across the board. I understand that the British Lung Foundation has been in touch with my office to discuss this matter further, and I am certainly considering ways in which we can find a way forward.
When looking at an overall package, we need to consider the issues that arise.
Let me now turn to the issue of the carriage by aircraft of medical oxygen as part of a medical kit. That is not a requirement of regulation 1107. The Commission is due to review the regulation in 2010, but as this is new European law I would not want unduly to raise expectations that it is likely to be changed quickly. However, it will give interested parties a chance to make representations.
Today’s debate takes us another step forward. Raising public awareness about the companies that charge and those that do not will help to focus minds. We need to ensure that information is available for travellers so that they can make an informed choice. We need to continue our dialogue with the industry and await the EC regulation review in 2010.
Wind Farms (Northamptonshire)
May I place on record my thanks to Mr. Speaker for permitting me to introduce this debate on planning applications for wind farms in Northamptonshire and in particular in my constituency? I welcome the Minister to his place and I hope that he will take my points on board.
I should first say that the debate is not about opposition to wind farms, although a lot of my constituents do oppose them—they do not regard them as the best way to secure power generation in future, and regard them as unsightly and unwelcome, particularly in areas of attractive, open countryside. There are also huge doubts about the energy efficiency of wind farms, given that many operate at only a quarter of their potential capacity. The debate is also not about nimbyism. A lot of my constituents are in favour of alternative sources of power generation and renewable energy. Many like wind farms and want to see more of them. Rather, the debate is about coming up with a sensible planning policy for the borough of Kettering so that the people of Kettering can play their part in promoting renewable energy without seeing their local countryside covered in a plethora of wind turbines.
We have in the borough of Kettering a wind farm at Burton Wold. There are 10 turbines, which generate 20 MW of electricity. That is enough to power 10,000 homes in the borough, which is somewhere between a quarter and third of the local population. Not everyone is in favour of the Burton Wold wind farm, but many are—it is fair to say, on balance, that it enjoys popular support from my constituents, in particular from the residents of Burton Latimer, which is the nearest town. Local schoolchildren have given each of the turbines a name and the Burton Wold Wind Farm company makes a valuable contribution each year to town council funds to help local projects in the community. On balance, it is a very popular wind farm. It is so popular that planning permission has been granted for it to be extended from 10 to 17 turbines. It is one of the closest large-scale wind farms to the capital.
Under the Government’s current guidelines, much of the promotion of wind energy is done through regional spatial strategies. RSS8, for the east midlands, gives the county of Northamptonshire a target for large-scale wind farm generating capacity of 12 MW. At one point, the draft RSS contained a target to double the 2010 target by 2026, but that did not survive into the final version, as I understand it. The county’s target for wind generating capacity is 12 MW by next year, but the existing Burton Wold wind farm already generates 20 MW, and if the proposed extension goes ahead—it already has permission—it would increase to 34 MW. Northamptonshire already generates way above the target set in the RSS but there were, at the last count, 16 new applications for wind farms in Northamptonshire, most of which would be along the A14 corridor between the A1 and the M1. Not all would be in my constituency, but a considerable proportion would be there.
There is a proposal for four wind turbines between Hanging Houghton and Brixworth. Originally, the application was for six, but two have been withdrawn owing to their proximity to the Sywell aerodrome and the potential danger to aircraft. There was also an application for two turbines at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Brixworth, but that was withdrawn because of safety concerns. There is a proposal for seven wind turbines at the old RAF Harrington base near Harrington and Draughton—the application is due to be considered soon—and there could be an application for four wind turbines at Great Cransley near Mawsley, although there is question mark over that because of its proximity to the Sywell aerodrome. There is a proposal for seven wind turbines that would be a staggering 126.5 m tall at Kelmarsh. For the uninitiated, Nelson’s column is 52 m tall and the Northampton lift tower, which is a well known local landmark, is 127 m. The Kelmarsh wind farm is for seven structures of almost the same height as the lift tower. There is also a proposal for seven turbines between the villages of Rushton and Pipewell, which would be very close to Kettering.
The applications are causing widespread unease and consternation among my constituents, many of whom are not against renewable energy and are very supportive of the existing wind farm at Burton Wold. However, they do not want lots of wind turbines and wind farms spread all over their local countryside. At the moment, an effective planning policy from the Government to enable a sensible way forward is absent.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he should consider himself lucky. In Montgomeryshire, we have applications for more than 700 enormous 450 ft turbines. Leaving aside the questionable benefit of such a variable power source, does he agree that the Government seem to enjoy the fashionableness of being seen to act on the environment, even though that can cause other forms of environmental damage and disruption, not least that associated with the tremendous efforts needed for the construction of the turbines?
I have a lot of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, and the plight and blight that they face from large-scale wind farms. It seems that the location of wind farms comes down to very site-specific proposals. Sometimes, in areas such as Burton Wold, it works; it is popular and it makes sense. Such facilities can enjoy support not only from the planning system, but from local people. In other areas, such as Montgomeryshire, they might not attract such support and would be very unwelcome. I think the Government are being over-prescriptive in forcing through such a rapid expansion of a technology that, as he rightly said, has questionable efficiencies and benefits.
The sensible way forward for the north of Northamptonshire and particularly the area around Kettering is to enable Kettering borough council, of which I am pleased to be a member, to draw up a policy that says, “Yes, we are supportive of renewable energy, and we want to see all the local wind farms and turbines in Burton Wold.” Ten turbines are there at the moment, permission has been given for 17 and plans exist with the potential to increase that to 24, which I support. That would meet the Government’s targets for expanding wind energy in the borough of Kettering, local people would support it, we would be doing their bit to green our country, and it would remove the blight faced by residents of villages in the borough and across Northamptonshire who face the applications that I have mentioned.
As usual, my hon. Friend makes a powerful argument on behalf of the people of his constituency and of north Northamptonshire. Is he aware that exactly the same feelings are expressed by the people in Wellingborough, as we are attached to the same planning applications and Sywell airport is in my constituency? It is the fear of being forced to have a wind farm in an area where one is not wanted or suitable that worries my constituents.
That is absolutely right. People are facing an uncomfortable dilemma. They support wind energy, but in the right places and where it makes sense. People are not being nimbys for the sake of it. There are clearly some places that any common-sense approach would say are not suited to wind energy, because that blight on the countryside will be there for the next 25 or 30 years. How can it make sense to build seven turbines 127 m tall in the grounds of Kelmarsh hall, one of the most famous stately homes in Northamptonshire? They will be there for the next 30 years and will be visible from Northampton, and probably the moon, despoiling some of the best countryside in the middle of England, when just a few miles down the road at Burton Wold is a site where, for a number of peculiar reasons, a big wind farm makes sense and enjoys popular support.
I anticipate that the Minister will say that there is room for local authorities to designate places as suitable sites for wind farms in their local development frameworks. That is great if the option actually exists. East Northamptonshire council is next door to my constituency. I understand that the council included in its area action plan for rural north, part of the council area, a site-specific policy on wind farms that the Government office for the east midlands and the East Midlands regional assembly asked it to remove. I understand that the officers of the local council have kept the policy, but they expect that when it goes to review, the inspector will find it unduly restrictive.
I would like the Minister to say that he will consider planning policy statement 22, the Government planning guidance on renewable energy, and come back to the House with a written statement confirming that local authorities will be able to designate areas such as Burton Wold in their local development frameworks as sites suitable for wind farm development that will meet regional and Government wind farm targets and, at the same time, enable them to turn down speculative wind farm applications in all sorts of other locations. That seems a sensible policy that would enjoy popular support, get people behind renewable energy and save many thousands of acres of some of the UK’s best countryside from the despoiling development that gives renewable energy a bad name.
I do not think that that is too difficult a commitment for the Minister to make. If he did so, he would be carried shoulder-high through the streets of Kettering, and I would be one of the people carrying him. Such a policy would be very welcome locally and would, I am sure, be taken up by local authorities in other parts of the country.
It is a double pleasure today, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this debate on an interesting and important subject that I know is significant to him and a number of his constituents, as well as to the constituents of other hon. Members here. I am sure that the whole House appreciates the need to address climate change even more given the heat wave that we are enjoying. I visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency last week, although not on anybody’s shoulders, and was impressed by the work of David Cook, the chief executive, and the leader of the council, Councillor Jim Hakewill.
As part of our overall approach to climate change and renewable energy, the Government attach great importance to building a low-carbon UK. On 18 June 2009, the Environment Secretary announced the launch of UK climate projections 2009, a groundbreaking tool funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that will help us understand how the UK’s climate is likely to alter during the 21st century.
The Government recognise the need to adjust energy provision to meet challenges. The Climate Change Act 2008 made Britain the first country in the world to set legally binding carbon budgets, with the aim of cutting UK emissions by 34 per cent. by 2020 and at least 80 per cent. by 2050 through investment in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies such as renewable, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.
Power stations generating around 25 per cent. of our electricity are expected to close by 2018, as they do not comply with European legislation on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. The gap in generation will be filled by an increase in renewables over the coming years, including greater generation from both offshore and onshore wind. The UK is one of the windiest countries in Europe, and we need to harness that clean and renewable energy-generating technology.
Wind has been the world’s fastest growing renewable energy source for the last seven years, and the trend is expected to continue due to the falling costs of wind energy, energy security threats and the need to address climate change. A modern 2.5 MW turbine at a site with suitable conditions generates 6.5 million units of electricity each year, enough to meet the annual needs of more than 1,400 households, make 230 million cups of tea or run a computer for 2,250 years. Every unit of electricity from a wind turbine displaces one from conventional power stations. In January 2009, wind turbines operating in the UK had the capacity to prevent the emission of over 3.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
Energy from wind generation will be a key component of the changes necessary to create low-carbon energy. The hon. Gentleman referred to planning considerations for wind farms. All proposals for wind farm development need to be considered under the planning system at a national, regional and local level, and I will now address that framework.
At the national level, planning policy is set out, as the hon. Gentleman said, in planning policy statement 22 on renewable energy, published in 2004. Along with its more detailed companion guide, it sets out the Government’s guidance on planning and renewable energy. It makes specific reference to regional spatial strategies and local development documents, stating that they must contain policies designed to promote and encourage rather than restrict the development of renewable energy resources.
PPS 22 also states that, at the local level, planning authorities should set out the criteria that will be applied in assessing applications for planning permission for renewable energy projects. Planning policies that rule out or place constraints on the development of all or specific types of renewable energy technologies should not be included in regional spatial strategies or local development documents.
I am listening closely to the Minister’s remarks. I understand that he is following the brief that was prepared for him and that is quite proper. However, I am trying to draw to his attention the specific case of Kettering borough council, which has done far more than its fair share by giving planning permission for 34 MW of wind energy when the regional target for the whole of Northamptonshire is 10 MW. From the statement that he is reading out word for word, one can understand why there is a bar on Kettering borough council doing what it wants. However, would it not make sense to allow the local authority to say, “We are doing more than our fair share on this site. We want to expand it further. Give us the tools to enable us to do that, but to restrict development elsewhere.”?
I will come to the local level shortly.
The general principle and rule is that the Government have no power to prevent applications from coming forward. That is critical. Furthermore, the Government may intervene in the plan-making process if they consider that the constraints being proposed by local authorities are too great or are poorly justified. The policy also states that local planning authorities should not identify generalised locations for development based, for example, on mean wind speeds because technological developments might mean that additional sites become suitable.
The regional spatial strategy for the east midlands was adopted in March 2009. It sets out the long-term spatial vision and provides the broad development strategy for the east midlands until 2026. It sets the policy framework within which local authority planning documents are prepared. Policy 40 on regional priorities for low-carbon energy generation sets out the criteria that local planning authorities should consider for onshore wind energy development. The regional spatial strategy also states:
“Planning authorities should not, however, adopt policies that would in effect impose a blanket ban on on-shore wind energy projects.”
The east midlands currently lags behind other English regions with only 2 per cent. of its energy coming from renewable sources. The regional target is for 20 per cent. of energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. The regional spatial strategy therefore recognises that there must be a complete change in attitude in planning practices. Local planning authorities must accept that far more energy generation schemes using innovative renewable technologies must be accepted if renewable energy targets are to be achieved.
I am not sure whether the Minister follows my hon. Friend’s argument. The wind farm that crosses our constituencies creates more power than the requirement for the whole of Northamptonshire. The rest of the east midlands may well not be doing its fair share, but Northamptonshire is doing more than its fair share. That is the point we are trying to make.
I think that Northamptonshire should be applauded for the amount that it does. It stands to reason that we cannot expect each part of each locality to contribute the same amount to this fight. As the hon. Member for Kettering said, some areas are better suited to this kind of technology. Some people will always feel that they are doing more than their fair share. That is why I am looking at the matter from a regional perspective.
The spatial strategy for Northamptonshire is delivered by two joint planning units. There is one for north Northamptonshire, which covers Kettering, Wellingborough, east Northamptonshire and Corby, and one for west Northamptonshire, which covers Northampton, Daventry and south Northamptonshire. I turn first to north Northamptonshire. The core spatial strategy was adopted in June 2008. It was the first in England to be adopted, which was an excellent achievement. The plan covers the period up to 2021 and sets out the vision and objectives for existing and new communities. It tackles environmental concerns, particularly to do with climate change, and identifies the potential to promote environmental technologies. Policy 14 states that developments should meet the highest viable standards of resource, energy efficiency and reductions in carbon emissions. The core spatial strategy for west Northamptonshire is currently being developed and it is anticipated that publication for consultation will be in November 2009.
All the policies I have described provide the context against which all proposals for wind farms should be assessed. Local planning authorities should take into account the individual and cumulative effect of wind generation developments and make an assessment at the planning application stage. However, local planning authorities should not set arbitrary limits in local development documents on the numbers of turbines that will be acceptable in particular locations. It is a fundamental principle of the planning system that each application must be decided on its individual planning merits.
The hon. Member for Kettering mentioned that at Burton Latimer, just south of Kettering, there are 10 operational wind turbines and there is consent for a further seven turbines on the same site. About 25 per cent. of the homes in Kettering benefit from the energy produced at that site. It will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40,000 tonnes per year, which is equivalent to taking 25,000 cars off the road. That is a phenomenal achievement. I understand that there are other proposals both in and adjacent to Kettering. However, I am unable to comment on specific planning applications that are currently in the planning system given the Secretary of State’s potential role.
The Government have made it clear that wind farms should be located in appropriate places and that local concerns should be given appropriate consideration. As I said, the local planning authority considers each proposal on its merits and within the policy context. As with other proposals, all commercial renewable energy developments are subject to formal planning procedures that allow all relevant stakeholders, including members of the public, to put forward their views on the likely impact of any proposals on the environment and the local community.
It is clear that those examples are like apples and pears; the two cannot be compared. Having said that, I do not suppose that that could not happen, but we do not do it currently. There are good reasons for that.
Like most other planning applications, wind farm proposals are a matter for local determination. However, renewable energy and the development of wind farms are important to the Government and the nation in their overall aims of reducing carbon emissions and energy security. I assure hon. Members that, as with any proposed development, individual schemes will have to submit planning applications. That process allows for full public consultation and robust testing for each application, and they will be decided on according to their merits.
Finally, I thank the hon. Members for Kettering and for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) for contributing to this debate on an issue that is important at a national, regional and local level. It has given me the opportunity to set out the importance of wind farms within the wider challenge of increasing our ability to produce energy from renewable sources.
Question put and agreed to.