Wednesday 1 July 2009
[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]
Railways (North of England)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)
At the outset, may I say that I appreciate the difficult circumstances of the debate? I will not be referring to this morning’s news about the east coast main line being taken into public ownership, principally because I understand that a statement will be made to the House later today. It is only right that the House itself is given the first word from Ministers on the issue, and I shall respect the rights of the Commons and the strong views of the new Speaker in that regard.
I echo the point made by my hon. Friend. A statement will be made in the other place at 3.30 pm today and repeated in this House by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan). It will set out our response to this morning’s statement from National Express on its east coast franchise. I am sure that hon. Members will be able to ask questions at that time.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. It is only fair to put on the record some recognition of the levels of investment in rail during recent years. As Lord Adonis said in the transport manifesto that he presented to the Transport Times conference last week, more than £150 billion has been invested in transport infrastructure over the past decade. Network Rail has made it clear that during the next five years, we will embark on an investment programme that is bigger than any seen for a generation. In many ways, we are all aware that the time has come for railways. In recent years, we have seen substantial growth in passenger demand and it is anticipated that more is to come. There is increasing recognition of the role that rail can play in reducing our dependence on carbon, which is an important context for the debate. Last week, Lord Adonis again talked about
“making low carbon travel a better and steadily more viable and attractive choice within, and between, different modes of transport”.
Obviously, that will be extremely important in future years.
However, that record of investment in rail and recognition of the need to continue investing has to be set in the context of a deal for the north of England that is less than satisfactory—in other words, the north has not had its fair share of the cake. Statistical analyses of 2009 public expenditure show that spending per head on transport was £783 in London. However, in Yorkshire and Humber the figure was just £213, and in the north- east it was even less at £206, although the north-west was relatively lucky in receiving £278 per head. The figures show that spending in three of the regions I have mentioned was more than three and a half times less than it was in London. In the case of Manchester, it was three times less than London.
Northern Rail has had no new carriages for the past five years, whereas franchises providing commuter services in London and the south-east have had 580 new carriages over the same period. In 2007, approximately a third of the rolling stock serving demand for rail travel in the northern passenger transport areas was 20 years old or more. In 2009—this year—that proportion will have increased to around 40 per cent. of the fleet.
Overcrowding is becoming a real issue in the north of England. Some 60 per cent. of all peak-hour arrivals on Northern Rail services carry standing passengers, and in Manchester more than half of all trains in the peak period have standing passengers. In Merseyside that figure is more than a third and in Newcastle and Sheffield the numbers are substantial and increasing. The reason is the considerable growth in rail journeys between 1995-96 and 2007-08. Rail journeys increased by 70 per cent. in west Yorkshire, 57 per cent. in Greater Manchester, 43 per cent. in south Yorkshire, 37 per cent. in Merseyside, and 20 per cent. in Tyne and Wear.
Between 2006-07 and 2007-08, TransPennine Express saw numbers of passenger journeys increase by 11 per cent., which is second only to levels of growth experienced by First Capital Connect. The White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, which was published in summer 2007, conceded that in relation to conurbations outside London, there has been rail passenger demand growth of 60 per cent. over the past decade, and that had been the norm for those cities. By comparison, the figure is 32 per cent. in London. Network Rail estimates that by 2025, many lines across the network will have no further capacity, even after the currently planned investment has been implemented.
For hon. Members who represent the north, the weighting of rail investment in favour of London and the south-east is clearly unfair, especially given the evidence of upturns in demand in the north and the growing problems with capacity in our great northern cities. What needs to be done to redress the situation? Well, obviously, first of all we need a commitment from the Minister that forthcoming decisions on rail investment will be used to balance spending allocations by focusing on the needs of the north of England.
We need a commitment to the Manchester hub. Some £175 million was spent preparing the Crossrail project. We need a serious commitment soon to developing and funding Manchester hub proposals. Why? Because we are dealing with capacity constraints in Manchester that are absolutely key to extending capacity on the current network across the north and to building new capacity in the interests of the whole of the north. Perhaps it should be termed the northern hub. I suggested that to Radio Manchester this morning—although I do not think it entirely liked the idea. Doing so would ensure that all northern regions realise how important it is to support the Manchester hub, as it is now known, in representations to the Government.
We also need investment across the northern network in a whole range of ways, including work on the Leeds to Selby and York corridor. During peak hours, many trains are close to or, in a few cases, beyond nominal capacity on that corridor. Significant overcrowding is forecast if additional capacity is not provided. Network Rail is planning improvements in capacity on the line, but in the long term it envisages that the corridor east of Leeds will need significant enhancements to deal with potential growth—for example, increasing tracking to four tracks on part of the route or carrying out infill electrification.
As a Sheffield MP, I do not want to obsess too much about Leeds, but, in recent years, the Leeds to Manchester route has also experienced rapid growth in demand for fast services across the Pennines. Forecasts of future growth suggest significant overcrowding is likely and that demand management will be necessary unless additional capacity is introduced. Again, some minor capacity improvements are planned by Network Rail, but Network Rail itself thinks that more line speed improvements are required and that significant capacity enhancement is needed if we are to deal with the demand on that line.
I shall now turn to Sheffield—the greatest city of them all, in my view. In the medium to long term, we expect significant increase in demand on the route from Sheffield to Doncaster. In terms of both passenger and inter-modal freight traffic, we need to think seriously—this is Network Rail’s view—about four-tracking part of the route and having enhanced access to Rotherham Central and an improved track layout at Doncaster. In addition, it is the view of the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive that a small project costing in the region of £15 million for a pilot tram-train from Meadowhall to Rotherham would be an incredibly wise and useful investment on the part of the Department for Transport.
Turning to the midland main line, it is essential to shorten journey times for direct services from Sheffield to London St. Pancras. It is ludicrous that it should take more than two hours to travel the 165 miles from Sheffield to London. Of course, electrification of the line could increase the capacity for carriage of freight.
Finally, there are the big projects that the north needs, such as High Speed 2. We have made the case repeatedly in Westminster Hall debates, and Northern Way has clearly made the case for two high-speed lines north to south, and for a new trans-Pennine rail link between the east and west of the country. Members would expect me to mention the Woodhead route at this point, but it is likely that that would be the best means of building a trans-Pennine link.
I am sorry that I cannot be with my hon. Friend for the whole of this debate. I congratulate her on succeeding in securing it. As well as the reduction of congestion and the benefits to the economy, does she accept that there would also be major benefits to the environment from two of those projects? First, electrification of the midland main line would result in a cleaner railway and, secondly, high-speed rail lines serving both sides of the country would, we hope, attract people away from short-haul air transport. That would benefit the environment considerably.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the environmental impact of high-speed rail. It was made absolutely clear at the Transport Committee last week in evidence from witnesses that the likely impact of high-speed rail would be to reduce short-haul domestic flights. There is a rock-solid case for such investment.
The economic case for high-speed rail twin routes going up the east and west coasts is based on estimated agglomeration benefits of £10 billion, with the benefit of increases in gross domestic product focused primarily on the north. Nevertheless, that £10 billion represents a benefit to the whole economy, partly because the establishment of high-speed links between the north and the south, and the east and the west, would help to integrate the national economy, thereby benefiting London and the south-east as well as the north of England more generally. It would help in many ways to close the gap between productivity in the north and the national average, which at present is £30 billion.
Furthermore, there is an argument that establishing new, fast links between the east and the west of the country could help to reduce congestion more generally. One of the problems with the rail network is that it runs primarily from north to south. The more we develop links from east to west, the more we can encourage business traffic and growth in those directions, helping to reduce congestion more generally.
My final point about high-speed rail is that the agglomeration benefit of establishing high-speed lines to the north would be more than twice what the DFT estimates for the wider economic benefits of Crossrail and Thameslink put together.
Will the north get its fair share? That is a fair question, given the distribution of rail investment so far, the difficulties that many contemplate will emerge from the next round of public spending allocations and the spending commitments already made on Crossrail of at least £16 billion, if not more; to Thameslink of £5.5 billion for an upgrade; and to the Olympic Delivery Authority, which has a transport budget of £897 million. The key worry for those of us who represent the north is that our investment will be squeezed to protect those budgets.
We are worried because early indications of DFT thinking are not encouraging. If Members cast their minds back to January 2008, they will remember that the DFT set out proposals to implement high-level output specification. Increased rolling stock was to be provided to each train operator. Northern Rail was promised 182 new vehicles, including 24 electrics and 158 diesels. In an update in July 2008, those figures were confirmed, yet PTEs have been in detailed discussion with the DFT for some months about the plan for Northern Rail and, although the offer is still under development, it is clear that the offer from DFT is now, at best, for little more than half the 182 carriages previously offered.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the quantity of rolling stock, but the quality? Some of the rolling stock that passes through Bolton Trinity street station should, frankly, be scrapped. We need replacement carriages as well as additional carriages to meet the extra demand.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, approximately one third of the rolling stock that serves demand for rail travel in the northern areas is more than 20 years old. That is something that really puts people off travelling on trains. If the stock is old, and if capacity on the network is restricted, people will not use the railways—they will stay in their cars.
The DFT cites lower demand forecasts as a result of the recession, yet PTEs have not observed any significant change in the number of local rail passengers travelling in peak periods. They believe that is probably because of suppressed demand caused by the lack of previous investment in capacity. That is the irony of the current position, and it absolutely underlines the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). On the basis of the reduced offer, PTEs estimate that many trains will be very crowded by 2014; for example, it is estimated that by then, 30 trains in Manchester will be running at more than 100 per cent. capacity.
The reduced offer is not acceptable, and it suggests key questions. Why the reduction? We need answers quickly to that question. Has the overall number of 1,300 additional carriages nationally been reduced as well, in line with the reduction for Northern Rail? How does the DFT plan to meet the high-level output specification for reducing crowding in major cities with such a reduction? What evidence can the DFT put on the table to demonstrate that the recession has reduced the number of people travelling in peak periods in the major cities outside London?
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Given the news today about National Express and the possible loss of the franchise, would it not be helpful if the Minister could give us an update on the present situation when he winds up?
We need evidence from the DFT to demonstrate that the recession has reduced the number of people travelling in peak periods in the major cities outside London.
I look forward to the Minister’s answers to those questions, and to the biggest question of all: does the apparent pulling back from capacity investment by the DFT indicate that the north will continue to be disadvantaged in terms of rail investment, or will Ministers commit to redressing the balance?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on securing this timely debate, and on focusing so helpfully on the gap in railway investment between the north and the south, and on our needs. As she acknowledged, the Minister said he was somewhat inhibited as to what he could say this morning about National Express, but I have no such inhibition. I do not need to be prevented from expressing my frustration at the situation that has arisen, before I turn to the investment issues of other companies.
As far as National Express is concerned, we have been through all this before. We went through GNER’s walking away from the franchise. We cannot go on like this, because the east coast main line suffers a degree of instability as a consequence, and there is an accompanying effect on the morale of the dedicated staff, many of whom have now worked for both companies and have had such a frustrating time. It was a tragedy when we lost GNER, which was a standard-setter for customer service in the industry. It was a loss to the industry when GNER was unable to continue. It suffered from one of the features of the franchise system, which is winner’s curse: the pressure to put in a high bid to get a franchise regularly leads companies to offer or accept terms they cannot subsequently fulfil. Now that has happened to National Express as well, and the problem has been exacerbated by the effect of the recession on rail travel.
During National Express’s tenure there has been some reduction in customer service standards on trains. There has been some improvement in punctuality, which is welcome and which the company made a priority, but there have also been problems owing to the investment concerns that the hon. Lady mentioned. There are a lot of problems with National Express’s inherited rolling stock, particularly toilets and catering vehicles failing and coaching stock having to be taken off trains, leading to shorter, overcrowded or cancelled trains. This is old rolling stock, which appears to present some serious maintenance problems. That has worsened the customer experience for a lot of people over the past few years.
We will learn later today what is to happen. I assume that we will be into another management contract and then another round of bidding, and somebody else will get winner’s curse and we will have another episode such as the ones we have gone through twice before. However, I sincerely hope not, because we need some stability on this vital, heavily used rail service that is, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said earlier in relation to other rail services, extremely important environmentally, because it transfers significant numbers of people who would otherwise fly. Passengers in Newcastle and Edinburgh regularly choose whether to take the train or to fly. Nowadays, flying is often cheaper than taking the train. It is in all our interests that the rail service continues to draw custom that would otherwise go to air services. So we will wait to see what happens later today.
It was not quite clear from the Minister’s intervention how the timing will be managed. Do we assume that, because the primary statement will be made by the Secretary of State in the House of Lords, the statement in the House of Commons will not take place until afterwards? The Minister nods, so I will presume—unless he contradicts me—that business in the Commons will be interrupted at some point this afternoon by a statement.
Let me mention some other franchises that affect the north-east of England in particular. The hon. Lady referred extensively to Northern Rail, which is a major provider of services across the north-east of England. The part of the Northern Rail franchise that most affects my constituency is the one that gets the oldest trains—the Morpeth-Chathill service, which features a train that stops at a place where nobody is allowed to get on it. I will mention that train later. On Northern Rail’s investment in rolling stock, it is important that we eventually get rid of the old the Pacer-type trains, which are still used on some services. Northern Rail has significant investment needs.
The cross-country franchise is vital to the provision of services from Berwick and Alnmouth and Morpeth, and it helps to provide a link into the east coast main line services from those stations, where the mainline trains do not stop. It therefore increases the mainline service and provides valuable links right across country to the midlands, the south and west. Investment in and maintenance of that franchise are important.
TransPennine Express is used a great deal and provides a significantly improved service. I have used that service over many years, and it would be wrong not to acknowledge how much better it is now than in my early days as a Member of Parliament. However, people realise, having travelled in continental Europe, how much more could be achieved in terms of quality of service, timetable reliability and integration with other public transport services. We still seem to be struggling to get to the standards found in other countries, and it will take more investment to achieve that.
The mystery train that stops where no one can get on it is the one that goes twice daily to Belford, in my constituency, and turns around there. Nobody is allowed to get on it because the platform was taken away some years ago. We in the constituency are trying to get the platform rebuilt. A project is well under way and I think we are getting closer to its fruition. I mention that today because I want a new crop of Ministers to be aware that we really want to see this project through. It does not involve running extra trains or employing extra staff; it simply involves putting in place a platform, so that people can board a train that sits twice a day at Belford, thus enabling them to commute into Newcastle by train, and enabling visitors to use rail services in a popular tourist area.
Yes, and there are a number of good examples of that happening, but usually they are frustrated by tiresome issues such as the short platform problem that we have struggled with at Belford. We are told that there is a possibility that a train might arrive at the station with either the guard not warning passengers or too many doors being opened, perhaps allowing somebody to step out where there is no platform. Risk-aversion has been taken to an absurd length on some of these issues, making it more difficult to do simple things such as putting in a small platform to serve an area where the trains are relatively short in any event.
I encourage the Minister to remain interested in the Belford project and, of course, in other projects to develop rail services in Northumberland, such as reopening lines in the Bedlington and Ashington area, which could draw significant numbers of passengers into using rail, rather than private cars, for journeys to work into the Tyneside conurbation. There has been some progress on that front, and I want it to continue.
High-speed rail will be of crucial importance—either positive or negative—to the north-east of England. It will be positive if the north-east is involved, but projects discussed by both Government and Conservative Front Benchers do not involve the north-east, at least until some imagined later stage. I mention a positive or negative impact on the north-east because if high-speed rail becomes a means simply of linking Yorkshire and London, the north-east will suffer significantly owing to an increase in the imbalance of development and investment—including general commercial investment—away from the north-east and into those areas served by high-speed rail. High-speed rail could be seriously damaging to us if it does not come to the north-east, which, of course, can be part of its route to Scotland. High-speed rail could further increase the links, communication and economic activity between the north-east and Scotland.
Throughout the development of the “Northern Way” initiative, it has been a worry in the north-east that this was a Hull-to-Liverpool axis approach, with the north-east being left out. High-speed rail matters to the north-east, and many factors—including the impact on transfer from air to rail, and making the region more attractive to investors who want to be in an area well linked to the south of England—make it central to our economic regeneration. I place on the record today that the north-east wants to be part of high-speed rail.
Public expenditure will go over a cliff at some time in the next 12 months to two years, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on bringing to the attention of the House the disparities in investment in rail between the north and the south of England. When the inevitable happens and public expenditure falls, expenditure in the north of England could go over Beachy Head while that in other parts of the country could go over a cliff the size of the kerb, or even go slightly uphill. The reasons are obvious. There are huge commitments for capital expenditure in London on Crossrail, Thameslink, and the links to the Olympic games. We must not forget the public-private partnership and the underground. Earlier this week, or perhaps last week, the National Audit Office pointed out that £400 million had been wasted on that project alone, which is more than is spent on heavy or light rail in any part of the north. It is an extraordinary amount.
We are disadvantaged because of the money that goes to the south. My hon. Friend gave the figures showing the investment going into London and the south-east compared with that in the north. I shall make two points on that. First, per capita expenditure in London over the past 12 months increased from £667 per head to £783 per head, and that difference is half the per capita expenditure in the north-east. That one-year increase is extraordinary.
Secondly, although I am numerate, it is difficult to keep up with the number of Secretaries of State for Transport and rail Ministers over the past 12 years or so. However, I have asked all of them to justify not the difference in investment between the north of England and the south-east and London—I understand that it is crowded down here, things cost more, there may be more cost benefit and added value from investment, and that the investment reflects the structure of the country—but the increasing difference in investment, which is getting worse. Not one has been able to do so. Will my hon. Friend the Minister rise to that challenge and explain why the difference is so great?
There are two justifications for public money. One is that it will help the country’s economy, and the other is that it will alleviate social deprivation. The money going into the London system is usually based on added value, although there is obviously poverty in the south. One might expect the same criteria to apply to money that is spent in the north-west, but the Northwest regional development agency, which has some eccentric policies, does not follow either of those policies. It neglects rail transport to a large extent, unlike Yorkshire First and some of the other RDAs, but its spending per head of the population in Manchester, where there would be the greatest added value, is half what Merseyside receives, which is probably where there would be the next greatest added value, and a third of what goes to Cumbria. Expenditure is not based on poverty or added value.
I do accept that. It is a fact. I am talking about expenditure per head of population, which is a reasonable basis for comparison.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough set out the state of the rail system in the north of England. Yesterday, a passenger survey highlighted the poor state of the train service there and showed that over the past six or nine months passengers have become less satisfied as trains have become more crowded, people have found it more difficult to get on them and the state of platforms has deteriorated, and because of the lack of staff on platforms. I have said—it is worth repeating—that the speed of many trains in the north of England system would have embarrassed Gladstone. They are slower than in the 1880s, which is extraordinary.
I want the Government to assure us that when public expenditure cuts come there is positive recognition that the position cannot get much worse; we could get a fraction of the investment that we receive now. I also want them to respond to the disparities. The needs are obvious, and we need investment in the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned the Manchester hub. I do not mind whether it is called the northern hub or anything else, because we are talking about taking out the pinch points on the routes between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, between Manchester and Sheffield, between Bradford and Preston, and on routes that run parallel with the country’s major north-south routes. Removing those pinch points, whether Salford or Slade lane junction in Manchester, would benefit the whole of the northern system.
MPs, not just in Manchester or the north-west, but from the whole of the north of England, must say that we want that increased capacity in the system, because we would all benefit economically, socially and environmentally. I am not sure whether this is a party political point, but in the run-up to general elections, parties tend to say “yes” more easily than Governments say “no” after elections. It would be a valuable exercise for all of us to try to get into our party manifestos a commitment to investment in the northern rail system, and to rectify some of the imbalance in investment between north and south.
High-speed trains have been mentioned. I do not see a conflict between increasing capacity in the northern rail system—the Manchester hub idea—and the high-speed train. The high-speed train is a long-term project, which should benefit the whole country up to Glasgow and Edinburgh, including Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds, in whichever of a number of ways it is done. However, we should not lose our focus on the need for immediate investment in the northern rail system as well as major national infrastructure improvements in the High Speed 2 project. It would be easy for the Government to say that they will not do the former because they are looking at High Speed 2, which is a good thing. I welcome the vision of the new team at the Department for Transport and their support for the high-speed link, but it must not be used to divert attention from the immediate needs in the system.
My final point is about the figures, which are difficult to get, and this is a dramatic way of looking at them. In London over the next 10 years, around £80 billion of capital will be invested in transport, and the mayoral candidates last year claimed that they would invest £40 billion during their period of office, and the figure is about that. The figures are extraordinary, and I gave the per capita figures. The figures—they are very loose and difficult to get to—are 30 to 40 times greater than the investment that is going into the north-west of England. That simply cannot be justified on any basis that I can understand. I hope that all political parties take note: if we want this country to be as wealthy as it should be and the environment to be as good as it can be, we need to use the strength of our regional cities, which means supporting the transport infrastructure that goes to them, so that they can play their part in the economic growth of the country.
This may not be relevant, but I declare an interest, in that I hold five £10 shares in the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Company, which, I hasten to add, does not pay a dividend. I am also the president of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Preservation Society, which is the major shareholder in the company. The society is run on highly democratic lines—we do not have a Sir Topham Hatt, the fat controller. I am here simply to support my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and I congratulate her on securing this timely debate. I shall be brief, as many hon. Members with an abiding interest in the subject are anxious to speak.
I look forward to hearing this afternoon’s statement about the future of the east coast main line’s major operating company. Many of us have had anxieties about that subject for some time, given the importance of the company to the future economic well-being not only of the Worth Valley railway—it transports our visitors and volunteers—but of the north of England generally, including my constituency.
I agree with the well-informed criticisms made by my hon. Friend and others; there is little point in repeating them. However, on a positive note, I should like to mention a few things that have happened since I was elected. When I was first elected in 1997, both the Aire and Wharfe Valley lines, which run through my constituency to Ilkley, had cascaded-down rolling stock that was antique, to say the least. The carriages had slam doors. Of course, the train could not move off until the doors had been closed, and someone as short as me took their life in their hands by leaning out of the compartment to get hold of the door to close it. I am very pleased that we have got away from that and we now have the excellent units that ply between Leeds and Skipton, through Keighley, and to Ilkley. That makes the lives of my constituents, and particularly those who commute to Leeds and Bradford each day, much better. The main problem with the units is that they do not have elastic sides. Therefore, at peak hours there is major overcrowding. As I frequently get on at Saltaire and the overcrowding is at a peak at that point, I often have to stand to Leeds.
The upgrading of Leeds City station took place a number of years ago. We now have 16 platforms there. It is a completely different station from the one that we inherited in 1997. I am pleased with the way in which it has progressed. Leeds is now a real railway hub and most of us in the north-east are proud of it.
I am very grateful for the improvements, but as an old-fashioned socialist, I still believe that privatisation of the rail network and operating companies was a mistake. Network Rail is a welcome improvement, but as today’s news shows, the operating companies and the method of awarding contracts are unsatisfactory, to say the least. I hope that later today we shall have some good news that will resolve some of those problems.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on gaining this important debate. I am able to participate only because my Select Committee sitting this morning was cancelled, so I am here at short notice.
The Bolton-Manchester rail corridor is one of the busiest in the country. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) will agree with that. Trains come through Trinity Street station in Bolton from all over the country—trans-Pennine trains as well as local commuter trains. There is a real problem on that line because there are only two tracks in and out of Manchester, so there is congestion, for a start, between the express trains, which obviously want to travel extremely fast through the Manchester terminals, and the local commuter trains. As a result, the small stations of Farnworth, Moses Gate and particularly Kearsley have lost rail services to make space for the express trains. That is one disadvantage of increased rail use.
Just before Christmas, the timetabling was altered completely, to the great disadvantage of my constituents. The reason for that was a much-improved west coast main line service between Manchester Piccadilly and London. To make way for increased capacity on Virgin trains, many of my constituents’ timetables were altered so that getting to work on time was a great problem. Many of the trains were diverted from Piccadilly station, where most of my constituents want to go, particularly the students going to Manchester Metropolitan university, Salford university and, of course, the great university of Manchester—it has an enormous number of students and is one of the largest campuses in Europe. Instead of going to Piccadilly, many trains have been diverted because of the increased capacity of Virgin trains at Piccadilly; they have been rerouted to Victoria station in Manchester. That means that people have to cross town, which adds time to their journey, and many of my constituents are arriving late.
There is a greater difficulty, in that many of my constituents get on at two of the small stations that I have mentioned—Farnworth and Moses Gate—and many of the commuter trains going through Manchester in the morning and coming back in the evening have only two carriages. Ironically, at least one of those carriages will have first-class capacity, which no one uses. People are crammed in like sardines in one and a half carriages and there is a completely empty first-class compartment. That is nonsensical. The trains fill up at Bolton Trinity Street. I use the trains myself. I never bother taking a car into Manchester. I always use the train, and every time I use those trains I am crammed in, squashed against a door. I am hardly able to get out at Manchester sometimes when the trains are going through, perhaps to the airport. It is very uncomfortable.
People have a similar experience in my constituency in Leeds, which has two stations that are the last on the line before Leeds City station. The best way of tackling that problem is to increase capacity—increasing the number of carriages. Surely that is the cheapest way of getting people out of their cars, making the modal shift and reducing the number of those short commuting journeys by road.
My hon. Friend is right: that is the crux of the debate. I have been the Member of Parliament for Bolton, South-East for 12 years and I have been writing to successive Ministers and Secretaries of State, pointing out the chaos that existed in 1997 when I was elected. With increased rail use, one can imagine that the situation has now become extremely demanding for my constituents, and they have been writing to me in increasing numbers complaining about not being able to get to work on time or even not being able to get to work at all. The trains fill up at Bolton Trinity Street and by the time they get to Farnworth and Moses Gate, people are left standing on the platform. They cannot physically get on the train. It is bad enough for an able-bodied person such as myself and many of my constituents, but let us imagine a disabled person or an older person trying to board trains that are no better than cattle trucks.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s points. Does he agree that it will be a shocking disgrace if the train units on the Oldham line which are removed when it is converted for tram use do not stay within the north-west area, and preferably on the Bolton line? The Department for Transport has not made it clear whether those trains will be left in the north-west system, as was originally envisaged.
Indeed. I was coming to that very point, and perhaps I will pick up on it before I conclude. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.
Many constituents who are left on the platforms then have to find an alternative route to work. They either have to take a gamble and stay on the platform for the next train, which will probably also be overcrowded, or they have to take a local bus into Manchester. A number of constituents have written to me saying that they regularly arrive at work in Manchester or Salford more than an hour late. If that happens frequently, as it does, it puts jobs at risk.
Hon. Members can imagine what happens in those circumstances: my constituents abandon the rail service and go back to the roads—all this nonsense about trying to persuade people to get out of their cars and on the trains certainly does not apply to my constituents. Although there is congestion on the roads into Manchester in the morning, my constituents at least know that they will get to work if they set off in time, whereas it is a gamble on the train, because they may not get on.
The solution is obvious—all my constituents can see it. Instead of having two carriages on the trains, with part of one carriage being first class, why on earth can we not have another carriage or, indeed, another two carriages? We need to go from two to four carriages on every train going into Manchester in the morning rush hour and returning from Manchester in the evening rush hour.
Rail should be the safest form of travel, but a disabled person or an older person standing in the middle of the crush on a train will not think so. Older people need to sit down, and disabled people certainly need to, but it is not possible to sit down on these trains. Nobody will give up their seat, although it probably would not be possible to get to the seat in any case. Hon. Members have to see these trains—they are like the London tube at the busiest periods in the morning and the evening, and that is constant.
I have travelled on these trains not just at rush hour, but at various hours of the day. I have travelled on airport trains from Bolton to Manchester in the afternoon, which have the added feature of luggage. Incidentally, the number of airport trains through Bolton has been reduced. We are trying to encourage people to use Manchester airport, and another platform is being built there to encourage people to use the trains, but getting on the train to the airport is a problem. In addition to the passengers, there is sometimes so much luggage that it is on the seats, which prevents people from sitting down. I wish that I could demonstrate that physically so that hon. Members could see the absolute chaos on the Bolton-Manchester rail corridor.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley mentioned the Oldham loop, and five trains plus the rolling stock will be coming off it shortly. Councillor Keith Whitmore, who is chairman of the Greater Manchester Integrated Transport Authority, and his vice-chairman, Councillor Ian Macdonald have written to the Secretary of State about the loss of the trains from the Oldham loop. Why can we not keep trains that are already operating in the north-west on the tracks at another location in the north-west to alleviate some of the problems that I hope that I have described on behalf of my many constituents who are suffering?
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned the reduction in Northern Rail carriages from 182 to 142, although the latest figure that I have heard is 106. As she said, that is a dramatic drop.
Then I am even more surprised. My hon. Friend did not mention the reduction in numbers on the TransPennine Express. My figures—she may have different ones—show a reduction from a promised 42 extra vehicles to 24.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that if this situation continues, the Government will face increasing criticism. Things are already so bad in my constituency that they cannot, frankly, get any worse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on securing this important debate, which is set against the background of massive investment in our railways, improvements to existing railways and the floating of proposals for High Speed 2. The Government can be congratulated on the investment that has gone into the railway system.
Regrettably, little of that investment impacts directly on the north and particularly the north-east—an irony, it might be argued, given that the railway system was born in the north-east, which gave the country its first railway line. My colleagues and I are therefore putting the case for the north. Although we appreciate the need for investment in the south’s transport infrastructure, we want to draw attention to the imbalance in the allocation of resources to the north and the south. That has been admirably highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough and for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), so I will not repeat the figures.
Transport infrastructure is crucial to the economic and social development of our regions. That is true of every region, but it is even truer of the north-east. Our inter-regional and intra-regional transport corridors leave much to be desired. Our road and rail infrastructure badly need investment and improvement, as well as an integrated approach that boosts investment and social mobility across the region and beyond.
The east coast main line is a major artery, linking the north-east to Scotland to the north, and linking it to London and stops in between to the south. It provides a good service and it is popular, but recent events are worrying. Ministers need to reassure us that the trains will keep running and that the staff will continue to be paid, and we look forward to this afternoon’s statement on the issue.
The north-east’s economy has traditionally lagged behind the national average, but it has held up well in recent years, even in the face of national and international economic difficulties. It is a credit to our businesses, our local authorities and the Government that that is the case. However, if we are to maintain and improve on the progress that has been made, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We need to continue to improve the conditions that are essential if business is to thrive and employment is to grow. That means that High Speed 2 must come to the north-east. It also means that we must ensure a high degree of mobility in the region.
Two rail projects in particular could make a major contribution to the economic and social future of the north-east and could, with a little encouragement from the Department for Transport, become a reality. The first, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), is the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway, which would be a fully operational system linking Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth to Newcastle. Reintroducing passenger services on the lines involved would encourage economic development, facilitate social mobility, relieve congestion on Northumberland’s busy roads and reduce the traffic that ends up in Newcastle city centre. It would also be better for the environment than the car movements that it would replace.
The second project is the Leamside line—another operational railway line that became redundant in the 1960s, but which, given today’s increased traffic and overcrowded trains, offers a real source of relief and an important connection between the Tyne and Tees valleys, linking Newcastle and Middlesbrough with useful stops along the way, including, not least, Washington New Town.
Those two projects would cost a tiny fraction of Crossrail, they would involve little disruption and they would contribute greatly to the prospects of the north-east and its people. I therefore look forward to signs of encouragement from the Minister and to a more optimistic prognosis for the north-east’s transport infrastructure.
It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on obtaining this timely debate. As I failed to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye at Transport questions last week, let me also take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to his post.
I want to start my remarks with today’s news. I appreciate that the Minister cannot respond, because of the statement to the House that will be made later, but the announcement about the east coast main line service and the news that National Express is to go into temporary public ownership is extremely significant. The Government are right to take that step, which will discourage other franchise holders from asking the Government for a discount on their existing contracts. However, I am concerned that the Government have allowed National Express to hand back its unprofitable franchise, but to continue to make a profit on the other two. I hope that the statement will make it clear whether the Government are willing to consider further action to remove those other franchises, so that the burden on the taxpayer will be kept as low as possible.
The Government should focus on showing the rest of the network that it is possible to put passengers first, rather than rushing into another poorly planned private franchise agreement. In the light of the new development the Government also need to take a good look at the way in which train franchises work. Franchises need to be longer, with stricter, passenger-focused targets and terms. I hope, again, that some of those matters may be covered in the statement.
Investing in rail infrastructure, as we have heard from many hon. Members, is vital to the economic growth of any region. Good rail links, whether for the transportation of goods or passengers, are imperative for businesses, trade and social mobility. Without good rail links communities become isolated and local economies grind to a halt. Speaking as a northerner, I know that “the north” is a broad term and that there are many specific issues that other hon. Members have touched on, and to which we cannot do full justice today. However, I hope to mention a few of the more significant issues in the next few minutes. All hon. Members here today will be well aware of the problems facing train services in the north of England, almost all of which are linked to spending. Overcrowding, reduced services, unreliability, cleanliness issues and poor accessibility are all widespread problems across the region, and with the number of rail users increasing dramatically every year, which of course is a good thing, all the issues need to be addressed urgently.
In my own constituency of Cheadle, I regularly receive letters containing complaints and concerns about local services. Cheadle Hulme station is completely inaccessible for people in wheelchairs or with prams, which is frankly a scandal in this day and age. Many commuters, as we have heard, are not able to board trains during peak times because they are so full. Timetable changes to accommodate more trains to London have had a disastrous impact on many people’s daily commutes in and out of Manchester city centre. The rolling stock is old—in many cases worn out—uncomfortable to travel in and frankly not up to scratch. It is a scandal that passengers are asked to pay top dollar, in comparison with most other EU countries, to travel in those conditions. The fundamental problem, as so often, is lack of investment.
The bulk of what I want to say today is about an issue that affects passengers across the north of England: capacity. The 2007 White Paper promised an extra 1,300 carriages to deal with the overcrowding that is rife on the network. Northern Rail was allocated 182 and TransPennine 42, but according to the passenger transport executive group information that has come to some of us, the Department for Transport has now indicated that Northern Rail is likely to get only 106, and possibly fewer, which barely covers what the Department has said is needed by the Leeds area alone. Civil servants have also confirmed that TransPennine’s allocation will be cut approximately in half, to 24. If that happens it will be a disaster not just for northern commuters but for our economy. Will the Minister confirm whether those figures are correct, and, if so, why the decision has apparently been made to halve the number of additional carriages? Certainly it cannot be because of falling demand.
I shall come to the hon. Gentleman’s point about older carriages in a moment.
The number of rail commuters on local services has increased at more than twice the London rate; 60 per cent. of all peak-time trains in Leeds, and more than 50 per cent. in Manchester, have space for standing only. Do the Government have any evidence to suggest that the carriages are no longer needed, and will the Minister say more about what impact he expects the cancellation of carriages to have on future capacity issues? Northern Rail has had no new carriages in the past five years, but franchises providing commuter services in London and the south-east have had 580 in that period, so I hope the Minister will not say that the carriages that we in the north of England should be getting have now been allocated to Greater London. According to PTEG, a third of rolling stock in the northern PTE areas was more than 20 years old in 2007, which raises the question of how many of the additional carriages that may come to the north will be second-hand. Will any be refurbished?
I want to move on briefly to the question of the Manchester hub, which seems to have disappeared from the Government’s radar. The hub would not only help those living in Greater Manchester but would improve connections across the north of England, both intra-regionally and with London, and therefore with the rest of the UK and Europe. The Government pledged to deal with pinch-points in the current rail system, but the feasibility study for the Manchester hub was commissioned some 18 months ago. Why have plans for the Manchester hub progressed at such a dismally slow pace and when does the Minister believe the real work might begin? High Speed 2 will, of course, be an incredibly important development for the north and the country as a whole. It will increase capacity, encourage people off roads and planes and speed up our connection with London.
We must proactively invest in our rail network to create capacity and improve efficiency, rather than reactively working to paper over the cracks. Electrification will be hugely important for the future, as it will improve real travel times between cities. I understand that the Government are expected to make an announcement on electrification soon, and I hope they will commit to electrifying the midland main line and to completing essential fill-in electrifications as a bare minimum. We would of course like many more lines to be electrified, including the trans-Pennine routes. In the mean time, perhaps the Minister could explain when the announcement will be made.
We Liberal Democrats also think we need to open old lines and stations to improve access and capacity. Longer franchises would help with that process, as would our future transport fund, which would more than double the Government’s planned investment for 2009 to 2014 to provide an estimated £12 billion to improve rail services. One such line, of great importance for the north, is the Woodhead tunnel, which was closed in 1981 when the Conservatives were in power. It would dramatically improve trans-Pennine connections between northern cities—primarily Manchester and Sheffield. Will the Minister confirm that the tunnel will not be put to any use that will preclude its being opened to rail traffic in the future?
However we look at it, it is clear that the north currently receives a poor deal on transport spending. We have heard the figures from the public expenditure statistical analyses, but they are worth repeating: £783 per head of population in London, £206 per head in the north-east, £213 in Yorkshire and the Humber and £278 in the north-west. One need not be a mathematical genius to work out that the allocation for the three northern regions together still comes to less than what was spent on public transport in London alone. The north of England is asking not for special treatment, but for a level playing field on spending. To fail to recognise the basic unfairness is to condemn half the country to a less than bright economic future.
May I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on securing the debate? I know that she takes a great interest in transport, particularly those matters that affect her constituency. She eloquently underlined the failings of the transport system that the Government have put in place, and she made a good case for high-speed rail and for the north.
This is the first time that I have met the Minister in a Westminster Hall debate, and I am pleased to welcome him to the Department for Transport. I look forward to a number of his responses. Like everyone else, however, I recognise that this is a particularly embarrassing day for the Government.
The subject of the debate is timely. Public spending is the key policy topic at the moment, and it will impact directly on resources for the Department—and for the north. Given the stratospheric levels of borrowing, controlling spending will be a necessity, not an option. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) pointed out, it will be a necessity for whoever is in power, and of whatever colour, after 2010.
I had the pleasure of visiting Sheffield earlier this year as a guest of the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough said that Sheffield was our fourth largest city but that it did not enjoy the equivalent quality of rail links. That was impressed on me strongly by the PTE, as were a number of other issues. I hope that she recognises that we in the Conservative party share the aspiration to improve transport links to the north of England.
The hon. Lady will know that in January my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) set up a transport commission for the north, to consider specifically northern matters. Network Rail has made a submission to that commission, for which I am grateful. One reason for us doing that is the plan over the next five years to implement improvements in line speed on the London to Sheffield line, and I understand that East Midlands train services from London to Sheffield are to become half-hourly. In addition, Network Rail has said that if funding is secured for further electrification, services from St. Pancras to Sheffield on Midland Mainline would be a priority.
I realise that this is a difficult day for the Minister, but I wish to ask him about electrification. On Monday, the Prime Minister said that there will at some stage be a full programme of rail electrification. Will the Minister confirm that, since 1997, only 46 route miles, or less than 0.5 per cent. of the national rail network, has been electrified? Will he clarify how that electrification is to happen? I agree that it is an important way of driving operational and carbon efficiencies on the railways, but it will cost millions of pounds, if not billions.
Rail budgets have been set until 2014, yet on Monday Lord Mandelson announced sweeping cuts to the transport budget. How can electrification become a reality? I look forward to the Minister’s response to that point. Network Rail has identified its priorities and has made some case for its spending. If the Government want to identify electrification as a priority, they should be clear about it and say how they intend to spend the money.
There is good news for the constituents of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, given the policies that we have outlined in our rail review. They would deal directly with some of the elements raised. For instance, we will allow third parties to bid against Network Rail for small-scale capacity enhancement projects, which will be the key to some of the overcrowding problems mentioned.
Like the Liberal Democrats, we have seen the failure of the Government’s franchising system and we, too, will give longer franchises to train operators. As a result, there will be more investment, which will give us the improvements that we need in stations and trains. We will build a new high-speed link from Leeds to Birmingham and London, which will free capacity in other parts of the network. The rationale for that is not totemic: as a number of hon. Members said, the economic and cost benefits for the north of England will indeed be substantial.
All transport networks have to start somewhere, and we hope that it will be the first phase in the roll-out of the high-speed network. The Minister will of course want to confirm that the Government plan to take high-speed rail only to Rugby. Our policy is to take it further; we see it as part of a network strategy.
It appears that the Conservative party is committing itself to substantial spending on transport. Does that indicate that the transport budget under a Conservative Government would be protected, and that cuts would therefore be concentrated elsewhere?
The hon. Lady will know from our feasibility study—she has clearly read it—that the cost in 2008 prices of a high-speed rail line is about £20.5 billion. We have committed ourselves to control period 5, which will be the first part of an element of Government money; it will probably be about £16 billion, or £1.3 billion per annum for the build time of that project. The money is ring-fenced and it will be committed to that project.
I understand that a statement will be made in the House this afternoon on the collapse of the National Express rail franchise. I shall therefore not be asking a number of substantive questions that I would have wished to put to the Minister. I am sure that the Government will answer some of them today. Although they have taken the National Express franchise back into public ownership, many people will want to know whether it was the most effective decision for the taxpayer. The Minister may want to talk about the other options and the possible cost to the taxpayer. We would be interested, but I am sure that we shall hear about it this afternoon.
As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough reminded me, the debate is principally about how much money there will be for the railways, perhaps over the next 10 or 20 years, but certainly over the next five to 10 years.
No, I am sorry. I promised that I would speak for only another two minutes, and I have already given way several times.
Despite what the Prime Minister said, capital expenditure under the Red Book will decline after 2010, and it will not rise until the Olympics. Will the Minister confirm that? I look forward to a yes or no answer. On 29 June, Lord Mandelson said in an interview that Building Britain’s Future, the great new project, reflected a “switch in spending” from the Department for Transport to other Departments. Will the Minister confirm that Building Britain’s Future reflects such a switch?
The Budget put in position a squeeze on public spending between 2011 and 2014. Will the Minister confirm that he has read the Red Book, and that his Department understands its implications? Will he say whether and by how much the contraction in spending outlined in the Red Book will hit rail services in the north and across the United Kingdom? Will he also outline the effect of the announced £6 billion efficiency savings, which are estimated to represent 6 per cent. of current expenditure on top of what is outlined in the Red Book?
I should be grateful if the Minister were to outline exactly which services he expects not to be delivered, which carriages he expects not to be delivered and which part of the electrification project he expects not to be delivered as a direct result of what is stated in the Red Book, of what is stated in Building Britain’s Future, and what is expected from efficiency savings. Under those circumstances, the Government cannot contend that spending will continue to rise; indeed, the Red Book states that it will decline. Will the Minister tell us today how the announced spending reductions will hit the nation’s transport infrastructure?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), who is a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Transport, on securing this important debate. She has expressed concerns about a range of issues relating to rail investment in the north of England, as have other Members. I shall endeavour to respond to the issues raised, but if I cannot, I promise that they will all be considered elsewhere. If I am to cover all the ground, I fear I shall have to go at the speed of a bullet train.
I turn first to some recent successes. Railways in the north of England are a success story. We have seen great improvements in the things that matter most to passengers, including punctuality and reliability. I would rather be facing the challenges of rising train use than the consequences of numbers having fallen by the same amount as they have risen. In the last full year, reliability reached an all-time high for both Northern Rail and TransPennine Express, with more than 90 per cent. of trains arriving within five minutes of right time. I congratulate Northern Rail, TransPennine Express and Network Rail, which have to work together, on that excellent result.
Passenger satisfaction is also high with more than 80 per cent. of passengers saying they were happy with their journey. The outcome of that is a 34 per cent. growth in passengers travelling on Northern Rail services since 2004 and a 67 per cent. increase on TransPennine services.
Let us consider what else has been achieved in recent years, starting in the north-west, which has benefited considerably from the £8.9 billion investment in the west coast main line. There are now more frequent and faster journeys between Manchester and London, with a train every 20 minutes during the day and average journey times of about two hours eight minutes.
Does the Minister accept that one part of the north-west that has not been a success story over the past 11 years is the state of Crewe railway station and the lack of investment there? None of the £35 billion set aside by Network Rail over the next five years is going to that station. Will he look at the state of Crewe station and ensure that investment is made in that important part of our rail network? I asked the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), the same question just the other day.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard my colleague’s response during Transport questions last week. I have nothing to add today.
The journey from Liverpool and Preston to London takes just a few minutes more than two hours, and Warrington and Wigan are less than two hours away. Chester is one of the big winners having a regular hourly service for the first time, with a journey time of just two hours.
The increasing frequency of inter-city services is a double-sided coin. As hon. Members said, it has had a negative impact on local commuter services in and out of cities such as Manchester, because the same services criss-cross the same track. Three trains an hour between Manchester and London is great, but does the Minister recognise that has had a negative impact on our local commuter services in and out of Manchester?
That point is clearly acknowledged, and to an extent is an inevitable side effect of competing for line capacity.
Services between the north-west and Scotland have also been improved, as have those to the west midlands. Neither have we neglected local services. Northern Rail services on the Calder valley route between Manchester and west Yorkshire have been improved with a fast service between Bradford and Manchester. There are more trains between Preston and Manchester via Bolton. The Cumbrian coast line has seen the biggest improvements in 25 years. Thanks to the opening of a third platform at Manchester airport, we now have better services to the airport and greater reliability as a whole around Manchester.
I turn to the Yorkshire and Humber region. Back in 2007 the frequency of the service between Leeds and London was improved to every half hour. Last December we provided a new hourly direct service between Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham, opening up new opportunities for business and leisure. In the north-east, the Newcastle to London journey time is one of the fastest in the country. There are five fast trains per hour between Newcastle and York, giving the area excellent connectivity with the rest of the country. Across the north of England, TransPennine Express introduced new trains in 2005 and 2006. Northern Rail has increased its fleet by 30 units, providing 8 million extra seats every year for passengers. CrossCountry has increased the number of carriages on key journeys by reintroducing and refurbishing many high-speed diesel train sets for use on the busiest services.
Community rail has been a big success, and there are about 20 routes with active community rail partnerships and many station partnership groups. These partnerships bring energy and focus to developing lines. For example, the Penistone line now carries more than 1 million passengers per year.
But we are not stopping with what I have mentioned so far. Over the next five years, we are determined to address the problems of crowding on many peak commuter services. That will be done mainly by lengthening trains and platforms.
The Oldham loop rolling stock has been mentioned. The Department is not planning to provide additional funding for the redeployment of the rolling stock displaced through the conversion of the Oldham loop from heavy rail to Manchester metro light rail. However, the Department is providing £244.3 million towards the expansion of Metrolink to Oldham, Rochdale and Chorlton. That decision does not preclude Greater Manchester passenger transport executive from funding the redeployment of the rolling stock, or Northern Rail from utilising the stock on a commercial basis. The Department is currently calculating the change in franchise subsidy payments to Northern Rail, but a figure has not yet been finalised. The change in subsidy profile to Northern Rail reflects the changes in the Department’s budget resulting from the conversion of the Oldham loop.
I want to address one of the key issues. If the integrated transport authority and the PTE decide not to invest extra money in the system, what do the Government intend to do with the trains? Will they go into the south-east system, or will they go into cold storage?
The Government’s intention is to increase capacity across the network, so we shall see in due course where the trains end up.
We are determined to tackle the worst excesses of crowding and to give passengers a more comfortable journey. In addition, we want to see even further improvements in reliability over the next five years. An urgent priority is to bring the west coast main line up to the standard of the rest of the network, and I share many Members’ concerns about recent performance on the route. I am pleased that Network Rail has responded to those concerns and pledged to spend £50 million to address them.
Nor shall we neglect safety. I respect the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). The safety record of the railway is excellent, but we must not be complacent, and there is a requirement further to reduce risks that have an impact on passenger and employee safety. Although over the next five years we are focusing on improving safety, performance and capacity, we are not neglecting journey times either. They are excellent on the west coast and east coast main lines, but I admit that those on the midland main line are less so. That is partly a result of the history and geography of the route, but despite that—I hope this answers the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough—we are determined to bring down journey times between Sheffield and London to as close to two hours as possible. East Midlands Trains is also planning to increase the frequency of services to Sheffield with pump-priming funding from South Yorkshire PTE. The trans-Pennine route has seen great improvements in rolling stock and frequency in recent years, although I accept that journey times are relatively slow.
Although I have focused so far on train services, we must not neglect other matters important to passengers. We are determined to improve the quality of stations and have allocated £150 million over five years to spend on improving many medium-sized stations. Many stations in the north of England will benefit. For example, improvements at Ormskirk will be completed later this month. This builds on funding allocated to improve facilities at stations through the “access for all” programme, which assists disabled passengers.
The north of England has seen important investment in freight schemes in recent years. For example, in the north-west, access to the Port of Liverpool has been improved by the reopening of the Olive Mount chord. Across the country, a priority is to enable key freight routes to accommodate 9 ft 6 in containers. The west coast main line can accommodate the large containers on standard wagons, but investment is being made on two routes into Liverpool to provide access to the port. On the east side, improvements have been made to the Hull docks branch line to enable more trains to reach the port, and south of the Humber. Some £10 million has been invested in the Brigg line to enable heavy-freight trains to use the route to reach Immingham.
Over the next five years, we shall work with Network Rail and the rail freight industry to develop a network of routes that can accommodate high containers. One priority is the route from the midlands to south Yorkshire via the east midlands, to complement funding already secured for the east coast main line. This will be followed by converting the whole of the east coast main line into Scotland.
The subject of this debate is spending on railways in the north of England. By and large, the railway network is a national one serving a wide range of different markets—long distance, regional passenger, local passenger and a wide variety of freight—all of which contribute individually and together to the benefits that our railways bring to our regions. In particular, capital expenditure in one region often benefits another. For example, the huge investment in widening the Trent Valley line in the west midlands primarily benefits passengers travelling to the north-west of Scotland.
Diversity in Public Appointments
I am delighted to have secured the opportunity to discuss this important issue. Public bodies are important. They carry out a wide range of vital activities that affect the lives of people up and down the country. Some supply funding, benefiting sectors such as the arts, sports and sciences. Others provide health care, safeguard the environment, promote human rights and protect the rights and interests of consumers. Many have a role in shaping policy and decision making at national level. They undertake vital work on behalf of us all.
Public bodies are created by the Government but are at arm’s length from the Government. Around 1,200 public bodies are accountable to the British Government, and some 18,500 appointments are made to the boards of those regional and national organisations.
The important word is “appointments”. People are identified, invited and even enticed into undertaking such work on our behalf, with the time commitment varying from a few days each year to between two and three days a week. The requirement for each board is different because of the wide range of activities engaged in by public bodies. Selection should always be on the basis of merit, with fair, open and transparent recruitment processes. Also essential is the requirement that appointments should broadly reflect the make-up of society. That is because we need not just fairness and equity—although such traits are important—but the best people with the right mix of skills, experience and background, who do not come from just one section of society. We have to accept that the current situation, in which the majority of appointments are white men, is not meeting that objective.
Women represent 51 per cent. of our population, but make up only 33.3 per cent. of public appointees. About 14 per cent. of the working-age population have a disability, but disabled people make up only 5 per cent. of public appointees. Fewer than 6 per cent. of public appointees are from an ethnic minority background, despite the fact that the overall ethnic minority population is nearer 11 per cent.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments said in her 2007-08 report that she was disappointed by the fall in the overall number of female appointees and re-appointees in England and Wales, and also by the numbers of appointees from an ethnic minority and those who have a disability. There was also a significant fall in the number of female chairs of boards, and those with disabilities appointed to health boards compared with previous years.
Over a 10-year period, female appointments have generally remained at around 33 per cent., with only slightly higher levels between 2003 and 2007. Ethnic minority appointments increased from 3.7 per cent. in 1998 to 6.5 per cent. in 2004. However, they then dropped back to 5.7 per cent. in 2007 and 2008. By contrast, appointments of people with disabilities have continued to rise from a very low base of 1.5 per cent. in 2001 to around 5 per cent. in 2008.
As I have already said, public bodies are responsible for both service delivery and policy, so without the widest range of experience, skills and background guiding them, public organisations will reflect only one part of society. A society that is becoming ever more diverse as the world shrinks needs institutions that reflect the reality of today. It is about being not just fair—although that is important—but effective. Obtaining a better reflection of society in the bodies that provide so much for society would help them. That means more recruitment in the areas of gender, age, ethnicity and disability, in which there is under-representation.
Some public bodies are working extremely hard to encourage people from under-represented groups to think about applying. Others make the right noises, but they are slow to change. Let me give one example from my own region. The regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, for which I have a great deal of time and respect, does a lot of important and good work. On its board of 14 directors, only four are female, while two male directors are of ethnic minority origin.
Yorkshire Forward is charged with helping the economy of the region to grow, including promoting opportunities for everyone regardless of their gender, race or disability. How much more effective could it be if the board more accurately reflected the population of our region? Interestingly, at management level, Yorkshire Forward has achieved a representation that is much more reflective of the society it serves. It has a management team of six, of which three are women and one is of ethnic minority origin.
However, there are other issues that we should consider, such as where people live, where they come from and their economic background. Too many public bodies, particularly those with national responsibilities, have boards overwhelmingly comprised of people from London or the home counties and who are largely from middle class backgrounds.
It is good that the Government have agreed a new plan to tackle the matter and that it goes right across all Departments. As public bodies report to a wide range of Departments that is essential. The two Departments that are centrally involved are the Cabinet Office and the Government Equalities Office—whose Minister is here today. I am delighted to welcome him to his post although he has had a few weeks to get his feet under the table.
The stated aim of the plan is that by 2011, 50 per cent. of new appointments will be women, 14 per cent. will be people with disabilities and 11 per cent. will be people from ethnic minority populations. Such targets are clearly meant to transform bodies to reflect society and, therefore, should be welcomed. However, are they sufficient? Assuming that the targets are met, it will take some time before the current situation is significantly changed. The current make-up of boards will change very slowly because appointments are often for three years and some people are, quite rightly, re-appointed because they have the right experience and they continue. That means it could take some time even to hit the targets before we see the make-up of the boards significantly changed.
There is an argument for encouraging bodies that make appointments to exceed the targets and to arrive more quickly at better representation on their boards. However, making improvements will prove challenging if we look at the experience to date. The statistics for gender and ethnicity for the last 10 years show a static position, or a slowly developing position, rather than progress. We must encourage a much wider group of people to consider putting themselves forward for such positions so that we have a larger pool from which to select.
Sometimes people do not come forward because they do not know about the public bodies in the first place. Even when they know about them, the present composition of the leadership may confirm their assumptions that the organisation is just not for them. More emphasis on putting on boards role models from under-represented groups is one way to take things forward.
Developing good practice is essential, and that means better research. Each appointment process should include a strong candidate diversity strategy that is designed to include innovative ways to attract new people. It should use language and images that attract the sort of people needed for that particular appointment. Perception is very important. We should not use acronyms, such as BME and LGTB, that people in the equality world understand but the majority do not.
We need to pay greater attention to the type of people who are recruited. Young people, for example, rarely sit on public boards but bring a perception that those of us who can no longer call ourselves young do not have, and health boards benefit from the participation of service users.
Nurturing and developing candidates is vital. They might need help learning the responsibilities of their role and acquiring new skills to play their part effectively in directing organisations that might be large and have a wide range of responsibilities. Other support might be needed, such as child care provision or transport for people in remote rural areas. People with disabilities might need extra help preparing for and participating in meetings.
I recently visited an organisation in Sheffield called Speaking Up for Advocacy. The organisation supports people with learning difficulties, disabilities and mental health problems in speaking up for themselves, including taking part in committees that make decisions about services for people with disabilities. Advocacy and support help people to take part fully and to be prepared to ask when something happens in a meeting that they do not understand. That is something that many of us find it difficult to admit to, but those people have learned to say, “Please explain what is happening here,” so that they can take part fully and ensure that they are listened to properly and respected. I have no doubt that although advocacy has helped people take part, it has also demanded a change in the behaviour of other board members. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that, too, is part of the strategy.
It is important to recognise that we need to ensure that people are retained once they are recruited. If the behaviour of other board members and, crucially, the chair, is not welcoming and does not support new members, they might not stay. Equally, failure to ensure that appropriate support measures are in place will lead to people leaving. Developing best practice and ensuring that it is disseminated will be important.
In conclusion, although I welcome the new plan, I should be grateful if the Minister covered the following issues in his response. Given the major change required to meet the new targets, what strategies are being put in place? How long does he estimate it will take to achieve fair outcomes if the targets set by the Government are to be met? What arrangements are in place to monitor and review progress of the plan, and how will they be reported? How will my hon. Friend ensure that good practice is disseminated and bad practice tackled early?
Diversity on public boards matters. I sincerely hope that the Government’s good intentions as set out in the plan will achieve the desired outcomes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on securing this debate, which I think is important, despite the number of Members who have come along to take part. She has been at the forefront of equality issues, particularly in public life as the former Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, as well as in much wider roles.
Ensuring that our public bodies are representative of the communities they serve goes to the heart of creating a fairer and more equal society. We need more women, more ethnic minorities and more disabled people involved in all aspects of public life. Whole sections of the population are not adequately represented in our democratic institutions. That is not just unfair for those who deserve better representation; we are all the losers. The problem is that decisions on our public bodies and for our public services can be better made and meet the needs of all parts of our society only if the people making them bring diverse experiences to bear and are representative of the wider community.
That becomes even more apparent when one considers the role and purpose of public bodies, which my hon. Friend clearly identified. From funding the arts, sports and science to providing essential health care, from safeguarding the environment to promoting human rights, and from protecting the rights and interests of consumers to delivering justice, public bodies take decisions that affect the lives of us all.
To ensure that our public bodies fulfil their duties as effectively as possible, we need the brightest and best at the top making decisions. It cannot be that the brightest and best do not include the groups to which my hon. Friend referred. She is right to point out that at the moment, we are missing out on a wealth of talent and experience. Diversity of representation would bring diversity of thought, fresh ideas, new perspectives and a better understanding of the communities that public bodies are supposed to represent. Greater diversity would also bring lasting cultural change. That is important, because it would create more positive role models for those in less well-represented communities, encouraging others to step forward and apply for public appointments.
Despite some progress, talented people are still being left behind and continue to be grossly under-represented on the boards of our public bodies. My hon. Friend gave some numbers that are worth repeating. Women currently hold just over a third of public appointments, despite making up half the population. Disabled people make up just 5 per cent. of appointees, even though they make up 14 per cent. of the working-age population. Ethnic minorities hold fewer than 6 per cent. of posts despite making up nearly 11 per cent. of the population. Despite our Government’s good intentions over the past 12 years, progress in addressing that imbalance has been woefully inadequate. Thankfully, in response to the challenge, we launched a far-reaching plan two weeks ago designed to step up the pace of change.
To ensure recruitment of the brightest and best candidates from across the whole of society, all new public appointments regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments will be subject to challenging targets. Our aim is that by 2011, across Government as a whole, 50 per cent. of new appointees will be women, 14 per cent. will be disabled people and 11 per cent. will be from ethnic minorities. Although we do not have sufficient statistical evidence on the under-representation of other groups to which my hon. Friend referred, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people, faith communities and those of diverse social backgrounds, I should point out that the action plan aims to increase the diversity of those holding public appointments across the board.
However, the Government agree with my hon. Friend that targets are not enough. What matters is how we go about meeting them. We have put together a purposeful package of measures to make the difference. The measures will increase the visibility of the appointments system, ensure transparency and accountability and tackle head-on the barriers that people too often face in putting themselves forward.
What is the master plan? First, it is important that we produce awareness-raising materials, as people need to know what is out there. That might include the use of the internet and new technologies, being where people are, promoting public appointments to a wider range of people—perhaps even at the school gates if necessary—and specifically targeting under-represented groups.
The ideas that my hon. Friend is setting out are interesting, but I am sure he would agree that one of the most difficult problems is getting people from a wider geographical area on the national bodies that are so important to the issues that we deal with. I do not know whether he is will come to it, but I would be grateful if he could discuss in detail how we can get fewer people from the south-east and more people from a wider area.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It could be suggested that national bodies are London-centric, or at least south-east-centric and that other people do not have the same opportunities. Although there have been improvements in regional boards, national boards still seem to have that problem, so an important part of our diversity proposals is that regional targeting will be part of future planning.
It is important that we share best practice and communicate across Government to help drive improved performance, including in the regions. That will be supported by the regional outreach campaign, which must be effective if it is to achieve the results we want. We will monitor the regional outreach programmes.
We need a stronger evidence base. My hon. Friend’s case is correct in terms of absolute numbers. However, we want to know more about issues such as multi-membership of organisations. How many people are really involved and how many are serial appointees? That is an important aspect in determining whether there is true diversity and we will monitor it.
There must be stakeholder engagement. “Stakeholder” is another of those words that we should not use if we can avoid it, as my hon. Friend rightly said. What does it mean? It means the people who represent the groups we want represented on these bodies. We must work with those partners to develop their knowledge and networks so that we can deliver the changes that we want for under-represented groups.
Most important, we will have a new leading-edge mentoring scheme for high-potential applicants and near hits—applicants who are good, but do not have the necessary experience of the process to get the job. That goes to the heart of what my hon. Friend was saying. Through mentoring, we will help such candidates to ensure that they can access training and other support. My hon. Friend said further development is needed to include what is missing. When people go to Jobcentre Plus, they are asked about the barriers to work. The flexibility now exists to allow those with barriers such as child care and transport to find work. We must do the same for public appointments. We should be looking at what are the barriers for otherwise good and well qualified candidates.
My hon. Friend asked how we will know that we are doing what we intend. There will be a timetable of monitoring with targets monitored every six months, rather than just a three-yearly review. Performance will be published so that we can check how well we are doing.
As my hon. Friend said, we have extended the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments by giving her the power to promote diversity in the procedures for making public appointments. Surprisingly, she did not have that power until it was introduced in October. It is now an important tool in her armoury to help her to achieve her aims. Her office is also developing a targeting talent strategy. I like the title “targeting talent”—it has something about it—but it must also be meaningful. It is about looking to see who is out there who can do the job, and encouraging them to apply, rather than being passive and waiting for people to make applications.
I am sure the Minister will accept that when targeting talent, people from under-represented groups such as the people with learning difficulties whom I met in Sheffield may not appear to have talent at the outset. However, once helped and supported in expressing their views, they can be exceptionally good. I hope that targeting talent also means developing that talent, not just looking to those who appear immediately to have the skills and abilities.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course it is important not to look at things simply at face value. If we dig, we will find the talent, and the scheme must do just that. That is another reason why it is important to work with our stakeholder groups. They know how we can achieve that better than the top-down approach or the use of ministerial templates, which may not fit the bill. We want to be sure that we are doing that.
The Department’s action plan complements the aims of the Equality Bill, which is strengthening and streamlining legislation to ensure that there are equal opportunities for all. The Bill will introduce wider positive action provisions that public authorities will be able to use to address under-representation and disadvantage. That means not only that we will have those targets, but that people will not complain—I am sure—if an equally qualified candidate from an under-represented group is appointed. That is the only way to achieve our objectives.
I am confident that with the right support, those measures can deliver the change that we all want to see. However, change does not happen through Government action alone. We must work with the stakeholder groups and with those who identify candidates—sometimes called head-hunters. Just last week, we held meetings with head-hunters to ask them to think differently. It is easy to find people who fit the job description. However, it is not easy to find those who meet the job description, but do not put themselves forward. We need to be searching for such people. Therefore, head-hunting means just that from now on; it means looking for people who can do the job just as well as the rest, but who come from the under-represented groups. We need to work together.
It is especially important in these difficult economic times to create an environment and culture of ambition, aspiration and equality of opportunity that enables everyone to fulfil their potential. We would like our stakeholders to tell potential candidates about the new measures, and encourage them to come forward. We want potential candidates to put themselves forward, although I appreciate that is not always easy. My hon. Friend made the important point that they must be encouraged when they do put themselves forward.
There is an attitude problem. None of us feels comfortable in a foreign environment. That must be the case for groups who are currently under-represented when they sit at a table where everyone else is different. My hon. Friend is right: we must ensure that the chairs and other members of the bodies are given basic training in welcoming groups and individuals who come from different backgrounds.
The Government are keen to consider other initiatives. It might be possible for MPs to keep in their offices lists of individuals who would be suitable candidates. I encourage hon. Members to do that.
We have made some progress, even in Parliament. In 1997, just 9 per cent. of Members were women. The figure is now 20 per cent. In the Thatcher and Major years, the number of women in the Cabinet peaked at two. Seven women now attend Cabinet meetings, although not all are full Cabinet members. There is much more to be done.
My hon. Friend concluded with four questions. I hope that I have set out in sufficient detail the action plan strategy, our commitment to monitor progress through six-monthly reviews, and our intention to disseminate good cross-governmental practice and to discourage bad practice. I hope too that I have made it clear that although we intend to meet our appointment targets by 2011, the new appointment objectives start now. If there is anything to be learned from the history of the equality movement, it is that change does not happen overnight; it takes commitment, tenacity and real action on several levels, from the grass roots to the top. We must join together and push twice or perhaps three times as hard to effect real and lasting change. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating this important debate. I know she wishes us well, as I wish her well.
Air Quality (Aircraft)
It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, which is well overdue. I must declare an interest as I am a pilot; I therefore understand some of the issues perhaps better than others. In the interests of brevity, I hope to explain the reasons why I asked for the debate without losing hon. Members in too much technical detail.
I begin by posing the key question: is there a fundamental design fault in passenger aircraft that exposes passengers and crew to dangerous and potentially lethal toxic fumes? To place that question in context, one must first appreciate how modern aircraft pressurise the air so that passengers and crew can breathe normally at high altitudes. Up to about the late 1950s, pressurised air was taken from outside and depressurised using cylinders and so forth, but a cheaper way was found that involves taking pressurised air from the compressor stages of an aircraft’s jet engines. The air is cooled and flows into a chamber where it is mixed with highly filtered air from the passenger cabin. The air then flows through the cabin and exits through valves in the fuselage. It is called the bleed air system and has worked efficiently for many years. However, while micro-organisms may be trapped by those filters, it is clear that other toxins may not, which is the whole reason for this debate.
The use of air that has passed through the engine means there is a probability that toxins and organophosphates, particularly tricresyl phosphate, or TCP, which is used as an anti-wear additive, can enter the cabin. Those toxins are not removed by the filters. The consequences of TCP entering the cabin can be headaches and drowsiness, as well as respiratory and neurological problems. That is certainly unpleasant for passengers, but is potentially lethal for pilots. Captain Tim Lindsey, a British airline pilot who supplied evidence to the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment died in January 2009 of brain cancer—a long-term effect of toxicity exposure.
The condition caused by TCP has now been called aerotoxic syndrome, and the airline industry is familiar with it. Unfortunately, however, pressures within the industry mean that reporting of the syndrome is not as fair as it should be. Symptoms include eye irritation, respiratory problems, headaches, skin problems, nausea, vertigo, loss of balance, dizziness, fatigue and cognitive impairment—all things that one does not want the person in charge of the plane to suffer from.
It is interesting to consider which planes are the most vulnerable. All aircraft may be affected, as the bleed air system is similar throughout all aircraft, which means that whenever any of us flies we could be exposed to those toxins from the air that is taken via the engine. However, one is more likely to be exposed to toxins through certain aircraft designs than others. The main aircraft are the Boeing 757, the Airbuses 319 and 320, the Boeing 737 and the BAe 146. Interestingly, a different design has been chosen for the cabin air system in the new Boeing 787, which is about to be rolled off the factory floor. In that new system, the air does not go anywhere near the engines. I do not attribute any fault to the old systems, but simply note that the new aircraft is already moving away from that old design. The industry is well aware of the issue, as are the airlines. After a disastrous flight on a BAe 146, on which two stewards collapsed and after which the crew went to hospital, Flybe decided not to use those aircraft again.
According to the clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Mackenzie Ross up to 200,000 passengers are affected by aerotoxic syndrome every year, but when one thinks about any of one’s experiences on an aircraft, one realises that one feels pretty lousy when one gets off anyway. We may attribute that feeling to the time change, jet lag or even the food on the aircraft. It is difficult to put one’s finger on, or understand, the scale of the problem, because not enough research has been conducted on the issue.
In the studies that have taken place, however, there have been some interesting results. The German television network ARD and Schweizer Fernsehen—Swiss Television—secretly took 31 swab samples from the aircraft cabins of popular airlines, of which 28 were found to contain high levels of TCP. Other scientific research, which was not necessarily linked to airlines, has proved that there is a direct link between TCP toxins and the human condition that I have discussed. That demonstrates the long-term link between low-level exposure to organophosphates and the development of neuro-behavioural problems. That position has been advanced by the US Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses. Some 25 per cent. of Gulf war veterans suffered from the effects of organophosphate poisoning, and the organisation was able to establish that link, but unfortunately we have not been able to confirm the same link in relation to the airline industry. I hope that the Minister is willing to address that issue.
Airline pilots report symptoms similar to signs of aerotoxic syndrome.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, but will he clarify one point? He said that, unfortunately we have not been able to make a connection, but I think he meant to say that unfortunately, no such study has been conducted over here to establish whether that connection exists. Is that right?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. That is exactly what I am calling for, and I hope the Minister will respond to that point. Until we have the information that my hon. Friend mentioned, we will be in a very difficult place for making a judgment about what steps should be taken, rather than simply turning our backs on the issue.
The British Air Line Pilots Association has found that only 61 of 1,667 contaminated air events were recorded on the UK Civil Aviation Authority database. That equates to just under 4 per cent., which may be a small number from that perspective, but I return to my original point about how many incidents have been reported correctly. How many pilots simply said, “I don’t really want to rock the boat, or be seen to cause problems; I’ve got my future to look after, so I’m not going to bother filling out that incident report”? The real figure could be a lot higher.
However, passengers want to make sure that the figure is down to 0 per cent. They want to be sure that all pilots and co-pilots are fit and healthy when they get on a plane and when they get off it after a flight.
There have been other voices of concern from outside the UK. Of course, this is a global issue. More than 10 years ago, the Australian Senate concluded that there was a risk to health and flight safety from exposure to contaminated air. If the Minister would like to look into that, he should look at the investigation the Senate carried out in 2000. The German Parliament took only weeks to conclude that inhaling heated engine oil products was not safe.
Clear evidence demonstrates that there is a design fault in passenger aircraft that puts passengers and crew at risk from fumes, yet the CAA and the Government continue to allow that situation to go unchecked. It is worth recognising who pays for the CAA; it does a wonderful job in some respects, but let us not forget that it receives its financial support from the airlines, so the CAA is not necessarily the best organisation to make a judgment on whether there is a problem with TCP.
Let us take a look at other parts of the industry that have commented on the matter. BAE Systems has said:
“With the weight of human evidence and suffering, which is quite clear, there must be something there…There is absolutely no doubt in our mind that there is a general health issue here.”
That is from the people who make the aircraft.
The CAA commissioned the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to examine contaminated cabin air supply ducts removed from two BAe 146 aircraft. It concluded that the chemicals that enter the aircraft were unlikely to be of sufficient concentration to cause ill health. It just plucked two cylinders off two aircraft and decided there was nothing to find. We must understand that these incidents occur when a sudden push of toxins comes from the engine. It is not simply a matter of taking two cylinders at random and saying, “Well, that’s the judgment we are making for the entire aircraft industry.”
The report accepted that there were more than 40 different chemicals contained in oil breakdown products, for which there are no published toxicology data. That means the CAA is making a judgment and an assessment about something when it cannot even put a yardstick next to it. If it does not know about the 40 different chemicals and what they might do, surely it should ask whether it is possible to do some more research and find out a bit more about what happens to those toxins. The CAA should not simply say, “Well, the things we do know about don’t affect humans, but we are just going to push the things we don’t know about to one side.”
Of course, air crews argue that the data are meaningless because they were not collected during a contaminated air event, which, as I said, is when a sudden surge of toxins comes into the aircraft and levels of chemicals may be higher. Obviously, there is also a question about the validity of exposure standards currently used to determine what constitutes safe concentrations. Again, the CAA, rather than an independent body, is examining the matter.
It would be fair to say that no proper studies have been conducted to date and that those that have been done typically involved questionnaire surveys conducted by air crew, or clinical examinations of small self-selected samples of air crew. I urge the Minister to read some of the papers by Michaelis, Winder, Coxon, Harper, Burdon, Somers and Heuser, and Mackenzie Ross, whom I have mentioned already. That is the sort of evidence that should raise the Minister’s eyebrows and make him wake up to the problems that we are facing and the fact that Governments have successively turned their back on the issues. The air crew reports show that they suffer from a range of different symptoms, including respiratory, gastro-intestinal and neuro-behavioural problems. However, little can be concluded from work on small, self-selected samples, other than that further research is warranted.
If the Minister has not already seen it, I urge him to watch the video documentary called “Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines,” which was put together by Captain Tristan Loraine, who is chairman of the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive. He has been a pilot for 19 years and he has spent seven years researching the subject. If the Minister does not know Captain Loraine, I shall be happy to introduce him. I am sure that a copy of the video can be supplied. The documentary prompted a BBC “Panorama” follow-up and I understand that another film is on the way. The issue is not disappearing and I hope the Minister will recognise that.
The risks in planes are being ignored. We need honest research and a serious recognition that aerotoxic syndrome can affect pilots. Incidents of contaminated air events on commercial aircraft are difficult to quantify because they do not have air quality monitoring systems on board. That means there is no way to judge the problem because the filter measuring systems are not in place. There is an irony in relation to that because Federal Aviation Administration regulation 2002 states:
“FAA rulemaking has not kept pace with public expectation and concern about air quality and does not afford explicit protection from particulate matter and other chemical and biological hazards”.
In effect, the FAA is saying that all aircraft should have some form of measuring facility on board. I am not aware of any aircraft that have that, so the Government are already in violation of their own rules. The Minister also needs to address that matter.
An organisation in another part of the industry that has commented on the problem is Rolls-Royce, which has acknowledged:
“Any oil leaking from an engine, entering the aircraft customer bleed offtake, is classified as hazardous”.
That is a comment from the engine maker itself. One small movement in the right direction has, in fact, come from one of the main companies that produces the oils for the aircraft company. A French oil company has conceded that oils are dangerous if they are inhaled, and that they can cause respiratory problems and affect the growth of small babies and so on. That is a minor step in the right direction, but there is an awfully long way to go.
I ask the Minister to recognise the scale of the problem and not to look at it as a case of liability. Those who have suffered from illnesses are not looking for some form of compensation. Yes, of course, they are angry at the system and they are angry at the Government for not doing anything about it. However, they just want planes that are safe and for people not to have to go through the same pain that they have gone through. It would not require an awful lot of money to include filters or air monitoring systems on aircraft. Those are the positive steps that many people—pilots, passengers and so on—are calling for from the Government. They want the Government to confirm that that is the direction they want to take. They do not want the Government to say, “Right, let’s get the industry to admit liability” and then go through the whole legal rigmarole of compensation. I wish to make it clear that those affected by TCP do not want that; they just want the Government to wake up and recognise the changes that are required.
There have been some investigations by the Department for Transport and, indeed, the Department of Health. In 2000, the Department for Transport asked the Committee on Toxicity to look at these issues. I am sure that the Minister will probably lean heavily on its report in his rebuff. In the last couple of years, the committee has come back with a follow-up report. The committee’s final assessment was that more research was needed. The Minister may well pluck another quote from the report that says this, that or the other, but the bottom line is that a couple of years ago, the COT said that more research was needed. I am pleased to see that the Minister is nodding because that means he recognises that. I hope we will perhaps hear today what research will be done, because obviously there are questions to be asked.
The COT also recommended that two types of study be commissioned: the exposure monitoring study, which is the on-board monitoring of air quality on a number of aircraft, and the further investigation of neuropsychological functioning in pilots via a cross-sectional epidemiological study using proxy measures of exposure, such as type of aircraft flown. That is a very complicated way of saying that we need to understand the health and welfare of pilots a little better when they are flying aircraft.
The Department for Transport commissioned Cranfield university to undertake the exposure monitoring study. That was not done through a process of competitive tender; the contract was simply awarded to Cranfield. Will the Minister explain why the study was not put out to tender and why it was given to an organisation that might be considered sympathetic to the industry? To date, the Department for Transport has refused to commission a cross-sectional neuropsychological study. That was the second aspect of the COT’s request, but it has not happened. I hope that the Government will wake up to that.
What can the Government do? They need to stop burying their head in the sand and wake up to the responsibility of office. That is exactly what Governments should do. They should also be able to make tough decisions that might have major consequences for powerful sectors of industry—in this case, the airline industry. First, the Government should recognise that the problem exists and that the Department for Transport has taken no steps to ensure that passengers and crew are informed about the possibilities of being exposed to contaminated air.
Secondly, the Government should conduct a proper inquiry, and collate proper evidence and data via air-monitoring systems on board passenger aircraft so that we know exactly which chemicals are entering the aircraft during a contaminated air event, and in what quantity. At present, the incidence of contaminated air events is hard to determine, as I said. Air crew state that under-reporting is common due to fears about job security and so on.
Thirdly, very much based on the outcome of those reports, the Government should make some firm decisions on the direction that the airline industry should take. They should decide whether a redesign of the aircraft is required, or whether filtering systems need to be put in to make engines safer.
I have spoken for a good 20 minutes on this subject, and I apologise to hon. Members who wish to speak. However, the debate is overdue and serious, and the Minister has some questions to answer. I have raised various issues. If he is unable to provide answers today, I should be grateful if he could write to me, because I intend to pursue the matter most vigorously. I do not believe that we can end a debate in Westminster Hall, pat ourselves on the back and say, “Yes, we have dealt with the issue. We can now move on to something else.” We need change in the industry, and we need to understand exactly what is going wrong. We need to ensure that when people get on an aircraft, they feel safe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has laid out most of the case that, had I been in his position, I would have laid out. I am grateful to him for instituting this debate.
I wish to add a couple of points. I got involved with this subject two or three years ago because a constituent of mine, John Hoyte, one of the founders of the Aerotoxic Association, came to see me about it. Since then, I have had a great deal of correspondence with various parts of the Government and various parts of the industry. My constituent lost his licence on medical grounds while working for Flybe but is now in the process of trying to get it back. He is convinced that, in essence, oil fumes poisoned him. Organophosphates were found in his blood, as they have been in the blood of many other pilots who are convinced that they have been affected by the same problem.
I do not remember how long ago it was—perhaps some of my colleagues do—but there was a terrible problem with sheep dip affecting people. The problem was caused by organophosphates, which we know are a terrible poison. Organophosphates are awful neurotoxins which cause serious neurological problems if they get into one’s blood. I have seen some medical evidence, and Dr. Mackenzie Ross’s study, which is due to be completed soon—if it is not by now complete—is looking at cases. I would be interested if the Minister brought us up to date on that.
Since becoming involved with this issue, I have had correspondence, mainly with the Department for Transport and the Committee on Toxicity, about the Cranfield study. What disturbs me about it is how long it has taken; no doubt the Minister will update us on that. If it has reported in the past few days—it is due to report—and I missed it, I apologise, but I do not think it has. In January, I was told that it was about half complete but that the other half had to be commissioned from someone else. I hope that that has been done.
It is not the most complicated thing to investigate the air going into the cabins of airliners. I understand that a German device measures any toxins in the fumes in aeroplanes. I am not sure why this is taking so long. I have consistently found in correspondence a resistance even to acknowledging that there is a problem or the possibility of one. I could understand that view on the part of the airlines—it would be a huge issue for them to replace the air pressurisation systems on aircraft if that proves necessary. The problem seems to occur more often in one or two models of aircraft than in others. My hon. Friend’s point about the new Boeing not having this system makes one wonder if Boeing did not realise there was a problem and that it should perhaps deal with it, so that at least the planes produced in the next 30 years could not be accused of poisoning pilots and passengers.
I am interested in where the Cranfield and Mackenzie Ross studies are. I understand that they deal with the two aspects of the problem: the medical evidence, and the question of whether fumes are entering aircraft ventilation systems. “Obstructive” would be too strong a word, but I have found an unwillingness to engage constructively in argument on the part of the DFT, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Committee on Toxicity, the air accidents investigation branch of the CAA and even, surprisingly, the British Air Line Pilots Association. I do not know why BALPA has not taken a more aggressive interest in the matter. After all, it is the pilots’ union. One would have thought that this issue would be one of its prime responsibilities, but it seems reluctant not only to engage in correspondence but, as I said, even to admit that there may be a problem.
I hope that I am not right in thinking that there has been obstruction. There certainly has been an unwillingness to talk about the problem. My hon. Friend has picked an appropriate moment to have this debate. If the two studies are not in the Minister’s hands, they are about to be, and I have no doubt that he will bring us up to date on them.
We really need to know definitively whether there is a problem with aircraft ventilation systems, whether it is causing the medical conditions that pilots are reporting, and, if so, what needs to be done. Alternatively, if the conditions are being caused by something else, we need to get to the bottom of that. There seems to be a great deal of substantial evidence backed up by too many “coincidences” for this to be an accident and there to be nothing in it.
I look forward to the Minister’s bringing us up to date on the matter, and I hope we will get from the Government timely and constructive progress in dealing with the problem and bringing the studies to a conclusion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on introducing this debate on an important matter. I agree with virtually everything that he said. I apologise for being 55 seconds late and not arriving for the beginning of his remarks.
This is a serious issue. It is worth putting on the record that it has, in fact, been raised many times in this House with successive Ministers by Members of all parties. The problem with contaminated air in aircraft stays while Ministers move on—upwards, outwards and sideways—at a bewildering rate. Many of us who have campaigned on the issue for some time find ourselves trying to explain to new Ministers the same problem that we have explained to previous ones.
Indeed, the issue predates my involvement. I note that my colleague Lord Tyler, who was then the Member for North Cornwall, raised the matter in a debate in the House on 28 June 2000. On that occasion, speaking about the use of organophosphates as a lubricant in aircraft engines, he referred specifically to the BAe 146, an aircraft that presents a particular problem and about which there have been many complaints. He stated that
“the House will recognise that the issue is important. The health of pilots, crew and passengers could be affected…I find alarming the apparent complacency of the United Kingdom authorities. We have known for some time that those potentially lethal chemicals are used as lubricants in aircraft engines—not only fixed-wing aircraft but in helicopters…Ministers still show the most extraordinary and breathtaking complacency.”—[Official Report, 28 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 205-06WH.]
That was in 2000, yet here we are in 2009 having not made much progress on solving a serious matter.
The issue has been raised by Members across the House. It was raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in written questions that he has tabled. I have tabled questions, as have Labour Members such as the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and others. An early-day motion on the issue was signed by 72 Members last year. The Government cannot be under any illusion that this is not regarded as a serious matter on both sides of the House. Therefore, it is particularly disappointing that we are still waiting for real progress to be made.
While we wait for progress to be made, we still have a prevalence of incidents. In 2007, 116 contaminated air events were reported to the Civil Aviation Authority. The number of cases reported annually is rising. In 2006, it was 109—there were 78 in 2005. There are more complaints about some aircraft than others, which supports the point made earlier. It seems that some aircraft are more disposed to the problem than others. The Boeing 757 was involved in 43 such cases, out of 109, in 2006; and the BAe 146, of which fewer exist, was involved in 17 incidents—the second highest number of any aircraft.
The Government, in a previous departmental incarnation as the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, stated on 21 January 2000 that
“fumes from the engines can only enter the aircraft cabin if an engine seal fails, which is a very rare event—around one failure for every 22,000 flights.”
That was the Government’s official position in 2000, but the Minister’s predecessor—now the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick)—stated on 6 May 2009:
“There are however occasional bad smells or ‘fume events’ during flights, which are estimated to occur on approximately 0.05 per cent. of flights overall (one in 2000).”—[Official Report, 6 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 192W.]
So we have gone from one in 22,000 to one in 2,000. One wonders how much further that statistic will drop before there is action to deal with the points in question.
Research by the German or Swiss broadcaster that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned suggests that contaminated air was present in 28 out of 30 tested cabins. Furthermore, 106 Boeing 757 pilots surveyed reported more than 1,660 incidents during their careers, many of which were thought to be associated with contaminated air. A similar survey of 250 current and retired British BAe 146 pilots found that 85 per cent. believed that they were breathing contaminated air while flying. More than half of them—an enormous number of pilots—reported symptoms of ill health relating to air contamination, and nearly one in 10 had to be retired on health grounds. An enormous toll is being taken on professional people, with seemingly little being done about it.
There have been incidents elsewhere in the world. In May 2009, a former flight attendant won civil damages for respiratory damage, having been exposed to contaminated air, in the case of Turner v. Eastwest Airlines Ltd. In October 2007, staff at Flybe refused to board the company’s fleet of BAe 146 aircraft, saying that poor air quality was putting them and their passengers at risk. That came about after two stewardesses collapsed during a flight and all seven crew members had to be taken to hospital. Flybe subsequently announced that it would phase out BAe 146s for commercial reasons. That seems to be the nearest thing to what might be called an out-of-court settlement. I agree with hon. Members’ comments on how interesting it is that we are now adopting a new form of producing air for cabins or, perhaps, reverting to what was originally there before bleed air was introduced in the 1960s.
There is no question but that this is a serious matter. The Government have said that they recognise there is an issue, and I do not wish to suggest that they are being less helpful than they are, because they have been willing to engage and have answered parliamentary questions. I met the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town, along with Lord Tyler and the Countess of Mar. I believe that Ministers are genuinely concerned about this matter and are taking it forward, but I hope they get the message from today’s debate that they are not taking it forward far enough or fast enough. People are at risk as we speak, including pilots, passengers and crew. I am dismayed that it is taking such a long time to get the results of studies that the Government have instigated.
I asked the Minister’s predecessor on 6 May why the research project on cabin air quality had been allocated to Cranfield. I say “allocated” because no European Union public procurement procedures seem to have been invoked on that occasion. He replied:
“The research project was tendered under the single tender procedure and approved in April 2007. Due to the complex logistics and the need for a project manager to develop protocols, this research could not be specified as a normal tender. Following the tender, Cranfield university was chosen by the Department, in consultation with the Department of Health, the Civil Aviation Authority, BALPA (largest pilot trade union) and airlines.”—[Official Report, 6 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 193W.]
Although that may be a realistic exercise, eyebrows would be raised if it were not tendered. An explanation has been given, but I hope that the Minister accepts that, because of the long delays—not necessarily since the project was allocated, although there have been delays since then—going back to 2000 and beyond, which I have mentioned, there appears to be an element of playing for time on somebody’s part until aircraft are phased out and the problem goes away. I do not necessarily wish to suggest that that is absolutely the case, because I cannot prove it. Nevertheless, putting the circumstances together, one gets circumstantial evidence that suggests there may be some element of truth in my assumption.
I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening with the Cranfield study, including when it will report. I hope he will tell us that there should be an open inquiry into this issue, because the public at large, and the pilots in particular, want to be confident that it is being seriously addressed. We need an open forum of some sort—I would hesitate to use a public inquiry as a forum—with opportunity for cross-examination, whereby people can test the theories, put forward their views and scrutinise those taking decisions and making assumptions on our behalf.
My colleague Lord Tyler asked a parliamentary question in the other place on 20 February 2007:
“Whether the Department for Transport will participate in research on cabin air quality by the United States Federal Aviation Administration.”
Lord Bassam, answering for the Government, indicated that the Department was
“discussing with the Federal Aviation Administration…the possibility of collaborative research.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 February 2007; Vol. 689, c. WA215.]
Can the Minister give any further information on the collaboration that clearly was under way, or at least under consideration, back in February 2007?
Let me raise two other matters relating to cabin air quality that are entirely different to the substantive matter we are discussing. First, under an international aviation agreement, insecticides are sprayed in the cabin on flights from particular countries, presumably to kill off insects that may be brought into this country or elsewhere. Having done quite a lot of work on pesticides, I do not regard that as a safe procedure. One of the first issues that I ever took up as a campaigner was pesticides, and that is one reason why I am in politics. It does not seem entirely safe for large amounts of insecticide to be sprayed in a plane before it lands, sometimes over food, irrespective of whether children are present, with no proper warning or safeguards in place and in a confined atmosphere. I should like the Minister to tell me now or in writing what assessment has been made of the potential health implications of that practice, not necessarily for a fully healthy person but for a vulnerable person with previous exposure to pesticides. The first time I went on a long-distance flight and experienced that, I had no pre-knowledge of it. Someone who is vulnerable to pesticides—insecticides—through exposure to them on farms, for example, and has lost resistance to them could be sprayed without their knowledge. That is worrying. I would grateful if the Minister took up that issue.
My second point concerns air quality on board for individuals who require extra oxygen for health reasons. The Minister may be aware that airlines have vastly differing practices regarding allowing oxygen on board. I have had representations on this matter from the British Lung Foundation and others, who are concerned at the wide variations in practice across the industry. There is even resistance from some airlines to anyone bringing on board extra oxygen at all, even if they pay for it themselves. A person’s requirement for extra oxygen is effectively a disability, and we should not be discriminating against people with such a health need. I should like the Minister to ensure that there is a process whereby airlines supply extra oxygen to those who identify themselves as needing it; or, at least, to ensure that no obstacle is put in their way if they wish to bring extra oxygen on board.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr. McCrea.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on making a typically well-researched, thorough speech. In securing the debate, he has done us all a favour and has given us an opportunity to focus on something that a number of hon. Members have been concerned about for a long time. As a pilot, he has brought particular knowledge to the subject. We have had a good short debate, including a contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples). I also enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I share the genuine concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East about the contamination of air supply to commercial aircraft cabins.
I pay tribute to the campaign by the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive for raising awareness of the issue, and in particular to Captain Tristan Loraine, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned, and to Captain Susan Michaelis, who have done so much to raise the profile of this issue in the public spectrum. The campaign is made up of professional pilots and is assisted by scientific experts who are well placed to research and comment on the matter, one of whom—Dr. Sarah Mackenzie Ross—figured in my hon. Friend’s speech.
The campaign argues that a number of pilots have been severely brain-damaged by cabin air pollution, and that the lives of passengers and crews are being put at risk, as my hon. Friend set out in some detail. Dr. Mackenzie Ross considered those issues in her studies and specifically looked at flight crews, not only because they are more frequently exposed and therefore principally at risk, so we are more likely to see effects among them, but because of the obvious point that the lives of everyone on board a modern aeroplane would be put at risk if the pilot was seriously affected or, worse still, if the pilot and the co-pilot were seriously affected at the same time.
When simulators are used to investigate the decisions taken by flight-deck crew, factors such as tiredness are sometimes assessed, but there are no tests to establish what happens when the quality of decision making is deliberately downgraded. If that is the case, and that is what I have heard from the industry, it suggests that different sectors have different approaches. Most people believe that being a pilot is more difficult than being a driver, but a number of organisations, including the Institute of Advanced Motorists, have done extensive tests on drivers, subjecting them to a variety of things that would impair their decision making, such as large quantities of alcohol or having to talk on a mobile phone while driving a difficult route.
Dr. Mackenzie Ross has found that cabin air is sometimes contaminated with hydraulic fluids and synthetic jet oils, which contain the chemicals described by my hon. Friend. Those chemicals are potentially highly neurotoxic and are, as he said, found in a variety of other sources, including agricultural chemicals. Most famously, they were also behind Gulf war syndrome. In 2007, about 350 UK aircrew advised their union that they may be suffering physical and psychological ill health following exposure to contaminated air.
Dr. Mackenzie Ross has argued that the incidence of contaminated-air events on commercial and military aircraft is difficult to quantify because of the lack of monitoring systems. I do not want to repeat everything that my hon. Friend said, but the study that he quoted is significant. In 2003, the British Airline Pilots Association said that only 61 out of 1,667 contaminated-air events were recorded. In other words, only about 4 per cent. of incidents were making the records, for all the reasons that he gave.
The Minister should set up an awareness campaign among aircrew to look at the dangers of air contamination and at how to report contamination events. I will be making a number of other points, but that is one of the most basic. Aircrew—I hope that the union will show some leadership on this—should be actively encouraged to report problems. I would also like to know what steps the Minister will take to ensure that passengers are informed when they have been exposed to a contamination event.
Unlike in a building, passengers in the pressurised cabin of a plane are totally dependent on the air supplied by the plane once the doors have been closed—obviously, they cannot open a window. Today, that always means bleed air from the main engine. In most aircraft, air is bled off at a temperature of at least 400° C. It then goes through a heat exchanger and ductwork before being delivered to a manifold, where it is mixed with re-circulated air. I am told that the heat exchanger and ductwork in most aircraft are never cleaned and that no regime is in place to ensure that airlines do such work—indeed, there is no regime or regulation in place even to establish whether airlines do it. Even the air conditioning systems in a decent hotel room are subject to a regime of filter changes and duct cleaning, and people in a hotel room can open the window.
Everyone present will agree that air supply needs to be safe. It is widely recognised that all aircraft are subject, to some extent, to occasional engine oil leaks, but certain types are subject to many more, and my hon. Friend picked out the BAe 146 and the Boeing 757. The CAA database for 2004 recorded that 72 flights experienced contaminated air, although the low reporting rate, to which we have all alluded, suggests that up to 2,000 flights in the UK may have experienced contaminated-air events in that year. It is clear that the process by which air is delivered to the cabins of commercial airliners is potentially flawed. It does not guarantee the quality of air for breathing, and no mechanisms appear to be in place even to monitor air quality, let alone to ensure that air is safe.
Such issues are increasingly recognised. My hon. Friend referred to Boeing’s decision on the 787—the so-called Dreamliner—and it is interesting to look at what Boeing said about it. Boeing was invited by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee to make a submission and it did so in writing. It said:
“The Boeing 787 will have a no-bleed architecture for the outside air supply to the cabin. This architecture eliminates the risk of engine oil decomposition products…being introduced in the cabin supply air”.
The fact that the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturer takes that view provides compelling evidence that there is an issue to address. My hon. Friend also mentioned Rolls-Royce, which, as far back as 2003, said:
“Any oil leaking from an engine, entering the aircraft customer bleed offtake, is classified as hazardous”.
Another independent expert on the subject, who comes from the opposite side of the world, is the Royal Australian air force’s head of aviation medicine research, Dr. Singh Bhupinder. He has spoken out at international conferences, making it clear that he, too, believes there is a real issue to address.
Will the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking in conjunction with the CAA to ensure that the passenger air supply on aeroplanes operates at a safe level of toxicity? Everybody in the Chamber recognises that the airline industry is struggling, and it is worrying to see the country’s national airline appeal to staff to work without pay, while a whole string of small, struggling airports, many of which are highly geared, are on the edge financially. I am the last person to want to put extra burdens on a struggling industry at such a time, but the fact is that people’s lives and the long-term health of crew members are at stake. It is therefore strange that the Department for Transport has done little quality research on the subject.
When the Department asked the Committee on Toxicity—an independent body that advises the Government, including, incidentally, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on agricultural issues—to review all the available evidence, the committee was unable to arrive at firm conclusions. As my hon. Friend said, however, it recommended further research to determine what substances are released via the bleed air system and whether exposure to those substances could result in acute or chronic ill health. The committee recommended two types of study: first, an exposure monitoring study, with on-board monitoring of air quality on a number of aircraft; and, secondly, further investigation of neuropsychological functioning in pilots via a cross-sectional epidemiological study using proxy measures of exposure.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned the Department giving the first study to Cranfield university. Cranfield has an excellent record, and I do not want to be critical of it, but it is very nearly an in-house organisation. Indeed, its staff include quite a number of Government employees, including quite a lot of uniformed people—indeed, my father-in-law worked there at one point. There is therefore a legitimate concern that simply giving the study to Cranfield, rather than putting it out to competitive tender, raises serious questions over whether the investigation is independent. To date, the Department for Transport has refused to commission the second study—the cross-sectional neuropsychological study—but the Minister may be able to update us on that. Will he tell us why the first study could not be put out to competitive tender, and where we have got to on the second study?
The hon. Member for Lewes asked about co-operation with the FAA, and I repeat the question. I have had complaints from people involved in the campaign that we have dragged our feet in co-operating with the FAA when Britain could have made a significant difference.
The hon. Member for Brighton—
Indeed; like Newcastle and Gateshead.
The other issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is oxygen on flights, and it is a serious concern. I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the early-day motion has attracted more than 200 signatures. There is a legitimate point to consider. A safe air supply for people who require oxygen must involve the presence of cylinders to top up their need for greater concentration. I hope that the Minister will update us on that.
Contamination of aircraft cabins by engine oil fumes is a serious aviation safety concern for both aircrew and passengers. There is significant evidence to warrant going beyond just a bit more study to get to the bottom of the matter. I hope that the Government will today make it clear that they will urgently and thoroughly investigate the problem so that the necessary steps to make crew and passengers safe on our aeroplanes are taken.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing it. The issue is serious, and I say that genuinely. However, we must talk about facts and real evidence, and there has been an awful lot of speculation in some of the contributions. I want to answer hon. Members’ questions as clearly as possible, and to show that this country has been at the forefront in taking forward some of the current work. Bearing in mind the depth of knowledge of some hon. Members, I am sure that they are well aware of that. I will explain where we are, and answer as many questions as clearly and thoroughly as I can.
Air quality in commercial passenger aircraft is high, and much of the information that we have heard today would be worrying for anyone who is thinking of travelling on a plane. To put the matter into perspective, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) referred to numbers and said that the Government had changed the number of events from one in 22,000 to one in 2,000. The Committee on Toxicity estimated in 2007 that fume events occurred in approximately 0.05 per cent. of flights, or one in 2,000. In 2008, 97 contaminated air events were reported to the CAA under the mandatory occurrence reporting scheme from 1.2 million passenger and cargo flights by UK carriers.
Of the 97 reported occurrences of contaminated air by aircraft type, 38 were on a Boeing 757, 19 were on an Airbus 319, and six were on an Airbus 320. Some hon. Members referred to British Aerospace’s BAe 146, and there were two reported occurrences in 2008 for that aircraft. They asked why such fume events happen, and why nothing has been done in any shape or form. Mechanical system malfunctions occur and may result in abnormal operating conditions, but the CAA has taken remedial action to help operators of specific aircraft to reduce the incidence of fume events, such as engine oil servicing procedures and engine sealing modifications. Those are some of the steps that have been taken to help the industry and those who work on planes and travel by air. It is essential to ensure that health and safety provisions for both categories of people are of the highest level.
I recognise the concern that has been raised, but we must have evidence, and we have undertaken work on that. I assure everyone who is listening to our debate and those who read Hansard that it is not a proven fact that cabin air harms health. Hon. Members rightly said that work on that should be done and should continue, and I intend to show that it is being done, and that we have the highest quality of studies.
The hon. Gentleman is well aware that I am saying that we need evidence to conclude that such fume events cause those illnesses. I am not suggesting that they have not happened, but to ensure that they do not happen again, we must know exactly what causes them. That is why research is necessary. It is complex research and it is being done as we speak.
To return to the Minister’s figures, he said that approximately 100 events were recorded in a year. Several of us mentioned the study that suggested that only 4 per cent. of events are recorded, but if the average number of passengers on the aircraft on which such events took place was 150, 15,000 passengers would be affected. If 4 per cent. of those are reported, 25 x 15,000 is about one third of a million passengers affected in a single year. That does not mean that all were brain damaged, but it provides an idea of the scale of what we are talking about, especially as no one denies the link between organophosphates and brain damage.
The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that no one denies that link, but 97 reported occurrences does not mean that they led to x, y or z occurrences of illness or disease. The jump to the calculations that he just made about 15,000 passengers being affected and so on is a big leap. I am sure that we all want to make certain that the evidence exists, so that we can ensure that if there is a problem, we can take the necessary steps to eradicate it, but again, that is not straightforward.
Let me make some headway and I will give way shortly. I want to deal with this issue. There seems to be a suggestion that people are not reporting incidents because they do not want to rock the boat. Well, the mandatory occurrence reporting scheme—MORS—was established in 1976. It is regarded worldwide as a safety reporting model and is used in many other areas. It exists to ensure that the CAA is advised of hazardous or potentially hazardous incidents and defects. In addition, even if what hon. Members have alluded to is the case and employees will not report incidents, there is a confidential reporting line to the CAA, which is called CHIRP—the confidential human factors incident reporting programme. That is for those who do not want to let their employer know that they are reporting such an occurrence. It would therefore be wrong to say that the reporting system does not help employees to report occurrences. It does. That facility exists through both MORS and the confidential route.
With respect to the Minister, we have ample time in which to debate these issues. I am pleased that he is taking interventions, but there is still another half hour to go—plenty of time for us to debate. He has spent 10 minutes arguing about statistics, and they can be read in different ways. He began his remarks by saying that this is a serious issue. I would like to move on to the action points—what he intends to do—and I think that he wants to move on to that, too.
On the point that the Minister is making now, however, does he agree that, rather than depending entirely on whether a pilot comes forward to make a report, it is time that we had a monitoring system to measure the quality of air on aircraft? That would be an independent way of checking whether the toxins are making it on board, as opposed to leaning heavily on the reports written by pilots, who might or might not fill out a form.
I am delighted to say that that is exactly what I want to move on to, which is why I did not particularly want to give way again. I do want to get to some of the substance of the debate, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, the reporting procedures have to be one of the first stages of dealing with the issue, which we all agree is important and needs investigation. We cannot allow the reporting system to be undermined in a way that suggests that it is not robust. That is why I wanted to deal with that at the outset.
Most modern commercial aircraft are fitted with high efficiency particulate air—HEPA—filters, which are extremely efficient at removing airborne contaminants such as droplets, bacteria and large viral particles. Typically, the air in the cabin is exchanged every two to three minutes. This is the only country that I know of in which there is a general duty to safeguard the health of persons aboard aircraft. Our commercial aviation safety record is second to none. That is a hard-won reputation, and it has been won by all players in the industry and all staff who work in the industry. As I said, we are the only country in the world with a duty to safeguard the health of persons on board aircraft—the health of the travelling passengers as well as employees. The Civil Aviation Act 2006 amended the Civil Aviation Act 1982 to charge the Secretary of State with
“the general duty of organising, carrying out and encouraging measures for safeguarding the health of persons on board aircraft.”
The functions of the CAA were also amended to include the health of persons on board aircraft. That change is a world first, as far as we know, and was welcomed by Parliament. It follows that we take the issues of safety and air quality in passenger planes extremely seriously.
We have a good story to tell on the research that we have put in hand to try to get to the bottom of cabin air fume events. Occasionally there are bad smells or fume events, as they are referred to, during flights, and those have been reported on a number of aircraft types that are used around the world. That is a valid point: we must remember that this is not a UK-only matter. It raises issues that we need to take into account. Reports to the CAA show that sometimes one pilot reports a bad smell and the other detects nothing. An unpleasant smell is undesirable but does not necessarily harm health. That is partly the point that I was making to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). Conversely, carbon monoxide has no smell, yet it kills people in their homes every year.
Pilots who have experienced fume events report a variety of short or long-term symptoms of ill health, but it is not certain that those symptoms are work-related. Reports of those events are very infrequent. As I said, the figures for 2008 show that there were 97 reported contaminated air fume events. That is out of 1.2 million flights.
So what has been done, bearing in mind the small number of fume events? First, we commissioned the independent Committee on Toxicity—a panel made up of toxicologists from various universities, not Government stooges. They completed a substantial review of evidence in September 2007 and concluded that the evidence available did not establish a link between cabin air and pilot ill health, nor did it rule one out. We have therefore begun innovative research to investigate concerns about potential contaminants in cabin air and to try to fill the gap in knowledge identified by the Committee on Toxicity. Again, we are leading the world in that work.
No one has previously captured samples of cabin air during normal conditions and fume events and analysed them to see what substances they contain and in what concentrations. The science is difficult, because fume events are unpredictable and can last only a couple of minutes—if that, in some cases. We have that research in hand as a priority. To date, we have commissioned functionality tests to identify equipment capable of capturing fume events in real time. The report was published on 21 February 2008. We are now confident that we have the equipment that will do the job. We have begun a more substantive phase of in-flight functionality tests to assemble data on the substances in the cabin air during fume events. That work builds on the equipment and methodology tested in the first phase. Several airlines volunteered to take part by allowing an independent scientist to come on board with sampling equipment. Testing began in 2008 and is continuing in 2009.
The tests to identify suitable scientific equipment capable of capturing fume events were peer-reviewed by scientists in the UK, Europe and the USA. It is important that peer review happens. The matter does not pertain only to the UK or UK aircraft. It is relevant across the aviation world. Future work in that area will be similarly peer-reviewed before publication.
I shall deal with some of the specific issues raised before moving on to other matters. We heard that Flybe is no longer flying the British Aerospace 146. The company has upgraded its fleet, as all airlines do, for a variety of reasons, not least to stay competitive and to ensure efficiency. However, it does not say that it was to do with air contamination. I realise what is being said, but it was a great leap to suggest that Flybe got rid of its BAe 146 fleet because of contamination. Indeed, I have already pointed out that the last reported statistics show only two cases in that time. It is a leap of faith to say that the company did it purely because of problems of contamination; that is not the case.
It is far too premature to draw an analogy with Gulf war syndrome. A substantial amount of work has yet to be done on that. However, military service is not directly comparable to working in private commercial employment. Our primary aim has to be to get evidence of what occurs during fume events, to see what contaminates are released, and to analyse them.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I have indicated that the work is continuing; it is being done in conjunction with specific airlines, which have offered to help with the study. That work is being undertaken now. We expect it to continue for the majority of the year, and then to be written up. It will then be peer-tested, unless there is anything of particular alarm. It has to be peer-tested for the reasons that I gave. We expect the report to be published in the early part of next year.
I should explain the work undertaken by Professor van Netten at the university of British Columbia. We wrote to the professor, asking for further information on whether the samples were taken with the airlines’ authority and transported in sterile conditions to guarantee that they were free of extraneous contamination. He replied:
“I have no further information…Most importantly, however, accurate in-flight air concentration measurements are needed. Only then can a proper assessment be made if TCP exposure is indeed a problem or can be eliminated.”
That is precisely what we are seeking to achieve with the current research project.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East cited studies from Germany and Australia that concluded that the air was contaminated. I am not aware that Australian or German airlines have banned any of those aircraft. Again, the evidence to date is not robust or clear enough to convince the regulator.
I am saddened by the direction taken by the Minister. He seems to be trying to knock away every bit of evidence that has been put to him. He is right to say that the tests are difficult to do on planes and that they cannot be done in laboratory conditions. However, the point has been made that there is enough evidence to raise eyebrows. For the Minister to lean on a report that is not to be published for a couple of years suggests that the Government are not taking the matter as seriously as they should. I posed a firm question to the Minister: I asked whether it was time to install monitoring systems in aircraft. He did not give a reply. I pose the same question again.
The Government are leading world research into the very issues that are of concern both to the hon. Gentleman and to me as Minister. We must ensure that we have the evidence, and thus know exactly what the issues are, so that if we find evidence that gives cause for concern, we can then help and protect those who work in the industry and those who travel by air. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that it will have to be based on the evidence. This Government and this country are leading that research. He is right that it will not be done be in laboratory conditions. That makes it genuinely more difficult to ensure that we get the systems and processes needed to get precisely the evidence that he and I seek.
I express my thanks to those airlines that have made their aircraft, their pilots and their management time available to the research effort, especially as they have done so free of charge. It is no exaggeration to say that without that help the work could not have progressed, as sadly was the case in the USA, where such joint working was not possible. I assure the House that the research is entirely independent of industry. It has been suggested that it was industry-led, but the Government and the taxpayer are paying for it—to the tune of approximately £500,000.
Cranfield university, the project manager, is actively engaged on the cabin air sampling programme, and about 40 of the planned 100 flights have now been tested by scientists on board. Samples are being taken by named individuals, who have received special briefing by Cranfield to ensure a consistent methodology and a secure chain of custody for delivering the samples to the laboratories for analysis. It is likely that this phase of the research will last until the end of the year. The logistics are complex, which is why it cannot be done sooner. Equally, we want to ensure that the work is not open to substantial challenge because procedures and so on were not followed.
We lost some months recently because of internal procurement procedures, but those delays were important in enabling us to test that we were getting value for money in what are obviously tight departmental research budgets. I am pleased to say that those hurdles have been overcome and that the research continues.
The project manager is Professor Helen Muir, an aviation safety expert at Cranfield. The project also has the support of Cranfield Health and two external laboratories. The research design was overseen by a steering group, which includes a number of independent occupational hygiene experts, a British Air Line Pilots Association pilot and the Health Protection Agency. It reports to the aviation health working group, the members of which include trade union representatives, the Air Transport Users Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Department of Health and the Health and Safety Executive. It is a robust reporting system. We needed an organisation that was familiar with aircraft and with which airlines would work. That is not what happened in the USA, where airlines did not make aircraft available for air sampling. It is essential, therefore, to have an organisation that can undertake such complex work.
Once completed, the findings will be peer-reviewed, before being published as a whole, and I hope that that will be as soon as is practicable. The Chamber will understand that we are filling a gap in knowledge. Fume events are unpredictable and can last less than a minute. There are no published studies of air sampling during fume events. The only way to resolve the issue is with top-quality science of a standard necessary to encourage aviation regulators to take the action required. I am confident that Cranfield will give us the best scientific picture possible in what happens during a fume event. Any regulatory action required will have to be taken, as far as the EU is concerned, by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Hon. Members will be aware that EASA will not take any regulatory action without sound evidence, which is why it is critical that our pioneering, world-leading research is robust and responsive.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East claimed that the Government are basically doing nothing. I have already indicated that we are leading the world. The issues are not being ignored, as I hope he will recognise in the light of my comments so far.
I have a letter from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which is one of the main engineering associations in the United States of America, and is very influential in writing quality standards that are then adopted by the regulatory authorities. The letter asks Ministers to introduce sensors on to flights. The society, and others in America, have done a lot of work on this matter, so it would be a bit disingenuous to say that we are leading the way. If we were, the report would have been ready for us to discuss today, and we would be talking about actions, rather than about when it will be published. This letter, which I am happy to provide to the Minister, if he has not seen it, requests that sensors to measure toxins be put on to aircraft now.
The report will do exactly that necessary detailed research, in conjunction with the private airlines with which we are working closely on the monitoring work. We are involving their staff, as well as independent, on-board scientists, in the work that we all want done.
We accepted, and are now acting on, COT’s recommendation for further work to be done. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) referred to COT and raised various other issues. COT arranged for an independent review to be carried out by Professor Morris, who is professor of neuropsychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s college hospital. His report said that the association between flying and neuropsychological abnormality
“should be interpreted with great caution because of the small sample used”.
He concluded that the study
“cannot suggest a link and equally, it does not rule out a link... In order to establish a link there is a need for a much larger study taking a randomly selected…sample”.
I have huge respect for King’s despite my son being a medical student there. COT recommended that a study be done, but that study has been described as being not big enough to give a proper answer. We need a large study so that we can find out whether that link exists.
There is a need in terms of the scale of requirement. We are working through some of the requested work and have accepted some of the recommendations to which I referred earlier.
I shall address the point about the Boeing 787. Indeed, Boeing has designed a new aircraft with no-bleed air, but it has not withdrawn the older models, such as the 757, or required extra filters to be fitted.
People working in the industry need regulation, to a certain extent, but I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Boeing is so irresponsible that it would allow planes to fly that could contaminate passengers, according to his earlier arguments. It would be uncharitable to follow that line in suggesting that regulation is needed to tell it to remove planes that he thinks are “lethal”—his word.
The hon. Member for Lewes asked about a public inquiry. COT, an independent panel, looked into the matter. In 2007-08, the issue was revisited by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, which urged the Government to complete the air sampling research, which we are doing. I am not convinced that a third public inquiry would take us much further forward.
On non-co-operation with the USA, we have had a number of contacts with the Federal Aviation Administration about a collaborative effort, but the principal effort is UK-led, because, as I have already alluded to, no American airlines are participating in the research funded by the FAA. A further point was made about insect spraying, which is done on planes, especially in hot climates. Complaints are occasionally received from passengers claiming respiratory illness after spraying. Under 2005 international health regulations, the World Health Organisation aims to prevent and control international spread of disease. Insecticides approved by the WHO can be used.
Does the Minister accept that it is not satisfactory for people not to know what is being sprayed when they get on a plane? Will he undertake to ensure that planes identify what chemicals are used and notify individuals in advance? Will he let me know what they are? When I have asked stewards and stewardesses on planes, they do not know the active ingredients. If he cannot answer now, he can write to me.
That is covered by WHO provisions, guidance and rules.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Canterbury missed a very good debate in this Chamber yesterday on medical oxygen supplies on airlines. I am pleased to say that a number of UK airlines, such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, are leading in that field by not charging for oxygen supplies. The matter has been raised by, among others, the British Lung Foundation. As I said here yesterday, that will help to raise awareness of the problem. Individuals will take note of provisions made, but further work needs to be done.
The UK is taking steps to help the world aviation industry to deal with this important issue. However, we need to ensure that we have clear evidence before us when doing so.
I am grateful to have secured this debate about the Archer inquiry into contaminated blood and blood products. I should like to put it on record that I am sincerely grateful to Lord Archer’s team for its informed and reasoned assessment of the situation. Lord Archer himself did not apportion blame. His focus, and mine today, was the treatment of the victims of this appalling tragedy.
Some 1,200 patients were infected with HIV and 4,670 with hepatitis C as a result of NHS treatment in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those patients were unaware of their infection and went on to infect their husbands and wives as well. So far, some 1,800 members of the haemophiliac community have died. In the past few years, many of the survivors have been told that they may have contracted variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from infected blood products.
Haydn Lewis, a constituent of mine, has been infected with hepatitis B and C and HIV. He also infected his wife with HIV before he was aware of his own status. His brothers, who are also haemophiliacs, are infected as well. Last year, Haydn was informed that he had been exposed to vCJD. Moreover, as a result of his hepatitis C, he developed liver cancer and has recently had a liver transplant. Haydn’s health has suffered massively over the years. He had to give up work early, and his entire family has suffered as a result of his condition. His family is just one of thousands across the country.
Despite the fact that a large number of people have been affected, there has been a desperate lack of public debate on the subject. The last debate in the Commons was in 1990, and the last Westminster Hall debate was nearly 10 years ago. The Department of Health did not even make an oral statement when it responded to Lord Archer’s report. The level of interest in today’s half-hour debate demonstrates the need for a much longer debate in Parliament.
That is a very valid point, and I was about to mention it. Although Lord Winston described the tragedy as
“the worst treatment disaster in the history of the national health service”,
the Government have always argued that a public inquiry would be unjustified and unnecessary. The Archer inquiry was the first public attempt to uncover the truth, but because it was not a statutory inquiry, Lord Archer could not compel witnesses to give evidence and he could not oblige bodies to release documents. The Department of Health even refused to send witnesses to give public evidence to the inquiry.
Does the hon. Lady agree that whatever the form of the inquiry, what we do not want to do now is launch yet more inquiries or waste more time? We need direct help from the Government for those who have suffered the most from this terrible tragedy.
On the need for further work, does the hon. Lady not agree that good as the report was, it was fettered by its focus on the haemophiliac community? For example, one of my constituents, who was treated for the blood disorder idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, is being disadvantaged by that focus.
It is true that a number of different groups of patients have been affected. There are also people who have been infected with blood products as a result of blood transfusions. As they are a much smaller group, they often feel that they cannot make their voice heard. A wide range of people has been affected for a number of different reasons.
I must declare an interest because my nephew is a haemophiliac, and he has been infected with hepatitis C. He was forced to carry on taking treatment that was not safe long after the Government knew about the infected blood. The manufactured blood product, recombinant, was available only to those under the age of 16. Any haemophiliac over 16 had to take potentially infected injections. There has been an entrenched resistance by the Government to admit what happened in the past. Now, though, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, we must move forward to deal with the issue in an open, frank and honest way, which will give sway to the relatives and change their futures.
Many of the relatives of those who have died feel that there are questions that still need to be answered before they can move on with their lives.
I welcome the release of thousands of documents by the Department of Health. Those documents were initially thought to be lost or destroyed. However, the Department has not played fair with the inquiry team. In response to my parliamentary questions in December 2008 and January 2009, which was about a month before Lord Archer reported, the Department told me that 35 documents were being withheld under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It then released 27 of those documents two months after Lord Archer reported. In May, the same day that the Department responded to the report, 468 more documents were released. They had been identified in late 2008. None of the documents was made available to the inquiry team or mentioned in responses to my parliamentary questions even though the Department knew about them. Will the Minister clarify whether Lord Archer was aware that so much relevant information had not been released when he reported? Moreover, will she tell us how many documents have still not been released by the Department?
I do not want to apportion blame today. It is more important to talk about the issue of compensation, particularly as we have such a short time in which to debate the subject. The compensation is for victims who are still alive and for the widows and families of those who have died. Lord Archer said that the financial assistance that is currently available is insufficient, and recommended that assistance should be on a par with the existing Irish scheme. The Irish tribunal, which was set up 12 years ago, assesses each case on an individual basis and then sets out an initial lump sum payment and periodic payments thereafter. The main cost in Ireland has been the lump sum payment. Between 1997 and 2007, the tribunal awarded €566 million to 2,666 people, which is an average of £150,000 per person per case. Using the Department’s own figures, a similar scheme in the UK would cost about £50 million a year for the lump sum payments in each of the first 10 years. In the scale of the Department of Health budget, that is entirely affordable. I personally think it is the least the victims deserve.
The Department’s response to doubling the annual payments to those with HIV is extremely welcome, but it is the bare minimum that Lord Archer himself recommended. Just 350 of the 1,200 haemophiliacs and their spouses who were infected with HIV are still alive. The increase in payments to them is only £7 million a year, which, although welcome, is a very small amount of money, and will help only a small number of people.
In contrast, the Department has offered nothing at all to those with hepatitis C. Of the 4,600 people infected with hepatitis C, around 2,500 of them are alive today, so quite a few people are still living with that dreadful condition. The Skipton Fund, which was designed to help them, has paid out £97 million to 4,000 people since 2004, which is the equivalent of just under £5,000 per person per year. That is considerably less than the average benefit claimant receives in a year.
That is just not fair compensation for infecting someone with a virus that causes them huge daily suffering and is ultimately very likely to kill them. The Department of Health has said that it will reassess the scheme in 2014, but that is a very long way away, and we are talking about people with life-threatening conditions. By that time, many more of the affected people will have died after many years of suffering. That is not fair.
The hon. Lady has been exceptionally generous in taking interventions bearing in mind the shortness of the debate. Does she agree that this is essentially a matter of justice and responsibility? That is why appropriate recognition by the Government of their position is so very important to those who have suffered.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
We were speaking about the treatment of people with hepatitis C and how it differs from that of those who have contracted HIV. I would be grateful if the Minister told us why people with hepatitis C are treated differently from those with HIV—both conditions are debilitating and life-threatening and have caused severe financial hardship for those affected.
This tragedy has already produced hundreds of widows and widowers. They do not receive any financial support after the death of their partner. Furthermore, it is almost impossible for anyone with HIV or hepatitis C to get affordable life insurance. My constituent, Haydn Lewis, recently got a quote for basic life insurance cover, which had a premium of more than £6,000. That is completely unaffordable for someone who is dependent on benefits and Macfarlane Trust payouts. Lord Archer has said that the issue needs to be tackled, but unfortunately, the Department’s response was that insurers do not discriminate against infected haemophiliacs, and that premiums are based on risk assessment. To me, that is both patronising and inadequate. No one is claiming that insurers discriminate against infected haemophiliacs, and of course premiums are based on risk. However, it is because the NHS infected those people with life-threatening viruses that they pose such a high insurance risk and are therefore charged unaffordable insurance premiums. All the recently announced extra funding for HIV sufferers will be swallowed up in life insurance costs, and the Government are proposing nothing to help those with hepatitis C.
The tragedy has affected a number of different countries around the world, yet the British Government’s behaviour is different from that of other Governments. I have already spoken about the Irish tribunal, and in Ireland the Government decided to provide
“compensation for persons with haemophilia…on compassionate grounds, without legal liability on the part of the state.”
Despite Government protestations, there is no difference between Irish and UK circumstances. Neither state has been found liable for the infection of haemophiliacs, but the Irish Government have recognised their duty to support those whose health was ruined by treatment under the national health system.
Almost every MP has a constituent who is affected by this issue or who has died from their infections. We can see the level of interest from the number of MPs who have turned up to the debate. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), who are elsewhere today, have both been involved with constituents on this matter. During the last debate on the subject in the House in 1990, the late Robin Cook said that this was not a party political issue, but an issue of conscience and of justice.
Early-day motion 963 calling for full implementation of the Archer inquiry already has 184 signatures from hon. Members across all parties. This issue has been going on for decades and has taken the lives of more than 1,800 people. Now is the time to draw a line under it once and for all. I would be grateful if the Minister let me know whether she will meet me and a small cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament, together with representatives of the Haemophilia Society and a couple of patients, to discuss how we can finally move forward and ensure that the Archer inquiry is put into practice.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her and others, including parliamentary colleagues, who work to support those who have acquired infections through treatment with blood or blood products.
I am deeply sorry for what happened and have the utmost sympathy for those whose lives have been affected by it either directly or indirectly. Parliament has debated the matter in both the Commons and the other place, and Lord Archer and his team conducted a thorough and valuable review. I thank Lord Archer for his report.
We can all agree that the circumstances are tragic. How could a revolutionary new treatment for haemophilia that offered so much hope at the time—the early 1970s—end in so much tragedy for so many? Almost 5,000 people in the UK and thousands more around the world were infected with hepatitis C and HIV, resulting in the loss of many lives.
Before the treatment became available, the life expectancy of someone with severe haemophilia was less than 30 years. Although there were warning voices at the time about the risk from infection, the consensus in both the scientific and haemophilia communities was that the risk was low and worth taking. Unfortunately, we know now that that consensus was wrong. The best available treatment at the time, a treatment intended solely to improve length and quality of life, resulted instead in heartbreak for many people and their families. The risks were higher than was thought, and the pain and grief caused can never be undone.
If doctors and medical experts had known then what they know now, the tragedy could have been prevented, but the fact is that they did not. Successive Governments have been accused of trying to hide what was said and done during the period when most of the infections occurred, but this Government have done more than any other to make information available about the events, judgments and decisions between 1970 and 1985, after which safer blood products were introduced. In line with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we have made more than 5,500 documents publicly available. In examining all those documents, which span decades, neither we nor Lord Archer and his team found any evidence of a cover-up.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central asked about co-operation with Lord Archer’s inquiry. I will say straight off that there is nothing to hide.
I thank the Minister. I apologise for not being here for all of the debate; I mistimed the vote. As she is so committed to full disclosure, can the issue be debated on the Floor of the House? There are many lessons to be learned, and many people to be convinced that the matter is being dealt with openly and fully.
Obviously, that is a matter for the usual channels. I am sure that the hon. Lady will raise the issue at business questions. I would be happy to reply and debate it as required.
We know that there is a misconception that the Department somehow did not co-operate fully with Lord Archer’s inquiry. That is not true. Lord Archer asked for someone from the Department of Health to meet him, and officials did so on several occasions, but he did not invite Ministers to attend or participate in his inquiry. More than 5,000 documents released in prior years were available to him. The most recently released, it appears, did not add materially to what was already known, but I am happy to write to the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central setting out precisely which documents were made available to Lord Archer.
One issue troubling some constituents of mine—the parents of Colin, who tragically died aged seven—is what consultation took place with those affected between the publication of the Archer report and the Government’s response. There is tangible concern that the community affected was not spoken to before the Government’s response.
There has been consultation and discussion. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central asked me about a meeting. As always, I am happy to meet, but the requirement on the Government was to make a response to Lord Archer. We have done so, and it has been published widely.
I am grateful. May I press the Minister a little further on the relationship with the Archer inquiry? Surely, knowing that the inquiry was going on, the Department could have been proactive in offering help and assistance, rather than relying on the fact that it did not receive a formal invitation to take part. It could have been more constructive, and have involved more documentation in the inquiry, had it done so.
I can assure Members that, to the best of my knowledge, all co-operation has been made available. As I have stated, Lord Archer has made no suggestion of a cover-up. We have given him full co-operation. On the matter of being proactive, we met the inquiry team several times.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as I appreciate that she wants to make progress. The response said that the Government would review the situation in 2014. That seems a long time away, particularly for my constituents and indeed everyone else’s. Why was that date chosen? It feels very much as though the issue is being kicked into the long grass, when for many people involved, the financial concerns are immediate.
I am happy to come to that, but the simple answer is that it is in order to allow the scheme to be operational for 10 years, so that the issue can be assessed in full. There is no intention to kick anything into the long grass; indeed, it is not possible to do so.
On the point raised earlier about the supposed withholding of documents, I can assure Members that no documents are being withheld on either policy or commercial grounds. The Department has now released all of them. Only five documents from the period 1970 to 1985 are being withheld under a freedom of information exemption, on the basis that they contain personal information.
I understand the sense of grievance and anger and the need to find out what happened and why. I also understand the feeling that someone somewhere must be to blame for what happened, whether individually or collectively. I know that for some, whatever action is taken will be too little and too late. I can assure Members that we have demonstrated our commitment to those affected and responded positively to Lord Archer’s report, to which I will come.
We continue to work to provide ever safer blood and blood products, and we are committed to helping everyone infected through contaminated blood transfusions by giving them the high-quality treatment, care and information they need to help them look after their health. We continue to provide financial relief for those infected through treatment so many years ago.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When I compared the Irish situation with the UK situation in the House the other day, she said:
“I cannot accept the comparison with Ireland, because the Irish blood transfusion service was found to be at fault, and that was not the case here.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 656.]
However, will she admit today that the Irish paid out without liability and before any tribunal had met to discuss the position? In addition, Crown immunity applied to the health services in Britain at that time.
I stand by the points that I made. Furthermore, a judicial inquiry in Ireland found failures of responsibility by the Irish blood transfusion service and concluded that wrongful acts had been committed. As a result, the Government of the Republic of Ireland decided to make significant payments to those affected. As I will explain, that was not the case with the blood transfusion service here.
Lord Archer made a number of recommendations, and we have published our response to them. I will mention some of the main ones. For example, he recommended that those infected should be issued with cards to entitle them to benefits not freely available under the NHS, including free prescriptions. Last year, we announced our intention to phase out prescription charges in England for patients with long-term conditions. Professor Ian Gilmore chairs an independent review that is considering how that might be done. We will consider whether further action is required to implement Lord Archer’s recommendation following the Gilmore review.
Lord Archer also recommended that Government should provide funding urgently to the Haemophilia Society. We have agreed to provide £100,000 this year and for each of the next four years on top of any project funding that the society receives from the Department of Health. Lord Archer also recommended that further efforts be made to identify people who may be unaware that they have been infected through their treatment with blood products. We agree with that and will provide funding for the haemophilia doctors organisation to identify any such patients.
I turn to the recommendations on financial relief, our responses to which have come under the closest scrutiny. In the UK, such payments are not compensation but ex gratia payments. That is an important distinction. Lord Archer made recommendations on the payments and made comparisons with Ireland. However, it is important to restate that the position in Ireland is very different. The independent inquiry in Ireland found the transfusion service to be at fault because it had not followed its own official guidelines on protecting the blood supply from contamination. That is not the case in the UK. Comparable levels of payment are therefore not appropriate.
I understand that there can always be a debate over the adequacy and fairness of payments. So far, more than £45 million has been paid out through the two long-standing financial relief schemes for those affected by HIV. The Macfarlane Trust was established in 1988 and the Eileen Trust in 1991. This is the first occasion on which the structure of their payments has been reviewed. We are increasing the payments to those infected with HIV and will provide them with a flat-rate, tax-free payment of £12,800 per year. That amount is disregarded for benefits, which are payable on top. That change removes the need for people to make repeated applications for funds, and addresses Lord Archer’s recommendation that payment to those who are infected should not be means-tested. We will also increase funding to the trusts to allow them to make higher payments to widows and dependants, although the level of payment will remain at the discretion of the trustees.
Turning to payments to those infected with hepatitis C, the Skipton fund has to date paid out nearly £100 million. In answer to why the review will be in 2014, in my view the fund is relatively young, as it has been running for only five years. I assure Members that I view the 2014 review with importance.
For all pre-existing conditions, insurability and the level of premium are determined through the assessment of individual risk. Lord Archer suggested that patients be given greater access to insurance, perhaps through payments. The Government’s view is that it is the individual’s choice how they spend the payments they receive. We have published our final response to Lord Archer’s recommendations and are working to implement our commitments as soon as we can.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central also raised the issue of access to insurance through insurers. The Association of British Insurers has assured us that insurers do not treat haemophiliacs or those infected with HIV or hepatitis C differently from people with other pre-existing conditions. In practice, all pre-existing conditions must be declared and are usually subject to additional premium loading. In some cases, insurance is unavailable. If there are any further matters on insurers, I would be happy to raise them with other Ministers.
In closing, I realise that the Government’s response will not satisfy everybody. We are dealing with an extremely difficult situation, which none of us would have chosen. I hope I have confirmed that there has been openness and transparency in the Government’s response and that we have sought to do the best we can in this situation.
Energy Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation
This is an important debate. I am pleased that somebody with such a keen intellect as yours, Dr. McCrea, is presiding over it because it requires such a tenor of adjudication. I am pleased to welcome the Minister to his new role. I know that he will bring his own brand of intellectual rigour, diligence and enthusiasm to the post, which he displayed as an able Back-Bench colleague.
The Minister and I have just left a debate on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. As constitutionally important as that Bill is, it is my conviction that the issues before us in this debate are more important than those being discussed in the main Chamber. The Minister holds an important post in what is perhaps the most important Department. There is no more important issue facing this country and the world than climate change. It is widely recognised by left-wing and right-wing Governments around the world that this country—and by definition this Government and this Department—is leading the international response to the threat of climate change.
Energy policy is the engine of our policy response in this field and is at the heart of the Government’s new industrial policy. Energy policy is one of the most pressing issues facing this country. Energy security and nuclear non-proliferation are at the centre of the issues we are discussing. I will outline the importance of energy security, the pressing requirement on us and other developed nations to formulate a solution to the threat of nuclear proliferation, the policy solutions that I believe the Government should pursue without delay, and the associated benefits of those solutions. We must recognise the reality of the situation and the opportunities presented by it.
The Sellafield nuclear facility in my constituency is the largest concentration of nuclear engineering skills, abilities and facilities in our country. The site is home to highly advanced facilities such as the Sellafield mixel oxide plant—SMP—and the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, or THORP. It is also home to tens of thousands of tonnes of uranium oxide and more than 100 tonnes of plutonium oxide.
I should declare an interest in Sellafield. Although I have no direct financial interest, I am a former employee of the plant. Its importance to my constituency is such that I should declare about 17,000 individual interests.
The Government’s policy in this area is right and I believe that we should go much further. Put simply, THORP reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from the UK, Japan and other countries. Reprocessing results in the separation of the unused uranium and plutonium from a spent fuel rod, both of which are stored at Sellafield in oxide form, which is essentially a fine granulated powder.
Certain customers who send their spent fuel for reprocessing at THORP stipulate that the materials extracted from their spent fuel, which remain within their ownership, be returned to them as fuel that can be used in their reactors. Such fuel is mixed oxide fuel—MOX fuel—which is the combination of uranium and plutonium oxides into fuel pellets that are installed into fuel rods, a number of which can comprise a fuel assembly and be used again in a nuclear reactor. That fuel is manufactured at the adjoining Sellafield MOX plant, which was rightly approved by this Government. That is in keeping with the fact that every major pro-nuclear decision in this country’s history from Windscale onwards has been taken by a Labour Government.
There have been significant processing problems at SMP, which have caused Sellafield management, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the Government to assess the future of SMP for a number of years. That is not a new development. It is well known to the SMP work force and the wider community. Let me make my position clear: my constituents, this industry and our country cannot do without the services that SMP provides. It hosts a unique array of skilled workers with incredible technical, scientific and engineering competencies, which must not be lost to Sellafield or the nuclear industry in this country. Closing SMP without having a replacement facility simply is not an option. It has underperformed, but it will have a use until a new MOX plant is built at Sellafield.
If such a new facility were established, there would still be a role for SMP in immobilising the small quantities of plutonium that cannot be reused as fuel or fuel components. Fundamentally, there is strong market interest in bringing forward such a new facility, and there is a genuine desire for that from certain companies—they will be known to the Minister’s Department—which are prepared to invest their money to make that happen. I discuss these issues with them regularly, so I know they are genuinely excited about the possibilities before them, as corporate entities, the Sellafield work force and the country. Whatever SMP’s technical problems have been, the use of plutonium and uranium oxides to create fuel is unquestionably the right policy. There is no credible case for pursuing an alternative policy on environmental or economic grounds, on national interest or security grounds, or on the ground of effectively pursuing global non-proliferation policies.
It is beyond doubt that a new nuclear fleet in the UK would be central to securing our security of energy supply. Every reactor design being assessed by the nuclear installations inspectorate is capable of burning MOX fuel, and there is a huge and growing international marketplace for MOX fuel. Our policy response should therefore be obvious; indeed, it was recognised as such by the Prime Minister in his address to the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle conference in London in March, on the eve of the G20 conference. He is the only party leader who appears to understand these issues and their importance both to the country and to my constituents. He is also the only party leader to support nuclear development in the UK and in my constituency. I thank him for that, and for understanding and facilitating my constituents’ ambitions.
In his address, the Prime Minister acknowledged the need for a better, stronger International Atomic Energy Agency, and for the need to turn stockpiles of nuclear weapons into fuel for use in civilian nuclear power programmes. He said:
“Britain will be at the forefront of the international campaign to prevent nuclear proliferation and to accelerate multilateral nuclear disarmament.”
He went on to say that
“however we look at it we will not secure the supply of sustainable energy on which the future of our planet depends without a role for civil nuclear power. We simply cannot avoid the real and pressing challenge that presents, from the safety and security of fissile material to the handling of waste, a comprehensive multilateral strategy to allow nations safe and secure access to civil nuclear power is essential”.
Britain can fulfil its required role in those efforts only with Sellafield, THORP and SMP or a successor plant.
I repeat that the policy is sound. If that sounds remarkably like Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” programme, it is because it is. The expansion of civil nuclear power is clearly our best and most likely hope of effectively combating the problems associated with the proliferation of nuclear materials. In this country, there should also be utilisation, although not necessarily exclusively, of the closed fuel cycle, with the pursuit of new contracts for the thermal oxide reprocessing plant. Again, we know that the contracts are out there, and again, I know that the Government are sympathetically disposed towards them.
Other major policy implications rest on decisions relating to the use of plutonium in this country, and I must pay tribute to the Royal Society and its fellows for their consistent interest in this area and for their outstanding work. Many of their reflections and proposals run throughout this debate. The use of plutonium as a fuel component would necessarily mean that the vast majority of our stockpiled plutonium would be classified as an asset—a usable commodity of real value—rather than as a waste. The stockpile is currently classified as neither asset nor waste, but that position cannot hold, and I urge the Government to recognise the value of that asset as soon as possible. Indefinite storage—the current management route for much of our plutonium that has been produced by reprocessing fuel from British reactors and from the British weapons programme—is unacceptable for both the intermediate and the long term, and is incredibly expensive. In that state, those materials are a constant drain on public funds, yielding nothing, achieving nothing and doing nothing, but they could be earning the taxpayer billions of pounds, while helping to combat climate change.
It would be an absolute travesty if those materials were classified as waste. Current estimates put the cost of disposing of them at more than £3 billion, but again, that would yield nothing for the British taxpayer. It would represent spending without earning, and such a move would be entirely wrong in principle. As well as being both wasteful and expensive, those materials would have to be disposed of in a deep geological repository, which would materially affect discussions about that process that are already under way. However, that is the subject of another, lengthier and perhaps more contentious debate, to which I shall return. I cannot envisage any community, least of all my own, volunteering to dispose of those materials, given that real value, community benefit, environmental benefit and wealth could be generated from using them as a fuel source.
Let us be under no illusions. A decision to classify those materials as waste could jeopardise the establishment of a repository, undoubtedly leading to further public expense. Pursuing the policy route I have outlined would earn us billions, reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, increase the security of our energy supplies and help to solve non-proliferation issues. No other technological solution exists, and no other policy programme exists that could drive all those huge policy benefits and more.
It is essential to emphasise how that money could and should be used as a matter of principle, but particularly in the current national and global economic environment. After all, we live in straitened times. The billions that would be earned could and should be used to accelerate the decommissioning and remediation of the greatest hazards on the Sellafield site. The speed of progress in the work at Sellafield is limited by the availability of money and sufficient manpower. However, more public money is being spent at Sellafield now, by this Government, than at any time in history. The last time I checked, it was £1.3 billion a year, whereas the last time I worked there outside of Parliament it was in the region of £900 million a year. The better and best use of that money should, can and will be sought. I know that the work force are committed to doing that, and I am exceptionally grateful to them for all the work they do.
The policy I am suggesting includes a vision for Sellafield that means two new reactors being established on the site, powered by MOX fuel produced at a new facility on the site. That would not only lead to the socio-economic regeneration of my community, but would provide 6 per cent. of the UK’s base load electricity demand over 60 years. At the same time, it would solve our proliferation problems and, perhaps most importantly of all, would obviate the need to emit more than 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over that period.
Sellafield is predominantly funded by the public purse, and I am utterly opposed to spending cuts there. Talk such as the Conservative proposals to cut public spending by 10 per cent. is entirely ignorant. Sellafield could not stand such a cut, and nor could the community whom I represent. Ten per cent. of £1.3 billion is £130 million, which equates to almost half the local Sellafield wage bill. Also, such cuts would necessarily result in decommissioning taking longer, and the general rule of thumb is that the longer decommissioning takes, the worse the hazards become, as do the cost to the taxpayer and the environmental hazards. Nobody of integrity, knowledge or honesty could possibly hope to sell such a ridiculous proposal to my constituents and the Sellafield work force.
If the policy platform that I have suggested were pursued—I repeat that it is my sincere view that the Government are sympathetic towards it—the cost to the public of operating Sellafield could be significantly reduced and alleviated, while total expenditure could be increased and clean-up accelerated. We have to make money to spend money, and the Government’s industrial strategy is the real-world champion of that simple fact. Energy security, the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, world leadership in nuclear non-proliferation, massive benefits to the taxpayer and my constituents, and the opportunity to earn billions of pounds for the UK are all there for the taking—let us get on with it.
I am pleased to have this important debate under your watchful eye, Dr. McCrea, and I am sure that you will keep us in order throughout.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on choosing this important subject, and on his obvious commitment to his constituents and his constituency, which he has demonstrated in the debate. He has, once again, ably shown the breadth and depth of his knowledge of these difficult and important issues, and his constituents can truly be proud of him.
It is a challenging business meeting society’s energy needs in a world of more than 6 billion people and with a UK population of more than 60 million. For the next half century at least, the population is predicted to grow, as is the demand for energy. Of course, it is part of the UK’s strategy to tackle climate change that we should seek to become more energy-efficient. However, demand for energy will clearly remain strong for the foreseeable future.
The UK has been a pioneer in the field of civil nuclear energy production, and our aim is to maintain our position at the forefront of the worldwide nuclear energy renaissance that we are witnessing. In the UK and many other countries, interest has grown in recent years because of the twin challenges of energy security and climate change. Much of the UK’s early work in this field took place in west Cumbria at the Sellafield nuclear site. The area in which Sellafield is located has a long and distinguished history of contributing to the development of nuclear energy. In May 1956, the first reactor was started at Calder Hall.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
My hon. Friend said how Britain led the world on nuclear power and I agree that, in Calder Hall, we had the first large-scale electricity producing nuclear reactor not only in the UK, but in the world. The site was also the location for the Windscale advanced gas-cooled reactor, the forerunner of the designs that currently form the majority of this country’s nuclear power generating capacity. Sellafield was also at the leading edge of nuclear fuel development and reprocessing, with a long and distinguished history of utilising state-of-the-art science and technologies.
We recognise that the redundant facilities on the site now form a substantial legacy of plant and equipment that will need to be decommissioned—that is, cleaned of all radioactive material and safely demolished. That work will last many decades and will secure work at the Sellafield site for many workers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As a Government, we are committed to the belief that the Sellafield site is home to our nuclear skills, our nuclear expertise and many of our key facilities. As such, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has nominated a site adjacent to Sellafield as one of three potential sites in west Cumbria to be considered for new nuclear build. The NDA has started the sale process for the land on the Sellafield site and has called for expressions of interest from parties that may wish to invest in new nuclear in this historic region known as the energy coast. During construction, each new station built in the area could bring as many as 9,000 additional jobs. Once operational, up to 1,000 skilled long-term jobs will be created. That could be worth about £2 billion to the surrounding region and wider economy.
Meeting future energy needs will be increasingly difficult, especially given our commitment to reducing the damaging effects of greenhouse gases associated with the use of fossil fuels. In that context, nuclear energy is enjoying something of a renaissance, but we must take full responsibility to ensure that, in taking advantage of all that nuclear energy has to offer, both in the UK and worldwide, the risks of proliferation of nuclear material for non-peaceful purposes remain low.
The first part of my hon. Friend’s speech was about security of supply. The statistics on UK energy supply show the extent of the challenge. Nearly a quarter of our current electricity generating capacity—around 18 GW—could close over the next decade, as coal and oil generation become subject to increasingly stringent environmental standards and nuclear power stations reach the end of their scheduled lifetimes. Some of our existing coal-fired and oil-fired plants can be expected to close by 2016, because of the application of the large combustion plants directive. A further proposed EU directive on industrial emissions may well also have an impact on plant closures around 2020.
At the same time, our indigenous energy—oil and gas from the UK continental shelf—is in decline. New investment in gas pipelines from continental neighbours, plus the development of liquefied natural gas terminals, is encouraging, but it means that we will be increasingly dependent on external supplies of those fossil fuels. Major investment is also under way in gas storage, and significant new electricity generation capacity is already being delivered. The amount of renewable electricity generation has risen to 5 per cent. since 2001, and the UK is now the leading country in the world for offshore wind. Our supply of renewable energy from wind is still expanding rapidly, and that is a sensible development, given that the UK enjoys 40 per cent. of Europe’s wind. However, the supply is intermittent and, in order to meet our energy needs and carbon emissions targets, we will need to decarbonise our electricity generation system more or less completely. We will need all the technologies at our disposal, including carbon capture and storage technology, and efficient gas storage.
We will need nuclear power to be able to play a full role, too, and we are taking steps to facilitate private sector investment. Nuclear has been a vital and low-carbon part of the UK’s energy mix for the past five decades and that can continue in future. We have seen significant investment in the UK since “A White Paper on Nuclear Power” was published last year.
The second part of my hon. Friend’s speech was about the impact on non-proliferation. Of course, many will argue that there is an increased threat of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands should we, or others around the world, increase our reliance on nuclear energy. However, it is not axiomatic that more nuclear power stations mean greater threats. A nuclear reactor per se is relatively straightforward to safeguard: nuclear material is in discrete items—the fuel elements—and the reactor core can be sealed while the reactor is operated and monitored remotely. Enrichment and reprocessing are the most proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. However, an increased demand for enriched fuel can be met largely from expansion of existing facilities—one facility can serve numerous reactors—and there are precedents emerging for the transfer of enrichment technology under “black box” conditions, such that the fundamental know-how remains with the originator. Some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, that have announced plans to proceed with a new nuclear programme, have publicly stated their intention not to build fuel cycle facilities, but to rely on others.
Even where enrichment plants are built, they will be subject to safeguards—measures to account for and verify stocks of nuclear material. The UK actively supports the IAEA in its work to develop safeguarding techniques and to train inspectors in a dedicated safeguards support programme. The UK is a key player in the global debate on multinational approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. A number of potential ways to provide assurance of nuclear fuel supplies in the event of interruption due to non-commercial or political reasons have emerged from the international discussions.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
On managing the risk of proliferation, plans for various fuel banks—for example, those supported by the US, Russia, the EU and others—are well advanced, and the details of the UK’s nuclear fuel assurance to underpin existing enrichment contracts are also nearly final. With all those proposals, the purpose is to provide the confidence needed by new nuclear states not to seek to develop their own facilities. That will encourage the uptake in nuclear energy, because by avoiding expensive and unnecessary facilities, the cost will be less, and it will reduce proliferation risks.
I note that no potential new nuclear states have shown a desire to pursue reprocessing. They recognise that to do so would mean creating large, expensive, identifiable and commercially unnecessary facilities. For our own part, the Government have concluded that any new nuclear power stations that might be built in the UK should proceed on the basis that spent fuel will not be reprocessed and that plans for, and financing of, waste management should proceed on that basis. For existing reprocessing facilities, the policy is that the thermal oxide reprocessing plant will continue to operate until existing contracts have been completed or the plant is no longer economic. No firm proposals for new contracts have been received. If we receive any such proposals, their merits will be considered at that time.
What we do with existing stocks of plutonium is extremely topical, and certainly emotive. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has been working on options for plutonium since 2005. It recently considered management options, published a plutonium options paper for comment in August last year, and finally published its options paper in January this year. The Government are now ready to take forward the process and to determine a long-term strategy for UK plutonium. We are considering the basis for public consultation on long-term plutonium management, and we hope to launch it later this year.
Clearly, another view that might be considered as an appropriate long-term solution for dealing with the plutonium stockpile is to ensure that it is manufactured into mixed oxide fuel, which would require a new MOX plant, and thereby consumed in nuclear reactors. The other main option, other than indefinite storage, is to treat the material as waste. That would mean immobilising the plutonium before its eventual disposal. Again, the issues are challenging as likely immobilisation techniques have yet to be demonstrated outside the laboratory. I heard my hon. Friend’s choice of those options, and his views will be received, welcomed and considered, along with our consideration of other options.
The Government launched the national nuclear laboratory on 23 July 2008. Its vision is for a successful centre of excellence serving primarily the needs of legacy nuclear waste clean-up. The laboratory will, of course, also play a key role as a world-class provider of science-based technology solutions and research services.
Managing increased levels of radioactive waste is a key area for discussion as we advance with the development of plans for new nuclear reactors. The interest expressed in a potential geological disposal facility by Copeland and Allerdale borough councils and Cumbria county council is encouraging, and demonstrates further that region’s commitment to the UK’s energy programme. The geological disposal facility is a potential multi-billion pound high-technology project that would provide skilled employment for decades.
This debate emphasises the need to take decisions that will be durable for decades. It will be about seven years from the moment a decision is taken before a new nuclear reactor can contribute to the country’s electricity supply, and it will be longer for countries without the appropriate physical infrastructure or regulatory or administrative frameworks for nuclear generating plant, but those reactors are likely to be producing power in 50 years. As I have outlined, we have the structures and procedures in place, internationally and nationally, to ensure that proliferation risks remain low. We will continue to develop those, working through all the means available, to ensure that that remains the case.
The next review conference of the non-proliferation treaty in May 2010 will be particularly important as a time to take stock of global intentions on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to help to refresh our global approach to non-proliferation. Nuclear energy has an important future, but we will remain vigilant to ensure that it remains in safe hands.