Tuesday 9 March 2010
[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew, in this important debate about motoring in the United Kingdom. I was wondering if it might otherwise be termed “the Jeremy Clarkson memorial debate”, but clearly Jeremy is not dead. None the less, it is a debate that could be held in his name. In this country, motorists are seen as the bane of society and as something almost to be despised. Clearly, that assessment is not true, but one could be forgiven for thinking that it is.
The cost to the average motorist of running a car has soared in recent years. It has been tacitly implied that motorists are a problem and therefore that it is justifiable to clobber them at every turn. However, the fact is that for many people the car is a necessity, not a luxury. It is a fact that we all seem to have lost sight of. In rural areas, such as my constituency of Ribble Valley, access to public transport is poor and the car is a fundamental facet of everyday life for families, the elderly and the disabled.
From the moment that a car is bought, there are three essential items that must be purchased, which are insurance, a tax disc and fuel. Car insurance premiums have been rising at record rates in the past year and they took their biggest ever upward jump during the last quarter of 2009, according to the latest benchmark AA British insurance premium index. The average quoted premium for an annual comprehensive car insurance policy rose in the fourth quarter of 2009 by 7.2 per cent. to just over £1,000. Simon Douglas, the director of AA Insurance, has said:
“The cost of accident damage has also been rising steadily, despite a fall in the number of accidents on Britain’s roads.”
I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is indeed a very large sum to pay for car insurance. Perhaps the Government will commit to working with the insurance companies to ensure that Britain’s motorists get a fair deal on something that they have no choice but to purchase.
Does my hon. Friend also recognise the fact that, under this Labour Government, motor insurance tax has doubled, which has also contributed to the increased cost of insurance?
That is another stealth tax. I am sure that most people would not be able to say exactly how much they are paying in taxation on whatever item they are purchasing, whether it is insurance or any other item. So that tax is another stealth tax, which is to be regretted.
As The Observer reported in January, plans published by the Department for Transport will soon make it an offence purely to be the registered keeper of an uninsured vehicle, with fines of up to £1,000 being imposed even if the vehicle is not being driven. On top of that, the bad weather that we have had this year and the poor gritting that has taken place throughout the entire country have meant that there has been a lot of accidents. No doubt, insurance premiums will rise again.
I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman carefully. He is attacking the idea of forcing people to have car insurance. How would he deal with the fact that there are up to 2 million uninsured motorists driving on our roads, which is a risk for all of us? He has got an analysis, but no solutions.
Actually, I am not attacking the insurance on vehicles generally; I think that it is essential that people have vehicle insurance. I fully appreciate the fact that a lot of accidents occur on the roads involving people who do not have insurance and I think that people should be clobbered hard if they are found not to have insurance on their vehicles. So, I have no problems with vehicle insurance. What I do have a problem with is the rate at which insurance premiums have risen in the past few years and particularly in the past year. If everybody paid their vehicle insurance, I suspect that we could get the premiums down. So that is an issue that we ought to focus on far more readily than is the case.
Next we have the tax disc. Again, I have no problem with its existence, but I have a problem with the manner in which it is applied. A larger car has a larger engine. Therefore, it follows that a larger car requires more fuel. So the driver of a larger car pays more tax at the pump. That makes perfect sense. What does not make sense, however, is the fact that a tax disc costs more for a larger car. Why is that? There are no extra administrative costs for the issuer, so the answer is that that tax is punitive, or in Government-speak, a financial disincentive. Again, that conveniently ignores the fact that there is a natural financial disincentive in place already with fuel tax. Those who drive more or who use more petrol to drive the same distance as other people with smaller cars should and do pay more tax. Therefore, there is no reason to tax them twice unless it is for revenue purposes, and if that is the case, the Government should be honest about it.
I hope that the Minister will say something about the fact that so many foreign vehicles, particularly lorries, use British roads and pay nothing to do so. By contrast, if British lorries are on foreign roads, the drivers either need to have an appropriate tax disc or they pay separately under separate charges.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to the House. It is, of course, very important for his constituents in Ribble Valley.
I will now say something that Jeremy Clarkson may not want me to say. Why should we not get rid of the tax disc altogether and put all the tax on the fuel? Then there would be no avoidance, it would be an environmentally very sound policy, it would raise more tax, and it would save an awful lot of money that is currently being spent on administration.
I must say that there is an argument to be made for doing just that. People cannot avoid having to put petrol or diesel into their vehicles, so there is a common-sense argument that the more that people drive, the more they pay. The “polluter pays” argument is very important, so that needs to be looked at seriously. However, I object to the fact that this new stealth tax has been introduced on bigger cars and I just do not see the sense in it, other than that it is another stealth tax to raise taxation revenue to pay for the deep hole that the Chancellor has helped to dig in the past 13 years.
So we are at the petrol station, as it were, and I see that there will be an Adjournment debate shortly in the House on garages and their valuations, which will determine what rates garage owners have to pay. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at that issue too, because a lot of independent petrol stations out there have been clobbered by the new valuations. That means that either the extra money they have to pay will be passed on to the customer in the form of higher prices, or we will see a lot more independent petrol stations closing, with the supermarkets filling the void.
According to the AA, the average price at the pumps at the moment is £1.12 a litre for petrol and £1.14 a litre for diesel. In April 2008, unleaded petrol retailed at an average price of £1.07 a litre, according to the House of Commons Library. This debate was secured last Wednesday. In last Friday’s edition of the Metro newspaper, there was an article that said that, according to the AA,
“since the end of November 2008, the burden of fuel duty and VAT on a tank of petrol in Britain has soared by 11.46 per cent compared with 2.23 per cent in Austria. The average rise for ten European countries, including France and Germany, was just over 5 per cent.”
Can the Minister please explain how that has come about? Does he think that those price rises are fair or proportionate, or does he perhaps feel that motorists are carrying the jerry can for the Prime Minister’s financial ineptitude?
Thanks very much.
The Daily Telegraph carried the same story on its front page, but it added that the EU is planning its own tax on petrol. The article stated:
“The European Union is drawing up plans for its first direct tax with a ‘green’ levy on petrol, coal and natural gas that could cost British consumers up to £3 billion.”
I do not want to get into the semantics of the farce that was the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, but suffice it to say that I implore the Minister and the Government to resist such developments with vigour. Taxation should be set by sovereign Governments.
My final point about the taxation of fuel is that motorists will also face petrol pump increases from 1 April that could add another 2.5p per litre to the price of fuel, according to the AA. In the past, I have implored the Government to freeze the fuel duty escalator and I wish to put on record yet again my opposition to it. Families are already cash-strapped. We should not be squeezing more money out of them by increasing duty on what is, for many of them, a daily necessity.
Once the motorist is on the road, insurance and tax paid and tank full, more charges are to be found, from congestion charges to speed cameras, toll roads and parking. Motorists are constantly dipping into their wallets.
The hon. Gentleman has tempted me to my feet by mentioning toll roads. People in south Essex must pay the added cost of the Dartford crossing toll, which can add up to £15 a week for essential journeys across the river to go to work or visit and care for relatives. Neither the Tories nor Labour will remove the tax, as was promised in the original legislation fixing the toll. It was said that when the bridge was paid for, the toll would be removed. The bridge has been paid for, but an amendment to another Bill was passed to allow the tolling to continue. That is dishonest and wrong. I hope that Tory and Labour Front-Bench Members will promise to remove that tax.
The hon. Gentleman has made a strong point. If that promise was made, it should be adhered to. People should adhere to their promises. My goodness me: we are in election mode, and a lot of promises will be made over the next few weeks. If people make promises, it is important that they should be kept. The particular instance that he mentioned is nothing more than a stealth tax to raise revenue. It is an easy hit. If anything, I suspect that the Government will seek to do more of that in future rather than less, but I hope that they will listen to what he said.
I have long argued that many speed cameras are purely money-making exercises, with no tangible link whatever to road safety or proven effectiveness in reducing speed. I spoke to David Bizley of the Royal Automobile Club recently, and we discussed speed cameras. The RAC’s view, which I endorse, is that greater use should be made of average speed cameras and speed-activated warning signs. They help to educate motorists to stay within the limit and promote safe driving, rather than simply penalising them. I also agree with the RAC that a nationwide audit of existing speed cameras is necessary to ensure that each can demonstrate a proven effect in reducing accidents. Those that cannot should be removed. I understand that to be my party’s policy, which will be implemented as soon as we are elected.
Speed cameras earn the Government a staggering £88 million a year, or approximately £250,000 every day, and the number issued each year has doubled under this Administration. Overall, drivers have been hit for almost £1 billion in speeding fines during the past decade. At least two tickets are handed out every minute. Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers Alliance, said:
“The fact that more speeding fines are handed out every year suggests that speed cameras are more about raising revenue than reducing speeds on the roads. Fining anyone should be about justice, not fundraising”,
which is exactly what is going on.
I suspect that over the years, we have all seen cameras at the bottoms of hills and police using handheld speed guns in similar positions. In Clitheroe recently, I saw a mobile camera placed on top of a postbox at the bottom of a hill. The camera was being hidden. There was no warning and no indication that it was there to help promote safety; it was merely a potential cash cow.
I hope so. The camera will at least deter people from using the postbox.
If we are serious about reducing accidents on the roads and reducing speed in certain areas, we ought to be open about using cameras. Static cameras must be yellow, and there must be signs telling people that they are approaching an area of potential problems. Hiding cameras shows clearly that there is no intention to indicate to motorists that they should slow down for a blackspot; it is all about nabbing them, giving them three points and fining them. That simply should not be allowed. The Minister is nodding, but I have seen somebody hiding behind a letterbox. That should not be allowed. Speed cameras ought to be about road safety and speed awareness, not revenue raising. Average speed checks are better. The sooner we hold a review of speed cameras, the better.
As the hon. Gentleman continues his rant against speed cameras and taxes, will he tell us two things? First, given that he wants to get rid of all those taxes, what extra cuts will the Conservatives make if they abolish the fuel duty escalator and give up the income from speed cameras? Secondly, what does he think of the 2005 evaluation of speed cameras that showed that speeds and road accident deaths had decreased?
Generally, it is because there are more cars on the road. I love driving under gantries that say “50 mph”. I look at them and dream of driving 50 mph. The amount of congestion on the roads is an issue.
The hon. Gentleman represents a Manchester seat. I know that Manchester recently held a vote on congestion charging. As I remember, he was against it. It was a great victory for the people of Manchester that congestion charging was not introduced into the area, because they all saw it as another tax. The Government tried to bribe the people of Manchester into voting for it, but they would not be bought.
All that I am asking for is transparency in everything to do with motoring. I do not think that motorists should be used as cash cows. I can think of all sorts of similar issues. I know that the Government are considering putting VAT on food to raise extra revenues to fill the black hole that has grown over many years. No; we must just be more careful about how we spend our money and more transparent about how we raise it. We should not use the motorist as a cash cow at every turn. I hope that any future Government will consider that. Speed cameras ought not to be about revenue raising; road safety and speed awareness should be at their core.
On clamping, there is a public perception among those in the motoring industry that clamping is done for monetary reasons alone. There is still a suspicion that people are given official or unofficial commissions for reporting or carrying out clamping. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), during debate on the Crime and Security Bill, said:
“clamping appears to be one of the few growth industries under this Government. I find it objectionable that so many of our fellow citizens are being ripped off by wheel-clampers.”—[Official Report, 18 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 89.]
Paul Watters, the AA’s head of public affairs, has observed:
“Private parking enforcement is big business generating millions of pounds and no one notices and acts when the rules are broken. The public have absolutely no protection if a private parking firm acts unfairly—it is a civil matter and no one is interested in helping.”
The number of vehicles clamped has risen by 75 per cent. in the past 19 months, and 2,100 individuals are licensed to clamp.
The same is true of parking. We have all seen parking attendants waiting by a car for the meter to run out. Parking laws exist to be enforced, of course, and for good reasons, but why promote the attitude that it is all about the money on the back of actions taken? The Government’s problem is that there is a wider sphere of suspicion about the motives behind the charges. Councils received a total of £328 million in on and off-street parking fines in 2008-09. Peter Roberts, chief executive of the Drivers’ Alliance, said:
“Parking enforcement has become a massive money-making industry and we are seeing unscrupulous and target driven enforcement of parking laws where the penalties far outweigh the offence.”
I can remember a time when there were no parking charges in Clitheroe. When they were introduced, I said to my local authority, “Why have you introduced charges?” The charges hit many local shops, because having to pay for parking deterred people from coming into town to shop. I was told, “The Government assume that we are raising a certain amount in revenues, and that amount is taken off the support that we would otherwise get.” Basically, the Government are promoting car parking charges in towns and villages. That is a great shame. As we all know, they will be seeking other ways to raise revenues as well. I suspect that in my lifetime, car parking charges will be introduced for people using supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres. That is to be deplored.
Charge by charge, stealth tax by stealth tax, the Government have created the impression that motoring is wrong, that people ought not to drive and that it is acceptable to charge them increasing amounts of money at every turn. As I have said, for many people, owning a car is not a luxury, but a necessity. When the 4x4 Chelsea tractor tax was mooted, the Government seemed not to have even considered the effect that such blanket legislation would have on people such as farmers who use such vehicles in the course of their profession. So blinded were Ministers by the possibility of another revenue stream that they lost sight of the bigger picture.
People in rural areas need a car. They cannot rely on public transport because the infrastructure does not exist. Cars are needed to get the children to the bus stop for the school run. For many elderly people, the nearest doctors’ surgery or supermarket is 3 or 4 miles away with no bus stops en route. That is like walking from Westminster Hall to Parsons Green. Over the last 13 years, this Administration have had a tendency to neglect the countryside, which can be seen from their attitude towards farmers, village schools, pubs, phone boxes and post offices, to name just a few. Their attitude towards motoring has also been formed without considering the needs of people living in rural areas.
The UK’s disabled population is heavily reliant on cars. There are approximately 1.7 million disabled drivers and 2.3 million blue badge holders. There are 600,000 Motability-supplied vehicles and about 10 per cent. of new car sales are to the disabled sector. The annual spend of the disabled sector is approximately £60 billion. It is patently unfair continually to penalise disabled motorists, many of whom have no choice but to drive.
The current piecemeal approach—a small rise here, a new charge there—cannot go on. People do not know what they are being charged for, why they are being charged for it or where the money is being spent. We must have a more transparent system, not revenue streams dressed up as green taxes, speed cameras or clampers. The RAC has called for an overhaul of the motoring taxation system. At present, it believes that every new tax and reform of the system is
“merely a sticking plaster over the problem”.
I could not agree more.
Two years ago, I introduced a ten-minute Bill proposing transparency in the taxation of petrol. I argued that when people fill up their cars, their receipts should say not just how much VAT they have paid, as most receipts do, but how much taxation they have paid on the product. I think people would be shocked to see how much taxation they pay on every litre of petrol.
As we have seen, the Government’s attitude towards motorists is found wanting not just in the taxation system, but across the board. It goes from simple matters such as not providing the option to pay for the Dartford crossing and Severn bridge tolls by card, thereby catching many drivers unawares, to not removing speed cameras that are clearly in place only to augment revenue. The Government’s policy agenda is clear: “Show me the money!” The 2009 Budget states that the Treasury projects it will raise £26.6 billion on fuel duties alone this year, which is up £2 billion from 2008-09. It will raise £4.7 billion on VAT and £5.6 billion on car tax. Why, according to the RAC, is only a third of that spent on motorists? That is a serious indictment of Government policy.
This is a broad debate. I want to touch on one more area before I finish. When people break down, they park on the hard shoulder to wait for the emergency services. I hope that the Government or any future Government will consider allowing the emergency services, the RAC, the AA and other such organisations to use the hard shoulder to get to people who have broken down. Sadly, accidents also happen on the hard shoulder. People have lost their lives waiting for the emergency services to arrive. I hope that the Government will consider the simple measure of allowing the emergency services to use the hard shoulder.
The hon. Gentleman has focused on taxation and the cost of motoring, but has not mentioned safety because he could not broaden his speech that much. He will be aware of the report that Gwyneth Dunwoody released as Chairman of the Transport Committee on the safety of driving, which focused particularly on young male drivers between the ages of 17 and 25. Will he ask the Minister to look carefully at that report and to take action to make our roads safer for our girls and boys?
In the time I have, I cannot be comprehensive on all matters, but I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point. There is no bigger fan of Gwyneth Dunwoody in this Parliament than me. She was a doughty fighter and an amazing politician. She loved Parliament and fought for what she believed with relentless energy. Parliament is poorer for the fact that she is no longer with us.
An overhaul is needed of the way motoring is approached in the UK. That can be done only by looking at the full picture, not at individual aspects. When all the aspects are added up, they do not represent a level playing field for motorists, who are targeted and punished disproportionately. Motorists are not the scourge of society and the Government should not treat them as if they are.
I did not expect to have the opportunity to speak so soon, Mr. Martlew. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing the debate. It is a shame that we do not debate transport issues more frequently. Shadow Transport Ministers seem to get far fewer opportunities to speak in Westminster Hall debates than our colleagues who shadow other Departments. However, as the old saying goes, “You wait for a bus and then two come along at once,” because there are another two transport debates tomorrow—one in Westminster Hall and one in the main Chamber. I suspect that this is the only week during my five years in Parliament in which there have been three transport debates, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being a part of that.
The subject of the debate is fairly broad, so I thank the hon. Gentleman’s staff for giving me an indication of the areas that he would cover in his speech. In my brief remarks, I will talk about the cost of motoring and touch on policies for improving road safety, specifically regarding the use of speed cameras, the drink-drive limit and the use of 20 mph zones.
The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the transparency of taxation and suggested that the amount of tax paid should be shown on people’s receipts when they purchase fuel. Does the Minister know the likely cost of doing that? If it is minimal, it would be a good thing to pursue to bring about transparency.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for pursuing this issue. I think that the cost would be minimal because these days the tills are computers. Receipts show how much VAT is paid, so it would take only a slight amendment to the programme to show the amount of taxation paid on the petrol.
I, too, suspect that the cost would be minimal. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister has any idea of the cost that would be entailed.
The hon. Gentleman also made a point about insurance. I should declare an interest because I used to work for the RAC on its Norwich Union contracts before entering the House. As hon. Members might be aware, Norwich Union introduced a trial for pay-as-you-drive insurance. I was disappointed that it decided not to go ahead with that idea because it could reduce the cost of insurance for safer drivers, people who drive on safe roads, people who drive at times of the day when accidents are less likely and those who drive only occasionally, such as people who use their car once a week to go to the shops. I urge the insurance companies to consider that issue again, because that proposal would be a fair way of reducing insurance premiums for a number of less regular drivers.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the cost of motoring because it is simply a myth that it has become more expensive. The Road Users Alliance claims that motorists pay huge amounts of tax but get nothing back. It is certainly true that the price of petrol and diesel has increased significantly in the past 12 months, but the overall cost of motoring has gone down significantly since 1997. That has happened for a number of reasons, for example because cars have become significantly cheaper. I do not tend to tell people this, but I bought a Daewoo Lanos in 1999. Those people who like cars claim that they are pretty rubbish—I would have to say that I probably agree. However, I purchased the car for £8,000 in 1999. When I changed my car eight years later, in 2007, the price of a better model Daewoo Lanos was less than what I paid in 1999.
People can also now make smarter choices to affect the amount of vehicle excise duty that they pay. When I bought my new car in 2007, my VED decreased to £35, because of the vehicle that I chose to buy. The cost of my fuel halved because I went from a very fuel-inefficient car to a fuel-efficient car—I now get twice as many miles to the gallon than with my previous car.
My boss, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), tabled a parliamentary question through which he uncovered the real cost of motoring and the proof that the cost of motoring had actually fallen. The reply told him that there had been a 13 per cent. reduction in the real-terms cost of motoring between 1997 and 2009. In comparison, there has been a real-terms increase in the cost of bus and coach travel of 17 per cent. over the same period, and a real-terms increase in rail fares of 7 per cent. My hon. Friend said:
“These figures show starkly just what a raw deal train and bus passengers have had out of this Government, and that car drivers, for all the moans about fuel prices, have done rather well. While Ministers are busy preaching about cutting carbon emissions, the Department for Transport has allowed polluting transport to become cheaper and cleaner transport to become more expensive. The Department is clearly part of the carbon problem rather than part of the carbon solution.”
The situation seems rather perverse. I agree with the sentiment about public transport being incredibly expensive—particularly trains, given the plethora of train prices. When the Government want to do something about green energy, they throw money at inefficient and ugly wind turbines with the expectation that more will be erected, yet they do the reverse when they try to attract people on to public transport. That does not make sense.
Much needs to be done to attract more people on to public transport. The statistics show that more people are travelling by train than for many years, but bus patronage has decreased in most areas outside London, which is a worrying trend given that 86 per cent. of public transport is by bus. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, that the cost of motoring disproportionately falls on people in more rural areas.
As we are making party political points, which is a bit unusual in this Chamber, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the base cause of higher bus and train fares is the deregulated system that was left behind following the Transport Act 1985 and the privatisation of the railways, which has been unbelievably costly?
I absolutely agree, and the point is proved by the fact that bus patronage has increased significantly in London, where we have a different model of bus usage. I hope that the Local Transport Act 2008 will result in better bus services across different parts of the country, but I worry that quality contracts and proper quality partnerships will not work in some areas. There will still be significant resistance from bus operators to going down that route, but doing so can only be good for improving bus services throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time. I agree with his point about using the 2008 Act to bring in quality contracts. Is he willing to try to persuade the chair of the Greater Manchester integrated transport authority—his Lib Dem councillor friend—to start introducing quality contracts in Greater Manchester, which he seems particularly reluctant to do?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have had numerous discussions with my colleague, the chairman of the ITA, about how bus services can be improved across Greater Manchester. I am sure that he would agree that the chairman of the ITA is very keen to ensure that bus services improve across the whole of Greater Manchester.
I was about to go on to a point about the disproportionate cost of motoring faced by people in rural communities. When public transport is limited or non-existent in remote rural communities, the people who live there are completely reliant on their cars. The situation has got worse in recent years because the closure of local shops, post offices and banks has forced people to travel further to access local services. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) proposed a rural exemption on the fuel duty rise, based on EU rules, to help people in such areas.
Rises in fuel duty are a blunt instrument. Although such a policy acts as an incentive for people to use public transport, that works only when there is a public transport alternative. Rises in the cost of motoring must go hand in hand with improvements to public transport, which is why the Liberal Democrats would dramatically cut the roads budget by 90 per cent. while at the same time investing more of that money in public transport. We do not think that the solution to congestion is the extensive building of new roads. Instead, we want to give more people the opportunity to access improved public transport.
I apologise for intervening again, but I am astounded by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to a 90 per cent. cut in the roads budget because I was not aware of that proposal. Would that affect the repair of our roads after this devastatingly bad winter, during which there has been a lot of ice and water?
Yes; it does not relate to road maintenance. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that an awful lot of additional investment needs to be put into repairing the roads. Road maintenance is a difficult job for all local authorities. In my constituency, I do not believe that the council can be held responsible for the bad weather destroying the roads, but a lot of extra effort needs to be made to ensure that those repairs are carried out, even if that means putting extra, up-front investment into repairing roads and drawing money down from future years to try to solve the problem straight away.
It will be in our manifesto. We see the introduction of a road-user charging scheme that is cost-neutral as the long-term solution to both congestion and the cost of motoring, as the typical motorist would pay no more than they do at present and those making greener choices would pay significantly less. That would go hand in hand with the abolition of vehicle excise duty and a reduction in fuel duty.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred to the fact that foreign lorries currently pay nothing to use our roads. We would deal with that by ensuring that the lorry element of the road charging scheme would raise revenue and that foreign lorries, as well as British lorries, would pay to use the roads.
I am not sure how long I have to speak, given that few other Members wish to make speeches, but I will move on to road safety and say a few words about speed cameras. I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman because, in my opinion, speed cameras are a good thing. If people do not speed, they do not pay the speed camera tax, or whatever one calls it. The fact is that speed cameras save lives.
Perhaps I should not have given way to the hon. Gentleman, because I planned to mention that point in a minute or so. I agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that speed cameras should be visible, because when people know that there are speed cameras about, they are far more likely to drive more slowly. Speed cameras should be about not just raising revenue, but changing behaviour and persuading people to drive more slowly.
The fact is that speed cameras, including fixed cameras, save lives. I was involved in the introduction of the first speed camera in Manchester. Two cameras were introduced at the same time, one of which was in my constituency—that was before I was its Member, but I was a local councillor in the area. The speed camera was introduced at an accident black spot on a road that is an extension of the M56. The spot is close to a school and two churches, so there is a busy crossing, and there had been numerous accidents there. After the speed camera was introduced, there was a clear and dramatic decrease in the number of accidents, so no one can tell me that speed cameras do not save lives.
In some areas, however, people certainly slow down for speed cameras but then speed up again once they know where the cameras are. The kind of speed cameras I am talking about work only in specific locations where there is a particular problem. In the location in my constituency to which I referred, where many children cross the road to get to and from school and many people cross to get to and from the two churches, having a speed camera is a good idea, even if it reduces speeds only around that junction, simply because it is an accident blackspot.
Although I do not have any statistical evidence, I have heard anecdotal evidence suggesting that average speed cameras have led to a dramatic decrease in the speed at which people drive in the areas where they have been introduced. We have all been on a motorway when roadworks have been going on and average speed cameras have been set up, and we know that almost every driver will reduce their speed as very few people speed through the sections covered by those cameras. I do not know whether the Minister has any statistics on the number of accidents at those spots, but having heard anecdotal evidence, and from seeing with the naked eye the way in which people drive through roadworks that have average speed cameras, it seems to me that they are incredibly successful.
Again, I have not seen the statistics, but I rather suspect that that has a positive impact on traffic flow. The idiots who still drive at 90 mph in a 50 mph restricted zone in which average speed cameras have been introduced are certainly very much in the minority. It is unusual to see people speeding through those areas, and the fact that everyone is driving at the same speed appears to have a positive impact on traffic flow.
I welcome the support the Government have shown for 20 mph zones, particularly around schools, but I feel that that does not go far enough. It is a statistical fact that cutting speed saves lives, and my view, and that of my party, is that we should reduce the default speed limit on urban roads from 30 mph to 20 mph. Local authorities could then exempt certain roads for which a 20 mph speed limit was considered inappropriate. Opponents of 20 mph zones often argue that that speed is too slow for driving and that people feel compelled to drive faster because it does not seem natural to drive at 20 mph. The problem is that 20 mph zones are the exception, rather than the rule. If the default limit was 20 mph, people would get used to driving at that speed and would not feel that they were driving slowly but, at present, someone driving through a 20 mph zone clearly feels as though they are having to slow down. I urge the Government to change their view on 20 mph zones and to consider a reduction in the default limit from 30 mph to 20 mph.
Finally, I would like to mention drink-driving and the drink-driving limit. I am delighted that the Government appear to be changing their view on a reduction in the drink-driving limit from 80 mg to 50 mg. My party has argued for a reduction to 50 mg, which would be in line with most other European countries. The Government appear to have changed their view on that, as I remember that the former Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), appeared to be completely opposed to reducing the limit. That view was shared by several Members, and it was the view taken by the Transport Committee—I was one of the minority of its members who supported a reduction.
I am aware that Sir Peter North has been asked to examine the possibility of reducing the drink-driving limit, and I am also aware that he has asked the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety for its views on whether a reduction in the limit should go hand in hand with a reduction in the level of penalty. In my view, that would be a big mistake, and I hope that the Minister will assure hon. Members that the Government will press ahead with a reduction in the drink-driving limit and ensure that a mandatory ban for drink-driving would remain in place for those caught between the old limit and what would be the new limit. It is fair to say that, over the years, the very real threat of a definite ban has helped to get the message across to people that drink-driving is unacceptable, and we should not do anything that could put that in jeopardy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing this debate. I am not a petrol head to rival the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, but I believe that, on balance, the car has been a force for good. I am told that back in the 1920s, the first car that came to our village was a Vulcan made in Southport, which my grandfather had purchased, and then, in the ’40s and ’50s, the doctors and bank managers would be seen in cars. It is only in the past 30 or 40 years that the car has become ubiquitous, and now everyone aspires to own one.
For many people, the car is a machine of freedom. It means that students can access education where they wish to study, and people can work and live where they want, whereas previous generations had to be able to walk to work. We understand from the statistics that, in cash terms, inequality has increased over the past 12 years, but cars have become more affordable, particularly because of the availability of good second-hand cars that do not rust in the way that they used to. Many people can now own a car, take pleasure in it, and use it to get to work and access all the things that they need in their lives.
Of course, there has been a downside. Congestion has increased and, in many cases, people find that journeys can take longer than they did even in the days of horses and carts, particularly in London. In the ’60s, there was a big increase in pollutants—lead from fuel, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic solvents and particulates—but we must pay tribute to the motor industry, which has risen to the challenge set by politicians in the UK and at European Union level to reduce pollutants from vehicles, to the extent that now a car running on the motorway at 70 mph has fewer emissions than a stationary car did in the 1960s. On the hottest, most polluted day of summer in the middle of one of our European cities, a Ford Focus will actually clean the atmosphere, such is the performance of the vehicle’s catalytic converters and other technology that clean exhaust emissions.
Of course the other big challenge facing us is carbon dioxide, and it is important that we do not confuse two arguments. Certainly, around Heathrow airport and in London, for example, other pollutants have been dealt with, but we now need to take CO2 just as seriously. I am pleased that progress has been made in reducing the average level of CO2 emitted by vehicles. In fact, later today I will attend a Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders event, where results on CO2 emissions will be announced.
I understand that average CO2 emissions fell 5.49 per cent. to 149.5 grams per kilometre in 2009—not far from the target of 130 grams per kilometre. That shows that the European Union has made progress compared with, say, the United States, which has set its corporate average fuel economy—CAFE—targets at 35 miles per gallon by 2016. Most people in the UK with a vehicle doing 35 mpg would consider that they were at the higher end of the fuel consumption scale.
The dramatic reduction in CO2 has been an effect of the recession, as people seek to buy smaller cars. The scrappage scheme, which has probably been the only successful scheme introduced by the Government to address the problems of the recession and its effects on industry, has meant that people have been buying smaller cars. There has also been more discounting of cars as the manufacturers, which produce a wide range of vehicles with different CO2 emissions, seek to incentivise people to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.
Several new technologies are in the pipeline, and it is important that we as politicians are careful not to try to pick winners. I suspect that if we had tried to pick the video recorder of the future, we would have gone for Betamax. Therefore, it is important that we set tough targets for industry to meet but do not try to pick a particular technology. One possible exception to that would be electric cars, for which we need a network of charging points.
There is another challenge facing us in that regard. I was recently in the US to meet Government people and academics as well as motor manufacturers. There was a real concern that many of the new technologies rely on rare earths, especially lithium and platinum, which may well become a limiting factor in the introduction of some technologies. There was also a concern that the Chinese in particular are managing to buy up many of those resources, which may provide a challenge to the European Union in terms of leading the world in battery technology and so on.
Also, we must not disregard the existing technology that is available and the improvements that have been made to, for example, diesel engines. I do not know whether hon. Members saw a recent repeat of “Top Gear”, in which Jeremy Clarkson drove a Jaguar XJ6 TDVi from Switzerland to Blackpool to turn on the illuminations on one tank of fuel. We must not disregard the tremendous benefits that can accrue from existing technologies, which affect the whole range of vehicles being marketed in the UK, and concentrate only on the small niche markets for some of the hybrids and battery vehicles.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley spoke about insurance costs, and I pointed out that the insurance premium tax has doubled under this Government. The cost of insurance is particularly a problem for young drivers. When one looks at the fines that are levied in respect of their insurance, it is little wonder that they are sometimes tempted to drive without it.
I share the disappointment of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) that the Norwich Union pay-as-you-drive scheme was not taken up to the extent that it could be rolled out more widely. I was disappointed because the premiums were loaded on night driving, and we all know that, for young people in particular, many of the nasty accidents happen between 11 o’clock at night and the early hours of the morning. Loading the cost of insurance on night driving would discourage people from using their cars at that time.
I noted that the Minister’s predecessor, who is now the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was on 20 January 2009 considering a consultation on continuous insurance, which I think may be one way of dealing with the problem of uninsured drivers. However, we need to be careful about one aspect: people who cannot afford to insure a car that has broken down but do not have somewhere off road to put it. I assume that if a car has a statutory off-road notification, it will not have to be insured, but I wonder whether the motor insurance industry itself could come up with a type of insurance that would allow such a vehicle to be parked on the road, as a way of helping people who do not have off-road parking but have a car that will not run. Otherwise, people who may not be the richest in society who have cars that they cannot drive will be faced with a major problem.
Last year, I spent some time with the North Yorkshire police automatic number plate detection team and was interested to note the number of uninsured vehicles that went through. There are two big loopholes in the system: first, if people take out an insurance policy on a monthly payment scheme, they can get their vehicle taxed and then cancel the standing order. We pulled up a driver from Hull who had done that. He waved the insurance certificate at the police officer, but of course the computers at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency showed that the car was not insured.
We still have a problem with vehicle cloning. A couple of years ago, I demonstrated that by cloning the Prime Minister’s ministerial car. The Government may consider that they have ticked the box by ensuring that when one goes to a number plate supplier, one has to take a logbook for the vehicle and photo identification, but it is still possible to purchase so-called show plates on the internet, as I did. I have a pair of plates in my office that exactly match the plates on the Prime Minister’s car. Presumably, if I were to use them illegally, any levied fines would be delivered to the ministerial car service or perhaps to No. 10 itself—who knows? That is a loophole that we need to look at—the box certainly has not been ticked. The estimated 6.5 per cent. of uninsured cars on our roads equates to 2 million vehicles. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley that the cost of that equates to £30 on every person’s premium.
There has been some discussion of vehicle excise duty and banding. Currently there are 13 bands, from band A for vehicles emitting less than 100 grams per kilometre, which is free, to band M, for the most polluting cars emitting 225 grams per kilometre and more, which is set at £405. I should like to put right one misconception: 4x4s are not treated any differently from other cars on the road. The bands relate to CO2 emissions, not to 4x4 or two-wheel drive vehicles. A gas-guzzling Ferrari or a Lamborghini will be in the same band as a gas-guzzling 4x4. Some of the vehicle classes contain some cars that perform well, particularly those with hybrid technology, which is being rolled out on 4x4s.
It is important that we send out the right signals to people when they purchase cars. The VED bands, which they will note when buying, and the information that now has to be available at the point of sale under European Union rules that went through the European Parliament when I was there, mean that people understand more than ever about the CO2 produced by their vehicles.
There have been some big fluctuations in the price of petrol and diesel over the years, which comprised increases in crude prices and VAT and in taxation levied by the Government both as fuel duty and North sea oil taxes. I was pleased when my party announced that it would have a fair fuel stabiliser to try to even out some of the ups and downs in this system, so that the Government’s getting a windfall through higher VAT and North sea oil revenues when crude prices are high is moderated by a reduction in tax. Conversely, when oil prices fall, that stabiliser would come into effect in the opposite way.
May I just say one or two words about safety cameras, the numbers of which have almost trebled under this Government? It is interesting that although there are no fixed speed cameras in North Yorkshire, where I live, and Durham, there does not seem to be any conclusive evidence that road safety has deteriorated there in relation to the rest of the country. The Government stand accused of being a one-club golfer in their reliance on safety cameras to police our roads, particularly as over the past decade there has been a 20 per cent. reduction in traffic police. If there is a change of Government, after the election the Conservatives would not fund any new fixed speed cameras. We would abolish Labour’s camera quangos and expose this system to real democratic control. We will publish information that is currently kept secret on each camera’s record on safety and the fines it generates. In short, we will put an end to Labour’s cash cow camera culture.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether that information would also include the speed at which people were clocked as being over the speed limit? Some cameras are set several miles per hour above the speed limit and there is a real danger that if this information is available people will know that they can get away with speeding at 6 or 7 mph above the speed limit at a particular location.
I understand that the guidelines of the Association of Chief Police Officers are 10 per cent. plus one. It would not be useful to publish the levels at which fines are tripped. On some average speed cameras, the speed might be set slightly higher than that, but it would not be useful in respect of road safety to publish the level at which fines would be levied.
Clamping on private land has become an epidemic and many companies are now engaged in this activity, as my hon. Friend said. Something needs to be done. I am pleased that the Government are engaged in a consultation on that. My party has long argued that we need better policing of the private clamping industry. Not only do we wish companies engaging in this activity to meet the same sort of criteria that other parking organisations have to adhere to, through registration with bodies such as the British Parking Association, but we think that people who feel that they have been clamped unfairly should have access to a parking adjudication service.
I am genuinely interested to hear the Minister’s view of people who feel that they have been unfairly ticketed for parking and wish to appeal. I have not reached an opinion on that. Under the current system in Scarborough, for example, if I pay a parking fine within 14 days, I can pay the lower fee of £35, but if I leave it longer than 14 days, the fee increases to £70. So there is a discount if I pay early. If a person appeals and loses, they pay the higher fine, so it is almost a case of double or quits. Has the Minister or his Department analysed the effect on the numbers of appeals coming forward and revenue for local authorities if the lower fine were held in abeyance pending an appeal? Perhaps fines could be lodged with the parking adjudication service pending the result of that appeal.
Any motoring policies that a future Government introduced should be rural-proofed. I represent a large rural constituency in which many people rely on their cars to get about. There is no public transport in many areas and, given the recent weather and the topography of the North Yorkshire moors, many people require 4x4 vehicles, including Land Rovers and the like. I hope that any future measures on motoring take into account the needs of the rural population.
Finally, I cannot get my head around the fact that the Liberal Democrats are proposing a 90 per cent. cut in the roads budget on top of the 50 per cent. cut over the past 10 years that the Government have already introduced—compared with the previous 10 years of Conservative Administration. I wonder how that will work and the effect that it will have on the economy in terms of contractors, for example. Are we talking about existing contracts that have been signed off or plans in the pipeline, or will this happen in five or six years when all the existing contracts have been rolled out? Will it affect the managed motorway scheme on hard shoulder running?
The Liberal Democrats have not done their sums. It would be irresponsible to impose such cuts. The effects on congestion and our economy are too awful to consider. I hope that they will look again at that policy, but perhaps we need not worry too much, because I suspect that if there were a hung Parliament that would be one of the policies that they quickly discarded during negotiations with Mr. Brown.
It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr. Martlew, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing it.
The statements and comments that have been made show that anything goes in trying to get a point across. At no point has Government policy said that motorists are a bane of society or that driving is wrong. Indeed, the policies that we have followed have recognised the complex issues facing all transport users in a successful country, whether they are moving around for work or business, delivering goods, supplying customers or going on their holidays to some of the wonderful places in the north-west region, such as the Ribble Valley and, of course, Mr. Martlew, the Lake District and Carlisle. That is why we have followed a sensible policy covering those areas.
It beggars belief that an hon. Member in this Chamber can say that the Government have followed a policy that states that motorists are a bane of society, when the Highways Agency is investing some £900 million in the strategic network today—this year—and has delivered some 71 major road schemes since 2001, and the Government have announced some £6 billion-worth of investment over the coming years, starting with hard shoulder running and active traffic management to ease congestion and improve safety on our roads. That does not suggest that we have no commitment to drivers and motorists, whether for business or pleasure, and that is not the case.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who speaks for the official Opposition, recognised that one successful scheme we have introduced to help the motor industry and those who work in it and motorists is the scrappage scheme during this difficult world financial downturn. The hon. Gentleman’s Front Benchers opposed that scheme, but it has proved to be extremely successful, and I am delighted with his conversion on the route to this debate. I hope that he and all hon. Members will welcome our £400 million fiscal stimulus to introduce road enhancement schemes, because that has been important for the economy at large, and for motorists and those who use our roads.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the juncture that we are at in the current cycle in terms of preparations for the Budget. Such matters are kept under review by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Motoring taxes are primarily revenue-raising to serve and support public finances and to fund public services. I note that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley kept referring to them as stealth taxes. I suspect, frankly, that he does not think that the stealth taxes have provided the £1.34 billion of regional funding allocation for the north-west region, and that that is pie in the sky, and some sort of stealth expenditure. It is not; nor is the 11 per cent. increase in funding for local transport schemes in his region. That is the reality of funding real schemes that are out there and making a difference for all those who travel, let alone funding such as the £2.3 billion for bus services in this country and the record billions of pounds that are being spent on the railways.
The Minister is being extremely generous. Does he acknowledge that the toll, which is a tax, on the Dartford crossing is to raise taxation for public services? It certainly does not stop congestion; it increases it, and it certainly pumps more carbon into our atmosphere. Will he acknowledge that?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman refers to the Dartford crossing. I intended to speak about it, and I will do so now. The toll is not a tax; it is a congestion charge, which was changed in 2003 on the basis of modelling that showed that if there were no charge, the level of use of the tunnels and crossing would increase by some 17 per cent. To remove the toll process or congestion charge would lead to even greater congestion than that which I accept now exists at the plazas. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that no one must pay more than they did, because the charges for the DART-Tag system remain the same, and it eases throughput.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that we are undertaking various work and modelling on alternatives—for example, charging for one way only. However, we must consider the effect of that on traffic patterns and the lengths to which people might go to use alternative routes to cross the river. There are complications. The charge that has been introduced is a congestion charge, and the hon. Gentleman is well aware that residents on both sides of the crossing receive generous concessions, including free trips and reduced costs for a number of trips over a specific limit.
Motoring tax revenue is combined with all the other taxes that come in through the consolidated fund, and supports a range of Government spending priorities, so it is misleading to compare motoring tax revenue with road or transport spending by hypothecating revenue to spending on specific programmes. Doing so would reduce flexibility, and could lead to misallocation of public resources, and poor use of taxpayers’ money.
Hon. Members referred to the fact that, when it is sensible and effective so to do, we link such taxes to other Government objectives, such as environmental objectives, and one instance of that is the vehicle excise duty. Hon. Members are aware that tax-raising activities are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who considers each tax as part of a wider fiscal judgment in the normal Budget process, taking into account social, environmental and economic considerations.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that any Department worth its salt has continuous discussions with the Chancellor and the Treasury, and those discussions continue on a range of taxation issues. I shall leave the matter at that, because it is a continual process.
I have made it clear that fuel duty contributes to the Government’s sound financial provision of services. We announced in the previous Budget that fuel duty rate would increase by 1p a litre in real terms from 2010 to 2013. The main fuel duty is a set rate that is levied on producers when the fuel leaves the refinery, and is currently 56.19p a litre. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) referred to lower real-terms costs for motoring today. The rate of tax is lower in real terms than it was 10 years ago. Indeed, if it had risen in line with inflation since 1999, it would be well over 60p a litre. Even after the increases announced in the Budget last year, it will be lower in real terms than it was.
Fuel duty is an appropriate tool to secure public finances, and is in line with the Government’s environmental agenda. It makes an important contribution to meeting our legally binding carbon budgets. As well as supporting public finances, the increases announced in last year’s Budget are estimated to reduce the UK’s CO2 emissions by 2 million tonnes a year by 2013-14. This is not about cash cows or stealth taxes. Apart from ensuring sound public services and public finances, it is about delivering on our environmental agenda, which is critical.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue. The carbon reduction programme runs across the Government, including the Department for Transport, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State for Transport has announced substantial funding for research and development along those lines, to look at electric vehicles and at investment in charging points, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby.
I reassure the House that the Government are sensitive to the impact of high fuel prices on those who live in rural areas. They often have no choice but to drive and may have to travel further to access those essential services that are perhaps more readily available to city dwellers. I will pick up on one point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who has unfortunately had to leave the debate. The Local Transport Act 2008 was introduced specifically because not everybody is able to drive, even if they live in rural areas. There may come a point where someone does not wish to drive, so alternatives are important if we are to avoid social exclusion. That is one of the reasons why, among other things, the 2008 Act allowed local authorities a stronger influence on maximum levels of fares, timings and frequencies of routes and, where appropriate, to introduce quality contract schemes such as those found in London. We also changed community transport provisions—if I recall correctly, section 19 and 21 licences—to help to ensure that rural communities are better served. The 2008 Act provides excellent opportunities for local authorities, but it needs strong leadership to take that forward.
As I have already emphasised, fuel duty is charged at a single rate across the UK. Higher prices in remote areas have nothing to do with the level of duty and the regime in place. Prices have more to do with market forces such as higher transport costs or lower levels of competition between fuel sellers in the region. It has been suggested, for example, that a reduced rate of fuel duty should be set in rural areas to bring prices down. However, hon. Members will be aware that if that were to happen, there is no guarantee that the reduction would be passed on at the pump, and that prices would be any lower for those using rural stations and would not simply be absorbed into the fuel seller’s margins. Furthermore, such a measure could distort the market and lead to the perverse situation where people would drive many miles to get “cheap fuel”, increasing carbon emissions. Drawing boundaries between high and low-duty areas is likely to be quite arbitrary.
One or two other matters have been raised by hon. Members. Insurance is decided by an assessment of the risk of the individual involved and the group in which they fall for insurance purposes. It is a commercial decision by individual insurers based on their underwriting experience and the statistics and information that is available through numerous sources. Bearing in mind my responsibility for road safety, I have discussed with people in the insurance industry what steps they might be able to take. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington referred to the Norwich Union pay-as-you-go programme, and that was a matter for it to decide on. There are opportunities out there, and the Government are ready to work with the insurance industry on motor insurance. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby referred to the continuous registration process which, among other things, is about ensuring that we deal with people who do not have insurance provision and so on. That is essential.
Over the past five years, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley has made numerous statements on speed cameras—in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, as well as publishing a formal statement in 2009. Let me say clearly that the Government believe that speed cameras have a role to play, and where appropriate—although they are not appropriate in all cases—they are a valuable and cost-effective method of enforcing speed limits. There can be no doubt in the mind of any hon. Member that speed kills. Going over the speed limit, or going too fast, was a contributory factor in 26 per cent. of fatalities in 2008, the last full year for which figures are available. That means that speed was a contributory factor in 586 of the deaths recorded in 2008. Going over the speed limit, as was the case in 14 of those fatal accidents, caused 362 deaths. That is one every single day.
However, the situation has improved. In 1998, 69 per cent. of drivers went over the 30 mile-an-hour limit, but by 2008 that had fallen to below 50 per cent. That is an important development. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley asked about the national safety camera programme and its independent four-year study from 2005. That study found that safety cameras had led to a 42 per cent. cut in the number of people killed or seriously injured on the roads. In other words, 1,745 fewer people were killed or seriously injured last year because of speed cameras. Hon. Members will be aware that speed cameras have been the responsibility of local partnerships since 2007. They are a tool that local authorities and safety partnerships have in their armoury to make the roads safer in their local communities. As part of that process, since 2007 local authorities and those safety partnerships receive a further £110 million every year for road safety measures.
We believe that local authorities should look at 20 mile-an-hour zones and limits in predominantly residential areas around schools, shops or play areas, for example, and that has been widely welcomed. I recently held a consultation on that and we will issue revised guidance shortly. On drink-driving, we are looking at the options. There are complexities involved in reducing the limit to a lower level, but together with Sir Peter North we are taking forward the work that he is undertaking as part of a new road safety strategy.
This has been an interesting debate. Far from considering motorists to be a scourge, as was claimed by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley who introduced the debate, I assure hon. Members that the Government take motorists seriously and seek to ensure that the roads are safe and as free from congestion as possible. We will continue to invest record sums in transport as we have done over the past 13 years.
Raising of the Pension Age
First, may I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate on the raising of the pension age?
For various reasons, I am retiring at the next general election at the age of 60—after 44 years of work, I might add—although I am prepared to continue my working life in other ways for a little longer, if I get the chance. However, I have some unfinished business in the House, part of which relates to the proposed raising of the pension age. That proposal went through Parliament with relatively little controversy or debate, partly because the proposal was extended into the future with the promise that it would be kept under review, which mitigated the controversy. The Work and Pensions Minister at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), said:
“Although I accept that there are limitations on what the current data can tell us, I am confident that our timetable for change will not disproportionately affect those with below-average life expectancy, as compared with their position today. As a further safeguard, we have made clear our intention to commission periodic reviews of the evidence on life expectancy, to ensure that our timetable remains on track. That will include consideration of whether the qualifying age for the guaranteed pension credit should remain at 65 after 2024”.—[Official Report, Pensions Bill Committee, 30 January 2007; c. 223.]
The mood music is now different, as I shall point out, and I think that the process is being driven by factors other than checking the data.
I regret that the proposal went through Parliament so easily because complicated and unfair aspects remain unaddressed. The deal of raising the pension age on the one hand and giving benefits to pensioners on the other will unravel. I believe that the raising of the pension age will be brought forward, and that increase will be further and faster, while the benefits will be reneged on and watered down, if they are supplied at all, and that is why I oppose raising the pension age.
Let me make a couple of factual points. The House of Commons Library points out:
“It is important to stress that the ‘retirement age’ and the ‘pension age’ are not synonymous. The retirement age is the age at which one can be required to leave work. The pension age is the age at which one can start to draw an unreduced pension.”
The current state pension age is 60 for women and 65 for men, but it will rise for women from this year to 65 by 2020. It will rise for both men and women to 66 between 2024 and 2026, to 67 between 2034 and 2036, and to 68 between 2044 and 2046.
The Government’s reforms mitigate the worst effect on women by reducing the time for contributory work from 39 to 30 years. I warmly welcome that, as it means that many more women will get a pension. However, I am concerned about the arbitrary date for eligibility because there could be a huge difference between the positions of a woman born on the cut-off date or just after, and that of a woman born a few days before that date. That seems unfair, and the Government should have been prepared to put a transitional arrangement in place.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Conservative party plans to accelerate the point at which the retirement age for men is increased to 66 to 2016. Does he think that that is about quality of life or helping employers, or simply to raise an extra £13 billion?
I am not convinced and neither is the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). We will explore the issue further during the debate.
Other reforms that the Government brought forward included a promise to increase the basic state pension in line with earnings by the end of the next Parliament, although of course that assumes that there is not a hung or short Parliament. The Government suggested that the reform could be introduced by 2012, but the end of the next Parliament could be 2015. I believe that that promise will be reneged on, especially by a Tory Government who are looking to cut public expenditure sharply.
The Government’s other reform was to build up private pensions over time through a state-set-up stock exchange-linked fund called personal accounts, which would cover more people than at present and make them eligible for a pension. Although such schemes can work, as I saw for myself in Sweden with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, this one has got off to a most unpromising start. It is meant to have contributions of 4 per cent. a year from the employee, 3 per cent. from the employer and 1 per cent. from the Government, but those figures are far too low for the scheme to be effective. Some workers will contribute but gain nothing out of it for their final pension.
The Government cancelled the commitment to the contribution for two years to save public expenditure, and you can bet your life that a Conservative Government would not pay either, as they would be concentrating on budget deficits. The cancellation for two years was an unpromising start.
I will deal with the point about an unpromising start in my main response, but I want my hon. Friend at least to admit that the 8 per cent. contribution he talks about in the national employment savings trust is the minimum. We anticipate that many employers and employees will see the sense in saving, especially over time, and will increase their contributions from that minimum.
I accept that that could be a minimum. Indeed, some occupational pension funds are very good and might well give larger contributions when they transfer across. However, it is more likely that employers will keep the contributions right down and we will not see what the Minister describes.
To follow on from what the Minister said, individuals and companies are trying to cut their costs as much as possible. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a lot of concern that the absolute minimum will be put aside, not the maximum?
That is certainly my fear.
Many of the lowest paid workers, including those with a couple of part-time jobs, will not be in the scheme at all. Many employers will encourage their workers to opt out so that they can save money. Although the scheme is set up by the state, there is no state guarantee to back the fund. If the stock market collapses, the fund could be devastated, as could individuals’ pension pots.
I argued in the Work and Pensions Committee that it would be perfectly feasible and reasonable for the Government to guarantee fund growth of at least 1 or 1.5 per cent. a year. It is claimed that stock market investments grow at a significantly higher rate than that over time, so it would be relatively easy for the Government’s extra commitment in the bad years to be made up in the good ones. However, there is no such guarantee.
This is not the bold scheme that was needed from a Labour Government to replace our overall employer-based set-up. That set-up is very good when it comes to the operation of pension funds, although that is true mainly for wealthier, well-organised workers. As we know, however, occupational pension schemes are collapsing in all sorts of ways and do not cover enough workers by a long way.
The personal accounts fund will be left to wither under the Tories, however much they bluster now. It will be ripped off by consultants and pension fund managers who charge a high rate of interest. At the end of the day, it is likely to be inadequate for many workers.
That, then, is the diminishing of the benefits side of the deal that brought in the raising of the pension age, but we should also look at what the Tories are signalling for the raising of the pension age to 66. As the hon. Member for Castle Point said, they are rushing it forward to 2016 for men and to 2020 for women.
May I reiterate the Conservative party’s position? We have said:
“We will hold a review into bringing forward the rise in the state pension age from 65 to 66, but starting no earlier than 2016 for men and 2020 for women”.
I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman corrected his statement and pledged to correct his website on this matter.
No, because the hon. Gentleman’s quote says that the Conservatives would be prepared to rush the rise forward to 2016 for men and to 2020 for women. The Pensions Policy Institute, speaking about raising the pension age to 66 for men from 2016, has said that every man under the age of 58 will be affected and will have to save an extra £55 a month to bridge the gap of the lost year of pension. That is the burden that the Tories are prepared to put on men, and it would affect women as well.
I think that the Tories are also prepared rapidly to bring forward the date of implementation of the higher ages and that, although this has not yet been stated, the pension age will become 70 within a short time under the Tories. I ask the hon. Gentleman what the Conservative party will put in its manifesto. If it shirks this issue and is elected, it will have no right to bring in a higher pension age; it has to be specific about its proposals before the election, not after it.
The shadow Chancellor has argued that the Conservatives will restore the earnings link by the end of the next Parliament, which will be 2015, and he claims that the money to do that will come from raising men’s and women’s pension ages. However, if men’s and women’s pension ages do not rise under the Tories until some distant point in the future, they will not have the money to restore the earnings link, so they will have to do precisely as the hon. Gentleman has indicated. Does he share my view?
That well-made point explains the situation. I think that the pension age will go up to 70 if the Tories get elected.
Lord Turner, the chair of the Pensions Commission, has set the scene for the Tories, and he is a former bosses’ leader, so we all know that he is sympathetic to them. According to one report, he told the BBC in August last year
“that there were arguments made during his review that the pension age go up to 70 by as early as 2030.”
“If I was redoing my report I would be more radical, arguing for an even faster increase in the state pension age”.
That clearly contrasts with what he said in his report.
We all know that it was a Labour Government. However, Lord Turner also said in his report:
“Some people suggest that this expense should be offset by raising the state pensions age to, for instance, 70. This would however have the disadvantage that the losers would be those on lowest income: both because they will typically have worked for longer and because they have shorter life expectancy in retirement.”
My hon. Friend mentioned the Turner report, which was not purely the property of Lord Turner himself, but the result of a commission. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Turner commission said:
“we do not believe that a rapid increase over a short period (e.g. to 70 by 2030 as was suggested in some submissions to us) is required”?
Yes—that is a good point. I am amazed by Lord Turner’s change of stance; perhaps he is positioning himself in the belief that there is going to be a Conservative Government. I am particularly amazed by that change given that there has been a recession in the interim.
Let us be clear: the Tories now see the raising of the pension age as a budget deficit measure. Deficit reduction drives their policy on raising the pension age. However, why should workers ready for retirement be denied it and have their financial security removed from under their feet to meet the cost of an economic crisis caused by the bankers?
The commission used the “living longer” argument to justify bringing in a longer-term change in the pension age, but that argument is deeply flawed. The situation is not helped by the fact that the actuaries who peddle that position have a vested interest, because insurance companies, big business and the Government, who want to cut bills, are their main clients. Living longer is mixed up with issues related to healthy ageing, but let us be clear about the “living longer” argument.
Recession, with its unemployment and poverty, reduces life expectancy. I am acutely aware of the fact that that was what a report said about people who have insufficient money in retirement, given that it was in the same week that the House unfairly docked my £65,000 resettlement grant. We should just look at the example of Russia’s transformation to capitalism. The economic collapse cut life expectancy by a huge amount. Under the Tories, we had three recessions, at least two of which were incredibly deep, and we have now had an awful recession under Labour, thanks to the bankers. Although it is true that the NHS, which has been well funded until now, has kept many more people alive, it is likely to have to endure a period of cutbacks which, if the Tories are elected, will probably be severe.
As regards employment rates for those aged between 50 and the statutory pension age being on a gradual upward path—I stress the word “gradual”—during good economic times, the first Turner report said:
“The absence of major macroeconomic shocks comparable to the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s has meant that fewer workers in their fifties have been made redundant; while for those who have faced redundancy, the general tightness of the labour market has made re-entry into the labour market easier”.
Well, not now, and that should be taken into account.
The Turner commission’s first report said:
“The recently launched English Longitudinal Study of Ageing…will provide a far better evidence base on the impact of ageing, but unfortunately not for many years.”
On health and ageing, it said:
“Analysis on this issue is frustratingly incomplete…From these data we simply do not know what the truth is.”
One key point that the report made was:
“Major inequalities in life expectancy and health between socio-economic groups may make across the board increases in retirement ages infeasible and inequitable, unless those differences erode over time.”
However, there is no sign that they are likely to erode significantly over time.
The report did, however, state that early inactivity for men aged 55 to 59 is concentrated in the lowest two and the highest wealth quintiles, with the lowest two quintiles describing themselves as sick or unemployed. The Pensions Policy Institute pointed out that
“there is a significant transition from full-time or part-time employment into ‘inactivity’ past age 59. Approximately 80 per cent. of men aged 55-59 are in employment, falling to 60 per cent. aged 60-64, and only 20 per cent. aged 65-69.”
Let us say it as it is. For most people over the age of 65, and sometimes earlier, the workplace is an incredibly hostile environment, particularly for those in the lower wealth quintiles. That will not be changed any time soon.
I favour people being able to work longer. That is what the Work and Pensions Committee said in its report, and the law should be changed to make that possible. However, it should be a matter of choice, not a question of forcing people to do so when they are being denied the financial security of a pension.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s points and I suspect that his constituency is a bit like mine. With the best will in the world, a lot of men—and women for that matter—who do very physical work and are outside a lot of the time are physically not able to carry on at that level by the time they get to 60. Perhaps another job would be fine, if there was another one that was suitable, but they are just not able to do the kind of job they have been doing for 40 years.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, particularly about manual trades and people from lower-income backgrounds.
I agree with the Government’s pension paper of December 2002, “Simplicity, security and choice: Working and saving for retirement”, which said:
“It is important that people have the choice to work beyond age 65, whereas raising the State Pension age would leave many of those on low incomes with no option but to continue working.”
“An increase in State Pension age would also reduce long-term public expenditure”—
that is why it is attractive to the Tories. However, the paper continued to say that that
“would disproportionately affect lower-income people who rely more on state benefits in retirement. The same people tend also to have lower life expectancies, and so, with fewer years in retirement, they would see a disproportionate reduction in their income. The effect might be particularly severe on those who have done manual work for long periods in heavy industries, in which there is a record of low life expectancy.”
That is exactly why I believe that raising the pension age without addressing that structural unfairness would be one of the biggest boosts to inequality in this country for decades.
Here is what the Marmot review, which was published last month, had to say:
“More than three-quarters of the population do not have disability-free life expectancy as far as the age of 68. If society wishes to have a healthy population, working until 68 years, it is essential to take action to both raise the general level of health and flatten the social gradient.”
I have no confidence that that will happen if the Tories get in. The Pensions Commission found that there was a major gap in life expectancy between socio-economic classes, affecting both men and women, and it is not narrowing. I believe that it will worsen with the raising of the pension age.
There has also been change with the introduction of the employment and support allowance, which is what a working-age person who could not draw a pension would have to live on. That is less than the basic state pension, and considerably less than what used to be called the minimum income guarantee for pensioners. That, in my view, makes raising the pension age unacceptable for most workers, but especially those from poorer backgrounds, and I oppose it.
Pensioner poverty is quite extensive. The Select Committee has discussed the fact that, despite a marked decline since 1997, there are still 2 million pensioners in poverty, and 1.1 million who live on less than 50 per cent. of median income, which it describes as unacceptable. The basic state pension is too low, and it falls too far short of removing poverty in retirement for all pensioners. The argument is that many people now have savings and private pensions to supplement their income, but I would add that many do not. The supplementary income argument is used to drive down the relative worth of the basic state pension. I believe that that will continue, especially with a Conservative Government, and that that argument will be used, in time, to break the link with earnings again, if it is ever brought in. I do not approve of that argument by which the basic state pension can be allowed to decline, as it inevitably means extensive pensioner poverty.
Tax breaks and tax credits for the wealthy are enormous. Limiting them, as the TUC suggests, could save £10 billion, and such an approach would be reasonable. For example, the TUC says that
“just 3.1 per cent. of the taxpayer population receive 31 per cent. of all tax relief, averaging £18,750 a year”.
If it were capped to £5,000 for those earning more than £100,000, that would raise £10 billion a year, which could make a significant contribution to closing the deficit. The TUC points out:
“People earning between £70,000 and £100,000 on average claim £4,500 in tax allowances, so a £5,000 limit for those earning more than £100,000 seems a fair limit”.
I agree with that, and it seems to be the right way forward. The basic state pension could be raised over time to an above-poverty level, and tax could be properly applied to overall income so that it could be paid for, including by wealthy pensioners.
I heard the Prime Minister say that the cost of the two wars that we have just had was £18 billion beyond the core defence budget. The Defence Secretary added yesterday on the radio that there is another £5 billion to come next year for Afghanistan. The approach was being described as “money no object”. I believe that with no war, and with a degree of will, proper income for pensioners could be arranged without raising the pension age.
I did not realise that I would be the only other Back Bencher to speak. I think I will probably take a bit less than half an hour for my few comments.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) on securing the debate on an extremely important issue. I do not know his constituency well, although my brother used to live there, and I have been to one of its football grounds. However, I assume that in the east end of London the problems and issues are similar to those in the east end of Glasgow. There are many questions in the debate, and perhaps not many clear answers. Perhaps we cannot expect them, but it is important that we should debate the issues.
The first point I want to touch on is about individualisation and personalisation. We heard those words a lot during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2009. We had assurances from Ministers that people would be treated as individuals and that there would be personal care for people. However, the reality that many of us see in our constituencies is that when people go to the Jobcentre Plus office or deal with the UK Border Agency or any of those huge departments, they do not get individualised or personalised care. That is a big concern, as we deal with such a wide range of older people in society.
The health of people when they reach their 60s or 70s—or even earlier—covers a phenomenal range. My mother is 82 and in very good health, but I know many people in Glasgow, East who are worn out in their late 40s or 50s because of ill health, and many other issues.
Although average life expectancy is going up, as the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead said, the range of life expectancy is huge. Male life expectancy in my constituency remains at below 70. If we make 70 the pension age, theoretically no one would get there, although I accept that there is a range. Although life expectancy at the top end goes up and up, at the bottom it does not do so to the same extent.
People’s ability to work varies hugely as they approach retirement, as does their desire to work, but it depends on the kind of work that they have been doing. The skills of older people vary, too. They may have used largely physical skills, doing outside work in parks, on the streets or wherever, or they may have done the sort of intellectual work that we are more used to. Another factor that has not been mentioned is that of caring, and the many caring responsibilities that many older people have these days. In the past, they were often quite light—seeing the grandchildren or the great-grandchildren once in a while—but for many they are now quite onerous.
As I said, male life expectancy in my constituency remains at under 70, and in some parts of Glasgow, including in parts of my constituency and nearby, it is well below that. I suspect that that is the case in other parts of the United Kingdom. Yet only a few miles away some people live for considerably longer, as they would in this part of the world.
The hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically thoughtful speech. He will accept, I think, that the differences that he describes have always been there. It has always been the case that the hard-pressed manual worker dies at a younger age than the professional. Those differences will always exist, and whatever the pension age it will always have a differential impact. Is it the hon. Gentleman’s view that those differences militate against ever changing the pension ages; or, if the average is moving up but we still have dispersion, does he believe that it would justify some upward movement?
Yes, but we need to be reasonable. However, there is broad acceptance. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead said that there had not been much debate or controversy about the original changes in the rules. I do not have a problem with the idea, nor do my constituents or society at large, that the pension age will gradually rise. The question is how we are to deal with the wider range of ages.
Although the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) was right to say that there has always been a range of ages, without going into the statistics it seems to me that that range is getting wider. At the top end, many people are living into their 90s and even beyond 100, yet the increase at the bottom end seems not to be as great. I stand to be corrected on the statistics, but whatever they are, we are dealing with a wide range.
The statistics might cast some light on this. They are clearly projections, and they have to be kept under review, as do all statistics.
On the whole, the increase in state pension age will not result in a reduction in the number of people who survive to pension age. Indeed, it is projected to increase slightly. At the moment, 83 per cent. of men and 89 per cent. of women born in 1955 are expected to reach the state pension age of 65 in 2020. However, of those born in 1978, 85 per cent. of men, which is 2 per cent. higher, and 90 per cent. of women, which is 1 per cent. higher, are expected to reach the state pension age of 68 in 2046. What Parliament did when it legislated to increase the pension age gradually was to keep the percentages fairly similar; but it slightly increased the number projected to be able to retire despite the rise in age.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. I have no problem with what she says. Again, the emphasis tends to be on the average, but I am more than happy to accept the figures. However, we should remember that the average covers an incredibly wide range of people. My point is that we should ensure that the system cares for the individual, whether before or after retirement age. We must emphasise that, and remember that there is a wide range of ages.
I found the Library briefing on the pension age useful. It states:
“An increase in State Pension age would also reduce long-term public expenditure. However, it would disproportionately affect lower-income people who rely more on state benefits in retirement. The same people tend also to have lower life expectancies, and so, with fewer years in retirement, they would see a disproportionate reduction in their income. The effect might be particularly severe on those who have done manual work for long periods in heavy industries, in which there is a record of low life expectancy.”
The reality is that the situation of some of those at the top—that includes people such as my mother, who have increased life expectancy—is not matched across the board. The type of work that one does is clearly a factor. I am an accountant and a Member of Parliament, and I could work until the age of 70. However, those in very physical jobs cannot do so.
Another question is whether people can afford to retire. It is clear that people have not been saving enough, and that things are going to get worse as pension schemes close or benefits are cut. We have already touched on the fact that companies might do the minimum compared with what happened in the past, when many did a lot more than that. The danger for society is that the strongest will grab the most, and the most vulnerable will be left behind. The gap between rich and poor will get wider.
Some of the figures in a recent report on inequality jump out dramatically, although the report was quite lengthy, and I admit that I did not consume every word of it. It said that the 10th richest percentile of the population have 96 times the wealth of the 10th lowest percentile. That gap has become wider over the last couple of decades. The report states that the top 10 per cent. of the population have average wealth of at least £853,000 and that the lowest 10 per cent. have £8,800 at the most. That is an incredible gap, and it is not acceptable. Society will have to consider whether it is acceptable for the gap to become even wider.
I return to the Library briefing. It cites a review of the Oxford Review of Economic Policy by Professor Nicholas Barr. He said:
“Raising retirement age has analogous regressive effects, since workers from poorer backgrounds typically start work earlier and hence make contributions for longer, but have a shorter life expectancy than better-off workers. It can be argued that pension design alone cannot solve problems of wider inequality, which require a broad range of policies including nutrition, health care, occupational safety, and education and training. But at a minimum it suggests a potential role for other instruments, notably disability pension, to reduce regressivity.”
We must consider how much compulsion there is to save. Other European countries and Ireland have recently said that they are moving in that direction. It would obviously mean employers having to contribute, as well as employees. Some have suggested that educating people to save more would be sufficient—that we should explain to people that they need to save more for their retirement. It seems to me that the reality is different. For example, young people across the board, no matter what their background, have a tendency not to think of retiring. That is human nature. Another reality is that those on limited incomes are not able, even if they are willing, to put much aside.
At this stage, I am simply saying that we need to consider it. Other countries are certainly considering it. My personal thoughts would lean in that direction. However, it would have to be tied in with the minimum wage, which at present is far too low. We cannot expect people to save from such a limited income.
However, some very profitable employers are not contributing to their employees’ well-being both in the sense of the minimum wage and the pension contribution. I am happy that the Government have moved forward in some ways, but, as a society, I fear that we are putting too much emphasis on the individual’s choice. Although, on the whole, I support individual choice, we as a society have to pick up the pieces, and we need to look at how much people are saving.
As life expectancy increases, the spread gets wider, too. Some people in society might retire at 70 and then live for another 20 years, and that would be great. We would all like to draw our pension from the age of 70 to the age of 90. However, many in my constituency and elsewhere could be retiring at 60 and living fewer than 10 years and drawing a pension at that time. We need to work together as a society. We cannot rely entirely on an individual saving for themselves.
Therefore, there are more questions than answers at this stage. A piecemeal approach to pension provision, as is happening, does not seem to be working. Although we all understand that the pension age and retirement age are two separate things, they are very much linked. How do we get more individuality and encourage individual responsibility, yet protect the most vulnerable?
The Pensions Commission report of 2005 stated:
“Faced with the increasing proportion of the population aged over 65, society and individuals must choose between four options. Either pensioners will become poorer relative to the rest of society; or taxes/National Insurance contributions devoted to pensions must rise; or savings must rise; or average retirement ages must rise. But the first option (poorer pensioners) appears unattractive; and there are significant barriers to solving the problem through any one of the other three options alone. Some mix of higher taxes/National Insurance contributions, higher savings and later retirement ages is required.”
That is a very good summary of the position. We need to consider the three options of increased taxes or national insurance, savings and average retirement ages increasing. None the less, the fear is that the first option, which means that pensioners will become poorer, might be where we are heading.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) on bringing this important issue before the House. It is one to which we have not devoted enough attention. Although we are talking about what happens post 2020 when we go from 65 to 68, I strongly suspect that our mailbags will start to fill up very soon with letters from women who did not know that the age was going up from 60. Although that change—I think that I am right in saying this—was contained in a pensions Act in the mid-1990s—
The Minister does not need to be quite so defensive. A Tory Government passed the legislation, so I was not attacking her. When I said a pensions Act of the mid-1990s, I was referring to the 1995 Act. The point I was trying to make is that it can take an awfully long time for people to know about such changes. Given that only those aged 45 or younger would be affected, not many of them were thinking very hard about their pensions in 1995, and that is one of the problems. We need a long lead-in to such changes.
I want to consider issues of both process and substance. The issue about the process is how we make the decision. A number of principles need to be adopted here. In a sense the 1995 Act was right to give 15 years’ warning. It does not surprise people, it gives them the chance to plan ahead and enables them to think about their own personal and private pension arrangements and to mesh the two together in a calm, ordered and measured way. The wrong way to do it is what we saw at the Tory party conference last year when the shadow Chancellor pulled a rabbit out of his hat and announced an increase in the male state pension age. When quizzed on women, he announced that there would be a review. As ever when it comes to pensions, it is as if women are an afterthought. That is clearly not the way in which to change state pension ages. We already have a measured, phased process going through. Women’s pension ages are rising from 60 to 65 because of equalisation. It seems perverse for a potential party of Government to increase the gap—albeit temporarily—between male and female state pension ages. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) will tell us about the legal advice that was sought either before or since that announcement on whether it is legal to increase the gap between male and female state pension ages in an era of equality legislation. I doubt whether it is legal. If such a measure were put into practice, I strongly suspect that a man would take that future Conservative Government to court for treating him disadvantageously relative to women, and I think that he might win his case.
That is a very good point. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that if the Conservatives are looking to increase the male retirement age to 66 by 2016, they may say that because of the legal challenge to the equality law, they have to introduce it for women by 2016 as well?
That would be even more unreasonable given that at the moment, women’s pension age will have reached only 63 by 2016. We have heard different versions of the Conservative proposal. Last October, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), said:
“We will bring forward the date when the pension age rises.”
The Tory party website says:
“We will review the state pension age, to consider whether the increase…should be brought forward.”
Therefore, it is not clear whether Conservatives will change the date, but the point that I made when I intervened on the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead is critical. The shadow Chancellor said, “We are making a tough choice. We are raising pension ages to pay for the earnings link. We are being straight with you; the earnings link costs money. We can’t get money from nowhere, so we will pay for it by raising pension ages.” That was the quid pro quo and it was courageous of him to say that. However, we should look behind the scenes and ask, “If the state pension age is not going to be increased until 2016 or 2022, where does the money come from for the earnings link by 2015?” The sums do not seem to add up, so I hope that we will have an answer to that today.
Going back to process, Professor Nicholas Barr has been quoted once already today. He said something else about process in his evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee in 2006. He was talking about the long-term signalling, and he said:
“If what people hear is that the retirement age will rise from 60 to 65, they think, ‘I’m going to have to work 5 years longer; we are a1l going to have to work 5 years longer.’ If you do it right, as we did it for raising women’s retirement age, you announce the change a long time in advance so nobody is affected in the short run. Thus you do not give people nasty, short-run surprises, but phase in the change gradually.”
That is absolutely right, and is clearly not what the Conservatives did last October. Moreover, they claimed spurious amounts of revenue from the change. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research had done some research into the long-term Exchequer flow-backs of a phased increase in retirement ages. The Conservatives lifted the figure from that report and said, “If we put up the pension age by one year for men, we will get so many billion pounds back.” The institute said, “That is not what we said.” It had talked about a much longer term process whereby people’s behaviour has time to change, and its research was about raising retirement ages. The point has already been made that pension ages are not retirement ages. If we simply jack up the age from 65 to 66, there will be a lot of men to whom we pay another benefit—whatever it might be—instead of a state pension. We will not save money because they will not magically go on working; many of them have already stopped working by 65. It is easy to wave around a large number and sound impressive and claim that it is based on complex economic modelling, but, if we want an answer, we have to ask the same question as the researchers.
We need stability and a transparent process. The Turner Commission was right to say—and the Government have not accepted this—that there should be a standing body. By that I mean an ongoing body, separate from the cut and thrust of party conference speeches, which reviews not just average life expectancies but, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) reminded us, the dispersion of life expectancy—that is very important. I made the point to him that any pension age is unfair in the sense that some people will not reach it and others will live long past it, so there is a regressive element to having a state pension age. I suspect that the statistics that the Minister cited when she intervened reflected a narrowing of the differentials. It is true that someone who has slogged their guts out in heavy manual labour will tend to die young, but the number of such jobs are gradually diminishing for all sorts of reasons.
Although that change takes a very long time to work its way through the system, over time it will do that. I would therefore imagine that the proportion of the constituents of the hon. Member for Glasgow, East who retire after a lifetime of heavy manual work is declining every year or, if not, it will decline soon. So I hope that this issue of dispersion will diminish, but, like the poor, it will always be with us. There will always be dispersion and he is right to remind us of that.
My feeling is that, if people are slogging themselves into an early grave through heavy manual work, we should not fix that situation through the pension system but through what we do about the labour market, including the terms and conditions of work, occupational health and so on. As the hon. Gentleman said, this issue is not just about pensions; it is about everything that we do about working lives, life expectancies, neighbourhoods and so on. It is a big issue. Again, that is why I think that a standing commission, which would examine this issue and consider which groups will gain or lose through the changes, is the best way forward, taking the matter out of the daily cut and thrust of politics.
We cannot do nothing; we cannot stand still. I suppose that I slightly part company with the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead at this point. I do not know if this statistic is entirely accurate, but it is said that every 10 years, average life expectancies rise by two years. Alternatively, for the 90 minutes that we will spend in this debate, we will all live 18 minutes longer, or it might just feel like it—I do not know.
Therefore, the question is what we do about that increase in average life expectancies. The Government’s current plans are from 2020 and they are to raise the state pension age for men and women by three years over a 25-year period. At an increase of two years per decade, however, standing still would imply that the state pension age should be raised by five years, as a rule of thumb. So, even the rises that are in the pipeline will probably fall slightly further behind the advance of life expectancy. That is probably where Adair Turner is coming from when he says that perhaps he should have gone further. I have a feeling that if we asked a standing body to look at this issue again and to keep looking at it, it might regard an increase of one year per decade until 2044 as slightly too slow. Consensus is changing on this issue and I have a feeling that we will end up moving faster than that. However, the plans for the seventh Lib Dem term of Government are still a bit fluid at the moment, so I am not making a policy pledge for 2045.
The only caveat about that change is that, of course, actuaries notoriously get these things wrong. I once said to a senior actuary, “Look, isn’t an actuary’s job in life just one thing, which is to work out how long we’re all going to live, and don’t you keep getting it wrong?” He replied, “No, we get lots of other things wrong as well”, which was not the most reassuring answer that I had ever heard. So we cannot just assume that life expectancy will go on rising inexorably. Childhood obesity, or a similar problem, could lead some generations to live for less time than their predecessors. Personally, however, I do not think that we are anywhere near that point.
Therefore, we need to keep this issue under review, but in a way that is measured, incremental and independent, so that there are no sudden surprises and no expressions of, “Ooh, there’s a hole in my budget; I want a fancy policy commitment but how can I pay for it? Oh, I’ll jack up the pension age”. We want none of that sort of nonsense; we want measured, steady progress on this issue, so that people can plan ahead.
I thought that the hon. Member for Glasgow, East made a very interesting suggestion when he quoted Nicholas Barr about an early retirement disability pension. Perhaps we could call it the invalidity pension or something similar—I do not know. In a way, that suggestion may be part of the answer to the situation of a male manual worker who retires early in poor health. If we cannot govern the entire pension system for 10 million pensioners—eventually 15 million—around a particular group of such manual workers, perhaps we can have some type of targeted support for that group that is not grotesquely expensive, because it will not be paid to everybody, but that recognises the fact that, if we are not careful, any changes in retirement ages will prejudice some groups.
That is a very helpful point, which I will take away from this debate. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion might be one way of squaring the circle. If there are particular identifiable groups who will lose out from a general rise in the state pension age, some tailored measure of that sort might be the most nuanced policy response.
The state pension age is, of course, only part of the story. The state pension is now a much smaller part of people’s income in retirement than it was in the past. The whole package of income in retirement is important. So it is not just a question of when someone can get the state pension, but how much they can get.
There are trends in the labour market that I think are particularly detrimental to women pensioners. Not only will women now have to wait until they are 65 for their state pension, but when they draw a pension it is increasingly likely not to be a final salary pension but a money purchase pension of the sort that the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead commented on in his contribution. Of course, money purchase pensions tend to be based on life expectancies. So, instead of a woman getting a final salary pension based on what she used to earn, which would be the same as for a male counterpart who earned the same amount, she will now get a money purchase pension that is lower for women than for men, because it must be invested and because women tend to live longer than men. That seems perverse. It seems to be a rule of pensions that women tend to lose out and there is a risk that, after making so much progress on women’s pensions—as the Minister knows, I welcome the 2010 changes—we are now going backwards, because of a greater reliance on money purchase pensions. Women will not only not be able to draw those pensions until later than they do now, but, when they finally draw them, they will be lower their male counterparts’ pensions.
I want to draw these threads together. I think that it is inevitable that state pension ages will rise, and my hunch is that they will rise somewhat faster than has been pencilled in. However, in my view the decision should not be partisan, party political and short-term, but taken one step away from party politics, along the lines that the Turner commission suggested. Furthermore, people will need plenty of warning of any rise in state pension ages.
However, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, East said we must also look at dispersion and not just at the average ages of retirement. There are probably tailored solutions that will enable us to deal with that issue, while recognising the welcome fact that we are living longer and that the pensions system—
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s peroration. However, I was just wondering what sort of tailored solutions he had in mind to deal with the question of dispersion. I ask that because there is an issue of the class or socio-economic bias of longevity and I wondered whether he had anything particular in mind when he talked about tailored solutions.
I have two specific ideas in mind. The first was the idea that I mentioned of exploring the role of disability pensions as a kind of early retirement pension for a very specific sub-group, so that we might say, “If we push the pension age up for everybody, there is a small group who will be left behind who may have had a particular life experience—for example, ill health or early retirement—and we may need a specific mechanism of support for that group”.
The second, and wider, idea is also related to something that I mentioned earlier: these socio-economic inequalities have pretty deep roots and there is a raft of social policies that one could think of to deal with them. As I have said, this is not just a pensions issue and it is not just a DWP issue, and our policy making needs to reflect that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) on securing this debate. I also congratulate him on a very well crafted speech, as well as giving him my best wishes for his retirement.
Like the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), I have visited the football ground in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead. I must say that it was a particularly memorable day, not for the game of football—the score was Leyton Orient 0, Plymouth Argyle 0—but for the meeting afterwards of the Plymouth Argyle Supporters Association. The guest speaker was the late Michael Foot and it was a particular pleasure to see him then. Indeed, that Plymouth Argyle event was the last time that I saw the former leader of the Labour party alive. I must say that he gave the most exhilarating speech. It was one of the best speeches that I have ever heard, although it was about Plymouth Argyle’s 1928 FA cup run. There were certainly no interventions from the assembled supporters during that speech.
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
I also wanted to congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead on making his case so robustly. Shall we say that he made it from a characteristically left-wing viewpoint? His stance was pretty much to ignore this country’s gaping £175 billion deficit, as if it did not matter. Also, I noticed from his website, which I studied yesterday evening, that he has actually taken to praising the Prime Minister, which I am sure has not happened before, for his conversion to Keynesian policies. That says something about the leftwards lurch in the Labour party. Mr. Bayley, I welcome you to the Chair.
Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman slightly ruined parts of his speech by getting just a little too enthusiastic in talking about deep recessions in the 1980s and 1990s, casually ignoring the fact that the deepest recession of all since the 1930s has been, of course, the one that we are just coming out of, and that has taken place under the Government whom he professes to support.
The hon. Gentleman also made some slightly bizarre comments. For example, he suggested that Lord Turner was trying to curry favour with the Conservative party. If that is the case, he does not seem to be doing it very successfully, given the fact that we are pledged to abolish his organisation, the Financial Services Authority.
The hon. Gentleman raised several interesting points, with which I will deal in detail. One was the possible effect of any rise in the pension age on inequality, which I think that we would all agree has increased under the current Labour Government. However, I doubt whether his proposals would make much difference. I will discuss the meat of his arguments in due course.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, East made some similar points and mentioned the important factor of differential life expectancies, with which I am familiar, as my constituency includes large estates ranking among this country’s bottom 1 per cent. in terms of deprivation, literally next door to some of the country’s wealthiest people. Differential life expectancies are an issue in my constituency. He was right to say that in debates such as this, the focus is inevitably on average life expectancy rather than the range of life expectancies. As was said in interventions on his speech, it would be difficult to design a pension system that took into account the range of life expectancies, but we would be interested to consider any proposals of his. He also made some valid observations about wealth inequality.
The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) made several interesting points. He kicked off by discussing the need for a long lead-in before any changes, citing the 15-year lead-in of the Pensions Act 1995. That is a valid point—we would all like as long a lead-in and warning as possible—but we must also consider what is affordable. Getting the balance right is the key question before us today.
The hon. Member for Northavon made a number of points without setting out any policy of his own, as far as I could tell, about what the retirement age should be. He attacked the Conservative party’s proposals, including asking whether we had taken legal advice. I am not aware of any Liberal Democrat policy that has come with legal advice attached. Perhaps he would like to attach legal advice to some of his proposed policies on this issue and others.
The hon. Gentleman must admit that there is an issue with equality and the requirements in European law to equalise pension ages, to which the previous Conservative Government responded by passing the 1995 Act. Perhaps he can give us at least an indication. Surely Conservative Front Benchers took some kind of legal advice on their proposal to increase the male retirement age in 2016—that is certainly what the shadow Chancellor appeared to be saying in his speech—and the female retirement age either straight away in 2016 or in 2020. If the Conservatives propose the latter, they would be legislating to make the retirement ages unequal again, which is clearly against European law.
I thank the Minister for that lengthy intervention. To correct her, our policy is to raise the pension age at some point after 2016. It is important to do that. In terms of some of the details of the implementation, we will have to wait and see. She can argue the issue during the coming general election campaign.
The hon. Member for Northavon discussed the need for measured, steady progress, with which I think we would all agree, but he did not say towards what, in terms of a retirement age. He said that he departed somewhat in his conclusions from the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead. To be fair to the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead, his conclusion was absolutely clear, but the hon. Member for Northavon rather left the impression that he was still on the same vehicle, having failed to outline any idea of what he thought the retirement age should be.
I urge the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead to correct his website, which says that
“the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has said that he would save £13 billion a year by raising the retirement age for men and women to 66 by 2016.”
Most parts of that sentence are untrue, as I have explained. In fact, his website is riddled with untruths about Conservative policies. He says that
“900,000 children would miss out on Child Trust Funds which the Tories have said they will scrap.”
That is utterly untrue. We have said that they will be restricted to poorer families, not scrapped. I would be grateful if he corrected that reference as well. This debate gives me the opportunity to set the record straight.
In his article “Pension Justice” on the Poptel website and again today, the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead discussed the widening gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor. We all agree that that is a concern, but maintaining the status quo on pensions will not do anything to address it. If we accepted his line of reasoning, the logical outcome would be different retirement ages for different professions or those from different socio-economic groups. I am not sure whether he would necessarily advocate that, but it certainly follows from what he and others have said.
There is a blatant inconsistency in the hon. Gentleman’s argument. If it is unfair in his terms to raise the retirement age for all when the rich live longer than the poor, how can it possibly be fair to maintain a lower retirement age for women when women live longer than men? I would be grateful if he explained that. If life expectancy is the touchstone of fairness, the hon. Gentleman ought to advocate a retirement age well in excess of 65 for women that is phased in as quickly as possible. That would take his argument to its logical conclusion. I do not think from his demeanour that he is in favour of doing so. Most people accept that differentiating state pensions according to life expectancy would be unfair and unworkable. On the same grounds, continuing to differentiate according to sex cannot be right in the longer term, particularly when life expectancy suggests the opposite case. That is a matter of common ground between the Opposition and the Government.
To return to the matter in hand, it is the Labour Government who have destroyed pensions in this country, contrary to what is said on the hon. Gentleman’s website. Labour’s first welfare reform Minister, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), summarised Labour’s record on pensions when he said on Radio 4 in September 2004 that
“when Labour came to power we had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe and now probably we have some of the weakest”.
In my contribution to this debate, I will stick to a simple plan, outlining first the Labour Government’s failures on pension provision and then the Conservatives’ plans in the short and long term to do something about it. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people in private sector pension schemes fell from 6.2 million in 1995 to 3.6 million in 2008. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, we had one of the strongest private pension systems in 1997, but not any more.
The Prime Minister himself, as Chancellor, raided pension funds, taking £5 billion a year out of people’s savings. Occupational pension schemes have closed down under the ever-increasing weight of regulation and bureaucracy, while Labour has allowed a pensions apartheid to grow up between the public and private sectors.
Yes, partly. The excessive extra regulation piled on in that area is certainly part of it. I think that the general climate under this Government for pensions has been extremely unhelpful.
Under Labour, more and more pensioners have been dragged into the web of means-testing. The means test is an insult to the dignity of older people. Government figures show that the poorest pensioners are getting poorer, while many are not claiming the benefits to which they are entitled due to the complexity of the system. Not surprisingly, therefore, recent polls have shown that 51 per cent. of people would not trust the Government to act in their best interests on pensions. That was published in a document entitled “Trust and confidence in pensions and pension providers”, issued by the DWP itself in October 2007.
Where do the Conservatives stand? We recognise that we need to tackle the debt crisis, which will also affect many pensioners, while ensuring a decent standard of living in old age. That is why we are calling—
Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Bayley.
We are calling for a review of the state pension age coupled with the re-link of the state pension to earnings growth to provide a larger pension for all. We believe that the Government should announce an updated review of the state pension age, as recommended by Adair Turner’s Pensions Commission.
Parliament has legislated to re-link earnings and pensions within the lifetime of the next Parliament. The hon. Gentleman is saying that that will be coupled with an increase in the state pension age. Even according to the rather muddled speeches of the shadow Chancellor, that will not happen until 2016, which is after the lifetime of the next Parliament. Can the hon. Gentleman explain the inconsistency?
There is no inconsistency. We have said that we will restore the earnings link by the end of the next Parliament. There is also the question of how that will be funded, which the Government are ignoring. We believe that a review should consider whether the rise in the pension age from 65 to 66 should be brought forward from 2026, but start no earlier than 2016 for men and 2020 for women. I look forward to seeing the corrections on the website of the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead in relation to Conservative policy.
Saying that we will review the provisions shows a clear intention. We have also talked about dates, whereas the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned any ages or dates. It is not on for him to criticise the Conservative party for not being clear on this matter when he has provided nothing on Liberal Democrat policy. He has merely suggested that he disagrees with the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead, whose position is clear, without proffering any alternative.
In conclusion, we believe that raising the pension age should be combined with a renewed commitment to re-link the state pension to earnings growth in the next Parliament to ensure a decent standard of living for all in retirement, halt the spread of means-testing and restore the incentive to save. Through a new office for budget responsibility, an incoming Conservative Government would carry out a full review of public sector pension liabilities and other questions that are before us. The Government should find ways to cap the biggest Government pensions, including those of senior civil servants. The shadow Chancellor outlined further proposals at the Conservative party conference last year. Our biggest ambition is to reverse the effects of the Prime Minister’s tax raid on pensions, which can be fulfilled only once we have got on top of the deficit. That may take more than one Parliament to achieve, but we are determined to get Britain saving.
The Government have an astonishingly bad record in this area. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s explanation of where we go from here. I have outlined the position of an incoming Conservative Government—we look forward to implementing it.
The debate has been revealing and interesting, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) on securing it and on his speech. Although I did not agree with every aspect of his analysis, as ever he showed great insight. He has a great record of pursuing issues of pensioner well-being and poverty through the Work and Pensions Committee, of which he ought to be proud.
My hon. Friend spoke about the unpromising start of the national employment savings trust. This is a landmark pension reform and its size and complexity should not be underestimated. It deals with the biggest gap in pension saving, which concerns those on medium and lower earnings in the private sector. When it is up and running, it will give up to 10 million people—including 7 million to 9 million new savers—guaranteed employer and Government contributions to a workplace pension for the first time in many years. At present, the default option is no saving at all, and that has been happening since the previous Conservative Government made the changes to personal and private pensions that destroyed pension provision in this country.
This landmark reform has been achieved through consensus across the board. Although my hon. Friend does not agree with all aspects of it, I hope that he supports the use of inertia, which means that people will be enrolled automatically. This is the best chance that there has been for a long time to improve the saving and retirement prospects of many people who currently have no savings to call on.
The state pension age was set at 65 for men and women in 1925 and was reduced to 60 for women in 1940. As hon. Members have said, the only change since then has been through the Pensions Act 1995, which legislated to equalise the state pension age in phases starting from this year, with the pension age for women rising to 65 by 2020. That gave a 15-year warning that equalisation would take place. One reason for that legislation was to ensure an equalisation of benefits, which is required under European law.
In the shadow Chancellor’s speech at the age of austerity conference—if I may call it that—he announced dramatically that he would be straight with the British people and that he would put on record exactly how he would pay for the desirable aim of re-linking the basic state pension to earnings. It is nice when a sinner repenteth, as it was the Conservatives who broke the link 30 years ago. He announced dramatically that, in this age of austerity, he would bring forward the increase in the state pension age to 2016—he did not mention the gender of those who would be due to retire and nor did he speak of a review—and he then announced the amount of money that would be saved, as the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) said.
In that age of austerity speech, the shadow Chancellor implied strongly that the two things would happen at the same time and that one would pay for the other. He cited that as an example of a Conservative Government-in-waiting who would take tough choices, and set out that they would give a little bit with one hand and pay for it by taking a little bit away with the other. It was only when he was questioned following the speech that the policy began to unravel and look slightly messy. The Conservatives had clearly forgotten that the women’s pension age was due to rise to 65 over the next 10 years under legislation passed by the previous Conservative Government so that it would be equalised with that of men by 2020.
Moving on to the implications of the shadow Chancellor’s dramatic announcement on state pension age at the age of austerity conference, it appeared that the policy could cost men who are now six years away from retirement £8,000 a year because they would have to work for longer. Women would have to make a similar sacrifice and it could cost them up to £15,000. Conservative central office realised that the shadow Chancellor might have misspoken, to use a popular term, so the Conservatives then said there would have to be a review. The default option, following that bold, dramatic announcement, was therefore a review, and that was the position to which the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) attempted to stick doggedly this morning, even though what would happen under that review seems already to have been decided.
That review, however, would get us into a messy situation and give rise to questions that the hon. Member for Northavon and I have sought to bring to the fore. Under European law, the state pension age has to be equalised—that is the view of the EU Commission. I know the shadow Chancellor and many of his friends on the Conservative Front Bench try not to take much notice of that institution but, nevertheless, we are signed up to the basic rules that it promulgates, one of which is that there should be equal access to pensions and other such benefits across the genders.
Those of us who remember the introduction of winter fuel payments will know that the disparities in the pension age meant that men over 60 took the Government to court so that they would be allowed to access those payments, even though they were not retired, and they succeeded under European law. Since 1995, the British Government have said that they will equalise the state pension age gradually to give people the appropriate time to plan for their retirement so that they know exactly when they will be due to retire. It is hard to imagine that the EU Commission would be happy to be suddenly confronted with a new non-equal pension age that was clearly against European law and that had been promulgated on a whim at a Conservative party conference in an age of austerity speech. I suggest that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham get his party’s lawyers to take a much closer look at what seems to be the mess of Conservative policy on the retirement age.
One thing is absolutely clear: Conservative policy is in a terrible muddle. Even if it were not, it would certainly cost all men who would have to work a year longer and were six years away from retirement in 2010 an extra £8,000 a year in forgone pension. In addition, if the policy could be put in place in the way in which the Conservatives intend, which I doubt would happen, it would cost women who were due to retire in 2020 at least £5,000, and perhaps an average of £15,000.
The Conservatives need to have a closer look at what on earth they are doing. Clearly, however, people in their 50s who are looking forward to retirement will know that, should there be a Conservative Government, they would certainly lose out as their retirement age would be changed in a fast and arbitrary way. I agree with the hon. Member for Northavon that making such sudden changes to the retirement age in a short space of time would be less than helpful. Such a policy would not allow the people who were caught up by the changes to plan for them appropriately, and would create uncertainty about the retirement age in the future.
The hon. Lady’s argument does not wash. Obviously, in a perfect world, we would want notification of the state pension age to be given as early as possible, but we are talking about dates such as 2016 and 2020 at the earliest. I contrast that with the Government’s £5 billion a year raid on pension funds that was announced with absolutely no notification whatsoever.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to stop believing his own myths about so-called raids on pension funds. After the changes to the tax law to which he referred, the balance of profit in pension funds rose substantially over the next three years. It was only when the dotcom bubble burst that pension funds went into deficit. He needs to consider cause and effect before he pontificates in front of hon. Members.
I was about to agree with the hon. Member for Northavon about the sudden changes to retirement plans that were put before the electorate in the age of austerity speech made by the shadow Chancellor. Such sudden shifting can make people unsure about what their retirement age will be and whether it will be arbitrarily changed, and they then get worried about whether it is worth saving in pensions at all. It is difficult enough to get people to save into pensions. They often think of reasons why they should spend their money now, which is not surprising in a very consumer-orientated society in which mass advertising campaigns encourage instant consumption rather than saving. Those of us in government who wish to encourage saving must fight against that. However, when arbitrary changes in the state pension age are announced on a whim at a Conservative party conference for dramatic effect, it does not give people confidence that things will not be changed again.
We are in the middle of putting into effect the biggest landmark pension changes for probably 60 or 70 years, which involve automatic enrolment. That is the nearest step short of creating a compulsion to save, in that it tries to work with the idea of inertia to encourage people to save. In other words, people will have to opt out of automatic enrolment if they are active in the workplace. The most sensible approach is to put the Pensions Commission’s proposal in place, establish a national employment savings trust, and have automatic enrolment.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there will be re-enrolment every three years. We will have to see how that works. We always have to keep these things under review, but we have not yet seen this landmark pension reform working, so it is far too early to consider what levels of opt-out there might be, how we can encourage people to stay in the scheme and to value pension saving on top of the basic state pension, and how to remind people that they might be living 20 or 30 years after their retirement ages, even following the rise in retirement age that we are discussing thanks to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead. We must keep such matters under review.
Part of the difficulty with pensions policy is that it is very long term but, in our Parliament, we love to do new things and to change and switch about. We have to get the new system bedded in, see how it works and identify the levels of opt-out before we consider the idea of compulsion again. We must make it as easy as possible for people to save. We must encourage and reward them for doing so, particularly when they have medium or lower earnings.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham also talked about pensions apartheid, which I thought was very telling. He said that 85 per cent. of people in the public sector have access to an extra workplace pension when the proportion in the private sector has gone down because of employers’ lack of willingness to offer extra pension saving. What he did not say when he used those alarmist words and talked darkly about another review—he would not say this before an election—is that that review will no doubt consider what his party could do to destroy public sector pension provision.
I suggest that everyone who works in the public sector take close account of what the hon. Gentleman has been saying about their pensions. He did not mention that the average public sector pension payment is between £4,000 and £5,000. We are talking about part-time women workers, porters, cleaners, people who work in schools and those who do not have huge earnings. It has always struck me as odd to say that we should try to make pension savings in the private sector by destroying pensions in the public sector.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead on securing the debate. The Government’s view is that the increases in the state retirement age that have been legislated for are appropriate at the moment. The state retirement age has to be kept under review, but clearly we do not wish to make sudden and dramatic changes that will destabilise people’s confidence and mean that they will approach retirement age only to have that arbitrarily shifted away from them with minimum notice—we will not do that.
Tankers (Lyme Bay)
The debate is about a matter of unashamed local concern rather than major national concern, although it affects not only my constituents in West Dorset, but those of other hon. Members in nearby constituencies—one such Member is seeking to enter the debate and will do so when she chooses. The extraordinary and simple fact is that several tankers are currently parked, to use a colloquial term, off Lyme bay. That is not a matter of dispute between anyone and anyone else, but simply a matter of plain fact.
My second statement is equally uncontroversial, although it is certainly a statement of values, if not one of fact. Lyme bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I do not say that unadvisedly, because it is a world heritage site. It has been recognised by UNESCO as one of the most important places in the world, after considerable efforts by many people involved, including myself. That was not because of its natural beauty, which is wholly outstanding, but its extraordinary geological significance, as it is the part of the world most responsible for the evolution of modern theories of evolution. It is the place where the significance of fossils was first understood, and it still yields the most astonishing variety of evidence about the planet’s very ancient history.
When one considers the bay’s astonishing beauty, combined with its great scientific importance, one might conclude that our laws and administrative systems should protect it. After all, as a country we have over a long time developed a whole array of protections for important sites. We have areas of outstanding natural beauty and rules about what can and cannot be done in them, sites of special scientific interest and rules about what one can and cannot do in them, and we have areas that are preserved in one way or another and rules about what one can and cannot do in them.
The House has just gone to the trouble, with considerable cross-party consensus, of passing a Bill to protect the marine environment, for which I and others campaigned for many years, and it is highly relevant to Lyme bay. I congratulate the Minister and others on the new Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which my party supported, as did Liberal Democrat Members. The Act was created largely to preserve and enhance the marine environment—and quite rightly, too. Considerable powers have been given to various bodies to ensure that the marine environment is as well protected as the land-based environment has been by a succession of legislation and administrative action over the past 50 years.
Given all that, the average punter or MP might be forgiven for thinking that there would naturally be some method for ensuring that the biggest ecological risks were minimised in the most important sites. Therefore, when the tankers arrived off the coast of Lyme bay and various local groups began to agitate about the matter—I pay particular tribute to the wildlife groups that brought it to everyone’s attention—it seemed natural to me that Ministers, whom I have mentioned in relation to the 2009 Act, would be concerned about it, would have an array of powers at their disposal to combat those ecological risks and would take action. After several days I discovered that nothing seemed to be happening and wrote to the Department to ask what could be done. I pay tribute to the Minister for the polite and relatively timely response, which I guess was as good as one could expect to receive. To paraphrase—the Minister may wish to qualify my account—the letter essentially stated, “Yes, this is happening and we accept that there is an issue, but unfortunately it is not unlawful in any way for those giant objects with large amounts of toxic material in them to park there more or less indefinitely. We are very sorry, but although we love you dearly there is nothing we can do for you.” That is broadly what the letter stated.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and for representing that wonderful coastline. I, too, have received one of those bland letters in response to inquiries about the tankers. Dorset Wildlife Trust’s head office is in my constituency, so I am here representing the views of my constituents. I hope that he will agree that there obviously has to be a better solution. Rather than taking risks, the vehicles should not be parked in the bay at all, but perhaps somewhere at Portland. If it is not a question of being able to apply the law, surely some common sense and negotiations could be used.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and a little envious that the headquarters of the Dorset Wildlife Trust is in her constituency. I must make a mental note to encourage that admirable organisation to move to my constituency. I accept entirely that she and I are actuated by the same concern to advance the ecological interests of Dorset as a whole, Bournemouth and Poole and a large part of Devon, as we are talking about a pretty widespread area. If the Minister’s letter was in good faith and accurate, which I am sure it was, and if he will tell us today that he has no powers to do anything about the matter, then I agree with the hon. Lady that what is required is the taking of powers to do something about the situation, or some administrative action that would make it unnecessary to have those powers by achieving a result. That is exactly the burden of my tale.
I am not an administrative lawyer, so I do not know whether the Minister has powers to deal with the problem, but I take it at face value that he does not. I do know, however, that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for the UK to have a huge array of environmental and ecological legislation and yet be unable to stop large objects containing large amounts of highly toxic material parking in an area where, in bad weather conditions, for instance, there might be a catastrophe and a spillage—we hope that that will not happen—the ecological significance of which would be colossal. Clearly, we must be able to stop that. It makes no sense for a UK Minister to be unable to stop that happening.
I was therefore surprised and disappointed to discover not that the Minister did not have the powers, though such things can happen, nor that he is concerned, which is a fine thing, but that there was no sense of urgency about doing something about the situation. We need a sense of urgency; something needs to be done.
If you, Mr. Bayley, and I were both in the next Parliament, as I hope I shall be—[Interruption.] I say that only to avoid any suggestion that I am talking down the Conservative party. If we were to find ourselves again in this Chamber discussing this subject, but what we were discussing in those circumstances was an ecological catastrophe as a result of the very thing that I am talking about—a weather condition leading to a spillage disaster—it would be impossible for whoever would then be the Minister to explain why action had not been taken to prevent it when so clearly it was possible to envisage that it might happen.
Thinking oneself into that position, I do not see how a Minister could possibly stand up in good faith at that stage and say, “We were warned, we knew that this could happen, we watched the ships sit there but didn’t do anything about it, they did spill, and now we’re very sorry.” That would be an impossible position to be in. The Minister would have to say, “This is a catastrophe. I’m off.” The time to take action is now, before anything happens, and I do not see any reason to delay. The time to start taking action is today; in fact, the time to take action was some weeks back when the matter first came to light.
The last thing I want to say is that I shall not in any way try to engage in the naive action of specifying from the outside what the Minister needs to do. I am perfectly aware that he has what I do not: a Department full of people who are expert about these matters, who are intelligent, who are knowledgeable about the kind of administrative action that could be taken, and who, I hope and believe, know the actors involved. I am not in that position; I am just trying to represent my constituents.
I am making a point that seems to be irrefutable: we ought not to be bearing this risk. If the Government were properly in control of the ecological agenda, they would deal with it, and I am asking the Minister to deal with it. Whether he deals with it by negotiating positions—by going out there and trying to use the considerable leverage of the UK Government to persuade the owners of the tankers to do something different with them—as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) suggested, whether he discovers some recess of the law that allows him to engage in further regulation that would give him powers that he could use as leverage or directly impose, or whether he needs to engage in legislation, whatever it is that he needs to do, he needs to do it; and it is him, not me, who needs to decide what it is. My point is simply that it needs to be done.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing this important debate. He said at the beginning of his speech that the matter does not affect everyone but that it is important. I concur with that 100 per cent. It is obviously important to his constituents and others who are affected in such a way, but it is also important to the United Kingdom as a whole. Indeed, several other right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, and the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), have raised this issue and others about shipping within the area of their own constituency.
Let me make it clear that the Government, particularly the Department for Transport, seriously take on board the issues that the right hon. Member for West Dorset has raised, and that if there were no provisions and no monitoring of the situation, I would concur that action needed to be taken immediately. However, it is worth laying out clearly the provisions within UK legislation and international conventions that apply to shipping, which, obviously, is an international business. Let me, without disagreeing with the right hon. Gentleman, set out the situation.
Yesterday morning, eight oil tankers were anchored in Lyme bay. In addition, two general cargo ships and a tug were at anchor. Just to help the right hon. Gentleman, he might find that the terminology is “at anchor” rather than “parked”. At any time, there are vessels in Lyme bay which are under way—they are moving about, and departing.
The right hon. Gentleman and others will know that Lyme bay is a body of water close to the English channel, which is one of the biggest and most heavily used shipping seaways in the world. It is an accepted fact that ships take advantage of the sheltered waters at Lyme bay in anticipation of, for example, bad weather, and that they wait at the designated western end of the bay for the embarkation and disembarkation of deep sea pilots. It is also normal for vessels to wait there for instructions from their owners or operators to go elsewhere. I understand that many of the tankers that were waiting there yesterday were doing just that: waiting for instructions to move on.
Why are ships allowed to do that in part of the UK’s territorial sea, and why can they stay there for longer than just days? It is true and absolutely right, in terms of merchant shipping operations and so on, that there are no valid grounds for making ships go away if they are not acting unlawfully or demonstrably posing a threat to the UK’s seas and coasts.
Before the right hon. Gentleman jumps to his feet, I will deal with the threat issue.
There are a couple of points that I would make about Lyme bay. First, there are designated anchorages within the limits of Tor Bay harbour that are controlled by the harbour authority. They are primarily used by ships waiting to enter the harbour. Yesterday morning, there were three such vessels: two cargo ships and a tug. Secondly, outside the Tor Bay Harbour Authority limits, there is a deep-draught anchorage that is used for shelter, and for ships waiting for deep sea pilots. The situation in Lyme bay in areas other than those is that, subject to good seamanship and provided that ships keep clear of obstructions, wrecks, cables, pipelines and, of course, each other, there are no statutory restrictions on anchoring, nor are there any statutory restrictions on the number of ships that can be in an area at any one time.
However, I would not want this House to believe that there are no safeguards or protection for the UK’s seas and coasts. I want to set this in context. We must remember that from a long way back in our history—I shall not necessarily go back to Jurassic times—we have been a maritime nation. Therefore, we have to work within a recognition that the importance to us of maritime industry and shipping is second to none.
Does the Minister accept that what he has just said amounts to saying that, as things stand—I am not suggesting that this would occur at any time in the near future—if 100 large tankers decided to spend a year stationed outside Lyme bay, he would have no basis on which to prevent them from doing so?
I was coming on to this. International guidance on the proximity of vessels to each other would provide cover in that regard. I will mention the role of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in maintaining and keeping a close eye on the necessary provisions in respect of ships at anchor for any period, whether for a day, a week, a month, or whatever. I shall also mention some points that are covered by various conventions.
Let me put on the record that I recognise the fundamental ecological importance of the Lyme bay coastline and its complex geology. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned old fossils found there that help us to understand a great deal about our development. I recognise that it is a world heritage site: it is commonly known as the Jurassic coast because of the rich finds that he mentioned. The last thing that any Government, including this Government, would want is to put that area at serious threat. Therefore, I will run through some of the protections that exist in respect of our coast, particularly Lyme bay.
I have mentioned the role of the MCA, which monitors the situation around our coastline, including the conduct of ships at anchor, especially in known anchorages—and Lyme bay is one such area. If the weather or the condition or conduct of the ships give cause for concern, there are procedures in place under which the MCA takes advisory and warning action.
Does the Minister accept that the MCA’s supervision of Lyme bay, although no doubt welcome, was already in place in the not-too-distant past when a minor disaster happened involving a cargo vessel, not a tanker? He will be fully aware of that. Does he accept therefore that it must be the case the MCA cannot be wholly relied on to prevent all disasters? If a tanker was involved, the disaster would be on a different scale from those that we have so far witnessed.
As I was saying, it is not just one process that is relied on to ensure that the protection and procedures that are needed are in place: there tends to be a multilayered or multifaceted process. The MCA is an important part of that process. I accept that there can be times when things will not go as planned—that is so in any walk of life and in any aspect that we look at—but it is worth noting, equally, that, as part of the international safety management code, shipping companies provide guidance to masters on how close vessels should be to each other. That relates to the numbers that could be in any given space, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his earlier intervention.
Anchored vessels must be maintained in a fully operational state. They cannot be left in a state in which they are not able to move on immediately and they must comply with internationally agreed safety and pollution prevention standards under the international convention for the safety of life at sea, commonly known as SOLAS, and the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, commonly known as MARPOL. Work has been going on, through the international forums and the International Maritime Organisation, to strengthen those processes and ensure that they get stronger and better. Various changes have happened to MARPOL, including annexe VI, which is to do with sulphur emissions, and so on. All that work goes on. It has invariably to be done at international level, because we are talking about an international business. Many of the vessels in Lyme bay are not under the UK flag but are under the flags of other states, which is why an international position is needed. When UK-flagged ships are in other ports, they need to be covered by the same protections as the right hon. Gentleman wants to see at Lyme bay.
If the material condition or readiness of a ship causes concern, the MCA can conduct an inspection, subject to weather conditions and safety, and undertake the necessary work. Where anchoring has the potential to interfere with the right of innocent passage and other freedoms of navigation, the MCA issues navigation warnings to affected mariners.
We need to put this matter in context. At any time some 1,400 vessels can be within 30 miles of the UK coast, most of which are under way, but some are at anchor. Yesterday, in addition to the vessels at anchor in Lyme bay, a number of vessels were under way, moving to and from the bay. They are all monitored under the UK’s vessel traffic monitoring regulations. The MCA monitors UK waters using resources that include the automatic identification system, commonly known as AIS, routine surveillance and communication systems to allow us to monitor not only shipping movement, but ships at anchor, which are a cause for concern for the right hon. Gentleman.
The Government have a highly developed strategic approach to protecting the UK’s seas and coasts from pollution from ships. I shall list the elements of that approach, because they are important in understanding, as I said earlier, that there is not just one approach and it is not about using one organisation: there is a multifaceted approach. A number of provisions are in place, including the following. There is a network of shore-based stations around the UK coastline to monitor vessel traffic using AIS. We have achieved agreement in the forum of the International Maritime Organisation on ships’ routeing measures, which will reduce the risk of groundings and collisions. We are ensuring that powerful tug boats are available to go out and assist ships, particularly those that can no longer manoeuvre under their own power. We have established arrangements under which a ship that requires assistance and whose condition needs to be stabilised can be brought into a place of refuge. We also have a highly effective structure for command and control of an accident and incident, were it to happen, in which the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention plays a major role. We have fully developed the national contingency plan for marine pollution from shipping and offshore installations, which ensures the UK’s preparedness and response to a marine pollution incident, if it should happen. We participate actively in international assistance and co-operation arrangements of a bipartite, multipartite or regional nature, which, again, is consistent with the oil pollution preparedness response and co-operation convention.
I would not want right hon. and hon. Members to believe that there is not a monitoring process to ensure that the rules are properly followed so that ships are not threatening the ecological base of, or the safety of other vessels using, the facility in Lyme bay. The provisions that we have made in legislation in respect of looking after the environmental aspects of maritime matters provide other options for consideration as they roll out. The key thing as far as the Government are concerned is ensuring that we have a safe, effective, efficient merchant shipping industry, as a maritime nation, and protecting major heritage sites such as Lyme bay.
2012 Olympics (Employment)
I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce a debate on a matter that is important to me, my constituents and everyone in the east end of London: the level of local employment at the Olympic park. This year—2010—is crucial for construction at the park. It is already the biggest construction site in Europe, with 9,000 workers employed there. Building work is set to accelerate this year, and the work force will grow to 11,000. The Olympic Delivery Authority estimates that 30,000 workers will have worked at the Olympic park alone between 2005 and 2012.
Hon. Members will realise that while we are still coming out of the credit crunch, that windfall of jobs represents a tremendous opportunity for the adjoining boroughs in the east of London and the country as a whole. Unemployment in Hackney means that we have a particular focus on the issue, and I have raised it consistently for more than two years. I raised it over and again with the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and I secured an Adjournment debate on it two years ago. In private and public meetings, I have stressed the importance of ensuring that my constituents and the people of the east end generally are given a fair proportion of the thousands of skilled jobs that will become and are becoming available at the Olympic park.
Hon. Members will be interested to hear that I visited the site in Stratford this morning and met, among others, Lorraine Martin, the ODA’s head of employment skills, equality and inclusion. The burden of my comments will be about employment, but I was impressed by the progress being made at the Olympic park and to see the buildings taking shape. I have no doubt that 2012 will be a wonderful and spectacular event for Londoners. However, I am obliged to look beyond what happens at the Olympics and to consider the long-term effects for my constituents. Having met top people at the ODA this morning, I am reasonably confident that the figures that I will set out are correct.
The Olympics are of national significance—they are a national event. They are hugely important to everyone throughout the country, and everyone should look for economic regeneration effects from them. However, Londoners in particular are contributing to the Olympics, and we were sold the idea of hosting them on the understanding that as well as being an amazing, historic sporting event, they would provide the opportunity for regeneration in a part of London that has historically not had the jobs and investment of west London and the outer boroughs. The 2012 games represent the single biggest opportunity in recent history to enable us to realise the long dreamt of regeneration of the east end.
I hope that no one doubts that the area is in need. Hackney is one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. Unemployment rates are higher than the UK average, and in the wards closest to the Olympic site, claims for jobseeker’s allowance are nearly twice the London average. Hackney and the Olympic boroughs are young boroughs, and youth employment is a problem in all of them. It is high in Hackney, where the percentage of young people not in education, employment or training—NEETs—is about 10 per cent. The latest figures show that 2,145 people aged 16 to 24 are claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Hackney, and I emphasise that Hackney’s recorded figures for unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, do not capture the large number of young people who do not engage with the authorities.
Given the economic context, the problems in the economy overall, and the need in the adjoining boroughs for jobs and regeneration, it is important that the Olympics leave the east of London and its people genuinely regenerated. Perhaps the most important way of doing so, apart from through infrastructure improvements, is by boosting local employment, which in turn will boost the local economy, local housing and local morale, and deal with the underlying causes of crime, and the gang and knife culture that we have so often discussed in this Chamber.
The Minister will be aware of the latest figures, but I will set them out. The recent ODA figures reveal that 6,277 people are working at the Olympic park, of whom 20 per cent.—some 1,230—are registered as living in one of the five Olympic boroughs. Already, 20 per cent. is on the low side, but the breakdown of the figures will show the Minister why I am so alarmed. Seven per cent., or 439 workers, are registered at an address in Newham, while just 4 per cent., or 250, are registered in Greenwich and Waltham Forest. Only 3 per cent., or 188 workers, are from Tower Hamlets, and 2 per cent. of local workers at the Olympic park are from Hackney—just 2 per cent., or 126.
Hackney—the constituency that I am privileged to represent—has the lowest number of workers employed at the Olympic site. It has half the number from Greenwich and Waltham Forest, and more than three times fewer than Newham. Hackney has consistently had the lowest number of workers at the site since I first engaged with the issue, yet Hackney houses part of the Olympic park. One third of it falls within our boundaries, and local residents have made sacrifices to make the Olympics happen. Houses have been demolished, businesses have been uprooted, and communities have had to put up with the noise and disturbance of building work. Although people have sometimes put up a fight, the general consensus in Hackney is that the Olympics will be worth the sacrifice in the long run, not just because they will be a spectacular event, but because of the long-term benefits for the area.
If we drill down into the statistics, they become even more depressing. The park is situated just a few miles from the City of London and in an area with a high number of working-age people, so we should be pushing more, given that the opportunity is on the doorstep of the east end. The employment figures quoted by the ODA are widely circulated, but they take into account only the workers at the Olympic park. When one tours the park, as I did this morning, one is shown the Olympic village as a matter of course, but there are no figures for the number of local people working at the Olympic village, although 2,887 people are working there—nearly half the number working on the park proper. There are no statistics showing where they come from or their race and ethnicity. It is as if we are supposed to believe that the 2,887 people working at the Olympic village come from nowhere.
It is not acceptable that we lack a proper breakdown of the people working at the Olympic village by gender, race and locality, because for most people—and certainly for my tour guide this morning—it is an integral part of the Olympic park. I urge the Minister to ensure that, in future, employment figures for the Olympics take account of not just the park, but the village.
Apart from the unfathomable exclusion of information about people working on the housing, I also want to raise the definition of a local resident. The ODA defines a local resident as someone who declares a permanent address that is in one of the five host boroughs. However, the authority does not require the worker to have lived in that borough for a minimum period of time before they can be classed as a resident. Pathetic though the figures for Hackney employees on the Olympic park are, as I have said, many local people believe that they overstate the position because they include workers living in houses in multiple occupation who moved to Hackney specifically to work on the park.
Another issue surrounding employment on the Olympic park cuts across some of the processes and aims that the ODA has told me about for more than two years. As contractors moved on to the park but building work on their other sites across London slowed, finished or was halted because of the credit crunch, those contractors simply switched their work forces to the Olympic park. Therefore, the number of jobs that are vacant on the Olympic park is much smaller than the overall employment figures would suggest. Even at this late stage, I would like Ministers to put more pressure on construction and fitting-out companies to fill a specific quota of jobs from the local area.
Over the past year, the work on the Olympic park has changed from earth moving and large-scale construction to a fitting-out stage requiring the employment of builders, carpenters, plasters, electricians and other skilled tradesmen. It is simply not correct to say that those tradesmen are not available in the east end of London, and it would be appropriate to have more focus on filling the jobs associated with the fitting-out stage with people drawn from the east end.
The ODA’s definition of a worker is somebody who spends at least five days working on the Olympic park. That means that a number of the workers counted in the figures, including some of those from Hackney, might include people who have moved on and no longer work on the site. Although it is commendable that the ODA has produced some figures, we have reached a point at which those figures create more confusion than light. The authority needs to go back and look at some of its record keeping so that we can have transparency about the issues that concern me and my constituents.
I want to touch on issues relating to women and ethnic minorities. Although the ODA’s benchmark is to have 11 per cent. of women in the work force, it has achieved a figure of only 6 per cent. Years ago, when I worked for the Greater London council, we showed the way in proving that there were ways in which women could be brought into traditionally male jobs such as carpentry or building. I do not think that the ODA is making enough effort in that regard.
I consulted my constituents before working on this speech, and a number expressed concern that there had not been a sufficiently large push for female employment. Some suggested that the ODA should hold women-only recruitment days, which to my knowledge has not been tried. Others suggested a particular push on training women to do traditionally male jobs. A number of people suggested having better child care on the site, and another suggestion, which I hope that Ministers would welcome, was to have an equal pay audit on the site to examine the pay differentials between men and women. I have mentioned several of the targets set by the ODA mainly to show that it does not meet some of its own targets, and the number of female employees is one example of that. None the less, I feel that the targets lack ambition, for example the ODA’s target on employing local workers of only 15 per cent.
I will move on to another important issue. Overall, the figures for the number of local people employed on the Olympic park are poor and disappointing, and the low proportion of local young people who have found positions as apprentices on the Olympic site is a scandal. When it comes to skilled workers, it could be argued that there might be a skills gap in some of the Olympic boroughs. There has been a lot of talk and action on training, but when it comes to apprenticeships, the skills gap argument does not apply. Young people are brought in and trained, and the figures that I have seen on the number of proper construction apprenticeships on the Olympic site show that, overall, 37 per cent. of apprentices on the Olympic site come from the Olympic boroughs. However, when it comes to Hackney, there is a handful of young people, and I do not think that that is acceptable. It is unacceptable to argue that there should be the same proportion of apprenticeships as of people doing fully-skilled jobs, because it is so much easier to recruit apprentices locally than skilled men. In Hackney, the ODA has not even met its target, which is a betrayal of the young people of the east end.
I understand that there are currently 150 apprentices working on the site. The target was supposed to be 350, but it seems unlikely that the ODA will meet it because it takes three years to train a construction apprentice and there are only 18 to 20 months of building work left on the site. Popular media sources point out that each apprentice on the Olympic site has cost the taxpayer millions of pounds. If we are going to invest that much money in apprentices, why do we not target some of the most deprived young people in the country—those of the east end and the Olympic boroughs? Some suggest that the problem is that young people are not interested in construction, but wherever I go in Hackney, young people ask about the possibility of finding jobs on the Olympic park.
My constituent, Geoff Joab, lives one mile away from the Olympic park in Stoke Newington. He has all the necessary construction skills needed for a job on the park, and one would expect him to be able to get work. He is now in his fourth month of unemployment, despite having signed up for job brokerage nearly two years ago. After calling and calling On Site, his brokerage service, and being told that there was no job for him, he found that it had lost his file and he has had to start over again. My constituents come to me with such experiences time after time. I regard what is being done—albeit often by very nice people—by the brokerage companies in terms of outturn with some scepticism. As I said earlier, the problem lies partly with those construction companies that move established sub-contractors to the Olympic site rather than employing new staff.
I have been fortunate over the past week to attend events with young Hackney people. I attended the annual award ceremony at Hackney community college, which had a theme based around the values of the Olympics. The young people receiving the awards that night embodied those principles of determination, integrity and friendship. However, I was surprised when the principal of the college voiced concerns about having to make cuts in his construction course. On the one hand, the ODA tells me that people in the east end of London do not have the skills, while on the other hand, local colleges are being forced to cut proper construction courses. It is as if one hand does not know what the other is doing about regeneration and employment on the Olympic park.
I also met three female graduates of the construction programme this week. Kelly Drake, Alannah Bascombe and Janine Griffiths are among the 9,000 working on the site. They are waving the banner not only for Hackney, but for female workers. Much more needs to be done if other students are to follow in their footsteps.
I have also met half a dozen young Olympic legacy champions from Hackney community college and BSix college in Stoke Newington. Those students are picked from nine colleges in the five Olympic boroughs. They put themselves forward as candidates and they are tasked with promoting the Olympics among young people. What issue did they raise with me? Jobs. Even though they are the so-called legacy champions, they, too, did not understand how they would benefit in practical ways, such as through jobs.
I shall briefly set out several issues that my constituents raised when I asked them what I should say in this debate—perhaps the Minister can write to me about them. First, they are very concerned about the need for affordable housing in the east end, so they want to know whether Olympic village property will be available for first-time buyers. Secondly, how many local market traders—this is a big issue in Hackney—will be trained up and supported to populate the section of the park designed for local suppliers of goods? Thirdly, how soon after the Olympics are over will the park be made available to the public? Additionally, my constituents are concerned about increased surveillance in the park.
Even 18 months before the construction phase closes, there are practical things that the Government can do so that my young people, in particular, can access the apprenticeships that they deserve and so that my skilled men can have some hope of getting the jobs that they are trained for and anxious to do. We need to set targets for the contractors on a minimum quota of local people and to consider whether more money is needed, perhaps through a training levy.
We need to improve and upgrade the statistics that the ODA is producing, including on job brokerages putting people into jobs on the Olympic site. When I visited my local job brokerage, I was told, after a bit of humming and hawing, that the figures were for the total number of people it was putting into jobs, not just those on the Olympic site, so the figures are lower than they might seem. The ODA needs to look at how it ascertains whether people are truly local—perhaps by asking where people went to school—and it should have more challenging targets.
I have been raising this subject in private and in public, and on the Floor of the House and in Committee Rooms, for two years. I have raised it with such persistence because I believe that this sort of opportunity will not come again. The low number of Hackney people on the Olympic site is a scandal, and it is not even commensurate with any supposed skills gap among Hackney people. In particular, there is the issue of the handful of Hackney’s young people who have managed to get apprenticeships. Apprenticeships can mean a great deal for precisely the type of young people whom I met at Hackney community college and BSix college.
The low levels of local employment and the pathetically low levels of Hackney people with apprenticeships mean that, even with all the other issues that the Minister has to consider on the Olympics, we must once again focus on employment. When the Olympics are over, and the circus, noise, glamour and international attention has passed by, we need to ensure that local people can see that they have gained something and are not being left to slide back into hopelessness and unemployment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing the debate. Like other Members who represent the five Olympic boroughs, she has been a passionate champion of the people whom she represents and, particularly, of opportunities to improve the employment prospects of young people.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend and I would like to say two or three things in the short time available. She should not for one moment doubt the commitment and determination of the ODA, the Government Olympic Executive, this Minister and all those associated with the development of the great Olympic project that the young people whom she represents, and about whom she is so concerned, should have prospects for a better future, long-term employment and skilled jobs as a result of the Olympics. That is important in the context of 40 per cent. of the working-age population of the five boroughs being unemployed, and of 25 per cent. of the population of the host borough having no educational qualifications at all. It was precisely because of that level of deprivation that it was decided that, if we won the right to hold the Olympics, we would host them in east London to secure two legacy ambitions: first, a general ambition about sport and young people; and, secondly, the very specific ambition for the regeneration of east London.
The regeneration involves both a hard and a soft legacy. My hon. Friend saw the hard legacy this morning, as does every person who visits the park, but the second aspect is the soft legacy, which will enable us to look back after the Olympics and say, “Hosting the Olympic and Paralympic games changed the economy of those five boroughs and the opportunities available to the people who live there.” My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a degree of sacrifice for local people living in the five boroughs, and we owe it to them to ensure that their upheaval is worth while.
It is in the DNA of the ODA to make sure that employment opportunities and local employment are maximised, while being highly purposeful in ensuring that contracts go to the whole country. As has been evidenced, apprentices have been recruited—three and a half times the industry average—and most will complete their training by 2012.
There will also be a legacy of training. The skills academy—it was called the digger school—which has now relocated to Beckton, will continue to train apprentices after the Olympics, thus ensuring that the face of the construction industry begins to change. My hon. Friend and I are absolutely as one that the future face of the construction industry should be more female.
The ODA’s overriding responsibility is to deliver the games on time and on budget. Much of the work force, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is brought in by contractors from other parts of the country that are equally affected by the impact of the economic downturn. Across the country, the Olympics are either creating or maintaining levels of employment, but that is the tension. We have a construction project, but given the level of public investment and the commitment of the Government, the five boroughs and Members of Parliament, it also has an important employment objective.
My hon. Friend referred to the targets. I would resile from setting targets and prefer to rely on the ambitious benchmarks that the ODA has already set for local employment, the number of apprenticeships and the employment of women and disabled people. She made specific points about the profile of the 2,700 people working on the Olympic village. I see no reason why those figures cannot be published, so I undertake to ensure that they are.
The job brokerage service that is run by the five boroughs gives greatest priority to unemployed people living locally, and that is the means by which some 750 people have found work in the park. The process is a combination of feeding the demand for labour arising from the construction of the park and changing the nature of labour supply through our investment in apprenticeships and skills. I am encouraged by the proactive outreach initiatives adopted by the ODA, and I think that they will begin to change the number of apprentices over the next six months and give my hon. Friend a better story to tell the young people whom she represents.
Passenger Safety (Railway Platforms)
I am enormously pleased to have been here for the last bit of the previous debate, because mine is one of the boroughs concerned. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on having secured the debate and I was keen to hear the Minister’s response. I hope that the Minister will let us have all the pages of her response that she was not able to get to, because I would love to see them.
I am also enormously pleased to be here to raise yet again the tragic death of my constituent Simon Slade. I say that because it is not often that we have an opportunity to raise such an issue again. The issue was brought forward by his parents, Jean and George Slade, who have been trying for some time to obtain some form of redress. The Minister who will respond to the debate is not the same Minister who responded before, so let me say from the outset that there should be no doubt about the fact that they are not seeking a financial settlement for themselves. Through their good efforts, they are seeking a way to ensure that such a tragedy is not, or at least has far less chance of being, visited on anybody else.
The Minister will have had the opportunity to read the previous debate and he will be wondering what points we may be trying to raise this time around. However, it is worth looking at his predecessor’s response, because Simon’s parents have been stalled far too often since the previous debate in their discussions and in their attempts to change the rules for train dispatch and risk assessments. It is important that we bear that in mind.
Let me quickly remind hon. Members why I am here. Simon died just before midnight on 11 January 2007, after he fell between the platform at Gidea Park station and the outgoing train. Worse, he was then left on the tracks for a further 50 minutes, during which time a further three—I stress three—trains came through before he was eventually found.
It was made clear during the coroner’s inquiry that, on the night that Simon died, the train dispatcher at Gidea Park, having signalled to the driver of the train that he could leave, was so intent on returning to his cabin as quickly as possible that he did not stop to take cognisance of what was happening to passengers on and around the station platform. No matter what anybody says, it is clear from all the evidence—common sense dictates this—that had he stayed even a little longer and watched the train leave, he would most likely have seen Simon fall.
In the subsequent investigation and inquest, the train dispatcher’s actions were excused by the fact—this is the most ludicrous part of all—that dispatchers are not obliged to watch trains leave the station. I must say that that was news to me when I came to this case, because I thought that common sense dictated that they were. My experience with good dispatchers made me believe that all dispatchers do that, but they do not, and nor are they required to do so. It is ironic that when the inquest jury and the coroner went to look at Gidea Park station, the same train dispatcher took special care to watch the train arrive and leave the station, even telling members of the jury to stand back as the train approached and left.
Since Simon’s death, his parents have tried in a remarkable way to uncover how the accident came to happen in the light of health and safety rail standards. Above all, they have campaigned in a remarkable way for a change in the rules governing the activities of train dispatchers and for regular risk assessments to prevent such accidents from happening again. To that end, the coroner in the original case agreed with them when he recommended in 2008 that the rule book should be changed to reflect such concerns and failures. In a letter to the Rail Safety and Standards Board, he stated fairly clearly:
“It would seem to me that the training of train dispatchers should still stress the need to observe all trains until they have completely cleared the station, and that this tragic accident could be cited in the training course to emphasise how important this might be.”
However, in a rather complacent response, the rail accident investigation branch stated—this is really just a statement of the facts—that the train dispatcher is not required to watch trains leave the station. The RAIB does not believe that the dispatcher had any particular responsibility for the people on the platform that evening, despite the fact that the dispatcher subsequently behaved with great care, as I said, when the coroner and inquest jury were on the platform. Clearly, the dispatcher had some sense that they needed to behave in a particular way, even if it was not at the time of the dreadful accident.
I remind hon. Members that as a result of the train dispatcher’s not being required to watch the train leave the station, Simon lay on the track for a further 50 minutes and a further three trains went through the station before he was eventually found. Had the dispatcher spent even an extra minute in between trains walking along, or revisiting, the platform, he would most likely have heard Simon groaning, sadly, from the tracks. It is impossible to know for sure, but, who knows, Simon may well have been saved.
The rule book should therefore be changed so that train dispatchers are required to watch the train leave the station. The coroner agreed and said that the RSSB should
“give consideration to amending the Rule Book Issue 1: Station Duties and Train Dispatch to give additional force to this duty of observing the train throughout its passage through the station.”
However, in a subsequent letter to the Slades, the RAIB, having started by blaming their son, which is pretty ridiculous, stated:
“Bearing in mind that in all the above cases, the behaviour of your son was not that which one normally expects, changing the duties of dispatchers or making substantial changes to platform designs, which would involve major costs, is most unlikely to meet the test of reasonable practicability and would go beyond the duty that train operators owe to their customers.”
I am not quite sure what the RAIB means when it suggests that Simon’s behaviour
“was not that which one normally expects”.
As I have said before, we encourage people who have had an evening out not to drive, but to use public transport. What exactly is the behaviour that one would expect? Simon was running along the platform at one stage, and that is not what one would expect. I have seen plenty of people run along platforms, and they should be told not to. None the less, they do, so the idea that passengers adhere to a set code of behaviour at all times is ludicrous. That is the whole reason why we need somebody on the platform to make sure that people understand the nature of the danger.
It is not true that placing a requirement on train dispatchers to watch the train leave the station
“would go beyond the duty that train operators owe to their customers.”
In practice—this is the point—train dispatchers often watch trains leave at other stations that I have been to. The problem is that the behaviour of train dispatchers is inconsistent; some take great care of their passengers, while others do not. In the absence of enforceable rules, passengers enter a safety lottery at railway stations. There is no way that they can be held to account for any one type of behaviour.
As I am sure the Minister will know, my constituent George Slade is in discussions with the RSSB to put together a proposal of change to the traffic operations management committee. Despite this ridiculous mess, however, the RSSB proposes even now not to change the rule book, but to add a statement of best practice, which would fall well short of what my constituent and I believe is required and leave us pretty much where we are now. I put it to the Minister that it should not fall to Mr. Slade to negotiate a change to the rule book with the RSSB; that should really be the remit of the RAIB, which failed to investigate the case in the first place and which behaved rather shoddily, as was, I think, admitted across the board.
When the debate was announced, Mr. Slade had a call from Mr. Anson Jack, the chairman of the RSSB. The Department for Transport had, quite legitimately, asked the RSSB to put together a document covering its discussions with Mr. Slade, and I am sure that that document is now in the Minister’s hands. I understand that the RSSB has advised the Minister that Mr. Slade is content with the way things are progressing. If so, I must tell him in no uncertain terms that that is not the case, as was made clear to Mr. Anson Jack at the time of his call. Mr. Slade remains concerned that the RSSB proposes only to add a statement of best practice, rather than to change the rules on train dispatchers. That is where the dispute arises, and I must say that common sense would fall on the side of the Slades. Furthermore, Mr. Slade is not convinced that the Office of Rail Regulation will enforce the statement of best practice, because—and here is where things fall down—it has said that the rule book is not legislation but an industry standard. We are back to square one.
In the last debate that I had on the matter, the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), made the point that Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate had concluded that there was no breach of health and safety regulations. Yet any cursory look at the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 would find that it states:
“It shall be the duty of every employee while at work
(a) to take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and of other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions at work”.
I do not believe that the train dispatcher, in hurrying back to his cabin, can in any way be described as having taken reasonable care. He made an omission, and there was a tragic consequence. My concern is about how future dispatchers will interpret “reasonable care” in the absence of clear rules. That is the point: what happens is chaotic, in a sense, because when I travel by train or tube I see completely different sets of standards at different stations.
That is made more of a certainty by the fact that there is still no risk assessment carried out on the danger created by the gap between the train and the platform. There is only one question in the train dispatch risk assessment that refers to that gap. The risk assessment asks
“are stepping distances suspected to be excessive?”
That is all. The answer is no in the case of platform 4, Gidea Park station. Yet the gap is big enough, as was demonstrated, for someone to fall between the train and the platform. Clearly, most normal members of the public would answer that question yes: of course there is a problem with that stepping distance. If the gap was big enough for Simon to fall into, it must, in my book, be excessive. I have tested that view out on other members of the public, and their view is much the same. Common sense, to them, dictates that response, and not some peculiar set of guidelines that seems to be in the heads of the authorities, which leads those concerned to believe something other than common sense.
The simple device of a risk assessment that was, in reality, clear, would have an added advantage. It would help dispatchers immediately to recognise the dangerous state of their stations and to behave with greater care. Some stations are more dangerous than others, and they would make that judgment and be more likely to make a point of attending to what happened on the platform at the time of arrival or departure of a train. There are risk assessments on platforms, lines and train dispatch, so why is there not a risk assessment on the gap between trains and platforms? Given that 80 per cent. of passenger accident risk occurs on the platform, according to the figures of the Rail Safety and Standards Board, why is no risk assessment carried out on the danger created by the gap between the platform and the train? In the specific case of Gidea Park, given the size of the gap, why were there no warnings and why is there no signage about the size of the gap? Why does the dispatcher not warn people over a microphone? That does happen—but not at that station. It happens elsewhere.
The RSSB’s rule book, issue 2, “Station Duties and Train Dispatch”, states that
“whenever possible, passengers must be told to stand well back from the platform edge when a nonstopping train is approaching the platform”
“when a train with slam doors is arriving”
“whenever possible, passengers must be told to stand behind the platform warning line if there is one”.
Given that there is a platform warning line on platform 4 at Gidea Park station—it is a bit faded, but it is there—why are not passengers told to stand behind it? If passengers are to be warned about non-stopping trains and trains with slam doors, why cannot they be warned about all trains? It is utterly illogical.
The RAIB, in a letter to the Slades, stated:
“we do not believe that the provision of additional signing of gaps between platforms and trains, or announcements warning of gaps, would have prevented your son’s accident.”
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? I find that statement almost completely incomprehensible.
In the previous debate on this matter, the Minister’s colleague made the point—I am not quite sure why—that more than 2.1 billion passengers enter and leave trains on the Network Rail and London Underground systems, and that in 2007 there were eight passenger fatalities involving moving trains and station platforms on those two networks. I mention it only because the Minister may be tempted to say that again. I am not quite sure what point the Minister was then making. We know that railways are safer than the roads. That is the fact and that is why people travel on them. The point is that if we are seeking to excuse even those eight deaths on the basis that somehow one death is acceptable, I do not agree that it is. This debate is not a challenge on safety across the board. It is about recognising that there is a clear issue and a problem, which could lead and has led to other issues and problems resulting in the death of someone who need not have died, and may lead to other deaths in the future. That is the point that the Slades are making.
One final point I want to make is about the difference in the level of passenger care between Network Rail and London Underground, which was made clear to me only this morning as I was coming in by tube. Train dispatchers on London Underground, as I witnessed, seem to take great care to watch the trains arrive and leave the station, telling passengers to stand back as the train approaches and leaves. I am sure that other hon. Members have had the same experience, and I feel good about that happening. It seems reasonable and logical. Furthermore, there are both audible and written announcements on London Underground, reminding passengers to “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” Why are there not more announcements like that on Network Rail? Why is it left to a sort of lottery?
Given that London Underground and Network Rail are regulated for safety purposes by the same body, the Office of Rail Regulation, and that the ORR’s “Railway Safety Principles and Guidance” does not say anything substantive about such announcements, it would seem that the greater care taken of passengers on London Underground happens regardless of any rules or guidance. London Underground has decided that it is common sense to take those actions, and that is my point. If it does so because it is common sense, why is it not necessarily common sense to do it elsewhere? What is the point of the ORR if it does not apply a consistent framework of rules to both its networks and if it lets things lie as they do, with such inconsistency? Mr. and Mrs. Slade are simply asking for those organisations involved in this case to accept some responsibility, because of the failure to adopt a clear set of rules and assessments, for the death of their son. They do not want to find a way of suing, or taking the matter further. They simply want at least some clear understanding. They also want—and this is the critical part—those organisations, in recognising that they have some responsibility, to make an effort to change things for the future and amend the rules so that such a tragedy does not happen again.
I have spoken much today of common sense, because I think that that is what has gone missing in this case. Too often, in the discussions that the Slades have had with various departments, the idea of common sense has been met by those on the other side by what I can loosely describe in the words used many years ago by, I think, Dr. Johnson, as a “confederacy of dunces”, and an absolute refusal to recognise that common sense should change the rules. Instead, the rules dictate how we should define common sense. The organisations concerned should learn the lesson from this tragic accident and take action now to prevent another like it from happening. They should not prevaricate or try to find ways to hide behind a set of ludicrous and almost non-existent rules.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) for obtaining the debate. Rail safety is an important issue for the Government, and the railways are one of the safest forms of transport, with safety continuing to improve.
Recent improvements in the industry include the introduction of new train protection systems, new rolling stock and better management of the infrastructure. The independent rail safety regulator, the Office of Rail Regulation, has acknowledged a steady improvement in railway safety standards, and the UK’s record is comparable to that of other western European countries. To build further on this strong safety record, the high level output specification for rail calls for a 3 per cent. reduction in the risk of death or injury to passengers and staff by the end of 2014.
I realise that those overall improvements may come as little comfort in the unfortunate but thankfully rare circumstances in which fatalities and injuries occur. Just over a year ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark) debated the tragic events that resulted in the death of Simon Slade when he fell between platform and train at Gidea Park station. The circumstances surrounding Simon’s death were deeply regrettable, and were compounded by the fact that he was not found for a considerable length of time after the original accident. However, all the organisations that examined or investigated the incident found it to be an unfortunate accident, with no fault on the part of the railways.
The investigation by Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate concluded that Mr Slade’s death was an accident. That was confirmed in the coroner’s verdict of accidental death. Separately, an investigation by British Transport police and a case review by the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was no basis for bringing a prosecution. The rail accident investigation branch conducted a preliminary examination of the incident, which included a review of the police evidence and the HMRI report to determine if it should investigate the case. It concluded that an investigation was unlikely to improve the safety of railways and prevent future accidents.
I am sorry to delay the Minister, but I wish to make it clear that the original investigation was ludicrously delayed because the inspectorate did not follow up the accident immediately; it assumed that Simon was one of those supposedly causing trouble on the tracks further down the line. The whole issue was therefore left, and as a result the Slades were told in a terrible way about the death of their son. For the record, it was a failure on the part of the inspectorate, and although it has come to a conclusion, it was utterly complacent at the time.
I acknowledge what the right hon. Gentleman says.
I am aware that the actions of the train dispatcher on the night of Simon Slade’s death were investigated, the conclusion being that he acted correctly. It was not part of his duties, as set down in the railway rule book, to observe the train’s departure from the platform; as a result, with the station otherwise quiet at that time of night, no one saw Mr. Slade run alongside the departing train, fall over, and then disappear down the gap between the train and the platform.
The right hon. Gentleman raised concerns about those rule book procedures during the previous debate, as he did again today, and looked for some change to be made to the rail industry approach. As he said, the coroner in the Simon Slade case wrote to the Rail Safety and Standards Board after the inquest, inviting consideration of changes to the part of the rule book relevant to train dispatch. I understand that the RSSB put that request to the train operator and management standards committee, or TOM. Having considered the incident, it decided that no action was appropriate at the time. I note, however, that questions on the platform-train interface are regularly considered by TOM, and addressed when appropriate, including on train dispatch.
I am pleased to note that, as part of that ongoing scrutiny of procedures, the RSSB has recently completed research project No. T743, which provided a review of passenger train dispatch from stations. It took account of the modern characteristics of train operation. However, its definition of dispatch was confined to procedures before the train wheels have started to turn, and was not directly applicable to the factors found in the Slade case. That research will have highlighted for the industry knowledge of the potential issues that relate to platform-train interface safety throughout the train dispatch process. That should prompt individual operators to re-examine how processes are applied at the locations for which they are responsible, identify any weaknesses and implement appropriate mitigation measures.
I believe that additional work has been undertaken by RSSB on the risks of dispatch once the wheels of the train have started to turn. That was prompted by industry requests and the Slade family’s “Mind the Gap” campaign. I believe that it has been concluded that industry-wide changes are not likely to be of benefit, but that various options could beneficially be employed in certain locations or situations. A range of options to reduce the risk of people falling from the platform during train departure has been analysed by RSSB experts, and a paper will be discussed by the RSSB TOM standards committee shortly.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we are all interested in hearing the outcome of those discussions. I was sorry to hear him say that Mr. Slade was not content with the position taken by the RSSB. I find that regrettable, and I shall write to him with the RSSB’s views on the points that he raised.
I am sure that the House will agree that the RSSB’s work is a positive development, but that is even more the case because the RSSB and Mr. Slade have been working closely on these issues. Indeed, they have agreed to be joint signatories to a proposal to introduce a rail industry standard, with appropriate guidance for the benefit of train operators. The proposal is for the RIS to include guidance on the dispatch element before the train starts to move, based on the findings in T743, and on reducing the risk of people falling from the platform during departure once the train has begun to depart. We hope that that development will contribute to an even further reduction in the risk of travelling on the railways, perhaps preventing similar accidents from taking place in future.
I assure the House that the ORR, the independent health and safety regulator of the railways, continues to monitor the safety aspects of train dispatch. Its railway safety directorate, which was formed from Her Majesty's railway inspectorate, has carried out a number of inspections and investigations of train dispatch issues throughout the rail network during 2009-10.
I struggle to speculate on the reasons. The right hon. Gentleman asked why there had been no risk assessment at Gidea Park station. I understand that if the gap was within the parameters specified by the industry, it would not happen, but that if the gap was greater than the given measurement, a risk assessment would be made and mitigating measures introduced if it was excessive.
I was about to say that the ORR, through its rail safety directorate, considers the relevant train operating company’s safety certificate and authorisation applications as they relate to train dispatch. They also meet the relevant TOC safety team, make checks at stations, scrutinise risk assessments and competency files, and undertake journeys with train guards through unstaffed stations. In that way, they can get a thorough understanding of the safety and risk issues associated with train dispatch, and intervene if necessary.
We must not forget that the gaps have a safety function. Although the minimal gaps that we find on modern tram systems would be ideal, a gap is necessary on the national rail network to ensure that trains do not strike the platform, particularly when passing through at speed or, like freight trains, they are of larger dimensions. To an extent, that answers the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the different practices of London Underground and the heavy rail network. It is true to observe that London Underground has train dispatchers, but they are present only at busy times and at busy stations. Those circumstances are not universal on the London underground, and it would not necessarily be appropriate for them to be so.
Before he concludes will the Minister please say that he now thinks that the Government should look again at changing the rules for the dispatchers? Anything short of that will again leave things open to abuse. Will he get up and say, “I think it is a good idea that they should look at this again”—not just guidance, but a rule change?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that guidance that steers the train operating companies to look appropriately at the risks at each station sounds like common sense to us all. However, I am not sure whether he is asking for the rules to be changed and to be universally applied. I do not think that that would be the right thing to do.
Industry standards and guidance recommend maximum clearances between platforms and footplates on passenger trains, and those are applied by Network Rail when building new platforms or making significant changes to existing ones. As my fellow Minister noted last year, not every gap at every station currently meets those standards, due to tight curves or historically low platforms that remain at stations with low usage. Where the gap is severe, operators may take independent action to mitigate the problem—for example, by making warning announcements of the sort mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman or by marking the edge of the platform. If such action has not been taken but is considered necessary by the ORR, its inspectors can insist that mitigation measures be taken; it can also require substantial physical improvements to be made if necessary.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).